Saturday, 20 May 2017

Are you worthless? (Luke 15:8-10)

‘Because you are worth it,’ says L’OrĂ©al.  Why has that advertising slogan been so successful?  Well, it is telling people, ‘I know that our product is expensive, but, hey, your value more than justifies the price.’  It also resonates with the fact that we all have a great desire to be told that we have worth.  Oprah says that all our problems are rooted in a lack of self-worth.  However, the Bible says that our worth is to be found not in self but in God’s grace

My fragile and twisted sense of self-worth is exposed when someone treats me like a ‘nobody’.  Parents rightly feel annoyed when their children take them for granted.  When someone ends a relationship with us, it hurts to think that the person sees so no worth in us, and that their life would have more value without us.  Millions of people go to counselling saying, ‘I feel that I am worthless.’

Why am I so obsessed with proving my worth?  Can you ever be happy if your sense of worth is based on people’s opinion of you?  The parables of the lost tell us that Jesus values failed people.  But why does he value us?  We are going to see that God values us because he makes beauty out of ashes (Isaiah 61:3).

1.      The bad news is that you are worthless.
The story of the Bible involves humanity being made in the image of God, yet rebelling against our creator.  We still have the image of God, but it is marred.  At the heart of our sin is the fact that we have not considered God to have worth.  We have valued independence from him above living under his infinitely-loving rule.  Tragically, our sin has actually rendered us morally worthless.  The Apostle Paul writes that, ‘All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no-one does what is good, not even one’ (Romans 3:12).

2.    The bad news is that you can’t make yourself worthy.
The Pharisees and teachers obeyed all sort of rules in order to prove their worth.  But Jesus exposes the wickedness of their hearts and the emptiness of their religion, and they hated him for it.  Jesus’s teaching damages the self-esteem of every person who claims to be righteous and good.

It is a hard burden to try to prove your worth.  You slave at convincing your employer that you are invaluable, only to find that your replacement is better than you.  You try to convince people that you are a good guy, only to destroy that image with a bout of moodiness.  You might even be putting on a face for those in church, and be wondering if we would judge you if we knew what you are really like.

Trying to prove our worth to God is a dead end street because sin taints everything about us.  The Bible teaches us that he root of every conceivable evil is buried in the soil of our hearts.  Isaiah proclaims that all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).  Our corrupt, proud, self-centred souls render us incapable of doing anything truly good and worthy.  We cannot earn worth before God

Yet Jesus invites those who are trying to prove themselves by their good works to come to him and experience rest (Matthew 11:28).  Although, we can do nothing to make ourselves worthy of God’s love, he wants to treat you with grace.  Our worth is not self-worth.  Our worth is found in the fact that the God of grace places great value on worthless humanity.
3.     The good news is that Jesus values worthless things. 
The Pharisees complained that Jesus was associating with people that they considered to have little worth.  Jesus has no time for people who want to tell him how good they are, yet he welcomes those who know that they are evil.  It is not so much your badness that will keep you from Jesus but your belief in your own goodness.  Here is great news for all people who are willing to admit that they are wicked.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.
Only grace explains why Jesus values something that is worthless.  He pictures himself as a woman who had lost a coin.  That coin was worth a day’s wages.  It may be a part of the woman’s dowry or the money she is given to provide for the household.  So she lights her lamp, sweeps the floor and celebrates when she finds it.
Jesus went to even greater lengths to find you.  He descended from heaven, became a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief, and he was pinned to a cross of shame to pay for your sin.  He makes beauty out of ashes.  He makes dearly loved children from depraved humanity.  He forgives, cleanses and restoes.  Paul writes that we are God’s masterpiece created in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10a).
But haven’t we already learned this through the story of the story of the lost sheep?  Why does Jesus seem to tell the same story twice?  Maybe we need to hear it twice?  But there is also a significant difference in the main character.  Jesus portrays himself as being like a woman.  That is important!  Religious people of that time were very chauvinistic.  Pious men thanked God every day that they had not been born a woman.  The Pharisees and teachers would never have told a story that pictured them as female.
While Jesus is telling this story to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, a crowd would have been listening in.  Among that crowd were women.  Among those women were those who had sexually sinned.  As a result they were seen to have lost value to men.  Prostitutes were thought of as the least valuable of all women.  But we are all equally worthless in sin and equally valued in grace.  Jesus recreates what has been lost.

4.     The good news is that God considers you worth having a party over.
There is also a slight difference in how the celebration is described.  I don’t know if that is significant.  Here we are told that the rejoicing is before the angels of God.  Does that point to God being the one who is rejoicing or all those with him in heaven?  Certainly God is among those who rejoice.  Do you realise that God was overjoyed to find you?  Can you accept that there was a party in heaven when Jesus brought you home?  Do you know that God goes on delighting over you?  He holds you close to his heart (Isaiah 40:11).       

