At my home church, Belmont Chapel in Exeter, we have been working through a series in Ephesians. To supplement the weekly Sunday teaching my colleague, John Allan, has been adding additional material on-line. He has posted a series of bite-sized pieces of information about Paul’s letter at along with longer articles at John has also been tweeting on the same subject. You can follow his posts at @ephesianstweet.

By way of coincidence I was asked to speak on the second chapter of Ephesians at Burnham-on-Sea Baptist Church where a friend of mine is the pastor. My sermon transcript is below and you can find my accompanying PPT here … PPT for Ephesians Ch.2 vs.1-10

You may find it helpful to have the text in front of you … Ephesians Ch.2 vs.1-10 (NIV)

SLIDE 1  William Randolph Hearst, the wealthy newspaper tycoon, invested much of his fortune in purchasing priceless works of art. One day, upon learning of the existence of an item which he very much desired to own, he instructed his agent to make enquiries as to its whereabouts. After some months of painstaking research Hearst’s agent reported back that he had managed to find that one particular artistic treasure. Upon enquiry, as to its location, the agent had the rather uncomfortable task of telling Hearst that what he was looking for was to be found in the private collection of no less a person than Mr William Randolph Hearst. This treasure had, so it transpired, been locked away in a warehouse for several years; Hearst had been searching frantically for treasure he already owned.

SLIDE 2  I mention that story because I think it helps to illustrate the main theme of Paul’s prayer that concludes the first chapter of this NT letter that you’ve been considering together in your morning services these past few Sundays, the verses immediately before the passage we read a little earlier. And it also helps us, I think, to understand why it is that Paul unpacks for his readers that breathtaking resume of all the spiritual wealth that is theirs because they are now children of God; those earlier verses in Ch.1, from vs.3-14, that one long unbroken, unpunctuated Greek sentence. Paul’s point, surely, is to give his readers an inventory of all the personal spiritual wealth that is theirs; given to them freely to possess, by God, through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 3  In fact, says Paul, all three persons of the Trinity were involved. The blessings of God the Father, reveal those who know and trust the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour to be, adopted, blessed and chosen. The blessings of God the Son reveal them to be delivered, enlightened and forgiven. And the blessings of God the Spirit reveal them to be gathered and hallmarked.

But all of these treasures need to be both understood and enjoyed if they are to make a difference in a Christian’s life, and so Paul prays for his fellow believers that they may know in greater measure the extent of the treasure that they already possess in Christ. The truth is that just like William Randolph Hearst all Christians throughout all generations are prone to forget what God has given them as treasure for their lives; we run the risk of looking for something we already own in Christ.

SLIDE 4  And, I guess, one reason why we might lose something of our understanding as to the nature of God’s lavish blessing and therefore run the risk of failing to grasp the enormity of what God has done for us, could possibly be because we have formed the wrong idea as to why it is that God bestowed His blessing on us in the first place. Do you think it’s possible that we could be tempted to think that we are deserving of God’s favour to some degree or another ?

Now in order to expose and challenge that possible train of thought Paul at the start of Ch.2 completely changes the focus of his writing. He moves quickly away from the breathtakingly wide panorama of God’s blessing and focuses down with pinpoint precision to reveal in stark uncompromising language the devastatingly bleak spiritual common denominator for all humanity. And he does this to remind us that we will never be able to praise and worship God as we should, thanking Him for what He has done for us in Christ, if we lose sight of the depths of sinful rebellion from which God has saved us. And that’s why I’d like us to consider our passage this morning by focusing in on God’s grace to us; the theme that has permeated our sung worship this morning.

The Bible has a lot to say about grace and Paul mentions the word twelve times in this short letter but there’s no way we have time this morning to even scratch the surface to reveal much about what the Bible means by such a multi-faceted doctrine as grace. But it’s clear from the verses that we have read, that the specific nature of grace that’s in view here in these verses is God’s saving grace. So whilst defining God’s grace in totality is notoriously difficult, I would suggest that we can have a good go at describing God’s saving grace.

SLIDE 5  One of the most helpful definitions I’ve come across to describe saving grace is found in J.I. Packer’s book, Knowing God. He writes this, ‘… grace means God’s love in action towards men and women who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinful humanity who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven …’

So let’s take another look at our passage and see the works of God’s saving grace through examining the past, present and future experience of those who profess Jesus Christ to be their Saviour and Lord.

Firstly then, we see this … SLIDE 6

1.            God’s grace is UNDESERVED grace (vs.1-3)

Let’s read those few verses again, ‘… as for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the Kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath …’ (vs.1-3).

Paul clearly has no intention of holding back in his description of sinful humanity, and it’s a very uncomfortable, but at the same time, brutally honest and realistic description of life in rebellion against God. Paul describes our condition using three positional statements. Firstly he says … SLIDE 7

  • we were dead … in our transgressions and sins (vs.1)

Now what does that mean exactly ? Well, sin is trying to live as if God isn’t there and transgressions are the ways that we express our sinfulness through the specific wrongs that we do. So Paul tells his readers that when we live as if God isn’t there, it is then that we embrace death; because true life is only found when we live in relationship with God, who created us to know and love Him. And the overriding characteristic of dead people is that they can’t make themselves alive. Then Paul goes on to say …

  • we were enslaved (vs.2-3)  SLIDE 8

The oldest lie of all, and we see evidence of it right back in the Garden of Eden, is the lie that says we can find freedom by ignoring God. But it’s foolishness. It’s rather like a goldfish believing it would enjoy a freer experience if only it could get out of its bowl. But, you and I know that’s nonsense, because the goldfish would just die. The reality is that God is the source of our freedom and not the end of our freedom. So when we ignore God we give ourselves over to slavery. And Paul goes on to say that there are three types of slavery. SLIDE 9  Firstly, slavery to the world; where the norms and expectations of our godless society heap a variety of pressures upon us such that we end up conforming to certain modes of behaviour that are in conflict with God’s intention for our lives. Secondly, and more sinisterly, there is slavery to the devil; that one who is the hidden orchestrator of everything that is both evil and destructive. And then thirdly, there is slavery to ourselves, where we act upon instinct where every sinful action only serves to make the next sin easier.

And as a result Paul says, in vs.3 …

  • we were guilty (vs.3)  SLIDE 10

And being guilty, says Paul, finds us objects of God’s wrath. I guess God’s wrath isn’t something that we think or speak about much but it’s an important part of who God is. SLIDE 11 John Stott writes this definition, ‘… God’s wrath is His personal, righteous, constant hostility to evil … it is His settled refusal to compromise with it … and it is His resolve instead to condemn it …’. And yet, amazingly, as we shall see as we move into vs.4, God’s wrath is not incompatible with God’s love, since both the wrath that judges and the grace that saves are personal attributes of the same One true God.

SLIDE 12 So then, this is the human condition outside of God’s grace. We are dead people who cannot makes themselves alive; we are slaves who can’t free themselves; we are guilty people who cannot acquit themselves. And yet, the wonder of the good news of the gospel is that it is to undeserving people such as you and I that God pours out His grace, in Christ; which leads us on to our second point …

2.            God’s grace is SAVING grace (vs.4-6)   SLIDE 13

Right at the start of vs.4 our attention is grabbed by one very small yet unbelievably pivotal word; a word that alters everything, a word that acts as the fulcrum that re-orientates humanity; the word but. Paul writes, ‘… but because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ …’ (vs.4-5a). First of all we see the motive of God’s grace, it’s because of His love for us, then we see the source of His grace, its all about God’s mercy and then Paul tells us about the means of God’s grace, its the work of salvation that makes us, ‘… alive with Christ …’. And all of a sudden, all those things that we saw from those earlier verses as being humanly speaking unassailable difficulties, those things that keep us outside of God’s Kingdom, are remarkably resolved and transformed.

It’s important to notice that we aren’t saved by God’s love but rather we are saved by the outworking of His love; God’s love in action, His grace and His mercy as revealed in the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 14 And God’s saving grace means that God gives us mercy in exchange for judgement (vs.4). God gives us life in exchange for death (vs.5), and God gives us freedom and dignity in the place of slavery (vs.6). Such is the transforming power of salvation. And then thirdly we see that …

3.            God’s grace is RICH grace (vs.7-10)  SLIDE 15

Paul goes on in these verses to make it clear to us that God’s purpose in salvation is not merely to save us from a lost eternity. As great a work as that is it’s not the entire story, since the ultimate purpose of salvation is that for all eternity the church might glorify God’s grace. And once more Paul is keen to stress the reality of the hopelessness of our condition without God. Salvation cannot be earned through our personal endeavour since it is a gift from God. Salvation is God’s finished work and we cannot add to it, and whereas sin worked against us, God works for us. And our lives now and throughout eternity are living examples of the, ‘… incomparable riches of God’s grace …’ (vs.7)

But there’s something more that we can’t ignore since there is work going on, albeit not work that attains our salvation, but let’s read that last verse again. SLIDE 16 Paul writes, ‘… for we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do …’ (vs.10). There’s a dual work that God continues to do in the lives of all those who love and trust him. God is working in us through His Spirit. Whereas Jesus finished the work of salvation on the cross, the work of the Holy Spirit continues day by day as God seeks to shape everything about us to make us more Christ-like.

If we were to turn back in our Bibles to John’s gospel and Ch.11 we would read the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, and I often think of that story as a very visual reminder that the work of salvation in my life isn’t the only important experience. You’ll know the story I’m sure. The grave having been opened, SLIDE 17 Jesus stands at the entrance and calls to Lazarus to come out. And whilst the miracle of bringing Lazarus back to life is amazing it’s Jesus’ next words that are just as crucial, ‘… take off the grave clothes and let him go …’ (vs.44). In affect what Jesus is saying is, this man is alive, so now free him so that he can live. We need to ask God to get us out of our grave clothes and ask Him to help us put on our grace clothes. That is the work of God in us through His Spirit. Previously, as we saw in vs.2, it was the devil that was at work in us, but now it is God, through the person and work of the indwelling Spirit.

SLIDE 18 The story is told of Michelangelo the great Renaissance artist who having accepted a commission to carve a marble figure for the tomb of St Dominic in Bologna travelled to the cathedral in Florence in order to see what pieces of marble the masons had available that might be suitable. To the surprise of the masons, Michelangelo chose a block of marble that had remained unused for over thirty years. Other sculptors had attempted to use it, including Agostino di Duccio, a renowned sculptor, but with no success. But Michelangelo stood by his choice and arranged for the block of marble to be delivered to his studio where he set about working hard with hammer and chisel. One afternoon a young boy, hearing the noise of splintering marble looked in to see what was going on. Upon enquiry as to what was happening Michelangelo suggested that the boy come back to the studio in a few weeks time. Upon his return the boy saw standing in the same spot as that uninspiring lump of dirty rough-hewn marble, an angel. The boy was thrilled and running over to the sculpture he asked, ‘… Sir, tell me, how did you know there was an angel in the marble ? …’. Michelangelo replied, SLIDE 19  ‘… in every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as well as mine …’

But I said just now that it’s a dual work that God continues to do in our lives and we see evidence of that in the final half of this last verse since not only does God work in us but also God works through us.

SLIDE 20 There are the good works that God has purposed that we should be doing. These aren’t works that bring glory to ourselves but rather these are the things that we do that prompt people to question what motivates us. These are works that bring glory to God and point those who don’t know the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives as yet towards Him. This is a re-statement of what Jesus said previously in words from the Sermon on the Mount that we read near the start of Matthew’s gospel. SLIDE 21 Jesus said, ‘… let your light shine before me, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven …’ (Matthew Ch.4 vs.16). These are actions born out of lives and hearts that are overwhelmingly grateful to God who saved them.

SLIDE 22 There’s so much more we could say about this passage and I was intending to point you towards a story in the OT that in narrative form wonderfully illustrates these verses that we have considered this morning but I think I’ll put up the reference and encourage you to go home and read that story for yourself and let you draw the parallels and explore the richness of the analogies it reveals.

SLIDE 23 So let’s simply close by reviewing what we have learned together this morning. Without God you are I are without hope. But through the work of salvation as an act of God’s mercy and grace our lives can be transformed if we turn away from our rebellion of God, admit the hopelessness of our situation,  admit our sinfulness and accept God’s offer of rescue. We were dead, enslaved and guilty. But we can be made alive, free and acquitted from the judgement and punishment of God’s wrath. The question is have we ?

SLIDE 24 Let me leave you with a few questions to take away and think over. Is sin working against you because you have not as yet experienced Christ’s saving power ? Are you experiencing God’s work for you, in you and through you ? Are you wearing grave clothes or grace clothes ? As a Christian are you living out the position you have in Christ through seeking to serve Him ?

May God continue to pour out His grace to us as we continue day by day to know him more and more.

Recently I was asked to contribute to a preaching series on the life of Jacob. I’m posting my notes below in the hope that they might be useful to you in your Christian walk and discipleship.

The reading can be found here :

This morning we’re going to spend a few moments considering a passage from the book of Genesis, a short episode from the life of Jacob.

Jacob, we know, was the younger of twins, a brother to Esau, both sons of Isaac and Rebecca, and right from the very start of the narrative we learn that this wasn’t going to be a heart-warming story of brotherly connectedness. God’s words to Rebecca, even during her pregnancy, spoke of separation rather than unity, of enmity rather than love. The writer of Genesis records these words, ‘… the LORD said to her … two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated … one people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger …’ (Genesis Ch.25 vs.23). And, even from the outset God’s words started to bear fruit, since, at the moment of arrival into the world the younger twin Jacob was born grasping hold of the older twin Esau’s heel, trying to pull the older back, striving to gain personal advantage and predominance, desperate to be first.

Jacob’s name is a play on the Hebrew word for heel and it literally translates as twister or deceiver, an apt name, so it transpired, since the story goes on to tell instances of Jacob’s deceit and scheming, firstly by out-witting Esau into selling him the birthright that legally resided with the elder twin in exchange for a bowl of soup,  and then secondly, with help from his mother Rebecca, Jacob tricks his almost blind father Isaac into laying hands on him so that he might be in receipt of the family blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.

Philosopher George Santayana describes family life as ‘… one of nature’s masterpieces …’, but this family is something quite different, instead of being a masterpiece, all we see here is a mixed up jumble of unconnected pieces that will never be interlocked without the help of the Master, God Himself.

And so it was that when the deception was exposed, Jacob had no choice but to run away from the family home. Yet despite the mess he was in God met with Jacob through two dramatic circumstances, one, by way of a dream that he experienced the first night of his journey running away from home, and the second, by way of a wrestling match that occurred the night before he returned home – a return that would eventually find him reunited with his brother Esau – a wrestling match, with none other than God Himself.

Some twenty years separated those two encounters with God and we know from reading the story in Genesis that Jacob returned home a wealthy married man with two wives, Rachel and Leah, with a growing family, comprising of ten sons, and a whole assortment of possessions, livestock and servants.

But, if we were hoping that Jacob’s life story would turn out to be a happy one from here on in then Genesis Ch.34, the very next chapter, brings us up with a start. Because it’s a twisted, mangled train-crash of a chapter, and whilst we aren’t going to read from it together this morning, it does provide an important backdrop to the passage we are going to read, because whereas Ch.34 makes no mention of God, the first fifteen verses of Ch.35, in contrast is full to the brim with God, and it’s here that we find Jacob, having first returned to the family of his earthly father Isaac, now returning to his heavenly Father, to God Himself, as once more God speaks to him.

Wherever we look in the unfolding story of the good news of the Bible we find a stream of evidence reminding us that God, at the very heart of His character – is a relational God. Time and time again we see God’s patience working within the lives of individuals – patience that reveals His restorative grace, as God seeks to draw people back to Himself. Jacob, like all of us at some time or another, finds himself spiritually distant from God. Jacob, as we can see time and time again in the unfolding story seeks to gain advantage through self-reliance. Jacob believed that his timing was better than God’s that his actions alone, separate from God’s will, would bring the results he was looking for. In reality the whole catalogue of stories that are bound together to form Jacob’s life story up to this point reveal a chain of poor choices that reaped their inevitable consequences – and yet, as we commented earlier, God wasn’t finished with Jacob.

The verses we read together have as their starting point a fresh revelation of God to Jacob – and we find that in the introductory phrase, since despite the bleakness of the situation that was threatening to consume Jacob and his family in Shechem this is what we read, ‘… then God said to Jacob …’ (vs.1).

Let’s consider for a few moments something of the substance of what God has to say to Jacob, words that lead to repentance and renewal. But let’s not merely limit our thoughts to the outworking of those words within the structure of this well-known story but rather let’s see if we can draw encouragement and hope from the lessons they teach – lessons that are just as relevant for us today in our encounters with the same God, the God of Jacob.

Firstly, I want you to notice that …

  • God speaks about PLACE

‘… go up to Bethel …’ (vs.1)

God’s first words to Jacob are by way of a reminder to him that he was living and worshipping in the wrong place. At the end of Ch.33 we read that Jacob, soon after his reunion with his brother Esau, bought a plot of land from the sons of Hamor, at a place called Shechem, rather than returning to Bethel the place of his first encounter with God and the place where he had vowed to God that he would return. And so we learn that despite knowing what God required from him he stopped short in his obedience. I guess for many of us we can find ourselves in similar circumstances to that of Jacob. God’s call upon our lives is one of obedience, and the evidence of God’s word and the reality of the indwelling Spirit within us confirms God’s leading to be essential for our spiritual lives, and yet, because of our self-reliant nature we, at times, believe we know better and we chose self over God – and as a result we find ourselves living in a spiritual wilderness, a place where we have chosen to live, rather than where God desires longs for us to be.

Yet even when we find ourselves spiritually in the wrong place God persists in working to draw us back to Himself, not physically of course, to a geographical Bethel, but rather we are directed towards the cross of Jesus Christ. Because there, for all of us who know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, is the place to which we need to return. If our spiritual walk with God has come to a halt then we, like Jacob, need to find our way back to the place of our first encounter with God – return to the place where we made a vow to follow Him, the place where we made a choice to accept Him as Lord, that place of faith and trust – and that place, for us, is always the foot of the cross.

Secondly, we see in the same verse that …

  • God speaks about PURPOSE

‘… go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God who appeared to you …’ (vs.1)

God’s intention for Jacob is clear. He isn’t merely asking him to travel as a sightseer to Bethel, but rather God is re-settling Jacob in a place of His choosing – Bethel is the place where God wants Jacob to both live and worship, and whilst there’s some uncertainty amongst scholars as to the exact geographical site of OT Bethel the reality is that both of the suggested locations, though disputed, are within only a few miles of Shechem. Jacob had come so far and yet he had missed out on finding God’s intended purpose for his life – because, he had stopped relying on God.

Discerning God’s will for our lives and His intention as to where He wishes us to live, work and worship for instance, is, I would suggest, never easy or straightforward, and maybe God’s guidance is only truly revealed in hindsight. However, what we do know for certain is that in accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour we have been given, by God’s grace, an eternal address in an eternal kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom with counter-cultural values and topsy-turvy principles to many that we see championed around us.

Thirdly, we see in the next few verses …

  • God speaks about PREPARATION

‘… get rid of the foreign Gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes …’ (vs.2)

It’s refreshing that in the next few verses we see Jacob taking the initiative within his household by relaying God’s message to them, as a family. Jacob recognises the seriousness of God’s words to him and he recognises his need to be reconciled with the LORD God. Rachel, Jacob’s wife, we discover back in Genesis Ch.31, had stolen her father’s pagan idols just before she and Jacob’s household has fled Paddan Arran, and it is clear from the reading that Jacob knew of the presence of other idols too, as well as the outward signs of idolatrous acceptance that the members of the household displayed publicly, such as ritual rings. The evidence of scripture shows, of course, that worshipping the god’s of the neighbouring pagan nations would always be a temptation for the children of Israel. Even despite the confirmed reality that there was no god that could possibly be compared to the LORD God, the children of Israel were time and time again seduced by the confidence and prosperity they saw around them – yet, such attractions were temporary illusions. Maybe even in these verses we glimpse reluctance amongst the people to truly rid themselves of idolatry. Why did Jacob choose to bury these things rather than destroy them ? Why leave open the possibility of uncovering again these tangible and seductive tokens of idolatry rather than ridding themselves of them for good ?

Being challenged by God to change the habits and patterns of our lives, those habits and patterns that are not God-honouring, can be deeply uncomfortable since what God demands from us is evidence of our faith and trust in His Lordship over and above any self-appointed position of rule that we proudly flaunt as being our right. So much of what our sinful human nature finds attractive – is ultimately destructive and so God strives, through His Spirit to reveal to us the true nature of such things. And, the good news of God’s provision for us through His Son is that not only that are we ultimately saved from the penalty that our sin deserves, through the vicarious death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but also, through the indwelling of His Spirit we are being changed, albeit very slowly in my case, towards Christ-likeness, as we allow the Holy Spirit to act through His sanctifying power. God’s intervention on our behalf to deal with the sin question was a costly one – and in response the question I have to ask myself time and time again is how serious am I about dealing with those areas of temptation that, if unchecked, have the potential of causing such great harm ?

The people put away their idols and signalled their willingness to follow God by washing themselves. Throughout scripture we find the action of changing clothes and washing revealed as a re-occurring motif signalling the start of something new. Old garments signify an old way of life, and just like dirt, sin spoils and defiles and must be washed away – repentance and faith go hand in hand and God reveals His power, in response to the people’s obedience, by providing safe passage to Bethel (vs.5) – a miraculous intervention when viewed in the light of Ch.34.

