Luke 1 v36-45 & 57-66
This passage concerns the birth of John the Baptist. Once again, it is the angel Gabriel who is sent to announce the birth. Zechariah questioned what the angel told him in a way that implied that he didn't really believe what was he was being told. Mary, however, accepted what she was told but merely questioned the process of how it would happen. There was a big contrast between Elizabeth and Mary, who were related. Elizabeth was old and past her child-bearing years, whereas Mary was very young. There was no great proclamation about Jesus' birth, apart from the angels telling the shepherds and the wise men following the star. John's birth however, was a hot topic of conversation in his home town, and the surrounding area. John's birth was prophesied by both Zechariah and Malachi, as being the messenger that God would send in advance of the Messiah. It is said that about 26% of the Bible consists of words of prophesy.
At the time of the birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist, there were a lot of false prophets around. True prophets sent by God had not been heard of for about 435 years, since the time of Malachi. The priests were no longer of the Levitical line; those with the most influence became priests, and society was generally lawless. This was why the message of John the Baptist hit home to the Jews. It was another call to repentance, like that which had been given by the prophets of old. The Holy Spirit spoke through John the Baptist and gave his message authority from God.
Isaiah 9 v6-7 & Luke 1 v26-38
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she was highly favoured by the Lord and that she was going to have a baby. The angel's appearing did not trouble Mary, but what he told her was very puzzling to her. She couldn't understand how she could have a baby when she was still a virgin. The angel didn't give her the nitty gritty details of how it would all happen. We have to ask whether Mary thought that if she was "highly favoured" she would have a completely trouble-free pregnancy, or if she understood that it would come at a cost to her, and her life would be utterly changed for ever.
How did Mary feel when trying to explain to Joseph how she was pregnant and that it was from God? Did she still feel "highly favoured" when Joseph was going to divorce her, albeit quietly? And how did she feel when her condition became obvious and the fingers were pointed at her? Did she feel "highly favoured" when travelling the 80 miles to Bethlehem in an advanced stage of pregnancy?
We have to wonder why it was that God didn't explain it all to Mary and Joseph together, so that they understood what was happening. That way would make sense to us. It must have seemed to them that God was not making things fall into place for them, when there was nowhere for them to stay in Bethlehem, and the only place for Mary to have her baby was in a smelly, draughty, unhygienic stable, alongside the animals kept there.
But the story is telling us that when God is at work, He doesn't always make everything fit in nicely according to our convenience. He asks us to allow Him to manage our lives and do things His way, and not necessarily according to our convenience, or in a way that we think makes sense. What we must remember is that God always keeps His promises, but in His own way and His own timing.
Micah 5 v1-5
It is sometimes said that war is an absence of peace. Often all that is remembered about a war is the dates it took place, or the statistics of the number of forces involved or the weaponry used. War is now unfortunately global. We see it as it is happening. The statistics of war have little relevance for you if you have lost a loved one in the conflict. It is important that we always remember the dreadful cost of war. The poppies that we wear on Remembrance Sunday are a reminder for us. Flowers have been used throughout history for remembrance.
The Bible is filled with details of many battles and wars fought in the Old Testament times. The prophet Micah wrote about 700 years before Jesus was born and he wrote of a time of peace. Jesus was born in an occupied country where the Jews were subdued by the violent actions of the Romans. The Jews were therefore waiting for a Messiah who would act to overthrow the Roman occupiers. However, our Lord preached a gospel of peace, which did not please the Jewish leaders of the time. Peace is a precious commodity that results from mutual trust and understanding. But if we forget those who have fought for us and what the meaning of war is, we will not be assured of peace. We need to seek the peace that the Lord Jesus Christ can give us.
1Kings 19 v1-13
The subject of the sermon was God's answers to our prayers. The Bible says, "ask and you will receive." When we don't get what we want when we pray, we sometimes get upset, angry, disappointed, and say that God has not answered our prayers. However we should remember that God always hears our prayers, and does answer them, but not necessarily in the way we think He should.