A woman went to her pastor.  She was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  She revealed that her father was an emotional tyrant who said, ‘if you are pretty … if you make good grades … if you are successful … if you don’t embarrass me in front of people … then I will love you.’  She spent her life trying to prove her worth.  As a result she could not grasp the fact that God is gracious.  She had become a Christian but the gospel seemed too good to be true to her.  After an hour of trying to convince her of the love of her heavenly Father, the pastor read from Zephaniah.  ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing' (Zeph. 3:17).   ‘He looks at you, he thinks of you … and he sings for joy.’  He read it again, and she responded that if she could only believe that was true, she could face almost anything.

5.     The good news is that we can now live worthwhile lives.
Not only does grace give you worth, in grace God values all you do for him.  He is not like a parent who is impossible to please.  Grace enables us to live a life worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1 and Philippians 1:27).  We do not work for God to prove our worth to him.  In love, God takes pleasure in all that we do for him, even though what we do for him is so imperfect.  So we don’t lose heart!

When Bryan Chapell was a young adolescent, he came across of piece of rotten wood that he thought looked like the head of a horse.  He made a tie rack out of it and gave it to his father.  He dad delighted in it and used it for years.  In truth it looked rather odd.  Bryan later commented that his father loved it, not because it was good but because he was good.  In the same way, God now delights in of efforts to please him not because they are actually good enough, but because he is.

Conclusion—Stop trying to prove your worth!
Don’t look within yourself to find reasons why God loves you.  He loves you in his free, undeserved, unearned and unmerited grace.  He has proven his love to you by sending his Son for you.  You don’t have to prove your worth to him.  He placed great value on your worthless soul and has made you an object of his delight.  The reformer Martin Luther sums up the beautiful paradox when he comments on the verse that reads, ‘I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).  Luther writes, ‘I, wretched and damnable sinner, dearly loved by the Son of God.’ 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The value of one (Luke 15:1-7)

In 1920s America there was an unusual court case.  It concerned a man who tripped over one of those large ropes they tie to ships and fell off a pier.  He cried for help but his friends were too far away.  However, there was a young man sunbathing close by.  This young man was a good swimmer.  But he didn’t want to get wet.  The man in the water drowned.

The parents of the drowned man were so incensed about this they took the young man to court.  But they lost their case.  The judge ruled that sun-bather had no legal responsibility to go to the aid of a drowning person.
That is a reasonable picture of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees believed that they knew God, but had no concern for other people’s spiritual needs.  They failed to see that our God loves to forgive and they made no effort to reach out to those who need him.  How different they were to Jesus, the good shepherd who comes looking for lost sheep! 
1.      It awful it is to be lost
For a sheep to be lost was perilous.  Unlike dogs or cats, sheep don’t have a great ability to find their way home.  In a short time that sheep would become the victim of predators.  That sheep was doomed, unless the shepherd found it.  So the shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine in a safe place and goes looking.

It is an awful thing to be lost.  The apostle Paul says that before Jesus found us we were dead in transgression and sin … and children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Jesus spoke of humanity being on a wide road leading to destruction.  Lostness results in death.  Charles Spurgeon writes, ‘if you are saved yourself, be on the watch for the souls of others.  Your own heart will not prosper unless it is filled with intense concern to bless your fellow men.  The life of your soul lies in faith; its health lies in love.’
2.    Look at the lengths that Jesus to find the lost
Finding a lost sheep in the rugged Palestinian countryside would have been a very strenuous task.  Some of those predators would have been a danger to the shepherd.  Today, many tourists go off wandering in those same isolated hills and end up having to be brought home on stretchers because of over-exposure to the elements.

Not only are people lost, they have chosen to go astray.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).  We weren’t looking for him; we were hostile to him (Romans 8:7).  The good shepherd left his heavenly home, stepped into the wilderness of a rebellious world, endured mocking and rejection and, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  This is personal.  Not only did Jesus die for a mass of humanity, he came looking for you personally.  Paul marvels, ‘I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). 
How gentle this shepherd is!  When he finds the lost sheep, after the long searching, he does not beat it.  He does not seek to teach the dumb, weary sheep a lesson.  He joyfully lifts it up.  That sheep is weak from its wandering, too weak to follow the shepherd home.  The shepherd has to carry it on his shoulders. 
Sheep are heavy creatures.  Our good shepherd is determined to bring us home.  He will not loosen his grip of us.  Having found us, he will not let us go.  Jesus says, ‘For I have come down from heaven … to do the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day’ (John 6:38-39).
3.     The celebration over those who are brought to repentance
The angels in heaven have an advantage over us when it comes to rejoicing over lost people being found.  You see, we are hindered by an earthy-perspective and a sinful nature.  Their viewpoint is from heaven and they are not tempted towards a harsh, unforgiving and critical-spirit towards people.  They spend their time gazing upon the splendour of our amazing God, and see just how gracious that God is to welcome sinful people as sons and daughters.  They know all about the lamb that was slain for the sins of his people.  They also are more aware of the terrors of righteous judgement that falls upon those who refuse to repent, and so delight in merciful heart of a God who rescues so many from the eternal punishment they deserve.

