Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sermon Notes for Confident Adventure #4 :: "Remembering" :: Genesis 17:1-23

Because we can read Abraham’s story in about 25 minutes, it’s easy to miss the weight of the 25 year wait he had to see the promises of God fulfilled to him. Abraham’s faith was best expressed through patience. When you are waiting for something you need to remember why you are doing it otherwise you will lose heart and wander off.

In the Bible remembering isn’t merely the factual recall of trivia like sporting results, it has a moral quality, such as when parking your car on a hill, you must remember to apply the handbrake. Forgetting to do so could have disastrous consequences. If we don’t make it a priority to remember who God is and what he has asked of us, then we will not only harm ourselves, but spread chaos and destruction in his world as well.

The context of Genesis 17 is God restoring Abram after a “fall.” Similarly to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, God seemed not to be acting on his promise to give Abram and Sarai a son, so they took matters into their own hands and got a son (an heir) for Abram via Sarai’s slave woman.

By the time Genesis 17 happens, we’re 13 years on. Ishmael, the son born to Abram via the slave woman is hitting puberty, and therefore manhood and starting to take his place as Abram’s heir apparent. But God turns up and says NO! Abram will have a son via Sarai. Initially, Abram doesn’t want to accept this word from God (not least because it means having to have a really awkward conversation with Ishmael). He wants Ishmael to be accepted by God and doesn’t want to have to start all over again after waiting 24 years to get to this point!

God promises to bless Ishmael. In his mercy, he won’t let Ishmael take the hit for the mistakes of his father and his mother’s mistress, but neither will he let Abram and Sarai’s mistake dictate the course of salvation history – he will do things as he planned them.

To help remind them of his promise, he gives them new names – Abraham and Sarah, a new instruction: Walk before me blamelessly and a new initiation – circumcision. Circumcision was a “sign” which reminded them of God’s promise to Eve (that she would bring forth a son/a “seed”) and also pointed forward to the coming of that seed – the Christ. The cutting away of the foreskin was also symbolic of God’s refusal to allow the potency of man specifically, and the human race generally, to do God’s work for him. We cannot save ourselves, only a miracle of God can do it.

To his credit, Abraham doesn’t sulk under a tree when he realizes God is yanking him back onto the right track, rather he humbles himself, immediately obeying what God has said.

Today, we are not circumcised, because the promised coming of the “seed” (Gen 3:15) has been fulfilled in Christ. Our sign of being God’s covenant people is baptism. Just as what happened to Abraham (circumcision) had to happen to his household, so too, what happened to Christ has to happen to us otherwise we do not belong to him. If we believe in Christ we must be baptized in water and the Spirit like he was (Matt.3). Baptism is symbolic of a past “dying” to our old way of life in rebellion to God and being raised up to live for God by the power of the Spirit. It’s also a reminder that one day, when Christ comes again, he will raise us from the dead, the work of the Spirit will be perfected in us and we will live with God forever in the new creation.

To that end, we must cultivate regular, routine remembrance of God, for this gives life our souls.
  • Confession: declaring to our hearts and to God who God is and who we are as a result of all his goodness to us. Thanksgiving and praise: the things that should flow from confession.
  • Bible reading: this is the main and plain, bread and butter way God speaks to us. Fasting: humbling ourselves, emptying ourselves and recognizing that all our power to do what pleases God comes from him not us. Prayer: talking to God, reflecting on all that we are learning from him.
  • Simplicity: renouncing the lie, that the joy of our life comes from the glitzy abundance of possessions, accolades and entertainment and embracing a kind of Celebration that takes the greatest joy from seeing God do amazing and deep things in the hearts of people – including us.
  • Solitude: being one to one with God and shutting out the clamour of both the outside world and our anxious hearts so that we can wholly be with him and Gathering with the people of God so that they can help keep us on the straight and narrow path, as well as encourage us to keep going on it when times are tough.
  • Serving one another: sharing the load of all that God has asked us to do so that no one person or group of people burn out and… Being served. We all love being served, when the service makes much of us, but we don't like being served if it means we must admit weakness. At times like these, it is hard for us to accept help, but don’t let pride rob you of an opportunity to receive God’s grace in this form.
As we do these things regularly, little by little, we will build a massive reservoir of testimony and legacy that will be remembered before the throne of God, with praise, forever.

