Sunday, 5 August 2018

Discipleship: Be Humble (2 Samuel 7.18-29 and Luke 14.1-11)




Introduction

Imagine a dozen radio sets all tuned to different stations and all playing at the same time. Many competing voices, some clearer, some muffled, some louder, some quieter, but all talking over each other. And each is telling you two things; how you should live and how you should see yourself. 

·         Education says, “Be curious. Expand yourself.”
·         Religion says, “Be good. Behave yourself.”  
·         Humanism says, “Be important. Believe in yourself.”
·         Consumerism says, “Be fulfilled. Treat yourself.”
·         Facebook says, “Be attractive. Market yourself.”
·         Ego says, “Be confident. Assert yourself.”


That’s our world. And amid all these voices, and many more, Jesus says, “Be my disciple. Humble yourself.”

What Is Humility?

How do we humble ourselves? Some people think that humility means putting themselves down. But being humble is not self-degradation. It’s a realistic self-assessment and a willingness to serve others.

In Philippians 2 it says, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought.”

Humility is ‘not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less’.

Humility is actually attractive. It’s cringeworthy when people sing their own praises. We warm much more to modest winners and unassuming heroes.

It’s said that the great boxer Muhammad Ali was once asked by a stewardess to buckle up as the plane was about to take off. Never inhibited about publicising his greatness, Ali is supposed to have replied, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” She just smiled and said, “Superman don’t need no airplane!” So, with a few sniggering passengers looking on, the story goes that he meekly did as he was told and buckled up.

Christ Exalting, Self-Abasing

None of us would talk to a stewardess like that I’m sure, but pride can be a massive issue for Christians.

I have personally witnessed church leaders boast in just about everything: size of congregation, prominent members, church architecture, heritage, musical tradition, liturgy, vestments, lack of vestments, influence, finances, diversity of activities, and the name they have made for themselves...

But God shares his glory with no one. If we seek to make a name for ourselves instead of him he may have to humble us. Humility is one of the defining marks of discipleship.

David’s prayer in 2 Samuel 7 is beautiful. I love it. It’s a response to God who has just made fantastic promises. He’s going to anoint David and establish him as king. He’s going to bless his royal line forever.

And David is overwhelmed. He says, “Who am I that you want to give me all this? I’m a nobody from a nothing family in the middle of nowhere. Every good thing I have is only because of your kindness and grace.”

He magnifies God’s greatness and stresses his own unimportance. Without God he has nothing. He humbles himself as needy and exalts God as all-sufficient.

When he was a student, the American radical Christian Shane Claiborne phoned the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta asking if could visit one summer as he explored his faith and sought meaning and purpose in life.

He calls at 2 a.m. so it would be daytime in India. The phone answers with a simple “Hello.” Thinking he might have the wrong number, he launches into a long spiel and when he eventually pauses for breath there’s a muffled, ”This is the Missionaries of Charity. This is Mother Teresa speaking.” And she simply says, “Come!”

He spent ten weeks there. In his book The Irresistible Revolution he says this: “People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Sometimes it’s like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery, like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget – her feet. Her feet were deformed. Each morning I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. One day a Sister explained, ‘Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet.’ Years of loving her neighbour as herself deformed her feet.”

That’s extreme humility and, to be honest, none of us will ever hold a candle to Mother Teresa. But when I was growing up, if people were asked about the person whose life they most admired, the answer was usually ‘Mother Teresa’.

But her life was one of self-denial, not self-promotion or self-fulfilment. And in that, she was so like Jesus.

What Does Jesus Say?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is invited to a dinner party. It says it was at the house of a prominent Pharisee. It will have been a cold buffet, because cooking was classified as work and that was not allowed on the sabbath.

These kinds of events were commonplace. The host would invite a whole bunch of well-connected guests, (no plebs, no riffraff, no poor people, no great unwashed), and everyone would be working the room, making sure they were hobnobbing with people of influence, elbowing their way in to be seen with the great and the good.

People in our day are just as eager to raise their social status, by being with the right people, dressing for success, being seen with the latest phone or showing off a new trophy wife. This is a snare. Do you seek to impress people rather than serve them?

It is surprising to see Jesus on the Pharisees’ turf after he had denounced them so many times. But he is not afraid to face them even though he knows their purpose is to trick him.

It’s a set up. Jesus is being closely watched. They bring in a disabled man for a bit of sport. He’s got oedema, an abnormal accumulation of fluid in bodily tissues which can cause severe pain. 

Will Jesus rise to the bait and heal this poor man on the holy day of rest? Of course he will. In the Gospels, Jesus is always willing and able to heal. 

But before he does, he asks a confrontational question. Is there anything in the Bible that says you cannot heal someone in pain on Saturdays?

If you look, there’s nothing in here about it at all. There’s a shedload of man-made rules outside the Bible that they could quote chapter and verse on.

So the ambiance at this fancy soiree gets a bit awkward. Jesus shames them for their hard-heartedness. Twice, (v4 and v6) it says it all goes quiet as people look at their shoes.

