Sunday, 25 June 2017

What do you see?

A man asked to see me to talk about Christianity.  He told me that he believed that Jesus was a great teacher, but he didn’t seem to think that he was more than a great teacher.  The other thing that he told me was that he struggled with an awful sense of guilt.  Those two things are actually related.  If Jesus only tells you how to live a good life, then he offers no solution for the fact that we fail to live a good life.

How do you destroy self-righteousness and pride?  What is the source of Christian joy?  Can God prove that he loves you?  What do you do when you are overcome with feelings of guilt?  How do you know that Christianity isn’t just the same as every other religion?  How can you change and become more loving?  Why should you forgive?  The answer to each of these questions is the same: look at the cross of Jesus!
This morning we are going to look at the cross through two sets of eyes.  Firstly, we are going to think about what the centurion saw when he watched Jesus die.  Then, secondly, I will tell you about some of the things I see when I think about Calvary.  
What did the centurion see when he saw Jesus die?
The centurion hated being stationed in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was in a relative backwater of the Roman Empire.  The Jews that lived there hated the Roman occupation and despised the soldiers who enforced it. 
Passover was a particularly difficult time, with pilgrims flocking to the city from far and wide.  During the festival rebellious thoughts were more likely, as the people were hoping for a political messiah who would set them free.
That year there was talk of a Nazarene carpenter, who apparently claimed to be king, and had entered the city to great fanfare.  However, the religious leaders had arrested him, Pilate had interviewed him, the crowds had cried for his blood, and now he was being crucified. 
This centurion had overseen many crucifixions.  He was only doing his job.  He had no longer felt any pity, morbid fascination or even revulsion.  Yet there was something about this execution that would remain with him for the rest of his life.  What was it about the way Jesus died that caused him to conclude that this man was innocent and that he was the Son of God?
It wasn’t the many prophecies that were been fulfilled in even incidental events that were unfolding.  The centurion was not a Jew and had not read their scriptures.  He did not know that these things were written about hundreds of years before.  Who was responsible for the death of Jesus?  You could blame greedy Judas, the jealous religious establishment, cowardly Pilate or the easily-led crowd.  We could also say that we put Jesus on the cross, for it was our sin that sent him there.  But ultimately Jesus died because God had planned it.  The Scriptures had foretold how God would send a substitute for his people’s guilt.
Matthew links the earthquake to the centurion’s conclusion.  As well as that earthquake, there was three hours of darkness during the afternoon.  It is interesting that the early opponents of Jesus didn’t deny that the darkness happened (but said it was an eclipse), and the gospels were written during the lifetime of many who would have been there.
Then there was the dignity in how Jesus died.  The centurion had never seen a man pray for those who taunted him.  Yet Jesus pleaded, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’  Even the criminals who were being crucified with him hurled abuse at him, and yet when one of them changed his mind, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness and assurance.  ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’  Or, what about the loving way Jesus looked down from the cross and told John to behold his mother?  Even in the time of his greatest despair, he makes practical arrangements for Mary.
Then there is the manner of the death itself.  At one stage Jesus cried out in despair, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  The centurion did not know that Jesus was quoting the twenty-second psalm (a psalm which also speaks of the victim’s deliverance).  Jesus seemed to see purpose in his suffering, stating that the task was finished.  While it was normal for the crucified to speak their final words in a weak, exhausted, muffled voice, Jesus lets out a loud cry before he dies.  While the condemned normally tilted their head back to grasp for air, Jesus bowed his head and committed his spirit to God.  It is as if no-one is taking his life from him but that he is giving it up himself.
Seeing all this convinced the centurion that Jesus was an innocent man and that he was the Son of God.  Son of God was a title the centurion would have reserved for the Emperor.  He was giving Jesus the highest praise his culture let him imagine.  Job done, the centurion marches his men back to the barracks.  If he survived his military service and went home to whatever part of the Roman word he was from, I imagine that he never forgot what he saw that day on the hill of Calvary.
What do you see when you look at the cross?
I see the centre-piece of our faith.  The apostle Paul can sum up his preaching saying, ‘I preach Christ crucified.’  The risen Jesus told a couple of the disciples, on the road to Emmaus, that the whole of the Bible pointed to him, and his death and resurrection.  If the cross is not at the centre of your religion, then you religion is not that of the Bible.
I see justice.  I was doing a questionnaire with some of the small groups in our last church.  These were good Christian people.  I asked them what attributes come to find when they think of God.  I was surprised that no-one mentioned holiness.  The heavenly chorus cries, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.’  How can a perfectly holy God, who will not tolerate our evil, accept us as his sons and daughters?  Only through the cross!  At the cross, God shows that he is both just and the one who justifies the ungodly.
I see a sacrifice of infinite worth.  Not only is Jesus a sufficient price for your sin, he is a sufficient price for the sins of the world.  Indeed, he is a sufficient price for the sins of a million worlds.  If all the sins of everyone in this room were lumped on your shoulders, Jesus’ death is enough for you.  Your sins are viler than you have imagined, but never dishonour the sacrifice of the Son of God by claiming that they are too great to be covered by his blood.  No matter what you have done, you can have confidence in his forgiveness and joy in his grace. 
But I also see a sacrifice of definite value.  The Son knew those that he would purchase for the Father.  This is an actual payment for actual sin—our sin, past, present and future.  This is personal.  The apostle Paul could speak of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Finally, I see love.  This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  ‘Unless you are assured God loves you, it is pretty hard to do anything in the Christian life’ (Jack Miller).  We are told to behold (look and see) the love of God for us.  This beholding is life-changing.  We love because he first loved us.  Our love is a response to his far greater love.  So, as I said a number of months ago, ‘your problem is not that you don’t love God enough, but that you fail to see how much he loves you.’  Behold your saviour upon the cross.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Are you fully alive? (Luke 7)


