Friday, 15 May 2015

The real pain of the young gay person

The most moving article that I have read in the run up to the referendum is that by political correspondent, Ursula Halligan.  She recalls her experiences of same-sex attraction, in nineteen seventies Ireland.  At the age of seventeen she wrote in her diary, ‘there seems to be no one I can talk to, not even God.’  As a teenager she listened silently to snide remarks about homosexuals and tried to smile as people mimicked what they thought was stereotypical homosexual behaviour.  There were times that her struggle filled her with thoughts of death.
The church has failed in its mission if we can’t demonstrate love and kindness towards people who experience same-sex attraction.  Sometimes the reason people don’t feel God is listening is because his people portray him as being the sort of God who does not care.  While the Christian Scriptures reveal God’s design for sex to be in the context of marriage, and marriage to be between male and female, we will fail to speak about these issues with any credibility if we cannot show that life in Christ is worth anything he may call us to give up and if our churches fail to be places where the lonely find real family and intimacy.  As Ed Shaw (who is a same-sex attracted Christian leader) points out, when someone in the church embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to look inside at how our attitudes and actions may have pushed them to do so. 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Dear Whitney (1 John 2:1-14)

I did a little internet search on the question ‘how can I be sure I am going to heaven?’  When I saw that the Billy Graham Association had an answer to this question I clicked on their site.  They, rightly, pointed out that we are to base our assurance not on what we have done, but on what Christ has done for us.  That is why it is not arrogant to be sure that we are right with God.  When we claim to be Christians we are not claiming that we have done enough to earn our way to heaven, instead, we have simply accepted the gift of life by faith (and even that faith is a gift of God).
But below the post on the Billy Graham site, in the comments section, was the heart-moving confession of a lady called Whitney Edwards.  This is what she wrote:
‘I am so hopeless right now.  I keep thinking there is a possibility I can go to hell because I may have unforgiveness.  I want to forgive and I have tried but I still feel scornful towards the person. It’s my mother.  I told her my father molested me and she ignored me and did nothing.  To this day she denies it and it makes me more angry.  How can I be a Christian, love God and be experiencing this?  I am so afraid that this won’t be out of my heart when I die and I might not go to heaven. Please help.’   Whitney Edwards.
I have decided to entitle this sermon, ‘Dear Whitney’.  
Not everything in this sermon addresses Whitney’s question, as I want to let the text set the agenda, but this passage does deal with the issue of assurance.  I doubt that there is a single Christian in this room that has never struggled with the question of whether they are really a Christian or not.  John wants us to be sure, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (1 John 5:13).
1. You can be sure, even though you are not perfect 
John assumes that we will not live morally perfect lives.  He has written, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’ (1:8).  But that does not mean that sin does not matter.  The genuine Christian takes sin seriously and seeks God’s help to overcome it.  In fact this letter is a call to holiness, ‘my dear children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin’ (2:1a).  
But what happens when we let God down?  What about the fact that, even this morning, my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions have fallen short of the love and purity I see in Christ?  Well, we take heart in the fact that ‘we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one (2:1b).  
So don’t sink into despair.  Don’t drop your head, and don’t give up in the battle for purity and goodness.  Your sin does not separate you from the love of God.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because you have an advocate who takes up our cause in the Father’s presence.  He is the propitiation—the one who has turned away God’s righteous anger through his death on the cross.   His blood goes on cleansing us from all sin.  Acknowledge that what you have done is inexcusable, remember that the sin we see in our lives in only the tip of the iceberg of how awful we are, thank God that he delights to forgive, and battle on with renewed hope!
He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  So, as one preacher puts it, ‘because of this sacrifice there is no-one in this world who need not be in heaven, forgiven by God [and] welcomed into his family...’ (Graham Sayer).
2.  You can be sure, if loving Christ makes you want to obey him
Supposing you are a member of a lifeboat crew, and you are called out on a stormy night.  A fishing boat has sunk but two of the fishermen managed to get into a life raft.  As your lifeboat approaches these two men you throw them a rope.  One of those men reacts by reaching out and grabbing desperately for the rope, the other lies there motionless.  There reactions leave you realising that one is alive and the other may be dead (illustration adapted from Matt Slick).  Something similar happens in the Christian life—the struggle demonstrates life.

