Sunday, 10 June 2018

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



Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ending

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s stand to pray…


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

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Discipleship: Be Teachable (Matthew 11.28-30 and Colossians 2.1-8)




Introduction

A couple of months ago, our son Nathan sent us a little video filmed on his phone to tell us about something that had happened earlier that day.

Out of nowhere, his 4 year-old boy, our grandson, Caleb goes up to him and says, “Dad, what’s a disciple?” So Nathan explains. “A disciple is… well… a disciple is someone who loves Jesus and decides to do what Jesus wants. And it’s something that lasts a whole lifetime.”

Caleb nods and looks like he understands that pretty well, after all he’s nearly 5, so his dad says, “And what about you then Caleb? Do you want to be a disciple?” And Caleb says, “Yes please daddy.” So right there and then they pray together a simple prayer.

Then Nathan says, “Well, I think the first thing a disciple should do, after becoming one, is go and tell someone else. Who do you think you should go and tell that you’re a new disciple of Jesus?” Caleb looks around and sees his elder sister Emilie doing some colouring.

So he runs over to her, tells her what he’s just done and says, “What about you Emilie? Do you want to be a disciple of Jesus as well?” Emilie says, “Yes please.” And so they say a little prayer together and Emilie chooses to live as a disciple of Jesus too.

Discipleship

It’s a cute little story, and I was very happy to hear about it, but it set me wondering. How would I have answered Caleb? In words that a child can understand, what is a disciple? What is it essentially? What does it involve? How to you become one? Are we all disciples here today? These are really important questions.

Jesus never said, “If anyone wants to be a Christian they’ve just got to pray a quick prayer and then start going to church.” He actually said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must say ‘no’ to themselves and take up their cross every day and follow me.”

Jesus never said, “What you basically need to do is to stay around, organise the rotas and keep the church going.” Rather, he said, “go and make disciples.” So a key aspect of a disciple’s job is to make other disciples. How do you do that?

By the way, don’t misunderstand me. Praying prayers of commitment, coming together to worship on Sundays, and having a well-organised and functioning church are important. But they are just consequences, they are derivatives, of the one essential thing. The heart of the matter is discipleship. This is what Jesus calls you and me to.

And so I started to write down on a piece of scrap paper some thoughts about what discipleship really is all about. What are the most important components of following Jesus? And that is what we are going to focus on over the next three months.

I found that disciples are called to be faithful, to be people of prayer, to be humble and generous, to know who they are in Christ, and to live fruitful lives. Basically, discipleship is a lifelong course in becoming Christlike.

I want to begin the series today by looking at the etymology; the meaning of the word itself. The word we find translated “disciple” in our Bibles is from the Greek word mathétés. It basically means a learner; it means that all your Christian life you should consider yourself as wearing (and needing to wear) spiritual L-plates.

Some Christians I know appear to have stopped growing. They are coasting. Jesus said “keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.” But they gave up on all three years ago.

The most effective and attractive Christians I know never stop being curious. They are always pressing on to discover new things. I think this is partly why Jesus said we should become like children. Children are naturally inquisitive and interested in their world.

There’s a story about a teacher who gave her class of 9-year-olds some homework and it was to talk about an experience they had had in which they learned a lesson.

So the next day Sophie starts it all off and says, “My dad breeds chickens. One day, we were taking the eggs to market when we hit a bump in the road and all the eggs went flying and made a mess all over the car. So the lesson we learned is to never put all your eggs in one basket.” “Very good,” says the teacher.

Then Jack says, “My mum breeds chickens too. We had a dozen eggs once but when they hatched there were only 9 live chicks. So the lesson we learned is to never count your chickens before they’re hatched.” “Thank you, Jack, that’s great”, says the teacher. “Now Lucy, what about you?”

So Lucy says, “Well, my Aunt Matilda was a fighter pilot in Desert Storm and her plane was hit. She had to bail out over enemy territory and all she had was a bottle of whisky, a machine gun and a machete. She drank the whisky on the way down so the bottle wouldn’t break and landed in the middle of 100 enemy troops. She killed 70 of them with the machine gun until she ran out of bullets, then she killed 20 more with the machete till the blade broke, then she killed the last 10 with her bare hands.”

“Good heavens!” says the teacher. “Whatever did you learn from that?” “Don’t mess with Aunt Matilda when she’s been near a bottle of Scotch...”

Actually, everything that happens to us in life is a learning experience. But what sort of learning is discipleship?

It’s certainly not academic study, cramming your head with facts. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself; it will help you get a place at University and an excellent job – but that is not what discipleship is. Discipleship is closer to apprenticeship, which is about practical training for tasks and skills. But it’s not quite that either.

The type of learning we’re talking about to become a disciple is mirroring as closely as possible a mentor’s life, asking questions, imitating them in every conceivable way until you become a walking copy of them. Becoming a Christian disciple is about growing to be more like Jesus every day.

The last talk in this series in late August is entitled “Be Christlike” which sums everything up.

