Friday, 7 August 2015

Donnacha O'Callaghan and a grace-filled start (Matthew 1:1-17)

I am a Munster fan.  So when Munster first won the European Cup I bought the book.  It begins with Donnacha O’Callaghan speaking:
“When I was a boy in Cork, playing rugby for my school, I came across something on the pitch one day after I’d scored a try.  I bent down and picked it up: it was a holy cross, on a chain.  I stuffed it into my pocket.  I still have it and I’ve never cleaned it up – there are probably still bits of Christian’s pitch stuck to it.  I keep the chain in an old make-up jar my sister gave me.  In there I’ve got a few religious things that are important to me.  The lads slag me over the jar.  That’s the Munster way.  Every now and then my mum picks up some holy water and puts a bit in there.  I consider myself religious.  Not in a big way – I’m not a religious freak or anything – but often I take the cross out of its jar and say a prayer to give thanks for the family I have, for everything that has happened me through rugby, for putting me a in a dressing room like ours.  There’s bound to be fellas out there that are as talented, if not more talented, than me.  I know I’ve been lucky.
I’d never pray to ask for anything, but before the Biarritz match I did.  I was about to pray as I normally would, but then I remembered thinking, ‘Please, just let us win this game.’  I almost wanted to sorry for doing it, for asking about a rugby match.  It was probably the wrong way to feel.  But it meant so much to me, my family and my friends.’”
Do those opening paragraphs make you want to read on?  They certainly made me want to!  That’s the writer’s intention.  The opening of a book is meant to get your attention and make you want to read on.
So what’s Matthew at?  Surely the most boring way you could begin a book is to record a genealogy!  However, this is a genealogy with a difference.  If you were a first-century Jew, and read this family line, I think you might have wanted to read on!
An astonishing claim
Not only are opening paragraphs aimed at grabbing your attention, opening sentences are also meant to hit you.  ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’, writes Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Matthew begins by writing, ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.’  That would have grabbed the attention of his Jewish readers.  You see, the Old Testament is full of promise, and every promise that is made finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus. 
He is the seed of Abraham, through whom the whole world will be blessed—we see a taste of this in the second chapter of Matthew, when the first people to come across Jesus are Gentile (non-Jewish) leaders referred to as Magi.  Look around at all of us, from many nations, who have been blessed to know Jesus!
He is the promised Son of David, whose kingdom will be established for ever.  Everything else is passing away—so much that we live for and strive after is passing away.  But the kingdom of Jesus is eternal.  Indeed, one day he will be seen in the fullness of his glory and the most important thing about our lives will be the decision that we made about him.  Jim Elliot, who died seeking to reach Auca Indians, along the Amazon, with the gospel was said, ‘he is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.’
A shocking genealogy
Having got past the first astonishing sentence a first-century Jew would have them been shocked by the genealogy that followed.  You see genealogies of that time generally only included men but this one records four very interesting women.
There is Tamar—who dressed up as a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah to have a child by her!  There is Rahab—a Canaanite who was a prostitute before she become a follower of the living God!  There is Ruth—from Moab, a ‘foreigner’, from a tribe that traced its roots back to a drunken sexual incident between Lot and his daughters.  There is Uriah’s wife—who committed adultery with David!
These women weren’t on the cover of a wholesome magazine like Woman’s Own.  They were reminders of the beautiful mercy and grace of God.  As one preacher points out, the ‘rescue work on the cross extended back through time to cover their sin just as it extends forward in time to cover our sin.’ 
This genealogy prepares us for the rest of Matthew’s Gospel.  In verse twenty-one we will be told that the child will be called Jesus (which means ‘the LORD saves’), because he will save his people from their sins.  In chapter nine Jesus will give his mission statement as being to come not for the righteous but sinners (like Tamar, Bathsheba, you and me).  In chapter fifteen is will be a Canaanite woman (a non-Jew, outsider, Gentile, from the nations person) like Rahab and Ruth who shows the sort of faith that so many Jewish men (privileged insiders) fail to place in Jesus.  We are been shown that this gospel was ready for the shores of Ireland, Nigeria, Korea, South Africa and every yet unreached culture.
Reggie and Ronnie Kray were notorious gangsters in 1960’s London.  They both ended up in prison.  There Ronnie came across a book by a Christian pastor called Ken Stallard.  He was so interested in this book that he got in contact with this pastor to ask if he would come and visit.
As they talked Ronnie asked Ken Stallard, ‘What does God make of me, a murderer?’  So Ken showed him the story of Moses in the Bible—he was a murderer but he was used greatly of God.  He spoke of the thief on the cross, who at his death found peace with God through Jesus.  And he pointed out that Jesus defined his mission saying, ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’  Ronnie was aghast.  ‘No one ever told me God was like that!’
Ken Stallard got to know both the Krays, and at one stage he was talking to Reggie when the conversation turned to faith.  Ken asked Reggie, ‘Are you sorry for what you have done in life.’  He was.  ‘Do you want to know Jesus’ forgiveness?’  He did!  So Ken prayed and Reggie prayed.
Then Reggie said something strange to Ken.  ‘I don’t want you to tell anyone about this, because I don’t the parole board to think I’ve pretended to get religion in order to get out early.’  Ken Stallard preached at Reggie’s funeral, where he told them of Reggie’s prayer.
‘No one ever told me that Jesus was like that!’  Are we humble enough to admit that we are simply broken rebels who Christ has put back together?  Are we willing to admit that we are hopeless failures who depend of Christ’s overflowing grace?  Or, do our words and actions speak of self-righteous, vain, proud, do-goodism?
Donnacha O’Callaghan says, ‘I consider myself religious.  Not in a big way – I’m not a religious freak or anything . . .’
That worries me!  You see this gospel is so big and beautiful that we can never be into Jesus in a big enough way.  He sees people, who are too serious about their religion, as religious freaks.  We should be privileged to be thought of as a Jesus-freak.  Jesus calls us to put him before anything else in life.  We are to be sold out for God.  Our lives should overflow with gratitude for God’s amazing grace!