Remember the context of this letter.  There were false-teachers, who had disturbed the church, who were saying that sin does not matter.  They didn’t see any connection between knowing a holy God and seeking to live a holy life.  They lay there lifelessly in the storm.  They were not grasping the rope.  They did not look to God for his help in the battle with the sinful nature.  In Ireland, we used to talk about people living in sin—that is a good description of these false-teachers.  The refused to address the sin in their lives and their attitude revealed that they were spiritually dead.
Because the Holy Spirit dwells within God’s people we cannot live in sin.  ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands’ (3).  We strive to be holy.  We grieve when we fail.  We keep looking to him for the power to change.  But the false-Christian doesn’t care.  The false-Christian says ‘I know him’, but refuses to take the call to live a holy life seriously—‘the truth is not in such a person’ (4).
Some people lack assurance because they are not very good with feelings.  They come to church and see people who are much more emotionally in-tune with God.  Now feelings are important, but don’t make feelings everything.  Some people are wired more emotionally than others.  A better measure of how much we love God is our obedience.  Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will obey my commands.’  ‘But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.  This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ (5-6).  “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” (John Newton).
3. You can be sure, if loving Christ makes you want to love his people
John seems to be saying that the command to love our fellow Christians is both old and new.  It is old in the fact that it should be one of the first things we grasped when we became Christians; it is new because it is as fresh a command today as it was then—we never outgrow the challenge to love.  It is old because it is spoken about in the Old Testament; it is new because Jesus gave it new depth.   Indeed, it is as we live out this command that we reflect God’s light and dispel the darkness of this hate-filled world.

Loving people isn’t easy.  Forgiving people isn’t easy.  Sometimes we think we have made progress in getting over what someone has done to us, only for some painful memory to come flooding into our mind, and we have to begin forgiving them all over again.  But the Christian strives to love.  Keep praying for those who have hurt you, for it is harder to hate those you pray for every day.  Beware if you have a critical spirit towards those in the church—this is not a sign of spiritual health.  Flee from gossip.  Remember the grace that accepted you, with all your flaws.  Let love cover a multitude of sins.

Remember Whitney Edwards, that dear woman who was wrestling to forgive her mother?  She feared that she might go to hell because of the anger she felt.  This is what I posted beneath her comment.
Dear Whitney,
No one has ever hurt me to the depth that both your mother and father have hurt you.  You must have some very painful memories and an awful sense of betrayal.  I really admire you for your efforts to forgive.  I think it is a really good sign that you are concerned about your anger.  Many people would excuse it, but you take Jesus seriously when he tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven.  
I recently read an illustration about the Christian life.  The writer gave the picture of a rescue boat, in a storm, throwing a rope to two men in a life raft.  One of the men grasps frantically for the rope, whereas the other is slumped motionlessly.  The reactions of the two men lead those in the rescue boat to assume that one man is truly alive, and the other seems to be dead.
The apostle John writes, ‘if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8).  So no Christian is morally perfectly.  But the Christian is the one grasping for the rope of God’s help.  The Christian strives against the feelings of the sinful nature.  It seems to me that this is what you are doing.  To me that looks like evidence of the Holy Spirit in you.  I hope that you will daily experience God’s grace to change your heart towards your mother as you seek God’s ongoing help in the face of temptation.
Your brother in Christ, 

Monday, 27 April 2015

'The truth can make you beautiful' (1 John 1:5-10)

The Sri Lankan writer, Ajith Fernando, mentions an Irish Methodist Minister called George Good, in the preface to a couple of his books.  This is what he says of George:  ‘He introduced me to the beauty of godliness.’  What a wonderful thing to be able to say about someone! 
I know what Ajith meant, for George Good happened to be a family friend of ours.  He was one of the kindest, most caring, gentle and morally strong men I have ever met.  I believe that George’s character was rooted in his understanding of the grace of God.
You see, what we believe really matters.  When the gospel goes deeply into a person’s mind it changes their heart.  If you want to convince your friends that Christianity is true then they will need to witness its power in the way you live.

