Thursday, 9 November 2017

God's love is out of this world (talk for Youth Mix)

Tommy asked me what I was going to speak on this weekend.  I wasn’t sure.  So I told him that if he had any suggestions he should tell me.  He messaged me later and said, ‘salvation and assurance.’  So that is what I am going to do.  This evening I am going to talk to you about how wonderful it is to be a Christian and tomorrow I am going to talk about how we can be sure that we are a Christian.
I want to talk about how wonderful it is to be a Christian by thinking about one of my favourite verses in the Bible.  Behold, what many of love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called sons of God.  And that is what we are’ (1 John 3:1).
The command of this verse is to behold, to look, to think about, the love that God has for you.  You need to keep on reminding yourself of how great God’s love for you is.  One preacher wrote that you need to preach the gospel to yourself every day.
Think about what manner of love the Father has lavished on you.  Apparently this is an idiom.  An idiom is a word picture.  Like the way someone might say, ‘it is raining cats and dogs.’  In the Greek it says, behold from what country the Father has lavished upon us.  God’s love is from a different country, or we might say it is out of this world.
In the Bible God’s love is pictured as being like that of a father for his son, a mother for her child, a shepherd for his sheep and a groom for his bride.  Think of the following verses.  ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you’ (Isaiah 49:15).  ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young’ (Isaiah 40:11).  ‘As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you’ (Isaiah 62:5).  But there is a sense that all this pictures fall short of what God’s for us is like for his love is from another country.  It goes infinitely beyond any comparison.  No one loves you as purely as God loves you!     
Of course the best place to look at the love of God is to look at the cross.  Later in this letter John will write, ‘this is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).  ‘Amazing love, oh what sacrifice, the Son of God given for me.’
Now it’s the ‘me’ and the ‘you’ that makes this love so out of this world.  The book of Romans tells us that by nature we were hostile to God.  You might not have been aware of that hostility, but when God said, ‘you are evil’ you protested and said ‘no, I am a good person’.  You would not accept God’s verdict on your sin.  You tried to justify yourself.  You acted as if Jesus went to the cross for nothing.  You fell short of the glory of God.  You were a sheep that went astray.  You were an enemy of God.  ‘But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
So what did God do for us when he melted our hostile hearts and caused us to run home to him?  He forgave us.  Blessed is the person who sins are forgiven.  He saved us from the coming day of judgement.  There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  He treats us as if we had always acted like Jesus acted.  But even more, he adopted us into his family.  God didn’t let you out of the prison of your guilt; he brings you home and accepts you at his table.  He has adopted us his sons.  ‘Behold what manner of love is this that we should be called sons of God.  One theologian writes, ‘in adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us to be his children and heirs.  Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship.  To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.’  God gave his one and only Son that you could become a son.  I say son, rather than son or daughter, because in that culture the son had all the privileges and the son was the heir.  Whether you are a woman or a man that is the status you have before God.
Do you realise that your problem is not so much that you do not love God enough, although none of us loves God the way we ought, but that you don’t realise how much he loves you?  We love because he first loved us.  Behold, look and see what love God has for you and it will change your life.  One of my great heroes is a man called John Newton.  He was a slave-trader who became a Christian.  He wrote the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace.’  At the end of his life he said, ‘there are two things I know: I am a great sinner and God is a great Saviour.’  That is beholding that out of this world that God has for wretches like you and me.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hopeful grief (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

In Victorian England, in the 1800s, everyone talked about death and no-one talked about sex.  There was a death-culture.  Some of this was because death surrounded them.  The life-expectancy was half of what it is today and many people died at home,X rather than off in hospitals, (where their death was witnessed by families).  Of course, one reason death was the subject of conversation was that they had a queen who made a lifestyle out of grieving.  She had lost her beloved husband, Prince Albert, when he was forty-two, and Queen Victoria publicly grieved him for the next forty years.

Our society is the reverse of Victorian England.  We talk freely and obsessively about sex, but never mention death.  If you want to make a conversation awkward, bring up the subject of death.  In particular bring up the topic of our own impending death.  Woody Allen once quipped, ‘it’s not that I am afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’  However, in a later magazine interview he talked about death’s stupefying terror, and how it renders all achievements meaningless and void.

