Sunday, 2 December 2018

Jesus Came... to Bring a Sword



Introduction

Years ago, a baby boy was born to a wealthy Italian family. They called him Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He grew up surrounded by luxury and privilege and I’m afraid he became terribly spoiled. He spent his money lavishly and he lived for pleasure.

As a youth, he earned a bit of a reputation as a town troublemaker, so his family enlisted him in the army to teach him a thing or two about discipline and responsibility. About that time, he started to read about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He was converted, left the military and became a travelling evangelist.

Leaving behind his life of ease and luxury, he sold all his fine clothes and fancy stuff to further the mission of the church and serve the poor. But this new direction in his life was met with utter dismay from his father, who dragged him home, beat him up, bound him with ropes and locked him in a small storeroom. Somehow, eventually, he got away but his father ended up completely disowning him.

You may not recognise the name Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, but you all know who I’m talking about, because he is better known as Francis of Assisi. Like many before him, and many since, Francis could testify from personal experience to the painful truth of Jesus’ words from Matthew 10.36:

“A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Jesus Was Sent

As we enter Advent and count down to Christmas to mark and celebrate Jesus’ birth, we need to understand that, in one sense, it’s actually no big deal that he was born. Being born is, in itself, unexceptional. Everyone you have ever known, know now, and will ever know was born.

But Jesus is unique in that he was living and conscious before he was conceived; the Bible says he was sent. Jesus himself said, “I came not of my own accord, but [my Father] sent me.” Why? Why was Jesus sent, why did he come?

Over these next few weeks, we are going to look at a number of statements in the New Testament, including 3 from Jesus’ own lips, that answer that question. We only have time to explore a few, but there are about 30 verses in the New Testament that speak about why Jesus came. For example:
·         He came as a light 
·         He came to call sinners to repentance
·         He came to destroy the works of the evil one

And today, one of the strangest: Jesus said that he came, not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. Yes, it’s weird isn’t it? Everything we know about Jesus points to this statement being factually incorrect.

The Prince of Peace

“I did not come to bring peace” he said in Matthew 10.34. But centuries before he was born, Isaiah prophesied about him saying: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… and he will be called… Prince of Peace.”

In his ministry, he healed the sick saying, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” He told his followers, “be at peace with each other.”

“I did not come to bring peace” he said. But just hours before he died, Jesus specifically said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”

Days later, after they had disowned him, deserted him and denied him, three times the risen Christ said to them not “I’ll never trust you losers again” but “Peace be with you.”

Jesus came in peace, he preached peace, he imparted peace, he secured peace with God on the cross and modelled a life of peace. Jesus never avoided conflict but his approach was nonviolent. “Love your enemies, and do good to those to hate you.”

A Sword of Division

Yet Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” So, what did he mean?

Jesus’ sword is not a literal flashing blade of steel. In fact, when Peter took up a sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord rebuked him and said, “Put it away Peter.” That’s not who we are. 

In every single way, looking through the Gospels, it looks very much like Jesus didn’t come to bring a sword, but peace; every single way except one.

Jesus goes on to explain here that he’s not talking about a weapon that kills, but an instrument that causes inevitable division.

The sword that Jesus wields divides light from darkness, truth from lies, those who trust in him and those who trust in themselves.

Some people think that Jesus came to set up a hippy colony where everyone holds hands in a circle, eats organic yoghurt and sings Kumbaya. He didn’t!

He came to earth knowing that his revolution of grace and truth would bring disruption and upheaval to the ways of this world because as John’s Gospel says, “People prefer darkness to light.” 

The English novelist George Orwell once said (prophetically I think and we are living in these times now), “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” Even members of our own families sometimes hold some of us in contempt for rejecting the values of a society that has turned its back on God.

When Jesus said, “I came to a sword that will turn family members against each other” I wonder if his voice cracked. Because he himself was opposed by his own family.

In Mark 6.4 Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He was despised and rejected, like one from whom people hide their face.

John 7.5 says, “his own brothers did not believe in him. They sided with those who hated who he was, and what he stood for. 

Jesus was seen as a bit of a nuisance. So, in Mark 3.21, his family came to confront him and take charge of him saying, “He is out of his mind.” 

Verse 35 is shocking to read. “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

At the time Matthew was writing his Gospel in the 60s and 70s of the first century, brother actually did betray brother - to death - and fathers turned against their Christian sons as the net of persecution closed in and the hostility towards the gospel intensified.

In our own day, our country seems polarised and fractured more than ever before; male v female, socially liberal v socially conservative, red v blue, working class v middle class, leave v remain, and now deal v no deal …

But the most fundamental choice facing our nation according to Jesus is whether you accept him as Lord and Saviour or reject him. The sword that really divides is about allegiance to Jesus or enmity to him; there is no third way, there is no alternative option.

