Sunday, 16 September 2018

Turning Back to God (Jonah 2.1-10)


Introduction

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my first holiday abroad in San Remo, Italy. I was about 4 years’ old. My younger brother and I were paddling in the water and mum had told us to be careful because the shallow water dipped dramatically a few feet into the sea. 

Of course, we didn’t ever pay a blind bit of notice to anything our mum ever said and both of us started to sink as the sea bed under our feet suddenly disappeared. I remember looking up, my mouth starting to fill with water, and seeing two hands plunging into the sea - to my dismay - pulling my brother to safety, while I was abandoned and just left to die. And of  course, she pulled me out immediately afterwards, but it seemed, from my perspective, to take her all day.

I totally understand why, for many people, the fear of drowning is the greatest fear of them all. The sense of panic and anxiety as all your airways fill with water is really quite terrifying.

Background 

For the last two weeks, we’ve been thinking about the story of Jonah, this children’s favourite from the Bible about a man who tries to run away from God and ends up in a watery grave. 

Why does he run away? Because God calls him to go on a mission trip to a city, many miles from home, called Nineveh. But would you run away from that? What could be better? 

The glamour of global travel, a chance to discover the world, to sample the delights of international cuisine, to see the sights and come home with some souvenirs…

Like Jonah, the Church has been given a message, but often today, it isn’t preaching it. Our message is simple. Here it is. God loves you so much that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not eternally perish but eternal live. 

He calls everyone here to respond to that by turning away from a me-first life, and towards a God-first life, following Jesus. 

Following Jesus can be costly. Jesus himself said it would be. But it’s the key to life in all its fullness. And that’s what Annie and Nick did today is all about.

For Jonah, the issue is that Nineveh, the place God calls him to go, is a tough gig. It’s the town we now call Mosul, in Iraq. It's been in the news this past year. The people living there then were the direct ancestors of IS and the Taliban. They routinely impale and flay alive anyone they don’t like. 

God’s call to Jonah would be like someone  saying to you, “I want you go to the Middle East with an ‘I Love Jesus’ tee shirt, a truck full of Bible leaflets and a portable PA, then I want you to set up in the town square and tell everyone they’re doing it all wrong.” How many of you would say, “Sounds great”?

Jonah doesn’t fancy that any more than you would, so he buys a ticket and boards a ship heading as far as it is possible to go in the opposite direction. While he’s on the ship, God sends an almighty storm, and Jonah gets thrown overboard into the raging sea.

Prayer in Times of Crisis

Tony Bullimore was one of Britain’s most experienced transatlantic yachtsmen. He died in July this year. On 5 January 1997 his sixty-foot sailing boat, Exide Challenger, capsized in the icy waters between Australia and Antarctica, two months into the Vendée Globe single-handed round-the-world yacht race. The keel snapped off in fifty-foot waves, rendering the boat unstable so it turned over, upside down. 

For four days, he was stuck in a dark, noisy, wet, upside-down world with massive waves and a temperature just above freezing. All his food supplies were lost except one bar of chocolate. He suffered terribly from seasickness and had to draw breath from only a few feet of air between the water level and the floor of his upturned boat. 

He was more than a thousand miles from the nearest land. As his air supply slowly diminished he began to pray that he would be rescued. The Royal Australian Navy’s satellite surveillance pinpointed the position of all the yachts, and noticed his wasn’t advancing, so they sent out a rescue team. Four days after capsizing, he heard a tapping sound on the side of his boat. 

His first words when he emerged were, “Thank God, it’s a miracle. I feel like I have been born all over again. I feel like a new man. I feel I have been brought back to life again.”  

I tell that story, because Jonah, like Tony Bullimore, faced with almost certain death, also turned to prayer as his chances of survival looked hopeless. 

People pray in a crisis like that. Almost everyone does.  Sometimes it takes a crisis to get them to pray. 

And Jonah 2, what we had read earlier, is the words of a man Who is face to face with certain death. It includes parts from about a dozen different Psalms in the Bible. It’s amazing how scriptures or words of a hymn often come to mind and can carry you through in times of distress.

Jonah’s prayer is the language of a drowning man. It’s the cry of a man who has stared into the abyss and accepted that his time is up. He’s resigned to the inevitable. He’s been hurled into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, he says. 