Suggested questions:
  • What is the thing you have had to wait longest on God for? Are you still waiting for it? Would you have the patience to wait 25 years for God to fulfil a promise to you like Abraham and Sarah did?
  • When we have invested much time, money and effort into something and God says no to it, it is a hard word to receive. Has this ever happened to you, what was it and how did you respond – with obedience or denial? Or are you going through it now? God is asking you to revoke a mistake you have invested in for years, and you are finding it hard to renounce. What help do you need to go God’s way?
  • Have you been baptized in water and the Spirit, if not what is stopping you from obeying God’s command on this and following in the footsteps of the Master?
  • Of the “routines of remembrance” that give life to the soul which ones do you find easy, which ones do you find hard? What’s the next step you need to take in order to allow God to breathe life into your soul? How can we help each other cultivate these?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The What and the Why of Biblical Fasting

A quick search on the internet will give you all kinds of ways and tips on how to fast. My aim is not to repeat all that good advice, rather it’s to give you a few biblical encouragements as to the what and why of fasting.

Firstly, fasting is not a uniquely Christian activity, nor does it have in and of itself of any spiritual value. It’s like money, its value comes in how you use it. When done well, fasting increases our appetite for God, brings our hearts in line with his, enables us to feel the kinds of deep longings that we know we should feel for him and makes us sensitive to the Spirit’s voice in our hearts. However, when it’s done badly, it makes us grumpy, self-obsessed, proud and entitled. Bad fasting makes God the servant of our agenda, rather than making us the servants of his.

Secondly, fasting without praying is like turning up to the cinema, but not going in to watch the film. There’s no point to it. That statement has to come with caveats, of course. We must avoid the fallacy of suggesting that a certain amount of prayer will obtain a certain amount of blessing. Nothing in the Bible makes such a crude formulaic connection. For example, a single person who can spend an extra hour a day praying when they fast, does not automatically, receive more blessing than the parent who can only spend an extra ten minutes praying in the day because they have to prepare meals for their kids and put them to bed etc. And there are always unforeseen things that call us away at certain times from the praying we set out to do. We don’t need to feel guilty about that. But all that said, fasting without making some conscious decision and effort to seek God in prayer either on our own or with others is pointless. God is our heavenly father, not our heavenly formula. He knows our hearts and the constraints on our time and energy. He sees the steps we make towards him (as well as the excuses) and is more than able to show us how to use what we have to honour him and bless the world. He is the multiplier of our efforts, not us.

Thirdly, by not eating, we remind ourselves that the body, as important as it is, is not the ultimate reality of our lives, our souls are. And when we use our time fast and seek God, we give a nourishing boost and “growth spurt” to our souls, (which by the way, will continue to grow in God forever when they get new bodies, after the death of these ones). Fasting is the deliberate humbling of these bodies of ours with all their desires, reminding them of their proper place in the order of the universe as servants of our souls, not masters of them, helping us to submit to God. It is the opportunity to remind our hearts of what is truly real and what will last forever, not just what will last for this lifetime.

Fourthly, fasting is not limited to food, you can fast from leisure activities too. But food and drink fasting and fasting from sleep are the only kinds done in the Bible and the benefit of fasting from food or sleep is that every time you have a rumble in your stomach or feel weary, it reminds you to lift your eyes to heaven and say “Jesus our eyes are upon you to do all that you have promised. Thank you for calling me into your amazing adventure. Help me to be obedient and effective in all that you desire!”

So why not fast? If you have fasted a meal before, why not fast a whole day? If you have fasted a whole day, why not fast a few days etc. What have you got to lose?

If you have never done it before, then try skipping a meal. For example, skip the evening meal and go to your bedroom, read the bible and then pray. Or skip lunch and go for a walk in a local park and pray as you walk. If you have a small child who is no longer breastfeeding, why not fast lunch and then pray when your child is napping? There are endless possibilities, we just need a little imagination and encouragement from others who have done it before.

Nothing truly great comes easy and yes, it is hard at times, but the benefits always outweigh the costs because, as we often say, you can never out give God. He will always give us more than we give to him.

