Sunday, 16 October 2016

The pit and the Presence

(To listen to an audio version of this talk, click the arrow above)

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is one of great stories of the Bible
It is in most of the children’s bibles!
But it is more than a great story

It is one of the key stories in Israel’s memory

Genesis 12.1-11, which you looked at last week, was critical to how the people of God understood their call to be the people of God.
But the event we read about today shaped their understanding of what it means to live as the people of God.

So let’s look at the story.

Abrahams’ descendants have been living in Egypt as a slave people. But God has rescued them and now they are leaving Egypt. The ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh, has let them go. But he has changed his mind – a sort of post-Brexit panic when he realises that if he lets the migrants go, nobody will be left to do the dirty work. So he sends his army after them.

And now we come to the odd bit. Because God, in 14.2 commands Moses to turn the people around and rather than walk away to freedom to walk towards the sea.  
Nobody really knows exactly where this sea is. What our bibles translate as Red Sea should be more accurately translated as Sea of Reeds, and because the water level is very different to what it was 3000 years ago, it is possible that this sea is no longer there.
Anyway, Pharaoh follows them with his army, and the people of Israel are trapped. The sea is here – Pharaoh’s army is here – and they are the filling in the sandwich.

The people panic. I guess that is not surprising. They cry out to God in fear.
And then they turn on their leader. It is very predictable.
But Moses answers them:
-          Don’t be afraid
-          Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance of God. And he repeats the word ‘see’. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again.
-          Be still and let God fight for you.

On the surface he was calm. But inside he must have been screaming. Because, although we are not told that he cried out to God, in v15 God says to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me?’ The early commentators make much of this, saying that God hears the cries of our hearts even when they are unspoken.

And then God tells Moses to do something that is even more crazy than leading the Israelites to the edge of the sea. He tells him to order them to walk into the sea. It is suicide.

But the people have nothing to lose. The pillar of cloud that has been leading the people now goes behind the people. It separates them from the Egyptians. Moses raises his staff; overnight a wind blows and the sea separates with a wall of water on either side

The people go into the sea. They cross over on dry land. The Egyptians follow. Their chariots get clogged up in the mud. They panic. Moses again stretches his hand out over the water, and it closes in over the Egyptians.

What is going on here?

1.      God delivers us not by taking away the thing that we fear, but by changing us so that we learn to fear him more.

It is God who makes the situation far worse before it gets better.
God takes his people down into the sea before he brings them deliverance.

God could have simply wiped out the Egyptian army. In 2 Chr 20.17, we are told that Jahaziel uses the same words that Moses spoke to the Israelites, when he says to Jehoshaphat when the Moabites and Ammonites threaten to overwhelm the people of Israel, ‘stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you’. And the Ammonites turn on the Moabites and the Moabites turn on the Ammonites and they wipe each other out. And when Jehoshaphat comes out to meet them in battle he discovers nothing but dead men. God could have done that here.

But God did not wish simply to deliver his people from the Egyptians.
He wanted to change them.
He wanted them to understand that he is bigger than all their fears.

And we are told at the end ‘So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses’ (Ex 14.31).

At the beginning of this story they fear the Egyptians. At the end of the story they know that there is one who is far bigger than the Egyptians or any army, for that matter. And they believe in him.

I don’t know what you fear. I foolishly asked that question in St James when it was there and was told by the year 7 boys that they were frightened of nothing. But assuming you are not year 7 St James boys, I suspect that there are a few things that you do fear. Violence, pain, violence, growing older, being shamed or humiliated, abandonment, death – whether of those we love or of ourselves

What the story of the Red Sea tells us is that God will not necessarily protect us from going through those things.
He may at times take us into those very things that we fear.
But he will work in us and change us so that we come to fear him even more – and when we fear him first, and we believe him, then those other things begin to lose their terror.

2.      God walks with us when we go through the pit

When the people of Israel went down into the water, the pillar of cloud went with them. That pillar represents the presence of God.

You see the God we believe in is the God who comes and stands with us in the pit.
He stood with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace
He was the God who was with Daniel in the den of lions.
And he is the God who became one of us, who lived among us, who experienced the fears that we face, who was subject to violence and pain, who was shamed and humiliated, abandoned and who did go into the pit of death.