John Newton was a slave-trader who had rejected the faith his mother had taught him.  He indulged in every sensual pleasure, and became an angry and bitter man.  Then he surprised himself by crying to God for mercy in a storm on the sea.  Coming to Christ transformed him.  He turned into a contented, loving and joyful man.  He became a Church of England minister, a famous hymn-writer and is known for his letter-writing.
Some of his letters were to a brother-in-law who did not share his faith.  I put the thoughts of one of his letters into my own words.  ‘You know what it is like to seek your pleasures apart from Christ.  I know what that is like, too.  However, I have experienced something you know nothing about.  I know what it is like to seek my pleasures with Christ, and it is better by far.  What’s more, when the inevitable trails of life befall us both, I have peace that the world can neither give nor take away.’  John Newton was experiencing life in all its fullness.
This morning I want to think about life in all its fullness as we see Jesus turn a scene of devastation into a party through the demonstration of his power over death.      
The look of love
Last week I was at the funeral of an uncle.  Uncle Dick died in his eighties after dementia and a stroke.  It was sad, for he was a gentle man who was devoted to his family, yet there were smiles as well as sorrow.  You see it was good to catch up with other uncles and aunts and cousins and their wives and their children.   As I drove home, I thought how different it would be to have been to be at the funeral in our passage.  The funeral of a young person is particularly devastating.  We prepare for our parents to go before us, but nothing prepares a person to bury one of their children.  This mother had no other sons, and she had also buried her husband.  In that patriarchal society, her sorrow would be joined by poverty.  This was the sort of funeral where it would have been inappropriate to smile or laugh.  This was the kind of occasion that leaves you with faith-shaking questions.  This was a scene of utter devastation!
Funerals generally took place around six in the evening.  Earlier that day, the widow would have taken the body of her only son, laid him out, groomed his hair, put him in the best clothes she had available and placed him on an open wicker basket.  He would have been face up with arms folded.  A crowd would have gathered and they would have proceeded out the city-gates towards the graveyard.  Most of the town’s five-hundred people would have been there.
The graveyard at Nain was east of the city, along the road to Capernaum.  Capernaum was where Jesus had his base.  Jesus happens to arrive down that road and meets the funeral.  There is a crowd with Jesus.  Apparently the Greek wording implies that the crowd with Jesus was even bigger than the funeral.  Perhaps there were a thousand people with him.  They give way to let the funeral pass. 
What is the first thing that Jesus does?  He looks!  The gospel writers mention Jesus looking at people about forty times.  Often that looking is followed by a description of how he felt.  Matthew tells us that Jesus looked at a crowd, and had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.  Mark says that Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and loved him.  John shows Jesus looking down from the cross, seeing his mother, and making sure that she would be looked after.  Luke tells us that when Jesus saw this grieving widow, his heart went out to her.
The eyes can be a window into the heart.  What Jesus sees touches his heart and surfaces infinite compassion.  He would have looked with a tender, concerned and engaged look.  Because he was compassionate, her pain affected his emotions.  As one writer says, ‘Jesus enters this woman’s world, feeling what it’s like to be in her place’ (Paul Miller).
The word translated compassion is a word that implies deep, gut-wrenching emotion.  The four gospel writers only ever use this word with regards to Jesus, and people in his stories that were like him, such as the father of the lost son and the Good Samaritan.  Jesus’ compassion stood out in a harsh world.  His compassion also showed his family likeness with his Father.  The apostle Paul calls God, the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).  The more we allow Jesus to shape our hearts, the more compassionate we will be.  Intimacy with Christ will make us feel for the needs of others.
The Lord of Life
Jesus steps forward and says to the woman, ‘don’t cry.’  Then he gently places his hand on the open coffin and commands the young man to get up.  The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.  I imagine that there was initially silence and reverent shock, people then looking at each other to confirm that what they saw really did happen, and there follows an eruption of delightful chattering.
Luke, whose aim is to show his readers who Jesus really is, records that they were all filled with awe and praised God.  “A great prophet has appeared among us.”  After four hundred years of silence, since the close of the Old Testament, God is speaking again.  “God has come to help his people.”  Yet their conclusions about Jesus are not complete.  He is a prophet—this scene echoes a time when Elijah raised a widow’s son—but he is more than a prophet.  Luke will show that Jesus is the promised Christ, the Son of God and the true Lord of life.
The death to end death
As we read this story we can be glad that just as Jesus is compassionate to this widow, and he is compassionate to us.  Look at these verses and be assured that he cares about your pain and sorrows.  I had to bury a friend’s sister, the daughter of his widowed mother, and I did not know what to say.  At the funeral in her house I read this passage, for although I could not answer the questions that her loss raised I was assured that Jesus cared.
Yet Luke isn’t just reminding us that Jesus was compassionate, he was telling us that Jesus has power over death.  After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he exclaimed, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever believes in me, will never die.  Do you believe this?’
If you are trusting in Jesus then you don’t need to fret over the passing of time.  Jesus has taken care of your funeral arrangements.  You will pass from this world into his presence.  As John Newton wrote in another letter, ‘one sight of Jesus as He is, will fill our hearts, and dry up all our tears.’  The widow’s son would die again, but he had encountered the Lord of life.
Don’t forget how Jesus won the victory over death!  Luke will soon show Jesus’ resolutely turning his face towards Jerusalem, travelling there to die on by crucifixion.  We were on a road marked ‘destruction’; so Jesus took a road marked Calvary.  We were dead in transgressions and sin; he took our guilt upon himself and was raised to give us life.
Are you fully alive?
Finally, as I read about this passage, I thought about the fact that eternal life begins know.  Like that young man, we have been raised to life.  We have been given life in Christ.  We have been saved from emptiness that we might experience fullness in Jesus.  Are you acting as someone who is fully alive?
Jesus commands us for our good.  He is perfect and all his ways are good.  He calls us to purity, because it is not fullness of life to be a slave of lust.  He tells us to forgive, because bitterness is an acid that eats its own container.  He commissions us to speak of the cross, not just because he loves those we are talking to, but because he wants us to know the delight of being on mission.  He bids us come spend time in prayer, because he longs for us to experience more intimacy with our Heavenly Father.  He has an infinite amount of love that he wants to flow through our veins to others, and in doing so enlarge our hearts.  He wants us to let go of our regrets and to delight in the truth that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  As one Christian leader from the second-century is reported to have said, ‘the glory of God is a man (or woman) fully alive!’