However, as Christians, we need not fear death.  Jesus has removed the sting of death for those who trust him.  We need not fear our own passing and we need not grieve hopelessly for those who loved him.  This is what we see in this morning’s passage.  Remember that Paul is telling them how to please God.  He now says that we please God as we grieve our Christian friends with hope.  


Remember that when Paul was with them, he had told them that the next big event of God’s calendar was the second coming of Jesus.  The Thessalonians began to look forward to it.  They thought it would happen very soon.  Indeed, some thought Jesus would return before any of them would die.  They all looked forward to welcoming Jesus together.  However, a year has passed since Paul’s visit and some of the Christians have passed on.  Some of the Christians hadn’t prepared themselves for the experience of bereavement.  They began to worry.    ‘What about our friends who have died?  They won’t be around when Jesus comes back.  Will they miss out?’  It is to this confusion that Paul now writes.

Don’t be ignorant about death

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep (13).  These words are tragically relevant to our society.  If you want to find out how little our society understands about the gospel you should talk to people about the issue of death.  Ask them why they think they are going to heaven.  Most people will say, ‘because I am a good person.’  I told you about my neighbour, who is an atheist, but says that if there is a heaven he is going there because he is a good guy.  He is a very nice guy, but no-one is going to heaven because they were good.  Read the memorial notices in the paper, and you will read claims that the deceased is now an angel in heaven.  Going to heaven has nothing to do with becoming an angel.  Attend a funeral and listen to what people say, and you will see that there is a general ignorance about death.  At Hazel’s funeral someone (not from this church) said to me, ‘we now no longer pray for Hazel, we pray to her.’  Hazel would not have approved of any of her friends trying to pray to her rather than praying to her Saviour.

We want to dispel the ignorance people have about death because we want people to hear the great news that Jesus has removed the sting of death.  Jesus said, ‘I have not come for the self-righteous, but for those who know that they are sinners.’  Jesus doesn’t reserve heaven for good and respectable people, instead he opens the gates wide to all who will admit their wickedness and trust him as their leader.  It isn’t people’s badness that keeps them out of God’s kingdom (if they bring that badness before Jesus), it is people’s goodness (their refusal to admit they are evil) that keeps people out of heaven.

Notice how the apostle Paul describes death for those who are trusting Jesus.  He speaks of them falling asleep.  Why falling asleep?  Falling asleep, because like falling asleep the believer’s death is temporary and followed by an awakening.  I listened to one preacher who suggested that it was significant that Jesus is said to ‘die’ but his people are said to ‘sleep’.  You see Jesus experienced the full weight of death, including the punishment for our sins and separation from the Father, so that his people would not die but sleep.  Did you know that the word ‘cemetery’ literally means, ‘sleeping place’?  

Don’t grieve as those without hope

Because we are not ignorant about those who fall asleep, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. 

I have presided over a number of funerals, and it makes the world of difference when you know that the deceased was at peace with God.  One of the hardest things to do is comfort someone who is grieving a friend or relative who they suspect had no time for God.  All you can do is pray that God would give them a comfort that goes beyond understanding and that he would ease their pain.  However, when you are at the funeral of someone who loved Jesus, there is sure hope in the midst the sorrow.  There is the feeling of ‘see you soon’ rather than ‘goodbye.’

Now, Paul does not say that we do not grieve.  If I am saying good-bye to someone who I will not see for a year or so, I feel sad.  I feel much more sorrow when someone died and I know I will not see them until my life in this world is over.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.  We are called to mourn with those who mourn.  Leighton Ford, a Canadian evangelist, whose son Sandy died in 1982, at the age of twenty-one, said, ‘when you love deeply, you hurt deeply.’

But we do not grieve as those are without hope.  When someone like Hazel dies there is sorrow.  We love her and we miss her.  But there is also celebration.  She is now more alive than she has ever been.  She is happier than she ever was in life.  She is now enjoying the Saviour she loved in this life.

We will be raised to be with Jesus for ever

We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep with him.

Our hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus.  He has defeated death.  He was raised from the dead and promised to be our resurrection and life.  When I do funerals, I tend to read Jesus’ words as the coffin is brought into the church.  Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and life, those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.’  The risen Jesus ascended to heaven, and promised to be with us until he returns.  