Whatever you decide. be accountable to someone and remember, the main thing is to pray like Jesus prayed – that God’s kingdom becomes a reality on the earth like it already is in Heaven.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Notes on Mark 10:35-52

This week our text considers two requests made to Jesus. They made their requests face to face, but we make our requests to him through prayer, and prayer at its simplest form is talking with God.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he has told his disciples that the time has come for him to be crucified (10:32-34). The disciples are terrified by this for once they are done with Jesus, will the authorities not then turn on Jesus’ followers in an effort to “cleanse” the nation of his teaching? Along with this fear the disciples’ sense of self-importance is bubbling up to the surface as they argue about who of them is the greatest.

James and John figure that if they are to suffer with Jesus they want to be guaranteed some kind of reward in the next life so they “ask” if they can be enthroned next to him in eternity. They had spent three years with the greatest person who has ever walked the earth yet instead of imitating his example, they want to use their privileged position with him to secure honour for themselves.

Jesus, knowing the tumble of emotions going on within them, indirectly and lovingly rebukes them by showing them a better way. Heaven is a world of love, where there is no grabbing at status or compensation, instead all serve one another for that is what love does. Those who seek positions and honour have not yet truly understood or been perfected by love. Love serves all without finding fault.

Mark then shows us perfectly how Jesus is full of love and service and recounts the healing of blind man, Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus in Aramaic meant “son of impurity."  Due to, amongst other things, a misinterpretation of Leviticus 21:16-23, the culture of Jesus’ day looked down on disabled people, not just as less useful, but as spiritually unworthy people. In healing this man, Jesus not only gives him the precious gift of sight, but symbolically makes him fit for worship and service to God.

The disciples are too busy wallowing in their sorrow, fear and sense of self-importance to hear this cry of faith and desperation. In calling Jesus the Son of David, Bartimaeus is expressing faith that Jesus is the Messiah and that he has power to restore all things – including his sight. And when his sight is restored, he beholds the saviour of the world. Imagine that moment.

Jesus asked the same question to both James and John and Bartimaeus, but he got very different responses. He asks, not because he doesn’t know the answer, but because he wants us to lay hearts bare before him and for us to realise what is in our hearts. What do you want Jesus to do for you today?

Let us learn to ask like Bartimaeus in faith and humility, recognising our true and desperate need and seeking mercy and grace. And as we ask like Bartimaeus, let us be like Jesus – laying down our lives in service to all, not dictating the terms like James and John, but obeying whatever it is that Jesus asks of us.  Serving not just the people we like or who are like us or who we think will be useful to us at some point, but serving all without finding fault in them, without expecting anything in return and seeking their true flourishing as we lead some of them, one day, to Christ.

There is an abundance of grace, but there is not an abundance of choice, we either pick up our cross and follow Jesus in humble, joyful service or we don’t. There is an abundance of grace, but there is not an abundance of time. In eternity, time will be a abundant, but in this life it is a precious resource, don’t waste it – choose obedience and choose it quickly.

Questions:
  • What would have been going through your mind if you were one of the disciples following Jesus to his death in Jerusalem?
  • In what ways are you tempted to dictate to Jesus the terms of how you serve him?
  • What had James and John not yet understood about love and God's kingdom? Have you understood it yet?
  • Who are the Bartimaeuses in your life, can Jesus rely on you to bring them to him or are you too absorbed in your own world to notice?
  • What do you need the Holy Spirit’s help with as a result of thinking on these things?

Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Prayer to Endure: Sermon Notes on 2 Thessalonians 3:5

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

Summer is a better time to take stock than Christmas and New Year, because it’s busy and it is dark and cold.

This verse is a window on how Paul was praying for the Thessalonian Christians and no doubt all the Christians he knew.

One of the values that guides our prayers as a church is to endure in the faith ourselves like Jesus did and to build a community of Christians here that endures for as long as there is a town called Reading on the map of what is currently called the United Kingdom.

The Thessalonian Church was a church under fire. If you read Acts 17, you find that the mob was out for them. Paul writes two letters to them and in this second letter, one of the issues he is addressing is that some have given up working for their daily bread and for the Lord because the opposition was intense and somehow, maybe through grief and discouragement, they believed the “Day of the Lord” had already come and that they would be imminently carried off to Heaven or some such. Paul exhorts and admonishes them to persevere in their responsibilities to the Lord and to each other, to be busy both in work to provide for their bodily needs and in the work of the Lord because the end has not come just yet. What might seem like the end times to them in their bubble, is not the end times to the rest of the world and they need to be diligent in serving the Lord for some time yet.

