Romans 8:31-39 In Christ, God is for us

Can anyone tell me who this picture is of?

1024px-Rick_Astley_Tivoli_Gardens

RA Tivoli Gardens” by Michael Alo-Nielson. Licensed under CCBY 2.0 via Commons

(Rick Astley). His most famous song was in the 80s, when Parra was winning grand finals! The song was called “Never Gonna Give you up” It’s made a bit of a comeback in recent years through Rickrolling, which is trying to trick people into clicking onto his song. The lyrics are pretty well known. Do any of you know them?

Never gonna give you up,

Never gonna let you down,

Never gonna run around and desert you.

Never gonna make you cry,

Never gonna say goodbye,

Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you!

We look at those lyrics and think, he’s promising a bit more than he can deliver here! There’s no human being so perfect as to do all these things. Yet wouldn’t it be amazing if there really was someone who could love us like this, never give up on us, never desert us, always stay faithful to us, never tell a lie, never let us down? Does such a person or love even exist?

God in Romans is showing us that he delivers what Rick Astley can only sing about, and what all of us long for. Through Jesus we can know that God will never give up on us, he will never let us down or desert us. God is for us. As we in v28 just before this section, he’s working for our good in all things.

Yet in our painful, messy and complicated world there are things that might make us doubt that God is really for us. If you’re a Christian – if you’re trusting in Jesus, what are the things that might make you doubt that God is for you? As we look at this passage, let’s consider three big things that might make us doubt that:

  1. Opposition?

Look at v31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

In response to all that God has done for us in Jesus, as we’ve seen in Romans, Paul asks: who can be against us? Well on one level, lots of people. When this letter was written, around 57AD the Christians in Rome were a small minority, and would face much opposition over the next few centuries as the church grew. Just as Jesus church today continues to face opposition as it grows all across the world.

I’m in a face book group for people who like logic and puzzles, and some people in that group enjoy taking regular shots at Christianity. One of them recently made this claim: the facts are in, Jesus never existed.  Linked to an article which listed a number of historical works around Jesus time that didn’t mention Jesus. It’s not actually much of an argument, there were some works that do mention Jesus and some that don’t. Just like today some books mention Richie Benaud, some books don’t, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist.

If you use social media, you’ll probably see things like this a fair bit, people posting memes or articles taking shots at Christianity, trying to discredit it. What do you do with those? I think with most of them, it’s probably better just to let them go, because often the person is just having a laugh, or just trying to start an argument for the sake of it, but sometimes if the other person’s interested, it can be worth engaging with them.

In this case, I responded saying that actually there’s quite a consensus among ancient historians that Jesus did exist. I linked to an article that Sydney historian John Dickson had written where he put out a challenge that he’d eat a page of his Bible if there was any professor of ancient history in a recognised university anywhere in the world who believed that Jesus didn’t exist. It went around the world, no one was found. All those ancient history professors believe Jesus existed.

In response to my comment, someone responded with another question, and I responded with an answer, but then the conversation stopped and I was left with the impression that this person was happier just taking cheap shots and not so much wanting to engage in a real discussion.

Sometimes opposition to Christianity in Australia can feel like a little like that – I’m happy to mock your beliefs, but I don’t really want to have a sensible conversation about it, yet often opposition can be more serious. Some of you will be in the minority as a Christian at work, at your place of education, in your family, or sporting group. Sometimes what you experience for being a Christian might be worse than just some friendly teasing, I know of people who’ve been shunned by their families, even forced out of jobs because of their faith in Jesus. In other parts of the world, Christians have had possessions taken, been jailed, tortured, even killed for  following Jesus. If you experience serious opposition, you might ask, how can God be for us?

Jesus experienced opposition. He tells his followers we should expect it. Yet he also tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We can do that, because we know that God is for us Look at v32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

There’s no greater sacrifice God could have made than giving his son Jesus, to die for us. If he’s sacrificed to that level already, we can be sure that he will follow through on everything else he’s promised us.

Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers, when they were worried about whether or not he would forgive them for what they’d done to him? Joseph found power to forgive them in the God he knew was on his side even in the face of opposition.  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20)

The Bible tells us two things are compatible that we might think are opposite. It tells us God is sovereign and all powerful, yet humans are responsible for their actions. You see those two in this verse. Humans responsible for their actions, are intending harm, yet God is so sovereign, so powerful, that even where humans are going against him and intending evil, he is able to use it for good. If God is for us, who can be against us?

The first soccer team I played in was in the under 8s. I’d never played before so they just put me fullback – I ran from side to side on the 18 yard box following the ball in the other half in case it ever came into ours, but it never did. I remember getting into those oranges at half time, but I hadn’t even touched the ball. We had one really good player who was the fastest and best player in our comp. We won every game that year, some of them 11 nil and he’d usually score ten of them, and set up the other. It didn’t matter what team we came up against we always won, because he was on our side.

How much more true that is if the Sovereign, all powerful God is one our side – we can expect opposition, but we know that opposition won’t last. There is nothing anyone can do against us, that God can’t use for our ultimate good, and his glory.

God is for us: through Jesus, no one can stop him achieving his purposes for us.

  1. Struggle with sin?

Do you remember Paul’s question at the end of chapter 7, he said: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? He’s an apostle, he’s met Jesus, he had the Holy Spirit, he planted churches, he wrote letters that were considered Scripture – they became part of the Bible, yet he struggled with sin. If you’re a Christian, is there anything you struggle with, that makes you wonder, whether God is for you? Perhaps you keep giving in to anger, and you wonder, can God really before me, after all I’ve done and said? Perhaps you’ve been struggling with porn – you know it damages your brain, exploits people, and dishonours God, you’re making some progress and yet the struggle is real – you wonder, can God be for me, if I’m still struggling with this. Maybe your struggle is with your tongue, you’re working on it, you’re making progress, but you still say things that you find yourself regretting afterwards, and you wonder, can God be for me, when I keep hurting others with my tongue?

Have a look at v33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one.

We saw in chapter 6 how if we trust in Jesus we’re no longer slaves to sin, we have a new power to say no to it, we should see real progress, we’ve seen in chapter 8, how the Spirit leads us and helps us in this process of putting sin to death, yet as chapter 7 shows us, in this life we’ll still struggle with sin, we won’t see perfection until Jesus returns. In that struggle, we need to know that Jesus death is enough to forgive all our sin, past present and future. If God declares you right through Jesus, and welcomes you into his family, who’s going to say to you, no you’re not right? No one, that’s worth listening to.

The Bible says we have 3 real enemies who work against us – we have the devil, a real enemy, the world – all those who are opposed to God, and our own sinful nature, but we have someone far more powerful who is for us, look at v34: if says 4 things about Jesus: 1.  He died – not for his own sin, but the sin of those who would trust in him, 2. He was raised to life – the Father was showing that Jesus sacrifice was acceptable 3. He is at the right hand of God. When the Bible talks about the Father and the Son ruling, it doesn’t talk about two thrones, but one throne. They share a throne: the throne of God and of the lamb (Revelation 22:1,3) One throne that God the Father and the Son share, Jesus is at the right hand of The Father, sitting on the throne with the Father. Jesus is God, just as much as the Father is God. 4. He is interceding for us – speaking on our behalf. God the Son, speaking on our behalf to God the Father.

In 1500s there was a powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth who sent his herald to declare war with Francis the First, King of France. The herald declared war using all the titles this king had, as a way of intimidation. He said I declare war in the name of the Emperor of Germany, King of Castille, King of Aragon, King of Naples, King of Sicily, and on he went with all these titles.

When the herald of Francis the First took up the challenge of battle, he didn’t want to be outdone, but his king only had one title, so he just repeated his master’s name and office as many times as the other ruler had titles. He said, “I take up the challenge in the name of Francis the First, King of France; Francis the First, King of France; Francis the First, King of France; Francis the First, King of France; Francis the First, King of France – over and over, because that was all he had.

