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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 www.ephesiansdaily.org.uk along with longer articles at www.ephesians.org.uk. 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.

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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 :  http://www.4shared.com/document/7vj3a9nh/Is_the_universe_just_an_accide.html

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

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

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.

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