Monday, 28 September 2015

The cross should be our measure of love (John 13)

In his classic work, ‘The Cross of Christ’, John Stott writes that if we want a definition of love we should not look in a dictionary, but at Calvary.  Our chapter tells us that he had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end (showed them the full extent of his love).  Of course this love is not simply demonstrated by his washing of their feet, but what this washing symbolised—the crucifixion that would soon take place.

The cross sets the example for service (1-20) 

Imagine the atmosphere.  The disciples had gone up the outside stairs and into to the upper room.  They expected to be greeted by a non-Jewish slave who would wash their feet.  That was the custom.  It was a hot climate where people wore open sandals, and walked long distances on dirty roads.  But there was no one there to do that lowest of all tasks.   They thought that they were being polite by not drawing attention to this omission.  But it didn’t occur to any of them that they might perform the task.  Equals did not wash each other’s feet!

Jesus offers the traditional prayer of thanksgiving, and then does something shocking.  He gets up, wraps a towel around his waist, takes a basin of water and heads to the nearest disciple.  This is the man they thought of as their master.  No one had ever thought of the term ‘servant leadership’ before Jesus showed it in action.  As far as they were concerned, he was the least suited person to perform this task.  Conversation stopped.  It was all a little embarrassing.  But surely they already knew that following Jesus is never comfortable.

One of the things you notice about Jesus, as recorded in John’s Gospel, is his divine ability to know what people are thinking.  What amazing love to wash the feet of Judas—who he knew would later betray him!  Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, and he does not command us to do things that he was unwilling to put into practice.

We know that Peter is the one who blurts out what is on his mind.  ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’  Jesus answered him, ‘what I am doing you do not understand now, but afterwards you will understand.’  This chapter began by telling us that the hour had come for Jesus’ departure from this world to his Father.  It will be after they have witnessed Jesus returning to the Father by way of the cross, resurrection and ascension that they will understand what Jesus is doing here.  This is an acted parable that shows us that as Jesus dies for our guilt and is raised for our justification we are washed from our sin.  Of course that promise is for those who truly love Jesus.  Judas would later leave that room with clean feet and a hard heart.

‘The others might let you humiliate yourself like this, but you will never wash my feet.’  Jesus replies with a gentle rebuke, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’  So Peter says, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’  Jesus explains, “the one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.’  The picture may be of a man who has bathed before going to a feast.  When he arrives he doesn’t need another bath, but one the dirt washed off his feet from the journey.  ‘And you are clean.’  The picture may be that of a person who has bathed before going to a party.  On the journey they pick up dirt on their feet.  When they arrive they are clean.  They only need their feet washed.

We need to be clear what Jesus is teaching here.  Through his death on the cross we are cleansed from all of our sin.  There is now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus.  Even though we fail him daily our status as God’s beloved children never alters.  We never need to be bathed again, except for our feet.  Daily we are to go to God confessing how we have let him down and delighting in the fact that the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin.  Our status is secure but that does not mean that we are complacent about the numbing effects of disobedience.

Having washed their feet, Jesus wipes his hands, and puts on his outer garment.  But the awkwardness of the evening has only just begun.  ‘Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should also do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not above his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’

Read this command in light of the cross to which foot-washing points.  This foot-washing pointed ahead to the crucifixion.  It doesn’t matter if you never wash anyone’s feet, but being willing to serve one another central to what it means to follow Jesus.  The apostle Paul would later write to the Christians in Philippi and tell them that Jesus’ humility in going from heaven to the cross is the reason why we should consider others as being more significant than ourselves.

The cross is central to Jesus’ mission (21-30)

Jesus becomes troubled in spirit.  ‘One of you will betray me.’  The disciples look around the table at each other.  The tension must have been unbearable.  I am sure that they all stopped eating.

Peter has already earned a rebuke for speaking out of turn, so he motions to John, who reclining close to Jesus, to get him to ask who the betrayer is.  ‘Lord, who is it?’  ‘It is the one whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.’  He then takes a piece of bread, dips it and gives it to Judas.  Judas who had never been given a reason to hate Jesus; Judas who had been respected enough to be appointed treasurer; Judas who had long since despised the Lord, stealing from the purse; Judas who had already put in place his plans to hand Jesus over.  I suppose Jesus wasn’t the sort of Messiah he had been hoping for.  He wanted someone who would free the nation from the hated Romans, not someone who told people to go the extra mile when a Roman soldier forced you to carry his equipment.  Maybe the whole foot-washing thing had served to confirm that Jesus was not his sort of leader.  Judas takes the morsel, and Satan takes hold of him. 

Remember that Jesus voluntarily goes to the cross.  This was the hour for which he came.  The cross is the centre-piece of his mission.  Jesus was not simply some great moral example or wise teacher.  He is God the Son coming down from heaven to die to make rebels dearly loved children of God.  He even commands Judas to go and do what he is about to do.  Judas leaves immediately.  ‘And it was night.’

The cross must inspire us to love (31-38)

No sooner had Judas left than Jesus began to teach the remaining disciples about his departure.  He speaks of being glorified—while the world would mock him, the Father would be honoured, and his people will celebrate this death forever.