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Are you worthless? (Luke 15:8-10)

‘Because you are worth it,’ says L’OrĂ©al.  Why has that advertising slogan been so successful?  Well, it is telling people, ‘I know that our product is expensive, but, hey, your value more than justifies the price.’  It also resonates with the fact that we all have a great desire to be told that we have worth.  Oprah says that all our problems are rooted in a lack of self-worth.  However, the Bible says that our worth is to be found not in self but in God’s grace

My fragile and twisted sense of self-worth is exposed when someone treats me like a ‘nobody’.  Parents rightly feel annoyed when their children take them for granted.  When someone ends a relationship with us, it hurts to think that the person sees so no worth in us, and that their life would have more value without us.  Millions of people go to counselling saying, ‘I feel that I am worthless.’

Why am I so obsessed with proving my worth?  Can you ever be happy if your sense of worth is based on people’s opinion of you?  The parables of the lost tell us that Jesus values failed people.  But why does he value us?  We are going to see that God values us because he makes beauty out of ashes (Isaiah 61:3).

1.      The bad news is that you are worthless.
The story of the Bible involves humanity being made in the image of God, yet rebelling against our creator.  We still have the image of God, but it is marred.  At the heart of our sin is the fact that we have not considered God to have worth.  We have valued independence from him above living under his infinitely-loving rule.  Tragically, our sin has actually rendered us morally worthless.  The Apostle Paul writes that, ‘All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no-one does what is good, not even one’ (Romans 3:12).

2.    The bad news is that you can’t make yourself worthy.
The Pharisees and teachers obeyed all sort of rules in order to prove their worth.  But Jesus exposes the wickedness of their hearts and the emptiness of their religion, and they hated him for it.  Jesus’s teaching damages the self-esteem of every person who claims to be righteous and good.

It is a hard burden to try to prove your worth.  You slave at convincing your employer that you are invaluable, only to find that your replacement is better than you.  You try to convince people that you are a good guy, only to destroy that image with a bout of moodiness.  You might even be putting on a face for those in church, and be wondering if we would judge you if we knew what you are really like.