I’ve spoken before of Michael facing one of the illnesses that we probably dread. He is paralysed now up to the neck. And he was telling me of the God who is with him and who does 24/7
I have an irrational fear not of death, but of being in the box. And then realising that when I am there, he has been there and he will be there.

Some of you are going through deep pits at the moment. He has taken you down into the sea. The walls are on either side. You are being driven by fear. But I hope this story is an encouragement. Because he stands in between you and the thing that you fear. He is with you.

3.      God uses what brings life to one to bring death to the other

One of the fascinating things about this story is that it teaches that the thing that can bring light to one, brings darkness to the other. The cloud brought light to the Israelites but darkness to the Egyptians.
And the thing that can bring salvation to one brings destruction to the other. The water saved the Israelites but brought destruction to the Egyptians.

It is the reason, Jesus says, why he speaks in parables. Some will hear the stories and understand; others will only hear the stories. They will be life to one, and death to the other.
Paul in 2 Cor 2.15 teaches that the preachers of the gospel to some are the aroma of life, and to others are the stench of death. It is the same gospel – but some will hear the message of how Jesus in his love died for our sins, for our forgiveness in order to bring us into eternal friendship with God, and they will hate it. And others will hear the message and receive it with joy.
And the New Testament teaches that some will look at the cross of Jesus and they will mock. [Early Roman graffito: ‘Alexamenos worships his god’] And others will look at the cross and they will worship.

What I note here, and it is a mystery and a warning to us, is that God saves his people by making their enemies hate them.

It is what God does. In v8 God hardens the heart of Pharoah. In v17 God says, and literally the passage says this, ‘and look, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians’.
God takes the arrogance of a people who assume that they are the master race and that the Israelites are a slave race fit only to serve them, and he takes their desire for their own material comfort – and he allows that sin to grow so that it becomes a blind hatred and desire for revenge. If the Egyptians had shown any compassion for the fleeing Israelites, then they would have not entered the sea and they would not have been destroyed.

It is a pattern we see repeated. It is the person who abuses another, and then begins to blame his or her victim for being the victim, and hates them for being the abused. They become colder and less likely to repent. God hardens their heart. The sin increases and on the day of judgement God’s justice will be shown to be absolutely fair.

There is a great mystery here – but we need to pray that God never hardens our heart. Can I ask you to think very carefully about who it is that you are sinning against, who do you think is there to serve you? And are you beginning to despise or hate them? We need to repent now, to ask God to give us compassion for them, before God hardens our heart.

And the prayer asking God to give us compassion is a prayer that he will always answer.

4.      God brings his people out of the pit

After the cross comes the resurrection.
The people come out of the sea; they see the judgement of God and the destruction of the Egyptians; they fear God, they believe him and they believe Moses (for the time being anyway!). And they praise God (Exodus 15.1-18)

The people of Israel look back to this event as the incident which shows them what it is like to live with God as their God.
And they have come to realise that the God of Abraham will not protect them from the sea, but he will walk with them through the sea. And he will use the sea to change them so that they trusted him more, to bring his right judgement, and to bring glory to his name.
As Ps 66.11-12 says, ‘You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place’.

And for us as people of the New Testament, this event shapes our understanding of what it means to for us to live with God as our God. The writers of the NT look at this incident as an example of God’s guidance for his people (Acts 7.36), an example of faith (Hebrews 11.29) and also as a model for baptism.

1 Cor 10.2 ‘They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’.

The cloud and the sea. The presence of God in the pit. And baptism, particularly when we think of baptism by immersion, is a very clear picture of what it means for us to live as believers. It is the template, the pattern for our everyday Christian life. We go with Jesus into the waters. We meet with him there, we die to ourselves and we come up as new people.