Not for the first time, Jesus spoils the party. He is discourteous to his host, he ruins the atmosphere and he makes everyone feel uncomfortable.. I expect some of those high society guests were thinking “Who invited him?”

We need to understand this. Almost all self-respecting people in his day found Jesus thoroughly offensive. Half an hour into every high society bash Jesus was invited to, the host had already made up his mind he’d never be invited back!

But he never once humiliated the poor and lowly. What he did was humble the arrogant and sanctimonious.

I labour the point, because some people imagine that if Jesus came to tea, he’d be wonderfully tactful, and just affirm everything that makes me feel good.

Wait; if we invite him into our lives, he will point out attitudes and hypocrisies in us and say, “What about this then? This needs to go doesn’t it? I can fix this. Let me help.”

As today, table etiquette in high society was complex. Imagine going to tea at Buckingham Palace; how at ease would you be?

I’d be sneakily looking at all the posher-looking guests for a steer. Which cutlery do you use for what? How do you hold the spoon? Are you allowed to wipe the leftover sauce on the plate with your bread roll? How do you eat peas; do you scoop them up or mash them?

The Queen’s father, George VI, was once invited to a banquet not far from here and, on his right, was seated the General Secretary of the Durham Miners’ Union.

One of the courses was fruit, for which there was a bowl provided to rinse the fingers. Well, the gentleman to the king’s right had never seen anything like it. After eating the fruit with his soup spoon, he picked up the finger bowl, put it to his lips and noisily slurped the water.

There was general embarrassment, the odd gasp and a few sniggers, but straight away, George VI picked up his bowl and did exactly the same. That’s class isn’t it?

Incidentally, someone wrote a poem about the best way to eat peas, which I think settles the matter.

I eat my peas with honey, 
I’ve done so all my life. 
It makes the peas taste funny, 
But it sticks them to the knife. (Anon).

In Jesus’ culture, there were no name cards on the tables or seating plan. So everyone would be jockeying for the best places. The nearer the host you sat, you more important you would look. 

In v7 Jesus notices that some people are making for the most prestigious seats. On several occasions Jesus mentions to his disciples that the Pharisees loved to have the places of honour and the important seats.

So he tells a simple story about a wedding reception. You're going to look a right Charlie sitting down at the top table, reserved for the bridal party aren't you? The best man is going to tell you to get lost in front of everyone and you’ll be left with the plastic folding chair from IKEA in the corner.

And Jesus says it clearly in v11; in God’s kingdom, service is more important than status. “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” he says.  And Jesus tells you this because he loves you.

This is a running theme in Scripture. Psalm 138.6, Proverbs 3.34, 1 Peter 5.5, James 4.6 all say it. “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God resists the proud but lifts up the humble.”

So if you want God to obstruct you, to close doors in your face, and frustrate you – here's what to do; strut around like the great I Am and never apologise or admit you're wrong. Do that and you’ll find spiritual progress frustratingly elusive. 

God is looking for disciples who are unassuming, modest, unpretentious and down-to-earth, who aren’t snooty about the company they keep, who open their doors to everyone.

These are the people he invests in. “God raises up the humble.”

Ending

You may be wondering to yourself, am I humble? Am I proud? It’s not easy to self-diagnose. So I thought I’d end with five statements. I wonder where you’d put yourself on a scale of 1-10?

1 means “this is nothing like me at all and 10 means “that is just totally me.”

1.     I feel I am a better person than others
2.     I like lots of attention 
3.     I get annoyed when people do not applaud my achievements
4.     I feel jealous and critical towards successful people
5.     I find it hard to admit I’m wrong and have to win arguments

If you’re tending to score highly, Jesus wants to change that and he can. Maybe you’d like to pray about that with someone at the end of the service.

If you’re scoring low, good, you are becoming like Jesus…
…who though in his very nature fully God,
took the very nature of a servant…
and humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – 
even death on a cross!
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…
and every tongue acknowledge 
that Jesus Christ is Lord.


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 5 August 2018








Sunday, 29 July 2018

Starting Badly, Finishing Well (Matthew 21.28-31)



You’ll be relieved to hear that I am not going to speak for long. I just want to say a few words about our journey here over the last six months.

Phase One of our reordering and extension project was supposed to be the simplest of the four we are planning. It was meant to take six weeks and be all done by Easter. In fact, it took six months and we only finished it last week.

The reason is simple. Our main contractor went bust before the work was completed. We had settled up front 90% of the total bill, but we then learned that the subcontractors had not got paid.

It became very complex legally and financially - and we had to more or less finish the work off ourselves.

At the same time, though we were assured that we had no liability towards the subcontractors, we felt very unhappy about good, local professionals working on our church building, doing a fantastic job, and going home with nothing in their pockets. 

Ours is not a rich church, and have practically no reserves to draw on. But we felt we should find the money and offer to pay them again. As soon as we took that decision, a number of people came to me offering serious money from their own savings so we could cover our subcontractors’ shortfall.

