Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Good News: Release for the Captives


Isaiah 61
John 1:1-14

Christmas Today

In the church calendar, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the coming of Messiah – that's what Christ-mass means.  It is, and should be, a happy time of celebration; but, for many in our society, most often it's for all the wrong reasons. 

For many, Christmas has become just a good excuse for a party, for gluttony and drunkenness. It's a time to be nice to others (for a change).  It's called a time for the children, for getting together with family (and, I suspect quite often, for family arguments: grandma wants to watch the Queen, the kids want to watch “The Snowman” – again, and grandpa wants to watch “The Great Escape” – again!). 

As a society, we have turned one of the most significant events in the history of the world into a massive, commercialised scramble for the money in our pockets, set to the annoying musical accompaniment of chirping tills, Slade's “Merry Christmas” wishes, Wizzard's wishing it could be “Christmas everyday” (really?), and Maria Carey: all she wants for Christmas is me! 

We've buried the real meaning of Christmas under a landslide of tinsel, glitter, wrapping paper, turkey and mince pies (O, how I love mince pies!). 

The main figure of the season is no longer Jesus, the promised Messiah, but Father Christmas (Ho, ho, ho). 

On a local news programme I saw some years ago, a reporter was interviewing members of the public in Birmingham.  Someone said, 'The church is trying to ruin Christmas by bringing religion into it.' 

Could it be that some enemy has been working to obliterate the fact of Christ's coming?

For some, Christmas is an awful time.  It's not good news for the poor at all.  People wonder how they are going to afford what the children want.  They solve the problem by making themselves captives of credit card companies or, even worse, payday loan companies.

Broken-hearted people look back on a miserable year and forward to a year with only darkness and the prison of despair.  The period around Christmas and New Year is the peak time for suicides.

It's often a time of unhappy memories for those who have been bereaved.  I knew someone who would never go to church at Christmas because her husband had fallen down dead while reading the lesson on Christmas Day.

Now that I've got you all feeling thoroughly miserable, let's see if I can cheer you up again!

We all know that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th, but let's not get too hung up on that; since we don't know the actual date, it's as good a date as any.  The important thing is that Christ was born. 

The amazing, utterly mind-boggling thing is that the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God stepped down into our world in the person of Jesus Christ with very definite intent, and to bring hope to all people. 

In the coming of Christ, God's purposes foretold in Isaiah long before are unleashed into the world.  The words we heard read were
  • Good News for Isaiah's time
  • Good News for Christ's time on earth
  • Good News for today

Good News for Isaiah's Time

The words we heard from Isaiah were originally penned for a people returning from exile, who perhaps were born and grew up entirely in captivity, and now were witnessing the sorry state of their homeland after returning, perhaps wondering if real freedom and restoration could ever happen. 

Imagine yourself as one of the Jews returning from exile.  You've heard the stories about what your homeland of Judah was like; you've heard about the magnificent temple of Solomon.  You get back home and what do you find?  Total devastation: Jerusalem's walls are broken down and the temple is in ruins.  How are you going to feel?  Pretty broken-hearted, I should think, to discover that all you'd longed for amounted to nothing.  You've come all this way, and for what?  You'd find it easy to share in the grief and mourning of those originally taken into captivity.

But listen: God is on the case!  These words from Isaiah bring hope and encouragement:
  • your dreadful situation will be recovered
  • you will be set free and walk once more in the light
  • your grief will be turned to joy
  • you will rebuild
  • God will bless you and reward you!

Good News for Christ's Time on Earth

In Luke's Gospel, chapter 4, we see Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth.  He reads from Isaiah 61, the same passage we read from today. 

Jesus lifts the words from Isaiah out of their original historical context and places them down in a new setting: the land of Palestine, where people were oppressed by the Romans, governed by corrupt Jewish rulers, burdened by the rules and regulations of the religious authorities. 

Then he stakes a very personal claim to the passage with the words, 'Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'  In other words, Jesus is declaring, 'I am the one the prophet wrote about.  This is what I came to do.'  He clearly identifies himself as the “Suffering Servant” in the book of Isaiah. 

These same words from Isaiah were to bring hope to the down-trodden of that day – but perhaps not in the way they were expecting, because they were looking for political deliverance and failed to perceive their Messiah as the “Suffering Servant”.

