Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Jesus can rescue you from your selfie-smile (1 Samuel 16:1-3)

The Telegraph Newspaper has wondered is this generation is the most narcissistic ever.  We are the Selfie-Generation.  The phone has changed the way that we take photos.  We used to put our eye behind a lens and look out on others.  Now we turn the lens around and make ourselves the centre of the photo. 
Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not really worried about you taking the odd selfie.  Selfies can be a fun way to celebrate time with friends and travel.  However, our selfies, our Facebook profile, our pride in our children’s achievements, our attendance at church, our clothes, the education we pursue, our manners and our possessions can all be things that we use to create the carefully created image of ourselves that we desire others to admire. 
We need to be reminded that, while people look at the outward appearance [literally ‘the face’] the Lord looks at the heart.  Let me paraphrase.  ‘You may be obsessed with your selfie, but God cares more for your character.’  Jesus can rescue you from your from being overly worried about your selfie-smile! 
Saul—a king who was obsessed with appearance
The people of Israel had become image-conscious.  They wanted a king so that they could be like other nations.  The Philistines, the Moabites and the Jebusites all had kings, ‘so why can’t we?’  God gave them the sort of king they were looking for.  His name was Saul.  He was superficially impressive.  He was as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else (9:2).  They believed that a man like Saul could make Israel great again!  He was the sort of king who reflected their aspirations.
While Saul began humbly, he soon turned out to have a real character deficit.  He was selfish, angry, hateful, jealous and mean-spirited.  When he was caught red-handed in disobedience he said to the prophet Samuel, ‘I have sinned.  But please honour me before the elders of my people and before Israel, come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God’ (15:30).  He had displayed wicked rebellion against God, but he was more concerned about saving face than allowing God change him from within.  ‘My life may be a mess,’ we think, ‘but could you take a selfie with me to show people that I’ve got things together?’ 
A few years ago a major sports-star was caught in a very embarrassing situation.  It seemed obvious that he was cheating on his wife.  What would the public think?  What would his sponsors do?  So who is the first person he rings?  He rings his lawyer.  You see his lawyer could help him come up with a good story that would enable him to save face.  That’s a Saul-like response.
Before we look down on such people, ask yourself this, when was the last time you opened up to a fellow-Christian about a besetting sin that you struggle with?  When did you last tell them about specific temptations you battle?  When did you last follow the Biblical injunction to confess your sins to one another?  Over the last year I have been meeting with a person once a week for the sake of accountability and prayer.  I initiated this relationship because I could see that this person was not-judgemental, willing to be vulnerable and was full of grace.  Meeting with him has been life-transforming.  But I can’t be smug with you about this, for when I was applying to theological college I failed a physiological test that revealed that I was I was unwilling to be open with my interviewers about who I really was.  It doesn’t come naturally for us to let our guard down.
King David—a king after God’s own heart
God could have let the people suffer under the awful rule of the kind of king they deserved.  However, our God delights to come to the rescue of the underserving.  So he sends the prophet Samuel to the village of Bethlehem, to a man called Jesse.  One of Jesse’s sons will be the next king!
Even Samuel fell into the trap of judging by superficial appearances—when he saw Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son, he thought that this must be God’s choice, but the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord does not look at the things people look at.  People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (9).
Not even David’s father was paying attention to David’s heart.  Having being introduced to all David’s brothers, Samuel has to ask Jesse, ‘are these all your sons?’  While David may have been glowing in health, with a fine appearance and handsome features’ (12b), he was only a teenage lad tending the flock.  The Lord says to Samuel, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one’ (12c).  From that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David (13).
Earlier in this book Samuel tells Saul, the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart … because you have not kept the Lord’s command (13:14).  Saul’s disobedience demonstrated that he was not a person after God’s own heart.  Many centuries later the apostle Paul explained that David’s obedience was related to the fact that he was a person after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).  Good and evil flow from the heart.  What do our actions, loves and passions say about the state of ours?
Over the summer I read a book by Paul Tripp, in which one of the chapters is entitled, ‘Transgression.’  He writes, ‘Obedience is deeply more than begrudging duty.  It is a response of joyful willingness ignited by, and continued by a heart that has been captured by God’s glory, goodness, and grace.  Thus, you cannot threaten, manipulate, or guilt a person into obedience.  Only grace can produce this joyful submission in me.  Only grace can open my eyes to the awesome glory of God … Only grace can free me from being a worshipper of self to a worshipper of God.  Only grace can motivate me to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord until I have exited my little government of one and given myself to the work of something vastly bigger than me.’  Only grace can change my heart from one that is self-absorbed and disobedience, to one that is God-intoxicated and delights in doing his will.
King Jesus—the heart-changing king
I think there is a mistake that we can make at this point.  We can forget the order of things!  Yes, it is true that God was looking for a man with a good heart.  But it was God who had made David’s heart good in the first place.  Many years later, after a hideous series of sins, David would pray, surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51:5).  All of us are born with a heart problem, but Jesus is the heart changing king!
Like David, King Jesus, did not satisfy the aspirations of those who wanted to live under a superficial leader.  Isaiah tells us that Jesus had no beauty or majesty that would attract people to him (Isaiah 53:2).  His face in your selfie wouldn’t have enhanced your image.  Indeed, it may cause us to lose face to become one of his subjects.  But to paraphrase Jesus, ‘I pity you, if you manage to keep your image and yet lose your soul.’
Like David, Jesus was a shepherd-king.  He alone is the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.  So when I read this book of the Bible and see a lot of Saul-like vanity in me I thank God that Jesus took the punishment for my sin.  In Jesus I am forgiven for my people-pleasing tendencies and my self-absorption.  The good news doesn’t stop there.  The shepherd king leads me by changing my heart.  He is the one who can free us from our preoccupation with ourselves.
People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.  Where do you look?
If you are a parent, do you shepherd you child’s heart, or do you simply push them to improve manners and grades?  Are you keeping up appearances or are you willing to be vulnerable?  Do you define yourself by your achievements and possessions or is your delight in your relationship with God? 
One of the worst things we teach our children in school is the art of writing a resume (C. V.).  It teaches us to boast about our achievements and hide our failings.  The Bible tells us to boast about our weaknesses.  That is one way to put our image-consciousness to death.  I would also suggest that you learn to be transparent about your failings, and so bring glory to the God of grace who loves and goes on forgiving his sinful people.  Find someone you can learn to be vulnerable with, and let them pray about specific areas where your heart needs to change.  Be transparent, so that your church becomes a safe place that is soaked in grace.  Pray to the God who desires truth in the inner parts that he would cleanse you, wash you and create a pure heart and renew a steadfast spirit within you (Psalm 51:6-10).   
To a narcissistic generation God speaks the good news that while you may be obsessed with your image, God cares more for your character, and Jesus can free you from your slavery to self-obsession.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Some honest thoughts on sharing your love for Jesus