Don’t misunderstand Jesus’ words.  He is using irony when he speaks of righteous people who do not need to repent.  The Bible is clear that there are none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).  We live in a world where everybody is encouraged to believe that they are essentially a good person.  Such good people are enemies of the gospel.  My neighbour was telling me that he is an atheist, and then added, with a smile, but if there is a heaven he is sure to be going there.  After all he considers himself a good person.  Many sick people do not go to the doctor because they are ignorant of their illness and so miss out on the cure.
There is a quaint little story about some children who sought shelter from a storm many in a church many generations ago in England.  In that church a preacher was speaking on this morning’s verses.  He read from the King James Version, ‘And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  One of the children went up to the preacher after the service and said to the preacher, ‘Jesus receives me!  You said that Jesus receives sinners and Edith with them.  I am Edith!’
Jesus does welcome Edith and Paul and Edwin and Joan.  This parable reminds us of the value of one.  Jesus came to rescue millions of people, but he came to rescue them as precious individuals.  He welcomes sinful people and delights in their repentance.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus used our feet to seek for the lost?  Sharing our faith is a missing ingredient in many of our lives.  I don’t speak as someone who finds evangelism easy, and I have missed many opportunities to speak about Jesus.  One writer says, ‘I’ve repeatedly found that it’s the Christians living out the unexpected adventure [of speaking about Jesus] who are enjoying the most fulfilling relationships with God.’  You see, Jesus wants you to share your faith not just because he has a love for the lost, but also because he delights to bless those he has found.
(The opening illustration, story about Edith and the insight about why angles rejoice were taken from Scott McKay, preaching at Saint John Newlands).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

What are you ashamed of? (updated) (Luke 15)

In one of his sermons on the prodigal son, the great nineteenth-century London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, tells of how a dog won his affection:

‘When I walked down my garden some time ago I found a dog amusing himself among the flowers.  I knew that he was no gardener, and no dog of mine, so I threw a stick at him and bade him begone.  After I had done so, he conquered me, and made me ashamed that I had spoken roughly to him, for he picked up my stick, and, wagging his tail pleasantly, he brought the stick to me, and dropped at my feet.  Do you think I could strike him or drive him away after that?  No, I patted him and called him good names.  The dog had conquered the man.’

