Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Be Prepared!

Readings

Matthew 24:36-44
John 14:15,21,23, 15:9-17

Introduction

I was converted in 1971 at the age of 17 in an Elim Pentecostal church.  The foundational teachings of that denomination are known as the Foursquare Gospel, which proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, Healer, Baptiser in the Holy Spirit, and Coming King. 

Despite my family being nominally Church of England (not that we ever went to church), and despite all the loosely religious school assemblies I'd sat in, this was the first time I'd ever encountered the concept of Christ's promised return.  And, of course, since this was a foundational teaching of the Elim church, I heard quite a lot about it.

In my first job after University, I had a boss who had grown up in the Welsh valleys.  When he found out what church I attended he said, “Oh, you're a second-comer!”  Obviously, the Pentecostals in the Welsh valleys made such a big deal of Christ's promised return that they acquired this somewhat derisory nickname.

It appears from New Testament scripture that the early church believed in the imminent return of Christ, and there was an emphasis on being ready to go, and down the centuries there have been periods of heightened awareness and expectation of his coming.

In the charismatic reawakening of the 70s there was a resurgence in the belief that Christ's return was imminent.  Books like Hal Lindsey's 'The Late, Great Planet Earth' enjoyed huge popularity and encouraged that belief. 

And yet, Christ has not returned.

So, what do we make of all this?  Is this strand of doctrine a refuge for weirdos?  Is it something we can set aside as not very important?  Well, no it isn't.  The return of Christ is, and has always been, a fundamental part of Christian belief and has been enshrined in the church's teaching from the outset.

In the Apostle's Creed, it says of Christ, “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”  Even more  forcefully, the Nicene Creed says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

In our own communion service for Advent we read the words, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come in glory.”  So, even Methodists are “Second-comers”!

The Lectionary reading from Matthew that we heard this morning recounts some of Christ's own words on the matter of his return.

Background & Context

Jesus and the disciples have been in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the crucifixion.

The passage of scripture is embedded in a long discourse by Jesus and then it's followed by parables about preparedness, faithful service, and transformed and compassionate living.

Original Meaning


Mt 24 is a difficult passage to unravel.  What is it about?  What does it mean? 

It begins with Jesus and the disciples leaving the temple. The Disciples are impressed by the buildings but Jesus surprises them by saying it will all be destroyed; a prediction that was fulfilled in AD 70 when the Romans laid Jerusalem to ruins.

They go to the Mount of Olives, and the puzzled disciples ask Jesus two questions:
  • When will this (destruction of the temple) happen?
  • What will be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age?

The Lord's response seems to mix together the answers to those questions, which is partly why the chapter is tricky to unravel.

In verses 4-14 in answering the second of those questions, Jesus predicts:
  • false messiahs and prophets
  • wars and rumours of wars
  • famines and earthquakes
  • persecution
  • people abandoning the faith
  • the gospel being preached to all nations
  • and then the end
Doesn't much of this sound like our daily television news?  But, actually, the world has been like this for much of human history – we just hear more about it these days.

Verses 15-21 probably relate to the first question.  He talks about
  • the abomination that causes desolation (fulfilled when the Romans desecrated the temple)
  • and warns people, when they see these things, to run for their lives (as many believers did in AD 68, two years before the sacking of Jerusalem).

Verses 22-31 seem to move back to the second question.
  • Jesus again talks of false messiahs.
  • He talks about the signs of his coming – ending with the clear and obvious phenomenon of his appearance, which will be unmistakable and apparent to all.
  • Then he tells us that his coming ushers in final judgement.

What he says in verse 32-34 perhaps relates to both questions.
  • He tells them to read the signs, and understand what is happening.
  • There is a lot of conjecture about what Jesus meant by the phrase “this generation” when he says, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  What we can take from him is a solemn declaration that these things will happen.

In the portion we heard read, Jesus tells us that
  • even he didn't know the day or hour of his return
  • that even against the backdrop of all that I've just mentioned, people will just be getting on with normal life, oblivious to impending judgement.
  • He tells us there will be a division between those who are prepared and those who are not.
  • He exhorts his hearers to be prepared at all times.

Meaning for Today


Or rather, what does God want to say to us today?

The fact that Christ's return hasn't happened yet doesn't mean that it isn't going to happen. The first inkling we have of Christ's first coming appears way back in Genesis 3 and he came many, many centuries later.  The prophetic verses we often refer to at this time of year (Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son) were penned 700 years before he came.  The promised second coming of Christ is still awaited centuries on but it's nonetheless foretold.  We can't disregard it because it hasn't happened yet.  Are we ready?