The crossing of the Red Sea spoken of by Joshua in his final speech to the Israelites, when he calls them to serve God faithfully (Joshua 24.6-7)
The Psalmists speak of the event in 7 different Psalms (Ps 66.6; Ps 74.13; Ps 77.19; Ps 78.13; Ps 106.6-12; Ps 114.5; Ps 136.13-15)
David in a song praising God for the way that he rescues his people, declares: ‘Then the channels of the sea were seen, the foundations of the world were laid bare’ (2 Sam 22.16)
The book of Isaiah speaks 7 times of the events of Exodus 14 (Is 10.26; Is 11.15; Is 43.16-19; Is 44.27; Is 50.2; Is 51.10; Is 63.11-13)
The prophet Nahum speaks of how God ‘rebukes the sea and dries it up’. (Nahum 1.4)
And the prophet Ezekiel declares that the future destruction of Egypt will be like its past destruction (Ezekiel 32.15)
And, after the people have returned from exile and Ezra prays in their presence, he addresses God as the one who ‘divided the sea before them …’ and who ‘led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go.’ (Neh 9.11-12)
References in the Psalms
Ps 66.6 He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot
Ps 74.13  It was you who split open the sea by your power
Ps 77.19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen
Ps 78.13 ‘He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand up like a wall’
Ps 106.9 ‘He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. (Ps 106.6-12)
Ps 114.5 ‘Why was it, sea, that you fled?’
Ps 136.13 -15 to him who divided the red sea asunder

References in Isaiah
Is 10.26  The Lord Almighty .. will raise his staff over the waters, as he did in Egypt’
Is 11.15  The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea; with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates river. He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals’
Is 43.16-19  ‘he who made a way through the sea,  a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, .. and they lay there, never to rise again .. Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! .. I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Is 44.27 who says to the watery deep, ‘be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’
Is 50.2 by a mere rebuke I dry up the sea
Is 51.10  was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great dep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?
Is 63.11-13  where is he who brought them through the sea .. Who divided the waters before them to gain for himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths?

References in the NT
Acts 7.36 He led them out having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness
1 Cor 10.2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Heb 11.29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

The crossing the sea motif is repeated:
Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3)

Elijah (and then Elisha) strike the water with his cloak and it divided to the right and left, ‘The valleys of the sea were exposed’ (2 Kings 2.8)

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The mercy window

The window at the West end of church is our harvest window. It is the largest West Window of any parish church in the country. It was given by the farmers after a particularly good harvest in 1854. It illustrates this particular incident. You can see the disciples plucking grain, and the Pharisees arguing with Jesus.

Jesus disciples are hungry.

This is not about them having a snack in between meals. This is not like walking along, seeing blackberries, picking them and eating them. It is not natures equivalent of a Freddo bar. They’ve been on the road. They have no regular income. Each day they are dependent on the generosity of others. And today they are hungry.
So they pluck the grain, they rub their hands together and they blow away the husks. Technically they are reaping, threshing and winnowing. And although you could do that on other days, the religious law said that you were not allowed to prepare food on the Sabbath.

And the Pharisees watch them, and they come to Jesus and they challenge him. ‘Your followers are doing what they should not do on the Sabbath’.

Jesus answers and he tells them that they have three problems

1.      They have not got the big picture of the bible

Some people say the bible is a dangerous book. It’s anti-woman and homophobic. Others say that it is a great monument to literature, but it is out of date, and has nothing to say to us.

If that is your view, could I suggest that you read it! Not just individual verses. You can say virtually anything by doing that. Read the New Testament; at least once in your lifetime. And if you struggle with reading, then there are some great youtube versions of the whole of the gospels.

That is what Jesus says to the Pharisees. Twice he asks them, ‘Have you not read?’ (v3, v5)

Their thinking has been shaped by a little bit of bible knowledge. They knew the laws in the bible (284 requirements and 365 prohibitions). They knew that bit well!
But Jesus shows them that there is a bigger picture.

And so he points out times when people break the laws and it is OK.

He reminds them of the occasion when David and his followers are escaping from King Saul. They have nothing to eat. And so they go to the house of God and ask the priests if they have any spare food. Ahimelech the priest realises they are very hungry. He says, ‘The only food we have is the special bread which we have put aside for sacred purposes. But because you are hungry you can eat it’.

That was just on one occasion. But Jesus also reminds them that on every Sabbath the priests need to work in order to prepare the lambs for sacrifice and then for cooking. They, and the word Jesus uses is quite strong, ‘desecrate the day’, but they are completely innocent.

On the first occasion the law is broken because David and his followers are hungry. There is a need. On the second occasion the law is broken because the priests are doing a more important task.

So, says Jesus, ‘Don’t condemn my followers. You have missed the bigger picture. You have not realised that the laws were given for a purpose, and you have not realised that there is something more important than the law.’

2.      They have not got the big picture about Jesus

They thought that Jesus was another Rabbi, another teacher with followers. Yes, he did amazing stuff. His teaching was inspirational. But they hadn’t got the full picture.