If we’re Christians, we will know that there is a long list of accusation that can be made against us, many wrong things that we have done against others and against God, but if our trust is in Jesus, there is really only one thing that needs to be said in our defence: Christ died for me, Christ died for me, Christ died for me, Christ died for me, Christ died for me.

If you’re a Christian, even though your struggle with sin is real, through Jesus, there is no charge against you that will stick.

God is for us – through Jesus, no one can stop him achieving his purposes for us, no struggle with sin will stop us being free from condemnation through Jesus.

  1. Suffering and death?

Look at v35: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

Paul then quotes from Psalm 44. Often in the Old Testament we see things going badly for God’s people because they ignore God and go their way instead of his, but if we read Psalm 44 you’ll notice, that there the people are actually living for God, yet still suffering, as v20 of that Psalm says which Paul quotes in v36 ‘For your sake we face death all day long; They are suffering, not for their own sin, but for the sake of God.

When we suffer, does it mean that God is not for us? No, look at v37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors… That word is literally hyper conquerors, or super conquerors. Hardship actually grows our character, it develops perseverance and hope if we know we are loved by Christ.

What is love really? Lots of people sing about it or make movies about it.

Justice_Crew_

Justice Crew by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia. Licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

Justice crew tell us – we spread love it’s the only way (they think love is good, but what is it?)

The Beatles told us – love is all we need (but then, they fought with each other and broke up, so maybe they don’t know what love is!)

Taylor Swift says: love means you’ll never have to be alone

Ana in Frozen says: Love is an open door, where you can say goodbye to the pain of the past! (Unfortunately, without wanting to spoil the movie too much🙂  the man that she sings that with later tries to kill her sister, so maybe she doesn’t know what love is either!)

Pat Benatar says: love is a battlefield

Queen says: they can’t handle it, this crazy little thing called love.

What is love? Everyone wants it, but no one seems sure what it is!

The Bible tells us: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10) Love is self-sacrifice for the good of another.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) There’s no greater demonstration of love than a perfect God sacrificing himself for humans who’ve rebelled against him.

Jesus death shows us that we are not just acquitted by God, we are loved. We are not just loved by another human, we’re love by God. We’re not just loved temporarily, we are loved forever.

Here’s a great photo from Cathy and Jarrod’s wedding last weekend

Cathy&Jarrod

Photo: Nail and Twine Photography

– a young couple, declaring their love for each other, walking through the sparklers, happy, in love with each other – it’s a great photo! Yet they know, as we all know, that life’s not all smiles and sparklers – many couples start out like this, yet end up separated, something comes between their love for each other. What can help us keep going in the hardships of marriage, or singleness or life?

If we know that nothing can separate us from God’s love, his love enables us to love others, even when things get hard. Look at the list of things Paul covers in v38-39: neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation… (everything’s covered!)

As a pastor I’ve had the privilege of being with people as they’ve died, I’ve often come away from those experiences encouraged by Christians who’ve faced death, with a great sense of assurance, because although they are sad to leave loved ones, they know both they and their loved ones are ultimately in God’s hands, and they know even death won’t separate them from God’s love.

If you’ve never read the Jesus Story Book Bible, you should read it, it’s great for all ages, it gives the big picture of the Bible better than almost any other book I know. It refers to God’s love as a “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love”.

If you’re not yet trusting in Jesus, he invites you to come to him, to trust in his perfect life, his death and resurrection as being for you, to find in him the forgiveness, love, and security you need. What’s stopping you from turning to him? What is there that can love you, the way God can? There’s no person, no possession, no money, no power that can love you the way humans longed to be loved.

If you are trusting in Jesus, God wants you to know today that he is for you: No opposition can stop his purposes for you, no struggle with sin will leave you condemned, no suffering, not even death can separate you from his “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love”.

The Top 20 Countries where Christianity is Growing the Fastest

The Top 20 Countries where Christianity is Growing the Fastest.

Luke 7:18-35 – Greatness: Jesus, John and us

Last month I received, what could be Australia’s most prestigious sporting award – it wasn’t the Allan Border Medal or the Dally M player of the year award, or the green jacket for the Australian Open,  it was the coveted green singlet for the Maitland Parkrun, parkrunner of the month! The fact that this award was probably given more for volunteering than fast times, in no way diminishes its glory.🙂 I was a little surprised it didn’t get the press coverage such a prestigious award deserves! I tried sharing it on my social media pages, but it hasn’t exactly gone viral.🙂

IMG_20150228_141344On top of that yesterday I competed in one of Australia’s premier sporting teams – not the Socceroos or the Kangaroos, or the Australian Cricket team, but the MEC pastors Triathlon team! The selection trials for this team as you can imagine were quite gruelling, and it’s a privilege to have been selected to compete alongside such great athletes as my fellow pastors!

Now at this point you might be saying – Kev, seriously if these are you greatest sporting achievements,  you’re never going to make it into the hall of fame. And you’d be right. Very few of us here this morning would be considered great in any of our fields. Some maybe, but most of us will probably be pretty average.

Yet Jesus says an amazing thing in v28 of this chapter, he says  that among those born of women, there is no one greater than John – which means he is greater than Abraham, Moses, and King David, and yet he says, the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. He is saying that if we are in the kingdom of God, if God is our king, then even the least of us is greater than John, who in turn is greater than heroes of the faith like Abraham and David, is that possible?

There are a lot of questions this passage raises for us, and one way to unpack it is to ask three of those questions: 1. Why is John so great? 2. If he’s so great, why is he asking questions about Jesus? 3. Why if we are in God’s kingdom are we greater than John?

1. Why is John so great?

a) Prophet

Look at v24 Jesus says: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? (John wasn’t in any sense a speaker who  just swayed by what others thought) 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? Again, no, John wore very basic clothes, he lived very simply in the wilderness, he definitely wasn’t in it for the money. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you…John was a prophet – someone who spoke God’s word – back in 3:2 we read that ‘the word of God, came to John’.  That’s what a prophet was- God’s word came to them, and they spoke it.

Mark tells us that the whole Judean country side, and all of Jerusalem came out to hear John, thousands of people from all walks of life came to hear him preach. (ordinary people, outcasts etc.) He spoke fearlessly and boldly, about the need to repent, to turn back to God to be forgiven.

b) More than a prophet

If you look again at v26 Jesus says a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: [Then he quotes from Malachi 3:1 ] ‘“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”

John was not just a prophet, he was prophesied about. As well as Malachi 3:1 There are at least two other Old Testament passages which refer to John. One is Malachi – 4:5 which speaks of God sending Elijah before he comes again. Jesus says in Matthew 11, John is that Elijah. The third is Isaiah 40, a voice of one calling prepare the way for the Lord. So there are at least 3 Old Testament prophecies, all written hundreds of years beforehand which all point to John. He is a prophet, yet he is more than a prophet, he is the one prophesied about who will prepare the way for God and personally point people to Jesus.

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1:29-30) John says two extraordinary things about Jesus: He calls him firstly the Lamb of God, and says secondly: Jesus was before him, even though John was 6 months older, Jesus was the preeminent one who existed before him.  Later John again calls Jesus the lamb of God, and two of John’s own disciples left him to follow Jesus. He pointed to Jesus so convincingly even some of his own followers left him to follow Jesus.

Later some of John’s disciples told him that everyone was now going to Jesus instead of John. John replied: ‘A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.” …The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:27-30)

Incredible words of humility, John saw his role as not about him, but as pointing people to Jesus. Of course all the prophets before him, like Moses, David, Isaiah all prophesied of the Messiah, but  what they foretold from a great distance, John told more clearly. He was the immediate forerunner of Jesus who prepared the way and personally pointed others to him.