And this divides many families right down the middle. I know of a church leader who became a Christian some years ago. He is the son of a very wealthy City of London banker. When he became a Christian, his father was so enraged that he told him he was writing him out of his will. And he did. His siblings will one day be multi-millionaires. But he will inherit nothing. The sword that divides…

The Archbishop of Jos in Nigeria, Benjamin Kwashi, lives in one of the most dangerous areas in the world for Christians. Many Christians in his diocese know what it is to have members of their families killed, and to live with constant death threats. If you are not a Christian, you’re pretty safe. If you publicly follow Jesus you are a target.

Some families in his diocese have split down the middle because of this threat. It has seriously affected his own family too. A few years ago, 30 armed men attacked Archbishop Benjamin’s home, sexually assaulted, and blinded his wife Gloria, breaking her legs.

His youngest child, just six years old at the time, was punched in the face, resulting in a broken jaw and his eldest child was knocked out and left for dead. 

The thugs came back the following year - big guys with a sledgehammer. They removed the back door. They came with a ladder and climbed up the back wall and into the compound. 

When they were breaking down the doors and trying to come in, Archbishop Benjamin was making what he thought were his last phone calls to his friends. “I was afraid” he says, “but after I’d made all the phone calls, I heard the last bang and I knew they were coming in. I was no longer afraid, I was ready to die.”

He was taken outside his house, where a man was standing holding a gun and a knife. The man demanded 3 million naira (about £6,000) and when Benjamin said he needed time, they accused him of delaying tactics so he could call the police.

The gang leader ordered the other men to take him away to his bedroom, where they said they would slaughter him. “They brought me back to my room and I asked their permission to pray” he said. They agreed, so he knelt down, asking God to spare the others in his family and only take his life. The sword that divides…

His wife was with him and she held his hand, encouraging him not to cave in but to continue in prayer to the end, knowing he was probably seconds from death. He kept his eyes closed and continued to pray. The next thing he knew, his son was in the room explaining that the men had gone. “We still don’t know to this day why they left,” he says. But they’ll be back…

It’s shocking. But this has been the stark reality for Christians since the very beginning.

Just a few decades after Jesus rose and ascended, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about what happened to Christians in Rome after the great fire for which the Emperor Nero made Christians the scapegoats.

“Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians… The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius… Those who admitted their faith were… made the subject of sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses, or set aflame [so] when the daylight passed, they were used as lights” [to illuminate the Emperor’s gardens].

Their family members who were not Christians survived. The sword that divides…

Pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who daily face false accusations, ostracization, humiliation, bullying, shame, the confiscation of property, violence, unjust imprisonment and ultimately death for the sake of Christ. I’ve given you some extreme examples of the sword that divides, because we are one church and this is who we are as the body of Christ worldwide.

But many of you listening to me now carry in your heart a lesser manifestation of this pain. A husband or a wife who does not share your faith and it inevitably introduces an element of tension between you. “Do you have to go to church? Do you have to talk about Jesus to our children?”

Maybe it’s your parents who can’t hide their disappointment in you because you’re a follower of Jesus. They don’t understand your faith, they don’t try to, they aren’t interested. And in light of that, you have a decision to make: Which relationship is most important to me? Is it to follow Jesus or my parents?

There is so much in Bible about investing love into your family; respect your husbands, loving your wives, be careful to not embitter your children and honour your parents, it says. In fact, it even says, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 

But if it your family offers you a straight choice between them or Jesus, Jesus couldn’t be clearer as to what allegiance to him involves.

You’d think families would be pleased that one of their number finds meaning and fulfilment in Christ, but so often it’s not the case.

Some you’re made to feel guilty, like you’ve betrayed the family. Christmas is awkward, because what Christmas is about for you is definitely not what it’s about for them. Everyone’s uncomfortable, and you’re the one who’s created the problem.

In some cultures, it’s much worse than an uncomfortable Christmas. If you decide to be a disciple of Jesus, you are committing social and familial suicide.

In some Muslim families, for example, if someone becomes a fully devoted follower of Jesus, they arrange a funeral and consider them dead. And sometimes, much worse, they will even hunt them down for a so-called honour killing.

I have friends who were missionaries in Pakistan. It’s a dangerous place for Christians, as we’ve seen in the case of Asia Bibi recently. Because of the constant danger of attack, their children went to school in another country and they only saw them a few times a year. For the sake of the gospel, they accepted the pain of separation within their family. The sword that divides…

Sometimes people think, “Well, this is not quite what I thought I signed up for… I did this Alpha Course, bowed head, closed my eyes, said a prayer – and everything was wonderful but then it all kicked off.”

Jesus is always honest and realistic about the potential cost of following him. He never says it will bring harmony to your family. He never says everything will be great. He never says all your problems will be over. He does say your joy will be full, that’s different. But he says, “Prepare yourself for daily self-denial and carrying a cross.”

He says, “Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” In other words, it is better to lose your life than to waste it. As John Piper said, “If you live gladly to make others glad in God, your life will be hard, your risks will be high, and your joy will be full.”

I doubt there’s one martyr sitting round the throne in heaven saying, “To be honest, it wasn’t worth it really.”

Ending

Well, I know this hasn’t been an easy message to listen to. It hasn’t been easy to preach either.

Jesus doesn’t bring division into homes and families for the sake of it. In fact, when a whole family comes to faith in Christ together, lives that were broken and fractured get mended and put back together.

But Jesus knows that when people stand up to follow him sometimes, regrettably, division is bound to follow.

Years ago, missionaries heading off to the ends of the earth would pack all of their belongings in a coffin. They would write a final farewell letter to their family and leave it with their mission organization in the event of their death. Here’s a brief extract of the letter that one young woman left: 

“When God calls, there are no regrets. I’ve tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations… I was not called to comfort or to success, but to obedience. There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you. In his care, Karen.”

Let’s pray…


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

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Worship: Intimacy (Song of Songs 2.10-13 and John 12.1-3)




Introduction

I have to admit it, I’m a bit of a nerd. That may not be news to you …no one seems to be aghast and shaking their head in wide-eyed disbelief… but I have only recently realised it’s true.

I began to have suspicions that I might be bit nerdy about two years ago, but I suppose the evidence became overwhelming whilst on holiday last June, when, instead of just enjoying a glass of wine in the sunshine, I decided to go through my entire music collection and select my all-time 100 favourite songs, then arrange them in alphabetical order first by artist, then by song title on my tablet.  

Not content with that, I then couldn’t stop myself making a second playlist of songs 101-200. It’s genuinely sad; I actually agonised for about half an hour over whether Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” should make it into the top 100 or be relegated to the b-list.

I would have real difficulty whittling down that list to a top ten, but were I to manage it, I think I would find it actually impossible pick my all-time best song ever. But alas, this the kind of utterly pointless challenge I feel I will inevitably have to rise to on my next holiday.

I mention this because the Bible tells us that King Solomon wrote many, many songs, but he wanted everyone to know which one he thought was indisputably the best.

It is the Song of Songs. This is the Hebrew way of expressing a superlative. If you want to say “the best king of all” in Hebrew you say “king of kings”. If you want to tell people about the most amazing day of your life you call it the “day of days.”

And if you want to describe “the best song ever, the song that is more beautiful, more tuneful, more moving, more enchanting that any other”, you call it the Song of Songs. This one, tucked away in our Bibles between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, is indisputably, and forever, top of the charts.

Intriguingly, the first book of Kings says that Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs [that’s a different saying every day for over eight years] and 1,005 songs. That’s a strangely precise number, isn’t it, but it corresponds, as far as we can tell, almost exactly to the number of women Solomon had in his life.

So some people have speculated that, because the number of songs he wrote and the number of women he loved is so similar, he may have written a love song for each of those women.

And if this theory is right (and I think it makes a lot of sense) that’s the reason right there why only one of Solomon’s 1,005 songs made it into the Bible. It’s as if God said, “that’s the only one I’m publishing, because only one woman was ever my choice for you Solomon; she’s the one - and the only one - you should have married.”

We’re going to look at just a few verses of that most excellent of songs this morning, as we draw to a close this series of six talks on worship.

So far, we’ve explored why we worship, and why it matters to do it as well as we can. We’ve seen that the heart of worship is seeking God’s presence. We’ve seen that God is breathtakingly holy and awesome so we should come before him with reverence and fear.

Last week, we saw that worship is not a performance that we passively watch; God wants us to all be involved.

The Heart

Today, we are looking at the idea of intimacy in worship. The Bible calls for a response to God that is with all our heart as well as with all our mind.

Many of you, perhaps most of you, know what heartbreak feels like. Have you ever opened your heart to someone, only to have it torn apart by disappointment and rejection? Forgive me for reminding you of that experience today; it’s one of the most crushing, devastating experiences we ever face as human beings.

I once dated a girl for about three months. I was more smitten with her than she was with me. I remember vividly the day she dumped me 38 years ago!

I remember where I was sitting, the time of day, the colour of the carpet and what I was wearing. I remember sobbing, I remember the snot running down, I remember thinking I was ugly and that I’d never love again. I can laugh at myself now, but at the time it was utterly distressing.

God experiences rejection thousands and thousands of times every day by people who spurn him, deny him, disown him, forget him, use his name as a swear word, ignore him and curse him.

And yet he still calls every person on this earth into relationship with him. Throughout the Bible, God reveals himself as having a heart; he has feelings and passions. He burns. He laughs. He gets upset. He sings for joy. He cries. He loves.

 A couple of weeks ago, Kathie went to look after the Paris grandchildren for a few days while our son and daughter-in-law attended a conference. She was gone a whole week so obviously I lived on cheese and onion crisps and tinned mushroom soup for five days. I missed her. In fact, from the moment she got on the train I couldn’t wait for her to get back home. And not just for her cooking I hasten to add.

What would you say if I went to meet Kathie at Eaglescliffe station, watched her get off the train, kept my hands in my pockets and said, “You alright then?” Or what would you think if I formally offered my hand to shake hers and said, “How do you do, Mrs. Lambert?”

Or supposing I said to her, “I love you with all my mind!” She might say to me, “What about your heart?” or she might say quite a bit more than that actually! It’s appropriate in a relationship of love to express some feelings. In fact, it’s more than just appropriate, it’s essential.

A Song of Love

The Song of Songs is a romantic and quite spicy poetic dialogue between a young bride and her husband, and it confirms - with divine approval - what we already know; that falling in love arouses the strongest and most intense emotions we ever feel. The Song fills the senses. It is sensually intoxicating and overpowering.

Listen to these verses from the different parts of the Song: “I have come into my garden, my bride, I have gathered my myrrh with my spice... Drink your fill of love... All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you... You have stolen my heart... I am faint with love.... Your mouth is sweetness itself; you are altogether lovely...

Is it just me, or is it hot in here?

Is it about worship? Or is it just about sexual attraction? Is it sort of both? What do you think?

The 3rd century Church Father Origen said, “I advise and counsel everyone who is not yet rid of vexations of the flesh and blood, and has not ceased to feel the passions of this bodily nature, to refrain from reading the [Song of Songs] and the things that will be said about it.”

Someone in this church told me a couple of years ago that it is their least favourite book in the Bible and they feel quite uncomfortable reading it.

But the Jewish commentator Rabbi Aqiba saw a purity and innocence about this Song that is unparalleled in world literature. He said, “The entire history of the world from its beginning to this very day does not outshine that day on which this book was given to Israel. All the Scriptures, indeed, are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”

In the same vein, CH Spurgeon who led a church in London with 12,000 members, preached 59 sermons on the Song of Songs, which were later published in a book called “The Most Holy Place.”

The Song of Songs is given to us by God for two reasons; primarily it means what it looks like it means; two young lovers delighting in each other’s charms - God made us in his image, male and female, and he said it was very good.

Some disagree and say, “Oh no, it can’t be; it’s in the Bible, so it must be all about spiritual things and nothing else.” So, they say, every detail has a deeper and true meaning and what the Song appears to be all about should be ignored.

One commentator for example takes the view that when the bride says in chapter 1.12 “My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts” that this is, in fact, despite all appearances to the contrary, a picture of Christ’s appearing between the Old and New Testaments.

I just don’t think it is. When I read, “My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts,” forgive me if you’re shocked at how worldly and unspiritual your vicar is, but I don’t think about the incarnation – at all. And I don’t think Solomon had the first Christmas in mind either when he wrote those words down.

A Place for Intimacy in Worship

And yet… having said that, the Church is the bride of Christ. His beloved, radiant, resplendent bride. And marriage does point to the enduring covenant of love between Christ and his Church. This is the other, and secondary, reason God gave us this book in his Word.

Ephesians 5 in the New Testament says that there’s profound and wondrous mystery in the union of a man and a woman in marriage and that there are striking parallels between that and the relationship between Christ and his whole Church worldwide.

Does that mean we should use the racy language of physical attraction that we read in the Song of Songs in our sung worship? No, it doesn’t.

Our relationship with Jesus as individuals is not a romantic one and I think it’s really unhelpful, especially for men, to be expected to sing words like, “Let my words be few; Jesus, I am so in love with you.”

Or “I look full in your wonderful face.” Or “There’s no place I’d rather be than in your arms of love.” Or this one lifted straight from the Song of Songs addressed to Jesus: “Oh, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth.”

Jesus is not my sweetheart. The Bible never speaks of anyone being in love with Jesus. And that song with a reference to a wet, sloppy kiss is just gross. That is the quickest way I know to empty the church of men – I think this is a tragic misunderstanding of intimacy in worship.

But there’s a passion and a longing, and a delighting and an overflow of admiration, like we find in the Song of Songs, that absolutely should fill our worship. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

In the Song of Songs, you find an overwhelming sense of anticipation; the young lovers long to be up close together.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42).

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord. (Psalm 27).

In the Song of Songs, the lovers express their pleasure and satisfaction resting in each other’s company.

How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! We take refuge in the shadow of your wings. We feast on the abundance of your house; and drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Psalm 36).

In the Song of Songs, the lovers continually speak out flowing, superlative words of praise for each other.

I love you, Lord, the strength of my salvation. My rock, in whom I take refuge, my fortress and my deliverer; my shield and my stronghold. (Psalm 18).

When I was a young Christian, the song “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice” was new. There have been times when I have joined with others to sing that song, starting gently but with rising volume and a cascade of harmonies; it’s a simple song of the heart, you don’t need the words as they are few, and it is properly intimate; “Take joy my King in what you hear, let it be a sweet sound in your ear.”

In the Song of Songs chapter 2, the beloved says,

“See, the winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come…”

The beloved is first and foremost Solomon’s young bride. But she is also a foreshadowing of the one, holy and apostolic Church loved by Christ.

“The winter is past and the rains are over and gone” she sings. Springtime, when wintry cold and darkness is past, is so like the new reality of fruitfulness and abundance we have tasted and savoured in Christ.

“This is the season of singing” she says. And we are in a season of singing in the Church today, did you know that? We are living in an age where more worship songs are being written than ever before. They’re not all works of art by any means, some are truly awful, but many are inspired, and look; the heart of the Church is in the right place and that is what God sees above all.

Seven times in the Bible it says, “sing a new song to the Lord.” Interestingly, some churches should note this, there is no command anywhere in Scripture to sing an old song - though it is certainly not forbidden of course.

In times of revival and outpouring, in times when heaven touches earth, the Holy Spirit brings forth a blossoming of worship where expressions of intimacy rise to greater prominence.

The great American revivalist Charles Finney once said, looking back over his life, “In times of revival the language of the Song of Songs became as natural as breathing.”

The hymn “Here Is Love, Vast as the Ocean” was written during the Welsh revival and it speaks of that blessed season when heaven’s peace and justice kissed a guilty world in love.

Did you know that the most common New Testament word translated “worship” occurring 59 times (proskuneo) means “to bow down and kiss” and it originally carried with it the idea of subjects falling facedown before a king or kissing his feet.

Ending

Which brings us, as we come towards the end, to Mary of Bethany in John 12.

She takes about a pint of pure nard, a fabulously expensive perfume from a very rare plant that grows only in the foothills of the Himalayas. She pours it all on Jesus’ feet and wipes them dry with her hair. And the whole house fills with the fragrance of this costly aromatic fragrance.

In Jesus’ day, nard had to be transported over several months from northern India, via Persia to Roman occupied Judea. It was vanishingly rare, highly exotic, decidedly luxurious and vastly expensive. It has an incredibly clean, pure, fragrant, intense and aromatic scent. 

Verse 3 says Mary “poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.” There is an unembarrassed intimacy about that act. Mary’s offering is profoundly personal. It is from an overflowing heart, as well as a renewed mind.

This Mary, we know from Luke 10, loved to just sit at Jesus’ feet, and bask in his presence, and allow her mind to be changed and her heart to be stirred by his words of grace, and let everything else in her life just fade into the background as she focused on him. This is the kind of intimacy in worship the Lord seeks.

And as the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume, may this house be filled with the glorious sound of our uninhibited love for the Lord. 


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 25 November 2018




Sunday, 11 November 2018

My Soul, Find Rest in God (Remembrance Day Sermon 2018)


Psalm 62.5-12

World War I, as we know, was mostly fought in trenches, sometimes only a few yards apart, cut into the soil along the border of France and Belgium.

I used to travel through the Somme and the Pas de Calais in northern France three or four times a year when I lived in Paris and it is remarkable that the physical impact of that conflict is still visible a century later. You can see traces of old trench networks in the fields, and there are still scars from where explosion blasts crater the land.

Two weeks ago, a pair of scuba divers plunged into the River Meuse to help remove more than 5 tonnes of unexploded shells from World War I. It is estimated that there are at least 250 to 300 tonnes more still buried in the nearby rivers and rolling hills of eastern France.

They think it will take another century at least of dangerous clearance work to finally remove all these munitions and return the landscape to the way it was before the war.

So, even though the last survivor of that war is now dead, even our grandchildren will still live in its shadow. 

As we mark the centenary today of the end of those hostilities, and sure many of you will say likewise, I confess I have been very moved by features about it in the media, especially old recordings of interviews with surviving soldiers describing, or trying to describe, what years of trench warfare were like; the cold, the mud, the rats, the smells, the fear, the becoming accustomed to death, and the sheer relentlessness of it…

And how it felt when the guns fell silent at 11am on 11 November 1918. And the fact that right up until the last minute, though it was known precisely when the end of hostilities was coming, shots were still being fired and men were still getting killed.  

And then… nothing. The first time in months that there was perfect stillness and quiet. Those who were there to experience it struggled to describe even years later how wondrous it was.

Last week, as I was driving with the radio on, some of you might relate to this, I suddenly and unexpectedly welled up as I listened to a piece on the radio about the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey.

In case you don’t know the background, in 1920 the remains of four soldiers in unmarked graves were exhumed from four different battlefields and placed in plain coffins covered by Union Flags. A senior officer closed his eyes and placed his hand on one of the coffins. The other three were taken away and reburied. The one that was selected was transported to London with great pomp and ceremony, with full honours and military salutes.

One hundred women were invited as special guests at the interment in Westminster Abbey. They were there because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

And the piece on the radio went on to say that the Ministry of Defence received hundreds of letters in the months following, all from women, all mothers who had lost their sons in the war, saying, “I had a dream, and in my dream, I learned that this unknown soldier, so grandly honoured was my boy.”

It’s this human angle, I’m sure, not so much the grandiose military monuments and mind-boggling statistics, that helps most of us to connect with a conflict none of us were alive to see.  

In order to get a better sense of what we commemorate today, I have been reading letters from the Western Front over the last few weeks. They give such a vivid insight into that appalling conflict that is estimated to have killed almost 7 million civilians and 10 million military personnel. About a third died, not from combat, but from diseases caused by the war.

The British Army Postal Service delivered around 2 billion letters during the war. In 1917 alone, over 19,000 mailbags crossed the English Channel every day, transporting letters to and from British troops on the Western Front.

I want to read some short extracts from just a few:

“Today is my 32nd day on the battlefield. The war has been at a stalemate for a few months now. Our days consist of digging trenches in fear for our lives. We could be shot at any time with a precisely aimed bullet.”

“The smell is unworldly. Illness and disease are common throughout the soldiers. Influenza, diabetes, trench foot, trench fever and malaria. The trenches are infested with rats, frogs and lice which all make the trenches filthily disgusting. The unsanitary conditions may be the reason we lose this war.”

“As write this letter, my free time is soon coming to an end. If I don't make it home just know I died a happy death fighting for my country. I hope everything is wonderful back home and hopefully I'll see you soon. So with all my love my darling Mum I now say goodbye, just in case. Try to forget my faults and to remember me only as your very loving son.”

“Dearest, if the chance should come your way for you are young and good looking and should a good man give you an offer it would please me to think you would take it, not to grieve too much for me… I should not have left you thus bringing suffering and poverty on a loving wife and children for which in time I hope you will forgive me.”

“My darling, if this should ever reach you, it will be a sure sign that I am gone under and what will become of you and the [children] I do not know but there is one above that will see to you and not let you starve. You have been the best of wives and I loved you deeply, how much you will never know.”

“If I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind. It is a great cause and I came out willingly to serve my King and Country. My greatest concern is that I have the courage and determination necessary to lead my platoon well. I can do no more, I give my love to you all and to Jesus Christ my Maker.”

And then this one, for a bit of light relief. “We were to have had a Brigade Ceremonial Church Parade today but fortunately it rained. I say fortunately because I don’t much care for lengthy ceremonials at Church Parade. It means usually standing about for hours and getting thoroughly bored.” (And that one was written by the son of a vicar).

British society in 1914 was very different from what it is today. About 40 per cent of people attended church at least once a month. Ninety per cent of children went to Sunday School. Just one per cent of the population called themselves atheists.

Today, the numerical strength of the Christian faith, its vibrant youthfulness and explosive growth is in Africa, Asia and South America.

But in 1914 it was in Europe and, as they lay dying, most of those we remember today will have cherished the sentiments of today’s Psalm. 


Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
Truly, he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honour depend on God.
Trust in him at all times…
pour out your hearts to him.


And, as I end, the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey is very appropriately engraved with New Testament scriptures including these two:

“The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2.19). And, “Unknown and yet well known, dying and yet we live on” (2 Corinthians 6.9).



Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 11 November 2018


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Worship: Presence (Exodus 33.12-23)




Introduction

What if God said to you today; “I am giving you one wish. Anything. You can have whatever you ask for. What do you want? Just name it and it’s yours!” What do you think you’d say in reply?

Some of you are living with long-term illness. So maybe you’d say, “Lord, I’m sick. I need a miracle. My one wish is for healing.” Or maybe, it’s for someone close to you. “Lord, my wife, my son, my father, my granddaughter is critically ill. I want you to make them well again.”

Perhaps you’re the only one in your family who knows the Lord and it grieves you more than anything else. “Lord, please let my husband or wife or my children come to know you as their Saviour.”

Or it might be “Lord, I need a job to pay the bills.” Or “Lord, I have a job but I want a better job with a nicer boss.” (I see Sandra’s sitting up to attention, she can obviously relate to that…)

In our reading from Exodus today, God tells Moses he can have protection and power and provision. But replies, “No, I’ll settle only for one thing; the one thing I really need.” We’re going to explore together what he asks for and why.

Worship in God’s Presence

This is the third in our six-part series on Worship this morning and today, I want to speak to you about the presence of God.

By the way, I commend the monthly programme for your reading where, amongst other things, you’ll find six more brief reflections from some of our church family on what worship means to them.

What does it mean to you? You may come here week by week and I hope you enjoy it when you do.

But is entering these doors an abrupt jolt to the system, where your awareness of God has been a bit hit-and-miss, or is it a seamless continuation of a praise-filled life Monday-Saturday?

I suspect for most of us our answer to that question will be a bit mixed; it depends on the week. It depends whether I’m spiritually up or down. It depends on what I perceive God to be doing, or not, doing in my life…

We’ve looked at the question of why we worship a couple of weeks ago with Scott – God is worthy of praise and we are created to magnify his greatness in adoration. Worship, we saw, is not about personality, temperament, personal limitations, church background, or comfort. It is about God.

