The Gift of Joy

The book of Philippians is sometimes called “The Epistle of Joy”.
We don’t really know how to define it, but we know that we like it and many of us spend most of our lives trying to find it. We look for joy in our jobs, in Joy sermon series logorelationships, in temporary pleasure.
But at the end of the day, all these things will fall short. They will leave us empty and unfulfilled and we start looking somewhere new the find our joy. But as believers, we have never-ending access to the most powerful source of true joy.
In his spiritual biography appropriately entitled “Surprised by Joy”, C.S. Lewis says joy moved him more than anything else.

He writes, “No one who has ever experienced it would ever exchange it for all the happiness in the world.”

Lewis distinguished Joy from both pleasures and happiness. Happiness is a fleeting emotion based on external circumstances. But true joy is different – it is something that comes from within. It’s a deep abiding peace and sense of contentment and strength that is due to something internal.
Joy is deep in the heart, in the spirit, in the essence of our being. The way to pleasure is power. The way to happiness is happenstance. The way to Joy is Jesus.
During April and May the sermon series at Hobart Baptist Church focuses on the gift of joy. By studying Philippians we’ll be surprised by the counter-intuitive, supernatural nature of joy. This joy is something no circumstance can give you, and no circumstance can ever take away.
You can catch up with the sermons by clicking HERE
Please let me know if you learn some new insights, or are encouraged by any of the sermons!
Stephen L Baxter

You Foolish Galatians!

Recently at Hobart Baptist Church we recently began a new series of messages based upon Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I’m looking forward to all that God will bring out of it for us.

“Traditional Christian art often depicted Paul at a desk, pen in hand. But this is not how it would have happened.”

When he wrote this letter, Paul had just arrived back in Antioch in Syria after his first short term mission journey that lasted about 18 months. It was here he heard news that the new communities of faith he helped establish in the region of Galatia were struggling. Concerned for their welfare, Paul wrote a very firm, even angry, letter to them.
Now when we say Paul ‘wrote’ a letter, it is good to remember this was 2000 years ago when literacy was sparse and the cost of materials high. Paul was not skilled at writing so he would have engaged a professional scribe.
Traditional Christian art often depicted Paul at a desk, pen in hand. But this is not how it would have happened. Nor is the image accurate of him pacing back and forth dictating furiously to his secretary. Rather, for Paul, letter writing would have been a very time consuming process.
He most likely would have been with his team in a room tossing around ideas that were captured laboriously by the secretary.
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The Bible: How to read it

Last week I began a series on God’s Mysterious Ways. The Bible reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). When reading the Bible we are often left wondering why certain things happen the way they do.
In his book, Genesis: The Movie, Robert Farrar Capon suggests one of the reasons we are often confused and perplexed by the Bible is that we read it the wrong way. Rather than reading it as an instruction manual he encourages Christian to start “watching” it like a film. Only then, he suggests, will we begin to understand what God is up to.books_002
When we watch a movie we normally do so in one sitting. We don’t stop it every five or ten minutes to analyse each scene, but watch it to the end waiting for the threads to come together and the story resolve.
Capon suggests we read the Bible the same way. Rather than stopping every time we don’t quite understand . . .
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In Praise of Worship

What is it to be a worshipper of the one who created the universe? Given the way we do church today it’s not surprising that many see worship and singing as synonymous. Neither is it surprising to note that the ‘praise and worship industry’, if I can call it that, is big business.
Sometimes you get the impression that worship is primarily for us – to meet our dreams and our needs – and that it’s about feeling good about myself, God and the world.

However WORSHIP, like a multifaceted DIAMOND,
is much more than that.

Certainly, singing praise is part of worship, in fact one of its highest forms as C.S. Lewis wrote: “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise”. For Christians, praise of God is natural, however it is simply not all there is to worship.
When we gather in our buildings on Sunday mornings we call it ‘worship’ acknowledging that every part of our time is part of the act of worship. This includes our praying, confession, silence, being still, scripture reading, listening, taking notes, giving an offering, baptism, playing an instrument, communion, and greeting each other.
Sadly, we easily slip into thinking we have worshipped if we’ve been in the right place doing the right things at the right time. But, this is a very limited view worship. Worship is much more than an event within the four walls of a building.

Trevi Fountain, Rome
The iconic Trevi Fountain in Rome was begun by Salvi in 1732, and completed by Pannini in 1762. That’s my wife Jenny standing beside it.