The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  

I just want to make sure you are clear of the order here.  When Hazel died she went to be with the Lord—for we are told that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.  However, even in heaven Hazel is looking forward to the Lord’s return.  For it is then that she will receive her new resurrected body.  And if Jesus happens to come before we have passed on, we will then join her and have our bodies transformed for heaven.

And so we will be with the Lord for ever.  Paul addressed their concerns regarding their loved one who have died.  It will be wonderful to be reunited with them for ever (particularly because our friends will no longer be spoiled by our sin).  However, see that the greatest thing about heaven is being with the Lord for ever.  That’s what makes my neighbour’s comments about going to heaven so silly.  If he doesn’t want his life centred around the person of Jesus now, why would he want to place where Jesus is literally the light of the place (Revelation 21:23)?

Can I just talk to you for a moment if you don’t know where you stand with Jesus?  Jesus offers heaven but he also warns of hell.  Contrary to what you may have been told, you will not go to heaven on the basis of going to church or being a nice guy.  There is only one way.  That way is a person, Jesus—Jesus who loves like no-one has ever loved; Jesus who died for the guilt of those who would trust in him; Jesus who wants to transform your life now and who wants you to be at peace about death; Jesus who calls you to enjoy him today and for all eternity.


Finally, what are we to do with these truths?  We are to encourage each other with these words.  When was the last time you had a conversation with a fellow Christian about life after death and the Lord’s return?  These truths can be hard to grasp because they picture things that are beyond our experience.  Pray that God would give you the sort of faith that lives in sure expectant hope.  Pray that he would take any fear of death away from you.  

It is interesting to compare the inscriptions on the catacombs of Rome of the ancient Roman pagans and the early Christians.  One pagan inscription reads, ‘while I lived, I lived well.  My play is now ended.  Soon yours will be.  Farewell and applaud me.’  That’s a proud man, who thinks he lived a good life, but has no explanation for what happens after death.  Another pagan inscription reads, ‘bath, wine and love ruin the constitution, but they made life what it is.  Farewell.’  Compare those with the simple words of a Christian inscription.  ‘Valarias, sleep in peace.’  I love the words of the hymn-writer, Augustus Toplady, who wrote, ’Believers should not have a slavish dread of death.  Where is the baby that is afraid to go to sleep in its mother's arms?’

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Gospel and Suicide

I started to write this post the day after attending the funeral of a young man who died by suicide.  It was a deeply moving occasion.  The speaker was brave enough to talk about how the deceased had died, that suicide is never the right thing to do, and that the young man who had taken his life had grown up with great parents who loved him deeply.  I watched my pastor friend weep with the lad’s mother and I thought that that is the sort of empathy I want to have.

The young man who died professed to be a Christian, and it was not long until someone asked me, ‘if a Christian commits suicide, will they go to heaven?’  I am always a bit frustrated when someone asks me that.  It suggests that the questioner hasn’t fully understood the nature of the gospel.  When someone is brought to faith in Christ the verdict that God places over them is ‘now no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1).  That verdict stands even when the Christian sins.  I am not saying that sin does not matter.  In fact, if you think that sin does not matter to God you probably don’t know him.  However, God holds on to his people even when they temporarily fall and fail.

I am aware that the young man whose funeral I attended suffered from deep anxiety.  I know that he had no intention of hurting anyone, and he was not seeking to rage against God.  He had simply lost all sense of hope and felt that he could not live with the pain.  Indeed, many people who die by suicide actually think that those they love would be better off without them.  Similarly, in the midst of their despair, many Christians struggle to have any realisation that God cares for them.  What this young man did was wrong, but he was not thinking clearly about the wrong he was doing.

