The Big God Story - New Testament

At St Christopher’s Church this year, we’re exploring the Big Story of the Bible, beginning this month with a whistlestop tour of the whole bible in just two weeks, before journeying with some of the key characters in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, gaining inspiration from their stories – their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures – about how we can grow together in our own walk with God and play our own part in God’s Big Story. Here is the text of the sermon I preached yesterday on whole New Testament (well, almost!). Buckle in and enjoy the ride …

 

“‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction’” (Malachi 4:5-6).

These are the final words of the book of Malachi, the final words of our Old Testament, written in 432BC.  And then, after those words, after that comes nothing. For 400 years, there is silence, which is broken by the announcement of a miracle baby to an old couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Zechariah is left speechless – literally – by the idea that he is going to be a dad, and that his promised son would be the fulfilment of the final words of Malachi.  This child, whom he is instructed to name John, “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:17) – a deliberate echo of the words in Malachi.  The message is clear.  The time of waiting is over, God is acting again.  Then, 90 miles away, a few weeks later, Gabriel pays another trip, this time to a young girl called Mary (Luke 1:26-38).  She too would bear a miracle baby.  Like John, he would be destined to do great things, he’ll be called Jesus, the son of God, named that way because he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

This child’s birth is heralded by angels who serenade sleepy shepherds on the hillside (Luke 2:8-14)  and it attracts strange visitors from afar (Matthew 2:1-11), but other than that, he is born in obscurity, wrapped in rags and laid in a manger (Luke 2:7).  No one would pick this family out of a crowd, except that’s exactly what happens, when Simeon and Anna spot Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, and realise that this child is the one they’ve been waiting for.  Simeon proclaims, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations (Luke 2:31).  Anna too giving thanks to God for the redemption that he was bringing about through this child (Luke 2:38).  At long last, God is keeping his promise.  At long last, the silence is broken.

But then, tantalizingly, it all goes quiet.  We hear nothing of John or Jesus for around 30 years, except for one strange incident when Jesus gets separated from his parents, sending Joseph and Mary into an understandable wild panic.  Then, after 3 days of searching they discover him at the temple and inexplicably he asks them, “‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49)

Despite Jesus’ strong pull towards the place where he feels most at home, he returns home and is obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51).

And then, again, there is silence, while Jesus grows up “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52) – away from the limelight.  We hear nothing for possibly as many as 20 years.  And then John the Baptist bursts onto the scene.  He appears in the wilderness, wild, passionate, unpredictable, courageous, the one whom, it is prophesied, would call people to “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:13).  He pulls no punches, calling people to repent and be baptised.  Crowds gather around him made up of all sorts of people.  Cut to the heart they confess their sins and make a brand new start, and out of the crowd steps one whom John knows has no such need.  He has never done anything wrong.  And yet he asks to be baptised.  John objects, asking, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13). But the man, Jesus stands firm.  This is the way it needs to be.  And so, he is baptised not for his sin, but for the sin of all humanity, because he has become one of us.  In that moment of baptism the Holy Spirit fills him, empowering him for ministry and the voice of God declares, “‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11).  You see, because Jesus needs the Holy Spirit, the power of God to do the things he does, to be the way he is.  He also needs the affirmation of the Father, those wonderful words reassuring him, even before he’s done anything particularly special, “You’re my boy.  I love you.  I’m pleased with you.”  That same voice speaks those words to those who seek to follow and obey him.  Hear him speak to you; feel the warmth of his affirmation.

It is a glorious moment, but so short lived.  As so often happens, the experience on the mountain top is followed by a trip to the depths as Jesus is tested in the wilderness, pushed to the limit, but he withstands.  He passes the test.  He is ready, and now his ministry begins.  John is imprisoned by Herod for speaking the truth, and Jesus steps out of the shadows “into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he says. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15).

