Immeasurably More

This is the sermon I preached today, based on Ephesians 3:14-21 It’s holiday season and some of us will be heading to the coast. Nearly all of us have. When we stand on the shore, there’s so much more out there. And sometimes you can stand on the shore, and if you look left, all you can see is the sea, and if you look right, all you can see is the sea, There is nothing else on the horizon – you’re struck by the boundless depths of the ocean. But you don’t really experience the sea unless you get your feet wet, actually you need to get out of your depths. Even then, you don’t experience the depths of the sea – you need to go diving or to a sea life centre to experience the breadth of life there. Then you become aware of the boundless depths of the ocean. Wouldn’t it be a shame if all you experienced of the sea was the view you got from the shore, gazing at the pretty blue thing out there. And yet, for many of us when it comes to our faith, if we’re honest, we’re standing on the shore. Some of us might have dared to step beyond the shore, but we’re still only up to our ankles and we don’t believe we can go much further. God’s saying, “I’ve got more for you than that – I don’t want you just to be paddling. I want you to be immersed in the full depths of all I have for you.” This morning I want us to widen our horizons, our expectations of what God can do in us and through us, so we might begin to grasp the immeasurably more that God has for us. Because God is a God of immeasurably more – he is able to do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” God says, “I want you to imagine more with me, and together we can do some fantastic things.”

We’re going to be looking together at this passage from Ephesians 3:14-21, which is one of the great prayers of Scripture. In fact, if you’re wondering what prayers to pray for others, or indeed yourself, this is a great prayer!

Lord, we pray that “You would strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Wow, that’s mindblowing!

It’s great that we’re looking forward to some wonderful celebrations of love, and there’s no doubt about the depth of love there is between Kerri and Ray who are being married next weekend, but God’s love that he wants us to experience is even bigger than that! God’s sating I have so much more than you can possibly imagine.

But what stops us from experiencing that “more” from God?

This morning I want to explore two barriers that stop us experiencing all that God has for us.

 

1) We fail to grasp how much God loves us

2) We make God to small

 

1) We fail to grasp how much God loves us

 

I think some of us are afraid of God. I think my nan was a God-fearer. This fear can impact everything we do, when it comes to faith. We come to church out of some sort of fear that when we meet with God face to face, we’ll be rejected because we haven’t met the standards and he’ll judge us if we’ve not gone to church or said our prayers often enough. And then, when we come to pray, we pray as though God doesn’t really want to hear from us. We fumble over our words and think of ourselves as not being important enough to be worth God’s time and certainly not good enough for God.

God doesn’t want us to come to him like this. He wants us to come to him like children come to their parents – with confidence. He wants us to know that his love for all of us is “wide and long and high and deep” and that his love for us “surpasses knowledge” (vv.17-19) – he wants it to be in our head and our hearts, to the depths of our being. He wants us to be filled with this love – not just to paddle in it, but to be completely immersed.

God loves you. Oh, how he loves you. If you’re here this morning, doubting the depths of God’s love for you, hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying over and over again, oh, how he loves you. Grasp that. He has adopted you into his family, and made you his child. He delights in you. He wants you to know that to the very core of your being. You don’t have to strive to be in his favour. You already are. People in this world are desperate for love and approval. It’s there for them, and they don’t need to do anything to earn this love.

“The Law commands that we love perfectly. The Gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.” – William McDavid.

I think if we really grasped God’s love for us, it would change the way we prayed, it would change the way we hoped. I think it would also change some of the relationships we have with each other, because if we’re anchored by the knowledge of God’s love for us, we no longer depend on our family and friends to sustain us. This means that when we let each other down or hurt each other it’s not a disaster, because our self-worth is derived from God’s unchangeable, perfect love for us, rather than what others think of us and how they treat us. I think it would bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by fear. Why? Because, as it says in the Scriptures, “there is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out fear.”

God wants you to experience his love, to be immersed, as we are in the ocean, in his love for you. Knowing this and experiencing this love knocks down one major barrier to experiencing God’s boundless grace – we fail to grasp God’s love for us.

I pray that you would grasp that just a little bit more today, that you are infinitely precious, and infinitely loved, and nothing can take that away from you.

The second barrier that prevents us from living fully in God’s boundless grace is that

2) We make God too small. We put limits on what God can do.

St Paul ends his prayer with the words,

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (vv.20-21).

Do we believe in the God who can do immeasurably more? Do we know that God has so much more for us?

Christian author and speaker, Louie Giglio in the early days of his career in teaching at youth conferences and lock-ins, would preach and stay in the homes of host families. In fact, he had never stayed in a real hotel in his life – until one day, the hosts of this youth conference wanted to bless him so they gave him the nicest hotel room in the city. When he was with them all everyone talked about was the room, and how wonderful it was. When we saw it, he was impressed, but not that impressed – it was just an ordinary hotel room. What he didn’t realise was that he’d actually been given the hotel suite, with a living room, a dining room and even a second bedroom on the other end of the suite. Sitting on the dining room table was a massive gift basket with snacks and a t-shirt for the youth conference where he was speaking and a wonderful note welcoming him. He only discovered this later, by chance – he’d been given the key to the bedroom section at check in and not been told about the main suite that he had access to as well. He nearly missed out altogether on the best room in the city.

