Tuesday, 21 February 2017

You don't have to face death without hope (1 Samuel 28)

Rico Tice was visiting a person from his church who had a brain tumour.  As this woman prepared for her operation, she reminded herself of the wonderful words from Isaiah.  ‘Fear not, for I am with you.  Be not dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you.  I will uphold you in my right hand.’  Those words were on her lips as she went in for six hours of surgery.
What a contrast that is to what we see in this morning’s passage.  Here, Saul in facing death having been told that is forsaken by God.  These verses are filled with despair rather than hope.  We want to be sure that Saul’s story does not become our story.  How can we know that God is with us rather than against us?  How can we know that we will face our death with confidence?
Saul faces death without hope.
Saul has spent years ignoring, disobeying and rejecting God.  Now, in his time of crisis, he finds that God has rejected him. This is an upsetting passage.  One Bible commentator entitles his thoughts on this chapter quoting the words, ‘it was night.’  Another preacher says that these verses are disturbing, dark and difficult.
When Saul is told that God will not listen to him, he does something that reveals the wickedness of his heart.  That night, he disguises himself, and consults a medium.  Saul knows that God hates such things, for he was the one who had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.  When the woman fears that she will get in trouble for what she is about to do, Saul vows, in the name of the Lord, that she will not be punished.  What sort of person invokes God’s name to encourage them to do something God despises?
I have to warn you that the Bible sees such things as séances and Ouija boards as being very dangerous.  This is more that counterfeit spirituality, this is the occult.  It would seem that when a medium relays voices from the dead, what they are actually doing is deceiving you, or worse still, they are being deceived by demons.  When people die, they either go to heaven or hell.  Mediums cannot bring them back.
If that is the case, then how come God permits this woman to raise Samuel from the dead?  A man called Matthew Henry explains that this was a once off event, where God allowed the prophet Samuel confront the Saul after death, as he had in life.  Samuel had been the one brave enough to speak to King Saul about his sin.  Saul had always ignored him.  It is no different now.  The only new piece of information that Samuel tells Saul is the fact that he is going to be killed tomorrow.
While the questions around Samuel being raised from the dead have been debated for centuries, two things are very clear: there is not an ounce of repentance in Saul and not crumb of comfort from Samuel.
Samuel asks Saul why he has disturbed him.  Saul responds with some of the saddest words in the Bible.  I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams.  Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I should do’ (15).
What Saul should do is repent of his sin, but that is the one thing that Saul had always refused to do.  Even now, Saul will not acknowledge that he has done anything wrong.  He knew that consulting a medium was detestable to God but all he does is offer an excuse.  Look back over Saul’s life and all you ever hear is excuses.  Saul actually seems incapable of repentance.
Compare Saul’s unwillingness to acknowledge his sin with an event that took place during the Great Awakening in America in the 1700s.  There was a prayer meeting with eight hundred men.  Into the meeting a woman sent a message asking the men to pray for her husband.  The note explained that her husband had become unloving, proud and difficult.  The leader of the meeting read the message in private and then did something daring.  He read the note allowed and asked if the man who had been described would raise his hand, so that they could pray for him.  Three hundred men raised their hands.  Each been convicted by the Holy Spirit of their sin, and now longing to confess.  ‘’Rather than hiding sin, or minimising it, or blaming others, the repentant heart longs to confess’ (Bryan Chapell).  
