Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lessons for the Joyful Life

Introduction

'Cheer up,' they told me. 'Things could be worse.'  So I cheered up and, sure enough, things got worse. 

This is a quip we've probably all heard before and smiled wryly about, because life can be a bit like that; we try to be cheerful but then something else goes wrong . . .

Paul, in this epistle of joy, exhorts his readers to, 'Rejoice in the Lord always'.  He thinks this such an important thing for believers to grasp that he says it again: 'Rejoice!'

As believers, we have plenty to rejoice about:
  • our sins are forgiven,
  • we are loved by our heavenly Father,
  • we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit,
  • and we have the sure and certain hope of everlasting life. 
And yet, we need reminding to rejoice.  We need reminding because we are still human and, sometimes, life can be tough, and we lose our focus on the things that really count when our minds are bombarded by difficulties and obstacles. 

There are at least four sermons in this last chapter of Philippians, but I want to try and draw out from it three lessons that help us to find that place of rejoicing in the midst of life, three things that help us to keep our minds clear and free.

I want to talk about:
  • Dealing with our anxieties
  • Training our minds
  • Learning contentment

Dealing with Anxiety

Paul tells his readers not to be anxious about anything.  At the time he was writing, Philippi was a Roman colony; the sort of place where emperors settled their retired war veterans.  Government went very much along Roman lines, which could well have made life difficult for Philippian Christians.  They could easily have responded with, 'Well, that's easy for you to say, but you don't have to live here.'

But Paul is in a good position to hand out this kind of advice.  It's clear from the earlier parts of this letter that Paul is writing whilst under arrest, probably in Rome, and that his execution is a very real possibility in his mind.  And yet, he rejoices.  He is not anxious.  He is at peace.  He has no need to lash out because of his predicament: he can be gentle in his dealings with others and he exhorts the Philippians to be the same.

As we read this today, we don't have to be anxious about threats from Rome but, let's be honest, there are plenty of things we can find to be anxious about: money worries, health matters, family issues to mention just a few.  Paul isn't saying that it's wrong to have concerns but he wants to spare us the destructive enervation of anxious thought, especially when there's something very positive we can do about it.

Anxiety focusses on the problem rather than the solution, on the threat rather than the resources.  Anxiety is the enemy of faith.  If we are overcome with anxiety, we'll find it difficult to exercise trust in the God who cares for us.

Again, it's not wrong to have concerns; we'd be foolish to ignore problems and difficulties.  Paul tells us what to do with them: '6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.' (NIV)

He tells us to take our concerns to the God who cares for us.  In the Shorter Oxford Dictionary,  prayer and petition are defined in terms of each other.  I think Paul's repetition (of prayer and petition) implies an earnest approach to God and a very real concern in the heart of God for our well-being.  I believe his meaning here is that we should go very definitely into the presence of God and tell him exactly what our problem is, exactly how we feel about it, and exactly what we'd like him to do.  God cares.

Paul tells us to take our concerns to God with thanksgiving.  If anxiety is the enemy of faith, then thanksgiving is the friend of faith.  It says, 'I believe you care about me and the things that concern me.  I believe you hear my prayers.  I believe you will be with me in all of this.  I trust you.'

I'm sure Paul took the possibility of his execution to God.  Wouldn't you?  He seems, in chapter 1, to expect release but he also seems quite calm about the alternative, knowing that whatever happens he'll face it with God. 

We have to acknowledge that taking issues to God is no guarantee that the problems will disappear.  But there's a very clear and definite promise for us when we do: '7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (NIV)

In the greek of the New Testament, the word translated as 'guard' is a military term.  We can think of God's peace being set about our minds like a garrison, constantly on watch for attack and ready to defend us from the onslaught of those anxious thoughts.

This is all well and good but does it work?  Well, in my experience, yes it does.  There was a time in my life, back in the 80s, when the circumstances I found myself in had my mind in turmoil.  I was almost completely debilitated by anxiety.  Then I came across this passage of scripture and began to cry out to God.  And, you know, I was utterly surprised by what happened. 

I suddenly found myself completely at peace.  And, as Paul's letter implies may be the case, I was at a complete loss to understand why.  None of my circumstances had changed.  All of the things that gave me cause for concern still existed, but in one second I was in distress, and in the next I was at peace.  The pattern was broken and, over time, I was able to deal with or find a way out of my circumstances.