Lee Strobel tells the story of how his friend, Jack, shares his faith.  Jack lives in a residential facility for the developmentally disabled in suburban Chicago.  Jack wears thick glasses, speaks in a low mumble, his hair is always tousled, his cloths are dishevelled, and he wears a tie that is askew.  He thinking is unfocused and his speech tends to consist of a string of disconnected thoughts.  Although, when Lee told his story, Jack was probably in his late thirties, talking with him was like communicating with a child.  Jack attends the same church as Lee.
People in the church wondered how much Jack understood of the gospel.  Until he came to church with his arm in a cast and sling.  ‘Did that hurt?’ Lee asked.
‘I come here … and hear … about Jesus … and I think about … all the pain … he went through … for me … and I think … this is nothing.  There is no doubt that Jack loves Jesus!  And what happens when a person truly adores someone?  They can’t keep it to themselves.  So Jack is involved in the adventure of sharing his faith.  He routinely tells the other residents and staff at the home where he lives that Jesus loves them, and encourages them to visit his church.
In that residential home there is a stereo in the common room.  Each of the residents get half an hour a day to choose what is played on it.  Most of the residents tune in to a sports match or play music.  Jack uses his half hour to play sermons from his church.
One of the staff at the home is a woman named Michelle.  Over and over Jack would tell her that Jesus loved her.  He would lend her Christian tapes and invite her to come to church with him.  Michelle was deeply touched by his genuine concern, after all, she was supposed to be caring for him, and here he was turning the tables.  But she kept turning down his invitations to join him at church.
One day Jack reached the conclusion that he was getting nowhere just asking Michelle to come to church.  So, in his own endearing way, he told her.  ‘Meet me there Sunday.’  He really wasn’t demanding it, but he was gently insistent.  Jack was so sincere, so full of love and perseverance that Michelle thought ‘why not?’  She went, listened intently to the message of grace, felt her heart begin to open to ideas she had long resisted.  By the end of that day she found herself saying yes to Jesus.  She now thanks God that Jack cared enough to persist in reaching out to her even though she rebuffed him so many times.  ‘Jack,’ she declares, ‘is my hero!’
Sharing our love for Jesus is something all Christians are commanded to do.  We called into an adventure.  However, this adventure can be scary, and fear often causes us to miss opportunities.  Today, I want to share some honest thoughts about evangelism.
Evangelism is not easy                                                      
Just before he sent his disciples out for the first time, Jesus warned them ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves’ (Matthew 10:16).
Think about it.  You are sharing a message that is considered intolerant—Jesus is the only way to God.  You are telling people that they are spiritually blind, lost and condemned.  Not everyone is going to thank you for such opinions.
Peter tells us to ‘be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15).  Maybe we have waited for that opportunity hoping that someone will come up to us and say, ‘what’s the difference about you?  I want what you have.  Please tell me about your hope, and where it comes from.’  However, the reality is often far more hostile.  The whole of Peter’s letter is filled with warnings about how Christians suffer for their faith.  In fact, the previous verse speaks about suffering for doing what is right.  It is more likely that they will approach you with an attitude that says, ‘the way you live offends me, your beliefs are ridiculous, why on earth would someone believe such superstitious nonsense?’
Of course, being sneered at, is nothing compared to what Christians face in most of the world; it is nothing compared to what we have in Jesus; and our current afflictions are light and momentary compared that are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Evangelism is exciting
Lee Strobel and Mark Mittelberg write a wonderful book about taking everyday risks to talk to people about Jesus.  In it Strobel says, ‘this is the missing ingredient in so many Christian lives.  I’ve never heard anyone complain by saying, “My spiritual life is so dry right now; it’s like I am living in a desert,” and then add, “Oh, by the way, I’m actively trying to reach a friend for Christ.”  Sharing our faith is one of the thinks that makes our faith feel alive.
Evangelism is important