Spurgeon applies the lesson to prodigals.  If an imperfect man is inclined to have pity on a mischievous dog, how much more sympathy does God have for a wayward person who returns to him.  ‘And you, poor sinner, dog as you are, can have confidence enough in God to come to him just as you are, it is not in his heart to spurn you.  There is an omnipotence in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being himself.  Only do but trust him as he reveals himself in Jesus, and you shall find salvation.’
Shame can keep us from feeling free in God.  Men, you may be ashamed of the things that you have viewed on your screens.  You have failed so often, that you wonder how God could still have patience with you.  Women, I don’t know the particular failings that you struggle with, but there are bound to be things in your life that embarrass you.  Parents, you may be ashamed of the many ways in which you have failed your children.  Maybe you carry the wounds of a parent who exclaimed, ‘I am so disappointed in you.’
I used to have a recurring dream.  It occurred when I first began paid work for a church.  In the dream I would be in the town’s supermarket, and I would realise that I was in my underpants.  I believe that I was having that dream because I was scared of being exposed.  ‘What if the people in the church knew what I was really like?  What if they knew of my struggles with lust, the insecurity of my faith and how little of the Bible I really knew?’  Do you battle the inner shame of feeling that you can’t live up to the image you present of yourself?  More painful still, maybe you are hiding secrets, because you are embarrassed about some things in your past and present.
A blogger called Tim Challies writes, ‘so many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame.  They think back to all the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and live under a cloud of shame.  This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates.’  This morning we are going to see that God loves to cover our shame.
The young man brought shame upon himself, his family and his community
The younger son is doing something shameful in asking for his share of the estate.  ‘…in that culture, the normal response to this level of impudence would be, at the very least, a hard slap across the face from the father.  This would have typically been done publically to shame the son who had shown such disdain for the father’ (MacArthur).
As well as a public renunciation, there might be a formal dismissal from the family and possibly even a funeral for the son.  That would have been the only way to avoid allowing the boy to bring lasting reproach against the family’s good name.  However, the father ‘was willing to endure the pain of spurned affections and public humiliation rather than disown his son’ (MacArthur).  The Pharisees and teachers of the law who were listening to Jesus would have considered this father’s response to be shamefully weak.
As the younger son heads off to the distant land, he brings disgrace to his family, his village and his religion.  Then he lives shamefully among the pagans, and soon he experiences his own disgrace.  When famine comes, he goes to a farmer looking for work.  I doubt that this farmer was looking to employ anyone at that time.  But in that shame-culture you did not turn down a request for help.  So the farmer offers the boy a job that no self-respecting Jew could accept—feeding unclean pigs.
Shame kept him from returning home
So why didn’t he just head home?  I think that he stayed in the pigsty because he feared the shame that he would experience if he returned home.  Middle-eastern expert, Ken Bailey, explains that had he come home after dishonouring his village among the gentiles, he would have been greeted by people who would have broken a clay pot in front of him and declared that he was dead to them.  For the rest of his days, young lads, with nothing better to do, would have followed him around, taunting him and throwing dung at him.  He was also aware that his bitter older brother would never let him forget what he had done.  The shame he expected to be exposed to on returning home would be greater than the shame of feeding those pigs.
But, what actually happens on his return?  The father endures shame for the sake of his wayward son.  When the father sees the son in the distance, he sprints.  That’s significant.  In that culture there was a proverb that said you could tell the manner of a man by the way he walked.  Men over thirty did not run.  Respectable men walked in a slow dignified manner.
I don’t know if you have heard of Garrison Keillor.  He is a radio comedian that tells stories about an imaginary place called Lake Wobegon.  Lake Wobegon, explains Keillor, was the sort of place where everybody knew everybody else’s business.  In fact in Lake Wobegon people did not have to use indicators when driving because everyone knew where you were going.
First-century Palestinian villages were the same.  Farmers did not live in isolation amongst their fields.  For security they lived in villages and went out to work in their fields.  So everybody has seen the shameful son set off to the distant land, and they see the father lift his clock, expose his knees and make a fool of himself as he sprints through the village to embrace his son.
I know that what motivated the father to run to his son was his overwhelming feeling of compassion.  I also suspect that he was determined to get to him before the village could have their pot-breaking ceremony.  He did not want his son to experience such pain and disgrace.  If he gets to the son first, and accepts him, then, because of his status in that society, the rest of the village will have to accept him.  He is willing to be shamed to ensure his son is not.
The great nineteenth-century London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, says, ‘had the story been that of a selfish human father only, it might have been written that “as he was coming near, his father ran out, and kicked him.”’  Many fathers would have looked at the emaciated boy, in rags and covered in pigs’ dirt, and contemptuously declared, ‘look at the state of you!’  But not this father!  This father orders the best robe to cover the boy’s shame.
But not everyone wants to forget his shame
Apparently the fatted-calf could have fed up to two hundred people.  That means that the father is inviting the whole village.  He is showing hospitality to the very people who gossiped about his wayward son and looked down their noses when they saw him race out to greet him.  The father shows grace to those who shamed him, as we see very clearly in his dealings with the older brother.
But many people don’t want to face your shame
In that culture nothing was considered worse than shaming someone.  The older brother goes out of his way to shame his dad.  Ken Bailey says that it is hard to overstate the sense of embarrassment that would have been caused by the father having to leave the party and plead with the older son to come in.  Fathers did not plead, they simply yielded unquestioned authority.  No one in that society would have been shocked if the father had order the older son in and given him a public beating for showing such a lack of respect.  As he got up and left, I imagine the guests whispering to each other, ‘this father is making a fool of himself, again.’ 
The older son refuses to address his dad with any term of respect—the omission of the word ‘father’ is telling.  Yet the older son thinks he has nothing to be ashamed of.  With great self-righteousness he says, ‘I have never disobeyed your command.’  Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he covered up a cold and bitter heart with proud acts of outward obedience.  How sad it is that so many of us insult God as we cry out, ‘but I am a good person.’  Such pretence will fill us with the insecurity and slavery of having to put on a face to impress.   
Jesus endured shame for us
Thankfully, we have a very different older brother.  Jesus is the only person who has never done anything to feel ashamed of.  He is also the older brother who takes away our shame.  His are the robes of righteousness that cover our spiritual nakedness (Revelation 7:13-14).  Like the father, Jesus acted in a way that his society considered shameful so that we could be accepted home.  Crucifixion was not talked about it in polite company.  If a child talked about the crucifixions that had taken place that day, they might have been told to wash their mouth out.  However the writer to the Hebrews tells us to, ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2). 
John Piper explains that Jesus’ ‘friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture.’
Conclusion:  It is sinful to hold on to our shame
I can’t tell you that everyone else will forget your past, but I can tell you about divine forgetfulness.  God promises, ‘I will remember you sin no more.’  He has covered our shame.  He wants us to be happy and free.
Sometimes we hold onto our shame because we are proud.  Rather than let God deal with it, we want to prove our worth.  We imagine a day where people could say, ‘you are so different than the emaciated wretch you once were.’  But such pride dishonours God’s grace.
And now we can be transparent.  We can admit to today’s failings because the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7).  While others might look down on us, we have the acceptance of the only one who really matters.  As the former slave-trader and hymn-writer said near the end of his life, ‘although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.’

