Wednesday, 4 May 2022

A voice in the shower

 In 'God's Love Compels Us', Mack Stiles tells the story of Nastaran:

Nastaran is a good friend and colleague in ministry.  She's an Iranian who grew up in Tehran.  At seventeen, she was a good Muslim girl: she had never seen a Bible, never sung a hymn, and never been inside a church.  But one day, as she was taking a shower, she heard a voice say, "I am going to wash away your sin."

She didn't know who that was, so she went to the mosque and asked her Iman about the voice.  Her Iman said, "that was Jesus, he is the only prophet who talks that way.  Nastaran said, "Thank you,", and went home.  Not long after this, a woman came to Nastaran with the message of the gospel.  Nastaran was ready to hear, and received it with joy.  So started an amazing journey of faith and ministry, along with her husband, Yuna.'   

  


Monday, 21 March 2022

God may be bigger than you realise

 


This morning I walked through our estate and felt sorrow at the fact that I am not aware of many people here living in relationship with Jesus.  But it later struck me that maybe God is more at work behind the scenes than I realise.  Don’t assume that God is only at work in your small circle.  There are people that we have given up on that will yet come to faith.  We don’t know who is crying out to Him behind closed doors, and He is listening.  Even in churches where the gospel is no longer being preached, people may be to drawn to Him through the simple reading of His Word. 

A few years ago, I was out having coffee with Caroline.  I overheard these women talking about ‘the Lord’.  I went over and got talking to them.  It turns out that they were members of a charismatic prayer meeting associated with a local church.  They really loved Jesus.  Jesus is at work in this city.

When it comes to God working on this island, it is worth reading Saint Patrick’s autobiography.  His love for the people of this island reflects God’s love for this land.  As you may know, Patrick was brought here as a slave when he was still a teenager.  His parents were Christians, but like many teenagers, he does not seem to have embraced their faith.  Yet in his slavery he found freedom in Christ.  

Joseph Duffy points out that his faith gave him a deep inner peace and a sense of God’s love.  ‘His sense of God’s love for him was much more than the vivid imagination for his lost parents; it was a positive gift which reached mysteriously reached into his heart, a gift that he felt he in no way deserved.  He came to love God because he realised more and more how God first loved him.  The very thought of what God had done for him moves him to spontaneous and lyrical prayer.  More than once he remarks that he received this gift in the pain and loneliness of captivity in a foreign land’ (Duffy, 50).

It was a number of years after his return to Britain that God gave Patrick a vision.  In that vision a man called Victoricus was coming to him with countless letters.  Victoricus gave him a letter which began, ‘The Voice of the Irish’.  At the same time his mind was brought to the west coast, and the people were crying out, ‘we ask thee, boy, come and walk amongst us once more.’  That vision led Patrick to becoming one of the most famous missionaries in history.

The God who gave Patrick this vision to share the good news of Jesus with the people of this island, is a God who still cares for this land today.  Our media may treat Christianity as if it has died a fatal death, but Jesus will continue to build His church (Matthew 16:18).  Our God is not reluctant to save (Isaiah 59:1).  In fact, He privileges His people to be part of that work!

Saturday, 19 March 2022

Do we need Xanax?


I woke up this morning and soon was feeling anxious.  I have struggled with my nerves at times in my life.  On a number of occasions, it has been debilitating.  Last night I had gone to our medicine box and dug out some Xanax I had been prescribed at a time when I had suffered a breakdown, and this morning I took one.  It is Saturday, and so I cannot talk to my doctor, but plan to do so on Monday.

I have been under a lot of stress.  There is a family situation that is quite demanding.  There is the fact that I had recently had a small operation, and was in agony for part of yesterday.  My siblings and I are currently trying to figure out how to care for our elderly parents.  I had just completed a couple of weeks of the busiest ministry I have ever experienced.  Then, last night, we took an antigen test and myself and my wife showed positive.  We are going to have to isolate for a week.

When my nerves struggle my thinking becomes unbalanced.  I get drawn to dark thoughts.  I began to think obsessively of the lostness of our world, and in particular the painful fact that people who refuse to give their lives to Jesus and embrace His forgiveness are going to be eternally lost.  It all became too much.  In the past, when I used to get into such a state, I feared that I was beyond God’s grace.  Such feelings are terrifying.  Such obsessing is related to the fact that I struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

But should I have relied on a Xanax?  Afterall, shouldn’t it have been enough to cast my anxieties on the Lord who cares for me (1 Peter 5:7)?  Let me share a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, while we are told not to worry (Matthew 6:25) not all anxiety is sin.  We have been working through Second Corinthians in our Sunday evening service, and I am stuck by the anxieties that the apostle Paul and his colleagues felt under the crushing weight of their ministry.  Paul writes that ‘we were under a burden far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life’ (2 Corinthians 1:8).  If our worries reflect a simple lack of trust in our heavenly Father to provide our daily needs then, yes, we need to exercise more faith.  But it may be that you are simply breaking under the weight of the pressures you are facing at this moment.  I also want to say, that even if our worries do reflect a lack of faith, our Saviour is gentle—a bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out (Matthew 12:20).  There can be a great gentleness in His command to stop worrying.

