Friday, 27 November 2015

The enemy within

The rewards and threats of the flesh
You are something of a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.  You want to do what is good, but you do what is evil.  You desire to please God, but you end up doing the things he hates.  You see the sinful nature lives in you, we have an enemy within.
The sinful nature knows how to make a fool of you.  It offers you rewards.  The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of Moses ‘who chose not to enjoy the pleasures of sin’ (11:25-26).  These rewards are enticing.  Starring at that lady jogger actually realises endorphins.  Fantasising about another man relieves some of the sin of having to live with Mister Not-So-Perfect.  Gossip really is juicy.  Laziness is comfortable.  A critical spirit gives a great sense of superiority.  Gluttony tastes good for a while.  Indeed sin is like pigging out on junk food—it seems nice for a moment but ends up leaving you feeling sick.
If the sinful nature can’t get you with the carrot it will threaten you with a stick.  When Moses forsook the pleasures of sin he had to endure being mistreated and disgrace.  Generosity is costly.  Kindness takes effort.  It is not easy to tell the truth.  If you think people are easy to love then you don’t really know very many of them.  Giving up resentment feels like death.  Forgiveness requires letting go of bitterness.  The sinful nature will remind you of the cost of holiness.  The writer to the Hebrews speaks of resisting sin to the point of shedding blood (12:4).  The Christian life is not for the timid!
The enemy of the flesh
Thankfully, all is not lost.  Not only does the sinful nature dwell within you, but, if you are born again, the Holy Spirit dwells in your heart.  Every Christian has been given a new heart (Ezek. 36:26).  We have the mind of Christ (Rom. 8:26).  God grants us new desires (2 Cor. 5:2).  While the sinful nature within us wars against the Spirit, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us wars against the sinful nature (Gal. 5:17). 
One fruit of the Holy Spirit is a hatred of sin.  It is not that the Christian cannot sin, but they cannot ultimately be happy in their sin.  Sin makes us feel miserable.  There is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance, which leaves no room for regret (2 Cor. 7:10).  The Anglican Book of Common Prayer says, ‘we weep and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions.’  If you are not sorry about the sin in your life then I doubt that you are born again.  If you have made a truce with your sinful nature then you are in grave spiritual danger.  We should actually be asking God to reveal more of our sin so that we could seek his help to change.  ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart … See if there is any offensive way within me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Ps. 139:23-25).
The battle of the mind
The battle against the sinful nature begins in the mind.  Think of Joseph.  His master’s wife said, ‘Come to bed with me!’  She was relentless in pursing him day after day.  He knew she could make his life miserable.  But he applied his reason.  His mind was protected by two truths: the awfulness of sin (‘how could I do such a wretched thing?’) and the goodness of God (‘how could I sin against God?’).  Remember that every sin is a matter of forsaking the God whose love endures forever (Jer. 2:19).
Keep the cross in view.  It is at the cross where we most clearly see the wretchedness of sin and the goodness of God.  As one writer puts it, ‘If you want to know how infinitely deep the rot of sin reaches, you have to think through the implications of the cross.  If you want to know how far God is willing to go to rescue you from sin, you have to see his precious Son hanging on the cross for you.’  Centre all your prayers on the cross of Christ.
But the battle is often lost in the mind.  The sinful nature preaches a distorted gospel.  ‘Go ahead and sin.  Hasn’t Christ’s blood already paid for that transgression?’  The sinful nature loves to divide and conquer (remember you cannot serve both God and money, and you cannot both love the world and God).  The sinful nature provides great excuses.  ‘Sure you are only human, and everyone else is doing it.’  When you find some measure of victory in one area of sin the sinful nature then tempt you towards the greater sin of pride.
Cultivate intimacy in God
The Psalmist asks, ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to your word!’ (Ps. 119:9).  The Bible displays the beauty of God, centres of the death of Jesus and promises to work within us.  It can change our mind.  Allow this book to fill you with the thoughts of the character, glory, majesty, love, beauty and goodness of God.
God has also given us prayer.  Strive for an intimate relationship with God.  But realise that the sinful nature will fight tooth and nail to get you not to pray.  Getting out of bed in the morning to pray is a battle (the sinful nature knows about the snooze button).  When you get down to praying don’t be surprised that your mind is filled with distracting thoughts.  The sinful nature will even remind you of all the urgent and good things that you could do instead of spending time talking with God.  We have to be prepared to sacrifice the good for the best.
It is those who are truly heavenly-minded who will be holy.  Look forward to what awaits you.  ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure’ (1 John 3:2-3). 
The benefits of holiness
What are the benefits of holiness? 
Assurance of salvation is one of the benefits of holiness.  Without holiness no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14).  We grow in our confidence that Christ has saved us as we see evidence of the new desires and actions that the Holy Spirit enables. 
Intimacy with God is a benefit of holiness.  Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).  As Don Carson explains, ‘The pure in heart are blessed because they will see God.  Although this is not ultimately true until the new heaven and earth, yet it is true even now.  Our perception of God and his ways, as well as our fellowship with him, depends on our purity of heart’.
Avoiding the negative consequences of sin is a benefit of holiness.  The psalmist declares, ‘many are the woes of the wicked’ (Ps. 32:10).  The apostle Paul warns us that we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:8-10).  While we may know God’s forgiveness sometimes the evil we do nevertheless results in consequences that hurt us.
Holiness makes us beautiful.  Humankind was made in the image of God.  But when Adam and Eve sinned we were given over to corruption (Romans 5:12-21).  We are still God’s image-bearers (Genesis 9:6, James 3:9), but the image is distorted (Genesis 6:5 and Ecclesiastes 7:29).  A beauty has been lost.  Yet as God transforms our lives he restores this beauty.  He not only want to make us more like Adam, before he fell, but like the wonderful human of all, Jesus.  Holiness is beautiful.  The godly man displays the wonderful virtue of a kind strength.  The gentle woman has an inner beauty that outward appearance can never match (see Proverbs 31:30).    
A labour of love
Let holiness be a labour of love.
Love is a powerful force.  ‘Love is as strong as death … it burns like a blazing fire … rivers cannot wash it away’ (Song of Songs 8:6-7).  Jesus said, ‘if you love me you will obey my commands.’  Love delights in the thought that our little lives, taught and enabled by the Holy Spirit of God, can actually bring pleasure to our Father in heaven.
But never think that your efforts to be holy are paying God back for saving your soul.  Holiness is actually his gift to you.  Apart from him you can do no good thing.  He is the one who stirs up the desire to be holy and who enables us to overcome temptation.  So ‘good deeds do not pay back grace, they borrow more grace’ (John Piper).  Our God wants us to go deeper in debt to grace.  He wants us to draw freely from his infinite love and enabling so that we might experience the ever-increasing joy of a life that is being made more like Jesus.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