The silence is over.  Jesus has come to bring in God’s kingdom.  Now is the time for action.  Now is the time to respond.  And many do.  Crowds soon form around him as they see him perform miracles, heal the sick, as they hear him speak about the nature of God, about heaven and hell, as he paints word pictures of the kind of world that God envisages – a world of justice, where no one is excluded, where all are able to experience God’s love, and above all, a world where all receive the invitation to come home.  If you want to know what God is really like, Jesus says, look at me.  This causes great offence among the religious authorities in the temple, who rather like the power they have afforded to them by their status, and they can’t stand the idea that people’s heads are being turned by this country bumpkin from the north.  Wasn’t he a carpenter from Nazareth – don’t we know that nothing good comes from there?  What’s more, he’s not a lone wolf, he’s enlisted a bunch of working class people and shady characters – fishermen, tax collectors – to follow him and become his so-called disciples, and he also seems to enjoy hanging out with women, perish the thought, some of whom have dodgy reputations.  He dares to stir things up and challenge them.  He has this very annoying habit of telling the truth, calling out hypocrisy where he sees it.  He has no fear of authority. He is clearly a troublemaker.  He’s bad news and, even worse, he seems to be gaining popularity.  The crowds love him.  No mud they try to sling at him sticks.  So, in the end, desperate, they find a way to fabricate charges against him, charges that would bring him down.  They collude with one of his followers, who has become disillusioned because Jesus refuses to capitalise on his popularity to ignite a popular revolution and kick out the oppressive Romans and begin God’s reign here and now. This disillusioned follower agrees to trade in Jesus in exchange for silver.  Then, as now, money talks.

Jesus is convicted in a nighttime trial, by a kangaroo court that was determined to find him guilty of a capital crime no matter what, and in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever carried out, he is crucified even though he was innocent.  He joins the ranks of millions over the centuries who find themselves victims of injustice.  How does he respond? He cries out, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34) laying down a blueprint for all those who find themselves victims of injustice.

Darkness falls, and all is deathly silent.  His followers are numb, shocked and disbelieving, it’s not possible – surely he had been the promised messiah, sent by God to right all wrongs, to bring freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom from Rome – hadn’t he come to bring in God’s kingdom? How could he be dead?  All their hopes have gone.

The silence falls once again.  This time it seems so final.  The silence of the grave.  But then, it is broken, two days later, by the sound of thunder, by the sound of a rock moving from the face of the tomb, by the sound of excited and disbelieving chatter – where is his body? Who’s taken him? Broken by the sound of a voice – his voice.  Impossibly, he is alive.  Risen.  He appears to dumbfounded, disbelieving disciples.  They had never understood, never really listened when he told them that the big story would always unfold this way – that this was the way the story had been written from the beginning of time (Luke 24:45-47).  But now, with him standing in front of them, truly, brilliantly alive, they’re listening now.

Forty wonderful days follow – they experience fresh hope and forgiveness, try to go back to their old lives (John 21) but realise that now they’ve met Jesus things will never be the same again – because those who encounter the risen Christ are transformed for good.  But then he leads them to the top of a mountain and says goodbye, disappearing in the clouds, leaving them with three final instructions – go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18), go back to Jerusalem to wait to be given power to do this (Luke 24:49), and get ready for his return (Acts 1:11).

And so silence falls again.  The disciples – by now a group numbering a hundred or so – huddle together, praying and worshipping, in an upper room (Acts 1:13-14), probably in the same room where weeks previously he had broken bread – his body, and drunk wine – his blood, with them.  They hadn’t understood what he’d meant then, but they do now.  And so they wait, wait because they know that they cannot possibly do the task they’ve been given – it’s simply impossible. And the silence is broken by the sound of a rushing wind as the Holy Spirit comes down upon this group and starts a revolution.  By the end of the day, the hundred becomes three thousand.  They are baptised and repent (Acts 2). It’s a new beginning, the birth of the church.  Ordinary people find their lives completely transformed and they find that they are given power to bring transformation to others.  They find themselves able to do what Jesus had done – a lame man walks (Acts 3:1-10), even a dead man rises again (Acts 20:7-12), all in the name and power of Jesus.  And the movement grows. More and more are added to the number of those who follow Jesus (Acts 2:47, 5:14).  But with the glory comes sacrifice.  Persecution follows as the same people who put Jesus to death do all they can to end the revolution (Acts 5:17-42).  The ringleaders are imprisoned, a couple are even killed (Acts 6-7, 12:2).  The church scatters (Acts 8:1).  One fanatic in particular is determined do all he can to kill the Christians (Acts 8:3), but then, on the road to Damascus, he’s stopped in his tracks by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus, who gives him a new job, a completely new direction, an extraordinary part to play in God’s big story (Acts 9).  “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  People are suspicious at first and most definitely incredulous – wasn’t he the lead persecutor, how can he now be the Jesus movement’s chief ambassador (Acts 9:21-22)?  But, believe it or not, that’s exactly what he becomes, and through him and the other disciples, despite the best efforts of those who try to shut them up, the word continues to spread like wildfire and communities of those who follow Jesus are formed all over the Roman empire, and the more they are oppressed, the more they seem to flourish.  But this new movement – of Christians – as they are called – need teaching, so letters are written to these fledgling congregations to full of tips on how to deal with issues that spring up from matters of theological misunderstandings to conflict resolution and advice about how to live the best life that honours and pleases God.  Accounts are also written of Jesus’ life.  In these accounts and in the letters the writers seek to come to terms with who this Jesus was.  They’d been brought up good Jews who knew that God takes no physical form, and yet here was a man who had lived such an extraordinary life that it seemed that he could have been no ordinary man – and that was before he rose again.