“Waves and breakers sweep over me again and again.” His head bobs up and down until the waters finally engulf him and he feels himself sinking Dow, down, down, then the sensation of brushing against seaweed and touching the sea bed. 

And as Jonah gives up the fight to stay alive, he describes what goes though his mind. He really thinks, “this is it, I am going to die.” He feels that he has been cast out from God's presence and it’s all his fault. 

But crucially, this is the moment he decides to stop running, and turn back. This is his turning point, his moment of surrender. He comes to senses. I was going one way, running away from the presence of God. I’m going to stop doing that and go the right way, even if it’s the last thing I do. 

The Bible says, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” That moment of insight Jonah had was actually a gift from God. It’s not that Jonah pulls himself up by his bootstraps and turns himself around. It is when Jonah says “I am in the pit and utterly helpless” that God steps in and lifts him out.

As we know, the story goes that he was swallowed up and was in the belly of a great fish for three days. An extended period of claustrophobic darkness in a fish. That probably won’t happen to you. 

But your “belly of the fish experience” can be just as traumatic and dark. It can be dealing with failure. It can be living with a chronic illness that God has not yet healed. It can be the anxiety of crushing financial worries. It can be the prolonged and deep sorrow of bereavement. It can be fighting to recover happiness in a marriage gone stale. It can be unwanted singleness. It can be an assault on your reputation by someone determined to discredit you. (We’ve had a bit of that as a church just this week in fact). 

Jesus said, “blessed are you when people hate you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” When, not if. As a Christian you can expect it. The thing is this; God will never keep you in the belly of whatever fish you’re in longer than you need. And the Bible says that in every test you endure, God provides a way of salvation.

People often think that we know we’re children of God if everything is going great and all our problems are sorted. But that is not how it works. The book of Hebrews says that we know we are children of God because he takes us through times of chastening and discipline. That’s how you know you’re a child of God.

Resurrection

Some people believe that it was a miracle that this man stayed alive for three days and three nights in a fish with little or no air to breathe, to say nothing of his exposure to digestive juices. 

But I don’t think Jonah was alive in the fish. When you read this chapter carefully, you see that the water overwhelms him and he sinks to the seabed. You can’t descend to the bottom of the Mediterranean in one breath. 

“When my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord…” he says. He talks about finding himself deep in the realm of the departed. 

No, I think it says here that Jonah is already dead before he hits the bottom of the sea and is swallowed lifeless. 

When he was 24 in 1980, atheist New Zealander Ian McCormack got stung by a box jellyfish on a diving holiday in Mauritius. The box jellyfish is one of the most venomous creatures in the world and death from its stings can occur within minutes. Ian was rushed to hospital, and they tried to save him, but after a while his ECG line went flat and he was pronounced dead. 

15-20 minutes later, to the astonishment of the medical staff there, his heart monitor started again. And Ian describes being conscious during that time when his heart had stopped, in a dreamy state in which his life flashed before him and in which he felt detached from his body. 

He says he met with God and promised to turn the direction of his life around. Only later did he discover that his mum, a devout Christian, was praying for him in New Zealand at that exact time, not knowing of the grave danger he was in. 

Well, I’ll let you decide whether you believe that story. Look it up online; there's plenty of information about it. But it reminds me of what Jonah went through.

People came to Jesus once and said, “Give us a sign to prove you are the Son of God.” And he replied, “The only sign you’ll get is the sign of Jonah. He came out of a fish with the marks of death, and so will I from the grave.” 

Several people have tried to rubbish the resurrection of Jesus by researching it and writing a book to explain how it was a big misunderstanding or a fabrication. Oxford Professor Gilbert West did it in 1747. Lawyer Frank Morison did it in 1930. Investigative journalist Lee Strobel did it in 1998. 

All three began as atheists. All three meticulously sifted the evidence. All three changed their minds during the course of their research. All three became Christians. And all three wrote a completely different book than the one they had planned, defending the Bible’s assertion that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive today.

Ending

Annie and Nick have gone down into the waters today and come up again afterwards as a visual testimony of what has happened in their lives. 

The old life they lived before they encountered Jesus Christ with all its values and ideas has been left at the bottom of that pool, and as they’ve come up out of the water, they’ve started to breathe again. A whole new life has started. 

