The Bible IS Relevant!

How important is the Bible in your life? Most Australians would say “it is pretty irrelevant” without realising the extent to which a biblical perspective underpins the foundations of Australian society.
Then there are many in our community who want to rid Australia of all biblical influence, suggesting it is dangerous and divisive and unfit for any nation. This is such a narrow worldview.MP900341566[1]
As I led the recent Tabor Bible College study tour of Israel during April/May this year, one of the many things students grew to appreciate was how central the Bible (Old Testament) is to the Jewish nation. Whether they are religious or secular, every Israeli citizen is not only surrounded by historical biblical sites but the Bible is embedded in their daily life.
Marriages, divorces and funerals are recognised only if they are performed by an official Israeli religious authority. Civilian marriages are sanctioned but only if they are performed abroad. To matriculate from High School . . .
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The Weight Keeps Me Going . . .

There is a legend about a grandfather clock that stood in a corner for three generations, faithfully ticking away the minutes, hours and days. Its means of operation was a heavy weight suspended by a double chain. One of its new owners, believing that an old clock should not bear such a load, released the weight. Immediately the ticking stopped, and according to the legend the clock asked, “Why did you do that?”Clock
The owner replied, “I wanted to lighten your burden.” The clock answered, “Please put my weight back for that’s what keeps me going.” All too often we try to remove the very things that keep us going, the things that make us worthy of the air we breathe and the space we occupy.
As we take a backward glance at our life, we must confess that much of what has contributed to our character was achieved through conflict. Much of what people admire and praise in us, came through the double doors of opposition and frustration. In simpler words, we’re like that grandfather clock: life’s weights keep us going.
So we shouldn’t try to get rid of the very things that give us our strength, especially since there’s a source of help in bearing the burdens of this life. That source is Jesus Christ. He’s promised to help us whenever we need that help if we’re a child of God.
Paul said regarding his thorn in the flesh, “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
Paul also said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13).
Stephen is currently away on a study tour of Israel. His usual blog will return next Monday.
From http://www.vscoc.org/Bulletinfdr/

God’s Purpose in Our Trials

El Salvador, Map
El Salvador is highlighted in Central America

Oscar A. Romero was an archbishop of the Catholic Church, Archbishop of San Salvador, capital city of El Salvador (1977-1980). In 1979 the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power amidst increasing human rights abuses and an escalation of violence that would become the Salvadoran Civil War.
Although known as a pious and conservative bishop no one foresaw that in three years Romero would be noticed internationally by both Catholics and non-Catholics as an embodiment of the prophetic church, and a “voice for the voiceless” of El Salvador.
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Safe Passage

It was great to have Dr David Jones of Rural Support Services with us at Hobart Baptist a couple of weeks ago, and to listen to the challenging message he brought. The encouragement to be a church that provides ‘safe passage’ for those on the journey of faith echoes what is deep in the heart of the church.

Rural Regions
Although Hobart is a state capital, our population and comparative isolation put us in the ‘rural’ category

David asked us if we were prepared to make a guarantee to the people of Hobart: that if they walked through the front door of our building that we would guarantee to accept them, love them and forgive them. The guarantee to accept is . . .
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Goodbye Tall Poppy

Australia, many suggest, is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. The heart of egalitarianism is treating all people as equals with any inequality, whether it be economic political, civil or social, being removed.
In Australia, rather than address our Head of State as Monsieur Presidente, as the France do, or Mr President, as they do in America, we just call them John, Kevin or Julia. Egalitarianism is so ingrained in our psyche that women were first able to vote in Australia, our unions are the oldest in the world and we are the forerunners of the eight-hour working day, equal rights, pensions and other social benefits.

Daisy in Field
Our “tall poppy syndrome” cuts down any who thinks of themselves above or better than the “average”.

Egalitarianism, it seems, began when Australia was one big prison and further developed under the colonial culture. It is evident in our value of “mateship” and in our irreverence for established authority. We expect people to behave with humility and not think of themselves better than others. Our “tall poppy syndrome” cuts down any who thinks of themselves above or better than the “average.” We are particularly critical of any authority that is pompous and appears out of touch.
From the beginning of white settlement the Australian church and its leaders have struggled within this environment and found it difficult to connect. The leadership looked out of place coming from the upper and middle classes of Anglican England when the convicts were primarily from the lower class or Catholic Ireland. As the convict colony developed into a nation and society became settled and diverse, the church found a place, albeit, still uncomfortable within the harsh and alien Australian environment.
It is no surprise that today the church is still considered old and out of touch. Australians remain suspicious and distrustful of the church’s motives. When our leaders comment on social issues such as poverty, land rights, taxation reform etc. they are told not to interfere but rather stick to things religious. Visiting Christian speakers often remark about the hardness of the Australian soul to the gospel.

“Authority, he demonstrated, is a responsibility not a ‘privilege’.”

Despite the difficulties the church faces there is much that Jesus modeled and taught that can connect with our egalitarian and anti-authoritarian ways. Jesus taught that authority and power are to be used for the benefit of others, not personal gain. Authority, he demonstrated, is a responsibility not a ‘privilege.’ Jesus never used authority for personal advantage but lovingly served to others. In fact, he was critical of the pompous displays of the religious authorities and reacted strongly against any inequalities.
To the “average” person of his day Jesus did not come across as pompous or authoritarian but rather as one who was for them. He did not stand aloof condemning, but was willing to share a meal with tax collectors, sinners, outcasts, and untouchables.
This Easter most Australians will take a holiday without reflecting on why it exists. They will not recognise in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a condemnation of the misuse of authority. They will miss the reality that he disarms authorities. They will not understand that this demonstrates once and for all the correct use of authority (Col 2:15). Sadly, they are unaware that all authority has now been given to Jesus (Phil 2:9-11) and he will one day return to set the world aright.
While Australian egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism often leads Aussies to reject Jesus, there is something in these attitudes that should draw people to him. Let us pray that the Spirit of God may move in Aussies this Easter and that they may see in Jesus a kindred spirit rather than an authoritarian master.
Stephen L Baxter

Different, but Together

Yesterday at Hobart Baptist Church we  got together for our monthly Combined Service. We call it a Combined Service because the different congregations making Hobart Baptist Church come together in worship to celebrate our diversity and reaffirm our unity.

It is a different type of service with the children joining us for the entire time and our three congregations—our traditional Sunday morning crowd, our Karen folk and our Church With No Walls people—participating in some way. Then after the service we continue our worship by sharing a meal together.

Casserole
We shared a delicious lunch together

This is an important event in the monthly life of our church. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the focus of our worship services should be solely on God and with no thought of other worshippers gathered with us. However, God expects more of us than that.
In the New Testament it is clear that that we don’t worship merely as individuals, but as a people, a congregation. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church were to make sure that everything happens—whether it is singing, teaching, praying, and reading the Bible—is done in such a way that “the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
Rather than think of ourselves, we are to think of one another. We are to make sure the rich don’t get all the good seats (Jms 2:1-4) and that at communion no believer is excluded (1 Cor. 11:22-23). Worship should not only increase our love of God but also the love of our fellow believers. John reflects on this when he writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 Jn 3:16).
Jesus said: Love one another as I have loved you
Jesus said: Love one another as I have loved you.

Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Bythis everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34, 35). Sadly, we are not always as good at loving each other as we ought to be. Many of us have experienced hurts, divisions and disunity in churches. It can often leave us hurt, and even bitter. In fact, the number issues of over which we can disagree are limitless whether it is about theology or worship style, power or cultural differences, the pastor or the leadership.

“It is not the differences or disagreements that are the problem, but how we deal with our differences”

While it is true that these differences will by nature bring disagreements, it is not the differences or disagreements that are the problem, but how we deal with our differences. When a difference brings disagreement it presents an opportunity to either create unity or division. Unity will one day finally be realised but only when Jesus returns, until then unity will always be in process and something we are continually working on so as to maintain it.
Our combined services give us an opportunity where we can exercise our love for each other. They are a visible demonstration of the unity we have in Christ despite our differences. They are a way to help us to maintain our unity in the midst of our diversity.
As we spent time together yesterday, in the service and in our meal together, we were all provided with two opportunities. Firstly, to experience the love and unity of being part of God’s family, a very encouraging experience; and secondly, an opportunity to express that love and unity to each other.
The challenge is to embrace being different, while working together. I pray that as you seek to express love and unity to those in your fellowship that God will bless you too, just as he blessed us yesterday.
Stephen L Baxter

Hope to Face a Growing Hostility

Over the past few decades many in the Western world have witnessed a growing hostility against Christians and churches. Such is the growth in this hostility that the word “christophobia” was coined in 2003 by Jewish scholar Joseph Weiler in his book, A Christian Europe? He used the word not as we might presume to describe anti-Christian behaviour in general, but focussed on what he saw as Europe’s particular embarrassment with its Christian past.

Forgiveness
The more God’s presence is felt in a community, the more opposition God’s presence provokes

However, today, ten years later, the word’s usage covers a wider range of responses. This includes, as suggested above, the refusal by some to concede that Christian moral ideas have a place in the arena of public debate. Here christophobia is more likely to be defined as “having an irrational fear and hatred of Christ and of Christians.”
For example, in our community today it seems that one of the worst things one can be label is “homophobic”. While the technical definition is “having an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals” more often that not Christians are denounced, as has occurred here in Hobart, as “homohobic” just for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage.
We live in a strange world. Many who call for Christians to be tolerant of their point of view, are less than tolerant in accepting our point of view. And while they advocate for a diversity of views, they are quick to denounce views they do not agree with theirs.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Throughout history Christians have faced similar resistance. In fact, the more God’s presence is felt in a community, the more opposition God’s presence provokes. This was true for Jesus, so it will also be true for his followers. The more vigorously the gospel is presented the more the forces that deny it will intensify their opposing efforts.
Yet, while we may detect a growing christophobia here in Australia this cannot compared to the persecution faced by our brothers and sisters in other countries. According to the German based International Society for Human Rights (a secular organisation) some 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year (411 each day, and 17 every hour).  It happens in 133 countries, representing nearly two-thirds of all nations on earth. In countries like, Mali, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan, Christians are murdered or forced to leave their homes in large numbers. Churches are destroyed and so too are Christian villages.
All this information could lead us to lose hope and despair. Yet, despite what we and our fellow Christians around the world experience we of all people should be full of hope and expectation. Why? We know how the story ends. We are those who live in the light of the resurrection and the promise it contains that Jesus will one day return and establish his Kingdom. We are those who live today with an eye to the future when God’s purposes will be realised and the world will live in peace.
It is in this hope that we are called to live. May God grant to his people around the world the ability to stand firm, be strong and endure in these promises despite what the world may bring against us.
Stephen L Baxter

Is ALL progress good?

In the words of the Mercury newspaper on Tuesday, August 28, “Tasmania is a step closer to becoming the first place in Australia to allow same-sex marriage after legislation was introduced to State Parliament.” 
On that day Labor Premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim co-sponsored the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012, claiming the “majority of Tasmanians believe the time has come for this change to occur.”
I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat bewildered by all of this. It raises many questions for me, among them the questions of whether the majority really know what’s best for the future of our community.
While I doubt the statement that the “majority” of Tasmanians believe it is time for a change, even if they do, does it logically follow that they are right? There is a fundamental question here: Can the majority be trusted to make decisions and behave in ways considered “moral” and “right”? I doubt it. One could argue that the majority of Tasmanians would like a change of government, yet no premier would willingly step aside because the majority believe it is time for a change. Even our politicians have doubts that change should occur just because a so called “majority” want it.
Across cultures and religions for thousands of years marriage has reflected the biological complement of the sexes and understood it to be the union between a man and a woman. This understanding existed long before our parliament was established. We can therefore legitimately ask what place parliament has in redefining something that has naturally existed for millennia.

Newly Married Couple

That our Premier believes such a redefinition is right and appropriate is predicated on an unspoken premise sitting at the heart of modern society: all progress is good. Such a premise suggests the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 is a logical progressive step in the maturity of humanity. Where for some, redefining an understanding that has existed for thousands of years would be a reason to exercise caution, in the name of progress it is heralded as a defining moment.
Not everyone shares their optimism. Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed theologian of the 20th century once noted, “The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.” (Church Dogmatics 4/3, p. 769).
Barth’s view is in sharp contrast to the confidence of the proponents of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill. Building upon God’s revelation in the Bible, he suggests humanity is blind to its own reality. It is not a surprise therefore that some people do not share such a positive view of “progress” that undergirds the proposed bill. For them, not everything heralded as “progress” is in fact “progress”. Karl Barth experienced it first hand living in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and he eventually fled back to Switzerland.
Yet, belief in progress is so deeply cemented in today’s culture that anything old is more often than not considered morally offensive. We worship progress; it is self-evident and infallible; anything less is retrograde and backward and regularly ridiculed and scoffed at.
Marriage fits this category. The fact it has been around for millennia crossing cultures and religions means, by default, that it is viewed with suspicion and perceived as old fashioned and out-dated. It is implicit that any reasonable “progressive” person would agree with this premise, and anyone who disagrees is regressive, antiquated and ultimately a threat to society and progress itself.
But as Christians we beg to differ. Not all progress is good, and the majority is often not right (as in Nazi Germany, the debate on slavery, violent and wide-spread racism found across different communities, or among the crowd who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion).

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit.

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit. We reject the presumption inherent in the Bill that a child no longer has the right to be raised within their biological family. We reject the notion that this is progress. We reject the opinion that marriage is outmoded. We reject the claim that a majority want change, and even if they did, we reject this justifies such a radical redefinition.
That the majority is not always right is clear, and God’s revelation confirms it. While there are many in our community who believe the majority defines what is right, the sad reality is that in the end the majority is not always right. And this is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of this debate. How do we know what is good for us and our future? To suggest, in the case of marriage, that a “majority” of Tasmanians knows what is best for our community, even if it flies in the face of thousands of years of understanding and practice, is either a height of progress or the heights of arrogance.
It is important we pray for our community, not just for the impending vote on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 in the upper House of Parliament, but that we move away from faith in progress, to a faith in Jesus and develop a healthy scepticism in the ability of humanity to know what’s best for itself.
Stephen L Baxter

Uniformity . . . or Diversity?

God loves diversity. That’s not just a theological ideal, but ecological observation.
I’m sure many of you, like Jenny and me, enjoy watching and appreciating TV shows that illustrate the vast array and diversity of the world. Those documentaries give us the opportunity to marvel at the almost infinite variation and colourful display of wildlife, plants, fish and insects that share this planet with us. I guess you could say we “glory” in the creativity that designed and made this rich diversity of life.

A red eyed tree frog perched on a flower shows the incredible diversity of the created world

God loves diversity, not uniformity. A quick look at God’s creation tells us that uniformity is not what God is after. Uniformity, from this point of view is actually a betrayal of God’s purposes. Across the world one can see that a healthy world is a diverse world. Even the Bible is indicative of this diversity. There are different writers using different approaches. There are parables and genealogies, poetry and proverbs, songs and symbols.  This variety reiterates the reality that God is a God of variety and diversity.

Yet why is it that human diversity proves difficult for us? Why do people so readily object to persons, places and things that are different? Even a quick look at your average local church makes it difficult to believe God is a God of diversity. We struggle over simple things like differences in taste in music, or what we believe, or what we wear. We love to have things done the way we like them and bristle when things are done differently. Moreover, many move on to different churches when they find things no longer to their liking.

Many move on to different churches when they find things no longer to their liking

Sadly too, often we desire the comfort of uniformity rather than the challenge of diversity.  If God had left the planning of the church to us we would have required everybody to be alike and avoided many problems and difficulties. Yet God chose diversity and therefore diversity is important to the church. In fact, right from the beginning (on the day of Pentecost) the church has been made up of people from different cultures, ages, gender, experience and preference. We in Hobart are no different.
I’ve heard it said there are three kinds of people who struggle with diversity in the church: the immature, the legalistic and the proud. While we all struggle with change, immature Christians are afraid of change. Legalists, on the other hand, don’t like change because it upsets their control which is based on conformation to rules and regulations. And the proud people do not like change as it forces them to ask whether things can be done better than they were in the past.

Diversity calls for the immature to grow up in their faith (Heb. 5:11-14), the legalist to not give up their freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1), and the proud to humble themselves and allow God to act in new ways (Acts 7:50-52).

When we aim for uniformity rather than diversity our churches can easily become museums rather than ministries

When we aim for uniformity rather than diversity our churches can easily become museums rather than ministries. Warren Wiersbe (American pastor, speaker and writer) once said, “One of the best ways to promote unity in the Church is to allow freedom for diversity. That may sound like a paradox, but it is true. You cannot have true unity without diversity, for unity without diversity is uniformity; and uniformity can destroy the life of the Church” (Building Christian Unity, pg. 19-22).
Yesterday at Hobart Baptist we celebrated our first Combined Church Service. It was a time to celebrate our diversity. At this service the different congregations that make up Hobart Baptist church got together to worship God. This was an opportunity to “glory” in the diversity God has given us. It was an opportunity to remind ourselves that uniformity is not what God desires. It was an opportunity to affirm God is bigger than our individual dislikes and preferences. It was an opportunity to express our unity in Christ despite our diversity. It was an opportunity to encourage each other to maintain and foster the unity God has given us despite our diversity.
As you reflect on the importance of diversity in your fellowship, will you pray with me that God will be honoured, and many will be encouraged to follow Jesus in unity, celebrating his amazing diversity.  
Stephen L Baxter

Feelin’ Good All Over?

I once read a story about a few members of a synagogue who went to their rabbi complaining the liturgy did not express their feelings and asked him to change it to make it more relevant for them. The rabbi responded saying the liturgy wasn’t aimed at expressing what they felt; in fact it was the other way around. Rather than change the liturgy to suit them, it was their responsibility to change and learn to feel what the liturgy expressed.

Cherubs with heart
The story reflects some feelings in the
heart of all of us

Sadly, the story reflects some feelings in the heart of all of us. Whether we are younger and find traditional church services uninspiring and our “felt needs are not being met”, or we are older and find contemporary songs and worship unengaging and not meeting our “felt needs”, the fact is that there is something in all of us that wants things to be the way we like them.

Yet, this story reminds us there are bigger issues at stake. The focus of our worship services is not us and how we feel, but about God and what God feels. Our services are not aimed at meeting our needs (although they often do), but in helping us continue the journey of discipleship—following Christ and becoming more like him.
Whether we are old or young, new in the faith or have been following Jesus for years, our church services are meant to draw us out of our comfort zone, challenge our assumptions, spotlight our lifestyles and spur us on. Rather than meet our needs, they draw us beyond our needs towards seeing us as God sees us.

Our church services are meant to draw us out of our comfort zone

In fact, believing church should meet our “felt needs” is really quite selfish and short sighted suggesting we may have forgotten our greatest need—the coming day when we all stand before the judgement seat of God. On that day our “felt need” will be whether we can stand before God accepted by him or not.
I’ve always been somewhat haunted by the statement of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23 where he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Here are people claiming Jesus as their Lord, doing great works in his name, and yet to their great surprise are rejected from the Kingdom of Heaven. Throughout their lives they thought they had made the grade and were quite unaware they would ultimately be rejected and called “evildoers”.
What was their problem? When compared with a similar passage later in Matthew (The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46) it becomes clear that their trust was in the wrong place. For them it was not about relationship but about good works, but good works by themselves are not enough.
It is sobering to be reminded there are good people who say they follow Jesus as “Lord”, who do good works in his name, but who nevertheless fall short of entering the kingdom of heaven. In our consumer driven, individualistic society, where many have slipped into believing that church is all about meeting my “felt needs”, we need to be reminded what our real need is.
Jesus came to earth and died to open the way for us to come into relationship with our Creator. As you eet woth other Christians Sunday by Sunday, each person with their own “felt needs”, it is good to be reminded that we come together not to have the neds of our feelings met but to acknowledge our real need before God and thanking God him again for his saving action in Jesus.
Stephen L Baxter