Monday, 11 September 2017

Abortion and the gospel

‘The woman who has had an abortion needs to know that, if she is hidden in Christ, God does not see her as “that woman who had an abortion”’ (Russell Moore).  Christians should be pro-life, but they need to be more than pro-life.  We proclaim God’s offer of new life to all.  We need to think of how we preach the gospel in the context of an abortion culture.

The Bible tells us that God knitted us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  As a result it is wrong to take the life of an unborn child.  I support the pro-life movement.  But there is a difference between the church and the pro-life cause.  The pro-life cause focuses on loving and protecting the unborn.  We go a step further.  We are also to speak of the God who loves the woman who has had abortions, and who loves the medics who perform them.  We may call their actions sinful, but we believe in a God who sent his Son to die for sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

I would like us to imagine that every time we talk about this topic, we are being overheard by a woman who has had an abortion.  When we speak, will she hear us talking about a God of love?  Will she see the God who longs to forgive her and bring her home?  Will she understand that in Christ she will no longer be seen as that woman who terminated her child?  The gospel is to be good news for her.  When God forgives, he will remember her sin no more (Isaiah 43:25).  Despite what any of us have done God delights over those he has redeemed.

The unborn are not the only victims of an abortion culture.  The mother may be a willing victim, but she is a victim nonetheless.  Her conscience is being violated in this act.  Behind that mother’s choice there may be a man who supports her action.  Indeed, if our society votes to repeal the eighth amendment then there will be a collective responsibility for every abortion that is carried out in the state.

I am glad to live in a country that has a constitutional provision aimed at protecting the unborn.  I will be voting to retain this.  I hope you will too.  However, I am also aware that this is a country that has a shameful history in the way it has treated young women who have got pregnant outside of marriage.  Many a girl went off to England to have an abortion for fear of the religious-hypocrites who would have scorned her and her child for the rest of their lives.  As Christians, we seek to shame nobody, for we believe in a Saviour who endured the shame of the cross in order to cover the shame that should have been ours (Hebrews 12:2).  We thank God for the life of every child, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding their conception.  When a fellow Christian falls into sin we are called to restore them in mercy (Jude 23) and we are to comfort those who are tempted to be filled with sorrow over their past (2 Corinthians 3:7).

We need to speak about this topic with conviction, because the life of the unborn is precious in the sight of the Lord and the conscience of the mother matters.  We need to think about this issue with humility, for we simply speak as sinful people who have been forgiven by an amazing Saviour.  We need to engage with this cause tenderly, for there are difficult cases, and while we do not think that terminating the child is the solution, our hearts must nevertheless sympathise with those who pregnancy brings pain and confusion.

April Hernandez was in and out of relationships in her teens, and after spending the night with one of her boyfriends she found that she was pregnant.  She wasn’t going steady with this guy and she thought that her life was over.  She thought that an abortion was her only choice.  So very early one Saturday morning she went to a clinic in Manhattan.  She had to slip past the protestors on her way in.  She paid her money.  She underwent the procedure.  She immediately felt regret.  She feared her life would never be the same again.  When she came out of the clinic, an old lady forced a pamphlet into her hand and told her, ‘you’re going to hell for what you have done.

After a few years, April began going to church.  But she didn’t want to buy in to ‘the whole Jesus thing.’  She would sit at the back of the church, where she felt comfortable and safe.  The service was in Spanish and her first language was English, so she didn’t always understand everything the pastor was saying.  But one Sunday morning she recognised that the pastor was saying the word for ‘forgiveness’ as he spoke.  This had an effect on her, and she began to have a desperate desire to be close to God.  As she cried, she heard the pastor say that if anyone needed forgiveness they should walk to the front.  She went forward, hesitantly.  The pastor assured her of God’s love.  Then suddenly, she lost sense of everything around her and felt immense heat travelling through her body.  She collapsed on the ground, and as she lay there weeping, she heard a voice whisper, ‘I forgive you, my daughter.  Cry no more.’  Understanding God’s forgiveness changed her life.  She felt free at last.  She knew that what she had done was wrong, but that morning she was overwhelmed with the love and forgiveness of God (story taken from Metaxas, Miracles).

We must sound the trumpet for the unborn.  It is a part of the Biblical mandate to give justice to the weak and rescue the needy (Psalm 82:3-4).  We must speak up, even though this may expose us to misunderstanding, ridicule and hostility.  We must pray hard that the law will not change.  We must not only vote to save the eighth amendment, we must seek to persuade others to do so as well.  But we must speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  And we must ‘offer the precious blood-brought forgiveness and hope to all women and men … who have experienced or encouraged abortion’ (Piper).

