Tuesday, 30 June 2015

‘The why, who and how of death’ (Luke 13:1-5)

This summer we have had plenty of reminders of the fragility of life.  We have seen young Irish students die in a balcony collapse in California, there have been the shootings in North Carolina and Tunisia, and much closer to home we have had the death of our beloved sister Flora.  Many people ask the question ‘why?’ when death comes to our door, but I also want to look at the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of death.
1.  We are not told why tragedy strikes some and not others
In Jesus’ day the popular thinking was that if tragedy struck your home you must have done some specific wrong.   Yet Jesus takes two events from that time and says that they did not happen because the people were worse sinners than others.
This passage begins with some people telling Jesus about people from Galilee who Pilate murdered, and then added their blood to the sacrifices they were offered.  They were the victims of someone else’s brutality—like the victims in Tunisia, North Carolina.  Many people asked, ‘where was god on 9/11?’
Jesus knows what these people are thinking and asked, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?’  He then answers his own question, ‘I tells you, no!’   
Then he reminds them of the terrible accident where eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell on them.  A tragic accident—like the collapsing balcony in Berkeley!  Again Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?’  ‘No …’
There are times when God punishes those in blatant rebellion against him and even uses illness to lovingly discipline his children.  But the passage that we have before us reminds us that we can never assume that anyone’s illness or death is due to a particular sin in their life.  My favourite Bible Commentator, Don Carson, writes:
'Practically speaking … it is almost always wrong, not to say pastorally insensitive and theologically stupid, to add to the distress of those who are suffering illness, impending death, or bereavement, by charging them with either some secret sin they have not confessed or inadequate faith … The first charge wrongly assumes that there is always a link between a specific ailment and a specific sin; the second wrongly assumes that it is always God’s will to heal any ailment, instantly, and he is blocked from doing so only by inadequate or insufficient faith.' 
We are not told why some people live to an old age and others die in the prime of their life.  We are not told why all of the apostles, except for John, died before they were old.  We are not told why Elijah was taken in a chariot to heaven while Elisha dies of an illness.  Job’s children had committed any specific wrong to cause them to die in a disaster.  There is something of a frustrating silence when we ask ‘why me?’, ‘why this?’, or ‘why now?’
2.  We are told how death entered our world
The Bible might not tell us why some suffer in some ways and others suffer in different ways, it does tell us how we ended up living in a world where death affects everyone. 
The book of Genesis tells us of the rebellion of the original humans.  Satan tempted them saying, ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.’  It was an act of treason—an unwillingness to live under God’s loving rule.  Everything changed with that act of evil.  The apostle Paul writes, ‘just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12).  The reality is that even those who survive accidents and avoid illness eventually die too.  I walked by a funeral home yesterday and was reminded of the story of the unpopular undertaker who used to sign his letters, ‘yours eventually.’
The great Christian thinker Francis Schaffer died of cancer. In the latter part of his life, when he realised that he was dying, he said that it was the Bible’s teaching on the fall that helped him and his family grasp what was happening from a Christian angle. In an article he said, ‘I think I can best explain my own reaction to the news that I had cancer by telling you the response of my four children. Each said the same thing in their own way. “Dad, we couldn’t have taken it if you hadn’t emphasised the fall so completely in your teaching.” It is the same for myself,’ wrote Schaffer, ‘I feel that no Christian can face honestly the troubles and the obscenities of this life—the sorrows, the tears, the ugliness, the cruelties unless we have a very firm belief and comprehension of what the fall is all about; and what we have to realise is that we live in an abnormal world, and not to be surprised when these things come upon us as they do other people.’
3. We are told who is the answer to death
No words are more triumphant, in the face of death, than when Jesus declares, ‘I am the resurrection of the life, they who believe in me, though they shall die, yet will they live.’  Jesus is the person who is the answer to death.
Death and life are deep words in the New Testament, with a number of layers of meaning.  Death can refer to the physical death that all people face, the spiritual death of life lived without outside of a personal relationship with God, and the eternal death that results from passing from this world without having turned to Christ in faith—for hell is referred to as the second death!  Life is the fact that we live and breathe, and a description of the blessing of living in a personal relationship with God, and the eternity of bliss that the Christian looks forward to.
Jesus says, ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will likewise perish.’  Every death we witness is a reminder that life is fragile and that we must be prepared for life beyond death.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).  Through her living faith in Jesus, Flora knew life in all its fullness, as she enjoyed a love relationship with God through Jesus.  Because of her faith in Jesus she has being brought from this life into an eternity where there will be no more cancer of tears.  All this is because Jesus died as a substitute for her guilt on that cross, satisfying the demands of God’s holy justice, and making a people who are washed and transformed by the grace of God.
David Watson was a well-known speaker who died of cancer in 1984.  He wrote about his struggle with that illness in a book entitled “Fear no evil.”  In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid.  Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves.  In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me . . .”  ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54). 

