Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Good News: Release for the Captives

Readings

Isaiah 61
John 1:1-14

Christmas Today

In the church calendar, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the coming of Messiah – that's what Christ-mass means.  It is, and should be, a happy time of celebration; but, for many in our society, most often it's for all the wrong reasons. 

For many, Christmas has become just a good excuse for a party, for gluttony and drunkenness. It's a time to be nice to others (for a change).  It's called a time for the children, for getting together with family (and, I suspect quite often, for family arguments: grandma wants to watch the Queen, the kids want to watch “The Snowman” – again, and grandpa wants to watch “The Great Escape” – again!). 

As a society, we have turned one of the most significant events in the history of the world into a massive, commercialised scramble for the money in our pockets, set to the annoying musical accompaniment of chirping tills, Slade's “Merry Christmas” wishes, Wizzard's wishing it could be “Christmas everyday” (really?), and Maria Carey: all she wants for Christmas is me! 

We've buried the real meaning of Christmas under a landslide of tinsel, glitter, wrapping paper, turkey and mince pies (O, how I love mince pies!). 

The main figure of the season is no longer Jesus, the promised Messiah, but Father Christmas (Ho, ho, ho). 

On a local news programme I saw some years ago, a reporter was interviewing members of the public in Birmingham.  Someone said, 'The church is trying to ruin Christmas by bringing religion into it.' 

Could it be that some enemy has been working to obliterate the fact of Christ's coming?

For some, Christmas is an awful time.  It's not good news for the poor at all.  People wonder how they are going to afford what the children want.  They solve the problem by making themselves captives of credit card companies or, even worse, payday loan companies.

Broken-hearted people look back on a miserable year and forward to a year with only darkness and the prison of despair.  The period around Christmas and New Year is the peak time for suicides.

It's often a time of unhappy memories for those who have been bereaved.  I knew someone who would never go to church at Christmas because her husband had fallen down dead while reading the lesson on Christmas Day.

Now that I've got you all feeling thoroughly miserable, let's see if I can cheer you up again!

We all know that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th, but let's not get too hung up on that; since we don't know the actual date, it's as good a date as any.  The important thing is that Christ was born. 

The amazing, utterly mind-boggling thing is that the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God stepped down into our world in the person of Jesus Christ with very definite intent, and to bring hope to all people. 

In the coming of Christ, God's purposes foretold in Isaiah long before are unleashed into the world.  The words we heard read were
  • Good News for Isaiah's time
  • Good News for Christ's time on earth
  • Good News for today

Good News for Isaiah's Time

The words we heard from Isaiah were originally penned for a people returning from exile, who perhaps were born and grew up entirely in captivity, and now were witnessing the sorry state of their homeland after returning, perhaps wondering if real freedom and restoration could ever happen. 

Imagine yourself as one of the Jews returning from exile.  You've heard the stories about what your homeland of Judah was like; you've heard about the magnificent temple of Solomon.  You get back home and what do you find?  Total devastation: Jerusalem's walls are broken down and the temple is in ruins.  How are you going to feel?  Pretty broken-hearted, I should think, to discover that all you'd longed for amounted to nothing.  You've come all this way, and for what?  You'd find it easy to share in the grief and mourning of those originally taken into captivity.

But listen: God is on the case!  These words from Isaiah bring hope and encouragement:
  • your dreadful situation will be recovered
  • you will be set free and walk once more in the light
  • your grief will be turned to joy
  • you will rebuild
  • God will bless you and reward you!

Good News for Christ's Time on Earth

In Luke's Gospel, chapter 4, we see Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth.  He reads from Isaiah 61, the same passage we read from today. 

Jesus lifts the words from Isaiah out of their original historical context and places them down in a new setting: the land of Palestine, where people were oppressed by the Romans, governed by corrupt Jewish rulers, burdened by the rules and regulations of the religious authorities. 

Then he stakes a very personal claim to the passage with the words, 'Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'  In other words, Jesus is declaring, 'I am the one the prophet wrote about.  This is what I came to do.'  He clearly identifies himself as the “Suffering Servant” in the book of Isaiah. 

These same words from Isaiah were to bring hope to the down-trodden of that day – but perhaps not in the way they were expecting, because they were looking for political deliverance and failed to perceive their Messiah as the “Suffering Servant”.

Jesus went about preaching the good news, healing the sick, setting people free from their sins, giving them hope and releasing them to rebuild their lives.