Could it be possible that this man was God? Could it be possible that he had come, because “God so loved the world that he gave his son that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)?  Could it be possible that the same God had sent his Holy Spirit to fill ordinary people with extraordinary power to continue the work that he started?  And perhaps this is the most extraordinary thing, could it be that this work, this big story – the story that began in the garden and will end with a fully restored heaven and earth (Revelation 21), that will end with his people returning home, is still being written? Could it be that the author of this story who met and worked through people with feet of clay like Abraham, Moses, Hannah, David, Elizabeth, Mary, Peter and Paul wants to write his story through us too? Could it be that we too have a role to play in helping people return home? That the author of life wants to write on our hearts and the hearts of those around us? Could it be that we are God’s only strategy for bringing hope and transformation to a dark world? That we’re no different from those first disciples, whom, because they stayed close to Jesus, living lives empowered and shaped by him, were able to change the world? If so, the story continues through you and me.  God longs to write his story of salvation in us and through us, and the one thing that’s required from us is to learn to listen to him and then to step out and obey.  Our friends, our neighbours, our family members need to hear the big story, that there is eternal hope for the world, that this story will end well when the author of life himself returns.  In the meantime we are called to pray and work for his return, to play our part in the story as we wait for him to return.

“He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).

Stephen Fry, God and Suffering

This is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday in response to the interview held with Stephen Fry the previous weekend.  I add my voice to the many who have already shared their reflections. Last weekend Stephen Fry the comedian and broadcaster was asked in an interview what he’d say to God where he to meet him at the pearly gates. The 57-year-old replied: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. … The god that created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac… utter maniac, totally selfish.”

This interview has gone viral – it’s been watched 3 million times since the weekend. In this interview he expresses one of the main objections that people have to belief in God – there is simply too much suffering in this world to believe that it was created by a benevolent, all-powerful God. Such a God who stands distant from the world he created, watches on while we all suffer and expects our devotion or threatens us with hell if we don’t comply is one that he rejects out of hand, as stupid, mean-minded, and maniacal.

Stephen Fry echoes the question of many who are atheists, ‘Why respect a God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?’

He asks a good question, doesn’t he? It’s an issue that I’m sure all of us have wrestled with in some way or another. That there is so much injustice and pain in this world is abundantly clear. The suffering of innocents through bone cancer, ebola and other terrible diseases, starvation, child abuse – is unfair and horrific. How can we possibly defend a God who stands idly by while we suffer? You know what? We shouldn’t. Such a God is not worth our worship. And that’s not the God we Christians worship.

Stephen Fry protests at unjust suffering, but the Bible is also soaked with protestations … The whole book of Job is devoted to wrestling with this very issue, as a godly man undergoes extreme trauma, including the death of his entire family, and chronic sickness. David, the Psalmist laments, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.”

Perhaps you can relate to the pain that’s expressed here. Perhaps you can relate to the experience of suffering that seems so unfair. And the only reasonable answer is why? How can you reconcile belief in a supposedly good all-powerful God when so much of life is horrific for so many people? If Christians don’t believe in the kind of God that Stephen Fry describes, what kind of God do we believe in?

Firstly, we believe in the kind of God who looks like Jesus. Our two passages this morning tell us something absolutely vital. If we want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. The Bible seems to be quite clear – that Jesus is God.

Firstly, in John 1, we read,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

And then, writing around 20 years previously, Paul expresses something very similar, - The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one.” The message of the New Testament is clear. If you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus.

And we know, don’t we, what Jesus is like. Jesus, is as Time magazine put it, "the most persistent symbol of purity, selflessness and love in the history of Western man."

