A Year of Bible Discovery

We have just had a great week at New Wine. There were lots of encouragements and challenges (not limited to the amount of rain we had).

One of the things that came out of it, however, was a renewed desire from people to get stuck into reading their Bibles. RT Kendall, who was teaching each morning, particularly challenged Christians to take up reading through the whole Bible in one year. This was such an encouragement to hear.

So, I thought I’d give what I think is some helpful pointers for reading through the Bible

Why should we read the Bible in a year?

But, why should we read the Bible in a year? Here’s just a few reasons.

  1. It means we’re actually spending time with God’s word! If Christians want to know God better, and to grow in their relationship with him, then knowing the Bible is vital. The Bible isn’t just a collection of stories or poems or letters. It is God communicating himself – his character, his purposes are all contained here.
  2. Reading the Bible in a year will encourage us to read more than just favourite verses. We’ll be getting into bits of the Bible we’ve shied away from, but are still God’s word. Instead of scraping the top of the soil, we’ll be digging down deeper. Gold dust rarely sits on the surface waiting to be picked up. It needs to be dug up.
  3. It will get us having a greater sense of the whole scope of Scripture. Imagine it being like standing on top of a mountain range where you can see for miles around, the whole landscape stretching before you. Reading the Bible in a year will give you a greater sense of that – the history of God’s salvation, from the creation to the new creation.
  4. It will feed your soul. Not reading the Bible and praying is like going without food and water. You might cope for a bit, but eventually your life in God will shrivel and disappear.
  5. It will challenge us and give us perseverance. Not all of the Bible is easy. However, there are plenty of really good tools to help. But be discerning, especially when it comes to the internet.
  6. Reading different bits of the Bible helps us see how things connect, and makes us see things we hadn’t seen before.

Where do I start? 

Many people get discouraged because they get to a difficult part of the Bible (like Leviticus), and then think ‘this isn’t for me. However, don’t give up! The greatest destinations sometimes involve the hardest journeys. But thankfully you’re reading, not trekking through snake-infested swampland and quicksand!

There are a lot of reading plans out there. The most famous is the M’Cheyne plan, which involves four chapters (roughly) each day from the Old and New Testament. The one I personally use is the Discipleship Journal plan from Navigators, which can be found here. This covers four passages over 25 days a month, meaning that if you miss a few days you can catch up. However, my advice is not to be too legalistic about things. If you miss days, don’t give up because you’re too far behind. Get back on the horse from where you were and start again. Remember that grace works with reading the Bible too. God’s not interested in our ability to tick boxes (literally, in most reading plans) but in knowing him better.

There is also some great Bible app you can download onto your phone or tablet. The one I use is from Olive Tree and can be found here. It comes with the ESV (English Standard Version) for free, and you can search for any word or phrase, making it a really useful Bible study tool. It also has a whole load of Bible Reading Plans. So, you can try different ones and figure out which one works for you.

I tend to read what I can, and try to ‘catch up’ bits I haven’t managed. I then spend more time with one of the readings than the others. The plan is then to have ‘studied’ all four readings every four years. That’s the plan anyway. It rarely works out like that, but you’ve got to have a plan to work with. No plan means you’re planless, and I’m not even sure that’s a word.

When shall I start?

Don’t wait until the new year to make a resolution. Start today. Ok, I’ll be generous; you can start tomorrow. No, do it today. However, just do it. Find somewhere you can just have a few minutes with God and his word. If you don’t manage all the readings, don’t worry. Maybe it’ll take longer than a year. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re reading the Bible. And you’ll be in a better place to listen for his voice.

It won’t be long before you wonder how you ever got through a day without reading God’s word, and when you miss it you start to get hungry and thirsty for him and for his word. So, tuck in!

There’s a feast awaiting, gold to be mined, a beautiful view to be discovered. Maybe this would be a great prayer as you start getting into God’s word and digging deeper:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, so that you may know him better.    Ephesians 1:17

 

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The Bigger Story

Matthew 28:16-20

THIS IS AN ADAPTED AND EXTENDED VERSION OF MY SERMON PREACHED ON 11TH JUNE 2017, TRINITY SUNDAY.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee for what has been called ‘the Great Commission.’ It’s Matthew’s ascension scene, where Jesus tells his disciples of their mission to go to all the world with the gospel.

Following the recent UK General Election, with all the confusion that has caused, and the fast-approaching Brexit negotiations, politics is very much the centre of attention at the moment. And when there is even the hint of a power vacuum, there are inevitable questions about who’s in charge.

Well, the good news of Matthew’s Gospel is that God’s in charge. God is King, ruling in Christ Jesus; and that is good news for the world. Jesus declared to his disciples that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him. Notice that Jesus did not say ‘will be given to me.’ No, has been given. It is already his.

Jesus also said that all authority was given him. And all means all. Not just some ‘authority’, not a portion, an element of authority. There is no power sharing or negotiating going on here. All authority in heaven and on earth sounds pretty universal, doesn’t it? Jesus is the supreme, there is no one above him, no-one beside him, no one greater than him. All authority means exactly what it says. He has the ultimate authority in both heaven and earth.

Here is a claim to divine authority unlike any other. After all, read the Old Testament, and again and again we find that the Lord is ‘the creator of heaven and earth’. That same picture is being painted of Jesus.

Throughout the gospels we see that Jesus has authority – his teaching is done with such authority that no-one had heard anything like this before. He demonstrated he had authority to forgive sins, to heal, to rid the afflicted of unclean, demonic spirits. And he had authority to give it away to his disciples to do those things too.

The question, however, that needs asking, is when was Jesus given this authority? The answer is not just in the resurrection, but in the cross itself. If we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is clear that Jesus understood that the cross was all part of God’s purposes.

Those who misunderstand what Jesus was doing might consider his death to be a disastrous turn of events. Here is Jesus, the good man, a great teacher, a doer of good, a healer, possibly a prophet; the man on the side of the poor and marginalised. And then there is the ‘establishment’ – the religious authorities, the people with all the power and control, and the Roman overlords. You couldn’t get two more different set of people – the establishment and authorities, versus the poor itinerant preacher who stood up for others. On this basis, there was only going to be one winner.

That’s very often how Jesus is portrayed. And the resurrection, if it is believed at all, is just some kind of story of glorious reversal, where good ultimately triumphs over evil. But that is all it is. The cross and resurrection of Jesus feature in no other way than an example of love overcoming hate, self-sacrifice over self-interest. And while there are elements of truth in there, it is by no means the whole story, or in fact anywhere near the central story of who Jesus is and why he matters.