Good News for Today

As the expression of Christ's declared intent, Isaiah's words bring hope to all people down the ages, right up to the present day and on into the future.  These words bring hope for us, here and now!

God's primary purpose in sending Christ is to proclaim good news to the poor; and it's practical, life-changing news. 

God cares deeply for the poor and down-trodden in his world; as Christ's body here on Earth in the 21st Century, so must we.  It's essential that we have a social conscience and do what we can to bring hope to those in material need, at the same time as we hold out the promise of salvation through faith in Christ.

But the gospel is good news not only for those in actual poverty.  In the sermon on the mount as recorded in Matthew's gospel Jesus says 'Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'

Spiritually, of ourselves we are all paupers; we can never be good enough to save ourselves.  The settings in our minds are for wrong-doing, however hard we may try to do right.  We're held captive by our nature; our minds are fixed on the ways of this world and the light doesn't get through to us.

There may well be someone here today who feels only too aware of how poverty-stricken you are.  You may feel like you're living your life in prison.  You may feel locked in by all kinds of things.  You may feel lost, outside of God's kingdom, outside his love and care.

The good news is that we are living in the year of the LORD's favour, and Jesus came to bring liberty and hope for people exactly like us:
  • your dreadful situation can be recovered
  • you can be set free from your prison and walk once more in the light
  • your grief can be turned to joy
  • you can rebuild
God can bless you and reward you!

In this year of the LORD's favour, God is for us, not against us.

What Kind of Prison?

I want, now, to talk about a few situations that demonstrate that Jesus is still in the business of bringing good news to people in real, practical ways. 

Maybe something I say will match the kind of prison you feel yourself in; if so, take encouragement.  If you aren't in any kind of prison, then give thanks for the good things that God does and take encouragement.  If your prison is a different one, then see these as examples of what God can do and take encouragement.

Actual Prison

Let's begin with actual prison.  A friend of mine has recently begun attending a group that meets in Newcastle.  I think he's there because he brings a bit of normality to the group, which is made up almost entirely of ex-offenders. Many of them found Christ while in prison, and have probably the most way-out style of worshipping you're ever likely to come across. 

These people were not minor felons; they were drug-users and -dealers, serial offenders, and their lives were derelict and going worse than nowhere.  But God has got hold of them, turned them around and put them on the road to recovery. 

Some of them still have mental health problems and their own personal struggles but they're being transformed by their encounter with Christ and are in the process of rebuilding their lives.  They're sharing their experiences with others and leading them to Christ. 

We had one of them at our Sunday night fellowship recently to share his testimony.  What an eye-opener that was! 

However bad you may have been, God can forgive you and turn you around.

The Prison of Bitterness

Bitterness is a terrible prison to be in.  It blights the life of the one who is in it and of those close to them.  I know that's true because I've experienced it.  After my mother left my father, he swore he would never forgive her.  He's been true to his word and became a very bitter man, at least as far as she was concerned.  My brother and I still can't mention our mum when he's around, even though she died 13 years ago and dad has been happily remarried.  Bitterness is a prison that stops you moving on.

Last time I was here, I spoke about the Lord's prayer and the need to forgive in order to be forgiven.  The way out of the prison of bitterness is to forgive.  Leave God to deal with the offenders.  They may have already found his forgiveness, in which case retaining your unforgiveness will make no difference to them but it could hold you bound forever.

Forgiving may be very hard but it will bring you out of your prison and into the light.  It will allow your broken heart to be healed, and you can begin rebuilding.

Another remedy is to look at what you have in Christ, not at what you feel you've lost.  In the 1970s, I had the privilege of hearing Richard W├╝rmbrandt speak.  He was a Romanian pastor who'd been imprisoned and tortured under the communist regime because of his faith.  He was asked if he felt bitter at losing 14 years of his life.  His reply was, “Not at all.  I have all of eternity; what is 14 years?”  He also forgave his captors and prayed for them.

The Prison of Human Nature

Many people are held prisoner by habits of one form or another, be it some sin or an ingrained behaviour leading to all sorts of wrong outcomes.  Sometimes there are things that seem to be built into us that hold us captive.

In my case, shortly after hearing the call to get back into preaching, God put his finger on something that I'd never really recognised in my life.  I knew there were some bad habits but this was about a wrong attitude that in reality had always been part of me; I saw how a lot of things I'd done down the years were rooted in it.  I knew it had to be sorted out before I was let loose in a pulpit again.

