Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Lord's Prayer

I'm using the Lord's prayer as the theme of our service today.  Please rest assured that all the normal elements of a traditional service will be incorporated but will be ordered a little differently so as to follow the sequence of the Lord's prayer more closely.

Call to Worship


'How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!' 1 John 3:1 (NIV)

Hymn: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty MP564


Prayers of Adoration

Our Father in Heaven

You are enthroned on high, far above all powers and dominions; unassailable, unimpeachable, unimaginable.  We are on this Earth: lowly, vulnerable, weak, surrounded by troubles and threats.  Yet we know you, the unknowable, as ‘Father’.  We can approach you without terror; and, with you, face our foes with unshakable hope.

Hallowed be your name

Your name proclaims your nature: you were, and are, and are to come, the ever-living, eternal and almighty God.  Your name marks our lives and sets us apart for ever as yours.  We take your name on our lips and whisper it with reverence. Amen

Hymn: Our Father, who is in heaven MP552


Offering


Reading

Matthew 6: 5-15
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (NIV)


Hymn: Father in Heaven, how we love you MP135


Hymn: Be still for the presence of the Lord MP50


Sermon

Introduction

When I was at university, more years ago than I care to acknowledge, we had a saying about lectures: lectures are the means by which information is transferred from the note-paper of the lecturer to the note-paper of the student, without passing through the mind of either.  That was never more true than for the nine o'clock lecture, especially when I lived on campus and could fall out of bed at twenty to nine and still be there in time, in body if not in mind.

Have you ever had the experience when driving of leaving home and then arriving at your destination but being unable to remember any of the journey in between?  It's so easy to drive on automatic pilot, especially on familiar routes.

The Lord's Prayer can be a bit like that.  We are familiar with it, and steer easily past the challenges it contains.  We recite it week by week, too often without thought, and how many preachers have you heard go wrong in the middle?  Even when it is just a piece of ritual that we follow week by week, woe betide the preacher who doesn't include it in the service!

The context of the Lord's prayer here in Matthew is what's known as the Sermon on the Mount.  It's a long sermon in which Jesus challenges and corrects the traditional views of the day.  Time after time, Jesus says, 'You have heard it said … but I say …' and he goes on to reveal how God looks for truth in our hearts, not merely outward show and the following of rules.

In this section on prayer, Jesus knocks the people who like to make a show of their religion right off their pedestals.  Prayer is not something to project at other people so as to impress them with our piety.  It's something to be directed towards God, in private; it's a precious and intimate part of our relationship with him.

He also warns his hearers not to be contaminated by pagan ways.  God doesn't respond to us because we talk him into it.  He responds because he loves us and already knows our need. 

But Jesus doesn't just tell us what not to do.  He give positive, practical advice on the best way to pray, a way to be sure that God hears.

The Lord's prayer is a model primarily for personal prayer in a private place.  It was never intended to be a liturgical device.  But corporate prayer is also important, and the model for the prayer life of an individual is also a good model for the prayer life of any group of christians.

The Lord's model prayer teaches us to pray with clear focus and with strong faith.  When we pray, we are to
  • Look up,
  • Look out, and
  • Look in 

Look Up

The first half of Jesus' model prayer is almost exclusively about God.  I say almost exclusively because it begins by declaring the true nature of our relationship with God and with each other.  Jesus tells us to address God as 'Our Father'.  He is our father, and we are family.

In the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, the word would be 'Abba', the word that children used for their fathers.  In English, the word is, 'Dad'.  I realise that some might think that far to familiar a way to address God, but it is actually scriptural (Romans 8:15).

It's also a very honouring term.  I call my natural father, 'Dad' because I am in a very special relationship with him.  He's my Dad.  I don't call him 'Father' because we're more intimate than that.  It's a very special name for him that only my brother and I can use of him by right.  My wife calls him 'Dad' by way of honouring him, and he enjoys her calling him 'Dad'.  It's interesting that, out of respect, I never call my dad by his real name: it's always, 'Dad'.

I'll be honest with you: I'm not entirely comfortable with addressing God as 'Dad'.  I'm much happier with 'Father' or 'Lord' but I do relish the fact that I have access to God in this intimate way, and that he welcomes me into his presence as a son, and actually listens attentively to what I have to tell him.  I'm learning to call him, 'Abba', which grates less that 'Dad'.

God is, of course, our Father in heaven.  And the Lord's prayer from the outset reminds us that we have a friend in the highest of places.  He is enthroned on high, far above all powers and dominions;  he is the God who created everything, who reigns over all, and is well able to handle any problem we may throw at him.

So we pray to the one who has absolute authority in our world, and lovingly-exercised authority in our lives.

However we may address God, the Lord's prayer reminds us that his name is something we must consider holy, something that is not for ordinary, everyday use.

In the Old Testament, a name very often defined the nature of the person whose name it was.  Do you remember the story of Jacob and Esau?  When these twins were born, Esau came out first, and Jacob came out quickly after, with his hand grasping Esau's heel.  The name 'Jacob' means, literally, 'He grasps the heel.'  Figuratively, to the Hebrews of the day it meant, 'He deceives', and we know what a twister Jacob turned out to be! 

Esau just means, 'Hairy' – not a name I'd like to go through life with!

Just so, the names of God all tell us something about his nature.  He introduced himself to Moses by the name, 'I Am', a name that speaks of his eternal existence.  He is the one who was, is now, and is to come; the one who never changes, who is always faithful, always dependable.

Look Out

The next part of the prayer is where we begin looking outward and asking God for things, and Jesus makes clear what our priorities must be. 

Priority Number One: Transformation.  We are to pray for the full entry of God's kingdom into this world, to the extent that God's will is done on earth in exactly the same way as it is in heaven. 

How do you think we're doing?  Are we there yet?  Or do we need to do some more praying?

For God's will to be done on earth as in heaven we have to see some enormous changes, don't we?   Malachi 3:6 tells us, 'I the LORD do not change,' (NIV) and Hebrews 13:8 says, 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.' (NIV)  Clearly, God is not the one who will be changing.  So where do we think the change has to take place?

Change is something that we are not overly fond of.  Let's be honest, when it comes to change, we are quite happy to take our place at the back of the queue.  And, if someone pushes in, we don't mind much at all!

But the fact is we cannot even get into the Kingdom of God without we change.  Jesus began his ministry with the words, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'  The Greek word translated 'repent' is 'metanoia'.  It means 'change the way you think'.

Jesus teaches us to pray for
  • change in this world
  • change in Europe
  • change in the United Kingdom
  • change in this region
  • change in this town
  • change in this church
  • change in your life, and
  • change in mine,
all so that God's kingdom may come and his will be done.

I was amused when I was reading through Luke's gospel recently.  At the start of chapter 10 we read, '...the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.  He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.  Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.' (NIV)

Jesus was saying, there's work to do but not enough people to do it.  Pray God sends more workers.  Now go and be the answer to that prayer.

I wonder, when we pray, 'Your kingdom come', are we willing to be the answer to our prayer?  We, as God's church are called to be the agents of change in this world and to lead the way, especially in doing his will on earth. 

Can I invite you all to put a hand on your heart? … This is where the change must begin.

Look In

In the second half of the prayer, we begin to look inward, and Jesus gives us priorities  for that too, so we can be fit to be involved in what God is doing.

Priority Number Two: Provision.  If we are to be committed to what God is doing, we need some assurance that our needs won't be neglected.  And so we are encouraged to pray for our human needs (not our wants), recognising that we are dependent on God.  Jesus has already told us that our Father knows our needs before we ask, but we live in relationship with God, not at the end of a conveyor belt.  And so we are encouraged to ask.

Priority Number Three: Forgiveness.  We need forgiveness, and God's promise is that he'll forgive us if we ask.  But note there is a condition.  It's true that God's love is unconditional.  Whatever we do, he never stops loving us.  That's why there is always a route back to him when we've strayed, even like a prodigal. 

Forgiveness, though, is not unconditional.  Jesus makes very clear in the prayer itself and in the verses that follow it that we won't be forgiven if we won't forgive others who wrong us. 

Is anyone here bearing a grudge, harbouring unforgiveness?

Speaking from personal experience, forgiving others is not always the easiest thing to do, and there can be a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to forgive someone who's behaved intolerably—especially if there's no evidence they'll ever change.  Forgiving people like that doesn't mean putting yourself back under their influence or control.  There's no time to go into the detail of it now, but we must find ways to forgive, not least so that we can also be forgiven.  Sometimes, we need help with that.  If you need help, please don't struggle on by yourself.  Get help.  Find peace.

Priority Number Four: Protection.  Thank God for his forgiveness when we sin.  But better yet to avoid the sin in the first place.  The last part of the prayer is for God's help to live the holy life he calls us to: 'And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'  I take the sense of asking God to lead us away from things that tempt us – which again implies a willingness on our part to change.