We are not to know exactly when it will happen.  At the time he was speaking, even Jesus didn't know.  This didn't stop an American evangelist, Harold Camping, from predicting Christ's return on 21 May 2011.  One of his followers was foolish enough to spend the equivalent of £85,000 advertising the prediction (after all, if Christ is coming, you won't need your savings!).  Christ did not come on 21 May 2011.  Other sects have also made failed predictions.  Christ will come again on the Father's timetable, not to suit our fancy.  We can't leave our preparations until nearer the event precisely because we don't know when it will be.  We need to live ready.  Are we ready?

Christ's return will happen in what may seem the most ordinary of times.  In the days of Noah, everyone was getting on with normal life, seemingly oblivious to the judgement that was hanging over them, despite the nut-case building a huge boat in the middle of the desert.  All around us today, people are getting on with normal life as though there's no end to consider, no judgement to face: it's always been this way and it always will be.  Christ could come at such a time as this.  Are we ready?

When he comes, there will be a distinction between those who are Christ's and those who are not.  His coming brings one of two things for each of us: either salvation or judgement.  For those who are ready his coming will be glorious; for those who are not it will be utter disaster.  Which side of that divide are we on?  Are we ready?

Even if Christ doesn't return in our lifetime, all of us must go to him at the end of our time on this planet.  Are we ready?

Now I want to try and answer the question, what does being ready look like?  Some of the answer can be found in the discourse immediately after our reading and in the parables of the next chapter.

Jesus tells us that those who have been given specific authority and responsibilities need to keep on with the master's business.  They must not abuse their position or become lax in their duties.  And there's a dire warning for those who are slipshod.

In the parable of the ten virgins, we are encouraged to be clear about God's expectations of us and to make sure we have the resources we need to fulfil them. 

In the parable of the bags of gold, we are exhorted to use the resources God has given us for the good and profit of his kingdom, and again to be about the master's business.  The master's business may be different for each one of us.  Are we doing it? 

Then there's the parable of the sheep and goats.  This is not about Christians doing social action.  It's about the compassionate living that God expects from his people, which of course will generate social concern and action.

But now I want to bring in a different strand which, for me, sums up much that can be said about  being prepared.

In a short while we'll be singing a song that spoke very strongly to me recently.  I've started playing guitar in our music group.  I was sitting one day in my study, practising the chords for this song.  The chorus ends with the words, 'And I love you, Lord.'  Those words hit me with a jolt.  I found myself thinking, can I really say that I love the Lord? And, what does it mean to love the Lord?  My thoughts soon turned to the words I read earlier from John's gospel.  

'If you love me, keep my commands.'  To truly love Christ means to obey his teaching.  In effect, to be a genuine disciple, to do as he teaches, to keep his commands.  Now, if we are to do that we need to know and understand what his commands are.  We can begin that by reading the gospels.  In John's gospel, he sums up his teaching for them.  It's as if he says, all that I've taught you over these three short years is fulfilled by this command: . . . love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.

To love Christ, to be a disciple, to be about the master's business, to be ready for his return in essence means this: to truly love each other. 

There's nothing airy-fairy about this.  It's not a squishy feeling.  It's not about being nice to people, or even about liking people.  It's about laying down our lives for each other.  Love each other as I have loved you, said Jesus.  This kind of love costs.  Sometimes it hurts. 

I was reminded recently of the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest held prisoner in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.  Someone had apparently escaped from the camp and in reprisal the guards selected 10 men to be thrown into a hut and left to starve to death.  One of the men broke down weeping for his wife and children who would never see him again.  Moved by his plight, Father Kolbe volunteered to take his place and died a horrible death.  The man he replaced survived and was reunited with his wife after the war.

Now, in all probability, no-one here will be called on to do anything as extreme as that.  But there are still practical ways to show love.  Perhaps someone here will be facing Christmas day alone.  Inviting them to spend the day with your family could make the world of a difference to them.  That may seem a trivial example in comparison with Maximilian Kolbe's act but it's not trivial for the individual concerned.  You may think that a costly act on your part – but that's love for you.   Maybe Christmas day isn't the only day they spend alone . . .

There are plenty of people in need of selfless love: single parents and their children, the elderly or housebound, people needing to get to hospital appointments.  I'm sure you could think of other examples, or maybe even now you feel challenged to do something about a situation you're already aware of.

We are called, commanded, to love each other.  It means my being willing to put myself out for those around me who are in need.  Sometimes it will mean I'm not able to do what I want because someone else needs my support.  But I'm not in this alone.  I'm surrounded by God's people who are there to love and support me.   It's about loving but also about being loved in return.