Jesus is a compassionate man of sorrow and was familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3), who knew such anguish that he despaired of life (Matthew 26:38), nevertheless he says that we are not to take life (Luke 18:20), even our own.  He longs for you to access the truth that God will never forsake you if you trust in him (Hebrews 13:5).  He longs to hold you in your pain and bring you through the storm.  Of course I don’t want to be naïve, I do realise that even those who trust the Lord can find ourselves in that place where we feel that darkness is our closest friend and the darkness feels like it will never lift (Psalm 88:18).  But in that darkness we should be seeking to honour Jesus and resist the temptation to do what he forbids.
Ireland has a bad history on suicide.  There was the idea of consecrated ground, as if where your body is buried actually mattered to God.  Those who died by suicide were excluded from such ‘holy’ soil.  How harsh such thinking was!  We must deal with this issue in a way that reflects our compassionate and forgiving Saviour.  
The city of Limerick has a painful history of suicide.  Drive through town any weekend and you will see people patrolling the rivers ready to rescue those who have thrown themselves in.  Everyone in this city knows what you mean when you say that someone went into the river.   In such a dark society Christians need to be people of the light.  To those who are racked with guilt, we can talk of how Jesus came into the world to save sinful people like us.  To those who despair, we can speak of a love that will never let us go.  We must seek to befriend the isolated and lonely.  
As I attended the funeral of that young man who took his life, I thought back to a couple of times in my life when I felt hopeless and anxious.  I am sure that my pain was not as dark as his.  I couldn’t say that I was fully suicidal.  Yet I do remember wanting to die.  But I am glad I didn’t.  Now I can look back from a much happier place.  That’s what makes the funeral of suicide so tragic.  If only he could have made it through that day, that week, that month or that year.  The light might not have come quickly, but I am sure it would have.  If he had lived, I know that he would have arrived at a place where he was glad to be alive.
Rick Warren is a famous pastor in America whose son, Matthew, died by suicide.  He shares a few words with those of you who are tempted to take your life.  He says that if you are contemplating suicide, you need to remember that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Most people who are suicidal do not want to end their life; rather they want to end their pain.  Suicide is not the right way to do this.  Warren points out that the emotions you are feeling at the moment will pass.  No emotion lasts for ever.  You will not always feel the way you feel now.  Indeed, even if the pain doesn’t lift, you are called to honour Jesus by resisting suicidal temptations.  Warren also reminds his listeners that God does not want you to travel through the pressures you are facing on your own.  Find someone who cares and tell them how you feel.  Never try to face suicidal feelings on your own.
Finally, you need to hear the gospel if you have lost a loved one who has died by suicide.  I have listened to a friend who feels guilt over their loved one’s death.  Maybe he wouldn’t have done it if she had been better at being there for him.  I told her that God did not want her to live with that guilt.  None of us are perfect husbands or wives, parents or children, neighbours or friends.  But God wants us to know his forgiveness.  I have also listened to a friend who feels angry that her loved one inflicted such pain on her through his death.  Such feelings are normal, and need to be worked through, but if they are not dealt with they will damage you.  The gospel enables us to forgive the inexcusable in others as the Holy Spirit shows us how God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.
John Newton, the writer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, was a great friend of the poet William Cowper.  Cowper struggled with terrible mental health, felt utterly forsaken by God and was often tempted to take his life.  Newton once wrote to Cowper with the following advice:  ‘I can only advise you to resist to the utmost ever dark and discouraging suggestion ... Take encouragement hence to hope that he will not forsake the work of his own hands … though He may hide himself from us for a moment, He has given us a warrant to trust in him …’  Suicide is never the right solution to your pain.   For those of you who are grieving a suicide, I hope that you might experience the truth that the psalmist speaks of when he claims that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Sex, ambition and living to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12)

Why would you want to please God?

