Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

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.