  1. The truth causes us to love God’s people (6-7)
John is writing to a church that is suffering from the effects of false-teaching.  These false-teachers reveal something of the malignancy of their doctrine by the lack of love in their lives.  However, gospel truth should cause us to love God’s people.

We can do a little detective work to see what the false-teachers were teaching.  John writes, ‘If we claim …’, because the false-teachers were claiming certain things.  'If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.'

The false-teachers claimed that they knew God, but their lifestyle revealed that they neither knew him nor loved him.  In particular, their teaching did not challenge them to love God’s people.  These false-teachers surrounded themselves with people who listened to their spurious teaching and then distanced themselves from those who held firm to the gospel.  So John reminds the church that, 'if we walk in the light ... we have fellowship with one another’.

How you treat people, especially God’s people, reveals whether you understand and accept the gospel.  If you can see a God who sends his Son to die on a cross, for a world of underserving people like us, then people will mater to you.  If you can see a king who comes from heaven to earth, washes people’s feet, and willingly submits himself to the shame of a criminal death, then you will know the importance of true humility.  If you are experiencing the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in your life, then you should be displaying his fruit of love, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.
Church is not a building but a community, and our attitude towards this community reveals a lot about our spiritual health.  Don’t keep people at arm’s length, and don’t imagine that everyone here will be easy to get on with.  Indeed, those people who get on your nerves are, in some ways, God’s blessing to you—for they are the people who make us realise how much we need to depend on God to truly love his people. They are the people who cause us to fall on our knees, confess the hardness of our hearts and seek the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit.  The great thing about people that you don’t naturally like is that their presence here forces you to depend on God for the love that can only be found through his work in our lives.  See them as God’s gift to you in this school of grace!
Before we move on to the next point, I want you to notice that walking in the light does not mean that we will never let God down.  Tragically, in this life, we will often compromise in the battle with the sinful nature—including the fact that we will often fail to love God’s people as we ought.  But thank God that the blood of Jesus literally, ‘goes on purifying us from all sin’ (1:5).  
As one commentator writes, ‘To walk in the light means to become increasingly conscious of sin that would hinder our fellowship with God and our fellow Christians, and as that sin is revealed, not to run away into the darkness again.  Rather we bring it, by faith, to the God whose Son gave his life that all our sins might be forgiven and removed.’
2.  The truth should make us humble (8-9)
Imagine you have one of those old slide projectors.  You want to show some of your friends pictures of a trip you took long ago.  You turn it on and project its beam onto your sitting-room wall.
Without any slides in place its beam is very bright.  The wall that had looked perfect in normal light now reveals slight cracks and you can see a spider-web that had gone unnoticed.  Something similar happens as we come to understand the God who is light and realise more of his purity and perfection.  His light exposes how failed and flawed our lives are.
Again, look at what the false-teachers were claiming.  ‘If we claim to be without sin …’, however, when we live in fellowship with God the light of his purity exposes our failings.  No-one who truly understands the gospel can be self-righteous.   
An atheist friend of mine, on Facebook, suggested to me that the thing that draws people to religion is the desire to feel superior from others.  I suggested that the Christian gospel should have the exact opposite accept, for you don’t go to Jesus until you realise that you are a moral bankrupt.  Jesus had nothing to say to those people who saw themselves as good people.