And Jesus makes very big claims in our verses.

a)      He says (v6), ‘Something greater than the temple is here’. In other words, I am bigger than the temple – and I am bigger than all the worship of the temple.

Look at this building. Think about its size, its history and the services that have been going on here for over 700 years. 
It was here long before me.
It will be here long after me.
It is so much bigger than me.

But what if I said to you: “I am more important than this building. I am more important than all the activities that go on in this building. This building was built for my glory”?
It is quite a claim. And you would probably, rightly, say ‘Who does he think that he is?’

b)      Jesus says (v8), ‘I am the Lord of the Sabbath’. We are subject to time. There are moments when I wish could go back and do something differently. But I can’t. But Jesus is making an even more outrageous statement. He is saying, ‘I am bigger than all the laws of the bible. I am also bigger than time itself’.

So Jesus is claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, greater than all religious laws.

Please don’t miss the big picture. Jesus is not just one of several inspired religious leaders: Moses, Confucius, Buddha or Mohammed. He claims to be Lord of time. 

Christianity is all about him. Spurgeon, who was a preacher in the C19th, tells the story of the young man who preached a great sermon. He asked an older person whether they liked his sermon. ‘Not much’. ‘Why?’ ‘You didn’t tell me of Jesus.’ ‘But the passage did not speak about Jesus’, he answered. ‘Young man’, came the reply, ‘Think of any town near London. It will have many roads that lead in many directions. But one of them will always lead to London. So with any passage in the Bible. There will always be one route which leads us to Jesus’.

I hope and pray that you find that route. It is not easy. In today’s world it means being very different. Jesus speaks of it being a narrow and difficult path. It begins when we bow before Jesus as the one who is bigger than any law, who is Lord of Time and Lord of our lives.
But if it is difficult, it is worth it – because there is quite simply nothing that is better than getting to know the love that Jesus Christ has for us.
There is no joy that is greater than the joy of knowing him.
There is no deeper peace than the peace that comes from intimacy with him.
And as people who take this road to Jesus we get glimpses of love, joy and peace now. He comes and lives inside us. But one day we will see him and we will know absolute love, joy and peace.

3.      They have not got the big picture about mercy

Jesus quotes from the Old Testament where God says, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (v7).

The Pharisees do not see straight.
They see the disciples break the law: ‘Look’, they say, ‘Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath’. (v2)
They see that so clearly. But they do not see men who are hungry.

We are often like them. We think things have got to be done in a particular way and we are blinded to the needs of others. And when we don’t see straight we condemn the innocent.

One American news commentator wrote this week, ​"In modern American capitalist society [and she could have equally said British], we put so much cultural value on work and effort and individual determination, or the idea that you're in charge of your fate.”
And because of that, many will look at people who are poor, who are hungry, whose lives are chaotic and who are messed up, and think, ‘They’re like that because they haven’t worked hard enough or they’re weak people or they are bad people’.
And we say to them what the Pharisees said to the disciples: ‘Be disciplined. Don’t break the rules. Work harder at keeping them. Be better people’.

But Jesus never did that. He did not come to tell poor people to work harder.
He did not come to tell people who live chaotic lives to pull our socks up, to control our children better, to be more disciplined, to be nicer people or even to look with compassion. He did not come to tell us to make more effort or offer bigger and better sacrifices.

So many people think that Christianity is about being good and about trying harder to be better people. And because of that they think that Christians are either hypocrites or that Christianity is not for them.

But Jesus came to show mercy to people who know they are not good enough, who are unable to pull their socks up, who are at their wits end.
And he came to show mercy to people who are blind, who are like the Pharisees, who see the breaking of the law and who do not see the hunger.
And Christianity is first about people who know that they are sinners coming to Jesus to receive mercy. And then, by the grace of God, we do begin to change.

I don’t know whether this was the intention of the designer, but the image in our window of the disciples picking grain is only part of the picture.

If you look underneath there is the image of Jesus on the cross.

That is what Jesus is all about. He reaches out in love to all people. He gives hope to the poor and hungry. He shatters the pretensions of the rich. He came to die in our place on the cross because our thinking is twisted, because we don’t realise that it is all about him, and because we are blind to the needs of others. He made the one sacrifice, so that all can receive mercy. And because of that sacrifice we are forgiven. And it is only when we have received mercy from God that we can begin to show mercy to others.