The best way to be prepared for Christ's return is to live a life of true discipleship, following Christ's teaching by loving each other, and our neighbours, and even our enemies, as Christ has loved us.

Conclusion


So, to come to a conclusion, as we move through Advent towards Christmas day, let's keep in mind that
  • The Christ who came as a baby 2000 years ago will come again in glory.
  • We don't know when it will be, but he calls us to live in readiness.
  • The best way to be ready is to live the Christian life as Christ taught it.
  • And perhaps the fullest expression of that discipleship is to love each other with the real love that Christ demonstrated for us.

Let's now sing that song I mentioned.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Look to the Rock

Readings


Isaiah 50:10-51:3
Romans 5:1-11

This sermon makes use of material placed on line by Dr Chris Ritter, for which I am grateful.  You can find this here.

Introduction

Only last weekend, we celebrated the most startling event in human history: Jesus Christ died and then rose from the dead, so that by trusting in him we can be reconciled with God the Father.  Through Christ we can experience new birth and the transformation of our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The resurrection brings hope to the world.  This message of hope spread out from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Countless thousands down the ages have discovered that hope in Christ.  People today are still discovering Jesus for themselves.

But things seem not to be as rosy as they were . . . 



The graph shows the membership of the Methodist church in Great Britain and Northern Ireland from its inception up to modern times.  We see almost continual growth until we reach the twentieth century—and then something changes.  Thereafter we see almost constant decline.  Of course, this picture holds true not only for the Methodist church.  Other denominations are also experiencing decline.

Globally, the picture is not quite so gloomy; the kingdom of God is still growing.  Even in our land, there are growing churches.  For the most part they are charismatic evangelical churches with in-house team leadership—a very different model from the one we're used to as Methodists.

But the outlook for the Methodist church seems bleak.  Is this what Jesus died and rose again for?  Is there any hope for this once great denomination?  The passage we heard from Isaiah encourages us to believe that there may be.

Original Meaning

The first part of our reading (50:10-11) contains an exhortation and a warning.  The people were living in dark times.  They were in exile, far from their home.  Perhaps they saw no possibility of change.  But God speaks to them through his prophet. 

Let's begin with the exhortation.  Paraphrasing, God says, all you who still believe in me—even though you are in captivity, all of you who are still trying to keep my ways—even though everything seems to be impenetrably dark: trust me! Rely on me!  I have all this in hand! 

Then we have a warning, which is quite a serious one.  God told the people that they could not substitute other things for real faith in God.  They could not engineer their own way out of darkness.  It seems that God says, you can attempt that if you like but it will do you no good and I will have no part in it; that course ends only in disaster.

So God was saying to them, I am your only hope.  Trust in me. 

In the second part of our reading (51:1-3), God goes on to back up his exhortation with evidence.  “Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn.”  He says, look what I did with Abraham and Sarah.  He was one man, they were one barren couple, and I made your entire nation from them.  Look at the evidence: I did it before, and I can do it again!  I can restore you to your land and your land can flourish again.

Both parts of this reading begin with God addressing the faithful: those who fear the LORD, who are obedient, who pursue righteousness, who seek the LORD.  The encouragement to trust is emphasised for them because Abraham was like that too.  Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham that he “believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Now, we know Abraham wasn't perfect.  He took his eye off the ball a few times.  He even tried to lend God a hand to fulfil the promise of an heir—and we still see trouble in the world that stems from that.  But Abraham trusted in God, and God was true to his promise.

And God was saying to these people in exile, do what  Abraham did: trust me, and I will do for you what I promise, just as I did for Abraham—but please don't try to do it your own way!

Application for Today

Looking again at the graph, these are dark days indeed.  In 1906, we had a membership of over 800 thousand.  Today, we have fewer than 202 thousand and 69% of them are over 65 years of age.  Where did we go wrong?

Here are some words penned by John Wesley.

"I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast . . . the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. What was their fundamental doctrine? That the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice."

I've been a Christian for 45 years but only a Methodist for about five.  I've met some wonderful, saintly Methodist men and women, but I've also wondered where many others really stand in their faith.  I've been amazed at the lack of Bible knowledge and understanding I've found.  If we don't know our Bible, how do we know what we believe?  I don't mean to criticise, merely to make that observation.

I'm aware that people have been saying at conference for years now that change is needed – and that's clear from the graph – but I see little change happening.  Is change possible?  Can we recover, and reverse this graph?

God is good at new beginnings!

I believe God wants to say to us, “Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn.”  We could look back to Abraham and see what God did through him but, perhaps more relevantly for us, we can look back to John Wesley and see what God did through him. 

