In a scene at a New Year’s Eve party in the film Forrest Gump, Forrest is asked, “Don’t you just love New Years? You get to start all over. Everybody gets a second chance.” There is something in this statement that sums up one of our attitudes to the New Year. Many of us use it as an opportunity to reflect and dream about doing things differently in the future.
There is something within our human nature that longs for things to be different. The opportunity to start over, or a chance to do better, and the possibility of a clean slate is a longing deep within us.
The truth is we’ve all made decisions we wish we could change, or said things we which we hadn’t, and many of us would relish the opportunity to relive a part of our lives again. We all look back with regret in some way. It’s part of our human existence, so it is not surprising that we take the opportunity of the New Year to resolve to do things differently.
Yet how often do we fail to keep our resolutions. There is something about well-worn habits, lifestyles and attitudes that are not easily changed. This is as true of individuals as it is of communities. How many of the trouble spots across the world are continuing conflicts of past generations that still linger? Just like the Israel/Arab conflict that goes right back to Abraham and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac. The good news we celebrate as Christians is that Jesus not only offers us the opportunity of second chance, but also the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to live differently.
The Bible is full of examples where God gives a second chance! The people of Israel were constantly and consistently called by the prophets to repent, refocus and restart their life with God. And Jesus repeatedly gave second chances—whether it was through healing, forgiveness or his teaching. Just like the woman accused of adultery whom Jesus saved from stoning, the lives of many people were changed—revitalized, renewed, and restored.
Even high profile people like the apostle Peter was given another chance (John 21:15-23) after he had denied Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72). And Saul, who later changed his name to Paul, was a persecutor of Christians (Acts 7:58-8:3) before his life was transformed (Acts 9:1-19).
“The Creator of the universe became a human being and willingly suffered death so that you and I could have a fresh start
The good news of the story of Jesus Christ is that the Creator of the universe became a human being and willingly suffered death so that you and I could have a fresh start. The message is the promise of forgiveness, grace and mercy and it extends to every person. No one is exempt from failures and regrets and no one is exempt from the opportunity to receive God’s love and forgives and the promise of a second chance. This is more than a New Year’s resolution, it is a promise of change.
Of course, we can make a fresh start at any time; God’s grace is not restricted to a certain time of year. Yet New Year is as good a time as any to reflect, re-frame, realign and refocus our lives and take the opportunity of God working with us to see our lives take a positive turn in the right direction and for the better. New Year’s resolutions may not last long, but when we repent and ask God for his help, all things are possible. We are not alone. What is it in your life that needs changing? What things do you think God would like changed? Why not talk to God about it and begin the adventure of a second chance.
Every year I approach Christmas with a certain double mindedness. On the one hand, I welcome the opportunity to celebrate an event that, alongside the death and resurrection of Jesus, is wonderful and overwhelming—the birth of God’s Son! But I also struggle with how secular, commercial, shallow—and therefore meaningless—those celebrations can be.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Ever since the fourth century,when Constantine decreed that the festival of the winter solstice should be combined with the church’s celebration of the nativity, Christmas has been a mixture of pagan revelry and Christian celebration.
In the weeks ahead, millions of people will gather around Australia to sing carols. Whatever the beliefs of those participating, in many of those songs they will find words that offer a clear, incisive and beautiful retelling of the biblical account of Christ’s incarnation. Paul Roe, National Director of Cornerstone Community discussed the importance of storytelling and commented that, “biblical storytelling has shaped Western civilisation far more than we will admit”. In addition he says, “Our current problem is that we have largely forgotten it or are busily trying to deny it”. At least Christmas is one biblical story that is firmly lodged in the psyche of our culture.
Rather than reject our society’s celebration of Christmas, maybe I should be less quick to respond with cynicism and more ready to pray that, in the midst of the hype, the story of Christ’s birth will affect those ready to hear. As Paul wrote, “What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
So this year I choose to rejoice with our community, trusting that some will learn that the goodwill they feel need not dissipate into joylessness and anxiety after the holiday. Christmas, after all, is a story of hope—the narrative of the coming of the One who ultimately
rescued humanity from condemnation and destruction. In all that we do during the coming Christmas season, let us work to ensure that the biblical story of Christmas remains so alive that many will receive its message for the first time.