Monday, 8 June 2015

Cross-shaped generosity

When Tim Keller was a young pastor working in his first church, a single-mother with four children began attending the services.  It soon became clear that she had severe financial difficulties, and a number of people suggested that the church should do something to help.  So the deacons were assigned to visit her, and the church gave her money to help her pay outstanding bills.  However, three months later, it emerged that instead of paying off her bills with the church money, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had brought each child a new bike.  Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money.  Understandably people were perplexed.  One deacon furiously exclaimed, ‘no way do we give her any more.  This is the reason that’s she’s poor—she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses!  That was God’s money and she wasted it.’
This evening I want to suggest that we must not neglect the poor, even those we think that they are undeserving.  For our attitude towards the poor reflects our understanding about the character of God and his gospel.
1.  Compassion for the poor reflects the character of God
It should thrill our heart to see that God champions the cause of the poor.  Our God is merciful and gracious.  ‘The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made’ (Psalm 145:9).  We should champion things like fair trade because his word tells us that he wants, justice to ‘roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (Amos 5:24).  ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God’ (Proverbs 14:31).  He is even generous towards those who despise him, sending the sun and rain on both the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).  The cross reminds us of God’s desire for justice, for our God does not turn a blind eye towards our evil, but satisfies his demands of justice, being both just and the justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). 

In the Old Testament God shows a special concern for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the migrant.  ‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor’ (Zech. 7:10).  These four groups are highlighted because they were the most vulnerable people of that day.  Who would we put on the list of most vulnerable in our society?  ‘Do not oppress the homeless, the mentally-ill, the single-parent or those in direct provision.’
2.  Compassion is to be modelled on God’s kindness to us

I heard of a Christian leader who believed that the cross, as a symbol, was bad public-relations for the church.  But our message is Christ crucified, and Christ crucified isn’t just about having our sins forgiven, it’s to shape everything.
This logic is seen in the Old Testament, where God’s commands to care for the vulnerable are often spoken in terms of the great rescue event of the Exodus.  ‘Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there.’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).  They are to be generous because God has been generous to them.  He has shown them kindness is rescuing them from slavery. 
Of course the Exodus looked forward to a greater rescue—through the death of Jesus, God has rescued us from slavery to sin and condemnation even while we were his enemies.  You should show grace, because God has demonstrated grace to you.  You should be kind, because God has been kind to you.  You should care about the enslaved, because God has rescued from slavery to sin, condemnation and death.
Tim Keller writes that ‘there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor’ and that, ‘when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.’
3.   The Cross demonstrated compassion to the undeserving

In 1700s America, Jonathan Edwards was known for his gospel preaching.  He was famous for his sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God.’  Yet he saw that the gospel he preached must impact our attitude towards those less fortunate than himself.  However, when he encouraged his people to care for the poor, many came to him with objections.  So he wrote a sermon entitled, ‘The Duty of Care to the Poor.’  It dealt with eleven objections that people gave towards giving charity.
One objection Edwards dealt with was when people declare that the poor person ‘deserves not that people should be kind to him. He is of a very ill temper, of an ungrateful spirit’ and, in particular, he has treated us badly. 
We might say, ‘the problem with the homeless is their addictions.’  We might say, ‘the problem with the unemployed is that they have not tried hard enough.’  Not only do such comments reveal that we don’t understand the complexity of homelessness and unemployment, they reveal a lack of understanding of the gospel.  Gospel-centred people know that God didn’t wait until we deserved before he came to our help.
Edwards wrote, ‘Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving any good, but deserving only to be hated, and treated with indignation; so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving. Christ loved us, and laid himself out to relieve us, though we were his enemies, and had treated him ill.  So we, as we would love one another as Christ hath loved us, should relieve those who are our enemies, hate us, have an ill spirit toward us, and have treated us ill.’
4.  The cross demonstrates sacrificial love

