Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message on Luke 3; Date: 20 December 09

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For Refreshing

 

Jesus is coming. The whole season before Christmas is about Jesus and that he is coming. For a long time the people of God had waited for a Saviour to come. And then – 2000 years ago – in the small village of Bethlehem – a baby was born and this baby was Jesus. The story of his birth is full of wonder and amazement. His mum – a teenager by the name of Mary – was engaged but not married and she fell pregnant through God’s holy Spirit. On the night of Jesus’ birth angels appeared to shepherds and announced to them and all the world – Luke 1:10-12: “ … 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 … ”

Jesus is coming. When he was about thirty years old, he began to preach the kingdom of God and demonstrated the power of God’s kingdom by healing the sick, performing miracles and driving out demons. After three years of this work everything came to a climax on a cross – an instrument of torture and death – which saw Jesus die and pay the ultimate price for his message. Yet, after three days he rose again from the grave. Death was conquered – by divine power – and in hindsight the cross turned out to be ultimate victory and vindication of his work. The Bible says – Colossians 1:20-22: “ . God was pleased for Jesus to make peace by sacrificing his blood on the cross, so that all beings in heaven and on earth would be brought back to God. You used to be far from God. Your thoughts made you his enemies, and you did evil things. But his Son became a human and died. So God made peace with you, and now he lets you stand in his presence as people who are holy and faultless and innocent

Jesus is coming and he is offering peace with God – forgiveness and a cleansing from sin. We can have this gift of peace today – Jesus is willing to come to you even now – if we only accept him – put our trust in him and submit to him. When Jesus rose from the dead, he gave a commission to his followers. While he would ascend to heaven for a time, they were to continue his work on earth – in the power of God’s holy Spirit – until he would return with judgement and salvation – bringing our current existence to an end and ushering in eternity – a new life in heaven. Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming. Receive him now and be with him when he returns at the end of time.

This is the Christian message in a nutshell. This is what Christmas is all about. However – right now – let’s be practical. How do you become part of the “good news of great joy”? How precisely can Jesus become your Saviour and how can the message of “Jesus is coming” be exciting to you?

The Bible is clear in its answer and I wonder how we feel about the answer. God’s radical instruction to you – at Christmas – can be summed up in one word, that is: REPENT. And the word “repent” means: “turn your life around”, “stop sinning and do good”. God knows that you cannot do this in your own strength and he is willing to help you in this but the instruction is binding and bids no compromise: REPENT. Commit to change and obey God. This is the number one key to enter into the things of God.

When Jesus first started preaching, this was his message – Mark 1:15 (a summary statement): “ … The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good newsAnd even before he preached repentance, there was a forerunner – John the Baptist – who preached the same message, saying – Matthew 2: “ … Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is nearI read a few more Bible verses to flesh this out – Luke 3:7-14: “John said to the crowds coming out … ‘Your brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For 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.’ ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’”

Now – how do you feel this message? In church history this has always been on the preaching agenda in the time leading up to Christmas – get ready – repent – Jesus is coming – but do we want to hear this today? Are you not getting weary? It’s been a long year. The whole nation is looking forward to the Christmas break – summer school holidays – many businesses closing down for a few weeks. This is good and this is what we need – even in the church. It’s been a long year. Therefore, please no more pressure with any talk about repentance. Not now. At least this is how I have been feeling in preparation of this message.

