Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wealth, Worry and Nuclear Physics

Readings

Matthew 6:19-34, Luke 12:13-21

Introduction

Wealth!  “You can't take it with you.”  That's what they say, isn't it?  I had an uncle whose life-story was a classic rags-to-riches tale.  His usual response to that expression was, “I've no intention of going!”  Sadly, he had no choice in the matter in the end.  When he drew in his last breath, he was a very wealthy man but, when he finished breathing it out again, he had absolutely nothing: he took not a penny of it with him.

Another uncle of mine used to say, “Money can't make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.”  And I suppose there is some measure of truth in that...

In the passage we read from Matthew, Jesus draws our attention to what really matters in life.  He challenges attitudes which are just as prevalent in today's society as in New Testament times, and shares the secret of how to make sure we have something to take with us when we go.  I want to examine Jesus' words using a framework of three simple questions:

  • What's your heart set on?
  • What's on your mind?
  • What's your priority? 

What's your Heart set on?

There are all sorts of reasons why people amass wealth and possessions.  Some just seem to have a knack for it, and everything they touch turns to gold.  For some, it's about status: their wealth says something about them; they are important.  Apparently, the Pharisees thought their wealth was God's reward for their keeping his laws.  For them, wealth said, “I am righteous, and it is plain for all to see.”  For yet others, it's about security: if they have plenty, they can buy themselves out of difficulties.

Whatever reason we may have for getting rich, Jesus makes the point that our worldly possessions are very unreliable.  They can decay, they can be destroyed, they can be taken from us.  In a way, Jesus himself points out to us that we can't take our worldly wealth with us and that one day, like my uncle, and like it or not, we have to go!

He brings into focus the fact of heaven and that our eternal security is of far greater importance than any safety we may secure for the few short years we are here.  Treasure on earth will fail us; only treasure in heaven will endure.  In the passage we heard from Luke, Jesus tells us that real life does not consist in an abundance of possessions, and that to be focussed only on this life is a very serious mistake.

Verses 22 and 23 in Matthew 6 have something to say about what our attitude to possessions reveals about the condition of our hearts.  These are strange verses in a way, talking about eyes and light the way they do.  Let me read them again, using alternative renderings that bring out some more of the meaning in the original Greek.  “The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  The eyes of the person who holds on to this world's goods only lightly are open, letting in light.  The eyes of the greedy, possessive person are narrowed and keep the light out!  Grasping at wealth will damage your health!

Wealth itself is not a bad thing; it's a neutral thing that can be used for good or bad.  But it cannot and must not be the focus of our lives.  People who are intent on having wealth probably take the view that their wealth serves them, enabling them to get what they want.  Jesus however turns that idea on its head.  “You cannot serve God and money,” he says.

How do you become a servant of money?  By making it the thing you live for it becomes your idol.  But there is only room for one God in our lives.  God will not share that place with anything else.  In Exodus 20, where the ten commandments are listed, verse 3 says, “You shall have no other gods before [or besides] me.

So, to revisit the first of our questions, what's your heart set on?, ask yourself, what matters most to me? where is my treasure?  Jesus says, “...where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v21)  There is room for only one God, and being in his kingdom must be our primary focus.

What's on your Mind?

Greed is not the only reason for getting money.  Of course, we need money to live.  We have to eat, buy clothes and houses and all the other essentials of life.  To do that we have to have at least enough, and we all like a little bit more for that rainy day...

I know from experience how easy it is to worry about not having enough, especially in these uncertain times of recession.  Worry is a terrible thing that we all do and makes absolutely no difference to our predicaments; except making them seem larger, and something to worry about even more than we already have.

Why do people worry?  As Jesus says, worrying can't make our lives a single hour longer.  In fact, we now know that the stress of worry can make our lives considerably shorter!  As well as pointing out the futility of worrying, Jesus gives us a very good reason not to worry: we have a loving Father who knows what we need and promises to meet our need.

Once again, he draws into focus what matters most.  Having life and existence is of more import than the things we worry about.  Jesus came to bring us eternal life; that's his priority for us, and it needs to be our priority too.  But we need food and drink and clothing don't we?  Shouldn't these things be important to us?  Doesn't it make sense that we worry about these things?  Jesus puts us straight with examples from nature.

Why worry about food and drink?  Look at the birds, Jesus says.  All they need is available to them.  They don't worry about food and drink and spend all their time working.  God provides for them.  We are more important to God than the birds; will he not provide for us too?