“Jesus Christ is to me the outstanding personality of all time, all history, both as Son of God and as Son of Man. Everything he ever said or did has value for us today and that is something you can say of no other man, dead or alive. There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject Him.” – Sholem Ash

So, if Jesus is who he, and the New Testament writers claimed to be, and he then God has to be like him. This, not the selfish maniac, is the God we worship – a God of unparalleled compassion and love. Jesus is the mirror image of God.

So, what about suffering? How is it possible for suffering to exist in a world created by someone so completely pure, selfless and loving?

I guess we need to go back to the very beginning, at Genesis 1. When God created the world, it was good. In fact, when everything was created, he declared it was very good. He created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation, and we were made primarily for relationship with him – we read in the early chapters of Genesis that he walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, and that our chief role was to be stewards of God’s creation. It was our job to care for the world. So what went wrong? There was a moment of cataclysm when, given a choice between obedience and giving in to selfish desire, Adam and Eve chose to do their own thing, rejecting God’s authority over them. That moment a chasm appeared – firstly between God and humanity. The relationship between God and humanity was destroyed. As Paul recounts in Romans 1

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, … 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

 

Though we don’t have time to look in depth at the following verses, what follows is a litany of shame that reveals a chasm opening up in humanity, as relationships are distorted and destroyed through human selfishness and greed. This passage climaxes with these words …

 

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.

 

Here is the first answer to the suffering we see in the world. Most of the time, it’s due to sin. Much of the suffering we see is man-made. We often point to the acts of ISIL and rightly shake our heads, but in truth, we’re each culpable. We each make our own choices. In our hearts, we are king, our instinct is to look after number one, and if anyone else gets in the way of our self-interest, then they better face the consequences.

But what about the other suffering, the so-called “natural” suffering that we see? How is that possible in this supposedly completely good world? Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the only way that the world can sustain life is through tectonic plate movements. Without it, the earth couldn’t sustain life. Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc are part of the package. The thing is, we know now where these plates are, and we know the risks, and yet we still build cities on them. Los Angeles and San Francisco are major cities built in a dangerous place. Admittedly, they have access to technology that prevents major loss of life, but some people aren’t so fortunate. Some of the natural disasters have been significantly worsened due to human selfishness … for example, why did so many in Haiti live in badly built houses? What about those who live in floodplains, because the ground is more fertile?

There is even a good possibility that cancer is a manmade disease – a study published in 2010 seemed to suggest that the root causes of cancer are pollutants and diet.

So some of the natural suffering can be explained and understood to co-exist with the world ruled by a good and loving God. But there is still so much suffering that seems unfair. How is this possible, and what does God do about it?

When Adam and Eve chose sin rather than obedience, it didn’t impact only on humanity, but on the whole of creation. In Romans 8, St Paul writes about the world being “in bondage to decay” and describes it as “groaning”. The fall of humanity was cataclysmic for the whole of creation – it affected everything. This was not the creator’s original intention for the world he made.

As Martin Saunders surmises,

“[Stephen Fry] assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.”

So, the Fall affected everything. Our sin affects everything. What did God do? Stand idly by from the sidelines and tut at our errors? No, far from it. God got involved. As we read in John 1:14, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God took on human form and became one of us. Why? To begin to close up the chasm that we opened. As Paul explains in Colossians 1:19 and 20, God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

 

And now we come to the heart of our faith. God could have, quite rightly come in great judgment and condemned us for the terrible mess we’ve made with this beautiful world. He could have left us this way. Instead, he got involved, to close the chasm that has opened up. He was born to die, and to bring back peace in creation.

Pete Greig wrote the following in response to Stephen Fry,

“The crux of the Christian faith is the cross: a moment of unimaginable and undeserved suffering. Those gospel writers didn’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either. They believed in a God of such humility and love that he held himself culpable for the terrors of this world on the cross, and paid the ultimate price to rescue us from it. … This is the tragedy at the heart of Christian faith: the belief that God suffered with us, like us and for us. That God is not distant, malignant or dispassionate. The cross, if it means anything at all, means that he identifies with us in our suffering, and that he is not yet fully in control. Evil things, like rape and slavery, happen which God does not want or intend. … And then the resurrection of Jesus means that evil will not prevail forever. … Sickness and death will be no more. As the last book of the bible says, there will be no more crying and no more dying. Our indignant cries ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ will be silenced in the end by the cross.”