And I am pleased to say that all those who accepted our offer have now received their money.

We’re going to end with Amazing Grace in a few minutes. Grace means an extravagant gift, freely and lovingly given. It's a word that describes how God relates to us.

The short story we just heard, is one of many that Jesus told. Two lads; one said "no" but then helped. The other said "yes" but forgot his promise and did nothing. One started well but finished badly. The other started badly but finished well.

Our project started well, went badly wrong, but crucially it has finished well. We’ve learned this year that however much things go wrong, with God, it can always work out fine in the end.

I wonder if there are people here today at a kind of crossroads. Maybe in an important relationship, or a project, or a life choice, or on a spiritual journey...

You may have begun well, everything was going fine, but then life got in the way. Stuff happened. And now it's all gone a bit pear shaped. Could today be the day when you turn around get back on track?

Or perhaps you started badly. Like Gary who spoke earlier. His story is like many here where, to be honest, no one’s putting our name forward for the Queen’s birthday honours.

But however seriously we’ve messed up, however low we’ve sunk, however far we’ve strayed, while we’re alive, it’s never too late for God to turn it round.

That’s what this place is all about; it’s just ordinary, broken people whom God is putting back together.

The most important thing in life is not that you start out OK, but that you finish well. And Jesus makes that all possible…


Short talk given at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 29 July 2018

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Disipleship: Be Confident (Romans 8.28-39 and John 10.2-30)



Introduction

The first human to fly in space, Yuri Gagarin, was asked when he returned to earth “did you see God?” They say that he replied, “No, I didn’t see God anywhere,” which was heralded by the Soviet Union as clear evidence for the non-existence of God.

But in fact, there is no record anywhere of Gagarin saying any such thing; the words were put in his mouth by the soviet news agency in their report on his mission.

The first American to fly in space, John Glenn, was apparently asked the same question when he returned to earth. “Did you see God?” And you can read online saying that he replied, “No, I didn’t see God, but I would have done had I stepped out of my space suit!”

But again, it seems that this is completely made up, as there is no trace of this question, or answer, in any interview with John Glenn anywhere in the NASA archives.

It’s like Winston Churchill said, “the problem with quotes on the Internet, is that most of them are made up…”

This culture of fake news and urban legends has two consequences.

Number one, people naively make things worse by sharing and passing on bogus quotes and spurious facts, thus unwittingly making things worse.

If I pass on every silly bit of hearsay or Internet rumour I am just letting everyone know that I’m gullible and easily led; and no one will take my faith seriously.

Number two, people become instinctively sceptical; it’s like when one politician says, “We’ve increased spending on health by 6%” and another one from the opposite party says, “No, actually it’s decreased by 8%.” We just don’t take any of these statistics seriously anymore.

Because we’ve become so used to spam stories, true testimony just washes over us as well. And worst of all, I can even become numb to the truth claims of Jesus on my life.

This is a toxic cocktail for followers of Jesus.

In other words, what I’m saying is this: we are living in an age of truth decay. It has a negative and pernicious impact on the strength of our faith.

In a culture of post truth, how can we keep our faith strong and robust? How can we deal with our doubts?

Assured of So Much

Romans 8 is a purple patch in Scripture about how we can be sure of what God thinks about us.  

Verse 28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Verse 29: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

Verse 33: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? Verse 34: “No one will.”

Verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Trouble? Hardship? Persecution? Disaster? Poverty? Danger? Death?

Verse 38: Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

These are not vague fancies and empty platitudes. These are copper-bottomed promises from God himself, paid for in full by the blood of Christ.

The New Testament is intentional in its language. It makes it absolutely plain that says what he means and he means what he says.

As if you need reminding, it was the World Cup final last Sunday. If you could have walked around the stadium in Moscow a few hours before the match you would have seen some Croatian and French fans with tickets, and others empty handed and desperate to buy one by whatever means.

The people with tickets would be drinking in bars before the game, reading the official programme and enjoying a bit of banter. Those without tickets would be holding up placards, pacing up and down, and smoking nervously.

Fifteen minutes before kick-off, the supporters with tickets would be really excited and those without would be frantic and stressed.

If you knew that in fifteen minutes you would have to stand before the holy God, who is described in the Bible as a consuming fire, to learn your eternal fate, how would you look and feel?

An angel opens a door, walks over to you and says, “Welcome to the theatre of judgement. Relax…” A big screen descends and the projector starts a countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

This is the film of all your private thoughts from the last week. Everybody you know is in the audience as a special invited guest. It’s This Is Your Real Life. Question; would it be suitable for family viewing? Confession; mine would not be.

After the show, (in my case an X-rated horror film, after which no one would speak to me again), would you sweat anxiously and pace up and down whilst you waited for the verdict?

Would you say to yourself, “I don't know what God's going to say - will it be “Welcome home,” or will it be “I never knew you?” Or would you be calm, and assured of what the outcome will be?

