Monday, 14 January 2019

The source of eudemonic happiness (2 Samuel 7)

My friend Brenda was on the television being interviewed about happiness.  There she explained the difference between hedonic happiness and eudemonic happiness.  She said that hedonic happiness is found in instant gratification whereas eudemonic happiness is found in having a life filled with purpose.  Hedonic happiness is found through partying and pleasure and having a good time.  Eudemonic happiness is found in living for something or someone bigger than yourself and by having meaningful relationships with people.  Hedonic happiness does not last very long and eudemonic happiness is what we should be striving for.

As I watched this clip of Brenda talking it occurred to me that Christianity has so much eudemonic happiness to offer.  It invites us to be a part of a story that stretches from infinity past to infinity future.  It offers us an intimate relationship with the God of the universe and his people.  We can live for something bigger than ourselves.  God even uses our lives, words and prayers in the extending his kingdom.
God often redirects our lives in ways we never expected
King David is now settled in his capital, Jerusalem.  He has brought the Ark to the city.  He has built his palace.  The Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies.  He is very conscious that God has been good to him.
As he contemplates his situation, he seems to have a very good idea.  ‘I am living in a house made of cedar, and the Ark of the Lord is in a tent.  I should build a house for God.’  When he shares this idea with the prophet Nathan, Nathan also thinks this is a good idea.  But then God informs Nathan that this is not actually his plan.  Sometimes even the best plans, made with the best motives, are not actually what God will have us do.  God may redirect our plans in ways that we have never imagined.  Many people have been sure that God was calling them to one area of service, only to have the door closed in front of their face.  God had something else in mind!
God always does more for us than we ever expected
God often redirects our plans and always does for us more than we can imagine.  God is about to inform David about the purpose he has him.  
When does the story of David begin?  The story of David’s life did not begin when we are introduced to the shepherd-boy whose dad thought that he could never be a candidate for king.  David’s story goes back to the book of Genesis, to Jacob blessing his sons and prophesying that from the tribe of Judah would come a king (49:10).  In fact, David’s story goes back before that to before the foundation of the world, when God planned, the establishment of his kingdom.  We do not play David’s unique role in the Bible’s story line, nevertheless God choose us before the foundation time (Ephesians1:4).  He has prepared works in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).  God’s story involves us, and so our story is eternal.
When does the story of David end?  You could read of the death of David in 1 Kings (1 Kings 2:10).  But the story of David continued.  Remember the words of angel Gabriel to Mary, ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David …’ (Luke 1:31-33).  Think of Jesus entering Jerusalem and the people crying out, ‘Blessed in the coming kingdom of our Father David’ (Mark 11:10).  The life of David pointed forward to his descendant, Jesus.  Indeed, in the very last book in our Bibles the cosmic Christ declares, ‘I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright morning star’ (Revelation 22:16).  While we may not be an ancestor of Jesus, we are destined to rule with him for all eternity.  God’s story involves us, so our story is eternal.
Clearly David’s life, and ours, is a part of a greater story.  What eudemonic happiness David must have experienced as he contemplated that God was going to use him as part of his eternal plans.  He lived for a cause bigger than his little self.  David saw the future through a glass darkly.  We have been given an even bigger view than he.  We have seen more of the story unfold.
David wanted to build a house for God, but God says that he will build house (a dynasty) for David.  Our God is so different from the gods of the ancient near east.  The kings of the ancient near east built temples in payment for the blessing of their gods.  God has blessed this shepherd-boy, David, but he does not need David to build a temple in payment.  God wants nothing in return but the opportunity to pour out more blessing.  God does not want us to even try and pay him back! 
God is not only exceedingly gracious to David, he is spectacularly kind to all of his beloved!  ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).  
God brings us blessing through the Son of David
Old Testament prophecies often work at a number of levels.  You see the mountain on the horizon but when you reach the peak you see that there is a bigger mountain on another horizon.  Some of the prophecy in this passage points ahead to David’s son, Solomon, and the kings in that line, but more of it points to the Son of David, Jesus.  ‘I will be his father, and he shall be my son’ (19) is especially true of Jesus (and these words are echoed at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration).  Solomon will be the son who builds the temple, but Jesus refers to his body of God’s temple.  Jesus’ body is a temple that will destroyed and raised up in three days (John 2:19).  It is through Jesus that God’s manifest presence is experienced.  Solomon will be given a throne, but it is only Jesus’ throne that will be established for ever.  
The mention of the son doing wrong and being punished seems to fit Solomon but not Jesus.  However, I think it does point to Jesus, for Jesus takes our sin upon himself.  In a very real sense God does ‘punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands’ (14).
Indeed, it is through this Son of David, whose eternal kingdom is established as he is punished for our sins, that we enter into God’s big plan.  He is the one who enables us to become beloved of God.  He is the king who makes us his co-heirs.  How exciting it is that he chooses failed people like us to be his ambassadors?  How amazing that the Son of David uses our prayers, our words and our lives in building his church?
Our hearts rejoice as we thank God for his kindness
My friend Brenda did her PhD on gratitude.  That’s why she can speak so well on the subject of real happiness.  For a thankful heart is great medicine for the soul.  On that television program, Brenda said that we should cultivate happiness in the day to day of our lives.  David delights in the fact that he is a part of God’s big story, and then furthers his delight by opening his mouth with a prayer of gratitude.  
David is amazed by grace.  ‘Who am I?’  Like David, we brought nothing to the table.  God has reached down and rescued us from a life of emptiness.  His love adopted us when we were spiritual orphans.  He pursued us when we were spiritual rebels.  He has forgiven us, cleansed us, made us holy and treats us as his beloved children.  Though we let him down every day, he continues to delight over us.  ‘Who am I?’
As well as gratitude there is praise.  ‘There is none like you, and there is no God beside you.’  There is only one God who rules, only one story that really matters, and only one cause worth every fibre of our being.    
Conclusion—Do you want real pleasure?
Recently I was talking to two young men who once seemed to walk close to God but who are now living very far from him.  I asked each of them, ‘is it not true that you were happiest when you were walking with God?’  They both said they were.  I then explained that people often choose to walk at a distance from God because they think that he is the enemy of our pleasure.  But this is a lie.  It is only Jesus who can offer us life in all its fulness.  They actually agreed with me!
But it is not only the backslider who fails to enjoy the pleasures of God.  I often feel convicted about the fact that I am so foolish.  We will have gone a whole day without even thinking about God, but rather than approach his throne of grace to find refreshment in our hour of need, we go vegetate in front of the television.  Such behaviour doesn’t revive us or strengthen us or bring us real happiness.  We listen to Jesus command to forgive as we have been forgiven, but we nurse old bitterness, even though bitterness is an acid that destroys its own container.  We hear God’s challenges, but we retreat to safety.  We demand that some special person complete us, but only Jesus can.  Without Jesus we get to the top of the ladder and yet don’t feel fulfilled.  We seek all the world has to offer, but the world leaves us empty.  We settle for comfort rather than adventure.  We are so slow to surrender our petty ambitions, but God wants us to be a part of a bigger story!
These promises remind us that our lives can be incorporated into a story that has its origins in eternity past and travels into eternity future.  We are being invited to live for something bigger than ourselves.
As Brenda spoke about living for something or someone greater than ourselves her eyes lifted to heaven.  I think it was the subtlest piece of evangelism I have ever seen (actually Brenda talked about her faith but the editor cut it from the program).  You see she knows that he is the source of true happiness!  The Son of David died that we could truly live.  The Son of David lives, and we can live with him.  The Son of David is building his church and has given each of us a role to play.  He is the source of true eudemonic happiness! 