Samuel could have recalled a whole catalogue of ways in which Saul had disobeyed God—Saul had offered unlawful sacrifices at Gilgal (and blamed his actions on Samuel turning up late), Saul set up a statue in his own honour, he was filled with murderous jealousy towards David, he tried to kill his own son, and, most shockingly, he had slaughtered the priests of Nob.  But the incident that Samuel recalls was the time Saul refused to obey God’s instruction to destroy the Amalekites, kept the spoils of war for himself, lied about it, and offered excuses rather than repentance.  That had been the moment that confirmed that the kingdom would be taken from him.
Saul’s life is a stern warning against refusing to listen to God.  You know those before and after photos that diet-clinics produce.  Well the before and after photo for Saul is desperately sad.  When we are first introduced to him he is a peerlessly impressive man (handsome, and a head taller than anyone else).  He seemed to be humble, and we were given the impression that he knew God.  Yet it soon becomes clear that this is not the case.  In a few short years Saul becomes a corrupt, paranoid, fearful and brutal man who craves power and will do anything to ward off those who might threaten his place in the world.  Now, forty years later, he is a shivering wreck, without hope and incapable of change.
God had been patient with Saul.  He is patient with all of us.  God has repeatedly spoken to Saul, and Saul has continually ignored God.  Instead of being drawn into a life of repentance, Saul’s heart became impenetrable.  The sunlight that melts the frost also hardens the clay.  God wants his word to draw you to him, yet your refusal to listen can insulate your hearts from his calling, and leave you worse off than you were before.
Jesus faces death to bring us hope
To face death apart from God is the most tragic of all human predicaments.  Many face death unaware that they are about to experience the judgement of the God they have ignored.  Yet I have had the privilege of being at many funerals where the sorrow of loss was mingled with a confident joy that the deceased is now far happier than they ever were in life.  They are now in the presence of the God they love. 
How can we be confident that God is with us as we pass from this life?  After all, like Saul, we have ignored God every day! 
The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.’  Biblical repentance is a gift of God where (unlike Saul) we offer no excuses for our sin but rejoice in the truth that God will not despise a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).  Biblical repentance is about acknowledging our guilt and trusting the one who has taken the punishment we deserve.  The difference between the Christian and Saul is not the absence of sin but what we do with our sin.  The Christian trusts in the loving God who gave his Son to die for me while I was till his enemy.
You see, the major lesson from the life of Saul is that we need a better king.  The people had rejected God’s rule over them when they demanded a worldly king, in order to appear as impressive as the other nations.  They got a king that reflected their own rebellious hearts.  It was a disaster'
But there is another king, a king who perfectly reflects the heart of God.  Like King Saul, Jesus was deeply troubled the night before he died.  In a walled garden he sweated drops of blood.  The next day he was pinned to a cross, where the physical pain was surpassed by the spiritual despair.  Darkness fell in the afternoon, and the Son of God cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’  Because Jesus was forsaken in death, Saul’s experience need never be ours.  In Christ alone we will not face death alone.  Jesus promised never to drive away anyone who comes to him.  Let his love melt your heart and give you hope.    
I began this sermon by telling you of a woman who faced a six-hour operation with words from the prophet Isaiah on her lips.  Let me finish with a few more words from Isaiah.  God says, ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the contrite’ (57:15).
The Christian should be the most humble person in the world.  We deserve what Saul experienced, but Jesus died so that we would not have to.  Yet sadly, people often see us a self-righteous and proud.  We know that our guilt was so serious that Jesus had to be forsaken in death to take the punishment we deserved.  We don’t need to offer excuses when we are confronted with out failings.  Instead we should rejoice in the truth that the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me, and so I will never face any crisis alone.