Lastly, we see in the next few verses …

  • God speaks about PROMISE

‘… I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number … a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body … the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you …’ (vs.11 & 12)

Back in Ch.28 God had promised to bring Jacob safely back to Bethel, and He kept His promise, since God is always true to His nature. And Jacob responded by keeping his part of the agreement He had made with God by building an altar and leading his whole household in worship. For Jacob Bethel was a special place, yet it’s important to see that in renaming again the place formerly called Luz he is careful to give God the pre-eminence – and he calls the place El Bethel. And then, in vs.9 God appears to Jacob once more and this time, unlike the story concerning the wrestling match where God refused to reveal His identity, this time God tells Jacob His name, ‘… I am God Almighty …’, here is El Shaddai  – the provider God, the God who is all-sufficient.

I’m sure this is a good place to finish our brief look at the life of Jacob this morning. Not only do we find Jacob reunited with his brother but now he is re-united with his God. Now he is in the place of God’s choosing, he has returned to God in an attitude of repentance and faith, typified by his sacrificial pouring out of a drink offering that speaks volumes about determined dedication – but also, the LORD God has spoken with him and God has re-affirmed his promises. Jacob, the deceiver and self-serving grasper has had his new name Israel re-affirmed to him. The name Israel means ruled by God – clearly God is at work in the life of Jacob.

As we close our thoughts about Jacob it’s important that we take a moment to consider individually where we are spiritually with God. Have we in faith and trust come to the foot of the cross in repentance ? Are we continuing in the way that God would wish us to go ? Do we daily acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and live in the reality of His Kingdom ? Are we allowing God to change us, removing those things that would damage the effectiveness of our Christian lives ?

The Christian life should be a thrilling and vibrant adventure. It’s not devoid of heartache and sadness, a fact that Jacob would discover again as the story of this chapter unfolds, but life with God is ultimately a secure life, a life held tight within the grasp of the covenant of God’s continued blessing – a blessing that stems from the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Only recently during a conversation at Home Group I was reminded of the trend amongst some Christian groups to call those leading them Apostles. I don’t mean small ‘a’ apostles, the ‘sent ones’ or ‘ambassadors’ of the gospel, which is what the word ‘apostle’ literally means (more or less) – a term that should have relevance to everyone who professes to be a Christian. But I mean capital ‘A’ Apostles, those who view themselves to be modern-day equivalents of Peter or Paul.

Whilst it appears to be a common practice to do this capitalising of the word in order, I assume, to denote importance either by the individual themselves or by those in their congregations I remain unconvinced that Scripture gives support to such a claim, and here are some brief reasons why I say that.

1.         Eyewitness … implies actually being there
Firstly, at the end of Ch.1 of Acts, we read about the election of a new Apostle, an event which provides some descriptive evidence for the things that were important about that office. We read these words, spoken by Peter, ‘… therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection …’ (Acts Ch.1 vs.21-22)

Of course, this describes only what was important in those days, and so it is not necessarily prescriptive of what qualifies one to be an Apostle for all time, yet nevertheless, in the absence of other clear qualifications, it is at least true that the twelve were appointed as eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection. Throughout the NT, we see that the Apostles are described as doing miracles that mimic those of Jesus himself, and their message is the gospel (ie. if your message doesn’t match theirs, it isn’t the Christian gospel). Paul is quick to emphasise that his teaching was approved by the other Apostles, i.e. his message (not learned from any man, he says) matched theirs well. We read this in Galatians, ‘… those men [the Jerusalem church leaders] added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews …’ (Galatians Ch.2 vs.6-7)

2.         Abnormally born … implies the existence of normally born
Secondly, Paul describes his election as an Apostle as something not just unusual, but out of time and out of step with the ordained pattern. We read this in his letter to the church in Corinth, ‘… then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God …’ (1Corinthians Ch.15 vs.7-9)

If Apostleship was an ordinary church office, there would be no need for the regular apologies made for Paul’s Apostleship. Certainly there would be no need for the kind of language that he uses here in 1 Corinthians. If one’s birth can be described as abnormal, then it implies that there is a normal Apostle, and normal equates to an ordinary eyewitness of the resurrection. In any event, Paul was a witness of the resurrected Christ, so the suggestion is that his abnormality has more to do with the fact that he was appointed at the wrong time (after the possibility for eyewitness discipleship had expired) and outside of the ranks of the Twelve.

3.         Aiming for second best … implies first best is unobtainable
In 1 Corinthians, Paul lists Spiritual gifts in order of importance, and he tells the church to aim for the greater. In Ch.12 vs.28 we read this, ‘… and in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues …’, then in vs.31, ‘… but eagerly desire the greater gifts …’

After a chapter-long digression into matters of character that surpass matters of giftedness (ie. love is better than impressive ability), Paul returns to Spiritual gifts, saying, ‘… follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy …’ (1 Corinthians Ch.14 vs.1)

In the cited bit of Ch.12, Paul shows the gifts that God has ordained, listing Apostleship first, and prophecy second. At the beginning of Ch.14, Paul reminds the church again to desire the greatest gifts, but specifies the second gift, prophecy, not the first, Apostleship. Why is Apostleship best for the church, yet we’re supposed to desire second best ? Because Apostleship belonged to a small group of eyewitnesses of the resurrection, who were commissioned to speak on behalf of Christ himself, but it does not belong to the church of every age. Prophecy is the best of the gifts that are offered to the whole church. Apostleship never was.

So, Christ appointed Apostles to speak for him after his departure, and they have done that speaking. There is no indication anywhere that Apostleship itself was passed on; that primary office in the Church died with the last of the Twelve. Yet Apostles remain first of all for the church, because they continue to bear witness in scripture, by their word in letter.

‘… he called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter …’ (2 Thessalonians Ch.2 vs.14-15)

Following on from my previous post about the need to correctly set the parameters for both science and faith if we’re to understand their inter-relationship correctly here is a transcript of my sermon on a very closely related theme …

You can upload a copy of my PPT here which will, I trust make more sense of the slide annotation shown throughout the notes :

SLIDE 1  In 2005 Time magazine carried an essay by the Nobel prize winning physicist Eric Cornell in which he posed this question; Why is the sky blue ? Cornell went on to offer two brief answers to his own question, firstly he said, ‘… the sky is blue because of the wavelength dependence of rays scattering …’, and he continued by saying, ‘… secondly, the sky is blue because that is the colour God wants it to be …’. Cornell wrote further that, as an expert in the field of optical phenomena, he was well qualified to speak about his first answer. However, he said, the second answer, whilst having been voiced for thousands of years was not in the least undermined by the advances in scientific understanding that gave rise to the first answer. SLIDE 2  There is, Cornell went on to say, ‘… a legitimacy in thinking of the wavelength dependence of rays scattering as the method by which God chooses to implement His colour scheme …’.

I wanted to start our consideration for this morning with Cornell’s comments because they follow on from the topic you thought about last week about science and theology coexisting together as complimentary sources of information rather than, as is so often assumed, opposing viewpoints that stand poles apart and by their nature, consistently at odds with each other.

Quite clearly this morning we run the risk of having some overlap from the topic last week since there’s no way we can think about the creation of the universe without touching on matters of science; but I trust that what I say this morning will add to what was said last week rather than merely repeating it.

SLIDE 3  So, let’s spend some time looking at our question for this morning. Is the universe just an accident ? or to put it another way, Why does anything exist and not nothing ? Whilst these might be short questions they doesn’t have short answers since these are questions that impact upon other huge questions such as Why are we here ? and, Does my life has any meaning ? So, whilst we can’t hope to look at every avenue of thinking that feeds into a complete answer, even if that could be done, I trust that we will together be encouraged to think more about the impact of such questions upon our personal faith and also the kind of thinking required in attempting to formulate answers to this and similar big questions.

SLIDE 4  So where do we start ? Well, the most obvious place is to start at the beginning, and the beginning of the story is the opening verse of the book of Genesis. Whilst we don’t have time to consider the chapter in any depth it’s worthwhile noting that Ch.1 acts as the prologue to the book, and in its turn, the book of Genesis acts as the prologue to the entire Bible since it’s the book of beginnings. And just as an operatic overture introduces all of the themes of an opera to the expectant audience, so it is that Genesis introduces the reader to the great themes that will dominate scripture. It is in Genesis that we learn of the creation of the world and of humankind’s rebellion against God’s rule. It is here that we learn of God’s decision to restore his creation back into relationship with Himself and we learn of God’s intention to do that through His chosen people and ultimately through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ; through his death and resurrection. In short, Genesis sets the scene for the unfolding story of salvation, which is the story of the rest of scripture.

So let’s read a few verses from Genesis Ch.1, word that I’m sure you will be very familiar with   SLIDE 5

… in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light …’ (Genesis Ch.1 vs.1-3)

Yet in starting at the beginning we’re immediately aware that Ch.1 of Genesis is not a straightforward piece of writing and, in part, that’s because it’s written in a style that we aren’t overly familiar with, since the writing is much closer to poetry than it is to prose.

Now that’s not to say that what the writer wishes to communicate to us is in anyway less true than say the narrative historical writing style of Luke as he writes his gospel, but we have to be mindful that literal reading of poetry can at times become nonsensical. In the Psalms for instance we find David talking about God’s creative sovereignty. SLIDE 6  In Psalm 8 the Psalmist writes, ‘… when I consider the works of your fingers the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them ? …’. And when we read that, of course we know that God isn’t flesh and blood like we are and so He doesn’t have fingers; so we don’t read this in a literal way. But, and this is important, in no way does that fact take anything away from the truth that is being spoken about. The Psalmist wants us to know that God is personally and intimately involved, not only in the creation of the world, but also, he writes, God has a desire to draw us into relationship with Him. And in many ways that truth is better presented for us in this poetic style because the use of language and imagery engages us on a very personal level.

It’s also worth noting in passing something about the context in which these opening words of scripture were written. Most Biblical scholars seem to be in agreement that Genesis was written some 1500 years BC, at a time when there was a plethora of competing views about creation circulating around the pagan lands that bordered the land of Israel. All of the major nations of the time had their own myths and stories, and Genesis was written as a direct challenge to the myths of the Babylonians, the Canaanites, the Egyptians and the Assyrians.

It’s true that some of these myths have certain similarities with the poetic account of Genesis Ch.1 but in reality they are fundamentally different as we will see. One of the many creation stories tells of a war between rival deities that resulted in the victorious god slitting open the stomach of a god he has defeated, and from the divided contents of the stomach, that god created the heavens and the earth. In another creation story a band of lesser gods go on strike and the higher gods are forced to create humankind in order to do the manual labour that the lesser gods are now refusing to do. But here in Genesis we note a fundamental difference from these kinds of stories since in the Biblical account there is no hint of conflict or warfare, no disagreements between competing deities, and neither is there any confusion regarding the identity of the creator, since it is God. And it’s the God who is eternally present because He was, ‘… in the beginning …’. So God purposed creation, He chose to create the universe, and more than that, He was overjoyed with what He had made; we see that repeated through Ch.1 of Genesis. The poet speaks of God as an artist, standing back, as it were, to view his masterpiece and commenting upon it. The Hebrew word for good used here, is elsewhere translated as beautiful, such is God’s work of creative activity.

SLIDE 8  But there’s more, because we are told that the pinnacle of God’s creation is humankind, you and I. And it’s because of the opening chapters of Genesis that we accord dignity and value to one another. If this opening chapter of the Bible is mere myth or poetic fiction then, it ought to follow, that there is no sanctity to human life since we are no more sacred than a worm; but of course no-one believes that. But where does that belief come from ? Well, put simply, It’s derived from the fact that we are made in God’s image and likeness, whether we acknowledge it or not. God designed a world for us to live in. He purposed creation and brought it into being as a direct act of his free will.

SLIDE 9  So how ought we to view God’s interaction with creation ? Well, the early part of Genesis tells us that pantheism is wrong, that idea that God is part of the created world and exists in everything; but that’s not what scripture tells us, since God is eternal and outside of time. And neither is deism right, that idea that God is unmoved by and distanced from His creation, the thinking that, whilst God might possibly have set everything in motion, He now has no further interest. SLIDE 10  But neither of these points of view stand up against the revelation of scripture, because here, we meet an Almighty and personal Creator God. A God who is both transcendent, that is He is different in substance from created things, and who is also imminent, that is, He is involved in His creation. And more than that, amazingly, God desires to share in a relationship with you and I.

And it’s when we turn to the NT that we discover more about what that means and the way by which God chooses to become intimately involved in His creation; and it’s through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first few verses of John’s gospel are strikingly similar to the beginning of Genesis, and we’re reminded that God’s response to humankind’s rebellion is not to distance Himself from us, but rather, it’s the reverse, since He draws closer to us. And the imagery of light is important. In both accounts, whether that of creation or the unfolding story of God’s re-creation; His work of salvation and restoration through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, both are described as bringing light and life.

SLIDE 11  Let’s just read those verses from John Ch.1 in order to see the similarities. John writes, ‘… In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it …’  (John Ch.1 vs.1-5)

SLIDE 12  And whilst we may have differing views as to the interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, it’s fundamentally important that we notice the fact of God’s creation over and above any consideration as to the manner of God’s creation. Since, in reality, Genesis wasn’t written to answer the how question but only the why question since Genesis Ch.1 introduces us to the personal Creator God who despite His transcendence is knowable – a fact we see most clearly in the person and the work of Jesus Christ God’s Son.

That said, it’s interesting that the current pervading scientific position of cosmologists purports that the creation of the universe happened at a moment of unimaginable power some 15 billion years ago, an event that saw the creation of all matter and elements out of nothing; the so-called Big Bang. I mention that purely because it’s a scientific theory, that at least at first glance, seems more in tune with scripture than any scientific theory held sacred by previous generations of cosmologists. Is it very difficult for us as Christians to see God in the Big Bang ? Interestingly many scientists are re-evaluating their positions in the light of what they have discovered because the implications are huge.

SLIDE 13  Francis Collins, who until recently was the head of the Human Genome Project wrote this in 2007, ‘… I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship …’

Yet it’s the story of the one time atheist Anthony Flew who died only last year that is so remarkable. Up until almost the end of his life Flew had been a staunch and vocal atheist having written several books and given numerous lectures on the subject as well as being chair of the British Secular Society for many years. Then in 2007 Flew published what would be his last book titled There is a God which carried the subtitle of How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind. In an interview he said this, SLIDE 14 ‘… with every passing year the more that was discovered about the richness and the inherent intelligence of life the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code. If Richard Dawkins’ comical efforts in the God Delusion concerning the origin of life being attributed to lucky chance is the best argument that atheism has to offer then the game is over …’

The appendix to Flew’s book includes the transcript of a discussion with NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, in which Wright challenges Flew to think further. In reality Flew had moved from a position of atheism to a position of theism, the belief in some God rather than no God at all. But, says Wright, the clues in the universe points to a God who is knowable and relational, a God who stepped down into this world in order to restore and re-new His creation, a God who through the person and work of His own Son Jesus Christ brings purpose and life to a world ravaged by sin. Yet whether Anthony Flew reached that point of acceptance before his death only God knows.

And Jesus’ supremacy as the creative channel for His Father’s decision to create the world is nowhere better seen than in the opening chapter of Colossians. It’s another poetic work in fact, a similarly subversive work that sought to challenge the worldview of the culture of the time, that belief that Roman Caesars were gods. Paul sets out the full extent of the power and the majesty of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Let’s finish this morning by reading Paul’s words, inspired as they are by God’s Spirit. These words are a reminder of God’s purpose in creation and of God’s intent to restore His creation back to Himself. They speak of the Servant King and the one who will one day finish the work that was started way back in the beginning of the book of Genesis.

Listen to Paul’s words as we close … SLIDE 15

‘… the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross …’

Let’s pray

Just recently I was invited to preach on the relationship between science and faith and inevitably in discussions with individuals afterwards I was asked this question … Can I believe in both science and the Bible ?

In reply I gave the short answer to the question, which is yes, as many scientists who are Christians will tell you. However, the longer answer is more complicated ! Whether you think you can believe in both science and the Bible depends upon what you’re expecting to get from each of them. For example, where should we go for answers to questions as diverse as: Where does rain come from ? What is lightening ? Is there a God ?

So let’s start with the Bible. It is an ancient document produced over at least 1,000 years in many diverse settings, as well as being God’s word. The question is: what should we expect from the Bible, and how should we correctly read it ? The key thing is to consider the genre of the thing you are reading; in other words, what type of literature is this ? We all know about genre, but rarely realise it ! We read a letter from our bank manager differently to a letter from a spouse, because they are different genres. In the same way we read the poetry in Psalm 18 vs.2: ‘… the LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer …’, differently to Acts Ch.27 vs.29, ‘… fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight …’. The latter clearly refers to a physical rock which destroys a boat, the former means that God is like a rock to the Psalmist, ie. He is dependable, strong and solid. So genre matters when we read the Bible, otherwise we might mistake what the author was trying to say.

  • the importance of genre …

The genre of a text determines the kind of thing you should look to get from reading it. Let’s look at Genesis Ch.1, for example, which is the narrative of the seven-day creation (it may help you to go and read it before you carry on reading this post). What kind of literature is Genesis Ch.1 ? It’s a narrative, because things happen in it,  and it has some features of poetry as well: repeated phrases (for instance, ‘…and God said …’ and ‘… according to their kind …’, and many others), and a repeated structure in how each day is described. In Genesis Ch.1, many words and phrases are found three, seven or ten times; the introduction contains thirty-five words, earth is mentioned twenty-one times, God is mentioned thirty-five times (interestingly, all multiples of seven). All this suggests that the genre of Genesis Ch.1 is a mix of poetry and narrative, and that the author was very interested in the symbolism of numbers, as well as telling us something about God. Is this the kind of text which you would expect to get scientific information from? As Ernest Lucas says in his book Can we believe Genesis today (IVP, 2005): ‘… the more we look at Genesis Chs.1-3 … the more it becomes clear that the meaning of the passage is essentially theological, not historical or scientific …’ In other words, the point of Genesis Ch.1 is to tell us that God is the Creator of the universe, not exactly how (scientifically) God did it. The main point here is that the Bible is not a scientific document, it’s a theological one. We should go to the Bible to find out about God, not about science.

  • mechanisms and morals …

Now let’s turn to science. What should we expect science to tell us ? The aim of science is to explain how things happen in our world. Science is concerned about mechanisms – how does an earthquake occur for instance, or how does a cell turn cancerous ? Science is limited to studying repeatable, observable and measurable phenomena – and it’s very good at doing it ! However, the study of mechanisms is not all there is to life: we could describe in great scientific detail how butter, flour, sugar and eggs, when combined and heated, make a cake, but it would tell us nothing about what the cake was for – a birthday party, maybe. Similarly, we may think that it’s good to care for the poor and to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves but that’s not a scientific conclusion, it’s a moral one. Science isn’t everything and, more specifically, it certainly can’t tell us whether there is a God or not. God is not a mechanism within the universe, and therefore, quite rightly pure science leaves to one side the question of God and simply gets on with studying things within the world.

  • added meaning …

So science and the Bible are concerned with very different parts of life: science with how this world works, and the Bible with questions of meaning: why are we here ? Is there anything worth living for ? Is there a God ? As a Christian, science for me is about finding out how the world which God made works. Science is thinking God’s thoughts after him, but we cannot even begin to try and answer the question as to whether there is a God or not using science.

So can we believe in science and the Bible ? Yes ! In fact I think we need both. Let me finish with a quote from Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method, who died in 1626: ‘… let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s Word [the Bible] or in the book of God’s works [science] …’

Isaiah is the king of the major prophets. His writings are among the most profound of all literature, and his prophecies are the most distinctive in all the Bible. Isaiah was a prophet, a statesman, and an accomplished orator. His ministry was extensive, spanning many years and many topics, and it was far-reaching in its influence. The final forty years of the eighth century BC produced many great men and world leaders, but the greatest of these was the prophet Isaiah. His name means the eternal One is salvation, and he often engages in a play on words using his own name to emphasize the central theme of his ministry: salvation by faith.

The historical background of Isaiah can be found in 2 Kings Chs.15—20 and 2 Chronicles Chs.26—32. The first verse of Isaiah Ch.1 gives us the vital historical information that allows us to pinpoint precisely when the prophet lived, where he lived, and, if we are the least bit familiar with Hebrew history, what the conditions were like while he lived and worked.

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

We know nothing about Isaiah’s father, Amoz, except that Amoz shouldn’t be confused with Amos, the minor prophet. What we do know is that by the time young Isaiah arrived on the scene, Israel had fallen into degenerate times. His arrival on the scene was just as timely and fortuitous as Moses’ many generations earlier. In Acts Ch.7:20, Moses is called no ordinary child and we can say Isaiah was also no ordinary child. In a world that had become so distorted through sinful rebellion, and full of despair and hopelessness, the vision that came to Isaiah came at exactly the right time. God’s time is always the right time and God always has the perfect way of revealing to human beings both their sin and guilt and His compassion and mercy. Both of these aspects of God are revealed in this chapter.

1.  The people’s guilt

With one startling sentence, God charges His people with the sin of rebellion:

I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. (verse 2b)

Even though God was addressing His people only, His message was meant to be heard by both heaven and earth. Here we see God, standing up as it were, stating His case before the whole universe against His stupid and disobedient people. God is calling all creation, terrestrial and celestial, to hear His complaint – His lawsuit.

Isaiah pictures God as a father whose children have snubbed their collective noses at Him and gone their own way and are doing their own thing without regard to what their Father wants. God had nourished them and brought them up out of the wilderness and into the land of privilege and plenty. He had given them everything and more, yet without a moment’s hesitation, as soon as they were able to, these children spurned their heavenly Father, turning against Him.

We as Christians have got to ask ourselves, have we not also been the recipients of tremendous blessings ? Have we also shunned and ignored God, our heavenly Father ?

Let’s think about that as we look at how Israel had rebelled against God.

  • They were inconsiderate my people do not understand (verse 3b)

To be inconsiderate means to be thoughtless and thankless. The house of Israel had become just that toward Jehovah, their owner and provider. It is a terrible thing to become so self-centered that we cease to think about the work of God and stop considering all that He was done and is doing for us.