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Chosen to be different (1 Thessalonians)

A long time ago in an English town, a faithful church ran a Sunday school.  One week their little group was joined by a young boy who caused lots of trouble.  But he kept on coming and eventually invited Jesus into his heart.  A few weeks later he came back with a little girl, who had a sign around her neck.  The sign read, ‘we don’t know what you have done for Johnny.  Can you please do the same for his sister?’  This morning we are going to see how the gospel radically changed a bunch of people in Thessalonica.

Background
Thessalonica was an important city of around a hundred thousand people in what is now modern Greece.  Paul, Silas and Timothy had visited.  As they shared the good news about Jesus, some Jews, a large number of God-fearing Gentiles and not a few prominent women became Christians.  However, trouble soon erupted.  
You see, the Jewish authorities became jealous and so they recruited a gang of thugs who started a riot.  They stormed the house of Jason, where Paul and his companions were staying.  But they were not there.  So they marched Jason and a few of the other new Christians down to the magistrates and made a most serious accusation.  ‘Paul and his friends have caused trouble all over the world and now they have come here.  Jason has welcomed them into his house.  They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’
Jason and his friends were released on bail and that night, under the cover of darkness, the Christians sent Paul and Silas out of the town.  Their visit to Thessalonica had lasted less than a month.  The year was A.D. 49.  You can read the story in Acts 17.
Now Paul was concerned for the young church at Thessalonica.  He wasn’t able to return to them, but he sent Timothy to find out how they were getting on.  When Timothy next caught up with Paul he was able to give them a good report that warmed Paul’s heart.  However, there were some problems.  There were people criticising Paul, saying that he was insincere and did not care enough to return to them.  There was also confusion on such issues as the Lord’s return and sexual immorality.  So a year after visiting them, writing from Corinth, Paul pens what is the second oldest book of the New Testament.
The Thessalonians were a persuaded people (1-3)
In the book of Acts, when Paul came to Thessalonica he reasoned from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.  ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’  The people were persuaded to join Paul.  True faith never by-passes the mind on the way to the heart! True faith is never just an emotional experience.  However, true faith is never confined to the heart.  Some of you put too much emphasis on the emotions, but others don’t engage your emotions at all.
Paul now tells them about how he remembers them in his prayers.  We give thanks to God always for all of you … remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Like that little boy, who went to that Sunday school in England, the gospel was changing them from the inside out.  Their life focused upwards towards God, outwards towards people and forwards towards Jesus’ return.
I say forwards towards Jesus return because this letter majors on that theme.  I find that one of the greatest challenges of this letter.  I am so comfortably at home in this world, that I never pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’, the way the early Christians did.  Yet there are around three hundred references to the second coming of Jesus in the New Testament, which accounts for almost one in every thirteen verses.  The Thessalonians did look forward to Jesus’ return in part because they were being persecuted.  They wanted God to come and bring justice and comfort to his people.  
Look through the history of the church and you will see that the most effective Christians always had this steadfastness produced by their hope in the Lord Jesus.  Like the social reformer, Lord Shaftsbury, who explained that ‘over the last forty years there are not two hours of the day that I do not think of the coming of Jesus.’  Remembering that Jesus is coming back again should put everything in perspective.  It should shape our priorities.  It reminds us that so much of what we value will have no lasting value.  It should motivate us to be doing those things that will have eternal significance.  It prompts us to warn people to be ready.  It gives us peace when the world is shown to be against God’s people.
The Thessalonians were a chosen people (4-5)
For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you.  How do we know that they were chosen?  We know that they were chosen because the Holy Spirit enabled them to respond to the gospel.  There are many issues raised by the issue of God’s choosing people to be saved.  You will have to live with some level of mystery on this.  But the issue is raised here to humble and comfort us.
It humbles me because I can take no credit for my salvation.  I did not chose him, he chose me.  It wasn’t my decision, it was his.  I can take no credit it for it.  It was not because I was good, for I was a rebel.  He simply chose to set his love and me.  And because he has chosen me in love, I am comforted, for he will not chose someone and later un-chose them.  Having set his love upon our unworthy souls, he has committed to keeping us to the end.  One humble old lady explained to John Newton, ‘if God did not choose me before I was born, I am sure that he would have seen nothing in me to have chosen me afterwards.’