He speaks of the centrality of love.  He will soon tell them that greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.  The cross is the proof of Christ’s love for you and the inspiration to love each other.  Love is the key to our witness.  ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’  John would later write, ‘we love because he first loved us.  If anyone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:19-21).  If we refuse to love; if there are people we won’t take to; if we are holding a grudge, then we may say that we are born again, but our life is declaring something different.

If the cross is the model of Jesus’ love then surly we should be willing to lay down one’s life for one another.  But don’t tell people you are willing die for them if you are not willing to serve them in a thousand smaller ways!

The disciples were alarmed at Jesus talk of departure and poor Peter can contain himself no longer.  ‘Lord, where are you going?’  Jesus replies, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’  Jesus goes alone to the cross, but history tells us that Peter would later die a martyr’s death.  Then Jesus again displays his foreknowledge and predicts Peter’s denial.  Thankfully Peter’s failure will end with a beautiful picture of restoration.       


Bible commentator Don Carson points out that one of the most impressive things about Jesus on this night before the crucifixion is that while he is troubled in spirit and should be ministered to by the disciples he actually ministers to them because they can only think about what a loss it will be for them if Jesus departs.  On the night when all they can do is be absorbed with their own worries be now begins a major teaching which begins, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’

Friday, 4 September 2015

‘That you may believe’ (John 19:17-41)

I am not ashamed to tell you that I am a Munster Rugby supporter.  I have been to some of their biggest matches, if you look in my wardrobe you will find a couple of their jerseys, I have a Munster sticker on my car and I will happily tell complete strangers about my feelings for the team.  Even when I am with my Dublin friends I feel no need to hide my love of Munster.

What team do you support?  Maybe it is not a sport but a hobby, political party, a cause, a type of music or a television programme.  We all have things that make us passionate, and when the heart is full the mouth will speak.  It is natural to identify with the things we love!

But do we speak about Jesus?  Are you glad to be known as one of his people?  I know that it is more difficult to say ‘I belong to Jesus’ than ‘I support Munster’ because people think it is odd to be into God.  However, surely our love for him should put every other passion in the shade.

John tells us why he records Jesus’ crucifixion—‘that you may also believe’ (35).  One of the features of this belief is that it makes us go public about our love for Jesus.  Such a desire to stand by our man can be fuelled by thinking what about what we believe.

We believe Jesus is King of kings (17-22)

Jesus was crucified at a place outside Jerusalem called ‘The Place of the Skull’, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha, and we know it by the Latin translation ‘Calvary’.  There the crucified him.  Unlike the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’, none of the gospel writers draw out the gory details of what it looked like to be crucified, for their main purpose is simply to show us that meaning of what Jesus achieved.

They crucify him between two criminals.  Isaiah had foretold this hundreds of years earlier when he wrote of the crucifixion of the suffering-servant being ‘numbered among the transgressors’ (Is. 53:12).  Pilate has a sign put above Jesus’ head that reads, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ (19).  He is mocking Jesus, and does not realise how true his words are.  He has the sign written in three languages—Aramaic (the local language in Palestine), Latin (the language of Roman officialdom), and Greek (the language spoken throughout the empire).  Jesus is the Saviour of the World (4:42).

All through his gospel John has wanted us to see that Jesus is God’s promised eternal king.  Believing in Jesus involves enthroning him as your Lord.  His rule must shape your life.  Later we will meet Joseph of Arimathea who had ‘who feared the Jews’.  However, the opposite of the crippling fear of people, with their opinions of us, is the joyful fear of God.  Having Jesus as our king involves the reverent awe of a loyal subject—a fear of not living in a way that brings honour to our king.

We believe the evidence presented by the Old Testament (23-25)

John draws contrast between the four soldiers who divide Jesus’ garments and four of the women who stand by Jesus at the cross.  In his life, in his death and to this day Jesus divides people into one of only two camps—those who won’t take him seriously and those who stand by him to the end.

Notice that the casting of lots for Jesus’ tunic was ‘to fulfil the Scriptures’.  He presents us with evidence.  Including the evidence of how even minute details of Jesus’ death were prophesied centuries in advance.

In the Book of Psalms the Lord’s Anointed King declares, ‘they divided my garments among them, and for my clothing cast lots’ (22:18), ‘for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink’ (69:21b), and ‘he keeps all of his bones, not one is broken’ (34:20).  These and many other Old Testament prophecies find a fulfilment in this morning’s reading.  

The fact that Jesus’ death fulfils such minute prophecies reminds us that God is in charge of all that is going on.  Jesus’ enemies thought they were witnessing his defeat, but God was working all things for good.  No matter who is giving you a hard time, they are not mightier than God, and they have not knocked God off his throne.  Even in the midst of the darkness we have to trust that God knows what he is at.

Added to the evidence of Scripture being fulfilled is John’s own eyewitness testimony.  ‘He who saw this has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you may also believe’ (35).  John is putting his reputation on the line, and in the following decades he would endure much hardship because of his commitment to the truth he is sharing.  John doesn’t ask us to take a blind leap in the dark!

