GOD’S MESSAGE

“God sent the angel Gabriel…(with) a message for a young woman … her name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, ‘Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!’”

Lk 1:26, 27, 28 GNB

The events of Christmas focus on Mary and the miracle God intended to bring about in her body and through her obedience. The first movement is when God sends his angel with his message to her. It is important for believing Christians to latch on to the centrality of God in the whole story. Gabriel is God’s messenger. The message Gabriel brings is God’s message. Mary is God’s chosen servant.

Long before the apostles went out with God’s message to the people of Antioch, Ephesus and Thessalonica, and long before Jesus went out into Galilee with the message of the Kingdom of God, Gabriel brought God’s message to Mary. The visit of the angel to Mary was the beginning of a mighty act of God. Beautiful – and at times almost romantic! – as we so often make the story of Christmas out to be, we must never obscure this supreme fact – it was all a mighty act of God the Father, from beginning to end. The other players in the drama are “bit parts”.

Throughout the Bible God is coming to people with his message. To one, Abraham, God commands him to move to a new place. To another, Moses, he commands him to lead his people out of slavery. To the prophets he gave a contemporary message. It went on and on.

And it still does. God always has a message. He may be wanting you to receive and hand on that message in this day and age. Will you hear, hold and hand on God’s message of Jesus?

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to hear your message this Christmas.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray today Lord for family members who have ageing relatives whose health is obviously deteriorating. Help them to understand that their love and attention is so important to their loved one who looks forward to seeing them more than anything. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Jeremiah 31:2–14

SATAN NEVER SLEEPS

“We wanted to return to you. I myself tried to go back more than once, but Satan would not let us”.

1 Thess 2:18 GNB

Many people fondly imagine that the more faith you have, the less problems you are faced with. And if you live very close to God you might have no problems at all. It is not so. However deep your faith, however devoted your walk with God, you will still encounter difficulties in this human life.

Here in the apostle Paul and his two companions were three of the godliest people who ever lived. And they went from one problem to another, suffering frustration after frustration. Here Paul describes how he wanted to return to visit the Thessalonian Christians. There was just one problem that got in his way – Satan. He does not elaborate on the exact nature of this problem, but it obviously irritated and frustrated him.

It meant that the strong, friendly relationship he had with the Thessalonians had to be interrupted for a while. It also probably prevented him from going on mission touring expeditions in the area surrounding Thessalonica which, since they had been so effective in the city itself, might well have provided other congregations in the vicinity.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns put it another way when he said, “The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” (G.A.F. Knight, The Psalms, Vol 1, p161). One writer described this generally difficult aspect of human experience as “The general cussedness of life”.

Never underestimate the wily stratagems and the determined will of the evil one. He works against individuals and also against groups and especially against churches. Never slacken your vigil in perceiving his presence and activity. And trust God all the way along.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, keep me always wary of Satan and his schemes.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, I pray for all those people who find themselves short of money at this time, who would like to buy presents, but can only afford tokens and feel embarrassed about it. Let it not spoil their Christmas. Let them find other joys and satisfactions. I ask it in Jesus Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Zephaniah 3:14–20

INTERDEPENDENCE

“As for us, brothers and sisters, when we were separated from you for a little while – not in our thoughts, of course, but only in body – how we missed you and how hard we tried to see you again”.

1 Thess 2:17 GNB

“No man is an island entire of itself” said John Donne. We prove and experience that fact every day of our lives. We grow up dependent on our parents or “significant others”. Throughout our education we interact with other students and teachers. In adulthood we create our own families. We develop friends, colleagues, and wider family relationships. We are, as humans, bound up with each other. In varying degrees, we grow to depend on others – and they on us. And Jesus pursued his ministry in the company of twelve close disciples. One of his objectives was to train them. But he also depended on their friendship and helped them to grow in love. Through them he launched his church and the body of his followers has become the most numerous religion on the planet.

Paul, Timothy and Silas formed a strong relationship with the people at Thessalonica who gave their lives to Christ under their ministry. The apostles had an obligation to pastor and nurture the Thessalonians. They in their turn were moved to support the ministers, to learn from them and to keep them informed about the progress of the church in their city. There was interdependence between the three and the community based on love – Christ’s love growing in all of them, if in different manifestations. Cherish the interdependence you have with other Christian believers. Mend the friendships. Sustain the relationships. Build each other up. In Christ.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to cherish the others alongside me in faith.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, be with all the people who cannot be with their families this Christmas time. I think especially of those in the armed forces, the police and prison warders, nurses and others in hospitals. Help them to enter into the spirit of Christmas in some way. I ask it in Christ. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Joel 2:21–29

ERECTING OBSTACLES

“They even tried to stop us from preaching to the Gentiles the message that would bring them salvation”.

1 Thess 2:16 GNB

It is difficult to believe that anyone would try to stop others from propagating their faith. But there are many people that are skeptical about any form of religion. And most of those who have any faith at all think theirs is the only real faith. When John Wesley, the son of a Church of England minister and himself an ordained minister of the same church, received his deep experience of having his heart strangely warmed he set out to all parts of England to preach about Christ. He was refused entry into most Anglican churches so preached mainly in fields and town marketplaces. In some places he was physically attacked.

In Thessalonica the local members of the synagogue tried hard to stop Paul and Silas from preaching to the Gentile converts to Judaism. It happens frequently on the mission field that missionaries are hindered by local residents from preaching. John White, a missionary to the Africans in the northern part of Zimbabwe was bitterly opposed by many of the local white settlers.

The fact of the matter is that those who go out to preach in new places are fulfilling the mission of God. They go at the command of God. They are his servants, and God is on their side. To erect obstacles is to oppose God himself. Ultimately it is a futile exercise, for the mission of God moves with an impetus given to it by God himself. Sometimes Christ’s ambassadors find they are up against “principalities and powers” and vested interests who “fight to the death”. It takes courage to go where Christ sends you.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, empower and embolden your servants to go in your name.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, be especially close to all lonely people this Christmas. Let someone remember them and befriend them. Help them to make friends and to offer love and hope to others. Fill them with love for you and make their lives full with meaning. I ask it in Jesus’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Ezekiel 36:22–32

OPPOSITION AND PERSECUTION

“Our brothers and sisters, the same things happened to you that happened to the churches of God in Judaea, to the people there who belong to Christ Jesus. You suffered the same persecutions from your own people that they suffered from the Jews”.

1 Thess 2:14 GNB

In many parts of the world today there is a fair measure of religious tolerance. But not everywhere. In the New Testament after Pentecost there was severe opposition to the Christian religion – in the land of its birth and elsewhere. The message the apostles preached was seen as opposition to, and criticism of, the faith of the synagogue. Yet Jesus was a practising Jew all his days. Attacks on the apostles took place in Jerusalem and they spread out to Judaea and to Samaria (which was northern Israel). The effect of the persecution in Jerusalem was that the apostles took the message of Jesus to the surrounding territories which means that by persecuting the Christian church the local authorities helped to spread the faith they were opposing.

When Paul and the other apostles travelled to Gentile countries they always went and preached first in the synagogues, where converted Gentiles usually believed the message of Jesus. It often led to violence and persecution. The Christian and Jewish faiths were rivals for the support of the Gentiles who had been converted to Judaism. In Thessalonica some of the Jews gathered a mob to attack Paul and Silas. They caused harm to the new Christians who had responded to the message of Christ (see the story in Acts 17:1-9).

If you enjoy religious freedom in your country be grateful to God and respect the freedom of others. If you don’t, pray for courage and constancy and respect the choice others have made.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help all nations of the world to be tolerant of all faiths.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, make the message of Advent and Christmas plain and meaningful to all your believers as they gather to worship you today. Help them to rejoice in the great hymns of Christmas and to sing them with depth and feeling. Let the song go round the earth. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Isaiah 51:1–3

GOD IS AT WORK

“For God is at work in you who believe”.

1 Thess 2:13 GNB

Sometimes when a child or a youth is deliberately and repeatedly naughty, the mother will say something like, “You are so naughty these days. I don’t know whatever’s got into you”. And when a youth becomes physically addicted to some harmful substance such as a narcotic drug the parent is then really worried about what it is that got into their child – because “something” has!

And “something” got into the new believers in Thessalonica! It was God. The slightest thought of God in a person who is listening to a message from God means that the Holy Spirit is beginning to operate in that person’s mind and soul. When the Holy Spirit works in you, he points you to Jesus. And if he points you to Jesus, it means he is doing his big work – he is forming Christ in you. The evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a person is not the manifestation of way out and weird wonders – it is an awareness of God the Father and God the Son. When a person starts to believe in Jesus, even in some tiny and immature way – that means the Spirit is busy in that person’s heart and life. Faith was coming in the hearts of the Thessalonians. It gave Paul, Silas and Timothy great joy because God was confirming to them that their testimony and preaching was being effective.

Is God at work in your Christian fellowship, congregation or church? Look and listen for signs, not out of curiosity but in order to encourage the working of the Holy Spirit. It needs more than human activity to bring a church to life. It needs God. Be ready for him.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for working in our Christian community.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, bless those families who have lost a loved one since last Christmas. Help them to be strong and brave and to celebrate your love in Christ. Prompt them to invite a lonely person to take part in their Christmas and enable them to share with others. I ask it in Christ. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Ezekiel 22:23–31

GOD’S MESSAGE

“When we brought you God’s message, you heard it and accepted it, not as a message from human beings but as God’s message, which indeed it is”.

1 Thess 2:13 GNB

One of the perennial problems in faith, and in talking about faith, is the question about when is a message a person brings, his own message or ideas, and when is it God’s direct message? The prophets of the Old Testament, when they had a message for the people, used to say, “Thus saith the Lord”. And we read their sayings today with the deep conviction that they were God’s word to the people and not Isaiah’s, Hosea’s or anyone else’s. But if some high church dignitary today were to give out a message would we regard that as a word from God – or a word from the man himself? And how can we be sure who is really speaking?

The people who came to believe in Jesus in Thessalonica were quite sure. The message about Jesus was direct from God. The three ministers were not inserting their own ideas in order to get control of the Thessalonians. They were not seeking to “lord it over” them. They were content to retire out of the way and let God do his own business with the Thessalonians, which he did!

God is often seeking to get his message through to us – even when we are not aware of it. Perhaps he tries even harder when we are not aware of his efforts? Sometimes he may try to “get through” by means of some non-religious source – such as a TV program, or a movie, a newspaper or even a conversation with a friend. Try to hear him – it may be beneficial to you.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, keep me ever open to hearing your voice.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, bless families who will gather for family reunions this Christmas. Give them joy and a deepening sense of love and hope by their being together. Give them a deep sense of gratitude as they remember Christmases in years gone by. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Isaiah 3:13–26

REASONS FOR GIVING THANKS

“There is another reason why we always give thanks to God”.

1 Thess 2:13 GNB

Giving thanks to God is one of the most basic reactions to the awareness of God that human beings make. We know there is a God – and we are grateful to know that this universe isn’t just left to drift aimlessly along – there is a God guiding it, so we thank God there is a God! Someone said some time ago, “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on”. We know this and we thank God that there is human life and that we ourselves have been born and we are alive – there are plenty of forces working against human life. We thank him for food, for harvests, for water, for the skills some have with cooking, and for the financial systems that make the distribution of food possible. We thank God for each other, for families, for human love, for growth and development.

But we give thanks on another level. Writing to the Thessalonians the three ministers thanked God that the message they had offered was “picked up” by the Thessalonians and received as if it was direct from God. We thank God for the gospel of Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s grace. And we go on to thank him for the new life in Christ which we derive from his gift to us of Jesus and his love, his salvation and his forgiveness. We thank him for the strength, purpose and hope which believing in Jesus has brought us – and which he renews in us day by day. We thank him for the fellowship of his church and the avenues of service which this great body provides for us.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make us always grateful.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, kindle in all hearts a desire for peace. Help us all this Christmas to resolve to do, think and say thoughts that will lead to wholeness in the relationships between nations. Build up communities. Cause hatred and strife to cease. May goodwill abound. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Isaiah 59:9–15a

THE LIFE THAT PLEASES GOD

“We kept urging you to live the kind of life that pleases God”.

1 Thess 2:12 GNB

Some people believe that living the Christian life just involves “being good”. Others think that it means you have to be “super-religious” rather like a modern version of a monk but not in a cloister. Others again think it’s mainly a matter of quoting the Bible – learn a lot of texts, have one to trot out for any and every occasion and you’re in the top class – hey presto!

“A life that pleases God” involves, firstly, a quality of life. Its foundation consists in faith in God. He is your reference point every day. You look at the whole of life from his perspective. It is basically an attitude of mind. When you have faith, you breathe an air of strength, usually of tranquillity, and are positive in all things. Secondly “the life that pleases God” involves you in working at a task. For some people this is fulfilling some routine duty in their church fellowship – collecting and banking the collection, singing in the choir, serving in the women’s fellowship or whatever. But it could mean witnessing by teaching a youth group, preaching in worship services, or even the ordained ministry – but it is some specific task that needs to be done to bring glory to God and benefit others.

Thirdly, the “life that pleases God” means enjoying fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ. It is a life of devotion to Christ, through prayer, worship, Bible reading and sharing with other Christian believers. It means helping those other believers and being helped and strengthened by them. It becomes love – for God, for Jesus, and for other disciples.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to live a life that pleases you.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, I pray for world peace. Prompt leaders of the nations to grapple with the deep problems and to seek new solutions to old problems. Help them to see the bigger picture and to rise above the selfishness of nationalism that causes so much conflict. I ask in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Isaiah 59:1–8

SHARING IN HIS OWN KINGDOM

“God…calls you to share in his own Kingdom”.

1 Thess 2:12 GNB

Living the life that pleases God rather than yourself begins when you acknowledge that he is the sovereign Lord God. He is high over any other being that other people may believe in. And he rules both in the wider world and in the individual lives of his children.

Jesus spelt out the nature of that Kingdom life in what he did and taught. The beatitudes spell out some of the qualities and attitudes of Kingdom living. “Blessed are the poor in spirit – for theirs is the Kingdom of God” (Matt 5:3); Those who mourn are happy because they receive comfort (Matt 5:4); humility, rather than proud, pushy arrogance is a Kingdom quality and those who are humble will receive a reward from God (Matt 5:5); it is the nature of Kingdom life that those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires, for God will satisfy them (Matt 5:6); people who live the Kingdom life are merciful to others and they receive God’s mercy in return (Matt 5:7); if you are good and have a pure heart, you will have the vision of God (Matt 5:8); working for peace is a Kingdom activity – you can’t participate in God’s Kingdom if you always want to fight and go to war; working for peace is what God’s children do (Matt 5:9); this Kingdom belongs to people who get persecuted because they do what God requires (Matt 5:10); Kingdom living often earns tough opposition and people insult you and tell all kinds of lies about you because you belong to Jesus, don’t be unhappy about it, but rather be glad; they did the same to the prophets of old (Matt 5:11,12). Things are quite topsy-turvy in the Kingdom!

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to live your Kingdom life.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray today Lord for those people who feel that they are being weighed down by their aches and pains. Help them to summon up sufficient strength and hope to “chase away the blues”. Give them extra joy to find beauty, love and purpose in life. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Lamentations 2:1–5