If I could hold up in front of you a special mirror, in which everyone sees themselves inside and out as God sees you, what would you see?

If you are a Christian believer here this morning, because of Jesus, no matter what the film of your inner life contained, you would see the image of someone for whom there is an indelible ‘not guilty’ verdict for the sins of your past. No condemnation.

You would see somebody completely set free from the reign of sin and spiritual death.

You would see someone able to be led by the Holy Spirit.

You would see someone loved from all eternity, a child of God, adopted to be an heir of all the riches of heaven.

Looking closer, you would see that God has given you all you need to be sure that you belong to him. Your eternal security is anchored in him, stretching back into eternity past, before time began - and before you existed.

So you would see someone foreknown by God, predestined by God and chosen by God from before the creation of the world to be like Jesus.

You would see that God himself is on your side and that, therefore, nothing can bring you down.

You would see the image of someone whom God has declared to be inseparable from his love and more than an overcomer.

The Bible says all that about you. This is a true portrait of who you are in Christ - and all of that is from this magnificent chapter of the Bible we call Romans 8.

God has chosen to put all this down in writing because he wants us, he wants you, to be confident about who you are and where you’re going.

How Salvation Works

I know how important this is, because I have spent time with many who struggle with a lack of assurance about the status of their relationship with God. Some have recurring and intense doubts about whether God really loves them.

There may be habitual sin that just seems to have a grip on you that robs you of your joy and peace with God. You may have a paralysing fear as to whether you are a genuine believer at all.

This kind of doubt, questioning your own faith, is a common experience for Christians. It’s not just you. It is the same for all of us.

The reality is that we live in an unseen and ferocious spiritual battle. There is an enemy to contend with and Brian/Erin will be saying more about spiritual warfare next Sunday.

But the Bible says that Jesus “is able to save completely [not partially, not slightly, not to a certain extent; he is able to save completely] those who come to God through him.”

So you don’t have to worry about not being good enough. All that matters is that Jesus is - and always will be - good enough to secure your eternal destiny.

But the starting point is that you and I have to face and accept a hard and humbling fact; the truth is that we are hopelessly and eternally separated from God by our sin and we absolutely deserve to be.

Nobody likes to hear that. It’s hard to find any nice way to say it. But the Bible presents ‘being hopelessly lost in sins’ as the default position of every human being who has ever lived.

But Jesus has made a way. He has done it! God’s word says that it is possible to be born again to a completely new life.

It says, if we turn to Jesus in faith, God speaks an irreversible verdict over our lives as “not guilty.” And in addition to that, he bestows on us the perfect righteousness of Christ.

That means when he looks at you, it’s just like when he looks on his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased.

It says we are reconciled to the God from whom we were estranged because of unbelief and our rebellion against his ways.

It says we are accepted, that God lavishes his love over us, that we are chosen and adopted into God’s family as his children and that we are made heirs forever of every divine promise.

All that is a gift. And it is completely free.

What do you bring to the table? The three z’s. Zero. Zilch. Zip. What part do you have in your salvation from hell and death? None at all.

Some people say, “Yeah, but don’t I need faith to get right with God?” Absolutely!

“So doesn’t my faith, in some small way, achieve my salvation?” Not at all. Let me try and explain.

I am sure you’ve been following the story of the 12 boys and their coach in northern Thailand who got trapped deep in a cave and were dramatically rescued. Wasn’t that a great news story?

I think it’s a perfect picture of what happens when God saves us. 
  • They got lost through their own fault. 
  • I cannot blame anyone else for my spiritual lostness.
  • They were in total darkness. 
  • I was in complete spiritual darkness. 
  • Someone gave their life in the operation to get them out. 
  • Jesus gave his life in God’s plan to save me.
  • There was only one way out. 
  • There is only one way to spiritual salvation; Jesus.
  • Without the divers’ oxygen tanks and torches each of the thirteen would have no chance. 
  • Without the breath of the Holy Spirit and his illumination I was spiritually dead.
  • The boys entrusted their lives to the divers to deliver them to safety. 
  • I entrusted my life to Christ in faith – in whom is life in all its fullness.

The boys all cooperated with the rescue plan. But did any of them in any sense at all “save themselves”? Absolutely not.

John McLeod Campbell was a Scottish preacher and a brilliant theologian. One day, a friend came to him really troubled and weighed down. God felt distant and remote. He couldn’t feel God’s presence anymore or hear the voice that once seemed so clear. Reading the Bible felt sterile and boring. “Tell me,” he said, “how do you know that you have got hold of God?"

“How do I know that I have got hold of God? I don't always know; but I do know that he always has hold of me!”

Listen to Jesus in our second reading: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

And Yet...

And yet one of the most frequently asked questions for a church leader is, “If I am a Christian, can I lose my salvation?” What if I love the Lord but have a moment of madness or drift off into a whole season of rebellion and foolishness? Can I forfeit eternal life and burn my bridges?