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Some musings

It's been a while since I have posted anything.  So a few thoughts:

1.  My apologies that I post so many sermons.  A blog is not the best format for sermons.   Blog posts need to be shorter.  It's just that I want to have somewhere where I can access them.

2.  I have realised that if I want people to read a post then it is best to link it to my Facebook page.  But you can't do that all the time.  For example, this musing will not be linked.

3.  It is interesting to see what posts gets most hits.  'Romance in Nigeria' far outstrips the rest.  However, I suspect that those who are landing on this post are actually looking for romance in Nigeria, rather than hearing about how my parents met.

4.  Like so much in our culture, blogs are an offshoot of thinking to much of ourselves and our opinions.  This blog is not immune from such vanity.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

‘The why, who and how of death’ (Luke 13:1-5)

This summer we have had plenty of reminders of the fragility of life.  We have seen young Irish students die in a balcony collapse in California, there have been the shootings in North Carolina and Tunisia, and much closer to home we have had the death of our beloved sister Flora.  Many people ask the question ‘why?’ when death comes to our door, but I also want to look at the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of death.
1.  We are not told why tragedy strikes some and not others
In Jesus’ day the popular thinking was that if tragedy struck your home you must have done some specific wrong.   Yet Jesus takes two events from that time and says that they did not happen because the people were worse sinners than others.
This passage begins with some people telling Jesus about people from Galilee who Pilate murdered, and then added their blood to the sacrifices they were offered.  They were the victims of someone else’s brutality—like the victims in Tunisia, North Carolina.  Many people asked, ‘where was god on 9/11?’
Jesus knows what these people are thinking and asked, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?’  He then answers his own question, ‘I tells you, no!’   
Then he reminds them of the terrible accident where eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell on them.  A tragic accident—like the collapsing balcony in Berkeley!  Again Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?’  ‘No …’
There are times when God punishes those in blatant rebellion against him and even uses illness to lovingly discipline his children.  But the passage that we have before us reminds us that we can never assume that anyone’s illness or death is due to a particular sin in their life.  My favourite Bible Commentator, Don Carson, writes:
'Practically speaking … it is almost always wrong, not to say pastorally insensitive and theologically stupid, to add to the distress of those who are suffering illness, impending death, or bereavement, by charging them with either some secret sin they have not confessed or inadequate faith … The first charge wrongly assumes that there is always a link between a specific ailment and a specific sin; the second wrongly assumes that it is always God’s will to heal any ailment, instantly, and he is blocked from doing so only by inadequate or insufficient faith.' 
We are not told why some people live to an old age and others die in the prime of their life.  We are not told why all of the apostles, except for John, died before they were old.  We are not told why Elijah was taken in a chariot to heaven while Elisha dies of an illness.  Job’s children had committed any specific wrong to cause them to die in a disaster.  There is something of a frustrating silence when we ask ‘why me?’, ‘why this?’, or ‘why now?’
2.  We are told how death entered our world
The Bible might not tell us why some suffer in some ways and others suffer in different ways, it does tell us how we ended up living in a world where death affects everyone. 
The book of Genesis tells us of the rebellion of the original humans.  Satan tempted them saying, ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.’  It was an act of treason—an unwillingness to live under God’s loving rule.  Everything changed with that act of evil.  The apostle Paul writes, ‘just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12).  The reality is that even those who survive accidents and avoid illness eventually die too.  I walked by a funeral home yesterday and was reminded of the story of the unpopular undertaker who used to sign his letters, ‘yours eventually.’