‘More than the Saviour of a Wedding’ (John 2:1-11)

One evening in 1991, on BBC 1’s Wogan show, a former Coventry City goalkeeper made an amazing claim.  David Icke said that he was the Son of God.  The packed studio audience responded with laughter and ridicule.  The press said that he was mentally ill.  Icke later had to qualify the sense in which he had used the term.
John makes the same declaration about Jesus.  He says that Jesus is the Son of God.  He records a number of miracles (or ‘signs’) of Jesus to demonstrate this.  But what do we make about John’s testimony and his claims about Jesus.  Do we dismiss them with the new atheists, or ignore them like so many people who refuse to make up their mind about Christ?
With regards to John’s testimony, he is adamant that he was an eye-witness to these things and that he can be trusted.  Personally, I see no reason to doubt his credibility as a witness.  After all his claims about Jesus resulted in his spending time imprisoned on the island of Patmos, and his own brother died for being a Christ-follower.  Do people allow themselves be imprisoned or are they willing to die for something that they made up?
With regards to the miracles (or ‘signs’), we will see that what we have here is more than a simple party-trick designed to get someone out of a tight corner.  What Jesus does at Cana is a massive pointer as to who he really is and what he came down from heaven to do.
The Cross is the hour when Jesus fully reveals his identity (1-3)
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee, Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  It was the end of the first week of Jesus’ public ministry.  It is two days after his encounter with Nathaniel (at the end of the last chapter) and the disciples are about to witness one of the ‘greater works’ that Jesus had spoken of.  At this stage he has called just five of the twelve disciples and has not yet preformed any miracles.
Jesus is at a wedding.  He was no killjoy.  He attended parties.  But he never forgot his mission in life.  He was a very purposeful person.  In everything he sought to bring glory to God.  When we are at parties we must not forget who we are to God, and we should always act in a way that seeks to bring God glory.
But there was a problem at this wedding.  The bridegroom had one major responsibility—to get the wine sorted!  Not only was his bride going to give him an earful about his organisational skills or lack of generosity, in that shame-culture he is going to lose credibility. In that culture there were certain obligations to the guests, and it was not unheard of for the groom’s family to end up facing legal proceedings in such a situation.
So Mary approaches her son and said to him, “They have no more wine.”
Jesus’ response is sounds surprising to our ears.  ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? . . . My time [literally ‘my hour’] has not yet come.’
This is the first of many references in John’s Gospel to Jesus’s ‘hour’.  In John the term ‘hour’ almost always refers to the events that surround the cross.  Jesus is cautious about revealing his identity as Messiah until that hour because there were so many false-expectations about what the promised Messiah would be like.  Indeed, there is something quite private in how Jesus preforms this sign.
Christianity makes no sense without the events surrounding the cross.  Jesus knew that you could not understand his mission until you saw the events of his hour.  But not everyone understands this.  I heard a mission leader explain that his organisation did not include the cross in their logo because he felt that the cross was bad public relations in our age. 
But what do you get if you take the cross out of Christianity?  You get ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’.  ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ is a term that was coined after a study of the beliefs of three thousand American young people.  It is the belief that being a good and moral person is central to a happy life; religion is mainly concerned with feeling good or being at peace with oneself; and that God exists to take care of human needs.  Beware that you don’t swallow a false-gospel of a God without wrath who brings a people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministry of a Christ without a cross (H. Richard Niebuhr).
Only Jesus can give us the life that we were made for (4-10)