So, yes, it does work.  God's promises hold good.

What troubles are you wrestling with at the moment?  Is anyone here driven to distraction with anxiety?  Take you anxieties before God and read these verses in his presence.  Claim the promise and allow his peace in.  Give yourself the freedom to rejoice.

Training the Mind

The mind is where many of our battles are won or lost before we even confront the challenges we face.  The trouble with anxiety is that, once it takes hold, it leads our thinking into endless, repetitive cycles of thought that can be difficult to break out from.  Taking our concerns to God and receiving his peace is a way to break that pattern.  Paul gives us some more advice that will protect us from destructive thinking and, even better, lead us into constructive living.

The outward expression of our life is very much determined by the way we think.  What goes on inside our heads?  What do we fill our minds with?

We need to be careful about what we feed our minds on: the TV we watch, the books we read, the gossip we listen to.  But we should also be positive about the way we conduct our thought-life. 

Paul tells us to fill our minds with good stuff: things that are
  • true, noble, right,
  • pure, lovely, admirable,
  • excellent and praiseworthy. 

We need to pursue these good things;  to meditate on them; to contemplate them; to see the value in them; to allow them to shape our living.

Paul tacks an interesting instruction on the end of these thoughts: anything the Philippians have been taught by him, anything they've seen him do, they are to do those things too.  What a statement!  What a responsibility these words place on those who stand in pulpits!

So, Paul tells us to fill our minds with good thoughts, to copy good examples, and he ends this section with another promise: the God who is the source of peace that is beyond our comprehension will be with us.  Isn't this something to rejoice about?

That's something I want more than anything else in the world.  What about you?

Learning Contentment

From verse 10 onwards, Paul expresses his grateful thanks to the Philippians for their continuing and generous support.  But he also slips in another important lesson for them.

He writes, '… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  … I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. … I can do everything through him who gives me strength.' (NIV)

We live in an increasingly hedonistic and materialistic age.  People in our land have more wealth than ever before.  Many people may even say they are happy.  Our government has supported initiatives to assess how happy we are as a nation.  But how much joy is there in our society?  Joy that fills your heart even when times are difficult.  How much contentment is there?

Contentment is a learned response, as Paul makes clear.  Contentment is something developed through the ups and downs of life.  Happiness probably depends on getting what we want.  Contentedness is more about wanting what we get.

Paul experienced plenty and need.  He was content in both extremes.  He learned that having plenty was because of the kindness and generosity of God, not because he had rights or entitlement.  And, when he was in need, he still had his God, he still had his salvation, and he'd learned that God could be trusted and would come through for him.  When the hard times came, he didn't grasp for the material things he was enjoying, he took a firmer hold of his God.  He discovered that, come what may, with Christ giving him strength, he could do anything.

In my previous church, I belonged to a creative writing group.  One evening, we were given the task of writing a poem about something we feared.  To make the job easier, we were given a formula to follow.  I wrote a poem called, “The Fear of not Having Enough” which was a genuine concern I lived with at the time. 

I constructed the poem, following the formula, and was reasonably happy with the outcome; and in the bit at the end, I had God responding to the complainant.  However, when I had to read it out loud, I found that God spoke to me.  Here's the poem what I wrote:

The Fear of Not Having Enough

The bread is stale,
Its few remaining slices
Green with mould;
Its dankness fills the air.
A bitter, empty wind
Threads through a tottering fence.
Pharaoh’s last, wizened cow
Would bellow its woe
Had it strength enough.

The eagle soars,
Oblivious to dearth,
Its vision attuned
To its realm’s bounty.

O, to be that monarch of the skies;
To fly away and beyond
To Cornucopia’s shore
Where lack alone is wanting…
One day, my child, you shall fly
Far beyond the eagle’s range.
One day, my child, riches will abound
But, until then, I Am with you
And enough is enough.

There's something wonderful when God speaks to you so clearly.  It changes your life.  I put away that fear and allowed myself to live more generously, more contentedly, because God is with me always, and what more can I need?  I am about to retire and will have less income but I will have just as much of God, who comes in endless supply.