2009 has been an absolutely amazing year for us as a church. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined what we experienced. And now at the end of the year I am absolutely grateful – over the moon – but also in need of a rest. There has been one intense emotion after another. In February a third of our congregation broke away from Living Grace and then we had to look for new worship premises – leaving behind the Concordia College chapel, which had been our home for eight years. We did not know where to go. We looked at indoor bowling venues and other halls for Sunday worship but nothing seemed to be available and these options were not good options: no permanent home, poor sound quality, bad sense of space. Where would we go? God surprised us with this building which was perfect. I had been praying: “God, please no building projectAnd – just at the right time – these premises came on the market for sale. We were interested and there was favour to work with us as a church (not exactly the perfect buyer). We had no money, no credit history and no chance to apply for a commercial loan. We moved in and began using the church in June. There was no time for a proper fund-raising campaign but within a few weeks we had pledges for about $200,000 which was a small (or big) miracle but short of the required $800,000. Nevertheless, we felt that God wanted us to tithe from what had come in and return to him $20,000 as a first-fruit offering. So we gave the money to the building program of another church. $20,000 – when we could least afford the sacrifice. One day later I received a phone call from the Flagstone Creek Community Church which was closing down. They wrote out two cheques for us. In the same week another Presbyterian pastor rang me and there was another cheque coming from a business which is being run by three Presbyterian congregations. It was a roller-coaster of emotions. Then – out of the blue – the leadership of Toowoomba City Church offered to guarantee a bank loan for us and even mortgaged some of their own property to do so. When I first received the phone call about this proposal, I was speechless and close to tears.

In March I had preached on acceleration – we spoke prophetic words over our church speeding up – and the ride became very fast. For the first time as a church we preached on fasting and practised fasting. We began a weekly Friday night prayer watch. Then, Greg Storey fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer which made us step out in faith and courage – believing for his healing. We even shouted in warfare like the people of God in the Bible. Healing came and faith renewal came for Greg – with joy. He was falling in love with God. The cancerous lesions disappeared and the tumor shrunk. But then there was blood poisoning and – more and more – pain and – in time – Greg passed away (fighting to the end but with the sure hope of a Christian) and eight hundred people came to his funeral. How would we cope with that? It made us stronger in our faith.

This was such an intense time – joy and grief – wrestling with the healing message of God’s word – disappointment – confusion – resolve. We would not lower the standard of God’s word to the level of our current experience. We would keep going. Healing testimonies among us became more frequent – Lenna: healing from emphysema, Helen: healing from painful shoulder deterioriation, Rob: healing of the knee, (two weeks ago) Susan: healing from leukemia … – but there was a new fight against cancer in Deborah Dolling and against MS in Angela Lemin.

God made 2009 intense and fast. I have never experienced the presence of God in church like this year and I have never heard so many astounding testimonies in our own church as in this year. Not only have many new people come to faith, there have been experiences of angels, victory over the demonic, the audible voice of God in prayer, gold dust on people’s faces and hands, the mist of God’s presence at a Friday night prayer watch. Absolutely wonderful – the highs are intensely glorious – but then there was also the constant warfare which always happens when you are in mission and where God wants you to be. Even last week eggs were pelted at our building and a few weeks before that a car wheel was stolen from our carpark. There have been defamations and even death threats. Many of us experience what the Bible calls wrestling with the powers of this dark world. And God himself is processing us in dry periods. (As a pastor sometimes this is hard to watch.) A new discipline of holiness is required from us because any sin makes us vulnerable to the devil. David Challenor always says in the middle of the onslaught: “But I am encouraged. It’s a good sign that the devil doesn’t like what we are doingHowever, sometimes there seems to be too much of such “encouragement”.

2009 has been amazing. We’ve lost a third of our membership but God has added so many new people to this community. He’s weaving and knitting us together. The pledges and generous weekly offerings are another source of amazement. Where is the money coming from for this church? We’ve started a new Jubilee Ministries in Townsville, conducted Holy Spirit seminars in Ipswich and Ashmore and a Healing Week at Toowoomba City Church. There is a new Acceler8 children’s ministry, a new worship band, weekly video recording of our services and lots more. I stop here.

Do you agree with me? 2009 was like no other year – so fast, so amazing, so intense. And if you are feeling like me, you are absolutely grateful but also don’t mind the coming of Christmas and the summer break. Therefore, how does today’s message sit with us: Repent. Stop sinning and do good. Commit to change and obey God. Is this more pressure? Are we getting weary?

