Saturday, 13 January 2018

Hostility All Around (Mark 11.27 - 12.27)


There’s a story about a young boy who asks his father, “Dad, why does the wind blow?” The father thinks about it and says, “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it really.” “Dad, where do the clouds come from?” “I’m not sure, son.” “Dad, how do rainbows form?” “No idea, son.” “Dad, do you mind me asking you all these questions?” “Not at all, lad. How else are you going to learn?”

I was saying to Kathie this week that of all the talks I have prepared in the last 5 years, this is the one I have learned most from by looking at the passage closer. It is full of surprises.

Last year, a report in the Independent noted that children ask 73 questions every day on average. We ask fewer as we get older but life is full of them. Some are more important than others. At one end of the scale there’s “Which brand of butter should I buy?” And at the other, there’s “Are my health struggles life-threatening? Is my relationship breakdown irretrievable? Is this challenge in my job manageable for me? Is this addiction in my life breakable?”

I want you to know that whatever question you throw at Jesus, he can handle it. Nothing fazes him. Nothing bewilders him. Nothing stumps him.

In the Gospels, Jesus is recorded asking 157 different questions. Jesus is always looking for a response from people. But he was asked loads of questions too; possibly as many as he asked.

That is exactly what’s going on in today’s Bible reading. Take a look. For each question Jesus is asked here, he asks one back. It’s like a game of question tennis. 15-love. 15-all. 30-15. 30-all. 30-40. Ooh, advantage Jesus.

And then, a lightning serve from his critics; it looks like it’s going to be an ace, but just when you think he’s in trouble, Jesus sends a devastating backhand return over the net, twice the speed of the serve. And it’s game, set and match Jesus.

Chapters 1-10 of Mark’s Gospel cover a period of about 3 years. But chapters 11-16, over a third of the book, focus on a single… week; the last week of Jesus’ life and the day of his resurrection. Mark’s Gospel is like an express train that’s hurtling along, and then suddenly brakes hard and pulls slower and slower into the station.

We’re going to unpack that one climactic, decisive, explosive week of Jesus’ life in the next three months on Sundays here.

As we saw last week, Jesus has just
·         ridden into Jerusalem on a colt as a servant king,
·         he’s told his mates to take someone’s donkey without asking,
·         he’s vandalised the most iconic religious building in the whole of Judaism,
·         he’s insulted pretty well everyone there by calling them crooks,
·         and he’s caused permanent environmental damage to an unsuspecting tree.

I love Jesus, big time, but I can see why he made enemies! In fact, in our reading, everywhere Jesus turns there is deep, seething antagonism against him.

There are no less than six entirely separate hostile groups here (Chief Priests, Teachers of the Law, Elders, Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees) who all come to confront him.

These groups are very diverse. You’ve got establishment and grassroots, religious and political, clergy and laity, aristocrats and commoners, liberals and arch-traditionalists – they are all rivals in many ways. But they all have one thing in common – they all hate Jesus. They want him dead.

So basically, they ambush him with three carefully planned questions; the first is personal, the second is political, and the third is philosophical. Next week, Gillian will preach on a question that is sincere, where the questioner genuinely wants to know the answer.

But this week, each question has two calculated aims. Jesus’ enemies want to (a) publicly discredit him and get the crowd on their side and (b) they want to make him fall foul of authorities and land himself in trouble.

Actually, much of the hostility that Christians face today follows the same pattern. Some people set out to make us look silly. “You Christians and your imaginary friend, we can’t take seriously people who believe in leprechauns and fairies at the bottom of the garden!” That sort of thing...

But others claim that our faith is no laughing matter; it’s poisonous, we are dangerous and bad for society. “If there were no Christians there would be fewer wars in the world, all you people do is spread your hate” is a sentiment I come across quite often.

1) Who Do You Think You Are? (11.27 – 12.12)

So let’s look, one by one, at these questions that Jesus faces. How does he answer them? Life is great when everyone loves you, but how do you deal with hostility? What does Jesus do?

The first hostile question (in v28) is personal. It’s Passover week, there are huge crowds in the temple. Everybody is watching. There is tension in the air as in walk Jesus’ critics, with faces like thunder. We’re talking about (v27) the chief priests, scribes, and elders - these are the top-ranking, elite, religious scholars who make up the ruling Sanhedrin.

Here’s the question (in front of everybody, remember): “By what authority are you doing these things?” In other words, “Show us your credentials! Where’s your degree? What Theological College didn’t you go to? You haven’t been ordained or accredited by anyone, have you?”

There’s real contempt here. This is upper-class toffs looking down their noses and saying, “Who gave northern riffraff like you the right to come in here as if you’re as important as we are? Who do you think you are?”

So Jesus says, (v29) “I’ll tell you. But first, one question from me. Tell me, John the Baptist, remember him? Was he a self-appointed ‘prophet’ or was he sent from God?’”