Then, last Sunday, Kathryn spoke about excellence in worship; that we are to very intentionally give our passionate best; not some half-hearted, half-baked, “that’ll have to do” dog’s dinner.

But however sound our definition of worship, and however well-prepared and beautifully crafted it is, there is an x-factor, a vital ingredient, that lifts worship from the mundane to the exceptional, from the common to the holy, and that vital ingredient is the presence of God.

The American Book of Common Prayer speaks of worship as “the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”

In the Bible it says, “pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord.”

The American pastor RT Kendall tells of a Chinese pastor, who had suffered greatly for his faith but who had also seen phenomenal blessing and growth in the Church in his country, and who was given a tour of evangelical churches in the USA. At the end of the tour he was asked, “What is your opinion of American churches?” He replied, “I am amazed at what you can accomplish without God.”

I bet they wished they hadn’t asked! Sadly, I’m sure he would say much the same if he were to visit churches in the UK. What would he say if he were to visit All Saints’? Would he say, “I am amazed at what you can accomplish without God” or would he say, “the presence of God is here”?

That is the sort of question that keeps me awake at night… More than anything else, more than healthy finances, more than fine buildings, more than talented staff, more than outstanding music, more than exceptional programmes, (and we want all those things) but more than any of them, we need the presence of God.

You may say, “Wait a minute, what do you mean God’s presence? Where is God’s presence ever absent? Every Systematic Theology textbook will tell you in chapter one that God is omnipresent; everywhere. His glory fills heaven and earth as the water covers the sea…”

Yes, God is everywhere, but the weight of his glory and holiness and beauty and the radiance of his perfections are sometimes impressed upon us with greater intensity than at other times. The Bible speaks of this.

For example, it says that in the presence of God we become aware of new realities. Jacob wakes up from his dream about the ladder between heaven and earth and says, “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” The presence of God brings revelation.

David says in Psalm 16, “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” No one looks grumpy and sullen in the presence of God because it brings unspeakable joy.

The presence of God is also about awe which we’ll explore more fully next Sunday. Isaiah 2 speaks of “the fearful presence of the Lord.” There have been moments in my life, only three or four, when God’s manifest presence has made my heart race with holy fear, which is a strange mixture of dread and wonder. So in Jeremiah 5, God says, “Should you not tremble in my presence?”

And when Jesus came, all the fullness of the presence of God dwelled among us in flesh and blood. Jesus perfectly embodies the presence of God. He says, “The time is now. The kingdom of God is right here among you.

And as he bursts on the scene, there’s power, there’s healing, there’s demons getting sent packing, there’s release for prisoners, there’s life to the dead, there’s tables of money getting chucked around in the temple, there’s holy chaos as heaven touches earth and the glorious presence of God shifts all the darkness, all the sickness, all the grubby and dead religion. And this is what we want!

The founder of the Vineyard movement, John Wimber, was one of the most anointed men of his generation. He had an extraordinary gift of the word of knowledge where the Holy Spirit would reveal to his spirit very specific details about people attending his meetings.

Things like, “There’s a woman here in her forties, who has bruising and swelling on her left knee, which was caused by falling while running for a bus last Thursday.” That is an actual example. My friend Mark Aldridge was actually present when that word was given. And people would come forward and his team would pray there and then and many were instantly healed. 

I don’t think there has been in my lifetime anyone else with the same acquaintance with the power of God. Medically verified miracles, complete healing from sometimes acute or apparently terminal illness, were a common feature of his ministry. The power of God…

But Wimber used to say this: “We don’t seek God's power, we seek his presence. His power, and everything else we need, is always found in his presence.”

Moses’ Request

Well, we’re going to explore what it is to seek God’s presence, particularly in the context of worship. Let’s dive into our reading from Exodus.

Exodus 33 is a pivotal chapter in the book. To set the scene, after hardening his heart nine times, even despite ten plagues, Pharaoh has finally given in and let God’s oppressed people go. Moses has heroically led his people out of slavery and they’ve crossed the Red Sea to safety.

But no sooner are they freed from their chains and hard labour, they are moaning about how it was all so much better before; are we there yet?

The food was better, there was water on tap, Moses is a rubbish leader, are we there yet? The camping is too rustic, the weather is too hot, no one mentioned there were going to be snakes, it’s taking too long, and are we there yet?

They had seen wonderful things! The Red Sea miraculously parted before them. Manna fell daily from the sky. There was fresh quail to eat when they got bored with manna. Quail - tastes like chicken… God led them on sensationally with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. Water wondrously gushed from a rock. Yeah, but... whatever…

So in chapter 32 Moses goes off to meet with God (and probably to get away from them). While he’s gone, they make a golden calf and bow down before it. “These are the gods that brought us out of Egypt,” they say, as it all descends into a drunken orgy and God’s judgement falls in plague and pestilence.