Two thousand years later and we are all still here! Some of those Thessalonian Christians would have their tails between their legs if they knew! Whilst our context is not a context of violent pressure like theirs, pressures still exist. The call to persevere remains, even if it comes from a different angle and the power to endure still comes from the same place.

I want to ask three questions relating to this verse:

  1. What is the love of God?
  2. Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
  3. How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

What is the love of God?
The true and living God is a community, a family of love: God the Father and God the Son delighting in each other through the fellowship of God the Holy Spirit. All three of them are fully distinct personalities, yet all three of them are fully God. And yet, they all dwell in each other so fully, that if you have met one of them, you come to know them all.

But here is a question. If the Father, Son and the Spirit enjoy true bliss and satisfaction in each other and have no need of anything else, then why are we here at all? Surely that means God lacks something, needs something – why otherwise would we be here.

The good news is that you and I exist not because God has some gaping hole in the soul, or because the trinity all got bored of each other, but because God is love.

You see true love shares and gives. When you truly love someone you want to share all that you have with them and you want to give all of yourself to them.

True love is self-effacing and self-sacrificing. True love does not say “look at me, I’m important.” True love forgets itself, it is too delighted with another. True love says I want to give everything I am and have to the one whom I love.

God the Father loves God the Son and desires to give him the greatest gift he possibly can. That gift was not the latest smartphone or even a stash of cash the size of the Himalayas, but people. More specifically a people who would love the son, and delight in him the way the Father delights in him. A people who would share his delight in his beloved son and be united to the Son in that love.

Think about that for a moment. As a human being you are, along with all other humans, the person sat next to you, your family and friends, and all the people who fill the earth are, in God the Father’s mind the greatest possible gift he could think of giving to his Son. Let that thought fill you with dignity that it should for a moment. Poke the person next to you and tell them they are the greatest gift the Father could think of to give his Son. You are not just a biological machine, you are not just the sum total of all your worldly titles. Whether you realise it or not, you as a human being, as the pinnacle of God’s creative genius are a gift – a gift from the father to the son.

And the Son is not passive in this gift giving process. He is not up in his bedroom in heaven playing computer games and shouting downstairs every half an hour when he wants a snack. When the father offers him this gift of a people to love and be loved by him, he doesn’t say Meh! Got anything else? He says Wow! That’s the greatest gift I could ever conceive of receiving. Father you are the greatest father there is and I desire that just as I have enjoyed your love eternally and honour you for that love, so too, I want to do everything I can so that this people you give to me, come to know that enjoyment of your love also.

And so together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they created the universe we see around us. A place that is vast in size and yet intricate and balanced to the finest detail. A place full of beautiful variety and yet ordered and harmonious in that variety.

And at the centre of that creation they placed Adam and Eve, the babies of the human race. And in this world of love, beauty and perfection, all we, the human race had to do was give our yes and amen to God by loving and trusting them and doing all that they asked of us so that we could grow, flourish and mature into a beautiful people who filled the earth with the happiness of God and when all had been fulfilled – when we came of age, God would give us in marriage to his son forever.

The problem was, we didn’t say yes and amen to this plan, we said no, no way. We didn’t say “I do,” we said “I don’t.” And in that moment, we became spiritual orphans and adulterers.

We became orphans, not because God the father died, but because we refused to recognise his existence in our lives as the Father of our souls. We became adulterers because instead of giving ourselves in faithful love to God the Son we gave our hearts and our bodies in obedience to another voice – the voice of the serpent. We have all lived in the shame, guilt and slavery of that decision ever since, deaf and dead to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

At that point, the Father, the Son and the Spirit could have thrown in the towel outraged at our faithlessness and consigned us and the universe we live in to the dustbin of Heaven and got back to the drawing board saying “Let’s try that again.”

But the God of the Bible is love, and true love does not give up. True love pursues. The greater the love, the greater the pursuit. The greatest love gives birth to the greatest pursuit.

More than that, only tragedy can truly prove how great any love is and so the greatest tragedy – our rebellion against God, whilst far from being the plan and no one plans tragedy – is nevertheless the opportunity for the greatest love to show itself true.

Whilst it is absolutely outrageous that the God of the universe should be humiliated in such a way, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is nevertheless, the moment in history where the love of God and the glory of that love is most truly displayed. And where the Son of God proves that he is worthy to receive all our adoration and affection as our future bridegroom.