Personally, I don’t think it’s quite the right question. Because salvation is not something we own. Revelation 7.10 says, “Salvation belongs to our God.” It’s a gift that he gives to sinners who don’t deserve it. So if we couldn’t do anything to get it, we cannot do anything to lose it. It’s a treasure that is kept in God, not in us.

Jesus says in John 6.39-40, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose (how many?) none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

So “can I lose my salvation?” is not the right question to ask. Perhaps a better question to ask is, “Will God lose one of his children?” And the answer to that is, “emphatically no.”

Well, what about Judas who was one of Jesus’ disciples? Well, yes, you and I can wilfully wander off and end up rejecting Christ altogether. But no one can snatch us out of his hand if we want to stay there.

We can convert to a false religion and throw his gift of life in all its fullness right back in his face. But no one can snatch us out of his hand if we want to stay there.

We can shipwreck our faith and spiral down into apostasy. But no one can snatch us out of his hand if we want to stay there.

Thomas doubted Christ, Peter denied Christ and John Mark abandoned the work of Christ, but Jesus sought them out and brought them back and restored them - and he is faithful to do the same for us.

But there is no sin so grievous, no crime so heinous, no fate so dreadful, no persecution so fierce that it pulls us away from Christ and his great salvation.

“My Father,” says Jesus, “is greater than all; no one can snatch you out of his hand.”

I’ve laboured this a bit today because we’re looking at what a disciple is over this summer and the life of a disciple is a right old battle. It’s carnage at times. As we’ll see next week, the devil fights back and he doesn’t fight fair. And in all those ups and downs it’s important to know we can be confident; not in ourselves and our own righteousness, but in Christ and his.

Ending: Your Portrait in Christ

Some years ago, I broke my glasses. For about a week, while my new glasses were being made, I had to use a scratched, old-fashioned pair I used to wear in the 1990’s and left lying in a drawer. My eyesight had deteriorated a bit since when I used to wear them so when I finally got my new glasses everything looked crisp, sharp and focused, like seeing a beautiful world for the first time.

When we talk about salvation, we need new lenses, because we’ve heard it all before and it’s kind of gone blurred over time. We’ve got to see it from God’s perspective.

Let me finish by telling you what God sees when he looks at you:

Your story with God goes right back… not just to when you were born, but actually to before you were conceived, before time even began, before the universe, before creation, to a point when only God was.

It was then that God delighted in you and chose you. He had it in his mind even then, because he loved you, that he would be pleased to adopt you into his family, knowing you would have good days and bad days, knowing - like everyone else - that you would turn out a sinner, knowing you would never really deserve it. All this was in his plan from the start.

And he wants you to enjoy these truths as a confident and loved child, fully persuaded that he will deliver on his promises to you.

Let’s stand to pray…


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 22 July 2018


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Discipleship: Be Fruitful (John 15.1-8, 16-17)




Introduction

Here’s a little teaser for you; this is a true story. A young man called Andrew Gibson worked in office admin at the London department store, Selfridges. One day, when the proprietor tycoon Mr. Selfridge himself was there, the phone rings, so Andrew answers. 

The caller asks to speak to Mr. Selfridge. Andrew with his hand over the mouthpiece says “It’s for you sir.” But Selfridge doesn’t want to talk on the phone so he waves his hand and says, “Tell him I’m out.”

But the thing is, Andrew is a Christian. So truth is important to him. And he wants to honour Jesus Christ at work. But this is the big cheese himself. What if he fires him on the spot for insubordination? And look, it’s just a small and trivial lie really. After all, he would only be obeying orders. 

What do you think you would do? 

”Tell him I’m out” says Mr. Selfridge. Andrew takes a deep breath, holds the covered receiver towards the boss and says, “You tell him you’re out!” So Mr. Selfridge takes the call, but he is furious with this junior nobody talking to him like that. 

When the call is over, Mr. Selfridge lets rip. But Andrew says, “With respect sir, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you.” 

From that moment onwards, Selfridge had the highest regard for and trust in Andrew Gibson. 

That’s discipleship. I think what Andrew did is pretty well what Jesus would have done. And discipleship is learning to live like Jesus.

We’re continuing our series on discipleship today. Remember what we’ve already covered; God wants you to be teachable, and prayerful. 

He wants you to be faithful – never giving up, and welcoming – always focused on the needs of others, and prepared; ready to tell others about your faith. 

As someone once said, “Sometimes the best evangelism is simply telling someone you’re a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.” 

What Is Fruitfulness?

Today, I want to talk about fruitfulness. Basically, good news, God wants your life to be fruitful. 

That’s what we all want as well isn’t it? I mean how many of us here today would prefer our lives to be barren, sterile, unproductive and wasted? We all want our lives to count for something. 

Fruitfulness is one of the most important and repeated ideas in the Bible in describing what God wants for us.

I'll quickly run through just a few examples:

In the first pages of the Bible, God blesses the first couple and says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” 

In Matthew 3 it says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Someone once said, “I’ve decided that I’m not going to focus on my past any more. So if I owe you any money, that’s too bad!” That’s not exactly producing fruit in keeping with repentance is it?  