Friday, 17 February 2017

How to love when you are under pressure (1 Sam. 27)

There was a woman in America who was so fed up with the behaviour of her family that she put a sign in her front garden reading, ‘Mom of Strike!’  Then she went out to the back garden and took up residency in the tree house, saying that she would not come down until the back-biting and lack of co-operation stopped.
Maybe you know how she feels.  It could be your work-life, your home-life, your wider family circle or even people in this church that put you under pressure.  You feel like everyone wants a piece of you and you are ready to snap.
The problem for me is that when I snap I don’t like what comes out of me.  Pressure makes me irritable, impatient, harsh and loving.  Jesus speaks of these things coming from our hearts.  So it is not so much that pressure makes us bitter, but rather pressure brings our bitterness to the surface.
This morning we see David snap under immense pressure.  Sadly, what surfaces from his heart is terrifying.  Thankfully, he has a God who does not treat him as his sins deserve but according to his loving-kindness.  I want you to see that there is hope for our hearts, even when our hearts are put under huge strain.
When you are under pressure, don’t tell yourself lies
Life is very difficult for David.  King Saul has been relentlessly pursuing him.  Some of his own people have betrayed him.  He has no home to go to for refuge.  He has responsibility for a rag-tag crew of six-hundred men and their families, who have placed themselves under his care.  It all seems too much to him, and it seems that he crosses over to the dark side.  Deceit, selfishness and even murder come to the surface.
Part of David’s problem is found in how he talks to himself.  ‘Then David said to himself, “Now I shall perish at the hand of Saul.”  That’s not true!  God had promised David that he would be king.  God had demonstrated his faithfulness David time and time again.  In a previous chapter we read that God did not hand David over to Saul (1 Samuel 23:1).  David should have remembered God’s promises and recalled God’s faithfulness.  David could have sung, ‘through many dangers toils and snares, I have already come.  It was grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.’
What do you say to yourself, when you are under pressure?  Do you say, ‘this temptation is too much for me’?  God’s word says, ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure’ (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Do you say, ‘God has let me down’?  When God has actually promised, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5).
I may never have passed through the trials you are going through, but I have seen God’s faithfulness.  I can think back to a time, in my early twenties, when I lost all hope, could see no light and was filled with the most awful anxiety.  I didn’t see how I could get through.  But God did bring me through.  He will bring you through too.  And even if the pain does go away in this life, he has promised to bring you to a home where he will wipe away all your tears.
When you snap, thank God for his grace
So David arose and went over, he and his six-hundred men who were with him, to Achish the son of Maoch, king of Gath (2).  Gath was where Goliath was from.  The future king of Israel is siding with the Philistines.  This is shocking.
David serves Achish as a mercenary.  In order to convince Achish that he has turned against his own people he pretends to go raiding the Israelites.  Instead he raids the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites.  He leaves neither man nor woman alive, in case they tell Achish what he has done.  That is a bit like what he does to Uriah—having he murdered to cover his tracks.
Amazingly, despite David’s deceit and wickedness, God does not let Achish find out what he is up to.  Even when David is walking in disobedience God continued to deliver him.  In fact, God would keep his promise to put this flawed leader on the throne.
When we snap, and the bitterness comes to the surface, don’t forget that God still loves you.  He is the perfect parent who loves his children even when they are being naughty.  He still loves you with the same love that he has for his Son, Jesus.  He wants to put you back on your feet and use you for good.
When the pressure is on, think of Jesus
Why should God forgive David for the evil he did when the pressure was on?  Why should he remain committed to me when I continually let him down?  He remains committed to us because he is faithful, and in his faithfulness Jesus took the punishment for all our bitterness.
Think of the pressure that Jesus experienced.  He was pursued by the leaders of his day.  He had crowds make unreasonable demands of him.  He was let down by his own people—even by his immediate family.  He was rejected by the people he came to save.  He was a man of sorrows and familiar with grief.  He not only faced the threat of death, he willingly walked towards his death.  He was under so much pressure that in anguish, he sweet drops of blood and would cry out in anguish.  He was forsaken so that we will never be forsaken.  Yet when he was at the snapping point, what was revealed about his heart?  He cries out, ‘father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!’
Someone produced a poster that read, ‘Please forgive me for the things I said when I was hungry!’  How are you when you are hungry?  How are you when you are tired?  How are you in the mornings?  How are you when everyone is demanding your attention?  What is your driving like when you are running late?  Do you like the things that come out of your heart when the pressure is on?  I don’t!  My heart gets exposed as irritable, unloving and self-centred.
So what hope is there for us?  Speak the truth to yourself.  God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear but will give you the strength you need.  But remember that this promise is only true because Christ dwells in your heart.  Only Jesus can enable you to respond to pressure with love.  So keep on asking him to do a work in your heart.  When you do snap, and bitter words come out from your mouth, apologise to those you have hurt, but also thank God that even though you let him down every day he never stops loving you.  Look to Jesus as the evidence of God’s love and faithfulness.  He was perfectly faithful so that our bitterness is forgiven.  He experienced the most extreme pressure anyone has ever known, and it exposed the beauty of his heart.  Let his love change you. For as one seventeenth-century Christian explained, ‘there is nothing more powerful than love.  Things impossible to others are possible to them that love.’

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Chlldren's Talk: God tells us what to do because he loves us

Explanation:  I am aware that one of the purposes of God's commands is to expose the fact that we have disobeyed him, and so they cause us to look to him for mercy and grace.  However, recently I have been made aware of the fact that God also gives us commands because he is the perfect parent who wants what is good for us.  The commands of Jesus clearly demonstrate this.

toothbrush, carrot and DVD
sheets with the words 'love', 'truth', 'forgiveness' and 'Jesus'
a lemon, a stone and a drawing of a snake.

What to do: 
Put everything in the box. 
Call the children to the front. 
'In our house we have some rules.'  Take out toothbrush.  'What do you think the rule is about teeth?' (Wash your teeth in the morning and evening.)  Take out carrot.  'What do you think the rule is about vegetables?'  (Eat them with our dinner).  Take out DVD.  'What do you think our rule is about DVDs?'  (Don't spend all day in front of the TV and don't watch things that are not for your age).