For it is there he said I love you. It is there that he became our representative and stood in our place. It is there that he said:

  • Let me take your shame so that you can receive my glory.
  • Let me take your guilt so that you can receive my perfection.
  • Let me take your punishment so that you can receive my peace.
  • Let me take your bondage so that you can receive my freedom.
  • Let me take your darkness so that you can receive my light.
  • Let me take your chaos so that you can receive my rest.
  • Let me take your weakness so that you can receive my power.
  • Let me take your spirit of lawlessness so that you can receive my Holy Spirit.
  • Let me take your death so that you can receive my life.
  • Let me take everything that you are so that you can receive everything that I am.
  • I love you, I love you, I love you and my father and I want you to be with me where we are!

Paul sums it up like this in Ephesians 2: 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 flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Thanks to the kindness and mercy of God, at the end of history, there will still be a great marriage when God the Son, in the presence of his Father will be united in love to all those out of every nation on the earth who have believed and trusted in him.

The Apostle John puts it like this in 1 John 3: Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 2: No eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, nor has any mind conceived of the things that God has in store for those who love him.

David the Psalmist, puts it like this in Psalm 45: Listen, my daughter, and pay careful attention: forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord. All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.

Whoever you are, whatever you have done, whatever your history, whatever your trajectory, the Father and the Son desire that we all should join them forever in a renewed world unspoiled by our darkness and evil, and they have made provision such that no barrier can ever get in the way of us believing him. The only thing that can possibly stop us now coming to him is our refusal to receive his love. He will not force his love upon us, but neither will he wait forever, if you hear his voice today, don’t wait to receive his love and obey his voice.

Have you said yes to this call from him?

The Love of God is the Story of History

But what about the here and now, we have just looked at the beginning and end of human history, but where are we here and now in Reading in 2017 at whatever age and stage we are.

I have spoken much about the Father and the Son, not so much about the Spirit.

Which leads us to our second question...

Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
It is the Holy Spirit who the Father and the Son have given to us to guard us and to prepare us meet them and to help us prepare the world for it to be God’s future home.

In the Old Testament, the guardian of God’s people was the Law – the law guarded God’s people and helped them prepare for the coming of Christ. The Law was to be a seal upon their hearts reminding them who they belonged to and light to their eyes showing them how to live.

The Spirit of God is the true and better guardian of God’s people. He is the true and better Law. He is preparing us for the return of Christ. He is the true and better counsellor, he is our the true and better advocate. The Law brought people near to God, the Spirit unites our hearts to God.

Like the Law once was, now the Spirit is God’s seal upon our hearts reminding us who we belong to and so Paul writes in Ephesians 1:13-14: When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession. He is also light to our eyes showing us how to live. Again, Paul writes in Galatians 5:25: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

So in his role as guardian, what is it that the Spirit is to do?

His role is to take us from immature adulthood to mature adulthood.

When you and I turned 18, our status in law changed from child to adult, but that did not mean that you and I were immediately allowed to do everything that every other adult is allowed to do. Yes, we could legally drink in a pub without supervision, but nobody immediately handed us the keys to a jumbo jet, or the tools of a brain surgeon and said “Off you go, have a go”. If they had, they would have been ridiculously negligent. There was still a huge amount of training and maturing we had to go through, both in our technical ability and in our relational wisdom so as to become mature in our adulthood. And if you’re like me, you are still learning and still maturing. At 18, my status changed overnight, but my maturity and competence level most definitely did not!

Maturity isn’t a mix you can buy from the supermarket: “Instant Maturity:” Just add the Spirit.”

Just like the picture behind me, the girl who has probably just turned 18, has a different status in her family, but if she has any sense and her parents are any good at parenting, she will be constantly returning to them for help, advice and money as she learns to take her place in an adult world.

When God poured out the Spirit upon his people, it was a sign that their status had changed! Now they were truly born of the Spirit and children of God, now they were truly the betrothed bride of Christ, now they truly would reign with Christ and be seated in heavenly realms with him, but they were / are immature in that new status, and it was and is the Spirit who was given to help us to grow up and mature into who God has made us to be. Paul says in Ephesians 4:13 that we are to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Paul is not just referring to individual Christians here, his scope is much broader, he is referring to the people of God down history, including you and me.

The giving the Spirit marks God’s intention to transition the world and his people from this old way of life in sin, death and hatred of God to a new way of life, a way of light, life and the love of God.