Trying to prove our worth to God is a dead end street because sin taints everything about us.  The Bible teaches us that he root of every conceivable evil is buried in the soil of our hearts.  Isaiah proclaims that all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).  Our corrupt, proud, self-centred souls render us incapable of doing anything truly good and worthy.  We cannot earn worth before God

Yet Jesus invites those who are trying to prove themselves by their good works to come to him and experience rest (Matthew 11:28).  Although, we can do nothing to make ourselves worthy of God’s love, he wants to treat you with grace.  Our worth is not self-worth.  Our worth is found in the fact that the God of grace places great value on worthless humanity.
3.     The good news is that Jesus values worthless things. 
The Pharisees complained that Jesus was associating with people that they considered to have little worth.  Jesus has no time for people who want to tell him how good they are, yet he welcomes those who know that they are evil.  It is not so much your badness that will keep you from Jesus but your belief in your own goodness.  Here is great news for all people who are willing to admit that they are wicked.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.
Only grace explains why Jesus values something that is worthless.  He pictures himself as a woman who had lost a coin.  That coin was worth a day’s wages.  It may be a part of the woman’s dowry or the money she is given to provide for the household.  So she lights her lamp, sweeps the floor and celebrates when she finds it.
Jesus went to even greater lengths to find you.  He descended from heaven, became a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief, and he was pinned to a cross of shame to pay for your sin.  He makes beauty out of ashes.  He makes dearly loved children from depraved humanity.  He forgives, cleanses and restoes.  Paul writes that we are God’s masterpiece created in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10a).
But haven’t we already learned this through the story of the story of the lost sheep?  Why does Jesus seem to tell the same story twice?  Maybe we need to hear it twice?  But there is also a significant difference in the main character.  Jesus portrays himself as being like a woman.  That is important!  Religious people of that time were very chauvinistic.  Pious men thanked God every day that they had not been born a woman.  The Pharisees and teachers would never have told a story that pictured them as female.
While Jesus is telling this story to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, a crowd would have been listening in.  Among that crowd were women.  Among those women were those who had sexually sinned.  As a result they were seen to have lost value to men.  Prostitutes were thought of as the least valuable of all women.  But we are all equally worthless in sin and equally valued in grace.  Jesus recreates what has been lost.

4.     The good news is that God considers you worth having a party over.
There is also a slight difference in how the celebration is described.  I don’t know if that is significant.  Here we are told that the rejoicing is before the angels of God.  Does that point to God being the one who is rejoicing or all those with him in heaven?  Certainly God is among those who rejoice.  Do you realise that God was overjoyed to find you?  Can you accept that there was a party in heaven when Jesus brought you home?  Do you know that God goes on delighting over you?  He holds you close to his heart (Isaiah 40:11).       

A woman went to her pastor.  She was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  She revealed that her father was an emotional tyrant who said, ‘if you are pretty … if you make good grades … if you are successful … if you don’t embarrass me in front of people … then I will love you.’  She spent her life trying to prove her worth.  As a result she could not grasp the fact that God is gracious.  She had become a Christian but the gospel seemed too good to be true to her.  After an hour of trying to convince her of the love of her heavenly Father, the pastor read from Zephaniah.  ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing' (Zeph. 3:17).   ‘He looks at you, he thinks of you … and he sings for joy.’  He read it again, and she responded that if she could only believe that was true, she could face almost anything.

5.     The good news is that we can now live worthwhile lives.
Not only does grace give you worth, in grace God values all you do for him.  He is not like a parent who is impossible to please.  Grace enables us to live a life worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1 and Philippians 1:27).  We do not work for God to prove our worth to him.  In love, God takes pleasure in all that we do for him, even though what we do for him is so imperfect.  So we don’t lose heart!

When Bryan Chapell was a young adolescent, he came across of piece of rotten wood that he thought looked like the head of a horse.  He made a tie rack out of it and gave it to his father.  He dad delighted in it and used it for years.  In truth it looked rather odd.  Bryan later commented that his father loved it, not because it was good but because he was good.  In the same way, God now delights in of efforts to please him not because they are actually good enough, but because he is.

Conclusion—Stop trying to prove your worth!
Don’t look within yourself to find reasons why God loves you.  He loves you in his free, undeserved, unearned and unmerited grace.  He has proven his love to you by sending his Son for you.  You don’t have to prove your worth to him.  He placed great value on your worthless soul and has made you an object of his delight.  The reformer Martin Luther sums up the beautiful paradox when he comments on the verse that reads, ‘I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).  Luther writes, ‘I, wretched and damnable sinner, dearly loved by the Son of God.’ 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The value of one (Luke 15:1-7)

In 1920s America there was an unusual court case.  It concerned a man who tripped over one of those large ropes they tie to ships and fell off a pier.  He cried for help but his friends were too far away.  However, there was a young man sunbathing close by.  This young man was a good swimmer.  But he didn’t want to get wet.  The man in the water drowned.

The parents of the drowned man were so incensed about this they took the young man to court.  But they lost their case.  The judge ruled that sun-bather had no legal responsibility to go to the aid of a drowning person.
That is a reasonable picture of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees believed that they knew God, but had no concern for other people’s spiritual needs.  They failed to see that our God loves to forgive and they made no effort to reach out to those who need him.  How different they were to Jesus, the good shepherd who comes looking for lost sheep! 
1.      It awful it is to be lost
For a sheep to be lost was perilous.  Unlike dogs or cats, sheep don’t have a great ability to find their way home.  In a short time that sheep would become the victim of predators.  That sheep was doomed, unless the shepherd found it.  So the shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine in a safe place and goes looking.