In verse 9 we have what I think of as the most comforting promise of all Scripture. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’  Learn that off by heart and understand it.  The forgiveness here is not the forgiveness from condemnation, for there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  The forgiveness here relates to the fact that when we sin we damage our intimacy with God, but God is always calling us to come home and enjoy his embrace.  None of us fully see the multitude of ways that we let our heavenly Father down, but he is calling us to live a life of confession where we daily acknowledge our need of his grace. 
I think that it’s a spiritually healthy thing to lie in bed at night and look back over the day trying to see the many ways that you did not do what you ought to have done and did many things you should not have done, then acknowledge that the sins you are aware of are only the tip of the ice-burg of the sin he sees, and, confessing your sin, thank him for the fact that he is faithful to forgive.
Sometimes the shame that we feel when we fall into an obvious sin reveals more pride than godly sorrow.  We say, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’  How foolish!  We should not be surprised at how wicked we can be, and how deep we can fall.  A more humble attitude realises, ‘that there, but for the grace of God, go I.’  
3.  The truth exposes our need of grace (10) 
‘If we claim we have not sinned …’
The false-teachers said ‘sin doesn’t matter’.  Then they claimed, ‘we are not sinners.’  Now they say, ‘we have not sinned.’  Can you see that they clearly don’t get the gospel?  Such people have no idea why Jesus had to go to the cross.  Christ died for sinners.  But they don’t think they have no sin!
Could anyone believe such a thing today?  I was having a discussion with an atheist friend and he admitted of himself, ‘I am just a flawed human-being like every other person.’  That sounds good.  But I wonder how far he is willing to go with this.  Would he be willing to say that his heart is evil beyond repair?  While he does not believe in either heaven nor hell, would he be willing to admit that he deserves to go to hell?  The gospel only makes sense when we see that we are morally bankrupt, evil and vile people who are loved by a gracious and merciful God. 
On, ‘The Meaning of Life’, Gay Byrne asked Gerry Adams, ‘So what if it’s all true and you have to stand before God on the Judgement Day.  What will you say?  He replied, ‘I’ll say, “I did my best. Here I am.  Take me in.”’  It’s an answer that reveals that he does not understand the gospel!
Stafford Carson, a godly Presbyterian minister, wrote on his blog:  ‘If doing our best was enough to get us into heaven, then why did Jesus die on the cross?  If doing our best is enough, then the death of Jesus seems strangely unnecessary?  The fact is our best is just not good enough.  That’s why we need a Saviour.’
You see, what we believe really matters.  When the gospel goes deeply into a person’s mind it changes their heart.  If you want to convince your friends that Christianity is true then they will need to witness its power in the way you live.
Grasping the gospel should make us the most thankful people in the world, for God sent his Son to die for a wicked person like me!  There may be a spiritual problem if we are always grumbling!  Grasping the gospel should make us humble, because I am a Christian despite who I am, rather than because of who I am.  Grasping the gospel should enable us to be real and vulnerable, for I am a liar if I try to pretend to you that I am without sin, I am a person who lives in God because the blood of his Son goes on cleansing me of all sin! 
This gospel was not just something that you needed to hear before you were born again.  This is the gospel you need to remind yourself of everyday.  This gospel should be producing within us the beauty of godliness.  So, make it your daily habit to preach the gospel to yourself and live in its life-transforming light!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Am I a troll?