Or, from another tradition, we might view the cross as merely the means by which God deals with my (personal) sin so I can be forgiven and one day go to heaven to be with him. The problem with this is it’s just about ‘me and God’, a totally privatised version of Christianity. There is no doubt Jesus died for my sins, so that I can be forgiven. But the New Testament never allows us to leave it there. There is, again, a much bigger story being told. A story that involves the whole of humanity, indeed the whole of creation.

To understand Jesus’ claim to authority, we need to get to grips with the much bigger story that God is telling. The great storyline of the entire Bible is that God, the Creator, is going to restore his world, and to restore himself as the rightful King over his world. So, right at the beginning of Genesis the Bible tells us that God created the universe – he is the Creator God, the Father of creation. But sin and evil entering into God’s world is like a coup, with humanity trying to topple God from his throne and instal itself as rulers instead. And the whole story of the Bible from then on in is that God is going to bring in his kingdom to his world, and one day unite heaven and earth under his loving, total, sovereign rule. So that all may know and worship him as the ruler of heaven and earth.

The whole story of the Bible, from the calling of Abraham to go to the land God promised (a foretaste of the fuller kingdom of God), the Exodus – God’s redemption of his people from slavery, the whole history of God’s people Israel, singling them out to be ‘the light to the nations’ to say that the Lord is God of all the earth, the rule of kings like David, to whom God promised an heir to sit on his throne forever, Solomon and the rest is the story of how God is indeed ruling and will one day be seen to rule over everything.

The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel all spoke of one who would come who would be God’s king. Isaiah spoke of a servant-king who would suffer for his people, and through that be declared king of the world. And this is the theme of the Bible, and especially the psalms if you read them through this particular set of lenses: the king of the Jews would be the king of the world.

But he would be a king unlike any other before. He would defeat sin and evil, he would put earthly powers in their place, and he would rule. But he wouldn’t do so with a sword and an army, with warmongering and political manoeuvring. He would do so with love, and sacrifice. And here is the bringing together of two essential things: God made man to rule (which is what we find in Genesis , when humanity is given the commission to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ with images of God), and that ultimately God would rule, in and through the one king he had chosen – the Messiah, the Christ.

And in Jesus, we see these two things coming together in one person. If we go back to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we read that the angel’s comforting words to Joseph, that the baby in Mary’s womb should be called Jesus, as he will save his people from their sins. This child was the fulfilment of God’s promise, that a virgin will bear a child and call him Immanuel, God With Us. And then after the birth of Jesus, wise men from distant lands come to find ‘the one born the King of the Jews’.

Jesus begins his public ministry with the words, “the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” And if you read Matthew’s Gospel from start to finish you will be struck by the number of times Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ – which Mark and Luke call ‘the kingdom of God. All of Jesus’ parables, all his teaching is focussed on this truth: that God is coming to reclaim his world, and deal with sin and evil once and for all, and he will be king over his world.

Political parties have manifestoes which outline the kinds of things they want to do if you elected them. The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) is, if you like, a kind of of manifesto. It’s all about the kingdom: what kind of world is God going to shape, what kind of king is Jesus going to be, what kind of people are going to come out of accepting that Jesus is the Messiah? And there are surprising things in there: the beatitudes, for example, demonstrate the relationship between the kingdom and meekness (humility), righteousness, suffering and persecution.

And so we get to the crucifixion, which appears to be a defeat, doesn’t it? It appears to be a resounding victory for the powers and authorities of this world. The religious leaders, the authorities over God’s people, and the Romans – the most powerful, ruthless and efficient Empire the world had seen – come together in an unholy alliance. The mockery of Jesus – placing a purple robe on him, and a crown of thorns, the notice above his head ‘here is the King of the Jews’ all designed to ridicule him are in fact his rightfully to own. Here is the dreadful irony, that they were in fact crucifying their king.

And if we think about it, if this is so, then the cross becomes more than just an instrument of torture and execution. It is Jesus’ throne. Just as an earthly king is lifted up, on a platform, so everyone can see him, so Jesus is lifted up – and the cross is the means by which God brings in his kingdom. Because on the cross Jesus, mysteriously but wonderfully, beat the powers of evil and wickedness, of sin and even death. He beat them at their own game. The powers of the world thought they could trump God, only to find that they were the means by which God brought in his victory over them.

If you read Psalm 2, this is exactly what God said he would do. The kings of the earth plot in vain, the nations conspire to get rid of God and his chosen king. But God, in heaven, laughs at their attempts. “I have installed my king on my holy hill,” says the Lord. His Son, lifted high on the hill outside Jerusalem. The cross is not a defeat but the victory over the powers of evil, the ‘authorities’ set against God. (I can’t help but think of the scene in Superman 2 when Superman, in his ice palace, is locked in by Zog and his cohorts and they think they have taken away his power, only for him to have switched things round, so it is they who have been weakened).

The resurrection is that final vindication of Jesus, the acknowledgement that Jesus wasn’t just an innocent who received God’s favour, but the suffering and now victorius, unstoppable king, God himself come to rescue his world. And death had no power over him.

That is the message of the cross and resurrection: God is King, and in his Son God himself reigns. Over everything. And so Jesus announces to his disciples that he is the victorious king: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. I AM THE KING OF ALL CREATION.

And so, as Jesus announces his victory to his disciples he tells them: Go! Go into all the world. Go into every corner of the world I have created, go into every nation, every society every culture; every village, town and city; go into every home, every office block, every school, everywhere and tell them “God reigns. Jesus is your King.” Tell them that the tyranny of sin and evil is at an end, tell them that sins can be forgiven, hope restored.

And baptise them in the name of the Creator God, who you may call Father, and his Son who reigns, and his Spirit who gives life and peace and hope. And by being baptised they would be acknowledging that Jesus is King, they will have accepted his rule over them and their homes.

And teach them all I have commanded you.Teach them to love one another in my name, to demonstrate that my love triumphs over hate, tell them that God is the God of the poor, the marginalised, the sick and the suffering; teach them to love the one God, and love one another; teach them to trust me, and seek me, and know me; to forgive as you have been forgiven, and to do so until that day when he calls time and brings together his whole creation into one – heaven and earth brought together under the one rule of God.