They go into a corner and discuss their answer. Well, this is a bit awkward really. These top-level leaders never rated John the Baptist at all. He didn’t wear the right clothes. He wasn’t Bishop John the Baptist. He wasn’t from an “official” denomination or anything.

But he was hugely popular. Crowds went out to see him and they loved him. They can’t trash him in front his fans. So what are they going to say?

Notice in v31-32 they make no effort at all to inquire into the truth of the situation. “What do we really think? Could it be this man was actually anointed by God or was he just a cult figure?” They… don’t… care. Their little meeting is about one thing only; what will make us look good to the crowd? If we say he was a nobody, we’ll lose the crowd. If we say “he was a man of God” people will say, “Well, why did you ignore him then?” In the end, they bottle it and say, “We’ll pass on that one.”

So Jesus says in effect, “Well, if you don’t want to know the truth about John the Baptist, I won’t tell you the truth about me.” Bam! Take that! Never try and win an argument with Jesus. He is devastating.

But what about you? Are you going to sit on the fence like these guys? Do you actually believe that Jesus has all authority? Do you really live as if Jesus is properly king over your life? Or is there some root of unbelief, or an unwillingness to give him your whole heart, or some lifestyle issue that limits Jesus’ lordship over your life?

Some people complain that Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He’s like a politician who changes the subject. No, he’s not. He does answer it in the next section, 12.1-12.

Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story now about an absentee landlord.” The meaning of the story is quite obvious. Everyone understands what it means. Verse 12 says, “They knew he had spoken a parable against them.”

Here’s the meaning: The vineyard is Israel. The owner is God. The tenants are the people listening to Jesus right now. The messengers are the prophets over the years. And the beloved son is Jesus.

Remember, Jesus here is just days away from his death. The very people he’s talking to are going to ruthlessly crush him. And in the story, they murder the beloved son. This is all about to happen. Jesus is saying, “I know you are going to kill me. So what do you think God ought to do about you chief priests? Answer: hand the vineyard over to someone else. God is finished with your corrupt, sterile religion. It’s over.”

And here’s the answer to their question about his authority. “You ask me by what authority I’m doing these things in this vineyard. I am the Son of the Owner.” As a boy of 12, he had stood in that very place and said, “This is my Father’s house.”

And so they say, “What are we going to do? The crowds are flocking to this man. And he’s made us look like a bunch of muppets. So let’s get someone else to ask an impossible question in front of everybody so we can humiliate him and trash his reputation.”

2) Should We Pay a Controversial Tax? (12.13-17)

So v13 says they set up the Pharisees and Herodians. These are different people to the ones who asked the last question. It is a very improbable coalition. They dislike each other. They have virtually nothing in common. Just one thing; they both hate Jesus and want him dead.

The Herodians are politicians who are stooges of King Herod and are therefore hated by most Jews. They like taxes to Caesar because they prop up their hero Herod who is Caesar’s lap dog. They do very nicely out of it thank you. There’s not a lot of love for the Herodians.

The Pharisees on the other hand, are an exclusive sect, holier than thou purists, who don’t want to be defiled by grubby politics. They hate having to pay these taxes because they support a tainted, immoral regime.

But it’s not just that. As the footnote in the church Bibles says, this poll tax was a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens. So you can imagine how that blessed everyone in Israel. It’s one thing having Johnny Foreigner marching into your country and making all the rules, but it’s another when he tells you you’ve got to pay extra for the privilege.

So in v13 they flatter Jesus with some two-faced compliments and ask a simple question but, again, notice they ask it with the specific intention to catch him out. It’s a simple ‘yes or no’ question. “Is it right to pay this poll tax to Caesar? Caesar, you know, that big ego in Rome calling himself ‘god’ with his slaves, his drunken orgies, his enemies going to the lions in the Coliseum. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Caesar would you?

This question is a bit like being cornered by two bullies, asking you which one of them you like the best. Whatever answer you give, you’re in for a beating.

I love the way Jesus sees straight through them. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asks. “Bring me a coin.” He doesn’t ask for a coin to show he is poor. He asks for a coin to show everyone the money that is already in their pockets. They buy their food with it. They pay their bills with it.

Jesus’ reply is to say, “Look, it’s Caesar’s face on the coin, so pay him back what’s his.” And it’s important to notice that Jesus changes the vocabulary. They ask him about paying tax. But Jesus uses a word that means not ‘pay’ but ‘pay back’.

In other words, what he’s saying is this: the taxes we pay are not some kind of scandalous extortion. We get benefits for what we pay. It pays for roads, education, police, hospitals, firefighters, street lights, rubbish collection, policing, national defence and so on.

Jesus is saying “Look, you have already benefited from these services, so you have a duty to pay for them. You've already had the blessings of good Roman roads, security, public services – so you owe. So you Pharisees, give to Caesar what’s his.”