The great Christian thinker Francis Schaffer died of cancer. In the latter part of his life, when he realised that he was dying, he said that it was the Bible’s teaching on the fall that helped him and his family grasp what was happening from a Christian angle. In an article he said, ‘I think I can best explain my own reaction to the news that I had cancer by telling you the response of my four children. Each said the same thing in their own way. “Dad, we couldn’t have taken it if you hadn’t emphasised the fall so completely in your teaching.” It is the same for myself,’ wrote Schaffer, ‘I feel that no Christian can face honestly the troubles and the obscenities of this life—the sorrows, the tears, the ugliness, the cruelties unless we have a very firm belief and comprehension of what the fall is all about; and what we have to realise is that we live in an abnormal world, and not to be surprised when these things come upon us as they do other people.’
3. We are told who is the answer to death
No words are more triumphant, in the face of death, than when Jesus declares, ‘I am the resurrection of the life, they who believe in me, though they shall die, yet will they live.’  Jesus is the person who is the answer to death.
Death and life are deep words in the New Testament, with a number of layers of meaning.  Death can refer to the physical death that all people face, the spiritual death of life lived without outside of a personal relationship with God, and the eternal death that results from passing from this world without having turned to Christ in faith—for hell is referred to as the second death!  Life is the fact that we live and breathe, and a description of the blessing of living in a personal relationship with God, and the eternity of bliss that the Christian looks forward to.
Jesus says, ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will likewise perish.’  Every death we witness is a reminder that life is fragile and that we must be prepared for life beyond death.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).  Through her living faith in Jesus, Flora knew life in all its fullness, as she enjoyed a love relationship with God through Jesus.  Because of her faith in Jesus she has being brought from this life into an eternity where there will be no more cancer of tears.  All this is because Jesus died as a substitute for her guilt on that cross, satisfying the demands of God’s holy justice, and making a people who are washed and transformed by the grace of God.
David Watson was a well-known speaker who died of cancer in 1984.  He wrote about his struggle with that illness in a book entitled “Fear no evil.”  In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid.  Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves.  In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me . . .”  ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54). 

Monday, 8 June 2015

Cross-shaped generosity

When Tim Keller was a young pastor working in his first church, a single-mother with four children began attending the services.  It soon became clear that she had severe financial difficulties, and a number of people suggested that the church should do something to help.  So the deacons were assigned to visit her, and the church gave her money to help her pay outstanding bills.  However, three months later, it emerged that instead of paying off her bills with the church money, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had brought each child a new bike.  Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money.  Understandably people were perplexed.  One deacon furiously exclaimed, ‘no way do we give her any more.  This is the reason that’s she’s poor—she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses!  That was God’s money and she wasted it.’
This evening I want to suggest that we must not neglect the poor, even those we think that they are undeserving.  For our attitude towards the poor reflects our understanding about the character of God and his gospel.
1.  Compassion for the poor reflects the character of God
It should thrill our heart to see that God champions the cause of the poor.  Our God is merciful and gracious.  ‘The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made’ (Psalm 145:9).  We should champion things like fair trade because his word tells us that he wants, justice to ‘roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (Amos 5:24).  ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God’ (Proverbs 14:31).  He is even generous towards those who despise him, sending the sun and rain on both the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).  The cross reminds us of God’s desire for justice, for our God does not turn a blind eye towards our evil, but satisfies his demands of justice, being both just and the justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). 

