Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

God Wants Fruitcake!

Readings

Matthew 7:21-27
Romans 11:33-12:6

Introduction

Hands up who likes cake!  Who prefers fruit cake?  And who prefers sponge?  For me, a good solid bit of fruit cake beats sponge cake every time.

Occasionally, my wife asks me to go shopping with her and, of course, I go willingly(!) in the hope that she'll reward me with a coffee and a slice of cake in a nice cafe. 

Imagine the scene.  We've gone into a cafe and looked at what's on offer in the cake display then found ourselves a table.  The waitress comes over and takes our order. "I'll have a filter coffee with milk please (I can't be doing with all this latte nonsense) and a piece of that fruitcake with the icing on the top."

Five minutes later, the waitress returns with our order and she puts down in front of me the coffee I asked for and a plate with a slice of icing on it.  "What's this?" I ask her. 

"It's icing," she says. “The sweetest bit!”

"This isn't what I'm expecting," I say.  "I want fruitcake.  Take this away!"

This is a perfectly reasonable response on my part.  If I've said what I want and I'm paying for it, I expect to get what I'm looking for.

As this sermon goes on, we'll see that our God has a certain expectation of what he is getting from us.  In the terms of this rather trivial parable, God is looking for fruitcake too, not just the icing.

God is looking for disciples.  We'll see that discipleship is
  • prescribed by Jesus
  • expected by the Father
  • enabled through the Holy Spirit 

Discipleship – Prescribed by Jesus

At the end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus says to the eleven remaining disciples “... go and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  This is what we know as the Great Commission, and it's something we may hear a lot of in days to come, if we haven't already.

The Great Commission is about mission but, in an age when many church buildings are falling empty, we need to be very clear about what the mission is.  For example, Jesus doesn't ask us to invite people to become church-goers.  He doesn't even ask us to convince people to become believers.  He commands us to make disciples.  This, I believe, is the key to church growth.

Actually, Jesus commands disciples to make disciples.  If we are to make disciples, then we need to know what a disciple is, and the best way to discover that is to be a disciple.

So what is a disciple?  The Greek word that we translate as “disciple” means “learner” or “apprentice.” In Jewish tradition, a rabbi would call apprentices. His 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 to be able to call and train their own disciples. 

Jesus followed the same pattern.  He called and made disciples.  Those disciples were sent out to call and make disciples, and the church has propagated around the world and down the ages on this same model.

In those parts of the world where the church is growing, it's because discipleship is key to the life of the church.  John Wesley's work was successful because of his emphasis on discipleship. 

The church in our land today is failing because it is not growing disciples.

Discipleship – Required by the Father

Being a disciple of Jesus is crucially important.  In fact, God's destiny for us is that we grow to be like Jesus; as Paul writes to the Romans, God has “predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  If we set that aside, what do we become?

In the passage from Matthew 7 Jesus tells us who will get to go to heaven.  He makes it clear that it's not enough merely to call him Lord: he must actually be Lord.  He's very direct about it: those who will enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who do the will of his Father (v 21). 

In verse 22, Jesus voices some of the objections he expects to hear: “we prophesied in your name; we drove out demons in your name; we did miracles in your name.”  And in verse 23, Jesus says, “Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!'”

Now, Jesus is not decrying these activities.  No-one had more respect for prophecy than Jesus, and he even prophesied himself.  Jesus drove out many demons.  He did plenty of miracles.  And clearly, the disciples that followed on from Jesus did all these things too, and some of the spiritual gifts Christ gives to his church are exactly those things.  But, in terms of what God expects of us, these things are just the icing on the cake.

There is a tragedy in the message of Jesus here.  There are people who think that because God has apparently done something wonderful through them, or because they have genuinely encountered God in some way, that they are in, and it doesn't matter how they live.  There is a danger of getting so caught up in what we consider exciting and spectacular that we discount and neglect what is really important: doing the will of God. 

But there may be other objections Jesus may hear: “Lord, I sat in chapel every Sunday of my life; Lord, I put my money on the plate; Lord, I was on all the rotas; Lord, I was a Methodist Local Preacher!” There is a danger in being merely religious because it can give us a false sense of security: we're involved in church so we'll be OK. Not so: what is really important is doing the will of God.

In the parable at the end of our reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us just what that will is.  The passage stands at the end of what we know as the sermon on the mount, which begins in chapter 5.  Jesus says the wise man is the one “who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.”  And the parable tells us there will be a difference between those who hear and do, and those who hear and do not do.

Here's some homework for you.  This week, make a point of reading the sermon on the mount.  As you read, ask the Holy Spirit to make the meaning plain to you.  These are the words that Jesus expects us to put into practice.  These are the words that convey the will of God for us, and set out the kind of life the Father expects us to live.

Discipleship – Enabled through the Holy Spirit

If we read through the sermon on the mount, and are honest with ourselves as we read, we'll find things in it that challenge the way we live.  We could get to the end and wonder how on earth we can live like that.