But he also says this: “And don’t forget you get blessings from God too. You’re nothing without him. You owe God obedience, and praise and thanksgiving. So you secular Herodians, give back to God what you owe him.”

I’m sure everybody is thinking, “This is hysterical!” For days, these guys have been cooking up the perfect question to ensnare their man. Finally, they think of a corker. They walk up to Jesus, put him on the spot, and fold their arms waiting for the comedy gold moment of Jesus being stumped in front of the crowd.

And in an instant, Jesus utterly confounds them all and makes them look like amateurs. You cannot outwit Jesus. If you live your life thinking you’re smarter than Jesus (as most men love to do) you’ll end up looking a total mug. That’s because Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth.

3) How Do You Know about Eternity? (12.18-27)

The first question is personal. The second question is political. The third is a hypothetical, academic sort of question, typical of the wealthy, theologically liberal people who asked it; the Sadducees.

They saw themselves as grown-up and somewhat superior, and they looked down at people of simple faith. They accepted only the first five books of the Bible and were sceptical of the supernatural.

In particular, they said that there is no personal afterlife. Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky… all that stuff. We live on only in people’s memory when we die, which is probably what most people in this country think today.

So they come up with a question in v19 that they think is very clever and sophisticated. It’s a conundrum, a brain teaser, and once again it is intended to make Jesus look stupid.

They invent this convoluted story about a woman who has seven husbands, all of whom die, one after the other. Problem; if there really is an afterlife, whose wife is she going to be in heaven? They’ll all be fighting over her. Unless she was a bit of an old dragon, in which case they’ll be saying, “No, no, you first, I insist…”

It seems a silly question. But actually, it has a modern equivalent. People sometimes ask me, “How will I ever be happy in heaven if my family, who are not followers of Jesus, won’t be there with me? I’ll miss them too much. If my husband or mum or Uncle Des aren’t going to be in heaven I’d rather not be there myself.” Have you heard people say that kind of thing?

How does Jesus reply? As usual, with a question, v24. “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”

So many so-called trick questions are little more than a display of ignorance about God's word.

They don’t know the Scriptures. He reminds them of what God said in Exodus 3, a part of the Bible they did accept where God says “I am [present tense, not ‘I was’] I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

They don’t know the power of God either. By the power of God, we will all be changed in the next life. We will have resurrection bodies that never age, perfected character that never sins, and new relationships that never strain.

A month from now I’ll conduct a wedding for Katy and Jonathan and they will promise to each other exclusive love “‘til death us do part.” At death, the marriage ends. There is no married life in heaven; it’s for this world only. In the next world, we’ll all be like angels who are not married, have no children and never grow old.

In heaven, relationships will not be the same as the family relationships we have on earth; instead, everyone will be equally closely related to each other as brother and sister in Christ.


As I draw to a close, some final thoughts…

Are you living under Jesus’ authority? Is he really number one in your life? Or are you avoiding bringing your whole life; your time, your gifts, your relationships, your money, your leisure, your professional conduct under his lordship?

Are you rendering to Caesar what is his? Do you pay tax cheerfully, thanking God for the blessing of living in a country with free healthcare, good schools, safe roads, provision for the elderly, adequate street lighting, an incorrupt judiciary, and so on? Do you need help from God to make that step today?

Are you rendering to God what is God’s? For the blessings of this life, your creation, salvation, friends, work, enough to eat and drink, a home to live in, a church family… do you show your gratitude in worship, in giving, in serving? Do you need help from God to make that step today?

Like the Sadducees, would Jesus say of you, “You are in error because you don’t know the Scriptures”? Should you invest in your knowledge of God’s word this year? Why don’t you sign up for Theology for Everyone? Or join a Life Group?

Or would Jesus say of you, “You are in error because you don’t know the power of God”? Do you believe God has the power to change things – not just between earth and eternity, but as heaven breaking in now, bringing healing to broken bodies and restoration to troubled minds?

Let’s stand to pray…

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 14 January 2018

Sunday, 31 December 2017

War in Heaven: Trouble on Earth (Matthew 2.13-23 and Revelation 12.1-17)


Well, the feasting is over, the fridge is looking its normal self, the TV specials are all behind us, the dustmen have been, and the grandparents or the grown-up kids have all gone home.

So it feels quite appropriate that our reading this morning picks up the Christmas story with the Magi now on their way home - v13; “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared...”

“When they had gone...” Just like in my house and maybe yours, for Joseph and Mary the excitement is now over, the gifts have all been opened, (gold, frankincense and myrrh - a bit left field, but let's not be judgemental), the wrapping has been tidied away, the house was heaving with extra people - and now they’ve left. It’s back to normality...

How does it feel?

For Joseph and Mary, it has been an eventful few weeks! Long stressful journey, hotel from hell (fresh cowpat in the bedroom - that’s going on Trip Advisor), an inconvenient moment for the waters to break, unexpected visitors, weird presents... that went well didn’t it? But now we are back to normal.