Secondly, in a fallen world our brains don’t function the way they should.  A failure to understand mental illness is a failure to understand the implications of the first three chapters of Genesis.  The fact that some people are more prone to anxiety than others may reflect such things as the make-up of their brain.  As I think of the current war in Ukraine I feel so weak that I can’t handle my current stresses, when there are so many people who are suffering the loss of home and the danger to life.  But we need to speak graciously to ourselves.  God is sovereign over the way we have been formed. 

So, do we need Xanax?  Issues like burnout, panic attacks and nervous breakdowns are more than simply not having trust in God.  They are like a wound or injury to the brain.  The brain is struggling to function well.  Like any wound it needs treatment.  I have never heard someone being accused of not trusting God because they practice deep breathing or figure out how to have a healthier work/life balance.  Often injuries or illnesses should be treated with medication, and these medications are received as a gift from God (1 Timothy 5:23

I want to finish with two insights made by doctor friends of mine.  One, a General Practitioner, expressed his frustration that in our overburdened health service it is too easy to simply write a prescription.  Mental health issues often have a variety of causes and resources need to be put into talking therapies as well as medicinal treatments.  The second, a neurologist, pointed out that one role of medicines, in regards to mental health, can be to restore a sense of equilibrium to the brain, and that this will help the Christian to be in a place where they can better trust in the goodness and promises of God.  That has been my case today! 

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Faith in action (Eph. 6:1-9)

Imagine that Christianity suddenly becomes illegal, and you are put on trial for your faith.  Now these people who are trying you know that Christianity is not merely a personal religion, it is a relational faith.  They know that if you truly love Jesus it will show in how you treat other people.

Now you are not allowed speak in your defence.  It is those who know you best that are asked to present the evidence.

So, they go to your workplace, and they ask a very perceptive question: ‘is your gentleness evident to all’ (Phil. 4:5)?  Then they go to where you live and start asking your neighbours, ‘do you love them the way you love yourself’ (Matthew 12:31)?  Finally, they call together your family circle, ‘do you put your religion into practice by caring for your family’ (1 Tim. 5:4)?

After they have interviewed these groups of people, is there enough evidence to prove that your life has been transformed by the love of Jesus?

This morning I want to plead with you.  I want to plead with you as we look at four sets of relationships—children to parents, fathers to children, slaves to masters and masters to slaves.  ‘Can we be consistent?’  Can we love people because we have experienced Jesus’ love?  Can we love all people?  Can we be as considerate to the person behind the counter as we are to our boss?  Can we please remember that while no one else may know about our feelings towards other people, God sees everything?

1.       Children—obey your parents to show the world that you love Jesus? (1-3)

Notice that in all four relationships mentioned in these verses there is a reference to ‘the Lord’.  Children, you are to obey your parents, ‘in the Lord’.  You don’t just obey them because you love them, you are to obey them because you love Jesus.

It is noteworthy that the apostle Paul addresses children rather than just sons.  It that society girls were not valued.  They didn’t receive the same level of instruction.  However, Christianity reminds the world that though there are self-evident differences between the genders, there is equality in both our being created in God’s image and being rescued in God’s son.

It is so important that children obey their parents (both mother and father) that this command was included among the Ten Commandments.  This is a command with a promise: ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’

Of course, this is not an absolute promise.  There are faithful children who die in tragic accidents.  It is a general promise.  You see your parents know what is best for you.  They don’t always get it right, but they do have more experience than you.  When you were an infant they shouted ‘don’t touch’ when you were about to put your hand on something hot.  Now they may say ‘be careful not your friends influence you towards harm.’  They may teach you that it is important to work hard and serve others.  Sometimes the most loving thing that they will say to you is ‘no!’

2.      Fathers—do not provoke your children to anger (4)

I prefer the translation that speaks of provoking to anger than the lesser word exasperate.  You might exasperate your children with how weak your dad jokes are or how embarrassing your sense of fashion, but this is more than that.  This is literally acting in a way that unnecessarily angers your children.

I think that it is important for our culture that fathers are mentioned here.  We live in a society that plays down the role of fathers.  Fathers and mothers have unique and complimentary roles to play in the raising of children.  Of course, there are many painful situations where a parent has to raise their children on their own, but society should aim at a situation where children are being raised by both a mother and a father.