Contentedness is something we learn but learning is optional.  We can choose to learn rather than waiting to be taught.  It can be a hard lesson to learn but it's a lesson worth learning because the hard times will come anyway …  As Paul writes to Timothy, '… godliness with contentment is great gain.'

Summary

So, from this chapter, we've discovered
  • what we can do with our anxieties
  • how to retrain our thinking to head off anxiety and improve our living
  • how to live well whatever the circumstances
  • And that God gives us peace, that he is peace, and the source of our strength.

Life in Christ empowers us to face an uncertain future, life or death with peace in our minds and joy in our hearts.  So, let's rejoice in the Lord always.  I'll say it again: Rejoice!

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Gospel and Social Action


Isaiah 58:1-9a

Introduction

I was not brought up in a Christian home.  My family was nominally Church of England and used the church for christenings, weddings and funerals but that was as far as it went.  I never encountered anything you might recognise as faith among the members of my family. 

So it might seem surprising that, for no apparent reason, in my mid-teenage years I began talking to a God I had no knowledge of and tried to read the bible – Authorised Version, starting at Genesis and not getting very far. 

When I eventually met someone at school who had real faith, that vague stirring of belief became an all-consuming passion to connect with this God.  After a fortnight of asking my friend questions, I did what was known in those days as, 'Making a Decision,' and was very soon an out-and-out follower of Jesus, full of teenage enthusiasm.  That will be 43 years ago in April.

In those days, and in the circles I moved in, everything was about personal salvation.  Tearfund did not exist, and Christian Aid was not supported by the church I belonged to.  The Salvation Army was seen as preaching a merely 'Social Gospel, which is no gospel'.  Getting souls saved was what mattered: better to go to heaven hungry than to hell with a full stomach.

It wasn't just my church.  At University, we had the Christian Union – an evangelical organisation – and a Community Action Group – a non-aligned organisation.  Very few of us were members of both. 

In my recollection, passages of scripture such as the one we've just heard were given scant, if any, attention.  But, like it or lump it, it's in the Bible and we can't ignore it.  And, really, it's because of such passages that The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund – Tearfund – eventually came into being.

Passages such as this remind us that a Gospel which is only a Gospel of Personal Salvation is inadequate.  Because, whilst God dearly loves us, and longs for every one of us to be saved, he loves us body, soul and spirit, not only our souls.  Yes, Jesus died to save us from our sins – and how we need that – but he rose again to bring us new life and to transform our way of living so that we can show his holistic love to the world and bring about his kingdom on Earth.

It's true that there's nothing new under the Sun, and Isaiah's people appeared to have the same problems with faith and action that I've seen in more modern times.  Believers in both ancient and modern times have suffered from the same spiritual disease.

Symptoms

To the onlooker, the people of Isaiah's day gave an appearance of being devout believers.  As verses 2 and 3 tell us,
  • they sought God out daily, presumably by following prescribed religious practices;
  • they seemed keen on God's ways of doing things;
  • they brought their decision-making before God, asking him for guidance;
  • they even fasted, in a humbling way that involved sackcloth and ashes, and bowing down before God;
And yet, for all that, they failed to get God's attention. But they seem to think he owed them something.  'Look, we've been fasting!' they say, 'We've been humble!  Why haven't you noticed?  Shouldn't we be able to expect something in return for all that?' 

Diagnosis

The thing about God is that he's not easily fooled.  It's very difficult to pull the wool over his eyes.

As we know, he judges the heart not the outward appearance.  In response to the people's complaint, he goes directly to the diagnosis.  'You are rebellious!  You are sinners!'  And there's no intention that this confrontation should be done quietly, in a corner somewhere.  No!  He tells Isaiah, 'Shout it aloud, do not hold back.  Raise your voice like a trumpet.'

God declares through the prophet that the people as a nation do not do what is right.  They have forsaken his commands.  Taking an lead from Jesus' summary of the law, God's commands then as now are to love him with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

This is the root of their problem: instead of outward-looking love, they exhibit inward-looking utter selfishness.  In the midst of their so-called fast
  • they do as they please;
  • they exploit their workers – and exploitation is always about personal gain;
  • they argue to get their own way.  When they don't get their own way they get frustrated and angry, even to the point that physical violence breaks out.
In the New Testament, in James 4 we see a very similar state of affairs.  Believers in the church are fighting with each other because they can't get what they want.  James says in verses 2b-3, 'You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.' (NIV)

The believers of both James's day and of Isaiah's were going to the right source of supply but with entirely the wrong motivation.  And Isaiah's people seem to have slipped into a very pagan expression of belief; one of appeasement and placation, earning favours by doing sacrifice; doing the expected religious stuff but only to enhance personal gratification.