You should want to please God because God can be pleased.  Before we became Christians it was impossible for us to please God.  Our hearts were hostile towards him.  Our guilt, which affects everything we do, was held against us.  But in Christ this guilt is removed and our heart is changed.  God is now always on your side.  He may not be pleased with everything you do, but he always takes pleasure in the fact that you are his.  You are the apple of his eye, and the very thought of you gives him joy.  As his child, he delights in your most imperfect attempts to please him.  He is not like a sort of critical parent who is hard to please.
We should want to please God because we have seen his beauty.  The most important thing you can do every day is to remind yourself how wonderful God’s love is.  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  This is love, not that we loved God but he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.  The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.  We love because he first loved us and we want to please him because of that love.
We should want to please him because our pleasure is found in seeking his pleasure.  Before we understood grace, we saw God as the enemy of our happiness.  We thought of God as demanding, if we thought of God at all.  We hoped that we might get to heaven if we obeyed him enough.  But there is nothing delightful about obeying a graceless God, and it is impossible to enjoy living for a God we do not love.  However, when we experience his kindness, then we realise that his pleasure is always in line with our good.  Every pleasure we seek apart from his is bound to disappoint us.  Every pleasure we seek in him will bring him glory.  He is the most loving of Fathers who knows what is best for his children.
Having told you why you should please him, I must tell you how you can please him.  
A year before this letter was written, the Apostle Paul had spent less than a month with the Thessalonians.  While Paul was with them we instructed you how to live in order to please God … Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord to do this more and more (1).  He turns his attention to the areas of sex and ambition.
Good sex is God’s gift (3-8)
God is not anti-sex, he is pro-sex.  I used to have one book entitled, ‘Sex, romance and the glory of God.’  I gave the last couple I married a book to read called, ‘A Celebration of Sex.’  I remember my mother embarrassing me as a teenager as she read verses to me from the Song of Songs.  The Bible celebrates sex between a man and woman in marriage.  God does not blush, but smiles, when he sees a married couple giving each other sexual pleasure.
However, our society has degraded sex.  It has ignored God’s instructions concerning this most precious gift.  It has made sex something cheap rather than precious.  We all know the pain of this because each of us knows the shame caused by our own sexual sin, whether in thought or in physical actions, whether as we look at someone on a screen or compromise with them in person.
Ours is not the only sexually dysfunctional culture.  Paul was writing from Corinth to Thessalonica—two cities known for sexual immorality.  Thessalonica was associated with the worship of deities called the Cabiri, whose worship included ritual prostitution.  In that culture it was widely accepted that men would not limit themselves to their wife as their sexual partner.  It was not uncommon to have a wife, a mistress, a slave you had sex with, and if that was not enough for you, to go and visit prostitutes.  The Thessalonian Christians lived in a society where chastity was an unknown virtue.  As one commentator points out, ‘they had to unlearn what their society considered “natural”.’  Never read the New Testament and consider that it is naïve about sex or that is was easier to obey then than it is now!
Paul tells us to ‘make a total break with all forms of sexual immorality’ (Tinker).  This command rules out all forms of sex outside the bounds of the marriage between one man and one woman.
You may have coveted another woman’s husband, you have lingered over images on your computer or television screens, your eyes have checked out that jogger.   Often, people, particularly men, feel a sense of helplessness in this area.  We can give up and stop seeking God’s help.  We need to ask God for a greater desire to please him in this area of our lives.  We may need to open up to a caring Christian friend, ask them to hold us accountable and seek their support in prayer.
