Our worship is a mix of traditional hymns and modern Christian songs. Our style is fairly informal, our teaching is bible based and relevant for life today. Our building is fully accessible for people with disabilities and our services are suitable for people of all ages.
During this lockdown, we are recording our Sunday services from home and broadcasting them online.
We aim to keep doing this, and are looking into whether we may be able to continue this online Sunday presence live from church when we are able to meet again after life returns to normal.
Sunday 14th February 2021
Reading: Nehemiah 8:8-18
Our theme today is about celebrating. I don't know about you, but I am looking forward to the end of lockdown, when we can perhaps all be together and have a party and celebrate in that way. That is certainly something I have missed. It will also be very nice when we can meet back at church and worship together, because that is a different sort of celebrating, isn't it really.
What is it to celebrate, in the Bible? Well it is lots of things.
It certainly encompasses things like singing. If we read on in Nehemiah we will discover it encompasses things like marching - when they march around the walls. If we look at King David, it was dancing - when he danced before the Ark when it was brought into Jerusalem. Celebrating is a way of drawing closer to God. One of the key things that we need to hold on to in our Christian lives is joy. Jesus calls us to have joy in our lives and when our hearts are full of joy we will celebrate. It will be impossible to stop us because it will just flow out of us.
I want to suggest to you also, that celebrating is a characteristic of God.
What is God doing today?
The Bible says that God is rejoicing over us. What does that mean? It means that God is celebrating today over you. God isn't celebrating over anything you've done or anything you might do or anything you've become. No, God is celebrating over you and me today because, here and now, today, He says we are people of worth and of value. He celebrates that and He asks us to join in that celebration with Him.
I think we have had a big problem over the whole idea of celebrating. When I was growing up, Sundays were a really miserable day. You weren't allowed to do lots of things and I was told it was the day of rest, but the day of rest in the Old Testament law was the Sabbath. Whilst there might be good arguments for having a day of rest under the new covenant, actually the idea of Sunday is a day of celebration because Sunday is the day of the resurrection. So whenever we come to church on a Sunday we are meeting together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus; everything else is secondary to that.
I like the idea of celebrating. When we read on in the book of Nehemiah we discover there is quite a lot of celebrating; going back to the theme in chapter 12 when they came together to celebrate and give thanks for the completion of the wall.
When you read about some of these celebrations in Nehemiah, there are one or two things that are really important.
The first is to note that it was planned. Certainly in chapter 12 we read about how the people came together from their homes. They came back to the wall in order to celebrate together. I am sure that some people didn't go. They would have said, “I don't want to do that. It's not what suits me. I'm not going to make a spectacle of myself."
God never asks us to do just the things that we like; God asks us to commit ourselves to serve Him and to follow Him.
I don't know about your life but my life has in it some “fire extinguisher” people. These are people with a critical spirit who, in my spiritual life - which should be full of joy and is full of joy - want to put a fire extinguisher on it and put out the fire that God puts in in all of us. I don't ever want to be a fire extinguisher person. I think we should guard our hearts against becoming critical of other people.
At my valedictory service when I finished at Northern Baptist College, the man who was doing the speaking talked about how, in ministry, small things matter and have far reaching consequences. These celebrations in the book of Nehemiah had far-reaching consequences; they encouraged the people; they filled the people with joy; and they blessed the surrounding area.
One of the things I really like about us as a church is that over the years we have become more of a multi-generational and multi-ethnic church. I don't think this has happened by chance. Yes, I think it is God's work and we have worked with that, but small changes have brought big results. Small things matter. It is easy for fragmentation to take place. We need to decide what God wants us to do - not what we would want to do - and unite behind it. That has been our success over recent years; we've been united in trying to make Jesus known.
I have been at the Minister’s Conference this week. It was in the form of a retreat this year and there were lots of good things. One in particular was that someone came along with a picture to share. It was a picture of the sun coming up behind some trees and a group of people standing and looking at it. I really liked that picture. I really liked what it was saying about coming out of the pandemic, about the sun rising and about people looking to Jesus.
The first point I want to make is that the celebration was planned and so we should be planners. The second point I want to make is that the celebration was bold. They were going to meet together in chapter 12 and walk around the top of the walls, praising God. That is what's called being a spectacle isn't it? That is not hiding your light under a bushel - that is making Jesus known. Again, I'm sure there are people that didn't go.
When I was at Marston Green, we had entrance doors that were made with wired armoured glass. You couldn't see through them and some of us thought it would be a good idea to replace them with glass that you could see through. Some people were quite concerned about the fact that people would be able to see in. They didn't like the idea. Indeed, one person, even after it was done, wanted to put up net curtains on them!
One of the things I like about us as a church is so much of what we do is public. It is in the church building; it is amazingly bold. Sometimes that causes us some trouble because people just come and join in with us; and sometimes that means we have to redress what we're doing. But boldness is a key part of celebration because we cannot celebrate as God would have us celebrate unless we are going to be bold. I think we have been bold in what we've done over recent years. I think we have been bold in how we have adapted our building and made it a centre for all sorts of things. When I first came to Kings Heath, people used to tell me that they thought the building was shut. Nobody thinks that any more. If I was going to give it a new name, I would like to give it the name Celebration House because I would like people to realise they can come there and celebrate God's love for them.
I look at the things we've done with our Nursery School and Jubilatte Coffee Shop. People tell me we are running out of money, with the pandemic and all that entails, but I want to say to people like that, "But what about God? Who can tell what the Almighty will cause to happen?" Daniel did not know that the lion's mouth was sewn up until he was down in the den. Sometimes, when it comes to being bold, we need to take risks and sometimes those risks are going to be quite scary. I thank God that we have taken those risks in the past and I believe we will take them in the future.
Or perhaps you want to look at things that we do for our community: the food bank, the befriending scheme, other ministries like that. All these things are public. They are open. They are things that we are quite clear about. So being able to celebrate as God would have us celebrate calls us to be bold. David did not celebrate in private in his room when the Ark came to Jerusalem. He got out on the streets, he took off his clothes and he danced away. His wife was very unimpressed by it! So I want to suggest to you that, as we think about the future, as we think about what it will mean to be the church in the future, I think we need to have those things on our minds. We need to be planning and we need to be bold.
The crunch comes, of course, in - do we believe that God can change lives today?
That is a real cruncher because, actually, if we don't think that God can change lives today, if we think that Christianity, that our faith, is a private affair for us, then we should take it and lock ourselves away somewhere and just celebrate with each other. But I don’t believe that. I believe that God can and will change lives today. I think He will do that through people witnessing our celebrating, through people being able to join in with what we are doing.
I am looking forward to the time when we can be back together in the church, back to the time where we can celebrate together by singing, by reading the Bible, by discussing things together.
You see, when God's people celebrate together, things happen. Lives are changed and God is glorified.
Sunday 21st February 2021
Reading: Genesis 15:1-6
I wonder today how you are feeling about the future. We are at a little bit of a crossroads, aren't we? Dare we hope that things are going to get better over the coming weeks and months? Might it be that we will be able to meet again in groups at the church? Or are we very fearful? Do we think, even if we are allowed to, perhaps it will be too dangerous or we should not?
The future is always something to think about and often something to worry about. When we get to Genesis 15, Abram is thinking about the future and, to be quite honest, I think he is disappointed - probably extremely disappointed because things have not worked out how he thought they would.
He had left his homeland, following the call of God, and God had told him that all these great things were going to happen. Here he was now, some years later, and absolutely nothing has happened that he was expecting to happen. He has no child, he has no property, he has nothing.
Life can be a bit like that sometimes. We set out and we have all sorts of hopes and expectations about how we think things will be and then sometimes the reality does not live up to it. But when we deal with God we do not have to worry because God is faithful and will always keep His promises.
In Genesis 15, God meets with Abram to reassure him. His presence and His word are just what Abram needs and perhaps, when we think about the future, they are just what we need as well. If you are looking at how the devil might be at work in your life, or if I am looking at how the devil might be at work in my life, one of the ways is to make me doubt the promises of God. It is really important to hold on to the promises of God and to know them, to believe them and to trust that God will keep them all.
So Abraham, or Abram as he is at that point, is fearful about the future, and God says to him that He is going to be his shield, in verse 1. What He is saying is that here is Abram, he owns nothing, he is renting land to keep his animals on, he is surrounded by hostile groups of people who far outnumber his own people and he is scared. So God says: "I will be your shield, I will be the one who will defend you." That is going to be better than any earthly alliance with any earthly king because God Himself is going to defend Abram.
The promise of God is a way of dealing with our fear. If you are fearful about the future, there are lots of promises in the Bible about it. The Bible says that nothing can separate us from His love, not even death. The truth is that, just like Abram, we do not have to be fearful of anything today.
The second thing I think this meeting with God does, is it promotes faith. That would be an amazing picture. Just imagine a beautifully clear night, no artificial lighting, and you go out and the sky is full of stars. Have you ever tried to count them? I have only really seen a sky like that once and that was up a mountain in Slovakia and the sky was just absolutely full of stars.
That would have been a great image to hold on to and I am sure Abram came back to that image over and over again. It was a physical reminder when he saw the stars in the sky at night that this was God's promise to him. Having that reminder promoted his faith. Later on in the service we are going to share bread and wine to remember Jesus's sacrifice for us. As we do that, it should promote our faith. It should encourage us because we have that visual representation of what Jesus has done for us.
The third thing that happens for Abram is God unveils the future. He takes his doubts and He says: "No, it is not going to be that servant in your house who is going to be your heir; your heir is going to be someone of your own blood. You are going to have a child and that is how the promise is going to be kept." What an amazing thing. God speaks straight to Abram about the troubles that he faces.
As an aside, did you notice when he talked about the promised seed? That was a twofold prophecy. On the one hand, the promised seed is the nation of Israel but on the other hand, it is Jesus Christ who is going to come to be the Saviour of the world. God speaks to him and encourages him in this time of need.
I wonder, do you think God speaks to you? Do I think God speaks to me in a time of need today?