We believe we are part of a new family (26-27)

Sometimes the people who compose the church aren’t very good at loving the Christian who belong to it.  A friend told me that the people in her church don’t really enjoy hanging out with each other.  Writing after Munster’s first European Cup win one writer suggested that, ‘Maybe in years to come, the sociologists will decide that the Munster phenomenon was down to people needing to identify with a big-hearted and inclusive movement at a time when there was a dearth of such churches.’  Jesus prayed that his people would be one, ‘that the world may believe that you sent me’ (17:21), but the world doesn’t always see this truth lived out.

In a beautiful moment of compassion Jesus looks down from the cross and sees his mother.  By this stage she is almost certainly a widow.  He instructs John, ‘Behold, your mother!’  And from that hour the disciple took her into his own house (27).  It seems that his natural siblings did not yet believe in him.  So there may be significance in the fact that he entrusts her to John rather than to them.  Certainly Jesus saw the family bond we share with fellow believers as being more significant than the natural bonds of our blood relatives.  If Jesus loved our fellow-believers enough to die for them, is it too much for us to care for them?

We believe we are freed from condemnation (28-30)

The words ‘It is finished’ must be amongst the most comforting words in the Bible.  Jesus has accomplished the task for which he came.  It is because ‘it is finished’ that we can know peace with God, for he has taken the full punishment for our guilt.  It is because ‘it is finished’ that we can speak about being justified by grace only, not by works, so that no person can boast.  In fact if you are trying to prove yourself to God with your own reputation and good works, you are denying the gospel by seeking to add to what Jesus finished.  If you are allowing yourself be made miserable with regret over past failure then you are not grasping the full implications of ‘it is finished’.  It is because ‘it is finished’ that we delight in the fact that there is no condemnation for those who believe.

We believe in a godly sorrow that leaves no room for regret (31-37)

The Sabbath began on the Friday evening, so the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to ensure the bodies would not be left on the cross—which would break the Old Testament law.  Therefore, the soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals, to cause a swift death.  But they did not need to break Jesus’ legs because he had already given up his spirit.  To ensure that Jesus was certainly dead they pierced his side with a spear.  John points out that he saw this, in case anyone might believe the silly idea that Jesus never actually died.  This piercing fulfilled Scripture in a couple of ways.

The psalmist had spoken of none of the bones of the Lord’s Anointed being broken (34:20), but the Jews would have also remembered the preparations for the Passover (Ex. 12:46, Num. 9:12), which said that none of the lambs bones were to be broken.  John has repeatedly linked Jesus to the Passover.  Like the Passover lamb, Jesus dies as a substitute so that we can be spared from God’s judgement.

Another interesting fulfilment of Scripture comes is that ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced’ (37).  In Zechariah these words are in the first person—God says, ‘they look on me, whom they have pierced’ (Zech.12:10).  God has been pierced, because the unique Son of God is God the son.

But Zechariah gives a word of hope.  Listen to the context of the words John quotes.  ‘I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him … On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanliness’ (Zechariah 12:10-13:1). 

The old hymn asked, ‘were you there when they crucified my Lord?’  There is a sense that in our natural hostility towards Christ we shouted for his death and pierced his side.  When we remember that it was our sin that necessitated the crucifixion, we should be moved to the godly sorrow that produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret (2 Cor. 7:10). Believing involves a godly sorrow that leaves no room for regret.

We believe in being open about our allegiance to Christ (38-41)

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus make a brave move to ensure that he receives a proper burial.  Both these men were on the Jewish ruling council, so being a follower of Jesus would turn their lives upside down.  Previously Nicodemus had approached Jesus at night, and Joseph had been a secret disciple, for fear of the Jewish authorities.  But now they step out of the dark and go public.

There are times when Christians in the persecuted world have to meet in secret, so as not to be needlessly imprisoned.  But that is hardly the case for us.  All Christian know those times when God calls us to put up our hands and go public.  People want religion to be a private matter, but belief in Jesus often involves public declarations.  If love causes us to broadcast the team we support or the country we are from, how much more should love cause us to declare the Saviour who won us!

I realise that it is easier to speak about sport, hobbies or even politics than Jesus because people may see you as a religious nut when you tell them that you belong to him.  Indeed, it can be hard to speak about Jesus because there is a necessary offence in a gospel that tells people that they are condemned without Christ.  But what about the glorious things we believe?  That Christ died for us while we were yet sinners in fulfilment of what had been foretold; and that we will never experience a greater love than the Christ who considered us friends and laid down his life for us.  Rejoice in these truths, and let them emerge from your mouth.  Dwell on these things and make them your delight.  For when the heart is full, the mouth must speak!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Evidence that Deamnds a Verdict (John 20:24-31)

I read my first Sherlock Holmes book over the summer.  I loved it.  In it Sherlock declares, ‘… when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’  Sherlock is encouraging a careful examination of the evidence, and a willingness to follow that evidence wherever it leads.  I believe that John would have approved of such an approach.  John is not asking people to take a blind leap in the dark.