In Matthew 7 Jesus says you can tell if people are spiritually sound or sick by the type of fruit in their lives. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.” That’s why, in Mark 11, Jesus cursed a fig tree because there was no fruit on it. 

Galatians 5 shows what good fruit looks like in terms of character; “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

In Matthew 13, Jesus says that those who hear the word of God and understand it give a harvest of up to a hundredfold what they started with. Always remember, a Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.

Psalm 1 says the same thing really; if you think about God's word night and day, and take delight in its life-changing truth, you’re like a tree planted by streams of water yielding fruit in season. It says, “Whatever you do, whatever you do prospers.”

God wants you to be fruitful. He has appointed you for fruitfulness. In our short passage in John’s Gospel this morning there are no fewer than 8 references to bearing fruit. 

I wonder if this feels a bit overwhelming? People sometimes tell me that when they look at their life they basically feel unproductive, and of little use to God. “What have I got to show for it?” Do you ever feel that way?

William Cowper was a poet in the 18thCentury. His mother died when he was just 6. He was bullied relentlessly at school as a young boy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was a sensitive and gloomy soul, prone to deep depression and even suicidal thoughts. 

He had to be sectioned at one particularly low point. In fact, he attempted to end his own life on three occasions but failed each time. He couldn’t even succeed at that! Question: in what possible sense could you accurately describe William Cowper’s life as fruitful? How would you encourage him?

He became good friends with John Newton, the converted slave trader, who wrote Amazing Grace, and who became a kind of father figure. He saw that Cowper was deeply despondent about what he saw as his pointless and fruitless life. 

But Newton had the perspective to say to him, “Look, I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I want to be. I am not what Ihope to be. But, thank God, I am not what I used to be.” 

Apples don’t grow in a day. You can only see fruit in your life when you look back over time and then you can see how far God has taken you. 

Cowper wrote some of the most anointed and best-loved hymns of his generation, many of which are still sung today. (Well, they are at 9 o’clock!) He was one of the pioneers of Romantic poetry. Wordsworth greatly admired him. Coleridge described him as "the best modern poet.” 

His life was impactful too in ways he would never guess; he was a leading campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade and in the end his camp won the day. 

Martin Luther King often quoted him in his civil rights movement. There’s even a window honouring him in Westminster Abbey. Much of this fruit William Cowper never lived to see – or was too unwell to appreciate it.

So fruitfulness doesn’t have to look like dazzling success, and basking in the adulation of adoring crowds. It doesn’t work like that.

I Am the True Vine

A few years ago, Kathie and I were in the Charente region of France where, mile after mile, there are sunlit vineyards growing grapes to make cognac. Such a beautiful sight... Vineyards are a foretaste of heaven.

The founding father of the USA Benjamin Franklin once said, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Hmmmm.

Well, come with me to Jerusalem; it’s a spring evening and it’s the night of Jesus’ arrest; Jesus knows that this time tomorrow he will be dead and buried. 

In the very last verse of John 14, Jesus and his disciples leave the upper room and they all head for the Garden of Gethsemane under the full Passover moon. All but one in fact; the traitor Judas has already slipped away to betray him. 

The clock is ticking and the temperature is rising. In just an hour or two, Judas will hand Jesus over to a mob who will put him before a kangaroo court to be sentenced to death. Then, wretched and remorseful, Judas will go and hang himself. 

They head past the main temple gates which are adorned with a huge ornamental cluster of grapes overlaid with pure gold. 

Why? Because a vineyard was the emblem of the nation of Israel at that time. Some countries are symbolised by various impressive beasts; England by three lions, the USA by a bald eagle, Russia by a bear and France, unfathomably, by a cockerel. Why would a nation want to choose a chicken as a national symbol? Anyway…

Other countries are symbolised by some kind of flora; Canada by a maple leaf, New Zealand by a fern, Scotland by a thistle, Wales by a leek… and Israel by a vine. In fact, you can look this up online, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to this day has a large cluster of grapes in its logo.

They head down into the Kidron Valley, which is full of vines. And then Jesus stops. 

And he says, “I am the true vine.” Not Israel which was planted in the land but proved a constant disappointment. “But I will give to God the fruit he’s looking for.” 

We aren’t that familiar with grapevines in this country; they grow much better in sunnier climates.

The trunk of a vine grows up out of the ground to about waist height where it ends in a kind of gnarl or knot from which arms (or branches) grow in either direction along a trellis, attaching themselves with curly shoots called tendrils. 

The trellis allows air to circulate and it exposes the fruit to the maximum amount of sunshine. If a vine is well tended, it will give large clusters of grapes. Jesus says that God his Father does the tending; he wants there to be fruitfulness in your life.

I picture Jesus running his hand up a vine trunk, along the running branch, and saying “This is what I am like. And my Father is like the one who trains the vine to run along the trellis. He cares for it. And he prunes it, cutting it back, so it will be even more fruitful. 

