As you may know, in the traditional church calendar, Advent is a time for waiting and it’s a time of preparation. Just as we begin to think about preparing for Christmas, trying to get our house in order, maybe putting up some Christmas decorations, perhaps it’s also a time for ‘spiritual house-cleaning’, of preparing our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Housework is something that can be rather challenging when you have little kids. I sometimes joke that when God was handing out housework anointings, I must have been absent that day. I have a sign up on our noticeboard at home that says ‘My house was clean last week, I’m sorry you missed it’. Because I do try, but it’s a bit like shoveling snow while it’s still snowing with children around. Thankfully God is concerned not about outward appearances. He’s more concerned about our inward house, in cleansing our hearts, and getting our lives in order, confessing our sin and and restoring our relationship with Himself and others. Obviously we can only achieve this in His strength and with His grace.
Part of this preparation or ‘spiritual house cleaning’ that we can engage in for Advent is in waiting. The ministry of waiting seems to have a prominent place in the Word of God. But many of us aren’t very good at waiting. I know that I’m not. And at this time of year we can do a lot of waiting. We wait in long shopping checkout lines when the supermarkets are crazy. We wait to find a parking spot at the shopping centre. First world frustrations I know. Kids can hardly wait for Christmas to come! And the big kids too. I must confess that our Christmas tree went up before the 1st of December, because we are going away on the before Christmas, and we wanted to be able to enjoy it just a few days early. But it doesn’t have any chocolates on the tree this year, the kids are going to have to wait til Christmas day for those as I have wisened up …two years ago they did not last long. I discovered a little boy behind the couch covered in chocolate, he had scoffed the lot. But the candy canes were quite safe, as they tasted like toothpaste!
Traditionally, Advent was a time of abstaining from public festivity in the ancient church, in order to prepare for the holy day of Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas, so called, didn’t begin till Christmas Day. Compare this with today, where in our consumeristic society Christmas decorations can be displayed in the shops before October. It’s no wonder then that children find it hard to wait for Christmas. They have to wait a long time for the day when they can open gifts that you see under the tree, if they are fortunate enough to receive gifts.
Many of you will be familiar with Dr Seuss children’s books. In his book ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’, Dr Seuss talks about a place called ‘the waiting place’. He describes it as a useless place where people are just waiting. And sometimes in life we can find ourselves in that very waiting place. It’s hard to wait for God. We spend a big part of our lives waiting for things. But how many of you know that God’s timetable is different to ours. I’ve been told that I’m a type A personality – I must confess that I like things to be done yesterday. We are often in an incredible hurry. But God is not. We live in a microwave generation where we want instant gratification, and technology can contribute to that too. It says in the Word that God’s ways are not our ways and His timing is different to ours, it often seems slower, has anyone discovered that? But I know that we have to trust God and that His timing is actually perfect. We wait for many things –Waiting to get exam results, waiting to find a job, waiting to see if chemotherapy or radiation will work, for a marriage partner – many Christians don’t get married at 21 these days, and so we wait, and there can be a lot of pain that goes with that. I think of the song by Rebecca St James ‘Wait for Me’. Some of you are waiting for your prayers to be answered in different areas. All this waiting is difficult. But it is in the waiting that God does His mightiest work in our lives. Have you found that to be true in your life? Some people wait many years to have children, and there are examples of that in the bible, such as Elizabeth in the Advent story in Luke Chapter One. I’m praying at the moment for a friend who is a mum in waiting. But for those that are fortunate to be expecting, there’s nothing quite like waiting for the arrival of a baby. Even while the expectant mother waits, God is at work within her forming and shaping the life of that baby. Conception is the promise. Delivery and birth fulfill that promise. But between promise and fulfillment, there are months of waiting, expecting and planning, along with months of developing discomfort, uncertainty and even anxiety and apprehension. Waiting is hard. We might have ideas about what our child will be like and we try to get things ready. But when the baby comes, everything changes. It’s sort of like we thought it would be, but also very different. During Advent we get ready, we get ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus and we get ready for his coming again. Once Jesus came into the world, things were never the same again. Luke’s story of the first Advent is about two pregnant couples, two sets of parents-in-waiting.
Mary and Elizabeth were obedient to God even though it didn’t make sense. They were patient. Their story encourages us to wait for the Lord despite delay and despite difficulty. Waiting for God through difficult situations is hard, very hard. And during the time of waiting, we can lament to God. We can grow and mature during times of waiting. It’s God’s way of reaffirming our faith and our trust in Him. And a big part of our Christian walk is faith. I’ve learned to be careful of praying for patience. For patience only comes through waiting and tribulation. Think about that next time you pray to be patient! Sometimes we may feel like our life is stuck on the pause button and we may say ‘When God, when?’ Could it be that through the difficult circumstances that sometimes accompany waiting, in fact, only through those difficult circumstances, we can become the people that God wants us to be? Could it be that through waiting, we can learn to trust God more completely? Waiting has it’s rewards and it refines us. Advent also points to beyond the waiting to the receiving the fulfillment of God’s promise, and to experience God’s blessing. In the book of James it says ‘Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.’ It is only then, that we can find joy in the waiting place.