In the Old Testament God shows a special concern for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the migrant.  ‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor’ (Zech. 7:10).  These four groups are highlighted because they were the most vulnerable people of that day.  Who would we put on the list of most vulnerable in our society?  ‘Do not oppress the homeless, the mentally-ill, the single-parent or those in direct provision.’
2.  Compassion is to be modelled on God’s kindness to us

I heard of a Christian leader who believed that the cross, as a symbol, was bad public-relations for the church.  But our message is Christ crucified, and Christ crucified isn’t just about having our sins forgiven, it’s to shape everything.
This logic is seen in the Old Testament, where God’s commands to care for the vulnerable are often spoken in terms of the great rescue event of the Exodus.  ‘Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there.’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).  They are to be generous because God has been generous to them.  He has shown them kindness is rescuing them from slavery. 
Of course the Exodus looked forward to a greater rescue—through the death of Jesus, God has rescued us from slavery to sin and condemnation even while we were his enemies.  You should show grace, because God has demonstrated grace to you.  You should be kind, because God has been kind to you.  You should care about the enslaved, because God has rescued from slavery to sin, condemnation and death.
Tim Keller writes that ‘there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor’ and that, ‘when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.’
3.   The Cross demonstrated compassion to the undeserving

In 1700s America, Jonathan Edwards was known for his gospel preaching.  He was famous for his sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God.’  Yet he saw that the gospel he preached must impact our attitude towards those less fortunate than himself.  However, when he encouraged his people to care for the poor, many came to him with objections.  So he wrote a sermon entitled, ‘The Duty of Care to the Poor.’  It dealt with eleven objections that people gave towards giving charity.
One objection Edwards dealt with was when people declare that the poor person ‘deserves not that people should be kind to him. He is of a very ill temper, of an ungrateful spirit’ and, in particular, he has treated us badly. 
We might say, ‘the problem with the homeless is their addictions.’  We might say, ‘the problem with the unemployed is that they have not tried hard enough.’  Not only do such comments reveal that we don’t understand the complexity of homelessness and unemployment, they reveal a lack of understanding of the gospel.  Gospel-centred people know that God didn’t wait until we deserved before he came to our help.
Edwards wrote, ‘Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving any good, but deserving only to be hated, and treated with indignation; so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving. Christ loved us, and laid himself out to relieve us, though we were his enemies, and had treated him ill.  So we, as we would love one another as Christ hath loved us, should relieve those who are our enemies, hate us, have an ill spirit toward us, and have treated us ill.’
4.  The cross demonstrates sacrificial love

When people said that they had nothing to spare, Edwards suggested that what many meant is that they could not afford to give without it actually being a burden to them.  So he emphasised the beauty of sacrificial love.
Think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan is moved with ‘compassion’ (the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is only used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his stories who reflect his attitude).  It costs the Samaritan to care, as he uses all his available resources (oil, cloth, time, energy and money) to help.  The Samaritan is exposed to personal risk by putting the injured man on his donkey (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for bandits and having a man on your donkey slowed you down and made you more vulnerable to ambush).  Bible writer, Ken Bailey, points out that a Samaritan arriving into a village with a wounded Jew on his donkey was open to dangerous misunderstanding (like an Indian arriving into Dodge City with an injured cowboy draped over his horse, he might be considered to be the main suspect to the man’s injuries).  He then gives the innkeeper two denarii (which would have covered food and lodging for at least a week), and then commits himself to return to settle any outstanding bills.  This is sacrificial love towards someone he never met before.
Such sacrificial loving is demonstrated perfectly by Jesus.  Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).  ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
But where do we draw the boundaries between ourselves and others?  In a world of need what luxuries can I justify?  How much time to I give to my lonely neighbour? 
One of the beauties of the gospel is that it doesn’t present us with a list of rules which would either take the joy out of service or limit us to obligation.  Many people would like to be told what percentage of their time and income they should give to the vulnerable.  But if we were given such a rule we would be prone to obeying the letter of the law, and not think about what we do with what money and time remains.  Jesus wants all of our time and money to be under his loving rule.  He doesn’t give us a law but graciously instructs that we ‘should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).  The only way you are going to know how to give well is by having a heart that is being shaped by the Holy Spirit.
What about burn out and the need for rest?  He is our gentle Saviour who knows our needs.  A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering reed he will not snuff out (Matthew 12:20).  Take advice from trusted friends who are courageous enough to challenge you, but caring enough to see when you need to slow down.