Think about it; what preoccupies your thought-life during any given day ? Do you reserve thought about God for just before you drop off to sleep at night, before each meal, and a little longer on Sundays ? You may justify that thoughtlessness by saying, God understands I have to work … raise my family … God knows how busy my life is … there are only 24 hours in a day, you know ! The thing God understands is that when you spend 95% of your waking hours thinking about your life and 5% thinking about Him, you’re inconsiderate !

When you start treating God as shabbily as that, you are already on your way to becoming a backslider, whether you know it or not.

  • They left GodThey have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (verse 4b)

It isn’t much a walk from treating God with contempt and presumption to leaving Him altogether. Their thoughtlessness resulted in a willful, deliberate departure from Jehovah.

When a Christian begins to take God for granted and when he treats God with an arrogant presumption that says , He’ll always be there no matter how I treat Him then pretty soon that Christian slips into a backslidden state. This is an incredibly dangerous position to settle into, for the backslidden state happens so gradually that when one is aware of it, it no longer matters.

  • They became perverseWhy should you be beaten any more ? Why do you persist in rebellion ? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. (verse 5)

From the dictionary : Perverse – obstinate in the wrong; stubborn; intractable; hence, wayward; vexing; contrary.

The people were living in a backslidden state, in a state of perpetual rebellion, and they were suffering terribly on account of a lifestyle that was contrary to God’s will. How that must break God’s heart. Having to chastise His people, yet His people responding with even more rebellion. Here the terrible sadness in these words:

In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction. Your sword has devoured your prophets like a ravening lion. (Jeremiah Ch.2:30)

  • They had become totally corruptFrom the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with olive oil. (verse 6)

This pitiful description of Israel was both real and symbolic. Physically, they were suffering as a result of sin and spiritually they were killing themselves bit by bit. Nothing they did could stop the national hemorrhaging.

What Isaiah’s people didn’t comprehend was that healing only came from God. When people are right with God, spirits are healed, sin is overcome, bodies and minds restored. No pill or treatment or therapy can heal the total person apart from Jesus Christ. He is the Source of life. Therefore to shun Christ is to shun life and prefer death. That is corrupt ! We know how the Lord deals with people like that:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew Ch.5:13)1.

2.  God’s offer

It all sounds so depressing and hopeless. But we serve a God of hope ! We serve a God who doesn’t give up easily.

Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (verse 18)

These incredible words contain:

  • a startling revelation

Just when we think there is no hope; when we think we’ve committed the sin that would forever separate us from God, along comes God with this amazing offer. Israel of Isaiah’s day had fallen far but not so far as to be out of God’s reach.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans Ch.5:8)

That’s how God works. He doesn’t wait for us to get right before saving us. While we were at our worst, Christ died for us. Amazing love.

  • a strong invitation … Come now, let us settle the matter … (verse 18a)

God’s call couldn’t have been stronger:

The first thing we need to understand with this statement is that God is pressing His people to make a decision. It’s an invitation, but it is also an ultimatum: repent and be forgiven.

The second thing that strikes us is God’s use of the word us in His call. God recognizes and declares our kinship with Himself. God does not reason with animals. He reasons with people capable of reasoning with Him.

The last thing that should be pointed out is the word settle (or reason as we have it in other versions). It is a legal word that means to decide a case in court. But instead of pronouncing judgment on guilty human beings, our Judge offers us pardon !

How easily it would have been for God to wipe Israel off the map. But He is ever patient, loving, merciful and full of grace. We may be thoughtless, but we are always on God’s mind. God’s invitation is continual; to this day His words resound: Come now, let us settle this matter …

  • a precious promise …  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (verse 18b)

God condemns sin and sinners, but thank God that’s not the end of the story. Scarlet and crimson were the colours of the robes worn by the princes to whom Isaiah preached. God’s promise was that, even though one’s sins may be as irremovable as the stain of blood, grace could restore purity of character.

God can do that because not only is He the offended One, but He is also the Judge. God’s power is in and behind this great promise; His power can turn the sin-stained, scarlet-dyed clothes that make up our filthy rags into a the white robes of a blood-washed saint !

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John Ch.1:7)

  • a clear condition …  If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” (verses 19, 20)

This is God’s ultimatum. A lot of us wish God had finished speaking at the end of verse 18 ! This condition, or warning, cannot be ignored. That little word if is most important and it makes it plain that God has honoured the soul of man by giving him a part in his own salvation. Man cannot and does not initiate the call to salvation nor can he save himself in any way, but note this: God cannot forgive an unrepentant soul. A sinner must exhibit repentance – God cannot do the repenting. That is man’s responsibility.

Human beings are always given a choice.  In our day, people don’t like to choose; we like others to make the hard choices for us.  But in the Kingdom of God, it all begins with choice.  God chooses us, and we must choose to follow Him.

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

There is a certain poignancy to this book – it is John Stott’s farewell – his final publication. Over the years he has produced dozens of books covering Biblical exposition right through to engagement with all kinds of contemporary issues. His book The Cross of Christ is certainly a contender for the best Christian book I have ever read, and his contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series are amongst the best on offer (Sermon on the Mount, Romans, Acts, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy & Titus, 2 Timothy). He is one of the most widely respected evangelical leaders in the UK, and deservedly so. So when he writes a farewell book, it’s definitely going to be worth paying attention to.

The book is a call for us all to be radical disciples. To be radical is to be deep-rooted and whole-hearted. Stott picks out eight areas to explore in which we can become more committed followers of Jesus.

Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective; choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly. But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.

The first area is non-conformity. Both escapism and conformism are forbidden to the believer. We are called to engage with our culture without compromise. Stott identifies four areas in which we need to refuse to conform: pluralism, ethical relativism, materialism, and narcissism (love of self).

The second area is closely related – Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. Stott takes us on a Bible-study showing the call to Christlikeness, some specific ways in which we are to be like Christ, and some implications of our Christlikeness. One of the reasons our evangelistic efforts fail is that we don’t look like Christ.

God’s purpose is to make us like Christ, and God’s way is to fill us with his Holy Spirit

The third area is maturity. Stott laments the fact that the modern church can be summed up in the phrase ‘… growth without depth …’. He draws on Colossians Ch.1 vs.28-29 to bring out some aspects of maturity. In particular, we need a fresh vision of Christ, from the pages of Scripture. We must look for Christ as we read the Scriptures, in order to love, trust and obey him, ‘… ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ …’

A fourth area is creation care. The simple fact that this chapter is here shows Stott’s commitment to applying Scripture to contemporary issues. He starts by building a biblical case for our responsible stewardship of the earth, avoiding the two extremes of deification of nature and exploitation of nature. He commends the work of Tearfund and A Rocha, and calls us to be deeply committed to care for the creation.

He quotes Chris Wright and says, ‘… it seems quite inexplicable to me that there are some Christians who claim to love and worship God, to be disciples of Jesus, and yet have no concern for the earth that bears his stamp of ownership. They do not care about the abuse of the earth and indeed, by their wasteful and over-consumptive lifestyles, they collude in it …’

A fifth area is simplicity. John Stott speaks from a position of integrity on this subject, since his book sales and speaking engagements could have made him a millionaire, yet he practices what he preaches, giving all his book royalties towards the work of providing books for believers and pastors in poorer countries. He feels grieved that the International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle which took place in March 1980 received very little attention, and this chapter is simply given to republish their statement (which he co-wrote with Ron Sider). This is a very challenging chapter, and one that exposes deep-seated idols that we are reluctant to part with.

The sixth area is balance. In this chapter Stott expounds 1 Peter Ch.2 vs.1-17 and brings out three areas to hold in balance:

  • Both individual discipleship and corporate fellowship
  • Both worship and work
  • Both pilgrimage and citizenship

The seventh area is dependence. He movingly speaks of his experiences of growing increasingly frail and weak. Humiliation is the road to humility. He notes that we start and end our lives completely dependent on others. We are not designed to be independent from one another. ‘… you are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you … Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be propped up when he rolls over. And yet he never loses his divine dignity. And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not and cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us …’

The final chapter deals with death. In it he explores from several angles the paradox of Christianity that death is the road to life. Our disicipleship involves a death to self. Our mission leads to the cross. He speaks of persecution and martyrdom, before moving finally to consider our mortality, and how death has been robbed of its horrors for the Christian.

Basic to all discipleship is our resolve not only to address Jesus with polite titles, but to follow his teaching and obey his commands.

In conclusion, this is a book you will want to read if you have had any contact with John Stott’s teaching ministry before. Though he is far too humble to say it about himself, it comes from a man who has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Timothy Ch.4 vs.7). He has not asked us to do anything that he has not modelled first in his own life. It is a fitting farewell from a remarkable servant of God and I pray that his vision of radical discipleship will be fully embraced by the next generation.

God is the Sovereign Lord of history and the just judge over all the earth. However, as Martin Goldsmith points out in his most recent publication, ‘… such faith statements seem almost naïve in the light of what we see and hear on television and in the newspapers …’. As we struggle to find God in the midst of recent historical events in Israel and Gaza, consider the wider threat of global terrorism or mourn because of injustice, oppression and sin within our own countries, we often struggle with the question, ‘… why doesn’t God intervene ? …’. Habakkuk went through a similar dilemma in his day but the answer he received from the Lord was far from what he expected.

When Habakkuk complained about God’s inaction, the Lord told the prophet that he was going to act by raising up the Babylonians to judge Judah. Habakkuk was shocked and began to ask questions concerning God’s character and his eternal covenant with his people: Could Judah really be destroyed ? What about God’s covenant with Abraham ? How could a holy, righteous God be at work among a people who are as cruel as the Babylonians and use them to fulfil his purposes ? Why does God sometimes seem to withdraw and be silent ? Is there no end to the suffering God is bringing upon us ?

The issues raised are those which resonate with many in the modern situation but Martin Goldsmith points out that, in questioning the Creator, our doubts need to be bracketed by a deep inner assurance of God. For this is how Habakkuk prayerfully approached God, and the prophet found himself reduced to silence. Drawing on that experience, Habakkuk was able to see a time when all the earth would be silent before the Lord! Martin Goldsmith describes this as, an ‘… awe-filled silence as they see the splendour of God’s kingdom reign …’ and he adds, ‘… what a vision …’.

Any Complaints? Blame God! is much more than a commentary on the book of Habakkuk. Martin Goldsmith argues that Habakkuk‘s ‘… pictorial teaching would fit well into the postmodern Western world of today …’, and he goes on to assert that the Bible ‘… gives little support to dry academic theological language in preaching or teaching …’. Thankfully the author practices what he preaches, and his experience of his mission and first-hand knowledge of many cultures combine to fill this book with a wealth of interesting material. Whilst being thoroughly academic, it is rich in devotional material and is replete with anecdotes from across the world, containing quotations from sources as diverse as: David Ben-Gurion; Japanese theologians and missiologists; Harry Ellison; liberal critics; John Calvin; a Chinese lady from Hong Kong ; Vinoth Ramachandra and an Indonesian leprosy sufferer !

This book is very practical and relevant, touching on topics such as the blame culture, the economic cost of sin, the trinity as a model of humble service and the ultimate purpose of mission. The Hebrew word studies that are scattered throughout the book are also intriguing and informative. For example, finding out that the Hebrew word translated as creditors or debtors (Habakkuk Ch.2:7) actually means those who bite certainly adds a new dimension to the term credit crunch !

In addition, Martin Goldsmith’s ability to trace concepts from Habakkuk back to Genesis and forward to Revelation helps to enrich the reader’s understanding of the text in its narrower context. For example, the author parallels Habakkuk Ch.2:14, ‘… for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea …’ – not only with Romans Ch.11:25,26 – where Paul speaks of the full number of the Gentiles coming in and all Israel being saved – and also with the picture in Revelation Ch.7:9 of a great multitude from every nation and tribe who stand before the throne and before the Lamb.

The author challenges us to look outward, to widen our gaze and see that God is indeed at work in our world. He points out that the Lord’s justice can represent more of a threat than a promise to his people, for justice leads to judgement. Peace will come but ‘… only to those who won’t abuse it …’, for the most important element is neither the judgement of sinners nor the salvation of the Lord’s people but rather the glorification of the Lord himself.

Any Complaints? Blame God! is an uplifting and God glorifying book that will, I trust, help Christians to rediscover the richness and relevance of the Hebrew Scriptures. Buy it, read it, and give it to a friend; or better still, gift it to an enemy!

Whilst Easter offers a great opportunity for us to focus in on the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ we should never forget or diminish the impact that the reality of the resurrection should have upon our Christian lives day by day.

In order to combat any personal lethargy regarding the nature and the extent of  the importance of Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave that first Easter Sunday I’ve been re-reading once more the Easter story as written for us by the gospel writers and I’ve re-read a book by Eugene Petersen.

In Psalm 116 vs.9, the author writes, “… I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living …” This book, Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life by Eugene Peterson (NavPress, 2006, ISBN 1-57683-929-X) explores the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and the impact of Christian spiritual formation by resurrection, in response to an increasingly accommodating church and secularized version in the broader culture. Peterson focuses readers on three areas of life – wonder, meals and friends – all of which are seen to be anchored in one of the Ten Commandments (Sabbath keeping) and two of the church’s sacraments (communion and baptism), in order to remind us of the wonder of God’s presence and workings in our lives; recall the importance of breaking bread together; and recover our identities through a company of friends. Peterson begins by asserting that the workplace is the primary location for spiritual formation by resurrection, and that keeping the Sabbath – as a detachment – is the primary way to cultivate wonder in the workplace. Secondly, the preparation, serving and eating of ordinary meals are formational for living the resurrection, while the Lord’s Supper is the sacramental focal practice. Lastly, the company of ordinary resurrection friends helps to insure spiritual formation through the focal act of holy baptism – where people are named and known in the context of Christ-like community. Peterson’s words are biblical and refreshing. Living the Resurrection would be a great book to encourage, if not revive, those commissioned to ministry – which is all of us – even as it serves as a reminder of the who and why behind the what and how of ministry life – something all of us can afford to hear and act upon.

I’d thoroughly recommend this book. As it says on the back, ‘… if you celebrate Christ’s resurrection only one day of the year, you’re missing something BIG …’

Here’s the second sermon from a short summer teaching series preached at my home church Belmont Chapel. If you’d like to view the accompanying PPT then you can find it following this link …

SLIDE 1 This morning we’re continuing our short summer teaching series looking together at the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. If you were here last Sunday you’ll know that we started out in our series by taking a look at the nature and extent of the good news of the gospel as well as looking for evidence of change in Paul’s life as the result of God being at work within it. And now, this morning, we’re going to follow on from last week by looking to discover what lay at the heart of Paul’s motivation to serve God. As I commented last week our intention throughout this series is not to focus solely on Paul’s experiences in isolation but rather we’ll be looking to learn how best we can apply some of the lessons Paul learnt in his Christian life in our own Christian lives today.

SLIDE 2 If you’d like to extend your consideration of Paul’s life and ministry through some additional reading then I’d recommend Michael Bird’s recent book on Paul entitled, A Bird’s eye view of Paul – the man, his mission and his message.

SLIDE 3 In March 1923, in an interview with The New York Times, the English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. His reply, now famous, not least because Mallory himself was lost on the mountain in the following year, comprised of three short words. He said to the reporter, ‘… because it’s there …’. Whether in fact Mallory went on to become the first man to climb to the summit of Everest, some 29 years before the recognised first ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary is still hotly debated, yet despite the uncertainty of his success Mallory’s motivation was straightforwardly simple. SLIDE 4 Writing in his diary soon after that now almost apocryphal interview Mallory wrote, ‘… if you cannot understand that there is something in a man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it … that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward … then you won’t see why we go … what we get from this adventure is just sheer joy … that is what life means and what life is for …’.

George Leigh Mallory’s motivation for climbing, those simple three words, were enough to drive him relentlessly forward in his determination to become the first person to set foot on top of the highest mountain in the world. It was a goal, of course, in the pursuit of which he eventually lost his life since Mallory disappeared whilst climbing Everest in 1924.

SLIDE 5 The passage we’re going to read and consider together this morning is all about that very same theme, that of motivation; but not the necessary motivation required to climb high mountains however, but rather, the motivation required to serve God effectively. If you have a Bible with you and you’ll like to follow the reading we’re going to read from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, starting at Ch.5 vs. 11 – if you’ve got a Church Bible with you then you’ll find the reading on Page 1096 or, if you’d prefer, please follow the words on the screen behind me, or just listen.

SLIDE 6,7 & 8

Read :       2 Corinthians Ch.5 vs.11-21

Once more, as last week we have the opportunity to stick fairly closely to the passage since it’s quite brief. By way of context it’s simply worth noting that, in the particular section of Paul’s letter that our reading comes from, Paul has been reminding these 1st century Christians that the ministry of every Christian is to serve Jesus Christ by making Him known in the world. SLIDE 8 Paul writes towards the end of Ch.2, that God uses Christians to, ‘… spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere … for we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing …’ (Ch.2 vs.14a-15)

I don’t know about you, but it’s my contention that when it comes to Christian service and ministry we don’t lack knowledge of what it is we ought to be doing, but what we sometimes do lack is the motivation and the drive to do it. If you’re anything like me there are times when my spiritual sight becomes a little hazy; times when I become myopic regarding God’s bigger picture; I see clearly the here and now, but I fail to glimpse very much regarding the eternal perspective of my Christian life and service.

And so, with those thoughts in mind, we’re going to look at three key motivators that for Paul provided the necessary impetus for him to continue in his serving God. These are, I would suggest, three motivators that I believe are just as relevant for us today as we seek, with His help, to be effective disciples.

Firstly then … SLIDE 10

  • Paul is motivated in his service for Jesus Christ because of …the verdict of a righteous judge (vs.11 & 12)

Let’s read vs. 11 again, ‘… since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade people …’. Often times in the book of Acts Paul’s style of engagement evangelistically, his approach in preaching the gospel, is described as one of persuasion. Paul in no sense sought to manipulate or to coerce people regarding the claims of Jesus Christ but rather he sought to set out the truth plainly and reasonably. And in this verse tells us that one of the motivating factors that fuelled Paul’s desire to persuade people concerning the claims of Jesus Christ was his clear understanding of what it means to fear the Lord. Now in order for us to understand a little more about what Paul is alluding to here we need to go back and read the couple of verses found immediately before the section we have already read. SLIDE 10 If we look back to vs.9 we read these words, ‘… so we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due to them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad …’ (2 Corinthians Ch.5 vs.9-10).

What Paul is reminding his readers of is that there will be a future day when everyone, without exception, Paul included, will stand in front of Jesus Christ the judge. Now it’s worth noting in passing that the word we have translated here in the TNIV simply as appear is a word than means much more than merely turning up since the sense of the word carries with it the thought of being laid bare, of having our lives open to scrutiny, stripped of all of our pretensions and hypocrisies.

Whilst we may at times seek to deny it the real truth is that all of us, to some degree or another, have a tendency to hide much of the truth about ourselves from each other. But, says Paul, on that day nothing will be hidden from view, all our thoughts, our desires, our motives, in fact all that we are, and have been, will be revealed. It’s a day, says Paul that we ought to fear, not in the sense of a cringing terror but rather through an attitude of awe-filled respect. The Bible tells us plainly that if we know and trust Jesus Christ then the events of that day won’t cast into doubt our final destination since, as Paul writes in the middle of his letter to his friends in Rome, ‘… there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus …’ (Romans Ch.8 vs.1), yet there will, all the same, be an appraisal made of our lives. So Paul’s fear of the Lord is the recognition that it’s God’s opinion and His alone that ultimately matters. It’s the kind of fear that ought to motivate us to serve Him and to please Him.

Of course many people are driven in live simply by a desire to impress others, and there were those, just like that, in the church at Corinth. They took pride in what was seen. They wanted to look impressive, to appear spiritual, and they boasted about ecstatic spirit-fuelled experiences. But Paul stresses in these verses his ministry is one of plainness and clarity of presentation as he seeks to persuasively present the good news of the gospel.

Could it be true that part of the reason we are, at times, half-hearted in our witness for Jesus Christ is that so often we’re concerned about what others might think of us, and because of that, we lose sight of the reality of that coming day when we will stand before Jesus Christ as judge. And what that day will undoubtedly reveal to you and I will be the utter foolishness of caring about any other verdict on our lives other than the verdict of Jesus Christ, the righteous judge.

Let’s move on to look at Paul’s second key motivator for service that we find here in these verses … SLIDE 11

  • Paul is motivated in his service for Jesus Christ because of …the love of a sacrificial Saviour (vs.14-17)

Let’s read together from vs.14, ‘… for Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again …’. Paul’s second motivating force is quite simply the love of God. And whilst many people are compelled by a desire to be loved Paul, in contrast, is compelled by the conviction that he is loved – and not just that, but crucially that all are loved by God. And the love that compels Paul isn’t the kind of sentimental, notionally romantic kind of greeting card love, but this is love as expressed in the sacrificial death of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. And it’s a love that reveals a particular understanding of what Jesus Christ’s death achieved, since Christ took on Himself the punishment for sin that should rightfully be ours. That’s why, as I said earlier, a Christian never need fear the judgement seat of Christ in respect of eternity since we know that the debt incurred by us, because of our sinfulness, has been cancelled out by Jesus’ vicarious death. But, says Paul, this isn’t something that we should understand only in the future tense, but rather it’s something that ought to make a seismic difference to the way we live our lives now. And that difference should be evidenced by living lives no longer lived for self, but instead, lived for God.