Before the wedding meal the servants would have poured water on the hands of every guest. This was not about hygiene, it was a religious ritual.  It was a part of the ritual associated with the Covenant made in the Old Testament.  This washing served as a reminder of the fact that we have been unclean in God’s sight and need his cleansing.
Jesus sees six stone jars—the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing—and tells the servants to fill them to the brim with water.  Then the servants draw the water and take it to the master of the banquet—who was apparently one of the guests charged with presiding over the commencements.  The master of the banquet doesn’t realise where it had come from—only the disciples, Mary and the servants know!  He is impressed with the quality of this wine.  So he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
It is surely significant that Jesus uses the jars that were for ritual purification.  The old covenant, with its ritual cleansings, was a gift from God.  However, it pointed forward to something better.  The old water would be replaced with new wine.  The ritual washings could not provide permanent relief for a conscience troubled by failure.  But the cross shows us how all our sin has been dealt with.  The old covenant had a law that should people how they should live, but didn’t enable them to do so.  The new covenant that Jesus inaugurates promises a law written on our hearts and the strength to obey.
The abundance of this wine is also significant—Jesus gave far more than was needed.  The prophet Amos had looked forward to a time of blessing when wine would flow from the mountains and hills (Amos 9:13).  Now God, in the person of God the Son, is bringing about such blessing.  Jesus’ presence saved the party and made it a much better wedding to be at and what Jesus did at that party he offers to do in our lives!  C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘… most people, if they really had learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.  There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise’ (Mere Christianity).  We end up empty when we try to find our satisfaction in the latest purchase.  Many you people thing that the ache in their soul would disappear if they found the right partner (it won’t).  Many people put an intolerable strain on their marriages by expecting that their spouse can make them truly whole.  The truth is, we search in vain for meaning and purpose if our search does not lead us to Jesus.   
One person who grasped the cleansing, transformation and satisfaction that comes through the wine of the new covenant was a convict called Harold Morris.  He later wrote, ‘… a person in Christ becomes a new creature.  Old habits and attitudes were replaced as the Spirit of God worked in my life.  The vengeance that I had nourished for five years and the rebellious spirit that had been a driving force in my life relaxed their grip when Christ took control.  Little by little he replaced my hatred with his love.  Sometimes I lay in the prison-yard looking at the sky and relishing the joy and peace I had found in Christ.  The bars and fences were still there, as were the guards with their high-powered rifles.  But I had an inner strength I’d never known before – the very presence of Christ.’
Conclusion: This sign shows us who Jesus is so that we may believe in him and have life in all its fullness.
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee.  He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
When David Icke claimed, on the Wogan show, that he was the Son of God people responded with laughter and ridicule, and the press claimed that he must be mentally ill.  What’s your verdict on this man who claims to be God the Son?
John recorded this sign, which is loaded with meaning, so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (the verb can be translated ‘go on believing’, and reminding ourselves of these signs is one of the ways God keeps us going in the faith).  Jesus did this so that we would do what the disciples did—put our faith in him.  For it is only through faith in Jesus that we can know life that is rescued from the pain of guilt, that is free from the voice of condemnation, that experiences the transforming power of Christ’s presence within us and has the hope of a greater banquet that awaits us when this life is through.
Finally, one Bible-commentator writes, ‘this miracle can happen again as the water of guilt, habitual failure and legalism, is transformed by the word of the risen Jesus into the wine of forgiveness, victory and joyful obedience.’