The role of fathers is particularly noted in the passing on of faith between the generations.  I have a book at home called ‘The Faith of the Fatherless’.  In it the author looks at how the faith of many atheists was shaped by absent, weak or harsh father-figures.  It also looms at how the faith of many leading Christians was shaped by consistent and loving father-figures.

Fathers, your life influences what you children thing when they are told that God is our Father.  You are to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  The family is a little church, and you have been given the responsibility of lead pastor.  You biggest responsibility is to live and teach about how the cross of Jesus affects everything.

But there is a danger of exasperation or angering your children.  Bible commentator, Kent Hughes lists four ways that fathers commonly anger their children: unreasonableness, fault-finding, neglect and inconsistency.  If you can be pleased with what they do they will become disheartened.  Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mount Everest but his son latter said that he would have much preferred to have a father that was at home more.  Sometimes because we feel more competent at work than at home we are tempted to be more ambitious for our work life that our home life.  You need to remember that when you say ‘yes’ to an extra work or church commitment you may be saying ‘no’ to time with your children.  Make sure that you have prayerfully thought that through.

3.      Slaves—our loving master sees everything (5-8)

When we hear about slaves in the New Testament it is not helpful to imagine the African slave-trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Slavery in the Roman world was far more humane.  It was not based on race, or even social class.  Few died as slaves for they could purchase their freedom.  About a half of slaves were freed before they were thirty.  A slave could be a manager or a doctor. 

People ended up slaves by birth, because their parents sold them into slavery, in order to pay off debts or even to improve their lot in life.  This is not to say that slavery was not evil.  The church had good news for slaves.  They were to be treated as equals in the church.  The church did not have the influence to end slavery in the Roman world, nor was that they most important item on their agenda.  However, the logic of the gospel would eventually led to people like William Wilberforce and John Newton toppling the slave trade in their time.

We should not be na├»ve about our own culpability in the modern slave trade.  The chocolate industry has long been associated with slave labour.  The fashion industry with sweat shops.  If you want to show your concern about slavery then learn how to be an ethical consumer.

What the apostle Paul says to slaves here could be our guiding principle for all workers.  Who are we trying to please?  Do we only work when our boss is watching us?  Do we realise that being a good employee is actually a form of worship to our God?  Notice that whether you are the master or slave, the employee or employer, God will reward you for honest work.

That is so gracious of God.  He owes us nothing.  He rescued us when we wanted nothing to do with Him.  He is the one who has given us a heart that wants to please Him.  We serve Him imperfectly.  Yet when we serve him he delights to reward us for what we do.  There is a present joy in living for Jesus and an eternal reward that awaits us.  Jacob messaged me a number of weeks ago to mention a text that was encouraging him.  ‘God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for serving the saints, as you still do’ (Heb. 6:10).  Your employer may show little interest in how you work and may never express appreciation to you.  But your heavenly master sees it all!

4.       Masters—obey the golden rule

Masters, do the same to them.  The golden rule of Jesus is that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Well here the apostle Paul gives us the managerial golden rule—you are to respect your employees the same way you demand that they respect you.

We might not be the boss of any company but every day people serve us.  There are the waiters and shop assistants.  We might have authority over someone by being their teacher or project manager.  How do you treat the sales person who calls to the door or rings on the phone?  Jesus is watching!  Is our gentleness evident to all in these situations?  Do we treat people with respect?  Are we sincere?  If someone serving you found out that you are a Christian, would your behaviour make Jesus attractive to them.

Remember that God shows no favouritism.  He is not influenced by how high up the pecking order you are, and he is not put off because other people think you are a nobody.  I love the Proverb that says, ‘whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour God’ (Prov. 14:31).

Conclusion

All that Jesus asks us to do is to respond to His grace and be empower by the person of the Holy Spirit.  At the beginning of chapter four we had a ‘therefore’.  Given that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ we are to love a life worthy of the calling we have received.

Jesus laid down His life for us.  He has forgiven our failings as parents (and I know that we all feel inadequate for that task).  He had forgiven our harsh words spoken to many.  He has forgiven the fact that we are often people-pleasers rather than God-pleasers.  Jesus died for these sins.

Jesus also models how we are to live.  He obeyed His heavenly Father.  He invites us to enjoy the Father-heart of God (maybe you have a father-wound).  He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  He is gentle and lowly of heart.

Finally, this letter tells us that we have received the person of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t have it within me to be a consistent son, a selfless father, to do my job seeking to please God rather than people and to treat those who serve me with respect.  But God calls us to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us.  Give up depending on your own strength.  Humble yourselves.  Ask Him to change you in a way that you cannot change yourself.  Then when they ask you family, neighbours and workmates, ‘was his gentleness event to all?’ They will reply, ‘all the evidence showed His love for Jesus!’

  

Monday, 28 February 2022

‘Walk in Love’ (Ephesians 5:1-21)

 

The week before last, I read a brilliant book on the Rise and Fall of Christianity in Ireland.  The concluding chapter detailed the sexual scandals that ruined the credibility of the Catholic church. 