But we’re going to start today with the fundamental building block of being a disciple; if you’re ever going to be a learner you’ve got to be teachable.

Learn from Jesus

We’re going to turn to two passages of scripture today and the first is in Matthew 11.28-30. Maybe it’s not the first Bible reading you would think about in relation to discipleship, but it is absolutely at the heart of what it’s all about.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

What is this? At first glance it sounds a bit like a self-help article in a women’s magazine called something like “10 Tips to Beat Stress.” But it’s not that. Nor is it 5 pillars of submission for a good life like in Islam. And it’s not 4 noble truths towards enlightenment like in Buddhism.

This is unlike anything else before or since. Jesus says, not “Come on a programme” or even “come on a journey” but “Come to me. I am the key to lifting the load of everything in life that weighs you down.”

The longer we spend in his presence the more the light shines and highlights our need of grace. The apostle Paul started out by describing himself as ‘the least of the apostles’ (1 Corinthians 15.9). Later on, he called himself ‘less than the least of all God's people’ (Ephesians 3.8). Towards the end of his life, he described himself as ‘the worst of sinners’! (1 Timothy 1.16).

It is not that he got worse; it is simply that, through the awesome power of God’s presence, he became more and more aware of the light shining in his heart.

Jesus is looking at people who are stressed, driven, workaholic, worried, loaded down by life, looking like the world is on their shoulders and he’s saying, “Do I ever look worn out and world-weary like you?”

We’ve just spent 9 months looking closely at Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Not once, until he got the cross, did he ever look drained and depleted. He was always at the top of his game.

Right in the middle of our passage, Jesus says, “Learn from me.” In other words, “Be teachable. Observe closely. Watch how I do it. Copy me. I just go with the grain of what the Father is already doing - it’s easy that way.”

Jesus said in John’s Gospel how this works; “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing… for the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”

I love that in a hectic world, where so many people are ‘ground down and crushed under the weight of stress, Jesus says this.

Twice Jesus uses the word “rest”. “Come to me and I will give you rest... You will find rest for your souls.” Former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright says “rest” is perhaps better translated “relief.” It doesn’t mean put your feet up and doss about aimlessly. Homer Simpson once said, “It's not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child, but somehow I manage to fit in eight hours of TV a day.”

It’s not that. It’s not a wasted life of ease and leisure. It means Jesus relieving you of what’s weighing you down and replacing that with his own yoke.

Jesus would have made yokes in his carpenter's workshop. A yoke is a kind of wooden frame that joins two oxen around the neck. It makes pulling a plough or a trailer so much less arduous. A yoke makes burdens easier to carry.

Jesus is saying here, “If you walk in step with me, I’ll take the weight; if you live close to me everything is comparatively effortless.”

In 1956, Paul Anderson won the Olympic gold medal for weight lifting. He only stood 5'9" tall, but he weighed over 26 stone, or 170 kilos. His massive body allowed him to lift weights his competitors couldn't even imagine. In the 1970s, was the strongest man in the world. He’s in the Guinness Book of Records for a back lift of over 2,840 kilos. It is still listed as the greatest weight ever backlifted by a human being.

Paul Anderson was a devoted Christian who put on shows to support orphanages he ran in Georgia. He did things like lift a table holding 20 of the biggest people from the audience. He also drove nails through two boards with only a handkerchief protecting his palm.

Then he would say: "If I, the strongest man in the world, can't get through one day without Jesus Christ? What about you?"

I was asking Kathie this week “what it is about unteachable people?” And we both thought instantly of a couple we knew in Paris who rocked up one day in the church plant we were involved in.

They both had a kind of detached arrogance. They seemed above it all. “You can’t tell me anything.”

We lived with a permanent expectation; “as soon as I challenge either or both of them on any particular issue they’ll be off and we’ll never see them again.”

Like the story of the man who gets shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later they find him. And they are amazed to find that he has constructed three fantastic buildings. So they ask him about them. “What are these wonderful buildings you’ve put up?”

So he says, “Well, this one is my home. This is where I live. It’s got a great view and it’s very comfortable.” He shows them the next building and says, “And this one is my church. It’s the most beautiful chapel I’ve ever been in.” And to be fair, itis spectacularly pretty. And they say, “So what’s this third building?” and the guy says, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to…”

So how teachable are you? Are you able to walk in step with him in life, give him your burdens, take his yoke, cast your cares on him? When someone says, “Can I pray for you?” do you say, “Thanks, that’d be great” or do you say “Oh, I’ll be all right.”

Live Your Lives in Him

When we come to our second reading, Colossians 2.1-8, the heart of it is in v6 which underlines exactly what I’ve been trying to say this morning: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.”

That’s what being a teachable disciple is all about. It’s another way of saying “Come to Jesus, you who are burdened and heavy-laden and learn from him.” But he puts a bit more flesh on the bone. Paul talks about his goal for this church. What does he really want for them?