Jesus went about preaching the good news, healing the sick, setting people free from their sins, giving them hope and releasing them to rebuild their lives.

Good News for Today

As the expression of Christ's declared intent, Isaiah's words bring hope to all people down the ages, right up to the present day and on into the future.  These words bring hope for us, here and now!

God's primary purpose in sending Christ is to proclaim good news to the poor; and it's practical, life-changing news. 

God cares deeply for the poor and down-trodden in his world; as Christ's body here on Earth in the 21st Century, so must we.  It's essential that we have a social conscience and do what we can to bring hope to those in material need, at the same time as we hold out the promise of salvation through faith in Christ.

But the gospel is good news not only for those in actual poverty.  In the sermon on the mount as recorded in Matthew's gospel Jesus says 'Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'

Spiritually, of ourselves we are all paupers; we can never be good enough to save ourselves.  The settings in our minds are for wrong-doing, however hard we may try to do right.  We're held captive by our nature; our minds are fixed on the ways of this world and the light doesn't get through to us.

There may well be someone here today who feels only too aware of how poverty-stricken you are.  You may feel like you're living your life in prison.  You may feel locked in by all kinds of things.  You may feel lost, outside of God's kingdom, outside his love and care.

The good news is that we are living in the year of the LORD's favour, and Jesus came to bring liberty and hope for people exactly like us:
  • your dreadful situation can be recovered
  • you can be set free from your prison and walk once more in the light
  • your grief can be turned to joy
  • you can rebuild
God can bless you and reward you!

In this year of the LORD's favour, God is for us, not against us.

What Kind of Prison?

I want, now, to talk about a few situations that demonstrate that Jesus is still in the business of bringing good news to people in real, practical ways. 

Maybe something I say will match the kind of prison you feel yourself in; if so, take encouragement.  If you aren't in any kind of prison, then give thanks for the good things that God does and take encouragement.  If your prison is a different one, then see these as examples of what God can do and take encouragement.

Actual Prison

Let's begin with actual prison.  A friend of mine has recently begun attending a group that meets in Newcastle.  I think he's there because he brings a bit of normality to the group, which is made up almost entirely of ex-offenders. Many of them found Christ while in prison, and have probably the most way-out style of worshipping you're ever likely to come across. 

These people were not minor felons; they were drug-users and -dealers, serial offenders, and their lives were derelict and going worse than nowhere.  But God has got hold of them, turned them around and put them on the road to recovery. 

Some of them still have mental health problems and their own personal struggles but they're being transformed by their encounter with Christ and are in the process of rebuilding their lives.  They're sharing their experiences with others and leading them to Christ. 

We had one of them at our Sunday night fellowship recently to share his testimony.  What an eye-opener that was! 

However bad you may have been, God can forgive you and turn you around.

The Prison of Bitterness

Bitterness is a terrible prison to be in.  It blights the life of the one who is in it and of those close to them.  I know that's true because I've experienced it.  After my mother left my father, he swore he would never forgive her.  He's been true to his word and became a very bitter man, at least as far as she was concerned.  My brother and I still can't mention our mum when he's around, even though she died 13 years ago and dad has been happily remarried.  Bitterness is a prison that stops you moving on.

Last time I was here, I spoke about the Lord's prayer and the need to forgive in order to be forgiven.  The way out of the prison of bitterness is to forgive.  Leave God to deal with the offenders.  They may have already found his forgiveness, in which case retaining your unforgiveness will make no difference to them but it could hold you bound forever.

Forgiving may be very hard but it will bring you out of your prison and into the light.  It will allow your broken heart to be healed, and you can begin rebuilding.

Another remedy is to look at what you have in Christ, not at what you feel you've lost.  In the 1970s, I had the privilege of hearing Richard W├╝rmbrandt speak.  He was a Romanian pastor who'd been imprisoned and tortured under the communist regime because of his faith.  He was asked if he felt bitter at losing 14 years of his life.  His reply was, “Not at all.  I have all of eternity; what is 14 years?”  He also forgave his captors and prayed for them.