The author began with Father Michael Cleary, a celebrity priest who had two number one albums, and who sang for the crowds in Galway during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979.  Michael Cleary’s secret didn’t emerge until after his death in 1993.  He had been sleeping with his house-keeper and had a son with her.

Then there was Eamon Casey, the former bishop of Galway.  He had a son with an American woman, Annie Murphy, and he had treated her with appalling arrogance.  He tried to get Annie Murphy to put up the child for adoption, in order to hide the scandal.  He fraudulently used diocesan funds to pay for the upkeep of his son.    

But these scandals were nothing compared to what would come.  There was Father Brendan Smyth, who was a serial abuser.  The news about him actually brought down the government of Albert Reynolds, when it was shown that they had delayed an extradition warrant to bring Smyth from the North to the Republic.

All these scandals led to the Ferns (2005), Ryan (2009) and Murphy (2009).  How could the Catholic church say anything about the same-sex marriage referendum on 2015 when it had lost all its moral credibility? 

The church had sought to protect their witness by silencing victims, but when the darkness was exposed it was very dark.

In order to walk as light in this evil world we need to shine.  But how do we shine?

We shine as we remember that we are loved (1-2)

Last week, Edwin spoke to us about talking off and putting on.  We are to talk off our old self, with its corrupting desires, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God.  We are to be imitators of God as beloved children (1).

Are you reminding yourself each day about how much God loves you?

Remember Jesus’ story of the prodigal son.  The younger son came to his senses and set out for home.  He found out that living for yourself alone always leads to a pigsty.  He rehearsed his speech.  ‘Father, I have sinned and against heaven and before, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired servants.’  But then, when he saw the father run to meet him, and experienced the father’s embrace and kisses, he said, ‘father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  There was no mention of being a hired servant.  He released that the father wanted a son, not a hired man.

If you are finding it hard to be motivated for shining then remember how much you are loved.  The best place to look is to the cross.  Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (2).  The cross shows us how much God loves us.  The cross sets the example of how we are to love each other.

We shine as we live in purity (3-7)

Ephesus was a very sexualised society.  The worship of that city centred on the temple of Diana, who was a multi-breasted goddess.

What is the relationship between walking in love and striving for purity?  Well lust objectifies people.  It uses people.  It treats them as an object.  It is not compatible with love for people.

Neither is lust compatible with love for God.  Lust wants what does not belong to us.  It wants someone else’s wife.  It covets someone else’s husband.  Such coveting is idolatry because it places our hopes on dreams on something other than what God permits.  It says, ‘if I had him or her then I would be finally happy.’  No, you would not!  The way to counter such covetous lust is through thanksgiving.  Remember all the good gifts that God has given us!

The word translated ‘sexual impurity’ has content.  It is not some vague idea that we can define as we like.  It referred to all sexual activity outside of the marriage of a man and a woman.

In our day people want to redefine what sexual immorality means.  They might say that sex is good between any adults who love and are committed to each other.  But such a cavalier attitude towards what the Bible teaches about sex is very dangerous.  It is messing with people’s eternal destiny.  For everyone who is sexually immoral or impure has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (5).  Don’t be deceived by those who call themselves progressive for it is because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (6).  Do not be partners with them (7).  This is not saying that you should not have non-believing friends, but let no one influence you towards sexual impurity, including with their humour.

But what about our own sexual impurity?  This is not a reference to those who have a past or who struggle with lust.  We need to remember too that none of us is yet perfected and that we deceive ourselves if we say we are without sin.  The man who may be struggling with porn or who finds it so hard not to look at women lustfully needs to find people in the church who are gracious and supportive.  The woman who thinks that life would be easier if she was married to another man, needs to be encouraged not to covet.  But if we think that what we do with our bodies does not matter to God, or that you can make up your own rules for sexual practice, then it probably means that you have not been born again.

We shine as speak in grace and truth (8-14)

I was in the gym a couple of years ago and some older men were talking dirty.  I kind of wanted to warn them that their words were storing up wrath for themselves on the day of God’s judgement (Romans 2:5).

Part of walking in the light involves exposing the darkness (11).  Of course, if our lives don’t point to purity, then how can we point to the light.  I had a man once tell me that his girlfriend needed to become a Christian, but how can she know what a life of repentance looks like while he was sleeping with her?

We cry out to a sexually sinful world: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (14).  What a wonderful promise that that God transforms children of the darkness into children of light.  It is important to point out that God forgives sexual sin.  We must forgive those with public sexual histories, and no longer remind them of what they did.  There can be no place for gossip concerning people’s past.