'But here is the question?  Why would Caroline and I have such rules?  Is it because we don't want our kids to have fun?  Is it because we don't like them?  Of course not!  It is because we love them and we want what is best for them.  If they don't wash their teeth, their teeth will rot.  It they don't eat their veg, they will become unhealthy.  If they watch things that are scary, it will mess up their minds.  Caroline and I are very imperfect parents, but we know that good rules are good for our children.

'So what are some of the good rules that Jesus gave to his followers?'  (listen for answers). 

Let me show you three of his rules. 

Take out sign saying 'love'.  'You know what happens if you ignore this rule?'  Take out stone.  The Bible says that you become hard and uncaring. 
Take out sign that says ''forgiveness'.  'You know what happens if you refuse to forgive?'  Take out lemon.  The Bible says that you become bitter. 
Take out sign that reads, 'truth'?  'Do you know what happens is you speak lies?'  Take out picture of snake.  You become sneaky and deceitful.

So ask Jesus for the strength to obey his commands.  And you know what happens when you love, forgive and tell the truth?  Take out sign saying Jesus.  You end up becoming more like the person who gave us these wonderful commands.

Jesus tells us what to do because he knows what is best for us.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Why should I be thankful? (1 Samuel 25)

H. A. Ironside was a famous Bible teacher during the first half of the last century.
On one occasion he was in a crowded restaurant.  Just as he was about to begin his meal, a man approached and asked if he could join him.  Ironside welcomed him to have a seat.  Then he bowed his head and quietly gave thanks for his food.  When he opened his eyes the man looked at him in bemusement and asked, ‘Do you have a headache?’  Ironside assured him that his head was fine.  ‘Well, is there something wrong with your food?’  Ironside explained that he always gave thanks before he eat.  The man greeted his words with disdain.  ‘Oh, you’re one of those, are you?  Well, I want you to know I never give thanks.  I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don’t have to give thanks to anyone when I eat.  I just start right in.’ 
‘Yes, you’re just like my dog,’ replied Ironside.  ‘That’s what he does.’
This is a sermon about something far more important than simply saying grace before meals.  I want to talk to you about thanksgiving.  We all have reason to be thankful to God.  James writes, ‘every good and perfect gift is from above’ (James 1:17a).  But the Bible tells us that at the heart of the problem with humanity is the people neither honour God nor give thanks to him’ (Romans 1:21).
This morning we are going to see an ungrateful fool and his heroic wife.
Behold, the fool (1-11)
Nabal’s name means ‘fool’, and that is what he was.  He had plenty of possessions and the most wonderful wife, but he was neither thankful nor generous.  In fact he was both harsh and mean.
David has been good to Nabal.  David has been living in the territory where Nabal’s herds and flocks grazed.  Not only has David resisted the temptation to steal from Nabal, he has sought to protect Nabal’s possessions from harm.
There was a custom at that time, that when the sheep were sheered the owner of the animals would set aside a portion of his profit and give it to those who had protected his shepherds while they were out in the fields.  ‘It was kind of like tipping a waiter.  There was no written law saying you had to do it, but it was a way of showing gratitude for a job well done’ (Swindoll).  So David’s request was neither usual nor unreasonable.
In fact it is notable that David’s request humble and polite.  He tells ten young men, ‘Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal and greet him in my name.  And you shall say to him: “Peace be to you, and peace to your house, and peace to all that you have … Your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm … Therefore let my young men find favour in your eyes, for we have come on the feast day.  Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David”’ (5-8).  There is absolutely no sense of threat in David’s approach.
However, while David has been good to Nabal, Nabal responds to David’s kindness with a calculated insult.  ‘Who is David?’  David was famous, everyone knew he was.  David was a national hero who had saved the nation by killing the mighty Goliath.  Yet Nabal insinuates that David is simply a disloyal rebel who is like any other bandit roaming the land.
