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Happy New Year! (2)

This is the time when you wish you’d known a year ago what the next twelve months would look like… and maybe also wish you could know what the year ahead will bring. 2018 was an eventful year, both on the international scale and in our personal lives. Of course some of the big events were known in advance (we knew our daughter was going to university in September), but others were totally unexpected. Life simply isn’t predictable!

However, for those who belong to Jesus, this doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it seems. Yes, I’d like to be able to prepare for any major changes in my life; but even if I don’t know what’s coming up, God does – and he is never surprised or caught unawares (unlike me when I realised I’d missed the deadline for this letter…).

We struggle a bit with this whole concept: how does God know the future? The simplest answer to that is that he doesn’t know “the future”, because nothing is future to him. Not in the Doctor Who sense – although the good Doctor travels back and forth in time, he is still subject to his own timeline; God, on the other hand, doesn’t follow any time-line.

According to science, “time” is a corollary of space and matter – which means that when God created the physical universe, he also created time. This means God is outside of time, just as he is outside the physical universe: not bound by its laws, not subject to its restrictions.

Now I don’t propose for a second to be able to understand what this really means. As created beings, we humans are very much bound by the laws of time and subject to the restrictions of the laws of nature. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, we only know a fraction of what happened yesterday, and we’re not even fully in control of today.

So it should really be a relief to know that our heavenly Father has full and comprehensive knowledge of the whole picture: what we call past, present and future. God can’t be surprised by anything, or find himself unprepared for an unexpected plot twist. “Commit your plans to the Lord” is good biblical advice – not because he will make sure you get your way (he might disagree with your plans!) but because he already knows how it will all turn out.

And we know that whatever happens in between, the end is glorious: “a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells”. From God’s perspective it’s already real; for the rest of us, it’s something to really look forward to!

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Happy New Year! (1)

So, the carolling is over, and we’re looking ahead at another year. At this point it’s customary to point out that we don’t know what surprises 2019 might hold, but presumably you already know that…

Instead, let me point out some of the things we do know about 2019:

We will be running The Bible Course on Tuesday evenings in February and March. This is an eight-session overview of the Bible, which we strongly recommend to everyone!

We will be celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus in April – yes, I know we do Easter every year, but it’s still important! And as usual, we will be celebrating with the other churches, which is also important.

We will all be a year older by the end, which you may not be as excited about as you once were… But if nothing else, it reminds us that we’re not here to stay: there will come one year when we won’t reach New Year’s Eve – either because our life has come to an end or because Jesus has come back and put an end to the entirety of time.

In either case, never forget that this world isn’t your final destination; the implications of that truth are more important than anything else, however momentous (or not) 2019 turns out to be…

Christmas Is Nearly Upon Us…

Oh no, it’s Christmas again… an endless round of carols – mince pies – trees – Santas – chocolate – carols – nativities – angels – carols – stars – snow – relatives – carols – turkeys – tinsel – presents – carols…

It’s actually quite fascinating that the biggest miracle of all times, the supreme divine intervention in human affairs, gets so much attention from the secular world.

Christmas didn’t use to be a big thing, only a day off like all other holy days – and sometimes not even that; I’m always amused by the fact that Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day! But today we spend a month or more, celebrating the fact that God became man, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Now, I’m well aware that most people around us do not celebrate Christmas for that reason. And I freely admit that I enjoy all the non-biblical trappings of Christmas (especially tinsel and chocolate – I’m not so sure about the Elf on the shelf). And it’s true that Jesus wasn’t actually born in the deep mid-winter; the December date of Christmas was chosen to replace the pagan festival of the birth of sun.

But that’s not a bad thing! Why shouldn’t we replace the celebration of the return of a life-giving but created light with the celebration of the arrival of the Light of the world, who gives eternal life to all who believe? If we rejoice at darkness receding and the days getting longer again, why shouldn’t we celebrate that the Son of God has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel? As we think about presents for our loved ones, let’s remember that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – a gift that will literally last forever!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

The Songs of Christmas

Looking through our Christmas programme earlier this month, I was struck by how many events involving music there are. We have carol services, Carols on the Green (a community event involving local band, choir and shops), Singing for Fun and a string quartet – not to mention the fact that no other religious festival has generated quite as many secular songs as Christmas!

Then again, since music is an integral part of human nature, it would be strange if as pivotal an event as the birth of the Saviour of the world wouldn’t be celebrated with music and song!

Even the biblical Christmas narrative includes a number of songs (all recorded in Luke – was he more musically inclined than the other gospel writers?). There’s Mary’s song (the Magnificat), followed by Zechariah’ song (the Benedictus), and of course the angels’ song in the field: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests”.

Actually, the Bible doesn’t use musical terminology in either of those three cases, but since they seem to follow the pattern of Old Testament Psalms, I think it’s only fair to call them “songs”. It doesn’t really matter, though: the main thing is the reason for all this joyful celebration.

And thus, again we find ourselves facing the biggest miracle of the Bible: the Incarnation. The eternal Word of God, who is one with God, became flesh and made his dwelling among us, as John says in his first chapter (which is actually just as poetic as the “songs” in Luke).

