Sunday 27 December 2015

A Christmas nobody (Luke 2:8-20)

Are you a Christmas nobody?

It’s not that you hate Christmas or that you’re alone over Christmas. But you just feel insignificant this time of year. No one would notice if you walked out of the room. They would still be celebrating, drinking, watching the Dr Who special. But you? You’re expendable. Like a sprout rolled under the tree.

The thing is, being a Christmas nobody might not be such a bad thing.

1. The nobodies of the world

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Luke 2:8-10

Shepherds were nobodies. Five times we’re reminded what their job was: Sheep-keepers. They looked after smelly sheep. They had a reputation as weirdos - the Jar Jar Binks of the ancient world. They were nobodies in the world.

But not to God. “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you,” the angel says to the shepherds in verse 11. “This will be a sign to you,” verse 12.

When God sat down to write the first Christmas card, he wrote on the envelope: “Shepherds.”

Not “Prime Minister” nor “Archbishop of Jerusalem”. God wanted the first people to hear about the first Christmas to be nobodies, not the somebodies of the world.


Years later, Jesus would call himself the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14). You see, the way that shepherds care for their sheep - “living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flock,” verse 8 - was the way that God cares for his people. Looking after sheep isn’t glamourous. Yet the great leaders of old - Joseph, Moses, King David - learned the ropes by leading sheep. It taught them humility. Practical love. Jesus came to be that kind of shepherd king. That kind of humble Saviour born in a manger.

It takes a nobody to recognise Somebody special. God knew that shepherds would recognise their Saviour.

But they weren’t alone. There is a second group of nobodies: The angels.

2. The nobodies of the universe

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men
on whom his favour rests.”
Luke 2:13-14

It might seem strange calling angels nobodies. I doubt the shepherds would dare do that. They were terrified! (verse 9) The angel had to tell them, “Do not be afraid.” (Verse 10)

Furthermore, the “great company of the heavenly host” appearing in verse 13 is not a musical choir. We get that from “O come all ye faithful” - the line from the carol which goes, “Sing choirs of angels, sing in exaltation” - but that is far from what verse 13 is talking about. In reality, it is describing an army. In the same way that the “Lord of hosts” in the Old Testament is better translated the “Lord of armies,” so here, the “heavenly host” refers to the armed forces of Almighty God.

Think less Sister Act and more GI Joe.

Yet these armies appear - “suddenly”, verse 13 - not to fight a war, not to defeat an enemy. Rather, God sends his generals, warriors and footsoldiers on a mission of peace. Verse 14: “...And on earth, peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

You see, Christmas Day made these angels, well, redundant. Because Christmas means an end to the war. Christ is born. His birth marks an end to our rebellion against God.

Jesus once told his disciples, “Don’t you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) He said this to friends trying to prevent his arrest by soldiers with swords. With violence. He was saying, “Cool it, guys. I’ve got the Heavenly Avengers on speed dial.” He was talking about the same angels we meet here in Luke 2.

The Trinitarian Terminators. The Jehovah Jedis.

Jesus could snap his fingers and the full military might of the universe would be at his disposal.

So why didn’t he? Because the way to win this fight was to lose his life. No angel, however awesome, can take your punishment for sin. No friend, however sincere, can take your place of judgement. Only God can do that. And on the cross, he did. He died in our place.

Christians call this the gospel. It’s the “good news” announced by the angel in verse 10. It is good news for bad people that God has forgiven our sin. It is good news for all peoples that God has defeated our sin. It is good news for you and me that Jesus Christ is Lord. This was a message delivered by angels to shepherds.

This was a message delivered by shepherds to Mary, the last nobody we meet in the Christmas story.

3. Nobody but God

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Luke 2:16-20

We see two reactions to Christmas. Both good. But both different.

Some people are like the shepherds. They hear the news. They see the baby. And they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” (verse 20) It just makes sense!

But others are like Mary, who “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (verse 19) It’s those quiet moments when nobody is in the room, when the turkey’s in the fridge and guests have gone home, when you ask yourself, “Is this really true? Did God send his Son to save me from my sins?”

Of all people, you would think Mary got this instantly. After all, she gave birth to the Messiah. When she was pregnant in Luke Chapter 1, the angel appeared to her, calling her highly favoured, saying her son would be the Son of God (Luke 1:28, 35). Mary is a model of faith. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she says in Luke 1:38.