Put negatively, he wants Christians to get to a point where no one deceives them by fine-sounding arguments and no one takes them captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.

Social psychologist Oliver James wrote a book a few years ago called Affluenza. And in it he commented on some research that said that 50% of people with incomes over £35,000 feel they can’t afford to buy everything they need. And in fact the evidence of this research shows that whatever your income and however much is in your bank account you will always think that you need about a third more income to live the way you think you should. Mammon always says, “You haven’t got enough to give to the poor. You’re poor. Keep it all. Horde it. You worked for it. You deserve it.”

That’s a fine-sounding argument. But it’s a hollow and deceptive philosophy and it’s not the way of Christ.

Oxford church leader Simon Ponsonby wrote recently, “When I was a young curate, I heard one interfaith adviser recommending to clergy that in our discussions with Muslims we avoid the “J word”. He was not referring to politically incendiary words like jihad or Jerusalem. No, this church-employed interfaith worker was warning us not to use the word Jesus.”

That’s a fine-sounding argument. It’s a hollow and deceptive philosophy. There are others in every age where disciples of Jesus have to be counter-cultural and nonconformist and alternative.

Put positively, he wants Christians to have “the full riches of complete understanding.” He wants us to “know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” He urges us to be rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as they were taught.”

If you’re unteachable you’ll never be strengthened in the faith.

Ending

As I draw to an end, I have in my hand a glass of water. Question; how heavy is it? Any suggestions...?

…If I put it on the weighing scales it would register 500g (about 17oz). But the absolute weight doesn't matter. It actually depends how long I hold it for. If I hold this for a few seconds, it's not a problem.

If I hold it for five minutes, my arm will start to ache. If I have to hold it for an hour, it will feel like it weighs a ton. The absolute weight of the glass is still 500g, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.

The worries and anxieties in your life and mine are like that glass of water. If you think about what stresses you for just a little while – it’s manageable. If you think about them longer they begin to weigh you down. And if you think about them constantly, they will paralyze you. You will be incapable of doing anything else.

The Bible says, “Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you.” This is at the heart of discipleship - learning how to live like Jesus.

Let’s stand to pray…


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 3 June 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Be Filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.1-13)


Introduction

Here is a pie chart with three equal segments. The Bible reveals God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, meaning each person of the Godhead is equal in glory, power, divinity and majesty.

In other words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have the same amount of “Godness.” There’s no hierarchy. There’s no pecking order.
You might know that in your mind, even though you’ll never understand it, because that’s what people told you.

But when you close your eyes and think of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, how do you feel? Who do you relate to most? Is it the Father? Who is prominent? Is it Jesus? Who is in focus and who is in the background? My guess is that for many of us, the pie chart looks like this. 

We know what a father is, and either we have had personal experience of a good one or we long for a father we never had. The Gospels tell us what Jesus is like and we can even picture him because there are so many paintings of him.

But the Holy Spirit is more elusive. The Holy Spirit for many Christians is just a blurred question mark. I listened to a talk on the Holy Spirit recently by a curate in a large, well-known, Bible-based church and all the way through he referred to the Holy Spirit as “it” as if the Holy Spirit was a thing, like the Force from Star Wars.

In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is always “him,” not “it.” He lives, he speaks, he searches, he guides. You can hear from him, you can lie to him, you can grieve him, you can know him.

I have here a chocolate bar: It’s a raisin and biscuit Yorkie. Other brands are available. How many of you have ever tasted one of these? Has anyone never tasted one before?

OK, there’s a list of ingredients. Pretty well entirely sugar as it happens, but other things too. You could know that list off by heart.

You could know where it’s made, about its nutritional information, you could know about the advert that was produced to make you think you need it, you could have an opinion about the design of the wrapper, you could be an expert on its price in every UK shop.

But you will never know what it’s like until you’ve tasted it…

But then, maybe this bar is not all it seems. What if it’s fake and is actually made of plastic? Or it could be a trick bar from a joke shop made of powerful laxatives. Or what if it’s a faulty bar from a recalled batch? Or it might be the real thing…

Are you prepared to take a chance? Do you trust me…? The Bible says in Psalm 34.8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good…”

The Holy Spirit

I just want to say that straightaway because people look at Acts 2 and think it’s all a bit weird.

Understandably. 120 people in one place. Without warning, the sound of a howling wind, fire from heaven, an outbreak of foreign languages, and a gathered crowd of confused people.

And, as ever when anything supernatural happens, someone writing the whole thing off with a rational explanation. “This isn’t a miracle! These people have been on the bottle.”
 

But drunk people slur their words and don’t make any sense. They weren’t drunk at all. They were speaking fluently with no mistakes.

But whenever people see or sense the supernatural, some get perplexed and then recoil in fear…

It is pretty weird though. What would people think if 120 simple folk from up north with flat caps and whippets, like extras from a Hovis advert, all started speaking perfectly fluent Greek, Italian, Cantonese, Arabic, Serbo-Croat, Outer-Mongolian, Swahili and Russian in a public place?   