I believe God does. I believe God is alive and God is well and God is active. I think it is quite amazing that God would speak to us and that God would speak into the situations we face in our lives today. There is no situation that we face that there is not something that God has to say. There is not some promise in the Bible or some word that God would want us to have to know the assurance of His presence, to know that we all have His protection, to know we will always have His love.
How does God speak to us today?
God speaks through His Spirit. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is a still, small voice in our hearts and I think sometimes that still, small voice speaks to us. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will bring alive to us a verse from the Bible because God certainly speaks through the Bible. One of the things that always amazes me about the Bible is that no matter how many times you read it, when you read the same passage again, you discover something new about God. Why is that? It is because the Word is alive and God uses it to speak to us. I would say the Bible is the main way God speaks to us. Often when we do think God is saying something to us, we need to go to the Bible and say, "Is this in line with what the Bible has to say?"
I think God speaks through situations. God engineers things around situations. I think it was one of the Wesleys who said that when he prayed coincidences happened and when he did not, they did not, because God is at work in our world, working out situations to fulfil His purposes.
God speaks through our fellow Christians to us. When we feel something maybe is from God, it is always good advice to go to others and say, "What do you think about this?" That is why, when I felt God was calling me into the ministry, I could only offer myself. The decision of whether or not I could go forward was down to other people: did they agree that this was God's plan for my life? God speaks through His servants.
Lastly, I want to say God speaks through the cross. There is a lot written about the cross of Christ. I am not talking about the cross, I am talking about the actual message of it. Sometimes we need to put ourselves at the foot of the cross to hear what God has to say to us because when we know that Jesus hung on that cross out of love for us, that will mean God will speak into our hearts in a way that is really powerful. God will affirm us and bless us and help us.
Abraham was fearful about the future because he was in a difficult situation with his neighbours. He felt that God's promises had not been fulfilled - had not been kept. But God said to him, "Do not fear." God says, "For I am with you, I am your shield, I will not desert you, I will not give up on you."
When we think about the future, our God says very much the same to us. Whether that is us as an individual, whether that is us as a church together, God's promises for us remain true and He remains faithful. As we move out of this time of lockdown, back into more normal life in the coming weeks and months, so we will find that God will keep all His promises to us.
Sunday 28th February 2021
Reading: Exodus 5:1-8, 22-23
One of the things that Christians believe is that God has a plan for our lives. That does not mean that all personal responsibility is taken away, but it means we believe that God calls us, that God invites us, that God shares a plan with us and He invites us to work with Him. That is true all the way through the Bible.
It is true, I believe, of people like me who are ministers in the church today, that people are called of God, but it is true, as well, if you are involved in youth work or if you are involved in anything in the life of the church. If you are involved in the Nursery School, the Food Bank, the Bookshop. Anything that we do for God, if we feel it is God's will then it is a calling upon our lives. I like that idea.
Jeremiah talks about God saying, "I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and bless you." I really like that. One part of me wants to say, "Well that's really great because God is going take care of it all."
Moses had this call of God. He met God up a mountain with the burning bush and God told him to go back to Egypt because he was going to set God's people free. Although we know at the end of the story that is what happened because God will always keep His promises, the trouble for Moses, and the trouble often for us, is there is an in-between phase which perhaps our calling did not mention at all. In that in-between phase we have got to work things out and we have to go through difficulties and trials.
That was certainly true for Moses and Aaron. They had gone to Pharaoh and said, "God says, let the people go." I'm sure they thought Pharaoh was going to say, "Absolutely! If God says it, then that is the way it must be." But it did not happen. Pharaoh said, "No, I am not going to let the people go." The people were his labour force for doing his building work and he was not prepared to release them at all.
Some people wonder: how did Moses manage to get into see Pharaoh? Some people think it was because he had a past in Egypt as a prince of Egypt that, maybe, Pharaoh agreed to see him. Other people think that it was because despots - rulers like Pharaoh - would be the judge in courts. So one of the things they did was make themselves available to meet with people .
I am not sure which one of those you would want to believe, but the truth is, of course, that he got to see Pharaoh and Pharaoh turned him down.
This was because Pharaoh had a heart problem. The Bible would describe him as having a 'hard heart' and that is a common way to think about people. Pharaoh had been in Egypt with all the Jewish people, so he must have heard a lot about God and about the God of the Hebrews. He must have known the stories and yet, he was completely unmoved by them.
When the Bible talks about our hearts being hardened, what happens is, every time God presents us with an opportunity, every time we are presented with the opportunity to believe, to put our trust in Jesus Christ, and we refuse it, every time God asks us to do something and we say “no”, the effect is that our hearts slowly become harder.
Pharaoh had years of hearing the stories of God and he had completely ignored them. God always brings us to a crisis of faith. It was a crisis of faith when I chose to believe. It was a crisis of faith when I chose to go forward to train for the ministry. I am sure your life is just the same. God brings us to these crises of faith and then if we say yes, we move forward with God, but if we say no, our hearts have hardened.
One person I read about some time ago described the hardened heart idea like this: “Imagine a lump of wax and a lump of clay. If the sun comes out and shines on the wax, it melts. If it shines on the clay, it bakes."
Pharaoh's heart was like the lump of clay because he had turned away from God so many times. Moses's heart was like wax and when he met with God, it melted.
The problem was even worse for the Jews because, up until this time the Egyptians had provided them with straw. Now, they were not going to give them any straw, so they were going to have to go and try to find their own straw - wherever they could get it from. That was going to be a lot more work, and yet they still had to make the same quota of bricks. I am sure there were fairly severe consequences if they failed to meet their quota.
Moses comes along, has this call from God, and he thinks the people are going to be set free. He goes to Pharaoh and says, "Let the people go" and Pharaoh says, "No! And just because you asked, I am going to make it even worse for them." The people were then angry at Moses and Aaron because they said, "If you had not come along with this story about how God was going to set us free, we would not have to be making our own bricks."
So what does Moses do?
Moses returns to the Lord. He says to God, "God, this is not working out how I had hoped." He comes back to God with worship.
The story of the Prodigal Son is a famous one in the Bible and I like it. The younger son asks for his inheritance and he goes off and spends it all. Eventually, when it has all run out, he comes back home to the father and the father is there, waiting for him.
There is no problem about returning to God. No matter how far we have strayed, no matter how far away we have been, we can always return to God, and God will always be the Father, running to meet us.
What is also interesting, when you read the story of the Prodigal Son, you will discover they killed the fatted calf. For much of my life I thought this was because they were going to have a party - and maybe it was - many commentators want to see it that way. However, I actually think they killed the fatted calf because it was a sacrifice to God. The father was sacrificing the calf to say thank you to God for His goodness in bringing his son home.
When difficulties come, you go one of two ways with things. It would have been easy for the father to have said of the lost son, "Well, why has this happened to me? What is it that has caused this?" It would be easy for him to pray that way. But the father did not give up. He kept faith with God and he kept faith in God's promises, even though he did not know what the end would be. I am sure worship was a big part of his life. If you like, he lived with the questions.
That is what Moses was doing when he says he returned to the Lord. He came back to worshiping God because he had to live with the questions about why things were not working out how he had wanted them to.
Someone much wiser than me once said, “God seldom answers a 'why' question, but He often answers a 'how' question.” So Moses comes back to God and he says, "How am I going to carry on this mission that you have given me? How am I going to be here for God's people? How am I going to lead them out of this situation?" If you read on in chapter six you have God's answer, and this is such a powerful statement about who God is. God says in chapter six and verses six to eight, "I will bring you out."
Whatever situation you are in and whatever things you are trapped and enslaved by, there is victory in Jesus Christ. God says, "I will bring you out." He says, "I will rescue you from your bondage." God's people have no place in bondage. Jesus Christ sets us free - free to live full lives for the glory of God. He says, "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgment." For Pharaoh’s people, judgement was the plagues that came upon them. For us, Jesus redeemed us with outstretched arms when he died on the cross in our place.
God says, "I will take you as my people." We are His children. God says, "I will be your God." God says, "I will bring you into the land which I swore to give you." That was, of course, the Promised Land. For you and me, it is Heaven. And God says, "I will give you a heritage." What an amazing statement about who God is and how important it was for Moses to hear it. God did not say to him, "Moses I am just going to take away all the problems and all the difficulties." No, God was not going to do that. Moses was still going to have to work hard through the difficulties, but God reaffirmed His promises to him.
Life can be difficult in all sorts of ways, but God gives us strength for today and hope for tomorrow - and that is all any of us ever need.
Sunday 7th March 2021
Reading: 1 Kings 3:1-14
Solomon is a very well-known character in the Old Testament. One of David's sons, he followed him onto the throne of Israel. In some ways, the life of Solomon is a tale of two halves because later on in his life he lost his way and that was very sad because he could have gone on to achieve greater things for God than he actually did.
We are looking at the start of his life - he has just become king and it is the start of his reign as king. Solomon is the new king. It was always going to be that way. In 2 Samuel, chapter 12, verse 25, Nathan the prophet said of Solomon that, “He is loved by the Lord.” Right the way through, there was always this call of God upon Solomon's life to be king.
Earlier on in the book of Kings, you will find that all the other people who might have had a claim to be king all vanish from the scene by one means or another. So the call of God is something that is at work in things. The purposes of God are always at work in all sorts of ways, in our time just as much as in Solomon's time. The Holy Spirit comes to us and calls us and that is a gift of faith. Coming to believing God at all is a gift of the Holy Spirit because if you are honest and ask yourself, sometimes just believing does not really make sense; and yet we know it is true because the Holy Spirit has placed that faith within our hearts. Just as the Holy Spirit places that grain of faith in our hearts and calls us to respond to him, so also the Holy Spirit gives growth.
We are going one of two ways with God: either we are growing and going with Him (I think those two words go together when we talk about spiritual life: we are ‘going’ and ‘growing’ with Him) or actually we are declining – we are moving away from God. The Bible says our relationship with God is a living relationship, so it is either going forwards or it is going backwards. At this point in Solomon's life, he was responding to God and what he felt God had called him to and how God had worked in circumstances for him to be king. He was going and he was growing with God.