Monday, 24 April 2017

Jesus has my last day taken care of (1 Samuel 31)

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking at U.C.D. Christian Union.  I looked at the young people and said, ‘I don’t know whether I envy you or pity you.’  I envied their youth, and the freedom of being a student.  Yet I remembered how anxious I was at their age.  At their age I had serious doubts about whether God loved me, I was obsessed with meeting a Christian girl to marry and I had no idea about what job to pursue.  As I looked at those students, I thought to myself, ‘if only I could go back in time and assure a younger Paul Ritchie that everything would work out okay; then I could have enjoyed my twenties so much more.’  Knowing that everything will turn out well enables you to enjoy the now!
You’ll forgive me if I make the same point with a Munster Rugby illustration.  Imagine a young player who has just made it onto the team.  But the Munster team is not the sum of his ambitions.  He longs to play for Ireland.  He is not enjoying the now of playing for Munster because he is worried that in the future he will not play for Ireland.  Could you imagine if you could take that player forward a few years and show him lining out for Ireland in the Aviva stadium?  Now he plays for Munster with contentment, enjoying the present, because he knows that his future hope is secure.  Knowing that everything will turn out well enables you to enjoy the now!
I can’t promise every Munster player that they will line out for Ireland.  I can’t promise every young adult that they will have a great marriage.  But I can promise every person who has submitted to the love and leadership of Jesus that everything will turn out in the end.  I can promise you that God will never leave you nor forsake you, will change you more into the likeness of the beautiful person of Jesus, is committed to opening your eyes to more of his love and enlarging your heart as his love flows through your veins to others, and that he has your last day taken care of.
You see, all of us are moving towards a last day.  Most people don’t want to think about that.  Our last day might come suddenly and soon, or it could be years away on a death-bed.  It will be a journey no-one else can take with us.  On that day our reputation and possessions will count for nothing.  We will close our lives on this world and open them on eternity.  But we can enjoy the now knowing that Jesus has taken the sting out of our last day.
Although our last day is secure, God’s people still pass through storms (1-2)
Our passage begins with the death of Jonathan and two of his brothers.  Jonathan’s death is an unexpected shock.  Read his story and you can see that Jonathan had anticipated that he would serve in the kingdom when David came to the throne.  He was not expecting his last day to be like this.
Jonathan is a hero in this story.  Although he is Saul’s eldest son, he submits to the God’s desire to make David king.  Rather than seeing David as a rival to the throne, he is David’s best friend.  He loves David and he loves God.
I see Jonathan as a wonderful challenge to contentment.  Surely he grew up with expectations of being king.  Yet he submits to the idea that God has other plans.  More humble plans.  Do you ever struggle because you want to be more gifted?  I sometimes feel jealous of other pastors who seem much more capable and successful than I am.  The challenge is, like Jonathan, to be content with what God made you to be. 
Jonathan’s death is a reminder that tragedy still afflicts God’s people.  Yet Jonathan dies this tragic death.  Although our last day is secure, God’s people still pass through storms.
Those without God face a hopeless last day (3-6)
After the death of Jonathan and two of his brothers, the focus moves to the lonely figure of King Saul.  Saul is under such pressure.  He has fled to the hills, to escape from the Philistine chariots.  But he is an easy target for the Philistine archers, who wound him with a critical blow.  He does not want to be humiliated by the Philistines, and so he asks his armour-bearer to kill him.  But the armour-bearer will not kill the king.
It is striking that there is no mention of God in this passage.  Saul doesn’t even think of calling out to God.  Decades of treating God with contempt have led Saul to a Godless death.  I heard a preacher plead with people not to put off thoughts of God until their death-beds.  He explained that in his experience people who have spent their lives ignoring God tend not to be interested in him on their last day.  In old age, such people are simply tired of life and ready to die.  Those without God face a hopeless last day!       
The world can’t offer you help for the last day (7-13)