Stephen L Baxter
While David hid and waited for God’s timing for him to become king of Israel, he was joined by others from the tribes of Israel who risked their lives standing with him. Among them were the “descendants of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
As Christians in the 21st Century, we live in rapidly changing times which bring urgency in facing the challenges of these times with the Gospel of Christ. In many ways we need to be like the descendents of Issachar, and understand the times we live in so we can know the best course of action to take.
But understanding the times is not easy. Living in the midst of rapid cultural change we feel threatened and fragile. Our longing for stability tempts us to withdraw, hesitate and avoid risk, when the exact opposite is needed. David’s men, on the other hand, did not seek stability, but sought to be alert, read the times, and be ready. Rather than stability, they endured fluid structures and constant innovation as they hid from Saul and awaited the moment when David would be king.
Jenny and I have just returned from four weeks in Europe. Among the many things we saw, it was interesting to observe the contrast between the obvious position, power and wealth the church had across Europe in the past, with the seeming irrelevance it has today.
Reading the signs of the times, it is clear the church is increasingly moving to the margins rather than the centre of society. This is not dissimilar to Australia. Whether it is a good or bad thing can be debated. What is not debatable is that it is happening. And because it is happening we need to work out how we can best be witnesses to Christ in the culture in which we are called to live.
It is with both excitement and some trepidation I return to my task as pastor at Hoabrt Baptist. I am excited with the opportunities that lie in front of us, and yet aware of the challenges that are there also. Let us pray that God may grant to us, wherever you are and whatever ‘brand’ of the church you are part of, to be like the descendents of Issachar who had the ability to understand the times and know what to do.
Stephen L Baxter
Just to let you know I’ve taken a week off blogging.
My family is in the process of moving house, and my attentions are directed elsewhere.
I’ll be back with a brand new update next Monday evening!
Stephen L Baxter
What are your times of greatest need? It may be sickness or grief, depression or despair; it could be times of doubt and unbelief, or times where addictions and obsessions such as money, movies, sex, sports, spending or drinking binges, or even unbalanced priorities gain control of your life.
In our series on Hebrews at Hobart Baptist we have recently explored the invitation in Hebrews 4 to approach the “throne of grace” with confidence and boldness. In times of need we are encouraged to do so, for here we will find grace and receive mercy.
Where do you turn in your times of greatest need?
The image of the “throne of grace” here in Hebrews is a picture of entering into the very presence of the Almighty God, Creator of all things. Here, in the throne room, the atmosphere is charged with splendour, majesty and awe. Entering into such grandeur we can guess how we might feel. On the one hand, unsure of the reception, we may feel overwhelmed, hesitant, and fearful. Yet, depending upon our perception of what awaits us, perhaps we could also be excited and elated.
The book of Hebrews encourages us to enter with boldness and not with fear. Sadly, too often too many people perceive God as a cruel, distant, and unloving taskmaster who doesn’t care and because of that, they turn away from God. Yet in Hebrews we find a quite different picture. Here God is shown to be full of mercy, grace, patience, love and faithfulness.
And why? Because we have the greatest priest the world has ever known, Jesus, advocating for us. As a human being he understands and empathises with our weaknesses. He stands alongside us ushering us into God presence. He declares that he is our brother and pleads our case for us. He presents us before God and we are accepted. We receive mercy and find grace.
That is not to discount God’s displeasure with our sin and the fact we are sinners. There is a profound reality to our sense of unworthiness to receive such a welcome. Yet, this is the good news – Jesus has dealt with any unworthiness whether real or felt, and we can enter into the God’s throne room, confident of the reception we will receive.
Our task is to stand alongside Jesus allowing him to represent us and accept with gratitude the gift of life and relationship, all the while ignoring any feelings of guilt, shame or hesitation. We stand and receive the mercy and accept the grace we have been given.
So whenever you feel distant from God and feel like running away from his presence the encouragement is to stop and think again. In your time of need, whatever the need, you are invited to be bold and enter with confidence into the presence of God. Not because you deserve it, but because you have been given the privilege as a gift. So no matter what you feel about yourself or your situation, you are guaranteed a reception which is full of mercy and grace because of the work and presence of our great priest – Jesus. Have a go – practice coming into his presence knowing you are loved, valued and accepted.