We recognise we have weaknesses.  We also recognise we have an enemy bent on our downfall.  And we realise there are bad influences at work in this world, and ask for God's deliverance to safety.  We acknowledge we need grace to help us in our time of need, and we recognise that God is the source of that help and that he is ready, willing and able to give us that help, and so we ask him for it. 

With God's help, we really can overcome temptation and escape from the grip of those things in our lives that pull us down time after time.

Conclusion

And so we arrive at the end of the prayer, and the end of this sermon!

The Lord's prayer is not just something that we say in church.  It's not a magical formula that somehow imparts grace to us. 

It challenges us to look up, and reveals to us something of the nature and of the heart of God. 

It challenges us to look out, calling us to change and action, to live lives that demonstrate the qualities of the Kingdom.

It challenges us to look in, to recognise our need of God to provide, to forgive and to protect, and of our need to forgive others.

The Lord's prayer is a beautiful thing.  Let's remember always to pray that prayer with conscious thought about its meaning.

Hymn: Make me a channel of your peace StF 707


Prayers of Intercession

Your kingdom come

Abba, this fallen world needs renewal. Its people live under the Tyrant’s heel.  It needs to feel the impact of your kingly reign and rule of love.  Hasten the coming of your righteousness in our sin-sick world.  Amen.

Pray for the strengthening of the church worldwide.

Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven

Abba, let not our will be done because we cannot see all the consequences of our choices.  Let not man’s will be done because that will only perpetuate our plight.  Let no worse will be done because that leads only to destruction.  Let your perfect, all-knowing will be performed on this planet that we may see the wholeness of heaven reflected in our lives.  Guide our choices, that we may play our parts in your plans.  Amen.

Pray for governments, leaders of industry and business, those who have so much influence in our society.

Give us this day our daily bread

Abba, let's be honest.  We want more.  We are reluctant to share.  We hoard against the unpredictable short-fall of an uncertain future; we waste what we cannot use or what will not fit in our storehouses.  These words challenge our greed and deal a death-blow to our injustice.  May we be satisfied with enough and the fulfilled longing that others, too, have enough.  May we have faith in your continuing provision and be open-handed with what you give.  Amen.

Prayer for your needs, and also the needs of others you know about.

Confession and Forgiveness

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

Abba, in viewing the wrongs done to us by others, we could ask for justice.  We are mindful that others could justly demand the same vengeance for the wrongs we have done them.  As we need mercy, so must we offer it - how dare we not?  May our desire to impart forgiveness outstrip our desire to receive it, and may our need of it not stay far from our thoughts.  Amen.

Ask for the forgiveness you need.  Give the forgiveness needed by others. 

Receive the forgiveness of God, freely given to those who forgive.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Abba, we are prone to wander, distracted by shiny stones set in dangerous places by our enemy.  Draw us away from such paltry rewards by the brightness of your radiance.  Keep our course true.  Purify our hearts and disarm the traps set even there for us.  Amen.

Ask for help with the temptations you face every day.

Hymn: I the Lord of sea and sky StF 663

 

Benediction

For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever

Abba, we think it’s all about us but we are wrong; that we are supreme, the pinnacle of all that is but we are wrong.  There is One, and One only, who is worthy.  All things are through Him and for Him.  He alone will have the final say.  He will never be usurped, never supplanted, never outshone.  Through all the endless ages of Eternity, He, and He alone, will be Our Father.  Amen.

And now may the grace of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit remain with us all, now and for ever. Amen

So let it be!

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Parable

Long ago, some people went in search of a place to live, somewhere they would be happy and blessed.

One day, they came across a river. The flow of the river was strong, and it brought fresh, clean, pure water that was good to drink. The river teemed with fish that were good to eat. The land beside the river was fertile and productive. ‘This is a good place,’ their leader said, ‘Let’s live here where we will have everything we need.’

And everyone agreed.

Some went back to where they had come from to tell others what they had found, and how good it was. Many more came to join them by the river, where they too found happiness and blessing.

As the years passed, they discovered that the flow of the river varied with the seasons but always there was enough to eat and enough to drink. Sometimes the river flooded the fields and swept away things they had built. The people learned they did not really need the things they lost, and that the river, on shrinking back to its course, left the land more fertile and more productive.

The years rolled on, and the people grew tired of the disruption the river brought, preferring instead a settled, predictable way of life. ‘If only we could control the flow,’ one of them said.

‘We should build a dam,’ the leader said. ‘Then a lake will form that will regulate the flow; we’ll barely notice it at all in the lake. There will still be plenty of fish and plenty of water for our needs. The lake will be calm and peaceful, and we can sail on it and swim in it without fear of being caught up by the current.’

And everyone agreed.

The lake was beautiful, and reflected in its calm surface the trees and mountains surrounding it. The current hardly disturbed the lake-dwellers’ lives any more, even in spring when the river above the lake became swollen with the melted snows of winter. Everyone was content and at ease, and they built all manner of interesting things—which were no longer swept away as they used to be.

Other people lived downstream, beyond the dam. They were not happy. The flow was not as strong as before, and they could not irrigate their land properly. The fish were not as plentiful, and in the height of summer there was almost no water at all. They became disillusioned with life by the river and went to look elsewhere for what they needed. They had no time for the people above the dam, who guarded jealously what they had, making it difficult for outsiders to move into the spaces around the shore.

More years passed. The leaders entertained the lake-dwellers with exciting stories of long ago when the river ran strong and many more people lived gratefully along its banks. They all looked fondly over their lovely, familiar surroundings even as they listened. ‘It’s so restful here,’ one of them said, ‘I hope it never changes.’

And everyone agreed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Involving God in your Life

Ephesians 4:11-16

Introduction

When I became a Christian at the age of 17, well-meaning people gave me three simple rules to live by.  They told me,
  • read your Bible every day
  • pray every day
  • tell someone about Jesus every day

Your reaction to those rules may range from, 'seems simple enough,' to 'Good grief, that's hard.'  My reaction, almost 43 years later, is that they somehow missed the point.

My church in those days had all sorts of unwritten rules.  We didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't go to the cinema, or the theatre, or football matches, didn't dance or engage in anything that might be considered 'worldly'.  One might well wonder what on earth we did do... 

That's easy to answer.  We went to church.  Twice on Sunday, prayer meeting Tuesday, youth meeting Wednesday, bible study Thursday, and a bless-up meeting at a nearby church on a Saturday night.

The trouble with rules is that they lead on the one hand to legalism, with its associated misplaced guilt, and on the other to religion, with its empty, powerless, deluding formality.

We're called to be followers of Christ, not followers of rules. 

Jesus didn't die on the cross to replace one lot of Pharisaical regulations with another.  He came to restore relationship between God and man so we could know God and walk humbly with him. 

What we need is relationship. 

If you want to develop a meaningful relationship with anyone you have to communicate and spend time with them.  It should come as no surprise that if you want to develop a relationship with God you will have to communicate with him and spend time with him.

Now, those three simple rules I started with were not particularly bad ideas.  They were just couched in the wrong terms.  They need to be understood as practical tools which help us communicate with God, and give us opportunities to spend time with him and get to know him better.

So let's have a different look at these things.

Read your Bible

2 Timothy 3:14-16
'… continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.'

The Bible is one way that God has of talking to us.  It's an incredibly valuable resource for the Christian.  It's inspired by God himself and so must be worth our attention.

It sets out the way of salvation. 
It teaches us what God is like and what a relationship with him looks like.
It teaches us what we are really like, so be prepared to read some unpalatable home truths.
It teaches us how to sort out the issues in our lives.
It teaches us how to be all that God wants for us, and equips us to do the things that God has shaped us for.

In my early Christian life, it was no hardship at all to be told to read the Bible every day.  I inhaled it.  I hardly ever read anything else. 

As time went on, especially when I went to University and had to read other things, Bible reading fell away as an all-absorbing interest.  The truth is, it can be hard to read scripture when you spend your day reading.

Furthermore, I discovered that my life moves in cycles.  I would go days without reading scripture, and then spend hours at a stretch reading scripture. 

During and after a bout of clinical depression, I went a number of years without reading it much at all.  Strangely enough, that episode resulted in a kind of reset to my thinking which means I can now read scripture without being influenced by denominational diktats.

We need desperately to read Scripture but, as we are all different, we each need to find ways and patterns that help us to do it.  For me, and currently, I find that the easiest time is between eating my breakfast and heading off to work; it's much more beneficial than breakfast television.  For you, especially if you have children to get school, some other time of the day may be better.  For you, reading scripture may be more beneficial than watching 'East Enders'.  Other soaps are also available.