God is not against us having a rest. If you are able to go away for a few days and sit on the beach somewhere, God is all for it. God does not want anyone to burn out. He doesn’t require us to save the world. That’s his job. However, why would we experience the call to repentance as an unwelcome pressure on us? Repentance simply means that we are turning toward God and don’t we think that this is a good thing? Could it be that deep down – despite an amazing 2009 – we are still harbouring suspicions about God, saying: “He’s always asking too much of us. God is never happy with our efforts and is always asking for the impossible. I want some time off.” (And, therefore, many people do over the holidays and, therefore – every year – some of them do not make it back after the holidays.) What is going on with us?

Did you notice that in the Bible reading all the practical examples of repentance had to do with money? I read again some of the verses: “ … every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’”

Do we react to this kind of repentance because money in particular is our weak spot? The Australian dream is to earn as much as you can in a very short time and then retire early. The dream is to have enough so you can put your feet up in a beachside mansion with international traveling as a welcome leisure diversion. Even if we have no chance of achieving that standard of wealth, my hunch is that many of us are sharing the dream. Then Jesus comes and says: “No. Repent. Share with others. Be contentAnd it dawns on us – again – that Jesus is not sharing our goal for an early retirement. There is work to do – in his service. At the end of 2009 how are we hearing this?

A short time after Greg Storey died, Mandy spoke to me on the phone. In the time of Greg’s sickness the business suffered. The intention was to sell but no buyer could be found. Mandy struggled to get involved. Everything was new and with the declining income the regular bills became more of a challenge: school fees for a large family, servicing of debt, and so on. I felt for Mandy but then she told me how she had been selling some farm equipment when God challenged her about tithing the proceeds. She resolved to give one tenth of the sale price to God. Only some more bills came in and she couldn’t. She told God that she would give the amount, if the money came into her account and – with emotions of joy in her voice – Mandy celebrated that the exact tithing amount did come in – unexpectedly. So she tithed.

On the phone I was taken aback. I had a word with God: “God, first you take away her husband and then – when everything is tight – you increase the pressure by putting tithing on the agenda. Is that nice of youYet, I’ve missed it and you may miss it too. Repentance is not wearisome and is not horrible. It is beautiful. There is so much joy in coming to God.

Mandy had learned the most important lesson, that is: God is always good. God is always good. She recognized God’s loving hand in Greg’s journey – the renewal, the healing of so much, the legacy of faith – and she kept trusting God and his goodness in everything – including the tithing of her (diminishing) income. So many times we make our faith and our trust dependent on whether God performs to our expectations. We have a check-list: life-style, health, marriage, … and if any of our requirements are not met, then we have issues – “God, how mean of you to disappoint me” – and we may even retreat from him. We say: “Enough of Bible reading and praying. What’s the useResentment sets in and bitterness. And – no matter what the year’s been like – there is no longer any favourable attitude when the talk comes to repentance. “What – I have to repent? It is God that has to change his ways. He cannot have everything

This is missing it. Last week Bill Johnson gave an interview and in the midst of a church experience where incredible miracles happen, he shared that their church also experienced the worst losses ever – real tragedies – but every single household that was affected by loss was actually thriving. This was strange to see. Previously when something devastating was happening, people did become devastated – families would break apart and so on. However, not so this time. Why? Every single family – ten families in the last 18 months – before the crisis hit – had established a firm cornerstone in their lives, that is: they became overwhelmingly convinced of God’s goodness. They did not start blaming God and – also – they did not start blaming themselves (beating themselves up about not fasting enough or praying enough). They maintained this rock of absolute trust in God and therefore were thriving in the midst of tragedy. God was bringing them through. (If you want the peace that passes understanding, you have to give up the right to understand.)

When I talked to Mandy on the phone, she demonstrated to me the same kind of bedrock faith. She had the established cornerstone that God was always good. And I ended up being challenged.