Love for God always goes hand in hand with love for people.  So Paul urges us not to wrong, or take advantage of, a brother or sister in the area of sex.  Sleep with a woman before she is married and you rob something from her marriage bed—even if it is you who marries her.  Sleep with another woman’s husband and you have stolen something very valuable from him.  You will also leave the partner you are sleeping with feelings of shame, regret and guilt.  So much that happens in the name of love is anything but love!  When a married man flirts with a married woman, he betrays his spouse and encourages her to betray hers.  When you watch porn, you are engaging with an industry that degrades people.  When you lust over a person’s shape you are devaluing them and seeing them only as an object.  You are also hurting yourself and weakening your love for your spouse.
I want you to hear grace as I challenge you.  Sexual sinners were drawn to Jesus because he told them of a forgiving God.  We dishonour God when we live in shame for the sins that he has forgiven.  We also dishonour God when we feel too defeated to look to him for strength.  But Jesus loves us too much to have us carry on in sin.  Remember the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her, but he did command her to ‘go now and leave your life of sin’.  Indeed, one of the things we need to do is to keep on seeking to grow in purity.
When a young man comes to me and admits that he is struggling with lust I feel sympathy and assure him I know how he feels.  We should meditate on the beautiful Saviour whose blood goes on cleansing us from all sin.  We should encourage each other to look to God for strength and not give up the battle for purity.  But when I meet a person who thinks that they can do as they like sexually, who takes this issue lightly, and who consider Christian values a little extreme, then I worry for their very salvation, for Paul says that those who disregard this teaching disregard God, and that God will judge those who do not seek grace in this area of their lives.
There is nothing wrong with being ordinary (9-12)
The churches of the New Testament were often wonderfully generous places.  They worked together to provide for the poor, especially the poor Christians.  But a problem had emerged in Thessalonica.  It seems that what had happened is that some rather immature Christians had heard Paul’s teaching on Jesus’ return, assumed that it would happen very soon, and given up their jobs while they waited.  ‘After all,’ they thought, ‘what is the point of breaking your back at work if everything is about to be wound up.’  The thing was that these same people were demanding that those in the church pay for their keep.  So Paul tells them to get a job, in order that you will not be dependent on anybody.  Of course he is talking about those who can work and refuse to work, not those who would like to work and can’t find a job or are disabled.
Instead of being selfishly idle they are to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that you will win the respect of outsiders, and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.  Greek culture despised manual labour, and thought of it as being fit only for slaves.  But the apostle Paul was content to work at mending tents as he followed the example of his beloved carpenter.
Idleness is awful, so is selfish-ambition.  We are called to be humble and content.  There is nothing wrong with ordinary.  We should be happy to be a part of an ordinary church, full of ordinary people, to do ordinary tasks, and to make a name for Jesus by not having to make a name for ourselves.  Ordinary remembers the matchless humility of Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing; taking the form of a servant … and humbling himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
In the 1920s George Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest.  He was once asked why he wanted to climb that peak, and he famously replied, ‘because it is there!’  On another occasion he wrote to his wife saying, ‘dearest … you must know that the spur to do my best is you … I want more than anything else to prove worthy of you.’  Sounds great until you hear what his son wrote later in life.  ‘I would so much rather have known my father than to have grown up in the shadow of a legend, a hero, as some people perceive him to be.’  
What makes sex and work pleasing to God is when they are used to bless people and not harm them.  Seek your pleasure in sex and ambition, apart from God, and you will end up hurting yourself and others.  See that God is gracious and loving, and you will trust him to know what is best for you.  Thank God that the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us in these areas of our life.  Seek his strength to find your pleasure in pleasing him.  