This is the dramatic, world-changing Christian worldview, the lens through which the bible sees the world as it is. It should be the driving force for authentic Christian living, Christ-centred social action and world mission, for politics and artistic endeavour, for invention and the media. Jesus is Lord and King over it all. All authority in heaven and on earth is his.

I hope that you can see from this that Christianity is not a private dealing between me and God, that will one day end up with my disembodied soul living forever in heaven. This is the typical way people, even longstanding church members have believed. But that is not what the Bible teaches, or anywhere close. It is not what Jesus taught, not what the good news of Jesus is about. It is so much bigger, so much more wonderful and exciting to be part of God’s kingdom plans.

The church has a duty, a responsibility, a delight to proclaim and live out the consequences of the good news of Jesus: that he is king. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. And he is a king who will reign forever, and with love and justice. Our world is hurting. Communities around the world are going through hell, and people ask what is God doing. And the answer is what has God done, as we point them to the cross and empty tomb.

And the task of making him known, and of displaying the reality of his kingdom, is with us. That may sound like a big ask. But we are not powerless, and we are not alone. “And behold,” says Jesus, “I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS, until the very end of the age.”

Governments will come and go, policies will be implemented and forgotten; the rulers of the earth my have their day, but God owns eternity. The cross has defeated all counter claims to ultimate authority.

I am calling on you, as God’s people here in this place, to know this, to live this, to pray this – as we have done over these past few weeks: THY KINGDOM COME. And we can see God’s kingdom come, as the poor are cared for, the hungry fed, relationships restored, the sick healed, sins forgiven, the gospel shared with those who do not believe, and people through faith in Jesus welcomed into God’s kingdom.

As we believe and live out the consequences of this wonderful reality, that Jesus Christ is King, my prayer is that we would know Jesus Christ as our King and Lord, our Saviour and our Friend, more and more each day. May we serve him in his world, and work and pray with him for the day when all will acknowledge him as their rightful King and Saviour.

The Privilege of Prayer

THE FOLLOWING SERMON WAS PREACHED ON 7TH MAY 2017. IT IS THE FIRST OF A SERIES ON PRAYER, AS WE LOOK FORWARD TO ‘THY KINGDOM COME’ – THE GLOBAL WAVE OF PRAYER BETWEEN ASCENSION AND PENTECOST. 

 

The Church of England, driven by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is calling Christians to come together to pray. It will be taking place between Ascension and Pentecost, with opportunities for people to come together to pray, as well as to encourage us in our private prayers, and to pray as a church.

Leading up to this, we are holding prayer evenings between 7-8pm every Tuesday evenings in our churches. So I really want to encourage you to come to these.

Prayer is one of the most important parts of the Christian life. It is also one of the most rewarding, because we are giving ourselves focussed time spent with God, listening to him as well as bringing our requests to him.

And yet it’s fair to say that prayer is also one of the most difficult parts too. Every Christian you will speak to will say that, in one way or another, they find prayer difficult. I doubt there’s anyone who really feels that they are expert prayers. And the reason people struggle with prayer can fall into a number of categories:

  1. We don’t have time to pray
  2. We don’t know how to pray
  3. We don’t know what to expect from prayer

My plan today is not to address all these areas today, but over the next few weeks, leading up to Thy Kingdom Come, we’re going to be focussing our attention to this important – vital – aspect of the Christian walk: prayer.

And I want us to see how much prayer is at the centre of our own walk with God in Christ, and take our lead from the two passages read this morning: Acts 2 and Matthew 6.

Before we carry on, though, I need to say that I probably struggle in this as much as anyone. So I am not coming at this as an expert. I am a student of prayer, a novice as much as anyone else. And that’s a good place to be to some extent, as it prevents us from arrogance: this is something I’ve got sorted. I can move on. It doesn’t work like that.

So what do we learn about prayer:

Acts 2:42-47 is important as it shows the priorities of the church. Straight after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell in power on the disciples, giving them the power to speak in other languages God’s praises, and Peter – filled with the Holy Spirit – preached Jesus to the crowd, 3000 people made a commitment to follow Jesus. And so the church was born. Not a new religion, but a fulfilment of all that God had promised from the beginning through the history and people of Israel.

And then we see what happened next, what form the church took in its earliest days. And that’s helpful because we see it at its birth – no additions, traditions or different types of churches, just the church.

And we see that there were four priorities that Luke says they committed – or devoted – themselves to:

  1. The apostles’ teaching — so listening to God’s word taught and applied. They wanted to grow as disciples of Christ.
  2. The fellowship – that is one another. They were a community that met together and served one another.
  3. The breaking of bread – some have seen this as the Lord’s Supper (Communion) which may be part of it – but I think it is more likely talking about hospitality, sharing their lives with each other, and opening up their homes and hearts to each other
  4. And being devoted to prayer – both public and private.

We’ll spend more time in this passage later after Pentecost. But I just want us to see this morning the shape of the early church. And that shape is still God’s intention for how we are to be. There is more to be said, but certainly not less. This is what the church is to look like, if you strip away everything else.

Prayer was, and is, right at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Now, all religions (and none) pray. That is, I guess, one of the features of the religious person. But here’s the thing: for most people prayer is something that happens in an emergency, or when they want something off God. Or it’s a religious duty.

See if you recognise this. We come to God with our list of people or situations, and we say ‘God, do something about this.’  And then when we don’t get it, we think that God either hasn’t listened, or needs more working on, or is somehow uninterested or unable to help. Do we see what happens? My life is over here carrying merrily along, and God is over here, and I ask God to come and do something about this thing, or to solve this issue. It is something of a caricature, I know. But what we end up doing is treating God like a tradesman, who we call up to fix something. But for most of the time, God hardly features in our lives, until we want something off him.

Can we see how much a travesty that is?

Jesus, when he taught on prayer, began by saying ‘when you pray’ not if. Throughout the Gospels we find Jesus praying. Going off to quiet, remote spaces to pray. What was he doing? After all he was the Son of God – if anybody could get along without prayer it was Jesus, surely? Jesus prayed, and in fact Jesus was perfect at praying. Because prayer is at its core about relationship.

Prayer is one of the great privileges and benefits of the death of Christ for us. Why? Because through faith in Jesus, we are given access to God – the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. And through trusting in Christ we are given the privilege to call God Father. Have you ever thought about how awesome it is to be able to call God ‘Father’. Our Father, which art in heaven.

Jesus compares the different approaches to prayer: first, the hypocrites. They like to be seen by others, and heard; so they prayed loudly and publicly, long words, lots of show. Who were they most interested in? Themselves. They wanted others to see how ‘godly’ they were. But there was no interest in relationship with God.