I’ve told this story before, so apologies if you’ve heard it already but I like it. Following the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, the ship’s owners, the White Star Line, placed two noticeboards outside its offices. They were marked “Known to be saved” and “Known to be lost.” 

And as the fate of each passenger was confirmed, their name was added to one or other of the boards. People would wait and watch to see if their loved ones’ names would go on the “saved” or “lost” board. 

The thing is, you had to be either one or the other; saved or lost. The same is true spiritually for a world drifting from God and drowning in sin: either your name is in the Book of Life (known to be saved) or it is not (in which case you're known to be lost). 

Which board is your name on? Do you know? And could this be the day for you, like Jonah, when you turn round and start again?

Let’s pray…


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 16 September 2018

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Running Away from God (Jonah 1.1-3)


Introduction

We’re starting a five-part series on the Book of Jonah today. Do you know, I wasn’t sure when it was the last time I preached on this book so I checked my records with a computer and I found, to my amazement, that I have never preached on Jonah before. That’s 834 sermons in English, and 465 in French. Some of you are thinking, “all that practice, and he’s still useless…”

Jonah is, of course, one of the best-known stories in the Old Testament. It’s right up there with Noah’s Ark, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Many of us will know it from childhood.

So, this is a first for me. And yet Jonah is a preacher’s dream; it’s got action, adventure, plot twists and humour. It’s only four chapters long, so you can cover it in a month. And to top it all, there’s a clear link to Jesus, as we’ll see.

Jonah is also the subject of many funny stories and jokes.

There’s a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon I once saw showing a bearded man standing at his front door, dripping wet, with his clothes in tatters. His wife opens the door, takes one look at her dishevelled husband and says, “For crying out loud, Jonah! Three days late, covered with slime and smelling like fish. What tall story do I have to swallow this time?”

Well, there’s plenty of comedy in Jonah; it’s almost slapstick at times, there’s a Monty Python absurdity about it, and it’s full of irony too for those with a drier sense of humour.

Summary

You’ll find Jonah in the middle of the minor prophets, but it is quite unlike any of the other 14 prophetic books in the Bible. It’s not a collection of dire predictions and warnings. It’s a short story about the adventures of a reluctant preacher.

And the story is, I hardly need to remind you, about a man who tries to run away from the God who calls him to preach in the great city of Nineveh. Most preachers warm to the idea of addressing a great crowd but, in this case, it’s an unpalatable message to an already hostile congregation.

So, he boards a ship which sails into a raging storm. The superstitious sailors draw lots to determine whose fault it is, find out Jonah is to blame and throw him, with barely a whimper of protest, into the sea. Whereupon Jonah gets swallowed by a large fish that later vomits him up on a beach.

Again, God calls him to Nineveh and, this time, he goes. Amazingly, Nineveh responds with mass repentance, so God relents and does not bring about the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah then goes into a sulk and says to God, “I knew you’d do that! I knew you’d forgive them! Well, I’ve had enough. I want to die.”

Then there’s a bizarre epilogue. God provides a plant to give him shade - and Jonah’s happy about it - but he forgets to thank God. Then God sends a worm to eat the plant, removing the shade. Jonah gets sunburnt, and he complains. And it ends abruptly with God saying, “You know what Jonah? You need to take one hard look in the mirror! You care more about your comfort of a bit of shade from the sun than about the lives of 120,000 people and their animals.

And that’s it. The book ends hanging in the air with a rhetorical question from God. The end. That’s the story.

Background

Since early times people have wondered what kind of book God has given us here.

Some people, of course, write it off as pure fiction; a tall tale or fairy story, much like Jack and the Beanstalk or Cinderella. Many treat the book of Jonah as worthy of ridicule.

Others, some Christians among them, see it as true, but in the same way that the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan are true. So, they would classify the book of Jonah as a parable; an earthly story with a heavenly point. And the point is that God calls us to reach the entire world, not to stay in our comfortable, holy huddle.

Others, and this is a view popular with Jews, see it more as an allegory, where each detail of the story has a deeper meaning. Like Animal Farm.

So Jonah represents Israel, the large fish is the Babylonian power that swallows Israel up, the response of Nineveh is the hoped-for conversion of the Gentiles, and Jonah’s complaint at the end is about the Jewish objection to opening up their religion to non-Jews. So, they would see it as a kind of satirical story.

Approaches 2 and 3 see Jonah as a story that somebody wrote, not with the intention of deceiving people but actually helping them to see something that they were spiritually blind to.

Others take Jonah at face value; perhaps stylised, but basically a factual account of real, miraculous events that actually happened. And they do for three reasons.

Firstly, 2 Kings 14.25 presents Jonah as a real historical figure, not a made up one like Harry Potter or Miss Marple. Jonah, son of Amittai. Same name, same father’s name. He lived and prophesied in the reign of the evil king Jeroboam II.

Secondly, the book seems to be presented as history. Not only is the central character a real person, the places are real too; there’s no Lilliput or Middle Earth. Joppa and Tarshish were both busy trading ports with ships. Nineveh actually existed as a city.

And thirdly, Jesus referred to the book of Jonah on at least two occasions and seems each time to have accepted it, as it stands, as a historical account.

As we’ll see over the next few weeks, Jesus makes two main points from the story of Jonah; a comparison and a contrast.

Firstly, a comparison: just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. In other words, Jonah’s being swallowed up is a foreshadowing of Jesus being in the tomb three days before rising again.

And secondly, a contrast: unlike the Ninevites, who humble themselves and repent when Jonah points them to God, Jesus said that the people of his generation don’t listen to him and will go on to reject him.

Incidentally, that is a very, very powerful point right there. Those who refuse Christ now, Jesus says, will one day meet the people of Nineveh at the last judgement, who will look at them and say, “We repented even before Jesus came when Jonah spoke to us. But you refuse to listen even after hearing the words of Jesus himself.”

So – fairy story, parable, allegory or history? What do you think? I think it does talk about Israel’s reluctance to be a light to the Gentiles and I think there are lessons about not staying in our comfort zone. But it seems clear that Jesus spoke of Jonah as a real historical figure and he treated the story as factual. And that’s decisive for me. I’m not going to stand here and tell you the Son of God was naive or mistaken.

Hearing from God

Well, that’s a very long introduction, but I hope it sets the scene and will help you get to grips with the whole book. Now let’s get into the text.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’”

God calls. God speaks. We’re not told how Jonah heard from God. We’re not told where, or when, but Jonah must have heard God’s voice distinctly and clearly because in v3 he runs away.

How do you hear from God? Obviously, he speaks primarily through the Bible. This is God’s word for all places and all times for all people. I hope you’ll never complain to me that God is silent if your Bible is always closed.

But God’s word to Jonah was a specific call found nowhere in Scripture. How do you hear from God about your work, your relationships, your home, your money, your ministry? How do you hear from God for others?

God speaks through circumstances (because he opens doors and closes them). He speaks through the peace we have in prayer – or the lack of it. He speaks through the counsel of mature believers. He speaks through dreams and visions. And there is a prophetic gift that some have in greater measure than others, where God speaks through a clear, inner impression.

I shared a story in August, but many of you were away, so I’ll tell it again.

At New Wine Inspire a speaker from York, told an amazing story from his time as a vicar in training three or four years' ago. He was in a pretty boring lecture all about clergy tax and expenses, and he was struggling to concentrate when, out of the blue, he had a strange impression that someone was standing on a street corner outside the college and that he should go up to them and invite them to become a Christian. He put it to the back of his mind, but about ten minutes later the thought returned. 'There's a woman standing on the corner of Ridley Hall Road. She hasn't seen her son in ten years. Go and speak to her and invite her to become a Christian.' Should he leave the lecture and go or should he stay? He stayed.

But a bit later a third thought entered his mind with even more detail. 'There's a woman standing on the corner of Ridley Hall Road. She hasn't seen her son in ten years. She is meeting up with him tomorrow. Go and tell her it's going to be OK and then invite her to become a Christian.' So he thought, 'Right, I'm going.' 

He went out the college gates, walked up to the corner of the road he had seen in his mind's eye and... there was a woman standing on the corner, all alone. He went up to her and introduced himself. Then he told her that he thought God just told him that she hadn't seen her son in 10 years. She burst into tears. He told her that she would see him tomorrow and that it would be OK. She confirmed that they had indeed agreed to meet up for the first time in a decade the very next day.