Earlier this year, Jenny and I had the privilege to visit a number of art galleries across Europe. We saw works of art by people such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, and one of my favourites Van Gogh. While visitng the Louvre we caught a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile as recorded by da Vinci; and on another day marvelled at the perfection of Water Lilies painted by Monet. All these artists are household names, even though many of them died hundreds of years ago.
How is it that we know their names today? Throughout the centuries they have been admired by thousands of people who marvelled at their beauty and grace while acknowledging the skill, genius and character of the artists. The art remains a living legacy to the one who created them. So today in art galleries around the world, works of art are displayed each revealing something special about the one who created them.
Here we see a simple yet profound principal at work: created things reveal things about their maker. Whether that thing is a painting, or a sculpture, a birthday cake, music, a landscaped garden, or a dress, the principal doesn’t change.
The same is true of the earth and the universe, as they too are created things. In Psalm 19 the psalmist says,

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

In other words, the universe is a giant canvas displaying the work of a creative genius.
A painting is not just the work of an artist, but also reveals the nature of an artist.  So too creation declares the essential nature of the one who created it. Paul says in Romans, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Romans 1:20)
Throughout the Bible all things in heaven and earth are consistently implored to praise their Creator. It doesn’t matter whether they are heavenly creatures, angels, celestial bodies (the sun, moon, stars, waters), or the earth and its oceans, skies and land, if they are created they are to praise their Creator. Living creatures are not exempted either. Animals, birds, fish and bugs and everything that moves are called to give glory to their maker.
This is the essence of worship and the foundation of all praise,the relationship between a creature and their creator. That’s why you and I are inherently worshippers.  We are the handiwork of a Creator.

David after Michelangelo
This is a copy of Michelangleo’s David. The real one is inside the nearby Accademia Gallery which was shut the day we were in Forence

What does this mean for our understanding of worship?
It helps us begin to appreciate how worship has more to do with who we are than what we do. How does a work of art bring praise to its maker? How does the Mona Lisa bring glory to da Vinci? By being nothing more than being all that da Vinci painted it to be. The Mona Lisa just needs to be the Mona Lisa.
So too a star needs to be a star, a mountain a mountain, and an ant an ant. ‘Worship’, for them, is about being all they were created to be. It is the same for human beings. Worship is much more than singing in a purpose-built building on Sundays. It is as natural as eating or breathing. Just being all we were created to be we can exalt, honour, and bless the Creator at all times. As Martin Luther said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”
Conceiving of worship in this light gives new meaning to our understanding that we are a special creation of God’s, made in his image.
While every part of creation displays something of its Creator, there are qualities or attributes of God that can only be seen through humanity. Questions like – What is the Creator like? What is the Creator’s name? What kind of God is the Creator? – are asked by humans alone in all creation. Why do we ask them? It has to do with being made in the image of God.
God’s creativity, fellowship, community, mutual respect, justice, mercy, compassion and industry and so on, are only fully seen in and through humans. Being made in God’s image, we reflect these unique attributes of our Creator in a way no other creation does. Such attributes are more clearly seen in the way we relate to each other than it does in our singing.
From this perspective worship is not a part of life, it is life. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor 3:31) The early Christians, liberated from the constraints of the old law, saw their lives as a continuous act of worship. As Romans 12:1-2 Paul clearly states: we are to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God – this is our reasonable act of worship.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the idea that Christians went to a place to worship. Archeologically there is no evidence that they had buildings purposely built and set apart exclusively for Christian worship. In fact it never says they ‘went to church’! For them worship was a lifestyle reflecting the image of their Creator.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t meet together, in fact the writer to Hebrews is very clear about this (Hebrews 10:24-25). However, the question is what should our gatherings be like? Interestingly, after saying we should meet together, Hebrews goes on to say that we need to encourage one another.
Throughout his letters Paul is clear that the overriding purpose of meetings is for the strengthening of God’s people, the church. In a stinging rebuke of the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul’s makes clear that their lack of love for each other showed they were living inconsistently with what it meant to be God’s people (Read 1 Corinthians).
Most people today would say that we worship God when we gather together, but the New Testament is clear, we don’t gather primarily for worship. It is true that by gathering we do worship God, but that is not why we gather. We gather for the purpose of encouraging each other and seeing each other built up. As British theologian I.H. Marshall wrote, “While it is true in the broad sense that everything which the Christian does will be ultimately directed to the glory of God, it is simply not the case that the purpose of Christian meetings was understood as being primarily and directly worship [in a ritualistic sense], homage and adoration addressed to God.”
When we gather together we do so as part of the family of God – to meet with our Creator and to meet with others. Our aim is help one another know, believe, and follow him.
Despite what one might glean from church services and Christian books, whether or not you are a real worshiper is not determined by your attendance at church services or how well one might sing. True worship is better determined by how quickly we forgive, how well we handle our finances, and what we do when no one is looking.
Worship is not confined to buildings, and it is much more than music or singing. Worship is what we do as we live for God in every aspect of our lives. So, let’s worship our Creator!
Stephen L Baxter

