Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Crosses and Losses

Readings

Matthew 16:21-28
Isaiah 53:1-6

Introduction

Have you ever come to a settled conclusion about something and then discovered that things were not as you expected them to be?  I had young friends who rightly believed that life would be wonderful when they were married but then found out that there was a whole lot of change and readjustment to experience.  For instance, she grew up in a home where dirty washing was placed in a linen basket, he grew up in a home where dirty washing was put in the washing machine – big problem!  And then there's the toilet seat issue – should you leave it up or down?  I try to be even handed about this by leaving the seat and the lid down!

For another example, my wife and I had a rescue dog for a number of years.  He'd been quite well trained but had issues that presented us with problems at times, but we loved him and enjoyed him to the end of his life.  A few years later, we decided we would really enjoy having another dog, but this time we would get a puppy so we could avoid issues, having done the training ourselves.  Boy, did we get that wrong!  Dogs have minds of their own!  Eventually, we're seeing the benefits of our efforts, so our decision may yet be a good one for us, but it's a long way short of our pre-conceived expectations—and there a different issues this time around!

Our New Testament reading today is about setting expectations right.  Matthew was a Jew writing for a Jewish Christian community, showing that Jesus is Messiah in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, and correcting Jewish expectations, helping them to understand.  I want to use this passage to help us understand something of

  • Messiah's Unexpected Sacrifice
  • Messiah's Expectation of his Disciples
  • Messiah's Expected Kingdom to Come

Messiah's Unexpected Sacrifice

In the passage just before our reading, Peter has had a spark of revelation.  He's had a growing understanding of who Jesus is, and suddenly the light has come on.  He's said right out loud, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus cheered him on: Well done Peter! God can really do something with people like you (I'm paraphrasing loosely, here).

Then Jesus begins to unpack something of what being Messiah actually means for him.  He's going to Jerusalem and he's going to die at the hands of the authorities then rise again on the third day.

Well, that didn't sit too comfortably with Peter's understanding of who Messiah was.  He takes Jesus aside and starts remonstrating with him:  “Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!”  What's going on here?  Why would Peter do that?

The Jews of the day, including Peter it seems, had certain expectations of who Messiah was and what Messiah would do.  In Daniel 7:13-14 we read, “'In my vision at night, I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.'”  (NIV, 2011)

This was the Jewish, and probably Peter's, understanding of Messiah, and he would use his power to boot out the Romans and establish his never-ending kingdom.  No wonder Peter takes Jesus aside.  'You've got this wrong,' he says.  'You're the Messiah—you've just agreed so yourself.  Messiah doesn't die, he establishes a powerful kingdom!'

Then Peter finds himself on the end of a swingeing rebuke: "Get behind me Satan!"  What a put-down!  Peter's words must have hit a raw nerve for Jesus. 

Jesus lived his life on earth as a man.  He knew that what awaited him in Jerusalem was pain beyond anything we can understand, a horrendous death, separation from his Father for the first time in all eternity.  It wasn't something he relished.  Later, in the garden of Gethsemane we see Jesus wrestling with the prospect of his ordeal, dare I say hoping for an alternative solution to the problem he came to solve.

The name Satan means adversary and Jesus saw Peter's challenge as an obstacle to his mission—it appealed to his human instinct for self-preservation.  Was Jesus addressing Peter or Satan?  If Peter, then he was saying, 'You haven't grasped what God is doing, you're just looking at things from human point of view.'  If Satan, 'You've tried to get me to avoid the cross before but what God is doing cannot be achieved in any human way.'

In the next part of our reading, Jesus poses a rhetorical question: "What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"  The implication is that there's nothing we have that we can give.  We cannot save ourselves – but we all need to be saved.

Jesus knew that he had to go to Jerusalem and die; only he could be given in exchange for our souls.  As we read in Isaiah 53, "… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

This is why Messiah had to go to Jerusalem, be killed and rise again.  If he had not, there would be no salvation for us.  We all need to be saved, and, because of what Jesus did, all of us can be saved.

Messiah's Expectation of his Disciples

We all have expectations of what to experience as a Christian.  Some people think of God as the Great Fixer in the Sky—someone who will solve all our problems for us.  But I've found that God hasn't removed all the obstacles from my life.  Now there may have been obstacles removed before I became aware of them, but the ones I've encountered have been real and challenging.  What God has done is use my difficulties to shape me, and to teach me trust and reliance. 