As children of the light we want to model purity and grace.  Our witness isn’t helped by covering over our failings.  We point to a saviour whose blood goes on cleansing us from all sin (1 John 1:7).  But we also speak of a God who has a better way than the way of using people and being used by people.

We shine as we go on being filled with the Spirit (15-21)

We are literally told to go on being filled with the Spirit (17).  Being filled with the Spirit is contrasted with being drunk on wine.  When someone is drunk, it is the alcohol that is affecting their whole being.  In the same way we are to let God’s Holy Spirit control us.

Look at what happens when we are filled with the Holy Spirit.  We address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts (19).  Singing is a way of reminding ourselves of all that God has done for us.  It gives us an opportunity to thank and praise him for his grace.  But it is not just about us and God.  Singing is one of the many ‘one another’ commands of the New Testament.  It is one of the ways that we encourage each other and build each other up.  Being filled with the Holy Spirit leads to thanksgiving (20), and causes us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (21). 

Being filled with the Holy Spirit causes us to enjoy the Cross-Centred Life.  We sing about what Jesus has done of the cross.  We thank God for what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  And we follow the example of Christ on the cross, as he laid down his life for those he loves.

Conclusion—glow!

I mentioned at the start of this sermon the book about the rise and fall of Christianity in Ireland.  The writer felt that the churches, both Catholic and Protestant had not served Ireland well.  This was because the churches often sought political influence and failed to show that we belong to a kingdom not of this world.  How will we show this world a better way if that world can not see that we are light?

There was a man who bought his wife a matchbox that glowed in the dark.  However, when they got into bed at night it made no light.  It didn’t glow.  Then the wife noticed that there was an instruction in French on the box.  She got a friend to translate it for her.  It read, ‘if you want this box to glow in the dark then you need to keep it in the light.’

How do we allow the light of Christ cause us to shine?  We shine as we remember that we are loved.  We shine as we strive to live in purity.  We shine as we speak of truth and grace.  We shine as we keep on being filled by the Holy Spirit. 

Monday, 21 February 2022

Ephesians 2:11-22 ‘Church is essential’

 


On one occasion when Melvin was on a visit to Cape Town he was invited to preach at a little church in the black township of Lavender Hill.  Despite the beautiful name this was a socially deprived place.  It was so deprived that one day they found a decapitated body on the doorstep of their building.  But the amazing thing is that this church had accepted a white Afrikaans man, to be their vicar.  This man had in fact being a leading member of the National Party, who were the architects of apartheid.  There was a time when he would not have even shared the pavement with a black person.  But God had changed his heart.  Before church he travels in a battered old minibus picking up old women who can’t make it to church by themselves.  His love for Christ meant that he wanted to serve those who he had formally hated.  More amazingly, the love of this black congregation for Christ meant that they were willing to let a former white bigot be their pastor.

Church can be a beautiful thing when old enemies become brothers and sisters in Christ.

The church only exists because of grace (11-13)

Therefore, remember.  Given that you were once dead in transgressions and sin, following the ways of the world, following prince of the power of the air and satisfying the passions of the sinful nature, don’t forget what God has done for you.  You have been brought near to Christ by the blood of the Christ.  What do you feel when you remember who you used to be and who you are now?  Remember that the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin (1 John 1:7), so how do you look back on those sins you have committed as a Christian? 

You are not to look back on your past with a feeling of guilt, because there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  You are not to look back on your past with regret, because godly sorrow leaves no room for regret (2 Corinthians 7:10).  You are not to be imprisoned by thoughts of who you were and what you have done, because you are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).  But you are to look back with a sense of thanksgiving, praise and humility. 

Look at what God has done for sinful people like us!  Isn’t He wonderful.  Paul marvels that he, a former persecutor of the church, who considers himself the very least of all God’s people, has been the given the privilege of preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).  Even your messed-up past is not beyond the redeeming plans of God for you, and now by the grace of God you are what you are (1 Corinthians 15:10), and that grace can work powerfully in you (Colossians 1:29).

Paul is addressing Christians who had come from a Gentile (non-Jewish) background.  They were called ‘the uncircumcised’ by the Jews.  That was a term of derision.  Notice that Paul calls the Jews ‘the circumcised, which is made in the flesh by hands’ (11).  Circumcision was the covenant sign in the Old Testament.  But as an act of human hands it did not save you.  You needed the work of God to save you.  Similarly, today we have some baptisms.  But these acts of human hands do not save you.  There is no magic in the water.  What saves you is God’s grace which came as you put your faith (or trust) in Him.  Baptism pictures that you have died to your old way of life, and raised with Christ and so have had your sins washed away.

The gentiles had the disadvantage of being separate from the community in which God was working in the Old Testament.  They were not part of the Old Testament’s covenant people, Israel.  They weren’t hearing about God’s covenant and promises.  In sum, they were separate from Christ, without hope, and without God in the world.  However, then we come to another big ‘but’, ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Jesus’ (13).