What if we lived our whole lives in the adjoining bedroom and thought our Christian journey is this, and God’s saying, I have so much more for you. More than you can ask or imagine. We don‘t have to be confined to the room. We can step out to experience all that God has for us –as individuals and as a church.

I don’t want us to merely exist as a church. I want us to really live. Jesus came so that we could have life to the full, to live life in colour, not just in black and white. I want us to grab the life God has for us with both hands.

Last Sunday – fantastic to celebrate our children’s and youth work. But, got to be honest. I’m not satisfied with current situation. Rich history of children’s and families’ work in the church. Why then are do we only have five teenagers who come regularly to church? What about the ones who are around their age who don’t come to church any more? I think there are about 30 children between the age of 14 and 18 who used to come to church but do so no longer. Of 9 young people who were confirmed only two years ago, only 3 still come to church. This is heartbreaking. I know this is a common experience with churches across the country – that young people drop off after the age of 11 and we don’t see them again until they come back when they themselves have had children. I don’t want to be satisfied with that. I believe God has more for us than that. We need to raise our expectations. We need to have a bigger view of what’s possible. What if we have 50 children as regular part of the church community? It’s not impossible – not in Allesley Park, which is a family area with four primary schools. But these things don’t happen by chance – we need take some steps of faith.

This is why I – and the PCC – believe the appointment of a children’s worker is vital – so vital that we’re willing to invest £17,000 of money that could otherwise be spent on the development of the building. I’m fully expecting that we’ll be able to obtain grants to help towards the costs of this role. But if we don’t, we risk running out of reserves completely. One temptation would be to hold onto our money and think that the children’s work would work itself out. We’d risk less that way, wouldn’t we? Actually, it depends on our perspective. I did some number crunching recently. In the past year, our average attendance of children has dropped by 8 in the past couple of years. If this continues at the same rate, we’d have no children left in the next 6 years. To not do something at this stage, to not act now, when we have great kids work and potential to grow in this area. To not act now could be far more risky than to act and to use the resources that are available.

We don’t have to be satisfied with the status quo. I don’t want to be satisfied with the idea that decline is inevitable, becayse church competes with so much these days, so we may as well get used to it. I don’t want that. I believe the narrative can change, and God calls us to dream bigger dreams for us as a church community. I want to dream that we can have 50 children as regular worshippers and that they don’t drop out at the age of 14. We need to dream bigger dreams and step out. The thing about swimming in the depths is it’s risky. When you’re out of your depths, anything can happen. But, we have a God of grace, of boundless possibility –a God who loves us he will not let us drown. I want to encourage you to dream bigger dreams. I want to encourage you to be people of faith who believe that God has immeasurably more for us. Be full of faith, because God is the Lord of the church – and he will build his church and his kingdom. He says, “I will buiold my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

So, we’re on the shore. I don’t know where you are in your life. Have you limited what God can do for you? Are you praying small prayers? We put fetters on God, and God wants us to break out of those fetters and pray bigger prayers. To think bigger thoughts, to imagine bigger ways that God might work. We need the work of the Holy Spirit to stir us up, that we might dream God’s dreams for us. There is more for us. Not just in the area of children’s work. It’s been wonderful to have 5 adult baptisms in the past year. I want this to be the start. Why not pray for 10 – or more next year – more salvation, more of God at work, more lives changed. There is more for us.

Our duty is to allow God to work in our lives so that our imaginations can be released to dream the dreams God has for us. And then, to get to the edge of the shore. There’ll be areas of our lives where we’re challenged, where we find it difficult to imagine God working, where he’s saying to you, if you want to get the more I have for you, you need to step into the water. Get ankle deep, knee deep, and then immerse yourself fully, and we need to take a risk. . Some of us have got situations where we’re struggling, where we feel imprisoned and we can’t imagine a different future, and God is saying, come on – come out into the deep, like when Jesus walked on the water, he called Peter to walk on the water towards him. While Peter had his eyes fixed on Jesus, he did it, he walked on the water.   And Jesus is saying to us, looking at us, saying come on, walk on the water. Imagine what I can do in you and through you. Imagine my love for you – a love that will never die. Because God can do so much more than we can ask or imagine.

My prayer today is that this morning you grasp his love for you in a deeper way, that you swim in the ocean of God’s love for you. And also, as a church and as individuals, we’re able to swim in the ocean of God’s possibilities for us. We need to take risks, to take steps of faith so that we might see God’s kingdom come in ever greater ways in our church, in our lives, in this community.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

 

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.