The Thessalonians were a transformed people (6-10)
Just as it did for little Johnny, this gospel that told them about God’s amazing love for them, turned their lives upside down.  

To start with, you became imitators of us and of the Lord.  They were copy-cats of those who followed Jesus.  You received the word in much affliction.  Getting a hard time for being a Christian is actually normal for those who are being saved.  They were persecuted for their faith, but that did not stop them from believing that this was the best news ever.


For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  The verb translated ‘sounded forth’ is related to the word echo.  It is a word that can be trumpet call or even a roll of thunder.  Their witness echoed and thundered through the hills and valleys of Greece.  Christians from miles away said, ‘we want to be like them!’  Non-Christians told Paul, ‘we have heard of the amazing transformation in them.’

I imagine that if I was to ask any one of you how God brought you to faith, not only would you tell me about how you came to see that the message of the cross was good news, you would tell me of people who showed you the power of that good news in their life.  John Stott says that ‘we need to look like what we are talking about.’

They had turned from idols—an idol being anything that threatens to take the place of God in our lives.  I don’t know about you, but my greatest idol is ‘me’.  I am obsessed about myself, my reputation, what others say about me, my popularity, my silly little ambitions, and so on.  Like all idols, the idolatry of self is slavery.  Tim Keller writes a wonderful little book you all should read entitled ‘The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness.’

Now they were waiting for his Son from heaven, whom he has raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Conclusion
Finally, remember that the Thessalonians were a persecuted people.  The witness echoed all the more loudly because their faith and love blossomed against the backdrop of suffering.  At the time I was working on this sermon, I was dealing with the fact that someone seemed to have a real dislike of me and my family.  Of course, the little trial we were facing was nothing compared to the hostilities the Christians at Thessalonica had to put up with.

But I was struck by how opposition can be turned to good.  Let that insensitive relative, rude neighbour or difficult work-colleague drive you to pray.  Let them remind you how much you need your fellow-Christians.  Let them help you see that you are completely dependent on the Holy Spirit if you are going to respond to them with love.  They don’t deserve your kindness, but then you didn’t deserve God’s.  Let the discomfort of their hostility make you look forward to the day when Jesus comes and comforts you.  Allow them strengthen your faith so that the great name of Jesus echoes more loudly through the hills and valleys of Munster.     

Friday, 1 September 2017

Groom's speech

Last month I attended the wedding of Rene and Sarah.  Rene gave the most wonderful groom's speech I have ever heard.  This is what he said:

Over the last year or so, Sarah and I have been learning about marriage and obviously, marriage is quite a daunting milestone to engage in, I don't think anyone would debate that. And, of course, the general public perception of marriage is one of being shackled in a sense, and, funnily enough, the irony of this is that, the more we have learned of marriage, the more we've come to realise that this is actually true, it is evident even in the vows that we gave [earlier]. Now our immediate reaction as selfish humans is that this is reprehensible and goes against our very nature, and would not be something we would want to ever pursue but when you look at it closely, you realise that this is actually the very beauty of marriage. We, as selfish humans tend to run away from our problems -- when things get too hard we mostly want to retreat since the pain is too great. But in a marriage, that option has now been closed off -- you are shackled to the other person and the only option left is to work through the problems, as painful as that might be, and the only way to do this is through the truth which requires us to make ourselves completely vulnerable. And when we do this, the scales of who we might think we are, or even want to be, start falling off, since it reveals who we actually are, and the two people engaged in that marriage start to fuse together through this vulnerability. And the result of this is this beautiful synergy where two people's existence become intertwined together, fused through honesty, truth and vulnerability. And I believe, that is where God's intention of marriage comes in when he claims that the "two shall become one".
Now, I understand that this view of marriage might seem very unattractive to many, but I urge you to analyse human happiness. Human happiness thrives through sacrifice, since that is what human relationships are based on, all of them, and you can see that quite easily because any relationship anyone engages in requires a give and take dynamic, the fundamentals of which is sacrifice. This is also how we can see that marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church (not any worldly, physical church, but the collective body of true believers), since that is a relationship that is SOLELY based on sacrifice.
So Sarah, I think that we have already partially seen some of this in our relationship, where our compasses have started to point towards the same direction. And I pray that they will continue to do so as we fight through thick and thin and become a worthy reflection of the most important relationship of all, the relationship between Christ and his church.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Are you happy? (Psalm 1)