Nabal is like that man who said to Ironside, ‘I never give thanks.  I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don’t have to give thanks to anyone.’  Not only is Nabal unthankful for what David has done for him, much more importantly, he is unthankful to God.  Look at how he talks of what he has!  ‘Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my sheers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?’
A guilt-bearer saves the day (12-35)
As we have studied the life of David, we have said that there are aspects of his life that point forward to his great descendant, Jesus Christ, who is referred to as Son of David.  However, in this passage David does not act like Jesus.  David is an imperfect man, and if Abigail had not intervened, this story would be covered in blood.
When David hears that Nabal has responded to his request with a deliberate rudeness, he tells his men to get their swords ready. 
Bible commentator, Alan Redpath, writes, ‘David!  David!  What is wrong with you?  Why, one of the most wonderful things we have learned about you recently is your patience with Saul ... But now, look at you!  Your self-restraint has gone to pieces and a few insulting words from a fool of a man like Nabal has made you see red!  David, what’s the matter?’
God recently showed me how I am guilty of David’s sin.  I realised that there was a common characteristic about three people who I find difficult to love: the each have a tendency to talk down to me.  Why should it bother me if people act like they know better than me?  My problem is arrogance and pride.  How are you when people treat you as a ‘nobody’?  Christians should be the most humble of people.  We are loved despite our many failures and anything truly good about us is a gift from God.
What a contrast there is between our proud anger and Jesus’ gentle humility.   Peter tells us that when Jesus was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  He himself bore our sins on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:23-24).
Abigail is one of the many marvellous women heroes in the Bible.  She not only saves the day by facing David and telling him to act in a Christlike fashion, she actually gives us a picture of what Jesus has done for us.  She takes Nabal’s guilt upon herself, ‘On me alone, my Lord, be the guilt’ (24a).  ‘Please forgive the trespass of your servant (the feminine is used here, referring to her)’ (28).  Christ took the guilt of our ungrateful hearts upon himself and so he saved us from the judgement we deserve.
The king falls from his throne (36-43)
The chief problem in Nabal’s life is that he had placed himself at the centre of his world.  When Abigail returns home, Nabal is holding a banquet like that of a king.  Nabal’s lack of generosity was rooted in the fact that he is the king of his life and he is like his ruler.  Our world will always be small and mean until we take ourselves off the throne and see the beauty of living under God’s rule.
This passage comes with a health warning.  The next morning, when Abigail tells him what she has done for him, his heart died within him … and about ten days later the Lord struck Nabal, and he died (37-38).
God has been exceedingly generous to every one of us.  He has given us life and breath and everything else.  But there will be a day when he will no longer be generous towards those who refuse to honour him.  He will show his beauty in demonstrating his justice.  He has given his Son to die for ungrateful hearts, but if we refuse to have him as our king we will face the consequences of spurning his kindness.  It is not easy to talk about subjects like judgement and hell, but Jesus spoke of them in the hope that the Holy Spirit would bring us to our senses and enable you to delight in his forgiving, generous, kind and gracious love.
The Babylon Bee is a Christian satirical website—a Christian version of the Waterford Whispers, if you are familiar with that.  It pokes fun at attitudes within and towards the Christian community.  One feature read, ‘“What has God ever done for me?” asks man breathing air.’  Another headline reads, ‘Local man relieved after spiritual gift test comes back negative for “giving”.’
However, God calls us to lives of thankfulness and generosity because he loves us.  Unlike David, Jesus does not ask us to give because he is in need, for he is in need of nothing.  The Son of David asks us to give because he knows that it is more blessed to give than receive.  He calls us to a life of thankfulness and generosity because it enlarges our hearts.
If you have enthroned Christ as your king, then you are a beloved child of God.  Thankfulness and generosity can’t earn you any more of God’s love—for you are loved perfectly—it can help you experience more of God’s love.  It can help you see how thrilling God’s love is as you his love flow through you.  Tozer wrote, ‘Gratitude is an offering precious in the sight of God, and it is one the poorest of us can make and be not poorer but richer for having made it.’