SLIDE 12 David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, wrote these words in his diary as he considered his response to God’s love, ‘… People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply acknowledging a great debt we owe to our God, which we can never repay ? It is emphatically no sacrifice. Rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, danger, foregoing the common conveniences of this life – these may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. SLIDE 13 All these are nothing compared with the glory which shall later be revealed in and through us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk, when we remember the great sacrifice which He made, who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us …’

Paul has a deep rooted conviction that God is a personal relational God – a God who has a yearning desire to draw us back into community with Him. And Paul understands that God’s offer of salvation extends to everyone and because of that Paul’s drive to live for Christ is a drive to share Christ with those who as yet don’t know Him as Lord and Saviour. If you and I lack drive and motivation then we need to better understand God’s love and we need to appropriate Paul’s prayer for his friends in Ephesus where he wrote, SLIDE 14 ‘… I pray that you being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge …’ (Ephesians Ch.3 vs.17b-19b)

And then lastly, the third of Paul’s motivating factors for service … SLIDE 15

  • Paul is motivated in his service for Jesus Christ because of …the commission of a gracious King (vs.18-21)

Let’s read again from vs.18, where Paul writes, ‘… all this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us …’. What we discover here in these verses is that Paul’s motivation for service wasn’t obtained solely by looking forward with an eye towards appearing before Jesus the righteous judge and neither was it just looking back and considering the cross, but also, Paul had a clear conviction that God had personally called him. Three times in the verses through to vs.21, we hear Paul saying that it was God who had given him the task – he had been commissioned by the King of Kings. He was, says Paul, Christ’s ambassador, entrusted with the express task of making known the will of the King by speaking out on the King’s behalf.

As an aside it’s probably worth noting that as an apostle Paul spoke with the authority of Christ, on behalf of Christ in a special and unique way; in the same way, in fact, as the OT prophets had been used by God many centuries earlier. Yet in a more general sense the same commission has been entrusted to all those who have been reconciled to God; you and I, if we know and trust Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord. God has commissioned each and every one of us to take on the task of making His appeal to the world to be reconciled to Him – we are Christ’s ambassadors.

And this theme of reconciliation has much to offer by way of insight into helping us get to grips with what the heart of the gospel message is all about. The good news of the gospel presupposes that everyone is at enmity with God and is isolated from Him; that we are all, because of our sin, out of relationship with a Holy God. Our sin provokes God’s righteous anger and we remain outside of His family because of our continued rebellion. The dire truth is that this isn’t a relationship we can mend; we cannot make amends for what we have done, but wonderfully as Paul states here, despite being the offended party, God takes the initiative and through the sacrificial death of His Son deals with the root cause of that alienation – your sin and mine.

Look again at vs.21, ‘… God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God …’. The good news of the gospel message speaks of a breathtaking exchange – our sinfulness exchanged for Christ’s righteousness; what amazing grace! Notice too that the work of reconciliation is talked about in the past tense in vs.18. The work was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave. But the work of making it know continues in the present tense and that work has been entrusted to you and I. Our task, as Christ’s ambassadors, is to urge people to be reconciled to God.

Surely we should be both amazed and humbled by the thought that God expressly chose you and I to publicise the greatest piece of news the word could ever get to hear. The challenge is, of course, does the world hear it clearly from me ?

SLIDE 16 In closing let me leave you with a few questions. What factors keep you motivated in your service for God ? Am I moving on with God or have I become a spiritual couch potato ? Does the accountability that comes from knowing that one day I’ll stand before Jesus Christ inspire and motivate me to please Him ? Does Jesus Christ’s death on the cross draw out from me such a debt of gratitude that I can’t help but make Him known ? Am I really signed up to the responsibility that comes with being a commissioned disciple in the service of the King of Kings ?

Paul iconHere’s the text of the first of two sermons preached at my home church, Belmont Chapel in Exeter. If you’d like to view the PPT that accompanied my talk then you can view it by clicking the link.

SLIDE 1 This morning we’re starting a short summer teaching series looking together at the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. Over the next four Sunday mornings we’ll be glancing at a few snapshots of Paul’s life, brief glimpses that I trust will help us to get better acquainted with this key NT figure. However, our intention is not to focus solely on Paul’s experiences in isolation but rather we’ll be looking to learn how best we can apply some of the lessons Paul learnt in his Christian life in our own Christian lives today – whether individually or corporately as a faith community here at Belmont Chapel. As we journey together with Paul over these few weeks it is my prayer that all of us may take increasingly positive steps towards Christ-likeness as we ask God to help us apply the lessons we learn from His word.

SLIDE 2 For those of you who like the opportunity to read around some or all of the teaching series here at Belmont I’d recommend Michael Bird’s recent book on Paul entitled, A Bird’s eye view of Paul – the man, his mission and his message.

Our subject for today is entitled, Paul – called by God. And to help us consider that theme we’re going to centre our thoughts on one of the vivid and insightful accounts that Paul himself narrates describing the manner of his conversion by way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. However just before we read the passage for today its both worthwhile and important to take a few moments to place what we’re about to read into its correct setting – to set the passage within the context of the events pertinent to the time and situation of writing.

Paul is writing to his friends in Galatia, to groups of Christians who when taken together formed a collective of small Christian church communities scattered throughout what is now modern day central Turkey. Paul’s reason for writing is to defend the validity of the good news of the gospel since the churches in Galatia were coming under pressure from individuals who were teaching that faith in Jesus Christ was insufficient of itself and that it was necessary to add to the gospel that Paul had preached to them.

It’s worth noticing that as Paul starts to write you get a sense very quickly that he is in a hurry to get to the real substance of what he has to say. Paul writes with a pace and an urgency that dispenses with his usual polite introductory greetings but rather gets straight to the point as he reminds his readers of the authority He has been given by God to proclaim the good news of the gospel and, more importantly, as he reminds them of the sufficiency of the vicarious death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ to bring the means of personal salvation to a defeated and sinful humanity.

SLIDE 3 If you have a Bible with you and you’ll like to follow the reading we’re going to read from Paul’s NT letter to the Galatians, starting at Ch.1 vs. 11 – if you’ve got a Church Bible with you then you’ll find the reading on Page 1103 or, if you’d prefer, please follow the words on the screen behind me, or just listen.

SLIDE 4, 5 & 6

We’re going to stick closely to the text this morning and since we don’t have too many verses to consider we’ll unpack them in a straightforward and I trust, a helpful way. The substance of these verses when taken together form a brief, but powerful, description of not only the nature and extent of the good news of the gospel but also they describe the change that is brought about in an individuals life through belief and trust in Jesus Christ both at conversion and forward from that into discipleship. And we’ll consider those things under five simple headings.

Firstly then … SLIDE 7

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Planned by a loving God (vs.11 & 12)

It’s evident right from the very first stroke of the pen that Paul wants to leave his readers in no doubt about who commissioned him to do the work he is engaged in on their behalf. His employed status Paul says is as one, ‘… sent not with a human commission, nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead …’ (Galatians Ch.1 vs.1).

But it’s not just the mission that is God inspired but more importantly says Paul in vs.11 it is the message too. The good news of the gospel that Paul preached when he was with them wasn’t something formulated through his own ingenuity neither was it obtained from any human source but uniquely it was God’s message to them as individuals, and by extension a message to the whole of humanity – a message of hope and salvation personally addressed to rebellious and sinful people – people such as you and I.

It’s clear that the Galatian church had been coming under attack from those who doubted the validity of the message Paul preached and doubted that it was inspired by God so Paul chooses to counter those attacks by reminding his readers of the seismic shift that had occurred in his own life through the direct intervention of God – Paul’s testimony is a remarkable story and it reveals God’s power to bring about change and renewal.

Paul came to recognise through God’s spectacular intervention in his life – the story we read about in Acts Ch.9 – that it is only God who can change sinful humanity. But it’s not that Paul was lacking in information about God, his knowledge of the law and the Halakha, that ever growing list of legalistic laws for living that was fast obscuring the real essence of God’s law, was probably second to none. And not only that but he had seen evidence of the power of God to change lives as he heard the testimony of those who professed faith in Jesus Christ, those who he had a hand in so cruelly brutalising such as Stephen, and yet he failed to see the significance of what God was doing all around him because he hadn’t yet encountered the personal reality of the God who’s laws he so fanatically followed.

I’m sure for many of us here this morning we’re able to share Paul’s enthusiasm for the good news of the gospel since we know by our own experience what a difference faith and trust in God brings. But that may not be true for everyone here and so I, like Paul, would want to stress again the fact of the divine authorship of the gospel message since it is the only way through which God is truly found.

Secondly I’d like you to notice this … SLIDE 8

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Resisted by a blinded humanity (vs.13 & 14)

The thrust of Paul’s evidence to support his belief that God can bring change to individual lives bubbles up from his own experience. There are many passages that attest to the character and actions of Saul, the man Paul was before encountering Christ. And many of those verses make for uncomfortable reading. SLIDE 9 In Acts Ch.26, when in conversation with King Agrippa, Paul says this of his past life, ‘… I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison and when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them …’ (Acts Ch.26 vs.9-11).

And surely we would, from a human perspective, consider Saul of Tarsus to be a very unlikely candidate to ever come to faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We would also, I’m sure, wish to distance ourselves from the kind of violent man that Saul was and would wish to see ourselves as intrinsically better people. And yet the Bible tells us that God sees us all condemned and under the same judgement because we have, like Saul, an inherited sinful nature, a nature that reveals its true colours in so much of what we do and say and think.

SLIDE 10 But, as we know from reading the story, God doesn’t give up on Saul of Tarsus and thankfully he doesn’t give up on any of us either.  In fact God had been working in Saul’s life prior to that dramatic event on the road to Damascus. Again, in verses from Paul’s conversation with King Agrippa, we find him recalling the actual words spoken to him by Jesus. Paul repeats Jesus’ words, ‘… Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me … is it hard for you to kick against the goads ? …’ (Acts Ch.26 vs.14)

Apparently to kick against the goads was a common expression of the time. It was a rural expression arising from the practice of farmers goading their oxen in the fields. Goads were typically made from slender pieces of wood, blunt on one end and pointed on the other. Farmers would use the pointed end to urge a stubborn rebellious ox into motion. Of course, sometimes the ox would kick back in resistance, but such an action would only result in pain as the point stabbed deep into the flesh.

In the story of Saul we’re tempted to see the event on the Damascus road as a sudden dramatic encounter with Christ, but in the light of Jesus’ words to him regarding his repeated resistance, surely it’s true that God had been at work in Paul’s life for possibly many years previous.

How do you and I react when God calls ? For many of us here this morning we can look back to a moment when we placed our faith and trust in Jesus Christ and experienced like Paul an encounter with God, albeit I’m sure not such a dramatic one. And yet maybe for others here this morning God is still prompting and prodding regarding the need to take seriously the claims of the good news of the gospel. It’s also true that despite salvation we still resist God and we still refuse His prompting; we choose self-rule over God’s Kingship and we kick back against His leading in our lives. I know it’s true for me and I’m aware of the need to regularly ask for God’s forgiveness – sometimes we just need to stop fighting and allow God to break through.

Thirdly I’d like you to notice from the passage … SLIDE 11

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Revealed by a willing Saviour (vs.15 & 16)

The reason why God persisted in his pursuit of Saul and why He persists with you and I reveals the measure of God’s grace and love. Saul of Tarsus like each and every one of us deserved God’s judgement and punishment, but God doesn’t hate us despite our sinfulness, He loves us – or why else would God send His one and only Son into the world to reveal God’s plan of salvation and carry it through to its vital and amazing conclusion.

In writing to his friends in Philippi Paul talks of all the things that he boasted about when he was an unconverted man. He had religion and self-righteousness, as well as a growing reputation and recognition amongst his peers but all of those things had combined to blind him to the very thing he needed, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It was that very need that Paul recognised on the road to Damascus. The religion of the Jews had been an experience of ritual and practice but faith and belief in Jesus Christ brought an inward experience and a reality to life. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings change from the inside out as the Spirit starts the work of regeneration within a repentant life. How then, says Paul, could this good news be anything other than the work of God, since only God can bring about such a miracle.

Jesus Christ reveals God’s rescues plan, He is God at work in the world. He came and died in order to remove the curse of sin and death and to remove the scales of blindness that serve only to keep a sinful humanity in darkness and isolation.

It seems like I’ve already asked this question a couple of times this morning but the question of where we stand in relation to God’s offer of salvation is the most important question in the world so it’s worth repeating. Do you and I know Jesus Christ as our own personal Saviour ? SLIDE 12 Have we come to that point in our lives where we are able to say with Paul that, ‘… whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord …’ (Philippians Ch.3 vs.7-8a)

If that is where we are then the last two points bear relevance to our day to day walk with God, fourthly then … SLIDE 13

  • The good news of the gospel message
  • Matures through a deepening relationship (vs.17-20)

Paul goes on in the next verses to tell of his experiences after the story that we read about in Acts Ch.9 and its here that we come upon something of a surprise. What we discover here is that Paul’s dramatic encounter with Christ on the road out from Jerusalem is an important stepping stone in God’s plans for Paul’s life and it’s certainly not an end point in itself.

Think for a moment about those things that Paul says he didn’t do in these verses. He didn’t rush around looking to consult with others in Damascus seeking to shape his theology by consensus, and neither did he hurry back to Jerusalem to seek an audience with the remaining apostles; those who had been with Jesus during his time of ministry. But rather he deliberately chooses to spend time alone with God in a self-imposed period of exile in Arabia – a time of solitude, of thought, of study and of close relationship with God. As is always the case when scripture leaves a gap and remains silent on a subject commentators love to try and fill in the hole that’s left – many theories abound about what happened to Paul during the three years he spends in obscurity, but we don’t have any answers, other than to say that Paul surely spent a long time with God.

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline, a book which I’m sure many of you here have read says this about the need to go deeper with God and to build upon the reality of salvation by being willing to engage in the work of maturing as a disciple. SLIDE 14 He says, ‘… superficiality is the curse of our age … the doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem … the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people …’ (Page 1)

How much time to I regularly spend in prayer and study ? How much priority do I give to being still and asking God to reveal Himself to me ? Have I ever carved out a significant amount of time out of my busy schedule in order to give it over solely to God ? Is my life speeding up or slowing down ? Am I too busy to pray ?

In closing I’d like us to consider one last and very short thought from the final few verses we read together and it relates back again to the words we read in Philippians. Here’s my last point for this morning … SLIDE 15

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Confirmed by a contagious lifestyle (vs.23-24)

I’m struck by these verses because they reflect so clearly the words we read earlier that Paul penned to his friends in Philippi, ‘… whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord …’ and the net result of that change of emphasis in Paul’s life was blindingly evident to those he came in contact with. Paul’s changed life spoke only of God and Paul reflected the praise of those who he met with back to its source. Paul wasn’t recognised in Syria and Cilicia – he says that in vs.22. His face was unknown but his faith was unmistakable. Here was a man so changed by the work of God that nothing could mask that change from those he came into contact with.

I wonder how true that is of me, or how true it is for you ? How much of God’s work of salvation is evident in the way I live my life day by day, in the choices I make, in the way I interact with my family, in the way I handle my relationships and friendships ? If it’s true that I’m the only Jesus people see then what kind of impression do they get of the God I profess to love and serve ?

SLIDE 16 May God help us to today and through this coming week to take hold of the truths we’ve reminded ourselves of this morning and seek with God’s help to apply them in every situation of our lives.

Let’s pray

Paul (book cover)Pope Benedict XVI declared 2008 to be the year of the apostle Paul in celebration of the apostle’s 2000th birthday. Coming to terms with the theology expressed in the letters of Paul has kept theologians and writers busy for nearly two millennia now. Michael Bird’s new book, A Bird’s eye view of Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message, is a clear introduction to the Apostle Paul that manages to be both brief and substantive.

Some books on Paul focus on the theology of the apostle expressed in his letters. Others provide a biographical look at the apostle’s life and missionary journeys. But this book combines the best of these approaches. Bird delves into Pauline theology, the specific letters, the story of Paul’s life. And he accomplishes these tasks in less than 200 pages. Bird is careful to read Paul in his own historical context. Many times in the book, he insists that we first realize that Paul’s letters are not written to us, even if God intends that the letters be for us. If we are to understand Paul rightly, we must read him in his own context. If the Paul we claim to know looks and sounds a lot like us, then that is probably a good indication that we do not know him as well as we think we do. There is always a temptation to recruit him to our cause, to make our enemies his enemies, our beliefs his beliefs. But if we can be mature enough to let Paul be himself and treat his letters as windows into his world rather than as deposits of theological dogma, then we stand a chance of meeting him anew, letting him speak for himself in his language, on his terms and for his purposes.

Bird starts off by talking about Paul the man. He focuses on five important aspects of the story of Paul’s life: the persecutor of the church, the greatest missionary who ever lived, a world-class theologian, a pastor with a heart for the church, and the martyr who died for his faith. Bird describes Paul as a maverick and spends a good deal of time recounting Paul’s conversion experience. He argues for continuity in Paul’s thought after coming to faith in Christ against some scholars who argue for late-life shifts in Paul’s theology. Bird believes that his theology remained generally stable from conversion until his martyrdom. The conversion experience is central for understanding Paul: that encounter with the risen Jesus had an enormous impact on his continuing religious experience of God, on his missionary drive and upon his theological reflection about God, Israel, Torah and salvation. That grace-event killed Saul the Pharisee and birthed Paul the apostle. From there, Bird spends considerable time familiarizing his readers with the stories behind the story. In order to properly understand Paul, we must know the stories about God and creation, Adam and Christ, Abraham and Israel, Jesus and the church. These meta-narratives provide frameworks into which we can fit the letters of Paul.

After he sets up the historical framework, he then launches into a chapter that gives a brief overview of the historical circumstances, original audience, and basic theology of each of Paul’s letters. In a single chapter, Bird successfully surveys all of the letters. What makes Bird’s contribution especially timely is the way in which he weaves together old and new perspectives on Paul. He has great appreciation for N. T. Wright and for other new perspective authors; yet he affirms the traditional view of imputation of Christ’s righteousness, although Bird doesn’t see any text as explicitly saying that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, nonetheless, without some kind of theology of imputation a lot of what Paul says about justification does not make sense. Imputation is the integrating point for a variety of ideas in Paul’s letters. Bird attempts to do what many believe is impossible: incorporate the best aspects of the new perspective within a largely traditional Reformed framework.

I would positively recommend this book as it serves as a wonderful introduction to Paul’s theology. It covers the relevant material in a way that is easy for the reader to understand, and it provides a good overview of the main issues in Pauline studies.

Just this past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Burnham-on-Sea Baptist Church, a growing vibrant church right in the heart of the seaside town. The text of my sermon is below along with links to the scripture passage and the PPT slides that I used to accompany my talk. Forgiveness is a challenging theme and modelling Jesus Christ’s example is surely only possible through the radical re-shaping of our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we continue to have a desire to seek God’s help towards making us more Christlike …

My presentation slides can be found here

Everybody's normal ...Slide 1 In an early chapter of his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them, John Ortberg talks about the difficulties inherent in being a porcupine. He tells of the fact that a porcupine has around 30,000 quills attached all around its body. Each one of these quills can be, if so desired, driven into a predatory enemy like a tiny spear, and left there. To make matters worse the quills are barbed which makes extraction very difficult for the unfortunate recipient. As a general rule, says Ortberg, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships – retreat or attack. They either head for a tree and safety, or they stick out their barbed quills and charge. Interestingly, but maybe it’s not so much of a surprise, porcupines are rarely seen in pairs, and never in a group. In fact, there is no word in any world language to describe a group of porcupines.

Yet sadly, it’s not only porcupines that have barbed quills. We have them as well, and all too often we use them to attack, sometimes with the precise intent of causing distress and hurt. Our quills, of course, aren’t physical in nature like a porcupine’s, nor are they visible, but rather they are quills of anger, resentment, arrogance, envy, selfishness, hated, and intolerance. And these quills can be so fiendishly barbed that extraction is only possible through radical surgery, and if that’s not carried out, then they will remain under the skin, of an unfortunate victim, causing a constant irritation, and a deep-felt pain that is debilitating.

Maybe, in the reading we’re about to share together, Peter had a particular porcupine in mind when he came and asked Jesus a question. But unlike Peter, who you’ll notice in a moment, didn’t think through his question very well, we need to realise that not only is it possible to identify porcupines in our lives, but we also need to realise that the problem of barbed quills is not restricted to the actions of a few individuals – because I’m somebody’s porcupine – and so are you. I wonder how many barbed quills I have driven into someone else’s life – quills that perhaps even now remain deeply embedded because of the unwillingness on the part of maybe both parties to step into the risky arena of personal forgiveness.

SLIDE 2 Let’s read a few verses together from Matthew’s gospel

Read:                     Matthew Ch.18 vs.21 to 35

If we were to turn right back to the beginning of our Bibles, to the very first book, the book of Genesis we would discover, almost from the outset that appearing amidst the perfection of God’s work, humanity chose through a conscious decision, to go it alone, to usurp God’s authority and to promote the idea of self-interest. We read at the start that God created humanity in His image with God-like values of unity, of inter-dependence, and of love – values designed not only to develop the relationship between God and humanity, but values that are necessary key building blocks for living lives together – you and I, one with another.

But as we read on in those early chapters of Genesis we discover that amidst the wonder and perfection of God’s creation, we learn that humankind’s contribution to the Eden story, was blame, hatred, jealousy, and revenge.