Having had about six weeks of wrestling with the issue, wondering what on earth I could do about it, I remember driving along the A69 on the way home from work and shouting out to God at the top of my voice “I don't want to be like this!”  That was the most real repentance I've ever voiced; I didn't like myself and I didn't want to be me anymore.  And that was the moment when I was released from my prison, and the next phase of redevelopment work began.

There can be all manner of things that hold us bound, things about our nature that we really don't like.  The Good News is that we can be set free and we can rebuild.

Other Prisons

I could talk about my own experience of the prison of depression and my release from it, of a friend's different experience with the same darkness and his release, or of someone who lived for over a decade in the prison of guilt but who finally came into the light and found forgiveness and freedom.

Some of you may also have stories to tell.

In Summary

At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Christ.  Christ came to change the world.  He changes the world by changing us.  Because of Christ we can gain entrance to the kingdom of God and begin the process of transformation. 

As John writes, 'Yet to all who [received] him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.'  Through Christ, God gives us a new heritage and an new destiny.  Once we are in Christ, our future is no longer determined by our past.

Do you feel yourself locked away in a dark prison?  Why live in a dungeon when you can live in the light of God's Son? His light shines into the darkness of your life, and that darkness has not overcome it.

Christ came into the world and lived as one of us; he experienced it all from cradle to grave but without sin.  He ultimately gave his life as the sacrifice that paid the price of all the sins of all of us.  He rose from the dead and lives forever in the power of an endless life. 

He is still proclaiming Good News, and all of its benefits!  He is still setting people free.  This is still the year of the LORD's favour; and the LORD's favour extends to you, to all of us, today!

To my mind, that makes Christmas something worth celebrating.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What makes a healthy church?

Readings

1 Corinthians 12.12-27
Ephesians 4.1-16

Introduction

Today, we will be looking mainly at Ephesians 4 and attempting to answer the question “What makes a healthy church?” I should warn you this sermon will be more of a “teach” than a “preach”.

I would dearly love to do a whole series of sermons on Ephesians because it's such a rich letter, full of life-enhancing truths. But don't worry: unless the way Methodism operates at a local level changes radically, that's a fate that will never be inflicted on you. So let me encourage you to read Ephesians for yourselves at home. When you read it, ask God to give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you can really understand all that Paul has to say.

For me, chapter 4 verse 1 is the pivotal point of the letter. “... I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Prior to this, Paul has described that calling and set out all that God has done for us in Christ, and it's on the basis of this that he makes his appeal. That's why it's important that you read the beginning of the letter. The rest of the letter is practical instruction on what it means to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. We are looking at only part of that instruction today, and that's why it's important you read the rest of it.

I've heard many a speaker say “If you ever find the perfect church, don't join it because you'll spoil it.” Our question today is not about how to be perfect but how to be healthy. A healthy body can still catch cold but because it's healthy it's less likely to and, if it does, it will recover quicker. A healthy body can still be injured but because it's healthy it will mend more easily.

A healthy church will still face problems and difficulties but because it's healthy it will overcome them more easily. So it's really important that a church is healthy. What, then, makes a church healthy? From our chapter in Ephesians and other readings, here are four points to take on board:
  • A healthy church takes unity seriously 
  • A healthy church is committed to discipleship 
  • A healthy church has gifted leaders 
  • A healthy church gets on with serving. 

A healthy church takes unity seriously 

There are two types of unity mentioned in this chapter. In verse three, Paul talks about the unity of the Spirit, and in verse 13 the unity of the faith. Let me try and explain the difference:
  • The unity of the Spirit is something given to us by God right from the outset of our Christian walk; that's why we're encouraged to keep it. 
  •  The unity of the faith is something that we grow towards along the path of discipleship. 
Every born-again believer has been called into fellowship with God and is sealed with the Holy Spirit. Someone who has been on the Christian road for five minutes has the Holy Spirit; someone who has been following Christ for decades also has the Holy Spirit. Because there is only one Spirit, these people share in the unity of the Spirit.

One would hope that the more experienced believer has learnt a thing or two along the way and has a much greater grasp of the faith than the new believer, who knows only that Jesus is amazing: they do not share the unity of the faith.

I had a colleague at work who was a Roman Catholic. We were fairly comparable in our time on the journey. We disagreed about a lot of doctrinal issues and matters of tradition but we were both indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We were perfectly happy to acknowledge each other as a brother in Christ; we enjoyed unity in the Spirit even though we didn't have unity in the faith.