The modern word for this could be 'Compartmentalisation'.  “On Sunday, I'm a God-fearing Christian.  Saturday, I'm a family man.  Monday to Friday, I'm just like everyone else.  My religion is one thing, my business is something else.  I like to keep things separate.”

This attitude is wrong.  You cannot be a God-fearing Christian and a ruthless business man.  Yes, you can be a businessman; but ruthless?  The  faith that's rooted in love for God and love for others must affect all aspects of our lives.

Remedy

God prescribes a remedy for Isaiah's people: a different kind of fast.  It's not a fast that is about giving up a bit of comfort, not about abstaining from food for a day.  It's a fast that's about giving up self, of abstaining from personal greed, long term. 

Isaiah tells us in verses 6 and 7 that it's about
  • being actively concerned for justice to prevail,
  • fighting against oppression and exploitation,
  • sharing what we have with those in hunger and poverty,
  • looking after family and, to speak to our own era, not leaving it to the state.
God's promises in verses 8 and 9 to those who respond answer all the complaints of the people.  He promises
  • light, that we might find his ways,
  • healing, that we may be whole,
  • right-standing with God, that we may not be guilty before his commands,
  • protection, with God himself covering our backs,
  • relationship, with a God who draws near.

Application

We have the same God today.  A God from whom we were alienated because of our sins.  A God who took it upon himself to step down into the human arena in the person of Jesus Christ; who as God the Son died and rose again, taking on himself the judgement that should have been ours, so that all who believe in him would not perish because of their sins but have everlasting life.

Personal salvation is important.  It was certainly important to the Wesleys – you have only to look at Charles Wesley's hymns to see that.  We are each one called to personal faith.  But it's a faith that is to transform the way we live; a faith that, as James tells us, has works and is not dead.  We work because we are saved, not to obtain salvation.

Paul tells us, in Galations 5, that religious observance doesn't cut the mustard (you realise I'm paraphrasing here.  Paul doesn't actually use those words).  He makes an astonishing statement in verse 6: 'The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.' (NIV)

Our heavenly father cares about the people of this world, and so must we.

We must hold out the gospel of salvation but we must also demonstrate the love of God if people are to believe us.  I think John Wesley may agree with me on this.  He said: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.

There are many practical ways we can be involved in showing God's love.  Obviously, we can give our money to organisations working on our behalf to carry God's help to the neediest in our world; organisations such as Tearfund, Christian Aid and Compassion, to name but three.  And how can we not respond to appeals to alleviate crises such as arose from the hurricane in the Philippines?

But there are local social needs we can be involved with too, and in practical ways.  In our chapel, we have begun supporting local food banks.  We've all been encouraged to buy a couple of extra items when we do our weekly shop and to put them in our collection box.  We've even publicised it in the village and others outside the church are responding with donations.

A GP friend of mine told me of someone whom she referred to a food bank for help.  That person came back in tears, overwhelmed that people cared enough to give food free of charge to others in need.  That person has decided to do some work at the food bank, and so will work alongside Christian people who will now have opportunity to explain God's gospel of salvation.

We can easily get involved in things like these but we can also look out for our neighbours, doing all the good we can, as John Wesley encouraged the people of his day.

Conclusion

Our walk with God begins with faith and repentance.  From that comes the transformation of our lives and of our living, so that our lives become more and more a practical demonstration of the love of God, a genuine expression of the heart of God, and, as we serve, our own hearts are warmed by the love of God.

Read the whole of Isaiah 58 and catch a vision of what might be if we allow our faith to transform our living.  Our churches are shrinking.  People will respond to the love of God.

We don't really know what kind of response Isaiah got to the message he delivered.  Did the people respond as God instructed?  Were they willing to change so they could receive the promised light, healing, right-standing, protection and relationship? 

What will our response be?