There was an old Latin proverb that says, ‘nothing ages quicker than gratitude’, Don’t stop thanking God for what He has done for you.  Whether He has saved you from a background of smug self-righteousness, and respectable sins like pride, or whether he has saved you from a background of more open and public sin.  Remember the church of God’s ‘saints’ only exists because of grace.

Church should be multicultural (14-18)

There used to be a principle among church growth gurus called the ‘homogenous unit principle’.  The idea was that churches grow faster by targeting a particular group of people and then creating the sort of community that they will be comfortable with.  You don’t ask people to cross cultural, ethnic or other boundaries.  If you want to attract middle age Irish men, you create the sort of community middle age Irish men like.  That principle might gather a crowd, but it will not encourage spiritual depth.  It is certainly not what Ephesians teaches us that the church should be.

Now Jews and Gentiles hated each other in the first century.  If you were going to operate the ‘homogenous unit principle’ of church growth you could have planted separate churches for those who had been saved from a Jewish background and those saved from a Gentile background.  That would have certainly been easier for people.  But it would have denied the beautiful truth that Christ is our peace (14).

Christ has abolished the law of commands to reconcile Jews and Gentiles.  The Law of Moses had many commandments that served to separate the Israel from the other nations.  His purpose was to create one new man out of two (15).  There was even a point in the temple in Jerusalem beyond which a Gentile could not go on pain of death.  Whatever your background, we are one person in Jesus, and because of what Jesus has done on the cross, we have access to the Father by one Spirit (18).

We are not an Irish church.  We are a church in Ireland.  We don’t belong to any cultural group, and being a part of any cultural group should not make you feel that you belong more of less to this family.  We live out this vision on an island where there have been deep hostilities between Catholics and Protestants, and where as a nation we have been slow to let go our grievances about the past.  We now live in a country that is being blessed by having many migrants come to these shores.  We should be glad that we have over twenty-five countries represented in our church community.  What a wonderful opportunity to show how our God creates a multi-ethnic person in Christ!

Church is essential (19-22)

During the lockdown there were those who were pointing out that church is essential.  Church is essential.  But I am not talking here about whether we have to meet in person or can have church on Zoom.  I am saying that church is essential because every person who becomes a Christian is joined to the church.  The church in Ephesians refers to the global body of Christ, but that body meets in local fellowships, of which we are one.

As Christians we are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household (19).  Whether or not you are a part of the membership list of this church, if you are born again you are a member of God’s church.  If this is the local church that are committed to serving, then you are a member of this local church.

Paul uses the metaphor of a building.  But remember that this is a metaphor.  Church is not a building that you go to, but it is like a building—the household of God.  It is a building that is built of the foundation of the apostles and prophets (20).  Remember that in the book of Acts we see that the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42).  We have the teaching of those apostles in our Bible.  Christ Jesus is the chief-cornerstone.  In fact, we are to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23).

Christians are being joined together.  Christians are a part of a church community.  I have heard people say things like, ‘the forest is my church, it is where I meet God.’  But we don’t become a part of a church to simply meet God, we are a part of a church to walk with His people.  Watching your favourite preacher online is not a substitute for church.  Neither can your small group or Christian Union simply be your church.

Being a part of the church does involve a commitment to our main weekly family gathering, but it is more than that.  How much more than that?  The answer to that is not about a rule for what meetings you are to attend.  It is about the inclination of your heart.  Do you see these people as your family?  Are we carrying one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)?  Do we accept one another (Rom. 15:7)?  Are we forgiving one another (Col. 3:13)?  Are we confessing our sins to one another (James 5;16)?  Are we refraining from grumbling against each other (James 5:9)?  Is our heart apart of the church?

Remember that in Ephesians this church is the whole global body of Christ.  This local church is a part of Christ’s worldwide church.  This global community of Christians is a holy temple to the Lord (22).  We don’t go to a building to meet with God, instead we meet with God’s people and celebrate the fact that he is in our midst (Matthew 18:20).

Notice the emphasis on growth.  We are being joined together (21).  We are being built together (22).  That is because mission is at the centre of what we do.  We are called to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:20).  We want to see God bring more people into this church and we want to plant new churches.  We happen to be a part of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland.  The tag line of Baptist Missions is ‘Proclaiming Christ and Planting Churches.’  We have signed up to being a church planting fellowship.

Conclusion

The church exists because of grace.  Remember that we are a people who are still imperfect (Phil. 3:12).  We are in the process of being made like Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18), but we fail to be like him every day.  That means we will let each other down.  But if God does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to His loving kindness (Ps. 103:10), then we need to lean on Him for the grace to forgive and love each other.

The church is multi-ethnic.  It might not be people of different racial groups that you struggle with.  It could simply be just that you struggle with different types of people.  We are all different, and that difference is good.  But that difference can be challenging.  Lean of God for the grace to enjoy each other.