So Solomon is now king. I would not like to be the king of a country. It would be very hard going, particularly if you have got a whole lot of neighbours who are fairly warmongering types. How do you live at peace with everyone?
Solomon's great plan was to marry Pharaoh's daughter and that is what he did; he made an alliance with Egypt which gave them some stability and strength. The Jewish law said do not do that - do not marry people from other faiths. Now this one was probably okay because most commentators believe that she actually converted to Judaism as that was probably quite important to Solomon at this time. Later on he married lots of other women and when I say lots of others, I mean lots - there are hundreds of them - and many of these people did not convert to Judaism. Slowly, that was one of the ways Solomon lost his focus on God: the leading away came through his many wives.
We need to think about our relationships - about whether or not those relationships encourage us in our spiritual life or discourage us. Certainly, the friends we mix with, the people we talk to as all these things have a bearing on us; that is why fellowship within the church is so important.
Solomon goes to Gibeon. Now you might be wondering, why is he going there? If you read back a little bit and around, you will discover that the tabernacle was at Gibeon. Gibeon was a town that was not conquered by Joshua. They surrendered and respected the law and while you may have to fill in the gaps yourselves, it would appear that the tabernacle, the tent where they worshipped God, remained at Gibeon from then on. However, the Ark went on. First it went to other places, eventually ending back in Jerusalem and back into the new temple when it was built.
Lots of commentators disagree about what they think is going on here. Some people want to suggest that Solomon was already engaging in idolatry. Personally, I do not think that is how it is because it says later on that God was pleased with Solomon and with what he did. I think when it refers to the high place in 1 Kings 3, it is talking about somewhere that used to be a centre for Canaanite worship where the tabernacle now is and that they took over that place and made it a place for worshipping God.
The reason the high places still existed was because the Jews did not destroy them and God told them they should destroy them. Later on in his life, Solomon is certainly guilty of going to these high places and worshipping and offering things to other Gods.
The society in which they lived was a multi-faith society. You had all these people - probably a bit like we have in our day - who say, "All roads lead to God, it does not matter what you believe." That, actually, is a view I cannot agree with. I think Jesus Christ is God's Son, he is God in the flesh and he came to this earth to die on a cross for our forgiveness: his sacrifice is the way for salvation. I believe there is no way to heaven other than through accepting the sacrifice of Christ for us. But we need to ask ourselves today, what are the high places in our lives? Yes, it is easy to think about other religions, but it is also true that things like materialism, pleasure, drugs, alcohol, gambling can all become high places of worship to us. God tells us that we should put Him first and bring our worship to Him and to Him alone.
When Solomon gets there, he comes to worship and his worship is around a huge sacrifice. Different versions of the Bible read this differently. Some versions, like the King James Version, talk about thousands of animals being sacrificed, but other commentators and more modern versions of the Bible want to get away from the word ‘thousands’ and replace it with the word ‘many.’ One of my great contentions with some modern commentators on the Bible is that they need to reduce everything to what they consider to be a more reasonable number. So Goliath is smaller. Everybody becomes smaller when you read about these things.
I like the fact that Solomon offered thousands of animals because that would have been costly even to a king as wealthy as Solomon. David said when he was looking to go to worship God, that he would not offer to God sacrifice that cost him nothing.
Far too often I think we fall into the trap of giving God our leftovers rather than looking to make a sacrifice in terms of our giving, whether that is in terms of money, time or service or whatever. The challenge is always, does our sacrifice, our offering to God, actually cost us something or is it just something that we have left over? Solomon gives to God something that has cost him.
The result of this worship, if you read what Solomon says about himself, is that at this time He is filled with great humility. He feels he is not up to the task that he has been called to do and so he comes to God and worships Him. He is saying to God, “God, I really need your help. If you have called me to this task then I need you to enable me to fulfil it.”
He felt inadequate for the task before him and the Bible records that God was pleased with Solomon's request. Because he asked for wisdom, he got wisdom. He got more as well and Solomon started out his kingship in a really positive way. Do you know the story that comes next in the book of Kings, the one where the two women are arguing over the baby, as to whose baby it is? Solomon, in his great wisdom, says, “Well let’s cut it in half” at which point, of course, the real mother said, “I'll let her have it” because it is the most important thing to her.
That great blessing of God flowed out into his life and into his ministry. Sadly, later on in his life he became a lot more confused about things and it became more difficult. Solomon did achieve great things for God. He did a lot of building in the city of Jerusalem - he built the temple. Indeed, that first temple was called Solomon's temple and it was a tremendous structure, a great thing to do. But he could have done a lot more for God than he actually did; it was a shame that he lost his way.
God's call comes to us, I think, every day of our lives. At its very basic level, it is that we should live for God's glory in all that we do today. How does that work out? It means we should try and be polite, we should try and be kind, we should try and be helpful, we should try and live our lives in a way that honours God. Yes, that might lead us into some special road of service or work for God that we feel God has called us into and that will go on and on throughout our lives. The truth is that you and I can achieve great things for God, but achieving them will not be something that costs us nothing; it will cost us our time and our talents and it will cost us because we will have to humble ourselves before God and seek His blessing for what we are doing.
Sunday 14th March 2021
Reading: Daniel 6:16-28
I suspect, if you are like me and grew up in Sunday School, Daniel in the lion's den was one of those famous favourite stories that we read and learned and drew pictures of. It is always remained a story that I have liked.
By the time we get to this point in Daniel's life, most commentators think he is about 80 years old. He is no longer a young man and he rose to a position of some authority; in the nation he is well liked and respected. But there is this other group of people who are plotting against him and they realise that the only way they are going to find something against him is if they invent something. So, they go to the king and they say, "O king, make it illegal for anyone to worship anyone other than you for 30 days." And the king does it.
Why do good people have people who plot against them? I think there are two reasons. One is the devil. The devil is always looking to destroy us, to destroy our witness, to destroy who we are in God and what that might mean. Amongst other people there was jealousy. The people were jealous of Daniel's gifts of his station and the fact that it looked likely that he might get a possible promotion. Then other circumstances work against him as well.
What is King Darius thinking of? Telling people that they can only worship him for 30 days. He wants to see himself as God. What a sad state of affairs, because he must have known he was not a god. The king succumbs to flattery and so this whole evil scheme comes into being.
Choices always have consequences. They have consequences for us and consequences for our family. Darius realised that his choice was going to have consequences for Daniel. What does Daniel do when he discovers that the king has passed this law, that for 30 days he is not allowed to worship anyone but the king? He could have waited till he was alone in his room, drawn the curtains, locked all the doors and worshipped God in secret, but Daniel did not do that. Daniel had the habit of opening his windows and kneeling towards Jerusalem, praying and worshipping God in that way; he was not prepared to compromise, even though he knew that it was likely going to get him into trouble.
The world is always encouraging Christians to compromise; we are encouraged to compromise about our faith, church, service, giving - about all sorts of things. We are asked to compromise because being a Christian goes against the culture of our day and if we are giving time to God, if we are giving effort to God's work, if we are giving our money to support God's work, then actually we will be working against the culture of our day which is so self-centred.
Daniel was a knowledgeable man. I think he knew his Bible as far as he had the Bible, very well. I suspect he knew the prophecies of Jeremiah and he was looking forward to the day when the exile would be over and the people would be restored to their own land. It is really odd throughout the book of Daniel though, because Daniel is praying for things that the Bible says are going to happen anyway. Does that not strike you as being very odd? He is praying for things that are going to happen anyway.
That is a common theme in scripture. For instance, we are told Jerusalem is going to be a city of peace and yet we are told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We are never told to just sit back and let God take care of it. In fact, we are called to be involved and to be active. Why are we told to pray for these things? We are told because we are praying for our own involvement in them.
There are different groups of Christians; some people think that everything is preordained and so our choices and our involvement do not matter at all. One of the things that always sticks in my memory is William Carey. He wanted to found a Baptist missionary society and go and work abroad to try and bring other nations to know Christ. He was told by ministers of the time that when God wished to save other people, He did not need his help. Whilst that might be true, it is also true that God chooses to need his help. If you take that argument, we might not pray for people who are ill because if you are going to get better, that is God's will and if you are not going to get better, that is God's will as well. Whilst I do think that is true, I also think that our prayers affect the outcome of that.
These groups of people see us as either being solo players in a world that is devoid of God: there is no-one but you; therefore, the thing you have to do is take care of yourself, look out for number one. So much of our culture is sadly based on that. Or, if we do believe in God, we see ourselves as passive players - that we trust God to make all things right and we see God as somehow separate from all of the mundane, normal things of our lives.
The third group, which I would be in, sees us as being involved with God at every level of our lives and that God chooses to work through us.
So ultimately in this story, and we will come back to this, Darius is going to come to have faith in God and so God is using the story of Daniel to bring Darius to faith in Him. Through Darius, I suspect many more people were going to come to believe in God.
God's love is a creative power and that creative power works through all our words and all our actions. As Christians, we actively join with God in His mission to the world and that was the thing those ministers who met with William Carey could not grasp; that God chooses to work in us and through us for the glory of His name. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and how are people going to hear unless we, as God's people, tell them?
Daniel was worshipping and praying to God about the situation and what was going to happen. Was he frightened? I suspect he was, and he ended up being put in the lions' den. Now the king was regretful. No way did Darius want to put Daniel into the lions' den, but after he passed the law, he did not have any choice - his action had consequences. But God closed the mouths of the lions. I remember drawing this picture as a child and I drew stitch marks on the lion's mouth like God had sewn up their mouths. Daniel did not know that until he was actually in the lions' den. Daniel was prepared to put his life on the line for God. If Daniel had died, if the lions had killed him, it would have worked in some way for God's glory. The message of Hebrews - where it tells us that some were killed this way and that way - is that some win for God by dying and some win for God by living. Darius was converted and perhaps that was God's aim all along, that Daniel's witness over the years would ultimately come to convert the most powerful man in the land.