The planet keeps turning. Time passes. Life moves on.

The Dark Side

Once the Magi have gone, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he says... “Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child (your child) to kill him.” I'd call that a nightmare.

On the screen is a painting called The Scene of the Massacre of Innocents painted in 1824 by the French artist Léon Cogniet. It depicts a terrified woman holding her young child. Look at her hand covering his mouth in a desperate attempt to silence the noise of his crying. People are running in panic around her. She’s trying to hide but she’s hopelessly exposed. She’s cornered. Literally. Her child is doomed.

There are two angles to the story of Jesus’ birth. In Luke’s gospel, it’s full of wonder and angels and joy and friendly farm animals and simple shepherds. It has a warm glow to it. But in Matthew you see a much darker and heavier side.

Only in Matthew do you find:

·         the crisis in Joseph and Mary’s relationship that brings them to the brink of divorce
·         and five weird dreams
·         and a desperate family fleeing for its life
·         and the evil villain Herod, who doesn’t feature at all in Luke, but he dominates the scene in Matthew
·         and of course this appalling massacre of innocent children in v16-18

Such were Herod’s vanity and paranoia that he thought nothing of committing atrocities like this, in order to cling on to power.

We know from sources outside of the Bible that he was neurotic and he routinely had people executed (including his wife and three of his sons) in order to preserve his position.

It is another reminder of what the Bible everywhere asserts; that evil is real. It’s why Jesus told us to pray the God will deliver us from it. Scripture says that many antichrists will come into the world. Herod was one of the first and, sadly, we haven’t seen the last.

The reading from Revelation says, in highly symbolic language, that what we see physically on earth has an unseen spiritual reality behind it.

There is a demonic assault on life, on the family, on the gospel, on truth itself - and this is what it looks like. The Bible doesn’t sugar coat the Christmas story or any other story; it tells the truth; it tells the whole truth.

Now we’re going to focus in on the woman’s face in Cogniet’s painting. Notice her eyes wide with fear, with alarm… there’s a look of disbelief on her face.

I’m going to use her face as a lens through which we can see and feel the suffering of the persecuted church today.

Last year, the Independent newspaper carried an article with the headline: Christians: the world’s most persecuted people. And here’s an extract…

“3,000 Christians of Mosul who were driven from their homes in northern Iraq last week by Islamist fanatics who broadcast a fatwa from the loudspeakers of the city's mosques ordering them to convert to Islam, submit to its rule and pay a religious levy, or be put to death if they stayed.

The last to leave was a disabled woman who could not travel. The fanatics arrived at her home and told her they would cut off her head with a sword.

The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States estimates that 100,000 Christians now die every year, targeted because of their faith – that is 11 every hour. The Pew Research Center says that hostility to religion reached a new high in 2012, when Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 countries, almost three-quarters of the world's nations.

All this seems counter-intuitive here in the West where the history of Christianity has been one of cultural dominance and control ever since the Emperor Constantine converted and made the Roman Empire Christian in the 4th century AD.

Yet the plain fact is that Christians are languishing in jail for blasphemy in Pakistan, and churches are burned and worshippers regularly slaughtered in Nigeria and Egypt, which has recently seen its worst anti-Christian violence in seven centuries.

The most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century saw as many as 500 Christians hacked to death by machete-wielding Hindu radicals in Orissa, India, with thousands more injured and 50,000 made homeless.

In Burma, Christians are routinely subjected to imprisonment, torture, forced labour and murder.

Persecution is increasing in China; and in North Korea a quarter of the country's Christians live in forced labour camps after refusing to join the national cult of the state's founder, Kim Il-Sung.

Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Maldives all feature in the 10 worst places to be a Christian.”

And we know of course it’s not only Christians, as we’ve seen with the Rohinja this year. But most people in the West would probably be surprised to learn who the most persecuted people in the world are.

According to the International Society for Human Rights, which is a secular group, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.

The Bible says that “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Jesus himself said, “everyone will hate you because of me.” But “happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Joseph’s response in v14 is very like those Christians I just spoke about all over the world.

They escape as fugitives for a foreign land and the great unknown.

Verse 14; “So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.”

Fearful Times

For Mary and Joseph, the arrival of their baby was a new start. Their lives would never be the same again. All their hopes and longings for their new baby boy, all their dreams for the future must have felt so fragile.

And in v20 God says “Get up!” again, this time to move out of Egypt. It must have felt like their homelessness, rootlessness and the feeling of being hunted down would never end.

Do you get that feeling sometimes, that it’s just one thing after another, that trouble is relentless? Verse 22 says, “When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.”

In all the uncertainties of their life Mary and Joseph felt real fear. What will become of us? What is going to happen to our baby?

Matters of Life and Death

Between 1899 and 1901 there was a great anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising in China. It was a sudden national mood swing that brought severe persecution.

188 missionaries and 32,000 Chinese Christians were bound in public. Their noses and ears were cut off and eyes gouged out before they were beheaded.