Finally, church is essential.  In the New Testament walking away from the community of the church is linked with walking away from Jesus (see Hebrew 10:25 and 1 John 2:19).  Beware of churches that can’t get on with other churches.  Beware of Christians who can’t find a church good enough for them.  Beware of a shallow commitment to life in the church.  The church is the body of Christ and we need to be connected to it.   

 

 

Monday, 14 February 2022

There is no true spirituality without Jesus (Mark 1:1-8)

 


There is something within people that both runs from God and yet can’t completely ignore him.

I was reminded of this on Tuesday, when I was having coffee with a friend.  He told me of an elderly friend of his who had died.  The elderly man had left instructions that he was not to be given a church funeral.  Like many people in Ireland this elderly man was fed up with the church.  Yet, this man wanted the apostle Paul’s beautiful words on love (in 1 Corinthians 13) to be read, from the King James Version, at his funeral service.  It was my friend who said that this highlighted the inconsistency of that older generation.  They neither want religion, nor can they fully turn their back on it.

I observed something similar when a friend and neighbour died.  This neighbour was a convinced atheist—which made his passing all the more difficult to take.  His family asked if I would be master of ceremonies at his funeral service.  To honour his wished there were to be no prayers.  Yet when we got to the graveside, his adult daughters asked me if we could say the ‘Prayer of Serenity’.  I told them that I didn’t know the words of that prayer, but that they could led the people in it.  As I watched them pray, despite the wishes of their dad for there to be nothing religious at the ceremony, I thought how strange it is that people don’t seem to be able to leave God behind.

But a lot of the spirituality in our society lacks substance.  People want something divine in their life, but look in the wrong places.  Just look at the obsession there is with angles.  Go to the religious books section in O’Mahoney’s and you will see a fascination with them.  There is also an angel shop on Thomas Street.  I think that our society’s obsession with angels reflects the fact that people have a desire for a divine element to their lives, but that this desire for the divine is wrapped in pride and selfishness—after all, people don’t imagine that an angle might ever call you to repent, and people believe that angels simply exist to serve us and remind us how special we are.

However, in our reading from the start of Mark’s Gospel we see a rival in true spirituality.  The people had been waiting for the long-expected Messiah and now comes the one preparing His way.  But the message was blunt.  He was naming people’s sin, warning of God’s judgement, telling them they needed God’s forgiveness and calling them to a new way of living.  This was not the sort of superficial spirituality that is so popular today!  

Jesus is the source of God's forgiveness

There was something about John the Baptist.  He is baptising in the wilderness.  Now the wilderness is not exactly a great holiday destination.  The apostle John’s Gospel tells us where on the Jordan John the Baptist is baptising.  It is a place located thirty-three kilometres from Jerusalem.  That is the distance from the centre of Limerick, through Adare, and on to Rathkeale.  On foot, with a family, that might have taken ten hours.  That is a significant journey seeing as you would have to stay overnight.  It was also 4,00o feet below Jerusalem which would have made for a tiring journey home.  Yet loads of people were going to hear John.  ‘And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptised …’ (5).

Why were they going?  They were going to be entertained.  A true revival does not need to depend on putting on a great performance.  John the Baptist is no fancy televangelist in a sharp suit packing out stadiums with a message of how God can make you wealthy and give life without sickness.  John the Baptist was a man clothed in camel’s hair, wearing a leather belt around his waist and eating wild honey (6).  He was the last of the old covenant prophets that paved the way for Jesus.  He appeared in the style of the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:4).  His message was straight forward and blunt.  ‘We are sinful people who are in desperate need of God’s forgiveness.’  

In those days, baptism was an act done by someone who was not Jewish who wanted to become a part of God’s covenant people.  By telling the crowds that they needed to be baptised, he was saying you can’t be one of God’s people unless you repent and turn to God.  This baptism pictured the washing away of sin.  John the Baptist was pointing to the the Messiah through whom this forgiveness comes.

Don’t be afraid to talk about sin.  But don’t simply be a naysayer who seems to get some self-righteous delight from pointing to the sins of others.  Tell the story of how God forgave your sin.  When Caroline told the parent and toddlers’ group that she considers herself to be morally bankrupt, on of the mother’s objected, thinking that Caroline might have something wrong with her self-esteem.  But unless someone’s conscience is completely warped they know in their hearts that we all fail to live up to our standards, yet along the standards of a perfectly holy God.  The late John Stott, a marvellous Anglican rector, said that when we share the message of God’s forgiveness we should always remember that our friend’s conscience is actually on our side.