So, how do you read Scripture? You could start at one end and read through to the other.  Or start with the New Testament and read through that first.  Or alternate between an Old Testament book then a New and so on.  Getting hold of a Bible reading plan may help you decide what to read and when. 

Experiment.  Find out what works for you.  But read it because you need it.  And always ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand what you need to understand at this point in your life.  Don't be surprised when you find God speaks to you through Scripture, but be delighted that he does!

Pray

1 Thessalonians 5:17
'Pray continually.'

Ephesian 6:18
'… pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.'

Romans 8:26-27
'… the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.'

Pray every day, they told me but, as we've just read, that's not what the Bible says.  Pray continually!  How on earth am I expected to do that?

We have to come to some understanding of what prayer is.  So often for us, it can amount to presenting God with a list of things we want him to do for us, which is a very pagan approach to prayer.  God is not some Fixer-in-the-sky whose job it is to see that we have everything we want.  We can be like badly-mannered children telling God, 'I want...'  We can be like well-behaved children asking God, 'Please may I have...'  But the end is the same: a shopping list. 

Over the years, I've come to think of prayer in its most basic form as simply talking things over with God; bringing my concerns honestly before him, asking for his help and listening for his advice.  That may be relevant verses of scripture coming to mind, or an impression in my spirit of what God thinks about the matter.  Sometimes a very definite thought out of nowhere comes in direct response.  Bear in mind that God's responses are always in keeping with scripture, so always test things like impressions or 'words'.  And, of course, it's a big help if you know your scriptures...

In Philip Yancey's recent book on prayer, I came across a delightful phrase for prayer: 'Keeping company with God.'  With that understanding it is possible to pray continually.  I involve God in my day.  I talk to him when driving to work.  At lulls in concentration at my desk, I talk to God.  Sometimes during my work, especially when I can't solve a knotty problem, I tell God what I'm doing. 

When we are not occupied, we can talk to God.  When we are only physically occupied, like when washing up, or painting walls, or mowing the lawn, we can talk to God.  In this way we can become increasingly God-focussed in our thinking.  I think that's what Paul meant when he wrote, 'Pray continually.'

Prayer is not a religious practice; it is an expression of relationship.

Of course, Scripture, and therefore God, encourages us to bring all kinds of requests to God.  Prayer isn't only having a chat with Father.  There is a very definite place for bringing specific and dire need to him, whether our own or another's.  It's amazing that we can be in a position to influence God(?). 

But how do we pray about big things?  How do we know what to ask for?  How can we pray in ways that are not selfish?  The reading from Romans gives us a clue.  It's encouraging to realise that even Paul didn't always know how to pray.  He tells us what he did at those times: he relied on the Holy Spirit.  We can do the same.  Sometimes we don't have the words.  It doesn't matter.  We can bring the need and just groan, trusting the Holy Spirit to understand what we feel, what God wants, and somehow to bring about the best outcome.

Be Committed to Fellowship

Hebrews 10:24-25a
'… let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another …'

Now, those of you who are still awake may have noticed that this point was not in the three rules I mentioned in my introduction.  I've slipped this one in because I think it important. 

You may have gathered from my introductory remarks that I'm not about to tell you that you should be at every church meeting going.  If so, you'd be right.  But...

We are family.  We need each other.  Actually, we can't really do this without each other.  And yet, we spend so little time together.  The Sunday morning service is only about one hour—that's less than 1½ percent of our leisure time, if you work a 40 hour week and sleep eight hours a night.  And we can so readily skip church if we think there's nothing we'll get from it, or we get what looks like a better offer.  We are ready to vote with our feet if the style doesn't suit us, or the wrong speaker is coming, or some facility isn't available.

Church is as much about giving as it is about getting, if not more.  Church is a place of grace, where we learn to bear with one another, to encourage one another, and to spur each other on to better things.

I tell you, it really encourages me when I see this place full.  It really encourages me when I can share life with others who believe what I believe (more or less).  And, yes, I've been in church and found I didn't know half the hymns, and the hymns I did know had tunes I didn't know, and I've wondered why I bothered.  But then I've discovered a conversation afterwards was a real pick-me-up to the other person.  I may not have got anything out but I've been able to put something in!

You see, church is not just about Sunday services.  We are still church when the service itself is over; and when we meet in other contexts. 

Personally, I miss church when I don't come.  Last month, because of parental illness and a holiday I was only here one Sunday.  I really felt the loss of your company. You are my family.  I need you.

There's a very old analogy that bears repetition.  Coals gathered together on a fire will keep each other glowing.  Take one out and set it on its own and it soon goes cold.

Being church together gives us a measure of accountability in our discipleship.  It helps to keep us going in our relationship with God.  So let's be committed to fellowship.  Perhaps some people need to hear this.  If you are such a person, you're probably not here...

Be Ready to Share your Faith

1 Peter 3:15
'… in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect …'

Colossians 4:5-6
'Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.'

Faith is meant for sharing.  It's not something to keep to ourselves.

But what about, 'Telling someone about Jesus everyday'?  Well, in my early days as a Christian, 'witnessing' made me very unpopular at school.  I was a bona fide member of  'The God Squad.'  It became more difficult once I'd left school and had to forge new relationships and earn the right to be listened to.

Sharing our faith should be an inevitable consequence of our discipleship, not a rule we must obey. There is no quota to fulfil.

It's true that we're Christ's ambassadors in this world.  We are his hands, his feet, his mouth, eyes and ears.  We do have a role to play in telling others about him.  But we have to be wise in how we go about things.  It's counter-productive to develop the reputation of being someone who artificially contrives to bring every conversation around to God.  Much better if the way we conduct ourselves and the way we speak, or even the way we don't speak, promotes interest and questions. 

Opportunities do present themselves.  I admit I'm not good at spotting them always, or tend to be too analytical in deciding if it is an opportunity.  And where I work people are generally not very open to God anyway.  But when we get an opportunity, what do we say?

Giving a reason for the hope that you have is really explaining what you believe and why you are convinced about it.  It's about your current relationship with God, not the hidden depths of theology.  I cannot prove the existence of God but I can give personal examples of why I know he's real.

If we live in relationship with God, someone will notice and opportunities will arise.  Doing justly and loving mercy promotes interest.  Don't be shy.  What's the worst that can happen?  What's the best that can happen?

Summary

So there we are: four simple practices to help us grow, to help us walk humbly with God.  Remember, there's no merit in the practices themselves; there are no brownie points for practising them.  They are the means to an end, not the end in themselves.

Our walk with God is not about following rules, it's not even about being religious.  It's about relationship.  Relationships take time and effort to develop and grow.  We need to be committed to our relationship with God and to avail ourselves of any help we can get.

Our reading from Ephesians told us about people that God has given to the church to help us grow to maturity: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  People in these roles have great responsibility under God but, at the end of the day, whether we grow as Christians is not really up to them.  We need to learn from these God-given people but our growth is very much a matter of our choice, our behaviour.  As the saying goes, 'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.'

We have the responsibility for our own growth.  It's very important that we mature.  I have seen churches in disarray because of the behaviour of immature Christians who always seemed to get caught up in the next spiritual fad.

Jesus wants his church to be a fully functioning body, fully mature, showing his love and doing his work.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Forever Secure

13 October, 2013
Psalm 62
Mark 10:17-27

Introduction

Psychologists tell us we have three fundamental needs: Security, Significance and Self-worth.  And, if we stop to think about it, we'll see that they're right.

We all like to know that we're safe from threat or danger, and that we have sufficient resources to free us from worry.

We all like to feel that we count for something; that we matter to someone, that we make a difference.

We all want to feel good about ourselves, to be able hold up our heads unashamed at the people we are and the way we live our lives.

Psalm 62 speaks to us primarily about the first of our basic needs: security.  It tells us about

•    the believer's security,
•    the futility of independent means, and
•    the sufficiency of God

The Believer's Security

'Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.'  So says the Westminster Catechism, and I think this is true.  We were made by God for his pleasure and glory and to be in dependent relationship with him.  If we divorce ourselves from these facts, then we miss the whole point of our existence, and launch ourselves on a futile search for satisfaction.

These are truths that David has learnt, and he begins his psalm with a clear statement of reliance on God alone.  For David, and for all believers everywhere and in all times, the only true source of rest and peace is found in God and in right relationship with him.

David's security didn't depend on his own ability to surround himself with armies and fortresses.  Even though he had those things, he still knew that his real security depended on the will of God.

David knew God to be dependable.  God alone was the solid rock on which his security depended.  He had such confidence in God that he could say, 'I will never be shaken.'  That's quite a statement!

Because of this confidence, his soul found rest in God.

Now, David was not living in cloud-cuckoo land.  He was only too aware of his enemies, what they thought of him, and the threat they posed to him.  Look at verses 3 and 4 of the psalm.