Yet Luke Chapter 2 reminds us this was a process, even for Mary. She treasured up the moments and pondered them in her heart. The phrase occurs again at the end of the chapter (Luke 1:51), meaning, she was constantly pondering over what it meant for Jesus to be to be her Lord and Saviour.

I suggest to you that Mary did this all her life because (and I want to be careful how I say this) Christmas isn’t enough to make sense of Christ. It’s a good start, don’t get me wrong. Christmas says Jesus was born for us but it is the cross that says Jesus died for us. The cross makes sense of Christmas. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Mild he lay his glory by,
Born that man no more may die.

Like Mary, it might not be such a bad thing to be alone during such moments. To think. To pray. Because friends, the times in life when we are most aware of our own insignificance isn’t, I don’t think, when we’re lonely or depressed, but when we are in the presence of something truly marvellous and awesome. When God enters our lives, when we are most awed by his holy presence, those are the moments when we are most aware of our sinfulness, most humbled by our lowliness and most surprised by his grace.

Do not be afraid.
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you;

he is Christ the Lord.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Paul the apprentice (Acts 11:25-26)

So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
Acts 11:25-26

A plumber from Peterborough - who was expelled from school at age 15 - is this year’s winner of the Apprentice. In his final interview, Joseph Valente was asked why he should be Lord Sugar’s business partner. He replied, “What you see, is what you get. I’ve got experience... I’m driven, passionate, hardworking.” Those of you who watched the finale will know that Joseph was shrewdly quoting the title of Lord Sugar’s book (entitled, “What you see is what you get”), identifying himself with the business magnate’s humble beginnings. (Lord Sugar, too, left school as a teenager.)

Still, it did remind me of how even the Apostle Paul began his ministry as a humble apprentice. Yes, Paul did have a miraculous call and conversion on the road to Damascus - struck blind, meeting the risen Lord Jesus, preaching powerfully in the synagogues in Acts Chapter 9. But then he disappears off to Tarsus, his hometown, never to be seen again until Chapter 11 when an enterprising pastor named Barnabas took the initiative of seeking Paul out (verse 25) and bringing him back to lead a new church plant in Antioch.

Barnabas was the guy the apostles knew and trusted. In verse 22, Barnabas is the official representative sent from Jerusalem to check things out in Antioch. (The last time they did something like that was back in Chapter 8 where two of the apostles, Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to assess the situation in Samaria). And in verse 24, Luke goes out of his way to describe Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” On the other hand, no one knew Paul. But for some reason - we don’t know why - Barnabas decided he needed to bring in the new guy. Maybe it was part of his encouraging nature (Acts 4:36 tells us his name Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement”). Maybe he was humble enough to ask for help. But whatever it was, Barnabas took a chance and travelled all the way to Tarsus to brought Paul back as his partner and apprentice.

Again, most of us assume (or at least I did for the longest time) that a powerful figure like Paul was always in the forefront of ministry, leading the team and setting the pace. Didn’t Jesus say of Paul that “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel”? (Acts 9:15) Wasn’t his preaching so persuasive that he “confounded the Jews” (Acts 9:22)? And yet, at the end of that same chapter, we meet none other than Barnabas introducing Paul to the leaders in Jerusalem HQ. Why? Verse 26 tells us, “And they were afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” You see, it was Barnabas who stuck his neck out for Paul before the brothers and said, “Listen to what this guy has to say.”

Barnabas is doing the same thing here in Chapter 11. I once heard Mark Dever say, “We should advance trust the same way we advance credit.” He was talking about what it meant for older ministers to entrust responsibility to younger leaders. It’s an investment. There will always be an element of risk. But we advance trust the same way we advance credit - not expecting an immediate return on our investment.

In the case of Barnabas, that investment began all the way back in Chapter 9. When everyone was afraid of Paul, when no one would dare to speak to Paul, Barnabas was the one guy who stood up for Paul. He does the same thing here in Chapter 11. If you were hiring a new pastor, you want a guy like Barnabas. He’s the right age. Everyone loves him. (With a nickname like “Son of Encouragement”, who wouldn’t?) He is “full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24). And yet, the first thing Barnabas does is in his role as the senior pastor is appoint a guy - whom either the church in Antioch had never heard about (or if they did, they would have heard really, really bad things: “That guy used to persecuted Christians!”) - to be their associate minister.

Of course, when we read in verse 26, “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people,” we immediately see the investment paying off. Paul was, after all, a gifted scholar, preacher, theologian and apologist. We might be tempted to think, therefore, that Paul was in his element. He would immediately be recognised for his gifts and come into his own. Today, someone like Paul would go off and start his own church and develop his experience elsewhere.

But that isn’t the case with Barnabas and Paul. Read on the following chapters - 12, 13, 14 and 15 - where Luke, the author, keeps referring to them as “Barnabas and Paul.” That is, Barnabas is always named first in the partnership. In Chapter 13, for instance, Barnabas is first in the leadership roster at Antioch (and Paul is referred to at the very end of the list - number 5, in fact). Even the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 11:2) In a rather odd situation recorded in Chapter 14, the people of Lystra mistake Paul as the Greek god Hermes after he miraculously heals a crippled man. Even so, they call Barnabas Zeus, the chief of the gods, and the priest of Zeus comes out to offer sacrifices to them (Acts 14:11, 12).

The point is, Barnabas was still the first of equals. And Paul was still the apprentice. It could be that Barnabas was just more well-known and possibly, much older than Paul, and hence, more respected. Furthermore, these same chapters record the sermons that Paul gave, not Barnabas. Paul was clearly the one used by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentile world. Undoubtedly, Paul was the gifted one. Having said all that, Paul was the apprentice and Barnabas was his mentor, at least for this season of ministry.

There are so many points of application from these verses. Barnabas’ humility in bringing in Paul to help him out and Paul’s humility in serving under Barnabas’ leadership. Barnabas’ wisdom in investing so early in a young preacher right at the beginning of his ministry and Paul’s wisdom in taking those initial years out to prepare for ministry in Tarsus.

But the one thing I take away from this is their relationship. Barnabas stuck his neck out for Paul way back in Damascus and he never stopped looking out for him. He was more than a nice guy, a spiritual guy or an encouraging guy. Barnabas was intentionally gracious and loving and encouraging towards Paul. It was an intentional relationship. An intentional investment in one person. And we see the same pattern in Paul’s ministry approach in his later years when he takes Timothy under his wing. This is a much more laborious way of raising leaders compared to, say, running a course and awarding a qualification. It takes much longer. And it is painful. But unlike Lord Sugar, our investment is not money that we deposit into someone’s bank account, but our time, our lives and the gospel which we pour into someone else who is willing to do the same.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Philippians 2:17-18

Thursday 3 December 2015

Practical love (Ephesians 5:22 - 6:9)

And live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:2
“I love going to church,” someone once said to me. “Which church do you go to?” I asked. “All of them,” he replied, “… every day!” “Wow,” I said, “Are churches open every day?” “Oh, I don’t go inside the church. I just stand outside. That’s enough for me to feel God’s love.”
Some of you laughed. But it was one of the most honest answers I have ever heard. You might think it strange seeing someone standing outside a church building soaking in God’s love yet many of us stand outside the church community – keeping a safe distance from other Christians - and say, “That’s enough for me to feel God’s love.”
In verse 2, where Christians are urged to live a life of love just as Christ loved us, Paul is not talking about being a loving person but loving actual people. We know this because verse 22 onwards applies this love of Christ to wives and husbands, to children and fathers, and to slaves and masters. The last couple of times I covered these verses were with college students and young adults – a common demographic in a place like Cambridge. This was challenging, as most of them weren’t married, all of them were adults and none of them were slaves. Most of them were thinking, “How does the bible apply to me?”
There are two things to notice - firstly, the recurring expression “in the Lord” or “just as Christ” in each command. Their love for Christ was being translated into real-life. The reason why Paul keeps using phrases like “in the Lord” is because loving a real person in real life is difficult. Paul is saying, “God’s love teaches us how to be loving in difficult situations.” Secondly, notice that the person they were commanded to love was very different from themselves. This wasn’t a shared love for Chinese food or Star Wars. That kind of love is easy and often selfish. No, this is a humbling love. This love takes us out of ourselves, focuses our love on the good of the other person at the cost of ourselves. Here in Ephesians, we find a love rooted in God’s love that teaches us to how love our neighbour.
We approach the passage under three headings:
1. The look of love
2. The word of love
3. The Lord of love
1. The look of love
God’s love is seen between wife and husband – in submission and sacrifice. Verse 22: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The marriage relationship between husband and wife mirrors the saving relationship between Jesus and the church. I’ve heard these verses appealed to as secrets to a happy marriage but I’m not sure that’s Paul’s intention. Rather, I think these verses show us what is distinctive – or even, unusual - about a Christian marriage. As the church submits to Christ, so wives are called to submit to their husbands. And as Christ loved the church, so husbands are called to die for the sake of their wives.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Ephesians 5:22-24
I wonder which verse would get me into worse trouble: Verse 22 on submission, verse 23 on headship or verse 24 reminding wives to submit to their husbands “in everything.” Yikes!
Firstly, verse 22 clarifies that submission is an expression of the Christian faith. Wives are submitting to their husbands “as to the Lord.” The same motivation is given to children (Ephesians 6:1, “in the Lord”) as well as slaves (Ephesians 6:5, “as you would obey Christ”). Contrary to popular belief, submission in the bible is a good thing. Verse 21, which is the overarching command to the whole church, says, “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.” God has placed each one of us in accountability relationships as expressions of our accountability before God. For wives, it’s to their husbands.
Verse 23 expands on this by introducing the notion of headship. Christ is head of the church because Christ died for the church, his body. Verse 23 is an obvious allusion to Ephesians 1:22 which says that God placed all things under Jesus’ feet and appointed Jesus as head over all things for the church. I doubt that wives have any problems with Christ being the head of the church except the same verse also states that the husband is the head over the wife. In effect, it is saying: Let the man be the man. The heart of sin is the desire to be God over our own lives. If so, the reversal of sin is the acknowledgement of God as God. Ephesians applies this to wives. Recognise the authority and role of your husbands to lead the family, to make decisions and to bear responsibility. Let the man be the man in your marriage.
If this is challenging for wives, the next verse says, “Look to the church as a model of your submission.” Verse 24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Wives aren’t the exception. Our submission to Jesus as lord over our lives – whether as singles, as students; as Christians – is meant to encourage wives that they aren’t alone in learning submission in their daily walk with Jesus. At least with wives, it’s clear. They are meant to submit to their husbands. What about you? Who are you accountable to for the way you spend your time, your money and your energies? God puts all of us in loving accountable relationships to reflect our submission to Jesus Christ as Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27
Husbands are called to love. Verse 25: “Love your wives.” Verse 28: “Husbands ought to love their wives. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Verse 33: “Each one of you also must love his wife.” In other words, love is manly. Why? Because to love as Christ loved the church means sacrifice. Notice that wives are not commanded to love in this way, only the men are (at least four times in the passage). A husband’s love should be costly. Loving as a husband means sacrificing your life for hers.
But at the same time, there is a purpose to this love. It makes her holy. In verse 23, Christ’s death cleanses the church through “the washing with water through the word.” It’s a radical transformation from unclean to clean; from sinful to holy; from rebellious to radiant. Most men seeking a wife look for chemistry or compatibility. Christ, on the other hand, came to save sinners and to sanctify them as his radiant church. If we are to love like Christ, husbands, this means loving our wives even more, not even less, when they are unloving towards us. Why? Because the day will come when we will have to present our wives to Jesus as his bride, not ours. Our privilege in this lifetime is not to enjoy all the loveliness we first saw when she walked down the aisle but to present her to Jesus on that final day, even more radiant as a result of our loving marriages. As a result of our sacrificial love as husbands.
This is what love looks like – loving submission and loving sacrifice between a wife who loves Jesus and a husband who loves like Jesus.
2. The word of love
Next, we hear a word of love to children and fathers.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Ephesians 6:1-3
All of us have parents and therefore all of us are commanded to honour our father and mother. Children, however, are commanded to obey their parents in the Lord, that is, to submit to their authority. On the flip side, fathers are counselled not to exasperate their children  - that is, not to provoke them to anger (or Singaporeans would say, “tekan them”) – but to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
What we see is God’s word being at the centre of family relationships. Don’t miss that. Children are not merely told to behave in church but commanded by God in his word to obey their parents. Honouring your father and mother is not a Chinese cultural hangover, it is God’s holy word. Those of you who know your bibles should recognise this as one of the Ten Commandments given by Moses. Paul is, in effect, preaching to the kids at this point, telling them to turn to Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20 to hear for themselves God’s voice speaking to them in church.
And notice the motivation why: “That it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” This is God’s promise of blessing first given to Israel in connection with the Promised Land (They would have heard this as “That you may enjoy long life in the Land,” referring to Canaan). This is not moralism (Be good or God will punish you!). Neither is it legalism (Be good so that God will bless you). It’s actually evangelism! The same God who spoke to the Israelites thousands of years ago to the Israelites speaks to them today in Jesus Christ.
We also see that the responsibility to teach these truths to kids rests on the head of the family – the Dad. Not the mum. Not the Sunday School Auntie. Not even a pastor like Paul. Fathers are to bring their children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Notice how the husband and the Dad are repeatedly pointed to God’s word as the source of their authority. Back in Ephesians 5:26 (“the washing of water through the word”) and here in Ephesians 6:4. Again the bible is saying to men, “Know your bibles and make God’s word the foundation of your family life.” Fathers are not to exasperate their children. It’s a reminder how easy it is for the Dad to take advantage of his authority to “lay down the law” or to “put his foot down”. But if you put God’s word at the centre of your daily instruction, then the weightiness of obedience for kids is greater – not lesser – as they are then being commanded by God himself to honour their parents and to live in submission as a sign of their trust in a loving God.
3. The Lord of love
The most challenging form of headship and submission however comes in the last section – in addressing slaves and masters.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.
Ephesians 6:5-6
The slave-master relationship was a working relationship. Furthermore, slaves in the ancient world were often economic slaves – that is, as a means of paying off a debt. Slaves could buy their freedom. Some could marry and have children.
Having said all this, our jobs today are not to be equated with slavery, even the most noble forms of slavery in the ancient world. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says, “Where you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21) To a slave was to be stuck in permanent status of lowliness.
And Paul says to slaves, “Obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” In a life situation that is a lot less than ideal, Paul says, “Serve God where you are.” And that’s the big principal for us. We do not need God to change our economic status for us to live for him. We can even be a lowly slave and “serve God from the heart.”
Many Asian students come to Cambridge on scholarship from their home country dreading the day they will have to report to their sponsors to serve out their bonds. I can’t think of a more practical passage in the bible to turn to. “Obey them not only to win their favour,” not merely as a stepping-stone in your career, “but like slaves of Christ,” Paul says. Your ultimate bond is with Jesus. He is your Boss. “Serve wholeheartedly,” verse 7 says, “because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” God blesses even slaves while they are serving as slaves, so God can even bless bonded civil servants.
Masters have fewer words from Paul. But notice how they are words of warning not to take advantage of their slaves, especially if they are their brothers in Christ.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism in him.
Ephesians 6:9
At the centre of the master-slave relationship is the Master (or Lord; same word). He has the final say in our status and our performance. You see, at least slaves understand practically what it means to please a master. We earthly masters, on the other hand, need clearer reminders about what it means to live under Jesus as our Boss. You don’t need to tell a slave that his money isn’t his money, his life isn’t his life and his time isn’t his time. But managers and directors and CEO’s are often not content with the money that they do have, the life and the time that is theirs.
Which are you in your relationship with Jesus Christ? Are you the slave or is he your slave? Are you lord over your life or is Jesus Christ lord over your life?
In conclusion, we have seen three things. Firstly, the look of love – which is not haughtiness or lust, but submission and sacrifice. We see this in the marriage relationship between husband and wife, both of whom love Jesus; both of whom love one another like Jesus. The wife submits to the husband – letting the man be the man, in the same way that the church submits to Christ – letting Jesus be Lord over everything thing. The husband loves his woman in a manly way – by dying for her, by making her holy, by making her radiant for Jesus’ sake.
Secondly, the word of love – which is God’s word, the bible. It teaches children obedience, making them wise for salvation in Jesus Christ. It tempers the discipline of the father, giving them the resources to bring his children up in the instruction of the Lord.

Thirdly, the Lord of love. Jesus is the ultimate boss – whether you are a scholarship student bonded to the government for the rest of your life or CEO of Fortune-500 company. He will write our final performance review and he judges the contents of our hearts. If we are to serve him, it means, serving one another in whatever situation of life he has placed us. Not despising the richer brother for his wealth. Not oppressing the slave because of his helplessness. But treating one another as Christ loved us – wholeheartedly, doing the very will of God.