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, ‘hallowed by Thy name.’  ‘To hallow his name is to be overwhelmed by the sweetness of his sacrifice’ (Rico Tice).  It should grieve us that those around us do not hallow his name—that they do not worship him, adore him and acknowledge his incomparable glory.  Ordinary Christians in the early church went out to evangelise ‘for the sake of the Name’ (3 John 7).  Many Christians rightly get upset when Jesus’ name is used flippantly.  However, our concern for his name must not stop there.  We want to see people speak his name in love and commitment.  John Stott writes, ‘we do not speak for Christ because we do not so love his name that we cannot bear to see him unacknowledged and unadorned.’
Evangelism is also important because love for people must compel us to warn them of the danger they are in.  Rico Tice writes, ‘The reason Jesus talked about hell is because he does not want people to go there.  The reason Jesus died was so that people wouldn’t have to go there.  The only way to hell is to trample over the cross of Christ.’
Tice tells the interesting story of an occasion when he was a student and he gave a guy on his rugby team a tape of a sermon that he had preached.  It was on ‘behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:19).  In that sermon he pointed out that we either pay for our sin in hell, or the Lamb pays for our sin on the cross.
His friend, called Ed, played that sermon one night to his housemates, who were on the same rugby team.  One of them, Dave, got very upset, and said, ‘if that’s what Rico believes, the fact he’s said nothing of it to me in months means he’s really my friend.’  So Ed rang Rico and said: ‘Rico, you need to speak to Dave; he’s upset that you’ve not talked to him till now about what’s in the sermon.’  Dave understood that if a Christian believes what Jesus said about hell is true, then we are not very loving if we do not warn people about the dangers of been sent there!
Of course, becoming a Christian is more than simply escaping hell.  If you see a great movie you want others to see it to.  I enjoy going to Thomond Park for a big match hoping that they will get the same thrill from it as I do.  We should want others to share the delight we have in Jesus.
Have you forgotten how great it feels to realise that your sins are forgiven?  Are you growing in the awareness of the width and depth of the love God has for us in Christ?  Do you enjoy that peace of knowing that we no longer need fear death?  Do you realise that you are not only justified, you are adopted as a dearly loved child and heir of the most gracious and kind of all fathers?  Do you understand being in Christ is life in all its fullness?  Do you know that you have being rescued for the empty ways of our world, and now have real purpose?
Our idols will stop us evangelising
So what stops us sharing our faith?  Our idols stop us sharing our faith!  An idol is anything that is more important to us than our love for God.  If I love the approval of my friends and relatives more than I love the name of Jesus then I will keep silent about my faith in case they reject me for what I believe.  Of course this not only reveals that I love popularity more than I value Jesus, it also says that my love for my friends is based more their approval of my than my concern for their eternal well-being.  I am nervous about how some of my friends will react when they begin to understand what I believe; I feel a huge responsibility that if I don’t speak to them about Jesus they may never hear the gospel; and I dread the fact that they might not like me for what I believe.  But we must love the name of Jesus, and those around us, enough to step out and face the consequences. 
The only way you will be able to handle the inevitable rejection that comes through sharing the gospel is through experiencing God’s ever-present love, the comfort of his people and the certainty of your heavenly hope.  Indeed, as I read about evangelism I am reminded how gracious is in giving us each other.  Our church fellowship is to be a place where we come together and encourage each other, because it is difficult out there in the world, and a need the support of God’s people.  
Conclusion—being faithful doesn’t guarantee conversions
 mentioned a book that I have recently read by Lee Strobel and Mark Mittelberg.  It is entitled, ‘The Unexpected Adventure’, and it encourages all of us to be engaged in sharing our faith.  But one of the things that struck me was the amount of times they talked about speaking to someone and being left with no sense of whether that person came to Jesus or not.  I actually found it encouraging.  They weren’t judging success in sharing their faith in the numbers of conversions they had seen.  They were judging success in terms of lovingly, respectfully and gently telling people about Jesus.  After all we can’t open the eyes of the spiritually blind, or raise the spiritually dead—only Jesus can do that.  Our responsibility is to be motivated by a passion for God’s name and a love for people. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Grace to the broken (2 Samuel 9)