Then there are the pagans – gentiles. Lots of words, heaped on one another. Why? Badgering their gods into doing their bidding just to shut them up, or thinking that the longer they went on the more likely god was to give them what they wanted.

You are not to be like them, Jesus said. Instead, go into your room where no one can see you. What happens when you are in a room and no-one can see you – you can do anything you like. If you were in a room and nobody could hear you – you can say anything you like. And if you’re in a room and it’s just you and God – you don’t have to pretend, you don’t have to hide, you don’t have to try and impress him. Because he knows you better than you know yourself.

And Jesus says ‘pray to your Father.’ You see, prayer is about relationship with a loving  heavenly Father. And I can know God as my Father, only because in the gospel of Jesus Christ, he invites me into his presence. I have no right to be there. Remember when somebody broke into the grounds of Buckingham Palace and got into the Queen’s bedroom? They were thrown out – they had no right to be there. But the Queen’s children and grandchildren can come into her rooms and call her ‘Mummy’ ‘Grandma’. Trusting in the death of Christ for my sins means that God accepts me as a child – as his child – and I can call him Father. And talk to him – listen to him, seek out his will, bring him my requests.

Private prayer – building our relationship with God regularly, commitedly, humbly, expectantly. But there is also public prayer. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that we should pray together: Our Father, who art in heaven.

And when we see the early church meeting together, what they did was pray together. I have to say that there are few more energising and edifying experiences I can think of than being with God’s people praying together. We can listen and learn from one another, and we can together build up our personal relationship with God only as we build up our corporate relationship with God. The two go together. That’s why it’s wrong to think of the church as a place I go to, an event I participate in, and right to see it as the community of faith in Christ that through faith I am part of.

Luke describes the early church in the most extraordinary language: they had everything in common, selling property when the need arose to provide for the poorest of them. They met together daily in the temple courts – praying, proclaiming the gospel, and being together, demonstrating each day that something extraordinary had happened – the Holy Spirit had been poured out as promised. And one of the marks of the church, empowered and filled with the Spirit, is a renewed desire for prayer, both public and private.

Now, where do we go from here? Well, can I firstly really encourage you to come to the prayer meeting (this Tuesday) or next Tuesday. In fact, come to any of them up to Ascension. And then can I encourage you to come to the monthly prayer gatherings.

Secondly, I want to encourage you to pray. And one of the most effective ways to pray is with a prayer diary, bringing things to God regularly and making a note when answers have happened. I have an old Filofax I use for mine. I’m not amazing at remembering it all the time, but it something I’m challenging myself over. Use the Lord’s Prayer as a starting point for your prayers, pausing over each clause. Get your Bible out, and just go through a few verses each day, asking God to help you understand them and then let them lead you into prayer for others. I’m going to demonstrate this when I lead the intercessions this morning, so please listen to how I would do it, which may be very different to how you would do it.

Prayer is a privilege, an honour, a wonderful gift that came at a cost: Jesus died on the cross for us to know God as our Father, and have our relationship with him restored. Prayer is one of the great benefits we have been given. Let’s not neglect it.

Thy Kingdom Come is about making Jesus known, praying for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is about evangelism: proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and seeing lives transformed as they come to know him. And God invites us to join in his kingdom work, by both praying for and proclaiming his good news.

At the end of our reading from Acts, Luke tells us that the people who looked on this community where people were flourishing, where needs were being met, where relationship with God was being deepened, and costly discipleship was on show, were amazed. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. That should be our aim too, not that people come to church, but that they come to Christ. That’s why we pray for people, situations, communities, and ourselves ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

Learning the language of praise

This was my sermon for today, 26th March 2017 on Psalm 34.

The text I want to settle on today comes in v11: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
When looking for teachers, we need to find those who are able to teach. They have the skill and experience to tell us what we need to know. If you want to learn anything, you need a teacher who is more advanced than you. You would be in serious danger of picking up bad habits, and in fact get many things wrong if you did that. Similarly if you want to learn a language, you find someone competent to teach it.

Brother Andrew, who founded Open Doors, author of God’s Smuggler, tells how he learnt English. He grew up in a small Dutch town, and there was a woman in the village who said she could teach him English. And she did. Sort of. It was only when he became a Christian and came to the UK to train to go into the mission field that she told him that she had never in fact listened to any English, and had taught herself from reading English books. So she was teaching him without actually knowing how to sound the English words. So when he came to Britain, he discovered that though he was speaking what he thought was English, his pronunciation was so off-beam that nobody could understand him. To make matters worse, his college was in Scotland – so he had people speaking English at him with broad Scottish accents. No wonder he effectively had to to learn all over again.
Our parents are given the duty and joy of raising us. They are the ones who teach us to speak, to sound out words. What a joy it is to hear a child say those first words. ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’. Speech does not come automatically. We are not born with the power of speech – we must learn it. And it is no different for those who are born again. We need to learn the language of praise – to learn how to trust God in both the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. Because the longer we live, the more we realise that life can be tough at times.