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Grace to Love

Lots of stories are told about Abraham Lincoln.  I am sure not all of them are true.  But I love the following one.
On one occasion, Lincoln gathered his meagre earnings as a country lawyer and cast the highest bid in an auction for a slave.  Having purchased the slave, he immediately set her free.  ‘Mr. Lincoln, are you really setting me free?’  Yes, he was.  ‘Are you saying I no longer have to follow a master?’  Yes, she was no under no obligations, she could go wherever she wished.  ‘Then,’ she said, ‘I want to go with you.’
Bryan Chapell comments, ‘gratitude for release from slavery sparks loyalty for the one who provided freedom … We become committed to God’s words and ways in heartfelt thanks to his mercy towards us.’
The gospel of grace tells us that God has freed us from sin and condemnation.  Jesus lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died for all the wrong that is within us.  As we turn to him in dependant trust, we are accepted into his family as beloved sons and daughters.  As the greatest of all parents, his love for us is steadfast.  Nothing we can do can make him love us more or less.  So, why would we obey him?
We obey him because, like that slave, his mercy towards us produces heartfelt thanks.  God has done infinitely more for us than Lincoln did for that woman.  Such love should have a profound effect on us.  ‘We love because God first loved us.’  Jesus was not nagging his disciples when he said, ‘if you love me you will obey my commands.’  Grace does not provide an excuse for sin; it actually provides the true motivation for holiness.
With this this in mind, I want to remind you of Jesus’ most challenging command: love your enemies.  I am going to show you how Jesus loved you while you were his enemy and now he enables you to follow his example of love.
Jesus refused to take the easy path to his throne
David had been anointed by Samuel to be the future king of Israel.  The word Messiah/Christ means ‘anointed one.’  So although David is an imperfect man, there are patterns in his story that point ahead to his great descendant, Jesus Christ, who was called Son of David.  In this passage, David’s actions reveal how the Messiah will not take the easy route to throne.
After God had given David victory over Goliath, King Saul had become murderously jealous of him.  David had to go on the run.  Now Saul finds himself outside the cave where David is hiding, and he needs to go to the toilet.  As he squats down in the cave, David’s men encourage David to kill him.  Kill Saul and take the throne.  But David knows that he must do things God’s way in God’s time and not take the easy way out.
I listened to two sermons that both saw a parallel here with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Jesus knew that the Psalms said that God would make the nations his inheritance (2:8).  Satan says, ‘bow before me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their glory’ (Matthew 4:9).  Satan is saying, ‘you can have a throne without having to take the journey to the cross.’  But the Son of David did not take the easy route to a throne.  There would be no gospel of grace if Jesus didn’t take his throne in God’s time and in God’s way.  Jesus is the real hero this passage points us to.  Our hearts should be filled with love and gratitude for the Son of David.
Jesus loved his enemies 
After Saul is finished in the cave, David follows him out, and calls out to him, ‘my Lord and king!’  ‘Why do you listen to the words of men who say, “Behold, David seeks your harm”?’  David points to the corner of Saul’s robe that he had cut off.  ‘I could have killed you, but I did not.’
Look at the effect David’s kindness has on Saul!  It melts his heart.  Saul lifted his voice and wept.  ‘You have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.’  The Bible teaches us that God’s kindness to us ought to bring us to repentance.  One of the reasons we should be kind to those who do wrong to us is that we long to see them change.  Sadly, Saul’s change of heart was short lived, and he would soon be breathing murderous threats against David again.   
We should delight to see David show kindness to his enemies.  For the Son of David has shown such kindness to us.  The Bible says, while we were still hostile to his loving rule, Christ died for us.  Having received such grace, it should be our desire to extend that grace to others.
But I struggle to love my enemies.  I find it hard to be kind to those whose words have hurt me.  I don’t want to be good to those who rub me up the wrong way.  I want to do the right thing, but I find it so hard.  And I have not been hurt the way some of you have been hurt, so I have no idea how difficult this command must be for you.  So, how do you learn to be kind to those who hate you?
Firstly, by preaching the gospel to yourself—he is asking you to imitate what he has done for you.  ‘God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).  Christ died for me, even though I was his enemy.  Secondly, preach the gospel of grace to yourself—ask God to let his grace soften your heart.  ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19).  Thirdly, preach the gospel of grace to yourself—let your inability to love bring you to your knees, where you ask for his ability to love.  You have been born of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit is love.  When your hatred is revealed to you, go to the Father who is patient with you, and ask him to do within you immeasurably more than we can imagine.
One final thought.  God’s loving grace to us causes us to desire to follow his commands in grateful obedience.  God’s loving grace also assures us that God calls us to obey his commands because he knows that is what is good for you.   He wants to lead us in the way that is best for us.  This truth is very obvious when it comes to overcoming bitterness.  As one person has said, ‘bitterness is an acid that destroys its own container.’  So grace gives you desire to obey, grace shows you how to obey, and grace enables you to obey.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Three sons and a prodigal dad (Luke 15)

A pastor used to counsel a young man who was struggling with alcohol-addiction.  What the young man did not realise is 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, he 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?’