U2 sing a song called ‘Grace’ in which they say, ‘It’s a name for a girl.  It’s also an idea that changed the world.  Grace finds beauty in everything.’  Charles Swindoll defines grace as kindness to someone who has not earned it and can never repay it.  He suggests that the story of Miphiboseth is the greatest illustration of grace in the Old Testament.
David’s offer of grace reflects God’s heart
It was during a peaceful time in King David’s reign when he started to look back on his past.  He remembers promises he made to King Saul (1 Samuel 20:42) and his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 24:21-22).  He had promised that not to destroy Saul’s descendants and that there would remain a bond of kindness between Jonathan’s people and his own.  In that culture when a dynasty changes the new king might have wiped out the whole family of the old king in case one of the old king’s family made a claim for the throne.
In light of these promises David asks, ‘Is there anyone left in the house of Saul, that I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’ Apparently the word translated kindness can also be rendered ‘grace’.  ‘Is there anyone … that I might show grace for Jonathan’s sake?’  Grace is a demonstration of love that is unearned, undeserved and unrepayable.  King David longs to show grace!
When a servant of Saul, called Ziba, is brought to David, the king puts the question to him in a slightly different way.  ‘Is there not still someone in the house of Saul, that I might show the kindness of God to him?’  At that moment in time David wants to act in a manner that reflects the heart of the God he loves.
In one of the Psalms, David explains that, ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and steadfast in love … he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him … as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion to those who fear him.’
Grace enables us to move from fear to faith
Ziba tells David about a son of Jonathan who is crippled in both feet.
Now there is backstory here.  In the panic that had followed the death of Saul and Jonathan—as they fought the Philistines—a tragedy befell one of Jonathan’s children.  ‘Jonathan, the son of Saul, has a son who was crippled in both feet.  He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him and fled, and as she fled in her haste, he fell and became lame.  And his name was Mephibosheth’ (4:4).  The nurse was running, presumably because she feared that a new king would want to kill the family of the old.
Now, Mephibosheth is an adult with a family of his own.  He is not looking for King David.  In fact he has kept his existence hidden from the king.  It is the king who is seeking him, in order to bless him.  I am reminded of words from Isaiah where God declares that, ‘I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me, I was found by those who did not seek me’ (65:1a).  God truly is the hound of heaven who seeks to pour his love on people.
The last thing Mephibosheth wants is a lock on the door saying, ‘the king wants to see you.’  He would have assumed that this was a summons to his death.  When he arrives before David he falls at his feet and pays homage.  He cries out, ‘Behold, I am your servant’ (6).
Imagine the relief as David replies, ‘Do not fear, for I will show kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you will eat at my table always’ (8).  Mephibosheth may have expected a sword to fall on his head.  Instead he hears words of amazing kindness.  He is moved from a place of fear to a place of favour.
The one who is called ‘Son of David’, King Jesus, says to those who draw close to him, ‘Do not fear!’  In fact that apostle John writes, ‘perfect love casts out fear because fear has to do with punishment’ (1 John 4:18).  Those who have fallen on their face in submission to him have nothing to be frightened of.  He has taken our punishment and is determined to show kindness to us.
On Monday morning, when I sat down to work on this text, I asked myself, ‘how does this story help us think about what Jesus has done for us?’  I came up with three suggestions (you may be able to come up with a few more).
Firstly, this story reminds us of our inability.  You see, to be crippled in that culture rendered you helpless.  Mephibosheth came helplessly to the king.  Similarly, we are brought to God dead in transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2:1).  We were running from God.  Christ came running to us.  We could not purchase God’s favour.  All we can offer are self-righteous deeds that are stained like filthy rags.  Christ lived and died to clothe us in righteousness. 
Secondly, this story reminds us that we have been shown kindness for the sake of another.  David wanted to show kindness for the sake of Jonathan.  Similarly, God shows kindness to us for the sake of Jesus.  God the Father, out of love for his Son, and because of the penalty his Son paid for our guilt, delights to show infinite kindness to us. 
Finally, we have been given a place of privilege.  David says, ‘I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father’ (7).  I love the ‘restore’.  In our sin we have forfeited what we were designed to be.  We were hiding from God and had no real purpose in life.  Our world had become small—rotating upon the axis of self.  However, God restores us to a life that is full of purpose and pleasure as we live in a large hearted-world that rotates upon the axis of divine love.
‘Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons’ (11c).  God goes further with us.  We are not seated at the king’s table ‘like’ one of the king’s sons, but actually as one of his sons.  ‘God sent forth his Son, to redeem us, that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Galatians 4:5).
God has shown us infinitely more grace that David poured out upon Mephibosheth.  Like him we should be amazed.  ‘What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?’ (8).        