Galileans were country cousins from up north remember. These particular ones were farmers and fishermen and labourers. They had a distinctive accent like Liverpudlians and Geordies do. And here they were in the heart of the capital talking foreign with perfect pronunciation and clear articulation.

I was once told about a woman from a small, traditional parish in the home counties of England. A new vicar had come with radical ideas and was rather too enthusiastic for comfort. “Oh vicar” she said, “I hope nothing supernatural is going to happen in this church.”

Which, when you remember that our faith is founded on the resurrection of a dead man who walked on lakes and turned water into wine is a pretty dumb thing to say really!

Are you OK with God doing something supernatural? I hope you are.

Pentecost Power

Although this was sudden and dramatic, God had prepared them for it. There was plenty of fair warning.

Thousands of years earlier, Moses in Numbers 11 looked forward to a day when all the Lord's people would be prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on everyone, not just a chosen few.

The prophet Joel said hundreds of years later that God would one day pour out his Spirit on all people. Sons and daughters would prophesy. Old and young alike would dream and see visions.

John the Baptist, preparing the way, said that he baptized in water but one much greater was just around the corner – who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Then Jesus himself said to the disciples to wait and then they would be clothed from on high.

All the way through the Bible up to Pentecost, it’s like the countdown to rocket launch. 10, 9, 8…

The Saturn V rocket is the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever designed. Five massive engines burn 500,000 gallons of fuel in just 168 seconds, producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust, to propel 31,000 tons of hardware and fuel into the stratosphere, reaching a speed of over 6,000 mph. And that’s just stage 1. Six more engines fire after that to accelerate the craft enough to power a payload to the moon and back.

At take-off, the ground literally shakes two miles away. That’s power. And at Pentecost God started an unstoppable mission movement. Missile and Missionary are the same word in Latin.

On the Day of Pentecost there were many Jews in Jerusalem for the festival. As is the case today, there were more Jews living outside the Holy Land than inside – and the places listed in v9-11 are as far apart as southern and Eastern Europe, North Africa and right across the Middle East as far as Iran.

If a house is on fire, literally on fire, people come and look. Crowds gather round. People want to know what’s happening.

If a church is on fire, figuratively on fire, people come. Where God is at work, people want to know more and the church grows.

There was no manufactured atmosphere, no whipped-up emotion, no laser lightshow or dry ice machine. It was first thing on the first day of the working week, in the cold light of day. It was the equivalent of 9am on a Monday morning.

There are two words in Hebrew meaning “breath.” The first (neshamah) is the calm, gentle breathing when you’re at rest.

The other (ruach) is blowing and puffing until you’re red in the face. It also means wind, like a blustery day on Roseberry Topping where your face gets sandblasted off the front of your head.

Well, it’s that second word that is used to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit. And that’s what they ruach experienced.

In 1955, Billy Graham was invited to preach in Glasgow. “They said, go to Scotland because it’s the most sinful place in Britain.” They told him that the Scots were a wild and fearsome people. They would give him a tough time. His ministry would unravel before this hardened people.  

And it is said that Billy started to worry and become anxious. He lost his nerve a bit. On the train to Glasgow all his team fell to their knees in prayer and asked God to go before them. As they lifted up their voices to God, the carriage was suddenly filled with a rushing wind.

For six weeks, six nights a week, in rain, snow, and sleet (and occasional fine weather) Kelvin Hall Glasgow was packed out with hundreds in the streets outside, listening to loudspeakers.

Billy Graham preached with anointing every night and he said this: “When I gave the Invitation at the end of the sermon… not a soul moved... I bowed my head in prayer, and moments later, when I looked up, people were streaming down the aisles, some with tears in their eyes.”

Thousands upon thousands came forward to ask Christ to be their Saviour and Lord.

Here’s one typical testimony: "I was just 29… I was wondering what I was doing there and felt unsure about the experience. As soon as Billy called people forward, something made me stand up. I was pushed up off the chair by the Holy Spirit.”

Ruach, the powerful, holy breath of God…

In 1996, we went with our then church to a convention near Macon in south west France. Before the opening meeting, on the first morning, as people were arriving and the band were tuning up, our son Nathan, then about 8 years old, spontaneously laid hands on a little girl a couple of years younger than him, and she instantly fell to the floor under the power of God and stayed there for over an hour.

I know her parents’ well, and I know that she had experienced a personal trauma when she was about 2 or 3 years old. I was sure God was doing a profound healing work in her. We took it in turns to babysit all the kids during the evening meetings and I asked this little girl if she remembered when Nathan prayed for her a few days earlier and she did. I asked her what it was like. She said “it was wonderful. I was in the arms of Jesus.”

Ruach, the powerful breath of God...

You know when it’s blowing a gale outside? You see wheelie bins transported from one side of the street to the other without touching the ground. Wind can be overwhelming, and irresistible. It’s an all-consuming, overpowering, unstoppable force.

On the Day of Pentecost they spoke with new tongues. This is when you are given words to speak in languages, which you have not learned and do not understand.

Jackie Pullinger works amongst drug addicts, gangsters and prostitutes in Hong Kong. After a difficult and fruitless start to her work there, she said this, “I prayed 15 minutes a day in the language of the Spirit and felt nothing as I asked the Spirit to help me pray for those he wanted to reach.

After about six weeks of this, I began to lead people to Jesus without trying.  Gangsters fell on their knees, sobbing in the streets.  Women were healed.  Heroin addicts were miraculously set free. Scores were converted. We opened several homes to house heroin addicts and all were delivered from drugs, painlessly because of the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Nicky Gumbel talks about an occasion when a woman called Penny prayed for somebody called Anna on an Alpha weekend. What Anna needed to know more than anything else at that time was that God really loved her.

Penny ran out of words in English and started praying quietly in tongues. Anna looked up and started laughing. She said, “You’ve just spoken to me in Russian.”  Penny said, “Well, I don’t speak any Russian”. 

But Anna was fluent and loved the language. So Penny asked, “What have I been saying?” Anna said, “Well you’ve been saying, “my dear child, my dear child…” 

Ruach, the powerful breath of God...

Ending

This is what happens when the Spirit comes. May he visit his church afresh in this and every generation.

As I end, further on in Acts 2, Peter gets up and speaks, appealing to the gathered crowd, and quoting from the prophet Joel. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” he says.

It’s a promise that still stands and listen - it’s for you.

If you’ve never done it before, call out to the Lord today. It’s never too late and there’s no time like the present. Tell him you want your life to turn around. Tell him you want to experience the power of his forgiveness, the fullness of his joy and a release from spiritual darkness into glorious new life.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 20 May 2018

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The River of God (Ezekiel 47.1-12)


Introduction

Back in 1997, when Kathie was pregnant with Ben, we went on a mountain bike ride while on holiday in the south of France. We started off whizzing downhill at great speed from a town in the hills called Lodeve. I guess we must have travelled about 10-15 miles and it was a baking hot summer’s day.

It may have been a bank holiday weekend. In any case, no shops were open and we badly miscalculated the amount of water we needed to take with us. We soon became quite dehydrated. Kathie felt really ill.

So we decided that I should do the manly thing and cycle back alone, all the way up the hill to the holiday home, get the car, and drive back to pick her up while she rested in the shade. Riding back, I honestly thought at one point I was going to die. 

When I finally got back, I realised Kathie had the keys to the house. Our three children were out with the friends we were holidaying with. So I lifted a wheelie bin onto the car roof and climbed over a high wall into the property. 

Just behind that wall there was a big drop into a swimming pool and I just flopped into it, completely exhausted. That chlorinated pool water, probably peed in by all three kids all week, tasted like the elixir of paradise! I’ll never forget it. 

And when I read Ezekiel 47 about the river of life, I remember what acute, life-threatening thirst feels like. I’ll come back to that a bit later.

Ezekiel and the River of God

This is the third of three talks between Easter and Pentecost on the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel, as you may know if you have been here the last couple of weeks, was a young priest who had been forcibly removed from his home in Jerusalem and had to live as an exile in Babylon, hundreds of miles to the east.

And while he’s there, with no way home, just doing the best he can, God gives him a series of amazing visions, of which this is the last. 

He is shown a river dribbling gently out of the newly built temple in Jerusalem, and he notices that it’s getting deeper and deeper, even though it has no tributaries running into it to swell the flow.

It is just one source, from the presence of God himself, and down the hill it runs from a dribble, to a trickle, to a creek, to a brook, to a stream, to a river, to a torrent through the Arabah desert until it tips like a mighty cataract into the Dead Sea.

What is this? Is it a prophecy about an actual river? Some people think it is and that it will start to flow when the Lord returns. Zechariah 14 says that when the Messiah comes to the Mount of Olives, two great rivers will gush out from Zion; one westwards towards the Mediterranean and the other, like this one, eastwards down to the Dead Sea. Well, maybe…

But the early church fathers saw this river in more symbolic terms as a vision of the increase and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I think they got it right.

All the way through Scripture, and not just when the Lord comes back, there is a running river, a place of refreshment and revival and life.

Right back where it all starts in Genesis 2, there are streams that irrigate paradise. In the very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, the river is still flowing, clear as crystal, watering the tree of life with fruit all year round and leaves that make the sick well again. It’s about heavenly provision and supernatural healing.

And all the way through God’s word, this river runs. Psalms 36 and 46 speak of drinking from God’s river of delights, a source whose streams make glad the city of God. It’s about happiness and pleasure.

Zechariah 13 and 14 speak of a fountain of pure, living water that washes away people’s dirtiness and shame. It’s about purity and cleansing.

Isaiah 43 speaks of God doing a new thing; streams springing up in the wasteland and a watered wilderness. It’s about change.

Joel 3 also speaks of a source flowing out of the Lord’s house and water the valley of acacias. What a gorgeous picture of lush abundance and life!

For Ezekiel, looking at all this, it was a vision of the future, of what God wanted for his humiliated people. Ezekiel 47 is, in fact, one of the defining passages of the Old Testament in looking forward to what will happen when Jesus comes. It’s about increase and growth – the waters run ever deeper, ever faster, ever louder. 

And when Jesus does arrive, he speaks in John 4 about life-giving water that you put to your dried, cracked lips and you never thirst again. Then three chapters later he calls out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink, and rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

What is this river if not the very presence of God and the soul-refreshing, life-giving, spiritually reviving outpouring of his mercy and grace? There’s nothing else like it. It’s the place to be. 

When I was a boy, my dad used to read me The Wind in the Willows. Have any of you read that book? 

There’s a scene near the beginning where Mole meets Rat, who’s actually a water vole, but never mind...

 “So-this-is-a-river?” says Mole.
"The River," corrects Rat.
"And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!" says Mole.
"By it and with it and on it and in it," says Rat. "It's brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing.”

If you’re wondering what it’s like to swim in the river of God’s presence and pleasure and blessing, well, I agree with Rat, what it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing.

Thirsty World

We should remind ourselves often how desperately thirsty our world is. The whole earth is longing for this river. Our society is spiritually dried out, it craves and yearns for this water of life. 

Kilroy J. Oldster is an American Trial Attorney. He’s seen a lot of crime in his career. He’s seen some dark stuff. He wrote a book called Dead Toad Scrolls in which he says, “Every road leads to sorrow. All aspects that make life beautiful – friendship, love, art, and truth – will end... we came from nothingness and will return to the great void that birthed us.”

The human heart is parched. It’s like an arid desert, panting, thirsting, gasping for life-giving water.

Bertrand Russell was a leading and vocal atheist in the mid-20th Century. He wrote an essay called Why I Am Not a Christian. 

But when his daughter wrote a biography of her father she said this: “Somewhere in the back of my father’s mind and at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God and he never found anything else to put in it.”

Pascal said there’s a God shaped-hole in every human heart. We have this instinctive longing for the watered garden of Eden. We look over our four score years and ten and say, “Is that it? Is this all there is? It’s not enough. There must be more. Where can I drink?”

Every 12 years about 120 million pilgrims head off for the Kumbh Mela in India. Something inside them knows there’s a river of life somewhere. And they head for a literal river, the Ganges.

They know they are spiritually unclean and tainted. They know they need salvation and cleansing. Their hearts tell them that every day. They walk for days to congregate in a great mass of humanity dipping themselves in this squalid, brown, bacterially infected, mosquito ridden water, hoping somehow to wash their sins away.

Upstream there are toilet drains that empty into the Ganges, but such is the desperation of some pilgrims, that they drink the waters hoping they’re sacred, looking for purity and forgiveness.

The whole world is a scorched spiritual wilderness. 

And the devil loves the desert. The first time he appears in the Gospels is in the desert. He gravitates to dry and barren wastelands, Death Valley, where nothing lives and nothing grows.

Getting into the River of Life

If you’ve ever been a victim of flooding you know how devastating it is. The nearest I’ve got to it is a thoroughly miserable week’s camping in torrential rain where my leaking tent proved to be completely useless, the groundsheet got left at home, and my bedding ended up like a waterlogged sponge. That was 1996. I vowed never to camp again and I have kept my word.

A few weeks ago, the grandchildren were staying and – you know when you’ve got a two-year-old in the house and it goes very quiet? Well, I was working in my office when suddenly I heard Kathie yell from the kitchen “Oh no!” 

One of our two-year olds had decided it would be a great idea to turn the kitchen tap on and leave it running. By the time Kathie got there, it was like a scene from Paddington Bear. Water was running down the front of the kitchen cabinets and starting to spread all over the floor.

In Ezekiel 47, God leaves the taps on in the temple and causes a flood that gets deeper and deeper. But instead of causing damage and devastation, it’s a life-giving source that flows out from the presence of God, to irrigate desert places of dryness and lifelessness. 

People’s lives produce rotten fruit, leaves that curl up brown and dry. But where the river flows, fruit trees spring up on the riverbanks. The fruit never fails. The leaves on the trees never wither. Salt water becomes fresh. Even the Dead Sea comes to life and begins to teem with fish. 

And notice that Ezekiel doesn’t just watch. He is not a casual observer; he is invited into this flowing stream.

The invitation is to step into the river of life, and ever deeper into the experience of God’s presence.

Ezekiel is very specific about the aspect of the temple and the direction of the flowing water.

He says the temple faced east. That’s where he was, in Babylon. Due east. The east was always for God’s people the direction of danger, of hostility, of foreigners, of enemies, of those estranged from God. But the water runs out towards the east.

You don’t have to go up the hill to find it; the river comes down the hill to you. Grace flows out to lonely, dry, desert places, to the Arabah.