Saturday, 29 December 2018

This year will be painful, but Jesus will be faithful (Luke 7:11-17)

At this time of year, we look back and we look forward.  We are reminded of those who died this year and we may feel a certain anxiety for the year to come.  We are not promised that the coming year will be without sorrow.  There will be tears ahead.  But as we look at this passage, we can be assured that Christ cares about our pain and that he is bringing us through this life of suffering to an eternity of joy.  
The Lord is close to the broken-hearted
This is a devastatingly sad scene that we have portrayed for us.  This woman has already buried her husband.  She is a widow.  Now she is burying her son.  In that society not only was she left with her sorrow, she was destined to poverty.  It was the men who were the main providers and she had no one to care for her.  This was the sort of funeral where people didn’t know what to say.  This was the sort of occasion that rocks the foundations of our faith.  
Funerals generally took place around six in the evening.  Earlier that day, the widow would have taken the body of her only son, laid him out, groomed his hair, put him in the best clothes she had available and placed him on an open wicker basket.  He would have been face-up with arms folded.  A crowd would have gathered, and they would have proceeded out the city-gates towards the graveyard.  Most of the town’s five-hundred people would have been there.
The graveyard at Nain was east of the city, along the road to Capernaum.  Capernaum was where Jesus had his base.  Jesus happens to arrive down that road and meets the funeral.  There is a crowd with Jesus.  Apparently, the Greek wording implies that the crowd with Jesus was even bigger than the funeral.  Perhaps there were a thousand people with him.  They give way to let the funeral pass.  
What is the first thing that Jesus does?  He looks!  The gospel writers mention Jesus looking at people about forty times.  Often that looking is followed by a description of how he felt.  Matthew tells us that Jesus looked at a crowd and had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.  Mark says that Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and loved him.  John shows Jesus looking down from the cross, seeing his mother, and making sure that she would be looked after.  Luke tells us that when Jesus saw this grieving widow, his heart went out to her.
Brokenness teaches us how to show compassion
What Jesus sees touches his heart and surfaces his infinite compassion.  He would have looked with a tender, concerned and engaged look.  Because he was compassionate, her pain affected his emotions.  As one writer says, ‘Jesus enters this woman’s world, feeling what it’s like to be in her place’ (Paul Miller).
The word translated compassion is a word that implies deep, gut-wrenching emotion.  The four gospel writers only ever use this word with regards to Jesus, and people in his stories that were like him, such as the father of the lost son and the Good Samaritan.  Jesus’ compassion stood out in a harsh world.  His compassion also showed his family likeness with his Father.  The apostle Paul calls God, the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).  The more we allow Jesus to shape our hearts, the more compassionate we will be.  Intimacy with Christ will make us feel for the needs of others.  Brokenness is an essential ingredient for maturing.  As God helps us through our suffering, we are to become more understanding of the suffering of others.  Suffering people will avoid us if all we do is tell them to snap out of it or give trite answers to complex questions.  We must learn the importance of patient listening. 
The gospel enables us to face death with hope
Jesus steps forward and says to the woman, ‘don’t cry.’  Then he gently places his hand on the open coffin and commands the young man to get up.  The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.  I imagine that there was initially silence and reverent shock, people then looking at each other to confirm that what they saw really did happen, and then there follows an eruption of delightful chattering.
Luke, whose aim is to show his readers who Jesus really is, records that they were all filled with awe and praised God.  “A great prophet has appeared among us.”  After four hundred years of silence, since the close of the Old Testament, God is speaking again.  “God has come to help his people.”  Yet their conclusions about Jesus are not complete.  He is a prophet—this scene echoes a time when Elijah raised a widow’s son—but he is more than a prophet.  Luke will show that Jesus is the promised Christ, the Son of God and the true Lord of life.
You see, I am glad that just as Jesus is compassionate to this widow, he is compassionate to us.  I am glad that we can think of those we have lost, be honest about our grief and be sure that Jesus cares.  I once spoke at the funeral of a friend’s sister, she was the daughter of a widow, and I did not know what to say.  I chose to speak on this passage and said that although Julie’s death leaves us with a lot of questions, we can be assured that Jesus cares.
Yet Luke isn’t just reminding us that Jesus was compassionate, he was telling us that Jesus has power over death.  After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he exclaimed, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever believes in me, will never die.  Do you believe this?’  We will die.  The young man in this story later died.  But he had met the Lord of life who gives us life after death.
I don’t like getting older.  I must be going through my midlife crisis because I am struggling with thoughts of how quickly life is passing, and that I am heading for the grave.  But Jesus has taken care of our funeral arrangements.  This incident happened when Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem.  There he died for our guilt so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.  
I can’t promise that this year will be easy.  We follow a Saviour who was a man of sorrows and familiar with grief.  We live in a creation that is groaning and decaying until the Lord of glory returns.  Jesus wept and so will we in the year to come.  But I can promise you that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted.  I can remind you of the compassionate heart of Jesus.  I can promise you that one day God will wipe the tears from our eyes.  Death has been swallowed up in victory.  We are on our way to see Jesus and ‘one sight of Jesus as He is, will fill our hearts, and dry up all our tears’ (John Newton).

Thursday, 20 December 2018

2 Samuel 6: 'How can the presence of God come to me?'

A famous Irish abbot was being interviewed on the Saturday Night Show with Brendan O’Connor.  Brendan asked the abbot, ‘do you think that there is a heaven … and will we be going there if we are good people?’  The abbot replied, ‘… the only question we will be asked when we get to the other side is, “did you love?”  “How much did you love?”  And that is the examination, and that is all there is to it.’  Brendan seemed to be happy with that answer!

Both Brendan and the abbot thought that they knew the way into the presence of God.  ‘Just love’.  The problem is that ‘just love’ is not the gospel.  ‘Just love’ does not bring us into the presence of God after our life, and it does not bring the presence of God to us in this life.

We must listen to God’s word to find our how to know God’s presence

The Ark of God was a gold-covered wooden box that contained the Ten Commandments, a golden jar holding manna from the wilderness and Aaron’s, staff.  Attached to the top of this box were gold statues of two heavenly beings, called cherubim.  The significance of the Ark was that God sat enthroned on the cherubim (2).  In other words, it was here that God made his presence manifest among the people.

For seventy years the ark has been in Baale-judah (earlier called Kireath-jearim).  Now King David wants to bring the Ark to his capital.  He wants God’s presence to be at the centre of his kingdom.  That seems like a good idea.  But David and his people ignored the instructions that God had given for moving the Ark.

God had instructed that the Ark was not to be touched, it was to be covered with layers of covering and it was only to be carried by Levitical priests using special poles.  However, there is no mention here of covering the Ark, it is then put on a cart (it was the Philistines who transported the Ark by cart earlier in the story) and the two men leading the way were not Levitical priests. 

Despite the fact that they were ignoring God’s clear instructions, the people sing and dance in the assumption that all is well between themselves and God.  A society of people doing things their own way and assuming that God is simply delighted.  Sound familiar?  We proudly sing, ‘I did it my way’, and assume that God is pleased.

When the oxen stumbled, and it looked like the Ark was going to hit the ground, Uzzah put out his hand to catch it.  Did he think that some dirt getting on the Ark was worth breaking one of God’s clear instructions for?  The people learned a painful lesson about the holiness of God that day!
Now don’t read this passage and think that God is more interested in rituals than the state of people’s hearts.  The fact that David and his people completely ignored God’s instructions does reveal something about their hearts.  They weren’t taking Him seriously.  They weren’t listening to what He had said.  You can’t ignore God’s Word and yet think that you know how to please Him.