And you, well you’re like these branches here. Because, think about it, unless a branch is actually attached to the overall plant, it’ll get no sap running in from the roots and it will just wither and die.” 

He holds up a bunch. Here’s the point he makes: “If I were to lop this off, what are the chances these grapes will be healthy in a month’s time? No chance. They’ll be shrivelled and wrinkled and covered in fruit flies. 

It has to stay connected to the overall grapevine doesn’t it? Well, that’s what it’s like for you. On your own you will produce zero fruit. But if you stay joined to me, you will produce loads.”

The word Jesus uses here eight times is “remain.” Remain in me. Other versions translate it “abide in me.” 

We sing Abide with Meat funerals and before the FA Cup final but it’s got nothing to do with football and little to do with passing away; it’s about life, not death. 

This is the secret to abundance and fruitfulness and growth and blessing and plenty and overflow of holy joy and the Lord’s favour; it’s you living in Jesus and Jesus living in you.

Sometimes people feel nervous about v6. “If you do not remain in me,” says Jesus, “you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

Could he be talking about me? Could I be taken out of Christ and eternally rejected for not being up the grade? In fact, remember the context; he’s talking about Judas. There is such a thing as a categorical rejection of Jesus, a settled and determined apostasy, from which there is no way back.

But if, unlike the traitor, you remain in Jesus and he in you, you will bear much fruit, he says.

Remaining in Jesus

How do you know that you are remaining or abiding in Jesus? What is the evidence for it? 

I hope you don’t worry endlessly as a disciple of Jesus about whether you’re OK or not. We’ll talk about assurance of salvation in two weeks’ time.

The first letter of John, at the back of your Bibles, lists four clear evidences that you are remaining in Jesus and I’ll close by pointing out what they are.

First of all, you know you are remaining in Jesus if you believe that he is the Son of God. 1 John 4.15; “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” 

If you think that Jesus was nothing more than a good moral teacher, who pushed his luck too far, died young in a tragic misunderstanding and whose dusty remains lie undiscovered somewhere in the Middle-East, I’m sorry to break the news to you, but you’re not yet remaining in Christ and there’s some way to go yet.

Jesus is alive. Or else everything we do in church is pointless.

Secondly, you know you are remaining in Jesus if you love others. 1 John 4.12; “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” 

There is a common assumption – but a mistaken one – that as long as I have a relationship with Jesus everything is OK. Some people say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t do church.” I don’t buy that. 

Grapes always and only grow in clusters. Think about that. 

Jesus said, “Love one another. Lay down your lives for each other.” He loved the church and gave his life for her. If we really love Jesus, what’s important to him will be important to us too.

Thirdly, you know you are remaining in Jesus if you’re keeping God’s commandments. 1 John 3.24 says, “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them.” 

In other words, I want to live in obedience to his will, as much as I understand it. I want to live right. And when I fail, it feels bad and I come back to God and say sorry.

And fourthly, you know you are remaining in Jesus if you have received the Holy Spirit. 1 John 4.13; “This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit.”

In other words, faith has come to life at some point in your life; this means something to you. It makes you glad when someone becomes a Christian. You get excited about answers to prayer. Basically, the lights are on.

I got an email the other week from someone on our Messy Church team whose friend told her that she so desperately wanted her children and grandchildren to come to faith. And she had started praying about two months ago that her grown up sons would come to know Jesus.

Last month, one of her sons, who lives in Billingham, called her to say that his whole family; him, his wife and their two children had been invited by a very nice friend from All Saints’ to this thing called Messy Church – and so they went along – and they loved it, and he wanted to say a huge thank you to the Messy Church team. 

Now that’s brilliant isn’t it? Fruitfulness for that praying mother. Fruitfulness for that that brave friend who gave the invitation. Fruitfulness for the team at Messy Church. 

And we trust, in time, fruitfulness in a whole family coming to know and love Jesus as Saviour and Lord. If that little testimony lights a little spark in you when you hear that, that’s the Holy Spirit.

Ending

Do you want to commit your life afresh to Christ; to be filled with the Holy Spirit today?

Is this perhaps the first time you want to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, to joyfully give your life to him? You will never be the same.

Is this a moment to ask God for greater fruitfulness in your life? To pray until breakthrough like that mum for her adult son? Or to step out in faith like that friend who invited a family to Messy Church? 

God wants you to be a fruitful disciple.

Let’s stand to pray…


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 8 July 2018

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Lord Is My Rock (Psalm 18.1-6 and 1 Corinthians 10.1-4)



Introduction

Well, having looked at that well-known and much-loved theme of God the Shepherd last week, today we’re looking at another image of God from the Psalms; one certainly less familiar to us.

Personally, I have preached many times on the Lord as shepherd, and Jesus the good shepherd, indeed the great shepherd, the chief shepherd. But as I searched with the aid of a computer this week though my whole preaching career (826 in English and 465 in French) I found, as I suspected, that I have never once given a single talk on the theme of God as a rock before today.