And if you look to either side of the image of the disciples, you will see 8 small illustrations. And here we are shown people who are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners and welcoming strangers.

And that is because when we receive that sacrifice – when we realise just how dependent we are on the mercy of God - then we will begin to see the bigger picture. We will look with compassion, we will not condemn the innocent and, by the power of God, we will begin to show mercy.  

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

God opens seriously locked doors (all age talk)

This is one of the great stories that the early Christians loved telling.

(Tell the story with helpers)

James, the brother of John, one of Jesus’ inner three, has been arrested and executed.
Now Peter, the second of the inner three, is arrested and put in prison.

It is a maximum security prison.
It has an iron gate
Outer guard
Inner guard
Lock him not to a wall, not to 1 soldier, but to 2 soldiers
Herod is taking no risks.  He has decided, in order to please the people (Christians were not popular at the time) that Peter is also going to be executed.

Acts 12.5: 'So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him'

I wonder what they were praying?
Peace (certainly Peter has that. He is sleeping!), strength to be courageous (for Peter and for themselves), courage to stand firm.

So what happens next?
Peter is asleep in prison. An angel turns up. He jabs Peter awake, and says, ‘Get up quickly’. The chains fell off. He tells Peter to put on his shoes, belt and coat. He then leads Peter past the inner guard, past the outer guard and they come to the gate. The gate swings open. The angel leads Peter to the end of the street and then disappears.
Peter fully comes to himself. It wasn’t a dream. It was real.
He has to find safe shelter, so he goes to the house where he knows that the church meets.

Acts 12.12, ‘As soon as he realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying’.

He knocks on the door.
Rhoda the serving girl comes to answer the door.
‘Who is it?’
She is so excited she rushes back to the people praying.
‘Peter’s at the door.’
‘Peter’s at the door.’
‘Go away Rhoda. We’re praying for him.’
‘He’s at the door.’
‘Rhoda you are mad. It is obviously getting to you.’
‘He really is at the door.’
‘He must have died. She must be seeing his angel.’
‘Come and see.’

Finally, Peter is let in. He tells them what has happened. He asks them to tell James, Jesus brother and now the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and he leaves. He can’t stay in Jerusalem any more.

Prayer is for people who know that they are desperate
The Christians have met to pray for Peter

They don't have the money to buy Peter out.
They don't have the influential contacts – the business or media leaders who can apply pressure so that Peter is released.
They don't have the political or military power to get him out.
They need God to show up big time – or Peter is dead and they are stuffed.

One of the reasons we don’t pray is because we do not realise how helpless we are.
We think that we can sort things out in our own strength.
We assume that because we can get daily bread from Tesco’s we don’t need to pray for daily bread.
We think that the way to fight injustice or falsehood is by political lobbying and not prayer. We think that what is really important for growing the church is having better management, better publicity, better programmes, better welcoming
We think that we will become better Christians if we know more, or screw up our faith more, or try harder
And we treat prayer as an optional extra.

But people only really pray when we realise how desperate we are.
I wonder whether God used the death of James and the arrest of Peter as a way of driving a confident church onto her knees.

When you pray, God intervenes in ways you don’t expect
We see that here.
They don’t expect God to send an angel and miraculously release Peter.
If they had, then they would have believed Rhoda when she told them that Peter was knocking at the front door. They would have told her, ‘Oh by the way Rhoda. We’re expecting Peter to turn up at any minute now’.

And God does intervene – sometimes in ways we don’t expect.

(Testimony from Maaike of how her mother was dramatically healed after prayer)

God opens seriously locked doors
He literally opens prison doors.
One day we are told, when Messiah comes, he will release prisoners.
He will release prisoners from the prisons that other people put them in.
He will release prisoners from the sin and fear of death that holds us captive.

But the door that God wants to open is the door of our ears: not our outer ears, but our inner ears, so that we really do hear the good news of Jesus Christ and put our trust in him.

We might think that praying for someone to be healed is a big prayer.
We might think that praying for God to release a persecuted Christian is a big prayer.
But the really big prayer that we can pray is that someone who is spiritually dead – who is spiritually deaf – will have their ears opened, become spiritually alive, and start to begin to realise the truth of God and to live for Jesus and with Jesus.

And God does that.
By the end of this chapter, Herod – who seemed to have all the power – is dead, Peter has gone from Jerusalem and is beginning to preach to Gentiles, and we are told that ‘But the word of God continued to spread and flourish’ (Acts 12.24)

Monday, 19 September 2016

For Freedom Christ has set us free

The gospel, good news, is liberating

Religion tells us that we need to prove ourselves to God.
We need to make ourselves acceptable to him.
And we do that by following certain rules, laws.
If we keep them then we are OK.

But the gospel is very different.

It sets us free from the need to prove ourselves to God.
It sets us free from trying to make ourselves acceptable to him.

And that is great news, because we could never prove ourselves to God, and we could never make ourselves acceptable to him.

Alongside the good that we see in each of us, there is also deep corruption, deep rottenness in each one of us. And we find that we are trapped.

Thomas Costain tells the story of a 14th-century duke in what is now Belgium known as Raynald III. Raynald was grossly overweight, and was commonly called by his Latin nickname, Crassus, which means fat.
After a violent quarrel, Raynald's younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him. Edward captured Raynald, but did not kill him. Instead, he built a room around Raynald in the Nieuwkerk castle and promised him he could regain his title and property as soon as he was able to leave the room. This would not have been difficult for most people, since the room had several windows and a door of near-normal size—none of which were locked or barred. The problem was Raynald's size. To regain his freedom, he needed to lose weight.
But Edward knew his older brother. Each day he sent a variety of delicious foods into the room. Instead of dieting his way out of prison, Raynald grew fatter. When Duke Edward was accused of cruelty, he had a ready answer: "My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so wills." Raynald stayed in that room for 10 years and wasn't released until after Edward died in battle. By then his health was so ruined that he died within a year—a prisoner of his own appetite. [Illustration from PreachingToday]

We may not have that particular issue. But we will have our own battles. Gossip. Pornography or sexual immorality. Alcohol. Desperate need to prove ourselves or to please people. Spending more than we have got. It might be anger, or an inability to forgive.
And we are trapped in our room.

But God in his love sent Jesus, and when he died on the cross, he didn’t simply forgive you, or make the doors a little bigger and tell you to try harder. He knocked down the wall, and he came to you where you are.

And God offers us his love, he offers us his forgiveness, he offers us his Holy Spirit so that we can begin to want to change. Our passage speaks of 'the hope of righteousness' (5.5).

And it is all gift

You don't need to make yourself acceptable to God before you receive this gift.
You don't need to become good enough.
You don't need to know enough.
You don't need to be religious enough.

All you need to do is believe God, to trust him that when Jesus died he knocked down the wall, that he is here with us, and that he has given us his Holy Spirit to live in us

That is what these Galatian Christians had realised.

And it was so liberating.

But now people were coming along and telling them that if they really want to be acceptable to God, if they really want to be full and proper and power filled Christians, then they need to keep the law. They spoke specifically about circumcision, but that was only the start. There were a further 247 demands and 365 prohibitions in the Old Testament law.

And Paul is saying three things to them

1.    You are becoming slaves again. 'Don't you realise, if you accept this false teaching that you must be circumcised, then you must accept all the other laws of the Old Testament|? It is the camel's nose. Why just that one? "I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law" (5.3)

2.    If you do that, and think that God will only be really pleased with you if you keep the law, why did Jesus die? You've stopped putting your trust in what Jesus has done for you and you have started to put your trust in your own ability to keep the law. 'You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace' (5.4)

3.    Why am I going round - getting mocked, arrested, beaten, even stoned - telling people about the death of Jesus on the cross, and getting persecuted for it, if I could tell people that they could get right with God by obeying the law and being good people? People can cope with that message because it means they think they are in control. God becomes the genii in the bottle. If you rub the bottle in the right way, and say the right words, then God gives you what they want. 'Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished' (5.11)

Paul is really quite angry about this.

He is angry because he is being misrepresented. It appears that the false teachers are saying that he himself is telling people they need to be circumcised.
But he is even more angry because it is turning people back into slaves - slaves to the law. So he comes out with this rather undiplomatic language: I wish those who were preaching circumcision would take the knife and castrate themselves (5.12)

How does this apply to us?

It is very easy for us to discover the amazing freedom that Jesus brings, and then slip back into old ways

We have become a Christian. We have received the free gift of forgiveness, of the Holy Spirit. We were trapped in the room, and God knocked the wall down. We’re still just as large, we still have the battle to fight, but now we have realised that we don’t need to try and squeeze through the door to get to Jesus – but that he has come to us.