Tim Keller writes, ‘we tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does—through guilt.  This doesn’t work, because we have a built in defence mechanisms against such appeals … however, when justice for the poor is not connected to guilt but to the gospel, this “pushes a button” down deep in the believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up.’
The gospel reflects the beautiful character of the God who cares for the vulnerable; a God who sent his Son for underserving, spiritually bankrupt people; and a God who inspires us to sacrificial service.  But he wants us to live this sacrificial life, not so much because he needs our time and money, but because he desires that we would experience the joy of being instruments in the redeemer’s hands.  For sacrificial service should have an element of delight in it, as we realise that it is more blessed to give than receive.
So, how did the church that Tim Keller led deal with the woman who spent the money given to her on meals out and treats for the kids?  Keller made the point that if they gave no more money to the family the children would suffer because of the poor choice of the mother.  As time went by it became clearer to the deacons that the reason that she had squandered the church’s money on restaurants and new bikes was that she felt terribly guilty for the poor life she was giving her kids.  She wanted the children to feel like they were a part of a normal family for once.  As the deacons truly engaged with her their hearts began to become more sympathetic.  Nevertheless, they insisted that she pay off the most pressing bills and formulate a plan to get better skills and a better job.  They also realised that all of her problems were not financial and sought ways to support her in raising her children.  She agreed to work with the deacons and over time the family’s life began to improve.
Do you know how to win in Monopoly?  When I play monopoly I want the car—because a car seems more real than an iron or a thimble.  Then I buy everything—because later on in the game someone will want that piece of property, and pay me far more than I spent on it.  And, if you want to win at Monopoly, show no mercy—even when the lip on the ten-year-old you are playing begins to quiver.  Show no mercy, call in all your debts and then, when you have won, go down to the corner-shop with all you Monopoly money and treat yourself. 
Of course, the man in the shop is going to look at you and remind you that the game is over.  That Monopoly money is only paper, once the board has been put away.
One day this life’s game will also be over.  We will then realise that so much of what we put our energy into in this life is as worthless as Monopoly money.  But the cross-shaped generosity that we have shown in this life will have a significance that will pass with us into all eternity, and be a cause of eternal celebration.

Monday, 25 May 2015

'Worldliness' (1 John 2:15-17)

Supposing someone was to have complete access to your life: they were with you twenty-four hours a day to witness what you look at, watch how you treat people and hear how you speak.  Supposing this person had access to your thoughts and could consider what motives you, understand what preoccupies you and see what gives you the most pleasure in life.  Supposing this person could press rewind and compare your life now with your life before you became a Christian.  What would that person observe?  Would they perceive that your heart is being shaped by Jesus?  Would they see that Jesus actually determines how we act towards people and how we think about life? 

I have some good (or bad) news for you.  You are being watched.  You are being watched every day by the people you live with.  You are being watched by those you work with.  They can see what difference Jesus makes in your life!  But, most importantly, you are being watched by the one person who knows your thoughts and motivations, who loves you and gave his life for you, and who wants you to reflect the beauty of his character.

  1. Be aware that the world is not neutral (15a)

‘Do not love the world or anything in the world.’

It goes without saying, that John is not telling us not to love the people of the world.  For God loves the people of the world.  He loves the people of this world (this world of people who actively resist his rule) so much that he has given his one and only Son to die that so whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

Because we are to share this love of God for people we are to be involved with this world.  We are to get to know people and love people.  Our greatest desire for them is that they would know true life in Christ.  This is to motivate us to pray (remember the list of five people we said we would pray for) and speak (ask God for opportunities to be able to bring the gospel into the conversation).  It should be obvious to all that we belong to Jesus, for we are not to hide our light beneath a bushel.

‘We are not to love the world’ means that we are not to be shaped by the world.  The world has a value system that opposes godliness.  The world refers to everything that prevents people from loving and obeying their creator.  We need to be clear that the world has many belief systems that are in opposition to God.  Later in this letter, John will write, ‘We know that we are children of God and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one’ (5:19).

So apply this to what you watch on television or in the cinema.  Do you give thought to what you are about to see?  There are websites, like Christian Spotlight, that will give you a Christian assessment of movies.  Maybe there are films you should not go to.  But even those films that are not loaded with sex, revenge (which is the main plotline in many movies) or violence are presenting you with a worldview. 

Myself and Caroline watched a movies a week or so ago.  There was no violence, I was not aware of much bad language, and there were no sex scenes (although sex was one of the main topics).  But the film made me feel uncomfortable.  After it I asked Caroline, ‘what worldview were they trying to sell us?’  You see the makers of that film were selling us an idealised picture of a type of life lived without any reference to God.

Take your brain with you when you go to the movies, watch television or read books.  Don’t leave your faith at the door.  Don’t let your mind simply slip into neutral.  Don’t simply seek to escape into a less stressful or painful world.  Don’t simply identify with the characters, but relate to the characters (by this I mean don’t imagine they are you, but imagine that they are one of your friends and ask yourself how you would like to influence them).  Always leave the cinema, or turn off the television, asking, ‘what view of the world are they trying to sell me?’

