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Advent Hope
Dec 08, 2017

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning. Psalm 130:5–6

In some of the more traditional churches, advent is celebrated using a wreath of 5 candles: one each lit on the four Sundays before Christmas surrounding a central candle only lit on Christmas Day. Church traditions vary as to the meaning of these candles but certain themes dominate – that of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Hope is an important focus for us and is often something desperately desired but woefully missing in our world. Sadly, so many confuse real hope with wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is rarely grounded in reality and can easily lead to disappointment or even despair when the wish fails to materialise. Conversely, hope is based upon truth, a real appraisal of circumstances and faith in a higher reality. Hope never simply wishes for things to turn out better – and hope in Jesus can never mean that we are looking forward to some kind of well-being makeover.

The hope of Advent is grounded in what happened 2,000 years ago but focuses on what is going to happen. Not a popular subject in today’s Christianity but, yes, Jesus is coming back and that means God will bring His creation to fulfilment as He promised through Jesus the King and this is our hope of salvation. Hope means we live in the reality of Kingdom now and the promise of future glory, whatever our circumstances!

However hope always bears a cost and that is waiting — waiting for the fulfilment of the promise. This can be frustrating, but faith demands that hope remains firm throughout all this. We are Christians living in a period of waiting but it is a very active waiting — we are not standing in a spiritual bus queue!

We have no idea when Jesus will return but we should live like He is going to at any moment – this was the characteristic of the early church and it marked Christians out with stunning clarity: they lived with a living hope that no one else had. They lived in the truth of God’s Great Grace and as such had a joy that attracted so many to the faith. Is this how we are living in Hong Kong? 

Let us practice the Advent hope by:

  • Praising God for being our hope, our love, our peace, our life and our destiny; and,
  • Asking God to help us live hopeful, graceful and joyful lives to witness to this hopeless, graceless and jaded world that is so desperate for some good news.

Blog

Word of the Father, Now in Flesh Appearing
Dec 06, 2017

It was a small group of people, just four volunteers, all from different churches, drawn together by a desire to help elderly people in Vietnam. This was ten years ago when I was in Vietnam with my previous organisation, a Christian non-profit that brought international expertise, volunteers and resources to meet the country’s needs. Through our network, this group had heard about the needs of a small, under-resourced state-run centre on the outskirts of Hanoi. It was a home for abandoned and neglected senior citizens, an indication of their extreme circumstances that their families would not or could not care for them in their old age. This group had a particular burden for this nascent program as they were all in the field of elderly care in the US.

None of them had been to Asia, none of them had experience in this area. One the greatest challenges was finding a time when all their schedules matched for their first mission trip together. We had identified a project that would have a major impact on the sustainability of the home. It would essentially start a small “hobby farm” with pigs and chickens that provided the elderly some activity and purpose, and also provide extra food and income. Mark, the leader of this group, caught the vision and didn’t want to delay the start, so they raised money and sent it over to people they had never met towards a centre they had never seen.

Over two years, we used the funds to implement the project, monitored it and provided resources and guidance at critical points. Each time my local staff and I would visit the centre, we would bring a letter from Mark, which would sign off with something like, “I know we’ve never met, but we are a group of friends from Texas who care about you. We are planning to come visit you as soon as we can!” Sometimes the letter would include a picture of them. Even so, the elderly home’s director was skeptical about these mystery benefactors.

“Do they really exist? What’s really going on? Is this some kind of scam you created because you don’t want to take full responsibility for the project?”

No, we assured him, there are real people behind this and they’re doing it because they love you. And yes, they really do intend to come to Hanoi one day.

That day finally did arrive. Mark, Joleanne, Melody and Steve came to Hanoi. They toured the facility, did therapy for the elderly, provided training for the staff and, of course, laid eyes on the pigs and chickens in all their dirty, smelly glory. There wasn’t as much fanfare or buzz about their visit. The centre’s staff had been there for years, underpaid and unrecognised, and rarely got excited about anything.

But when it came time for the director to say a few words at our tea ceremony, his eyes became moist and his voice cracked.

“The farm that you funded has helped our centre tremendously. But today you gave us an even greater gift because you came to see us and we get to meet you in person.”

John 1:14 says that, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Christmas is the heart of what the Christian faith is about: there is a loving, invisible God who had spoken through prophets before but now expresses His love in the fullest, most direct and tangible way by coming to us in person.

You reveal Jesus when you live by the Word of God your daily life. What are some ways that you can make the love of Christ real and visible during this Christmas season?

Blog

Christmas and All That
Dec 01, 2017

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. 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. Isaiah 9:2, 6–7

What do these verses mean to you?

For me, they are strongly associated with the atmosphere of Christmas services in Anglican churches great and small as they form part of the traditional programme of 9 Bible lessons and carols which I attended countless times while growing up in England. These associations range from the pomp of priests’ robes and echoing of readers’ voices to favourite carols to snow, mince pies, mulled wine and…

Wait a minute, what has all that got to do with the message of these verses?

Not much, right?

You see, I did not even believe in God at the time when I was forming those special memories. So when I hear or read these warming words again, my first response is based on the drama and other sensory impressions of related childhood experiences; and even my second response is to think of the triumphant ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah, which set parts of these verses to music. Then I start thinking about the choice of Bible version, and how for these verses I really prefer the old King James version which I heard read out so often.

But though these warm thoughts and associations are all well unless I stop to think, they can completely distract me from the whole meaning of these verses, and even of Christmas – especially because it is hard for us to get our heads round the magnificence of that meaning and its implications for each one of us. With our Twitter-length attention spans, we tend to trivialise the message and diminish its significance among all the other swirling information and activity around us.