Get with the Program!

The rediscovery of Missio Dei, has been described by some as one of the most important theological rediscoveries of the twentieth century. The Latin Missio Deimeans “the mission of God” or “the missionary God” and has at its heart the idea that we, the church, are part of a big story beginning in the heart of God. God is at work redeeming his world and this work culminated through the obedience of Jesus to death and resurrection. It continues today through the sending of the Spirit and the commissioning of the church to work with God in that mission.

The fledgling Church grew beyond all expectation

On Sundays at Hobart Baptist we are currently working our way through the book of Acts, Luke’s story of the beginnings of the church. Luke’s story had two parts. In part one, the Gospel of Luke, he tells the story of Jesus’ personal and public ministry on earth. Now in part two, the book of Acts, he describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry from heaven, exercised by the Holy Spirit through his people the church.
As we work our way through Acts we will see again and again how God is at work through the church helping the church fulfil God’s mission. We see, surprisingly, how the early church did not have a ‘missions program’, the reason being is that it was the missions program. The church did not produce missional activities because the missionary God was at work and the church were those activities. In other words, the church did not define mission, the mission of God defined the church.

We see, surprisingly, how the early church did not have a ‘missions program’, the reason being is that it was the missions program.

Acts reinforces what the whole Bible records, that the mission of God is the centrepiece of history and demonstrates what it looks like when the church is commissioned to help God with that mission. It highlights that we are the missional people of God.
Every one of us, whether individually or corporately, are on a mission, but it is not our mission. This mission emanates from the heart of God. It is not an add-on to other church activities, it is the very reason for our existence. Everything else is we do is peripheral.
We are God’s missional community called into existence to be the outworking of the missional heart of God. We have been given the Spirit to equip us as we join God in the mission to renew the world with the gospel.
My prayer is that we will be inspired by our series in Acts:

  • That it will give us insights into the missional heart of God
  • That we will find ourselves more and more aware of what God is doing in the lives of those around us.
  • And that we will be a church ready to be used by God however and whatever that might mean.

How about you?
Stephen L Baxter

God is Sovereign Over All – He works in spite of human failings

I believe to be one of the most important themes in the Book of Acts is the sovereignty of God.

God is sovereign over all
God is Sovereign over all, from Heaven to Earth

While some read Acts as if it is a manual for church life or church growth, (although there are things to learn about these) closer inspection reveals this is not Luke’s purpose in writing the story of the early church. Luke does not set out to describe how the early Christians got things right and in doing so forced God to act, rather, he tells the story of broken, flawed and fallen saints, just like you and me, through whom God worked in spite of their human failures. And even when they do appear to get things right, God often carries out his purposes in new, different and unexpected ways.
Luke begins exploring this theme right at the beginning in Acts 1. Here, 120 followers of Jesus look for a replacement for Judas, who is now dead. Although Matthias is chosen, Luke never mentions him again in his writings. It is Saul, introduced in Acts 8 and converted in Acts 9; who then undergoes a name change to Paul in Acts 13; who ultimately fulfils the task of apostle and is the driving force behind the gospel’s acceptance by Gentiles. The man-made-made choice in Acts 1, is overturned by God in Acts 13.
Similarly Stephen and Philip, two of those chosen in Acts 6 to be deacons to care for widows, become more effective evangelists than the apostles they were appointed to assist. And then, despite the fact that Jesus told his disciples they would be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and right across the world (Acts 1:8), it is not their initiative but the persecution described in Acts 8 following the death of Stephen, that finally gets them out of Jerusalem. They took no initiative at all, but God used persecution to get them moving.
Obviously there isn’t the space to explore all the examples of human failings in Acts, but these few serve to illustrate that Luke does not give us a formula that we can follow to get the results we desire. There is no simple pattern outlined that we are to follow that will ensure a church grows – just as there is no pattern to follow ensuring we receive the power of the Spirit as happened at Pentecost.
One of the primary purposes of the Book of Acts is to show the story of God at work. Luke starts his account before the birth of the church and follows its growth through persecution until it reaches the capital of the known world, Rome. Throughout the story Paul illustrates how God acts the way he wants, when he wants, and no one can thwart his purposes. Then even when the church appears to get it right, God retains the right to do it his own way.
Working through the Book of Acts, the reader comes back again and again to this theme of the sovereignty of God. There are no formulas, no patterns, no manuals, just a loving God, at work in his world, drawing people to himself.
Can you think of times in your life when, despite your own poor efforts, God turned up anyway?
If so, Id love to hear about them!
Stephen L Baxter