But, perhaps we go through a sticky patch. We mess up badly, or Jesus seems distant, and then people – like these false teachers in Galatia – come along.
And so we start to think: surely I have got to do something to make God really love me? He can’t love me as I am.

God will only really bless me if I pray in a particular way, or if I fast, or if I work hard enough, or if I tithe, or if I'm baptised as an adult, or if I speak in tongues, or if I please certain people, or if I have a half night or full night of prayer. God will only really bless me if I worship right in the right church in the right way.

I think I have spoken of the time when as a young curate, having experienced the pit and found myself unable to pray (whenever I did pray my head went all whizzy) I suddenly realised that if I never prayed another prayer in my life, God would still love me and would still bless the work. It was so liberating. I had turned prayer into a work. It set me free from this deep burden that I had placed on myself- a burden that was so great it had caused me to crash.

BUT, and there is a big but.

It was the charge that the opponents of Paul were levelling against him:
If you are saying that we are free from the law - then you are encouraging people to live self-centred lives.
Our chap in the room. If Jesus is with him, then why shouldn’t he just continue to eat and eat?

To which Paul's answer in 5.13-15 is that when you welcome Jesus, and he comes to you, God gives you his Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit will begin to change you – from the inside. He will prompt you to live in a new way.
The Holy Spirit will put God’s law into you, so that you will begin to want to live in a new way.
The Holy Spirit will begin to work in you so that you begin to see other people in a new way. And you will want to love and you will begin to love: not in the shallow way that the world loves, but in the deep way of God.

And I have seen that so often.
A person becomes a believer, they put their trust in Jesus, and they begin to change. They have a hunger for God’s word – that wasn’t there before.
Their language, for instance, begins to change.
They begin to want to do something about the deeply ingrained rubbish that is in them. They are probably not going to become perfect overnight – and it may continue to be a struggle for the rest of their lives – but now they want to get involved in the struggle.  
They want to meet with God’s people and to worship

Paul writes, ‘Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (5.14)
And so we begin to love not as a way of making God love us, forgive us or bless us, but as a response to the God who has forgiven us, does love us, who has come to us and who has already blessed us.

And even when the desire is not there, yes we do try to do the right thing as duty, but not in order to make God love us, but because we know that God does love us. And yes, it can be a battle and a struggle – but Paul deals with that in the next few verses

So my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are free. The wall of our prison has been broken down and Jesus has come to us. We are children of God. We don’t need to keep any law (whether it is moral, legal or religious) to get God to love us more. But because we know the love of God, we will want to change and we will want to begin to love.

We are free! Free from the outer law, a law that is imposed on us. Free from the need to prove ourselves to ourselves or to God.

But we are not free from the inner law, the law that God has put in our hearts, and that is the law to love.  

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Why should I love Jesus more than the members of my family?

'Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, and even life itself - cannot be my disciple'. Luke 14.26

That is a hard saying! And I would like us to focus on this verse for a few minutes and to see if we can work out what is going on here.

For most of us, our family is our life. It is our family who give us our name, our values and our identity. Even if we have rebelled against our parents, it is our very act of rebellion against them that has given us our identity: we are not them.  
And it is usually our family who we rely on. If everybody else fails us, we turn to them as our last resort. Think of the prodigal son. He had rejected his father and walked out on him, but he makes the decision to go back to his father when everything else had failed.

So it makes sense for Jesus to link our family and our life. Hating your family and hating your life go quite close together.

So what are we to make of this saying?

I do not think that Jesus is telling us to cut ourselves off from our family

That is important, because some Christians in the past have done that.

There are some very hard sayings about families in the stories of the desert fathers and mothers. There is the story of a mother of two monks who comes begging to see her sons. They refuse to see her. She begins to wail. Another the monks comes to Poemen and says, "What shall I do about your mother? She wants to see you." ‘Ask her’, said Poemen, ‘Do you want to see us in this world or the next?’ She said, ‘If I don’t see you in this world, shall I see you in the next, my sons?’ He said, ‘If you don’t insist on seeing us here, you shall see us there.’ So the woman went away happy, saying, ‘If I shall indeed see you there, I don’t want to see you here.’

That is quite harsh.