Now, he is talking about the birds living in the very different climate of Palestine, where their food is in plentiful supply all year round.  We have to take account of that because some of the birds around us do stock up for winter.  But even here the birds are provided for: often by people acting as unwitting agents of God.  So the example still stands.  You are more important than the birds so don't worry about food and drink: God will provide the means!

As for clothing, look at the wild flowers: how beautiful are they?  More beautiful than the most opulent king Israel ever knew, and they don't do any work for it.  God designed them to be as they are!  I don't know anything about Palestinian wild flowers, but think about a British meadow.  What a riot of beauty!  There are speedwell, violets, buttercups, field-campion, scarlet pimpernel, primroses, cowslips, daisies, dandelions, to name but a few.  It's just a field of grass but look at it!  We are more valuable than grass; won't our God provide for us?

Look at the flowers here in church.  I know they are cultivated but, all the same, we've only been working with what God put in there to begin with.  Aren't they beautiful?  You are more important to God than even the flowers in church!

The biggest problem with worry is that it is a great enemy of faith.  If worry is the enemy of faith, then faith is the antidote to worry: faith in our heavenly Father who values us so much that he sent his Son to die for us!  If he's prepared to do that, can't we trust him for the basic things of our earthly lives?  God knows our need.  If he is number one in our lives, he will provide our needs.

Actually, looking back over my life to times when I've not had a great deal of spare cash to play with, my needs were always met.  At university in the 70s, I had enough to buy the food and books I needed; other people have bought me clothes; I had somewhere to live. 

But you'll be surprised to know I'm not perfect.  My wife is naturally more generous than I am, and I had some concerns that, unless we were careful, we wouldn't have enough for ourselves.  And then God spoke to me through something I wrote myself in a creative writing class.  He assured me he was with me and that I need not fear not having enough.  There's something wonderful when God speaks to you so clearly: it changes your life.  I put away my fear and allowed myself to live more generously, more contentedly, because God is with me always, and what more can I need?  I've been retired for a year now and have less income but I have enough and some to share, and just as much of God as I always did—and he comes in endless supply.  Why did I have so little faith?

To worry is to live like a pagan.  They have to run after material concerns because they don't have a heavenly Father who knows and supplies their needs.  We do!

So, to revisit our second question, what's on your mind?, ask yourself, am I worrying like a pagan? Or am I trusting in my loving heavenly Father?  Let's trust him!

What's your Priority?

Jesus began his ministry with the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17).  The whole purpose of his coming was to make God's kingdom accessible to us, and now he tells us that finding the kingdom is the most important thing in our lives; and so it is!

There's a short phrase that sums up for us the essential point of his message in verse 33 of our passage: “...seek first [the Father's] kingdom and his righteousness...

I looked this verse up in the Greek and I was surprised by what I found.  The word for “first” is “proton”.  As I'm a physicist, that had an interesting resonance for me.  You see, every atom in the universe has at least one proton in its nucleus.  The number of protons in an atom determines what kind of atom it is: hydrogen has one proton, oxygen has eight protons.   Fundamentally, the number of protons determines the behaviour of the atom and the kind of interactions it can have with other atoms.

Now, Jesus clearly isn't talking about nuclear physics here but it's insightful for us to reflect on this.  The kingdom of God is to be fundamental to our existence.  God wants our identity to be defined by his kingdom.  He wants our character to be defined by kingdom values.  Our relationships and all our interactions with others are to be governed by kingdom values.  Then we can show his righteousness to the world, a righteousness that isn't based on social status or our own efforts.

None of this comes to us naturally.  That's why Jesus tells us to seek God's kingdom.  Only God's kingdom will endure.  Only in God's kingdom can we find everlasting security.  That's why Jesus tells us to make it the first thing in our lives.

So, to revisit our last question, what's your priority? ask yourself, who am I living for? For myself, or for God and his kingdom?

Summary

In our passage, the Lord has challenged materialism, warning that to live that way is to serve the wrong God and cannot give us security beyond this life.  He's urged us to have faith in our Father instead of worrying—as if there were no loving God.  And he tells us to make finding God's kingdom the most important thing in our lives.  And he's promised God's provision of our everyday needs.

We can know God's kingdom in our lives here and now.  It's important that we do!  The treasure we lay up in heaven is the only thing we can keep when we leave this world.