Jonathan Edwards, the great American Christian leader in the 1700s, once said, ‘God has made man for nothing but happiness.’  Could that be true?  I asked a friend who is a lecturer in a leading evangelical college and he said that this statement might need a little qualifying.  If you define happiness in terms of the feeling you get when everything goes your way, then no, God does not always work towards our happiness.  Indeed, there are plenty of sorrows in the pages of the Psalms.  However, there is a deeper happiness, more commonly referred to as joy that can exist in the pain.  The apostle Paul speaks of being ‘sorrowful but always rejoicing, and while Jesus was ‘a man of sorrows, familiar with grief’ there was none who had such joy as he.  So, yes, in a real sense, ‘God has made man and woman for nothing but joy.’
This joy is found in the peace that comes in realising that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus—as Psalm 32 begins ‘blessed is the person who knows their sins have been forgiven.’  This joy is found in the comfort of knowing that God is with you, even in the pain—Psalm 34 tells us that the Lord ‘is close to the broken-hearted.  This joy is found in the sure hope of knowing that all will turn out well for us, even if we have to wait until this life is over—in Psalm 23, David ends by dwelling on the fact that he will remain in the house of the Lord for ever.
Background
This Psalm is actually the introduction to the whole book of Psalms.  It’s a gateway psalm—a doorkeeper to everything else that follows.  Fail to understand this psalm and you won’t understand what the rest are about.  Right at the beginning of this book we are presented with two ways to live.  We are being asked, ‘do you belong to the company of the wicked or the congregation of the faithful?’  We’ll see how we can be among the righteous in a few moments.
Happiness is found in going against the flow (1-2)
I have a friend who says that he wants to be a salmon.  You see salmon swim upstream—they go against the flow!  Happiness is found in going against the flow!  Happy is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.  Happy is the person who … does not stand in the way of sinners. Happy is the person who ... does not sit in the seat of scoffers.  The scoffers think the way the world thinks, act the way the world acts and belong amongst those who resist God.
Don’t imagine we are been told simply to stick to our own.  He is not talking about living in a little Christian clique.  Jesus was friendly to all sorts of people.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about how to behave when they ate with their unbelieving friends (1 Corinthians 10:27).  But there will always be a sense of not fully belonging.  Indeed, if we are finding that we are being influenced more than we are influencing then we need to take a step back.  The world is not a playground but a battleground (Tozer).
One old lady was asked what the best thing was about being one hundred and four.  She replied, ‘no peer pressure.’  You will meet plenty of peer pressure in life, but if you want to enjoy God’s happiness you will depend on him for the strength to go against the flow.
So how can we stand firm?  One commenter suggests it is ‘the pursuit of pleasure!’ (Dale Ralph Davis).  ‘He does it because he cares more for his pleasure than for his pressures!’  But his delight is in Yahweh’s Torah (‘the Law of the Lord’).  He meditates on that law day and night.
Now I need to point out that how you approach the Bible matters a great deal.  I have often been embarrassed at my lack of Bible knowledge.  In fact, in one church I served at, I had just arrived and the men were having a table quiz.  My team came last in the Bible round.  I am always tempted to read the Bible to simply acquire knowledge and so impress people with what I know.  That will not bless your heart.  You need to read the Bible to see a face, to see God and know him, and to see his Son and love him.
They say that coffee and chocolate taken together have a unique way of combining to stimulate the brain.  Something similar happens with the Bible and prayer.  They are designed to be taken together.  The righteous person meditates on the Torah day and night.  God’s word is his preoccupation.  The verb carries the meaning of muttering to oneself.  The Christian regularly and consistently ponders upon it.  She pushes it down into her heart.  She speaks it out in prayer.  She thinks through its implications.  It makes her happy.
