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).

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)

People of Truth and Grace

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, reflecting on Paul's courage to speak the truth in Acts 13:1-12.

 

Life was good for Jonathan Aitken. He was a high-profile, successful politician, destined for greater glory as a future leader of the Conservatives and therefore possible Prime Minister. Then, in 1995 Jonathan Aitken found himself the subject of front-page headlines that alleged he was involved in dodgy dealings with Saudis. He responded with the following speech …

 

If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it. My fight begins today. Thank you and good afternoon.

 

When Jonathan Aitken made that speech, claiming to fight for truth I'm sure many applauded. How brave he was to stand up against the tyranny of the press that so often can be full of lies.

 

He was right - the truth matters. There is, I feel, something hard wired in us that demands to know the truth and we feel so angry when we are lied to or about.

 

In the last ten years, we have had big inquiries over the Iraq war – were we led astray, were there really WMD? there is an ongoing investigation into police conduct at Hillsborough where police witness statements were doctored and false accusations were made about Liverpool fans. There is still so much anger about the way the truth has been obscured time and time again. Even now, there are accusations and counteraccusations flying around. What about the recent downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane? Who was responsible? Who supplied the weapons? Have the rebels in Ukraine doctored evidence at the scene of the crash? We all demand to know the truth.

 

We want to get to the truth – about historic child abuse. The truth must come out.

 

Jonathan Aitken was right about the importance of fighting for truth. Falsehood needs to be confronted.

 

But it’s not just in the big institutions, or in government or high-profile cases where truth matters. Truth matters in this church community, in my life.

 

But, some might argue, how do we know what truth is – isn’t it subjective? A matter of opinion?

 

Actually no. Truth is objective. Truth is a person.

 

Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life.”

 

He also said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:31-32).

 

Jesus is the source of all truth. We also read, “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.”

 

The truth isn’t out there, it’s here [pick up Bible]. And the thing about the Bible, is that we need to allow to challenge and correct us. We can’t just pick the bits of the bible that we like. There are, of course, parts that we need to wrestle over, and discuss together, which is why we need to read the Bible in community, not just on our own. Most importantly, we need to allow the Bible to read us, as well as read the bible.

 

I remember being at university. I was well aware of God’s calling on my life as a vicar. I then read the parts of the bible that outline the qualities that someone should have who aspires to that sort of role …

 

above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.

 

Elsewhere it says an elder must be blameless, not overbearing, not quick-tempered … He must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

 

I read those words and I looked at myself and realised how far short of those standards I fell. I knew myself. I knew I was a sinner. I struggled particularly with self-control and quick-temper. I certainly wasn’t holy or disciplined.

 

And yet, I still felt the overwhelming sense of God’s call on my life for this vocation in life. I knew that I needed to change, to be different, and I knew that I needed help to do so.

 

Of course, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in – with our co-operation he works in our lives, shaping us and making us more like Jesus. We need to be open to the work of God in our lives. But we also need each other’s help too. We can’t do this Christian life on our own.   It’s just too hard. So I did something that would be alien to many of us. I found a more mature Christian and met with him regularly, and gave him permission to ask some brutally honest and deep questions of me. No holds barred. It was sometimes painful, but it really helped me.

 

Home truths were brought to me. A mirror was held up that showed who I was –

 

I was told I was arrogant, that I often devalued people by being distracted when I was talking to them. I was also told that certain habits that some may argue were harmless enough could, if they took root, destroy me. It could be a flaw in my character that would trip me up and undermine the work I do for God and the work God does in me.

 

These revelations hurt, my pride was dented. But what matters more? That my ego is respected, or that the sin that is in my life is dealt with? If you need an operation, what would you rather have, a good surgeon or a mate who will be nice to you?

 

I know of a young woman who is in an accountability group where in their first meeting they confessed persistent and habitual sin in their lives.

 

Wow. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it, but it demonstrates how much holiness matters.

 

We are called as Christians to love each other. We think that being nice automatically means being loving. So, we opt to be nice to each other. Don't tell the truth, because we think it'll hurt. Not telling the truth will hurt more long term.  Too often we don't want to say anything that might hurt the feelings of people around us. We want to let sleeping dogs lie, we don't want to upset the apple cart. We mistake niceness for love. They are not the same thing. Sometimes sleeping dogs need to be opened. Apple carts sometimes need to be upset, turned over, even destroyed.  if they aren't they could destroy us. 

 

The recent tragic case of Peaches Geldof tells us the dangers of addiction. But it’s not just drugs that destroy us. We can be addicted to other things … lust, porn, anger, bitterness, gossip, jealousy, being judgmental, idolatry, ambition … lots of different things that can hold us captive and destroy God’s work in us. And often, we can’t see it ourselves. That’s why we have the term blindspots. We’re blind to the damage we’re doing to ourselves or to others. This is why we need each other, to confront the truth. Telling the truth, however hard, is love. Ignoring the truth because we’re being too nice is not love.

 

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.(1 Cor 13:6).

 

I don’t want to be known as a nice vicar. I’d much rather be known as someone who had courage to tell the truth. Why? Because my calling here is to do what I can to build up and encourage the body of Christ here so that together we become mature in the faith. The key passage for me here is in Ephesians 4:11-16.

 

Ephesians 4:11-16

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 

We need to be people who are anchored to the truth, to not be people who only listen to the parts of the Bible that we like, or to listen to teaching that makes us comfortable. This means we need, each of us, to know our Bibles, so we know what it says about the way we should live our lives, we should also do our utmost to grow in our relationship with Christ, to stay close to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. We also need to be filled and refilled with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus describes as the “Spirit of truth … [who] will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

 

Does this mean that we have permission to go around and say exactly what we like to each other? No, of course not. In our passage from John this morning, we heard that Jesus was full of grace and truth. Paul writes of speaking the truth in love. In that most famous passage about love, we’re reminded that our words and deeds are worth nothing without love. We need to be loving in the way we speak to each other – to think before we speak, to think about how we phrase any criticisms, if we should speak them at all.

 

In our survey our weakest area came out as loving relationships. This might have surprised many of you, because this is a tight-knit community. I wasn’t very surprised, because we don’t think about how we speak to each other. We can be careless with our words. And we also speak about each other rather than to each other. I have heard complaints about various things mainly through someone approaching me and saying, so-and-so says this. We need to speak the truth, but do so in love – and we must remember we’re doing God’s work …

 

James 5:19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

 

All of this takes courage, and it could be costly, because we may need to confront some difficult, deep-rooted habits. However, the cost of not speaking out the truth could be much, much worse. After his famous speech, Jonathan Aitken took the Guardian newspaper and Granada TV court for libel, but the case collapsed in June 1997 when evidence was shown that backed up their version of events and not his. He had lied in court, and was later convicted on charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice. His fall from grace was complete and he spent 7 months in prison.

 

Then, everything changed. Through his fall from grace, he met with God, having an encounter with Jesus, who came to bring truth in this world, the one who is the way, the truth and the life. Aitken writes,

 

I had been travelling on a spiritual journey. It was largely the pressures of adversity that had set me on this voyage of exploration. Those pressures had included defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and now jail - a royal flush of crises by anyone's standards. Yet pressure can be a making as well as a breaking experience. For after several false starts, stumbles, doubts and backslidings, my voyage of exploration evolved into a committed quest for a right relationship with God.

 

A quest for truth may be costly, but the consequences of not speaking the truth, of not confronting sin or injustice are much, much worse.