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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 6,7 & 8

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

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

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

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

Firstly then … SLIDE 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLIDE 4, 5 & 6

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

Firstly then … SLIDE 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray

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

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

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

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

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

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

My presentation slides can be found here

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

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

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

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

Read:                     Matthew Ch.18 vs.21 to 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly then we see that  SLIDE 7

  • Real forgiveness – is choosing not to retaliate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Real forgiveness … choosing not to keep records

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

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

And then lastly  SLIDE 12

  • Real forgiveness … choosing freedom not imprisonment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading :  Joshua Ch.4 vs.1-7 & 19-25

PPT :  What do these stones mean ?

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

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

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

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

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

  • Faith … looks back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Faith looks up …

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

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

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

  • Looking up … reveals our GRATITUDE

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

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

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

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

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

  • Looking up … renews our TRUST

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

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

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

The third thing that we learn is that … SLIDE 12

  • Looking up … refreshes our WITNESS

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

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

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

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

  • Faith … looks forward

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

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

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

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

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

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