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Joy of been Sent (John 20:19-23)

A woman goes into a shop and says to the shopkeeper, 'I would like five euro worth of religion please.'
'What? Five euro of religion! How much religion is that?'
'Well,' she answers, 'I would like enough religion to easy my sense of guilt, but not so much that it would demand me to forgive other people.  I would like enough religion to make me a part of a church, but not so much that I would have to love the awkward people in that church.  I would like enough religion to convince my friends that I am respectable, but not so much that they would think I am a religious-freak.  I want comfort, but not challenge.  I want heaven when I die, but I do not want to die to myself in this life.  Oh, and I like some of the things Jesus says.  Could you throw him into the mix?'
So the shop-keeper flicks through his catalogue.  ‘Under the heading of Jesus it says that you are not meant to pick and mix.  There seems to be no part-time option.  I can't even see any retirement date or time off.  Sorry, with Jesus it's seems to be all or nothing.'
In this morning’s passage we see comfort (‘peace be with you’) and challenge (‘I am sending you’).  They go hand-in-hand.
Jesus brings people peace
The atmosphere in the room must have been tense.  The doors were locked for fear of the Jewish authorities.  There is shame—‘we deserted Jesus’.  There is confusion—‘Peter and John found the tomb empty’.  There is bewilderment—‘Mary Magdalene claims that she has seen Jesus.’
Then, amazingly, Jesus stands amongst them.  He greets them with the traditional 'Shalom!'  His first words could have been accusation, ‘where were you when I needed you most?’  Instead he offers these guilty failures a word of comfort.
Jesus would have used this greeting many times, but this is the first time John records its use.  John wants us to see the special significance here.  In the Old Testament ‘Shalom’ is associated with the blessing of God, and especially with the salvation that God would bring through his Messiah.  John records ‘peace be with you’ twice, and in between Jesus shows them his hands and side.  It is because the lamb was slain that we can experience piece with God.
This is more than the peace we feel when we walk in the woods or have the house to ourselves.  This is more like a declaration that war is over.  For without the death of Christ we would be condemned, the objects of God’s holy anger and awaiting the final judgement.  But Christ died for the ungodly, and not those who see themselves as good.  He declared, ‘it is finished’ as he took the full punishment for all the evil that is in us.  This is why he can declare, ‘peace be with you.’  This should delight our heart!
The telephone rang at about three in the morning.  It was the local hospital ringing about a man who was very ill and wanted to speak to a minister.  The minister had never met this man before, and the man wasn’t a churchgoer.  But this man knew that he was seriously ill and he was feeling troubled.  So the minister asked if he could help and the man’s eyes welled up with tears.  Seeing that the man didn’t know what to say the minister prompted him:  ‘Do you want to make your peace with God?’  The man responded that he did.  So in the dead of night, in the quiet of a hospital ward, with everyone around sleeping, the minister explained that although we all have rejected God, and although we deserve to be punished by him, Jesus took that punishment on the cross for us, so that we can have peace with God.  The minister then prayed a simple prayer with that man, who prayed along with him.  The next morning the minister called into the hospital but was told that the man had died in the night.  The nurse told the minister that he had gone to sleep after he’d left and that he had died, ‘peacefully in his sleep.’  As that minister latter explained, ‘He was troubled; he met the Lord Jesus; he understood the cross ... Peace with God.  That’s what Jesus’ death achieved, and his resurrection was that guarantee of that.’
Jesus sends us out to share this peace
With the comfort (‘peace be with you’) comes the challenge (‘I am sending you’).  Stepping out can be difficult! 
During my first term in college I was going to a Christian Union meeting when someone from my class came up and asked where I was going.  I panicked.  So I simply pointed in the direction of the building to which we were going and replied, ‘that way.’  I wouldn’t tell him that I was going to a Christian meeting because I was embarrassed about my faith.
But Christ sends us for God’s glory and our good.  One Christian leader said, ‘nothing can wholly satisfy the life of Christ within his followers except the adoption of Christ’s purpose toward the world he came to redeem.  Fame, pleasure and riches are not but husks and ashes in contrast with the boundless and abiding joy of working with God for the fulfilment of his eternal plans. The men [people] who are putting everything into Christ’s undertaking are getting out of life its sweetest and most precious rewards’ (J. Campbell Morgan, 1909).
The Holy Spirit equips us to share the message of peace
A couple of weeks ago Chris Harper-Mercer went into a classroom of Umpqua College in Oregon.  He secured the room and got the attention of the students.  He took his handgun and shot the professor dead at point blank range.  He then got the students to stand up and state their religion.  He was targeting the Christians.  Before shooting them he would declare, ‘because you are a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about a second.’
I don’t think that it makes you less spiritual that you find the thought of sharing your faith difficult.  Some people are wired to more outgoing than others.  If sharing you faith seems daunting I have two words of comfort for you—you are not alone and you are not alone.
You are not alone in being scared.  I assume that many of those disciples felt scared when they realised that they were being sent back into the very world that lay beyond those locked doors. True courage is not the absence of nerves but the willingness to step out and overcome them.   
You are not alone because God goes with you.  ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (it won’t be easy) ‘but take heart.  I have overcome the world.’  Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’  I think this giving of the person of the Holy Spirit as a little taster of what will happen more fully when the Day of Pentecost arrives.  Since the Day of Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit has been given to all God’s people.  He will enable us to stand firm.  He will open up opportunities.  He will take of inadequate words and use them.  Read the book of Acts and see how the person of the Holy Spirit transformed these fearful disciples.
Before we finish we need to ask what Jesus means when he says, ‘if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’  I don’t think he is giving these individuals the authority to forgive people their sins or withhold God’s forgiveness from them.  I think that he is saying that as we share the good news of Jesus we are declaring that those who trust in him can be assured of being forgiven and we warn those who refuse him that there is no forgiveness apart from him.
‘I’d like five euro worth of religion please.’  I would like peace with God without having to hear him say to me, ‘I send you.’  Happily it doesn’t work like that!
You see, God is not inviting you to join his mission because he is in desperate need of your help.  He invites you to join him in mission so that you can share his joy.  One group of missionaries were known for ‘glad obedience’.  Another missionary was described as living the most ‘joyfully sacrificial’ life.  Do you remember the miners who were trapped underground for sixty-nine days?  One of them wrote, ‘I do not serve God out of duty but a heart full of gratitude.’  It is for your joy that Christ says both ‘peace be with you’ and ‘I am sending you.’