God could have displayed his holy anger at any time in this story.  He could have acted when they failed to cover the Ark or when they placed it on the cart.  He acted when He did for a reason.  What happened is so striking and notable.  He wants all the gathered people to see this judgement.  He does so because He is love.  He displays His holiness and justice in order to call us to repentance.
This is something I need to remember.  You see I recently realised that I have been trying to share the gospel with my friends in a way that would not offend them.  But the gospel is offensive.  God reveals his holiness to call us to repent.  He declares people lost so that they might be found.  He says that people are condemned that they might no his forgiveness.  We should want to speak with tact, but it is not loving to avoid all that offends.    
We need to see God’s kindness so that we want to approach his presence
God draws us to repentance by revealing our sin, but he also draws us to repentance by showing us his kindness.  Don’t read this passage and forget that God is gracious.  What happens next in the story reveals God’s extra-ordinary gentleness.
The people don’t know what to do with the Ark, so they leave it with house of Obed-edom.  (I wonder what Obed-edom thought of having the Ark left with him!)  Obed-edom is a Gittite, which means that he was a Philistine.  The Ark was left with his household for three months, during which time the Lord blessed them.  God even uses His people’s disobedience to bless the people of the nations.  God exposes our sin and reveals His kindness, and that is supposed to lead to repentance.  When David hears of the blessing of Oden-edom’s household, he sends for the Ark, but this time David does not presume upon God.
We need the death of a substitute to be enabled to approach his presence
Now the people take God seriously.  There is no mention of a cart.  We read of those bearing the Ark, which we can assume were Levitical priests.  There is also the shocking fact that every six steps David had an ox and a fattened calf sacrificed.  
Why all those sacrifices?  Well, David had asked, ‘how can the Ark of God come to me’ (9)?  The answer is that the Ark can only come to him through the death of a substitute.  We can only come close to the presence of God through the shedding of blood.  David is seeing the gospel through a glass darkly.  Rather than the repeated sacrifices of this story, the once and for all death of our substitute, Jesus Christ, enables the presence of God to come to us.  The death of a substitute is needed for God’s presence to come to us. 
For becoming a Christian is like having the Ark of God come to us.  Jesus explains that, ‘if anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him’ (John 14:23).  Now we need not fear the presence of the Lord of Hosts, but we are invited to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16).  The cross brings God’s presence to us and prepares us to enjoy His presence for ever.  
Conclusion:  The presence of God reminds us that there is only one king in town
How does David respond to the presence of God?  He takes off his robes.  I think he realises that before God his royal robes aren’t important.  For David there is really only one king in town.  But his wife Michal doesn’t share his humility.  She is identified as Saul’s daughter, and shows her father’s lack of spiritual discernment.  Her words drip with sarcasm.  ‘How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ (20).  She misunderstands David’s actions and thinks that he must keep on being somebody.  Pride keeps us from enjoying the presence of God.
I wrote to Brendan O’Connor after the abbot told him that all he needed was love.  I said that such advice is not good news but bad news.  The abbot presumed he knew the way to God, but he clearly hadn’t consulted the Bible for his answer. ‘Just love’ is not good news when God’s standard is to love him with all of our hearts and our neighbour as ourselves.  I go for hours without even thinking about God and my family will be able to tell you how imperfect my love is.  
In order to experience God’s presence, now and forever. we need to look to God’s word, we need to see that he is holy, and we are not, we need to allow his kindness draw us to repentance and we need to shed our robes of self-righteousness and put on Christ’s robes of blood brought righteousness.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Christmas 2018: Not everyone is happy that there is a new king in town