We can offer lots of help to those who are battling various sins.  We can warn people of the consequences, encourage them to have accountability partners and avoid places of temptation.  But nothing brings change with the same power as experiencing the love of God.
So we are going to look at a parable that magnifies the life-transforming, sin-defeating and joy-giving love of God.  I call it the parable of the three sons and the prodigal dad. 
Son 1: The rebel
Jack Miller, writes, ‘Many times we think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that we can go on vacation from God.  What’s really happening is that we think of God as the enemy of our happiness, and we go our own way.  But God is not our enemy.  He’s our friend, and he wants us to be happy and free.’
The younger son wasn’t satisfied with his father’s love.  So he makes a callous request.  Father, give me my share of the estate.  The estate would normally have been divided up after the father’s death, but this son is saying, ‘I can’t wait for you to die.  Your being alive is getting in the way of my fun.  So sod the conventions and give me my inheritance now.’
he son then turns his inheritance to cash.  In a culture where you spent years bargaining over fields, he sold in a rush.  You can be sure that he didn’t get anywhere near the best price.  There is always something very foolish in our rebellions against God.  The psalmist reminds us that many are the woes of the wicked.  Sin always brings some measure of sorrow and emptiness.
The younger son is also incredibly selfish.  That land had been in his family for generations.  But he goes off, sells it and squanders it.  He has no intention of providing for his father in his old age or passing on an inheritance to future descendants.  Every sin has self as a root—self-centredness, selfish, self-righteousness, being self-absorbed, self-importance, and so on. 
Then he sets off for a distant country with no intention of ever coming home.  When famine comes, and the son is dying from hunger in a famine, he is getting exactly what he deserved.  Death is what our rebellion deserves.  But God loved us when we were dead in transgressions and sin, sending his Son to die for us while we were still hostile towards him, and now continues to love us even though we are so often filled with self-interest. 
The prodigal father
The word prodigal can mean ‘wasteful’, and so fits the younger son.  However, ‘prodigal’ also means ‘lavish’, and this father is lavish in his love.  Tim Keller calls his book on this parable, ‘The Prodigal God’.
The younger son comes to his senses and travels home with a plan.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’  He doesn’t seem to understand his father’s love—his father wants him as a son, not a hired man.  Maybe, in pride, he thinks that he can start to pay back some of his debts.
The father, who has been spending his time looking at the horizon, is filled with compassion when he sees his son.  Apparently, the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is a word filled with deep emotion, and is only ever used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his parables who act like him.  So the father sprints, literally falls into the son’s neck, and kisses that boy again and again and again.  The son had come home preparing to kiss his father’s feet; instead, the father is kissing the son’s pig-stinking head (MacArthur).
Now look carefully at what the son says.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  What about being made a hired man?  It’s unnecessary.  That’s not what the father wants.  The father wants him as a son.  The son realises it would be an insult to attempt to pay back his debt.  It is the kindness of God leads to genuine repentance (Romans 2:4).
The father looks on the dirty ragged lad with delight.  Gets the finest robe (I can’t help thinking of how our spiritual nakedness has been covered in the robe of Christ’s righteousness).  Then he gives the son a ring—I love this, the signet ring was used for commercial transactions (imagine that the father gives a role of responsibility to such an untrustworthy boy!).  God entrusts us with the greater privilege of being ambassadors of Christ.  Whereas slaves went barefoot, sons wore sandals on their feet—Christians are sandaled people!
Son 2:  The Resentful
I am actually more struck by the love of the father for the elder brother than the younger.  This elder brother is a cold, hard-hearted, mean-spirited, arrogant, self-righteous, bitter young man.  Remember that this son represents the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Like the older son, they resented how Jesus welcomed home notorious sinners.  Yet Jesus uses this story to show God lovingly pleading with them to come and join the celebration of grace.
The older son hears the music, and I think he knows exactly what is going on.  There has not been a party in that house since his brother left home.  He is filled with anger.  Then he goes out of his way to embarrass his dad.
The son does not address the father with a customary term of respect.  No title, no affection, no respect. Then the accusations begin.  ‘All these years I have been slaving for you.’  Don’t be too impressed by his words.  He is the heir to the estate.  His father is rich enough to have servants and hired men.  The elder son’s work didn’t involve breaking his back.  He would have sat in the shade and organised the labour.  I imagine his work was actually very satisfying. 
Does he not realise that his father didn’t want him as a slave but as a son?   Does he not realise that his father wants him to enjoy his love?  Does he not understand that his father is not looking for him to justify his existence or pay his way?  The older son does not value the father’s love!
The older son blames his dad for the younger son’s rebellion.  He refers to this son of yours.  He is not my brother but your son.  ‘It’s your fault that he is such a failure.  It is your fault he left home.  You were always too soft-hearted.’  He then actually seems to suggest that the father owes him an apology, for not being generous to him, even though everything his father had was actually at his disposal. 
This son, like all self-righteous people, deserves to be left outside the party—so many people refuse to see their need of grace and so they are heading for hell.  But how does the father respond to the calculated insults of the older son?   He addresses the elder son with the tender address, ‘My son’(using a different word, than the word translated son, meaning, ‘my child’).  He loves this cold-hearted young man.  Through this story, Jesus is inviting proud, self-justifying people to repent of their hostile hearts and experience the joy of grace.
Apparently there was a custom, which still exists in many cultures of the world, where the eldest son would serve as head-waiter at such a party.  It was designed to complement the guests by saying, ‘you are so important to me, that my eldest is your servant.’  The elder brother was not willing to humble himself for his brother, and, like the Pharisees felt no joy at the thought of rebels being granted forgiveness.  However, all through this chapter of Luke there is the picture of heavenly celebration over rebels coming to repentance. 
Son 3: The rescuing brother
There is a third son in this passage.  There is the son who is telling this parable.  Jesus is both like the father and is also a complete contrast to the elder brother.  Jesus is the elder brother we are longing for.
The elder brother did not want to humble himself as and serve as head-waiter in the party on honour of the younger son.  Jesus has humbled himself in order to bring us home.  ‘He who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:6-8).
One commentator suggests that the elder brother would have been expected to plead with the younger son not to go, and then when he left to lead a search party to the distant land.  Jesus, our older brother, left heaven, to a distant land, coming to seek and save that which was lost.  Like the shepherd, earlier in this chapter, who came looking for lost sheep like us! 
The younger son’s return must have cost the older brother.  The younger son has sold his share of the land.  He will now live on what would belong to his older brother.  The party was being funded with money that would have eventually come to the older brother.  Was the father planning to give the younger son another inheritance?  That would cost the older brother.  This may be a part of his resentment.  Yet we will not have any chance of fully grasping God’s love until we realise the price that Jesus, our older brother, was prepared to prepare for our homecoming.  ‘This is love,’ says the apostle John, ‘not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’
Conclusion—what you love the most will control you