The Prison of Human Nature

Many people are held prisoner by habits of one form or another, be it some sin or an ingrained behaviour leading to all sorts of wrong outcomes.  Sometimes there are things that seem to be built into us that hold us captive.

In my case, shortly after hearing the call to get back into preaching, God put his finger on something that I'd never really recognised in my life.  I knew there were some bad habits but this was about a wrong attitude that in reality had always been part of me; I saw how a lot of things I'd done down the years were rooted in it.  I knew it had to be sorted out before I was let loose in a pulpit again.

Having had about six weeks of wrestling with the issue, wondering what on earth I could do about it, I remember driving along the A69 on the way home from work and shouting out to God at the top of my voice “I don't want to be like this!”  That was the most real repentance I've ever voiced; I didn't like myself and I didn't want to be me anymore.  And that was the moment when I was released from my prison, and the next phase of redevelopment work began.

There can be all manner of things that hold us bound, things about our nature that we really don't like.  The Good News is that we can be set free and we can rebuild.

Other Prisons

I could talk about my own experience of the prison of depression and my release from it, of a friend's different experience with the same darkness and his release, or of someone who lived for over a decade in the prison of guilt but who finally came into the light and found forgiveness and freedom.

Some of you may also have stories to tell.

In Summary

At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Christ.  Christ came to change the world.  He changes the world by changing us.  Because of Christ we can gain entrance to the kingdom of God and begin the process of transformation. 

As John writes, 'Yet to all who [received] him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.'  Through Christ, God gives us a new heritage and an new destiny.  Once we are in Christ, our future is no longer determined by our past.

Do you feel yourself locked away in a dark prison?  Why live in a dungeon when you can live in the light of God's Son? His light shines into the darkness of your life, and that darkness has not overcome it.

Christ came into the world and lived as one of us; he experienced it all from cradle to grave but without sin.  He ultimately gave his life as the sacrifice that paid the price of all the sins of all of us.  He rose from the dead and lives forever in the power of an endless life. 

He is still proclaiming Good News, and all of its benefits!  He is still setting people free.  This is still the year of the LORD's favour; and the LORD's favour extends to you, to all of us, today!

To my mind, that makes Christmas something worth celebrating.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What makes a healthy church?


1 Corinthians 12.12-27
Ephesians 4.1-16


Today, we will be looking mainly at Ephesians 4 and attempting to answer the question “What makes a healthy church?” I should warn you this sermon will be more of a “teach” than a “preach”.

I would dearly love to do a whole series of sermons on Ephesians because it's such a rich letter, full of life-enhancing truths. But don't worry: unless the way Methodism operates at a local level changes radically, that's a fate that will never be inflicted on you. So let me encourage you to read Ephesians for yourselves at home. When you read it, ask God to give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you can really understand all that Paul has to say.

For me, chapter 4 verse 1 is the pivotal point of the letter. “... I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Prior to this, Paul has described that calling and set out all that God has done for us in Christ, and it's on the basis of this that he makes his appeal. That's why it's important that you read the beginning of the letter. The rest of the letter is practical instruction on what it means to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. We are looking at only part of that instruction today, and that's why it's important you read the rest of it.

I've heard many a speaker say “If you ever find the perfect church, don't join it because you'll spoil it.” Our question today is not about how to be perfect but how to be healthy. A healthy body can still catch cold but because it's healthy it's less likely to and, if it does, it will recover quicker. A healthy body can still be injured but because it's healthy it will mend more easily.

A healthy church will still face problems and difficulties but because it's healthy it will overcome them more easily. So it's really important that a church is healthy. What, then, makes a church healthy? From our chapter in Ephesians and other readings, here are four points to take on board:
  • A healthy church takes unity seriously 
  • A healthy church is committed to discipleship 
  • A healthy church has gifted leaders 
  • A healthy church gets on with serving. 

A healthy church takes unity seriously 

There are two types of unity mentioned in this chapter. In verse three, Paul talks about the unity of the Spirit, and in verse 13 the unity of the faith. Let me try and explain the difference:
  • The unity of the Spirit is something given to us by God right from the outset of our Christian walk; that's why we're encouraged to keep it. 
  •  The unity of the faith is something that we grow towards along the path of discipleship. 
Every born-again believer has been called into fellowship with God and is sealed with the Holy Spirit. Someone who has been on the Christian road for five minutes has the Holy Spirit; someone who has been following Christ for decades also has the Holy Spirit. Because there is only one Spirit, these people share in the unity of the Spirit.