The historian Josephus tells us about Herod the Great.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, he was nearing the end of his reign and was almost seventy years old.  He ruled Israel and Judah.  
He was complex.  His grandfather had been forcefully made a Jew.  He worked for the occupying Roman powers.  He was Greek in culture and Arab by race.   In his youth he was good-looking and powerful.  He had personally led his troops in battle in ten different wars.  He showed political cunning when Caesar Augustus came to power.
But old age came with fears.  He was scared of anyone who might compete for his throne.  He had married ten different women and began to see his sons as rivals to the throne.  He had two of his sons strangled.  He later became suspicious of the intentions of one of his wives and had her killed.  After her death he was known to have wondered around the palace calling her name, and having servants beaten for not bringing her to him.
Given what we know of Herod, Matthew’s account sounds authentic.  Upon being told that a king has been born, he orders the slaughter of all the baby boys under two years old.  Bethlehem is a small village and the number of babies killed may have been somewhere between ten and thirty.  
The story of Herod reminds us that Jesus was born into a hostile world.  Jesus would grow up to be misunderstood by his family and opposed by the religious establishment.  Eventually people would spit at him and mock him as he was pinned to a Roman cross.  The night before that execution Jesus warned his disciples not to be surprised if the world hates you the way that they hated me.
But I don’t want to be hated.  I don’t want to offend anyone.  But the problem is that the message we have been commanded to share is offensive.  When we speak about who Jesus really is, some people will respond with hostility.  Yes, we are telling people that Jesus wants to forgive them.  We have the great news that nothing we have done can separate us from his Father’s love, if we turn to his Son.   But we also have to tell people of the consequences of refusing God’s offer of grace and mercy.  We have to warn them that being a ‘good person’ doesn’t cut it with God.  We have to communicate that they are spiritually dead without Jesus as their King.  We have to warn then of Day of Judgement that will be awful for those who refuse King Jesus.  Jesus said that it wasn’t a good thing when everyone speaks well of us.  It might mean that we have not been clear with the message.  Matthew tells us that we live in a world that can be hostile to Jesus and us.
While Herod was an unusually violent man, there was something very normal about him.  The thought of someone else being king threatened him.  He wanted to hold on to the power that he had.  Jesus wasn’t actually interested in taking over the palace in Jerusalem.  He wanted something far more radical.  He wants to rule the hearts of men and women from every place in every time  The story of Herod reminds us that not everyone wants Jesus to be king..  This, too, affects how we speak about Jesus.  
I like to speak of the fact that Jesus died for all of our guilt and we contribute nothing to our salvation but the sin that made it necessary.  I like to talk of eternal life as a free, undeserved, unearned and unmerited gift.  This is all true.  But, like the wise men, we come with news of a king.  The proper response to Jesus involves a life of submission to his words and openness to his influence.  His teachings are to shape our views on the issues of the day.  Although I let him down every day, I cannot call myself a follower of his way and simply ignore what he commands.  I must seek his strength to forgive as I have been forgiven, to love as he has loved me, and to strive for the purity he values so much.  Jesus comes to be your king.
Jesus is unlike Herod, or many of the self-serving, proud leaders we see on our news.  Jesus wants to rule his people for their good.  He wants to bring purpose and joy to empty lives.  He desires our security and inner peace.  He comes to set you free from guilt and accusation.  He enables us to live for a cause bigger than our own selfish interests.  He never leaves us or forsakes us.  He will delight over us for eternity.  He will be our delight forever.  We will gladly enjoy singing his praise. King Jesus says to us, ‘Come unto me all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and lean on me for I am lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28).

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

How to be right with God (Justification)

I am not very good at sharing my faith.  I often miss the opportunity to tell people what I believe.  I keep quiet for fear of offending people, which is not good.  But one day I was talking to a friend, and the topic of death came up.  So, I asked him, ‘what do you think happens when we die?’  He replied that he kind of likes the idea of reincarnation.

‘Really?’, I exclaimed.  ‘I don’t!  You see I fail my own standards of goodness, yet alone the standards of a holy God.  If the quality of my next life is determined on the basis of my goodness in this life, then I am coming back as a frog rather than a prince.’
What is your standard of goodness?  How good do you think you need to be to be good enough for God?  One politician said that if he found himself standing before God at the end of his life he would say, ‘Here I am.  I did my best.  Let me in.’  But is your best good enough?  Does anyone really do their best?  Can anyone actually say, ‘I never have done or thought anything I knew was wrong’?
What if God’s standard is perfection?  What if God had commanded us to love the him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves?  What if God refuses to be indifferent about our sin?  What if he cannot turn a blind eye towards our personal wickedness?  The Apostle Paul declares, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).  Solomon claimed, ‘there is no one who does not sin’ (1 Kings 8:46).  The Proverbs ask, ‘who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?’ (Proverbs 20:9).  We all have a big problem on our hands.