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Evangelism - Whose job is it anyway?

‘Are you missing one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling dimensions of the Christian life?  Here’s an energetic guide to everyday steps you can take to influence others for Christ.  Suddenly, what once seemed scary or daunting becomes an exciting and doable adventure that will energize your own faith while you make an eternal difference in the lives of others.’  That’s what is written on the back of an exhilarating book I recently read on sharing your faith.  Evangelism is important because we want the name of Jesus to be hallowed, people to be rescued from hell and we want to enjoy the happiness of a life lived actively for God.
In the book of Acts we are reminded that evangelism the calling of every Christian.  We read that after Stephen was killed for his faith ‘a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria … Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went’ (8:1-4).  The key leaders were in Jerusalem but the gospel went wherever God’s ordinary people went.  But, how do I do it.  I am going to give you six keys to effectively sharing your faith.

  1.  Use words
Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, ‘preach the Gospel at all times … if necessary use words.’  However, words are actually always necessary in evangelism.  The apostle Paul wrote, ‘… faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ’ (Romans 10:17).  The words of the gospel have power.

George Whitefield was a famous evangelist in the eighteenth-century.  He spoke to crowds of thousands.  But he had his detractors.  Some people loved to stand there and mimic him as he spoke.  On one occasions the ringleader of such a group was a man called Thorp.  Thorp entertained his friends as he put on an accent and imitated Whitefield’s gestures.  He was having great fun repeating Whitefield word for word, until the Holy Spirit used those words to convert him there and then.
Charles Spurgeon was a great eighteenth-century preacher.  On one occasion he was asked to speak to thousands of people in London’s Crystal Palace hall.  The day before the event Spurgeon was helping the organisers find the best place to erect the pulpit.  He tested the acoustics by speaking out ‘behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’  Years later he discovered that a workman on one of the galleries had heard these words, was cut to the heart and been converted.
2.  Memorise a definition of the gospel
Has anyone every asked you what people believe in your church?  Don’t worry about Baptist theology—take the opportunity to tell them the gospel. 

Your presentation needs to include the bad news, the good news and a challenge.  I hope that the next time I am asked what we believe I will answer something like this.  ‘My rebellion and resistance against God is so serious that I deserve to be separated from him for ever and punished eternally.  Yet God loves is so amazing that he sent his Son to live the perfect life and die a death that takes the punishment I deserve.  Now he offers to make us his dearly loved forgiven and adopted children if we simply believe—which means to trust Jesus as our forgiver and king.
Now you may be thinking that you can do a better job than that.  So, I challenge each of you to write a short summary of the gospel, explain it to a friend who doesn’t attend any church, and ask them if they think it is clear. 
3.  Make sure that your message is complimented by your actions
Mitsuo Fuchida was the man who led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.  After the war he became a Christian.  One of the things that opened his heart to the gospel was hearing about eighteen-year old Peggy Cowell.  Mitsuo had wanted to show that all nations had treated their prisoners disgracefully.  But as he interviewed some of the Japanese prisoners of war that had been held in America they told her about Peggy.  She volunteered at a prison camp and showed incredible love and kindness.
On one occasion a prisoner asked Peggy why she cared for them so much.  She explained that her parents had been missionaries in Japanese Philippines, who been accused of communicating with the outside world and beheaded.  She believed that God wanted her to respond to this evil with forgiveness and blessing. 
Peter writes, ‘be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope that you have within you’ (1 Peter 3:15).  Earlier in that same letter he commands, ‘live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:12).
However, be careful.  Our job is not to make ourselves look good, but to make God look good.  This means that we don’t have to pretend to be someone we are not.  We don’t have to hide our failings.  We can be honest about the fact that God is so amazingly gracious that he cherishes us even though we let him down every day.  Indeed, self-righteousness is a denial of the gospel.
4.  Remember that God directs your life
One Christian leader said, ‘when I pray coincidences happen, when I don’t they don’t

In Acts 17 the apostle Paul says that God determines the times set for people and the exact places where they should live (Acts 17:25-26).  Rico Tice takes this principle and reminds us that this truth is applicable to every detail of our lives.  This excites me!  This summer God might seat you on a plane beside someone he wants you to share your faith with.  Your neighbours are placed beside you for a purpose.  Pray that God would reveal that he has placed you in strategic places for heavenly purposes!  Pray that the Holy Spirit would guide you into conversations about the gospel.
5.   Learn to guide conversations towards Jesus

The story is told (it is made up) of the man who wanted to turn a conversation towards Jesus, so he looked at his friends earrings and said, ‘I see that you have piercings.  Do you realise that Jesus was pierced for your transgressions?’  I believe that we need to learn how to guide conversations gently towards Jesus.  Lee Strobel comments that ‘people are generally more interested in spiritual matters than we think they are.
How many of you have been waiting for people to ask you about your faith, but are frustrated that no-one has?  Kerry and Chris Shook wrote a bestselling book entitled, ‘One Month to Live,’ in which they encourage Christians to focus on how we would shape our priorities if we only had thirty days left in this life.  Who would you show more urgency in talking to if your time was short? 
Be intentional!  If you read a book that might help a friend understand more of the gospel, lend them your copy.  If you hear a sermon that might help them, get them one of the CDs.  But don’t avoid talking to them about faith.  Talk to them about your faith.  Ask questions.  Be a good listener.
I am working on this idea of transitioning with questions.  A friend of mine admires a particular Methodist minister, so a good question to open up conversation with him is ‘what is it about Tom that you admired?’  A cousin comes from a family that has atheists, agnostics and evangelicals in it, so a good question to open him us is ‘where do you fit in among the diverse opinions of your family?’  Ask people what they believe about life, the universe and everything.  But don’t be rude or pushy, for we are told to speak with gentleness and respect.      
6.  Your job is to witness, God’s job is to convert

Finally, remember that your job is to witness, and God’s job is to convert.  Even great evangelists like the apostle Paul couldn’t covert anyone.  He could only share the truth.  It is God who brings spiritually dead people to life.  When he explained the gospel to a woman called Lydia we read that ‘the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’ (Acts 16:12-15).
Rico Tice writes, ‘Our job is not to convert people.  It is to witness to Christ.  Conversion isn’t the mark of a successful witness—witnessing is.  Think about a courtroom.  Witnesses are there to tell the truth.  That’s successful witness.  If the jury doesn’t believe them, that’s not their fault or failure.  You have not failed if you explain the gospel and are rejected.  You have failed if you don’t try.’