You and I may disagree over some point of doctrine or practice but if you are Christ's and I am Christ's then we dare not allow those differences to cause division between us. The unity of the Spirit is essential for a healthy church.

The unity of the Spirit is something given to us by God; it's not something we strive to attain. But look at what Paul says in verse three: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Unfortunately, Paul implies that the unity of Spirit can be lost or damaged. We cannot afford that if we are to be a healthy church. We cannot have bitter disputes within our ranks. We cannot have factions and cliques.   I've seen enough of those in my time, and nothing good has ever come from them.

The problem is not in disagreement. The problem is in dividing the church. As chapter five, verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Reverence for Christ in each of us must overrule our personal opinions of each other.

Paul tells us that the unity of the Spirit is so important that we must make every effort to keep it, through the bond of peace. Every effort. Whatever it takes.

If I have a problem with a fellow believer, who should make the first move? I should, whether I have something against them or they have something against me. In various places, scripture puts the onus on me to make peace. You can make the application to yourselves. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

A healthy church is committed to discipleship

Paul's expectation is that we all grow towards and attain the unity of the faith, that we all come to the same understanding of the faith. So, at some point along the road, you will all agree with me! Won't that be wonderful?

Actually, what really happens is that we all (including me) become increasingly like Jesus. As it says in verse 13, we are to “[attain] to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” That is our destiny. In Romans 8.29, Paul writes, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

God wants us all to bear the family traits. We often say of siblings that they are so alike. I can't think of a better complement to hear than this: he is so like Jesus. Now, that would be wonderful!

This wonderful transformation doesn't just happen as we sleep. It's not something conferred on us only when we get to Heaven. We attain the transformation by living this life as disciples of Jesus.

What is a disciple? The Greek word that we translate as “disciple” means “learner” or “apprentice.” In Jewish tradition, a rabbi would call apprentices (just like Jesus did). The disciples aimed to become like their rabbi: to think like him, to speak like him and to act like him. Eventually, they would become sufficiently competent and full of godly character that they would be able to call and train their own disciples. And that is what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the end of Matthew's gospel, “... go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Verse 14 warns us of the danger of not being a disciple: we will remain spiritual infants; we will be unable to navigate the storms that threaten the Christian life; we may be easily fooled by unscrupulous teachers and their teachings.

Discipleship is the remedy for such problems. Jesus says, in John 8, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

In the early days, Methodists were derided as “Enthusiasts” because they were serious about discipleship. Discipleship is not only for the more enthusiastic among us. It's what being a Christian is all about; it's about being and doing like Jesus. If only we deserved the same derision in these times...

The first two points have emphasised unity. The next two points say something about diversity. Both unity and diversity are important for a healthy church.

A healthy church has gifted leaders

Christ has not left us to fathom out discipleship for ourselves. If you want to know what a disciple looks like, you could read through Ephesians. But to help us live as disciples, Christ has appointed gifted people to help us along the way. 1 Corinthians 12 has a slightly different list from the one here in Ephesians, but we'll just consider the Ephesians list for now.

The first thing to say is that, in my view, none of the ministries mentioned in verse 11 have become redundant, although they may be in different form from what some people imagine them to be. Christ still gives people such as these to his church because we have not yet “all reach[ed] unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God...

In the wider church there is the apostle.


Some say that the apostolic ministry died out with the original 12. However, there are others even in the New Testament who are referred to as apostles but were not in the original twelve: James, the Lord's brother, and Barnabas for example.

Post-biblical apostles, like the original however-many, establish new churches and lay strong foundations; they serve as ministers to other ministers and provide an informal leadership that goes beyond the local church, and they have a recognisable anointing for that. I know of people who function in this way. They may not call themselves apostles but that is the role they seem to operate in. You might consider John Wesley as an example of a post-biblical apostle.

In the wider church and also in the local church, there is the evangelist and the prophet.


The evangelist is gifted in presenting the gospel and leading others to faith in Christ, or may be in helping them along in their journey to faith. We may think of great names like Billy Graham, or perhaps the ordinary person who led you Christ. We are all called to be witnesses but some of us have the extra anointing that makes us evangelists. I know some people like that.