A young man was training to be a pastor.  At weekends he spoke at a little small country church.  One Sunday, an elder at the church asked if he would like to join this family for a picnic.  They went to restored Victorian village, at a spot where the Mississippi river was a mile wide.  Everything was beautiful in the autumn sunshine.  Then the elder’s daughter asked him to join her for a walk.  He really liked her, so he did not say, ‘actually I am sitting here enjoying the view!’  His greater love for the girl moved him away from his love for that view.  (When I heard him tell that story, he pointed out that he has been walking with that girl now for over forty years.)
We sin because we love the pleasures that sin offers.  The younger son went to the distant land because he desired the pleasures it offered more than he desired to be at home with his father.  The elder son would not go into the party because he loved self-righteousness and he hated grace.  James says, ‘each person is tempted when he is allured and tempted by his own desires.’
So how do we overcome those desires?  We overcome our love for sin by displacing it with a greater love.  Jesus was not nagging the disciples when he said, ‘if you love me, you will obey my commands.’  He was simply pointing out that what we love the most controls us.  We obey God when our love for God displaces our love for sin.  But this love for God is God given.  ‘We love because he first loved us.
So, your primary spiritual problem is not that you don’t love God enough—although, like me, you don’t love God enough.  Your primary spiritual problem is that you don’t realise how much God loves you.  That is what makes reading a passage like this one so life-transforming—God uses the beauty of the gospel applied through the person of the Holy Spirit to cause us to love him more.  See the loving father coming to kiss you again and again.  See him graciously pleading with cold-hearted self-righteous people to come and enjoy the celebration of grace.  See how that father reflects the incomparable compassion of Jesus.  See your loving older brother who came from heaven to bring you home.  See him lay down his life that you might be a dearly beloved child of God.  Let that love melt your heart and change your life.