Last Sunday on the news there was a report about the floods in Texas; it included people who had been caught up in the floods and who said they prayed to God a lot and were rescued and were thankful to God.  Nothing wrong with that, and who of us wouldn't pray and be thankful in those circumstances?  But we have to remember there are Christians in Syria who are as much victims of the conflict there as anyone else; Coptic Christians in Cairo were killed when their church was bombed; in China, Russia and other Communist lands, and in Muslim lands, Christians have been persecuted and have died for their faith.

In our land, we're fortunate not to have faced these extremes.  So far, at least; although the way public opinion is moving further and further away from godly standards, there's no guarantee of our avoiding persecution in coming days.  But, even now for us, there's a cost to everyday discipleship.
Jesus told his followers then, and Matthew's readers, and us today, that to be his disciple we must
  • deny ourselves,
  • take up our cross, and
  • follow him.
Jesus was somewhat radical in his teaching, and these are really challenging words!  We can't ignore them, so how can we understand them?

Denying ourselves is not about becoming ascetics, it's not about going without, or giving up chocolate for Lent.  It's about putting God's kingdom first; it's about loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; it's about loving our neighbour as ourselves; it's about loving each other in the same way that Christ has loved us.

The imagery of taking up your cross would have been understood by the disciples and Matthew's readers; many would have seen prisoners carrying out their crosses to a place of execution—the Romans didn't do crucifixions in private.  In effect, Jesus was saying, be prepared to go out and die.  For many in the early church that was literally true: think of Nero's persecution of Christians in Rome.  Down the ages, even in modern times, as I've already mentioned, some of God's children have been called on literally to lay down their lives for their faith.

This is the ultimate act of self-denial.  That thought gives us a way to understand what it means for us here, in our society.  To go out and die means to deny ourselves in the way I've already explained, while earnestly praying, 'don't put us to the test but deliver us from evil.' 

To follow Jesus kind of means the same thing again: to deny our own way of living and to really live out Christ's teaching and example.  In John 8:31, Jesus is recorded as saying, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free"  (NIV, 2011). His ways lead us to freedom and the knowledge of salvation.  Denying ourselves seems negative but it actually leads us to a better life.

All these are set against our instinct for self-preservation.  Looking at Christ's words in verses 25 and 26 of our passage, our instinct is a very dangerous thing.  And as the well-known prayer of St Francis reminds us: 'It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.'

These concepts are not foreign to us as Methodists.  Here are some of the words from our Covenant service, MWB p288  "I am no longer my own but yours.  Your will, not mine, be done in all things, wherever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I endure; when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am in trouble and when I am at peace.  Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking; when I have all things and when I have nothing.  I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose…"

Let's not pretend that any of this is easy.  Everyone gets it wrong somewhere along the way; I certainly have, and I guess there are one or two here who would confess that they have too.

For those of us who have known failure, Peter's story is so encouraging.  Here he is, having recognised Jesus for who he is.  Soon, we hear him saying he'll die rather than disown Jesus, perhaps having remembered the words of Jesus we're thinking about today. Then his instinct for self-preservation kicks in and he disowns Jesus, not once but three times! 

But Peter isn't thrown on the scrapheap – God hasn't finished with him!  He's restored, he takes up the ministry Christ assigned to him, and he fulfils the potential Christ saw in him.  Tradition has it that Peter did eventually die on a cross for his faith.  But
  • God turned Peter around.
  • God can turn each and every one of us around. 
  • He hasn't finished with us yet!
Now let's turn briefly to the third point.

Messiah's Expected Kingdom to Come

In the last part of our passage, Jesus explains why it's important we live by his teaching.  Because Peter was right for the long run: there will be an eventual fulfilment of the Jewish Messianic hope and the Son of Man will come and establish his never-ending kingdom.  That's both good news and bad news.  Bad news because there will be those who think they've gained the whole world only to discover they've forfeited their souls.  Good news because it'll bring the promised reward for Christ's followers, their full and final and absolute salvation!

Summary

Jesus was radical in the way he lived and the things he said.  The words we've thought about today are deeply challenging.

We're called to be disciples, and to be a disciple is to deny oneself.  We're not all called to do great exploits but we are all called to be faithful. 

If we've failed up to now, we can find forgiveness and get started again, like Peter did, because Messiah died for us and rose again.

When I was preparing this the other day, as I typed out the words from Isaiah 53 my heart thrilled at what Jesus had done for me.  Death by crucifixion was an awful, gruesome thing and it cost him more than we'll ever know; but it means we can look forward, full of hope, for the coming of his kingdom. 