All of us struggle to be disciplined in Bible reading.  I regret that I haven’t spent more time dwelling on God’s Word.  I have found two things helpful recently.  One is a book produced by the Good Book Company called Encounter.  This book is designed for ninety days.  It guides you to a passage, asks leading questions, has a short amount of expert teaching and has a page to write your own notes.  The other thing I have found helpful is the Bible App on my phone.  It actually reads the Bible to me.  So I can listen as I walk or drive.
Dale Ralph Davis speaks of a difficult time in his youth when he was under a great deal of pressure for being a Christian.  So every morning before dragging himself to the bus stop for school he would meditate upon his Bible.  Certain psalms were of particular help to him.  He writes, ‘meditation in those psalms seemed to put me in the shadow of Yahweh’s wings and settle me on the rock of his faithfulness, and faith’s fingernails were able to hang on for another day.  To be sure, God’s Word was sheer necessity, but it was also a delight.’
The happy person is the person who is rooted (3-4)
The third verse is connected to the first two.  And he shall be like a tree.  The person who finds their delight in God’s word is like a tree.  You will be stable (planted), you will have vitality (from streams of living water), you will be productive (bearing fruit), you will be resilient (not withering) and you will be prosperous.  One preacher called this psalm ‘the true prosperity gospel’ (as opposed to that awful misunderstanding of the gospel that says you will never experience sickness, pain and that encourages the love of money).
The picture of a tree is very instructive.  Trees are subject to all sorts of harsh external conditions, but their life comes through their roots.  Trees live through autumn and winter as well as spring and summer.  You will see people facing all sorts of storms in these psalms.  Jesus knew what it was like to be ‘a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:3).  The apostle Paul speaks about being ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10).  The apostle Peter says that we greatly rejoice in our future hope, ‘though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief and all kinds of trials’ (1 Peter 1:6).
Tim Keller makes an interesting point about the fruit produced by a tree.  He says that trees don’t bear fruit for themselves.  When we let our roots sink deep into the word of God it will produce a fruit that will bless those around us.  This is the word of God that works within us.  What a contrast this is to the chaff produced by a life apart from God!
There is a happiness that lasts for eternity (5-6)
One last question before we finish.  Who is the righteous person of this psalm?  I don’t feel like the righteous man who experiences God’s blessing, for I see a lot of sin in me.  Yet there was one man who was perfectly righteous, and because of him I am counted as righteous.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died a death for sin, so that I am forgiven and treated as if I had always obeyed.  There is a righteousness from God that is revealed from faith for faith (Romans 1:17).
The end of this psalm puts everything else into perspective.  Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.  This seems to be a reference to what we fall ‘the final judgement’.  Those who continue to ignore God’s offer of righteousness and the transformation that it brings cut themselves off from all hope.  The first word of the psalm is “blessed” but the last is “perish”.  ‘Make sure you are among the congregation of the righteous’ (Dave Ralph Davis).
But look at the righteous.  Yahweh knows the way of the righteous.  ‘God is intimately and personally concerned about every step the righteous man makes’ (Henry Snaith).  The God who cares about every step we take will care for us as we step into the judgement and so we will be preserved at the last and not perish (Davis).  God offers us a happiness that goes beyond this life into all eternity!
Conclusion
So you are left with one final nagging worry: I am a Christian but I don’t delight in the Bible?  Sometimes I find it irrelevant and boring.  I can go days without reading it.  May I suggest three things?  Firstly, don’t read this book simply to find out information read it to know the God who is revealed in it.  Secondly, read it prayerfully (like coffee and chocolate).  Thirdly, join with me in confessing your lack of enthusiasm for the Bible.
We pray words of Tozer:  “O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more.  I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace.  I am ashamed of my lack of desire.  O God… I want to want Thee.  I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made thirstier still.  Give me grace to rise up and follow Thee.”