Thankfully Jesus is the solution to that problem.  Justification by grace through faith is an essential Christian doctrine that answers one of the most basic religious questions: ‘How can men and women be made right with God?’  The answer is that men and women can’t make themselves right with God, but God can make them right with himself.  
Is Justification Just? 
Justification is a courtroom verdict or legal declaration, but it means more than simply being declared not guilty.  It actually means that we are declared totally right before God.  But how can God treat guilty people as if they are not guilty?  Isn’t it corrupt to justify the wicked (Proverbs 17:15)?   The answer to these questions is that a ‘Great Exchange’ takes place.  God transfers (or imputes) my guilt onto Christ on the cross and transfers (or imputes) Christ’s life of love and obedience to me.  As one of my favourite verses puts it: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).  
God does not turn a blind-eye to human wickedness.  He does not lower his demand for perfect obedience.  Instead his Son lives an incomparable life and receives an unimaginable punishment so that we can be right with him.  God is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).  Through justification God can be perfectly holy and treat our sin with the revulsion that it deserves, yet lovingly draw people to himself without ever compromising that holiness.
Justification is a gift
The apostle Paul is very clear that justification is a gift (Romans 4:4).  That is why we talk about justification by grace.  The New Testament uses the term grace to refer to God’s free, unmerited, unearned and undeserved favour.  Justification is God’s work not ours.  If justification was the result of anything that we do, then it wouldn’t truly be free.  It would be something that we—at least in part—earn or deserve.  That is why we must be clear that religious rituals like baptism or confirmation don’t justify us.  In the same way, we must never think that God accepts people on the basis of their being good or nice.
Remember my friend who said that he liked the idea of reincarnation.  Reincarnation is based on the idea of karma.  Karma is the opposite of grace.  Karma is getting what we deserve.  Grace involves Jesus taking what our sin deserves and us receiving the blessings his obedience deserves.  U2 wrote a song called ‘Grace’ in which the said, ‘Grace … takes the blame … covers the shame, removes the stain … It’s the name for a girl.  It’s also a though that changed the world.  She travels outside of karma.’
Justification is received through faith
If we are not justified through how we live or by a religious ritual like baptism, then how do we receive this gift?  The answer is that we are justified by grace through faith (Romans 5:1).  Faith is the means through which we receive grace.  But what is faith?  Faith simply means that we come to God admitting that we are morally bankrupt and stretching out a beggar’s hand for the gift of righteousness that Jesus has earned for us.  As one old hymn puts it: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’  Indeed, even this faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8), for it is God who wakes us up to our desperate need of mercy and shows the way that to Jesus.
Becoming a Christian should result in people being both humble and confident.  Those who have been justified have nothing to boast about (Ephesians 2:9).  ‘You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary’ (Jonathan Edwards).  Yet we are confident because if it is God who has justified us then who can condemn us (Romans 8:33-34)?  It would be unjust of God to punish Jesus for your sins and then punish you.  It would be unfair of God to give you Christ’s righteousness and yet treat you as a moral failure.  The person who has received the gift of justification cannot be condemned.  God does not want those he has justified to live lives that are characterised by a sense of regret, guilt or shame.
Conclusion: but what about obedience?
You might be reading this thinking, ‘if being made right with God has nothing to do with any good works or religious rituals on my part, then surely it doesn’t matter how I live?’  That’s a really good question.  That question actually shows that you are beginning to grasp how radical the Christian gospel is.  I want to finish by briefly explaining the relationship between justification and obedience to God.
Obedience to God is not the root of justification.  Obedience to God contributes nothing to your being accepted by God.  But, obedience to God is the fruit of justification.  In other words, experiencing God’s acceptance inevitable changes how we live.  When we experience this love it turns our world upside-down.  ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19).  We realise that Jesus commands are for his glory and our good. We are free to love him and so we desire to obey him (John 14:15).  When we fall, we seek his strength to get up and keep going.  When we fail him, we are grieved that we have let him down but thankful that he goes on forgiving us.  We live with the security that nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:39).
Justification by grace through faith has been called the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.  It is the most remarkable and beautiful of truths.  ‘Justification is away beyond anything that a human court of justice ever realises.  It is putting the sinner in the condition before God as if he had never sinned at all.  It is giving him a standing in the merit of Jesus Christ of absolute innocency before God’ (A. C. Dixon).     