But notice also, that it flows out east from the temple on the south side, which is the side where all the pilgrims went out. In other words, this stream of life-giving water is following the people of God as they leave worship.

So it’s an invitation to journey deeper and deeper in our experience of God, having encountered him and feasted on his presence in worship.

And here’s the invitation:

First of all, you’re ankle deep. Just dipping your toe in. This is maybe like when you first become aware of God and the life of faith. It’s unlike anything you’ve known before. Perhaps you venture to splash about a bit as the experience is so new and exhilarating. But some people never go further than this. All their life is spent in the spiritual shallows where it’s perfectly safe.

But the invitation is to journey further, to go knee deep. Wading knee deep is a bit harder than when the water is up to your ankles. 

The knees naturally remind us of prayer. Whenever we go further in prayer we go further into God.

Thy Kingdom Come, this season of prayer we are in now between Ascension and Pentecost, is challenging us to pray for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Thousands are uniting together to ask God for an outpouring of the Spirit. I hope you will wade deeper into the river of God in these days.

But the invitation is to go yet deeper– up to the waist. In waist-deep water your feet are still on the ground but you can’t run anymore. You are more affected by the current of the river. You have less control of where and how fast you go.

In Ephesians 6, it says to fit around your waist the belt of truth, so you might see water up to the waist as maybe a reminder of your need to go deeper in your engagement with God’s word. 

Finally, the waters are too deep for your toes to touch the riverbed. You’re at the mercy of the current and you have to swim. Ezekiel says it flows out to the Arabah (which in Hebrew literally means “desolate and dry area”). It pours into the Dead Sea, a great depression at the lowest point on the earth’s surface.  

The Dead Sea is ten times saltier than the ocean. Nothing lives in its toxic brine. 

But that’s where the river goes; towards desert places. The river of God brings complete transformation. Nothing stays the same when God is at work. Marshes and deserts break out into blossom. 

Violent career criminals go straight and become responsible fathers. Miserable people cheer up and become filled with joy. Lonely people find a family. Sick people get well. Dead churches come alive. Tight old misers become joyful and generous givers. Self-centred people start to look to other people’s needs.

This is what happens when the people of God leave the place of worship, full of the Holy Spirit; they become conduits of blessing and healing all the way to the great depression of spiritual death and decay.

Are you going to step forward into deeper waters today? For some, that’ll be from dry ground to ankle deep. For others it will mean from the ankles to the knees. For still others the year ahead is about going from knee-deep to waist-deep. And for some, it’s time to launch off in total surrender, to wherever God leads, to the exhilaration of being out of your depth.

Some of you have swam in deep waters before but you’re back on dry ground now. Don’t waste your life just looking at it from the banks. God is calling some of you this morning to step back into the current and let God be God.

Let’s stand to pray…



Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 13 May 2018

Thursday, 10 May 2018

All Authority (Matthew 28.16-20)



Introduction

Small children, usually when they are about 4 or 5 years old, go through a phase when they continually ask the question “why?” We know deep down it’s necessary - how else are they going to learn if they never ask questions? And we have to admit that were probably no different when we were young.

But if you’ve been a parent of a child this age, you’ll know very well how wearisome it can be.

Children are naturally curious and eager to learn. But there are times when the question “why?” has nothing to do with inquisitiveness and everything to do with defiance.

Share your toys please, Anna. Why? 
You’ll have no ice cream until you eat your peas, Nathan. Why?
You draw on paper, not on the walls, Joseph. Why?
It’s time for bed now, Benjamin. Why?

And - we’ve all said it - sometimes the only answer we have the energy to give is “because I say so” or “just because.”

It’s fifty years ago this month that students in Paris began a protest demonstration that brought the French economy to a standstill and, at times, turned really ugly.

Such was the explosive and anarchic nature of this uprising that the French government temporarily ceased to function. President de Gaulle, fearing civil war or another all-out revolution, actually fled the country at one point.

Just as a young child’s petulance defies a parent’s authority, the riots of May 1968 targeted all authority, all power, and all institutions; the government, the military, the police, the education system, the church, the family, the media – everything.

And though it was mostly confined to France, the spirit of mai soixante-huit has permeated the entire western world, including here.

Who gave you the right? What makes you so special? Why should I do this or that just because you say so? These attitudes have become embedded in our society.

Consider attitudes towards the royal family, towards elected office.
Consider the disrespect footballers and tennis stars have for match officials. 
Consider the physical attacks on firefighters and first responders. 
Consider the fragmentation of marriage and family life.

So it’s with fear and trepidation I, as a member of the clergy, still seen by some as part of the establishment, address you tonight on this subject of authority. In fact, “all authority in heaven and on earth.”

Jesus’ Authority

It’s a phrase, as we’ve just heard, that Jesus used in Matthew 28, just before his ascension. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” he said.

Throughout his ministry on earth he was questioned and challenged on his authority by the religious elite. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they sniffed.