When people said that they had nothing to spare, Edwards suggested that what many meant is that they could not afford to give without it actually being a burden to them.  So he emphasised the beauty of sacrificial love.
Think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan is moved with ‘compassion’ (the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is only used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his stories who reflect his attitude).  It costs the Samaritan to care, as he uses all his available resources (oil, cloth, time, energy and money) to help.  The Samaritan is exposed to personal risk by putting the injured man on his donkey (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for bandits and having a man on your donkey slowed you down and made you more vulnerable to ambush).  Bible writer, Ken Bailey, points out that a Samaritan arriving into a village with a wounded Jew on his donkey was open to dangerous misunderstanding (like an Indian arriving into Dodge City with an injured cowboy draped over his horse, he might be considered to be the main suspect to the man’s injuries).  He then gives the innkeeper two denarii (which would have covered food and lodging for at least a week), and then commits himself to return to settle any outstanding bills.  This is sacrificial love towards someone he never met before.
Such sacrificial loving is demonstrated perfectly by Jesus.  Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).  ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
But where do we draw the boundaries between ourselves and others?  In a world of need what luxuries can I justify?  How much time to I give to my lonely neighbour? 
One of the beauties of the gospel is that it doesn’t present us with a list of rules which would either take the joy out of service or limit us to obligation.  Many people would like to be told what percentage of their time and income they should give to the vulnerable.  But if we were given such a rule we would be prone to obeying the letter of the law, and not think about what we do with what money and time remains.  Jesus wants all of our time and money to be under his loving rule.  He doesn’t give us a law but graciously instructs that we ‘should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).  The only way you are going to know how to give well is by having a heart that is being shaped by the Holy Spirit.
What about burn out and the need for rest?  He is our gentle Saviour who knows our needs.  A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering reed he will not snuff out (Matthew 12:20).  Take advice from trusted friends who are courageous enough to challenge you, but caring enough to see when you need to slow down.

Tim Keller writes, ‘we tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does—through guilt.  This doesn’t work, because we have a built in defence mechanisms against such appeals … however, when justice for the poor is not connected to guilt but to the gospel, this “pushes a button” down deep in the believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up.’
The gospel reflects the beautiful character of the God who cares for the vulnerable; a God who sent his Son for underserving, spiritually bankrupt people; and a God who inspires us to sacrificial service.  But he wants us to live this sacrificial life, not so much because he needs our time and money, but because he desires that we would experience the joy of being instruments in the redeemer’s hands.  For sacrificial service should have an element of delight in it, as we realise that it is more blessed to give than receive.
So, how did the church that Tim Keller led deal with the woman who spent the money given to her on meals out and treats for the kids?  Keller made the point that if they gave no more money to the family the children would suffer because of the poor choice of the mother.  As time went by it became clearer to the deacons that the reason that she had squandered the church’s money on restaurants and new bikes was that she felt terribly guilty for the poor life she was giving her kids.  She wanted the children to feel like they were a part of a normal family for once.  As the deacons truly engaged with her their hearts began to become more sympathetic.  Nevertheless, they insisted that she pay off the most pressing bills and formulate a plan to get better skills and a better job.  They also realised that all of her problems were not financial and sought ways to support her in raising her children.  She agreed to work with the deacons and over time the family’s life began to improve.
Do you know how to win in Monopoly?  When I play monopoly I want the car—because a car seems more real than an iron or a thimble.  Then I buy everything—because later on in the game someone will want that piece of property, and pay me far more than I spent on it.  And, if you want to win at Monopoly, show no mercy—even when the lip on the ten-year-old you are playing begins to quiver.  Show no mercy, call in all your debts and then, when you have won, go down to the corner-shop with all you Monopoly money and treat yourself. 
Of course, the man in the shop is going to look at you and remind you that the game is over.  That Monopoly money is only paper, once the board has been put away.
One day this life’s game will also be over.  We will then realise that so much of what we put our energy into in this life is as worthless as Monopoly money.  But the cross-shaped generosity that we have shown in this life will have a significance that will pass with us into all eternity, and be a cause of eternal celebration.

