On Christmas Day the Queen will broadcast her 64th Christmas Message. In doing this she upholds a tradition that began with her grandfather George V who broadcast 4 speeches, and was continued by her father George VI who broadcast 14 messages. Neither Queen Elizabeth II nor King George VI were expected to become monarch when they were born but their destinies were changed when Edward VIII abdicated. Prince Charles and Prince William on the other hand have lived with the knowledge that they have both been born to be king.
Traditionally the Queen talks about significant events that have occurred during the year and so it would be in keeping with her previous speeches to make reference to her 90th Birthday Celebrations. Often she will comment on worldwide events that affect the UK or the Commonwealth. We will have to wait and see whether she comments on Brexit or, less likely on Trump. Nevertheless this year has been one which has seen seismic changes on the political scene.
Two thousand years ago Jesus was born into a world that was equally fragile from a political perspective. Herod was King of Judea, but this was not much more than a puppet role as the territory was under the jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor. His role was tolerated by the Jewish religious leaders because the stability he gave meant that they had a degree of freedom to follow their religious traditions. But there was always an undercurrent of individuals looking for an opportunity to overthrow Roman rule and implement a Jexit. Little wonder then that Herod was troubled when the Wise Men from the East arrived at his palace wanting to know where they could find the baby born to be King of the Jews.
Herod consulted with his advisors who discovered that the prophet Micah had foretold the birth of a king some 700 years before. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2 NIV) Herod understood this prophecy to mean that the baby the Magi sought was born to become King of the Jews and so he ordered the slaughter of every baby boy under the age of 2.
33 years later as Jesus was about to ascend to heaven following his resurrection, the disciples demonstrated a similar misunderstanding and asked Jesus when he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. They were still looking for the overthrow of the Roman oppressors. Jesus’ kingdom however is not an earthly realm with geographical boundaries. Rather it is found everywhere that there are followers of Jesus.
This Christmas I pray that you will let the baby born to be king become King of your life.
This blog post featured in the December 2016 edition of Hook Focus
‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet’
This couplet was one of many that I committed to memory for my O Level English Literature exam. Juliet is pining for Romeo and lamenting that he is a Montague – her family’s bitter enemies. On one level she is right, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Yet she knew that as a Capulet she would never be permitted to marry Romeo who was a Montague, such was the animosity between their respective families. The fact is names, especially names given to people, matter.
Christmas is a season of names; names given to Jesus. That is the most common name we use for him and was the name that Joseph was instructed by the angel to give to him. The name Jesus comes through Latin and Greek transliteration from the Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua or Jeshua) and means rescuer or deliverer, clearly indicating his mission to become the saviour of the world.
One of the classic Christmas Bible readings is Isaiah 9:6–7 which says:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
In this prophecy given some 700 years before Jesus’ birth we are told that he will be called:
- Wonderful Counsellor – his wisdom and guidance is beyond that of any human advisor
- Mighty God – his strength and power is unrivaled in the entire universe. In fact he is the source of all the energy throughout the cosmos.
- Everlasting Father – his love and mercy is eternally unending. His grace is matchless.
- Prince of Peace – he offers reconciliation to us even while we were his enemies.
- Eternal King – his reign is just and righteous and endures for all generations.
These are only a few of the names and titles that are attributed to Jesus throughout the bible. Each is rich with significance, directing us towards aspects of his character and nature. Each helps us to see that Jesus is so much more than a cute little baby snuggled in a manger. Each provokes us to worship our peerless saviour.
Take time this Christmas to meditate on the names of Jesus and bow your knee in worship to Him whose name is above every other name in heaven and on earth.
This blog post featured in the November 2016 edition of Lifelines
I wonder what your favourite Christmas present was? Perhaps you got some new clothes, or a new device such as a phone? Maybe some new books to read or something connected to your favourite hobby? Most of us enjoy getting new things, but when we do we quickly lose interest in what we had before. Last year’s prized possessions get forgotten as they are superseded by new ones.
New Year too, often signals time for reflection on the year gone by and thoughts turn to hopes and aspirations for the year to come. Whatever 2015 was like for you it is natural to hope that 2016 will bring joy and happiness, and that the disappointments of the past will be left behind.
The Christian faith has much to say about newness. For example Paul wrote that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2 Cor 5:17 ESV). This amazing statement describes a present reality for all who truly believe in Christ. However the message of the Bible is not simply comfort for this present life. Rather it offers us hope for a glorious eternity.