2. Why is John struggling with questions?

Notice Luke gives us this question from John the Baptist twice, to reinforce it: You see it there in v19 when John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ It’s repeated again in v20 when his disciples come to Jesus they ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ It’s a surprising question, is this the same John who so confidently called Jesus the lamb of God – the one who said his joy was complete, now that Jesus was here? Why would John who’s done such a great job at pointing people to Jesus, now be asking questions as though he was unsure who Jesus is?

Let’s notice quickly 3 things about John:

1024px-Machaerus_Panoramaa) Difficult situation – We know from 3:20 that Herod had locked John up in prison. He was imprisoned in  Machaerus, Herod’s palace on the eastern side of the dead sea. He was in jail unjustly, he’d done nothing wrong other than to faithfully proclaim God’s word.

b) Unmet expectations – John preached of the coming Messiah who would bring judgement : His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:17) The Messiah was coming to separate the wheat from the chaff and bring judgement. It seems John didn’t expect to be languishing in prison when the Messiah was here. He expected the Messiah to bring God’s righteous judgement. He was right, God’s judgement was coming, but not as soon as John expected.

c) Limited perception – John knows only what God has told him. He has expectations but his perception is limited, only God knows everything.

These three things – Difficult circumstances, unmet expectations and limited perception can lead to us asking questions, just as John does.

A friend of mine is currently a missionary in Peru. Over the last 50 years the evangelical church in Peru has grown dramatically, but like everywhere Christians in that country experience hardship. Outside one church in a village in Peru is a granite graveside marker. It’s the grave of the six month old son of one of the young missionaries who helped to found that church. The sudden death of his son seemed to crack this missionary, and caused him to ask serious questions.

You can see how all of these three would apply – a) difficult situation, horrendous pain, losing a child – one of life’s greatest heart breaks. b) Unmet expectations – he’d brought his young family over to Peru to serve God and see his kingdom grow, he’d prayed for God to protect them, and to heal their child, and it didn’t seem like God had done what he had expected him to. It didn’t seem fair! That his service of God was being rewarded this way c) Limited perception – the missionary knew his own great pain, he knew what he was experiencing, but he couldn’t know everything of how God might use this suffering to impact both their lives and others for eternity. That missionary, like John the Baptist was a man of God needing struggling with questions. One thing this passage shows us, is that it’s not wrong to ask questions:

The Scripture is honest and open about such struggles and doubts, just as the Christian community today should be. The way to deal with them is to express them, as John did. However, with the expression of [questions] should be an open and receptive ear prepared to hear the answer. (Darrell Bock)[1]

If you have questions about God, you’re not alone. The important thing is what will you do your questions? John is struggling, he has questions, so he asks them, and he’s receptive, prepared to hear the answer.

Notice how Jesus answers John’s question – he answers by pointing to his own life, and to the Scriptures. Look at v21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, illnesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he said to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

Almost every phrase in v22 alludes to verses from Isaiah. If you’re in a home group you may have looked at some this week. John was a man who knew Isaiah – he quoted it to the Pharisees when they asked him who he was. He would have known these references well. Each is a description of what God’s Messiah would do.  Although Jesus specifically refers to the healing in those verses, John would have known each in their context also refers to judgement. God’s judgement was coming, just not in the timetable John had expected.

Jesus is helping John here to better understand the Scriptures. He’s not condemning him for asking questions, he calls him the greatest man who’s ever been born, yet he is helping him to grow through deepening his understanding of the Scriptures and of who Jesus is.

There was a point in yesterday’s triathlon where I was getting concerned. I was watching Steve in the cycle leg where he had to do 6 laps, and I was thinking how easy it would be to lose count while you are zooming back and forth doing these laps. I called out to him as he rode past, what lap are you on and he said 3 – 3 to go, two laps later I said to him, what lap are you on?  and he called out 2 to go! I talked to Rog and he decided he would talk to Steve when he came past next about whether he should come in, as it seemed like he’d actually done his laps. Steve came in, and later Steve and I checked on Strava which is a cycling and running app which maps your ride. You can see this map of his ride there, but if you zoom in closer you can see it in more detail. Picture1If you count the lines here you can see that in fact Steve had done 7 laps when he came in – one too many! It’s actually an easy mistake to make, others did it to, but our high tech analysis has helped us work out a way to shave some significant minutes off our time if we do it next year – We need to just buy Steve a lap counter! If you’ve sponsored us, feel free to chip in a bit extra, because we’ve actually gone over and above what we needed to! It’s a good thing Rog called Steve in, or he would have done 8, maybe more, he could still be out there, he was obviously enjoying it!

When we had a question about our triathlon, we zoomed into Strava for an answer,  when we have questions about life, it’s an opportunity for us to zoom deeper into God’s word for help. A few years ago I heard John Lennox who was a maths professor at the University of Oxford, talk at a conference. One thing he said had helped him grow as a Christian, was that he made a commitment to work just as hard at studying the Bible on his own or with friends, or at church, as he did on his uni studies. He obviously worked hard as his studies to become a professor, but he also worked hard at knowing God – he asked the hard questions, he prayed, he thought through things, and as a result he’s grown significantly over the years. I’m not suggesting we all should be able to think like a maths professor, but sometimes we can be content with a  shallow or surface understanding of God and what he says. Difficulties can be a great opportunity for God to help us to zoom in deeper and grow. If you have questions, do what John did and ask them, pray about them and be willing for God to help you grow in understanding his word.

3. Why are Christians even greater?

Look at v28 Jesus says: among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. In what sense are Christians even greater?

The following two verses 29-30 show us two responses to God’s message. If you look at them, you’ll see they are surprising, because the religious people, the Pharisees and experts in the law are the ones rejecting God’s message, and who refused to be baptised by John, and it’s the more obviously sinful people who are accepting God’s message and who were willing to be baptised by John. There’s something very humbling about coming to be baptised. Even for John, baptism was an outward sign of a need for inner cleansing. There were really two responses to God’s message:

a) Pride / self-righteous – religious people who thought they were good enough for God, and were too proud to accept his grace.

You see an example of them I think in the last section where Jesus tells the parable of the children singing in the market place. He tells us what he means in v33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  They were inconsistent in their accusations, never pleased, always having an excuse. They were stubborn and proud in their unbelief.

b) Humble trust in God’s grace – some recognised they needed God to clean and forgive them. Those who are in God’s kingdom are humbling themselves to receive God’s grace, now shown through Jesus.

If that’s us, then what makes us greater than John is clearly not our great deeds or achievements. We are greater than John for the same reason John is greater than those before him, because we can point people to Jesus with even more clarity than John could.  John was beheaded before Jesus died on the cross and rose again, he was never able to explain God’s grace shown in Jesus as clearly as we can. Even the least in God’s kingdom, even the newest Christian can say, I’m a Christian not because I deserve it, but because Jesus Christ the Son of God died on the cross for my sins, he bore my sin in his body on the cross, so I can be forgiven, and be welcomed into his family. Even the least of us can point people simply to the grace of God found in Jesus.

Author Randy Newman tells the story of a time he had to have a needle put in his spine, and he said as the doctor was about to put the needle in, he was talking to him. The doctor discovered Newman was a Christian and started talking about how a friend had invited him to church when he was a kid. He said at that church all they seemed to speak about was hell. He said, everyone told him he was going to hell, they said if you dance, you’ll go to hell if you’d, drink you’ll go to hell, if you smoke you’ll go to hell. He said he’d gone home and told his mother, and his mother danced, and drank and smoke, so she told him not to go back, and that was the end of his church experience. Then he turned to Newman and said: you’re religious – what do you think about all that?