SLIDE 3 In Genesis Ch.4, we read about a man named Lamech. Now Lamech takes the concept of revenge and hated, the notion of you’ll pay for that to a frightening extreme. He kills a man for merely wounding him, and he says that he will seek revenge seventy seven times over, against anyone who hurts him. This is the Law of Lamech : ‘… if anyone inflicts pain on me, I will make them pay … if you hurt me, there will be no forgiveness just revenge heaped upon revenge …’. SLIDE 4 Just after this defiant statement of Lamech we read one of the most poignant verses in the whole of the Bible, ‘… the LORD regretted he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled …’

Of course, both you and I would want to distance ourselves from such a position of moral bankruptcy – yet, if I’m honest, certainly there have been times when my actions have shown clearly that my thinking is tinged by Lamech’s law. And for those times when I see myself in some measure taking that path, then I need to hold onto the truth that forgiveness is the core ingredient of God’s personal rescue plan for me, a rescue plan that is only visible in this world if you and I as Christians reveal it. SLIDE 5 God’s primary instruction for us is, as Paul states it in his letter to his friends in Ephesus, ‘… forgiving each other other, just as in Christ, God forgave you …’.

And so it is, that Peter, as our reading in Matthew Ch.18 reveals to us, wants to take on board this radical concept of forgiveness but he needs to know at what point he can give up on it. His reasoning fits in perfectly well with the prevailing thinking of his time. Peter knew the teaching of the Jewish faith, he would have heard the Rabbi in the local synagogue stating the following law, SLIDE 6 ‘… forgive a first offence, forgive a second, and a third, but punish the fourth …’.  So he expands the limit of the Rabbi’s teaching to seven times, but this is so far removed from God’s idea of forgiveness that Jesus gives Peter a figure that is clearly stating that God’s new covenant law is in place to repeal the Law of Lamech, and Jesus reveals forgiveness of a whole new order. Our new life in God is based on the forgiveness of our sins, and that radical truth has to characterise the way we live our lives as Christians.

But the concern behind Peter’s question has been felt by everyone who has ever been hurt. Why should I forgive ? What if the other person doesn’t deserve it ? I might get hurt again. Forgiveness, for Peter and for us, looks like one of those activities that Jesus is always talking about, and it is clearly both morally and spiritually the right thing to do, but how on earth are we to work it out in the real world ?

Firstly then we see that  SLIDE 7

  • Real forgiveness – is choosing not to retaliate

Surely the first stage of forgiveness is the realisation that what Jesus requires from us is that we recognise the futility of inflicting a reciprocal amount of pain on someone who has caused us hurt. Our first reaction when we are hurt is to lash out, to try to push some of our barbed quills under the skin of someone who has pushed their quills into us. But we are called to relinquish our self-perceived right to respond in retaliation.

Such a choice is clearly neither easy or without some measure of personal cost to us. But even if we see forgiveness as a costly and risky venture we need to realise that any cost to us in forgiving others is always to be contrasted and compared with the cost of Calvary. The cost for the repealing of the law of Lamech saw Jesus Christ cruelly nailed to a Roman cross. Jesus’ parable that we have read, highlights the quantum difference between the cost of forgiveness for hurts that have been inflicted on us, pictured by the small debt of the fellow-servant in vs.28, in the light of the big picture, that of the debt that we have been forgiven by God, as pictured by the huge amount in vs.24.

But we need to be clear that letting go of vengeance doesn’t mean letting go of justice. God reconciled His twin natures of justice and love, by his action at Calvary. God’s just anger against the enormity of our sin was focused upon His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And whilst justice is all about fairness, vengeance is by its nature, destructive and insatiable.

SLIDE 8 During the early part of WW2 Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom were arrested by the Nazis for seeking to conceal Jews in their home in occupied Holland. Both of them were sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where, sadly Betsie died as a result of mistreatment by the camp guards. After Corrie’s release following the liberation of the camp towards the end of the war, she toured churches in Germany speaking about forgiveness. Whilst in the basement room of a church in Munich she saw amongst the congregation one of the former guards from the camp. Whilst he didn’t, at first, appear to recognise her, she recognised him, and at the end of the talk he came over to her and held out his hand. He said, “… I am a Christian now and I know God’s forgiveness … but, can you ever forgive me …?”.

SLIDE 9 Corrie Ten Boom writes in her book :  ‘… I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart … but forgiveness is not an emotion – it is an act of will … I prayed “Jesus, help me” … woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the hand of the man in front of me, and as I did so an incredible thing took place … a healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being … I have never known God’s love so intensely as I did then …’

We need to make a careful distinction with regard to forgiveness however, because forgiveness is not being blind to the hurt that has been caused us. Forgiveness faces up to reality and does not minimise the magnitude of a wrong or the extent of its consequences. When we forgive someone we are not denying that something hurtful has taken place. Forgiveness is not a shifting of blame to ourselves where we suppress the facts of the hurt that have been caused us and try to dismiss them as just one of those things, since forgiveness is not trying to find an excuse to explain away someone’s behaviour.

When God forgives He is not looking to make excuses on our behalf, when God forgives He is not blind to what we have done or blind to the extent of the consequences of our behaviour. To do either of those things would not be real forgiveness – but real forgiveness is facing reality, it’s all about making a positive choice to suppress any responses of retaliation, and to see past the hurt and the pain and see the person. That is the amazing nature of God’s forgiveness – who through His mercy and grace is able to look beyond my sinful nature and see His image in me.

SLIDE 10 In the Tapuri language of the Cameroons and Chad, the idea behind the word translated as forgive talks about blowing our insides out. The picture is to do with clearing our hearts of anything that spoils life, in the same way that dust should be blown away as soon as it settles on something. Translating Ephesians Ch.4 vs.32, which we reminded ourselves about earlier as, ‘… forgiving each other, just as in Jesus Christ God forgave you …’, becomes, ‘… blow your insides out for one another. God blows insides out for you with Jesus …’. Jesus Christ changes us from the inside out through the power of His forgiveness and we are called to model His forgiveness one to another.

  • Real forgiveness … choosing not to keep records

SLIDE 11 But there is more that we need to realise about forgiveness. The Bible gives us some amazing pictures to remind us of how God forgives. Psalm 103 talks about God taking the wrong things in our lives and putting an immense distance between then and us. Isaiah Ch.44 has the prophet picturing God’s forgiveness as having our sins, ‘… swept away like the morning mist …’. It’s not a helpful idea though to think of God as forgetting what we have done, because forgetfulness is a human failing. I’m sure each one of us knows something about forgetfulness- I know it’s not a good sign, but I often seek out a work colleague and when I’ve found them forget what I wanted to ask them – maybe I’m in danger of even forgetting that I’m forgetful. But forgetfulness is not part of God’s character, but rather, what surely the Bible is saying to us is that when God forgives He chooses not to keep a record of our sins. The very fact that God has made that choice means that our past sins become irrelevant to the present relationship that we share with Him.

Paul writing to the church in Corinth uses the same idea when he describes love as, ‘… keeping no record of wrongs …’, and that is precisely what true forgiveness does. If we have truly forgiven someone then we can never retrieve a past hurt in order to confront that person with it again and again. I’m guessing all of our relationships would benefit from such forgiveness. How many times have we sought to take away the sting of a present hurt by referring back to something that happened in the past ? Yet, true forgiveness doesn’t allow that – but rather, to use a computing analogy, we have through an act of will, by a clear choice dragged the file marked past hurts and wrongs into the recycle bin on the desktop of our lives, and not just that, but we have selected the empty recycle bin command … and clicked !

And then lastly  SLIDE 12

  • Real forgiveness … choosing freedom not imprisonment

So where does that leave us. Well, put simply, it leaves us free. The amazing gift of forgiveness is freedom. Because, what God has done on my behalf on the cross of Calvary, through the sacrifice of His own Son, has resulted in undeserved freedom for me. When we forgive someone we are granting them freedom, but just as crucially, the one who has been wronged knows freedom too.

Yet sometimes, despite knowing that someone has forgiven us for something we have done wrong we are still unable to forgive ourselves, and we feel a sense of guilt and shame that persists despite forgiveness. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘… I know God forgives me … but I can’t forgive myself …’, maybe that’s what you’re feeling right at this moment in time. You don’t know freedom, despite knowing forgiveness.

Sometimes we can be afraid to forgive ourselves, perhaps because we feel it is not right to be allowed to walk away from a situation, and so we cling to the fear of guilt as if it were something of value. But the fact that we have been forgiven, means that we have been affirmed. There is no room for hating ourselves for something we have done when the person we have hurt has forgiven us and has re-affirmed the value of being in relationship with us. Maybe at times we all struggle with understanding the nature of grace. God’s grace tells us we have received forgiveness as a free undeserved gift. For ages I thought that the parable of the Prodigal Son was unfair. It seemed so unfair to me, that leaving the family home, and having wasted his inheritance, the son just turns up again and simply says I’m sorry, and the father is happy to forgive him. The older brother, you’ll recall, couldn’t understand it, he was bitter and angry at the extent of his father’s forgiveness. Sometimes we are tempted to say it’s not fair that we are forgiven, but the whole point of the good news of the gospel is that it is fair, because the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is enough, and God isn’t looking for anything more.

I think forgiveness is infectious, the more we forgive the more we find the freedom to forgive again. As Christians we have experienced the life giving forgiveness of a God who has taken positive steps towards restoring a broken relationship, a relationship spoilt by our wrongdoing. We too, in response to God’s forgiveness are called to make positive steps towards forgiving one another. These steps are costly, often painful, and they demand hard choices. But the results are life changing.

Being unable to forgive can result in personal imprisonment. The servant in our story discovered that fact. He was unable to transfer the reality of the forgiveness he had been granted into a practical spiritual life skill. Forgiveness brings hope, it lays the foundations of reconciliation, it values a person way in excess of his or her failings and it provides a concrete demonstration of what life is like under the new covenant of God’s forgiveness.

The difficulty inherent in being a porcupine is that a porcupine cannot change its nature. Regardless of how many barbed quills the porcupine has lost in previous battles there are always plenty more – but for us though it ought to be different.

Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives we are being changed into Christ’s likeness. Maybe the change, if you’re anything like me, is imperceptible at times, yet through that life-changing power we are being re-fashioned into the kind of people God wants us to be – people who are called to be salt and light in the world.

Through that process God seeks to replace the barbed quills we all have. Quills of anger, resentment, arrogance, envy, selfishness, hated, and intolerance, are being replaced with love, self-control, humility, contentment, tolerance, gentleness, and peace.

May we all learn to forgive, learn to value one another, and learn that growing more and more like Christ requires our willingness to be forgiving people.

12 stonesRecently I had the privilege of being invited to preach at Eltham Park Baptist Church in SE London on the occasion of their 106th church anniversary. I chose to preach from a passage in Joshua Ch.4, the narrative that recounts the building of a twelve stone monument at Gilgal, constructed at the place where the children of Israel crossed the River Jordan and set foot in the land that God had promised them. The transcript of my sermon is as below and both the reading and the accompanying PPT presentation can be viewed by using the following links.

Reading :  Joshua Ch.4 vs.1-7 & 19-25

PPT :  What do these stones mean ?

SLIDE 1 The reading we have just shared together records for us a very significant moment in the history of the people of Israel. The LORD God had, following the death of Moses, called Joshua to lead the people across the river Jordan in order that they might enter the land that God had promised they would occupy. In the previous chapter the writer records for us the story of that event, a story that came about because of God’s dramatic and miraculous intervention on behalf of His people.

We read these words, SLIDE 2 ‘…when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them … now the Jordan is in flood all during harvest … yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing … so the people crossed over opposite Jericho … the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground …’ (Joshua Ch.3 vs.15-17 partial)

And now, immediately following that event, God instructs Joshua to choose twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to each select a stone in order to build a monument – a memorial to mark the exact place where God’s people had crossed the Jordan and, by so doing, had first set foot in the Promised Land of Canaan.

This morning I’d like for us to spend a few moments thinking about the question that Joshua proposes will be asked by successive future generations when they come across this pile of stones. A simple, yet profound, question – What do these stones mean ? – and we’re going to seek to answer that question by discovering three things about the nature of faith in this story.

Firstly I’d like for us to notice that … SLIDE 3

  • Faith … looks back

One of the key factors that serves to mark out the Christian faith and set it apart from any abstract human philosophical concept is the importance that Christianity places upon recalling and revealing the significance of real-life historical events. Time and time again throughout scripture we discover that God’s people are encouraged to remember, they are told to look back and to recall events from their past, times where God had answered prayer, had revealed His power, and had kept His promises. And that’s true for the verses we have read together this morning, since in order to preserve the story of God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people by the side of the River Jordan, in order to provide a tangible stimulus ensuring the re-telling of that event to future generations – God instructs Joshua to build a memorial of twelve stones. Look again at what we read about the purpose attached to what God was asking Joshua to do, SLIDE 4 – it is, ‘… to serve as a sign among you … these stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel for ever …’ (vs.6-7 partial).

And attaching priority to the historicity of the Christian faith doesn’t stop with the children of Israel because its power is just as vital for us today. SLIDE 5 Paul writing the first of two letters to his friends in Corinth says this, ‘… for what I received I passed on to you as of first importance … that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians Ch.15 vs.3). In other words, Paul deliberately emphasises, as something of, ‘… first importance …’, the great events of the history of God’s dealings with humankind, in this case of course those momentous events concerning God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that in any discussions we might have with those who we may seek to tell about our faith, whilst our own experiences of God are vital elements in the story we have to tell, our story loses all impact unless we reveal it to be a single strand interwoven into a much wider story, the great tapestry of history, the meta-narrative of God’s interaction with humankind – a story that goes back through history, back past Joshua and for many generations before him – the story, that from eternity past is, in reality, always pointing forward towards the person and work of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 6 The theologian and writer Colin Brown talking about why we ought to look back says this, ‘… if we reflect on the character of the Bible it’s not a kind of promise box but in fact it is full of arguments and demonstrations and appeals to history …’

One of the main reasons that we need to have a clear understanding about the place of our faith within the unfolding history of God’s intention for humanity, is that in this post-modern society in which we live there is a natural aversion to anything that links together knowing and believing, or truth and personal faith.

Post-modernist thought insists that searching for truth is a useless quest because every individual looks upon things from their own perspective. Belief is reduced to the mantra that, ‘… if it works for me it must be true and therefore I believe it …’. Truth and belief, to the post-modern mind, are never absolute but at best only subjective. But the Bible tells us something different because when we recognise the Sovereignty of God and when we ascribe our existence to His authorship, then we see our place within the cosmos, then we discover that the whole revealed story of the Bible gives purpose and design for life. As we look back in faith we find solid building blocks on which to build our lives since in so doing, we discover God’s character to be one of total dependability.

And this morning, on this Anniversary Sunday, we are being encouraged to look back and recall God’s faithfulness to many generations of worshippers, who over 106 years have met here in this church. And it’s right that we should do so since, like the foundation stones upon which this building rests, our faith is built on rock solid foundations – the secure knowledge of what God has done throughout history.

But not only does faith look back but secondly I’d like you to notice from our story that … SLIDE 7

  • Faith looks up …

As we learned earlier when we looked at those images, memorials and monuments point beyond themselves – they are signs revealing a far deeper significance than the mere physicality of their construction. And the same is true for the pile of stones by the Jordan that we have read about, since not only would this monument serve to remind the people of a past event, but also more importantly, the stones reminded them of God. It was God who had chosen them and had made a special covenant with them, it was God who through his power had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and it was God who had led them through the desert, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Look again at the verses towards the end of Ch.4 and just see how many times the writer emphasises that fact. The stones are there as a reminder to the people to look up in faith, to focus again on God’s care, God’s power and God’s faithfulness. And we know that in the flow of the story of God’s people from this point forward that time and time again they did just that. They returned to Gilgal and to these twelve stones to re-connect with God afresh.

And that’s why holding an anniversary service like this one is important today. But its importance is not found in the physical stones of this building but rather it’s found in the God whose faithfulness this building, this monument, points towards. And our faith, both as individuals and corporately as a faith community is strengthened and encouraged by looking back and looking up.

Our passage reveals three things that become our focus when we look up in faith to God. Firstly … SLIDE 8

  • Looking up … reveals our GRATITUDE

I’m sure that whenever the people returned to Gilgal and saw again those twelve stones they would have been reminded of God’s goodness and of His care and surely they would thank God for what He had done for them. And similarly I’m sure that if I was to speak with any of you here this morning you’d be able to look back on certain events in the history of this church, or recall certain people who for you have been influential in your spiritual journey, and just recalling them – doesn’t it trigger again a sense of gratitude to God ?

One of the ways that we as a church together can regularly look up to God in gratitude is through sharing communion. The very act of communion is a witness to past events that encourages us to look up now. It’s a regular visual reminder that Jesus’ death and resurrection are not simply facts to be consigned to the pages of history but rather they are the basis of our forgiveness today, as well as the basis of our unity, one with another, and the basis of our hope for the future.

I wonder how many of you have in your wallet a picture of one or more of your family members. You know of course that a picture of someone isn’t of itself anywhere near as important as the actual person and that having a picture in your wallet is nothing like the experience of having a loved one with you in person. But the example is similar for symbols like communion in as much as it reminds us of what really matters. The photo reminds us of someone we really care about, it reminds us of a relationship we enjoy and, when we share communion we are, once more, overwhelmingly grateful to God for what He has done for us through the vicarious death of His Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary.

SLIDE 9 Dale Ralph Davis who writes extensively on the OT remarks in one of his books, The Word Became Fresh, that, ‘… the greatest enemy of the Christian faith is forgetfulness …’

But not only are we reminded to look up in gratitude but also we are reminded that … SLIDE 10

  • Looking up … renews our TRUST

In the final verse of Ch.4 we read these words, ‘… God did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God …’ (Joshua Ch.4 vs.24). These stones, marking as they did the events described in Ch.3, became reminders to the people of God’s power, a power that evoked a reverential fear of God. Today’s evangelical spirituality doesn’t tend to dwell much upon the issue of Godly fear, but we ought never to forget that God is a Holy God. To fear God doesn’t mean we are scared of Him, and neither are we to understand this fear as a cringing, cowering type of fear but rather it means the realisation that in both our understanding and our worship it is necessary to have a proper sense of awe and reverence that honours God, recognising who He is. Such a holy fear draws from God’s people a wholehearted loyalty. The people knew they could trust God because He had demonstrated His power on their behalf and had brought them into the Promised Land. These stones speak about a God who can be trusted.

Over the past couple of weeks the issue of trust has been headline news in the media as stories of the abuse of the expenses systems for our elected MPs have continued to make the headlines. I’m reminded of the story about a Danish comedian, Jacob Haugaard, who decided to stand for election to the Danish parliament. He had a very interesting set of manifesto promises on which he based his campaign. He promised, better weather, a following wind for all cyclists and shorter queues at checkouts in supermarkets. At election time Haugaard attracted 24,000 votes and was duly elected to represent his constituency in the national parliament. Haugaard was interviewed soon after the election and he confessed that his whole campaign had been a practical joke. SLIDE 11 When asked by the interviewer why he thought people had voted for him he said, ‘… I can only assume that people voted for me because they thought my election promises were as likely to happen as those promises made by other candidates from more conventional political parties …’

Yet these stone spoke eloquently of a God who could be trusted a God who keeps His promises. And it’s surely the same for us as we look back over our lives, as we think back over the many years that this church building has stood, as we think back over the centuries back to the cross at Calvary we are reminded that God has rescued us and that the very act of remembrance draws from us a renewed desire to trust Him for today and for the future.

The third thing that we learn is that … SLIDE 12

  • Looking up … refreshes our WITNESS

Intriguingly from our passage we notice that not only were the stones to be a reminder to the people of Israel of God’s covenant relationship with them and all the benefits that brought, but also these stones provided a witness to God’s power to those outside of the covenant community. Joshua makes that clear in the final verse of Ch.4, a verse that forms a bridge into Ch.5. SLIDE 13 The verses when read together say this, ‘… God did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God … now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites …’ (Joshua Ch.4 vs.24 to Ch.5 vs.1).

It wasn’t just the people of God that bore witness to God’s power but other nations could see for themselves the character of the God the people of Israel served. The same was true for the NT church as well. Luke writes at the end of Acts Ch.2, in a section describing the activity of the fledgling church in Jerusalem that, SLIDE 14 ‘… every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts … they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people …’ (Acts Ch.2 vs.46-47a). The people around saw what God was doing in these new communities and it was to prove to be a positive witness.

The same is true for the church that has met in this building for 106 years. As successive generations have looked in from the outside they have seen something for themselves of the character of God through the activity of the people of God. And through all of your continued passion, to be the kind of community that reflects God’s love and care for those around and about this neighbourhood may it continue to be true that those outside will get to encounter God for themselves through your witness.

Then lastly, not only does faith look back to remember the solid foundations upon which it is built, not only does faith look up recognising the character of God, but also … SLIDE 15

  • Faith … looks forward

I guess in general terms memorials, monuments and anniversaries can have one of two effects. They can either bind people to the past or they can encourage people forward into the future. Earlier we reminded ourselves of the important fact that faith looks back – and whilst that’s true and necessary, for the reasons we discussed, there is a problem if we are only ever looking backwards. If we’re not careful there is the danger of becoming so committed to tradition that it’s possible to enter a form of institutional maintenance rather than a wholehearted dedication to the mission of God, which is always moving forward.

David Watson tells, in one of his books, of a visit he made to a church one Sunday. He was greeted at the door by the Church Warden and as the conversation developed Watson realised that this man had clearly been at the church for some years. So he asked him, ‘… how long have you been working here at this church ? …’, and the man replied, ‘… over fifty years …’, Watson replied, ‘… that’s fantastic, you must have seen many changes in this church over those fifty years …’, to which the man replied, ‘… yes, I have, and I’ve resisted every single one of them …’.

Whilst the monument of twelve stones that Joshua was instructed by God to build at Gilgal did have, as part of it’s significance this idea of looking back, the reality of the story for the people of Israel was that the great battles of Jericho and Ai were all in the future. The task of occupying the Promised Land, the ground upon which they now stood for the first time, was going to be extremely demanding. If you know anything of the continuing story of the book of Joshua you will be aware that Gilgal became a special place for the people, a place they returned to time and time again. But Gilgal wasn’t to become a place that rooted the people in the past, but rather, it was a place that acted as an encouragement to move forward again, with God. These twelve stones weren’t millstones, that held the people of Israel back, but rather, they were stepping stones that propelled them forward.