In the New Testament, a prophet is someone who is in tune with the Spirit and is able to hear what God is saying to the church now and to convey a living, active word for today. On a cautionary note, no such prophet, if genuine, would ever deliver a word contrary to Scripture, or claim something to be in addition to Scripture. A New Testament prophet is not the same as an Old Testament prophet.  I know some people with prophetic gifting, and I often pray that my preaching may have a prophetic edge to it. The last thing I want to do is provide nice services with no challenge in them.

In the local church particularly, there is the pastor/teacher.


These people care for the local flock: leading them to safe pasture, keeping them from straying, rescuing those who do stray, defending them from attack, making sure they have what they need to stay healthy and to grow.

Christ gives us leaders. A healthy church acknowledges its leaders, allows them to lead, gets behind them and follows their lead.

For many years, the church has expected all ministry to come through its one, ordained minister. But that's too much for any one person; we need the variety of people that Christ gives as gifts to his church. And, according to Paul, it isn't their job to do everything for us. He says they have a two-fold purpose:
  • to build up the body of Christ by helping us with our discipleship, and 
  • to equip all of us to do the work that's needed, which leads us to our last point: 

A healthy church gets on with serving

We'll be illustrating the 1 Corinthians 12 passage for this final part of the sermon. To help us do that, I've brought a visual aid (me!).

The human body is one united whole but it's made up of many different parts with different functions, directed by the head. For example I have two hands but they have very different skills. My left hand is very good at holding nails, for instance, and my right hand is quite good at wielding a hammer. [aside: more visual aids, a six-inch nail and an engineer's hammer.]

But what if my left hand decides it wants to do something else? Say it wants to wield the hammer and makes the right hand hold the nail. Well, I'd probably end up injuring myself, bending the nail and damaging the thing I was trying to nail down. Just think how bad it would be if my left foot said “Let me hold the nail!”

My right hand is very gifted but it can't knock a nail in unless the left hand is there to help. My right hand depends on my left hand doing its job. My left hand, though less skilled, is no less important or necessary than my right hand. To function well, my hands have to work together in cooperation, each of them doing the thing they're good at.

Just so with the church. Christ is the head of the church, the church is his body on Earth. Each one of us is an important part of the church. We have different callings and different skills.

I have a friend who, as a young man, felt himself pressured by people at his Brethren assembly towards preaching (because that's what men aspire to, don't they?) but the idea of standing up and speaking in public horrified him. He's since found other ways to serve that he's better suited for, and are still important for the witness of the church, including serving as a Street Pastor in Newcastle – a role he really loves.

As Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it.” It's important that we each find out what our calling is and that we do the work we are designed for. There are no age limits for service, there's no gender discrimination, there's no racial barrier. We each have a role to play. It's essential that we play it!

In a healthy body, each part performs its own work for the good of the whole. Do you know what your calling and gift is? Do you know the work of service you're being equipped for?

In Conclusion 

A healthy church expresses both unity and diversity.
  • We must be deeply committed to the Spirit who binds us together. 
  • We need to be enthusiastic disciples, growing together towards Christ-like maturity. 
  • We need leaders with a variety of gifts, and to allow them to equip us for service and build us up in discipleship. 
  • We need to find our individual places in the body and to play our parts in full. 
One final point: healthy things grow. If we are to grow rather than fizzle out we must be a healthy church.

We started with a question. Let me leave you with two more:
  • Are we a healthy church?
  • If not, how do you think we become one?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Meditation on God

Let me speak of God,
Tell you what I know.

Distinctly three
Yet indivisibly One,
Blended in perfect,
Mutual submission;
Perfect harmony,
Perfect love.

All-powerful in creation.
One God:
Father, Son, Spirit;
Pattern for our three-fold meld:
Body, soul, spirit.
Source of our diversity:
Adam and Eve.
The Light whose image we reflect.

Holy,
Beyond compare
With mankind
Or any other being;
Deserving of unfeigned reverence.
Set apart,
Yet drawn alongside in compassion.

Righteous,
Beyond reproach;
In justice, perfect.
Yet slow to anger
And abounding in love,
Full of grace and mercy.

Sovereign,
All-powerful,
Exalted over all,
Yet stooping to dwell within
His precious children
By his Spirit;
Closer than breath.

Filling the universe,
Unbounded by time;
Yet expressed most clearly
To transient, limited minds
In the Son.

All-wise, all-knowing;
Complete, entire;
Yet seeking the company,
Of finite, broken man,
Lifting us to his knee.