Stephen Fry is right, there is so much darkness in the world. But there is so much to celebrate. So much to rightly give God thanks and praise. He is the source of all goodness, light and life. When we glimpse these things, we see a glimpse of his glory. Let’s not get too caught up in the darkness that we fail to see the light. Let’s not also forget that God put us here for a purpose. We are still called to love and care for this world that he loves and for which he died. When we see suffering around us, whatever the cause, he commissions us to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and look this suffering and death in the face, and meet it with our love and light. It’s no coincidence that two of the high-pofile Ebola nurses are Christians. In Jesus is light and life, and that same light and life lives in us. He calls us to light up the darkness.

Ultimately there are things about this world that we will never know or fully understand, mainly because God is God and we aren’t. One day all of our answers will be answered. In the meantime, we are in the midst of the battle between good and evil. We know that there is this battle going on, because we’re part of it. It happens within each of us. As St Paul writes, elsewhere in Romans, “So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (vv.21-23). In other words, we want to do good, but something stop us and we find ourselves doing stuff we later regret.

This is the bad news. Suffering exists because of the sin that you and I have perpetrated. The Fall of humanity affected the whole of creation, and the battle between good and evil rages on. But the good news of the Gospel is the God we worship is the God who saw our darkness and sent his son to become flesh and to move into the neighbourhood, to bring his light and love into this world.

“Jesus lived a life of love and grace and died on the cross to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. He promises a future where evil is finally overthrown. The job of Christians in the meantime in our broken world is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, showing the same love and grace to everyone.”

(Martin Saunders)

Proclaiming the saviour of all

This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday on "Making New disciples", based on Luke 2:8-20. We live in a world where news, good or bad, can travel extremely quickly and far. Social media like facebook, etc, enables us to be part of the news sharing process, and we share everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and very serious. Within minutes of the attacks in Paris, the whole world was kept up to date with the blow by blow account of the attacks, and the ensuing police chase. Newspaper headlines and frontpages have been dominated by these attacks in Paris, and the response of the international community – from millions expressing their solidarity. The hashtag #jesuischarlie was tweeted over 5 million times in the days following the attacks. It was meant to show solidarity with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, as well as a defense of freedom of speech.

We love to be bearers and recipients of news. I’m sure one of the reasons why some of you are looking forward to church today is that it’ll give you an opportunity to share news with your friends. News spreads quickly, especially if it’s something important. We want to be kept informed, and we feel put out if we’re the last to hear something. And we feel privileged if we’re the first to hear a piece of news or information.

Just imagine how the shepherds felt that night when the angel appeared to them with his very important message.  Shepherds were rather dodgy characters, treated with suspicion by mainstream society. They lived on the hills outside the city, away from everybody. They were shunned by people in polite society. Shepherds were unreliable – not even allowed to testify in a court of law, they were crude, rude and hardy, and you wouldn’t want your sister dating one. So they weren’t your obvious choice to be the recipients of such important news. And yet, God chose to send his angel to them – he chose them to be the first to know that this king has been born. Have you ever wondered why it was them and not some, well, more important people?

The message of the angel has to give us a clue – “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Wow, what a statement. This is good news for all people everywhere, full stop. Not the majority of people, but everyone –– every man and woman, including peasants and shepherds, the unemployed, the retired, farmers, teachers, office workers, shop assistants and even members of the clergy; people like you, people like me. This news was for everyone, and as if to illustrate the point, the first people to know, except for his parents, the carpenter Joseph and peasant girl Mary, were these shepherds. They were the first to hear this good news for all people. They were outcasts, so were the very people who needed to hear that there was good news for everyone.

But what was this good news? What could possibly qualify as good news for all people everywhere? Good news is only good news for you if you’re included in the benefits. Last week, it was great to hear about the Coupes’ news of Roy’s new job and Daniel’s success on the trampoline, and it was fantastic to be able to celebrate with them, but that news isn’t good news for all of us – we could appreciate my friend’s good news, but we couldn’t all participate in the benefits.

What good news could affect all people equally, regardless of race, sex, income level, or location? What about a cure for cancer, or world peace, or the end of poverty? None of these, although, it would be wonderful, counts as good news for everyone, because not everyone is impacted by cancer, war or poverty.

When you try to think of something that qualifies as good news for everyone, it’s hard isn’t it? What does the angel say is good news for all?