Answering questions about hell, is not the easiest to do graciously at any time, but especially not when a doctor is about to put a needle in your spine! Newman said he’d answer him after he’d done the needle. So when he’d done it, the doctor said to him again – what do you think about these groups that have all these rules, and say, if you don’t keep these rules, then you’re going to hell? This is what Newman said: He said, I think people like to have lists of rules because they make it easy to feel good about yourself, and bad about others. You feel good about yourself, because you feel like as long as you don’t do any of the really bad things on these lists you’re OK, but he said, the things that I need God to forgive me for, are a whole lot worse than dancing or drinking or smoking. I need God to forgive me for things like anger, bitterness, judgementalism, self-righteousness… He said, as he spoke, this doctor who all his life had been dismissive of Christianity, was really listening. Newman said, that’s what I love about the Christian message – it shows me how the forgiveness I really need is possible through Jesus.

If you’re a Christian you’re greater than John the Baptist, because you can graciously say to others, with more clarity than he could: I’m a sinner who needs to be forgiven and freed from the evil inside me, and Jesus, the Son of God came and died on the cross, taking my sin, so that I can be. Let’s pray.

[1] Bock, Darrell L. (2009-08-19). Luke (The NIV Application Commentary) (p. 215).

Luke 7:1-17 Jesus: Master Restorer

Recently we’ve had three wasps nests at our house. I don’t normally face much physical danger in my job, so wasps nests are an opportunity for me to get out there and face the great danger of these terrifying creatures and protect my family. Of course it’s right to take precautions when you face such great danger: I bought some wasp spray that had a four metre range, so I didn’t have to get too close! I clothed myself appropriately, double layers, jacket, long pants, gloves, shoes, hood and eye protection. In a worst case scenario, I would have to rely on my parkrun training to try and outrun them! Two of the nests weren’t too large, they would have had 10 or so wasps on them, but one of them was the largest I’d ever seen, it had well over 60 wasps, and it was hard to get close to. Eventually I worked out, that there was a small window on our garage with a flyscreen, and by opening that window, I could have an angle which I hoped was just inside the 4 metre range of my wasp spray. Even though I was inside the garage behind the flyscreen, I still clothed myself appropriately in case they found a gap in the garage somewhere and came for me. Despite my precautions, my heart was still pumping as I began my attack from behind the safety of the flyscreen. Thankfully the spray was effective, and the although it took the whole can eventually all 60 of the wasps dropped to the ground, and the next day I was able to go in safely and clean up the bodies and take away the nest.

Many of us are comfortable talking about death when it relates to terrifying creatures in the garden, but much less comfortable talking about our own death. We want to treat death a bit like I treated those wasps and keep as far away from it as possible.

Woody Allen famously said:  I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Richard Branson was asked how he wanted to be remembered, he refused to answer: I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here. Michael Jackson was asked did he want to be buried or cremated, and he also refused to answer: I don’t want to die, I want to live forever. Yet as we know, people as wealthy or famous as Michael Jackson still eventually die, we all do.

Many years go in western cultures people were reluctant to talk about sex but much more open talking about death, in part because death was much more a part of their lives, infant mortality rates were higher, people more often died at home than in external care. Now it’s the opposite, people are more open to talking about sex, but less open to talking about death. The Bible is countercultural in either setting – it doesn’t avoid talking about both. It’s a book about the real world, so death is a common theme. Here is Luke 7 we read of one person who is sick and about to die, then another person who has just died.

It’s good for us to think about death, because : only when you know how to die, can you know how to live (JI Packer). As we look at this passage, let’s just ask two questions: 1. How does Jesus respond to the reality of death? 2. How can we respond to the reality of death?

1.How does Jesus respond to the reality of death?

A: Compassion

One of the most famous songs about death in the last 25 years is Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. He wrote the song after his four year old son, fell from the 53rd floor of a building and died, it’s a song which speaks of his grief and his longing to see his son again. It includes this section:

Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please
Begging please
Beyond the door
There’s peace, I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven
(Eric Clapton – Tears In Heaven Lyrics )

There’s a profound grief in the song, a longing to see his son again. He doesn’t claim to be a Christian, yet he’s using that Biblical language of no more tears in the New Heavens and the new earth. He’s hoping for a time when there will be no more tears, because he knows life now involves many tears.   Why did such a sad song go to number one in the charts soon after it was released, and why has it remained a favourite for so long? In part it’s because so many people can identify with the very real grief of death.

We get a glimpse of such grief here in Luke 7. v12 is a very heart breaking scene, we see a widow, whose husband had previously died, now also having her only son die. As a woman in a society  where men were the property owners and main income earners this widow would face great vulnerability. Yet on top of that is the very real personal grief of now having lost not just one but at least two loved ones. A large crowd from the town is with her, sharing in her grief.

How does Jesus respond to this scene of great grief? Does he care? Is he indifferent? V13 is very clear isn’t it? When he saw her, his heart went out to her (or ESV says when he saw her he had compassion on her). This word carries the idea of a deep emotion, a deep attitude of concern for the widow.

Sometimes in our grief and pain, we can wonder whether God cares about us our situation. We see here that he does care about human grief. Jesus in entering the world, shows us the compassion of God. Jesus cared enough about human grief to do something more permanent about it than just resuscitating this widow’s son.

When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out the words: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) I don’t know what Eric Clapton believes about how you get to the new heavens and the new earth, but he is right that there will be no more tears there. For those who trust in Jesus there will be no more grief because Jesus in his compassion cared  enough to do something about it. He went to the cross, and was forsaken by the Father, so that we can be reconciled to him.

B: Power

Two miracles take place in these verses. In the first Jesus heals someone who is sick and about to die , but in the second he encounters someone who has died. What can Jesus do here? In his compassion, the first person Jesus speaks to is the widow who would have been walking in front of the bier, v13 Jesus says to her: don’t cry. There’s a famous poem often quoted at some funerals which says:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
(Mary Elizabeth Frye).

It’s an attempt to try and deal with grief by saying the person didn’t really die they just now exist in another form, so we shouldn’t cry for them. But there’s two problems with that poem – firstly on how do you know the person is now the wind, snow, sunlight, rain? What basis do you have to say that? Secondly, it doesn’t really do justice to the grief we feel when we lose someone, you can’t just not cry and imagine they are in some other form, it doesn’t work. You miss them, you want to talk to them, and hear from them and your can’t, your grief is real.

Jesus says don’t cry here, not because he thinks it’s wrong to cry, in fact he himself later weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He says don’t cry, because the person is the wind or the rain now, but because Jesus is about to deal with the source of the grief.

Jesus comes next to the bier, which is like an open stretcher with the body on top covered by a shroud. v14 is full of drama, Jesus went up and touches the bier, and the bearers stood still. Numbers 19:11 says “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. Jesus though, doesn’t become unclean, just as elsewhere he doesn’t become unclean when he touches lepers. Instead Jesus makes unclean people clean. We see that in the most powerful way possible as Jesus speaks to the dead man, and says to him, Young man, I say to you, get up.

I’ve taken about 50 funerals in my time as a pastor, and never once has it occurred to me to say to the person in the coffin, I say to you get up. I just don’t have that sort of power. The last couple of weeks I’ve been struggling with a sore ankle, it’s been effecting my parkrunning – I can’t even heal a sore ankle, let alone raise a dead person to life, yet v15 says very clearly that when Jesus spoke to this dead man, the dead man sat up and began to talk.

I’m not sure what he began to say, but it doesn’t really matter, the fact is if he’s sitting up, and he’s talking, he’s not dead anymore, even though he clearly had been certified dead, previously. You may have noticed that phrase there, Jesus gave him back to his mother  it is the same phrase used in 1 Kings 17:23 in an event which occurred 850 years before when the great Old Testament prophet Elijah brought a widow’s son back to life. There are some clear parallels between the two events – in both the only son of a widow dies, and is raised to life. It’s very likely that’s what the people had in mind when they say of Jesus – a great prophet has appeared among us. Some at that time believed prophets had ceased 450 years earlier with Malachi. Yet here many are recognising that Jesus is a prophet, which means brings God’s word, just as the widow recognised Elijah did. Yet Jesus is clearly more than a prophet, and greater than Elijah, Elijah had to stretch himself out three times on the body and call out pleading with God to let the boy’s life return to him, Jesus just speaks directly to the dead man and tells him to get up, and a lifeless body is brought back to life.