So the twelve stones didn’t just speak about what God had done in the past but they also reminded the people of what He had promised to do for them in future. And there’s an important lesson for all of us to understand this morning because whilst in an anniversary service like this one we would want to say thank-you to God for the good things that He has done in building and preserving a Christian witness in this place over 106 years we must never allow ourselves the luxury of complacency. The longer I’ve been travelling on the Christian path, the more I’m convinced that God isn’t so much concerned about where I’ve been as He is about where I’m going.

Let’s finish this morning by reminding ourselves of a well-known NT passage which I trust we can all appropriate for ourselves, whether as individuals, or corporately, as a church as it moves forward into its 107th year. SLIDE 16 Paul writes these words to encourage his fellow-believers to keep on keeping on, ‘… I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead … not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … brothers and sisters I’d not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it … but one thing I do … forgetting what is behind (that is, his failures) and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus …’ (Philippians Ch.3 vs.10-14)

May we continue to look back in faith to see what God has done for us, may we look up and see God afresh and alive in every aspect of our lives and may we both look and move forward both as individuals and corporately as a community of faith here in this place.

A Certain Rumour coverSometimes you just need to be reminded of the basics of the Christian message of hope – no detailed evaluations, leading questions or intellectual dissection, just simply a reminder of the hope that our faith in Jesus Christ brings, regardless of circumstance. If you’re tired of the demands of your life, frustrated by the tyranny of routine and weary of the overworked inlellectualised debates on issues of faith, then it’s probably time to take a step back, lift your gaze from the ground around you and look up.

In A Certain Rumour Russell Rook expounds upon the theme of hope, as seen through the eyes of Cleopas as he journeys, along with his companion, to Emmaus shortly after the events of the first Easter.

Luke Ch.24 vs.13-35 is a relatively small portion of scripture to base a whole book on, but Rook has put a great deal of thought into it’s importance and meaning. The passage is shown to be not merely a narrative describing a physical journey that leads to the enlightenment of a few disciples of the early church, but rather, more importantly, it should be viewed as representative of the faith journey of all Christians as they travel from death to life. Furthermore, this short story is shown to be a summary of humankind’s metanarrative and of God’s ultimate plan for redemption.

Each chapter of Rook’s book mirrors the series of events recounted in Luke. Starting by looking at Jesus Christ’s death; then moving onto the possibility of life after death in the rumours of Jesus’ resurrection. The stranger on this journey to Emmaus responds to Cleopas’ distress by taking him and his companion on a journey through the ages, and the chapters follow suit – looking at God’s hope for humankind from creation through the exodus. Finally we see the breaking of bread and the hope mitigated through fellowship and through that we are drawn to see our future hope as members of His body, the church.

The Christian faith is about hope – both God’s hope for us, his children, and His hope for the world in which He has placed us. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us appears to be in danger of tumbling down and yet, too often, hope becomes buried in the munadities of life or lost under a stack of papers. Rook invites us to encourage the presence of this eternal hope amid the multiplicilty of daily details.

Stylistically A Certain Rumour is very readable with lots of stories for the journey and little, if any, confusing technical language. Rooks writing moves effortlessly from readable anecdotes through to thoughtful theological insights completely seemlesly. But don’t be fooled by it’s engaging simplicity into thinking that there’s no depth of insight because there is, an incredible amount, and it’s certain a book I’ll be turning to again and again.

2009-spring-harvest-a4-poster-1Just back from an inspirational and relaxing break over the Easter weekend at  Spring Harvest (Minehead – Week 2) with a small selection of new books to read …

I’ll try and find the time to read and review them over the next few weeks, but here’s the list just in case you’re interested …

  • Title :  Just Imagine
  • Author :  Danielle Strickland
  • Publisher :  Spring Harvest
  • Title :  A Certain Rumour
  • Author :  Russell Rook
  • Publisher :  Authentic Media

angerHere’s another sermon transcript from the Seven Deadly Sins sermon series preached at Belmont Chapel last year sometime. If you’d like to view the PowerPoint slides that accompanied my talk then you can find them by following this link …

PPT : Seven Deadly Sins – anger

(SLIDE 1) If you’ve been a regular here at Belmont Chapel over the past few Sunday evenings you will know that we have been working together through a series of talks grouped under the title Seven Deadly Sins. (SLIDE 2) This evening we’re going to tackle the third on the list of these seven aspects of character that exemplify and typify humanities sinfulness – and so its anger that we going to spend time thinking about this evening.

(SLIDE 3) One of the resources we’ve been recommending throughout this series is a recent book written by Graham Tomlin entitled The Seven Deadly Sins : And How To Overcome Them, and it’s from that book that I quoted in the introduction to this series a few Sunday’s ago and I’d like to remind you of how Tomlin concisely describes sin – he puts it like this, (SLIDE 4) “… sins are destructive habits … they are patterns of life which if we let them take control of us, will unravel all that is good in our lives, and will lead us to destroy everything around us …” (Pg.11)

So, with those thoughts fixed firmly at the front of our minds lets jump right in and consider the nature and scope of anger as well as thinking about how we can handle anger correctly in our lives day by day.

I think there is the distinct possibility that for some people there is a secret enjoyment in moments of anger. After all, to be in that moment is to feel powerful, to feel in control, and to feel absolutely in the right. Maybe the enjoyment of that moment is for others not an altogether secret one because they view anger as normal and natural, and when others complain about their emotional outbursts they attribute their behaviour as being part of who they are and so their simple advise to others is to back off.

(SLIDE 5) It’s true of course that our society notices angry people : recently in a readers poll sponsored by a TV magazine viewers voted the Michelin starred chef Gordon Ramsey to head up the list of TV’s angriest people mainly because of his outbursts of fury on his TV show Hell’s Kitchen. But not only are angry people noticed but our society also holds a fascination with the destructive power of anger : (SLIDE 6) Zinedine Zidane’s infamous unprovoked head-butt to the chest of Italian Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final was a moment that many football pundits commented was ruinous to his reputation and left an irremovable scar on an otherwise brilliant career. (SLIDE 7) Increasingly too anger is being associated with ill health. Ruth Ostrow an Australian newspaper columnist and life coach wrote recently, “… anger is worse for our immunity and wellbeing than anything we can ingest … it is internally and spiritually corrosive …”

(SLIDE 8) So what are we to make of anger ? Are we to view all anger as destructive and every expression of it evil ? Should we internalise our anger and never give it room to vent ? Should we remain ambivalent about anger, knowing that whilst we might be strangely drawn to it’s power, we are also violently reactive against it’s excesses, or, should we have a constructive view and take a look at what the Bible has to say to us ?

(SLIDE 9) Let’s read together a few verses from Matthew’s account of the life and teaching of Jesus verses that form part of the section that we commonly title the Sermon on the Mount. If you’d like to follow the reading you’ll find a church Bible on the rack of the seat in front of you and we’re going to read from Matthew Ch.5 starting at vs.21 which you will find on Page 917.

Read : Matthew Ch.5 vs.21-26

Anger, of course, is an emotion; it is a natural passion that alters us physically. Anger triggers a whole range of physiological changes within us. Adrenalin is released, hunger is dissipated, we experience clearer and better focus definition in our vision, the supply of the male hormone testosterone is increased and glucose is released from the liver – all, it could be argued, with positive affect.

(SLIDE 10) Martin Luther, the great reformer, famously commented that, “… when I am angry I can write, pray and preach well, for it is then that my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened and all mundane vexations and temptations depart …”

So is anger always wrong, or is there such a thing as constructive anger ?

Let’s take a look at what our passage in Matthew Ch.5 has to say to us and see what can we learn from what Jesus has to teach His followers on this subject ?

Let’s consider and develop too straightforward questions that need addressing when we start to feel angry …

(SLIDE 11)

  • Why am I feeling angry …?
  • THINK … what is the real cause …?

Look again at vs.22, near the beginning of the passage we read together, and now glance down to the bottom of the page and read the footnote corresponding to the letter b in the main text. If we now re-read the verse, taking into account this footnote, we get the following, (SLIDE 12) “… I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister without cause will be subject to judgement …”. This translation, whilst not based on the wording in all of the earliest manuscripts, does makes consistent sense in the light of all that we know to be evidenced from scripture about anger. The Bible gives us almost 600 references concerning God’s anger and we know from the gospel records that Jesus Himself got angry – so it’s clear that not all anger is sinful. When we speak about anger in relation to God we discover it to be His personal reaction against sin, and as such, it’s a component part of His love. Now it’s important that we get that idea right since God’s love and God’s wrath – his anger, aren’t separate components of God’s character but rather they are inextricably entwined together. We know that’s true because we never read that God is wrath, or God is anger, but rather, of course, we do read that God IS love – so anger is an expression of God’s love.

(SLIDE 13) The writer and theologian C.S. Lewis puts it like this, “… such an anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it …”.

That means, of course, that our capacity for anger is one of God’s good gifts and it’s not contrary to love but rather it’s complimentary of it. So then, if we consider anger within its right framework, could it be that we have reason to ask ourselves if we get angry enough. We live in a world that is distorted and twisted by injustice and sinfulness. God’s loving reaction to what He sees in our world is a righteous anger – an anger that comes as a direct and appropriate expression of His love. But does that kind of anger characterise my reaction to sin ? Unfortunately, so often, the answer is no ; since my reaction often reveals a detached complacency derived from a poorly considered notion of the need to be tolerant – I simply shrug my shoulders and accept the sin I see around me, and within me, as an inevitable result of being part of a fallen humanity.

As is so often the case, what sin does is it takes something that is good – in the case of anger, that appropriate outrage against evil and injustice – and it twists it into something distorted and destructive. (SLIDE 14) The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “… anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy …”. And so it’s clear that there is a difference between correctly focused anger and anger that is simply misplaced and misused, there is both rational and irrational anger, constructive and destructive anger, and the dividing line between the two lies in the understanding of the cause.

How often do we justify our anger by comparing our response to a given situation with the response being made by others around us, and giving no thought as to the cause ? How often do we allow our own ego to be bound up in our anger – where selfishness becomes the driver – and consideration of cause becomes irrelevant because our anger is all about us ?

Jesus Himself, as we’d expect of course, provides for us the supreme example since if we look at the recorded instances of Jesus’ anger we discover that it is always directed against sin and focused against unjust situations in which others are suffering. Nowhere do we find Jesus’ own ego wrapped up in His anger – when He was arrested, unfairly tried, exploited, oppressed, hurt, rejected and eventually crucified He didn’t say, “… I have a right to be angry …”, but rather He said, “… Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing …” (Luke Ch.23 vs.34)

(SLIDE 15)

  • What should I do with my feelings of anger …?
  • PAUSE what is the right action to take

Two of the characteristics of God’s anger are that it is consistently applied and it is never hasty delivered. The writer of the book of Numbers records these words, “… the LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion …” (Numbers Ch.14 vs.18). And such a measured response is in such stark contrast to other passages of scripture that warn against impetuous, hot-headed, self-righteous out bursts. (SLIDE 16) The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes says, “… do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, because anger resides in the lap of fools …”, and the writer of Proverbs says these words, “… do not make friends with the hot-tempered, do not associate with those who are easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared …” (Proverbs Ch.22 vs.24). Unfortunately of course we can have the tendency to move from the position of mildly annoyed to the position of fuming rage in one giant leap without any consideration of the steps in between, but rather we should follow the example of any of NASA’s shuttle launches, where there is always a lengthy countdown, during which vital checks are made, before ever blast-off occurs …!

The truth is that when we sense that building of anger within us we are required to take a step back and carefully consider what we are about to commit ourselves to. (SLIDE 17) When faced with the injustice of unfair taxes being imposed upon his fellow Jews we read that Nehemiah’s response was this, “… when I heard their outcry and their charges I was very angry … I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and the officials …” (Nehemiah Ch.5 vs.6-7).

Even Jesus Himself took time out to consider how to react. In John’s gospel we read of Jesus finding the temple courts over-run with inappropriate and unjust commerce, and whilst He may not have counted to ten, John records that Jesus did pause long enough in order to braid together a knotted cord before scattering the coins of the money changers and overturning their tables; “… get these out of here …”, he said, “… how dare you turn my father’s house into a market …” (John Ch.2 vs.16). Paul writes to his friends in Ephesus, “… in your anger … do not sin …” (Ephesians Ch.4 vs.26)

Jesus, in the passage we read together reminds his hearers that an ill-considered response to feelings of anger often leads to badly chosen words and the real possibility of actions that will lead to seriously damaging outcomes. Look again at what we read, “… I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister without cause will be subject to judgement … again … anyone who says “Raca” is answerable to the Sanhedrin … and anyone who says, “You fool” will be in danger of the fire of hell …” (Matthew Ch.5 vs.22-23). Surely the point that Jesus is making is that words of abuse are very powerful and they can be extremely damaging to the user and very damaging to the quality of relationship we share one with another. The whole thrust of the thinking here is that ill-chosen words are steps on a journey towards ill-judged actions, in just the same way that anger is a step on the journey towards murder.

We have to be careful here to understand that Jesus isn’t condemning the action of loving confrontation where we might step in, quite forcibly at times, in order to tell the truth about a particular situation that needs to be addressed, a situation, for instance, where telling the truth is most certainly preferable to an artificial and unsustainable peace, and where confrontation is necessary in order to correct a wrong that will lead to harm But rather Jesus is warning against us acting out of anger, the kind that usually stems from us feeling hurt or aggrieved, the kind of anger that has lost sight of proper cause and takes the immediate route to retaliation and insult – the kind of anger that loses all perspective and seeks to dismiss the image of God that is inherent in all individuals.

(SLIDE 18) The writer to the Proverbs again has valuable advice, “… a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger …” (Proverbs Ch.15 vs.1).

James, from the letter we’ve been looking at together during our Sunday morning teaching series here at Belmont Chapel has something to add when he writes, “… take note of this … everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry … because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires …” (James Ch.1 vs.19b-20)

But, whilst scripture warns us about over-reacting and speaking without thinking through violent, inappropriate outbursts we are encouraged to deal with our anger quickly through the twin routes of forgiveness and reconciliation. (SLIDE 19) The remainder of the verse in Ephesians Ch.4 follows the words, “… in your anger … do not sin …”, with these words, “… do not let the sun go down whilst you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold …” (Ephesians Ch.4 vs.26-27) – because resentment builds over time which in turn enrages a simmering anger that can explode at any time. Don’t let things get out of hand say Jesus in Matthew Ch.5, “… settle matters quickly … go and be reconciled to that person …”

(SLIDE 20) May God continue to work in us, through the power of His Holy Spirit that increasingly we may become more and more like Jesus Christ. May we, when faced with rising anger, consider the cause and be resolved to stop long enough to ensure our response is appropriate. But yet, when faced with injustice and sin let’s resolve to ask God to remove any complacency we may harbour so that we might be affective in standing up and defending the One who came and died for us, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

(SLIDE 21) Take a look at this slide – this is what the Spirit is doing in your life and mine if we continue to let Him have space to move and work, all of these things on the LH side fuel and fan anger within our lives – but God is looking to change us from the inside out.

Indifference replaced with love

Contempt replaced with respect

Frustration replaced with patience

Envy replaced with acceptance

Resentment replaced with forgiveness

Revenge replaced with reconciliation

Let’s make it our aim that as individuals and corporately as a church here we may continue to see tangible evidences of these transformations taking place …

If you were here for the first of this series I finished with a quote from Don Carson concerning possible attitudes towards sin and godliness, and it’s with this same quotation that I’ll finish this evening.

(SLIDE 22) “… people do not drift towards holiness … apart from grace-given effort people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to scripture, faith, and delight in God … but rather we drift towards compromise and call it tolerance … towards disobedience and call it freedom … towards superstition and call it faith … we cherish the indiscipline of lost self control and call it relaxation … we slouch towards prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism … we slide towards godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated …”

despairJust the other day I was asked about the unforgivable sin, so here are a few thoughts by way of response. The verses in question appear in Matthew Ch.12 where Jesus says …

“… and so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven … anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come …” (Matthew Ch.12 vs.31-32)

For obvious reasons this has been a verse that has caused many a Christian significant unease. So many words come out of our mouths each day; so many of them are ill-considered. I’m bound to have said something stupid about the Holy Spirit at some point. Assuming I have, this would seem to mean its curtains for me. This – and Jesus is clear here – is unforgivable.

Firstly, we need to think about the context. Quoted in isolation (as above), this verse is very stark indeed. But Jesus didn’t suddenly announce it one day in a historical vacuum: it flows out of what has just been happening. And what has just been happening is rejection of his message.

Rewind to a few verses before the passage. Jesus has healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute (told with enormous economy in verse 22). The people are amazed (vs.23); the Pharisees less so, saying: “… it is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons …” (vs.24)

Their claim is simple: Jesus’ power is Satanic. His control of these demons indicates (so they say) that he has significant ranking in the demonic hierarchy. His authority comes from being higher up the ladder than the demons. The Pharisees don’t deny the miracle has taken place; they are forced to account for it as an expression of satanic power.

Jesus takes them to task in the next verses. The size and effect of his power indicates he is stronger than Satan. He is robbing the strong man of his possessions: people. The New Testament describes Christians as those who have been, “… rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought… into the kingdom of the Son …”. This all comes by through Jesus’ death, by which we have “… redemption, the forgiveness of sins …” (Colossians Ch.1 vs.14).

It helps to remember that in the Bible the devil is often called the accuser and his trump card is our sin; it is his boast and claim on us. Through the cross Jesus pays for our sin and provides forgiveness, and so Satan is plundered. He has no claim over us any more.

This cross-work is anticipated by Jesus when he describes himself as the binder of Satan (Matthew Ch.12 vs.29), and previewed by the deliverance of the demon-possessed man. It is this work of Jesus that the Pharisees attribute to Satan himself. Jesus is destroying the work of the devil and the Pharisees call this evil. They were not the last to describe Jesus’ means of binding Satan immoral. It is in this context that Jesus warns of the unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Spirit.

We need to understand the significance of the Spirit to Jesus’ ministry. By the Spirit Jesus is bringing the kingdom of God (vs.28). By the Spirit Jesus was led to the wilderness to confront Satan (Matthew Ch.4 vs.1). By the Spirit Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross (Hebrews Ch.9 vs.14). By the Spirit we are able to see the truth of all this (John Ch.16 vs.13).

Blasphemy of the Spirit, I take it, is therefore the ongoing refusal to see the goodness of Jesus’ work in defeating the Devil. It is blasphemy against the Spirit because it is by the Spirit Jesus does this work. It is unforgivable because it is a rejection of the only means by which we can be forgiven in the first place. It is the spiritual equivalent of sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.

Three things follow:

  • The person who worries that they might have committed this sin almost by definition has nothing to worry about. The concern that you might have out-sinned the forgiving death of Jesus is not one that would be shared by someone who regards that death as immoral.
  • If you were blaspheming or had blasphemed the Spirit, you would not be worried about it.
  • Whatever you have done that you are worried about – look again at the first half of verse 31, “… every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men …”

wall-streetI promised to post the transcript of another sermon in the Seven Deadly Sins series, so here it is. If you’d like to follow the PPT presentation that accompanied the sermon below then please follow this link …

PPT : Seven Deadly Sins – greed

(SLIDE 1) If you’ve been here at Belmont Chapel over the past few Sunday evenings you will know that we have been working through a number of talks grouped together under the series title Seven Deadly Sins. (SLIDE 2) This evening we’re going to tackle the sixth on this list of seven aspects of character that exemplify and typify humanities sinfulness – which means that its greed that we going to focus on this evening.

(SLIDE 3) Oliver Stone, the screenwriter and director, in his 1987 film Wall Street gave film-goers, the world over, the chance to glimpse the somewhat impenetrable world of stock market trading that beats at the financial heart of corporate America. The film’s plot revolves around the character of Gordon Gekko, a wealthy but unscrupulous corporate raider, portrayed by Michael Douglas. And in one, now oft quoted speech, given to a group of fellow stock brokers, Gekko vigorously defends the style of trading that he adopts. He says, SLIDE 4 ‘… greed is good … greed is right … greed works … greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit … greed in all its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind …’.

And whilst we might flinch from such a forthright and uncompromising mantra for living we do however find ourselves in a society that in the majority condones and encourages personal and societal greed. For many people greed could hardly be classified as a sin, let alone a deadly one.

(SLIDE 5) The psychologist Dorothy Rowe puts it like this, ‘… deploring greed and its effects is a treasured occupation for those who like to feel virtuous … doing it is about as useful as deploring the fact we need air to breathe … I think the only way to give up being greedy is to die …’

Yet, in stark contrast, in the chapter on greed from Graham Tomlin’s book, The Seven Deadly Sins : and how to overcome them, the book we’ve been recommending to be read alongside this series, we find the author quoting Thomas Aquinas, the 11th century monastic theologian, who wrote this, (SLIDE 6) ‘… greed is a sin directly against ones neighbour … since one man cannot over-abound in external riches without another man lacking them … it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things…’.

So, in the face of these quite contradictory statements how are we best to consider greed and especially the greed that accompanies the misuse of money and possessions ?

In order to provide some shape to our thinking this evening we’re going to read together from Luke’s gospel – a passage in which we find Jesus responding to a request to arbitrate in a personal matter of financial inheritance. Jesus replies, as he often does, with a parable. (SLIDE 7) The reading is found on Page 986 in the church Bible, a copy of which you can find on the rack of the seat in front of you, and we’ll start reading from vs.13 of Luke Ch.12.