It is an awful thing to be lost.  The apostle Paul says that before Jesus found us we were dead in transgression and sin … and children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Jesus spoke of humanity being on a wide road leading to destruction.  Lostness results in death.  Charles Spurgeon writes, ‘if you are saved yourself, be on the watch for the souls of others.  Your own heart will not prosper unless it is filled with intense concern to bless your fellow men.  The life of your soul lies in faith; its health lies in love.’
2.    Look at the lengths that Jesus to find the lost
Finding a lost sheep in the rugged Palestinian countryside would have been a very strenuous task.  Some of those predators would have been a danger to the shepherd.  Today, many tourists go off wandering in those same isolated hills and end up having to be brought home on stretchers because of over-exposure to the elements.

Not only are people lost, they have chosen to go astray.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).  We weren’t looking for him; we were hostile to him (Romans 8:7).  The good shepherd left his heavenly home, stepped into the wilderness of a rebellious world, endured mocking and rejection and, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  This is personal.  Not only did Jesus die for a mass of humanity, he came looking for you personally.  Paul marvels, ‘I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). 
How gentle this shepherd is!  When he finds the lost sheep, after the long searching, he does not beat it.  He does not seek to teach the dumb, weary sheep a lesson.  He joyfully lifts it up.  That sheep is weak from its wandering, too weak to follow the shepherd home.  The shepherd has to carry it on his shoulders. 
Sheep are heavy creatures.  Our good shepherd is determined to bring us home.  He will not loosen his grip of us.  Having found us, he will not let us go.  Jesus says, ‘For I have come down from heaven … to do the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day’ (John 6:38-39).
3.     The celebration over those who are brought to repentance
The angels in heaven have an advantage over us when it comes to rejoicing over lost people being found.  You see, we are hindered by an earthy-perspective and a sinful nature.  Their viewpoint is from heaven and they are not tempted towards a harsh, unforgiving and critical-spirit towards people.  They spend their time gazing upon the splendour of our amazing God, and see just how gracious that God is to welcome sinful people as sons and daughters.  They know all about the lamb that was slain for the sins of his people.  They also are more aware of the terrors of righteous judgement that falls upon those who refuse to repent, and so delight in merciful heart of a God who rescues so many from the eternal punishment they deserve.

Don’t misunderstand Jesus’ words.  He is using irony when he speaks of righteous people who do not need to repent.  The Bible is clear that there are none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).  We live in a world where everybody is encouraged to believe that they are essentially a good person.  Such good people are enemies of the gospel.  My neighbour was telling me that he is an atheist, and then added, with a smile, but if there is a heaven he is sure to be going there.  After all he considers himself a good person.  Many sick people do not go to the doctor because they are ignorant of their illness and so miss out on the cure.
Conclusion
There is a quaint little story about some children who sought shelter from a storm many in a church many generations ago in England.  In that church a preacher was speaking on this morning’s verses.  He read from the King James Version, ‘And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  One of the children went up to the preacher after the service and said to the preacher, ‘Jesus receives me!  You said that Jesus receives sinners and Edith with them.  I am Edith!’
Jesus does welcome Edith and Paul and Edwin and Joan.  This parable reminds us of the value of one.  Jesus came to rescue millions of people, but he came to rescue them as precious individuals.  He welcomes sinful people and delights in their repentance.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus used our feet to seek for the lost?  Sharing our faith is a missing ingredient in many of our lives.  I don’t speak as someone who finds evangelism easy, and I have missed many opportunities to speak about Jesus.  One writer says, ‘I’ve repeatedly found that it’s the Christians living out the unexpected adventure [of speaking about Jesus] who are enjoying the most fulfilling relationships with God.’  You see, Jesus wants you to share your faith not just because he has a love for the lost, but also because he delights to bless those he has found.
(The opening illustration, story about Edith and the insight about why angles rejoice were taken from Scott McKay, preaching at Saint John Newlands).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

What are you ashamed of? (updated) (Luke 15)

In one of his sermons on the prodigal son, the great nineteenth-century London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, tells of how a dog won his affection:

‘When I walked down my garden some time ago I found a dog amusing himself among the flowers.  I knew that he was no gardener, and no dog of mine, so I threw a stick at him and bade him begone.  After I had done so, he conquered me, and made me ashamed that I had spoken roughly to him, for he picked up my stick, and, wagging his tail pleasantly, he brought the stick to me, and dropped at my feet.  Do you think I could strike him or drive him away after that?  No, I patted him and called him good names.  The dog had conquered the man.’