From across the valley, the Israelites can see that their king is dead.  It causes them to abandon their cities and flee.  Saul’s death leads to his people’s defeat.  They had wanted a worldly king to impress the surrounding nations.  Saul had been fiercely handsome and a head taller than everyone else.  The people had put their trust in the best of what the world could offer.  But the world can offer nothing but despair at the end of the day.  As one writer pointed out, on your last day you will not regret that you didn’t spend more time in the office. 
The death of Munster rugby coach, Anthony Foley, had a massive impact on another rugby coach, Connacht’s Pat Lam.  Pat Lam realised that life is short and took another coaching job, one that would enable him to spend more time with his family.  Yet the most important provision Pat Lam has made for his future is that he loves Jesus and is teaching his children to love Jesus too.
Saul had tried to avoid being humiliated in death, but the events surrounding his death are truly shocking.  The Philistine’s chop off his head, strip his body, put his armour in the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his headless corpse to the wall of Beth-shan.  Apparently, in verse nine, the Hebrew doesn’t have the word messengers—leading some commentators to suggest that it wasn’t messengers that announced Saul’s death but his head.  It may be that his head was carted from place to place announcing the ‘good news’ to the Philistines.  The ‘good news’ of Saul’s death was proclaimed in the house of the Philistine idols.  King Saul’s life and death appears to have resulted in victory for the Philistine gods.  Saul’s death leaves us craving for a very different kind of king.
The only bright moment in the story of Saul’s death is the valiant actions of the men of Jabesh-gilead.  They remember how Saul had rescued them many years previously.  They retrieve Saul’s body and bury it under a tamarisk tree.  Yet their actions serve to remind us of the height from which Saul has fallen.  Saul had begun his reign rescuing God’s people, but his death leaves people in despair.  In an earlier chapter, we had read of the luxury of Saul as he sat under a tamarisk tree surrounded by his servants, now his is buried, headless under a different tamarisk tree.  Death brings all worldly power and promise to nothing.
Another king brings us hope for our last day
The only way we can find hope in this passage is to compare it to another lonely death.  Unlike Saul, Jesus did cry out to God as he faced death.  He cried, ‘my God, my God why have your forsaken me?’  Yet, because he was forsaken for us, we can be assured that God will never leave us nor forsake us.
Like Saul, Jesus’ death was humiliating.  Jesus died naked on a Roman cross.  Crucifixion was the lowest of Roman punishments, and was not to be spoken of in polite company.  Like Saul, a valiant man, Joseph of Arimathea, came and gave his body a dignified burial.  Like Saul, the death of Jesus resulted in a message of good news being spoken of amongst God’s enemies—but this time the good news is an invitation to experience peace with God and is a proclamation of God’s triumph over all the powers of evil.  Jesus’ death assures those who love him that all will be well in this life and on our last day. 
The speaker at this year’s Irish preachers’ Conference was an American called Bryan Chapell.  In one of his books, Bryan tells the story of a friend called Maudette.  Maudette went to the evening service at the church he pastored, but the morning service of the church she grew up in.  The morning church did not preach the gospel of God’s amazing grace, but she attended hoping to have a positive influence on the succession of young pastors that served there.  She went to Bryan’s evening service for what she called her, ‘weekly dose of Bible.’
Maudette’s last day came, and was followed by her funeral.  The pastor of the morning church assured Maudette’s family that she was in heaven because she had attended church so often, was a sweet person, had a beautiful garden and shared her flowers with the church.  Then Bryan was invited to give the sermon, as Maudette had requested, where he told the congregation the good news that Maudette was saved by grace through faith and not by works.  She lived life with peace because Christ’s death for her sin assured her a place in God’s heaven.  Bryan’s wife observed that watching those two preachers at the funeral was like watching two boxers fighting—one would throw a ‘good works’ jab, the other would respond with a ‘gospel’ punch.
Only Jesus can make you ready for your last day.  Praise him that he faced a lonely, God-forsaken death as punishment for guilt.  Now we can face our last day without despair.  We can now enjoy life, knowing the thrill of his love and presence now, and knowing that we will have nothing to fear on our last day.  You see knowing that everything will turn out well makes an eternity of difference!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Three things to help you grow (Romans 8)