Lizzy Atwater was an American missionary to China at that time. She was 22 years old and pregnant with her first child.

She wrote to her family on 3 August 1900. And this is what she wrote.

“Dear Ones, I long for a sight of your dear faces, but I fear we shall not meet on earth… I am preparing for the end very quietly and calmly. The Lord is wonderfully near, and He will not fail me. I was very restless and excited while there seemed a chance of life, but God has taken away that feeling, and now I just pray for grace to meet the terrible end bravely. The pain will soon be over, and oh the sweetness of the welcome above!

My little baby will go with me. I think God will give him to me in Heaven, and my dear mother will be so glad to see us. I cannot imagine the Savior’s welcome. Oh, that will compensate for all of these days of suspense. Dear ones, live near to God and cling less closely to earth. There is no other way by which we can receive that peace from God which passes understanding…. I must keep calm and still these hours. I do not regret coming to China, but am sorry I have done so little. My married life, two precious years, have been so very full of happiness. We will die together, my dear husband and I.

I used to dread separation. If we escape now it will be a miracle. I send my love to all of you, and the dear friends who remember me.”

Twelve days later, Lizzie, her husband, their unborn baby and six other missionaries were hacked to death.

Later, when Lizzie’s parents in Ohio, heard the dreadful news of the death of their daughter, son-in-law, and unborn grandchild, they said, through tears, “We do not begrudge them – we gave them to that needy land; China will yet believe the truth.”

Why did the devil single out China? Perhaps because of the extraordinary potential of the church in that land. In our own lifetimes, there has been an unprecedented revival in that country; estimates put the number of Christians there now at 100 million.

Lizzy’s blood, and that of her husband and unborn child, will be avenged by God alone. The Bible speaks of the terrible consequences that await those who “did not choose to fear the Lord,” like Herod.

But the sweetness of the gospel is this: no matter how low a human heart sinks, even as low as Herod’s, or lower still, it is never too low to be able to turn to God and be made new!

None of us here are anywhere near Herod’s league, but the Bible is clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Why be separated from God and his blessings forever if you don't have to? God loves you. If you had been the only person on earth, Jesus Christ would still have come as a baby, lived as a man, and gone to the cross and laid down his life for you. He loves you that much!

It may be that for some here today, right now, God is speaking and giving a fresh chance to turn to Christ. Don’t put it off to tomorrow! The Bible says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”

That’s why Jesus came.


While you and I do not know what tomorrow holds, we do know the one who holds our tomorrows, and he says again to each of us, “Get up! The time to take action is now.”

Let’s pray...

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 31 December 2017

Monday, 25 December 2017

Three Presents (Luke 2.11)


On the night that Jesus was born, the Bible says that there were some shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem.

And they were probably doing what shepherds always do; which is look after their sheep. They were
·         Checking that all the sheep were all O.K.
·         Making sure none of them wandered off.
·         Keeping the little lambs warm.

It was very dark. It was very quiet.

And then, all of a sudden, there was an unusual light in the night sky and a messenger from God appeared with some news for them.

But first of all, he had to say what all angels must say the minute they come into contact with any human being.

There must be standing instructions from heaven.

Job description: Angel. Page 1, first bullet point, says this: as soon as you are seen, or noticed, by any human being (man, woman or child) you are immediately to say the following three words: “Don’t be afraid.”

Right? Angels really freak people out. So everywhere you find angels in the Bible that’s always their opening line.

Anyway, once the formalities are taken care of, Luke 2.11 tells us what they say next. And here it is:

“This very day in King David’s hometown (that’s Bethlehem) a Saviour was born for you. He is Christ the Lord.”

It’s a brief announcement, just 18 words long, 107 characters. But in this simple sentence, the shepherds learn three important things about the new-born baby called Jesus.

1. He is just what everyone was hoping for

The first thing is that this baby is just what they were all hoping for.

I’ve got three presents today that I thought I’d let you watch me open. I put them all in a blue Christmas present bag but I can’t seem to find it. Has anyone seen my present bag?

Let’s open my first present. Can I have a helper to get the wrapping off..?

Well, that’s exactly what I wanted. It has been on my wishlist a long time. I was really hoping for this Nativity DVD. I heard how good it is and so I was really hoping that someone would buy it for me.

It was on TV a few years ago. The script was written by Tony Jordan. He was an atheist, he didn’t believe in God at all, and he thought the first Christmas was just a fairy story. But when he researched it all carefully to write the script, it all made sense and he came to believe that it’s true. This right here is Lambert televisual heaven.

Is there anyone here who hasn’t yet opened their presents?
·         When do you open yours..?
·         What are you hoping to get for Christmas..?

When the angel told the shepherds that Jesus was the Christ, that meant that Jesus was just what everyone was hoping for.

Because everyone had been hoping that God would send a special king who would make everything better. That’s what the word ‘Christ’ means.