Sadly, many of our friends believe that a blind leap in the dark is all that Christianity offers.  The online version of the Collins Dictionary includes the following definition of faith: ‘strong or unshakable belief in something, especially without proof or evidence.’  But John says that he is a trustworthy eyewitness who has recorded these signs so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing we may have life in his name (20:31).  He wants us to move from evidence to belief in the person of Jesus, who is the only source of eternal life.  He has presented evidence that demands a verdict.

Thomas had no reason to doubt

I am not sure where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to the other disciples.  They saw him on the evening of the resurrection.  He spoke the words, ‘Peace be with you’ and their hearts were overjoyed at seeing him.  They spent the following week trying to convince Thomas of the good news of the resurrected Lord, but Thomas refused to believe.

I don’t know why Thomas refused to believe the words of the other disciples.  There was no reason for them to lie to him.  In fact Thomas had more reason than most to believe—he had witnessed the feeding of the five thousand and the raising of Lazarus, and he had heard Jesus explain how the promised Messiah would die and be raised from the dead.  Thomas’s doubt was not the result of a lack of evidence, and therefore Jesus gives him the loving rebuke, ‘stop doubting and believe!’

I am not saying that all doubt is a moral failing.  There may be innocent reasons why you are struggling with doubt at the moment.  Maybe someone has unsettled your belief by asking questions that you can’t answer.  The epistle of Jude was written to people who had been shaken by false-teachers, and Jude instructs the church to have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 22).  Talk to experienced Christians and ask them how they deal with these questions.  Doubt can also arise from the strains caused by illness in the family, grief or depression.  Why not pray with the man who approached Jesus declaring, ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief’?  But sometimes our doubt is rooted in the fact that we have failed to examine the evidence, won’t trust him in the storm or are refusing to accept the challenges presented by a risen Lord.

Jesus offers us peace with God

Thomas is presented with the same evidence that we are presented with as we read John’s Gospel—the reliable testimony of eyewitnesses to the resurrection.  Jesus says that we are blessed if we accept this evidence, and that Thomas was making an unreasonable demand.  ‘Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’  You can hear the stubborn defiance in his voice!

The next Sunday, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked, Jesus came and stood among them.  He greets them again with the words, ‘peace be with you’ and invites Thomas to touch his scars.  Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ glorious resurrection body shows the wounds of the crucifixion?  Someone has said that the only manmade things in heaven are the marks on Jesus’ body.  We sing of the scars that speak of sacrifice.  In heaven they worship the lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:12).      

‘Peace (Shalom) be with you,’ is the well-known and everyday greeting of Jews in Palestine, even to this day.  But although it was an everyday greeting it was loaded with profound significance.  All of the major Old Testament prophets used this word Shalom to describe the blessing of being a part of God’s kingdom.  The apostle Paul would later include the word peace in the greetings found in every one of his New Testament letters.  ‘Peace be with you’ is the great follow on from Jesus dying words, ‘It is finished’ (19:30), for sinful and rebellious world is offered peace with God by a crucified Christ who has taken the full punishment for our guilt. 

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.  The Christian does not need to dwell on past failures or fear future separation from God’s love.  We may not always feel at peace, but God no longer feels enmity towards us.  Forgiveness and reconciliation with God are central to the eternal life that is offered to us in Christ.  When Billy Graham wanted to write a book that summed up the blessing of being a Christian he chose the title, ‘Peace with God’.

Thomas declares that Jesus is his Lord and God

‘So it comes about that the most outrageous doubter of the resurrection of Jesus utters the greatest confession of the Lord who rose from the dead’ (Beasley-Murray); ‘my Lord and my God.’  Notice that Thomas speaks in the first person, ‘my’ Lord and ‘my’ God.  He is confessing Jesus to be Lord and God, and he is declaring himself to be a willing subject of Jesus.  No less a declaration of faith is demanded from us!

Thomas’s declaration of the full deity of Christ reminds us of the beginning of this gospel—there we heard that Word was God (1:1).  John then demonstrated that Jesus is the promised Christ and unique son of God foretold in the Old Testament.  He did this by recording the seven signs.  He also recorded seven ‘I AM’ sayings—which would have reminded John’s Jewish readers of God’s self-disclosure to Moses as the ‘I AM’.  Now he says that the eye-witness accounts of the resurrection should, added to everything else, should convince that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Conclusion—this is a message to be shared

Richard Dawkins writes, ‘Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’  Yet when the atheist C. S. Lewis examined the evidence for Christ he says that he became the most reluctant convert in all of England and wrote of his experiences in ‘Surprised by Joy’.  Josh McDowell believed that Christians were out of their minds, but when he examined the evidence he realised that Jesus was ‘More than a Carpenter’.  Lee Strobel was an award-winning journalist, who examined the evidence and later wrote ‘The Case for Christ.’  No one is asking you to take a leap in the dark.

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who believe though they have not seen’, not because he is encouraging blind faith, but because it is reasonable to accept the testimony of reliable eyewitnesses like the disciple John.  Indeed, John would stick by this story, even as the other disciples (including his brother James) and martyred, and he spends time imprisoned on the island of Patmos.