This is one of only three people recorded in the Bible that Jesus brought back to life. All three were great miracles, yet eventually all three would have died again. Jesus brought them back to life, but it wasn’t forever, yet it pointed to the day when he himself would rise from the dead, never to die again. Jesus own resurrection, which was testified to by many witnesses, demonstrates his real power over death. Because Jesus has been raised, all who trust in him can be confident that we will be raised.

But did these miracles really happen? In his book, Cold Case Christianity, J Warner Wallace describes the time he turned up to his first murder scene. He said the detective in charge, who was very experienced said to him, go find me this lady’s husband, I’m sure he’s the killer. He said that based on the fact that in his experience, many murders are committed by spouses, and at first the murder scene showed signs of being a spouse murder. It turned out though, this lady was in fact killed by a neighbour, and time was wasted in the investigation because the senior detective was wrong in the assumption or presupposition he had made.

J Warner Wallace says he later realised that he was making the same mistake with the Bible. As a skeptic he was coming to it with his own assumptions, not willing to consider that some of his presuppositions could be wrong. He realised there are many scholars who accept the historical accuracy of Luke in terms of the way it describes Jesus life and teaching, and yet reject the miracles, because they bring an assumption that there is no supernatural, that miracles can’t happen.[1]

He became a Christian in part by being willing to test his own assumptions. Saying there is no miracles is not an argument, it’s just an untested assertion. You can only rule them out, if you rule God out, and again that’s not an argument, it’s just an assumption.

There are good reasons for us to be certain these miracles took place. Luke tells us at the beginning of this gospel that he has access to: handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses … since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account …so  that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke wants us to know the certainty of these events. He wants us to examine our presuppositions or assumptions. These events are life changing. In the face of death, Jesus displays both great compassion, and amazing power.

2. How can we respond to the reality of death?

A: Humble, confident faith in Jesus

Luke has been called the gospel of amazement . On 17 different occasions he uses words to describe the amazement or astonishment of the people to Jesus, but here in v9 we see the only time he speaks of Jesus being amazed. What is Jesus amazed by? Have a look at v9, he’s amazed by the faith of a Roman centurion, a Gentile. He says he hasn’t seen faith like it anywhere in Israel. What so amazes him?

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. (Richard Dawkins) I’m not sure where Dawkins gets that idea from, I don’t know any Christians who think that’s what faith is, it certainly isn’t what Jesus means when he speaks of the faith of this centurion.

The centurion describes himself in v8 as a man under authority. He’s a military man. Here’s a diagram of Roman army ranks around that time, the centurion is in the middle somewhere, he has people under him, and people over him, he has to obey orders, and he gives orders which are obeyed. He’s used to being able to get things done that need to be done. Yet when it comes to his highly valued servant who is about to die, he realises it’s an area in which he has no power. He can’t stop someone from getting sicker, he can’t stop someone from dying.

Often spiritual growth occurs when we are faced with situations beyond our limits, and the centurion in this situation recognises that Jesus has authority which he doesn’t have. He says to Jesus, just say the word and my servant will be healed.

His faith isn’t (as Dawkins claims) evading the need to think, it’s not belief despite the lack of evidence. Jesus miracles have become well-known, he’s either seen or heard enough to make him confident in Jesus power, he has grounds for his trust in Jesus.

Yet notice how humble his faith is. The Romans weren’t known for their love of the Jews. They were the occupying army, politically, he was the one with the power, yet he doesn’t command Jesus to come to him, instead he sends people to ask Jesus saying, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. He trusts Jesus power, sees that he doesn’t deserve it, yet asks depending on his mercy. That’s faith – humble, confident trust in Jesus.

This week a friend of mine went to visit a lady who was dying. He asked her how she was going, she said to him: I’ve got to tell you, I’m actually a little bit excited. She was sad to be dying and leaving family and friends, but she had a humble confidence in Jesus – in his life, death and resurrection, and she was looking forward to going to be with him.

She’d obviously been thinking about death for a while to come to that point. One way this passage has helped me, is it’s made me think more about my own death, and I think it could help us all. Don Carson tells the story of the time his wife was in a prayer meeting where everyone was praying for a member of their church, who was dying. They were all praying that God would heal this person. He says when his wife’s turn, she prayed, Lord we would love it if you would heal this person, but if you choose not to, we pray that you will help them to die well. He said her prayer led to great tension in the meeting because some people saw it as a lack of faith. Later on though, it actually became helpful because the family realised so much effort and attention was being focussed on healing this person, that no thought was being given to helping them think about death, and prepare to die well.

It’s not a lack of faith to be willing to talk about death, and think about it, it is actually part of true faith. If we’re not willing to, we’re really just like our culture who wants to avoid it, living as though this life is all there is.

One of the most famous lines in the Lord of the Rings is near the end. Sam and Bilbo have been asleep, and Sam wakes up and sees Gandalf there: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? (Sam Gamgee). It’s a great question – is everything sad, going to come untrue? The answer the Bible gives us is, yes. Jesus lived the perfect life, none of us can live, he demonstrated God’s compassion and power, dying the death that we deserve, and rose again showing that for those who trust in him, death is not the end.

Jesus invites us all to come to him, with humble confident trust in his life, death and resurrection. He is able to make our dying day, our best day, and as you begin to understand what it means to die well, then he’s able to help you to live well, as we learn from him.

[1] Wallace, J. Warner (2013-01-01). Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (p. 26).

The Role of Work

You may have seen the movie or read the book called Gifted Hands. It’s the inspiring story of Ben Carson who came from an underprivileged background, yet by God’s grace and hard work became a doctor who performed some ground breaking surgery, like separating conjoined twins, and saving many lives through his career.

Unlike Dr Carson, most us won’t have movies made  or books written about our careers. For most of us the work we do is much more ordinary. Some of you enjoy the work you do, you find it satisfying or stimulating, you have good work environments, work colleagues you enjoy working with. At the other end of the spectrum some of you aren’t enjoying your  work, perhaps it’s boring or stressful, or the environment is toxic, or your boss or work colleagues are difficult to work with. Many of us are probably somewhere in the middle with some good things, and some difficult things about the work we do. Those of you whose work is mostly unpaid, working at home with children or family will also find yourself somewhere on that spectrum too, maybe in different places on the same day!

For all of us, work, both paid and unpaid will consume more time in on our week than any other activity. How should we think about work? What role does it have in our lives? Today I’d like us to look at three things: 1. The good design of work 2. The pain and frustration of work 3. How Jesus transforms our work

1. The good design of work

God is a worker. Jesus says: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17). We see God at work from the very beginning of the Bible:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. (Genesis 1:31a,2:2) Notice two extraordinary things about those verses: firstly they describe God’s activity as ‘work’, using a word later used for ordinary human work. The second extraordinary thing is the delight God takes in his work. He looks at the work he has done, looks at all that he has made and says it was very good. He is satisfied, he’s delighted, he sees the goodness of his work, which expresses his character.

God made humans in his own image, and he made us to work as he does, he made us to rule the earth under him. God made a beautiful garden, a paradise called Eden. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15) Humans were made to work, just as their Creator works. Work has always been part of God’s good plan for his people. It was part of God’s original paradise, and it will be part of his ultimate paradise.

Martin Luther wrote: “When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And he does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal.” You can see there, how work is part of God’s good design, it’s part of the way God works in our world. God brings about good in society, and provides for our needs as we work.  

This is one of the reasons many struggle more than they expect when they get to retirement. They expect to enjoy the freedom of not having to do paid work, but they often find themselves discontent. The loss of work is deeply disturbing because we were designed for it…Work is an indispensable component in a meaningful human life. It is a supreme gift from God and one of the main things that gives our life purpose. But it must play its proper role, subservient to God (Tim Keller)[1] For all its frustrations, humans often find at least some parts of our work, fulfilling and satisfying, it is part of God’s good design.