These verses perhaps also give us some idea that David was aware of his own weakness: without God's help, he was like a retaining wall that was bulging out and ready to collapse because of the weight piled up behind it; or like a fence with rotten posts that wobbled about in the lightest of breezes.  Humanly speaking, his position was precarious—remember how many kings got bumped off and replaced in those days!  He knew there were people out to get him and that they'd certainly betray him when and if they had the  opportunity.

There's that little word, selah.  I was once told it means something like 'pause a while and think on that.'  It's used twice in this psalm and the first time is after verse 4.  David is saying, 'Look, I'm not messing about here; my problems are real and enormous.  Consider them carefully.'

Then David returns straight to his starting point: yes, his enemies are great but his God is greater.  He reminds himself of his source of security and expands on his opening words.  Then he encourages all of us to 'Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.'

And there's that little word, selah, again.  We've taken stock of our enemies.  Now take stock of the utter dependability of our God.

There are enemies of believers today.

Did you hear the recent report in the news about Muslim suicide bombers going to a church in Pakistan and blowing themselves up outside it, killing around 80 Christian worshippers in the process?  We're fortunate not to have those kind of enemies here.

May be some of us have actual human enemies who hate us and oppose us at every opportunity, or perhaps there are just people who laugh at us because of what we believe.

We definitely have a spiritual enemy who opposes us.  Peter writes in his first letter, 'Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith.'  He'll take any opportunity he can to stop you being effective for the kingdom of God, or even to rob you of your faith, if he can.

Enemies aside, even the circumstances of life can bring us to the brink of disaster.  There was a time in my life when that very nearly happened to me, when I was like a bowing wall or a tottering fence.

During a Sunday morning service in September 2000, I was worshipping with my eyes closed, and suddenly saw myself under a black, opaque dome.  Now, while I believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I'm not given to seeing things, so I was surprised when this happened, and took careful notice of it.

In this picture in my mind, the dome that surrounded me was perfectly smooth, with nothing to grasp, and the little light in there was only what leaked in where the dome touched the ground.

It was a striking image but I had no idea what it might mean, so I filed the experience away in my memory and moved on.

In November that year, my mother fell ill.  We found out in the following March that she had lung cancer, and she died in October 2001.  In reaction to my loss, I began a long, slow descent into clinical depression.  Two years later, I reached the depths of that illness.  I was off work for 13 weeks, and my GP prescribed anti-depressant medication.

During the time off work, I sometimes skipped church on the days I just couldn't face it.  Even when I went, I sat there unable to engage, wondering why I was there at all, seriously doubting the existence of God, and somewhat dejected that I had wasted 30 years of my life in pursuit of something that wasn't real.

The day came when I must have hit rock-bottom, and asked myself, 'What am I doing here?  What's the point of all this rubbish?'  I said to God, 'Are you really there?'

And God said to me, 'I warned you this would happen.'  And again, I saw the picture of the dome, with virtually no light, all blackness and with nothing to hold on to: it was a perfect depiction of how I felt.

Suddenly, I knew God was real.  I sat there and wept, so thankful for the care God had taken to make sure I would get through my problem.  I said to him, 'Lord, you'll have to hold on to me because I can't hold on to you.'

I took me another two years to recover and get off the medication but, however low I felt, I could never again doubt the existence of God or that he loved me and cared for me.

I learnt from the experience that, actually, God had always been holding onto me; my walk with God had never been about my being able to hold on to him.  It's a wonderful thing to know that I'm forever secure in the love of God.

I know God loves me and I know he loves each one of you every bit as much.

The Futility of Independent Means

David takes care to advise us against two of the things that people relied on for security in his day, and which people still rely on today: status (verse 9) and wealth (verse 10).

An uncle of mine used to say that money can't make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.  Those who are highborn in our land may be a bit more comfortable than we lesser, lowborn, mortals but, at the end of the day, they're really no better off than us.

Whether we are monarchs in a palaces or a tramps in cardboard boxes, we amount to nothing.  'Our days are as grass.'  We are here today, gone tomorrow.  What do we have for security then?

Criminal gang leaders assert their status through ruthless behaviour.  They acquire wealth by foul means.  But they too come to nothing in the end, and when they've gone others fight over what they've left behind.  And they leave everything behind.

We've heard young people on the telly saying their ambition is to be rich and famous, and the so-called reality shows holds out that empty promise to them.

As Jesus said elsewhere, 'What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?'

David says, 'Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.'

In our New Testament reading, we saw the encounter between Jesus and a rich young man; an apparently godly young man, a religious man who genuinely wanted to know how to attain eternal life.  His problem was not that he was rich but that his riches meant too much to him.

David was a King.  He was rich.  He was lowborn but had risen to great heights.  He knew that God had put him where he was, and he knew where his real security lay: 'Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I shall not be shaken.  My salvation and my honour depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge.'

There is no substitute for God; not the practice of religion, not even knowledge about God.  It has to be God himself.

The Sufficiency of God

Now, there are many troubles in this life, and Jesus himself told us to expect them.  Some of us will face troubles that threaten and even take away our very lives.  God has never promised to keep troubles away from our door but he has promised to be with us all the time.  And, as I hope my testimony demonstrates, he is dependable.

David encourages us to 'Trust in [God] at all times.'  I'm not saying we shouldn't put sensible precautions in place against risk but, whatever we do, we need to recognise our ultimate security is in God.  Trusting in God isn't a matter of living in denial of our very real problems.  Trusting in God includes taking our very real problems to him.

Our God is approachable and interested.  In fact, he wants relationship with us.  David encourages us to, 'pour out [our] hearts to [God].'  I'm happy to report that God has broad shoulders; he can cope with our anxieties and even our complaining.  Whatever your troubles are, you can take them to God and tell him how you feel about them.

David tells us that God is strong, and that he is loving.  This is encouraging news. 

I'm glad that God is both strong and loving.  If he were not loving, we'd live in fear of his strength and see little point in bothering him with our problems.  If he were not strong, we couldn't have any confidence in his ability to help us, however sympathetic we may feel him to be.

He is strong.  He's the maker of all things.  He's sovereign over and in all circumstances.  Our God is well able to carry us through all the difficulties of our lives because of his great strength.

He is loving.  He cares about what happens to us.  We matter to God.  As well as being secure in him, we are significant to him.  He sent Jesus to be our saviour, and gives us his Holy Spirit so he can be with us in our circumstances all the time and lead us to safety.

Whatever happens to us, if we are Christ's, then we are eternally secure.  As Paul writes to the Romans, 'I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

Summary and Challenge

The psalm ends with a promise.  'Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.'

Perhaps David has one eye on his enemies again.  Is he saying, 'I trust God and will be rewarded accordingly; they do evil and will be rewarded accordingly'?  He may well be looking forward to the day of his vindication.

Whatever David was thinking, there is the promise of reward according to what we do.  I'm not talking about working to earn our salvation because, as the psalm tells us, that depends on God alone.

Given the security we have in God, what should we be doing?  Does that security give us freedom to take some risks of faith, to be daring and bold for God?

I have a vision to see all the churches in Tynedale

•    growing, not shrinking;
•    taking some risks and stepping out in faith;
•    trying new ways of expressing the kingdom of God in our times;
•    reaching out to their communities with love and compassion;
•    helping people find faith in God.

I'm preaching and praying to that end.

Tynedale for God” is my vision.  What's your vision for your church here?

On a more personal level, are any of you facing opposition from enemies, or struggles and trials in your life?  Pour out your heart to God.  He is your refuge.  He is strong and loving.  He is able to sustain you, and he loves you more than I have words to explain.

Whatever level this psalm touches us at, let us all have confidence in God.  Let our souls find rest in him.  Once we are in God's hands we are eternally secure.

Our God is utterly dependable.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What is the Holy Spirit Like?

18 August 2013
Matthew 7:15-20
Galatians 5:16-25

Introduction

Over the two years I've been attending here, and possibly longer, a number of preachers have mentioned the Holy Spirit almost in passing but nonetheless purposefully.  Today, we are focussing our attention specifically on the Holy Spirit.  The are at least three good reasons for doing that.

First of all, our mission statement sets down in writing our aim to be a church that 'expects the Holy Spirit to be at work.'  Did you know that?  Our mission statement is pinned to the notice board in the corridor.  Have a look at it before you go home today.  It's an excellent mission statement, and the point I've just referred to, about 'the Holy Spirit [being] at work,' is what will make possible our living out the whole of that mission statement.

Secondly, we have our 'Room to Grow' building project.  To me, this project is a symbolic declaration of God's intention to grow this church both numerically and in maturity.  For that to happen we will certainly need the Holy Spirit to be at work.

Thirdly, I hope that what we think about this morning will help us to overcome any apprehension we feel about engaging with the Holy Spirit and to raise our level of expectation of what the Holy Spirit may do here.

I'm going to attempt to answer two big questions.

 1. What is the Holy Spirit like? Because the answer will affect our willingness to be open to the Holy Spirit.
 2. What's it like to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit? Because the answer may help us to recognise the Holy Spirit at work.

Obviously, with the limited time available, the best I can hope to achieve is to set you off on your own voyage of discovery.  If I achieve that, I'll be more than happy.

What is the Holy Spirit Like?

In our first song this morning we declared our belief as Christians in the Trinity.  We believe that our one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We understand the Holy Spirit to be a distinct member of the Trinity and yet at the same time be identical with God.  Blows your mind, doesn't it?

Now, we have some understanding of God the Father not least because our referring to him as 'Father' gives us a way of relating to him.  I appreciate that may be a problem for some whose earthly fathers have given a less-than-helpful understanding of fatherhood.  Nevertheless, with a right understanding it's a helpful model.

We have perhaps more insight into the nature of God the Son because he became one of us as Jesus Christ and so we can sort of relate to him more easily.

God the Holy Spirit we have more of a problem with.  We have no way to 'embody' him, so to speak. 

We can see him at work throughout scripture from the beginning of Genesis – where we read that the Spirit of God hovered of the waters of the formless Earth at the dawn of creation – all the way to the end of Revelation – where we read the Spirit's invitation to all who are willing to come and take freely of the water of life.

For all that, he remains mysterious and for some of us, perhaps, a bit scary.  And some of us, who in the past may have been hurt or damaged by things done in the name of the Holy Spirit, may want to keep him at arm's length.

But scripture does show us clearly something of the character of the Holy Spirit and, with the understanding it gives, we can welcome him with open arms.

Interactive:  Is there anyone here with a fruit tree in their Garden?  What kind of fruit do you get from it?  What sort of tree is it? 

So we can recognise a tree from the type of fruit it produces.

In our first reading, Jesus gave the same principle to recognise the character of people.  We can recognise what they are really like by looking at the fruit of their lives. 

We can see what the the Holy Spirit is like by looking at the fruit he produces.  The fruit of the Spirit is described in our second reading: love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, goodness; faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

These things give us a very good idea of the character of the Holy Spirit.  He is full of love, joy and peace.  He is patient, kind and good.  He is faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.

I don't know about you, but I'm very happy to have someone like that at work in my life, and I'm very grateful that he is.  And I'm really happy that he wants to produce the same characteristics in me.  Obviously, I'm very much a 'work in progress'.

What's it like to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit?

The first thing to say is that everyone who truly owns Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour already has a relationship with the Holy Spirit.  That may range from a very quiet relationship that we haven't given much thought to to a lively, intimate relationship; and everything in between.

Knowing the Holy Spirit on a Personal level

The Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the assurance of our salvation.  As Paul writes in Romans 8 '[we have] received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our Spirit that we are God's children.'  This is the kind of thing that John Wesley reported when his heart was strangely warmed and he felt that he did trust in Christ and knew that his sins were forgiven.

Also, in 2 Corinthians 1.22, Paul wrote '[God] set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.'  This too is something tangible.  It's like someone telling you you have a huge inheritance coming your way, but in the meantime, here's a copy of the will and £5000 to be going on with.  And God says to us, “In the next world you will have unlimited access to everything I am.  Meanwhile, I' give you my Holy Spirit to dwell in you.”

The Holy Spirit also reveals truth to us to help us grow.  As Jesus tells us in John 16, 'when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.'  When you read your Bible, ask the Holy Spirit to bring its truth alive for you.  I love it when the Spirit draws attention to a verse I've read a hundred times, and shows me something I've never seen before, such as when I realised the fruit of the Spirit tells us something of what the Holy Spirit is like!

As well as giving us assurance and revealing truth to us, the Holy Spirit makes us fruitful.  He looks to grow all nine segments of that fruit in all our lives, not just one or two of them.  We don't see them all in the same measure in everyone because we are all different and are in different stages of advancement in our Christian walk; but we all need all the fruit.

Just look at what he wants to develop in us.

Love  The Holy Spirit wants us to know the vastness of God's love for us; and he wants us to show others that vast love.

Joy  The joy of the Spirit is a wonderful thing.  When he touches your life, it's thrilling. It's an emotion much better than plain old happiness and is there even when we feel unhappy.  At my father-in-law's funeral earlier this year, in the midst of the sadness of our loss, I felt tremendous joy because of our Christian hope and the certainty that this godly man had entered into everlasting life.

Peace  I once met a man who had a tangible sense of peace and well-being around him.  He entered the room and filled it with peace.  It was a pleasure to be in his company.  God wants us all to know peace and well-being, and if it spills over to others, wouldn't that be special?

Patience  Some of us have more need of patience than others – especially when I'm driving!  Haven't we all needed to be on the receiving end of the Holy Spirit's patience?

Kindness  Doesn't the world need more of this?  I find that people take notice when they encounter unexpected kindness; I know I do.  The Holy Spirit wants to display the difference that following Jesus makes.

Goodness  We can say the same about Goodness.  God is concerned for the disadvantaged of the world.  Social justice matters to God, and you'll be glad to know that our mission statement includes something about that (don't forget to read it before you leave).  Do-gooders get a bad name these days but this world needs us to do good, to show the goodness of God.

Faithfulness  The Greek word here is literally, 'Faith'.  God wants to grow faith in us that keeps us true to him and true to each other.  Faithfulness is very precious to God; it means a great deal to him.

Gentleness  Other translations have 'meekness' here, which I've heard defined as 'strength under control'.  The Spirit wants to bring a gentleness into our dealings with others so that even when we are correcting or admonishing, there is no bullying or manipulation or coercion.  How different that will look in our modern society.

Self-control  The Holy Spirit himself is self-controlled.  He's not capricious or volatile.  If we open ourselves up to him, he won't dominate us and force us to do things we don't want to do.  On the contrary, he wants to give us control of ourselves and the ability to choose our behaviour, so we are not enslaved by the horrible things listed in verses 19 to 21.  Living by the Spirit keeps us from gratifying the desires of our sinful nature.

All these things are grown in us as we walk with the Spirit.  None of these wonderful characteristics of the Spirit come by gritting our teeth and trying to make them happen.  They are all the fruit of living in co-operation with the Holy Spirit. 

I'm concerned not to make all this sound too easy.  Fruit grows over time; it isn't instantaneous.   As we co-operate with the Holy Spirit, he'll lead us through a process of refinement that produces fruit in us. 

It's no all easy.  I have to be honest, if there are serious issues in our lives, such as the things in that other list, we could find the process unpleasant, with the Holy Spirit laying siege to our lives.  That's because he is faithful and full of love.  He loves us very much, but he will have things right.  Always, his intention is to make us more fruitful. 

A couple of weeks ago I was camping, and beautiful peacock butterfly was trapped in my tent.  It was beating its wings against the tent, trying to escape towards the sunlight.  But it couldn't get free.  I tried to cup my hands around it so I could take it out and release it.  It saw me as a threat and tried to get away from me, avoiding my efforts to help.  Eventually, I caught it and took it outside.  It could have been free sooner if it had cooperated.

So, if there are things you need to put right, give in: co-operate with the Holy Spirit.  After all, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings us life, and 'Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.'

Knowing the Holy Spirit on a corporate level

I've recently read a book about a retreat centre in rural South Wales called Fald y Brennin.  Some amazing things have happened there, and I've no reason to doubt what I've read.  Passers-by have been strangely drawn to go in and ask what's going on there, and have had deep encounters with God on entering the centre's chapel, often without anyone saying a word.  People have been healed and lives have been changed.  Even the local economy has been blessed.  These kinds of things can happen in a place where the Holy Spirit's at work.  How about some of that here?

How big is our expectation?

Fald y Brennin is perhaps an extreme example, but we can see more of the Holy Spirit at work than we do now.  He can equip us with spiritual gifts which, used properly, will help our church grow.  He'll lead us, prompting us to good work, to helping and supporting each other and people in need.  He'll help us show our community the love of God. 

For me, the prospect of the Holy Spirit being at work here is an exciting one!  And our God can do immeasurably more than anything we can ask or imagine!

Coming in to Land – Inviting a Response


The Holy Spirit isn't someone we should be terrified of.  He is God's gift to us, and God gives only good gifts.  As we draw to a close, in a prayerful attitude, let's reflect on being a church that expects the Holy Spirit to be at work.

Ministries  Think of all those things you are involved with: welcoming people at the door, cleaning, serving tea and coffee, visiting people, children's work, leading worship, preaching, whatever.  Invite the Holy Spirit to be involved in all you do.

Services and Meetings  Think of our Sunday morning service, our Sunday evening fellowship, our prayer meetings, Sundae Special, the Ladies' meeting.  Invite the Holy Spirit to be present in all these things.

Relationships  Think of the people in your lives: at church, your neighbours, those you work with, family members.  Invite the Holy Spirit to be involved in all your relationships.

Witness  Think about our mission and invite the Holy Spirit to inspire and equip us to share God's love with our community.

Let's co-operate with the Holy Spirit.

And now let's reflect on ourselves as people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Devotions  Think of your personal relationship with God.  Invite the Holy Spirit to speak to you as you read Scripture and to guide you in your prayer life.

Issues  Think of those things in your life you know need sorting out.  Invite Holy Spirit to help you find freedom.

Fruitfulness  Invite the Holy Spirit to grow more of his wonderful fruit in your life.

Let's co-operate with the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps you don't really know Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.  You have no assurance of salvation;  you don't know what it is to have peace with God; you don't know the Holy Spirit.  Invite the Holy Spirit to begin making Jesus known to you.

Let us pray

Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,
Wind and Fire of God,
Guarantee of the believer's inheritance,
We need your presence
That our lives may glorify Jesus;
We need your power
That we may be emboldened to share our faith,
That our witness may be more than words.
We invite you to fill our lives;
Hover over us in renewal,
Rest on us with power to serve,
Dwell in us and make us fruitful.
To the glory of God the Father Almighty
And in the name of Christ our Saviour.
Amen!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Wot? No Faith?

2 June 2013
Mark 4:1 & 35-41

Introduction

Do you ever feel jealous of those too-good-to-be-human people who seem to be able to do anything, and do it better than everyone else? 
•    They don't just cook, they would stroll easily to the final of Master Chef and win it. 
•    They don't just play the guitar, they play the piano, drums, trombone, flute, and xylophone, and all to concert standard. 
•    Their lives are tidy and organised, and they always seem to be in control. 
•    As if all that isn't enough, they're stunningly good looking too!

Do you know the sort?

Then there's you and me! 

Fortunately for us lesser mortals, the Bible is full of people like us who get things wrong or make a mess.  Sometimes they're very important people like the disciples of Jesus, who seem to spend a good deal of their time in the soup.  Here, they fall short in the most important aspect of Christian living: faith! 

Like them, we can be faithless.  Like them, we can discover that God's faithfulness is rock solid.

The chapter starts with Jesus speaking to the crowd on the shore of Lake Galilee.  Because the crowd was large, he got into a boat and put out from the shore to give himself space to speak and be heard. 

At the end of the day, and still in the boat, Jesus says to his disciples, "Let's go over to the other side".  So, they set off: the disciples, probably the boat's owner, and Jesus, just as he was.  Tired from the day's ministry, Jesus found a nice, soft cushion, lay down in the back of the boat and went to sleep. 

The disciples had no idea why they were crossing the lake, they were just doing as Jesus had asked.  They also had no idea of the trouble that lay ahead of them.

Galilee is notorious for storms caused by squalls coming down from the surrounding hills. Some of the disciples were fishermen and would have been familiar with Galilean storms.  They had probably experienced them before, but there was clearly something about this one that scared them witless. 

We have to acknowledge they had some faith—but until this point it was only in their boat and in their own abilities to sail it.  And now their boat is about to sink and they have no idea how to sail it out of trouble.

We can learn quite a lot about faith by looking at their lack of faith and the responses it led them to. 

We'll see they had:

•    no faith in Christ's leading
•    no faith in his presence
•    no faith in his motives
•    no faith in his nature.

So firstly, the disciples, at this point in their experience of Christ, had

No Faith In His Leading

They failed to grasp the significance of what Jesus had said for the predicament they found themselves in.  Had the disciples any faith in his leading, they could've faced the storm with a different attitude altogether.

Jesus didn't say, "Let's see if we might manage to get to the other side," or, "Let's launch out from the shore and hope we make it."  He said, "Let's go over to the other side."  This was Jesus speaking.  Their objective was certain because Jesus had spoken.  They were going to the other side of the lake.  Whatever might happen in the middle.

Each of us who is a believer has embarked on a journey that Jesus has asked us to make.  We've been called to be disciples.  He has said to us, "Follow me", and scripture tells us how to follow and that the destination is everlasting salvation.  He hasn't said what will happen along the journey but, if we obey the call to follow as true disciples, we will get there.   

Unfortunately, we can make wrong assumptions about our Christian life.  Crossing the lake, as Jesus had asked, didn't guarantee the disciples a trouble-free journey.  If God asks us to do something he won't necessarily sweep all obstacles from our path.

I think of friends whom God lead to work in a remote part of Kenya.  They didn't get much enthusiastic support, they faced a lot of opposition and difficulty including severe illness, but they were lead to establish a hospital and to be witnesses for Jesus.  They were certain of their calling and they achieved their objective.  I can't imagine that there weren't times when they wondered what on earth God was doing with them, but they remained faithful.  God's word to them carried them through. 

Christ's leading can sometimes be difficult for us to discern.  The disciples actually heard Jesus speak to them about crossing the lake.  For us it isn't so easy because he isn't physically present.   When problems come along it may seem so reasonable to question our course.  At times like that, we need to remember God's leading and use our faith; to continue in our choice to follow.  

Here's our first insight into faith: If God says you're going somewhere, you can be confident of reaching your destination. 

Have faith in his leading! 

The next problem we see in the disciples is that they had

No Faith In His Presence

We aren't told how the other boats were fairing, but there was something special about this boat that should have inspired faith for the disciples.  They had Jesus in their boat, and by now, they'd seen him performing miracles.  They could've gone straight to him and asked for help instead of battling on against the storm.  We're told that the waves were almost swamping the boat, yet Jesus was left to sleep on.

We can imagine the disciples using all their experience to get through the storm: bailing out water, throwing things overboard, frantic action everywhere.  Yet Jesus was still left to sleep.

What stops us trusting in his presence?  Perhaps the disciples thought they knew better; after all, they were the fishermen, and what would Jesus, a carpenter, a preacher even, know about sailing through storms?  Let him sleep!  We'll do this in our own strength.

There was once a particular problem I faced at work: an important computer system had failed and I had to fix it.  Eventually, after a couple of hours getting nowhere by my own efforts, I prayed very earnestly about it.  Within 10 minutes I had the solution.  When I was asked what the problem had been, my only honest answer was that I hadn't prayed soon enough!   

I see the presence of Jesus in the boat as a kind of allegory of the ancient promise of God to be with his people in doing the things he asks them to do. 

Gideon in old testament times was told by God to save Israel from the Midianites, and was promised by God, "I will be with you."

Moses, doubting his ability to confront Pharaoh, was promised by God, "I will be with you". 

Joshua, on taking over from Moses, was promised by God, "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Jesus himself says, "... surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

So here's another insight of faith for us: If Jesus gives you a job he goes with you.  You can be confident he doesn't send you out on your own.  Don't struggle on in your own strength!

Have faith in his presence! 

As for the disciples, they've another point of failure to demonstrate because they had

No Faith In His Motives

We find it easy to believe the Lord is with us when the seas are calm; it may not be so easy in a storm.  We can lose sight of the Lord, we may wonder what he is doing, and we fail to see any value in our trials.   

Jesus had given the disciples no reason to go to the other side of the lake.  We know from reading on in Mark's gospel what was to happen.  On the other side of the lake there was a demonised man who was uncontrollable, and outcast from society.  Jesus was going to set him free, transform his life, and make him an important messenger of the gospel in that region.  Jesus had a job to do.  All the disciples knew about was the storm.

The ferocity of the storm may have given the disciples good cause for fear, but they had even better cause for faith because Jesus was with them. 

Maybe they would've had more faith in Jesus if he hadn't been asleep.  Have you ever wondered how he could do that?  Can you imagine sleeping in a boat that's awash and about to sink?  He must've been very tired, or perhaps he was just waiting to see what the disciples would do . . .   

The time came when they decided they were losing their battle and they woke him up.  It's quite clear what they believed.  If they'd had faith, they may have said, "Lord, we've a bit of a problem here but we know you can help;" but no. They cry, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"   

Now the Lord could've turned around and said to them, "If that's your attitude, I'll just get out here and walk the rest of the way!" but he didn't.  He responded in a totally unexpected way—he brought an end to the storm. 

There's something remarkable here – I mean apart from controlling the weather.  The Lord responds to cries for help, even when faith is non-existent.  And his answers can be surprising! 

How like the disciples we can be!  We wrongly expect to have no problems in the Christian Life. When they occur, we wonder if God has forgotten us, or has gone to sleep, or if he really cares.   But, like the disciples, we don't always know what God is doing.

Why should we have to face problems?  Why are there often difficult circumstances that stretch our faith to the limit? 

If we don't use our muscles they wither away.  If we use them, they develop and become more powerful and more useful.

Similarly, our faith needs exercise; it needs testing circumstances for growth.  Our spiritual muscles are developed by facing problems with faith, not by avoiding them.  Problems will come!  Remember that God is with you and won't let his purposes fail. 

Our choice of faith is to go on believing that God is good, that he has our best interests, and his highest glory in mind.

Have faith in his motives! 

The final point is about the disciples' biggest shortcoming. They had

No Faith In His Nature

Jesus rebuked the wind and waves and brought an end to the storm.  The disciples should have been relieved and thankful.  In fact, they were now terrified because of what they'd just seen Jesus do. 

They also found themselves rebuked for their lack of faith.  Jesus says, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Here's another insight: Jesus expects us to have faith, and he expects us to use it! 

On first glance, it seems the disciples were rebuked for being in fear of their circumstances.  But there's another possibility.  Look at their question in response to the Lord's rebuke: "Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him?" 

What a question, "Who is this?"  They hadn't yet realised that Jesus of Nazareth was none other than God-made-man. 

Look at what John says of Jesus at the start of his Gospel:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

John sees Jesus of Nazareth's identity with God and his role in creation as crucial to understanding who he is.  This is the Jesus whom the disciples had in their boat. 

What might they have expected of him if they had known? Would they have been fearful? Wouldn't they have expected him to have authority over his own creation?  If the disciples had really known who was asleep in the back of their boat they could've faced this storm with relish, and expected to see the power of God at work!

This is the Jesus in your life! 

Do you face life with fear, or with faith in the creator of all things who is with you in every circumstance?  Are you awash and expecting to sink with the day-in, day-out struggle of life or do you expect to see the power of God carry you through? 

Bring back into view the one whom you worship and whose Spirit can empower you.  His nature is the whole basis of our faith.  We can have faith in his leading, his presence, and his motives because of his nature. 

Have faith in who Jesus is!

Conclusion

What about us?  How does all this apply to us, here? 

Obviously, we can take the lessons of the passage personally as an encouragement to help us keep faith through all those difficulties and problems we all face in life.  Christ is with us on our personal journey across the lake of our life.

In addition, Jesus was on a mission that day.  The disciples were involved in that mission.  That mission faced potential disaster.  Christ is with us as we engage in the mission he has given us here.

What is God asking us to do?  We have our part to play in extending God's invitation to follow Christ to the people we live among.  We have the sometimes bewildering task of reaching out to our community; of finding new ways to take God's love to the people we mix with every day.

Are we on board, or are we watching from the shore?

Are we ready, willing and able to work the boat?  We are called to work with God, not just watch things happen, just as the disciples had to work the boat, before and after the storm.

Extending God's invitation will not always be easy.  Our own personal walk will not always be easy.
•    It will involve sacrifice.  
•    It will involve new priorities—putting the Kingdom of God first!
•    It will involve commitment to personal discipleship, to following Jesus closely.

Whatever we take from this today, whether as encouragement on an individual level, or as encouragement as we rise to the challenge of being Christ's witnesses, let us have

•    faith in his leading
•    faith in his presence
•    faith in his motives
•    faith in his nature

Friday, May 17, 2013

Just a Thought . . .

When you get to the point where you realise you are nothing, remember that God made the entire universe from nothing . . .

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

An Easter Reflection

Christ did not die so I would not have to;
he died to bring about my death.
Christ did not bear my judgement so I could avoid it;
he died to make it happen.
Christ did not die to make amends;
he died to make an end.

Christ rose again to bring a new me to birth;
a new me to live justly, not selfishly;
a new me to show God's mercy, not man's spite;
a new me in humble relationship with the living God, not in arrogant rebellion.

The old me ran with the crowd.
The new me walks hand-in-hand with Father.

If any man is in Christ - a new creation!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Great Expectations

Palm Sunday, 24 March 2013
Zechariah 9:9-12
Luke 19:28-40

At the time of Jesus' earthly life, the world was ruled by Rome.  Rome's way of ruling was by domination and control.  They dominated with their powerful armies and controlled through puppet rulers who were willing to collaborate with Rome for personal advantage. 

Israel at this time was split into three political zones, and the rulers of these zones were accountable to a Roman govenor.  He made sure the rulers did their jobs to the Emperor's satisfaction and that the required taxes were duly collected and handed over.  Jerusalem lay in the zone comprised of Judah and Samaria and was ruled in this period by the temple authorities.  The elders, chief priests and scribes were therefore in the deeply conflicted position of holding responsibility for both spiritual and political governance.

The Roman govenor of the day, Pontius Pilate, lived in the coastal town of Caesarea which was an altogether nicer place to be than Jerusalem.  But Jewish festivals were centred on Jerusalem, and the huge crowds that gathered there had a reputation for trouble and unrest.  This was especially true of Passover, when the population of Jerusalem could swell by 200 000 or more and which was, as the Romans well knew, a celebration of Isreal's release from bondage to another foreign power.  So, to discourage trouble-makers and to be ready to stamp out any trouble they might cause, at festival times the govenor moved to Jerusalem accompanied by a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to reinforce the normal garrison.

They made a big show of their arrival, an Imperial Triumphal Entry calculated to project control and power – but they wouldn't have found an enthusiastic welcome from the Jewish people.

On the other side of town, probably on the same day, maybe even at the same time, and in total contrast, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the untamed, jittery foal of a donkey to the uproarious welcome of a large crowd of disciples.

As well as Messiah's entry into Jerusalem on a colt being pre-ordained in prophecy, our reading from Luke's Gospel shows signs that the loan of the donkey may well have been pre-arranged by Jesus.  So the coincidence of these two events is a distinct possibility.  Little wonder, then, that the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to shut his disciples up, lest the Romans hear!

So much for the history lesson.

The Expectations of the People

Our expectations in life are often different from what turns out.  I remember my first day at school.  My mum had told me I was going to school, so I was expecting it.  But I didn't really understand; I had no idea what she was talking about. 

When the day came, she got me ready and took me to school.  (This next bit is quite sad, actually, so if you need to reach for your hanky …)  I was then abandoned, by my mother, in a classroom full of strangers.  I was just left there, crying to go home.  Still, Miss Wood, the teacher, gave me a nice cuddle and I managed to get through the day.

The next day, my mum woke me up with, 'Come on, Nigel, time for school,'  to which my shocked response was, 'Do I have to go again?'  I was allowed to go in my cowboy suit but was a bit disappointed when my gun was confiscated on arrival.  Despite my initial expectation of a one-off visit to school, the 17 years of formal education that followed turned out to be quite good for me.

The expectations of the disciples, and the Jews in general, were, of course, of much greater import.  They were expecting a great leader who would kick the Romans out and bring peace and freedom to Isreal. 

I've alluded to the idea that the Palm Sunday procession was not entirely spontaneous but planned by Jesus, although we have no record of what he may have told his disciples beyond the arrangements over the donkey.  Whether he had taught them anything about the prophecy in Zechariah that he was about to enact, we don't know.

Even if they were aware of the prophecy, it could have reinforced the expectation of an impending political change since it declares the coming of a king who, 'will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken.' (v 10 NIV).

The disciples had seen the power of Rome.  They had also seen the power of Jesus.  And with this fulfilment of prophecy, and this direct and flagrant affront to Rome, surely now is the time!  'Hosanna,' they cried. 'Save us now!'

Somehow, they missed the point that the foretold king was, 'righteous and having salvation, gentle...'  They hadn't grasped the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached, that peace would come to the nations by the transformation of the hearts and minds of men and women, not by armed struggle.

Christ's Expectations Then

What did Jesus expect?  By this time, Jesus has already told his disciples on several occasions exactly what to expect in Jerusalem: '[The Son of Man] will be turned over to the Gentiles.  They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him.  On the third day he will rise again.'  (Lk 18:32-33, NIV)  But we're told the disciples didn't understand, they had no idea what he was talking about.  Even after the resurrection they were still asking about the kingdom being restored to Isreal (Acts 1:6).

Jesus went to Jerusalem expecting to die. 

Jesus was the suffering servant foretold in other prophecies such as the famous passage in Isaiah 53: 'Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.' (v 4-6, NIV)

Jesus wasn't picky about which prophecies to fulfil.  He went to Jerusalem to die for all of the sins of all of us and to rise again on the third day.

Christ's Expectations Now

What of Christ's expectations today?  Christ comes to us today, full of expectation.  Now, he comes to us to be our King, and we are the ones who must die.

He is not a king like those who ruled over Isreal by Roman permission, and worked as much as they could for their own selfish gain.  He is not a king like the Roman emperor who exercised domination and control. 