This gospel that he has written is primarily evangelistic—it is a message to be shared.   But he knows that the evidence must be accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit—for people run from the light, and no one can come to him unless the Father draws us (6:44).  This ought to make us the most humble people in the world—for we were spiritually dead rebels, but the Holy Spirit blew where he pleased and breathed life into us.  It also should drive us to prayer in the knowledge that our friends will resist this evidence unless God lovingly breaks their resistance.

Finally, we should delight to feed from John’s Gospel because it is a glorious message.  Apparently, John’s declaration of purpose can be read, ‘these are written that you may continue to believe’ (31a).  We are to preach this gospel daily to ourselves, for it nourishes, sustains us and brings us joy.  This will help us move us beyond the complacency that we all struggle with, for ‘when the heart is full, the mouth must speak’ (Hendrickson).

Friday, 7 August 2015

Donnacha O'Callaghan and a grace-filled start (Matthew 1:1-17)

I am a Munster fan.  So when Munster first won the European Cup I bought the book.  It begins with Donnacha O’Callaghan speaking:
“When I was a boy in Cork, playing rugby for my school, I came across something on the pitch one day after I’d scored a try.  I bent down and picked it up: it was a holy cross, on a chain.  I stuffed it into my pocket.  I still have it and I’ve never cleaned it up – there are probably still bits of Christian’s pitch stuck to it.  I keep the chain in an old make-up jar my sister gave me.  In there I’ve got a few religious things that are important to me.  The lads slag me over the jar.  That’s the Munster way.  Every now and then my mum picks up some holy water and puts a bit in there.  I consider myself religious.  Not in a big way – I’m not a religious freak or anything – but often I take the cross out of its jar and say a prayer to give thanks for the family I have, for everything that has happened me through rugby, for putting me a in a dressing room like ours.  There’s bound to be fellas out there that are as talented, if not more talented, than me.  I know I’ve been lucky.
I’d never pray to ask for anything, but before the Biarritz match I did.  I was about to pray as I normally would, but then I remembered thinking, ‘Please, just let us win this game.’  I almost wanted to sorry for doing it, for asking about a rugby match.  It was probably the wrong way to feel.  But it meant so much to me, my family and my friends.’”
Do those opening paragraphs make you want to read on?  They certainly made me want to!  That’s the writer’s intention.  The opening of a book is meant to get your attention and make you want to read on.
So what’s Matthew at?  Surely the most boring way you could begin a book is to record a genealogy!  However, this is a genealogy with a difference.  If you were a first-century Jew, and read this family line, I think you might have wanted to read on!
An astonishing claim
Not only are opening paragraphs aimed at grabbing your attention, opening sentences are also meant to hit you.  ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’, writes Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Matthew begins by writing, ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.’  That would have grabbed the attention of his Jewish readers.  You see, the Old Testament is full of promise, and every promise that is made finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus. 
He is the seed of Abraham, through whom the whole world will be blessed—we see a taste of this in the second chapter of Matthew, when the first people to come across Jesus are Gentile (non-Jewish) leaders referred to as Magi.  Look around at all of us, from many nations, who have been blessed to know Jesus!
He is the promised Son of David, whose kingdom will be established for ever.  Everything else is passing away—so much that we live for and strive after is passing away.  But the kingdom of Jesus is eternal.  Indeed, one day he will be seen in the fullness of his glory and the most important thing about our lives will be the decision that we made about him.  Jim Elliot, who died seeking to reach Auca Indians, along the Amazon, with the gospel was said, ‘he is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.’
A shocking genealogy
Having got past the first astonishing sentence a first-century Jew would have them been shocked by the genealogy that followed.  You see genealogies of that time generally only included men but this one records four very interesting women.
There is Tamar—who dressed up as a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah to have a child by her!  There is Rahab—a Canaanite who was a prostitute before she become a follower of the living God!  There is Ruth—from Moab, a ‘foreigner’, from a tribe that traced its roots back to a drunken sexual incident between Lot and his daughters.  There is Uriah’s wife—who committed adultery with David!
These women weren’t on the cover of a wholesome magazine like Woman’s Own.  They were reminders of the beautiful mercy and grace of God.  As one preacher points out, the ‘rescue work on the cross extended back through time to cover their sin just as it extends forward in time to cover our sin.’ 
This genealogy prepares us for the rest of Matthew’s Gospel.  In verse twenty-one we will be told that the child will be called Jesus (which means ‘the LORD saves’), because he will save his people from their sins.  In chapter nine Jesus will give his mission statement as being to come not for the righteous but sinners (like Tamar, Bathsheba, you and me).  In chapter fifteen is will be a Canaanite woman (a non-Jew, outsider, Gentile, from the nations person) like Rahab and Ruth who shows the sort of faith that so many Jewish men (privileged insiders) fail to place in Jesus.  We are been shown that this gospel was ready for the shores of Ireland, Nigeria, Korea, South Africa and every yet unreached culture.
Reggie and Ronnie Kray were notorious gangsters in 1960’s London.  They both ended up in prison.  There Ronnie came across a book by a Christian pastor called Ken Stallard.  He was so interested in this book that he got in contact with this pastor to ask if he would come and visit.
As they talked Ronnie asked Ken Stallard, ‘What does God make of me, a murderer?’  So Ken showed him the story of Moses in the Bible—he was a murderer but he was used greatly of God.  He spoke of the thief on the cross, who at his death found peace with God through Jesus.  And he pointed out that Jesus defined his mission saying, ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’  Ronnie was aghast.  ‘No one ever told me God was like that!’
Ken Stallard got to know both the Krays, and at one stage he was talking to Reggie when the conversation turned to faith.  Ken asked Reggie, ‘Are you sorry for what you have done in life.’  He was.  ‘Do you want to know Jesus’ forgiveness?’  He did!  So Ken prayed and Reggie prayed.
Then Reggie said something strange to Ken.  ‘I don’t want you to tell anyone about this, because I don’t the parole board to think I’ve pretended to get religion in order to get out early.’  Ken Stallard preached at Reggie’s funeral, where he told them of Reggie’s prayer.
‘No one ever told me that Jesus was like that!’  Are we humble enough to admit that we are simply broken rebels who Christ has put back together?  Are we willing to admit that we are hopeless failures who depend of Christ’s overflowing grace?  Or, do our words and actions speak of self-righteous, vain, proud, do-goodism?
Donnacha O’Callaghan says, ‘I consider myself religious.  Not in a big way – I’m not a religious freak or anything . . .’
That worries me!  You see this gospel is so big and beautiful that we can never be into Jesus in a big enough way.  He sees people, who are too serious about their religion, as religious freaks.  We should be privileged to be thought of as a Jesus-freak.  Jesus calls us to put him before anything else in life.  We are to be sold out for God.  Our lives should overflow with gratitude for God’s amazing grace!