A pastor used to counsel a young man who was struggling with alcohol-addiction.  What the young man did not realise was that the pastor saw out the window and watched him hide his beer before they talked.  Then, after the man had told the pastor how much he wanted to be free from drinking, the man would collect his beer again.  Now the pastor did not doubt the sincerity of that young man. , but he could see that that his addiction had control of him.  This got the pastor thinking: ‘Where does really power to change come from?’  He came to believe in the power of love to change people.
As we look at this passage of Scripture, I want you to feel that you are secure and loved.  No child can thrive if they do not feel secure and loved.  Similarly, no Christian will grow if they don’t feel secure and loved.
You are secure in Christ
‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (1). 
Notice that he does not say, ‘there is no sin in those who are Christ Jesus.’  John tells us that if we say that we have no sin, we lie and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:7).  We are God’s failing and imperfect people, yet we are never condemned.  Does that mean that God loves me even when I am sinning?  Absolutely!  You are as much a son or daughter of God when you are sinning as when you are obeying.
In verses two to four, Paul explains how God accepts sinful people like us.  He says that being good cannot make us right with God because of the sinful nature.  Isaiah tells us that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (64:6).  Everything we do is stained by self-centredness and pride.  Trying to earn God’s acceptance by being good is as pointless as trying to wash a white shirt with hands covered in oil.  It’s as ridiculous as throwing our dirty laundry at the sky and shouting at God, ‘accept me because of these.’  But what we could not do, because of sin, God has done for us in Jesus.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died a sacrificial death for our guilt.  Therefore, those who have submitted to Christ’s love and leadership are counted righteous.
You can be changed by the Spirit
Am I telling you that obedience does not matter?  Not at all!  If you have submitted to the love and leadership of Jesus, you will want to change.  Two things combine to change us: seeing God’s and being empowered by God’s Spirit.
Verses five to eleven talk about the effect of the Holy Spirit on us.  Paul tells us that without the Holy Spirit we are hostile to God.  People claim to admire Jesus.  But often they admire Jesus as simply a good moral teacher.  When they hear Jesus say that there is no good news for good people they resist his gospel of grace (Mark 2:17).  There is no more obvious evidence of hostility to the God of grace than the claim, ‘I am a good person.’
The reverse is also true.  Grace is for those who know they have a problem with personal evil.  Acknowledging our guilt and wanting a relationship with the God whose Son died for our guilt is evidence that the Holy Spirit is striving with us.  A desire to become like Jesus and so please our Heavenly Father is evidence of the Holy Spirit within us.  Our Father wants to move us from the place of sorrow over our sin to rejoicing in his forgiveness and love.
Indeed, a lingering sense of guilt inhibits growth as a Christian.  Trust God’s promises to forgive and live in the beauty of his grace.  Another thing that hinders our growth is the lie that we cannot change.  Maybe our battle with lust or bitterness has lasted so long, and we have seen so many defeats, that we think we never will improve.  Yet Paul says that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us (11).
I would encourage you to see the victories as well as the defeats.  See that victory in the fact the Holy Spirit makes you want to be free.  Take not of the times when God provides a way out of the temptation.  But as you see progress let us be careful of pride (which is a sure recipe for further defeat).
I want to mention two more wonderful ministries of the Holy Spirit before we look at the unbreakable love of the Father.
Firstly, we read that we ‘did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”’ (15)  The devil always seeks to cause us to doubt the love of God.  So when you start thinking that God is like a severe Garda or unmerciful judge, the Spirit reminds us, ‘no, he is your Father and he loves you.’
Secondly, we read that when we do not know what to pray, ‘the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’ (26-27).  It is as if the Spirit says to the Father, ‘Paul does not know how to pray about this situation, but if he knew you the way I knew you this is what he would say.’  I think this is why sometimes the answers to our prayers are for more beautiful than we had voiced.
You are loved of the Father
Paul speaks of being children of God and heirs with Christ.  This is the beautiful truth of adoption.  God has not only let you out of the prison of guilt and he has not only saved you from hell, he has brought you home to be a cherished child.  In his book, ‘Knowing God’, J. I. Packer writes, ‘in adoption God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs.  Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship.  To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.’
I need to mention the repeated emphasis on suffering in this passage.  The Christian suffers with Christ (17) and suffers in a world that awaits Christ’s restoration.  But we are not to be discouraged by the suffering, for God is working all things together for our good, which is to be conformed to the image of Jesus (29).
Before we finish, I just want to emphasise the fact that the Christian is secure in God’s love.  One Bible commentator, Alec Motyer, was visiting a church in America, where he was introduced to a Christian man who was desperately insecure about his faith.  This man, who we will call John, feared that at some point in the future he would let God down and walk away from his faith.  Motyer asked John, ‘John, what tense is the verb foreknew in this passage?’  It is past tense.  ‘John, what tense is the verb predestined?’  It is also past tense.  ‘John, what tense is the verb called?’  Past tense!  ‘What tense is the verb justified?’  Past tense!  ‘And John, what tense is the verb glorified?’  It is past tense as well.  ‘But our glorification is not yet completed.  It will not be completed until Jesus returns and gives us our resurrection bodies.  But God is so committed to bringing his people to that destination that he can speak of it as if it has already happened.’  Don’t worry about your future; God is more committed to you than you are to him.  Look for the evidence of new birth know and trust him to keep you.
I find great confront in the verb foreknew.  God knew me before I became a Christian.  He knew me in my sin, and yet he loved me.  God knows my end from my beginning, he saw today’s sins and tomorrow’s, yet he drew me into relationship with himself.  He has promised that I will never be condemned and that nothing can separate me from his love.
When I was in my very early twenties, I began to feel very insecure about my faith.  You see I remembered something terrible that I had done when I was thirteen—I had experimented with a satanic prayer.  I didn’t see how God could forgive that.  It made me deeply insecure, and robbed me of peace and joy.  God does not want us to be slaves of fear.  If you are terrified about some awful thing in your past, claim the promises of God.  John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, was haunted by his past and eventually came to peace by claiming Jesus’ promise, ‘that I will never drive away anyone who comes to me’.  A similar promise is where John writes that ‘if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9).  It is never God’s desire for you to be haunted by your past!
I have also had people come to me with doubts about God’s love for them because they feel so defeated about their sin.  But remember that without the Holy Spirit you would be hostile to the God of grace.  Make sure that your sorrow over sin isn’t just wounded pride, and then realise that your desire to please God is evidence that the Holy Spirit has not stopped striving with you.  Remember that despite your failures there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Let that love and security be the soil in which you grow.
John Bunyan loved to talk about the gracious love of God.  At one stage his critics explained, ‘if you keep assuring people of God’s love they will do whatever they want.’  He replied, ‘if I assure people of God’s love they will do what he wants.’  The key to growing as a Christian is to see God’s passionate, committed love for you and rejoice in the security with which he holds you.  