When we think of all that Jesus achieved, his cross takes on a wonder that both challenges and inspires us to live lives worthy of our Saviour.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of God

Reading

Luke 17:11-37

Introduction

In the short period leading to the recent election, we've seen quite enough of politicians sidestepping the questions they were asked.  They seem incapable of giving us straight answers!  The outcome of the election perhaps shows that we're clever enough to notice what they're up to.  But are they clever enough to notice that we've noticed?

In the passage we've listened to, the Pharisees asked a direct question of Jesus, and he seemed, on first impression, not to answer directly.  Certainly, his answer wasn't what they expected.  But his answer was truthful, to the point, and gave them something to think about.  We can see this in verses 20 and 21, where we read, "Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.'".

The Pharisees' question: When will the kingdom of God come?
The Lord's answer, paraphrasing loosely: Your expectations are wrong; the kingdom is already here!

I want us to think today about what the kingdom of God is, how it works, and why we need it.  We'll do that with three headings to guide us:

  • Exploring the kingdom of God
  • Demonstrating the kingdom of God
  • Responding to the kingdom of God.

Exploring the Kingdom of God

The Jews expected God's kingdom to be established in physical form in the land of Israel, booting out the Romans and bringing them freedom under God as their only king.

They couldn't fail to be impressed by the ever-present display of Roman power and order, which served to enforce the absolute authority of the emperor.  Perhaps they imagined the kingdom of God to be much like that, but more powerful, deployed in their favour, and sweeping away all their enemies.  But when would that happen?

Jesus spoke on numerous public occasions about the kingdom of God, so he was the obvious person to have a view on when the kingdom would come.  So the Pharisees went and asked him.  There's no hint of any attempt to catch Jesus out in his words, so perhaps they were genuinely interested in his answer.

Were they puzzled or confused by his answer?  In effect, he tells them that the kingdom of God isn't  about powerful shows of dominating force, nor is it found in any geographical location.  In our modern way of thinking, we have the idea that God's kingdom is up there somewhere where God lives—but even that idea is ruled out by the Lord's answer.

Jesus tells them—and us!—that the kingdom of God is “in your midst.”  He wasn't telling the Pharisees that the kingdom was within their sect.  Looking more closely into the language used, we could translate his words as saying that the kingdom of God is “within your grasp.”  This fits in nicely with what Jesus says in Matthew 4:17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These ideas would've been a great encouragement to early Christian readers of Luke's gospel, spread around the Roman world as they were.  The kingdom of God was present wherever they were—and they belonged to it!

We all like to belong.  Our families give us a sense of belonging—that's not always a comfortable sense, is it?  We see church as a kind of family—and, let's be honest, that isn't always comfortable either!  Others see church as a kind of social club—and, obviously, there is society among us that helps us feel we belong.  But the kingdom of God isn't just a family, or a society—it's not even church as we experience it!  It's not a human institution cobbled together by like-minded people.  It's not something that we can bring about by our own efforts.  It's literally God's kingdom—it originates with him and he's made it accessible to anyone and everyone!  In sending Jesus, he's placed it “within our grasp!”

Our modern-world view of kings and kingdoms is very different from the ancient world's view.  Back then, Kings had authority.  They ruled.  These days, monarchs are largely notional figures: heads of state with no or little real power.  Our own queen, for example, reigns—and has done wonderfully for many years—but she doesn't rule.  We can't understand God's kingdom by imposing our modern views on it.

God is king in the ancient sense, not the modern—but he's a benevolent king.  He doesn't demand that we struggle and strive to attain his kingdom, he sends it right down among us so that we can find it and discover his fantastic love and grace for ourselves, and know that we belong whatever our circumstances.

The kingdom of God comprises all people who live willingly under the reign and rule of God.  People who are disciples of Jesus.  People who abandon their own ways to live as God requires: doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly in relationship with God.  People who pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—and mean it, to the extent that they actively engage with finding and doing his will.

The kingdom is within our grasp.  Have you grasped it?

Demonstrating the Kingdom of God

Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God isn't something that can be observed.  It's not like an army arrayed on a battlefield, or a geographical state we can pinpoint on a map.  But, quite clearly, God's kingdom is demonstrable, and Jesus went about making the kingdom evident and close at hand to all he met.  We can see that in the story of the ten lepers.  They came to Jesus and he healed them—that was pretty amazing!  One of them—a Samaritan for goodness sake!—discovered he was healed and came back to Jesus, thanking him and praising God in a loud voice!  Luke makes a point of mentioning that the man was a Samaritan: the kingdom can touch anyone, even the despised Samaritans; it wasn't just for the Jews!  Who might we see today as despised social outcasts?  Well, the kingdom of God is within their grasp too!