One would hope that the more experienced believer has learnt a thing or two along the way and has a much greater grasp of the faith than the new believer, who knows only that Jesus is amazing: they do not share the unity of the faith.

I had a colleague at work who was a Roman Catholic. We were fairly comparable in our time on the journey. We disagreed about a lot of doctrinal issues and matters of tradition but we were both indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We were perfectly happy to acknowledge each other as a brother in Christ; we enjoyed unity in the Spirit even though we didn't have unity in the faith.

You and I may disagree over some point of doctrine or practice but if you are Christ's and I am Christ's then we dare not allow those differences to cause division between us. The unity of the Spirit is essential for a healthy church.

The unity of the Spirit is something given to us by God; it's not something we strive to attain. But look at what Paul says in verse three: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Unfortunately, Paul implies that the unity of Spirit can be lost or damaged. We cannot afford that if we are to be a healthy church. We cannot have bitter disputes within our ranks. We cannot have factions and cliques.   I've seen enough of those in my time, and nothing good has ever come from them.

The problem is not in disagreement. The problem is in dividing the church. As chapter five, verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Reverence for Christ in each of us must overrule our personal opinions of each other.

Paul tells us that the unity of the Spirit is so important that we must make every effort to keep it, through the bond of peace. Every effort. Whatever it takes.

If I have a problem with a fellow believer, who should make the first move? I should, whether I have something against them or they have something against me. In various places, scripture puts the onus on me to make peace. You can make the application to yourselves. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

A healthy church is committed to discipleship

Paul's expectation is that we all grow towards and attain the unity of the faith, that we all come to the same understanding of the faith. So, at some point along the road, you will all agree with me! Won't that be wonderful?

Actually, what really happens is that we all (including me) become increasingly like Jesus. As it says in verse 13, we are to “[attain] to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” That is our destiny. In Romans 8.29, Paul writes, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

God wants us all to bear the family traits. We often say of siblings that they are so alike. I can't think of a better complement to hear than this: he is so like Jesus. Now, that would be wonderful!

This wonderful transformation doesn't just happen as we sleep. It's not something conferred on us only when we get to Heaven. We attain the transformation by living this life as disciples of Jesus.

What is a disciple? The Greek word that we translate as “disciple” means “learner” or “apprentice.” In Jewish tradition, a rabbi would call apprentices (just like Jesus did). The disciples aimed to become like their rabbi: to think like him, to speak like him and to act like him. Eventually, they would become sufficiently competent and full of godly character that they would be able to call and train their own disciples. And that is what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the end of Matthew's gospel, “... go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Verse 14 warns us of the danger of not being a disciple: we will remain spiritual infants; we will be unable to navigate the storms that threaten the Christian life; we may be easily fooled by unscrupulous teachers and their teachings.

Discipleship is the remedy for such problems. Jesus says, in John 8, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

In the early days, Methodists were derided as “Enthusiasts” because they were serious about discipleship. Discipleship is not only for the more enthusiastic among us. It's what being a Christian is all about; it's about being and doing like Jesus. If only we deserved the same derision in these times...

The first two points have emphasised unity. The next two points say something about diversity. Both unity and diversity are important for a healthy church.

A healthy church has gifted leaders

Christ has not left us to fathom out discipleship for ourselves. If you want to know what a disciple looks like, you could read through Ephesians. But to help us live as disciples, Christ has appointed gifted people to help us along the way. 1 Corinthians 12 has a slightly different list from the one here in Ephesians, but we'll just consider the Ephesians list for now.

The first thing to say is that, in my view, none of the ministries mentioned in verse 11 have become redundant, although they may be in different form from what some people imagine them to be. Christ still gives people such as these to his church because we have not yet “all reach[ed] unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God...

In the wider church there is the apostle.

Some say that the apostolic ministry died out with the original 12. However, there are others even in the New Testament who are referred to as apostles but were not in the original twelve: James, the Lord's brother, and Barnabas for example.