One of the things I’ve appreciated about serving at MEC, is that people sometimes send me funny photos of Roger to use as sermon illustrations. work1Here’s one someone sent me recently of Rog enjoying himself at our Guess who’s coming to lunch? I want to show you this picture, because you know that Rog, as our senior pastor, works very hard, it’s a job that can be demanding and stressful, but this photo shows us that he does get to have some fun every now and then, like this when he can jump onto a kids swivel car and have a ride! (By the way, if you have any more photos of Rog, keep them coming, you’re very welcome to remain anonymous. I won’t tell you who sent me this photo, because I don’t want to get Dave Reynolds into trouble, he’s too valuable in the work he does with our sound and the website! )

You might not have a job that’s as much fun as Roger’s where you get paid to ride on swivel cars, but even so there will be something in whatever work you do, whether it’s paid or unpaid, where you reflect the image of your creator. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of completing a task or a project, finishing something you’ve made, seeing a student you’ve taught understand something or go deeper, helping someone with a health issue, handing in an assignment for school or Uni, looking at the lawn after you’ve mowed it, or finally getting to the bottom of the washing basket, even if it’s only for a moment!

Even when we’re not finding our work fulfilling, we can know there is a basic dignity and design to any work we do. When we work, it is not ultimately about us, we’re living for someone much greater than us. When we work we reflect the character of our Creator in whose image we have been made.

2. The pain and frustration of work.

God created work to be good, but when humans rebelled against him, part of the curse was that work became painful and frustrating. The book of Ecclesiastes pushes us to ask the big questions about life – is there any meaning in life? What is it all about? As the Teacher in the book looks for meaning in various aspects of life he turns to work:  I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6) He gave himself to great work, great projects that should have brought about satisfaction and fulfilment, but look what he says: What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23)

Work is hard, it can cause grief, it can cause sleepless nights. Work is painful. There’s the physical pain that can come from manual labour or even an office environment, the strain that work puts on your body and the niggling or more serious injuries it can bring. There’s the strain and pressure of deadlines. There’s the frustrations of being let down by machinery and technology, and people. The boredom of the more mundane tasks. The unrealistic expectations, the nastiness of the politics in the workplace. The brutality of co-workers. The insecurity of potential layoffs and redundancy. There are so many ways work can be painful and frustrating. If we look to work to be the source of our fulfilment or reputation or ultimate satisfaction, we will always be disappointed. Work by itself is not able to bring ultimate meaning or fulfilment to our life.  

On one level it’s good to be aware of this: Just because you cannot realise your highest aspirations at work does not mean you should [look for another] career that is devoid of frustration. That would be a fruitless search for anyone. You should expect to be regularly frustrated in your work even though you may be in exactly the right vocation. (Tim Keller)[2]

At our home group during the week, as we were talking about work, one of the guys mentioned how monotonous work could sometimes be. This guy was a boilermaker, he said at one stage in his job he was just welding together truck after truck. He’d made something like 1000 and after awhile it all seems a bit the same. We were talking about it in the group, and I said: what about the fact that you’re made in God’s image, and you’re making stuff like God is – does that help keep you going? And he said: Not really! It doesn’t take away the monotony, does it? As we talked about it, we decided sometimes the thing that can help us the most is just to recognise that in this earth, work is never going to be perfect, there are always going to be parts of it that are hard or monotonous, and so it’s good for us to adjust our expectations and not expect more from work than it can ever really give us.

But is that all we can say as we face difficulties in our work? Is it is just a question of putting up with it? If we’re Christians, what difference does the gospel of Jesus make to our work?

3. How Jesus transforms our work.

a) Motivation (why we work)

All of us struggle with a tendency to either be lazy with work or at the other extreme to overwork. We might be always procrastinating and putting off work, just doing the minimum necessary, or only work when we’re being watched, or at the other extreme our work consumes us, we give it too much time and energy, we neglect other important things as we get swallowed up in our work.

Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, (Ephesians 6:5-7) You can see there the motivation for work is to please Christ, to live for him. In the gospel God shows us that we are worse sinners than we ever realised yet in Jesus more loved that we could ever imagine. In Jesus God offers us his grace and forgiveness. The more we grasp God’s love for us in Jesus, the more our motivation becomes to live for him, even in our work.

That can help us with both the two extremes we mentioned. It can help us with laziness, because now we want to work wholeheartedly, because we’re working for Jesus, we want to work even when people aren’t watching us because we know, Jesus is watching us. It can also help us with the tendency to overwork. If you’re in a job where you help people, a health profession, social work, a teacher, a pastor, it can easy to become proud, and think of yourself as better than other people. It can be easy to overwork because you get your identity from your job, and you want people to think well of you. The gospel helps to free us from that, because it shows us that God’s love for us is not dependent on what sort of job we have, or how well we do it. His love is given freely. The more we grasp that, the more we are freed up so we are not so tied to our work.

When I was working as an accountant, one of our clients was Colgate-Palmolive. Some of the guys who worked on that team, told me that when they did a tour of the factory, they saw where the toothpaste tubes were being made – the tubes would come along upside down, and they would be filled and sealed from the top, and then go along the conveyer belt. Every now and then, a toothpaste tube would fall down, and when it did there was a guy there whose job it was to pick  it back up so it could keep going. Can you imagine having that job – watching thousands of toothpaste tubes go by? How was work today? Yeah, had a couple of exciting moments, a few toothpaste tubes fell over, but apart from that, it was pretty uneventful!

Yet even in a job like that you can see how something good is being done for others, toothpaste is getting made, you’re helping the population with their oral health which has implications for other health. Your work does lead to lives being improved, and possibly even saved.

We’re all different, and different jobs will appeal to different people, yet no job is totally exciting, but if you see your job as a way that you show love for God and love for others,  it doesn’t have to always be exciting, because you realise it’s not about you. Through Jesus you have a different motivation for life.

You see that same idea earlier when Paul says: Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.  (Ephesians 4:28) See how different a Christian’s motive for work is? Many people think: I’ll work, so I can have more money, so I can buy more stuff for me. But for Christians it’s different – both the work we do, and what we do with the money we earn are motivated by love for God and love for others. Of course we use our money to provide for our families, as the Bible says we should, but ultimately we work to show love for others, to earn money with which we can show more love for others.

What can motivate us to live like this? It’s the gospel of Jesus where we find Jesus loving us, and giving himself up for us.

b) Character (how we work)

The Bible tells us to live and work in a way so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:12)

Titus talks of living a life of integrity at work, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive. (Titus 2:10)

The gospel of Jesus impacts not just why we work but how we work. Some of the most stressful situations we face will be at work.

We need to recognise the profoundness of work relationships. My work colleagues are far more likely to see me in a high-stress situation than my family, friends or contacts out of work. And I see them in those situations too. This can create…gospel opportunity (Tim Chester)[3]

Certainly not all, but some of the most stressful situations we face will be in the workplace. For some of you your main work is at home, and that’s where your most stressful situations will be. In a sense what we believe, is on full display to others in those moments, in how we react and respond. As we grow in our grasp of God’s love for us in Jesus’ there are always opportunities in the workplace to show that love.

Earlier this year at a conference I heard a lady called Katherine Leary Alsdorf talk about her work as leader in a number of entrepreneurial tech companies in the US and in Europe. She said in each company she wrestled with what it meant to live for God in her workplace. She said her faith in Jesus helped her to treat people with dignity, and to try and model grace, and truth and love in the organizations that she lead.

The gospel continued to open her eyes to her own sinfulness, and her need of God’s grace, and that motivated her to be gracious in the way she treated other people in the workplace.