We heard of a modern-day example of the kingdom being made visible in the film clip [https://youtu.be/iXwmoypOHKw] we watched earlier.  Let me remind you of the salient points.
  • Joanna and Julian had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and once that had seen a successful outcome, they went to God in prayer to find out what they should do next.
  • They eventually heard about the terrible conditions in Pollsmoor Prison, with 279 acts of violence in one year.  They realised that this wasn't God's will.
  • So they visited the prison every day for a year, and introduced a very ordinary programme: bible studies and prayer meetings.
  • In the following year there were only 2 acts of violence, and just 8 the year after that.
  • What was their secret? recognising that God was already present in the prison; his kingdom was already within the grasp of the prisoners.  All they had to do was make God and his kingdom visible.
Take careful note how this was discovered in prayer, through spending time in God's presence; and our circuit leadership has been encouraging us to do that.  There's a world of a difference between, on the one hand, asking God to bless our ideas and, on the other hand, finding out what he wants to do and then becoming a blessing to others by engaging with his will.

How do we demonstrate the presence of God's kingdom?  The point has been made on numerous occasions that completing our “Room to Grow” building project was not the final goal.  Now that we have room, it's time for us to grow!  How do we do that?  Just what is God's will here in Wylam?  How do we make the kingdom visible?  We, too, like Joanna and Julian, need to pray, to seek out his will.

But there are some things we already know about.  For example, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35 NIV).  It's God's will that we love each other so much that the people around us take notice.  And, while we're at it, we can let that love overflow to them!

God has a plan for us.  He wants to make that plan known to us.  He has things in mind for us to do that make his kingdom visible.  It need not be complicated, and we can begin with prayer and by loving each other even better than we already do, and grow from there; and if God throws in some miracles along the way . . .

Responding to the Kingdom of God

The kingdom is in our midst, it's within our grasp.  But it's important that we grasp it for ourselves. It's been made available to us because it's something we desperately need.

All of us are in need of the salvation that comes with God's kingdom; we can none of us save ourselves.  All of us are offered the gift of salvation found only in God's kingdom.  All of us who grasp the kingdom, and live under God's rule, can know for certain that we are saved.  All in the kingdom can be saved to the uttermost, transformed to be like Jesus.

Right now, the door to the kingdom is open.  But this is a time-limited offer.  In the latter part of our reading, Jesus gave his disciples a fuller answer to the Pharisees' question.  There will be a time when Christ returns and the kingdom appears in power.  At that time there'll be a clear distinction between those who are on the inside and those on the outside.  At that point, the door will be closed. 
Christ may not come in our lifetime but, at the end of our lives, we'll certainly be held to account by God.  Are we on the inside or the outside?

The kingdom is within our grasp!  So how do we enter?  First of all, it requires a step of faith, a decision to trust in Jesus for forgiveness and the free gift of salvation, and with the rest of your life.  Secondly, Jesus told people to repent.  That's a total change of direction.  It means to recognise our need of forgiveness, to abandon our own ways, our own thoughts, and to follow Christ.  Living in the kingdom means learning to live under God's law of love. It's a lifetime's pilgrimage of discovery.

If you've not yet responded to God's offer of a place in his kingdom, today would be a good day to respond!

Summary

It's important to have a proper understanding of what the kingdom of God is and what it means for our lives.  As the Pharisees demonstrated for us, you can be as religious as you like and completely miss the point!

The kingdom of God may not be observable, as Jesus said, but neither is it invisible!  Our main response to God's grace in our lives is to discover and live out his will, and so make the kingdom evident in the world around us.

Salvation is found only within the kingdom of God.  God hasn't put this beyond our reach;  he's put it within our grasp so that anyone can find it and benefit from it.

Let's grasp the kingdom and live our lives so that others can see it and grasp it for themselves!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Means of Grace

Readings

1 Cor. 11:23-29
2 Tim. 3:15-17
Eph 6:18, Phil 4:6, Col 4:2, Ro 8:26-27

Introduction

This week brings the second of our themed preaching series which is working through the circuit's 'Growing in prayer' initiative.  You should have received this week's leaflet by email along with the notices but, if you didn't, I have a few copies with me.