Spurgeon applies the lesson to prodigals.  If an imperfect man is inclined to have pity on a mischievous dog, how much more sympathy does God have for a wayward person who returns to him.  ‘And you, poor sinner, dog as you are, can have confidence enough in God to come to him just as you are, it is not in his heart to spurn you.  There is an omnipotence in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being himself.  Only do but trust him as he reveals himself in Jesus, and you shall find salvation.’
Shame can keep us from feeling free in God.  Men, you may be ashamed of the things that you have viewed on your screens.  You have failed so often, that you wonder how God could still have patience with you.  Women, I don’t know the particular failings that you struggle with, but there are bound to be things in your life that embarrass you.  Parents, you may be ashamed of the many ways in which you have failed your children.  Maybe you carry the wounds of a parent who exclaimed, ‘I am so disappointed in you.’
I used to have a recurring dream.  It occurred when I first began paid work for a church.  In the dream I would be in the town’s supermarket, and I would realise that I was in my underpants.  I believe that I was having that dream because I was scared of being exposed.  ‘What if the people in the church knew what I was really like?  What if they knew of my struggles with lust, the insecurity of my faith and how little of the Bible I really knew?’  Do you battle the inner shame of feeling that you can’t live up to the image you present of yourself?  More painful still, maybe you are hiding secrets, because you are embarrassed about some things in your past and present.
A blogger called Tim Challies writes, ‘so many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame.  They think back to all the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and live under a cloud of shame.  This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates.’  This morning we are going to see that God loves to cover our shame.
The young man brought shame upon himself, his family and his community
The younger son is doing something shameful in asking for his share of the estate.  ‘…in that culture, the normal response to this level of impudence would be, at the very least, a hard slap across the face from the father.  This would have typically been done publically to shame the son who had shown such disdain for the father’ (MacArthur).
As well as a public renunciation, there might be a formal dismissal from the family and possibly even a funeral for the son.  That would have been the only way to avoid allowing the boy to bring lasting reproach against the family’s good name.  However, the father ‘was willing to endure the pain of spurned affections and public humiliation rather than disown his son’ (MacArthur).  The Pharisees and teachers of the law who were listening to Jesus would have considered this father’s response to be shamefully weak.
As the younger son heads off to the distant land, he brings disgrace to his family, his village and his religion.  Then he lives shamefully among the pagans, and soon he experiences his own disgrace.  When famine comes, he goes to a farmer looking for work.  I doubt that this farmer was looking to employ anyone at that time.  But in that shame-culture you did not turn down a request for help.  So the farmer offers the boy a job that no self-respecting Jew could accept—feeding unclean pigs.
Shame kept him from returning home
So why didn’t he just head home?  I think that he stayed in the pigsty because he feared the shame that he would experience if he returned home.  Middle-eastern expert, Ken Bailey, explains that had he come home after dishonouring his village among the gentiles, he would have been greeted by people who would have broken a clay pot in front of him and declared that he was dead to them.  For the rest of his days, young lads, with nothing better to do, would have followed him around, taunting him and throwing dung at him.  He was also aware that his bitter older brother would never let him forget what he had done.  The shame he expected to be exposed to on returning home would be greater than the shame of feeding those pigs.
But, what actually happens on his return?  The father endures shame for the sake of his wayward son.  When the father sees the son in the distance, he sprints.  That’s significant.  In that culture there was a proverb that said you could tell the manner of a man by the way he walked.  Men over thirty did not run.  Respectable men walked in a slow dignified manner.
I don’t know if you have heard of Garrison Keillor.  He is a radio comedian that tells stories about an imaginary place called Lake Wobegon.  Lake Wobegon, explains Keillor, was the sort of place where everybody knew everybody else’s business.  In fact in Lake Wobegon people did not have to use indicators when driving because everyone knew where you were going.
First-century Palestinian villages were the same.  Farmers did not live in isolation amongst their fields.  For security they lived in villages and went out to work in their fields.  So everybody has seen the shameful son set off to the distant land, and they see the father lift his clock, expose his knees and make a fool of himself as he sprints through the village to embrace his son.
I know that what motivated the father to run to his son was his overwhelming feeling of compassion.  I also suspect that he was determined to get to him before the village could have their pot-breaking ceremony.  He did not want his son to experience such pain and disgrace.  If he gets to the son first, and accepts him, then, because of his status in that society, the rest of the village will have to accept him.  He is willing to be shamed to ensure his son is not.
The great nineteenth-century London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, says, ‘had the story been that of a selfish human father only, it might have been written that “as he was coming near, his father ran out, and kicked him.”’  Many fathers would have looked at the emaciated boy, in rags and covered in pigs’ dirt, and contemptuously declared, ‘look at the state of you!’  But not this father!  This father orders the best robe to cover the boy’s shame.
But not everyone wants to forget his shame
Apparently the fatted-calf could have fed up to two hundred people.  That means that the father is inviting the whole village.  He is showing hospitality to the very people who gossiped about his wayward son and looked down their noses when they saw him race out to greet him.  The father shows grace to those who shamed him, as we see very clearly in his dealings with the older brother.
But many people don’t want to face your shame
In that culture nothing was considered worse than shaming someone.  The older brother goes out of his way to shame his dad.  Ken Bailey says that it is hard to overstate the sense of embarrassment that would have been caused by the father having to leave the party and plead with the older son to come in.  Fathers did not plead, they simply yielded unquestioned authority.  No one in that society would have been shocked if the father had order the older son in and given him a public beating for showing such a lack of respect.  As he got up and left, I imagine the guests whispering to each other, ‘this father is making a fool of himself, again.’ 
The older son refuses to address his dad with any term of respect—the omission of the word ‘father’ is telling.  Yet the older son thinks he has nothing to be ashamed of.  With great self-righteousness he says, ‘I have never disobeyed your command.’  Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he covered up a cold and bitter heart with proud acts of outward obedience.  How sad it is that so many of us insult God as we cry out, ‘but I am a good person.’  Such pretence will fill us with the insecurity and slavery of having to put on a face to impress.   
Jesus endured shame for us
Thankfully, we have a very different older brother.  Jesus is the only person who has never done anything to feel ashamed of.  He is also the older brother who takes away our shame.  His are the robes of righteousness that cover our spiritual nakedness (Revelation 7:13-14).  Like the father, Jesus acted in a way that his society considered shameful so that we could be accepted home.  Crucifixion was not talked about it in polite company.  If a child talked about the crucifixions that had taken place that day, they might have been told to wash their mouth out.  However the writer to the Hebrews tells us to, ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2). 
John Piper explains that Jesus’ ‘friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture.’
Conclusion:  It is sinful to hold on to our shame
I can’t tell you that everyone else will forget your past, but I can tell you about divine forgetfulness.  God promises, ‘I will remember you sin no more.’  He has covered our shame.  He wants us to be happy and free.
Sometimes we hold onto our shame because we are proud.  Rather than let God deal with it, we want to prove our worth.  We imagine a day where people could say, ‘you are so different than the emaciated wretch you once were.’  But such pride dishonours God’s grace.
And now we can be transparent.  We can admit to today’s failings because the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7).  While others might look down on us, we have the acceptance of the only one who really matters.  As the former slave-trader and hymn-writer said near the end of his life, ‘although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.’