She said one of the big tests came when the internet bubble burst, and the company she was leading failed, despite all the hard work she and many others had put in. How could all this good, hard work go wrong? I had tried to do right by our employees and now they were out of work in a collapsed market. How was I to handle failure? I wanted a gospel that had good news even for this? (Katherine Leary Alsdorf)[4] She found that the gospel does have good news, even in our failures. God can work through failures to humble us, to show us how much we need him, and to help grow our trust in him.

Earlier this year I used to be the fastest MEC runner at the Maitland Parkrun. Mostly because I was the only MEC runner at the Maitland Parkrun! As the year’s gone, many others have come which has been great, but it’s meant I’ve had to get used to being regularly beaten by some of the better runners amongst us. The one who’s had the best times from MEC so far is Phil, but last month I actually managed to beat Phil a couple of times. Now, if you look at this photo:work3

you’ll see that he did have a bit of a handicap those weeks, he was pushing one son in the pram and carrying the other on his back, but I’m still counting it as a win! That photo is taken 20 metres from the finish line. His young sons have no hope of running 5km by themselves, but their dad does all the work needed to get them over the line. It’s a great illustration of the gospel, we have no hope of saving ourselves, of making ourselves right with God, but Jesus does all the work needed to get us over the line.

Jesus was asked once what we need to do to do the works God requires of us. He tells us: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29). The work God requires of us to be made right with him, is actually no work at all, our work is to trust in Jesus work. He has done all the work for us, through his perfect life and his death on our behalf. He has done enough for us to be and be made right with God. God calls us to trust in his work.

The more we grasp Jesus’ work, and trust in it, the more we are transformed, both in why we work – we work out of our love for God and love for others, and how we work – we work in a way that makes the gospel of Jesus attractive. 

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 7 September 2014. Audio here

[1] Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavour, 38,42.

[2] Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavour,  94.

[3] Tim Chester, Gospel Centred work, 86.

[4] KLA in Every Good Endeavour, 14-16

Video

Does prayer serve a purpose?

This graphic from the Richard Dawkins Foundation has recently been circulating on social media:

DawkinsonPrayer

It’s possible that this graphic is intended as a joke, or just trying to get a bite. The argument is very superficial so may not be meant to be taken too seriously. Yet it does present an opportunity to think about the purpose of prayer. There are various reasons why the graphic’s logic is not compelling, here is one very brief response:

A child asks their parents for something.

->Is that something your parents wanted to give you anyway?

Yes? -> Talking with your parents is redundant.

No? -> Talking with your parents is futile.

Conclusion: Talking with your parents serves no purpose.

This is of course, a simple response to an overly simplistic flowchart, but it does demonstrate some of the graphic’s flaws.

In a healthy parent-child relationship communicating is not just about a transaction. The purpose of prayer is not just to get what we ask for. Prayer is enjoying the privilege of speaking with our Heavenly Father, through His Son with the enabling of His Spirit. It is one way to grow in our relationship with God.

Effective Ministry – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-20

I read of a young pastor who drove into the church parking lot one day in a borrowed pickup truck. He backed the truck across the lawn to his study door. Refusing assistance and without making a comment he began to empty his office onto the truck, first the desk drawers, then the files and last his library of books which he tossed carelessly into a heap. Once he was finished, he got into the truck and drove to the city garbage disposal where he dumped it all. It was his way of putting behind him the overwhelming sense of failure he had experienced in ministry. This young, gifted pastor was determined never to return to full-time ministry, and he never did.[1]

You don’t have to have served as a pastor to have feelings of failure in Christian service. You can serve in a Sunday School, a youth group, a home group, a support area of the church, give money, and wonder whether your ministry has been a failure. Do you ever wonder whether your ministry or service is actually achieving anything, do you ever wonder whether it’s a waste of time?

As Paul writes to this young Thessalonian church, some may have considered his visit there to be a failure. He was only there for a short time, the young church that was started while he was there suffered some strong persecution from both the Jews, and the Gentiles in the region, Paul and his companions had to leave and many times since Paul had wanted to come back, but so far he’d been unable to. Was his time there a failure, was it in vain?

In v1 Paul says – you know brothers and sisters that our visit to you was not without results (Not in vain (ESV), not a failure (NIV, 1984). Definitely there were hardships, many of them ongoing, but by God’s grace his visit was not in vain, it was effective.

It’s not easy to measure success or effectiveness in Christian ministry is it? Something can look outwardly successful but in spiritual terms be dead, or something can look to be struggling yet in the long term produce great spiritual fruit, how can you tell if something’s being effective? As we look at this passage, where Paul tells us his ministry was not a failure, let’s notice three things about Effective Christian Ministry. 1. Motive for effective ministry, 2. Character of effective ministry, 3. Basis for effective ministry

1. Motive: desire to please God

This is one of the most personal chapters in Paul’s writings as he shares his heart with the Thessalonians. As he makes his appeal, he calls on two witnesses – the first witness is the Thessalonians themselves. He keeps using the phrase ‘you know’ v1. You know our visit was not without results, v2, we’d previously suffered as you know, v5 you know we never used flattery, v11 you know we dealt with each of you, then in v10 he says – you are witnesses. As he talks about his life and actions, he calls on the Thessalonians as witnesses to what he’s saying, they saw how he lived there, they know. He also calls on a second witness – look at the second half of v10 You are witnesses, and so is God. He says the same thing at the end of v5 God is our witness.

As Paul speaks here, he shares not just what he did what they saw, but also his motives, he’s sharing his heart. What is his motive? It’s very clear what it’s not, v3 not impure motives, v5 not greed, it’s not money, v6 they weren’t looking for praise from people. So what was his motive? Look at v4 On the contrary we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people, but God who tests our heart.

Paul’s motive above all else, was to please God. He can say that with a clear conscience, with God as his witness. He recognised that he’d been entrusted with God’s gospel, and his goal was to give that message in a way that honoured God. His goal was to please God.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear this message today. I know how easy it is, even when you’re giving God’s message, to start to be more concerned about what people think about you, than about pleasing God, so it’s challenging to see Paul showing that his goal, his focus was to please God.

Notice that what Paul does here, he does not in his own strength, but with God’s v2 in the face of hardship, or strong opposition he has boldness to share the gospel. How can he do it? V2 says, with the help of our God. God gives him the boldness, God enables him to endure hardship, God enables him to live a with a motive of pleasing God.

Marlene Dietrich was a famous actress from last century. She was one of the highest paid actresses of her time, she went on to be a singer and performer.  She’d play to audiences, get a big ovation at the end, and she loved the applause. So much so that she even issued recordings of her audience’s ovations. Two sides of an album that had nothing but applause. Her biographer says she often gathered friends to listen to these recordings of her applauses. She insisted on playing both sides to actress Judy Garland, and would say after each one “That was Rio”, and “That was Cologne” and “That was Chicago”.[2] She loved the applause so much she wanted to hear it again and share it with others.

You probably don’t keep recordings of applauses, but it’s so easy to live with a concern for what other people think of us, pleasing people, rather than with a focus on pleasing God. John describes some of the Jewish leaders this way: for they loved human praise more than praise from God. (John 12:43)

In contrast: I live before the Audience of One. Before others I have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, nothing to lose (Os Guinness). You could play for other audiences, live to please other people, but in the end, only one audience really counts. The audience of our Heavenly Father.

Mike Raiter is a former overseas missionary. I remember him sharing once how easy it would have been in his missionary situation to take it easy. In his position he didn’t really have anyone monitoring his day-to-day activities, he could have spent his time playing on the computer instead of working. Yet he wanted to please God. He wrote these words above the door in his office – judgement day integrity. He wanted to keep reminding himself that he was accountable to God. A day was coming when he would have to account to God who sees and knows everything.