Saturday, 25 March 2017

My David makes me righteous (1 Samuel 26)

I have never done a completely righteous thing in my life.  Even as I stand here, hoping that my words will inspire you to love God, I am also hoping that they will inspire you to think that I am a good preacher.  My ego is so fragile that if Caroline gives this sermon the thumbs down I will likely spend the afternoon filled with self-pity.
Do you ever do something nice for someone, and hope that they think that you are a really decent person?  Do you ever do something kind, and hope people will notice?  Of course you do!  We are self-centred and self-absorbed.  Indeed, when you do manage a secret act of kindness you get puffed up with self-congratulation.  All of my best deeds are tainted by my massive ego.
Yet, although I have never done a completely righteous thing in my life, I can stand here with confidence and tell you that God delights in me.  My Heavenly Father loves me as much as he loves his Son, Jesus.  Even though I experience defeat every day in my Christian life, I am as much a child of God as the godliest of people.  If you think that the righteous judge of the world will have any reservations about accepting you into his heaven then you have not grasped how amazing his grace is!
This morning we are going to see how the Son of David makes us righteous.
My David refused to take the easy route to the throne
This is the second time that the Ziphites have informed Saul on David’s whereabouts.  Saul goes with three thousand of the best and bravest soldiers in search of him.  When Saul is asleep David, Ahimelech the Hittite and Abishai approach him.
Hittites weren’t a part of Israel.  But Ahimelech has found refuge with David and his men.  Throughout the Old Testament we see people from the nations finding a place amongst God’s people.  In the New Testament Jesus sent the disciples to the ends of the earth.  We are a part of a beautiful multi-ethnic people that God is gathering around his Son.  Abishai was the son of David’s sister Zeruiah—he will turn up later in the story as a rather blood-thirsty man.
This passage has similarities to the events that took place at the cave at Engedi.  There Saul was vulnerably placed before David, David’s men urged him to take Saul’s life and David refused to kill Israel’s king.  Now Abishai says God has handed Saul into David’s hand and he offers to do the dirty deed for David.  But David is going to ascend to his throne in God’s time and in God’s way.
The temptation that is being presented to David is to take an easy route to the throne.  Kill Saul, and then you will no longer have to spend life on the run.  Something similar happened in the wilderness, when Satan offered Jesus a throne.  Satan was saying, ‘you don’t need to go to your throne via the cross.’  Later, Peter tried tempted Jesus not to take his throne via the cross, and received the rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  Christianity without the cross is what the devil wants.   For without the cross there is no justification of the ungodly.  If Jesus only serves you as a good moral example then you are still a guilty wretch.
Before we look at the exchange of words between David and Saul, notice the reason why no-one woke up when David approached: a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen on them (12).  Yet again, God is protecting his man.
My David makes me righteous
While David addresses Saul’s commander, Abner, from a safe distance, Saul recognises David’s voice.  ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’   These are the same words that Saul used to address David outside the cave at Engedi.
David protests his innocence and Saul admits that he has played the fool.  Fools are what we are when we centre our lives on anything other than God.  So often we are foolish.  We foolishly forget that God always wants what is best for us and that it is in obedience to him that we experience spiritual blessing and joy.
‘Here is your spear, O king.’  This was the spear that had whistled by David’s head three times as Saul tried to kill him.  This was a spear that David would not let Abishai drive through Saul. 
Then David explains that ‘the Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and faithfulness.’  David has acted righteously in valuing Saul’s life and trusting the Lord with his own life. 
Of course, David’s righteousness is imperfect, like ours.  David would later pen a psalm in which he admits that he was sinful from the time his mother conceived him.  In the very next chapter of this story, David doubts and acts deceitfully.  But this righteous act of David looks forward to the perfect righteousness of the Son of David.  Jesus is the only person who has every acted with complete rightlessness and he alone deserves the title ‘Righteous One’ (Acts 3:14).
Indeed, because the Son of David refused to take the easy route to the throne, but went to the throne via the cross, we can receive the gift of his righteousness.  The Apostle Paul explains to the Christians in Philippi, ‘I don’t have a righteousness of my own, but I have a righteousness that comes through faith in God’ (Philippians 3:9).  The Christian is someone who is comfortable admitting their many sins because we do not have to justify ourselves.
Not only does Jesus make us righteous, he makes our sin-stained attempts to please our Heavenly Father righteous.  Even though sin taints everything I do, grace cleanses my deeds of their sin, and so the Father is pleased with them.  Grace enables us to bring a smile to his face.
Jesus is my David.  Like this David, my David (and your David, if you trust in him) refused to take the easy to the throne, but went via a cross where he died to make me righteous.  While this David acted righteously on this occasion, my David always acted righteously, and because I am in him, God sees me as righteous.  My David takes my weak, imperfect, impure deeds and purifies them by his blood so that they please my Heavenly Father.
Have your really grasped that righteousness is a gift?  Rosie Marie Miller knew the gospel for years before an understanding of grace made its way into the marrow of her bones.  It was during a communion service that she had a new realisation that Christ had been broken for her. 
‘Before that Communion service I saw myself as basically a good person with a few flaws.  I had felt guilt before—lots of it and all the time—but it was guilt over my failures more than guilt because I had sinned against God.  I was now utterly humbled that my sins were all forgiven because Christ had died for me.  He loved me—me, the unloving one.  I longed to know more about him from the depths of my heart.’
What was the result of such a realisation of grace?  She began to experience a freedom and joy that had never been there before.  Her view of God changed.  She experienced confidence before God.  She became more gentle and loving.    She became less judgemental and legalistic.  She no longer felt the need to run about proving she was a good Christian.  Now she was free to love.