December ADVENTure

Earlier this year I did a Bible study throughout Lent and blogged my thoughts about every day’s readings. I found it incredibly valuable and amazing that, on so many occasions, the readings were so pertinent to the events of the day.

So, starting on Monday I’ll be doing an Advent Bible study and writing my thoughts about it each day. I’m using a plan drawn up by Hamilton Road Baptist Church in Bangor, Northern Ireland.

If you want to read it with me, please do.

Lent Day 2: Matthew 4-7

So, Jesus ministry begins. What’s the first thing he does? Miracles and wonders? No. Preaching in the Temple? No. Rises up against the Roman oppressors? No.

He goes into the wilderness, on his own, for 40 days. He puts his own discipline to the test to ensure he is strong enough to face the troubles which are to come. He deliberately leads himself into temptation, not long before asking his followers to pray not to be led into temptation, so that He can battle it and defeat it. The first victory of many.

We’re all tempted. Tempted by money, possessions, sex, power, self interest and many other things which lead us down the wrong path. Jesus, however, is tempted by ultimate power over the world without the need to put himself through  the suffering he will endure at the cross. He knows that he’s got a much higher purpose, though, and overcomes temptation by clinging to scripture. His knowledge of God’s word and desire to live it overcome his human instincts (he may be God, but he’s human as well).

This is an example we focus on during Lent (those 40 days in Lent come from here). It’s an example, though, that we need to follow all the time. It’s not easy. It’s not even possible. Not on our own, anyway. Thankfully, we have someone to pick us up, dust us off and encourage us again whenever we fall. And it is so worth it!

Then he comes back.  Peter, Andrew, James and John are called to follow him and, apparently, do so without question. Something is just right about this. They can see a better way. The better way. So they join Jesus as he starts by carrying on John the Baptist’s message of repentance.

I often wonder about Zebedee. The father of James and John, not the bouncing strawberry from The Magic Roundabout. One minute he’s in a boat, working with his boys and the next he’s alone as his sons go off with some Nazarene bloke they’ve only just met. I have two sons and I know I’d worry like mad if that was me, maybe even resistant. I always hope and pray that Zebedee understood, found peace with it and, in his own way, followed Jesus too. I hope he bounced back (pun intended).

Then we come to a verse which has hit me harder than any in these three chapters. We’ve been through the wilderness and the calling of the first disciples. We’re about to hear the greatest demon ever preached. Matthew 4:24, however, really strikes a chord in today’s world,

“News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.”

All over Syria, Jesus’ news, teachings and healing took place. How much does that war-torn country, ripped apart by the vicious fighting between the government and rebels, need Jesus right now? His presence, love, uniting grace and healing are all there. It just needs people to stand up in that place and bring it to the sick, wounded, suffering, starving, grieving, angry, desperate people of Syria. It is happening, but I pray that it grows until peace and harmony finally take hold.

Then we hear the Sermon on the Mount. Or, at least, two thirds of it (it finishes in chapter 7).

The most beautiful, famous, remarkable sermon.

Starting with the beatitudes, a list of all those who are blessed and will receive God’s kingdom. Each one of these is for people who are normally seen as the least important, powerless, least deserving people. However, Jesus says, they are blessed in the eyes of God. We see why as the sermon moves on an Jesus speaks of sharing our salt and light, doing good deeds towards others in God’s name. He speaks of act which teach us love, respect and discipline, both towards ourselves and towards others.

We are called to be righteous, more so than the religious leaders of the day. This sounds almost impossible, but the rest of the Sermon, and the rest of Jesus life, shows us how. It’s not by following hundreds of individual laws which we cannot hope to keep no matter how hard we try. It is by understanding why those laws were written. What God meant by them. Seeing them through the lens of Jesus. Then we apply them to our lives.

This is what he meant when he said that he came to fulfil the law, not to do away with it. The law has been leading up to what he does in life, in death and then, beyond.

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18 NIV)

Until everything is “accomplished”.

He’ll talk about things being accomplished again at a much more painful time.

Lent Day 1: Matthew 1-3

So, here it starts. At the very beginning.

Well, not the beginning. That happens much, much earlier and we’ll get an amazing glimpse of it when we move onto John’s Gospel.

This beginning is three-fold. Firstly, we see the beginning of Israel, from Abraham right through to the birth of Jesus via no less a figure than King David. Jesus’ royal pedigree and Jewish pedigree are being established right away. He is a direct descendant of David, so he meets one big criteria for being Israel’s long awaited Messiah.

The second beginning is the birth itself. Here we encounter one of my favourite Biblical figures in Jesus’ step-father, Joseph. This is a man with an unbelievably tough decision to make. His fiancee, Mary, is pregnant and it is clearly not his child. He is a “righteous man”, so he knows that the Law demands that he has nothing to do with Mary and he intends to follow that. However, there is clearly love and compassion in his actions as he resolves to divorce her on the quiet, to avoid any public disgrace to her. Even though, as far as he knows at this point, she has betrayed him, he still wants to protect her rather than gain revenge by humiliating her.

Then, a dream. Joseph is told that the child is God’s own son and he needs to trust in God that things will be ok. And he does. As far as we can see there are no quibbles or arguments, but Joseph trusts God unconditionally, despite what the repercussions are for him and Mary.

I love that. What Joseph does demonstrates respect for God’s law, love for Mary and complete trust in God all in one event. All of which probably went against his own desires and instincts. There’s an example for us all to follow.

The final beginning is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a few verses we’ve jumped about 30 years, but this is where the action begins.

It starts with a wild man in John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, declaring that the Kingdom of God is near. Not far off. Nor in a box. Not separated from us by a curtain in the Temple. It’s near to us, almost with us.

He’s seen at the start preparing the Pharisees and Sadducees for the many times Jesus’ brings their narrow views down to earth (“nest of course” is such a cracking insult!). He then, though, echoes Isaiah’ s prophecy which is mentioned in chapter 1,

“Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” (Isaiah 7:13-15 NIV)

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”” (Matthew 3:7-12 NIV)

The whole theme of separating the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, is prevalent here. Both are aimed squarely at Israel and those who reject God. In John’s case, however, it is specifically aimed at those who will, in time come to reject Jesus. Not even their Jewish heritage will save them as God can fashion sons of Abraham from the stones (an early sign that textiles are being saved too?).

After all of this examination and hellfire, though, we finally see Jesus. Not the “Baby Jesus, meek and mild” of our Nativity stories and childhood prayers. This is a man who has come to carry out the most incredible ministry, followed by an act of remarkable love and amazing grace.

John recognises this and protests that he isn’t worthy to baptize Jesus, it should be the other way round. He does it anyway.

Cue the sky opening and that voice,

“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”” (Matthew 3:17 NIV)

It’s begun.

So, here it starts. It’s going to be some ride!

Pancakes

Pancakes!

Pancakes!

I love pancakes!

Quite why we need an excuse to eat them is beyond me. I mean, not only do I still have plenty of eggs, flour and oil left in the house (therefore meaning I’ve totally missed the traditional point of Shrove Tuesday), but I actually made them from a ready made mix. I’m not actually clearing out all the good stuff in preparation for the 40 day fast of Lent. I may as well be commemorating the martyrdom of St Pancake.

I am preparing, though. Preparing for a 40 day long Bible study (not including the Sundays) which I’ll be blogging my reflections on every day.

It’s a little daunting, as well as exciting. Daunting because, well, what if I can’t find anything to write about? God’s word is rich in meaning, but my mind is pretty limited. Also, what if I do come up with something, but it’s pointless, banal tripe (like this post is in danger of becoming!)?

Excited too, though. I have 40 days of immersing myself in the life of Jesus. 40 days of discovering how His teachings speak to me and everyone else. Then 40 days to reflect on it and share it with anyone who can be bothered to read it.

I can’t wait.

See you tomorrow.

Preparing to prepare

It’s an important week this week.

Yes, besides our annual excuse to eat pancakes! (Not that you should ever need an excuse to eat pancakes, of course)

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent signifies the period of reflection, prayer, repentance, sacrificing and self denial leading up to the Holy Week of Easter. It is a way of cleansing body and soul as followers of Jesus prepare to celebrate His victory over death and sin which happened during His crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday.

And we do this, in the modern age, by giving up chocolate for a few weeks.

In the past I have done just that, which culminated in a mild Caramac addiction. I have also given up alcohol, which can’t have been much of a sacrifice as I’ve been teetotal for seven years now. I haven’t, however, put myself through any of the other preparation for Easter. Bad Darren!

So, here’s the deal. Over the Lenten period I will be carrying out a daily Bible study, as set out on BibleGateway.com (put together by the Central Presbyterian Church of Baltimore). I’ll then post my reflections on each reading on this blog.

If you want to study it along with me then just click the link above. It follows the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) with one chapter of 1 Corinthians to finish with On Easter Saturday. Please also comment on any posts if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve written. Especially if you disagree as I’m under no illusions that I have a lot to learn, so being called out on any misunderstandings I have would be perfect for me.

Writing this post also means that I have to do it. I mean, if people actually read this then there are people out there who may notice if I skip a day. It may be that nobody notices, but I can’t take the chance.

I might give up chocolate, too. You’ll never know if I cheat on that one, though!

Messages from an Evolution believing Christian to Creationists.

Today, a post on Buzzfeed with 22 messages from creationists to those who believe the theory of Evolution to be correct appeared a lot on my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

They were full of the usual things you expect to see,

“Are you scared of a divine creator?”

“How do you explain a sunset if their (sic) is no God?”

“If we come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

along with several which asked questions about scientific principles I have nowhere near enough knowledge to converse about.

Now, I have no issue with the theory of Evolution. It appears to be a plausible, logical, evidence based explanation for the proliferation of life on Earth. This post got me thinking of some questions of my own, so here they are.

Why are creationists so scared of Evolution? Is your faith so weak that something which challenges a literal interpretation of Genesis could make it fall apart?

Why take everything so literally anyway? Do you do that with every story in the Bible? Really? Every? Single? One? Is it not possible that, like the parables of Jesus, the Creation story is simply an allegory told to explain a complicated concept to those without the knowledge to grasp it any other way?

Yes, it is.

Does this mean that Evolution could be a perfectly valid explanation, even from a Biblical perspective?

Yes, it does.

Would Evolution being correct automatically mean that there is no God and that He didn’t create everything?

No, of course it wouldn’t!

Ok then, if we don’t come from monkeys, why are we so closely genetically related? And what is the problem if we are? Does the idea that we are a highly evolved ape, given the ability to create, love, hurt, laugh, cry, appreciate beauty not make you feel like a special part of God’s creation? It does for me.

If God is the Creator, why do you think He stopped creating after just seven days? Why would He do that? Surely the ultimate creator won’t stop after a week! He’ll keep on creating, and creating, and creating, letting His creations free to become whatever their potential will allow them to become. He’ll keep moulding, changing, perfecting every last one of them. Read the Bible, He’s been doing it with the Human race for thousands of years.

And please don’t tell me that His creation doesn’t need perfecting because the Creator is perfect. What is His greatest creation?

Us.

Are we perfect?

Ummmm… definitely not!

So, if we, His greatest, most prized and loved creation, aren’t perfect then why would we imagine everything else is? Part of the joy in creating anything is changing it, perfecting it, then letting it go and seeing what others do with it. God adores joy, so surely he would do what is joyful.

I believe God created the Heavens, the Earth and every living creature in them. I believe He lit the spark which started the big bang and watched as His creation expanded at the most astonishing speeds. I believe that He set the laws which enabled dust and rocks to clump together to form the Earth over millions of years. I believe He created life at its simplistic level, building it up and up and up, forming long since extinct creatures and plants, moulding them into life forms we see today. I believe He put His divine Spirit into humans, loved us, taught us, grieved over us, laughed with us, chastised us, fretted over us, hoped for us. I believe that He came to us as a person and taught us a better way to live and love. He died for us, taking the punishment for everything we have ever or will ever do on Himself. He came back to life, went back to the Heavens and will come back. I believe He is still creating, because He is a creator. The Creator.

Don’t you think that’s amazing?

And do you really not know how a sunset works?!