We need to look at the practices the movement was founded on and reintroduce some of them.  What happened to class meetings, for example, where Methodists met to study the Bible?  Churches that are growing are still doing some of those things, and the Bible is central to their faith.  I know times have changed, but the message hasn't, and God hasn't, and, actually, people are not really all that different now.  

Look to the rock from which you were cut.”  This wouldn't be the first time Methodist people have taken stock and returned to basics.

At the Liverpool conference of 1820, only 29 years after the death of John Wesley, people were deeply concerned that in the space of only one year the Methodist movement had lost 4688 members.  In terms of membership, that's like loosing our entire circuit nearly seven times over.  If we add in the community roll numbers, it's like losing everyone almost twice over.

Back in 1820, nationally, there were more Methodists than there are today!  They were concerned at losing 4688 people.  If they were concerned and determined to do something about it, shouldn't we be?

So what did they do?  Well, they looked to the rock from which they were cut.

They agreed that the problem was spiritual, not societal, and they passed 31 resolutions to put their house in order.  You'll be relieved to hear we are not going to examine them all in detail.  We can summarise them like this:

  • The preachers agreed to seek personal renewal.  They recommitted themselves to personal devotion to God, to mission and discipleship.  They prayed for spiritual gifts to empower their ministry, and recommitted to study for the good of their work.
  • They agreed to renew their preaching, focussing on the vital doctrines of the faith, presented in an evangelistic, experiential and zealous manner.  Their preaching would be orthodox, practical and would call for a response.  They would take the gospel to the people rather than expecting the people to come to the gospel.
  • They renewed their commitment to prayer and fasting.
  • They agreed to plant new classes where there was no existing witness.
  • They made re-commitment to serve young people well.
  • They set about providing proactive pastoral care and encouragement of discipleship.
  • They renewed their teaching, giving high-quality, practical and relevant instruction.
  • They established “bands”, what we would call house groups, that were smaller and more intimate than classes to encourage accountability and spiritual growth.

The good news is that the medicine worked and the patient made a remarkable recovery, going on in leaps and bounds, despite a big falling-out in 1850.

God is good at new beginnings!

Can something like this work again?  We cannot seek merely to maintain the status quo.  The status quo is decline, as is evident from the graph.  What must we do to invoke God's blessing?  We must “Look to the rock from which [we] were cut.

Perhaps John Wesley's words from earlier give us some insight.  We must “. . . hold fast . . . the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which [Methodists] first set out.” We must grasp again the “. . . fundamental doctrine . . . [that] the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice.

Many, if not all, of the measures put in place in 1820 would go a long way to helping us grasp and hold fast these things.

God is good at new beginnings!

Our God is fully committed to us.  We read in Romans that he showed just how much he loved us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  He didn't wait for us to improve!  He'd still be waiting!

Our denomination is in deep trouble but this is not a time for despair, it's a time for real trust and reliance on God.  Let me illustrate what I mean by real trust.

You see that chair over there?  It's a very fine chair—I wouldn't have it in my lounge but it is nonetheless an excellent chair.  When I look at that chair, it tells me, “I am strong, I can take your weight; I can uphold you and give you rest.”  I believe in that chair.

Actually, this is not believing in that chair.  This is real believing [sit on chair]. For benefit of those sitting at the back, my feet are off the floor.  I have put my full trust in this chair.  If it fails, I am embarrassed and sitting on my backside on the floor.

Being a Christian is not about being religious on a Sunday.  It's about putting full trust in Christ, risking it all on him.  If he fails, I am embarrassed and flat on my face.  I'll take the risk!  Why? Because the evidence for doing so is rock solid.
  • God created the nation of Israel from one man.  
  • God restored the exiled Jews to their homeland.  
  • God brought about salvation for all through faith in Christ.  
  • God used John Wesley in leading many thousands to find that salvation for themselves.  
  • God restored the fortunes of the early Methodists.  
And God can do it again.  God is good at new beginnings!

Winding up

We cannot live by the light of our artificial fires and torches.  We cannot merely follow tradition and formality.  We must do things God's way with full confidence in him.  It will involve commitment and change.

We can't live on past glory.  We need the power of God in our lives today.  The world needs the power of God in our lives today!

We can't leave this for someone else to do.  This is personal.  Who here will stand up and be counted for God?  Who will declare, “Yes, I will trust fully in God and seek him earnestly.  I will look to him for personal renewal, for renewal of this church, for the renewal of this movement.”

Who knows?  The next Methodist revival could begin here, in this Methodist Church.  And you can be part of it!

God is good at new beginnings!  All that's needed is that we go with him.