Seek first God's kingdom!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thomas the Doubter

Reading

John 20:19-31

Introduction

Not much is said about Thomas in scripture.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke merely list him among the twelve closest disciples of Jesus.  John gives us a little more information about him. 

When John first mentions Thomas, Jesus has declared his intent to go to the tomb of Lazarus despite the warnings that the Jews had already tried to stone him once and would do so again.  Thomas, with heavy resignation, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

The next time Thomas appears, Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them but that they know the way to where he is going.  Thomas, not able to make any sense of this, butts in with, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?

In the account we've heard read today, Thomas sticks to what he knows: he saw Jesus crucified; saw the Romans make sure he was dead by spearing him; saw the tomb and the stone rolled in place.  Dead people don’t come back so, regardless of anything anyone says they saw, Jesus is dead.  For him to believe otherwise he must see it for himself:  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.

He seemed to have little confidence in his closest associates or in their ability to see things right.  Ever since, he's been known as Doubting Thomas which is somewhat of an unkindness, if the legend of his subsequent activities is true.  But, at this stage of his experience, he epitomises unbelief for us, just one week after the most significant sequence of events in human history.

His unbelief raises a few questions for us.
  • What does unbelief look like?  
  • Where does it come from?  
  • What effect does it have on us?  
  • What can we do about it?

What Does Unbelief Look Like?

The first symptom of Thomas’s unbelief is that he rejects the evidence of credible witnesses. 

The people telling him that Christ was alive were not strangers.  They were people known to him, people like himself.  He'd spent three years in their company, and had shared their experiences.  The only difference was that Thomas was missing when Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  They were overjoyed, and eager to tell Thomas they had seen the Lord.

We can imagine the logic behind Thomas’s reaction.  “I’m sure you think you did, but things like that don’t happen.  If it makes you happy, then good for you; but I’m a realist—you can’t expect me to believe the impossible.”  Thomas said he would not believe unless he saw it for himself.  Perhaps he thought the stress had all been too much for them and they'd lost the plot.

Are we not the same?  We meet people who claim a tangible experience of God.  They have the embarrassing habit of talking about God all the time.  They seem to have a bit more joy than the rest of us.  We say, “I won’t believe God can touch anyone in this way unless he touches me too.  But that isn’t likely to happen because God doesn’t do that sort of thing, and I don’t need it.” 

Another symptom is that Thomas rejects the words of Jesus.  Somehow, all Jesus had taught had gone over his head.  Jesus had explained to the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  (Matthew 16:21) 

We are also very good at judging things not against the Bible but against our own interpretation of the Bible, or even explaining the Bible away where it doesn't fit our experience:
  • There have been times of silence from God before and this is another one. 
  • God healed then but doesn’t today. 
  • The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for now.
We avoid the truth because it's easier than calling our experience into question. 

Our apparent religion leaves us in danger of “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Ti 3:5).

Where Does Unbelief Come From?

What is unbelief anyway?  It's not merely absence of faith; I think it's something more sinister than that.

It's not just having questions about the truth of something.  We all have honest questions about some of the things we believe.  It’s not that we don’t believe, more that we haven’t yet found the right perspective on the problem.  There’s nothing wrong with that. 

Unbelief is more of an inability to believe something, or even a determination not to believe something.  Look at what Thomas said in verse 25.  Paraphrasing, “Unless my exacting proofs are given I WILL NOT believe.”  He's already made his mind up!

How did Thomas get into this state?  One cause of unbelief can be our circumstances.  By tradition, Thomas was a carpenter, like Jesus, but we can hardly blame his occupation for his cynicism.  Perhaps he suffered terrible disillusionment when all his hopes for Jesus failed at Calvary.  What would he have thought after the crucifixion?  It all came to nothing in the end.  You fool!  Fancy being taken in by all that.

We can well understand Thomas's reluctance to join another risky adventure.  Thomas needed his perspective changing if he was to recover faith.

How many people have lost faith because of a sudden reversal of fortunes?  Could it be that it's not that Jesus has failed but that their expectations have been misplaced?  Might we need a change of perspective?

I have friends who, some years ago, lost their daughter at the age of eight through a tragic accident.  People said to them, “How can you believe in a God who lets this happen?”  Their response was, “How will we ever get through this without God's help?”

The apostle Paul gives us a big hint about another source of unbelief in 2 Corinthians 4:3.  He writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel...”.  People are locked into unbelief because Satan has blinded them to truth.  As “the god of this world”, he's pulling the strings of our society.