Jesus is the good king that God had promised. It’s great, isn’t it, when we get a present that’s just what we were hoping for.

2. He is more than anyone expected

The second thing the angel told the shepherds was that the baby was more than they were expecting.

Let’s open my second present... Oh, it’s a card. It’s just a card.

Let’s open it up… Can someone read my card..?

It’s from Great Aunt Bessie. Oh, there’s something else in the envelope. What’s this..? Oh! There are some twenty-pound notes. Well, I haven’t seen Great Aunt Bessie for years. I wasn’t expecting that.

She’s given me 100 quid, isn’t that kind of her? That’s so much more than I thought I’d get. Aunt Bessie and I  haven’t spoken for ages.

When the angels told the shepherds that Jesus was the Lord, it meant that Jesus was more than anyone was expecting.

They thought that God would send a special king, the Christ, but no one thought that he would be the Lord; God’s Son. Jesus is the Son of God. And that’s way more than anyone dreamed of.

Has anyone opened a present today that was more than they were expecting?

Isn’t it great when we get a present that’s just what we were hoping for and more than we were ever expecting? That’s who Jesus is.

3. He is exactly what we all really need

The third thing that the angel told the shepherds was that the baby was just what they needed.

Let’s open my third present...

It’s a woolly hat. Well, that’s just what I need. I’ve got no hair on my head to keep me warm in the winter and it gets really cold some days, so this hat is perfect.

When the angels told the shepherds that a Saviour was born for you, they realised that Jesus was just what they needed.

Everyone knew that it’s impossible to save ourselves to become friends of God. If we want to be friends with God, we need someone called a saviour to make it possible.

Jesus is the Saviour that God sent. And that’s exactly what we need.


It's brilliant when we get a present that’s
·         just what we’re hoping for
·         more than we were expecting
·         exactly what we need.

God has already given us the best present we could ever get because he gave us His Son, Jesus.
·         the Christ, the good king who takes care of everything;
just what everyone hopes for
·         the Lord, not just a person like you and me but God’s Son as well; more than anyone ever expected
·         the Saviour, who came to make us friends with God;
exactly what we all really need

I’m going to end with a short video of my friend Gram Seed. Some of you know him. He’s a real person who lives in Stockton.

Gram used to be a violent thug, a hooligan, a drug addict, in and out of prison, and an alcoholic tramp living on a bench.

His story shows just how much God loves us and what an amazing saviour he is.

Merry Christmas…

All-Age talk at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 25 December 2017
Adapted from a resource found on The Urban Pastor

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Saviour Is Born to You (Luke 2.1-20)

Our daughter is expecting her third child in January. They don’t want to be told whether it’s a boy or a girl; they like the element of surprise. I’m making no predictions as I usually get it wrong and I don’t want anyone blaming me for inappropriate purchases from the January sales based on my prophetic announcements.

William and Kate are expecting their third child too in April. The bookmakers are taking bets on possible names: Alice is the favourite at 8/1. Then joint second at 10/1 are Victoria, Henry and Arthur. John is a frankly disappointing 100/1, and if you fancy a flutter on an outsider, you can get 500/1 on Chardonnay, Jazmin, Donald or Wayne.

By the way, I have two friends called William Hill – what are the odds..?

When it came to the birth of the greatest figure the world has yet seen; the most known about, the most admired, the most quoted, the most influential, Jesus of Nazareth, his sex and name were both announced well before he was born. “You will conceive and give birth to a son,” said Gabriel to Mary, “and you are to call him Jesus.”

The name Jesus means “saviour.” But why do we need a Saviour? Why do we need salvation? What do we need saving from?

The answer lies in the tombs of 50 million victims of Stalin. And the 30 million killed under Mao. And in the killing fields full of bones in Cambodia and Rwanda, and Bosnia and Iraq and Syria.

Our species is a finely tuned killing machine. Of all the species in the animal kingdom only we humans make war on our unborn; 125,000 terminations worldwide every day. 2 million children are exploited for sex by perverts every year. 

And the BBC had the gall to produce a 13 part TV series called The Ascent of Man. Our problem is that the moral rise has not kept pace with the technological rise. We can eradicate polio but we can’t get rid of sin without a Saviour.

But the child to come into the world would save people. He would be a rescuer, one who brings forgiveness to the guilty, relief to the suffering, recovery to the lost, and life to the dead.

When this child grew up, he calmed storms with a word, he cleansed lepers with a touch, he opened the eyes of the blind, he discharged debtors, he drove out darkness from tormented souls, he helped paralytics to their feet, he brought hope to the powerless, he beautified the downtrodden, he even raised the dead.

Then he charged his followers, the movement of people who would be called “the church” to do likewise in his name.

More than sixty years ago, an obscure preacher from Chicago called Everett Swanson flew to South Korea to be a chaplain to American troops sent to fight in the Korean War.