But this process of maturing that the Spirit wants to do in us doesn’t come easy! Like Josh said last week, nothing great is easy. The greatest tasks are often the hardest tasks, so if this stuff sounds hard or even impossible to you then you are thinking the right things and asking the right questions.
So we come to our third question...

How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

We can face opposition in the world around us, but even more than that, we find sometimes that our hearts are at war within us. The greatest battle in our lives is the battleground of the heart. Our old task master, Satan, that great serpent, doesn’t just role over when we give the allegiance of our lives to Christ. Moreover, our own hearts are so used to living a different way that they find it difficult do synchronise to this true and better vision of life.

In these moments of internal and external conflict the Spirit of God will point our eyes to Christ. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The Spirit wants us to see Christ who is both our guarantee and our inspiration.

He is our guarantee in those moments when we are given to disappointment and frustration because we have let God down, that he will not forsake us. The blood of Jesus is always fully able to cover over and redeem all our failings and weaknesses. God will carry on to completion the good work he has begun in us.

He is also our inspiration for he has called us to finish the work he began and if we are facing difficulty in that work, we can look to him and his example so that we know how to proceed in the circumstances that we find ourselves.

What stops us from allowing the Spirit to direct our hearts?

At the root of it, what causes us to stifle the voice of the Holy Spirit is that we elevate the voice of our hearts above his voice.

Our culture is constantly telling us to listen to our hearts, that this is the way to flourish. Proverbs 14:12 disagrees, it says There is a way that seems right to us, but in the end it leads to death. What truly brings life to us is listening to the voice of God.

The danger here is not that we can’t be honest to God, we can and must be honest with God and with each other, the danger here is pride. Considering our voices more important than God’s voice which when you think about how great God is and how puny we are, is nothing short of madness.

This process can be subtle. You and I can fall into the trap of assuming that because we believe the right stuff that we have somehow been vaccinated against falling away from God, but if we let our emotions and desires be the prism through which we understand God’s words, rather than asking God’s words to be the prism through which we learn to understand our desires and emotions, then we are already half-way to living in disobedience, stifling the Spirit and giving up.

We may carry on being Christian on the outside, but there will little energy and appetite for obeying Christ’s command to complete the great commission and a strong desire to stay on the path of least resistance, maintain the status quo and avoid change.

Here are some emotions and desires we can elevate above God’s word in our hearts. The list is not exhaustive.

  • Disobedience
  • Failure
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Disappointment
  • Unmet expectations
  • Victimhood
  • Cynicism
  • Self-pity
  • Bitterness
  • Opposition
  • Fear
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Comfort
  • Pleasure
  • Overfamiliarity
  • Complacency
  • Deception
  • Fruitlessness
  • Frustration
  • Discouragement.

When these emotions and thoughts come we must speak the words of God to them and believe the Spirit as he reminds us of them and fix our hearts on the love of God and steadfastness of Christ.

Then, and only then, we will have the strength to endure to the end.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Conclusion and Cliffhanger: Notes on 1 Cor. 16:15-24

In this last section of the letter, Paul continues his closing appeals to his Corinthian brothers and sisters.

V15-16 Submit to those who work hard in the Lord.
Stephanas’ family were Paul’s first converts in Asia and the first evidence that God was with him blessing his endeavours . Their lives were turned upside down by God for joy and they turned their lives upside down devoting themselves to the service of God and his people. Paul tells the church to submit to people like this.

V17-18 Face to face fellowship brings life
Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus have brought the “report” to Paul. It’s off the back of their visit to him in Ephesus that 1 Corinthians gets written. Paul genuinely longs for the Corinthians as a father for children. These men have given up their time and money to visit Paul. They have refreshed Paul by being personally with him. Don’t let technology fool you into thinking connecting over social media is a substitute for meeting and connecting face to face, person to person, heart to heart.

V19-20 Family Greetings
Paul always finishes off his letters with greetings. Prisca and Aquila are a top married couple who get a special mention as they are with Paul now and were with him in Corinth when he first arrived to preach the gospel. They partnered with him in earning money as tentmakers to support themselves and in planting the church and so would have been well known and loved by the church. They will have served God faithfully for decades and risk their lives to serve Paul (Rom. 16:3)
What is a kiss? A small intake of air into the mouth. Symbolically, it’s the taking of someone into yourself. It’s evidence that they dwell in your heart and as they kiss you, it shows that you live in their heart. Healthy families show much affection to each other as well as looking out for each other. That is how the church should be.