“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12).

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. 

That’s the only good news that’s equally good for 'all the people.' Not only the shepherds the angel spoke to, or the people of Bible times, or the early church, but all the people anywhere, ever! A Saviour has been born for all people. His birth offers “good news” for all people who have ever been born or who ever will be born.

This baby Jesus, was born in order that he might grow up to suffer and die for you and me. We may feel insignificant and overlooked, but God sent a saviour to be born for you and me. Too many people feel God is out to get them, that his finger is poised on the destroy button as soon as we step out of line. Actually, the news is just the opposite – God sent Jesus on a rescue mission, to save us from our sin and death – as John 3:16 proclaims. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

As Dan Schaeffer reflects,

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people that there is a perfect, righteous God who loves them and forgives them. It’s not an easy sell, strangely, but it is always good news. This baby Savior would grow up in the midst of our sinful world. He would spend time with prostitutes and embezzlers, telling them the same thing He told the religious folks—“there’s a place for you in My house, and I want you to come and live with Me. I know everything about you, and yet, I still want to be your Saviour!” Good news for all the people!  

All the people who have ever lived have done wrong and need a Saviour. Jesus came to be that Saviour, and that is good news of great joy for all people.

“Jesus is the only Saviour anyone will ever have. He is Mother Teresa’s Savior, and he is Madonna’s. … It was as much good news for Pilate and Herod as it was for Mary and Martha. Jesus was the Saviour of the soldiers who crucified Him as well as Peter and Paul who worshipped Him. The good news for the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Muslims is that Jesus is their Saviour.”

The good news both for the terrorists who killed the people at the offices at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket – as well as their victims – is that Jesus is their saviour. The good news for those who were involved in the massacre in Nigeria that left over 2,000 people dead – as well as their victims – is that Jesus is their saviour.

Whether people take up that offer of eternal life through faith doesn’t diminish the power of that good news. Jesus is the only saviour – and as Peter says in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Jesus offers everyone salvation. Although many people will never accept Him as their Saviour, will never avail themselves of this good news, this in no way diminishes the character of the news. An act of kindness, even when it is snubbed, remains an act of kindness. Hope, even when it is rejected, is still hope.

When we’re diagnosed with a serious, sometimes life-threatening illness, it’s bad news, isn’t it? But if the illness is treated soon enough it’s possible to recover fully, so that diagnosis then becomes good news. Many forms of cancer are treatable, but only when they have been diagnosed, only when we know there is a problem. It is the same with God’s good news. The good news highlights the bad news. The bad news is: we need a Saviour. The good news is: we have one.

The good news remains good whoever we are, whether we’re kings or shepherds or somewhere in between. And as it’s good news for everyone, there is an obligation placed on us. God has given us a mission – to be bearers of that good news. We’re called to follow in the footsteps of the shepherds and tell people that a saviour has been born to them. Has everyone in Allesley Park and Whoberley been given the opportunity to hear and receive the good news of Jesus’ saving love for them?

Jesus’ command was clear and simple – “go and make disciples of all nations.”

There is no exception to this command. We’re to go – person in every street and every house in this community should have the opportunity to hear and receive the good news. And yet evangelism is something that terrifies us and, as the nationwide statistics of church attendance in the UK over the past few decades tells us, our evangelistic efforts don’t work very well. But why?

If we want to know why our evangelistic endeavours don’t work as effectively as they might, there is one simple reason. We don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A prostitute was asked whether she’d consider going to church, and she replied, “Why would I go there? I feel bad enough about myself already.” And that’s the problem, churches have simply given Christ such a bad press that people avoid us like the plague. They think of us as hypocrites, bigots and troublemakers. My brother was in a pub in London, near the church where he’s the vicar, and he played a bit of game with a young woman sitting near him, and tried to get her to guess what he did. Finally, she gave up and he told her – I’m a vicar. Her response? With no hint of humour, she said, “I hate everything you stand for.”

That hurts, doesn’t it! I was devastated and, quite frankly, repulsed, to read in the news about so-called Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. They may call themselves Christians, but they do great dishonour to the Christ they proclaim. And if I’m honest, though my behaviour is far less extreme, so do I.