There are couple of reasons why this is a difficult topic to address.
The first is that the church has not always got it right on the issue of homosexuality.  While some have not been faithful to the Biblical teaching on marriage and have accommodated to the worlds view on sex, others have spoken about this topic in a way that has failed to convey grace and love.  Think of Westboro Baptist church, with its hate-filled messages and placards reading ‘God hates fags’—how is that supposed to communicate the gracious love of God?   Sean Mullen, former director of Evangelical Alliance in Ireland, points out that he has never heard a sermon in church warming against homophobia.
The second reason that this is a difficult topic for Christians is that it is hard to swim against the tide.  If you are brave enough to share that Bible’s teaching on sexuality and marriage you may end up being called a homophobe or a bigot.  A Facebook friend of mine referred to those who oppose same-sex marriage as trolls.  This is a stressful time to be a Christian, but don’t imagine that the topic of sexuality will disappear into the background after the referendum.  We are going to have to learn to speak the truth with tact and love.

There are a number of things I want to say about the Bible and people with same-sex attraction.
  1. God loves gay people
Do you realise how hard it must be to be homosexual?

The most moving article that I have read in the run up to the referendum is that by political correspondent, Ursula Halligan.  She recalls her experiences of same-sex attraction, in nineteen seventies Ireland.  At the age of seventeen she wrote in her diary, ‘there seems to be no one I can talk to, not even God.’  As a teenager she listened silently to snide remarks about homosexuals and tried to smile as people mimicked what they thought was stereotypical homosexual behaviour.  There were times that her struggle filled her with thoughts of death.
The church has failed in its mission if we can’t demonstrate love and kindness towards people who experience same-sex attraction.  Sometimes the reason people don’t feel God is listening is because his people portray him as being the sort of God who does not care.  While the Christian Scriptures reveal God’s design for sex to be in the context of marriage, and marriage to be between male and female, we will fail to speak about these issues with any credibility if we cannot show that life in Christ is worth anything he may call us to give up and if our churches fail to be places where the lonely find real family and intimacy.  As Ed Shaw (who is a same-sex attracted Christian leader) points out, when someone in the church embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to look inside at how our attitudes and actions may have pushed them to do so.

The most important thing that homosexual people need to hear is that God loves them.  The most famous verse in the Bible reads, ‘For God so loved the world (a term that refers to humanity in rebellion against him) that he gave his only Son (to die on a cross) that whoever believes in him (gay or straight) should not perish but have eternal life.’
Sex outside marriage (gay or straight) is listed—along with greed, drunkenness and slander—as behaviour that is incompatible with being a follower of Jesus.  That means that these things are a big deal to a perfectly holy God.  But Christ died for our sin, including our sexual sin, so that we can know what it is to be ‘washed, sanctified and justified’ (1 Cor. 6:9-11).    

2.  God designed marriage for his glory and our good
The second thing to communicate is that God designed marriage for his glory and our good.

We stand in a unique moment in history.  Until recently, every known culture has defined marriage as being between men and women.  Until recently, almost every known culture has recognised the complementary roles of male and female in parenting.  Circumstances have deprived many children of a parent, and many single parents do a heroic job of raising children on their own, but our society is seeking to design families where one gender is deliberately left out.

In Genesis, following a description of the complementary nature of man and woman, we read ‘therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24, ESV).  In other words, marriage is based on the fact that male and female are equal but different.  It is from this text that the whole of the Bible’s teaching on sexual behaviour flows.  The logic of Scripture (and I realise that those who don’t share our view of the Bible may disagree) is that sex outside heterosexual marriage (including  gay sex) does not glorify God, bless society or even benefit those involved.
3. Jesus calls all people to put him above everything

The third thing to communicate is that Jesus makes the same demand of all people—he is to be put before everything else.  Straight and gay people are called to place all their desires, including their sexual desires, under his loving rule.
The single person, who has placed their sexual activities under the rule of Jesus, will not have sex before they get married.  The married person, who has placed their sexual activities under the rule of Jesus, will refuse to even think about having sex with anyone other than their spouse.

But it seems unfair!  It seems that the gay person is being called onto a harder road than the straight person.  After all, the straight Christian has the hope of finding sexual fulfilment in a future marriage.  There are a couple of things we need to make clear.

Firstly, don’t buy into the modern myth that you cannot be a whole and fulfilled human-being unless you are having sex.  Such thinking denies the full human experience of Jesus, who lived and died a virgin.
Second, I think of the richer ruler.  Jesus commanded him to sell everything, in order to show that he was willing to put Jesus above that which was most precious to him.  It would have been less of a challenge had this young man been poor.  But Jesus calls each of us to count the cost and take up our cross.  Putting our sex lives under the loving rule of Jesus may not be the biggest demand Christ makes of you.  I am sure that those all around the world who are imprisoned for their faith would not think our sacrifices are too great.

One of the hardest things, for people in our society to give up, is our opinions.  We all want to be the experts who decide what is right and wrong.  But when God calls us to follow Jesus, he is telling us to agree with his view of the world.  I don’t know what I would believe about gay marriage if I didn’t let Jesus shape my views, but I don’t have the right to tell him how he should define sexual morality.
     4. What to say to someone who wants to ‘come out’
What would you do if someone came to you and told you that they thought that they were gay?  This could become a very personal issue for you.  Who knows, your son or daughter, nephew or niece, friend or neighbour, or even your spouse, could be struggling with feelings of attraction to people of the same sex.  Maybe this is something you struggle with yourself.
The first thing I would want to do is tell them that God loves gay people.  I would then caution them against defining themselves as gay—there are a lot more important things about us than simply who we are attracted to. 