And so we need to listen to one who has been there, whose experience benefits us. There is no point where we can say this side of glory that we have ‘arrived’. We are always learning. We need to learn the language of praise even in the hard times. Psalm 34 is an acrostic psalm – that is, every verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So, I’m going to divide my sermon today into three sections – the ABCs, as it were. Adore, Believe, Call Out.
Adore. Praising God at all times.
Straight away we are confronted with the context of David’s psalm. He has been on the run from his father-in-law Saul. The old king was jealous of David – of his success, popularity, blessing. And so he was resolved to kill him. David ran for his life. There were dangers and discouragements all the time. And he was in danger from others too. And David wrote this psalm as a reflection on the time when he found himself in the Philistine country of Gath. If discovered, it could mean death. So he pretends to be mad – scrabbling in the dirt, saliva running down his beard. And Abimelech decides that he doesn’t need someone like that around him so sends him packing. And David attributes his rescue to God.
Look at how David begins his lesson: “I will extol (or bless) the Lord at all times. His praise will always be on my lips?”
David has learnt the lesson that praise is as much an act of the will as it is a movement of the heart. He will do it; he has resolved to do it.
And there will be many times when we will say ‘why should I praise God’? ‘What has God done to help me?’ And especially when our circumstances seem to be against us. If we know our own hearts, we know how often we are gravitationally pulled away from God. Our circumstances may seem such that we tend to look away from him, to find our help and comfort in anything but him – and in those worst moments doubt his loving care for us.
But it is for those moments that we need to learn: “I will praise the Lord.” How? We ask a basic question: has God’s character changed? Have God’s promises suddenly become worthless? Did Jesus’ resurrection from the dead lose its truth or power? Has God lost authority? Has God in that moment become less loving? God in his character and purposes are unchanging; he is trustworthy in every way.
Those brought up with the Book of Common Prayer will remember the prayer of humble access: God, ’whose nature is always to have mercy.’
David has known this. Even when his actions were less than they should have been, God saved him. God still had his hand on his life, and would not let him go. His promise to David still held firm. And in Jesus, when we call out to him, and acknowledge him as Lord, we are saved by his power, not our own works. It is not our perfection that secures our hope, but Christ’s.
There is a danger of giving in. New Christians are sometimes discouraged by opposition, suffering and difficulty. They thought that life was an upward trajectory. Surely God would give them everything they wanted, every prayer answered. Power, victory would be theirs. But then discouragement comes. It as this moment, that we must train our wills to trust.
Corrie ten Boom, whose family hid Jews in their home in Holland during WW2, tells the story of her life in a concentration camp with her sister Betsy after they were arrested. She and her sister were praying, and Betsy was determined to thank God for everything, as the Bible had told them. The overcrowded hut they were in was infested with fleas, but Betsy prayed ‘thankyou for the fleas.’ Not the fleas, said Corrie. Yes the fleas. Over the following months, they were able to encourage the other women in the hut by holding services – reading the Bible, praying. Many women gave their lives to Christ. And all that time, not a single guard entered their hut. They were free to do whatever they wanted. And it was only later that Corrie discovered why: the fleas. None of the guards would come near it because it was so infested. Thank you Lord for the fleas.
So David invites us to praise, to trust. “Come,”  I will bless the Lord at all times. God never fails to provide for his children in their need. What he promises, he makes good on.

Believe. Fight fear with fear.
Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
This is fears vs the fear of the Lord. We are often afraid – of failure, of being proven wrong, of the future. Combat fears and anxiety with trust in God.
V5 of this psalm reminds us to ‘look’ to God. Belief in God means to look on him, to look to him. This what we find with all those who look to Christ – that they are promised so much in him, and will not be disappointed. None of those who come to him in faith will be turned away. And none of those who seek him will be disappointed.

Charles H Spurgeon: There is life, liberty, love, everything in fact, in a look at the Crucified One. Never did a sore heart look in vain to the good Physician…

God was prepared to give up his Son to death on the cross. Not for his own sins, for he had none, but for yours. If God did this for you, can you really doubt that God has mercy?
Do you doubt the love of God? Do you doubt whether he can be trusted?
 Do you wonder at whether he could have mercy?

Go to the cross. Go to the foot of the cross. Look at Jesus and see him there – your sins laid upon him. If you are struggling with this, I would make a suggestion. Go home and open your Bible; read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you. Spend time there, and in your heart linger there at the foot of the cross; by faith see Christ dying for you. Look to the cross and see God’s love poured out for you.
Will you do that? And then ask ‘Does God love me?’ ‘Can I really trust his love and goodness, his provision?’
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all –  how will he not also, along with him, give us all things?     

                 (Romans 8:32)

David teaches us one more lesson:

 Cry out. To come to God.
David is not immune from his troubles. And neither are we. However good life may be, there will have been time when we struggled; there will be times when we will do so. We will be tired, frustrated, demoralised. We will sin and wonder whether we are really Christians. We will suffer loss and heartache. We are not promised a life without storms.
But here is where the Christian finds their comfort and their hope. Jesus said:
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

This is what God’s word tells us: God will deliver us. Not from our troubles, but in them.
V19: There are many afflictions, but God delivers us from all of them.

He is the refuge in the storm. Like a person caught in a storm, God doesn’t stop the downpour for them, but provides a refuge in it. Christ is that refuge: run to him. Take cover in him. Augustus Toplady’s hymn conveys this beautifully:
     

     Rock of Ages cleft for me,
     let me hide myself in thee. 

This is not theory, but practice. v8 “O taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!”

Faith is not to be done at a distance. Cheryl will often make cakes or biscuits and when it comes out of the oven, taste them to see how good they are. And then she gives them to the rest of the family: taste this. And it is the same with Christ. God invites you to place your trust in him. Not to hold him at a distance, but to receive him as you would good food. If you are hesitant, we should make an experiment of God’s goodness. When you put your trust there you will not find God wanting. Have confidence in him. Even if the food appears unappetising, the taste is good and we see that it is in fact good.
It is not: let God prove himself and I will trust him. That is pride, arrogance. God doesn’t need to provide proof of his goodness. It is there. It is his nature, and it doesn’t change.
Rather, trust in God and he will prove himself to be good.
Blessed – happy, relieved, comforted – are all who find refuge in him. Cry out to him, and he will answer; come to him and you will find refuge. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. God will not withhold any good from you that you need. And if we truly seek him in Christ, we will find him. Don’t look elsewhere, but only to the one who provides it.

So, in the school of life, God has provided us with a lesson plan: learn the language of trust:
the ABCs – Adore, Believe and Cry out.

Listen to David’s teaching here: Glorify the Lord with me, let us exalt his name together (v3) And when we have no voice of our own, when our voice may seem tiny and strained, God has given us one another – to add our voices to one another. This is why God has given us the church – one another in Christ – as we uphold one another in our prayers and our praises. Pray for one another, encourage each other to look to Christ and hold on to him, and help each other to learn these spiritual ABCs.

The gospel is amazing

Martin McGuinness, who died this week, was a controversial figure to say the least. An IRA paramilitary commander who was allegedly involved in many sectarian murders, he became a politician instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process. For some he is a hero, for others he remained a villain. One thing is certain, that without his influence peace in Northern Ireland could not have happened. I’ve heard it said already since that he is a classic example of how it is not how you start that matters, but how you finish.

For some though, the wounds caused by the IRA run too deep. The families of victims say they cannot forgive. Lord Tebbitt, whose wife was paralysed in the 1984 Brighton bombing, has said publicly that he hoped McGuinness was “parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell.” He could not forgive, because forgiveness requires confession and repentance.