Monday, 24 April 2017

Jesus has my last day taken care of (1 Samuel 31)


A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking at U.C.D. Christian Union.  I looked at the young people and said, ‘I don’t know whether I envy you or pity you.’  I envied their youth, and the freedom of being a student.  Yet I remembered how anxious I was at their age.  At their age I had serious doubts about whether God loved me, I was obsessed with meeting a Christian girl to marry and I had no idea about what job to pursue.  As I looked at those students, I thought to myself, ‘if only I could go back in time and assure a younger Paul Ritchie that everything would work out okay; then I could have enjoyed my twenties so much more.’  Knowing that everything will turn out well enables you to enjoy the now!
You’ll forgive me if I make the same point with a Munster Rugby illustration.  Imagine a young player who has just made it onto the team.  But the Munster team is not the sum of his ambitions.  He longs to play for Ireland.  He is not enjoying the now of playing for Munster because he is worried that in the future he will not play for Ireland.  Could you imagine if you could take that player forward a few years and show him lining out for Ireland in the Aviva stadium?  Now he plays for Munster with contentment, enjoying the present, because he knows that his future hope is secure.  Knowing that everything will turn out well enables you to enjoy the now!
I can’t promise every Munster player that they will line out for Ireland.  I can’t promise every young adult that they will have a great marriage.  But I can promise every person who has submitted to the love and leadership of Jesus that everything will turn out in the end.  I can promise you that God will never leave you nor forsake you, will change you more into the likeness of the beautiful person of Jesus, is committed to opening your eyes to more of his love and enlarging your heart as his love flows through your veins to others, and that he has your last day taken care of.
You see, all of us are moving towards a last day.  Most people don’t want to think about that.  Our last day might come suddenly and soon, or it could be years away on a death-bed.  It will be a journey no-one else can take with us.  On that day our reputation and possessions will count for nothing.  We will close our lives on this world and open them on eternity.  But we can enjoy the now knowing that Jesus has taken the sting out of our last day.
Although our last day is secure, God’s people still pass through storms (1-2)
Our passage begins with the death of Jonathan and two of his brothers.  Jonathan’s death is an unexpected shock.  Read his story and you can see that Jonathan had anticipated that he would serve in the kingdom when David came to the throne.  He was not expecting his last day to be like this.
Jonathan is a hero in this story.  Although he is Saul’s eldest son, he submits to the God’s desire to make David king.  Rather than seeing David as a rival to the throne, he is David’s best friend.  He loves David and he loves God.
I see Jonathan as a wonderful challenge to contentment.  Surely he grew up with expectations of being king.  Yet he submits to the idea that God has other plans.  More humble plans.  Do you ever struggle because you want to be more gifted?  I sometimes feel jealous of other pastors who seem much more capable and successful than I am.  The challenge is, like Jonathan, to be content with what God made you to be. 
Jonathan’s death is a reminder that tragedy still afflicts God’s people.  Yet Jonathan dies this tragic death.  Although our last day is secure, God’s people still pass through storms.
Those without God face a hopeless last day (3-6)
After the death of Jonathan and two of his brothers, the focus moves to the lonely figure of King Saul.  Saul is under such pressure.  He has fled to the hills, to escape from the Philistine chariots.  But he is an easy target for the Philistine archers, who wound him with a critical blow.  He does not want to be humiliated by the Philistines, and so he asks his armour-bearer to kill him.  But the armour-bearer will not kill the king.
It is striking that there is no mention of God in this passage.  Saul doesn’t even think of calling out to God.  Decades of treating God with contempt have led Saul to a Godless death.  I heard a preacher plead with people not to put off thoughts of God until their death-beds.  He explained that in his experience people who have spent their lives ignoring God tend not to be interested in him on their last day.  In old age, such people are simply tired of life and ready to die.  Those without God face a hopeless last day!       
The world can’t offer you help for the last day (7-13)