READ : Luke Ch.12 vs.13 to 21

It’s interesting to notice the context into which Jesus interjects this parable since it comes as a response to an interruption from someone in the crowd that, as we learn from the beginning of the chapter, had gathered to hear Him teaching His disciples. The topic of this particular teaching session revolves around the need to be God centred and God focused in everyday living. So clearly the man who interrupts in vs.12 hasn’t been listening carefully, because if he had he would have recognised that his question to Jesus was quite out of sync with Jesus’ teaching. Of course, it’s true that Rabbi’s were routinely petitioned to arbitrate in domestic disputes but Jesus looks past the detail of the dispute in order to talk about a much broader principle – a principle that finds its focus in vs.21, ‘… this is how it will be for those that store up things for themselves but are not rich towards God …’ (Luke Ch.12 vs.21).

We’re going to focus our thoughts this evening around two simple statements that I trust will help us shed some light on the nature of greed and it’s consequences as well as hopefully helping us to look again at some counteractive measures – things that we can take on board and utilise day-by-day.

Here’s the first statement … (SLIDE 8)

1. Greed means … we become get-centred rather than give-centred

If you were here two Sunday’s ago you may recall that when looking at the subject of gluttony we read some verses from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it’s from that same book that I’d like to quote again. The writer of the book, the teacher, says this in Ch.5, ‘… those who love money never have enough … those who love wealth are never satisfied with their income … this too is meaningless …’ (Ecc. Ch.5 vs.10). The word meaningless in Ecclesiastes has everything to do with frustration and futility and the failure of something to achieve genuine satisfaction. And yet despite the warnings, we see all around us clear evidence of an impulse to possessively and selfishly pull in towards ourselves those things that in reality we should be sharing.

The very nature of the society in which we live tends to have a bias towards getting rather than giving and we see evidence of it in the consumerist outlook on life.

Consumerism is simply the advocacy of a high rate of consumption and spending as being the only means to achieve economic stability, and it encourages overspending and high debt amongst individuals. It’s probably fair to say that in our diverse and shrinking commercial world, that consumerism is the religion of the twenty-first century and it’s the major player in the globalisation process that reaches into every corner of our world. Never before have we had such a wide breadth of consumer choice, choice about what to purchase, when to purchase it, and crucially, when to pay for it. And there is an implicit use it and discard it tag on virtually everything we buy, and the consumerist fuelled desire for newer and better things threatens constantly to drive us towards greed.

Let me stop there for a moment and just pose a few questions for you to consider. What are the ‘must haves’ for my life ? What are the things that I greedily hold onto in a futile belief that they provide security and status for my existence ? What is it that I’m determined to possess ?

(SLIDE 9) One of the saddest life stories of the twentieth century is the story of Howard Hughes – writing about his life for Leadership magazine, Bill Hybels says this about Hughes, ‘… all he ever really wanted in life was more … he wanted more money, so he worked tirelessly building up his business portfolio … he wanted more fame, so he moved to Hollywood and became a filmmaker … he wanted more sensual pleasure, so he paid out handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge … he wanted more thrills, so he designed and built the fastest aircraft in the world … he wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favours with two U.S. presidents … (SLIDE 10) he was absolutely convinced that more would bring satisfaction … unfortunately history shows otherwise … since Hughes concluded his life emaciated, colourless, drug addicted and a eccentric recluse … Howard Hughes died believing the myth of more … he died, insane by all reasonable standards …’ (Bill Hybels – Leadership, Vol. X #3 – 1989).

(SLIDE 11) The consequence of being get-centred rather than give-centred is that we are in danger of destroying the relationships we share one with another. Those words of Thomas Aquinas again, ‘… greed is a sin directly against ones neighbour … since one man cannot over-abound in external riches without another man lacking them …’. The rich landowner in Jesus’ parable saw the provision of an abundant harvest as being an opportunity for him to please himself, and we have only to notice the amount of times he mentions the personal pronoun I to see clearly that he had little or no thought for others. So, just before we move onto the second statement we’re going to consider, it’s worth pausing to think about what the Bible has to say by way of an antidote for this get-centred disease.

As we look into scripture we soon discover that much of what it teaches – whether through God’s dealing with his people in the OT, or through Jesus’ teaching worked out in the NT – is often counter-culturally orientated. It routinely focuses away from the accepted norm of the society in which God’s people find themselves living. And two principles that we find taught and practiced have, I’m sure, something to say on the subject of being give-centred rather than get-centred.

In the OT book of Leviticus we discover details of the remarkable concept of jubilee. We read there that every fifty years the Israelites, commanded by God, were to free slaves, cancel debts, return land to their owners and allow a period of rest for the countryside. These radical actions were, in part of course, a graphic and costly reminder to the people that all they had was, in reality, only theirs to hold because it had been granted to them in trust from a generous God. (SLIDE 12) The Psalmist understood where true ownership rights resided only too well, when he wrote, ‘… the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it …’ (Psalm 24 vs.1), and despite whatever your views on the politics of Margaret Thatcher she certainly got this right when she commented, ‘… no generation has a freehold on this earth … all we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease …’. The year of jubilee helped to address the extremes of wealth and poverty inherent in society and it was a searching spiritual and profound social event, helping the poorer members of the community to find a new start. The parables of Jesus contain jubilee concepts too, not least the ones referring to release from debt and stories talking about the redistribution of goods to the poor. And of course, Jesus Himself came to proclaim the ultimate year of jubilee – sins forgiven and salvation through faith in His death and resurrection.

Now you may be forgiven for thinking that the jubilee concept does, at first glance at least, have little or no relevance for us today as individuals, and yet I believe it’s important that we routinely take stock of our attitudes towards getting and giving and in doing so it’s important that we consider taking on board radical steps to re-appraise what we do in the light of God’s grace. Realising the potential for jubilee in our lives is different but complimentary to another Biblical concept, that of tithing – and whilst both shouldn’t be mechanistically and remotely applied in our lives, both can make a dramatic difference towards combating greed. When was the last time I stopped to consider what my attitude towards money and possessions reveal about my priorities and about my relationships with others ? Is it time for a radical shake-up such that jubilee type effects can bear fruit in my life to counteract any tendency I might have towards greed ?

The other idea that scripture offers as an antidote comes through understanding the ideas contained within the NT word fellowship. This word has many dimensions, including partnership, joint participation, communion and community. Its root meaning is commonness, as in when we share communion together, for example, where it refers to the joint participation we share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But the word fellowship also has an economic side to it too, that sense of practical sharing one with another, the sharing of resources and finances. Such an ideal was the hallmark of the NT church, SLIDE 13 Luke writes in Acts, ‘… they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer …’ (Acts Ch.2 vs.42). Such mutuality, in the kind of attitude we see to money and possessions in the NT, is very radical and it reveals the essence of jubilee.

We’d be short-sighted however to merely encourage this kind of mutuality amongst ourselves, since fellowship in a broader sense is wonderfully productive in building relationships with those aren’t yet Christians. The gift of hospitality and the opening up of our homes to evangelistic use is a expansion of this same idea.

Secondly from Jesus’ parable we learn this … (SLIDE 14)

2. Greed means … we become self-centred rather than God-centred

And here is the second problem that Jesus highlights in his parable, since not only does greed harm our relationships with one another but also greed destroys our relationship with God. Thomas Aquinas, in the words we quoted earlier said, ‘…greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things…’, and those words are an echo surely of what we read in Luke where Jesus says, ‘… life does not consist in an abundance of possessions …’ (Luke Ch.12 vs.15). Greed creates a spiritual problem since it affects our relationship with God.

As we scan through the parable we could be forgiven for thinking that here is the story of a self-made man, who is a success in every sense of the word. And yet, when we get to vs.20 Jesus describes this man as ‘… a fool …’ (vs.20). And why is he a fool ? Well, he’s not a fool because he is wealthy – the Bible doesn’t condemn wealth, and he’s not a fool because he has invested and saved – since the Bible encourages good stewardship, and he’s not a fool because he’s chosen to take early retirement either. But the reason he is a fool is because in all of those things he has neglected and rejected God’s rightful place in his life.

Jesus’ point is very simple, and the warning surely, for us, is that we need to be careful to always remember that there is more to life than getting as much as we can for ourselves. Life has a different, far more important purpose, and that is, that we need first and foremost, to be found in a vibrant, living relationship with God.

I’ve never met a Christian, who has opening acknowledge being materialistic, probably because in reality it is a mutually incompatible concept to the Christian faith, and yet, I’m sure; we all have materialistic tendencies within us that affect adversely our outlook on life. Materialism at its heart denies the reality of God, and because of that it will if we allow it to, erode our faith and have a dramatic negative impact upon our lives and upon our effectiveness for God. Materialism fosters amnesia concerning God’s provision, it destroys our spiritual life, our relationship with God, it makes us proud, and it distracts us away from our core responsibilities towards God and one another.

In order to counteract that self-centredness and self-sufficiency that materialism fosters the Bible offers us the antidote of the Sabbath, and whilst we haven’t got time to consider the potential of Sabbath keeping for our lives I would recommend you stop and re-think your way through it’s implications for you and it’s intention as prescribed by God.

(SLIDE 15) Graham Tomlin, in the same book I’ve already mentioned, says this concerning the Sabbath, ‘… Sabbath is a crucial antidote to greed because it is a regular weekly reminder that the purpose of life is not career, work, money, deals, degrees and all those things we fret over … it is the enjoyment of God and the good things He’s given us …’

Let me close with a story … (SLIDE 16)

I’m reliably informed that one of the most difficult animals to capture in the wild is the ring-tailed monkey, unless, that is, you adopt the practice of the indigenous Zulu tribesmen who use a unique method to attract and capture these creatures. One of the favourite foods of the ring-tailed monkey is the seeds contained in the centre of a melon, so, in order to catch the monkey the tribesman cuts one hole at the end of the melon in order to attach it by a rope to a tree and another hole through the side just big enough for the monkey’s hand. The tribesman waits patiently and when the monkey sees the fruit he slips his hand inside and opens its fingers to grab a whole fistful of seeds, but, because his fist is now larger than the hole through which the monkey’s hand first entered it can’t get free – the monkey is easily captured because of a resolute refusal to let go of the seeds – the monkey is captured because of greed.

I wonder if I’m so focused on money and possessions that I’m unaware as to the danger of the sin of greed that lurks close by to capture me ? What do I need to release my grip on in order to enjoy the freedom that God gives – that joy of knowing and living a life in relationship with Him – a life characterised not by self and greed, but by generosity and God’s grace.

love-of-god-carsonOne of the most frequent arguments cited against Christianity is the apparent difficulty in reconciling God’s love with his judgement. The nice bits – the benefits, that is – are easy to accept, but do they really fit with the God of the Old Testament, or a God who insists that belief in him is the only way to heaven ?

In this book (Crossway Books – ISBN 10 1581341263 – 1999) Don Carson answers those questions with an emphatic yes. He argues that in an attempt to get rid of anything society considers unacceptable, we have ended up with a concept of God’s love that has been sanitised and above all sentimentalised. We have come to view God as a kind old man who’ll help us out of a sticky situation; He loves the world, and it’s his job to forgive us. Carson argues that this flies in the face of the Biblical view: we cannot hope to have a proper understanding of God’s love if we separate it from His sovereignty, His holiness, and His wrath.

Carson touches briefly on all of these topics in several of his other books.  However, here he explores them in much greater depth and sets about re-directing our understanding. As a starting point, he begins by looking at the way we have distorted the truth about God’s character, before examining what the Bible actually tells us. He shows how this is perhaps illustrated best by the intra-Trinitarian love – the Father loves the Son, and the Son demonstrates His love for the Father by His obedience. This love extends yet further to us through Jesus’ death (John Ch.1 vs.9-10). However, because He is love, His love is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved. The most helpful chapter tackles the tricky problem of reconciling God’s love and wrath. In contrast to our experience where wrath and love are often mutually exclusive, God’s wrath is an entirely reasonable response towards offences against His holiness, which is as much a part of His character as His love.

One thing to be aware of before you start out with this book is that Carson’s writing is often dense and the concepts he deals with aren’t always easy to follow, but this is a book – and a topic – worth getting to grips with. A proper view of God is crucial not just for ourselves, but also if we are to be effective in evangelism. This book tackles many potential confusions arising about God’s character but, as it concludes, the themes of His love and wrath reach a resounding climax: “… do you wish to see God’s love ? Look at the cross … do you wish to see God’s wrath ? Look at the cross …”

It appears I’m getting slower and slower at posting new parts in my occasional series looking at the content of the book of Amos, but now that I’m here I’ll continue from where I left off (towards the end of Ch.3). If you’d like to read Amos Ch.4 first, before reading my notes then you can find it by following the link (as usual I’m referencing Today’s New International Version) …

Read :

Among Amos’ audience there were almost certainly a number of rich women who would not have been slow to express contempt for his message, bringing from the prophet a stinging rebuke and a warning of impending disaster. Well-fed and plump, adorned with jewellery, including the nose-rings to which Isaiah would later refer to in his condemnation of the women of Jerusalem (Isaiah Ch.3 vs.18-23), these women at Bethel reminded Amos of  nothing more than the fat cattle for which the region of Bashan was renowned (Ch.4 vs.1). Without in any way exonerating the men of Israel the prophet draws attention to the incessant demands of their wives for the luxuries which could be paid for only at the expense of the poor. Such women, who so callously ignored the suffering of others, will themselves become prey to the refinements of cruelty practised by invading Assyrian armies. With hooks through their mouths some of them will be drawn by their nose-rings through the breached walls of Samaria while the corpses of others will be dragged out for mass burial (Ch.4 vs.2 & 3).

It is, says the prophet, useless for such women to plead mitigation and cite cases of religious observances and attendances at religious festivals, since these are seen by Amos to be examples of sin rather than righteousness. About 170 years earlier Jeroboam I had established at Bethel and Dan centres of worship based on the bull cult, in direct competition to the divinely appointed worship at the temple in Jerusalem. He had consecrated a pagan priesthood (1 Kings Ch.12 vs.26-33) and by his actions had won for himself the unenviable title of the man, ‘… who caused Israel to sin …’ (1 Kings Ch.16 vs.2). And yet, when Amos refers to the sin of the worship at Bethel he doesn’t have the transgressions of Jeroboam I in mind since nowhere does he try to win the people back to the worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Their sins went much further than that of a false ritual or an un-scriptural method of worship. In reality of course any kind of worship divorced from practical righteousness, however Biblically based, is no better than an attempt to bribe the Almighty and so becomes an insult to His holiness. So even if every day could become a New Year celebration, and even if tithes due every third year were brought every third day, all such religious observance would serve only to highlight the hypocrisy of their worship.

One of the elements present at any of the great festivals was the recitation of the former acts of God on behalf of His people, a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and His power. But, in sharp contrast, Amos recounts God’s acts of judgement that have beset the people of Israel (Ch.4 vs.6-11).

Another part of the ritual of worship involved the appearance of the Shekinah glory, that outward sign of the presence of God with His people. For Israel that presence had become not a promise but a threat, ‘… because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God …’ (Ch.4 vs.12b). The truth was, that despite their love of religious ceremonies, the people of Israel had little conception of the greatness and majesty of the God they professed to worship. So, in words that may well have been drawn out from the liturgy of the New Year festival Amos draws the attention of the people to the fact that their God is the One who created the great mountain ranges and can fathom the depths of the human heart (Ch.4 vs.13).

We’ll jump into Ch.5 next time …. as time allows …!

During last year I was asked to preach at church Belmont Chapel for part of a series entitled the Seven Deadly Sins. Just the other Sunday I was asked for my notes and PPTs from the four talks that I contributed to the eight part series so I thought I’d post them here for others who may wish to read them too. The first talk was an introduction to the series and you’ll find references to the slides on the accompanying PPT presentation as you read through what I wrote. You can find my PPT file here … PPT : Seven Deadly Sins – introduction

7ds-bookAlso, you’ll notice that Graham Tomlin’s book The Seven Deadly Sins : and how to overcome them was suggested as reading to accompany the preaching series. It’s a worthwhile read and I’d recommend it to you.

Here’s what I said …

(SLIDE 1) Dr Karl Menninger, the renowned psychiatrist, recounts in his journal the story of once having seeing a stern faced, plainly dressed man standing on a street corner in downtown Chicago. The man, so the story goes, would stand statue like for a considerable length of time, and then slowly and deliberately he would lift his right arm and, pointing to the nearest passer-by would shout, ‘… guilty ! …’. Then, without any change of expression, he would resume once again his rather awkward stance until, in obedience to some apparent internal prompting, he would raise his arm again and, pointing to another hapless, and no doubt bewildered pedestrian, he would once again shout, ‘… guilty ! …’ . Dr Menninger took special notice of the reaction of the people in the street. More often than not the man’s unfortunate victim would stare at him in disbelief and then would quickly hurry on. But this was not always to be the case, since one man immediately upon being verbally accosted by the guilty cry simply turned to his friend and said this, ‘… I don’t understand it, how did he know …?’.

The answer is simple of course, since, odd as he was, the man standing on the street corner clearly understood one of the universal basic truths of humanity : we are all guilty of something.

(SLIDE 2) Over the next few Sunday evenings under the series title Seven Deadly Sins we’re going to explore together seven aspects of character that exemplify and typify humanities sinfulness. As we consider them together I’m expecting that we will at times find what we uncover about ourselves to be uncomfortable, since, if we’re being honest enough to spend time looking at the subject of personal failure, we know we won’t always be looking at ourselves from the most flattering angles. The purpose of this series however is neither to demoralise or criticize but rather it is to challenge. And I trust, that together we will not only learn to have a correct perspective about sin within our own lives but also we will learn the important lesson that sin, by it’s very nature is damaging, not only to ourselves, but also to those with whom we share our lives with. Let’s pray that where there is a need, whether as individuals, or corporately as a church community here, to confront and deal with sin we may do it by seeking God’s help in weeding out the destructive traits that these seven words describe, and in doing so ask God’s help to re-populate our lives with constructive ones in their place. It’s my prayer for my own life that I might see humility in the place of pride, love in the place of envy, patience in the place of anger, generosity in the place of gluttony, faithfulness in the place of lust, contentment in the place of greed, usefulness in the place of sloth.

(SLIDE 3) If you’d like to take up the challenge to continue to think through these issues over the next few weeks I’d recommend you get hold of a copy of Graham Tomlin’s latest book, The Seven Deadly Sins : and how to overcome them which makes ideal additional reading to accompany the bible-based studies we will be following through Sunday by Sunday.

(SLIDE 4) So why Seven Deadly Sins ? What makes them so infamous ? In order to try and answer those questions I’d like you to pause and consider with me the list we have in front of us … pride … envy … anger … gluttony … lust … greed … and sloth. Close your eyes just for a moment and concentrate on the words … let me ask you a question … when you considered some or all of the words in this list where were you in your mind’s eye ? Where did you go in your imagination ?

(SLIDE 5) The philosopher Simone Weil wrote this, ‘… imaginary evil is romantic and varied … real evil is gloomy and barren … imaginary goodness is boring … but real goodness is always new, marvellous and intoxicating ..’. And it’s rather like that with this list of seven because if we’re completely honest with ourselves when we look at them on paper and we picture them in our minds they can appear strangely provocative and mildly alluring.

(SLIDE 6) Soon after the death of the actor John Belushi in 1983 from an lethal self-administered cocktail of heroin and cocaine one leading New York magazine wrote this concerning drug addiction, ‘… it can do you no harm and it can drive you insane … it can give you status in society and it can wreck your career … it can make you the life and soul of the party and it can turn you into a loner … it can be an elixir for high living and the potion of death …’. The contrasts are stark and like all sin there’s a marked difference between the appearance and the reality, between the momentary high and the lasting destructive effect. And that just goes to highlight something of why it is that despite the passage of several centuries since this list, or at least something like it, was first drawn up by Evagrius of Pontus, a Greek monastic theologian, that every intervening generation, possibly without exception, has at some point in time sought to reference and consider this list.

(SLIDE 7) References have been varied; some have chosen to depict the seven through visual art, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s famous work The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things, painted in the 13th Century. (SLIDE 8) Others have used literature, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Parsons Tale, one of the Canterbury Tales, or more recently others have woven this same septet into children’s literature and we find them in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and in Garth Nix’s book series The Keys to the Kingdom. (SLIDE 9) Others have used the medium of film, such as David Fincher, who’s taut and visceral thriller Se7en paints a grim portrait. And even more up to date, the world of Playstation gaming, through such titles as Devil May Cry have taken up the theme. The fascination continues. But today, does this fascination reflect the reality of sinfulness or does it in reality parody it, or at worst, ridicule the notion that these seven are anything other than minor character flaws.

(SLIDE 10) The answer is, I would suggest, all bound up in how society today views the word sin. Isn’t it the case that sin has long ago lost its impact, because the notion of sin is not something that our culture and society buys into ? Sin doesn’t fit into our modern world-view, because for so many people, sin harks back to a bygone age where rules abounded and where there was a constriction of thought and a repression of the right to be individualistic, where there was no space for what we now know to be the contemporary post-modern expressions of free thinking and liberal self-styled morality. How can a culture that holds nothing absolute and everything relative have within it’s construct a place for sin ?

And so we discover that the word and the understanding of what it means is ridiculed and belittled. On the high street perfumery counters have leading brand fragrances named Temptation and Sin, – and a leading confectionary manufacturer chooses to name a range of ice creams after all of the seven sins – and so it is that sin is turned inside out and portrayed as something enticing as something provocatively alluring that seeks to draw us in and have us explore. It’s worth noting that not much has changed since the Garden of Eden.

In one sense part of the problem is that in the pervading definition of sin has been, and probably continues to be, centred around the idea of breaking rules – but, in reality, that view goes only a little way towards understanding what sin is, since if we are to understand the truth about sin, as revealed for us in the Bible, then we need to take on board a far more comprehensive definition.