We have a great problem when it comes to witnessing today and sharing our faith because the basic fact is that a lot of people just do not want to hear. People's minds are full of other things.
Some Christian ministers have gone down the road of wanting to talk about what is in it for you if you choose to follow Christ - that whole prosperity gospel business, which I really do not agree with. That is not to say that if we turn to follow Christ that God is not going to bless our lives, because I believe He will. I think we have to be careful how we think and how we act about some of these things. We are, as Christians, a minority in our communities today, but Daniel was a minority of one. I do not know what had happened to his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, from earlier in the book, but they are not around now in Daniel 6. Daniel's call was to faithfully worship God in word and in deed, to faithfully witness in a hostile culture.
Today, we perhaps ought to pray for our own involvement in God's work. When we look at our world and we see the need in it, when we look at our church, when we look at things that we believe God is calling us to do, then we should be praying for those things. Our prayers - even if they are not implicitly saying this – are asking God, "God, take me and use me in these purposes." Daniel was a world changer and we can be too.
I would like to finish by reading you this prayer. It is called a unison prayer in this book, but I have heard it in other places. Perhaps we can think about ourselves like this:
I am no longer my own but Yours.
Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will;
Put me to doing, put me to suffering;
Let me be employed for You, or laid aside for You, exalted for you, or brought low for you;
Let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am Yours.
So be it.
And the covenant made on earth, will be ratified in Heaven.
Sunday 21st March 2021
Reading: Matthew 7:7-12 Matthew 7 is a famous passage in the Bible. I am sure a lot of us knew it: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” One part of me wants to say that it is almost the Gospel of the Prosperity Gospel Movement because they say that, “Well, God has all these blessings, all this money or whatever in heaven for us and all we have to do is ask for it.” Of course, if we do not then receive it, it is because we do not have enough faith. That has sort of built on to the idea, as someone told me when I had cancer, that I should not be seeking help from the medical world, I should be putting my trust in God; I should be asking God to heal me. I did and so did lots of others. Thank you very much for that, it has been very good, and I am very well now. I suspect if I had not had the medical intervention that I did, the story would be quite different. We need to ask ourselves, is it really that simple? I do not think it is. I think asking, seeking and knocking have a much deeper meaning. One of the problems that we all have to deal with is: how do we cope with unanswered prayer? Some people want to say that no prayer is unanswered, it just, sometimes, is not answered in the way we would like it to be, and I think that is perfectly true. Another way I would like to look at that is to say we should pray for what God has promised. I touched on this last week when I talked about the way we pray about our own involvement into things.Daniel prayed and God used Daniel to convert Darius, so we need to pray for what God has promised, but also, we need to pray for what we desire. If we pray for what God has promised, it will always come true because God will always keep His promises. It might not be in the way we immediately think, but if we pray for what we desire, then that might happen. Sometimes it will not happen. Why not? Because what we desire is contrary to what God desires. So “Ask, seek, and knock” comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It is about Jesus's teaching to his disciples about their spiritual life, and more particularly, it is really teaching them about their prayer life. These three things sum up what Jesus has been saying. I might want to say there is a threefold attitude in this passage. One is knocking at the door. I wonder how interested you are in the things of God. That is really a question and we all need to answer it about ourselves. How interested are we in the things of God? How often do we visit Him? How often do we do we knock at His door? How often do we come to see if we can build a better relationship with Him? We are told to knock at the door. We are told to seek - or seek the Master - and we are told to ask, and we will receive. It is all to do with working into a deeper spiritual life and Jesus is saying, this is the way to do it: work at developing our relationship with God. He makes them a promise because he said, “If you ask, then it will be opened.” Let me tell you something that is very true for all of us, and that is: God loves you and me. There are absolutely no exceptions.The radical thing that Jesus says in John 3:16 is not that God loved - the radical thing is that God loved the world; that is, every single person, everyone who has ever lived, God has loved. In His love, God says, if we knock at His door, He will answer it. Having the door answered means acceptance. Some of you will know, I sometimes tell the story of going to collect something from a Baptist Minister's house that I had arranged to borrow. I knocked on the door and the man answered the door and he said, “Oh yes!” He then shut the door and went to get what I had come to collect. He came back and gave it to me, and I thanked him, and I went on my way; but I have to confess, I was sort of expecting to be invited in, at least to be inside the door. Being invited in, if the door is answered, speaks of acceptance. God says you and I are acceptable to Him; He desires to have a relationship with each one of us. The second word that he gives us is this word, ‘find’. “Seek and you will find.” How would you want to understand that? I think it means you will find fellowship. When I was left out on the doorstep, it did not do anything to further my relationship with that person. I was grateful for what he lent me, that was very nice of him, thank you very much, but there was no fellowship. What Jesus is saying is that you and I, because we are loved, because we are acceptable to God, can enter into a deeper fellowship with Him. The last thing he says is, “you will receive.” This implies satisfaction, that what we have will somehow become better. It will somehow satisfy our needs; it will satisfy our longing. Knowing the love of Christ in our hearts is a love that satisfies. Remember, this is Jesus's teaching to his disciples, it is not to the world at large. God loves everybody, but for these things to be true, we have to have asked Christ into our lives. We have to have become Christians and we have to be committed to wanting a deeper relationship with Him. And so he says, “Knock, seek, and ask.” If we do those things, then our Christian life will go deeper. Then he gives them this three-fold encouragement about the love of God, because he says, “If you ask your father for some bread, would he give you a stone?” No, he would not. Or “If you asked for some fish, would he give you a serpent?” No, he would not. The truth is that God will always give us good things; He cannot do anything other than bless us. It would be against His nature to behave in any other way. The passage finishes by saying, “Would your Heavenly Father refuse His children what they cannot do without?” And what we cannot do without is the Holy Spirit - the Holy Spirit that sets us on fire. I was watching Countryfile last Sunday and Adam Henson was on with his sheep and he had a lamb. He was talking about the lamb needing colostrum. He was saying that it was the colostrum that gives the lamb a ‘fire’ within it. That is what the Holy Spirit does for you and me. We need to ask ourselves: are we on fire for Christ? As we come to the end of lockdown, as we begin to open up, as things begin to change, new opportunities and restarting old opportunities are going to develop, but we need to be on fire for Christ. We need to be committed to making him known, knowing that God's desire is to bless us who are His people and draw us into a deeper relationship with Him.It is also to bless those who do not know Him yet, to draw them into a knowledge of who He is. All of us need to either re-learn or we need to learn for the first time who God is. I often need to tell myself, speak out loud, some of the truths about God and who God is; that God is my Father, that He is my Saviour, that He is my redeemer, that God has done all of these things for me. God's love is generous, kind and His love reaches out to us all today, looking for a response. If you are someone who has given your life to Christ, these verses apply specifically to you today: ask, seek, knock. As we do these things, we will find that our relationship with Christ deepens, we grow in our faith and we grow in our knowledge. If you are not someone who has ever asked Christ into your life, then I would like to encourage you to think about doing that, because God loves you and He wants to spend eternity with all of us. I hope you will try to seek God. If we seek Him, we will never, ever, be disappointed. Amen.
Sunday 28th March 2021
Reading: Matthew 21:1-11
Palm Sunday is a lovely day in the Christian year. When I was the Minister at Marston Green, we used to have a march on Palm Sunday, and although the, then, vicar of the Anglican church liked us to march in silence, the Baptists always turned up dressed in colourful things because we wanted to be like the crowd shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" You cannot help but like the whole story of Palm Sunday.
‘Hosanna’: some commentators say it literally means ‘save now’; there is an urgency amongst the people - “Save us now, Jesus.” Sadly though, for many of them, their urgency was in the wrong things; they were looking for a Messiah who was going to come and drive the Romans out and restore the kingdom of Israel to being a big military power, and sadly, that was never the Messiah that was going to come. Jesus came on an entirely different mission altogether.
But this week- this week that we are coming to now, Holy Week, as some people call it - the gloves are coming off with the Jewish authorities. The Pharisees had a very legalistic approach to religion, and what that did, and what that does if we become very legalistic, is to make us very critical. So, one of the things that they had been doing was criticising Jesus. They were very negative about him and about his claims. And now, Jesus was quite clearly coming to be the Messiah, to be the Saviour. They could not ignore him. As the crowds shouted, “Hosanna!” they knew they had to do something about it.
A literal translation of the text that some Bibles use, is the word ‘stirred’; or some talk about the city being in ‘turmoil’ or ‘stirred.’ Literally, you might translate those words as ‘shaken’ or ‘trembled.’ There was a great expectancy on Palm Sunday that something amazing - that something significant - was going to happen.
Jesus arrives and he arrives riding on a donkey. It was a good way to travel, and it was not uncommon in Jesus's day. If you arrived in a town in a time of peace, you would enter it as the king riding a donkey to show that you came in peace. And so, Jesus comes riding a donkey. He does that for a number of reasons. It is really important for Matthew to show that Jesus fulfils all the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. His case for Jesus being the Messiah is very much hinged on Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. The book of Zechariah in chapter 9 prophesies that Jesus the Messiah will come riding on a donkey, and so it is really important that Jesus fulfils that prophecy.
Just because the other Gospel writers do not mention some of the things that Matthew mentions, does not mean they did not believe them or did not know them; it just shows that the different writers had a different emphasis. Matthew's emphasis - or one of his emphases - is always on showing how Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy. But for those who were really schooled in the Old Testament, there would have been other connections as well.
Remember, in Genesis 22, when Abraham goes to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, he takes a donkey with him. People in Jesus' day would have connected the donkey with that story, and so it was a sign of obedience to God. The third thing that is worth noting is that Solomon rode to his coronation on a donkey that had once been David's. There are all these linking things: about how Jesus is fulfilling prophecy, how he has got symbolism of his obedience to God and how he is coming to take the throne of David by riding on a donkey. Solomon actually rode on a mule - but the same basic idea is there.