If the person ‘coming out’ to me is in their teens, I remind someone that same-sex attractions are experienced by many people as they grow—these feelings may pass or stay.  I don’t think that young people should quickly jump to conclusions about their sexuality.
I would tell them that the temptation towards gay sex and lust will not be the only temptation they will face in life.  In fact they may have to fight even greater battles with the horrible sins of pride, self-righteousness and bitterness.
Finally, if there are times when they have failed in the area of gay sex and lust, I would remind them that in Jesus we are ‘washed, sanctified and justified’, and called into a life of ongoing repentance.
5. How can the church love those with same-sex attraction?
Tim Keller says that the church should feel more like the waiting room for a doctor and less like a waiting room for a job interview. 
You see, in a job interview we want to convince people we are strong and sorted.  In going to the doctor we admit that we are in need of help.  You see, I struggle with many different temptations, and so do you.  Just because you don’t struggle with same-sex attraction doesn’t make you any better than someone who does.  Your struggle may be with greed, gossip, pride, drunkenness or anger.  In our church family we should be understood and loved in the midst of our temptations. 

As a church we are to welcome people who are struggling with all sorts of issues to join us and hear about Jesus.  If people are claiming to be followers of Jesus we teach and challenge them to take seriously the demands of Christ.

As we meet together we should be reminding ourselves to flee all sexual immorality, so that there might not even be a hint of it amongst us, and as we encourage each other to stand firm we should ‘consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (Heb. 10:24).


There is one text that I believe has special relevance to Christians at this time.  The apostle Peter writes, ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:12).
A friend of mine had a bad attitude towards gay people.  When he became a Christian Caroline and I challenged him about this.  To his credit, and with the grace of God, he changed.  While his faith informs him that sex is for marriage, and marriage is to be between a man and a woman, he also knows that Christians are to love all people and have no right to look down on anyone.  Now, his attitude towards gay people better reflects the love of God.

But not all of our friends have shown such grace.  Around the time when that friend was maturing in the love of God we had some apparently mature Christian friends over for a meal.  That week, a politician had got himself in trouble for an alleged gay affair.  Our friends seemed to find this funny, and made tasteless jokes all evening.  Caroline and I weren’t sure what we should have done, but were certain that we hadn’t effectively shown them that they were wrong to speak like that.

‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:12).  In the debate on gay-marriage you may be accused of doing wrong—you might be called a homophobe, intolerant or a bigot.  But give no one a reason to accuse you of a lack of love.  Instead, as forgiven people, we tell a world that is guilty of all sorts of sin, of a God who sent his Son to die for whoever would place their trust in him.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

One job only Christians can do!

Please don't get me wrong, I do believe in social action. I believe that God, in his mercy, sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and the Bible says we are to be good to all. I believe that social action is a form of holiness. So the question 'should we do social action or evangelism?' is not a legitimate question, for we would never ask 'should we be holy or evangelise?' We should be compelled to do both!

However, I have a concern! I don't think we put enough emphasis on evangelism. You see when we talk about mission these days we often think in terms of social action and not of evangelism. We will cut your grass and paint your walls but we may not speak to you about the gospel. Yes, our actions may speak loudly but we still need to speak verbally. We are a people who have a message, good news to share. We are commanded to teach and preach, to speak and tell. I would hate to think that we would show people our love in many ways but forget to tell them the message of love. I would hate to think that we would tidy people's villages but fail to tell the community about what they need to do to be saved.

In a conversation with Helen Roseveare, in the 1980's, Richard Halverson explained, 'When there is an international disaster, all the isms (not just Christianity, but also the communists and the atheists, the secularists and the philanthropists) rush to help. But there is one job that only Christians can do, and that is point people to the Saviour they need. That is our unique privilege, to show people the way to Calvary, to repentance and forgiveness of sin, and the deep inner joy and peace of knowing salvation from the hands of a crucified Saviour.'