I have said that we are to love the people of the world because God loves the people of the world.  However, sometimes our friends influence us more than we influence them.  If we find out that the pressure of being their friends compromises our walk with Jesus then we need to take a sabbatical from their friendship.  Similarly, it is obvious that you should not watch television or movies that are loaded with foul language, revenge motives, violence, or sex themes.  But if you find that as you watch you want to live in the superficial, unspiritual world being portrayed (if you want to be Monica, Chandler or Joey in Friends) then the problem is that the world is shaping you too much and you need to take a break.
2.  Realise that you have to choose between love for God or love for the world   (15b-16)

‘If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’

A number of years before her death, Princess Diana did a famous television interview with Martin Bashir.  Bashir asked her about her marriage to Princess Charles.  She made a not-to-subtle reference to the fact that Charles had been committing adultery with his now wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles.  ‘There were three people in the relationship, and you can’t have a marriage when three people are involved.’  The same is true in our relationship with God.  You can’t enjoy God when you are trying to share your love for him and the world.  God is like a husband who will not put up with our adultery.  He says to us, ‘you can’t love both me and the world; you have to choose me are the world.’

Imagine you walked into the room and found your wife/husband embraced in the arms of a rival!  What righteous anger and hurt you would feel?  What sorrow we bring to the heart of our heavenly Father when we let the world shape our passions!

What we love is to be determined and shaped by our love for God!  If we are married we should love our spouse both for their sake but for God’s pleasure.  We should always be asking how God wants us to use our possessions and time.  I am not just to be a Munster supporter—I am a Christian Munster supporter (which reminds me that actually it doesn’t matter that much and that the best thing about going to a game is the opportunity it gives me to spend time with Ronan, Daire or Leo).

‘For everything in the world – the cravings of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.’

The cravings of the sinful man—John is not thinking merely of our physical appetites, but the evil distortion of these appetites.  Is our attitude towards food under control (gluttony is one of my besetting sins)? Is our attitude towards sex under the rule of God?  Does our sense of humour glorify him?  Do we realise that it is ungodly to be a shopaholic or a workaholic?  Are we being ruled by the cravings of the sinful man or by the Spirit of the living God? 

The lust of the eyes—one preacher says that the ‘temptation to sin has always used that route: deafening our ears to the verbal and heightening our awareness of the visual.  Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was pleasing to the eye and she ate.  Achan saw the gold and that beautiful robe, and he took them for himself.  King David saw the lovely Bathsheba taking a bath … and lured her into his bed.  So often the glance becomes a trance and then what we heard from God seems less persuasive than what we see with our eyes.  We need to take note today where the world’s visual bombardment gets more powerful with every technological advance.  Don’t be naïve about what you see.  Our eyes have a particularly powerful influence on our fallen human nature’ (Simon Scott).

The boasting of what he has done and does—the appeal to our pride has a long history.  Again we can look back at Eden: the serpent tempted Eve saying ‘eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.’  Pride throws off God’s rule and seeks our own glory rather than his.  Behind boasting lies an attitude that is independent of God and self-sufficient.  Our pride would suggest that we don’t need even God’s help.  So have we examined what really motivates us?  Have we questioned why we think we need that qualification or promotion?  Are we seeking to promote ourselves or do we desire glory for God?
3.  Let eternal realities set your agenda (17)

The party-girl got all the attention.  She had beauty and dressed it well.  But then as she grew older those looks matured and younger girls stole the attention from her.  We can think that being sexy is the be-all-and-end-all but our body is decaying and we are all heading towards the grave.  The world and its desires are passing away.

He thought the new car would make him the envy of his neighbours. But it didn’t make him any more of a man. Indeed, after a few years an update of that model came out and suddenly his car looked dated.  You could shop-till-you-drop and soon those clothes are out of fashion.  The world and its desires are passing away.

She spent her whole life trying to impress. She gained degrees and qualifications.  She worked her way right up the career ladder.  She had the trappings that went with success including money and a big house.  Then she died.  Those achievements didn’t qualify her for anything in the afterlife.  The world and all its desires are passing away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

One of the ways to beat worldliness is to remember that the world and its desires are passing away! Looking to the things of this world to satisfy our demand for happiness and meaning is like drinking sea-water to quench a thirst—the thirst doesn’t go away and we eventually die. Obsessing over the things of the world is like playing monopoly—we gather up all that toy-money which is useless once the game is over!