Sometimes God says "no." In Deuteronomy, Moses asked God to let him go into the Promised Land, and God said "no"; but He did however, let Moses see it . In 1Kings 19, Elijah has had enough, and asks God to take his life; God said "no". Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him, but God did not do that and Jesus submitted to His Father's will. The reason is that God sees the bigger picture and knows what is best for us and for His plans for us and others.
Sometimes we think that God is slow in answering our prayers, because we live in a world where we are used to getting instant answers to everything. In Luke 1, we are told that Elizabeth and Zechariah had been waiting and praying for a child for many years, but God knew the right time for John the Baptist to be born. In John 11, Jesus delayed going to Mary and Martha for four days, during which time, their brother Lazarus died. Jesus said that this was so that the glory of the Lord could be shown (in raising Lazarus from the dead). We should remember that God's timing is always perfect.
God sometimes delays answering our prayers in order to give us time to grow in our faith. Maybe there are things in our lives that need sorting out, such as unconfessed sin, ignoring God's commands in His word, a lack of fellowship with God by neglecting Bible reading and prayer. When these things are sorted out, then God can answer our prayers.
There are times when God tells us to go. When our request is right, and in accordance with God's will, God tells us to go forward and carry out His will for us. We need to remember to pray in Jesus' name and according to God's will.
Acts 16v1-5, 1Corinthians 12 v4-11
The sermon was about the differences between the fruits of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are freely given but the fruits of the Spirit are the results of a process. With spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gives whereas with the fruits of the Spirit, He gets.
We have to ask the question - do we really desire the gifts of the Spirit, or are we afraid of them? We need to encourage those who have these gifts to use them in God's service. We are told that they are for the building up of the people of God.
Jesus said that His followers would be known by their fruits. Faith in Jesus, and committing our life to Him should result in the fruits of the Spirit becoming more and more evident in our lives. Paul puts the emphasis very much on faith, and James tells us that faith without works is dead. Having committed our life to the Lord Jesus, we should automatically want to develop the fruits of the Spirit in our lives - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And as 1Corinthians 13 v13 says, "the greatest of these is love."
Matthew 13 v 1-23
The reading was the parable of the sower and Jesus' explanation of the meaning of it. Words are like the seeds mentioned, which hopefully take root in our minds. People are selective in what they hear and take on board. Just as seeds need space to grow, so do words. A pause to let them sink in often gives the space that is needed. In Biblical times the Jews had set times for prayer. We too need to pause from our work to allow God to speak to us. God sends us some "stop, look and listen" times. He is calling us to a different way of living, and we need to be open to hearing him. But in order to do so, we need a good relationship with God.
However God comes to us it is always for our good. Revelation 3 v 20 tells us that God is standing at the door (of our hearts) and knocking and is just waiting for us to let him in, and He will come and dine with us. That is an intimate relationship. We need to be like the good ground on which the seed fell.
Matthew 14 v13-21
The passage tells the story of Jesus feeding the 5000; a story which is told in all four of the gospels. It reminds us that Jesus is concerned not only for our spiritual needs, but also for our material and physical needs. It reminds us of other feeding stories in the Bible. We are promised abundant life now. Jesus wants us also to care for the needs of those who have very little.
It shows us also that Jesus was more concerned with the needs of others than his own needs. He was tired and had sought out a quiet place to rest with his disciples, but the crowds followed and found them. Jesus, despite his tiredness, had compassion on the people and healed those who were sick. Compassion, in the Greek word, is a deep emotion of pity.
Jesus expects his followers to share in his compassion for others - he said to the disciples (and by extension, us) "You feed them." This instructs us, as Christians, to be involved in social action, to help others. As it was our Harvest Festival service, we were told about the projects run by the African Pastors' Fellowship, details of which can be found here.
Finally the passage tells us that Jesus multiplies what we have to offer him and uses it for his work. Jesus said to the disciples and to us, "Bring what you have to me." We might feel that we have little to offer to the Lord, but he can multiply and use our offering to him. We must not ignore the need that we see all around us today.