Stephen L Baxter
At Hobart Baptist, we are currently working our way through the book of Hebrews, perhaps the most difficult book to understand in the New Testament apart from Revelation. One commentary describes Hebrews as “a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles.” So although the logic and flow of thought are unusual for most modern people, careful and patient study yields rich results.
Written as a work of encouragement for a church under pressure, and drawing heavily on Old Testament themes, it focuses in on Jesus and explores the implications of his humanity and divinity for day-to-day practical Christian life. It aims to lead us down a path of faithful and confident trust in Jesus Christ.
However, in arriving at a place of faith and confident trust, Hebrews stretches our perception of Jesus causing us to think again of who he is and what he has done. What we find is that there is a vast difference between Jesus, as we conceive of him, and who he actually is. We discover that the mystery of Jesus, God becoming human, is full of mystery. It reminds us that God is never exactly like we imagine. As author and pastor, AW Tozer, said “The child, the philosopher, and the religionist have all one question: ‘What is God like?’” The answer to that question is not limited to what we can imagine.
As the prophet Isaiah records God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways;” (Is 55:8) and Paul wrote years later, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25). God, the one and only Creator God, is incomprehensible to us creatures and is capable of surprising us at any time, any place and in any way. Such is the mystery, sovereignty and freedom of God that we are required to hold loosely the way we see him.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”
No matter who we are, our image and conception of God is filtered through the limitation of our human imagination and moulded by our needs, experience, dreams and wishes.
Our journey through Hebrews tests, prods and challenges our preconception and calls us to allow our understanding of God to be remoulded, reframed, renewed and refreshed. It invites us to allow our reasoning to be still and hearts to wonder. To fix our thoughts on Jesus without trying to categorise, explain, prove or nail down who he is, but allow ourselves to be swept into the beauty of who he is and all that he has done for us.
What our minds find incomprehensible our hearts recognise and acknowledge. Hebrews encourages us to keep our hearts in awe and worship so as to safeguard us from the arrogance of thinking we know all about God. I would be interested to know if your perception of Jesus has changed while studying the book of Hebrews.
Stephen L Baxter
What are your plans and goals for this year? Do you have any?
One of the key components of my 12 month appointment with Hobart Baptist Church is the development of a vision and plan to position the church for its next steps. During the later months of last year we completed the first phase of this process and now a small planning taskforce has begun to develop the key points of a plan based on feedback from phase one.
Planning the future like this is a challenge for Christians because it opens up the heart of a tension. We are called to go into the world to “be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth and rule over it” (Genesis 1:28), yet God says he has plans to prosper us and give us future (Jeremiah 29:11). As Walter Brueggemann explains, God both “gives us permission to choose our futures,” yet also “chooses a future for us that is gracious beyond our choosing”. So we are called to plan for the future, but know that God always has a plan in store for us.
Did you know that ancient Middle Eastern cultures, and some people groups today, conceive of time very differently to us westerners? For them the past is something they face, it is before them. The future lies behind them and at their back. They picture themselves as walking backwards into the future.
Our modern society works the opposite way around. For us the past is at our backs, it lies behind us and we walk forward into the future.
I’m not sure that either way is the right way, just different. Walking backward into the future has certain logic about it. The reality is that we often don’t know where we are going and the future is a big unknown. Walking backward acknowledges that the past is all we know and we can learn from it as we approach the future.
But walking backwards has problems. We can’t anticipate obstacles or the unexpected. We can easily stumble and hurt ourselves. It can give us a false sense of security as we imagine that future will be a repeat of the past.
Walking backwards can also cause us to focus on the negatives – what we’ve done wrong, how we’ve failed, where we’re hurt – and these disappointments induce fear that leaves us unable to move on. So despite what we can learn from the past it can also be an unreliable guide to the future.
Our biblical worldview enables us to walk forward into the future with confidence, because, as the old Sunday school song goes, “I know who holds the future and I know he holds my hand.” God is the author of the future, and because he knows it I need not fear it, I can go about planning for it knowing God will be there in it with me.
So as we move into 2011 and begin our planning we can do so with confidence. The confidence is born not from the fact that we can clearly see where we are going, or that we can trust our planning, but that we know the creator God stands behind us looking forward, guiding us into the unknown. So let’s pray and play with confidence for the future God has in store for us. Here is a link to an article entitled The Conception of Time in the Ancient Near East
Stephen L Baxter