V21-24 Assurance and Warning
Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus would have vouched for the authenticity of this letter having visited Paul, so Paul’s writing is, more than anything, a sign of affection.

In calling down a curse on those who do not love the Lord, Paul isn’t so much wishing harm to others, rather he is saying that if after all that God has done for you in Christ, you’re still not satisfied then God has nothing left He can give you. There’s nowhere else to go, except into the eternal night of walking away from the love and light of Christ. Loving Christ is defined by covenant faithfulness not emotional intensity. Jesus said “if you love me, you will obey my commands”

Paul utters a prayer “Our Lord, come!” A prayer asking for the Lord to return. A prayer for the second coming. When will the second coming happen? When the great commission is fulfilled. Matt.24:14. Do you want Christ to return sooner or later? If we love Christ, then why do we say in our hearts, don’t come back just yet, Lord? Many of us spend more time hoping that we will live long enough to meet our grandchildren before we die than we do hoping that we will see Christ return in our lifetime. 1 Peter 3:12 tells us that we should live the kind of lives that bring forward the return of Christ, not delay it. If you were engaged to be married and your fiancĂ©e kept putting back the date because they wanted to do other things first, what would you conclude about their love for you?

In closing his letter, Paul wants them to know he is for them, but that doesn’t mean he is blind to their faults or that their faults don’t matter. The Corinthian church is at a crossroads. There are many good things about the church, but there are also dynamics at play that could, if left unchecked, rip the church apart and destroy its witness. And so the letter ends with a cliffhanger. What will the Corinthians do, will they listen to Paul and repent, or will they ignore him and continue to let the cancers they have spread through their church body?

But more than that, God loves this Corinthian church and Paul loves the Corinthian Church too – all of them. Not just those who side with him, but all of them. He is a good apostolic father, he has no favourites. The rich and the poor, the married and the unmarried, the fervent and the backsliding, the more charismatically gifted and the less charismatically gifted, the presentable ones and the un-presentable ones, the strong and the weak... He longs for them ALL to know God better and to mature in the love of the God who has loved and called them to live with Him forever.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Fix Your Eyes On Resurrection Glory - Notes on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Paul has spent the bulk of this letter answering the questions the Corinthian Christians have asked him and correcting their dodgy practice after hearing what has been going on. Now he wants to take their eyes off all these secondary issues and onto what really matters.

See "Dead Come Alive" by "Full of Eyes," here.

Verses 1-2: An Appeal In Love.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of their opinions were on the various issues, Paul wants to fix their eyes on the gospel he preached.  He is nervous that their pursuit of all these secondary things, whilst good in themselves, is rendering their understanding of Jesus and their proclamation of him, incoherent. As when Jesus told the parable of the sower, (Matthew 13:22), he said: As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.  When all is said and done, we must be absolutely clear that the Cross of Jesus is the foundation of our identity (who we are now) and the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our hope (where we are going).

Verses 3-4: The Big Picture
The beginnings of the first Christian creed.  Paul isn't giving them his own opinions, he is reminding them of the big picture of history, which is not only that the death and resurrection had happened, but that it was predicted and prophesied hundreds, even thousands of years before it happened. The good news of the gospel blesses us, but it does not serve us, we serve the gospel.  Ask not how the gospel is relevant to your life and rather ask how you can make your life relevant to the gospel, for, in the end, it's all that matters.

Verses 5-8: Appearances Evoking Faith
Paul cites a number of different occasions where Jesus appeared to people after his resurrection.  The list is neither chronological nor exhaustive, so what is Paul's editing principle here? Probably the best clue is in 1 Cor 15:12. It would appear some in the church no longer believe the resurrection. So he cites a list of instances where those who did not believe were lovingly confronted and brought / restored to faith by Jesus himself:
  • Peter (Cephas): Matthew 16:23, 26:69-75 John 21:15-19
  • The Disciples / Apostles: Mark 16:9-14
  • The 500+ crowd: Matthew 28:17
  • James, Jesus' brother - tradition say that did not believe his brother to be the Messiah until after the resurrection, but then became one of the pillars of the fledgling Jerusalem church: Acts 15:13, Galatians 2:9
  • Paul: Acts 9.
Verses 9-11: Grace Slays Self Importance and Cultivates Obedience.
Just as we did not choose the time and place of our physical birth, neither did we pick and choose the time of our spiritual birth.  Paul was out to destroy God's beloved bride - the church, yet God not only had mercy on him but also turned him into (arguably) the most eloquent presenter of the gospel (after Jesus) the world has ever seen.  That kind of mercy can only cultivate obedience. There is no room for complacency or triumphalism.