John, the Evangelist, was privileged to be given a wonderful vision of the future of creation which he recorded in the book of Revelation. Towards the end of that revelation John sees ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1 NIV) which he then goes on to describe. We learn that this present world with all its pain and suffering, disappointment will cease to exist. In its place God will create a new, eternal order. In this new world God himself will dwell among his people. It will be a place of outstanding beauty and incredible happiness. We are told: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4 NIV)
Wow! There can be few people who would not wish for such a world!
My desire for everyone that reads this is that 2016 is truly a Happy New Year for you. I hope that every day from 1st January – 31st December is full of joy and hope. The experience of Christians throughout the centuries is that the greatest joy and hope is found when we have assurance that our eternity with Christ in the new heaven and new earth is secure. The joy and happiness of the new heaven and new earth will surpass the greatest pleasures we could possibly know in this life. The joy and happiness of the new heaven and new earth will more than compensate for the deepest sadness of this present life.
Whatever else you do in preparation for 2016, make this the year you secure your place in the new heaven and new earth by becoming a follower of Jesus!
This blog post featured in the January 2016 edition of Hook Focus
I wonder what comes to mind when you think of Christmas. Santa Claus? Stockings? Christmas trees? Tinsel? Cards? Presents? These are just a few of some of the traditions that typical British families enjoy at this season. Yet each family will have their own unique way of implementing these. This year our family will have a new dynamic as we fuss over our granddaughter as she experiences her first Christmas. At three months old she won’t remember a thing, but no doubt some new traditions will be established in our extended family.
One of the traditions that I hope she will grow up to love is Christmas Carols. At Life Church we try and blend together a mixture of old and new as we sing joyful songs to celebrate our Saviour’s birth. Many of the traditional carols have been sung for hundreds of years and have their origins in other countries and circumstances.
For example did you know that the Silent Night is reputed to have been written in 1818 on Christmas Eve itself? The legend around this carol says that Joseph Mohr, a Catholic Priest in the Tyrolean Village of Oberndorf near Salzburg was in despair because a mouse had chewed its way through the mechanism of the church organ rendering it useless. Desperate for something to sing at midnight mass, Mohr wrote the words to ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’ and then asked the organist, Franz Gruber, to write some gentle music for it. Gruber put together the gentle lullaby we know so well and accompanied the singers on guitar the same evening. The carol might have been lost forever had the organ repair not made a copy and passed it on to the Stasser Family – a precursor to the Von Trapps – who sang it at their concerts and published it in 1838. Now, almost 200 years later, it features in many Carol Services all around the world.
This Christmas at Life Church we are conducting a survey to find out the favourite carols for people living in Hook. We would invite you to take part online at www.lifechurchhook.org/carols. We have suggested some of the more common carols for you to choose from, though you are free to add a different one if your favourite is not on our list. The most important part of the survey is the reason why you like the carol. Perhaps you have a story to tell about why it is special to you, or maybe you particularly like the tune. When I am choosing carols to sing at various Christmas gatherings I focus on the words. It is great to sing along to a rousing tune, but far better to be sing words that express truth. The truth that Jesus is so much more that a cute baby in a manger; the truth that he is God himself come down to earth in human form; the truth that he is Christ the Saviour.
I would like to invite you to join us for Carols Round The Fire on Sunday 20th December, 5 pm at the Elizabeth Hall, followed by mulled wine and mince pies. We will be announcing the top three carols, and hopefully we will sing yours! Make sure that you let us know which is your favourite for it to be in with a chance of being in the top three by registering your vote at www.lifechurchhook.org/carols
May you know the peace and mercy of God this Christmas.
This blog post featured in the December 2015 edition of Hook Focus
For weeks now we have been bombarded with adverts on the TV and radio, in newspapers and on the internet, all seeking to persuade us of the must have Christmas present for our loved ones. Perhaps you have seen the one for the Mulberry handbags? A young couple are gathered round the fireside enjoying Christmas festivities. The young man hands his partner a box saying ‘I know we weren’t going to give presents’. She opens the present to find that he has bought her a beautiful red handbag. As she is cooing her thanks for such an amazing surprise there is a knock at the door. In troop shepherds and wise men. Each in turn declare their amazement at the beauty and splendor of the bag as a cameo nativity scene develops on the screen. In the final punchline the poor confused young man says “it’s only a bag!” at which point the background music stops and everyone else looks at him like he is out of his mind.
I don’t know the thought process that went into the advert, and whether it was meant to mock those of us who celebrate the birth of Christ at this season. Whatever the purpose the message is profoundly powerful because it clearly depicts how easily Christ is squeezed out of Christmas. A festival which was originally conceived to celebrate the Presence of Christ has been hijacked by Christmas presents. According to The Times in 2013 Britons received more than £2bn worth of unwanted Christmas presents!
As we sing carols, listen to readings and share Christmas Greetings let us not forget that the only Christmas Presence worth having is Christ himself. Yes he was born just over 2,000 years ago and laid in a manger, heralded by choirs of angels, and worshipped by shepherds and magi. But the true wonder of Christmas is that the baby whose birth we celebrate became a man whose death we revere. A Saviour who broke the chains of sin and death. A King who reigns in heaven and has sent us his Holy Spirit to bring His presence to us.
Those of us who are followers of Jesus have the privilege of his presence with us moment by moment of every day. My prayer is that His Christmas Presence will be with throughout the whole of the season, and unlike the unwanted Christmas presents, will remain with you forever.
This blog post featured in the December 2015 edition of Lifelines
Christmas excitement is building up all around us. Schools and churches are gearing up for special events., trees are being decorated, presents are being bought and wrapped. Talking of presents one of my childhood memories each year in the days after Christmas is writing thank you letters. One of the most predictable gifts each year was a writing pad and envelopes provided for that purpose. I am sorry to say that I was a most unwilling writer of Thank You letters. If this Christmas ritual at the kitchen table had not been enforced and overseen by my parents they would never have been written. So much easier now when you can text or email the giver almost as soon as you have unwrapped the gift!
This week I watched a video that describes the importance of gratitude in creating a healthy community. A research team has found that if people write down three things that they are thankful for every day, over time they experience a 25% increase in their joy and general well being. Their research subjects were people in extreme circumstances such as being on probation, going through family breakup, self harmers and similar. They called this intervention ‘lifestyle gratitude’ and found it had a hugely positive impact on peoples lives. It seems that an attitude of gratitude is a key to finding joy rather than joy being the key to gratitude.
Paul wrote – “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:18) Since it is God’s will for us to give thanks it is perhaps not surprising that this simple act has such a beneficial effect on us and the people around us. Right now think of three things, it doesn’t matter how small or insignificant they may seem, and say thank you to God for them.
I don’t know what three things you came up with, or even how easy you found that to do. As believers we, of all people, have much to be thankful for. Speaking of Jesus Paul also wrote – “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” 2 Cor 9:15. That gift is the heart of Christmas. As you give and receive presents this year, and practice gratitude with family and friends in the process. Make sure that you also give time to practice an attitude of gratitude towards God. See if you can come up with three things a day during December to thank God for and enjoy the change this will bring in your heart.
This blog post featured in the December 2014 edition of Lifelines
By now I expect that you will have seen the Sainsbury’s Christmas TV advert. Whatever your views over the appropriateness of the subject matter, the short film movingly depicts a true story of 100 years ago.
The British soldiers departed to the First World War full of optimism that the war would be over by Christmas, yet when Christmas 1914 arrived they were entrenched in a stalemate battle situation. Far from home and without means of communicating with their families in England, they awoke on Christmas morning with only their fellow soldiers for companionship. As they huddled together in the cold and damp, music drifted over no man’s land as they heard German soldiers singing Christmas carols. Emboldened by the familiar tunes soldiers from both sides climbed out of their trenches and exchanged food, cigarettes and souvenirs as an unofficial truce broke out. Eye witness reports record that a game of football was shared with the German soldiers and no shots were fired on that day. In the midst of a horrific conflict – Peace! That peace was tragically short lived and the conflict resumed the following day, and every day thereafter, until November 1918 when the armistice marking the cessation of hostilities was finally signed.
‘Peace on Earth’ was the message proclaimed to the shepherds by the angels the very first Christmas as they announced the birth of Jesus. Yet this peace is very different to what is longed for in times of war. The root cause of every conflict whether it is wars between nations, disputes between neighbours or fights within families is that at heart we are all at war with God. Jesus said that whoever is not for him is against him. So, whether by choice or by default, all of us are by nature enemies of God. The real meaning of Christmas is only found in the message of Easter: that through Jesus’ death, a way is made for us to find peace with God as we receive his forgiveness.
I pray that this Christmas you will discover for yourself the everlasting peace that only God can bring. For it is only when we are reconciled with God that we can be fully reconciled with each other – that is real Peace on Earth!
This blog post featured in the December 2014 edition of Hook Focus
I am sure that many of you will shortly be writing Christmas cards to various friends and family members. Despite the proliferation of social media and other electronic forms of communication these are not as tangible ways of sending seasonal greetings as physical Christmas cards. The tradition in our home is to staple strings of cards together and then hang them on the walls of our lounge and dining room.
I wonder what kind of cards you like to choose: modern or traditional, comic scenes or wintry landscapes? Many cards seem to bear little real connection with Christmas at all. Politicians and celebrities send photographs of their families, others wishing to avoid causing offence choose the greeting “Happy Winter Holiday” or similar. My personal preference is to send cards that depict some aspect of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Yet even here myth and reality often collide as, in attempting to recreate the perfect Christmas scene, artists get their chronology mixed up. Perhaps worse still, the nativity is depicted in an idealised and somewhat romantic manner. The truth is that the birth of Christ was noisy and messy, the same as the birth of any other human being. The stable where he was born was a working stable, full of the sounds and smells of the farmyard, hardly a hygienic place for a baby to be born! A modern Christmas Carol more accurately captures the atmosphere with line: “From the squalor of a borrowed stable.”
Yet this realisation, far from demeaning the nativity, actually provokes even greater wonder. Paul wrote “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men”. The squalid circumstances of Jesus’ birth serve to highlight lengths to which he was willing to go to rescue us. Paul goes on to state “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” So we move from a squalid scene to one that to our eyes seems gruesome.
If we sanitise either of these two events then we rob them of their power. Ugly though they may be, the truth is that they are both perfect scenes because they are essential to God’s great plan for redemption. Whenever you see a depiction of the nativity scene this Christmas I would urge you to look deeper and discover the joy that comes from discovering the real Jesus that so often gets obscured by fluffy lambs and cute donkeys. You are invited to come and join us at one of the Christmas services arranged by the various churches in Hook and discover the real meaning of Jesus birth.
This blog post featured in the December 2013 edition of Hook Focus
Two books in the bible open with the same three words: ‘In the beginning…’ Since the dawn of civilisation mankind has been fascinated by the origins of the universe and every culture has it’s own stories of how all that we see around us, even humanity itself, has come into being. As followers of Christ we have a unique insight into the beginning. It can be summed up succinctly in the first four words of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God!’ At first sight it seems that this is a cosmological statement, providing us with information to satisfy our scientific curiosity. High emotions and much ink have been spent between believers attempting to reconcile ‘science and the bible’. That is to miss the point. The statement ‘In the beginning God!’ is primarily a theological statement about causes and purposes rather than systems and processes.
This becomes clearer at the opening of John’s gospel where we read: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-5 (ESV)
These verses are part of the prologue to John’s gospel where we encounter Jesus. Necessarily the Jesus we read about in the gospels is a man, flesh and blood. John however wants us to understand that Jesus was not simply a man he existed before the beginning of time, more than that; he was active with God in the work of creation. In Genesis creation is the result of the spoken word of God. In John’s prologue Jesus is the Word of God. This is a profound theological statement because it reveals to us that Jesus is God!
As we enter this Christmas season, get wrapped up in the festivities, and watch re-enactments of the nativity we can lose sight of this mind blowing truth: Jesus existed long before he appeared as a baby laid in a manger. All things were made through him and he is the source of life itself. So when you hear the words ‘In the beginning was the Word’ read out at a Carol Service this Christmas allow yourself to be awestruck that in Jesus we are encountering God himself.
This blog post featured in the December 2013 edition of Lifelines
I am writing this article after leading the first of our church’s Christmas Celebrations. A great time was had by all, singing carols and thinking about the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth, followed by good food shared together. By the time you read this, Christmas presents will be unwrapped, rich Christmas food eaten, every turkey recipe imaginable will have been consumed and thoughts will be turning to New Year’s resolutions. For the majority of people living in Hook, we will have enjoyed comfortable Christmases in warm homes with people we love. No doubt too we will have written letters, e-mails and text messages thanking people for their generosity towards us.
In my first message of 2013 I want to say thank you, to you, the residents of Hook on behalf of all the people who have benefitted from the food that you have donated to the Hart Foodbank (www.hart.foodbank.org.uk), especially through the collection at Tesco at the beginning of December. On those two days an astonishing 1835 kg of food valued by Tesco at £3212 was donated. Even better, Tesco have given Hart Foodbank 30% cash back – £963 on a store card. Since 1st April 2012 Hart Foodbank has fed 288 people (171 adults and 117 children). The evening before I wrote this article, I was able to supply food to three families feeding 9 more people.
Christmas is a tough season for those who are financially challenged. Pressure to get presents and seasonal food, along with higher fuel costs due to cold weather conspire to leave people in debt and struggling to feed their families. Life Church operates a service called Junction 5 Money Advice (www.junction5.org), which provides confidential advice to help resolve debt crisis. However the chances are that the people most needing help from Junction 5 or the Hart Foodbank don’t read Hook Focus. If you as a reader are aware of a situation that would benefit from this kind of support, please tell them about these services and help us ensure that they get the help they need. In the meantime I wish you a very Happy New Year 2013.
This blog post featured in the January 2013 edition of Hook Focus