In the west, the Age of Reason has robbed us of faith. We look for rational explanations.  Where we can’t find one, we paper over the cracks with the idea that one day, when we have more knowledge, we will find one.  Well, one day it will be too late!  Perhaps the only explanation is God! 

Then, we have our affluent society.  We have no apparent need of God.  We can take care of ourselves.  We don’t need faith when we’ve money in the bank! 

Even as believers, we swim in the same soup.  We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society.  We cannot rely on only what we can see.

Once when I went scuba diving with a friend in the sea at Whitley Bay,  we were looking for a shipwreck we knew was there.  Visibility was awful, and we were tempted to give up, but we had a compass bearing to follow.  We pressed on and found not only the wreck but an enormous lobster and an octopus!  We'd have missed out if we'd gone only by what we could see.

Thomas was not alone in his unbelief, of course.  All the disciples were numbed in their senses.  All had lived in the world influenced by Satan but we can’t blame it all on Satan and circumstance.  Perhaps they all needed to hear the words that Jesus spoke to two others on the road to Emmaus.  “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25).  Our own hearts can be faulty.

I confess the often slowness of my own heart to believe.  I am an analytical person by nature and by training.  There is nothing wrong with that but my tendency has been to over-analyse things that affect me personally.  I've identified all the problems.  I've looked for the low-risk option.  I've tended to rule out steps of faith.  For me, this is unbelief.  God wants me to live by faith not to restrict myself to my own perspective.

We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society. As Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it."

What Effect Does Unbelief Have On Us?

The writer to the Hebrews says of the Israelites “...they were not able to enter [into God's rest], because of their unbelief.” (He 3:19).  Unbelief will keep us out of what God has for us.  Thomas, for a while, missed out on the joy of the other disciples because of his unbelief. 

I believe we are at a very significant time in the life of our Circuit: it could be make or break for us.  I believe God wants to work in Tynedale.  There's a wave coming in and, like a surfer, we need to catch it.  I don't want us to miss out on riding God’s wave of renewal because we don't have the faith to see it. We need to get in the water where the wave will be, not wait to see if the wave is really there.  If we only watch from the beach, the wave will break on the shore and be gone.

The writer to the Hebrews also warns, “See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (He 3:12).  This points us to the biggest danger of unbelief.  The writer here is not saying get rid of people with unbelief but see to it they find a remedy because unbelief can turn them away from God.

What Can We Do About Unbelief?

Here are three remedies to think about: the grace of God, the evidence, and personal choice.

First, think of the grace the Lord Jesus showed to Thomas.  He came back when Thomas was there and dealt very personally and directly with him.  He made sure that Thomas got to see his hands and side.  The Lord will surely meet us at our point of need too, if we give him the chance.  We need to put ourselves in the right place at the right time.  God has promised we will find him when we seek him with all our heart! 

Second, consider the evidence.  We have in the Bible the accounts of reliable eye-witnesses.  In Christian bookshops you can find no end of books about countless believers who have proven God faithful down the ages.  Search the Internet for a film called “Transformations” to see the changes God brought in modern times to the societies of a Columbian city, a town on the outskirts of Nairobi, a valley in California and a rural town in Guatemala.  Believe the evidence you see.  God can do the same here!  Expect to see God at work.

[The Transformations films can be found here Transformations I and here  Transformations II.]

Third, start making the right choices now.  Jesus gave Thomas a command: “Stop doubting and believe”.  But it was his choice to believe.  Let's not allow our thinking to be characterised by unbelief.  Let's recognise we are not immune from the circumstances of life and not let circumstance rob us of faith.  Let's recognise that the enemy of our souls is blinding the minds of unbelievers and that he will still try to blind us if we let him.  Let's each one of us make Jesus truly our Lord and our God, like Thomas did.  Let's trust him, no matter what.  “Stop doubting and believe”. 

Epilogue

After the events in our passage, Thomas is next heard of in Acts joining constantly in prayer with the other apostles after the Ascension of Jesus, renewed and restored and active in the life and mission of the church.  Beyond that is legend.  Thomas went to India and founded a church that is still in evidence today. He laid down his life there for what he believed.  Thomas the Doubter proved full of faith in Jesus Christ, his Lord and his God.

What of God's purposes in Tynedale?  Are we involved yet?  Is unbelief in our way, or are we ready to grasp the vision, believe it and pray and work for its fulfilment?  Can God use people like us?  Yes he can!