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Finding motivation to obey God (Thessalonians 2:1-16)

A Christian decided that he was going to take his faith more seriously.  He soon discovered the beauty and challenge of putting God first.  You see, he was running late for a train, and in his haste he bumped into a young boy who spilled his jigsaw everywhere.  The train was about to leave, but the man knew he should stop and help.  As the train pulled away, the man and boy were on their knees picking up the pieces.  The young boy stared at the man in amazement and asked, ‘Mister, are you Jesus?
As we saw last week, Paul, Silas and Timothy had been in Thessalonica for just under a month when a riot occurred and serious charges were brought against them.  The claim was made that Paul and his companions were trouble-makers who were saying that there was another king than Caesar, King Jesus.  So they had to leave under the cover of darkness.  Paul had wanted to return, but was unable.  He sent Timothy to them, to find out how they were getting on.  Timothy’s report of their faith was generally positive.  However, there were some problems, including the fact that there were trouble-makers who were criticising Paul.  ‘He ran away.’  ‘He hasn’t been heard of since.’  ‘He doesn’t care about you.’  ‘He’s insincere.’
So Paul now defends how he conducted his ministry among them.  He is doing this because he doesn’t want his critics to end up undermining his message.  As we look at Paul’s defence, we can see three motives that spur Paul on in his ministry: his desire to please God, his love for God’s people and his confidence in God’s word.
Motive 1: To please our loving Father (1-6)
Paul explains that he and his companions shared the gospel with the help of God (2).  If you find sharing your faith easy, then you might be tempted to think that you can do it in your own strength.  But when you find it intimidating, as I do, you have the advantage that you are going to lean heavily on God for courage and wisdom.
He spoke, even though he encountered opposition, because we are not trying to please men, but God, who tests our hearts (4).  Now Paul would have been the last person in the world to claim that he was perfect, but he was motivated by the fact that our gracious God takes pleasure in the sin-tainted efforts of his people to please him.
‘But my desire to please him is so weak.’  Yes, but he loves the fact that you desire more desire.  ‘But my motives for doing good things are so mixed.’  Yes, and he delights in the fact that you are humble enough to know your motives are mixed, and that your motives aren’t entirely corrupted.  Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the deceitfulness of our hearts that we can’t see what the Holy Spirit is doing in us.  John Newton writes, ‘you serve a Master, of whose favour … you cannot be deprived, who will not overlook … the smallest service you attempt for him, who will listen to no insinuations against you ...’
One young leader said to me, ‘I may be hard on everyone else, but you have to realise that I am even harder on myself.’  People with a critical spirit are hardest on themselves, which leaves them miserable.  Of all people, they find it most difficult to understand how God would graciously delight in their imperfect lives.  God is not as hard on you as you are on yourself.  If you can’t see that God graciously delights in your sin-tainted efforts to please him, then you will become disheartened and want to give up.
Motive 2:  Our love for God’s people (7-12)
Paul and his companions were motivated by a desire to please God, and they were also motivated by their love for people.  We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children (7).  Mother-love is filled with affection.  A mother endures having the sleep broken at night, endless changing of nappies and responds to the constant need for attention.  Of course, Paul was simply following the example of our foot-washing, cross-bearing Saviour.  We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel but our lives as well (8).
They had a right to be paid for their ministry, but they did not want to be a burden.  So, for example, Paul preached the gospel by day and made tents by night.  It would seem that they gave Jason money for their board and lodging.  What a contrast to the prosperity-teachers on the television who pressure their viewers to give in order to fund their lavish life-styles.
Paul and his companions were not only like mothers to the Thessalonians: we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory (11-12).  It is interesting that he says, ‘with each of you.’  They didn’t care just about the movement.  They cared about the individuals that made up the movement.  This description of fathers should be noted by all of us who have been granted this role.  Dads, are we encouraging, comforting and urging our children to live lives worthy of God?
I read the story of a big man with a big personality who loved to hug people.  He said, ‘when I first became a Christian, I was so frustrated because I wanted to hug God and didn’t know how.  I was so thrilled by what God had done for me in Christ … I wanted to hug God … Over the years, I have learned that the best way to hug God is to love his children …’ John Newton, ‘to administer any comfort to [God’s] children is the greatest honour and pleasure I can receive in this life.’
Motive 3: God’s changes lives (13-16)
Each of us is to be motivated by a desire to please our gracious Father and by our love for all God’s people.  We are also to be motivated by the fact that this gospel changes lives.
The Thessalonians had been idol-worshipping pagans who knew nothing of God’s saving love.  The gospel told them of how Jesus died for the sins of his people in order that we may have new life.  Look at how happy Paul is when people respond to this message.  And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe (13).
This is the word that is at work in you who believe.  The Greek verb in ‘at work within you’ is that from which we get the word energy.  The Bible is a power source for a joyous and godly life.  I want you to listen to these sermons and go home and study this letter because through these verses we will see more and more of the face of God and the beauty of his Son. We see mercy and grace, we are shown how to please God, and it changes our lives.  
In the eighteenth century, John Wesley was a famous evangelist who was mightily used by God.  But like the apostle Paul, he had his critics.  One bishop warned everybody that he was ‘a wily and malignant hypocrite.’  The lie was also spread that he had been expelled from Oxford University for grossly immoral behaviour.  Wesley’s Methodist preachers also received a hard time.  Some of them had glass ground into their eyes and others had their homes burned down.  Sometimes this opposition was instigated by their local Church of England clergymen.
Our passage ends by pointing out that like Jesus, God’s people will face opposition.  So if following Jesus is going to be difficult, why bother?  Why move beyond our comfort zones?  Why have people say hurtful things about you, even from within the church?  How do we keep going?  We need the three strong motivations of this passage: we have a gracious Father who is pleased with every weak and imperfect effort to please him; he has placed a love for his people into our hearts; and he has given a message that turns people’s lives upside down.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Abortion and the gospel

‘The woman who has had an abortion needs to know that, if she is hidden in Christ, God does not see her as “that woman who had an abortion”’ (Russell Moore).  Christians should be pro-life, but they need to be more than pro-life.  We proclaim God’s offer of new life to all.  We need to think of how we preach the gospel in the context of an abortion culture.