From across the valley, the Israelites can see that their king is dead.  It causes them to abandon their cities and flee.  Saul’s death leads to his people’s defeat.  They had wanted a worldly king to impress the surrounding nations.  Saul had been fiercely handsome and a head taller than everyone else.  The people had put their trust in the best of what the world could offer.  But the world can offer nothing but despair at the end of the day.  As one writer pointed out, on your last day you will not regret that you didn’t spend more time in the office. 
The death of Munster rugby coach, Anthony Foley, had a massive impact on another rugby coach, Connacht’s Pat Lam.  Pat Lam realised that life is short and took another coaching job, one that would enable him to spend more time with his family.  Yet the most important provision Pat Lam has made for his future is that he loves Jesus and is teaching his children to love Jesus too.
Saul had tried to avoid being humiliated in death, but the events surrounding his death are truly shocking.  The Philistine’s chop off his head, strip his body, put his armour in the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his headless corpse to the wall of Beth-shan.  Apparently, in verse nine, the Hebrew doesn’t have the word messengers—leading some commentators to suggest that it wasn’t messengers that announced Saul’s death but his head.  It may be that his head was carted from place to place announcing the ‘good news’ to the Philistines.  The ‘good news’ of Saul’s death was proclaimed in the house of the Philistine idols.  King Saul’s life and death appears to have resulted in victory for the Philistine gods.  Saul’s death leaves us craving for a very different kind of king.
The only bright moment in the story of Saul’s death is the valiant actions of the men of Jabesh-gilead.  They remember how Saul had rescued them many years previously.  They retrieve Saul’s body and bury it under a tamarisk tree.  Yet their actions serve to remind us of the height from which Saul has fallen.  Saul had begun his reign rescuing God’s people, but his death leaves people in despair.  In an earlier chapter, we had read of the luxury of Saul as he sat under a tamarisk tree surrounded by his servants, now his is buried, headless under a different tamarisk tree.  Death brings all worldly power and promise to nothing.
Another king brings us hope for our last day
The only way we can find hope in this passage is to compare it to another lonely death.  Unlike Saul, Jesus did cry out to God as he faced death.  He cried, ‘my God, my God why have your forsaken me?’  Yet, because he was forsaken for us, we can be assured that God will never leave us nor forsake us.
Like Saul, Jesus’ death was humiliating.  Jesus died naked on a Roman cross.  Crucifixion was the lowest of Roman punishments, and was not to be spoken of in polite company.  Like Saul, a valiant man, Joseph of Arimathea, came and gave his body a dignified burial.  Like Saul, the death of Jesus resulted in a message of good news being spoken of amongst God’s enemies—but this time the good news is an invitation to experience peace with God and is a proclamation of God’s triumph over all the powers of evil.  Jesus’ death assures those who love him that all will be well in this life and on our last day. 
Conclusion
The speaker at this year’s Irish preachers’ Conference was an American called Bryan Chapell.  In one of his books, Bryan tells the story of a friend called Maudette.  Maudette went to the evening service at the church he pastored, but the morning service of the church she grew up in.  The morning church did not preach the gospel of God’s amazing grace, but she attended hoping to have a positive influence on the succession of young pastors that served there.  She went to Bryan’s evening service for what she called her, ‘weekly dose of Bible.’
Maudette’s last day came, and was followed by her funeral.  The pastor of the morning church assured Maudette’s family that she was in heaven because she had attended church so often, was a sweet person, had a beautiful garden and shared her flowers with the church.  Then Bryan was invited to give the sermon, as Maudette had requested, where he told the congregation the good news that Maudette was saved by grace through faith and not by works.  She lived life with peace because Christ’s death for her sin assured her a place in God’s heaven.  Bryan’s wife observed that watching those two preachers at the funeral was like watching two boxers fighting—one would throw a ‘good works’ jab, the other would respond with a ‘gospel’ punch.
Only Jesus can make you ready for your last day.  Praise him that he faced a lonely, God-forsaken death as punishment for guilt.  Now we can face our last day without despair.  We can now enjoy life, knowing the thrill of his love and presence now, and knowing that we will have nothing to fear on our last day.  You see knowing that everything will turn out well makes an eternity of difference!