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Some musings

It's been a while since I have posted anything.  So a few thoughts:

1.  My apologies that I post so many sermons.  A blog is not the best format for sermons.   Blog posts need to be shorter.  It's just that I want to have somewhere where I can access them.

2.  I have realised that if I want people to read a post then it is best to link it to my Facebook page.  But you can't do that all the time.  For example, this musing will not be linked.

3.  It is interesting to see what posts gets most hits.  'Romance in Nigeria' far outstrips the rest.  However, I suspect that those who are landing on this post are actually looking for romance in Nigeria, rather than hearing about how my parents met.

4.  Like so much in our culture, blogs are an offshoot of thinking to much of ourselves and our opinions.  This blog is not immune from such vanity.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

‘The why, who and how of death’ (Luke 13:1-5)

This summer we have had plenty of reminders of the fragility of life.  We have seen young Irish students die in a balcony collapse in California, there have been the shootings in North Carolina and Tunisia, and much closer to home we have had the death of our beloved sister Flora.  Many people ask the question ‘why?’ when death comes to our door, but I also want to look at the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of death.
1.  We are not told why tragedy strikes some and not others
In Jesus’ day the popular thinking was that if tragedy struck your home you must have done some specific wrong.   Yet Jesus takes two events from that time and says that they did not happen because the people were worse sinners than others.
This passage begins with some people telling Jesus about people from Galilee who Pilate murdered, and then added their blood to the sacrifices they were offered.  They were the victims of someone else’s brutality—like the victims in Tunisia, North Carolina.  Many people asked, ‘where was god on 9/11?’
Jesus knows what these people are thinking and asked, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?’  He then answers his own question, ‘I tells you, no!’   
Then he reminds them of the terrible accident where eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell on them.  A tragic accident—like the collapsing balcony in Berkeley!  Again Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?’  ‘No …’
There are times when God punishes those in blatant rebellion against him and even uses illness to lovingly discipline his children.  But the passage that we have before us reminds us that we can never assume that anyone’s illness or death is due to a particular sin in their life.  My favourite Bible Commentator, Don Carson, writes:
'Practically speaking … it is almost always wrong, not to say pastorally insensitive and theologically stupid, to add to the distress of those who are suffering illness, impending death, or bereavement, by charging them with either some secret sin they have not confessed or inadequate faith … The first charge wrongly assumes that there is always a link between a specific ailment and a specific sin; the second wrongly assumes that it is always God’s will to heal any ailment, instantly, and he is blocked from doing so only by inadequate or insufficient faith.' 
We are not told why some people live to an old age and others die in the prime of their life.  We are not told why all of the apostles, except for John, died before they were old.  We are not told why Elijah was taken in a chariot to heaven while Elisha dies of an illness.  Job’s children had committed any specific wrong to cause them to die in a disaster.  There is something of a frustrating silence when we ask ‘why me?’, ‘why this?’, or ‘why now?’
2.  We are told how death entered our world
The Bible might not tell us why some suffer in some ways and others suffer in different ways, it does tell us how we ended up living in a world where death affects everyone. 
The book of Genesis tells us of the rebellion of the original humans.  Satan tempted them saying, ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.’  It was an act of treason—an unwillingness to live under God’s loving rule.  Everything changed with that act of evil.  The apostle Paul writes, ‘just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12).  The reality is that even those who survive accidents and avoid illness eventually die too.  I walked by a funeral home yesterday and was reminded of the story of the unpopular undertaker who used to sign his letters, ‘yours eventually.’
The great Christian thinker Francis Schaffer died of cancer. In the latter part of his life, when he realised that he was dying, he said that it was the Bible’s teaching on the fall that helped him and his family grasp what was happening from a Christian angle. In an article he said, ‘I think I can best explain my own reaction to the news that I had cancer by telling you the response of my four children. Each said the same thing in their own way. “Dad, we couldn’t have taken it if you hadn’t emphasised the fall so completely in your teaching.” It is the same for myself,’ wrote Schaffer, ‘I feel that no Christian can face honestly the troubles and the obscenities of this life—the sorrows, the tears, the ugliness, the cruelties unless we have a very firm belief and comprehension of what the fall is all about; and what we have to realise is that we live in an abnormal world, and not to be surprised when these things come upon us as they do other people.’
3. We are told who is the answer to death
No words are more triumphant, in the face of death, than when Jesus declares, ‘I am the resurrection of the life, they who believe in me, though they shall die, yet will they live.’  Jesus is the person who is the answer to death.
Death and life are deep words in the New Testament, with a number of layers of meaning.  Death can refer to the physical death that all people face, the spiritual death of life lived without outside of a personal relationship with God, and the eternal death that results from passing from this world without having turned to Christ in faith—for hell is referred to as the second death!  Life is the fact that we live and breathe, and a description of the blessing of living in a personal relationship with God, and the eternity of bliss that the Christian looks forward to.
Jesus says, ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will likewise perish.’  Every death we witness is a reminder that life is fragile and that we must be prepared for life beyond death.
‘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’ (John 3:16).  Through her living faith in Jesus, Flora knew life in all its fullness, as she enjoyed a love relationship with God through Jesus.  Because of her faith in Jesus she has being brought from this life into an eternity where there will be no more cancer of tears.  All this is because Jesus died as a substitute for her guilt on that cross, satisfying the demands of God’s holy justice, and making a people who are washed and transformed by the grace of God.
David Watson was a well-known speaker who died of cancer in 1984.  He wrote about his struggle with that illness in a book entitled “Fear no evil.”  In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid.  Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves.  In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me . . .”  ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54). 