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The greatest story ever told

Charles Dickens called this parable the greatest story ever written, and he wrote some great stories.  It is a simple yet profound tale.  It is truly timeless.  It is all about the beauty of grace.  I want to call this story of parable of the three sons and the prodigal father.

1.         Son 1:  The rebel
Recently a friend gave me a wonderful little book of Bible-based devotions entitled ‘Saving Grace.’  In one entry the author, Jack Miller, writes, ‘Many times we think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that we can go on vacation from God.  What’s really happening is that we think of God as the enemy of our happiness, and we go our own way.  But God is not our enemy.  He’s our friend, and he wants us to be happy and free.’
That was the problem of the younger son.  He thought that the father was getting in the way of his fun, and so he wants to leave home.  He asks for his share of the inheritance and goes to a far land, squanders his wealth, indulges his lusts, and ends up emotionally and physically bankrupt.  He gets what he deserves as he finds himself feeding pigs (a job a Jew would have thought of as being beyond humiliating) and starving. 
It is at this moment that he comes to his senses.  But I am not sure that he has yet come to true repentance, for he seeks to cut a deal with his father.  ‘Make me like one of your hired men.’  These hired men were not servants, but skilled workers.  The son wants to enrol in a training scheme, start earning and pay off his debts—not that he could ever even begin to make up for the financial and emotional damage he had inflicted upon his family. 
Yet when he arrives home, and sees how much the father loves him, he leaves the bit about being a hired man out of his pre-prepared speech.  He realises that his father wants him as a son.  It is such grace that truly melts his heart.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome saying, 'the kindness of God is intended to lead us to repentance' (Romans 2:4).  The appropriate response to God’s love is not to make up for our rebellion.  The appropriate response is to delight in the fact that he has dealt with all our guilt on the cross, and to let this glorious truth transform us from within.
2.         Son 2:  The resentful 
The older son is coming in after a day’s work when he hears the music.  He knows what has happened.  There hasn’t been a party like this since his younger brother left home.  But rather than be glad that his father is now bursting with happiness the older son throws his staff to the ground, folds his arms and exposes his cold hateful anger.  Be in no doubt, this son is as lost as his younger brother ever was.
When his father goes out and pleads with him to come home the older son applies a twisted logic.  ‘All these years I have been slaving for you.’  All this years he has been at home but he has not lived as a son.  He thinks of himself as a slave.  But don’t take his assessment seriously.  He is the heir to that estate.  He is not the one doing the back-breaking work in the heat of the day.  He sits in the shade, supervising the hired men and servants.  His job may have involved hard work but it would have been very satisfying.
If you don’t understand the gracious heart of the heavenly Father you may end up serving him as a slave rather than a son.  He offers us a life of purpose.  His commands are for good.  He gives us joy.  But maybe you have turned them into a recipe for proving yourself to God and people.  You are a religious slave, a good church-goer who puts on a face and can’t be real or transparent, and you don’t even see the pride and resentment in your heart.  Let his kindness break your heart again and set you free!
Remember that Jesus is telling this story to deeply religious people—the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  He wants them to see that they are like the elder brother.  They look down on broken people who were delighting in Jesus’ message of forgiveness.  They don’t want to be reminded that God is slow to anger and abounding in love, and does not treat us as our sins deserve.  They want to prove their worth.  So they hated the Jesus of lavish grace and will pursue him to his death.  Yet Jesus pictures God as lovingly pleading with them to come into the party.
Can anyone be so foolish as to choose hell in preference to heaven?  Yes!  Many are too proud to want God’s grace.  One writer points out that Jesus portrays ‘a God who overflows with grace and generosity, opening his arms to all: elder brother, younger brother; saint or sinner.  He makes no distinctions.  If we stay out of heaven it is because we refuse to go in.  It is because we are too proud to accept his grace.'
3.         Son 3:  The redeemer