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Loved by God (isaiah 53)

In Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, two men love the same woman.  Charles gets her, and Sydney misses out.  But this story is set during the French Revolution, and Charles happens to be arrested.  It is the night before his execution, and Sydney happens to make his way to Charles’ cell. The two men look alike, and so Sydney has a plan.  ‘You have a family and children, so let me die in your place.’  Charles won’t have any of it.  No way.  So, Sydney knocks him out and has some men take him away.  He then dresses to look like Charles.

As it happens, a young woman who knew Charles was also in prison awaiting execution.  She seeks out Charles (who is now Sydney) and starts to reminisce with him.  She realises this is not Charles!  ‘Are you going to die for him?’  Sydney replies in a hushed tone, ‘Yes.  And for his family and children.’  The woman looks at him and asks, ‘Can I hold your hand, because if someone as brave and loving as you will hold my hand, I think I will be okay?’

Dicken’s has picked up on a gospel theme.  Love that is willing to die for another.  The amazing thing is that none other than the Son of God died that people might be brought into relationship with God.  Theologians call the ‘substitutionary atonement’.  To atone is to make up for a wrong, and it is substitutionary because Jesus does this in our place.  This is what is pictured in the passage before us.

The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is among the most remarkable words ever written.  These words were given to the prophet more than seven hundred years before Jesus’ death, yet anyone who reads the gospels can see that they are describing the crucifixion.  They are words that have offended some and comforted others.  They tell us that Jesus’ death was violent, voluntary and vicarious.

Jesus’ death was violent

These words are about a man referred to as God’s servant.  He is an ordinary man who ‘had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him’ (53:2).  His life was no bed of roses.  ‘He was despised and rejected by people, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (53:3a).  He was a good man who ‘had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth’ (53:9b).  Yet this man was subjected to the most brutal death imaginable!

He was pierced and crushed.  He was ‘disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness’ (52:14).  Read the gospels and you will see Jesus being lashed with a whip that would have had bones or metal inserted into its tip.  His flesh would have been torn off his back.  He was so weakened by this ordeal that he could not carry the beam of his cross to the place of his execution.  Recently, I watched a friend recoil at the sight of blood after a teenager had been hit in the face by a ball; well Jesus became ‘as one from whom people hid their faces’ (53:3b).

The gospels inform us that the physical suffering was not the worst thing that Jesus had to endure.  God the Son, who had enjoyed eternal intimacy with the Father cried out, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’  (Mark 15:34).  It is no wonder that those who saw him considered ‘smitten by God and afflicted’ (53:4).

The was a voluntary death

In the same month that Mel Gibson’s movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was released, Newsweek magazine filled its front cover with a close-up of actor Jim Caviezel as the bloodied and battered Christ, with the blaring headline below asking, 'Who really killed Jesus?'  Isaiah tells us that God did!  It was the will of the Lord to crush him, he has put him to grief (53:10a).