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Prodigal's Resurrection


During the early part of his ministry, Bryan Chapell was speaking at a series of meetings held by a small church.  More people than expected began attending and the church had prayer meetings for those who were coming.  As Bryan listened to the people pray, he noticed that no-one prayed for one particular young woman who had a notable punk haircut.  Bryan suspected that no-one was praying for her because she wasn’t the sort of person that they wanted in their church.  So he spoke to the pastor.
‘Oh, that is our Maria,’ the pastor replied.  ‘She is a loved part of this church family.’  Then he told Bryan her story.
Maria grew up in a family that was indifferent to her.  She attended the church’s Vacation Bible School as a child.  She was quite troubled and wild.
On one occasion her class in school took an excursion to a local university.  There she met a young man who asked her out.  She was flattered, and romance blossomed.  They got married in a few weeks.  Then Maria discovered how this guy afforded his car and apartment.  He was dealing drugs.  She told him that she was trying to escape that sort of lifestyle, and that if he didn’t stop she would leave him.  He threatened that he would kill himself is she left.  He didn’t stop dealing drugs, she left and he did kill himself.  She was now fifteen, a widow and pregnant.
Maria decided to turn to the only people who had shown real kindness to her—the church.  As they loved her, she fell in love with Jesus.  She was a regular part of that church community, was coming to the meetings and bringing one of her friends with her.  Maria had discovered the grace and life that this parable is all about!
I know that I have spoken on this parable a number of times before, but I have never dealt with one of its crucial themes.  This is a resurrection story.  Look at the words of the father to the elder brother, ‘your brother was dead but is now alive.’  This is the story of the prodigal’s resurrection!
The departure
The younger son had it all.  He belonged to a wealthy family who could afford servants, hired men and a fattened calf.  He had a future with an inheritance awaiting him.  Most of all, he had the most amazing father.  This father does not change in this story.  The loving and gracious man that welcomed the son home is the same man that the son left.  Many young people crave a father like this.  But he did not value his father’s love.
This story is like the human story.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, had it all.  Yet they did not value our Heavenly Father’s love, and so they rebelled against him.  We have continued in that rebellion.  ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one turning to their own way’ (Isaiah 53).  By nature we have lived with hostility towards God’s loving rule.
The death
As I thought of this parable, I asked myself, ‘in what way did this young lad die?’  I was surprised about how many ways there is.  To start with, he was leaving family, home and community—in that culture it would have not been unusual for there to have been a funeral when such a disobedient child walked out (he was now dead to them).  He was morally dead—the law said that such a child deserved to be put to death.  His older brother describes him as a ‘waster’—he was living a life with no direction and purpose.  He surrounded himself with shallow friends who were nowhere to be seen when his cash ran out.  The father said he was lost.  He was financial bankrupt.  He was alone and despised.  He was rejected by people who would not feed him.  He was in danger of dying in a famine.
The New Testament says that without our lives being centred on Jesus we are like the leaving dead.  We are dead in transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2).  Without Jesus our life lacks hope, purpose and meaning.  We are morally bankrupt.  We are on a road without any hope that is heading to what is called the second death.  Ours is a story of death.
When we were in Croatia, we stay in a lovely village called Jelsa.  Jelsa is a civilised place.  There are many tourists, but they are well behaved.  Yet we have gone to the capital of the island, Hvar town, a couple of times.  Hvar Town is popular with the younger, eighteen to twenty-five year-old crowd.  There is a different feel.  It seems that there is a lot more drink and the young people are seeking to pick one another up.  It is tempting to condemn.  ‘Would you look at the state of your man?’  ‘What does she think she is not wearing?’  However those young people need our compassion.  In their search for love they will use and be used by each other.  Their culture is empty.  Their friendships are shallow.  Their search does not offer meaning.  We follow a man who looked of the crowds with compassion, who came to seek and save that which is lost, who offered life in its fullness, and who came not to condemn but to save.
The deliverer
There was another son who had it all but went to a distant land.  This son did not go in disobedience but love.  He had it all but he gave it up for us.  He didn’t leave home seeking life but giving life.  How different Jesus is to the younger brother!
Yet, like the younger brother, Jesus experienced what it was like to end up in the pits.  He was rejected by fickle friends, he was left all alone, and he actually did die.  It is because of this man that we can be welcomed home and the heavenly Father can say about us, ‘she was dead but is now alive.  He was lost and is now found.’  Now resurrection life is ours.  The truth is that there is no longer any condemnation on us. 
Do we delight to be home?  Do we cling lovingly to the Father as the Father clings lovingly to us?  Are we glad that he has saved us from the perils of the distant land?
I want to finish by telling you about one of the most delightful Christians I have ever met.  Her name was Emma McCann, but everyone knew her as Auntie Emma.  She had been a member in the last church I served.
Auntie Emma was in a nursing home in Belfast when I first met her.  She had severe dementia.  My initial visit was only done so that I could say that I had called on her.  I couldn’t see what good I could do for her.  I did not realise all the good that she was going to do for me.
When I visited, I found a woman whose short-term memory only had a two-minute span, but whose mind was in love with Jesus.  She smiled as she spoke about him.  She declared her love for him.  She quoted hymns and verses.  I explained to Caroline, ‘that woman ministered to me.’  I have often wondered if such love would flow out of me if I my mind was stripped to its core.
Auntie Emma’s favourite hymn went, ‘I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather be his than have riches untold.’  She kept on reciting it.  You see, Auntie Emma knew how good it was that the she had been brought home to her Heavenly Father, and so nothing in the distant land shone so brightly any more.  She had been dead but brought to life.  She found what she was looking for and he gave her more satisfaction than she dreamed.  Now she is living in eternity with the source of her delight.

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!’