But despite all this, Chapter 33, verse 2, God in his grace and goodness, promises Moses three things:

1)    I will give your people protection – an angel – who’d be happy to hear that God was assigning a personal angel, a mighty heavenly figure, built like a tank and armed with a sword? That would be all right wouldn’t it? God says, “He’ll bring you protection because he’s going to go ahead of you” like a shield.

2)    More than protection, God promises power. He says he’s going to drive out all the ‘ites – the Amorites and Hittites and Jebusites, all those bloodthirsty nations that want to exterminate you, you won’t even need to fight; he will take care of them. You haven’t got to worry about a thing; the angel of the Lord is going to give your people superior firepower.

3)    And God says, not only will he you give protection and power, he’ll lead you into provision. God says, “my angel will lead your people into an abundant land flowing with milk and honey. That’s the destination; you’ll never lack any good thing.”

Most people would settle for that. Power, protection and provision. But for Moses this is an absolute bombshell. Because God has made himself clear. “I will send my angel before you” means one thing (v3); “I (God) will not go with you.”

The presence of the Lord is not going to be among his people.

This is where our reading starts. Moses says (v12) “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”

I love this. “Teach me your ways.” The Bible says, “All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful.” The ways of the Lord tend to be counter-intuitive to us because God’s ways are not our ways. We tend to naturally choose a life of ease and comfort but the way of Christ involves taking up a cross daily and suffering.

Howard Peskett is a former missionary in East Asia with OMF International, and a tutor at Trinity College Bristol where they train vicars. One morning he addressed the student body, and his opening line was this: “In 200 countries and in 20 centuries there have been 80 million Christian martyrs. Which of you will be the first to die for Christ?” It was a bit of a shock, because most of those listening to him were wondering about the Vicarage they'd get and how far the pension would go!

Teach me your ways. Moses didn’t have the Bible. We do. So, unlike him, we can read it to discover what those ways are. The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “Some people like to read so many chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul soaking in half a dozen verses all day than I would, as it were, rinse my hands in several chapters. Oh, to bathe in a text of Scripture and to let it be sucked up into your very soul till it saturates your heart!”

“Teach me your ways.” But, as important as that is, Moses doesn’t settle for just knowing God’s ways. It is essential, but insufficient. It is not enough. Jesus said to the Jewish leaders of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

So God says to Moses, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” The “you” in Hebrew is singular. God is saying that his presence and glory will be experienced by Moses alone. It’ll be a private arrangement.

And Moses says, “No!” He says, “Lord, you’re asking me to lead these people. I can’t do that unless your presence is manifest amongst us. Giving them an angel is not good enough! Unless your presence goes with all of us, don’t send us anywhere. It won’t work. I won’t settle for less.”

People, we need the presence of God among us.

Like John Wesley, after years of meticulous and scrupulous religion, people said “he’s methodical, he’s rigorous, he’s austere”, he began to confess his growing misery and was about to give up ministry altogether, one day, 24 May 1738 he reluctantly walks into a meeting in Aldersgate Street, London.

At 8.45pm Wesley says, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

The presence of God…

About 80 years earlier, shortly after the death of the French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal in 1662, a housekeeper is sorting through closets and clothing and happens to notice something sewn into the hem of Pascal's coat.

In Pascal's handwriting, beside hand-drawn crosses, Pascal had carefully written these words: “The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement. From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight. Fire! The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob... The God of Jesus Christ... Your God will be my God.”

He is said to have been reading about the crucifixion when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the presence of Christ. More than 30 descriptive lines tell the story of his "night of fire," as he called it.

The presence of God…

More recently, the British church leader Geoff Lucas talks about an outpouring of God’s presence. “Out of all the thousands of services I have attended, there is one that stands out as the most remarkable. Decades later, I still meet people who say whimsically ‘I was there that night’…

After a powerful revelation of God’s father-heart he says, “People suddenly fell to the ground, instantly succumbing to the wave of the Holy Spirit that filled the tent. Others cried out, a response to the unfathomable awe that pervaded… Within minutes… a queue of people formed, folks who had been instantly healed in that moment. I tried to preach – without success.”

The presence of God…

Ending

As I end, I want to insist that the presence of the Lord is something we are to seek. Sometimes the Bible describes it as seeking God’s face. Actually “presence” is a common translation of the Hebrew word “face.” Literally, we are to seek his “face.” It’s an idiomatic expression, meaning to be in his presence.

John Piper says, “God calls us to enjoy continual consciousness of his supreme greatness and beauty and worth. This happens through “seeking.” Continual seeking. But what does that mean practically? …It is a “setting of the mind and heart” on God. It is the conscious fixing or focusing of our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.

1 Chronicles 22.19; “Now set your mind and heart to seek the Lord your God.”

Colossians 3:1–2: “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

May the presence and power of the Lord fill this place as we set our minds and our hearts to passionately seek him in worship.




Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 28 October 2018