Questions:
  • Are you so busy pursuing the "good things of life" that your understanding of and witness to the gospel is becoming incoherent?
  • Do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  If so, why doesn't it shape your life priorities as much as it should?  What are the excuses you are making?
  • Is your expectation in life that the gospel serves us, or that we serve the gospel as a response to grace?
  • If the grace of God is really that good, why do we get so puffed up, and why are we so sluggish to obey God's commands?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Some Notes and Questions from Sam Alberry’s Sermon 12 February 2017

You can find Sam’s sermon along with some of the Q and A, here.

Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus is the person in whom all of God’s promises to humanity are fulfilled. Repentance is a total turn around in direction – like a car going the wrong way down the motorway will eventually hit a wall of other vehicles unless it turns round, we must repent before we are hit by the juggernaut of God’s kingdom purpose.

Question: What does repentance look like in a life?  In your life?

Matthew 15:19-20 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Our culture tells us we are lost and that we need to look inside our hearts to find the real authentic us and that once found, we must celebrate and express that. Jesus says the opposite; that looking at our hearts will only confuse and delude us because our hearts are corrupted.

Question: How much time do you spend listening to other voices (including your own) defining you? How much do you listen to what Jesus says about you? Is there anything that needs to change?

Matthew 19:3-6 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
19:10-12 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Jesus avoids being trapped by the Pharisees by not answering their question directly, but by looking at God’s original intention for marriage – that it be one man and one woman in an exclusive lifelong union. This is a high calling, one that leaves the disciples gobsmacked. All of us are skewed (not straight) in our sexuality, all of us are broken. No one has sexual desires that are 100% godly all the time. All of us need Christ’s love and power to reconcile and restore us. If we cannot embrace Christ’s teaching on marriage, then the only legitimate pathway is celibacy – which is also a high calling. There can be many and varied reasons why people might be eunuchs (live celibately). In marriage we see the shape of the gospel (Christ and his Church). In celibacy, we see the sufficiency of the gospel (Christ and his family of the church are enough for me).

Question: What does this teaching provoke in you? Why is Jesus so black and white about this? What does he want us to see? What implications does it have for you and your relationships? How can we support each other in this?

Mark 8:34-35 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

The only time Jesus uses “self” before any word is in “self-denial.” The world says hold on to all you have for as long as you can. Jesus says lose your life to me – the one you were made for - and you will become more you than you ever realised you could be.

Question: Why is self-denial so hard? Does it feel like God is “crucifying you” over anything in your life at the moment as you learn to follow him wholeheartedly? If not, why not? Are you really counting the cost of being a disciple? Do you believe that in losing yourself to Jesus, you become the real you?

Mark 10:28-30 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

The hardest ties to leave behind are relational, but Jesus makes the a promise that he expects his people to deliver on his behalf, namely that those who renounce their old life and its relational ties to follow him will be richly rewarded on a relational level by being welcomed into a family that is so good, it far outweighs both the good you thought you had in your old life and the persecution you now get for following Jesus. Our culture confuses sex and intimacy. You can live without sex, but you cannot live without intimacy (deep friendship or kinship). If the church is not a place of deep intimacy / fellowship then it cannot be surprised when people fall into bad relationships of all kinds, but especially sexual ones.

Question: Have you experienced the depth of relationship in church life that Jesus promises here since you became a Christian? If not, why not? (Be honest, not accusatory.) How can you be obedient to Jesus and fulfil his promise to others of deep, intimate friendship / kinship?

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

This is a weird metaphor in a culture that has lots of different staples – potato, rice etc, but Jesus wants to be our daily bread, our sustenance for the journey of life. In our culture of romantic love – we often put expectations on others to complete us in ways they were never meant to fulfil. That is idolatry – only Jesus can truly satisfy and sustain us.

Question: Do you look to Jesus as your soul/sole source of strength, or do you unfairly put a burden of expectation on others they were never designed to fulfil?