Thursday, 2 April 2015

A friend in need

William Cowper was one of the greatest English poets of the eighteenth century.  He was also a man who faced a dreadful battle with depression.  But he received great help from the hymn-writer, John Newton.  When he met Newton, he had attempted suicide on a number of occasions and spent two years in an asylum.
People weren’t always helpful to Cowper—one bout of depression was triggered by the graceless speculations of gossips.  But Newton was a genuine friend.  Newton and Cowper’s back gardens were separated by an orchard, and they paid a guinea a year so that they could walk freely between the two houses.  They worked together on producing many hymns.
On New Year’s Day 1773, an hour after hearing Newton preach at the morning service, Cowper feared that the clouds of depression were returning.  He wrote the hymn ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, and then his fears were realised as depression descended on him.  His mind plunged into the abyss of madness.  That night he suffered from terrible hallucinations.  Newton was called for in the small hours of the morning.  In the coming days, Cowper suffered further hallucinations and panic attacks.  During the next three months, Newton spent several hours a day with his friend, and was frequently called to his bedside at inconvenient hours of the night.  Then Cowper came to live with him for thirteen months, until he was well enough to move back to his own home.   
I am not saying that we will all be able to give the same level of attention to our depressed friends, but I want us to be inspired by Newton’s kindness.  This morning we are thinking about what advice we can give those who are living with a depressed person and how to help those who are suffering with depression.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Why I pity those who have everything (1 John 1:1-4)

On a warm sunny day you walk up the driveway towards a beautiful house.  A friendly dog greets you.  Two luxury cars sit in front of a double garage.  The door is opened by an attractive woman, who is soon joined by her equally charming husband. The three of you talk over coffee, with ease—these people enjoy each other’s company.  They tell you of their rewarding careers, their happy family, their many interests and their great holidays.  It seems like they have it all!

But your heart should break for them.  For the one thing that they are missing means everything.  You see, they have no interest in Jesus.  It’s not like they are hostile to church—they support their local church whenever it holds its flower-festival.  They just aren’t convinced that Jesus is who the Bible says he is (not that they have ever read the Bible), and they don’t see why they would need to know him.
But the problem is, you don’t pity them.  It doesn’t seem, to you, that they’re missing out.  It doesn’t feel like your life is more blessed than theirs.  It doesn’t feel like your riches in Christ outweigh their riches in the world.  And the reason for this is that your faith isn’t giving us the joy that it promised.  Without joy, it seems that they, rather than you, are living life in all its fullness.  Joy is the key to realising how blessed the Christian is in this world.
Let me tell you what joy is!  Joy is more than happiness.  Joy is built on a deep confidence that all is well between ourselves and God.  Joy is rooted in an assurance of God’s love.  Christian joy is something that can be present in the midst of real sorrow, grief and depression. 
Have you ever lost your joy?  I have, at times.  Have you ever struggled with doubts or been haunted by past failures?  I have, at times.  Have you ever wondered if this Christian thing is real, or if you are really a Christian?  Then the first letter of John is for you!  This letter help restore our joy.  Then we will see that our riches in Christ outweigh anything else that we could want in the world.
  1. We can be certain that we know the historical Jesus (1)
‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.’

Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men to walk on the moon said, “That man should walk on the moon is interesting, but that God should walk upon the earth ... well that’s important!”  John begins this letter with the incarnation (the Son of God taking on flesh and becoming a man), because false-teachers had upset his readers by distorting this truth.

We can be certain because John writes as an eyewitness to this truth.  John knew what sort of man Jesus was.  John heard the things he said.  John even witnessed Jesus after he had risen from the dead.
I have an atheist friend who claims that faith is opposed to reason.  But when I started taking Christianity seriously, I was encouraged to examine the manuscript evidence for the New Testament.  These documents include, eye-witnesses like John, whose authenticity is revealed in the fact that that they deserted Jesus in his time of need, and yet were willing to give their lives telling people that he is now alive.
People might be able to find joy in believing a myth, but our joy is based on facts.
2.   We can be certain about the meaning of life (2)