The leaflet points out that the logo for this initiative is a tree and asks the questions, if we are going to grow, where should we put down our roots? What feeds us spiritually?

John Wesley believed we should all be regularly involved with ‘The Means of Grace’ namely Prayer, reading the Bible and Communion. These things, he said, did not make us Christians but were routes by which God enabled us to best connect with him and grow. After all, this is what the early church did.  We read in Acts 2:42 that, right at the inception of the church, the believers 'devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.'

Today we will be thinking about three of the points in that verse that Wesley drew attention to:  Communion, Scripture and Prayer.  God calls us to live in relationship with him, and these three things are foundational to a healthy, thriving relationship with our God.

Communion

Corinth was ideally placed to become the major centre of commerce and communications that it was.  It had sea routes east and west, and land routes north and south.  Unfortunately, it was also a morally corrupt city, with all manner of licentiousness and hedonism being practised.  None of that stopped the church taking root.

You can probably imagine people coming out of that culture into the kingdom of God bringing all kinds of problems and behaviours with them.  That's the reason why we have Paul's letters to the Corinthian church today; much of what Paul wrote was to address the issues the church was wrestling with.

One of the problems was in the way they conducted themselves at celebrations of The Lord's Supper.  For them, what we know as Communion was embedded in a much wider fellowship meal. Now, there's nothing wrong with that.  The problem was that some of the gathered believers were over-indulging and getting drunk, leaving others hungry and thirsty.  In his letter, Paul tells them off about their behaviour and, in the passage we've just heard read, he tells them how to do communion properly.

I believe our village to be a very different place from Corinth.  We don't have the kind of problem with communion that they had. Our problem, if we have one, is not one of negligent disregard. Our problem, if we have one, is more likely to be familiarity with an habitual ritual, which we can do without much thought.  So what can we learn from what Paul said that helps us gain the most from our communion services?

Now, I have to say that I am not much of a sacramentalist.  I don't believe that anything is imparted to me merely as a result of eating the bread or drinking the wine – except perhaps a few calories(!)  I guess there may be some here who take a different view from mine: you're quite at liberty to do so!  I'm just expressing my understanding.

Having said that, how does communion become a 'means of grace' for me?  For me, communion is
  • a reminder of the cost of my salvation
  • and of the amazing love of God;
  • it's a call to personal appraisal,
  • and an encouragement for what lies ahead.
As part of his passover meal, Jesus presented the bread of affliction to the disciples and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.'  When I receive the bread I am reminded of Peter's words in his second letter that “'[Christ] himself bore our sins' in his body on the cross . . .” and that Christ did that for me!

Jesus then presented the cup of salvation and said, 'This is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.'  Peter also reminds us that we were 'redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ.'

Christ took all my sin on himself and paid the full penalty of my sin with his own blood, all to make it possible that I could have a relationship with God.  That's how much it cost him, and that's how much he loves me.  Why on earth does God want a relationship with me?  I've no idea; but I'm thankful that he does.

Paul tells us we ought to examine ourselves before partaking of communion – partly to ensure we are approaching the table with the right head on but also to sort out with God anything that's got in the way of our relationship with him.  Back in my early days as a Christian, I noticed there were often people who abstained from communion.  It was explained to me that they were feeling unworthy to participate because of some sin in their lives.  I think that's sad.  If we examine ourselves, confess and repent, then there's no need to abstain.  All the more reason to participate, in thankfulness for Christ's sacrifice and love.  The wording of verse 28 in the AV is clearer on this point:  'let a man examine himself, and so let him eat … and drink ...'!

Communion points us to the cross, the place where our relationship with God is made possible, and where it begins, and how it continues.

It also helps us to keep us on course because it points us towards our destiny.  Paul writes: 'When you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.'

We think not only of Christ's death but also of his resurrection and of his promised return, and, by implication, our being with him for ever.  Hallelujah!

I think we should be mindful of all these things when we approach the Lord's table.  Yes, we should come with reverence, but also with thankfulness and with joy.

Scripture

The Bible is a collection of writings, contributed by a variety of authors from a range of temporal and cultural contexts.  It tells the story of God's relationship with humankind from the beginning of humanity to New Testament times.  It's an invaluable guide for ensuring the wholesome continuation of that relationship.

We've just heard 2 Timothy 3:15-17 which, from a Christian perspective, is what the Bible has to say about itself.