During his time in Seoul, he grew increasingly troubled by the sight of hundreds of war orphans living on the streets and abandoned by society.

One morning he saw city workers scoop up what looked like piles of rags and toss them into the back of a lorry. He walked up to take a closer look - and was horrified to see that these were not rags, but the frozen bodies of orphans who had died overnight in the streets.

Swanson raised some money to start an orphanage and that developed into a unique sponsorship programme that allowed an individual in the Western world to provide education, food, clothing, shelter, medical check-ups and spiritual care in local church-based projects. Sponsors and children can exchange letters and visits can be arranged if requested.

Today, over 1.8 million children are sponsored by this ministry, in 25 different countries, for a less than £1 a day each. Several dozen members of All Saints’ are sponsors to children around the world.

It is a very large international organisation now, and it’s simply called Compassion, but that is only a drop in the bucket of the vast difference the church is making globally to bring about transformation to an acutely suffering world in the name of Jesus Christ.

All this is part of the fulfilment of the words of the angel to Mary in Luke 1. “He will be great… and his kingdom will never end.”

It’s part of the fulfilment of the words of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

This year, I learned about the story of Grace. Back in 1994, as the war continued to wreak havoc in Burundi, a nurse was in the public lavatories of a hospital when she spotted something moving in the toilet.

It was a premature baby that had been abandoned, and somehow it was still alive. The nurse fished the baby out, washed it in water, and contacted a Christian called Chrissie Chapman, who was the only person in Bujumbura taking in abandoned babies or orphans at the time.

Chrissie took the baby in aged five days old and weighing 5lb and gave her the most beautiful name, the only name, to capture what her little life embodied: Grace.

Chrissie had to give Grace because the open end of the umbilical cord had been in contact with the toilet water. Sadly, these antibiotics, due to their strength in high doses, were what probably led to Grace losing any sense of hearing.

A specialist diagnosed her deafness months later, but there was nothing that could be done. When Grace was 6 months old a pastor came by and offered to pray for her. He anointed her ears with oil and prayed for Grace’s hearing to be restored in the name of Jesus.

It seemed to make her worse! For the next three days, Grace screamed every minute she was awake. Nobody knew what to do.

It was only when someone accidentally slammed a door and Grace suddenly jolted that they realized her tears and screams were because she had been healed and could now hear what was going on around her.

That was 1994. Grace has matured into a delightful young lady. She is full of faith. She finished school with good grades and was awarded a four-year University scholarship. She knows that God has big plans for her life.

Her life was saved for a reason; her story has already impacted many lives, and she is amply fulfilling her fulfil her potential to God’s glory. She’s also committed to returning to Burundi after her studies to play her part in its healing and transformation.

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour… a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 24 December 2017

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Ultimate Understatement

One of the things I like to do when I get a moment is to watch the live feed from the International Space Station with its HD camera pointed at our blue planet, turning slowly against the inky darkness of space.

I know this makes me something of a geek, but I don’t care; it's a view I never grow tired of.

Of course, you only see what is beautiful about our world; azure blue oceans, swirling cloud systems, snow-capped mountains, rainforests, coasts… You can’t see pollution, or warzones, or poverty or any other catastrophe of human making.

The question occurred to me the other week, looking at this; if I were God looking down past the beauty of the natural world I had created, and saw all around the ghastly mess my world had become and, being God, having infinite imagination and unlimited resources and endless possibilities at my fingertips… and if I had already decided to send a saviour to fix things… how would I do it? How would you do it?

Where would I situate my messiah? Maybe I would pick a place with optimal communications networks so everyone would know about it with live updates in real time.

I might choose a city at the heart of political power or artistic creativity so people would know that this Saviour was somebody important.

I might want to announce it with a great fanfare and put on a dazzling spectacle like an Olympic Games opening ceremony. That way, people would be impressed. I might pick parents of royal blood, or who were famous so the Saviour I sent would be born into a dynasty marked by greatness.

But what God actually did was disappointingly low-budget. He picked a minor, nothing town in the middle of nowhere called Bethlehem.

The Oxford or Cambridge of the ancient world, the centre of academic learning, with all its impressive philosophy, was Athens. God overlooked it.

The Washington DC, or the hub of political power, was Rome. God ignored it.

Bethlehem was neither here nor there; it was (as we will sing in a few minutes) a sleepy little town surrounded by fields. It was an irrelevance on the world stage.

Moreover, the precise location in that nothing town was a common shed in a side street. The hastily improvised bedroom furniture was a couple of haystacks and a feeding trough. The supporting cast were farm animals and a motley band of peasants smelling of sheep and B.O.

For one so special, why not a little more bling? Why did God snub the impressive, brand new temple just 6 miles up the road in Jerusalem, with its dressed stone and fine marble?

And the parents God chose for the one he sent to change the world were nobodies. Joseph was a tradesman; the first century equivalent of white-van man, complete with tool belt and pencil behind the ear.