The Bible tells us that God knitted us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  As a result it is wrong to take the life of an unborn child.  I support the pro-life movement.  But there is a difference between the church and the pro-life cause.  The pro-life cause focuses on loving and protecting the unborn.  We go a step further.  We are also to speak of the God who loves the woman who has had abortions, and who loves the medics who perform them.  We may call their actions sinful, but we believe in a God who sent his Son to die for sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

I would like us to imagine that every time we talk about this topic, we are being overheard by a woman who has had an abortion.  When we speak, will she hear us talking about a God of love?  Will she see the God who longs to forgive her and bring her home?  Will she understand that in Christ she will no longer be seen as that woman who terminated her child?  The gospel is to be good news for her.  When God forgives, he will remember her sin no more (Isaiah 43:25).  Despite what any of us have done God delights over those he has redeemed.

The unborn are not the only victims of an abortion culture.  The mother may be a willing victim, but she is a victim nonetheless.  Her conscience is being violated in this act.  Behind that mother’s choice there may be a man who supports her action.  Indeed, if our society votes to repeal the eighth amendment then there will be a collective responsibility for every abortion that is carried out in the state.

I am glad to live in a country that has a constitutional provision aimed at protecting the unborn.  I will be voting to retain this.  I hope you will too.  However, I am also aware that this is a country that has a shameful history in the way it has treated young women who have got pregnant outside of marriage.  Many a girl went off to England to have an abortion for fear of the religious-hypocrites who would have scorned her and her child for the rest of their lives.  As Christians, we seek to shame nobody, for we believe in a Saviour who endured the shame of the cross in order to cover the shame that should have been ours (Hebrews 12:2).  We thank God for the life of every child, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding their conception.  When a fellow Christian falls into sin we are called to restore them in mercy (Jude 23) and we are to comfort those who are tempted to be filled with sorrow over their past (2 Corinthians 3:7).

We need to speak about this topic with conviction, because the life of the unborn is precious in the sight of the Lord and the conscience of the mother matters.  We need to think about this issue with humility, for we simply speak as sinful people who have been forgiven by an amazing Saviour.  We need to engage with this cause tenderly, for there are difficult cases, and while we do not think that terminating the child is the solution, our hearts must nevertheless sympathise with those who pregnancy brings pain and confusion.

April Hernandez was in and out of relationships in her teens, and after spending the night with one of her boyfriends she found that she was pregnant.  She wasn’t going steady with this guy and she thought that her life was over.  She thought that an abortion was her only choice.  So very early one Saturday morning she went to a clinic in Manhattan.  She had to slip past the protestors on her way in.  She paid her money.  She underwent the procedure.  She immediately felt regret.  She feared her life would never be the same again.  When she came out of the clinic, an old lady forced a pamphlet into her hand and told her, ‘you’re going to hell for what you have done.

After a few years, April began going to church.  But she didn’t want to buy in to ‘the whole Jesus thing.’  She would sit at the back of the church, where she felt comfortable and safe.  The service was in Spanish and her first language was English, so she didn’t always understand everything the pastor was saying.  But one Sunday morning she recognised that the pastor was saying the word for ‘forgiveness’ as he spoke.  This had an effect on her, and she began to have a desperate desire to be close to God.  As she cried, she heard the pastor say that if anyone needed forgiveness they should walk to the front.  She went forward, hesitantly.  The pastor assured her of God’s love.  Then suddenly, she lost sense of everything around her and felt immense heat travelling through her body.  She collapsed on the ground, and as she lay there weeping, she heard a voice whisper, ‘I forgive you, my daughter.  Cry no more.’  Understanding God’s forgiveness changed her life.  She felt free at last.  She knew that what she had done was wrong, but that morning she was overwhelmed with the love and forgiveness of God (story taken from Metaxas, Miracles).

We must sound the trumpet for the unborn.  It is a part of the Biblical mandate to give justice to the weak and rescue the needy (Psalm 82:3-4).  We must speak up, even though this may expose us to misunderstanding, ridicule and hostility.  We must pray hard that the law will not change.  We must not only vote to save the eighth amendment, we must seek to persuade others to do so as well.  But we must speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  And we must ‘offer the precious blood-brought forgiveness and hope to all women and men … who have experienced or encouraged abortion’ (Piper).