Paul was writing to Timothy who was in charge of the very large church in the city of Ephesus, interestingly enough another centre of commerce with dubious moral standards.  In his previous letter to Timothy, Paul encouraged him to be devoted to the public reading of scripture.  Why?  Because he thought it important for the church to know what the Hebrew scriptures have to say (they didn't have the New Testament at that time).  In what we've just heard read, he gives us some idea as to why he thinks it important.

The Scriptures that make up the Bible are God-breathed.  The authors received inspiration from God, not dictation, and they wrote from the perspective of their own nature, character and temporal and cultural landscape.

Nonetheless, the origin of Scripture lies with God himself, the Holy Spirit guiding the authors and the compilers of canon.

Paul describes the usefulness of Scripture
  • for teaching (so we can know what God is like),
  • for rebuking (so we know when we get things wrong),
  • for correcting (to help us find restoration),
  • and for training (so we can get it right in future).
Scripture, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, guides us to the salvation that comes through faith in Jesus and thoroughly equips us for every good work.

It seems clear that nothing else is needed to guide us in matters of faith and conduct.  That was certainly John Wesley's position.  That said, God can speak to us through anything but we do well to test what we hear in Scripture's light.

If the Bible records the relationship between God and mankind then it becomes our invaluable guide to life with God.  In essence, the Christian life is experiential. Scripture leads me to expect an experience of God but also guides me in evaluating my experience; to ignore it can lead to all manner of spurious extremes.

Since, in our land, we have the freedom and opportunity to read the Bible I think it's important that we do.  It's food for our spirits.  It illuminates our journey with God; as the psalmist says, 'Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.'

Our leaflet from the circuit encourages us to read the Bible.  There's a challenge to read Mark's gospel in the coming week.  There are only 16 chapters.  If you're an avid reader you could easily read the whole lot in one sitting.

Lent is usually seen as a time for giving up things like chocolate (why would you do that?).  How about this year using Lent as a time for taking on something new, like daily Bible reading!  The psychologists tell us it takes about 40 days to change a behaviour or to establish a new habit.  Guess what! Lent is about 40 days long!  What an opportunity!

Prayer

If you were here last week you may remember someone saying that he didn't understand how prayer works. Well, it's my job this morning to bring some enlightenment to you. 

The first thing to say is that I don't understand how it works either.  In, fact, I doubt there is anyone, or ever has been anyone, who truly understands how it works.  All I know is that we are encouraged to do it! 

In a way, I want to change the emphasis: don't do prayer; live prayerfully.  That seems to be the message that Paul was trying to get across.  He thought reading the scriptures was important for believers, and he was convinced that prayer was equally important.  The verses we've just read encourage us
  • to devote ourselves to prayer,
  • to prayer in every situation,
  • to watch out for things that need prayer,
  • to pray about all kinds of things,
  • and to always keep on praying.
If you think that means you need to spend the whole time on your knees, think again.  We're told to pray in the Spirit on all occasions: so whatever we're doing, we can maintain an on-going dialogue with God; while we're working, relaxing, eating, playing or whatever. 

Prayer is a very important part of our relationship with God.  All relationships rely on communication, and prayer is part of that two-way conversation.

Prayer is not about trying to get God to do things for us.  It's much more about talking things over with him, bringing our concerns to him and asking what he thinks.  It means giving ourselves time and space to listen to him.  We tend to go to God with a list of things for him to do, but he wants us to enjoy spending time with him.

There's no one prescribed way of doing prayer.  Just like our communication with other people, sometimes we chat, sometimes “we need to talk.”  Sometimes we need to write things down to get our thoughts across clearly, or even draw a diagram.  We're all different and find some ways of communicating more helpful than others.

We've all met people who are good with words and write very carefully worded prayers, and we rightly admire that ability.  We may even find them discouraging and say, “I could never write prayers like that.”  Here's some encouraging news: there are no qualifications or special abilities needed before you are allowed to pray. 

If you find yourself in difficulties, you don't have to say, “Almighty God, our loving heavenly father, I find myself in straightened circumstances and beseech you that you may send your gracious aid in this my hour of need.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.” You can say It as it is!  “Lord, I'm in a mess.  Help!”

In fact, you don't need words and don't even need to know how to pray! Paul said, 'We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with wordless groans.' This is very encouraging to know when we're confronted with some of the things that come through our television news.  We can just go to God with the burden of what we feel: the Spirit knows how to use that.