Everything he did was challenged and contested. 
“Who said you can heal on the sabbath? It’s not allowed.” 
“Why does this fellow forgive sins? Only God can do that.”
Who does this upstart think he is? Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?

It was non-stop. When he produced a miraculous catch they probably moaned all day about him fishing without a licence.

So much for the religious leaders. But for the ordinary people, it was totally different. Have you noticed?

In Mark 1.22 and 27 it says people were amazed by Jesus’ teaching because it had authority unlike the teachers of the law. His message was powerful. It was striking. It was thrilling. People marveled.

Even the Roman centurion saw Jesus’ authority. He said to Jesus, “This is my line of work. I say ‘jump’ and my men all say ‘how high?’ I get how authority works. You’ve got it in spades. You just need to say a word and – that’ll be enough, it’ll be done - my servant will be healed.”

The American theologian Bernard Ramm summed up Jesus’ words saying that they “are read more, quoted more, loved more, believed more, and translated more because they are the greatest words ever spoken … Their greatness lies in …dealing clearly, definitively and authoritatively with the greatest problems that throb in the human breast. No other man’s words have the appeal of Jesus’ words because no other man can answer those fundamental human questions as Jesus answered them.”

In other words, what Jesus said was not theoretical, propositional or merely academic. When he spoke, he turned heads. He opened his mouth and people hung on every word. It was electric. It was revolutionary because he addressed felt needs like no one else did but also because what he said was backed up by works of power.

There’s a little story about a vicar shaking hands with his congregation on the way out of church: Someone says, “Thank you for that sermon vicar; I’ve never understood that subject and I still don’t understand it – but now I don’t understand it on a much higher level!”

We can smile at a funny story but there’s enough truth in it to bite.

About six months ago, a man I know who is training for ordained ministry posted the following words on his Facebook page. I’m going to read it slowly…

“Just had a lecture on missiology which included a very broad and incisive view of church and mission... The orientation themes were placed in a new context. We looked at… a view of critical correlation and the questions we need to bring to Scripture and the view we have of the world. Then we spent time with a social cognitive discourse analysis on the wonder of the hybrid person. We even looked at epigenetics and how the church can suppress who we truly are, yet in embracing our DNA, we can be freed to bring that part of our humanity to the light.”

I mean - what? Who understood any of that? Can anyone help me here? This makes me so angry! Why are we training people to empty our churches?

There is zero authority and zero amazement, in stuff like that; it’s just pretentious, pompous garbage. People listen to hot air like that and just yawn.

That’s not authority at all. It’s spiritual impotence, ineptness and irrelevance.

Jesus’ Authority and Ours

When I talk about authority, what I mean is this: there’s a church in Halifax that started six years ago primarily for homeless, marginalised, recovering addicts, ex-offenders and street kids.

I was chatting to one of the leaders of that church last month and she told me about a service a few years ago, when a Wiccan High Priestess visited. While standing at the back during the singing of Amazing Grace, she encountered the living God, and couldn’t physically move while waves of love and grace washed over her. She quickly renounced her life as a High Priestess and surrendered her life to Jesus. She’s now a key staff member there.

Another day during sung worship, phones were ringing, a group started chatting and it looked like a fight was about to break out. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, they stopped everything mid-song and explained that they needed to pray against a spirit of distraction.

Once that happened, a powerful time of worship followed. The Holy Spirit came in power. At the end of the service, they discovered a visitor had given his life to Jesus and another man was healed of lung cancer which was later verified by doctors. 

That’s authority! That’s unmistakably the mark of Jesus. This is what he does. This is what he is like.

He preached the gospel, healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead.

Then, the Gospels tell us, he sent out the 12 and said, “Now you do it, go on! You preach the gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead - do it in my authority, in my name - off you go.” And they came back and said, “This is amazing. It actually works with us as well.”

Of course it works. Because it flows from Jesus’ authority. So then he sent out the 72 and said, “Now it’s your turn; preach the gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead - do it in my authority - off you go.” They came back and said, “This is brilliant. It works with us as well.”

And this is exactly what it means when Jesus tells us to pray, “Your kingdom come.” It means the awesome power of heaven brought into the everyday ups and downs of life so that lives are touched, communities are healed, and nations are transformed.

Jesus said “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

You and I have been given authority in prayer to make a difference. Prayer is the difference between the best we can do and the best God can do. “Anything you ask, in my name,” says Jesus, “will be given to you so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

That’s what this ten days of prayer “Thy kingdom come” is about; that people far away from God will be brought near.

Ending

So on this Ascension Day, let me end with some words from the Apostle Paul in our second reading that can encourage us as we pray with the authority of Christ that his kingdom will come and what he wants will be done here on earth as is the case all the time in heaven.

Ephesians 2.6-7 says this: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that… he might show the incomparable riches of his grace…”



Sermon preached at Saint Mary's Long Newton, Ascension Thursday, 10 May 2018