Do you remember what I said earlier?  A disciple is a learner, an apprentice.  Following Jesus as a disciple is to be involved in a process.  We will not be sinlessly perfect from the outset.  We will make mistakes along the way.  If you want evidence of that, look at the stories of the closest of Jesus' disciples.  They certainly got it wrong often enough, both before and after their conversion.

But there should be in each of us a determination to follow Jesus closely; that may well be a stumbling determination at best.  When I look back at my own tracks, I'm amazed that I'm still following, such have been my failures down the years.  But, I am determined to follow Jesus.  I will be a disciple.  I will not give up.

But how can we do it?  How can we make progress?  Well,
  • first of all, we must make the right beginning
  • then we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.
Let's look at the second of our passages in Romans 12.  Paul has been explaining how that the Jews have experienced a hardening for a season so that God's mercy may be available to the Gentiles.  At the beginning of chapter 12 he makes his appeal to the Roman believers on the basis of God's mercy.

A Right Beginning

If we are to make a right beginning, we have first to recognise that what we need from God is mercy: there is no automatic right of access to heaven.  Reading through the sermon on the mount ought to convince us of our need for mercy.  But the good news is that mercy is freely available to all who will turn to Christ because of his sacrifice on the cross. 

We are sinners, he was without sin; he took the punishment of those who will follow him, we can receive the rewards of his righteousness.  But look at the cost of salvation, and see the extravagance of God's mercy.

In Romans 12, Paul urges us, because of God's mercy, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.  We are no longer our own to do as we please.  We belong to God; just as we say in our covenant service, “I am no longer my own but yours.” (p288, 290 MWB). 

We've gathered together today for a worship service but Paul tells us that true and proper worship is all about living the whole of our lives for God.

Cooperating with the Holy Spirit

We are not robots.  We belong to God but we still have a will of our own.  The easiest thing in the world for us is to carry on doing our own thing, to run with the crowd, to fit in with the world, to chase our own ambition.  But Paul urges not to do that: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” he tells us, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

You see, we begin our walk with Christ in an act of repentance.  The Greek word for 'repent' is metanoia and it literally means 'change your mind', or change the way you think about things.  When we are converted, and the Holy Spirit comes in, that renewal of our thinking continues.  We see things differently once we are in Christ. 

Imagine standing outside York Minster and looking at the stained glass windows.  They are unimpressive and dull.  But go inside and look at them with the light shining through.  How different!

As the Holy Spirit opens up Scripture to us and reveals the way of Christ to us, he renews our minds and we see things differently.  The way we think governs how we live, and this new way of thinking can transform the way we live.  As Paul says to the Galatians, “... live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Gal 5:16)

But we have a choice.  If we choose the new way, we step out along the pathway of discovery.  We will find God's will to be good for us, and pleasing to us and perfect to us.

Yes, there will be times when what God wants very definitely conflicts with what we want or what we hoped for ourselves; no-one said following Jesus would be easy.  Sometimes we will make wrong choices: I know I've made enough of those.  But there is still mercy; when we stray, there is a way back onto the path.

And, as the rest of our reading from Romans shows, we are not on the road alone.  We have each other.  We can encourage each other when there are difficult choices to make.  We can support each other when someone makes a wrong choice and needs to find restoration.

Being disciples of Christ leads us into ways that are good, pleasing and perfect. 

Being disciples leads us to discover true freedom.  John 8:31b,32 “Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'”

Being disciples leads us into close fellowship with God.  John 14:23 “...'Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.  My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.'”  Then, we will never hear those dreadful words, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.”

Summary

So, in summary,
  • Christ prescribes discipleship as the way for his people,
  • the Father is looking for disciples who do his will,
  • the Holy Spirit is with us to lead, guide and transform us as we follow the way of discipleship.

Practically, what should you do? Make sure you've made a right beginning. Seek earnestly for God until you know you've found him; then hand your life over to him and invite the Holy Spirit to be with you and in you. Read the Scriptures, pray, live in the light of what your discover. Find others on the same journey and meet with them to study Scripture, pray, share your life, encourage and be encouraged.

Being a disciple is vitally important. Let me be clear: we do not earn salvation by our discipleship. Salvation is always the free gift of God to all who will repent and believe the gospel. But accepting God's gift of salvation is also to end our independence from him, and to end our rebellion against him. We must learn again how to live. If we are unwilling to change, then we have failed to understand the gospel.

At the end of the passage in Matthew, Jesus told a short parable: a contrast between two houses, one built on sand, the other on rock.  We can imagine that these houses looked very similar from the ground up but, after the time of testing came, only the house on the rock remained standing.

What kind of foundation does your house have?  Is it built on the sand of your own ways?  Or is it built on the rock of Christ's words?

Be the fruitcake, not just the icing!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Good News: Release for the Captives

Readings

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.