What a great story, and what a great week we have as we live through the events of Holy Week, this week. It is Jesus entering into Jerusalem in this way. Although he comes in humility and he comes in peace on a donkey, it is a sign of victory. He is not coming with great military power, with great armies, he is coming, just himself and his few disciples, in humility and peace. But how can he be entering the city in victory? Where is this victory? Surely it has not happened yet.
We need to get to the end of Holy Week to experience the victory, because at the end of the week, Jesus will go to the cross and it will look like it is all over. He will die and he will be dead, and he will be buried. But on Easter Sunday Jesus rises from the grave and defeats even death - he is victorious over death. Jesus, riding into Jerusalem in this way on a donkey, is claiming the victory before it has actually happened.
I like that idea, claiming the victory before it has happened, because that is what the Bible means when it says we should pray believing. Whatever we pray for, we need to pray believing that God knows all about it and that God will take care of it, whatever the outcome. It might not be an outcome that we would like, but God will look after it. The victory is ours even before we ask about the situation that we face. The cross is the ultimate sign of victory, even though when you look at it, it is easy to see it as a sign of defeat because Jesus died there. What a dreadful thing that was the Good Friday story of his crucifixion. But the Good News was that, ultimately, the cross was a sign of victory and that is why so many people today wear a cross as jewellery, because it is showing us it is a sign of victory.
I watched in one of the cathedrals where they were holding an event to commemorate a year since the first Covid lockdown this week. They had a garden and had made this garden in the shape of a cross. Why was it in the shape of a cross? Because the cross is a symbol of victory for us. When you wear a cross, I hope it is not to remind you that Jesus died, although it is a good thing to be reminded of his death, but to remind you that in the cross, death is defeated. That is why I always prefer a cross without a body on it, because it symbolises that Jesus is risen - he is alive.
Jesus is coming into Jerusalem as the victor, even though the victory has not already happened. We can live our lives victoriously as well, even though, perhaps, the victory we are looking for is still in the future. Living a victorious life is living and conquering the things of this world; it is power - power to persevere through hardship and trouble. We have certainly needed that power this year. So many people have died, so many people have struggled with isolation and mental health - how difficult it has been. And yet I believe that, in all those situations, God is with us and God is victorious.
It is because of Jesus we too can live a victorious life today. You and I can find power to persevere through hardship and trouble that we do not know we possess, because we actually do not possess it - it is power that God gives us to enable us or to equip us.
When we face those times, we can pray victoriously, and we can pray with confidence because Jesus promises he will give us the victory through them.
The victorious life deals with temptation. The victorious life is a daily choice to choose Christ in every action and to believe and to trust in him. Do you remember a little bit later on in this week, if you read the story of Jesus in the garden, Jesus prays and he says, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me.” Jesus felt the full weight of what was coming, and he felt the temptation to turn away from what God had for him, but God gave him the strength to see it through to the cross. You and I, every day, have choices to make and, every day, we either choose Christ, we choose the world, or we choose ourselves. In every action, I believe we should be believing and trusting in God and living our lives victoriously.
The passage that we read finishes with someone asking a question: “Who is he?” What a great question that is. I wonder, if someone asked you, “Who is he?” what would you say? Who is Jesus Christ? That is the question that so much hinges on in life and in death. For me, the answer is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, born into the world, born of a virgin, who lived a perfect life, who on Palm Sunday enters Jerusalem to die a cruel and horrible death. The end of the story is that on Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead, claiming the victory which was prophesied on Palm Sunday and then enabling that victory to be ours as well.
What a great story Palm Sunday is.
Sunday 4th April 2021
Reading: Luke 24:13-35
I thought about having a little contest. It is my sort of contest because I think I have a fair chance of winning. I just wonder what time you were up this morning. My time was twenty to six. Anyone wishing to better that? No? I thought I might win.
Let me tell you, at twenty to six, it was just getting light; it was frosty; the grass was white. It was actually a lovely morning as the sun came up. And I pictured to myself that sort of early morning, the sun coming up and the women going to the tomb.
Why were they going there so early? They wanted to do what they hadn’t been able to do for Jesus on the day that he died. They wanted to anoint his body. I suspect they wanted to do it before anybody else was up because they did not want to be noticed; they did not want to get into trouble. I am not quite sure what they thought they were going to do about the stone that was in the way, but sometimes, when you are working for God, you know there is a stone in the way and you know it is going to need something miraculous to roll it out of the way; but actually you just have to go forward with it anyway and trust that when you get to the point that the stone will need rolling away, that God will be there and will bless the work in such a way that it will happen.
So the women come at dawn. They find the stone rolled away and they find the grave is empty. What would you have done at this point if you had been them? I suspect I would have run away. I would have gone back into the house, hoped that my bed was still warm, got back under the duvet, pulled the duvet over my head and said, “Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.” The women were confused; they didn’t know what to think. Certainly, they didn’t jump to the idea and say, “Oh, he is risen!” No. They were scared, they were frightened.
So then they have an experience of meeting with an angel, who tells them that Jesus is risen. I like the fact that the women are quick to grasp the truth. Someone once said to me, about new things here at church, you can be a quick adopter or a slow adopter. The women are quick adopters. They hear this message; they realise it is the truth. It somehow speaks to their soul. And they return to the city to tell the other eleven disciples. If it was a quarter to six when they went, maybe it is half past six now. Let me tell you what happens in our house if you wake up Ian and Philip at half past six in the morning. It does not go down very well. No-one likes to be woken up in the morning too early. But the women were so excited about it, they couldn’t keep it to themselves, so they told the other eleven disciples.
Did you notice it says, “…and all the others”, in verse 9. So it is actually a much bigger group there than the eleven disciples. The women, themselves, aren’t they disciples? They certainly are, but they are not counted in the eleven. So they go back to this group, however big it is, and tell them, “The Lord is risen. We have seen it!”
What would you do now? I would suspect them of having spent too long in the pub the night before (if they weren’t in lockdown)and having had a drop too much of something. “He’s risen? You’ve got to be joking! We saw him die; we saw him buried. You can’t be asking us to believe that!” Different Gospels have slightly different versions. I don’t think they contradict each other, but some add more than others. Luke has Peter running to the grave to find out what is happening. He gets there and he’s bewildered by it. So some take that action. And some, like the two people that Anne read about, they head off to Emmaus.
I think they are going home because they are certainly not going to believe the women. We need to understand that in Jesus’ day, the testimony of a woman did not count at all. “Who could take any notice,” they would have said, “of what a woman tells you.“ They would have been in big trouble if they had been around today with such an attitude. But it is important for us to understand that the women’s testimony needed faith to be accepted because the natural response to it was, “It can’t be true because you are just women.” So to believe was an act of faith because it went against the cultural expectations of the day.
So these two people…please notice I am saying people, not men. We only get the name of one of them: one is certainly a man. Who the other one is, we don’t know. Most commentators want to say it was two men, but some commentators want to speculate that the second person was a woman. I am sorry to tell you this, but that is possibly why the second person is not named; because, throughout the Bible, you quite often get the names of men and you do not get the names of women. It is not fair, but that is just the way it is. So, quite possibly, the second person is a woman. What were they doing? They were going home. Who would want to stay in Jerusalem any longer?
Number one, they were disappointed in God. They thought that Jesus was going to be the Messiah. He was going to drive the Romans out. He was going to restore the kingdom. And now what had happened? Jesus was dead. He was gone. Have you ever been like that? Have you ever prayed for something for a long period of time? Have you got something you have been praying for, for a long period of time? And are you disappointed in God? Because God is not answering your prayers. God is not doing what you think God should do. Sometimes you have to be years further down the road before you can look back at that situation and realise that what God was doing was His plan and His purpose. We need to be accepting that and living it. But it is difficult. And it is easy to be disappointed with God.
All of us, throughout this pandemic, have prayed earnestly, and I daresay, passionately, for some of the people we have known and loved who have been ill with Covid, and several of them who we all know (some of them would have been here in church today) just did not get better. They died. We just have to realise that that was God’s plan. Somehow. That we don’t understand. But it is easy to become disappointed in God. And when we become disappointed in God, then our faith begins to take a big dip because we begin to say, “Well, if God is not doing this, if God is allowing this, what sort of God is it that we are worshipping?” So they were disappointed in God. So they were clearing off.
The second reason they are going is that they are fearful. It was bad enough, wasn’t it, when Jesus got crucified and died. But now we’ve got those crazy women telling us that he has risen from the dead. And we’ve got the Romans, who we suspect are on the hunt for all of us as well, looking for some other people to crucify. Nobody enjoyed crucifying people – they did it in such numbers, in such quantities – as the Romans. So these people are scared. What are they doing when they are scared? They are going to run away.
When I was young, we used to play football at the Pavilion in the evenings at the park. There were some other people who started coming around who had moved into the area. They wanted to play a game called Smash the Pavilion windows. My parents were very pleased because me and the friends I associated with just went home because we didn’t want to get involved with all that trouble. And this is what these people were doing. They were taking themselves out of the situation. So back they go to Emmaus, which is about seven or seven and a half miles outside of Jerusalem.
Amazing things happen on this journey. They are walking along and then suddenly this stranger comes and walks with them. Don’t ask me how they didn’t recognise Jesus because I really can’t explain that to you. I don’t know. Maybe their eyes were closed at that time. Maybe Jesus’ appearance was somehow different because he was resurrected. But suddenly Jesus comes and he walks along with them. He explains to them what the prophets have foretold and then, when he breaks bread, their eyes are opened and all of a sudden they can see it is Jesus.
You see, things have changed for them now because now they are not disappointed in God. Because their vision now is clearer. Now they can see what God is doing and they can see that all the way along, God’s plan was that Jesus should die on a cross. God’s plan was that Jesus should pay the price for everybody’s sins. And God’s plan was that, on the third day, Jesus should rise again. Their disappointment has turned to absolute amazement.
When I am visiting people who are dying, we have sometimes made a list of questions we intend to ask the Almighty when we get there. I don’t know whether you have got those sort of questions; I certainly have. Because there are things here and now that we do not understand. But these people have suddenly grasped the truth and that truth changes their lives. They are no longer fearful. Now they go straight back to Jerusalem to tell the others that they have seen Jesus; that he is risen from the dead.