I hope that you find these words hard-hitting.  We all battle with our loves.  We have all allowed ourselves be shaped by the world.  Remember, what we are seeing right throughout this series, ‘if we say that we are without sin the truth is not in us and we deceive ourselves.’  If you don’t see any trace of worldliness within you, then you simply don’t know how to examine yourself.  The great nineteenth-century evangelical Bishop, J.C. Ryle, said, ‘a true Christian is one who has not only peace of conscience but war within.’

Finally, the last thing I want you to be is a bunch of legalists.  Legalism is an ugly thing.  Legalism is adding rules where there should be no rules.  Legalism makes people self-righteous, proud and judgemental.  Legalism doesn’t know how to measure true spirituality.  In a sense, legalism is very worldly.  The answer to worldliness is a heart transformed by the beauty of the gospel.  John Piper puts it this way: ‘the gospel makes all the difference between whether you are merely conservative or whether you are conquering the world in the power of the Spirit for the glory of Christ.’

So, remember grace and remember freedom.  Remember that you are forgiven and secure--that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Ask God to shed his love abundantly in your heart.  Seek the empowerment of the indwelling Spirit.  Love much, because you have been forgiven much.  Picture the Father racing through the village, with his robe in his hands and his knees exposed, running to embrace you.  Know that you are held in the grip of his right hand, that your name is engraved on his hand and that you shelter under his wing.  Be inspired by the beautiful character that you see in the person of Jesus.  Then let that love enable you to relate in a godly way to a world that is opposed to the loving rule of God.  

Friday, 15 May 2015

The real pain of the young gay person

The most moving article that I have read in the run up to the referendum is that by political correspondent, Ursula Halligan.  She recalls her experiences of same-sex attraction, in nineteen seventies Ireland.  At the age of seventeen she wrote in her diary, ‘there seems to be no one I can talk to, not even God.’  As a teenager she listened silently to snide remarks about homosexuals and tried to smile as people mimicked what they thought was stereotypical homosexual behaviour.  There were times that her struggle filled her with thoughts of death.
The church has failed in its mission if we can’t demonstrate love and kindness towards people who experience same-sex attraction.  Sometimes the reason people don’t feel God is listening is because his people portray him as being the sort of God who does not care.  While the Christian Scriptures reveal God’s design for sex to be in the context of marriage, and marriage to be between male and female, we will fail to speak about these issues with any credibility if we cannot show that life in Christ is worth anything he may call us to give up and if our churches fail to be places where the lonely find real family and intimacy.  As Ed Shaw (who is a same-sex attracted Christian leader) points out, when someone in the church embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to look inside at how our attitudes and actions may have pushed them to do so. 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Dear Whitney (1 John 2:1-14)

I did a little internet search on the question ‘how can I be sure I am going to heaven?’  When I saw that the Billy Graham Association had an answer to this question I clicked on their site.  They, rightly, pointed out that we are to base our assurance not on what we have done, but on what Christ has done for us.  That is why it is not arrogant to be sure that we are right with God.  When we claim to be Christians we are not claiming that we have done enough to earn our way to heaven, instead, we have simply accepted the gift of life by faith (and even that faith is a gift of God).
But below the post on the Billy Graham site, in the comments section, was the heart-moving confession of a lady called Whitney Edwards.  This is what she wrote:
‘I am so hopeless right now.  I keep thinking there is a possibility I can go to hell because I may have unforgiveness.  I want to forgive and I have tried but I still feel scornful towards the person. It’s my mother.  I told her my father molested me and she ignored me and did nothing.  To this day she denies it and it makes me more angry.  How can I be a Christian, love God and be experiencing this?  I am so afraid that this won’t be out of my heart when I die and I might not go to heaven. Please help.’   Whitney Edwards.
I have decided to entitle this sermon, ‘Dear Whitney’.  
Not everything in this sermon addresses Whitney’s question, as I want to let the text set the agenda, but this passage does deal with the issue of assurance.  I doubt that there is a single Christian in this room that has never struggled with the question of whether they are really a Christian or not.  John wants us to be sure, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (1 John 5:13).
1. You can be sure, even though you are not perfect 
John assumes that we will not live morally perfect lives.  He has written, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’ (1:8).  But that does not mean that sin does not matter.  The genuine Christian takes sin seriously and seeks God’s help to overcome it.  In fact this letter is a call to holiness, ‘my dear children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin’ (2:1a).  
But what happens when we let God down?  What about the fact that, even this morning, my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions have fallen short of the love and purity I see in Christ?  Well, we take heart in the fact that ‘we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one (2:1b).  
So don’t sink into despair.  Don’t drop your head, and don’t give up in the battle for purity and goodness.  Your sin does not separate you from the love of God.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because you have an advocate who takes up our cause in the Father’s presence.  He is the propitiation—the one who has turned away God’s righteous anger through his death on the cross.   His blood goes on cleansing us from all sin.  Acknowledge that what you have done is inexcusable, remember that the sin we see in our lives in only the tip of the iceberg of how awful we are, thank God that he delights to forgive, and battle on with renewed hope!
He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  So, as one preacher puts it, ‘because of this sacrifice there is no-one in this world who need not be in heaven, forgiven by God [and] welcomed into his family...’ (Graham Sayer).
2.  You can be sure, if loving Christ makes you want to obey him
Supposing you are a member of a lifeboat crew, and you are called out on a stormy night.  A fishing boat has sunk but two of the fishermen managed to get into a life raft.  As your lifeboat approaches these two men you throw them a rope.  One of those men reacts by reaching out and grabbing desperately for the rope, the other lies there motionless.  There reactions leave you realising that one is alive and the other may be dead (illustration adapted from Matt Slick).  Something similar happens in the Christian life—the struggle demonstrates life.