Monday, 25 May 2015

'Worldliness' (1 John 2:15-17)

Supposing someone was to have complete access to your life: they were with you twenty-four hours a day to witness what you look at, watch how you treat people and hear how you speak.  Supposing this person had access to your thoughts and could consider what motives you, understand what preoccupies you and see what gives you the most pleasure in life.  Supposing this person could press rewind and compare your life now with your life before you became a Christian.  What would that person observe?  Would they perceive that your heart is being shaped by Jesus?  Would they see that Jesus actually determines how we act towards people and how we think about life? 

I have some good (or bad) news for you.  You are being watched.  You are being watched every day by the people you live with.  You are being watched by those you work with.  They can see what difference Jesus makes in your life!  But, most importantly, you are being watched by the one person who knows your thoughts and motivations, who loves you and gave his life for you, and who wants you to reflect the beauty of his character.

  1. Be aware that the world is not neutral (15a)

‘Do not love the world or anything in the world.’

It goes without saying, that John is not telling us not to love the people of the world.  For God loves the people of the world.  He loves the people of this world (this world of people who actively resist his rule) so much that he has given his one and only Son to die that so whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

Because we are to share this love of God for people we are to be involved with this world.  We are to get to know people and love people.  Our greatest desire for them is that they would know true life in Christ.  This is to motivate us to pray (remember the list of five people we said we would pray for) and speak (ask God for opportunities to be able to bring the gospel into the conversation).  It should be obvious to all that we belong to Jesus, for we are not to hide our light beneath a bushel.

‘We are not to love the world’ means that we are not to be shaped by the world.  The world has a value system that opposes godliness.  The world refers to everything that prevents people from loving and obeying their creator.  We need to be clear that the world has many belief systems that are in opposition to God.  Later in this letter, John will write, ‘We know that we are children of God and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one’ (5:19).

So apply this to what you watch on television or in the cinema.  Do you give thought to what you are about to see?  There are websites, like Christian Spotlight, that will give you a Christian assessment of movies.  Maybe there are films you should not go to.  But even those films that are not loaded with sex, revenge (which is the main plotline in many movies) or violence are presenting you with a worldview. 

Myself and Caroline watched a movies a week or so ago.  There was no violence, I was not aware of much bad language, and there were no sex scenes (although sex was one of the main topics).  But the film made me feel uncomfortable.  After it I asked Caroline, ‘what worldview were they trying to sell us?’  You see the makers of that film were selling us an idealised picture of a type of life lived without any reference to God.

Take your brain with you when you go to the movies, watch television or read books.  Don’t leave your faith at the door.  Don’t let your mind simply slip into neutral.  Don’t simply seek to escape into a less stressful or painful world.  Don’t simply identify with the characters, but relate to the characters (by this I mean don’t imagine they are you, but imagine that they are one of your friends and ask yourself how you would like to influence them).  Always leave the cinema, or turn off the television, asking, ‘what view of the world are they trying to sell me?’

I have said that we are to love the people of the world because God loves the people of the world.  However, sometimes our friends influence us more than we influence them.  If we find out that the pressure of being their friends compromises our walk with Jesus then we need to take a sabbatical from their friendship.  Similarly, it is obvious that you should not watch television or movies that are loaded with foul language, revenge motives, violence, or sex themes.  But if you find that as you watch you want to live in the superficial, unspiritual world being portrayed (if you want to be Monica, Chandler or Joey in Friends) then the problem is that the world is shaping you too much and you need to take a break.
2.  Realise that you have to choose between love for God or love for the world   (15b-16)

‘If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’

A number of years before her death, Princess Diana did a famous television interview with Martin Bashir.  Bashir asked her about her marriage to Princess Charles.  She made a not-to-subtle reference to the fact that Charles had been committing adultery with his now wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles.  ‘There were three people in the relationship, and you can’t have a marriage when three people are involved.’  The same is true in our relationship with God.  You can’t enjoy God when you are trying to share your love for him and the world.  God is like a husband who will not put up with our adultery.  He says to us, ‘you can’t love both me and the world; you have to choose me are the world.’

Imagine you walked into the room and found your wife/husband embraced in the arms of a rival!  What righteous anger and hurt you would feel?  What sorrow we bring to the heart of our heavenly Father when we let the world shape our passions!

What we love is to be determined and shaped by our love for God!  If we are married we should love our spouse both for their sake but for God’s pleasure.  We should always be asking how God wants us to use our possessions and time.  I am not just to be a Munster supporter—I am a Christian Munster supporter (which reminds me that actually it doesn’t matter that much and that the best thing about going to a game is the opportunity it gives me to spend time with Ronan, Daire or Leo).

‘For everything in the world – the cravings of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.’

The cravings of the sinful man—John is not thinking merely of our physical appetites, but the evil distortion of these appetites.  Is our attitude towards food under control (gluttony is one of my besetting sins)? Is our attitude towards sex under the rule of God?  Does our sense of humour glorify him?  Do we realise that it is ungodly to be a shopaholic or a workaholic?  Are we being ruled by the cravings of the sinful man or by the Spirit of the living God? 

The lust of the eyes—one preacher says that the ‘temptation to sin has always used that route: deafening our ears to the verbal and heightening our awareness of the visual.  Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was pleasing to the eye and she ate.  Achan saw the gold and that beautiful robe, and he took them for himself.  King David saw the lovely Bathsheba taking a bath … and lured her into his bed.  So often the glance becomes a trance and then what we heard from God seems less persuasive than what we see with our eyes.  We need to take note today where the world’s visual bombardment gets more powerful with every technological advance.  Don’t be naïve about what you see.  Our eyes have a particularly powerful influence on our fallen human nature’ (Simon Scott).

The boasting of what he has done and does—the appeal to our pride has a long history.  Again we can look back at Eden: the serpent tempted Eve saying ‘eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.’  Pride throws off God’s rule and seeks our own glory rather than his.  Behind boasting lies an attitude that is independent of God and self-sufficient.  Our pride would suggest that we don’t need even God’s help.  So have we examined what really motivates us?  Have we questioned why we think we need that qualification or promotion?  Are we seeking to promote ourselves or do we desire glory for God?
3.  Let eternal realities set your agenda (17)

The party-girl got all the attention.  She had beauty and dressed it well.  But then as she grew older those looks matured and younger girls stole the attention from her.  We can think that being sexy is the be-all-and-end-all but our body is decaying and we are all heading towards the grave.  The world and its desires are passing away.

He thought the new car would make him the envy of his neighbours. But it didn’t make him any more of a man. Indeed, after a few years an update of that model came out and suddenly his car looked dated.  You could shop-till-you-drop and soon those clothes are out of fashion.  The world and its desires are passing away.

She spent her whole life trying to impress. She gained degrees and qualifications.  She worked her way right up the career ladder.  She had the trappings that went with success including money and a big house.  Then she died.  Those achievements didn’t qualify her for anything in the afterlife.  The world and all its desires are passing away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

One of the ways to beat worldliness is to remember that the world and its desires are passing away! Looking to the things of this world to satisfy our demand for happiness and meaning is like drinking sea-water to quench a thirst—the thirst doesn’t go away and we eventually die. Obsessing over the things of the world is like playing monopoly—we gather up all that toy-money which is useless once the game is over!


I hope that you find these words hard-hitting.  We all battle with our loves.  We have all allowed ourselves be shaped by the world.  Remember, what we are seeing right throughout this series, ‘if we say that we are without sin the truth is not in us and we deceive ourselves.’  If you don’t see any trace of worldliness within you, then you simply don’t know how to examine yourself.  The great nineteenth-century evangelical Bishop, J.C. Ryle, said, ‘a true Christian is one who has not only peace of conscience but war within.’

Finally, the last thing I want you to be is a bunch of legalists.  Legalism is an ugly thing.  Legalism is adding rules where there should be no rules.  Legalism makes people self-righteous, proud and judgemental.  Legalism doesn’t know how to measure true spirituality.  In a sense, legalism is very worldly.  The answer to worldliness is a heart transformed by the beauty of the gospel.  John Piper puts it this way: ‘the gospel makes all the difference between whether you are merely conservative or whether you are conquering the world in the power of the Spirit for the glory of Christ.’

So, remember grace and remember freedom.  Remember that you are forgiven and secure--that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Ask God to shed his love abundantly in your heart.  Seek the empowerment of the indwelling Spirit.  Love much, because you have been forgiven much.  Picture the Father racing through the village, with his robe in his hands and his knees exposed, running to embrace you.  Know that you are held in the grip of his right hand, that your name is engraved on his hand and that you shelter under his wing.  Be inspired by the beautiful character that you see in the person of Jesus.  Then let that love enable you to relate in a godly way to a world that is opposed to the loving rule of God.  

Friday, 15 May 2015

The real pain of the young gay person

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

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Dear Whitney (1 John 2:1-14)

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Am I a troll?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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