Now, I don’t know anything about Martin McGuinness’s faith. I don’t know whether he was sorry for his past, and whether his work for peace was inspired by turning to Christ, and seeking forgiveness from God. I can’t comment on that. But one thing is for sure, forgiveness isn’t easy. Even where there has been a whole life-change through coming to know Christ, and confession and repentance, people find it very hard to forgive. And rightly so, forgiveness is hard. If it is to mean anything at all, it needs to be.

Forgiveness of course goes right to the heart of the gospel. And here is where the gospel gets controversial. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that even those who have done the most terrible things can find mercy, and be welcomed into God’s kingdom. There has to be acknowledgement – repentance and faith – but it is about how we finish, not how we start.

On the cross, Jesus cried out on behalf of those who were mocking, hurting and destroying him, “Father, forgive them…” His death paid the price for our sin. On the cross, Jesus took on himself all the sin of the world and nailed it there, he paid the price. What does that mean? The Apostles’ Creed tells us that after his suffering on the cross, ‘he descended to hell’. Other versions may have ‘he descended to the dead.’ Whether we think Jesus literally went into hell (or Sheol or the place of the dead) we can come to at another point. (This article on the Desiring God website here is very helpful).

But the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Jesus did bear the punishment and consequence of sin – that is hell, and the eternal separation from the loving presence of God – on our behalf. That means that those who deserve hell receive heaven instead. Not because God just decided to go soft on sin, but because his Son willingly took the full force of God’s right anger at sin for us. He suffered death so that I don’t have to.

The apostle Paul knew just how difficult this was for some – the cross, he said, was a stumbling block to Jews and a nonsense to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). It seems so unfair, that an innocent should bear the punishment of the guilty. But this is astonishing grace – it is not just some random person, it is God himself who takes it on himself. God the Son willingly, lovingly, wonderfully, takes our place. Forgiveness is free for us, but costly to God.

The gospel of Jesus Christ means that there is nobody alive today who is too far gone, nobody who is beyond the possibility of God’s redeeming and saving love, no one who is too bad for the cross. It is God’s power to forgive your sins if you come to him in repentance and faith.

By the same measure, there is no one who is too good for the cross, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.23). The most outwardly loving, kind person in the world still needs to be redeemed, to repent and believe in Christ. Because none of us deserve God’s grace – that’s why it’s grace: the undeserved loving kindness of God.

There is no route to heaven – for anyone – that doesn’t go via the cross.

Good news should make us rejoice. If we believe this, and know it to be true, the gospel should make us sing. So I’ll end with Fanny Crosby’s wonderful hymn, To God be the Glory. If you haven’t known this gospel for yourself yet, come today to the cross and find God’s forgiveness and mercy there.

       To God be the glory, great things He hathdone;
        So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
        Who yielded His life, an atonement for sin,
        And opened the lifegate, that all may go in.

       O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
       To every believer, the promise of God;
       The vilest offender who truly believes,
       That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

       Great things He hath taught us, great things He hath done,
       And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
       But purer, and higher, and greater will be
       Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see!

            Refrain:
       Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
       Let the earth hear His voice!
       Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
       Let the people rejoice!
       O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
       And give Him the glory, great things He hath done!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trusting Jesus when you’re tempted

Here is a slightly amended version of my sermon preached on Sunday 5th March, the first Sunday in Lent. The Scripture is Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. 

My hope is to try and put on some reflections over Lent, so thought this would be a good place to start. Do forgive the fact it’s not completely polished, but hope I will be helpful anyway.

________

There isn’t a single person in church today who hasn’t been tempted at some point. No one is immune to it. None of us walk through life with some kind of protective bubble, shielding us from things which will  enter into our lives as destructive influences.

The word temptation has lost a lot of its power. When advertisers talk about temptation they use it in such a way as to suggest that here is something a merely a bit naughty that we shouldn’t have, but isn’t really bad for you. ‘Go on, anyway you know you want to.’

Temptation is not necessarily the problem. Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And there was nothing that Jesus did in his life and ministry that was sinful. He remained sinless but he was still tempted. So temptation is not the issue, but failing to resist it. Our muscles grow through resistance. If your muscles don’t face resistance then they will begin to become weak. Temptation is the resistance our spiritual muscles face and, like a muscle, if you don’t use you will weaken in your ability to resist temptation

In the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Jesus teaches us here what temptation really is and how we are to resist it. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read this: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Like a kind older brother, Jesus is showing us the way to do it. He’s the forerunner. He’s run the course. He was was the first person in history to fully resist Satan’s temptation. And so because he has done it, he has given us the power to do so too.

The context

Jesus has just been confirmed as the Son of God. He has been baptised and stood alongside people who came to John in repentance for their sins, and with a desire to live a new life. The voice from heaven affirms him in his identity: “This is my son.” And God’s pleasure: “With whom I am well pleased.” None of what follows is because Jesus has displeased his Father; indeed, quite the opposite.

Jesus is affirmed by God by the Holy Spirit, and immediately he’s sent out into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer. And its there that he will do battle with God’s enemy, Satan. And he’s sent there in order for the battle. For all of us, sin is a reality. Even if we have been Christians for many years, we are tempted to sin, and to put our trust in anything but God.

But sadly we forget that we are in a battle. The war has been won, but the battles and skirmishes -which can still be costly – continue in our lives. But the good news is that Satan is a spent force; he has no authority, so can be defeated. He has been defeated by Christ on the cross, and the battle in the wilderness here is a foretaste of it.

And as Jesus defeats Satan here, he leaves behind his tools for us to pick up and use in our battles with temptation.

The devil’s temptations, if received and acted on, are always intrusive, always destructive and always seek to distance us from our heavenly Father. Repeat. They are always intrusive, always destructive and always seek to distance us from our heavenly Father. No one ever said “I’m so pleased I was tempted to do that; I’m so pleased I gave into that temptation.” No. Always intrusive, always destructive, always distancing us from our heavenly Father.

But on the other side, God uses this testing to prove us, and refine us. So when we go through a period of what appears to be testing, when we are tempted, that does not mean that God is somehow against us. Just as the devil uses temptation to make us fall, to ruin us, so God tests in order to prove our faith and his power.

In 1 Peter 1:7, Peter tells embattled Christians that their faith is being tested like gold refined in fire, so that the genuineness of their faith can be seen (by themselves, by those around them, and by God). If you are a Christian, God’s Spirit is working inside you to give you power, always for your good, and always to bring you closer to God so you can rely on his grace and provision.