There’s an old joke you might have heard about an older gentleman, let’s call him George, walking down the road one day with his wife when he ran into an old friend. The friend says, how are you George? George says not bad for an old bloke, the doctors given me some pills, and trying to make me eat better, and exercise, so I’m doing all right. One good thing is my wife and I just recently did a memory course, it’s one of those courses where you match a word or a name with a picture, I’ve found it really helpful. His friend said, wow that sounds great I’d like to do something like that, what’s the name of the course? George said…oh…then he said, I know, what do you call that flower, it smells nice but it has thorns? and his friend said a rose. That’s right, George said, and turning to his wife said – hey Rose, what’s the name of that memory course we just did?!

It’s easy to forget even what is most important to us, unless we are intentional about it. What is most important to you? What’s your goal in life, what drives you, what motivates you? The motivation for effective ministry is an intentional focus, a desire to please God. If our desire is to please God most of all, we can put up with all sorts of bad circumstances and opinions, because only one opinion really matters to us.

2. Character: sacrificial love

The affection Paul has for the Thessalonians is obvious here. Four times in chapter 2 he refers to them as brothers and sisters, an affectionate family term. He uses other family terms too:

In v7-8 he describes how he cared for them like a nursing mother. We’ve had at least 10 babies born here in the last year, so we have a few nursing mothers, we know how hard nursing mothers work, how much they sacrifice in caring for their children, it’s tiring, it’s draining, you’d love to be able to get more sleep but you just keep giving yourself in caring for your baby, Paul says just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you, then in v11-12 he says he dealt with them as a father deals with his own children. In v17-18 he says being separated from them was like being orphaned, that’s how strongly he felt it, then in v19-20 he describes them as his hope and glory and joy.

It’s obvious Paul loves these Thessalonians, he has a strong affection for them, but what does it actually mean to love them.?

Look at his nursing mother illustration. He says v8, because we loved you so much we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well. You see two things there about Christian love: Love is sharing the gospel of God – sharing God’s word, and sacrificing your life to share it with others. You see the same thing in v9, they worked hard, night and day, not to be a burden, they sacrificed themselves while they preached the gospel. In both of those verses we see Christian love involves both sharing the gospel in word, and sacrificing your life for the good of others.

Look at v12 to see how a father should deal with his children: – a father encourages, a father comforts, a father urges you to live lives worthy of God. To love others, is to want what is best for them, to want them to live a life worthy of God.

If we’re Christian parents, there’s some great things to think about here in our dealings with our children, do we share with them the gospel with them in words as well as sacrificing our lives to care for them? Do we encourage, comfort and urge them to live a life worthy of God?

Love is sacrificing yourself for others, so they can grow more like Jesus, sharing the gospel, encouraging, urging people to grow in godliness.

In chapter 3:12 which we’ll look at next week, Paul says: May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. In other words, we can’t look at this chapter and think all this affection that Paul has for this church, his sacrificial loving, that’s just him he’s an apostle, it’s not what God expects of me. Actually it is what he wants and God wants of all of us.

God wants all of us to love others, starting with the people at MEC the church he has placed us in. Is there a growing love in you for the people of our church? I’m not talking about just the people you like and get on with easily. Jesus says: If you love those who love you…. And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:46-47). Is there a growing love in you even for those at MEC that are different to you? Can you see a growing willingness to sacrifice yourself in serving others for their good?

God wants all his people to love, because God himself is love: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Father, Son, and Spirit live in perfect unity as one God. Love is intrinsic to Gods nature … each person of the Godhead lovingly empties himself so that he might fill the others in the Godhead and, in turn, be filled by them. There is complete and perfect mutual love. (George Athas) 

God is love, and humans are made in God’s image, made to reflect his character in some way.  God has not created us as generic individuals designed to live in selfish autonomy from each other, but as persons made for relationship with each other.[3] God’s made us to love each other.

Ian and Larissa Murphy have a wedding video that has gone viral in the last couple of years. They are a Christian couple who go to a church in Pennsylvania. They had planned to get married at the end of college, but just under three months before they graduated, Ian was in a car accident that left him with a brain injury. Larissa helped Ian’s family to care for him over the next four years. She said “I still don’t think Ian would have ever left me if the role had been reversed. And walking away from my best friend was never truly an option.”

As Ian’s condition slowly improved, and he regained some speech, the wedding plans that had been put aside became a possibility again. Yet there were still many difficulties, Ian wasn’t fully recovered and may never fully recover though he has recently begun walking. Larissa said. “Marrying Ian meant that I was signing on to things that I don’t think I ever would’ve chosen for myself … But in the light of all the practicals, and emotionals, it was so very simple: We love each other. And we love God. And we believe He is a sovereign and loving God who rules all things.”

Because of Ian’s condition, the courts had to decide that it was in his best interest to be married. The judge who approved their marriage license said: “You two exemplify what love is all about.”[4] This couple’s story has been told in both Christian and non-Christian publications[5], and it’s interesting to see even non-Christians saying what the judge said – you two exemplify what love is all about. Even many non-Christians long for this sort of love. Love that is sacrificial, committed, wanting the best for the other person. Ian and Larissa say, it’s Jesus that enables them to show such love.

We look at Paul’s love in this chapter, and think, is it even possible for us to grow in this sort of love? Paul’s own life shows us what great change is possible by God’s grace. This man who used to hate Jesus’ church and persecute it, came to love Jesus’ church, and serve it sacrificially. We’re not apostles like Paul was, but he writes this letter chapter 1v1 says: to those who are in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’re Christians we’ve been united with Jesus, in him we find the power to love in the same way Jesus loved us, by sacrificing himself for us.

3. Basis: confident hope

Notice two things that bring Paul hope here:

a) Gods word

v13 is a rich verse, we could preach a whole sermon from there. Notice three things it tells us about God’s word:

i) Accessible – word of God…which you heard from us. God’s word can be heard, he has spoken in Jesus and his apostles, we can know God even today we can hear God as he speaks through his word.

ii) Powerful – accepted it, not as a human word, but as it actually is the word of God. God’s word came through humans, through apostles like Paul, but God is powerful enough that he can even imperfect humans to communicate his perfect and powerful word.

iii) Active – which is indeed at work in you who believe. God’s word by his Spirit produces change, and helps us grow more like Jesus.

Despite the very real difficulties the Thessalonian church is facing, Paul writes with great hope, because they’ve accepted God’s word as it really is. That word is at work in them.

b) Jesus return

When you first read v19-20 you wonder, is Paul going too far, when he says the Thessalonians  are his hope, and joy, and the crown in which he will glory? We think, hang on, isn’t Jesus our hope and joy, haven’t you taken this a bit too far? But notice the basis of this hope, they will glory in the Thessalonians v19 says in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes. Paul has hope about the Thessalonians, because he knows with certainty, Jesus is coming again.

I saw a story recently of a bowl that someone had bought at a garage sale for $2 or $3. They put it in their lounge room, then one day they decided to get it valued. It turned to be a rare Chinese bowl, one of only two in the world, it went for over $2 million dollars at an auction.

Another person bought a chest for $165. They used it in their lounge room as a TV stand and drinks cabinet, then they got it valued and it turned out to be a 1640 Japanese chest which sold for $10.4 million.[6]

These owners didn’t realise the value of their items until someone else helped him to see their value. Paul loves the Thessalonians, he seems them as valuable, but only because Jesus has helped him to see their value. Paul sees them as valuable because they are God’s church, that Jesus gave his blood for. They are in Jesus he sees them in light of what Jesus has done for them, and what they will be when Jesus returns.

The word Paul uses at the start of this chapter when he says our visit to you was not a failure, or not in vain, (κενὴ) he uses again in 1 Corinthians 15, where he talks about the certainty of Jesus resurrection, and his return, he finishes the chapter with these words:  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

Serving Jesus, living for Jesus will never be in vain, it will never be a waste of time, it will never be without results. It will be difficult, there will be opposition, but by God’s grace, in the long-term it will be effective.

Let’s give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because like Paul we know that our labour in the Lord, is not in vain.

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 3 November 2013. Audio here