Post-biblical apostles, like the original however-many, establish new churches and lay strong foundations; they serve as ministers to other ministers and provide an informal leadership that goes beyond the local church, and they have a recognisable anointing for that. I know of people who function in this way. They may not call themselves apostles but that is the role they seem to operate in. You might consider John Wesley as an example of a post-biblical apostle.

In the wider church and also in the local church, there is the evangelist and the prophet.

The evangelist is gifted in presenting the gospel and leading others to faith in Christ, or may be in helping them along in their journey to faith. We may think of great names like Billy Graham, or perhaps the ordinary person who led you Christ. We are all called to be witnesses but some of us have the extra anointing that makes us evangelists. I know some people like that.

In the New Testament, a prophet is someone who is in tune with the Spirit and is able to hear what God is saying to the church now and to convey a living, active word for today. On a cautionary note, no such prophet, if genuine, would ever deliver a word contrary to Scripture, or claim something to be in addition to Scripture. A New Testament prophet is not the same as an Old Testament prophet.  I know some people with prophetic gifting, and I often pray that my preaching may have a prophetic edge to it. The last thing I want to do is provide nice services with no challenge in them.

In the local church particularly, there is the pastor/teacher.

These people care for the local flock: leading them to safe pasture, keeping them from straying, rescuing those who do stray, defending them from attack, making sure they have what they need to stay healthy and to grow.

Christ gives us leaders. A healthy church acknowledges its leaders, allows them to lead, gets behind them and follows their lead.

For many years, the church has expected all ministry to come through its one, ordained minister. But that's too much for any one person; we need the variety of people that Christ gives as gifts to his church. And, according to Paul, it isn't their job to do everything for us. He says they have a two-fold purpose:
  • to build up the body of Christ by helping us with our discipleship, and 
  • to equip all of us to do the work that's needed, which leads us to our last point: 

A healthy church gets on with serving

We'll be illustrating the 1 Corinthians 12 passage for this final part of the sermon. To help us do that, I've brought a visual aid (me!).

The human body is one united whole but it's made up of many different parts with different functions, directed by the head. For example I have two hands but they have very different skills. My left hand is very good at holding nails, for instance, and my right hand is quite good at wielding a hammer. [aside: more visual aids, a six-inch nail and an engineer's hammer.]

But what if my left hand decides it wants to do something else? Say it wants to wield the hammer and makes the right hand hold the nail. Well, I'd probably end up injuring myself, bending the nail and damaging the thing I was trying to nail down. Just think how bad it would be if my left foot said “Let me hold the nail!”

My right hand is very gifted but it can't knock a nail in unless the left hand is there to help. My right hand depends on my left hand doing its job. My left hand, though less skilled, is no less important or necessary than my right hand. To function well, my hands have to work together in cooperation, each of them doing the thing they're good at.

Just so with the church. Christ is the head of the church, the church is his body on Earth. Each one of us is an important part of the church. We have different callings and different skills.

I have a friend who, as a young man, felt himself pressured by people at his Brethren assembly towards preaching (because that's what men aspire to, don't they?) but the idea of standing up and speaking in public horrified him. He's since found other ways to serve that he's better suited for, and are still important for the witness of the church, including serving as a Street Pastor in Newcastle – a role he really loves.

As Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it.” It's important that we each find out what our calling is and that we do the work we are designed for. There are no age limits for service, there's no gender discrimination, there's no racial barrier. We each have a role to play. It's essential that we play it!

In a healthy body, each part performs its own work for the good of the whole. Do you know what your calling and gift is? Do you know the work of service you're being equipped for?

In Conclusion 

A healthy church expresses both unity and diversity.
  • We must be deeply committed to the Spirit who binds us together. 
  • We need to be enthusiastic disciples, growing together towards Christ-like maturity. 
  • We need leaders with a variety of gifts, and to allow them to equip us for service and build us up in discipleship. 
  • We need to find our individual places in the body and to play our parts in full. 
One final point: healthy things grow. If we are to grow rather than fizzle out we must be a healthy church.

We started with a question. Let me leave you with two more:
  • Are we a healthy church?
  • If not, how do you think we become one?