Repentance is not hard. It is what we want. Money doesn’t make you happy and a closer look at our Bible reading confirms the freeing character of repentance. Who would want to live in a city and nation where people do not follow these simple – practical – instructions: “ … ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ … ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ … ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” What if no one shares and people go hungry and are not clothed? What if no one shares with you? Would we want to live among people who cheat and extort money from others – a cut-throat environment? How do we feel about people who are taking advantage of us – overcharging us or not paying what they owe us – and then how would we feel about ourselves, if we behaved in the same way? Dishonesty leads to self-loathing and living with an attitude of “me-first” and “me-second”, hardens our hearts to loving others and receiving love from them. It’s not a good path.

Jesus says: “Repent. Trust me. I give you a different lifeThe real key to bouncing back after an intense year – 2009 – is to repent – letting go of absolutely everything that is pulling us into self-reliance and selfishness. The closer we draw to God, the more rest and joy and peace and love we will find. The lesson for this Christmas and holiday season is to go away and relax (by all means) – however – with God and not without him. We don’t need some time off from God. We may need some time off doing stuff but we don’t need time off from God. On the contrary, we need to rest in God – soaking in his presence. Therefore, maybe this holiday season we are careful with what we do in our leisure time – not filling ourselves up with too much entertainment – but withdraw into quietness – becoming still before our God and drawing strength from him.

In the Bible the aspiring king – David – had one of the worst times in his life – 1 Samuel 30:3-4: “When David and his men came [home], they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.” 1 Samuel 30:6: “David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters … ” This was more than a bad day in the office. Yet, David did not begin to take a break from God and he did not withdraw from him in resentment. On the contrary, this is what he did – 1 Samuel 30:6: “ … David strengthened himself in the Lord his GodThis is what we will do over the Christmas break. Use the spare time to draw closer to God and recharge our batteries in his presence.

Heidi Baker – American missionary in Mozambique – used to be a very stressed woman. She said: “You would be stressed too, if hundreds of orphans call you Mama and you get shot atBut then she went to the “T-place” (Toronto Airport church) and God pinned her to the floor for seven days. She could not move and in that time God processed her. When Heidi was unable to do anything – she could not move any of her limbs – other people had to carry her to the bathroom – God taught her that mission work was in his strength – not in her business and striving. Our service flows from God – flows from his rest and his power. After seven days Heidi had learned the lesson. She is now working as hard as ever but she is also praying more than ever – drawing rest from this time – strengthening herself in the Lord – and thus – in her own words – she is enjoying a “no sweat revival” – the planting of thousands of churches in the easy flow of God’s power.

Herman Ruyters – one of the local pastors in Toowoomba – had the same experience. When he was pastoring another church, a guest-preacher prayed for the presence of the Holy Spirit in the worship service with the result that Herman was overcome by the Spirit’s power and was also pinned to the floor. When he first told me the story, he said: “It looked a bit untidy with the senior minister lying on the floor of the sanctuary. After a good hour or so I was able to crawl – slowly – under a pew somewhereThen he said: “In this time on the floor God was speaking to me again and again. It is not by works but by my grace. It is not by works but by my graceSalvation is a gift from God to us. Our work is a gift from God to us. Everything is in his strength – not ours. We only have to come. We only have to let go of our own stress, that is: repent – with joy.

This is good news. 2010 will be as fast as 2009. We will not slow down. I don’t want to slow down. For so many years we have waited for the experiences that we are enjoying now. For so many years we have waited to be fruitful – bringing people into the kingdom of God and have them live with God for ever in eternity. I love who I am – a child of God – and I love that I know where I am going. In this life I will run my race and fight the good fight of faith. I will do the work that has been entrusted to me and then I will be with my Father in heaven for eternity. There is nothing else – nothing more important or wonderful than that – and the same goes for you. You are a son – a daughter – of the Most High and heaven is your destiny.

This church is going to slow down over the Christmas break but we are going to rest in God. Yes – there is repentance but it is not going to be hard because God is refreshing and – therefore – we come back for another year – 2010 – which will also be – so fast, so amazing, so intense. Amen.