People have objected to this.  They have thought it cruel, and unworthy of God.  But you must see how the servant co-operates.  ‘Like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth’ (53:7b).  The servant goes to his death willingly and uncomplaining.  Read the gospels and you will see Jesus standing silent before the Jewish ruling council in fulfilment of these words (Mark 14:61).  Jesus could even say, ‘no-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’ (John 10:18).

The death was vicarious

But why would the Father crush his Son?  The answer lies in the fact that this was a vicarious death.  The word ‘vicarious’ refers to something that is done for another.  Jesus died for us!  He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities (53:5a). 

None of this makes sense if you think of yourself as essentially being a good person.  ‘Why would Jesus need to for my guilt?’, you might ask.  ‘My guilt is no big deal!’, you protest.  The Bible has a more sobering verdict.  ‘We all like sheep have gone astray.  Each one turned to his own way’ (53:6a).  We have rebelled against our creator.  We have thrown off his loving rule.  We offend his perfect holiness.  We have been unthankful and profane.  We deserve to be separated from him forever.  Justice demands that we be punished for our sin.

But God has always reached out to sinful people.  In the Old Testament there was a series of animal sacrifices.  These sacrifices taught the people that our sin deserves death, and that God was willing to have a substitute die in our place.  These sacrifices pointed ahead to the servant, who is our guilt offering (53:10).  ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (53:6b).  Jesus dies for my guilt so that I, the guilty one, can be made right with Holy God.

This little series of talks is entitled ‘who am I?’  If you are trusting your life to Jesus, the answer is that you are someone the Father loved so much that he gave his Son for you.  ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).  ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).  Scottish theologian, Sinclair Ferguson, writes, 'When we think of Christ dying on the cross, we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to Himself.  We should almost think that God loved us more than He loves His son.  We cannot measure His love by any other standard. He is saying to us, “I love you this much.” …  God has done something on the cross which we could never do for ourselves.  But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross.  He persuades us that He loves us.'

This portion of Scripture actually ends with a note of victory.  Death is not the servants end.  His days are prolonged (53:10).  Knowledge of him makes people righteous (53:11).  He is lifted up and exalted (52:13).  The dying Christ was raised from the dead, ascended to heaven, is seated by the right hand of the Father, intercedes for his people, and will return in glory!  


A number of years ago, a famous preacher by the name of Billy Graham was being interviewed on Australian radio.  He was asked, ‘Mister Graham, how confident are you of going to heaven?’  There was absolutely no hesitation in his answer.  ‘I have absolutely no doubts.  I am completely confident that I have a place waiting for me in heaven.’

The telephone switchboard started to light up as people rang in to give out.  Caller after caller expressed outrage at the arrogance of a man who could be so sure that he was right with God.  But those who knew Billy Graham would tell you that he was not an arrogant man.  Billy Graham did not believe that he was going to heaven because he was good enough for God.  He believed he was going to heaven because his best friend, Jesus Christ, had paid the price for him to go.

What does the idea of substitutionary atonement do for you?

Are you like playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who once was listening to a talk about Jesus dying people’s sins and angerly interrupted, ‘I’ll pay for my own sins.’  Those who reject God’s offer of forgiveness and life will one day pay for their own sins.  They will have their way when Jesus comes back as their judge!

Or are you like Billy Graham, humbled, thankful and confident?  Humbled by the fact that my sin is so serious that nothing short of the death of Jesus can make me right with God.  Thankful that this is exactly what God has done for me in love.  Confident because Christ’s death is of an infinitely value that can make the most wretch of us right with God!


Father, these words confront me with an uncomfortable truth.  I am not okay without you.  Without you I am lost and condemned.  But you offer me the death of your Son.  In Him I can be counted righteous and free.  Humble me to see my need.  Give me the faith to trust in you.  Fill me with gratitude for you limitless love.  Amen.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

What does it mean to be born again? (John 3:1-21)