Many people around us seem to get on just fine without Jesus.  They appear to live happy, contended and prosperous lives.  We may even envy some of them.  Yet the Bible says that they are actually out of touch with the meaning and purpose of life—that, despite appearances, they don’t know life in all its fullness!
‘The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.’
Living life without Jesus is like watching a movie without the main character in it—it just doesn’t make sense.  Yet, tragically, many people don’t want to become followers of Jesus because they think the cost of being a disciple is too high.  They don’t want to be considered a ‘Jesus-freak’, because the fear people rather than fearing God.  Some don’t want to really follow Jesus because they don’t want to let go of their bitterness—they know that the Bible teaches that we must forgive, if we are to be forgiven.  Or they hear that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God, but they will not stop sleeping with someone they are not married to.
Look at what is on offer!  We can know that we are forgiven.  We can know this because, as Wynn posted on her Facebook page this week, ‘if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’
Apparently, the Greek word translated ‘Father’, in verse two of our reading, is one of the most intimate words in the Bible.  It captures the idea of being ‘face to face’ right up close with the Father.   So we can know that God watches over us with rejoicing and that nothing will remove us from his grip that God will keep us in the grip of his love, because gentle and strong fathers always seek to cherish and protect their children.

Christianity offers so much more than popularity or bitterness or sex or anything else in life.  C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’
3.  We can be certain that we were made for fellowship (3)

Commenting on verse 3 one study Bible says, ‘John is moved to proclaim what he has witnessed . . . The purpose of this proclamation is not just forgiveness of people’s sins (as a simplified view of evangelism would have it) but is far richer, for the gospel binds together those who receive it: so that you too may have fellowship with us.  Yet the purpose is still richer than mere human fellowship, for believer’s fellowship is with the Father and with his Son.  Such “fellowship” is personal communion with the Father made possible by the mediation of the Son’ (ESV Study Bible).
‘We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.’
What do you think our primary purpose as a Christian is?   What is our main job as Christians? What you believe our central calling?  Our primary calling as Christians is to live face to face with God.  Everything we do is to flow out of our relationship with him.  Intimacy with God is to be top of our priorities.  I am talking about more than feelings here—some people are wired more emotionally than others.  I am talking about the sort of relationship that demonstrates itself in a changed life.
I don’t want to set out rules for prayer, because we are all prone to self-righteous legalism.  But prayer should primarily be about relationship.  Prayer isn’t simply a duty to get out of the way, so that we can get on with the rest of the day.  Don’t get all worried about what time of the day you should pray.  Don’t think that prayer depends on formulas of words or body postures.  You are approaching the most gracious and loving of fathers.  There will be times that prayer feels dry, for reasons that may be as innocent as the fact that you are weary and tired.  But, where possible, keep praying until you feel that you have encountered God.
4.  Certainty leads to joy (4)

We write this to make our [or ‘your’] joy complete.
It brings John joy to share these truths, and these truths are to bring joy to his readers.  I want to work through first John so that our joy may be restored—so that we may experience life in all its fullness.  ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (1 John 5:13). 
So, as we begin this series, hold on to these certainties of this morning’s passage:  we can know the historical Jesus (we have here the reliable witness of someone who knew, heard, saw and touched him), we can know the meaning of life (for us the debate is over, Jesus has revealed life’s purpose), we can know that we were created for this relationship (a loving God commands us to delight in him) and we know that God wants us to have joy (joy can be ours as certainty replaces doubt and assurance dispels insecurity)!

Barry Cooper was a first year student in Oxford University who decided to attend an evangelical church for the simple reason that he fancied a girl that went there.  The student worker spotted him and asked him if he would meet up for Bible Study.  Barry didn’t want to insult him, but thought that it would be a waste of time.  As they meet week by week, Barry began to encounter the living word that grants eternal life.  Things work out with the girl, but he got something far better.  When he arrived home for a holiday, and walked through the front door, his mother said, ‘What has happened to you, you look different?’

He explains, ‘I did.  As I put God’s word into practice, I was being filled with an exhilarating sense of purpose and joy.  Damaged and damaging relationships were being healed.  And above all, rather than the begrudging, dutiful knowledge that a Christian ought to obey Christ, I now had an irrepressible longing to obey him—whatever it might cost me in worldly terms.  Because now I knew him, I knew I could trust him.’