Saturday, 4 June 2016

1 John 5:13-21 'Be Confident'

Ray Orland writes, ‘God not only accepts you, he wants you to know that he accepts you.  Because you will never see liberating breakthrough to new levels of personal holiness except in the reassuring atmosphere of grace.’  John wrote this letter so that we would know that God is love, and that we can be secure in his love.  He wrote, ‘these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (5:13).  When it comes to faith, confidence is a good thing.
I want this confidence to spill over into your prayer life (14-17)
John tells us that God accepts us as dearly loved children purely on the basis of what Jesus has done for us.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died a sacrificial death for sin.  We simply hold an empty hand in repentance and faith (which themselves are a gift from God) and we adopted as his sons and daughters.  He goes on accepting us even though we go on letting him down (1:8), but he also changes us from within.  The work of his Spirit caused us to love the truth that Jesus is our saviour.  The work of his Spirit causes us to treat sin seriously and gradually become more like Jesus.  The work of his Spirit causes to love his people.  He wants us to hear the Spirit’s assurance that God does indeed delight in us.  ‘God not only accepts you, he wants you that he accepts you.’  He wants this confidence to spill over into our prayer lives. 
God has been challenging me about the need for intimacy with him.  I often pray because I feel I must.  I feel guilty about my lack of prayer.  Sometimes I pray to get it out of the way, and so that I don’t feel like a phoney Christian.  However, one preacher explains that ‘you cannot go very far in the Christian life without realising that prayer is not a technique but a relationship.  It is not a matter of how to get my will done.  It is a matter of knowing God well enough to get his will done.’  John writes, ‘this is the confidence we have in God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know we have what we asked of him’ (14-15).
This is about knowing him well enough to understand the sort of things he would have us ask for.  If we ask anything according to his will.  This is about knowing God well enough to know that he delights to give good gifts to his children.  This is about trusting that he knows the best way to answer our prayers.  This is about the sort of prayer that is consumed with a desire that ‘your will be done.’  We can have confidence when we pray like that.  He is not reluctant or unwilling.  However, he alone knows what is in our best interests.
Having told us that prayer is in line with God’s will John gives us an example of the sort of petition God loves to answer.  If anyone sees his brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life (16).  When you see a fellow Christian sinning, don’t dare gossip about it (that would to fail John’s command to love our brothers and sisters in Christ).  You may need to confront them.  You always need to pray for them.  Pray for the wandering believer in the full assurance that if they are really born again then God will respond to our prayer and restore them.
But tragically some who wander are simply revealing that they were not actually born again.  Remember how John spoke about those who ‘went out from us, but did not really belong to us’ (2:19).  Some show that they are not born again because they don’t take God’s call to holy living seriously.  John speaks of a sin that leads to spiritual death (16).  Bible Commentator, Howard Marshall, points out that this is not referring to someone who is overcome by temptation against their will, who wants to love God and neighbour and be freed of sin.  God always forgives those who come to him in genuine repentance.  But a person can harden themselves to the call of God to a point that they are beyond recall.  ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’ (Hebrews 3:15).
We can be confident even though we live in a world entrapped by the devil (18-19)
John gives us a rather offensive picture of the world.  In John ‘the world’ refers to people in rebellion against God’s loving rule.  In love God sent his Son to die for the world (John 3:16).  The world is under the control of the evil one (19).  We live in a hostile world that is controlled by a hostile power.  Don’t be surprised when people oppose what you believe.  But be confident because Jesus keeps us safe, ‘and the evil one cannot harm you’ (18).  Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God, that is Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
There are a wonderful couple of verses in the book of Revelation that speak of how Jesus protects us from the devil.  Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now have come the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.  For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night before our God day and night, has been hurled down.  They overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:10-11).  In other words the devil’s power to accuse is broken by the fact that Jesus has taken all our past, present and future sin upon him, the punishment has been paid and we cannot be condemned.  Now we no longer need fear death itself.
We can be confident about reality (20-21)      
Finally, we come to the end of this great letter.  And John seems to give a random command—Keep yourself from idols (21).  It is not actually a random command.  It is a very fitting way to end this letter.
You see, John is not warning his readers about bowing down to statues made of wood or stone.  He is using the term idol to speak about anything that takes the place of God in our lives.  He is telling them not to forsake the reality of what is, for the unreality of what is not.  In verse twenty he uses the word translated ‘true’ three times.  There is a world out there that is held by a strong delusion, which offers pleasure that can’t truly satisfy and that offers a life that perishes.  But Jesus is the real thing!  Don’t be so foolish to set the sail of your life to the winds of this condemned world.  That’s what John says to these readers who were disturbed by those false-teachers who said that sin doesn’t matter and whose followers revealed that they had never been born again!
Friends, I ache for you, for I want you to place nothing in the way of being drawn into a living, loving and life-transforming relationship with Jesus.  I want no idols to stop you enjoying life in him.  I want you to know the joy of being assured that you have eternal life.  Jesus does not promise a life without sorrows (he was a man of sorrows familiar with grief).  But nothing will sustain you more, as we walk in this valley of the shadow of death, than knowing that you are loved and accepted by the gracious God who has revealed himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Galatian 6:11-18 'Keep the cross central'

As we have studied the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, one of the most striking verses for me was when Paul exclaims, ‘Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified’ (3:1b).  He is speaking to people who were living in southern Turkey, who had not heard of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion and that were not in Jerusalem to witness it.  So how could they have seen Jesus Christ crucified?  The apostle Paul showed them Christ crucified through his preaching!  Paul’s message centred on the cross!