Catching the Wave

Last week at Hobart Baptist I began a series of sermons to work through the Book of Acts. I expect that as we read through Luke’s account of the early days of the church, we will be struck by the sense of momentum and adventure.
Those early days saw the emergence of communities of faith that were unique in the world because of their mutual accountability and generosity. People were drawn to God through an amazing mixture of radical community, miracles, and Holy Spirit-empowered living and witness. The result was a church that grew at an exponential rate.
But it was not all easy. The adventure was full of moments of great challenge and crisis. There were imprisonments and conflicts, persecution and even premature death. In a strange way these all added to the sense of wonder and adventure.
The impression you get reading Acts is that Jesus is building his church and the people are playing ‘catch up’. Time and time again God pops up and takes the initiative and everyone has to readjust to the new thing that his happening. Just like a surfer who sits on his surfboard waiting for a wave, Acts is like a story about a wave generated by the Holy Spirit which the followers of Jesus struggle to catch.  It is the story of God on the move and his people going along for the ride.
Perhaps you could also work your way through the book of Acts over the next few weeks?
If you do, it is my prayer that God will help you to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church community today; and then having perceived what he is doing we will have the courage to “catch the wave” and continuing being part of God’s great adventure.
I’d love to have your thoughts as you read it through! How does your ‘surfing’ go?
Stephen L Baxter

The Parables of Jesus and Kindergarten

Over the past couple of months each Sunday morning at Hobart Baptist, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew and looking at many Feeling like I am in kindergartenof the things Jesus taught. Sometimes I feel like I understand what Jesus is on about, other times I see new things I’d never seen before. Sometimes I feel like I’m still in kindergarten, starting out all over again.
One feature of the way Jesus taught that always fascinates me is his parables. While it is clear that Jesus didn’t invent the parable form, he is obviously a master of it. Even as we read them today, they are full of insights and truths that are still applicable to us. But it is more than just the spoken parables that intrigue me, it is the enacted ones as well.
In his book The Parables of the Kingdom, Robert Capon suggests that, “Jesus not only spoke in parables; he thought in parables, acted in parables, and regularly insisted that what he was proclaiming could not be set forth in any way other than in parables.”
When we read the gospels we find Jesus doing things like clearing out the temple, turning water to wine, and raising Lazarus from death to life. Each of these incidents in their own way is an enacted parable.  As we come closer to the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ life itself becomes an acted out parable. The final week of his life is almost a series of rolling parables. From the entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey right, to his crown of thorns, to his execution on a Roman cross, and his borrowed tomb, each element in the drama is full of meaning – just like a parable.
All parables, spoken or acted are used by the gospel writers to help us see things in new ways. They are designed to reframe our religious expectations, and to turn our understandings upside down. What Jesus did for us through his life and death is so amazing we can only fathom its depth by having our eyes opened. We so easily grow accustomed to the stories and sayings that we miss how shocking they were to the conventions of the day.  More importantly we can miss how disconcerting they can be to the conventions of our day too.

“What Jesus did for us through his life and death is so amazing we can only fathom its depth by having our eyes opened.