He is all-powerful, and he is worthy of our obedience, but his methods of ruling us are not domination and control.  The kingdom he reigns over is a kingdom ruled by love: solid, dependable, unconditional, loyal, true and affirming love.

He is the one who has the promise of everlasting life for those who trust in him.  He expects us to live lives that show the Kingdom of God to the world, bringing God's peace to the nations in his name.  He expects us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.

Somehow, when I think of what Jesus did for me, what he went through in both the physical agony of his death and the spiritual agony of being forsaken by God because of my sin, saying, 'Thank you,' just doesn't cut the mustard; it's not enough.

The only response anywhere near worthy of my King is to bow the knee to him and say, 'Here is my puny life.  Take it and use it for your glory in any way you can.'

Resolution

Year by year, we remember the events of Holy Week – the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, the last supper, Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, the mockery of a trial, the beatings, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

In Holy Week, we journey figuratively with Jesus into Jerusalem and on to Resurrection Day in the company of believers all around the world.  There are people everywhere who bow the knee to King Jesus.  His rule, right now, extends to the ends of the earth; and the best is yet to come!

Let's worship our King each day this week in full knowledge of what he did, and that it was for us. 

Let's worship him because he is a worthy king. 

Let's worship him in the best way we can, by handing over our lives to him, and living our lives for him!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lessons from the Wilderness - Luke 4:1-13

This well-known passage teaches us a few things about temptation, opposition and our dependency on the Holy Spirit.

Beating Temptation

Temptation is a very human problem, one we all face almost every day of our lives.  Our passage tells us about a specific episode in the earthly life of Jesus when, as a human being, he endured not just the three particular temptations described in detail but 40 whole days of relentless temptation.  We can learn some important things about temptation from it.

Temptation isn't Sin

Sometimes, we can feel sullied by temptation, that we are useless failures, discouraged that we appear not to have changed much because we still face the same temptations now that we struggled with years ago.
Temptation is an inevitable part of our human condition but the important thing to remember is that temptation is not sin; it does not stain our lives.  The struggle may exhaust us at times but there is no guilt in being tempted, only from giving in.

If temptation were sin, then Jesus would be a sinner.  We see him here being tempted, and scripture tells us he was tempted in every way we are – but without sin, meaning that he overcame every temptation that ever came his way.

Oscar Wilde said, 'I can resist anything except temptation.'

Sin is not the inevitable consequence of temptation.  We see Jesus here successfully resisting temptation and the devil giving up the effort for a while.  We too can beat our temptations, and there a few pointers in the passage that can help us in our fight.
 

Temptation is Targeted

Temptations target our personal weaknesses.  Now, we are not all weak in the same areas.  Sometimes those weaknesses are sins to which we are particularly attuned.  There are things in my life that I find really difficult but you may never even give them a thought.  Some of your problem-areas won't present me with any challenges.  We're all different.  The important thing is to recognise our personal weaknesses and, by the choices we make, avoid things that lead us to be tempted.

What are your problem-areas?  What do you need to avoid?

Sometimes those weaknesses are circumstances that break our resolve or cause us to drop our guard.  It's easier to be selfish when we are engrossed in something we enjoy, or to leave that debasing TV programme on when we're exhausted.  The specific area of weakness for Jesus in the passage was extreme hunger after fasting for 40 days.  Satan saw it as a good opportunity to get Jesus to abuse the power at his disposal to satisfy his own needs.

When are you more susceptible?  When do you need to apply more grace?

Temptations target our trust in God.  In the Garden of Eden, the serpent said to Eve, 'Did God really say you would die if you eat?'  In two of the temptations in or passage, Satan says to Jesus, 'If you are the Son of God...'  Jesus had only recently heard his Father declare, 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'  Adam and Eve doubted the truth of what God said and led us all into sin.  Jesus stood firm on his Father's words and led us out of it.

Temptations target God's purposes for us, in an attempt to make us ineffective in our witness and mission.  There is, of course, the problem of seeing how enormous the task of mission is, from a human point of view. Having all the problems and difficulties pointed out to us is one way of keeping us from even starting the work.  Then there are those short-cuts that promise to get us to our goals much quicker than we could have expected but which, in reality, leave us compromised, exposed and without credibility.  What would have happened if Jesus had bowed down to Satan?  How long would Satan have left the world in his hands?  If Jesus worshipped Satan, wouldn't the reality have been that Satan remained in charge and Jesus would have been no more than a puppet?

Like Jesus, we need to be clear about whom we serve, and be careful about the course we follow to achieve our God-given goals.

Know your Bible

Jesus used scripture to counter temptation.  It gave him unshakeable authority in rebuffing his tempter.  Jesus knew scripture not because he was God and knew everything but because he had spent 30 years walking with God and following the pattern of Hebrew worship.

In John 8:32, Jesus tells us '...you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.' (NIV)  That statement is in the context of a call to determined discipleship, of learning and growing;  learning what God is like, learning how our relationship with him works, learning how to live in ways that please him, discovering what makes us strong.  One tremendously important resource in that quest is the Bible.

Trying to be a Christian without reading your Bible is like going unarmed into battle.  I am not laying down some legalistic rule for Christian living, merely pointing out that having access to scripture and not using it is like life without breathing.

Mission Attracts Opposition

 Jesus was about to begin his mission of redemption for us all.  His objective was to rescue us from the dominion of darkness.  It's no surprise that darkness tried to foil his mission.

As disciples of Jesus, we have a part to play in taking the good news of the Gospel to the world.  It shouldn't surprise us if darkness militates against us.

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is an enemy.  Our enemy is not just the difficulties of life and human opposition.  Paul tells us in Eph. 6:12 that '...our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.' (NIV)

When we are led into mission by God, it should not surprise us when we encounter opposition; organised, concerted opposition.  Even Jesus encountered opposition.  For him, in the wilderness, it was a direct and personal encounter with the devil.

There is a battle.  There are no rules of engagement.  Your enemy is ruthless, bent on your destruction, and determined to stop you being effective for God.  How many moves of the Spirit have we seen undermined by the leader giving in to adultery, or being subverted by the love of money, or enjoying the influence he has too much?

The good news is that Jesus defeated Satan, and we can win, too, because of the resources God has given us, just as he gave them to Jesus.  We have Scripture: soak it up.  We have the Holy Spirit: let him fill and empower you.

Our enemy may be strong but he is limited.  Our God, however, is almighty and unbounded.

Our Need of the Holy Spirit

It's easy to forget that the life Jesus lived on Earth he lived as a human being.  He didn't have an unfair advantage on account of being God the Son.  Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself when he left heaven and became an ordinary man who lived his human life in obedience to his Father.

So, why was Jesus different from the rest of us?  Jesus didn't rely on his own godly power, or his own human strength.  The passage tells us that he was full of the Holy Spirit.  The good news is that we too can be full of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, it's what God wants for us.

No Guarantee of an Easy Ride

Being full of the Holy Spirit doesn't mean that our lives will be trouble-free, that we will somehow sail along untouched by the problems of life.

Our passage tells us that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness, and the parallel passage in Matthew's gospel makes it clear that it was specifically so Jesus could be tempted by the devil.  Far from avoiding problems, the Spirit led him to confront difficulty.

Jesus lived his life on earth as a man.  He drew no advantage over us by virtue of his divinity.  He lived 30 years in obscurity as a man, and then exercised three years of world-changing ministry.  The reason he was so effective in pleasing his Father and changing the world was because he was full of the Spirit (see verse 1).

The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus is available to us in our ordinary lives and in ministry.  If we are Christians, we already have the Holy Spirit living in us.  If we do not have the Holy Spirit, then we are not Christians. 

Do you have the Holy Spirit?

Having the Holy Spirit is one thing.  Allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us is another.  We can be full of the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way Jesus was, and as the apostles and other disciples were from the Pentecost after the Resurrection.  In fact, Paul tells ordinary believers to, 'Be filled with the Spirit.' (Eph 5:18b)

Power to Do

Luke says that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit.  It was through that enabling of the Spirit that Jesus could do the things he did.  The apostles and other disciples did what they did because they knew the enabling of the same Holy Spirit.  It couldn't have been anything to do with them, could it?  We see their weakness clearly portrayed in scripture.

Are you weak?  

With the Holy Spirit you can have all the enabling power you need to do whatever God calls you to, whether that be some amazing ministry or just to be a believer in everyday life.  Humility and obedience to God is the place to start.  Ask for fulness.  Be filled with the Spirit.

Summing Up

So, we have
  • learned something about temptation and how to beat it
  • recognised the need to be ready to meet opposition to mission
  • been encouraged to allow the Holy Spirit who dwells in us to fill and empower us.