Jesus comes to give us a new life

But surely, we need more than forgiveness.  We need the power to change.  We all have a strange relationship with sin: we sin because sin gives us pleasure, but we hate the fact that we sin and it makes us regretful and sad.  We are attracted to sin, but we also want to be freed from it.  We might like to gossip, but we leave the conversation feeling empty and mean.  We might get a thrill from that image on the screen, but we turn the computer off feeling cheap and dirty.  We want to change.  In fact, the Christian is someone who knows exactly how they want to change, because our desire is to be more like the beautiful person of Jesus.  The good news tells us that there is a better type of pleasure than that offered by temptation.

John the Baptist point to someone who is mightier than he is.  ‘The straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie’ (7).  While John the Baptist baptised in water, this greater person will baptise with the Holy Spirit.  That looks back to a promise made a number of times in the Old Testament.  For example, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a time when the Spirit would be poured out from on high, and when the wilderness becomes like a fruit field (Isaiah 32:15).  John the Baptist was speaking to a barren wilderness, and they knew that their lives were barren and empty, but the one who would come after him could transform their lives into a beautiful garden.

On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus poured out the person of the Holy Spirit on all His people.  From that day on all those who live in relationship with Him have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  That Spirit is the guarantee that one day we will be perfect like Jesus.  Although in this life the Holy Spirit’s work is one of gradual change.  We are not yet perfect, but we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).  I wonder have some of us become lazy and ambitious in responding to the Holy Spirit’s work of changing us.  All of us have some idea of what we would like to be.  Is that idea of who we would like to be set upon Jesus, and people who reflect Jesus well to us?  When I was growing up one of the most attractive people I knew was a man who I referred to as Uncle George (although he was not actually my uncle).  It was written more than once of George Good that he reflected the beauty of Godliness.  Are we still aiming our lives at the joy have having a strength of conviction and a gentleness of heart?

Forgiveness and change are a gift from God the Son

The Gospel of Mark, centres on Jesus on the question, ‘who is Jesus?’  John Mark is writing to the Christians in Rome.  He is writing down what the apostle Peter taught him about Jesus.  He is writing to Christians who were being persecuted by the mighty Roman empire.  They knew how the apostles Paul and Peter had been martyred for their faith.  What do Christians under that sort of pressure need?  They needed to be reminded all over again about the good news of Jesus.  They need to remember His person, authority and work on the cross.

Mark is no suspense writer.  He tells who Jesus is straight way.  ‘The beginning of the gospel of/about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (1).  Jesus is a person who has a unique relationship with God.  He is ‘the’ Son of God, in a way that we are not.  We are sons of God, but He is ‘the’ Son of God.

The profound nature of that sonship is highlighted in the Old Testament quotes at the beginning of this chapter.  John the Baptist has been sent to ‘prepare the way for the Lord.’  That is a quote from Isaiah (40:3).  But the remarkable thing about that quote is that in the Old Testament the messenger is sent to prepare the way for Yahweh/Jehovah.  Jesus is the Son of God in the sense of being God the Son.  He is the Son in relation to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

This means that the good news that we share with our neighbours and friends is that while all of us need to be washed of our guilt and enabled to live a new and better life, this washing and transformation comes because God Himself descended from the glory of heaven and stepped into our world where he would be despised and rejected and pinned to a cross to take the punishment for our wickedness.  Then He would rise from the dead, ascend to heaven and pour out the person of the Holy Spirit so that we could live a live of being transformed into the likeness of His wonderful and beautiful personality.  This is good news that should keep us positive when all around us seems negative.  This is good news that should leave us feeling glad when our circumstances make us sad.  This is good news that gives us the strength to get up and face the day.

Conclusion

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see those people set off on the thirty kilometres or so to walk into a wilderness simply to see a man tell them of their desperate wickedness and show them the way to forgiveness and transformation?  How different that is from the superficiality we see in our own time!

I saw of tiny bit of what this was like when I was working in the boarding house of a school in Dublin.  The boarders had to go to church on Sundays.  Those who went to the local Methodist church witnessed a sketch that reminded them of the reality of hell.  That sketch started a conversation among the boarders and a number of them enquired about what was involved in a relationship with God.  Sadly, I only know of one of those kids who actually came to faith.  It was Eric Miller, who later went on to play rugby for the Irish team and the Lions.  I am not sure that this was the moment that Eric was brought from spiritual death to life, but I saw that it was a time when God made a big impression on him.

I saw the sketch in that Methodist church, and I have to say that it was very John the Baptist like.  It was a simple and straightforward message of our desperate need for Jesus.  Indeed, thinking of that drama, and the style of John the Baptist, I wonder if at times we are not blunt enough.  As one great Dublin evangelist used to say, ‘sometimes we are so low key that we are no key.’ 

May God give us that tact and courage to be both loving and blunt.  May He also keep reminding us that this gospel is truly good news—the good news that will sustain us, even when we are under all sorts of pressure!  Amen.