It’s perhaps a strange thing to compare God to. Rocks are heavy, lifeless, usually unattractive, often in the way, dull, inanimate objects. What inspired anyone to ever think that God was like a rock?

In popular culture today we think about dependable, reliable, supportive people and say “Oh, he’s an absolute rock.”

Queen Elizabeth 1, who had to assert her authority in a man’s world, famously said, “Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.”

We all know people who are steady as a rock, hard as rock and solid as a rock.

Conversely, when a relationship goes badly wrong, couples talk of their marriage hitting the rocks. When you’re as discouraged as you can get you hit rock bottom. And if you are faced with an impossible dilemma we say you’re between a rock and a hard place.

And yet 33 times in the Bible this is what God is named.

"Ascribe greatness to our God, the Rock! His work is perfect, and all His ways are just” (says Moses in Deuteronomy 32).

"You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation” (says Ethan in Psalm 89).

“For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the rock of your refuge” (says Isaiah in Isaiah 17).

And then here in our Psalm today, Psalm 18, David says, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

I want to say today that God as a rock means three distinct and important things.

1) God, the Rock, is my Fortress for Perspective

Firstly, God, the rock, is my fortress for perspective. This is what David says in the first half of v2. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.”

He’s thinking of a steep, inaccessible, natural defence that is hard to climb but from which there is a great view and a natural strategic advantage. It’s easier to throw spears from a great height at an advancing enemy than it is to throw them up a sheer cliff as you attempt to scale it to attack it.

If ever you travel to the Holy Land for a guided tour, it’s likely they’ll take you on a bus trip from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the Earth’s surface.

And close to the Dead Sea, there is a huge, isolated rock plateau called Masada. King Herod the Great (that’s the one who tried to kill the infant Christ) built himself a palace on top of it. It’s a natural fortification, and at about 400 metres high, it’s impregnable. You can also see for miles.

Our Psalm says that is what God is like. If you build your life on him, your perspective changes.

When God is your rock, your fortress, you don't tell God how big your problems are; you tell the problems how big God is.

James Irwin was lunar module pilot on Apollo 15, an astronaut who walked and drove on the lunar surface and picked up moon rocks in his hands. But he said, “Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”

When God is your rock, your fortress, your perspective on everything changes forever.

2) God, the Rock, is my Shelter for Protection

Secondly, God, the rock, is my shelter for protection. This is what David says in the second half of v2. “My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.”

If you’ve ever read the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel, you know he spent many years on the run from an insanely jealous, insecure, controlling king called Saul. He pursued David with armies, with spears, with bows and arrows. He hunted him down with dogs.

There is an introductory note in our Bibles before v1 of this Psalm, and it says, “Of David, the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him form the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”

David had many close shaves. And whenever Saul and his men got too close for comfort, David would find concealed caves and secret hideouts in the rocky Judean desert and seek refuge in God.

David Livingstone, the famous missionary to Africa, tells how he was once chased up a tree and besieged by a pride of lions. He said the tree was so small that he was barely out of reach of these ferocious beasts.

He said they would stand on their back feet and roar and shake the little tree, and that he could actually feel their hot breath as they went for him. "But," his diary says this; "I had a good night and felt happier and safer in that little tree besieged by lions, in the savannah of Africa, in the will of God, than I would have been out of the will of God in England."

Trusting in God does not mean that none of the things you are afraid of will happen to you. They may well, but when you turn to God, the change in you will mean that whatever you fear will turn out in the end to be no bug deal to you.

3) God, the Rock, is my Foundation for Life

Thirdly, God, the rock, is my foundation for life. Perhaps this is the kind of place Jesus was thinking about when he told his story in Matthew 7.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”

If you build your life on the permanent, eternal, solid bedrock of Jesus and his word, you have a wholesome, sound foundation for life which defines your principles, your morals, your ideals and your destiny. You will live by permanent tried and tested values, not muddled, fashionable opinions.

Ending

As I end, I want to say a few words on our second reading from 1 Corinthians 10. It refers to when the Israelites were journeying from Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land. Twice, they ran out of water. Twice, Moses got water out of a rock.

Paul, referring back to this says that the rock was Christ. He doesn’t mean that in his pre-incarnation existence, Jesus was literally a magic mineral.

Every page of the OT is watermarked with previews of Jesus; every prophet a foreshadowing of Jesus the Word of God; every priest a foreshadowing of Jesus the Great High Priest; every king a foreshadowing of Jesus the King of kings; every sacrifice a foreshadowing of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; every holy place a foreshadowing of Christ dwelling with us.

A dry rock in a desert place giving water to a thirsty nation is a foreshadowing of the one who can bring hope out of utter despair and life out of death.  

A fortress for perspective, a shelter for protection, a foundation for life and an abundant supply of life for the desperate – that’s Jesus. Do you trust in him today?

Let’s stand to pray…


Sermon preached at Saint Mary's Long Newton, 10 June 2018