As I’ve already suggested finding a comprehensive definition of sin is not that straightforward. One expression finds us considering sin as going beyond the bounds, of doing something we shouldn’t do, of colouring outside of the lines, and yet also sin is a failure to reach a required standard, a standard that’s set and expected of us, of missing the mark and falling short, like an arrow that fails to find its target – and all of these ideas, and others, need to be considered as we try and get to grips with what sin is.

(SLIDE 11) And its important too when thinking about sin, that we get the right perspective about ourselves, since we need to remember that you and I are not sinners because we sin, but rather we sin, because we are sinners. That is, we were born with a bias towards sinfulness. The Bible is clear on this point, Paul writes to his friends in Rome, ‘…therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned …’ (Romans Ch.5:12), and the whole thrust of the good news of the gospel is that Jesus’ intervention on our behalf provides the antidote to that verse in Romans, since, as Paul writes elsewhere, ‘… God made him who had no sin (that is, Jesus Christ) to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God …’ (2 Corinthians Ch.5:21)

(SLIDE 12) In his book, Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, Cornelius Plantagina describes sin as the violation of Shalom, he writes this, ‘… in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed … a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder … shalom is the way things ought to be …’, and then he goes on to write, ‘… God hates sin, not just because it violates his law but more substantially because it violates shalom …’

In a nutshell sin is a mixture of three fundamental elements …

(SLIDE 13)

1. Sin is … the rebellion against God’s plan … where vital relationships are broken

The story of the Garden of Eden brings into sharp focus this aspect of sin, since it was there that our ancestors chose through a deliberate act of their will to go against God’s will. Adam and Eve led a rebellion against God’s plan believing that the experimental knowledge of evil as well as good would make them like God. But the result was disastrous since sin brought separation and death – sin is not simply a matter of breaking God’s laws, although that’s part of it as we shall see in a moment, but primarily sin is a breaking of a relationship, that vital relationship between creator and created without which you and I can never be the kind of people God intends us to be. And that relationship wasn’t simply lost, it was renounced, humankind deliberately chose isolation. And that is a crucial point to take on board as we journey together through this series because sin is destructive of relationships and it leads invariably towards isolation. Sin seeks to isolate you and me from God and you and me from one another. It eats away at everything that unites.

Graham Tomlin, in the book I’ve already recommended, puts it like this, ‘… sins are destructive habits … they are patterns of life which if we let them take control of us, will unravel all that is good in our lives, and will lead us to destroy everything around us …’ (Pg.11)

But secondly … (SLIDE 14)

2. Sin is … the refusal to follow God’s law … where the penalty for violation is death

Not only does our sin constitute a rebellion against God’s rule and a rebuffing of God’s love but also it is a refusing of God’s law. Whilst the post-modern society in which we lives kicks against any notion that there is any such thing as a certainty and no such things as absolute truths – but merely perspectives and relative positions – absolute laws do exist within God and they are revealed to us through our conscience and through God’s word, the Bible. It was God who created us, and He holds within Himself the blueprint for our lives and the instruction manual for our day to day working and maintenance.

If we have a desire to really get a right perspective on sin we need to be clear that all sin is directed against God, it is His law we are breaking, his authority that we are despising, His rule that we are refusing, His love that we are denying. How often do I try to demote my sin as being a minor matter between me and the person I’ve sinned against ? (SLIDE 15) But the truth isn’t like that at all, but the returning prodigal son in Jesus’ poignant parable in Luke Ch.14 got it right, where we read that that the young man sunk to his knees before his father and said, ‘… I have sinned against heaven and against you …’ (Luke Ch.15:21a).

The Bible is clear about the penalty for sin and just as clear about the rescue plan as well. Whilst on the one hand God’s holiness demands that you and I are condemned to an eternal separation from Him, the other hand reveals that God’s love has made provision for us to be restored and forgiven through the work of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection – His death in my place. That makes all the difference, since I no longer struggle with sin on my own, but I have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to help me, and remarkably I know that whilst I may lose many battles against the sins that invade every area of my life I can be assured that the final victory is already won on my behalf, because of what Christ has done for me.

And thirdly … (SLIDE 16)

3. Sin is … the renouncing of God’s Kingship … where self-centredness usurps the throne

It’s always worth remembering that there lies right at the centre of sin the letter I – and that speaks volumes about the nature and the focus of sin. When we choose other than God we cease to be God-centric – and we choose to deliberately remove God from the centre of our lives. In God’s place we put ourselves and we make puny attempts to manipulate and dominate others as we seek to make life, and them, orbit around ourselves: around our goals, our ambitions, and our desires. We have usurped the throne and chosen self over God. And this aspect of sinfulness reveals a bias towards the desire to dominate and it leads us to question not only the rule of God but it sees us trying to fit God into the confines that best suits our own ends, and it finds us exchanging harmony and submission for strife and dominance – it sees us breaking shalom.

Such is the nature of sin, and, as we’ll discover over the next few weeks as we spend time considering these seven aspects of character that exemplify and typify humanities sinfulness, that the Bible is littered with examples of men and women just like you and I who struggle to come to terms with the nature of sin and it’s effects.

And yet, the wonder of the story of humankind is not that we are fallible but rather, that despite our fallibility God continues to love us – He forgives us and restores us, he invites us back into relationship with Him and He seeks through his Spirit to change us from the inside out, to increasingly help us to reflect and mirror the character of His Son, Jesus Christ. We are part of an amazing community of grace that has a passionate desire to see sinful people, just like ourselves, drawn back into fellowship … is that true ?

If I’m honest with myself then I know I struggle with a whole multitude of sinful thoughts and actions and yet I know God’s love and care. May God help us all as we spend time with Him and one another to recognise the steps we need to take in dealing with sin, may He take us from crisis through commitment and confession and on towards co-operation as we turn once more to Him in faith and trust.

(SLIDE 16) Don Carson puts it like this, and with this I’ll finish, ‘… people do not drift towards holiness … apart from grace-given effort people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to scripture, faith, and delight in God … but rather we drift towards compromise and call it tolerance … towards disobedience and call it freedom … towards superstition and call it faith … we cherish the indiscipline of lost self control and call it relaxation … we slouch towards prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism … we slide towards godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated …’

Let’s pray …

colossians-remixedI’ve recently finished reading Colossians Remixed : Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. In this book the husband and wife writing team argue that Paul’s letter to the Colossians, when viewed in its original setting, would have been heard as a subversive and dangerous text. Colossians, so they insist, presented an alternative vision of reality to the ethos of the Roman Empire and called for ultimate allegiance to a power other than Caesar. In order to give weight to their argument the writers use a creative mix of historic, cultural and Biblical studies to unpack how the text would have played out to its original hearers. Unlike a lot of other commentaries, that can at times get bogged down in technical detail, Walsh and Keesmaat have chosen rather to stick with the big questions and the big story – a format that makes for a refreshing and interesting read.

The premise of the book is that we too find ourselves today in another equally powerful empire – global capitalism – with a different set of idols. Working out how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this consumer-driven culture is, so the writers comment, possibly the biggest challenge facing the church in the West. Walsh and Keesmaat do a lot of imaginative work to bring this ancient angular text to life and show that it offers plenty of wisdom for addressing this challenge. The other big question which they tackle head-on is one that characterises our culture – the post-modern suspicion about truth. They suggest that it isn’t good enough to stand on the side lines and keep your options open in a cool, detached, post-modern way since following Jesus Christ demands commitment.

One of the most striking things about the book is the set of Targums that Walsh and Keesmaat use to illustrate their points. When a Jewish rabbi read the Torah to the Jews of the diaspora, recognizing that his congregation did not understand Hebrew, the rabbi would translate the text as he read. When a rabbi did this he would update the text as he went applying it to the changing context of the moment. The result of such interpretive exercises was called a Targum. What would Colossians sound like if it was written yesterday ? This snippet of the Targum on Colossians Ch.2 suggests what the result would look like …

‘… don’t be duped by advertising that tells you that various products are indispensable to constructing certain images and personas … this is all crap … they are still trying to captivate your imagination … resist this McWorld nightmare with all the strength you have ! …’

The writers argue that these Targums give a fresh and original look at the intent of the book of Colossians – connecting it with applications for our current post-modern context. We have, so Walsh and Keesmaat contend, chosen to domesticate and privatise the message of Colossians, just as we have done with a lot of the radical and counter-cultural teachings of Christ, and the Bible in general.

It is hard-hitting stuff at times and I’m sure many readers will find some of the content of this book uncomfortable reading. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I’d recommend it. It has certainly broadened my horizon as to the nature of approach a commentary can take when released from the over-attention to minutia that can, in some commentary writing, result in losing sight of the big picture.

amos-prophet1Following on from the previous post in this series we now move into chapter three of Amos where we find the prophet majoring on the theme that religion is worthless without righteousness.

Read :

We can imagine the indignant response which Amos’ first sermon would have drawn from his audience. Almost certainly one part of the response would have been based on the people’s insistence that unlike the heathen nations that Amos had condemned they themselves were God’s own people. Coupled with that would have been a demand to know by what right this stranger from the southern kingdom dared to preach to them in the north. Amos proceeds to answer both of those objections. What they boast is, in fact, the very grounds of God’s condemnation. It is true that they are God’s chosen people, since, ‘… you only have I chosen from all the families of the earth …’ (Ch.3 vs.2), but this fact leads to rather than precludes punishment when those who have been so chosen decide to sin against God’s law. Here surely is a sharp lesson for all of us who claim to be God’s people because of imputed righteousness gifted by God’s grace. Such a claim does not, nor cannot, remove the necessity for us to live lives of practical righteousness. God does not condone our daily sinfulness on the grounds that He has already forgiven us. His purpose for our lives is that we should not only be accounted but also made righteous – and the latter is as much a part of our salvation as the former (ref. Philippians Ch.1 vs.6).

To the second objection – that Amos had no right to preach to them – the prophet responds with a number of examples of cause and effect. In the desert countryside if two people were found to be walking side by side it could only have come about because they had agreed to meet (Ch.3 vs.3), and the roar of the lion was a clear indication that it had caught it’s prey (Ch.3 vs.4), and similarly if a trap had been sprung then something had been caught (Ch.3 vs.5). It was also true that when the sentry guarding the city chose to sound a note on his horn then it was a sure signal that there was imminent danger (Ch.3 vs.6) and if disaster did strike then such an event would be in the purpose of God’s divine will and when that purpose was revealed to His servant, the prophet, then that servant must speak (Ch.3 vs.6-8).

Amos then returns to the question of God’s punishment of His people. They are, as we have seen, guilty of social corruption, and because they have refused to take any notice of God’s Word they are now spiritually ignorant (Ch.3 vs.10). The judgement which is to fall must therefore be viewed as coming from God and not merely a misfortune occurring from an indefinable source.

So the prophet calls on the surrounding nations to bear witness to Israel’s crimes so that when judgement does come they will recognise it as coming from God Himself (Ch.3 vs.9). It is likely that the name rendered Ashdod in the TNIV and in other translations should more probably read Assyria. If that is the case then it is the two great political powers, Egypt and Assyria, that are being called upon to bear witness to God’s judgement.

The extent of the judgement will, however, not be total. A small remnant will be left (Ch.3 vs.12). As Amos, the shepherd, knew only too well, when a wild beast attacked the flock it was necessary for any hired shepherd to save at least, ‘… two leg bones or a piece of an ear …’ (Ch.3 vs.12) as evidence that the sheep hadn’t been stolen by the shepherd but rather had been attacked and savaged (ref. Exodus Ch.22 vs.13).

It is not only Samaria, the political capital, which will face destruction. Bethel too will be devastated despite its honoured religious traditions (ref. Genesis Ch.12 vs.8 and Ch.28 vs.18). Neither a nation, a city, or a church congregation for that matter, can escape God’s judgement by appealing to its past.

Amos continues by being very specific about who the people are on whom the full weight of God’s judgement will fall. Archaeologists have discovered quantities of fragments of beautifully inlaid ivory dating form the 8th century BC in Samaria. They formed part of the decoration of the ‘… houses adorned with ivory …’ occupied by the rich who enjoyed the comfort of their separate ‘… winter house along with the summer house …’ (Ch.3 vs.16). It is these houses that will be torn down and demolished when God’s judgement falls.

More to follow … we’ll look at chapter four next time …

It’s taken me rather too long to get back to writing about the book of Amos, but I’ll make no excuses and resume where I left off without further comment …!

Read :

The sins of Israel

While Amos’ audience was coming to term with his condemnation of Judah he suddenly launches into an attack on the Israelites themselves. It was a two-pronged attack – against both personal and social sins. All too often our contemporary morality seems to suffers from tunnel vision seeing only one kind of sin whilst remaining blinkered as to the true extent of our wrongdoing, whether as individuals or collectively as a wider society.

Amos continues by describing four situations. Firstly there is the selling of slaves for a trivial price which provides a yardstick as to the worth placed on a human life (Ch.2 vs.6). Secondly in the law court the poor have no hope of justice when confronted with the rich who can afford to bribe the judiciary (Ch.2 vs.7), a practice foretold and forbidden by God (ref. Deuteronomy Ch.16 vs.19). Thirdly, both young and old indulge in acts of immorality (Ch.2 vs.7). Fourthly, in their self indulgent celebrations of religious feasts the worshippers have no concern about where the wine came from or the fact that the cloaks they are lying on at night have been taken from the poor and kept in contravention of God’s expressed law (ref. Exodus Ch.22 vs.26).

It’s likely that Amos’ audience may well have responded to his verbal attack by asserting that the sins he condemned were far less serious than those of their neighbours. The prophet’s answer appears in the next verses which reminded his hearers that the right living which God demanded was not meant to ensure blessing but was rather to be in response to blessings already received. The LORD who condemned them was the One who had brought them out of Egypt, provided for their needs in the wilderness and given them victory over their enemies (Ch.2 vs.9-10). God’s provision had, however, gone further than physical and material necessities. It had taken account also of spiritual needs. The only group of people who were called to full time service for God were the descendants of Levi who worked in the temple. For the ordinary Israelite man who wished to demonstrate his love to God the Nazirite vow provided the opportunity for a public declaration of his dedication. His long hair made him stand out from other men and since he abstained from alcohol he was depriving himself of one of the few luxuries a poor man could enjoy. But to the lukewarm materialistic Israelite this abstinence suggested an undesirable degree of religious enthusiasm so, ‘… you made the Nazirites to drink wine …’ (Ch.2 vs.12).

Even more deplorable was the attitude towards the prophets, the men with the task of revealing God’s will to His people, those with an ear to God’s voice. It’s unlikely that the text means that they were physically forbidden to speak (Ch.2 vs.12b), but more likely, just like prophets before them (ref. 1 Kings Ch.22 vs.13) they were expected to tell the people what they wanted to hear rather than what God wanted them to be told.

Years after Amos had spoken Jeremiah and Ezekiel would both accuse the prophets of Judah, Amos’ own nation, of, ‘… saying peace when there was no peace …’ (ref. Ezekiel Ch.13:10).

The punishment, as always with God, fits the crime. Just as the rich and powerful had pressed hard upon the poor and the defenseless so their own fate will be to be crushed by the threshing sledge (Ch.2 vs.13). From that judgement neither youthfulness or strength of force can deliver the people.

More to follow … as time allows …!

respond-icon1 Earlier in the book of Isaiah we read these words from God recorded by the prophet, ‘… my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed …’ (Isaiah Ch.56 vs.1). How aware are we of God’s closeness ?

read-icon Reading for today – Isaiah Ch.66 vs.1-13 :

crossprepare-icon1 As we reach the end of the book we are given a glimpse of how God’s closeness is revealed for us. What is close is salvation, an act of rescue and deliverance. Biblically, however, salvation is not just from something (sin, death and separation) but also it’s to something (forgiveness, life and a restored relationship with God). Worshipping in the temple had given the Jewish people a good understanding of God, but God is greater than their conceptions of Him (vs.1-2) and it’s when He comforts us with  His intimate presence that we really begin to get to know Him (vs.12-13). For Isaiah there was a time close at hand when the LORD God would be close to him. For us that’s already a reality if we know and trust Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

If you sit down and think about the complexities of the problems besetting the societies in which we live you’ll probably come to the swift conclusion that the notion of solving even some of them appears unlikely. But the central verses in our passage remind us that nothing is too complex for God. Nations aren’t changed overnight – unless the LORD does it (vs.7-8) and we are required to shown an active faith in God that really believes He is capable of anything and everything. A faith that relies on God’s promises (vs.9).

Eugene Petersen in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message writes John Ch.1 vs.14 like this, ‘… the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood …’. In what ways are we planning to help reveal God’s closeness to those amongst whom we live and work this Christmas ?

respond-icon1 When Jesus taught, ‘… the kingdom of God is near …’ (Mark Ch.1 vs.15), at least in part what He was saying is that God is closer than you may think. In another sense however He’s only as near as you want Him to be. Which aspects of our daily lives invoke God’s nearness and which, because of our choice, see God’s influence remote ?

read-icon Reading for today – Isaiah Ch.65 vs.17-25 :

prepare-icon1 Political parties and social movements imagine that we can, through our own efforts, build a utopia, an ideal world. The Christian knows that, however many high points there may be on the way, the ultimate end to which all history is moving is a new creation. One danger of praying for the revival of the church is forgetting that God doesn’t plan to turn the clock back to way things used to be. We’re should be insulated from nostalgia through our understanding that God is working not towards revival but towards renewing and replacing (vs.17). To drive home the point, the word create appears three times in vs.17 and 18, but the new creation is something that people have to positively choose to enter. Steadfast, determined rejection of God the Father’s mercy and Jesus’ sacrifice is the ultimate tragedy for humankind (see vs.13-15). What’s on offer in the new order is a new name (vs.15); an end to life’s sorrows (vs.19-20); and lives of fulfilment and blessing (vs.21-23). The LORD will be close (vs.24) and Satan will be defeated (vs.25). As one 19th century preacher once put it, ‘… Father, revive the church for the sake of the lost but don’t delay Your coming …’.

Read the passage again carefully noting all of the positive words that serve to re-inforce the reality that God will fulfil all His promises and complete His plan.

How ought a fresh realisation of that influence our daily lives ?

respond-icon1 In Isaiah Ch.63 vs.15 the cry was for the LORD to look down, and yet in so many situations our hearts cry is that we need the LORD to come down. We require constantly to learn that only His presence and intimate involvement will bring about change in our lives. Ask yourself, if God was to withdraw His Spirit from your life how much of what you do and say would be unaffected ? (Note : whilst that can’t happen if you’re a Christian, that fact isn’t a reason for complacency !)

mountainread-icon Reading for today – Isaiah Ch.64 vs.1-9 :

prepare-icon1 In many ways, this is the model prayer for revival. It’s good to be specific in our requests when we pray, but the danger is that we focus too much in our prayer time upon trying to give God hints and suggestions ! This reading reminds us that there is the vital need to simply pare right down to the essentials when we pray. These verses are a passionate cry for God to renew His presence amongst His people, to shake the earth again, as He did at Mt Sinai (vs.3, compare with Exodus Ch.19 vs.16-19). God is always present yet is seems clear that God can withdraw His powerfully felt presence, for example when we have sinned (vs.7), in order that we might seek Him again. The things that mark out this prayer are; a passionate desire for God Himself (vs.1-2); a remembrance of His mighty acts in the past (vs.3-4); honest appraisal of ourselves (vs.5-7); and an appeal to the Father, on the basis of His revealed character, not to abandon His children (vs.8-12).

Passionate prayer often comes from people who know themselves well. David wrote, ‘… all my longings lie open before you, O Lord …’ (Psalm 38 vs.9).

Do the desires of vs.1-2 find an echo within all of our lives, and if so, how do they shape our prayer life ?

respond-icon1 This reading follows a passage describing God as a warrior. It’s a recurrent theme in Scripture – that our God persistently fights against evil and for the good of His people. Think of instances where such imagery would prove to be helpful.

read-icon Reading for today – Isaiah Ch.63 vs.7-19 :

prepare-icon1 God always acts in our best interests, but we are only occasionally aware of His actions. That’s why the Jewish people attached such importance to remembering what God had done for them. As they retold their history, God’s essential character became clear to them once again: His compassion and His kindness (vs.7); His identification with His people (vs.9a); His love and mercy (vs.9b); His power and guidance (vs.11-14).

People seeking spiritual direction are often encouraged to draw a timeline, marking all the spiritually significant moments of their life. Like the nation of Israel we too learn more of God’s character when we focus on what He has revealed to us through our history. It’s the revelation of His character that forms the impetus for our intercession (vs.15-19).

The people of Israel forgot God when times were easy. Compare vs.10 of this chapter with the words in James Ch.4 vs.4-6.

What are the lessons we need to learn today ?

respond-icon1 Have you ever found you just had to say something, and couldn’t stop it pouring out ? Can you remember what it was you were speaking about ? What was it that moved you so powerfully ?

read-icon Reading for today :

sunrise-thumbnail2prepare-icon1 When we have seen what God wants to do, it changes us. In many ways, faith deprives us of a false peace, in that it’s impossible to settle for what is when you’ve seen what will be. The nature of faith is to look forward in hope (Hebrews Ch.11 vs.13-16). What the prophet has seen is God’s restoration of His people (vs.1-3), through the restoration of their relationship with Him (vs.4-5). The response of faith is to cry continually out to the LORD for the arrival of that day (vs.6-7). It’s easy to settle for what we have, or for a little more, but God is looking for people who won’t rest until the fullness of His purpose is acheived. Is that the kind of people we are ?

The advent season calls us to ‘… prepare a way for the LORD …’ (Isaiah Ch.40 vs.3-5), a work of intercession that demands perseverance of service that can only be achieved through reliance on God’s refreshing love. God wants to delight and rejoice over us … do we allow Him to do that ?