C. J. Mahaney writes, ‘The cross was the centrepiece of Paul’s theology.  It wasn’t merely one of Paul’s messages; it was the message.  He taught other things as well, but whatever he taught was always derived from, and related to the foundational reality that Jesus Christ died so that sinners would be reconciled to God and forgiven by God.’ 
Up to this point this point Paul has been dictating to someone who has written for him.  Now, as was his custom, he takes the pen himself to write the ending with his own hand.  See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand (11).  He wants to highlight the importance of these last words, in the way that we might underline them or put them in bold.  He will remind them to keep the cross central.    
1. ‘Only those who are truly aware of their sin can truly cherish grace’ (12)

Remember the context to this letter.  The apostle Paul was on a missionary journey when he took ill and went to the hill country of Galatia to recover.  There he shared the good news about the life and death of Jesus and many accepted this message with joy.  However, soon false-teachers arrived on the scene and muddied the waters.  They said that you had to earn God’s acceptance.  They said that you had to keep the Law of Moses, and in particular be circumcised, if you were to become a Christian.  Paul writes to set the record straight.  Becoming a Christian is about receiving the free, life transforming grace of God made available because of the life and death of Christ.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died for our guilt so that all who trust in him could be accepted as God’s beloved sons and daughters.

But what motivated the false-teachers to take the beautiful message of God’s free gift and turn it into a message of having to earn God’s acceptance?  Paul tells us.  ‘Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised.  The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (12-13).  In particular they didn’t want to trample on the toes of their fellow Jews.  It seems that the Jews of that day had misunderstood the rituals and rules of the Old Testament.  These things were never meant as a means of earning God’s acceptance.  Salvation has always been a matter of grace.
Rico Tice tells of someone who, during a Christianity Explored course, said that they believed they were going to heaven because they give blood.  The cross offends all such thinking.  If your friends thing that they are going to be accepted by God on the basis that they are good people, who try their best and are different than rapists, then the message of the gospel is going to offend them.  The gospel is only relevant to those who see themselves among the chief of sinners.  The gospel declares that our sin is such a serious thing that nothing less than the death of God’s own Son could deal with it.  When we show people the glory of the cross we proclaim their spiritual bankruptcy.  C. J. Mahaney writes that, ‘only those who are truly aware of their sin can truly cherish grace.’
2.  We will only glory in the cross if we have humbled ourselves as hell deserving sinners (13-16) 

They false-teachers wanted to boast of your flesh (13).  They wanted to say, ‘look how many people we have compelled to be circumcised.’  They weren’t motivated by the glory of God or the good of his people.  They simply wanted to boast in themselves.  Unlike Paul, who writes, ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (13).

When Mahaney is asked at Starbucks, ‘how are you?’ he replies, ‘better than I deserve!’  ‘I do it,’ he explains, ‘as a way of preaching the gospel to myself every day.’  He understands that he deserves God’s divine wrath for his sin, but that Jesus experienced that wrath so that he no longer has to.  He knows that he deserves hell, but he is on his way to heaven.  He knows that he has nothing to boast about other than the cross of Christ.  The cross puts everything else into perspective!

The apostle Paul had been like the false-teachers that caused so much trouble in Galatia.  He had been a self-righteous, religious man who boasted in what he did.  Then he experienced a life-transforming encounter with the risen Christ.  He was born again and made new.  Now the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (14b).  He was no longer hostile to the message of the cross.  He gave up trying to but God’s acceptance.  He stopped seeking to earn his way to heaven.  He realised that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision nor any other way people want to justify themselves matters. 
Being accepted by God is not the result of giving blood, being respectable, not having a criminal record or simply being a good person.  Being accepted by God is a gift made available to us through the cross of Christ.  John Stott writes, ‘only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting about ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.’
Paul then pronounces a blessing on those who live in light of the glorious gospel of grace.  Peace and mercy to all who follow (literally ‘to all who walk by’) this rule (referring to the gospel), even to the Israel of God (he is using this Old Testament description of God’s people to refer to all who now trust in Jesus).  Are you walking in light of the gospel?  Does it shape all your thinking?  Do you preach it to yourself every day?
Conclusion (17-18)
Finally, let no-one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.  His body showed the scars of being persecuted for the message of the cross.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brothers and sister.  Amen (17-18).
A final word to Mahaney on this theme of grace:  ‘Never be content with your grasp of the gospel. The gospel is life-permeating, world-altering, universe-changing truth.  It has more facets than any diamond.  Its depths man [or woman] will never exhaust.”