Let me tell you how that goes. You have just walked seven and a half miles on a really hot day from Jerusalem to Emmaus. You get home. You pick up this stranger on the way. You invite him in for tea and he breaks bread with you and then you realise it’s Jesus. And then, what you do? You get straight back on your feet and you walk the seven and a half miles back to Jerusalem in order to tell the others about it. I would have said, “It can wait till tomorrow. I’ll go in the morning. Fifteen miles in one day? And then I’m going to have to walk back again at some point, aren’t I.” So it’s a whole lot of walking.
I think what happens to them is they become generous people. They become brave people and they head off back to Jerusalem to tell the others that they have seen Jesus.
There is a difference in these people from meeting the resurrected Jesus. There is a resurrected life. And that is what changes about them. And that is what should change about us on Easter Sunday. We too, should have a resurrected life. We should not be fearful about things in the way that, perhaps, it is so easy to be fearful about them. A little while ago, I was talking to someone about us re-opening the church and doing things, and this person said to me, “Well, David, if you open up and do things in the church, people will say you are mad; and if you don’t open up and don’t do things in the church, they will just say you are scared.” So I decided you can’t win either way. But actually, the truth is, that in the light of the resurrection, we should be brave. We should be braver in telling other people about Jesus. We should be braver in mission.
The resurrected life affects how we see others. These people – whether they were two men or a man and a woman, it is all speculation - but for these people, all of a sudden, their view of those women who came and told them Jesus is risen, has changed.
Now they value their testimony. Now they accept it whereas, before, they were rejecting it. The resurrected life makes us value others. It makes us value the contribution that others can make. That is certainly true in a church, isn’t it? When we think about being the body of Christ, we all have a part to play.
I think they have become generous. They have become generous with their time, walking back, generous with their effort, walking back. If you are generous with your time and effort, you generally become generous in everything in your life. If we are mean, it is not just about our money, it is about everything about us. The resurrected life makes us generous. It can’t help but make us generous because Jesus Christ who is the giver of a resurrected life, is generosity himself. Look at the generosity of his love, that he would go to the cross and die for us. Jesus said about himself, he had come that we might have life and life in all its fullness.
I wonder what that means for you and me this Easter Sunday. I think it means that we should be living life without fear. I think it should mean we are living life that is set free to love others and we should be living life that is generous in every way to other people.
I love the way Laura started her story earlier. Laura said, “It’s so nice to be live again.” It made me wonder whether something had happened to her. Had she been dead? We all knew what she meant really. [It was the first live streaming of church since the third lockdown]. But Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, is an invitation to us all to live. To live fully. To live in relationship with God and to live for His glory.
Sunday 11th April 2021
Reading: Luke Chapter 7:1-10
I have already said to a few of you this morning, “How are you?” And, of course, I knew what you were going to say back, even before I asked you; you were going to say, “Oh, I’m very well, thank you,” because that is the way it goes. The irony of that really came to sit heavily on me because there was a point, just over two years ago, when I knew that I had a serious health issue that, at that point, was just known within the family. People were coming up to me and saying to me, “How are you, David?” and I was saying, “Oh, I’m very well thank you.” The truth was, of course, that actually I was very unwell, thank you very much, but I just kept it to myself. I think we all do that all the time.
If we do it about our health, we do it even more about our faith. I wonder what you would say if I came up to you and, instead of saying, “How are you today?” and you could just glibly reply, “I’m very well, thank you”; if I came up to you and said, “How is your faith today?” I wonder what your answer would be. You would probably think, “Please don’t come and talk to me again, David, asking me questions like that, which are difficult to answer.” But all of us ought to have some understanding about how our faith is because it should be such a crucial part of our life. Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at the whole theme of faith. We will be looking at some of the stories in Luke’s Gospel and people Jesus met and trying to explore about faith with them.
So perhaps it would be helpful to know, what actually is faith? If someone comes up to you and says, “How is your faith?” what are you supposed to be assessing? The Book of Hebrews says that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. So you might say that faith is a measure of how much we believe God is going to answer our prayers. Perhaps faith is a measure of how much we believe that, should I die tomorrow, or should I die today, that I am going to go to Heaven to be with the Lord forever. It is that sort of thing: how much do I believe in these things?
If I am looking for a definition that might just come out of a dictionary, one I found which was very short, said that faith is to be persuaded that something is true. Have you ever thought, particularly if you are trying to share your faith with someone, share your testimony or tell someone something about Jesus, have you ever thought you would quite like the sky to change and you would like the clouds to suddenly make the words “I am alive!” says Jesus” or something to happen that just takes away any problem of believing? Faith is not like that. God calls us to be people of faith; he calls us to live by faith and not by sight.
So we get to the Centurion that Rosemary read about. He was obviously a man of great faith. Indeed, Jesus said, “I have not found faith like this in all of Israel.” Quite a condemning statement for the Jews who were there listening to him, because he is praising this Centurion, this man who is a soldier, a part of the occupying and oppressing force within Israel at the time. But there is something about this man. Jesus says it is quite remarkable, quite amazing, that this man would have that sort of faith. This comment came because the
man said to others, “Tell Jesus not even to come to my house because I am not worthy to have him in my house. If you just say the word, I know that my servant will be healed.”
So where does faith come from? I think it comes from several sources. The first, I think, is the result of teaching. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing - and hearing the Word of God. So for that to happen you might think that what I have got to do is stand up here each week and expound and tell some great biblical truth, but actually that is not true at all. What the Bible says is, just by hearing God's Word, faith will grow within us. There is something about the Bible that is alive. If we hear it, if we read it - certainly if we read it out loud on occasion - that is actually teaching us.
I grew up in a church that used to sometimes call the Bible reading the Lesson of the Day. That went right out of fashion but some of you, perhaps, are familiar with that language and you may have heard it yourself. The idea was, of course, that just by the very action of reading the Bible, it was a lesson to us; just the very action. So how had this Centurion come to faith? I suggest he had been reading the Bible that the people had at that time, and in reading the Bible that the people had, somehow God had spoken to him and he had come to believe it was true.
The second thing, I think, is that faith is the result of experience. Just as an aside, Centurions feature very well in the New Testament. A number of them are mentioned and they are all mentioned in a positive way. So the other way that faith grows is as the result of experience. The Centurion at the cross says, “Surely this man is the Son of God.” So you and I, perhaps, have experiences in our lives that have touched our lives too, in such a way that it has caused our faith to grow.
I was in the church on Friday, talking to some people. Terry was here and Terry described me to these people as a real answer to prayer because of what I went through a couple of years ago. That is how that was and that is really true - but that experience of being with someone in that time can encourage our own faith and grow our faith, in fact, for ourselves. I think it sometimes does one of two things with people when they are ill: either our faith is destroyed and wiped out or our faith becomes stronger because faith is grown by experience.
You see, I think the sheer act of coming to church is an experience that grows faith.
The third thing I want to say, is that faith is a gift from God. Now, there is a big debate about that from Ephesians 2 about quite what it means, faith is a gift from God. I think it is a gift from God but I think what the Bible implies in Ephesians 2 is that this gift from God comes as a result of the other things. It is, if you like, as we read the Bible, as we experience more of God, then God uses those things in a miraculous way to grow faith in us. Faith does not just come out of the air to us, it comes as a result of hearing the Word, of having some life experience and looking to God's blessing. I think those three things would all have been there in the Centurion's life, and if you are a person of faith, I think you can probably identify those things in your own life. I certainly can. If you are watching this and you are not a person of faith and you would like to be a person of faith; or if you are a person of little faith and want to be a person of more faith, then those are the keys in order to grow that faith.
You see faith is ultimately (this is another definition of it), resting on what the Lord says. Our faith has to be in God's Word; our faith has to be in God's promises.
Some of you will know I am not a great evolutionist. That is because I am more of a creationist than an evolutionist, because I believe that everything that is, is created by God. One of the things that always interests me about evolution is, it seems to me, that things evolve to be ever more complex. So, apparently, life started as a single cell amoeba and then progressed through various evolutions, mutations, or whatever you want to call it, until eventually you get something that is as complex as you and me. It seems to me, with evolution things get ever more complex; and I worry that, actually, we do that with faith.
I went to theological college for some years. I managed to stay in the middle of the group; you know, didn't try to draw too much attention to myself. I was saying to someone earlier, that was how I went through school: just try and be in the middle. But I did win two prizes. I have told you before, I was undefeated on the table tennis table and somebody gave me the prize for the person most likely to be excommunicated! I won’t tell you why that was. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at theological college, but the more you looked into things the more complicated it became and the more difficult it became to understand it.
I have to tell you, in subsequent years (the people who were the lecturers there, they'll be very sad about me) in subsequent years, I realised that yes, there is all that stuff and that is interesting to think about and discuss, but actually, my faith is a very simple faith. It is a faith in a person who lived two thousand years ago; who was conceived in a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit; who lived a perfect life; who died on a cross and on the third day rose again and is alive today; and that through the power of the Holy Spirit I can know him in my life. That is a very simple message, and it is the message that we need to hold on to because our faith needs to be based on that message: that that is who Jesus Christ is, and that he will keep, and has kept in my life, and he will in your life, all the promises of the Bible.
Let me give you a slightly different idea about faith. Some years ago I bought an apple tree. I planted it in this corner, basically because I had a space there. I had a job to plant it because somebody (I blame my dad or my granddad or someone) had obviously dumped a load of rubble there in the past, so I had difficulty digging this hole. But I did dig it and I planted this tree and I put it in and there it sat. It lived; oh yes, it was alive, there was life, but it didn't grow, and as for apples, well you can just forget it. And I kept thinking every year, “Oh well, next year it will get going; next year it will get going”; and it was like that for a long time. Then I decided, one day, that I might just as well dig the thing up and throw it away because it was never going to do any good. So I dug it up and then someone said to me, “Why not plant it somewhere else.” So I planted it somewhere else and this time I planted it in a really nice piece of soil and there was no rubble. So I planted it. I decided that, actually, if I was going to do this, what I would do, I would dig a bigger hole and I would get a good barrel load of well-rotted manure. I put that in the bottom of the hole and I mixed it in and I put the tree in and put it down and I staked it. Almost immediately the tree just changed - overnight! The tree suddenly went “Oh, yippee!” and it just leapt away. If you were to come to our house (and later in the year I hope that might be possible) then I will show you the tree because it will be there and it will have a good number of apples on it. It looks really well.