When I speak of God,
I tell only what I know,
Or only what I think I know.
Far greater than the sum
Of all my thought and knowledge,
He may yet prove deficient
What I think I know.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Divine Encounters

Readings


Rev 1:12-18
Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-10

Introduction


In our Old Testament reading, we read Isaiah's account of his personal encounter with God.  It was one of those encounters that was extremely hard to ignore, one of those events that burnt itself indelibly into his memory, a life-changing event.  He's waited until chapter six to tell us but he can't hold it in any longer.  He can tell us exactly when it was and can describe it in vivid detail.

'In the year that King Uzziah died,' he tells us, giving us a fact that enables us to set the historical and cultural context of the event.  The nation of the Hebrews was by that time already split into two, with the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  Uzziah, was a king of Judah; he died in about 740 BC and was succeeded by Jotham, his son.

Under these two kings, the kingdom of Judah enjoyed a time of great prosperity and luxury.  But the whole region was experiencing growing pressure and unrest because of the expanding Assyrian empire.  The people of Judah were soon to see the northern kingdom of Israel fall, leaving them isolated and alone. 

But, in the year that king Uzziah died, Isaiah saw his vision of the LORD. 

The Holiness of God


The thing that struck on Isaiah's mind the most was the holiness of God.  God is described as 'Holy, holy, holy' by the seraphs, as if to bring clear emphasis to that fact.  The holiness of God was something that marked Isaiah's ministry forever after.  God is called 'The Holy one of Israel' 25 times in the book of Isaiah, a title used only twice in the rest of Scripture.

Isaiah really wants us to grasp this point: God is holy!

'Holy' is a concept quite alien to our modern culture.  One dictionary definition that I've found helpful is 'set apart, not for ordinary use.'

For example, we have the Holy Bible.  As Christians, we consider this book to be different from other books.  Some of us perhaps keep it set apart in pride of place next to our favourite armchair or at our bedside rather than sticking it on a shelf with all our other books.  We read it with reverence, allowing its words to speak into our lives.  We meditate upon it, and look to it for guidance.

This room we probably think of as a holy place.  It's not for ordinary use; it's a special place where we worship God.  We can be offended if people behave in here in ways we consider inappropriate.

A dictionary definition is useful but it doesn't really encompass all the Bible means in saying that God is holy.  It doesn't really convey the full meaning in Isaiah's encounter. 

Yes, God is set apart, he is altogether different from us, altogether greater, so utterly transcendent that we can only begin to imagine what he is like.  We don't really have the words to describe God's holiness.  But let's try . . .

God is glorious in his holiness.  The seraphs call out that the whole earth is full of his glory.

We can't think of God's holiness without becoming aware of his righteousness.  Isaiah writes in chapter five “... the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.” 

Isaiah saw God as terrifyingly holy!  I suspect Isaiah was shown only as much as he could bear!

God is holy, and his Holy Spirit is here with us today. 

What does that fact do for you?

The Problem with the People


Isaiah was confronted with God in all his holiness.  In stark contrast to that, he became fully aware of his own sinfulness. 

Look at his response to the vision: “Woe to me! I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

At this point, Isaiah is in dread of losing his life.  He realises he has nowhere to hide.

First, he acknowledges his own problem: 'I am a man of unclean lips.'

Then he acknowledges the wider problem of his nation: 'I live among a people of unclean lips.'

'Unclean lips.'  What could he mean by this?  It can't simply mean that he used a lot of bad language . . .  In chapter 29:13, Isaiah records God as saying “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

As far as spirituality was concerned, it looks like Isaiah and his people were just going through the motions.  They turned up at the temple, did the formalities, but it was just the practice of empty religion. 

They said one thing and did another. 

I think this is the sense in which their lips were unclean.  It's as though they were lying to God.  Their lives didn't reflect what they claimed to believe.  They were talking the talk but they weren't walking the walk.

I wonder if this is typical of prosperous times.  Today, we see the church in decline in our prosperous land.  Church-goers are labelled as a boring bunch of hypocrites who offer nothing different, and religion is seen as irrelevant. 

Interestingly, God seems to think religion is irrelevant too!  You see, God doesn't want our religion. He wants our hearts. 

I'm not talking about being sentimental about our faith.  In our modern world, we use the word heart to mean the seat of our emotions.  So, I might say to my wife, 'I love you with all my heart.' 

In Biblical times, the bowels were thought of as the seat of the emotions – and it makes more sense really: we talk about having butterflies in our stomachs when we get nervous about something.  So, to be scriptural, I should tell my wife that I love her with all my guts!