The temptations

To really appreciate these, remember that Jesus has been fasting for 40 days. He has gone without food for all that time. So he’s hungry – very hungry. Perhaps he’s moved beyond the aching of an empty stomach. Imagine that kind of hunger. But Jesus is not weak, far from it. Because he has been concentrating on his Father, he has been spiritually preparing for this battle.

The first temptation is about purpose. Notice Satan starts ‘if you are the Son of God…’ trying to encourage Jesus to use his powers to create bread. But God has said no; Jesus has not come to serve himself but others. So his powers are not there to merely serve himself, but God. So he replies, “Man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus is talking about obedience to his Father. And Jesus chooses to obey his Father, and not listen to Satan’s sly words to try and make him listen to him instead.

The second temptation is about trust. Jesus is taken to the very top of the temple, and encouraged to throw himself down. Why? Because God said that he would send his angels to bear you up so that you don’t even stub your toe. But that would be putting himself in danger when no danger existed, or was needed.

Satan’s taunts here are all about trying to get Jesus to prove his Father’s love and care for him. “If you are the Son of God, prove it.” It’s like a playground taunt: “Go on – prove it. I dare you.” But Jesus doesn’t need to. He knows that Satan’s use of Scripture is a misuse. “Don’t put God to the test,” is his response. He is secure in his identity, and secure in the knowledge of his Father’s love and care for him. He won’t use his power for the sake of pleasing Satan or proving God’s love for himself.

The third temptation sees Satan showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to him, in return for exclusive worship. These are not Satan’s to offer. In fact, they are Jesus’ already. So what is the devil tempting Jesus with?

All three temptations are attempts to swerve Jesus from what he has come to do: to go to the cross. If Jesus cannot endure hunger without finding a shortcut through his power to provide bread for himself, he will not endure the cross.

If Jesus has to have God prove his love for him, he will not go to the cross. Jesus himself said that he could have called down an army of angels to fight for him instead to going to Calvary. But instead he chose the cross.

The nations are Jesus’. But they must be redeemed. Jesus could have come in power and glory, and demonstrated his power and majesty from the beginning. But he didn’t. Why? Because he had come not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.(Matthew 20:28) He had come to die on the cross for our sins. Without the cross, he would be Lord, but not Saviour.

But as he is, the cross and resurrection prove he is both.

How do I apply this to my heart?  

Here are a number of applications we can take from this example left for us by Jesus.

  1. Jesus fights the devil with Scripture. One of the things I have noticed in my ministry is just how difficult it is to get people to read their Bibles. The bible is not just a set of rules, guidelines, history. It is the word of God. In Ephesians 6, Paul describes a Christian like a soldier dressed for battle. He has the shield of faith to protect against the devil’s arrows. But the only offensive weapon is the ‘Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17). But most Christians walk around with the sword left at home, leaving themselves utterly unprotected. We need to know our Bibles, we need to know the promises of God, what God has said and done, and what he continues to say and do. We need to fill our heads and hearts with God’s word – and believe it – and hold up God’s truth if we are to counter the devil’s lies.
  2. Here is encouragement: resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:17) He has no choice.
  3. Sin is fundamentally lazy. It always prefers the easy route, the quiet life, the road of least resistance. Temptation is always a lie though it seems like truth at the time.
  4. We need to trust in the gracious provision of God. God doesn’t withhold good things from his children. And when he appears to, it is because he has a much better provision for us. But we tend to want to take the shortcut. God delights in us trusting him. It brings glory to him when we entrust ourselves fully on him. Don’t believe the devil’s lies that God doesn’t care, doesn’t act. he does.
  5. Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Whe things are tough, we need to find our comfort in Christ and his promises We talk about comfort eating, comfort shopping. But they aren’ helpful, and can be destructive. Where do we go? We need to do more comfort praying, comfort bible studying, finding comfort in talking to a friend about our difficulties.
  6. Sin is fundamentally destructive. Satan is a liar. So we need to trust in God’s truth. God loves us, and will always provide. God always provides the strength for those who trust him.
  7. The devil wants you to believe that once you’ve sinned, once you’ve given into temptation that’s it. You’re done. You’re guilty. But the cross tells a different story. It tells us that we are forgiven, that we are redeemed. No sin is too great to remove us from God’s love. So when we do fail God is not finished with us. The cross is the power of God to remove sin, to remove guilt, and restore us.

The hymn Before the Throne of God Above has a great verse that reminds us of this:

When Satan tempts me to despair,

And tells me of the guilt within

Upward I look and see him there

Who made an end to all my sin

Because the sinless Saviour died

My sinful soul is counted free

For God the just is satisfied

To look on him and pardon me.    (Charity Lee Bancroft)

So in conclusion, Jesus has left us the tools, the sword to fight back the devil’s lies. We need to believe and trust in God, and in his character and his loving purposes. The devil chose what he thought was Jesus’ weakest moment. But spending 40 days in his Father’s presence, devoting himself to him, resting on him, listening to him, meant he was in the perfect condition to resist the devil.

Jesus has won the ultimate victory against sin, evil and the devil by dying on the cross for our sins. He has won the ultimate victory. And it’s not our strength that defeats temptation, but the strength which God gives us through his Holy Spirit. Jesus has gone before us, so trust in the way he leads us. He is able and will help those who are being tempted.

Thank you for coming?

Have you ever been in a church service where the leader has thanked you for coming? For joining us? Or supporting us?

It’s a strange thing to say at the end of a church service. The assumption is that they have in some way put themselves out, made an effort, and so we should be grateful that they’ve come out and shown their support. Here is an event we have put on, and we are grateful that you turned up, otherwise we might have had an empty building and it might have been a bit quiet. Thankyou for being here, rather than one of the myriad number of other things you could have been doing with your time.

Christians shouldn’t be thanked for coming to worship God, receive from his word, pray and have fellowship with other Christians. The implication (certainly not articulated, and probably not even thought of) is that they are somehow doing the church – or, worse, God – some kind of favour. Yes, you should be grateful that I turned up. Where would you be without my support?

This misses something really rather fundamental. Being a member of God’s people – the church – is a privilege. We are called to worship, invited to draw near to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), and given the promise of salvation. None of these are things we either earned or achieved by ourselves. So why should I be thanked for responding to God’s call on my life to worship him with other Christians?

As well as a privilege, it is my duty. An army officer doesn’t thank soldiers for turning up for parade. That’s their duty; it’s where they should be. And if you have believed and trusted in Jesus Christ, your local church is where you should be.