Two questions.  First question: ‘are you sure that you have eternal life?’  Second question: ‘if you died, and God said to you, “why should I let you into my heaven?”, what would you say?’  Take a moment and think how you would answer each of these.
In this sermon we are looking at the question of what it means to be born again.  It does not matter whether you call yourself a ‘born again’ Christian or not, but it does matter that you have been born again.  You aren’t a Christian if you are not born again.
Becoming a Christian involves being born again (1-3)
The Pharisees were a religious movement that looked at the religion of their day and believed that it was weak.  They would not only seek to obey the rules, they would add to the rules.
The Pharisees are generally portrayed in a negative light in the gospels.  They try to trick Jesus.  Despite Jesus’ obvious goodness, they accuse him of evil.  Ultimately, they seek to have Jesus killed.
But Nicodemus comes across as a different kind of Pharisee.  He calls Jesus ‘rabbi’ (‘teacher’), although Jesus had not undergone formal training.  He is insightful, recognising that Jesus comes from God.  He is sincere.  He is respected, being called ‘Israel’s teacher’, and is a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He would have been a man of prayer.  He would have regularly been at meetings of worship.  Yet Jesus tells him, ’truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’     
What does it mean to see the kingdom of God?  Well, the Jews were waiting for God’s promised king.  Jesus is that king.  To see his kingdom involves being one of his people.  We might say that is what it really means to be a Christian.  What Jesus says is shocking!  A religious Jew would have expected to be one of the king’s people.  Jesus say only those who are born again are.
Can you see that your background, your baptism, your first communion, your reputation, your prayers or your church attendance don’t make you right with God?  Nicodemus was religious and devote.  Yet Jesus says, ‘truly, truly I say to you, unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God’ (3).
Being born again is a work of God (4-8)
It is the most important thing in the world to know what it means to be born again.  Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue what it means.  He thinks that Jesus is speaking about physical birth.  ‘How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely, he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?’ (4).  
Jesus explains, ‘truly, truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ (5).  These words might seem confusing to us, but Nicodemus should have known what they mean.  You see Nicodemus was an expert on what we call the Old Testament.
In the book of Ezekiel God declares that a time is coming when, ‘I will sprinkle clean water and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Water is a picture of cleansing.  God promises to wash away all your sin.  When you are born again the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in your heart.  The Holy Spirit changes you from the inside out.  He causes you to desire to follow God and he enables you to live a life pleasing to God.  Being born again involves knowing God’s forgiveness and transformation.
A business man went to his pastor and said, ‘my wife is glad I have become a Christian.  My kids are glad.’  They saw the change that Jesus made in his life and they were impressed.  Forgiveness and change are the results of being born again.
A girl was always in trouble at school.  Her name was always being brought up at staff meetings.  But over the holidays she attended a Christian camp, where she was a handful for the leaders.  Yet she heard the good news about Jesus and it impacted her.  When she returned to school her name came up in the staff meeting.  However, this time the principle exclaimed, ‘what has happened to that girl?’  Forgiveness and transformation!        
Before we move on to see the role of the cross in all this, I want you to see the words the Spirit gives birth to spirit (6).  It is saying that just as we contributed nothing towards our physical birth, neither did we contribute to our spiritual birth.  We didn’t make our mother pregnant.  We didn’t produce our own food in the womb.  We didn’t do all the pushing and shoving of labour.  We were born by the efforts of another.  Similarly, it is the Holy Spirit who shows people that they are dead in rebellion and sin, who tells them that Jesus has taken the punishment for their sin, and who raises us from spiritual death.  If you are born again then you should be among the most grateful people in the world.
Being born again is a result of what Jesus did on the cross (9-15)
Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. ‘How can this be?’ (9). 
‘You’re Israel’s teacher and you don’t understand these things’ (10).  ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (14).  This is a reference to our Old Testament reading (Numbers 21:4-9).
In the reading from Numbers, the people were dying as judgement for their rebellion against God.  Yet God graciously gave Moses a rescue plan.  All the people needed to do was look at the bronze snake that Moses lifted up and they would be healed.  That bronze snake pictured Jesus being lifted up on the cross.  We are dying in our sins but look to the Saviour.  Put your trust in him.  He died for people’s guilt.  He is the rescue plan we need.  He is the only way to we can have eternal life.
So why not choose life? (16-21)
Then comes what one of the most famous verses in the Bible.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (16).   The amazing thing about this verse is that in John’s writings the term ‘world’ doesn’t mean the planet or even people in general.  For John ‘the world’ specifically refers to society in rebellion against God.  God sent his Son for rebellious people like us who had done nothing to deserve his favour.  
‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God’ (18).  You are presented with a stark choice!  Jesus spoke plainly about the righteous and eternal judgement of hell.  You are invited to come to Jesus for life or you will spend eternity apart from him and all that is good.
So why aren’t people flocking to Jesus to experience forgiveness and transformation?  ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed’ (19-20).  By nature, we are rebels who don’t want to face the reality of our guilt.  We need to be asking God to change people’s hearts.  We should be thankful for the grace that ‘taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’ (John Newton, ‘Amazing Grace’).   ‘But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be seen clearly that his works have been carried out in God’ (21).
I began by asking you two questions.  Let’s take them in turn.
‘Are you sure that you have eternal life?’  You can be sure!  ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’  Later in this gospel, Jesus will promise that he will not turn away anyone who comes to him (6:37)..  There is nothing in your life that he is not willing to forgive if you will bring your life to him.
‘If you died and God said to you, “why should I let you into my heaven?”  What would you say?’  Can you see that any answer that depends on you is the wrong answer?  ‘God, you should accept me because I am a nice person, because I pray, because I was baptised, because I go to church, because I have never been in trouble with the law.’  All the wrong answers!  Nicodemus was a nice, respected, religious, man and Jesus said, ‘you must be born again.’
If you are not sure that you are right with God, why don’t you pray with me?
‘Lord God, I offer no excuse for all the wrong that I have done.  I realise that there is a problem with my heart.  But I now see that you are a God who delights to forgive and want people to experience your mercy.  Please forgive me for trying to justify myself.  Please make me sincere as I ask you to take my past, present and future sin.  Please give me a heart that longs to follow you.  Please let me not be ashamed to tell people that I am born again.  Thank you. Amen.’