Mary was a total nonentity; a teenage girl, probably uneducated, and both lived in a nondescript town called Nazareth which had all the charm and cultural prestige of somewhere like Basildon.

Why did God do it this way? Why so low-key?

Is it because God watched, century after century, traders and businessmen grasping greater market share, earning more money, making higher profits, and building bigger empires?

They would pay low wages, exploit their workforce, hide their wealth offshore to avoid tax, plunder natural resources, pollute the skies, foul the seas … whatever it took to acquire more, they did it.

They felt they would only find happiness by acquiring more and God saw that they would do anything to get it. But it never delivered.

God watched political rulers down the years, kings and emperors, presidents and generals, thinking they would be happier if they could increase their power, and rule over more territory with bigger populations?

He watched them blow the nation’s wealth on ever more sophisticated military hardware, send their armies out into battle, and shed the blood of millions, just to acquire more land and expand their influence.

They felt they would only find happiness by acquiring more and God saw that they would do anything to get it. But it never delivered.

But it’s not just the rich and powerful. We all want more. We are like moths to the flame of more. More is intoxicating. The insane pursuit of more; more money, more toys, more luxury, more power, more gadgets, more pleasure, more stuff, more, more, more; our human species is addicted to the drug of more but more has never once satisfied or enriched a single life.

In fact, the opposite is true. Statistically, New Year’s Day, just a week after people acquire a whole load of new stuff, sees the biggest spike in suicide rates all year (probably when thoughts turn to the credit card bill).

Did God do it in a shabby barn, in a small town, in a backwater province, with nobody parents to tell us that more is less and less is more?

Did God do it the way he did to show us that the relentless pursuit of having more … does not and cannot fulfil our deepest desires?

Maybe that is why God set about sending a Saviour to the world in the understated way he did…

But why did he choose to do it when he did? Why was the time of Augustus Caesar and Governor Quirinius and King Herod the Great the best moment, the optimal time?

The Bible says in Galatians 4 that the time God selected was just the right time. It says, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” God carefully set the date. He picked a very specific, deliberate and significant moment to send this world a Saviour.

It is etched onto Jewish consciousness that their ancestors spent many years as captives in Egypt. They were oppressed and mistreated. They were weighed down for generations under a yoke of slavery. Generations of children were born into it and died under it. They looked to a day when they would be liberated.

The Bible says that this period of repression and tyranny lasted 430 years. Remember that number. 430 years! At the end of that time, God dramatically set them free with a miracle of deliverance. That’s the story of the birth of the Jewish nation, and the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) celebrate it over and over again.

Fast forward a few centuries, and the very last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, fell silent after promising that one day, a Saviour would come, bringing freedom, bringing life. “The Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in its rays,” he said. Then there was radio silence from heaven for 400 years, four full centuries between the last pages of the Old Testament and the first pages of the New.

At the end of that 400 year period, Jesus was born. God broke his silence and started speaking again. 30 years later, Jesus began his ministry saying “The time has come. Heaven has come to earth. I have come to set prisoners free.” 430 years of waiting, of longing, of anticipation, of hoping and then Jesus bursts onto the scene, and God works miracles of deliverance not just for the Jewish people this time, but for the whole world.

The time was right. The moment had come.

I wonder if tonight is a special time, a right time, an optimal time for you to respond with your heart (maybe for the very first time) to the new-born King who came to set people free from the tyranny of more and the slavery of sin?

I’ll end with the true story of a wild young Russian. His life revolved around eating, drinking, music, revelling and the company of women. He lived for more.

He got involved in a movement for political and social revolution during the repressive reign of Tsar Nicholas I. He got arrested, was tried and they condemned him to death.

On a bitterly cold morning at dawn, he was in a line of prisoners led out against a wall to be shot. A drum began to beat. The prisoners were blindfolded. The guards loaded their ammunition. They raised their muskets. The command came to take aim. And then, at the very last moment, a white flag was raised to announce the news that the Tsar had commuted their sentence to life imprisonment in Siberia.

As he arrived in Siberia on Christmas Eve 1849, at the age of twenty-eight, two women ran up to him and slipped him a New Testament.

While in prison, he read it from cover to cover and learnt much of it by heart. He later wrote, ‘I believe that there is no one more lovely, more profound, more sympathetic and more perfect than Jesus. I say to myself with jealous love, not only is there no one else like him, but there never could be anyone like him.’

The man’s name was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the greatest Russian novelist of his generation.

Jesus changed that man’s life. Jesus still changes lives today. Jesus changed my life. Jesus may have changed yours. If he hasn’t, is today the day when you ask him to?

We have Gospels of Luke to give away. They’re free. It’s the story of Jesus. The Gospel contains 24 chapters, each one takes about five or ten minutes to read. If you’ve never read Luke’s Gospel before, why don’t you take one away and read one chapter each day and ask God to reveal himself to you as you do?

Merry Christmas to you all.

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 17 December 2017