In the verses we heard, there was another idea coupled with prayer: thankfulness.  Be thankful in prayer.  After all, God has made it possible for us to live in relationship with him and opened up this means of communication for us: he's listening!  Being thankful also implies a sense of expectation that he will respond positively.   And possibly, if we're focussed on giving thanks for what we have, we'll be less inclined to present him with a list of things we don't have.  Just a thought . . .

So, how does prayer work?  I don't know.  Is it helpful?  Yes it is.  Is it just for people of a certain disposition?  No, prayer is for everyone.  And now, we're all going to pray!

Baseline Discipleship

Reading 

Micah 6:1-8

Introduction

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, and his message was much the same – hardly surprising if they are both speaking on behalf of the same God to the same people. 

He foresees God's judgement of both Samaria and Jerusalem, representing the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Their crimes?  Idolatry and injustice, false and meaningless religion, the strong oppressing the weak for personal gain. 

He foretells the time when Messiah will arise from Bethlehem and that he will rule over all.

In our passage, God lays his case before the people: he has done them only good.  Micah is devastated and asks what people can do to save themselves from God's judgement, and then sets down God's simple requirements of his people.

What I'm about to explore here is, in my opinion, the most important concept for anyone who claims to be a Christian: Baseline Discipleship.  The title implies very basic teaching, a setting forth of the bare-minimum that we need to do to be disciples of Christ, and so it is.  However the title doesn't really do the subject justice.  I could just as easily have called it ‘The Sum-total of Discipleship’ without making any extravagant claims.

Micah has implied that the practice of religion is not enough to placate God's anger or to earn his favour, neither the Hebrew sacrificial system practised in his day nor the despicable child-sacrifice adopted from the surrounding nations.  Nor is the mere practice of religion in our modern age, what we do on a Sunday morning, enough to satisfy God.

In verse eight of our passage, God gives us three simple requirements for life, requirements which have never been superseded or set aside, and which are rooted very firmly in the nature of God himself.  They are requirements which impact on each and every one of us personally and daily.  God expects us

  • to act justly
  • to love mercy, and
  • to walk humbly with him.

That's all there is to it!  Three requirements that are extremely simple to grasp, and at the same time deeply challenging to live.  Let's look at them in more detail.

First of all, we are told to

Act Justly

If you read through Micah, you'll see various examples of injustice being practised in his day.  We see a people of very questionable personal integrity: the strong depriving the weak, people seeking personal gain regardless of how it affected others, vengeful behaviour if they didn't get what they wanted.  When we look at western society today, it seems to be going more and more in the same direction.

Justice is about giving people what they deserve.  This is not just a matter of doling out punishment for offences.  It is also a matter of treating others fairly and seeing that they get what they need.  It can mean going to the defence of the oppressed and disenfranchised, even if it costs us. 

We can think of the refugees so prevalent in our news today, or those whose lives have been devastated by natural disaster; we think of Haiti, or—even more recently—central Italy.  What should governments do?  What should our personal actions be towards them? 

But it's not just about the big issues tackled by large, impersonal organisations.  Acting justly is about my personal integrity in the way I conduct my affairs.  As a trivial example, we may be very quick to point out an error if we are short-changed in a shop but what's our response if they give us too much change?  Only on Friday night, my wife and I were out for a meal.  We asked for the bill and they brought us the wrong one.  It was for less than our bill, and some would have paid it and left.  We pointed out the error and paid our own bill.  Acting justly is about my everyday interactions with the people around me, as well as my personal response to the wider injustices I am aware of. 

One dismally wet Saturday afternoon, a Christian couple were sitting quietly in their lounge when there was a knock at the door.  They opened the door to find three Swedish girls asking for help.  They were on a cycling holiday, and one of them had fallen off her bike and injured herself. 

What should the couple do?  What would you have done? 

The couple took the girls' bikes in for safe-keeping, and drove them to A&E, leaving their phone number with them so they could be collected after being tended to, and reunited with their bikes.  All ended well and the girls gratefully continued their journey.

Acting justly is about doing the right thing.  This couple chose to do the best they could in response to the need of three complete strangers. 

We hear of many people crying out for justice – and there are many in our society who need justice doing for them.  Justice is rooted in the nature of God—he is the God of Justice—he will always do what's right.  Justice is something that God sees as a good thing, and he requires us to do the right thing; to act justly.  It's not an optional extra.

But justice cuts two ways.  In Micah we read of God preparing to execute judgement on his people because of the injustices they were doing.  In our own lives there are people who have done us injustice, and there are those to whom we have acted unjustly.  What would happen if God gave me what I deserve for the injustices I have done?  What would happen to you?