One commentator suggests that the older brother should have pleaded with the younger not to leave, and then when he had left he should have led the search party to find him.  Yet this elder son didn’t even look to the horizon in the hope that his brother would come home.
The younger brother’s return is inconvenient for him.  After all, the younger brother has spent all his inheritance.  If he is to be provided for, it will be with property that the elder brother would have anticipated was due to come his way.  The elder son is not prepared to pay the cost of his brother’s return.
Then there was the fact that the younger brother’s return would actually have called on the elder son to humble himself.  In that culture there was a custom whereby when a family held a special banquet the eldest son was to act as chief waiter.  This said to the guests, ‘you are so special to me that I have even made my heir your servant.’  There is nothing the elder son wants to do less than serve at a party that is being held in the honour of the brother he hates.
How different he is to Jesus?  Jesus leads the search party—he came to seek and save that which was lost.  Jesus yearns for people to find a home in the loving embrace of the heavenly Father.  He delights to call us his brothers and sisters.  He humbled himself for our sake—leaving heaven to come to earth, taking on the nature of a servant, and dying a humiliating death of a roman cross, bearing the cost of our rebellion so that we could be welcomed home.
4.         The prodigal father
The word prodigal can mean wasteful.  That is why this story is traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son.  But prodigal can also mean lavish or extravagant.  The father is lavish in his love towards his two sinful sons. 
As the younger son returns to the village from his far off wandering he may have expected to be greeted with hostility.  There was a ceremony for young men who had disgraced their people—a pot would have been broken and the declaration was pronounced saying ‘so-and-so is cut off’.  Then young boys, with nothing better to do, would have followed him around mocking him.  Most fathers would have remained aloof from such a disgraced son.
Yet while the son is a long way off the Father is filled with compassion.  In that culture a man of standing would have walked in a slow dignified manner.  There was a proverb from around that time that said, 'a man's manner of walking tells you what he is.'  But the father gathers up his robes, just like a teenager would, exposes his legs (something that would have been considered terribly undignified) and sprinted to his son.  Then he embraces him and kisses him (he literally kissed him again, again and again).   
As the father ran the people would have followed him.  A curious crowd would have gathered around the two men as they embraced each other.  And because this man of standing has accepted his son they too would have had to welcome him back to their village.  The father saves him from the shame and indignity that he deserves.  Indeed, the father has saved his life—for the law said that he could have such a rebellious son put to death.
There is so much here that reminds us of what God has done for us.  The father orders that the son be dressed in his finest robe, and our shame is covered as our spiritual nakedness and shame is covered by the righteousness of Christ.  Then he gives the son a ring—most likely a signet ring.  In other words, the father entrusts this sons, who had blown all his inheritance, with the power to preform commercial transactions.  Similarly, God trusts us with his name—a name we have dishonoured—to be his witnesses.  Whereas slaves went barefoot, sons wore shoes—we have been made sons of the heavenly father.  Jesus teaches that there is a celebration over every person who turns back to the God in repentance.
It wasn’t just the rebel son who was shown kindness.  Middle-eastern expert, Ken Bailey, says that it is hard to overstate the insult that the older son’s refusal to come to the party was to his father.  That boy deserves to be left out in the cold.  Yet the father goes and pleads with him.  God also wants self-righteous, respectful and resentful people to have their hearts warmed by his grace.  Jesus even pleads with hard-hearted Pharisees to come into his party.   
Michael Horton discovered that sermons that focused more on what God has done for us actually transform people more than those which simply tell us what we should be doing as Christians.  He says that we should not only be asking WWJD (‘what would Jesus do?’), we should be reminding ourselves of WJHD (‘what has Jesus done?’).
So look at the greatest story ever told and think about see the God of lavish grace.  He is like no other father.  Turn to him and picture him running to greet you.  See the delight in his eyes.  Feel his embrace.  Delight in the fact that he covers your shame and rescues you from spiritual death.  Feel his embrace and kisses.  Rejoice in his eldest son who came looking for us and took paid the cost for our return.

Monday, 2 November 2015

‘Jesus reveals his glory by overcoming death’ (John 11)

One of the questions on Vikki’s questionnaire was, ‘what happens after death, in your opinion?’  One girl replied with the word ‘peace’ and the other with ‘heaven.’  Interestingly both these girls also said that they did not believe there is a god.  Clearly they had not given the question too much thought.  I wonder do students even think about death.

A chaplain at one Ireland’s universities thinks that Christians talk about death too much.  He wrote in the college newspaper that it was a misrepresentation of the Christian faith to see it as being all about a gateway to the afterlife.  He criticises an understanding of Christianity that centres on death–the death of Jesus and death of us.  He then he states ‘the crux of Christian faith is not the death of Christ.’

I am not sure that John would agree.  John records Jesus speaking about being lifted up, departing and his time/hour.  All these ideas have the cross in view.  Jesus speaks about being a shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  He is portrayed as the Passover lamb that dies so that his people might be spared from the coming judgement.  He declares, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.’  We need to get people thinking about death—Jesus’ death and our death!

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead to display his glory (1-16)

Jesus is in Galilee when he receives a message from the tiny village of Bethany in Judea, two miles from Jerusalem.  The message concerns his close friend Lazarus.  Lazarus is seriously ill.  Jesus responds, ‘This sickness will not end in death.  No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it (4).

You might think that the most loving thing Jesus could have done was jump on the fastest donkey and get to Bethany, but he delays.  He delays and by the time he arrives Lazarus will have been dead for four days.  The significance of this might lie in the fact that there was a popular superstition which held that the soul hovered over the body for three days.  Jesus wants people to be sure that Lazarus really was dead!  He delays because he wants people to see that he can raise the dead, and point to the fact that he himself will raise people up on the last day.  He takes the course of action that will best reveal God’s glory and his glory.

But never think that God’s glory is ever at the expense of those he loves.  He works all things together both for his glory and the ultimate good of those who love him.  His glory and your good, if you love him, are not in competition.  There is no doubt about his affection for Lazarus, who is described as the one you love (3).  Indeed, it is a proof of his love that he goes to be with the family in Bethany, for there were people in that area who wanted to stone him to death (8).  And the events that unfold will strengthen the faith of Lazarus, Martha and Mary and centuries of God’s people ever since as we face the inevitability of our mortality.

Jesus is the giver of life (17-27)

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him.  Lord ... if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask’ (21-22).  These are words of amazing faith.  Jesus assures her that Lazarus will be raised, but Martha thinks he is referring to the future resurrection of the dead.

Jesus then speaks the memorable words, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (25-26).  These words are exclusive words.  His claims cannot be put alongside the claims of other religious leaders.  He alone is the resurrection and life.  It is only through him that life and resurrection are experienced.  This is an offensive truth in our tolerant society.  But Jesus has always said things that people find hard to accept, which is why people avoid his hard sayings.

John says that he records the signs that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name (20:31).  Martha has witnessed who Jesus is and what he has been doing and has had her eyes opened.  ‘Yes, Lord … I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world’ (27).

Life in Jesus is for now and for after death (28-44)

When Jesus arrives, finding Mary and those with her weeping, ‘he was deeply moved in spirit and greatly troubled’ (33).  Bible Commentaries explain that the word translated ‘deeply moved’ implies feeling something very strongly.  He was so outraged at what he saw that it made him weep.  But what exactly is it that causes him to be so upset?

His tears can’t simply be that Lazarus is dead, for he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead.  Of course he cares about Mary and Martha’s pain, but surely he should be jumping up and down with joy that he is moments away from relieving their suffering.  There is something deeper going on.  He seems to be angry at the thought of death itself.  You see death is a testimony to the awful consequences of human evil.  In Genesis we see that death is the result of God’s curse on human rebellion.  As one preacher says, ‘Death is disgusting and is a poignant reminder of the price which is paid, for our pride and rebellion against our Maker.  It makes God weep and so it should us’ (Tinker).

The stone is taken away from the entrance to the tomb and Jesus looks up saying, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me … Lazarus, come out’ (42-43).  This is the seventh sign John records so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in his name.  The teaching of the New Testament is that all those who believe have already experienced resurrection—for Jesus calls the spiritually dead, condemned in evil and raises us to the new life of freedom from guilt, fellowship in his love and hope beyond death!  The great hope of Christians throughout the centuries lies in the anticipation of the great resurrection of the dead that will take place when Christ returns and establishes the New Heaven and the New Earth.

Eternal life was purchased by Jesus’ death (45-57)

That chaplain, I mentioned at the beginning, writing in his college magazine seems to think that we are wrong to put too much focus on Jesus as the key to the gateway to the afterlife.  But Jesus gives us that wonderful hope, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though they shall die, yet shall they live.’  What about his claim that the death of Jesus is not the crux of the Christian faith?  Again and again John shows that it is only because of the death of Jesus that eternal life, now and in the age to come, may be experienced by those who believe!  A little incident at the end of this story shows demonstrates this!

The raising of Lazarus caused a mixed reaction.  Many Jews who had come to visit Mary saw what Jesus had done and put their faith in him.  But others went to the Pharisees and told them what had happened.  So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Jewish ruling council.  They were worried.  If the Roman authorities got wind that the Jews were getting excited about a potential messiah there might be trouble.  So Caiaphas, the High Priest, gives some advice.  ‘You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’  Jesus needs to be got rid of for the greater good.  What Caiaphas didn’t realise was that he was prophesying that Jesus would die as a substitute for his people.

Jesus died as a substitute for our guilt.  It is crucial that we see this if we are to grasp the extent of God’s love.  ‘I’ve heard it said that the Bible is the ultimate love story, this being the case Jesus’ death on the cross is a complete and full sign of God’s love for humanity’ (Ruth Kingston).


I asked one student, who claims to be an atheist, if he ever thinks about death.  He answered, ‘not really … I suppose it seems a long way off.’  I don’t know if all students feel that way.

However, even if those around us are denying the inevitable, we must pray that God awakens people to the realities beyond the grave.  For remembering the realities heaven and hell will add focus and urgency to our evangelism.  Pondering the beauty of what is to come will make us more effective Christians in this world.  ‘Nothing fits a person to be more useful on earth than to be more ready for heaven’ (Piper).  Finally, we want to focus on Christ’s death and the resurrection life he offers because it brings glory to the Father and the Son to speak of how Christ died to give people life now and for ever.
There awaits for God’s people a realm of unsurpassed joy, unfading glory, undiminished bliss, and unending pleasure (MacArthur).  One day we will join with the heavenly choir to praise the lamb who was slain.  There will be nothing boring or humdrum in the New Heaven and the New Earth.  We will have unbroken fellowship with all its inhabitants.  There will be no more sorrows, cares, tears and fears.  But the greatest thing of all is the fact that we will experience perfect intimacy with God who loved us and gave his Son that we might dwell with him for ever.