And this is the main reason why our evangelism doesn’t work – because we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. People will read us before they’ll read the Bible. We are called to embody Jesus, to be like him, to be authentic. And yet we fall so short. As Gandhi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

This is the key to all our evangelism. God calls us to be like Jesus. This is the goal of our lives. As John Stott, the well-known Anglican minister, teacher and theologian said in his final address,

“What is God’s purpose for His people? I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

An Arab Christian convert from Islam said 'If all Christians were Christians - that is, Christlike - there would be no more Islam today.'

Wow.

The problem is, we don’t know how. This dilemma is well expressed by William Temple, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War.

'It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it - I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it - I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.'

And that’s the key. There is no way you and I could become more like Jesus if we were left to rely on our own strength. And so the temptation is to despair, as it seems like God has commanded the impossible and will condemn us for our failure – it doesn’t seem fair – it’d be like giving Alicia the Times crossword and refusing to give her dinner until she was able to complete it. I wouldn’t do that, by the way!

But, the good news is that we haven’t been left on our own. God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in a work of transformation and to help us on our journey towards Christlikeness. Jesus’ whole purpose is that we live in him and he lives in us. It’s a two-way process. We can be indwelt by the Holy Spriit – God’s wonderful promise is, Christ in me the hope of glory. God wants to help us live a life that pleases him. He wants to help us to become more like Jesus, but he won’t force us to change. He calls us to cooperate with him. Are there areas of your life where you know you’re not living out God’s will? Submit them to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work of transformation in you.

Liz always tells me that I need to ground my sermons and make them practical. Unfortunately, the subjects of evangelism and discipleship are too large to squeeze into one sermon, even when you speak as long as I do. All I can do is promise that in the course of the year – or longer – our sermons will cover key aspects of what it means to live a life following Jesus. I’d like you to help us choose what to focus on, so look out for a survey that’ll come out in the next couple of weeks that’ll help us, from issues from other faiths to the environment, how to evangelise, how to manage our time and money, sexuality and godly relationships, etc.

For now, simply know that Jesus is good news for everyone, and we are called to bear and embody this good news. We do this best by being like the Christ we proclaim, and we can only do this through the power of the Holy Spirit who is alive and at work in us today.

#JeSuisJesus – What the world needs

 This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday for our local Service of Christian Unity based on Bible text – John 4:4-42

Good evening everyone, it’s wonderful to be together to worship, isn’t it?

I hope you’ll forgive me for beginning with a joke ...

How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Charismatic: Only 1 - Hands are already in the air. Pentecostal: 10 - One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness. Presbyterians: None - Lights will go on and off at predestined times.

Roman Catholic: None - Candles only.

Baptists: At least 15 - One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad and fried chicken.

Anglican: 3 - One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

Methodists: Undetermined - Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Bring a bulb of your choice to the Sunday lighting service. Traditionalists: None - we don’t believe in change.

I hope you’re not too offended and that you were able to laugh at yourself just a little. One of our problems is that people perceive that we take ourselves too seriously but we simply don’t take Jesus seriously enough. We are seen as being divided by wrangling over doctrine and the style of the way we worship and over other perceived petty things when what holds us together is far greater than what divides us. And in a world where in the past week alone, we’ve had bloodshed at the hands of Muslim extremists in Paris and more shockingly in Northeast Nigeria, where over 2,000 people were reported to be killed, and also in the Central African Republic, where so-called Christian Militia are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, the world needs a united church more than ever. After the terrorist attacks, the hashtag “JeSuisCharlie” was tweeted 5 million times all over the world as a sign of defiance and of the defence of free-speech. Actually, the world doesn’t really need me to be Charlie – because I’m not sure that the publication of offensive images is necessarily to be celebrated – although their right to do so should be defended. The world doesn’t need me to be Charlie. The world needs me to be Jesus.

The world needs the more than 2 billion people who call themselves Christians to stand up and say in our words and actions, #jesuisJesus.

If we want to know why our evangelistic endeavours don’t work as effectively as they might, there is one simple reason. We don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A prostitute was asked whether she’d consider going to church, and she replied, “Why would I go there? I feel bad enough about myself already.” And that’s the problem, churches have simply given Christ such a bad press that people avoid us like the plague. They think of us as hypocrites, bigots and troublemakers. My brother was in a pub in London, near the church where he’s the vicar, and he played a bit of game with a young woman sitting near him, and tried to get her to guess what he did. Finally, she gave up and he told her – I’m a vicar. Her response? With no hint of humour, she said, “I hate everything you stand for.”