I always feel it’s a shame that this daring rescue story – directed by God Almighty, starring the Son of God and unfolding through all of human history – so often gets devalued to the level of common fairy-tales. Yes, the lambs are cute and the donkey commendable, and the tale of a long journey ending with a panicked search for a room and a special baby born in a stable is captivating – but somehow we can easily miss the main point (and most of the details in the popular version are wrong, anyway).

The main point is this: after a long exile God returned to his people, not as a warrior but as a baby. He then died a criminal’s death to atone for our criminal rebellion against our Creator, rose again to provide forgiveness and eternal life, and is coming back to reign forever. Jesus is the promised King, who will bring true peace to earth and everlasting glory to God. That’s why his birth matters so much.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

 

Judgment Day Is upon Us! (Sort of…)

In the Swedish ecclesiastical calendar, the last Sunday of the church year (at the end of November) is Judgment Sunday. No, it’s not about judging your neighbours’ taste in Christmas decorations; it’s about the Final Judgment, when Jesus returns.

This made me think of a question I’ve come across several times: “Do you go to hell for…?” Surely God won’t send me to hell just for scrumping a few apples, or telling a few fibs, or cheating on my taxes…?

It’s a good question – but it’s the wrong question. Or rather, the presupposition is wrong: the assumption that we all start off heaven-bound, and although some unfortunates fall foul of God’s disapproval of certain acts and go to “the other place”, all you need to do to avoid that fate is to avoid those particular acts…

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Yes, everyone who ends up in hell does so because they have fallen foul of God’s righteous requirements – but the thing is, all of us fall foul of God’s righteous requirements. We may not all be mass murderers, but we’re all selfish rebels who prefer our own way to God’s. Thus, unless someone rescues us from the consequences of our actions, we are all heading the wrong way.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that someone has indeed stepped in to rescue us from hell. Nobody has to end up in “the other place”! Jesus calls us all to repent – acknowledge that we have done things that violate God’s plan and purpose – and receive forgiveness through faith in Jesus.

Everybody is born outside the Kingdom of God; everybody starts off in the wrong direction; everybody can turn around and be given a fresh start with Jesus. As Fanny Crosby wrote, “The vilest offender who truly believes / that moment from Jesus a pardon receives!”

In the Final Judgment scene in Revelation 20, there are two groups of people: those who are eternally condemned on the basis of their sinful acts, and those who are saved from such a fate (literally worse than death) through their trust in Jesus.

Salvation isn’t a matter of working out exactly which actions will incur God’s judgment; it’s a matter of recognising that we all deserve judgment, and that only the blood of Jesus averts it. It starts with bad news, but ends with some gloriously good news for each and every one – let’s make sure everybody knows!

Just Stringing Some Words Together…

What is the purpose of preaching? Why do I spend hours every week preparing a message to deliver to you all? And why is it called a “sermon”?

Well, the last one is easy to answer: it comes from Latin sermo which means “continued speech; learned talk, discourse”, but originally just “a stringing together of words” – which might seem an apt description of what I do in the lectern every Sunday morning!

But hopefully there’s more to my sermons than just a string of words – I intend for there to be some useful content as well! And as all Christian sermons are (or should be) based on the Bible, we can go back to 2 Tim 3:16 to remind ourselves what the Word of God is meant to achieve in our lives.

It’s useful for teaching: telling us things we don’t know (and couldn’t know) about God, ourselves and the world around us.

It’s useful for rebuking and correcting: sometimes we get things wrong, and the Word is there to help us discover when we’ve gone astray, and to encourage us to repent and return to the Truth.

It’s useful for training in righteousness: I’m sure God prefers to tutor, rather than rebuke us! The Bible is the guide for our discipleship – not just as a simple “do this, don’t do that”, but in showing us who Jesus is, so that the Holy Spirit can get to work in us, transforming us into his likeness.

And my preaching is simply meant to be an extension of all that. If my sermons flow from the Word of God, they will help the Spirit achieve his purpose in us as individuals and as a church. If they don’t, they will be pointless, which would be rather sad…

So if anyone has any helpful hints as to how I can improve my weekly word-stringing, please let me know!

Learning from the Prince of Preachers

I’ve now been back in the saddle a few weeks, and hopefully the church will notice the influence of the books I read and the prayers I prayed. But as a taster, let me introduce you to Charles H Spurgeon, called “the prince of preachers”. He became a Baptist pastor in London in 1854, just before he turned 20, and immediately began attracting large crowds. This is obviously what all preachers dream about, but by God’s grace not what all are called to… However, I can still think about what I might like to copy from Spurgeon’s ministry.

Some things I won’t imitate:

# He only started preparing his Sunday morning sermon at 6pm on Saturday night.
# He died aged 57 (he rarely took a day off, but apparently he didn’t regret having worn himself out for the sake of the gospel).

Some things I would like to imitate:

# He always preached the gospel, calling everyone to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus was always the focus of his ministry.
# He spoke so people could understand him, using conversational English, every-day illustration and a dose of humour – none of which, it seems, was normal in most churches in the 19th century.

And one last thing: he made sure his ministry was underpinned by prayer, because without the power of God it would all be futile. That is still true; which is why we’re introducing a new prayer endeavour this autumn – the church coming together to pray for revival can’t be a bad thing!