Remember the context of this letter.  There were false-teachers, who had disturbed the church, who were saying that sin does not matter.  They didn’t see any connection between knowing a holy God and seeking to live a holy life.  They lay there lifelessly in the storm.  They were not grasping the rope.  They did not look to God for his help in the battle with the sinful nature.  In Ireland, we used to talk about people living in sin—that is a good description of these false-teachers.  The refused to address the sin in their lives and their attitude revealed that they were spiritually dead.
Because the Holy Spirit dwells within God’s people we cannot live in sin.  ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands’ (3).  We strive to be holy.  We grieve when we fail.  We keep looking to him for the power to change.  But the false-Christian doesn’t care.  The false-Christian says ‘I know him’, but refuses to take the call to live a holy life seriously—‘the truth is not in such a person’ (4).
Some people lack assurance because they are not very good with feelings.  They come to church and see people who are much more emotionally in-tune with God.  Now feelings are important, but don’t make feelings everything.  Some people are wired more emotionally than others.  A better measure of how much we love God is our obedience.  Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will obey my commands.’  ‘But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.  This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ (5-6).  “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” (John Newton).
3. You can be sure, if loving Christ makes you want to love his people
John seems to be saying that the command to love our fellow Christians is both old and new.  It is old in the fact that it should be one of the first things we grasped when we became Christians; it is new because it is as fresh a command today as it was then—we never outgrow the challenge to love.  It is old because it is spoken about in the Old Testament; it is new because Jesus gave it new depth.   Indeed, it is as we live out this command that we reflect God’s light and dispel the darkness of this hate-filled world.

Loving people isn’t easy.  Forgiving people isn’t easy.  Sometimes we think we have made progress in getting over what someone has done to us, only for some painful memory to come flooding into our mind, and we have to begin forgiving them all over again.  But the Christian strives to love.  Keep praying for those who have hurt you, for it is harder to hate those you pray for every day.  Beware if you have a critical spirit towards those in the church—this is not a sign of spiritual health.  Flee from gossip.  Remember the grace that accepted you, with all your flaws.  Let love cover a multitude of sins.

Remember Whitney Edwards, that dear woman who was wrestling to forgive her mother?  She feared that she might go to hell because of the anger she felt.  This is what I posted beneath her comment.
Dear Whitney,
No one has ever hurt me to the depth that both your mother and father have hurt you.  You must have some very painful memories and an awful sense of betrayal.  I really admire you for your efforts to forgive.  I think it is a really good sign that you are concerned about your anger.  Many people would excuse it, but you take Jesus seriously when he tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven.  
I recently read an illustration about the Christian life.  The writer gave the picture of a rescue boat, in a storm, throwing a rope to two men in a life raft.  One of the men grasps frantically for the rope, whereas the other is slumped motionlessly.  The reactions of the two men lead those in the rescue boat to assume that one man is truly alive, and the other seems to be dead.
The apostle John writes, ‘if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8).  So no Christian is morally perfectly.  But the Christian is the one grasping for the rope of God’s help.  The Christian strives against the feelings of the sinful nature.  It seems to me that this is what you are doing.  To me that looks like evidence of the Holy Spirit in you.  I hope that you will daily experience God’s grace to change your heart towards your mother as you seek God’s ongoing help in the face of temptation.
Your brother in Christ,