You see faith is like that. Maybe our faith is just barely alive because we are not feeding it, we're not growing it. I think the Jewish leaders who Jesus met, that was their sort of faith. It
was a faith that was barely alive. It certainly did not grow and it certainly did not bear fruit. But if we take our faith, however little and weak it might be today, and if we feed it, then it will grow, if we do the right things, and ultimately, it will bear fruit. You see the Bible says that the fruit of faith (this is the David Barber translation of Galatians; the Bible says it is the fruit of the Spirit, but actually it is the fruit of faith) is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. If you don't want those things in your life, if you don't want more of those things in your life, then I don't know what is wrong with you, because all of us want more of those things in our life.
So Jesus said this Centurion had an amazing faith. Why? Because he believed in Jesus and he trusted him to the extent that he was prepared to say, “You, Jesus, you don't even need to come to my house; just say the word and I know that this servant will be healed.”
God uses people like that Centurion. Jesus Christ held him up to the Jewish leaders and what he was saying to the Jewish leaders when he said, “I haven't found faith like this in Israel,” he was saying to them, “Look at yourselves, people. Look at your faith. Your faith is so weak and this person's faith is just so amazing. You could have faith like that as well if you want to.”
The faith that amazes Jesus is a faith that acts out in life what we believe in our heart; and a faith that puts our trust in him, Jesus. When he looks at you and me, I wonder what he is looking for. I don't know what we are looking for. I am looking for a haircut – and on Wednesday I am going to have a haircut. What are we looking for? We are looking for all sorts of things. What is God looking for? Well, God is not primarily looking for us to be good, although that is part of the deal. God is looking for us to be people who have faith; people that take God at His Word and live our lives in the light of that. When we do that, then God will look at us and say, “What amazing faith they have!”
Sunday 18th April 2021
Reading: Luke 7:36-50
My grandfather always said it was a shame. His sister had a sweetheart, and he was killed in World War I. She never ever found anyone else. She still had his picture up 70 years later when she was a very old lady, before she died. It was a shame. In the church in which I grew up, there was a lady called Mrs Hunt. She was an old lady when I was a child. |Her husband was killed in World War I and her son was killed in World War II, which left her entirely on her own; no family at all. It was a shame. It should not have happened.
Life is full of things which should not have happened. There are some things which are so shameful they are absolutely beyond description. Things like the slave trade should not have happened. Things like abuse of children or women, or anyone, it just should not happen. People who are homeless and hungry in this country, it is a shame. It is a shame on us and on our culture and on our society - it should not have happened.
In 2000, I had the opportunity to go to Brazil with an American organization and we stayed in a hotel in Brasilia. In the evening, coming back to the hotel, the two people worked with from the church would always take me back to the hotel. It was too dangerous for them to walk back from the hotel to their car on their own so two people always took me back. They walked to the hotel and saw me into the hotel which had armed security guards on its door. We were not allowed out after dark because it was too dangerous.
While I was there, I got talking to a young woman who was working outside the hotel as a prostitute. She would have been in her mid-teens and through an interpreter I managed to get to understand that she was prostituting herself in order to get enough money to pay for her mother's medicine which she could not otherwise get. So this young woman was prostituting herself in order to get money to keep her mother alive. I will remember that girl and I will remember that conversation for the rest of my life because it was shameful. That sort of situation should not happen, but it did. I am not condoning what she was doing or how she was doing what she was doing, at all, but life is not always simple.
I do not know what had happened to the woman in the story in our reading. I do not know what had happened to her in her past; what had taken her to the point that she was now at, where she was a prostitute. She was in a desperate state because she, obviously, was not very happy about her life. But, somehow, she had got into a situation that she could not do anything else about. That is how I would want to understand it anyway. She had ended up in a very bad place. It was a shame. Her life up to that point should have been different; it could have been different; and God's people of that day should have been working to make it different, like we should be working in our society today to make it different: to make it better, to make it fairer, so we do not look at situations to say, “It is a shame,” if we can possibly do something about it. She had ended up in a bad place. It was a shame.
Simon, on the other hand, the man who invited Jesus into his house (we will come back to how he invited him in a bit):I want to suggest to you that Simon's mother said to her friends down at the WI (I do not think they really had a W.I. at that time, but you understand what I mean); she said to her friends down at the W.I., “Oh, our Simon is so successful, you know,
he has done really well. Just bought that big house down Posh Lane somewhere; it has got four bedrooms; he is married and got two kids; he is a pillar of society; he does all sorts of things.” Yet, I would suggest to you that he had ended up in a bad place too. It was a different road to a bad place to the woman's, but it was equally a bad place. Why? Because he was obsessed with how things looked. He had to look good.
When I had not been at this church very long, some people from the church came out to our house, which was great. It was lovely to see them, and those who know me know I have a little farm. So I was outside messing about, wearing my wellington boots, and I said, “Come on in!” Those were the days, weren't they, when you could invite people into your house! I said, “Come on in, we will have a drink.” So I invited them in, and one lady commented on the fact that she noticed I was wearing odd socks. There had once been two pairs of socks, but one had got holes in and the other had got holes in, so now I am wearing odd socks that have not got holes in. You would not have seen had I not taken my wellingtons off. I was not so worried about it, because if that is the worst thing anyone says about me, “He has been known to wear odd socks,” that will do very nicely.
Simon the Pharisee would never have worn odd socks. He was very concerned about how things looked. He had to look good, and he had to do the right thing. Not because he wanted to do the right thing, but because he wanted other people to see him do the right thing. He was in a bad place as well.
The Bible says that all of us have sinned and all of us fall short of the glory of God. I suspect that our roads are not as drastic as the woman in the story, neither were they as drastic as the man in the story. We are all somewhere in the middle, but life and human nature and how we are here takes all of us in the direction of a bad place; and all of us end up there unless we know Jesus, and Jesus helps us to change our lives.
A long time ago when we were doing some work on the building, we put up a sign outside which said: God, the Builder. That was a marvellous sign as that banner got more attention, I think, than probably anything else we have ever hung up outside. That was easy and good to do, but God is not in the business of building buildings. Yes, they are part of it, but God is in the business of building people. I think that all of us have the best chance of being the very best person that we can be, if we live our lives in relationship to God. God has a plan for all our lives and that plan is pleasing and it is perfect. When the Bible says it is pleasing it means it is good for us and it when it says it is perfect it means because God knows what is best for us.
Jesus loves us, and he loves both the people in our story; and he loves them both equally. Not because they are good or because they are bad; he loves them because it is his very nature to love them. His love is going to be shown later on in the Gospel: his love is going to be shown when he goes to a cross, dies for them and pays the price for their sins and our sins. If today you are feeling that nobody loves you, take some hope and some comfort, because God loves you.
This story, if you think about it, is quite a contrast because when you read it in the first place you would think that Jesus is going to say to this woman, “Go away, I do not want to consort with people like you.” I told someone before the service that somebody told me some years ago that what was wrong with me was that I was bringing disreputable people onto church
property. It was not here; it was in a previous church - so no-one thinks any the people in this church are disreputable! I took it as a great compliment. I have often thought I would like it on my gravestone: “Brought disreputable people to the church,” because surely that is what the church is about.
In this story, it is easy to think that the man is the person who is acceptable, and the woman is the person is unacceptable, but that is just not the way it is at all. This passage compares these two people, and it shows what they both need. The woman knew she was in a bad place: something had happened to her and she was like the prodigal son who had wandered off; all of a sudden, somehow, she had realised that “My life is in a mess but there is hope for me and that hope is in Jesus Christ.” She had heard Jesus teach and, in those days, parties were public events, so Jesus would have been laid down at this table, his head at the table and his feet sticking out behind him and she somehow sneaked in. What a brave thing to do because she would know that when she put her head in the door people were going to have thought she would not dare show her face here - and yet she does. She was prepared to humble herself even though she would get black looks.
Humility is something that is very hard. I like reading about people in the past and not necessarily the very distant past: Christian leaders, missionaries, all sorts of people. I was reading about the life of a guy called Harry Ironside. Some of you may have heard of him or have some of his books. He was a well-known preacher in the States, and he wrote a lot of books in the middle of the last century. He told a friend of his one day that he felt he was struggling with humility, so his friend in the church suggested to him that if he wanted to be more humble, he should get a sandwich board and he should put on this sandwich board, “Jesus Saves”, and when he got it on he should walk up and down some well-populated shopping area wearing the sandwich board that said Jesus Saves. He thought it was a good thing to do, so he did it. After he had done it, he recorded in his book that he said to himself, “Nobody else would be humble enough to do that” and then he realized that perhaps he quite missed the point. Humility is such a hard thing for us to grasp because humility and faith go so much together. To go anywhere with faith, we have to be able to say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We have to be able to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord”, and we have to be able to dedicate our lives to serving God.
Simon's faith, on the other hand, was very formal. He always did the right thing, and he always did the expected thing. You could not criticize him at all; except, did you see how he invited Jesus, but he did not give him anything with which to wash his feet, let alone wash them for him? He did not invite him in for a cup of tea and a biscuit. He did not show him any hospitality. He did not greet him with a kiss, which would have been the norm of the day. Wait till we get back to that, when we can give each other a hug again, that would be great. But he showed Jesus no courtesy. And notice how he was with the woman. When the woman comes in, he is very quick to say, “We should not have her here. If he knew anything about anything he would not be consorting with people like that.” He had no humility at all. He was full of self – full of self-righteousness, self-justification. The woman was coming to Christ.