In the Bible, the heart refers to the very core of our being, the essential us.  God wants all of each one of us, right to the very core of our being.  He wants our whole lives, our total devotion, our all-out commitment.  As God says through Jeremiah, 'You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'

God wants people who are holy, who consider themselves set apart for him, who are not for ordinary use.  To borrow words from the prophet Micah, God wants people who will do justly, love mercy, and walk in humble relationship with him. 

Without this, our religious practices are without value or meaning before God.  And, 'without holiness,' Scripture tells us, 'no-one shall see the LORD.'

Are you walking the walk?  Does God have all of you?

Salvation and Service


Exposed by the holiness of God, what was Isaiah to do?  He couldn't think of anything.  He's seen what God is really like and has nothing to say in his own defence. 

But then, Isaiah sees a seraph coming towards him with a live coal taken from the altar.

Now, the altar is another holy thing.  Exodus 29:36b-37 says, " ... the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy." NIV

So the seraph brought a holy, burning coal from the holy altar and touched Isaiah's unclean lips, transferring holiness in the process, setting Isaiah apart and taking his guilt away. 

The live fire on the altar speaks of a current sacrifice, an atonement for Isaiah's sin.  It seems that God was ready for Isaiah.

Imagine the transformation!  There you are before a holy God, condemned because of all that is wrong with you and suddenly you're forgiven and cleansed.  What would your response be?

In our New Testament reading, we saw Peter –  impetuous, impulsive Peter – who's had cause to spend some time listening to Jesus.  And in reward for his time, Jesus brings about a miraculous catch of fish. 

Well, Peter suddenly catches on to something.  This man Jesus, his words, his power – he must be a holy man!  And Peter is only too aware of his own condition. 

“Please go away,” he says to Jesus, “I'm a sinful man.”  But Jesus tells him not to be afraid.  He has a job for Peter: he is to become part of Jesus' team.  And so Peter leaves his livelihood and follows Jesus.

I've experienced something like it in my own life.  A number of years ago I went through a time of clinical depression (which God brought me through, but that's another story) and for a long time after I was no longer engaged in any sort of ministry, whereas before I'd been very involved. 

I lay fallow, if you like, for about 10 years and, to be honest, I found myself somewhat adrift and somewhat lax in my lifestyle. 

Then came the renewal of my call to preach.  I took a local arrangement service at my home church and was hugely encouraged that I was hearing a call from God.  But as I began to respond I found myself bombarded by memories of the things I'd done wrong in the past and the things that were wrong with me at the time – a whole pile of evidence for why I was unfit for service. 

It is not a pleasant experience to have God deal with you in this way.  But I'm so glad he did.

  • God confronted me not to demolish me but so that he could turn me around and make me useful.  He was refining me and dealing with the things that would stop him from working through me. 
  • When Jesus met Peter it was not to destroy him but to turn him around and work with him. 
  • When the risen, ascended Christ revealed himself to John on Patmos it was not to slay him but to give him a message of hope and encouragement for a persecuted church.
  • When God confronted Isaiah it was not to condemn him but to change his heart and give him a mission.

And if you are hearing any challenge today, God is not after your downfall: he wants to transform you and then work with and through you.

And so Isaiah hears God's question: Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us? 

Now, God has Isaiah's heart, not just his lip-service.  He doesn't yet know what the mission is but it doesn't matter and he can't hold back:  “I'm here!  Send me! I'll go for you!”

There's a great sadness in the mission that Isaiah was given.  He was to proclaim the truth to his people.  He was to deliver a severe warning that judgement was imminent.  But right from the outset he was told that the people would not hear, that judgement would come and the nation would go into exile.  But he was also given the promise of eventual recovery.

You see, God's longing in sending his word to us is that we will repent, turn our lives around and be restored to fellowship with him.  But if we reject the message, if we fail to heed the warning, all that remains is judgement.

I wonder if the Methodist church is on its final warning.  People have been telling us for years of the need to change but still we plough on towards extinction.  Will there be a remnant?  Unless God has our hearts I fear there will not be...

Final Challenge


If you find yourself confronted with God's holiness today, what will your response be?  Will you run away?  Or will you allow him to refine you and change you?

If you hear God's challenge and call to service today, what will your response be?

Does God have your heart?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Jesus Comes to Dinner

A dramatisation based on Luke 7:36-50

Well, now I'm confused.  I don't know what to think.  You see, we Pharisees are a bit unsure of this Jesus of Nazareth fellow, to say the least.  He says a lot of good stuff but then mixes with all the wrong people.

Only the other day he was pointing out that very fact about himself, recounting what he'd heard people say: John the Baptist had a weird diet and didn't drink and we say he was demonised, Jesus eats and drinks and mixes in and we say he's a glutton and a drunkard and keeps bad company.  How does he expect us Pharisees to take him seriously when he does that kind of thing?  But there's something different about him ...

Anyway, I decided to invite him for dinner – see if I could get to the bottom of him, work out what makes him tick.  I was pleasantly surprised when he accepted.

So there we all were, reclining around the table, looking forward to some good conversation, when in comes that awful woman.  Everyone in town knows of her and what she's like; some better than they should, if you get my meaning ...  I'd have had her slung straight out if it wasn't for Jesus being there: I didn't want to give him the wrong impression.  Of all the days for her to show up ...

The affront of the woman!  She just goes straight up to Jesus and kneels down behind him, weeping.  Then the harlot actually touches him!  She cries all over his feet – and he just lets her!  Then she wipes the tears off with her hair and kisses his feet – can you believe it?  And he just lies there, letting her do all this stuff.  Then she pours perfume on his feet, and we all know how she got the money to afford that ...

At this point, I'd almost made my mind up about Jesus.  I mean, if he were really a prophet he'd have known what she was.

Then the really confusing thing happened.  I don't know if Jesus saw the look of disgust on my face or noticed I was more than a bit put out, or if he knew what was on my mind, but he began telling a story: “Two men owed money to a money-lender,” he started.  I wondered where he was going with this one and what it had to do with this woman. 

To cut a long story short, one man owed a lot – 500 denarii – the other not so much – only 50 denarii – and neither of them could pay.  The money-lender let them both off (as if ...).  “Which of them will love him more?” said Jesus.  Well, was this a trick-question, I wondered?  I mean, who loves a money-lender?  I kind-of guessed that Jesus was saying the one who was let off the bigger debt would appreciate the money-lender's leniency more, so that's what I went with.  It seems I got the answer right but then he turned the story around and applied it to me.

“Do you see this woman?” he asked me.  (Well, of course I did.  It would be difficult not to, all the fuss she caused.  As if she needed any more attention on her!)  I didn't wash his feet when he arrived but she washed his feet with her tears.  I didn't dry his feet but she used her hair to dry off her tears.  I didn't greet him with the customary kiss but she went on and on kissing his feet.  I didn't anoint his head with oil but she poured perfume all over his feet. 

But I'd done what was expected; the water and towels and servants were there if he'd wanted to use them ...

He said that her behaviour proved that her many sins had been forgiven and so she showed much love – well, she certainly has an abundance of sins that need forgiving – flagrant sins, at that.  And those who show only a little love (I assume he was talking about me) haven't had much forgiven. 
I could have taken issue with him about quantities: even 50 denarii is a debt I'd be very grateful to have cancelled!  Extremely grateful.  But I'm not sure that had much to do with his point.

To be honest, as I'm a Pharisee, I can't see there is much to forgive.  Nobody's perfect but I'm much more righteous than the woman.  I keep the law.  I make the required sacrifices, pay my tithes.

But the thing that really got us all talking was what he said to her: “Your sins are forgiven.”  Who does he think he is?  Isn't he just a rabbi?  How can he forgive sins?  Well, everyone was thinking the same: surely only God can forgive sins, and only then if the right sacrifices are offered.

That wasn't all he said.  The next bit was a shocker too: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  Faith, he said.  Can it really be that simple?  I've been a Pharisee all my life, kept the rules, upheld our traditions, done my bit for the poor and the synagogue, yet this, this ... harlot gets forgiven completely because she has faith?  How does that work?  Surely God is looking for more from us than that?

Perhaps that's the appeal of Jesus.  He seems to be offering hope to hopeless cases like this woman – a chance to get right with God and find peace.  That's what he said to her: go in peace.  How can she be at peace after all she's done?  She certainly looked happy enough as she left ... 

Well, we'll keep on eye on her; see how much she changes.  As for Jesus, he's still a puzzle ... but there's just something different about him ...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lessons for the Joyful Life

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Contentment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fear of Not Having Enough

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Gospel and Social Action


Isaiah 58:1-9a

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symptoms

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

Diagnosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remedy

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

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

Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

What will our response be?