That hurts, doesn’t it! I was devastated and, quite frankly, repulsed, to read in the news about so- called Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. They may call themselves Christians, but they do great dishonour to the Christ they proclaim. And if I’m honest, though my behaviour is far less extreme, so do I.

And this is the main reason why our evangelism doesn’t work – because we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. People will read us before they’ll read the Bible. We are called to embody Jesus, to be like him, to be authentic. And yet we fall so short. As Gandhi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

This is the key to all our evangelism. God calls us to be like Jesus. This is the goal of our lives. As John Stott, the well-known Anglican minister, teacher and theologian said in his final address,

“What is God’s purpose for His people? I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

An Arab Christian convert from Islam said 'If all Christians were Christians - that is, Christlike - there would be no more Islam today.'

Wow.

We’re called to be like Jesus, who is both offensively inclusive and offensively exclusive. Offensively inclusive, because he reaches out to the worst of sinners and causes great offense to religious leaders. He even hangs out with this Samaritan – this Samaritan woman – this unmarried Samaritan woman – this unmarried Samaritan woman who has been married five times – this unmarried Samaritan woman who has been married five times and is shacked up with a man she’s not married to. Jesus knows all this about her, and he still talks to her, showing her genuine respect. Jesus throws open the doors of the kingdom to sinners of all stripes, and by doing so condemns us for our self-righteousness. Jesus is offensively inclusive.

The inclusive posture of Jesus poses a challenge to the church today, just as it did for the Pharisees two thousand years ago. Until the radically offensive inclusiveness of God’s grace seeps into our bones, we will never join Jesus at the margins of society, welcoming and blessing repentant sinners of all kinds, like ourselves.

But Jesus is also offensively exclusive. He tells the Samaritan woman, “salvation comes from the Jews”, and he makes it very clear that he alone can offer the living water that truly satisfies. He reveals himself as the Messiah, and the only Saviour of the world. In a pluralistic world he dares to say, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He makes an even more extreme statement when he declares, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In this pluralistic world where our rights and choices to live life the way we want to are king, Jesus’ demands and claims are offensive. He calls me to submit my will to his, to trade in my personal agenda to his kingdom agenda, to submit to him in the way I use my time, skills and money, how I live, how I love, how I worship, how I behave sexually, how I speak, how I follow Him as Lord.

So, Jesus is both offensively inclusive and offensively exclusive. He alone is the Saviour, he alone is the hope of this world. He is the one we’re called to represent. The world needs Jesus, and we, his church are his hands and feet. We’re called to be like Christ. Sadly, left to our own devices, this is impossible. We know we’re called to be like Jesus, but don’t know how. This dilemma is well expressed by William Temple, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War.

'It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it - I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it - I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.'

And that’s the key. There is no way you and I could become more like Jesus if we were left to rely on our own strength. But we haven’t been left on our own. God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in a work of transformation and to help us on our journey towards Christlikeness. It’s a journey we’ll never finish – whether we’re 8, 18, 48 or 88, we’re still on that journey, and we’re called to a life of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Are there areas of your life where you know you’re not living out God’s will? Submit them to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work of transformation in you. Allow his living water to flow in and through you. Is there division between our churches of which we need to repent? Then let’s sort it out. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

And let’s find ways of working together to build God’s kingdom. It’s great to know of some of the ecumenical projects that are springing up, but I think there’s more that can be done. Perhaps there’s scope for working together in practical mission. I’m currently involved in the early stages of setting up a project called Besom, which seeks to help us make a difference to the lives of others and to make it easy for us to do so. If you’d like to hear more, and may be interested in getting involved, please chat to me afterwards.

There may be other projects we may set up. Whatever we do, may we see Christ proclaimed as we reach out into all corners of the communities whom we’re called to serve. Whether our endeavours mean that people become part of the church community of Limbrick Wood or St Christopher’s, or St Andrews’, Our Lady, St John Vianney, or St James’, then the Kingdom is growing.

Two years ago, this service was blighted by the snow that made getting to St Andrew’s rather difficult. When one snowflake falls to the ground, it melts. But when many snowflakes fall together, they stop traffic. This is the power of unity.

Now more than ever, the world needs Jesus. He has the living water, and his living water flows through us. Let’s not be afraid of either his offensive inclusivity or offensive exclusivity. The world needs Jesus. Our communities need Jesus. In his strength and in the Spirit’s power, may it be said of us, #jesuisJesus