So, as we begin the season of Advent: what threatens to distract you from the core truth about Jesus? December is a busy month for many of us and the shopping malls are primed to seduce us with the tinsel version of what we are celebrate during Advent. 

Let us instead pause afresh to appreciate the amazing fact that Isaiah pronounced this prophecy around 800 years before the birth of Christ which he was describing; and that this Wonderful Counsellor, this Mighty God, was willing to come to earth in human form to light up our darkness and provide the way back to peace, justice, righteousness, love, wholeness, fulfilment and everything else that we so deeply desire.

And as we pause, let us look around and invite people to come to church and see for themselves what this is all really about.

Let us ponder on Christmas and what it means by:

  • Thanking God for the testimony of Isaiah’s miraculous ancient prophecy, and the amazing and costly mission of Jesus Christ to bring light and restoration to the world in person; and,
  • Asking God for a fresh revelation of what it means for us personally and consider inviting ‘pre-believer’ friends and colleagues to come to church during Advent.

Blog

A New Spiritual Discipline
Nov 29, 2017

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Colossians 2:6-7 (ESV)

When you start thinking about what you should do to grow in your faith, the disciplines or practices you need, what do you think of? Christians and non-Christians would probably easily come up with similar lists if asked. They might look like this:

Pray.
Go to church.
Read your Bible.
Serve, or give back in some way.

Nothing out of the ordinary here, just simple important practices to grow closer to God. Yet, as I recently read Colossians 2, God used it as an opportunity to add one more important practice to my list.

Thanksgiving.

It’s something I always knew was scattered throughout the Bible and was a good thing, but it was something I always treated like extra credit. I’m thinking I might not be alone in this.

Yet, in these two verses, I was really surprised to see the difference between what was God’s role, and what was mine. The Colossians were commanded to have a continual lifestyle of faith, to “walk in Him.” After that phrase comes four participles in the original language, three being passive (something is being done to us, for us or in us), and one is active (we are the ones to do it). Let’s take a look:

  • ROOTED: A completed action accomplished by God on our behalf. Because of what Jesus accomplished, when we place our faith in Jesus, we are deeply rooted in a way that our identity as beloved children of God and our eternal inheritance are secure.
  • BUILT UP IN HIM: An ongoing process that God is doing in us. A construction metaphor that shows how God is helping us to grow into the people, and church, He designed us to be.
  • ESTABLISHED IN THE FAITH: An ongoing process that God is doing in us. He is helping us to know Him and trust Him more so that we become unshakeable, just like the object of our faith.

So what is the active participle thing that we are called to do?

To be “abounding in thanksgiving.”

In light of the fact that God has rooted us in a faith that can’t be lost or thwarted, and is continually at work helping us become more free from our old ways and transformed into the new people we will be forever in heaven, we are called to be overflowing with thanksgiving.

Many commentators have noted how a lack of thanksgiving is one of the first signs of drifting from God. I’ve noticed this to be true in my own life. An ignorance of blessing or a critical spirit unfortunately comes so easily to me. Thanksgiving or gratitude does not. That’s why I need to make it a practice and a discipline.

And here’s the deal, we can all do this because our thanksgiving shouldn’t be tied to our circumstances. Colossians instead connects thanksgiving to what God has done. So with the holiday season now upon us, there will be great opportunities where we’ll be nudged to reflect and express thanks. Try to find outlets to express your thanks to God. This may be prayer or worship, or it may be finding a small way to do to someone else what God has done for you.

Whatever it looks like, work at making it a practice finding ways to respond to God’s love with thanksgiving.

Blog

Danger Is Real but Fear Is a Choice
Nov 24, 2017

If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. Luke 9:23–24

Fear is a catalyst that drives people to make certain decisions. At times, these decisions may just be spontaneous reactions (e.g. fear of missing out can lead to trying out everything in life or committing to all gatherings). Other times, decisions may be coated by reasons that sound logical yet lack an honest justification or a well-rounded analysis of the facts (e.g. career insecurity may lead to working to exhaustion; relationship insecurity may lead to dating the wrong person or crossing boundaries).

In the movie, After Earth, Cypher Raige (played by Will Smith) illustrates what fear is when he taught his son survival lessons:

The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not exist at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice. – After Earth

Like Cypher described, fear oftentimes dwells in our thoughts only. However, many times we put up a smoke screen to justify our actions as simply responding to real dangers instead of admitting we are choosing to feed the fear monster that lives in our inner imagination.

After getting to know Christ, it becomes clear that there is a greater danger each day. This danger is turning to ourselves, acting on our perception of fear and trying to save ourselves through these actions. The danger was very real in the Garden of Eden and is still very real in our modern lives. The danger in thinking our decisions are better than going after Him. I believe everyone can strive hard for anything, and may even succeed through diligence and perseverance. But the greater danger remains:

I’m not afraid of failure; I’m afraid of succeeding at things in life that don’t matter. – William Carey

Not everyone is called to go to India like William Carey but everyone is called to take up his cross daily and follow Jesus. ‘For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?’ Luke 9:25. Nothing is more devastating than realising the things we tried so hard to succeed at on our own terms, may not actually matter on the day we stand before Jesus.

My prayer is that we as a church can challenge and encourage each other as we give our fears to the most gracious Father. When there is any anxiety about “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”, I pray we can take up our crosses together and live out our “633 motto” in seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Let us respond to fear by:

  • Thanking God for His promises that we can find life by following Jesus alone. And that His ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts higher than our thoughts.
  • Asking God to rebuke us graciously when we respond to the wrong fear in life, and to teach us what it means to take up our cross personally.

 

 

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