I often make the distinction between ‘going to church’ and ‘being part of the church.’ When we think of church as a place to go, that’s when it becomes an event, something we can opt out of when we choose to. But the church is more like a family, a community, which you are part of. But being part of the church also means being there. It is our duty as well as our joy, the Holy Communion service says, to come together to worship God.

If anything, it is I who should give thanks that I have been brought into his kingdom at such a high cost – the death of Jesus on the cross. What a privilege it is to come and worship the living God. What joyful duty. Thank you Lord for your loving invitation to know you and worship you.

 

 

Getting Ready

Today is the 1st December, so this morning we opened our family advent calendars – one traditional nativity, one chocolate. Counting down to Christmas is exciting, especially with the promise of presents, delicious food, and time with family and friends. With only a few weeks though until Christmas, I certainly don’t feel ready. There are still plenty of services to plan and sermons to write amidst all the normal busyness of parish life. 

With all the preparation, we need to make sure we are keeping our eyes fixed on what we are preparing for. Most of us are living increasingly busy lives. And the busier we are, the less likely we are to stop and think about what is really important, and whether we really need to be doing all the things that come into our diaries. It’s often said that the urgent is the enemy of the important. Making space and time to stop and think is not that easy. And making time for our walk with God can often be down the list of priorities. 

However, I have learnt that unless you create that time and space you will just keep on doing the same thing, and wonder why things are as they are. We all need to make space to listen and pray. 

Zechariah was ministering as a priest in the temple, when the angel came to him to tell him of God’s amazing plans. He would have a son and he would be a prophet and the forerunner to the Messiah. But Zechariah doubted this word and was made dumb by the angel for a period. We can find it in Luke 1:1-25.  I can’t help but think that this time of enforced silence must have given Zechariah time to reflect and have his heart warmed and prepared for the part he was playing in God’s plans. 

As we start this Advent, let’s commit ourselves to some self-enforced silence. Let’s try and turn off the TV, switch off the mobile, put a line through our diary, give ourselves time with God and his word. And ask him to prepare you for what he has for you, and for your place in his wonderful plans. If we can commit ourselves to being less busy, and making just some time with him a priority then we and others will benefit from it. But we need to plan it, because it won’t plan itself. 

Disagreeing well

So, the people have spoken.

A 48/52% split in the voting is, admittedly, hardly an overwhelming voice for change. But change there will be. After such a seismic vote, it’s difficult to know what the real impact will be until things have settled.

If I’m honest, the EU Referendum has been a rather depressing experience. Not so much for the result but for the way that debate and discussion have been handled. These are big issues, and we should care about them. But disagreeing well has never been so important, nor so sadly absent.

The reality is that there will always be disagreements. We will never agree on everything. But how we treat each other when we disagree matters. As Christians, we have another way of behaving given, and modelled, to us. In Romans 12:1-2 we read:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (NIV)

The world wishes to make us conform to its image – literally to be moulded into its shape. The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, transforms. It changes us completely. And one of the key ways it changes us is through our relationships with one another. We don’t have to act like the world, to do what the world does. We can – indeed, must – do it differently.

And the way that we can see this most wonderfully is in how we treat one another when we disagree. Real unity is not based on all thinking the same things. Acts 4:32 shows that an effect of the work of the Holy Spirit was to create astonishing and sacrificial unity:

“All the believers were together and were of one heart and mind.”

The word ‘mind’ actually translates the word ‘soul’. They were one in heart and soul. United at the deepest level by their shared experience of God’s redeeming love, his kindness in revealing Christ to them, and giving them his powerful Holy Spirit. That is what the church should be all about. Unity around the authentic, life-changing gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus.

I love the positivity and joyfulness of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. But it is not without its tension. Clearly there had been a falling out between two godly ladies in the church, Euodia and Syntyche. And Paul tells them to “agree in the Lord.” Not just to agree, but agree in the Lord. They weren’t to pretend that they disagreed, or that it didn’t matter. But their first responsibility was not to their cause or opinion, but to their Lord and thus to each other.

Churches need to find ways of disagreeing well, to be models to the rest of the world of the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. This is, I think, the real meaning of unity.

In the coming weeks, months, maybe years, there will need to be a great deal of healing and reconciliation taking place. We will need to have a desire for unity. And our churches should be places where such healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and generosity are modelled to a fallen world.

 

 

A drive-by lesson in love

So, this week I was on my way to church for a funeral I was conducting. I always try to leave enough time to be there at least 20-30 minutes early, just so I can prepare myself for the service. By the time I left home, I was just about ‘on time’ by my schedule.

However, as I was driving through the village, I noticed a van in the middle of the road, broken down. It was a milk-van (yes we still have milk delivered here!) As I waited in the road to get past, the driver, with some effort, started pushing the van back into a side road. It looked hard work.

I drove on.

But as I drove, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for not stopping to help. The more I thought about it, the more clear it became to me that I could have got out and helped him move the van. It must have been pretty heavy.  Okay, he looked fit, but a helping hand probably wouldn’t have been refused.

But I didn’t; I drove on. I told myself that I didn’t have time, I didn’t want to be late. Now, I had a a good reason. I was on my way to a funeral, after all. Surely that was important. But it probably would have taken no more than 2 minutes to get out of the car, push the van and be off. I had time. Actually, he probably would have got it out of the way quicker with a bit of help.

I started thinking about the parable of the good Samaritan,

There is the man, attacked by robbers, lying injured and bleeding on the side of the road. For hours he lies, weakened and half-dead in the scorching heat. He’s in desperate need of help. And then a figure starts coming into sight.

“A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31)

Maybe the priest thought he was dead, and didn’t want to get himself ritually unclean by touching a dead body. Or perhaps he was on his way to the Temple to fulfil his religious duties. Maybe he was running a bit late, and didn’t have time to stop. But he should have.

And it occurred to me that I was the priest in the parable of the good Samaritan.

Okay, so the situations are nowhere near the same. But I used the excuse of not having the time to be a help to someone. The point is that it’s so easy to allow our own agendas, our own schedules to get in the way of love and compassion.

“I don’t have time to help.” “It’s not convenient right now.” “I’m too busy; I’ve got a lot on.”

The point of the parable was to teach what it meant to love your neighbour as yourself. The reality is that the needs of the world, and the people we meet around us, are never convenient. They don’t wait until we’re ready for them. We have to be prepared to stop and be the one who can make a difference, and not just walk on by leaving compassion to someone else. Let it be us.

“The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” (Psalm 116:5)

So, to the milkman, whoever and wherever you are: Sorry.