He then invited her to become a Christian. Understandably, she wanted to know what that was about so he took her into the College common room, made her a cup of tea and explained. It turned out that she was a witch, into the occult. But she gave her heart to Christ that day and has been walking as a new-born Christian ever since.

It says in the Bible, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” There’s an aspiration in Scripture that hearing from God in this way might be common. Do you want to hear from him more? Ask. Keep asking. It may be a gift he wants to give you. But like that man, and unlike Jonah, you will have to be ready to take risks.

Reluctance 

Hands up please if you have heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. (Keep them up; we Anglicans need the practice) … It’s basically about the sorts of needs we all have. We all have to satisfy basic survival needs at the bottom of the pyramid first before we can work up the scale towards finding happiness and ultimate purpose and meaning.

A lot of people have heard of that. But how many of you know that Abraham Maslow also came up with something he called “the Jonah Complex”? Well, he did. To have a Jonah Complex is to evade your destiny. Maslow used to speak about it as “the fear of standing alone.”

Some of us here are paralysed by the fear having to stand alone. Maybe at work. Maybe in the family. It’s natural – few people like standing alone. But don’t miss out on what God wants to give you because of fear. Why did Jonah run from God? Because he didn’t want bad people to be forgiven (as we’ll see in Chapter 4) but first of all because he was not prepared to stand alone.

Truth is Anti- and Pro-

God said, “Preach against that great city.” People don’t like preaching that is “against” anything. People want preachers to say nice, uplifting, affirming things. People want to be entertained and walk away with a nice warm glow.

The American Presbyterian theologian R. C. Sproul, who died last year, once said, “For every truth there is a corresponding falsehood. Christians are known not only by what they believe or affirm, but also by what they reject and deny.” [Quote modified for inclusive language].

Paul said, “If I was still trying to please people I would not belong to Jesus Christ.”

False prophets only tell you what you want to hear. True prophets tell you what you need to hear. 

Jesus didn’t shrink from saying hard things. In Matthew 23 he made a sustained and devastating outburst against hypocrisy and legalism. Seven times he said, “Woe to you if...” People don’t want a Jesus like that messing up their church. But it is part of who he is.

But he also preached in Matthew 5, “Blessed are you…” and next to his 7 woes he spoke 8 blessings over those who listened to him. He spoke more blessings than woes, but he spoke both. And ministers of his gospel are required to refute error as well as commend sound teaching.

Running Away from God and Avoiding Church

So v3 says, “He ran away from the Lord,” and “he sailed for Tarshish to flee the Lord.” Did he honestly think he could get away from God? He will have known Psalm 139 written several hundred years beforehand.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there… your right hand will hold me fast.”

In fact, the form of words in v3 “to flee from the Lord” in the original Hebrew usually refers to avoiding the Lord’s presence by staying away from the temple.

Whenever Christians walk in disobedience or rebellion against God, the last place they want to be is near is a church. We suddenly find it easy to be busy. We go missing for weeks. We get distracted and find all sorts of other interesting things to do on a Sunday.

So Jonah goes down to Joppa to get a ship to Tarshish. Tarshish is about as far west as Nineveh is east. Donna Levin was saying to me last week that she remembers a talk from her childhood about Jonah going down, down, down, down… down to Joppa, down in the ship’s hold, down into the sea. That’s where running away from God takes you; down, down, down… She has never forgotten it.

·         As Jonah travelled to Joppa, what was going through his mind? 
·         As he queued up to buy a ticket, was there a tug on his conscience? 
·         As he said, “Ticket to Tarshish please” did his voice crack?  
·         When the man said “Return ticket?” how long did it take him to say, “No, just a single”?
·         As he opened his wallet, and counted off the banknotes, was there a second thought in his mind?
·         As he boarded the ship and looked around to see no one from God’s people aboard, just a bunch of hard-swearing sailors, did he really feel at home?

Ending

And are you thinking you might run away from God? Throw your tickets in the bin. Get off that ship before it sails. Turn around and come home because God has something better for you. His will for your life is good, pleasing and perfect.

Let’s pray…


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 2 September 2018


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