God’s Banquet Table
I wanted to share a few short reflections on the theme of celebration and praise. So I went to the Bible to look up what it says about celebration. And the bible has a lot to say about celebration. The Jews, God’s people had several holidays a year set aside for celebration, fellowship and worship. God wanted His people to come together to rest, have refreshment and remember with thanksgiving all he had done for them. Ecclesiastes says there is ‘a time to grieve and a time to dance’. The Jews had the Passover, where the Isaelites feasted and rejoiced in the presence of God. festival of Unleavened Bread, Celebration of Harvest which was praising God for a bountiful harvest, The Festival of Trumpets, and the Festival of Shelters – which taught all ages about God’s nature and what he had done for them. It was a time of renewed commitment to God. The Jews really knew how to celebrate. They also had the Festival of Purim and Jews still celebrate Purim today – they were a celebration of feasting, gladness and gift-giving. Gift giving is an important way to remember God’s specific acts. Ezra in the book of Nehemiah connected celebration with gift giving, and gave those in need an opportunity to celebrate with others. Their celebrations were not self-centred. Who knows that we as modern day Christians have a lot to celebrate? Those who love God have the most to celebrate. We have eternal life in heaven and God wants us to have abundant life and life in it’s fullness here on earth. We have celebrations as Christians, we have Easter, Christmas, and we can establish rituals as families ie, family night. And celebration is the smaller things of life too. One thing I enjoy as a parent is celebrating the milestones of my children and I love celebrating their birthdays. Blowing up the balloons, choosing a cake out of the cake books, baking the cake and some cupcakes, and having a party. God also wants to celebrate with us as we are His children. It’s a common misconception that God is against celebration, wanting to take all the fun out of life, but this is a lie of the enemy. Christianity is portrayed s a list of things you can’t do and while sometimes it can be harder to walk on the narrow path than on the wide path, the narrow path protects us from sin and destruction and leads to life. On this path we can celebrate who God is and what God has done, God has a spiritual feast for us and non-believers will look in and see the fun, the feasting and the celebration that is in God’s kingdom and want what we have. A primary old testament symbol for the kingdom of God was a banquet table. ‘He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love’ Song of Solomon 2:4. I think of the Senior’s lunch that Sarah and others organized this week, was a celebration to honour the mature members of our congregation. Those beautiful tables that Sarah put together, the flowers, the china, the bows on the seats, not to mention the feast, reminded me that God also has for us a banquet table and He brings us to His banquet table. Today there is room at God’s table for you and for I. It is to be inclusive of all people. In the parable of the great banquet jesus said ‘blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God’ In god’s kingdom there is a party going on and everyone is welcome. We can accept His invitation to come and dine at he table, we don’t live on bread alone but we have spiritual food which is the Word of God. In Isaiah 51 it is an invitation, ‘Come to me you who are hungry and thirsty, come and buy wine and milk without cost’. God has prepared and provided for you eternal life. He invites you to that eternal life. He invites you to the heavenly lavish banquet. He invites you into His eternal kingdom. We believe we will be resurrected into heavenly glory and blessing. Unlike the Jews we know that the way to the banquet of God is through Jesus, that he is the door to the banquet hall. And at the banquet table is every good thing imaginable. That God has prepared good things for his children, in this life and in the next. And it has already been paid for. Joy, peace, forgiveness, acceptance, restoration, peace, healing, purpose and fulfillment. Who knows that so many people today are so spiritually hungry? They are spiritually destitute, broken and hungry. We try to fill our lives, the God shaped vacuum that only He can fill. With busyness, achievements, relationships, food, materialism, technology, drugs, alcohol etc. It’s then our duty to tell them the good news and bring them into God’s kingdom. The sinners who feel they don’t belong at the banquet of God. Even as believers we can fill our lives with things, with busyness, we can feel empty. But Only God satisfies.
We need rituals of celebration to renew our faith and to pass it on to the next generation. God wants us to meditate and He wants us to confess our sin, that’s important. Often these days in church there is a tendency to be too casual with sin, and in these last days, God is calling His church to holiness. But this is balanced with God’s grace and the celebration of who God is and what He has done for His people. When we celebrate with others in ways that honour God we are strengthened spiritually and filled with joy. We can enter in Celebration fosters joy. And the God of the Bible encourages joy. Joy is independent of circumstances, unlike happiness. Who knows that we are in a spiritual battle? But god wants to give us joy for the battle – the joy of the Lord is our strength.
One of the ways we can celebrate is through praise. Praise is a part of prayer and it is also a weapon. In Psalm 9:1 it says ‘I will praise you Lord with all my heart, I will tell of all the marvelous things you have done. I will be filled with joy because of you. I will sing praises to your name, O most High.’ So what does praise do? Derek Prince, the acclaimed bible teacher talks about how praise is frequently related to God’s awesomeness and fearfulness. Praise calls forth God’s supernatural intervention and is the appropriate response to that intervention. In Exodus 15 it says ‘God is awesome in praises.’ And we as his people are part of a majestic symphony 0or a choir comprised of harmonic parts that together offer up songs of praise to the Lord. We can be caught up and carried along in swelling tides of praise. Are we singing our part well in the worldwide choir of praise? ‘Let everything that has breath praise the Lord’. Praise takes our mind off our problems and shortcomings and helps us focus on God. I can qualify that by saying that God understands our pain and suffering, that sometimes life can be really hard and there is a place to be real and honest and even to lament. But sometimes if we only complain, we will remain and if we praise we will be raised. If we look at the book of Acts when Paul and Silas when they were thrown into prison, despite this they praised God, praying and singing, and the jailer came to Christ because of their godly example. Not easy to do, I’m sure. Praise helps life our perspective from the earthly to the heavenly. To have our hearts and minds set on things above, to have an eternal perspective. Praise also helps to move us from individual meditation to corporate worship. We are created to worship God, to not to fill our lives with other distractions and we are created to live in community. Praise helps us to appreciate and consider God’s character. Praise prepares our hearts to receive God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit. Praise gives God the glory. The glory belongs to God and not to us. We are to bear his image and be glory carriers of His presence but all gifts talents and abilities are from Him. We are merely vessels called to reflect God’s image. When we prayer we need to praise first. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he first praised God and then made his requests. Praising God first puts us in the frame of mind to tell him about our needs. Otherwise sometimes our prayers can sound like shopping lists. Praise is one weapon in spiritual warfare. The battle that we are in and we have an adversary. There are principalities, powers, rulers and authorities (Ephesians 6). Often the battle is in the mind. The enemy can’t read our thoughts but he has been watching us since we were born and knows our weaknesses. His main weapon against us is accusation. Bible says that satan is the ‘accuser of the brethren’. He is accusing us continually before God both day and night. Often fear and guilt are other ways that the enemy wages against us often in our mind, planting lies that are not of God. But it is praise that ascends through the heavenlies, reaching the throne of God and silences Satan’s accusations against us. Praise that silences satan comes out of the mouth of God’s people. Psalm 149 says ‘May the praise of God be in their mouths like a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment in the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackles of iron, to carry out the sentence written against the,. This is the glory of all his saints.’ This describes how all God’s saints (and we are God’s saints, only because we are forgiven sinners made righteous through Christ) and we can do all these things through praise. We can take authority over the kingdom of darkness through the weapon of praise and walk in victory. God has taken the shackles off our feet so we can praise Him. This helps us to walk in freedom and wholeness with God.
I wanted to share a reflection on the theme of weakness. Weak or strong? If you had to pick one of those words to describe yourself, which one would it be? I think most of us would probably say ‘weak.’ But the good news is that God is looking for weak people. When I was praying about this topic, what God spoke to my heart was that we need a fresh revelation of the grace of God. Understanding the grace of God has been the most profound revelation I’ve had in my Christian walk. We need to realize that we CANNOT live the Christian life, at least not by our own power!
We live in a performance oriented success driven society, today our culture is self-focussed (perhaps more so than in previous generations), individualistic and independent. In our culture many of us spend the first 20+ years of our life learning how to be independent and rely on ourselves. In this age of “Do It Yourself,” we seem to value the strong individuals – those people who have the natural stamina and willpower to set their minds to any goal and see it through to accomplishment. We are surrounded by messages, that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. The “Strengths Movement” has spread its own gospel: that you only have to determine your areas of strength to be successful in life. And in this day of Facebook and Twitter we are bombarded with self-help news feeds stating ‘you can do it’. Don’t let anyone stop you. And from facebook and twitter it looks like everyone has it all together, often because people ‘facebook’ their perfect life, and their online life is the edited, polished version. You see the lovely pictures of someone finishing a marathon, or someone’s holiday or family, but what you don’t see the stress and the mess and the toddler having a meltdown which is the reality of life. And so we live in this success oriented society.