Monday, 30 May 2016

Believing for life (1 John 5:1-12)

If you have been here over the last few weeks you should be getting familiar with John’s three tests for the genuine Christian—the behaviour test, the love test and the belief test.  A changed life, a love for our fellow-believers and a correct understanding of the person of Jesus are indispensable marks for those who are born again.  John wants us to be able to look at these things and know assurance that we really have eternal life.  He wants us to have the joy of Christian assurance!
But I fear that some of you may misunderstand the nature of these tests.   You may think that these are three things that you have to do in order to get saved—that someone is a Christian because of their good behaviour, their pleasant attitude towards those in the church and their orthodox beliefs about Jesus.  That would be to misunderstand the nature of salvation.  John is not saying that we are born again because we behave, love and believe. but that we behave, love and believe because we are born again.  These are the fruit (or evidences) that testify to God’s grace at work within us!
1. God calls you to pleasure (1-5)
My guess is that many of your friends pity you because you are a Christian.  They think that you have given up in the search for pleasure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God saved us that we may experience life in all its fullness.  He has called us to joy.  His ways are designed to satisfy.  'This is love for God: to obey his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome' (3).  As John Piper writes, 'God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.' ‘God’s love in his people gives them a desire to love and please him... Rightly understood and followed, God’s commandments bring believers great joy and freedom, not a sense of oppression’ (ESVSB).
Jesus asked his disciples, 'who do people say that I am?'  That's a massive question.  We believe 'Jesus is the Christ.'  Only those who believe this are born of God.  Who do your friends say he is?  If they think that he is a great leader like Gandhi, a religious leader like Mohammad, or just a myth of history then they are still lost.  We need our eyes opened to see the real Jesus!
'Everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well' (1b).  The English Standard version translates this, 'Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever is born of him.'  We love because he first loved us.  When his love pours into our lives it must flow out of us.  Love is a good and pleasurable thing.  We were made for the special love of Christ's people.
In John's writings 'the world' refers to humanity in rebellion against God.  But we have 'overcome the world.'  We are not defeated by the world's hostility.  We are not fooled by the world's lies.  We see the emptiness of its selfish pleasures.  As a friends said to me, 'this living for self thing just doesn't work.' The psalmist wrote, ‘many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him’ (Ps. 32:10).

2. You are called to reasonable faith (6-12)

The world pities us because it, mistakenly, thinks God is against our pleasure.  The world also looks down on us because it thinks that we have lost our reason.
In a letter to the Irish Times a Mr. Michael McGuire from Donegal wrote: ‘Science is based on reason, logic, intellect and proof.  Religion is not.  There is nothing wrong with this.  Religion is not based on proof.’  Similarly the Collins English Dictionary defines faith as ‘strong or unshakable belief in something, especially without proof.’
However, John opened this letter talking about what he seen and touched (1:1).  In the gospel he wrote he said, he knows he tells the truth and is to be believed (19:35).  he is not calling for a leap in the dark.
He talks about the one who came by water and blood--probably a reference to his baptism and crucifixion.  There was an early heresy that said that Jesus was only a man before his baptism but then the divine Son of God came upon him.  This false-teaching also said that the divine Son of God left Jesus before he was crucified.  John is counteracting this false-belief.  It is important that we have the facts of history right when it comes to the person of Jesus!
We take the facts of history seriously.  Christianity is no myth.  We look to reliable testimony.  But there is another witness too.  There is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (10a).  One preacher puts it like this:  “[Faith] isn’t a conclusion reached at the end of chain of deductive reasoning or scientific evidence. It’s not that I struggle to convince myself to things that are highly dubious.  Rather I surrender to things which by divine illumination I now inwardly perceive to be glaringly self-evident … Faith isn’t like wrestling with a geometric theory until we arrive at the end and say ‘there I have worked it, there’s the proof!’  Faith is more like having cataracts removed from your eyes.  When we joyfully declare, ‘I can see things now that I couldn’t see before.’  Faith is an experience of divine revelation. It is hearing God’s testimony in your heart and surrendering to it.”

While faith may be a gift of God, people are still responsible for not believing.  ‘Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar because he has not believed the testimony God has given about the Son (10b)’  One commentator says, ‘There is ample evidence for faith, but mankind’s problem is not ignorance, so much as rebellion; not that we cannot believe but rather that we will not’ (Jackman).

Think of the implications of all this.  You long for someone to come to faith.  Then I suggest you present them with a reasoned case for Christianity.  Don’t simply ask them to take a leap in the dark.  Listen to their questions and talk through their issues.  But don’t imagine that it is your reasoning and wisdom that will make them a Christian.  They need the illumination of the Holy Spirit to open their eyes and show them the truth of these things.  Therefore prayer is an essential ingredient in our evangelism because we are dependent upon God to work! 

Conclusion (12)
Of the ten references in this letter to believing seven are in this chapter.  The ESV Study Bible explains that this belief 'is not a vague religious commitment but a wholehearted trust in the saving work of Christ.'  We have seen that this belief brings us life in its fullness and is a gift from God.  Finally, remember what depends on this belief and see the urgency of presenting the eye-opening truths of the gospel. 'He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life' (12).