What do we learn about faith from this passage? I think we learn that we find faith in unexpected places. That has certainly been my story. In myself or in my life as a minister of churches, that has certainly been my story: that the most unexpected people are the people in whom you find the greatest faith.
Faith is not dependent on our background or economic success; faith is dependent on how we respond to Jesus. Simon was a monument: he stood for loads of things; but the woman belonged to a movement because she was going to move forward with Christ. I want to belong to a movement. There are things about the Gospel which will not change, they will always be true, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ - the Good News of who Jesus is and what he has done for us - that Good News is able to move our lives along. It is able to make us different people. It is able to give us new opportunities. It is able to forgive our sins. It is able to give us eternal life.
Jesus ends this story with an absolutely revolutionary claim. He says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” That is good. I would have liked my teachers at school to say that “Your sins are forgiven.” I would have liked, when I went to see them, for them not to have started the conversation by saying, “Barber, this is the third time this term I have had to talk to you.” I would have rather they had just drawn a line and said, “No, no, no, we are not going back into the past,” because that is how God is with me. God forgives my sins, and He says, “Today you can start again, you can begin a new life.” Yes, you are not going to be perfect, but God says, “I am going to walk with you as your life changes and I am going to take you to somewhere better.”
I hope, in a few years’ time when people met this woman, they did not say, “It is a shame.” I hope they said, “It is wonderful! It is a miracle! Just look at this lady! Just look at what Jesus Christ has done in her life!” What Jesus Christ has done in her life, he will do in our lives as well, if we will walk with him and if we will let him.
Sunday 25th April 2021
Reading: Luke 8:26-39
What a strange passage that is in the Bible, if you think about it. In fact, in some ways, I think it is one of the strangest passages there are. Just think about some of the components: There is Jesus in a foreign country, there is a Jew in a foreign country, there is demonic possession, there are some pigs. When you put it all together, you are thinking what a strange story it is.
It deals with some strange things but to begin with, let us think about the man. The man had hit rock bottom somehow (we will come back to that in a little bit). The Bible says that he was out of his mind, he was friendless, he was homeless, he was naked, he was self-harming. What got him here? The Bible does not tell us, we just pick up the story with this very sad person in that situation. The problem with the story and understanding the story is difficult because it brings up the problem of demonic possession or demonic activity and mental illness. If you read Bible commentaries on this passage, and I have got several, they give you some widely different ideas. One commentator I read said, “The guy, in our terminology, was obviously mentally ill but in those days, of course, any sort of mental illness was seen as demon possession.” Is that true?
There are people today who think that. On the other hand, there are people today who do not want to believe at all in demonic activity and in the devil. Indeed, there are some Christian type groups that even doubt the existence of the devil at all. So there is a problem understanding mental illness and the demonic, how they fit together and how they work together. If I am brutally honest with you, there are no easy answers. Like some other things in faith, we have to live in a state of tension with them. But what I would like to say about it is that not all mental illness is demonic, it is mental illness. It is an illness. Someone told me earlier, they have got a bad leg. Instead of having a bad leg you can have a bad mind. It is an illness, and we should understand it like that. The church and certain branches of the church who want to blame everything that is to do with any mental illness on to the demonic really should be ashamed of some of the things they say.
I do want to say that not all demonic activity is mental illness; there are lots of ways in which we come under attack from the devil and there is a spiritual battle. The Bible says we fight not against flesh and blood but against the powers of this dark world. The two things are very closely linked and so people get hung up about the devil and demons in all sorts of ways. Somebody very kindly told me, when I was diagnosed with cancer, that that was because I was a sinner. I did not dispute with them that I was a sinner - those of you that know me well know that that is very true, but I would dispute with them that it had any bearing on the fact that I had got a serious illness. I had a serious illness because the world in which we live in is fallen. Because of sin we all die; and because of sin, disease and illness comes into the world. I was thankful for the fact that I had a strong enough faith and a strong enough theology to be able to say to that person, “I just disagree with you entirely.” The problem, if you have that sort of view - and this happened here - somebody here did tell me some years ago now that the reason there were so many people in this church who were ill was because there was so much sin in their lives. Shortly afterwards this person was seriously ill themselves - so what do you say then? Let me tell you, sooner or later illness is coming to us all of one sort or another. It is coming to people we love and people we care
about, it is not somehow the work of the devil. Some people want to talk about demons of this or demons of that. I obviously have the demon of blubber, you know, the demon of fat, that is why I am overweight. Perhaps some of you have the demon of thinness. Perhaps some of you have the demon of greed or you have the demon of this or the demon of that. Let me tell you most of those things have got nothing to do with the demonic at all. Why am I fat? Because I eat too much chocolate! Why are you thin? Because you do not eat enough chocolate! Why are we like we are? Because we have a sinful nature, and we give in to the devil's temptation. I can hear that chocolate at night shouting to me: “Eat me! Eat me!” It is temptation that the devil brings about our lives and when people want to blame all these things on some demonic thing, what they are doing is saying, “It is not my fault.” I might want to say I am a sinful person because of the demonic influence on my life - that is not true. I am a sinful person in need of Christ's forgiveness because I have a sinful nature. When the devil tempts me, I cannot always fight against it because I am weak.
I think the way to have demonic problems is to give in to temptation. The more we choose the wrong road and the more we make wrong choices, the further into those things we become and the more we allow the devil to have a hold over our lives.
Let me give you a little example: take swearing. I was brought up that you did not swear in my parents’ house. My mother, I think, would have got the carbolic soap and washed our mouths out with it if we had sworn in her earshot, as there was always a big thing about swearing. I realised as I got older and mixed in other company that did swear, that actually yes, if you do swear once, then it is easier to swear again and so it is easier to get more and more into bad language. Take the whole business of anger. If we allow our anger to be tempted to respond inappropriately at something and act in some way in our anger, next time it will be easier to act in that way. The more we give into temptation, the more we allow the devil to get a hold of our lives. The more we are greedy, the greedier we will become. The more we are self-centred, the more self-centred we will become. When the Bible says we fight not against flesh and blood, it is talking about these sorts of things. We are fighting against the devil, who wants to corrupt our lives in such a way that our lives do not bring glory to God; and ultimately, if we go down those roads, then our lives will be destroyed.
I do some funerals occasionally for social services, and some of them are extremely sad situations. Quite a number are people who have died from drugs or alcohol abuse, often at quite a young age, certainly younger than I am now, and they are desperately sad. What is also desperately sad is some of these people have families who you discover because the council do a really good job of tracing people and really put some effort into it; but even when they trace some of these people, these people do not want to know. So if you like, giving in to these temptations, has robbed people of their jobs; it has robbed people of their homes; it has robbed people of their families; and finally, it has robbed people of their life. Why? Because they gave in to temptation and, in some way, they could not find the strength to fight against it.
The Bible, per se, does not differentiate between mental illness and the demonic, but I believe they are both there and they are both things that we need to be aware of. However, I do just want to say if you have a mental illness, do not think you have some demonic thing happening in your life. Just to point out, Charles Spurgeon (as a good Baptist, of course you have to know about Spurgeon!) Spurgeon was a preacher in London in the 1800s, probably, I would hesitate to say, he was one of the last great popular preachers that this country has seen. Enormous crowds of people went to his church and he had a phenomenal ministry.
Throughout his life he struggled with depression; throughout his life he struggled with mental illness. Was he demonically possessed in some way? Some people would say yes, he was, but I have to tell you, I think they are wrong. This man was mentally ill; he had a problem and he had to fight against it with God's strength. It was an illness.
Let us come back to this passage. What can we learn from ourselves about this passage? It shows that Jesus Christ has authority over the devil. So if you are being tempted in some way, then it says that Jesus Christ has the power to help us overcome that temptation. The Bible says that he that is within us, that is the Holy Spirit, is greater than he that is within the world. So we start off from a winning position. Look at it another way: I think having Jesus Christ in your life is the vaccine against becoming demonic, against becoming the sort of state that this man was in. This man had made some unwise decisions somehow. He let his life go to such an extent that he had collected these demons. Interestingly, it is called legion. A legion was 500 men, I think, in the Roman army, so you get an idea there of how bad he was. He was probably a Jew living in a foreign country with the pigs. How low can you go? There is absolutely no hope for him. The only hope comes for him in meeting Jesus Christ and the only hope comes for us in meeting Jesus Christ. That meeting transforms his life.
Does that mean then, if I want to meet with Jesus, I need to become homeless and into self-harming? I need to take off all my clothes? No, not at all. What it is saying is that whatever, wherever, we are in life, it is possible for us to meet Jesus, and it is possible for Jesus to transform our lives. Jesus meets with us no matter what our problems, what our difficulties. He meets with us and he empowers our lives to be victorious. He empowers us to overcome the wiles of the devil. He comes to set us free from things that oppress us. Jesus Christ, then and now, has the power to change lives. In Jesus' day when he walked this earth, he could only be in one place at one time, but the good news for us today is that, wherever we are - here in this church, our home, this week at work - wherever we are, we can meet Jesus today through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in meeting him we can find power and strength to live our lives for him.
This man was a Jew. He came from the Jewish community. He was a person of faith to start out with because he was born into it; he was born into God's people whereas we have to make a decision. If you want to be a Christian, you have to decide to be a Christian. You have to ask Jesus Christ to be in your life. But for this man, as a Jew he was born into the community of faith. It was his birth right; it was old covenant, not new covenant. Here he is. He has become completely lost along the way, and so, what is the thing that Jesus does to him? Above everything else, Jesus restores his faith because yes, he overcomes his problems, he is back in his right mind and he wants to go with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus says, “No, don't do that. Go back to your house and tell the people what God has done for you.” This man's faith: he had it at the start and he lost it along the road, but, somehow, he found it again through meeting with Jesus at this point. I do not know where you are on the road to faith. Perhaps you are someone who has never had faith and needs to find it. Perhaps you are someone who has had faith and lost it or perhaps you are someone who has faith and is struggling with life. Whatever our situation, meeting with Jesus Christ gives us strength to go forward to live our lives differently, to live them better, to live them for the glory of God.