Monday, 8 June 2015

Cross-shaped generosity

When Tim Keller was a young pastor working in his first church, a single-mother with four children began attending the services.  It soon became clear that she had severe financial difficulties, and a number of people suggested that the church should do something to help.  So the deacons were assigned to visit her, and the church gave her money to help her pay outstanding bills.  However, three months later, it emerged that instead of paying off her bills with the church money, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had brought each child a new bike.  Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money.  Understandably people were perplexed.  One deacon furiously exclaimed, ‘no way do we give her any more.  This is the reason that’s she’s poor—she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses!  That was God’s money and she wasted it.’
This evening I want to suggest that we must not neglect the poor, even those we think that they are undeserving.  For our attitude towards the poor reflects our understanding about the character of God and his gospel.
1.  Compassion for the poor reflects the character of God
It should thrill our heart to see that God champions the cause of the poor.  Our God is merciful and gracious.  ‘The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made’ (Psalm 145:9).  We should champion things like fair trade because his word tells us that he wants, justice to ‘roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (Amos 5:24).  ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God’ (Proverbs 14:31).  He is even generous towards those who despise him, sending the sun and rain on both the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).  The cross reminds us of God’s desire for justice, for our God does not turn a blind eye towards our evil, but satisfies his demands of justice, being both just and the justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). 

In the Old Testament God shows a special concern for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the migrant.  ‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor’ (Zech. 7:10).  These four groups are highlighted because they were the most vulnerable people of that day.  Who would we put on the list of most vulnerable in our society?  ‘Do not oppress the homeless, the mentally-ill, the single-parent or those in direct provision.’
2.  Compassion is to be modelled on God’s kindness to us

I heard of a Christian leader who believed that the cross, as a symbol, was bad public-relations for the church.  But our message is Christ crucified, and Christ crucified isn’t just about having our sins forgiven, it’s to shape everything.
This logic is seen in the Old Testament, where God’s commands to care for the vulnerable are often spoken in terms of the great rescue event of the Exodus.  ‘Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there.’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).  They are to be generous because God has been generous to them.  He has shown them kindness is rescuing them from slavery. 
Of course the Exodus looked forward to a greater rescue—through the death of Jesus, God has rescued us from slavery to sin and condemnation even while we were his enemies.  You should show grace, because God has demonstrated grace to you.  You should be kind, because God has been kind to you.  You should care about the enslaved, because God has rescued from slavery to sin, condemnation and death.
Tim Keller writes that ‘there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor’ and that, ‘when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.’
3.   The Cross demonstrated compassion to the undeserving

In 1700s America, Jonathan Edwards was known for his gospel preaching.  He was famous for his sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God.’  Yet he saw that the gospel he preached must impact our attitude towards those less fortunate than himself.  However, when he encouraged his people to care for the poor, many came to him with objections.  So he wrote a sermon entitled, ‘The Duty of Care to the Poor.’  It dealt with eleven objections that people gave towards giving charity.
One objection Edwards dealt with was when people declare that the poor person ‘deserves not that people should be kind to him. He is of a very ill temper, of an ungrateful spirit’ and, in particular, he has treated us badly. 
We might say, ‘the problem with the homeless is their addictions.’  We might say, ‘the problem with the unemployed is that they have not tried hard enough.’  Not only do such comments reveal that we don’t understand the complexity of homelessness and unemployment, they reveal a lack of understanding of the gospel.  Gospel-centred people know that God didn’t wait until we deserved before he came to our help.
Edwards wrote, ‘Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving any good, but deserving only to be hated, and treated with indignation; so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving. Christ loved us, and laid himself out to relieve us, though we were his enemies, and had treated him ill.  So we, as we would love one another as Christ hath loved us, should relieve those who are our enemies, hate us, have an ill spirit toward us, and have treated us ill.’
4.  The cross demonstrates sacrificial love

When people said that they had nothing to spare, Edwards suggested that what many meant is that they could not afford to give without it actually being a burden to them.  So he emphasised the beauty of sacrificial love.
Think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan is moved with ‘compassion’ (the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is only used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his stories who reflect his attitude).  It costs the Samaritan to care, as he uses all his available resources (oil, cloth, time, energy and money) to help.  The Samaritan is exposed to personal risk by putting the injured man on his donkey (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for bandits and having a man on your donkey slowed you down and made you more vulnerable to ambush).  Bible writer, Ken Bailey, points out that a Samaritan arriving into a village with a wounded Jew on his donkey was open to dangerous misunderstanding (like an Indian arriving into Dodge City with an injured cowboy draped over his horse, he might be considered to be the main suspect to the man’s injuries).  He then gives the innkeeper two denarii (which would have covered food and lodging for at least a week), and then commits himself to return to settle any outstanding bills.  This is sacrificial love towards someone he never met before.
Such sacrificial loving is demonstrated perfectly by Jesus.  Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).  ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
But where do we draw the boundaries between ourselves and others?  In a world of need what luxuries can I justify?  How much time to I give to my lonely neighbour? 
One of the beauties of the gospel is that it doesn’t present us with a list of rules which would either take the joy out of service or limit us to obligation.  Many people would like to be told what percentage of their time and income they should give to the vulnerable.  But if we were given such a rule we would be prone to obeying the letter of the law, and not think about what we do with what money and time remains.  Jesus wants all of our time and money to be under his loving rule.  He doesn’t give us a law but graciously instructs that we ‘should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).  The only way you are going to know how to give well is by having a heart that is being shaped by the Holy Spirit.
What about burn out and the need for rest?  He is our gentle Saviour who knows our needs.  A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering reed he will not snuff out (Matthew 12:20).  Take advice from trusted friends who are courageous enough to challenge you, but caring enough to see when you need to slow down.

Tim Keller writes, ‘we tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does—through guilt.  This doesn’t work, because we have a built in defence mechanisms against such appeals … however, when justice for the poor is not connected to guilt but to the gospel, this “pushes a button” down deep in the believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up.’
The gospel reflects the beautiful character of the God who cares for the vulnerable; a God who sent his Son for underserving, spiritually bankrupt people; and a God who inspires us to sacrificial service.  But he wants us to live this sacrificial life, not so much because he needs our time and money, but because he desires that we would experience the joy of being instruments in the redeemer’s hands.  For sacrificial service should have an element of delight in it, as we realise that it is more blessed to give than receive.
So, how did the church that Tim Keller led deal with the woman who spent the money given to her on meals out and treats for the kids?  Keller made the point that if they gave no more money to the family the children would suffer because of the poor choice of the mother.  As time went by it became clearer to the deacons that the reason that she had squandered the church’s money on restaurants and new bikes was that she felt terribly guilty for the poor life she was giving her kids.  She wanted the children to feel like they were a part of a normal family for once.  As the deacons truly engaged with her their hearts began to become more sympathetic.  Nevertheless, they insisted that she pay off the most pressing bills and formulate a plan to get better skills and a better job.  They also realised that all of her problems were not financial and sought ways to support her in raising her children.  She agreed to work with the deacons and over time the family’s life began to improve.
Do you know how to win in Monopoly?  When I play monopoly I want the car—because a car seems more real than an iron or a thimble.  Then I buy everything—because later on in the game someone will want that piece of property, and pay me far more than I spent on it.  And, if you want to win at Monopoly, show no mercy—even when the lip on the ten-year-old you are playing begins to quiver.  Show no mercy, call in all your debts and then, when you have won, go down to the corner-shop with all you Monopoly money and treat yourself. 
Of course, the man in the shop is going to look at you and remind you that the game is over.  That Monopoly money is only paper, once the board has been put away.
One day this life’s game will also be over.  We will then realise that so much of what we put our energy into in this life is as worthless as Monopoly money.  But the cross-shaped generosity that we have shown in this life will have a significance that will pass with us into all eternity, and be a cause of eternal celebration.