Continuing the journey through the gospel of Matthew, looking at both the spoken and acted parables, you can expect to see new insights and have your current understandings tested.  After all, when Jesus said, God has “hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes,” (Matthew 11:25) he meant it.
So I’m not concerned that I feel like I’m in kindergarten again. In fact that is perhaps the best place that I, and all of us, can be!
What’s your favourite, or perhaps your most puzzling, parable?
Stephen L Baxter

ForGiving Generously

Last week in my series working through the Gospel of Matthew I mentioned Jesus’ response to Peter’s question asking how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him.(Matt 18:21-23) Peter characteristically proposed an answer he thought Jesus would be pleased with – a generous seven times!  Jesus quickly countered with, “seventy times that!”
The translation from the Greek can read “seven times seven”, “seventy times seven” and How many times?“seventy seven times seven.” Thank you for those who pointed out my appalling maths.
(For those interested:
7 x 7 = 49
7 x 70 = 490
7 x 77 = 539)
But the total is not the main point. Jesus’ aim was to make the point that there are no limits to be set on forgiveness.  To make sure the point was made he went on to tell a parable – the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35.  There was a man who owed an enormous sum of money – the equivalent of 20 years of fulltime wages. He is forgiven this enormous debt but could not bring himself to forgive his neighbour who had a very small debt in comparison, about 20 days of wages.
The contrast is great and Jesus’ point is clear. Peter has been forgiven a great debt by God, and any sin against him pales into insignificance compared to God’s generosity.
God has forgiven us a debt we can never pay. He has forgiven us our sin through the obedience of Jesus dying on a cross. We who have been forgiven such a great debt must forgive those who sin against us. How many times? Seven? “No,” says Jesus, “you never stop forgiving!”
In fact, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray implies that if we do not forgive our fellow man we cannot expect God to forgive us. As we accept God’s mercy to us, we pass that mercy on to others.
Let us pray that God will teach us how to be kind and forgive others as God has forgiven us.
Stephen L Baxter

Bridging the Gap

Have you ever gone to an event and felt completely under-dressed for the occasion? Or have you been somewhere where you feel totally out of place?  Odd One OutMaybe you have had the privilege of meeting a very important person face to face and felt utterly out of your depth. That is the picture the writer of the book of Hebrews has in mind when he explores the reality that Jesus is our Great High Priest.
In the back of the writer’s mind is the picture of the grandeur of the awesome creator God and we are being ushered into the throne room of this Supreme Being of the universe. How would we fare? My guess is we would feel completely under-dressed for the occasion, totally out of place, and utterly out of our depth. We wouldn’t know where to look or how to conduct ourselves! We would be totally at a loss.
This is the reason we still need a priest today.  Although all our sins have been forgiven, each day we still need to live in relationship to the Almighty God.  And if we have a small glimpse of the majesty of this God, we will understand that we would be somewhat uncomfortable in God’s presence. We still need a mediator or priest, one who bridges the gap between us and our Creator.

We wouldn’t know where to look or how to conduct ourselves!

As human beings living in a fallen world we have many needs.  We face discouragement and doubt, temptation and guilt, opposition and persecution, suffering and trials.  How can we know that God cares for us in any of these struggles?  How can we find mercy and grace to meet us at the point of our need?  As we come before God’s holiness in our brokenness, what right do we have to expect anything other than condemnation and judgment?  We not only need to know that through the work of Jesus on the cross our sins are forgiven once and for all, but also that we are in constant need to be renewed in relationship every day.
The writer of Hebrews shows how a lack of appreciation of the ongoing priestly work of Jesus for us each day not only robs us of a great part of our Christian heritage, but means we will remain an immature baby Christian. Perhaps this is the reason why so many people live boring Christian lives or are dropping away.
Christ’s work as High Priest is relevant to our lives, not just in the abstract sense that we know his death has paid the price for our sins, but in the earthy reality of our daily lives.  Here in the midst of our struggles and weakness we have the resources available to meet and deal with our stress, doubts, sin, guilt and depression. Jesus not only deals with our sins, but meets our need when we are tempted in our weakness (Heb 2:18; 4:15), are in need of mercy and grace (Heb 4:16) , are discouraged and doubting (Heb 6:17-20), are accused by Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and are wearied by opposition (Heb 12:3).
Knowing we have a Great High Priest who understands our journey in all its weaknesses gives us a basis to endure, without growing weary or losing hope.
I pray that you might hear the encouragement of the book of Hebrews and take advantage of all Jesus our Great High Priest has to offer.
Stephen L Baxter