For this problem, justice doesn't go far enough.  That's where mercy comes into the picture.

We are told to

Love Mercy

When someone has done badly by us, it can be the hardest thing in the world to show them mercy, especially when there's no sign of them ever changing!  Even if there's genuine repentance on their part, the enormity of their offence against us can make mercy seem an impossibly costly action.  Yet we are called not merely to show mercy but to love mercy. 

If Justice is about giving people what they deserve, then Mercy is about giving people what they don't deserve.  It's quite clear in Micah that God isn't happy with his people.  Justice is set up and ready to roll but the longer view is one of mercy for God's people: Messiah is promised!

We've all done wrong, and what we deserve is justice.  But we don't need justice for our offences, we need mercy! Where would we be without mercy?  Without mercy there would be no relationship with God, no forgiveness, no new beginning, no hope.  If you know you deserved justice but instead you've  received mercy you will love it.

Mercy is a wonderful thing. For the one who receives it, there is a deep sense of gratitude and joy, not to mention relief.  For the one who bestows mercy, there is a tremendous joy in setting someone free and the restoration of relationship.  Mercy is one of the best and most generous gifts you can give.  If you've ever had to give mercy, you'll find that you love it.

Having received God's mercy, we must be willing to show mercy.  Jesus said, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.'  And there's a kind of justice in that.

We all still get things wrong, and we go on needing mercy.  And we all need to go on showing mercy to those who wrong us.  Mercy oils the wheels of life and allows us to carry on travelling together.  Don't you just love it!

Mercy is something that God sees as a good thing, and he requires us to love it and to show it.  It's not an optional extra.

How do we learn what's right and how to be merciful?  We do that as we

Walk Humbly with our God

The Christian life is a journey. It's a long journey—a life-long journey.  That's why God calls us to walk with him, at a pace that give us time to learn and grow.  It's a journey that calls for commitment and determination.

God also calls us to live in relationship with him.  He hasn't sent us out on our own; he asks us to walk with him and, by implication, promises to walk with us.  He keeps company with us through all the hills and valleys of our experience.

He walks alongside us, all the way.  And yet it's clear who is to be the one leading the way.  We are told to walk humbly with our God.  After all, he's the one who's been around forever, he's the one with all the knowledge and wisdom.  He made us, and he knows best.  He wants to teach us his way of doing things so that we can do the same.  That's what it means to be a disciple.  We can't go our own way.  Proverbs 14:12 says, 'There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.'  We dare not go our own way.  

My wife and I have a dog.  We've had her from a puppy.  She was the most wilful, stubborn Labrador puppy you could imagine.  Many times I've asked myself, why on earth did we get a dog?  She's been really hard work.  She's three years old now, and she's finally begun to get the hang of behaving the way I want her to on our walks.  Walks are becoming more enjoyable—for both of us!  The better behaved she is, the more treats she gets (food is something very close to her heart!).  The more she's walked in my ways, the more freedom she's been allowed; she's now off the lead for most of the time. 

Jesus said in John 8, '31bIf you hold to my teaching, you really are my disciples.  32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'  The more we walk in his way, the greater the freedom we discover.  We need to allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate scripture for us, and for the truths we discover to change our minds and our living.

Walking humbly with our God is something that he sees as a good thing, and he requires us to do this essential thing.  It's not an optional extra.

Godly Nature

I said at the beginning that these requirements are rooted very firmly in the nature of God himself.  We see that perfectly displayed in Jesus Christ.  God sent his only Son to live as one of us so that he could willingly to take the penalty of our injustices, thus satisfying God's just demands of us and allowing him to show mercy to all who put their trust in Christ.  Christ walked in humility and obedience before his Father, and through his perfect sacrifice reconciled us with God so that we too can know him and walk with him, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Earlier in our service, we noted that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.  What does this mean? Christ has already paid the penalty of our sins.  God will not unjustly exact a second payment from those whose account has been settled by Jesus!

Summary

For me, this Old Testament text has long been a foundation stone in my understanding of what it is to be a New Testament disciple of Jesus.  These three facets are inextricably intertwined.  Walking with God must decant something of his just and merciful nature into our lives; and it must overflow through us to others in our world in whatever ways we find available to us, be that in giving or in going.

So let's be determined to be the kind of people God calls us to be:
  • people who act justly
  • people who love mercy, and
  • people who walk humbly with our God.
This is the bare minimum and the sum total of all that God requires of us, and it's made possible through our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen!