Patient Waiting | Hopeful Expectation

Psalm 27 encourages us to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14) This is a fitting encouragement as we begin Advent this week.

Advent Wreath

Advent is the time of celebration over the four Sundays leading up to Christmas

Advent is the time of celebration over the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and ending on Christmas Eve. Although there is no mention of it in the Bible, many people find it not only an enjoyable time but one that is spiritually enriching. It is, like the Psalm suggests, a time of great anticipation, of waiting, expecting, and hoping.

The entire nation of Israel had waited centuries for their Messiah to appear. Luke tells us the devout and righteous Simeon had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25) and the prophetess, Anna, was “looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38).

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Our Challenge: to be IN it, but not OF it

Crowd

“The question of how the church relates to the surrounding culture . . . was ever before them”

Throughout the centuries Christians have constantly wrestled with what it means to live as Christ’s followers in societies and communities that are morally and culturally challenging to their faith.

Even at the beginning, when small, fledgling churches were first established across the Roman world, Christians were surrounded by a pagan culture filled with mystery cults, mysticism, philosophical debate and speculation. The New Testament is full of letters to these churches, letters aimed at helping these Christian communities navigate how they are to follow Christ each in their particular context. The question of how the church relates to the surrounding culture and how the surrounding culture affects the church was ever before them.

These questions remain with us today. In our (post) modern culture we are surrounded with tsunami-like changes spanning across a wide range of religious, secular and scientific thought. Our faith is constantly being challenged and we are prompted to wonder just how we are to live in and relate to the culture in which we live.

Historically the church’s response has swung between two extremes: on the one hand capitulation/accommodation and on the other, separation. Neither of them is biblical.               Read on >>>

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

In these weeks leading up to Easter I am focusing on the “Seven Sayings of Christ from the Cross.”

This week it’s Jesus’ words of abandonment taken from Matthew 27:46, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which translated means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Hanging on the cross, his body in agony from the torture of crucifixion, Jesus uses the opening verses of Psalm 22 written by David to express the depths of his agony. But it was not the physical pain that was the source of his cry, although it was no doubt intense, it was something far deeper and darker. In that excruciating moment, he felt the unbearable painfulness that comes from rejection and separation.

Jesus entered into a place where, as Paul the apostle expresses it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV).

Suffering

“His suffering was a mirror of our sufferings”

Such is the mystery and the majesty of the salvation of humanity that we can’t possibly know the depths of what Jesus felt in that moment. We can however appreciate it in some measure. Why? Because Jesus was as human and you and I are. His experience was that of every human being. His suffering was a mirror of our sufferings.

There are times when many of us, perhaps all of us, have experienced dark times when it felt like God had abandoned us. Life was hopeless, prayers went unanswered and despair was overwhelming. It such moments we too cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But that’s not where the story ends. Read More >>>

Living Expectantly this Christmas

[Please note I am having a break from blogging during January. Ill be back in full swing in February! SLB]

Christmas Day is almost here and the lead up to it is full of waiting, longing, expecting, and hoping — and not only for children. For centuries Christians have set aside the four Sundays prior to Christmas as a time to rehearse again the anticipation of Christ’s coming.

Advent – the word comes from the Latin meaning ‘coming’, ‘appearance’ or ‘return’ – inspires us to look backward to Christ’s first coming, and to look forward in expectation of his coming into the world and our lives today.NativityJesus_s[1]

With a quick look at our Christmas celebrations, one could be excused for concluding our longings consist of cute babies, worshipful farm animals, humble shepherds, and camel-riding astrologers. But these are just the backdrop to a much grander and more profound story – God visits planet earth with the aim of restoration and renewal that is nothing short of a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25).

Fuelled by the prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jews and Christians alike look forward to a day when God’s Messiah will set the world aright, bringing justice to the nations (Is 42:1) and producing a world of full of peace and harmony (Is 9:1-7; 11:1-9).

It was the same on that first Christmas. The Israelites were looking to God to send the long promised Messiah to rescue them from their plight at the hands of the occupying Roman army. Their world was in turmoil, their future looked bleak, and they cried out to God.

Throughout history, people have longed to be rescued. As the recent siege in Sydney illustrates the world is often a very difficult place to live in. Read More >>>

Let’s Throw a Party!

Tony Campolo, an American sociologist, writer, pastor, and public speaker, tells a story of a time when he was speaking in Honolulu, Hawaii. Due to jet lag he was awake at 3 o’clock in the morning so went out to get breakfast and the only place he could find open was a bit of a dive. Assessing the food may not be good for him ordered a coffee and donut.

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Campolo . . . suggested they throw a party for her

As he sat there, in walked eight or nine boisterous prostitutes who promptly sat next to him. Feeling out of place and about to leave he overheard one woman say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.” Her companions responded quite sarcastically, “So you want cake? You want us to throw a party?”

“I’m just saying it’s my birthday. You don’t have to hurt my feelings,” the woman responded, “I’ve never had a birthday party in my life.”

After they had left Campolo asked the cook if they came every night. Responding “yes” the cook asked, “why d’ya wanna know?” Campolo mentioned he had heard her say tomorrow is her birthday and suggested they throw a party for her. The cook and his wife thought it was a great idea and mentioned her name was Agnes.

So that’s what they did. Read More >>>

 

Why Dad?

I have no doubt that every parent’s patience has been tested during the “why” stage of their child’s development. No matter where you are or what you are doing, a small voice incessantly asks the simplest of questions, “Why?”

sakhicitoyoda

Sakichi Toyoda

It is staggering the number times the simple query can be asked before breakfast. Eager to understand the world in which they find themselves, children seek explanations for each, and every, thing they touch or see.

Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese industrialist, inventor and founder of Toyota Industries in the 1930s based his widely used technique on the same question. It’s called the “5 Whys”. 5 Whys is a practical problem solving technique that asks series of questions designed to uncover the underlying cause of a problem or defect. It is very simple. You simply keep asking the question “why” until you reach the essential cause of the problem you need solved. A quick search of the internet will explain how to use this quite effective tool.

Yesterday morning at Hobart Baptist we concluded our short series on God’s Mysterious Ways. God and life is full of mystery, causing us to often ask “Why?” Perhaps the greatest of these is, “Why do things exist?”

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Don’t Ask A Fish

Goldfish in fishbowl

“A fish . . . has no means to convey what it takes for granted”

An old Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.” A fish has never lived outside its watery environment, it has no experience or language to describe its natural environment, and so it has no means to convey what it takes for granted.

The same can be true for us. Much of what we accept as normal, because we were born into and it experience every day, is beyond our ability to appreciate and describe. It is only as we get older that we might begin to realise our experience of life is unique and special in certain ways and is not the experience of everyone.

We take so much for granted. Compared to the rest of the world, living in Hobart is very comfortable. We are amongst the richest people in the world with access to some of the cleanest water and air on the plant. We are surrounded by magnificent beauty and most of us do not need to worry about shelter or food.

At the same time we live in a society that is very secular, consumer-driven, and individualistic. Most people take it for granted and assume it is the only way to exist. However, as Christians there is much we find about our community that is contrary to our values and way of thinking. We are constantly confronted by them and often feel like a fish out of water.

Across the centuries in many and various ways, Christians have been at odds with their surrounding culture, which is not surprising as we are called to stand firm against conforming (Rom 12:1-3). For us, it is a constant challenge to preserve our Christian worldview when our values clash with prevailing attitudes of our community, neighbours and families. The pull of the surrounding environment is compelling and often causes us to drift from our values without even realising it is happening.

Over the past 50 to 60 years community values have changed so much we are now living our Christian lives in the midst of a hostile environment. We are in the middle of a spiritual battle which competes for our hearts and minds. Our beliefs are constantly challenged, and often rejected. We can easily feel overwhelmed and begin to flounder against strong intimidating forces.

Yet we have a job to do. It is not to retreat but stand firm and relearn how we are to live as Christians in our changing world. We have to learn how to be missionaries in our community, our neighbourhoods and our families. This will require God-given insight, wisdom and passion. It will require theological reflection and a good dose of compassionate courage. It will require refreshed minds understanding again what we believe and why we believe it. It will require recharged hearts and strengthened wills. It will require deepening relationships as we walk and work together in being the witnessing community of faith God calls us to be.

With God’s help we can do what the fish cannot do – we can grow to understand and describe the environment we live in so we can live differently. Paul the apostle said we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” and to “not let the world squeeze you into its mould” (Romans 12:1-3, JB Phillips).

May God strengthen us as we allow him to change and equip us to be living witnesses to him in our world today.

Stephen L Baxter

Hidden Treasure

What is it that you treasure most about life? What do you savour, what do you dream about, and what do you plan for?

Treasure Chest

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also – Jesus

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The things we treasure tell us a lot about ourselves.

It’s not that it’s wrong to treasure things, but the challenge Jesus presents is to treasure things that are good and profitable for us. He advised his disciples not to “store up treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).

While the word treasure conjures up images of gold chests and pearls, the context reveals that Jesus is simply saying that a “treasure” is anything to which we give affection and value.

Jesus divides treasure into two categories: earthly treasure and heavenly treasure. Material treasures are fleeting, because they can be moth eaten or corroded and will eventually pass away; while heavenly treasures endure, lasting forever (Matthew 6:19). In other words there are two ways to live . . .

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Knowing Love for One Another

Early on in our marriage Jenny and I committed to making a priority of meeting with a small group of fellow Christians during the week.

We have hosted weekly small group meetings in our home in since that time. They have been variously been called home groups, small groups, growth groups, cell groups, bible studies, life studies and so on, and yet have generally retained the same key components – time to share life together over a meal, a Bible study and prayer.

Our Cell Group in Hawthorn, celebrating our daughter’s 18th birthday

I believe these informal get togethers have been one of the keys to the ongoing stability of our marriage, our family, our ministry and our lives. By sharing our lives with others over the years we have learnt and grown, laughed and cried and seen many answers to prayer. Our children were an integral part to our times too; they contributed and learnt the faith not only from us, their parents, but from other significant adults. The adults in turn were enriched by their presence.

These weekly gatherings have become so much a part of the rhythm of our lives as Christians it’s hard to imagine life without them. It’s hardly surprising that, as a pastor, it would be my preference that every Christian is part of one, whether it is a weekly Bible study, home group, small group, prayer group, mission group, or a task focussed group.

There is ample research to show that effective small groups are the backbone of growing, healthy congregations and the glue that holds them together. They are the place where people experience deeper levels of community, acceptance and accountability. They are the place where people learn from each other’s wisdom and experiences. Here trust can grow and vulnerabilities be shared. Here one can lean on another through times of trial and growth. Small groups are the place where personal care of each other deepens at a practical, prayerful and personal level.

One of the surprises Jenny and I received when we first started being part of Hobart Baptist Church was how few small groups and Bible studies there are. I’ve often wondered why this is the case.

One reason is perhaps that in the past many found their primary small group was Sunday School, but with the decline of the all-age Sunday school over recent decades, they didn’t move onto new forms. For others, perhaps, the idea of a Bible study may be threatening. For others the thought of small group may look too intimate and personal, still for others the possibility of being asked to contribute or read out loud might be daunting and for others the idea of going out at night could be a problem.

What is more, being a city church makes it difficult to have home groups. We are so scattered across the suburbs of Hobart that it is difficult to easily organise ourselves into groups. However, I don’t believe this shouldn’t stop us from trying. After all, if we want to be a thriving, growing, healthy church, Bible study groups will need to be part of who we are. Ultimately I would love to see everyone who is capable having the opportunity to be a member of a small group whether that be in a home or at our church during the week, even on the weekend whether it be during the day or the evening.

“If we want to be a thriving, growing, healthy church, Bible study groups will need to be part of who we are.

The early church culture we read about in the New Testament is one where Christians are praying together, studying God’s word together, and caring for one another. For Jenny and me, our experience is that small groups are the simplest and easiest structure to allow us to do this.

I believe every practicing Christian should be part of a small group of some description, and if you are not already, then I encourage you to seriously consider it. Look up the pastor in your local expression of the church, and ask him or her what groups you can join in your gepgraphical area. Costly though it may be, one day you will be very glad you did!

Stephen L Baxter

Feelin’ Good All Over?

I once read a story about a few members of a synagogue who went to their rabbi complaining the liturgy did not express their feelings and asked him to change it to make it more relevant for them. The rabbi responded saying the liturgy wasn’t aimed at expressing what they felt; in fact it was the other way around. Rather than change the liturgy to suit them, it was their responsibility to change and learn to feel what the liturgy expressed.

Cherubs with heart

The story reflects some feelings in the
heart of all of us

Sadly, the story reflects some feelings in the heart of all of us. Whether we are younger and find traditional church services uninspiring and our “felt needs are not being met”, or we are older and find contemporary songs and worship unengaging and not meeting our “felt needs”, the fact is that there is something in all of us that wants things to be the way we like them.

Yet, this story reminds us there are bigger issues at stake. The focus of our worship services is not us and how we feel, but about God and what God feels. Our services are not aimed at meeting our needs (although they often do), but in helping us continue the journey of discipleship—following Christ and becoming more like him.

Whether we are old or young, new in the faith or have been following Jesus for years, our church services are meant to draw us out of our comfort zone, challenge our assumptions, spotlight our lifestyles and spur us on. Rather than meet our needs, they draw us beyond our needs towards seeing us as God sees us.

Our church services are meant to draw us out of our comfort zone

In fact, believing church should meet our “felt needs” is really quite selfish and short sighted suggesting we may have forgotten our greatest need—the coming day when we all stand before the judgement seat of God. On that day our “felt need” will be whether we can stand before God accepted by him or not.

I’ve always been somewhat haunted by the statement of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23 where he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Here are people claiming Jesus as their Lord, doing great works in his name, and yet to their great surprise are rejected from the Kingdom of Heaven. Throughout their lives they thought they had made the grade and were quite unaware they would ultimately be rejected and called “evildoers”.

What was their problem? When compared with a similar passage later in Matthew (The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46) it becomes clear that their trust was in the wrong place. For them it was not about relationship but about good works, but good works by themselves are not enough.

It is sobering to be reminded there are good people who say they follow Jesus as “Lord”, who do good works in his name, but who nevertheless fall short of entering the kingdom of heaven. In our consumer driven, individualistic society, where many have slipped into believing that church is all about meeting my “felt needs”, we need to be reminded what our real need is.

Jesus came to earth and died to open the way for us to come into relationship with our Creator. As you eet woth other Christians Sunday by Sunday, each person with their own “felt needs”, it is good to be reminded that we come together not to have the neds of our feelings met but to acknowledge our real need before God and thanking God him again for his saving action in Jesus.

Stephen L Baxter