Of course there is a place for identify the spiritual and motivational gifts that individuals have. We as the body of Christ are different parts – one is the eyes, another is the hands, another is the feet. But even in our areas of strength we are weak without God. We can’t walk with our eyes and we can’t see with our feet. And even in marriage God puts people together who complement one another. My husband and I have different strengths and weaknesses. He is a details person who does things beautifully but sometimes it can take a long time for him to get things done, whereas I get things done quickly. Take doing the grocery shopping for example, Tim will write a detailed shopping list, and while he is pouring over the recipe books studying what meals we could have and what ingredients we require, I’m at the checkout! So neither way of doing things is better or worse than the other, just different. He’s a very patient person, whereas I am…… growing in patience.
And so God’s purposes cannot be achieved in our own strength. We need to be caught by the countercultural message of Christ, which is a way of living life by HIS strength and by HIS grace, which cuts across our own natural mindsets and abilities. Jesus said ‘The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Jesus modeled for us a life of depending on the Father. “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me” (John 14:11). The secret of His strength was not so secret after all. He yielded to God and we have to do likewise.
One definition of grace that I like is “His enabling power,” for it is the power of Christ Himself that indwells us and enables us to live by a means beyond our own. We are being called to learn how to be “not strong” in ourselves, in order to access the Holy Spirit’s amazing power on a daily, moment-by-moment basis so that we can be world changers, cracked vessels of hope (as our minister spoke about this morning) that will completely transform us and the world around us!
We have been called to a standard of living that is so beyond our own natural ability to achieve it, that it is unmanageable – in our own strength, that is. Love your enemies. Don’t harbour resentment or bitterness against anyone, walk in purity. lay down your life for others. Die to yourself. This way of life is entirely impossible … in our own strength.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9 it says, ‘My grace is enough for you for My strength and power are made perfect and show themselves most effective in your weakness’. I’m in a season of my life where it is really busy. My current role is Director of Domestic Affairs – I have three young children and it is lovely, sometimes exhausting but lovely. I can feel weak at times and I need the strength of God. We are not created to live in our own strength. Earlier this week we decided to go on an overnight excursion and we stayed in a rustic cabin in the wop wops. And I’m not really a rustic girl but it would have been fine, except that it poured with rain. So we had three small children corralled in a small damp cabin for two days. Character building is one way of describing it. We are tenting at the same place in January with another family, and there will be seven children under eight. We’ve nicknamed it ‘Camp Chaos’. There are much tougher scenarios that people face, but still, we will need God’s grace to ensure it is an enjoyable family ‘holiday’.
Understand that personal weakness does not mean weak character or sin. We are called to try to overcome the sin that is in our lives with God’s strength, pursuing holiness and righteous living. God is looking for a people who have come to the place where they have lost confidence in their flesh to accomplish the work of the Spirit. Only when we embrace the weakness of ourselves apart from Christ can we become “graced” to accomplish things for the true advancing of God’s Kingdom.
However, so often we deal with our weakness according to our human wisdom. We hide them, often out of a fear of being known, a fear that if people really find out what we are like that we will be judged or not accepted. We try to make it stronger with human means. We may try to live or cope with it by our own resources. And sometimes the church has chastised people who openly admit their weaknesses and struggles. But It is always really refreshing when people are open about their weaknesses rather than hiding them behind a mask. It says in the word ‘Do not boast in your strengths, but in your weaknesses’. I really felt that God was saying that If we will talk more openly about our failures in order to help others, the Lord will be able to more openly display our victories. And that’s why meeting with others in real life is more authentic than having virtual online relationships. Church camp may be the ideal opportunity to make ourselves more known to one another.
And I sensed that God was also saying that we don’t need to feel ashamed about our weaknesses. In the accepting of where we are weak God make ways of strength. God’s unlimited power rests upon those who discern their weaknesses. Being weak does not mean you have failed. Don’t be afraid of your weaknesses, as painful as they are. We have to decide not to dwell any longer on our insecurity and feelings of unworthiness . New Zealand seems to have a sense of inferiority as a nation. But instead we can choose to dwell on the Son and His greatness which can be revealed through us. He delights in using the weak, the foolish and the small to confound the strong, the wise in this world. We can look at the Lord and His greatness that He will demonstrate through us. For God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (I Cor 1:27). I think I might be an example of that.
And the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. God’s strength is Limitless. Isaiah 41 says ‘Have you not heard, the everlasting God, he gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Jesus declares that “Without Me you can accomplish nothing!” (John 15:5). It is only when we see ourselves as weak that we can be made strong in the Lord. Gideon in the Bible was weak, weak enough to become strong in the Lord. Samson was strong, too strong to really be everything God wanted him to be. His greatest feat was the strength that came out of his weakness. So says Paul, “I will rather boast in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me, therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecution, distress for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” We look at our lives and we wonder, “Can God use us in our weakness?” We can rejoice and be encouraged that yes He can. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.