And we read of the stories of missionaries even of the last century, who left their wives or children back in the UK, sometimes for many years, because they believed that they had been called to work overseas. And while we are on shaky ground when we pass judgement on the saints of former years who lived in a very different society to the one that we live in today, and while we recognise and honour the enormous sacrifices that they made, I certainly would question people who make those sort of decisions today.

I don't think that Jesus is telling us that for his sake we should abandon our families.

Families are good. They are God given.

And Jesus is clearly not telling us to hate our fathers and mothers, partners and children, brothers and sisters in the way that the world understands hate.
After all, the fourth commandment tells us to honour our father and mother. And Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us, so he would not ask us to do anything less for the members of our own families.

And we need to care for our families.

Jesus specifically rebukes those who use an act of religious duty to avoid giving help to their parents. (Mark 7.9-13). He says to them, 'You give a little bit of your money to the temple as a reason for not supporting your parents in need. That is a very strange way to interpret the word of God'.
And as he hangs on the cross, Jesus thinks of his mother: he asks John to support her as his own mother, and he asks her to care for John as her own son.
Later in the New Testament, Paul, building on what Jesus has taught, rebukes those who do not ensure that their families are provided for. "And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever". (1 Tim 5.8)

So quite clearly we are not allowed to use this scripture as an excuse for running out from our family, or avoiding our very special responsibilities to the members of our family.

So what does it mean?

The commentaries on this passage are helpful.
They point out that the Hebrew writers often used exaggeration to make a point. So Jesus says, "If your eye causes you to sin, gauge it out". That is a very dramatic way of saying 'Guard what you look at'. It is not something that we are to do literally.
And they exaggerate to emphasise a contrast. So, when in the Old Testament, we are told that God loved Jacob but hated Esau, many suggest that we need to interpret these words as saying: 'In comparison to my love for Jacob, my love for Esau is as hate'.
And I suspect that is how we are to read these verses:
'In comparison to your love for me, your love for your family should be as hate. I must come first, before your family and - later in this passage - before your possessions' (Luke 14.33)

That is still pretty radical.

It means that in the end it is not our human family identity that is our true identity.
Yes, I am a Rogers, but of far more importance is the fact that as a Christian I bear the name of Jesus Christ. My identity as a Christian takes precedence over my identity as a Rogers. If Rogers have always done it this way, but God's way is different, then I need to do it God's way.

And it is easier for us having lived in a country which has been steeped with gospel values, but as our society moves away from those values it will become harder. There will be very clear distinctions between what our family does and expects and what Jesus would have us do. And when there are those conflicts, we need to be prepared to follow Jesus and not our family.

There are times when, by becoming a Christian, we are seen to be betraying our family

That is why there is such persecution for people who become Christians in cultures dominated by another belief system. It is not so much the fact that they have become a Christian, but rather they are seen as rejecting their family and their upbringing.
Some of you may know this. A brother or sister, a son or daughter has become a strict Muslim. And you feel, whether it is true or not, that they are rejecting you, and that they are rejecting everything that you have stood for. And you feel betrayed.

Nigel Taylor used to run CYM in Ipswich a number years ago. He told of how his father had said that if he became a Christian, he would be turned out of the house. So when he did make the decision to become a Christian, a few days later he came home to find his suitcase had been packed and put by the front door. He had to leave. He was given a choice: his family or Jesus.

But if it is not as dramatic as that, there will be conflict at times.

It happened with Jesus.
On one occasion he is with his followers, and his family come for him. They have heard people say that he has gone mad, and they want to take him away to look after him - especially when they hear that he is not eating properly - that is a mum for you (Mark 3.19-21)!
And that is when Jesus makes a pretty radical and potentially offensive statement to his followers. They tell him, 'Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother".
Jesus is making it very clear that his biological family do not have the first claim on him.

And there will be conflict, because Jesus challenges the way we do things, and how we see people.
He speaks, a few chapters earlier, of how he has come to bring division: division within families - father against son, son against daughter, mother in law against daughter in law (Luke 13.51-53). 
That division should never begin with the one who has become a Christian. We are told, 'as far as it is up to you, live at peace with all people'. But if those who we love force us to make a decision because we are Christ followers, then Jesus is saying that we have no choice. We need to put him first.

And when Jesus calls us to put him before our families, he is also warning us against treating the members of our family as our final security.
Yes, of course, we turn to them when we are in trouble - but they will never be able to be that ultimate ground of our safety.
As a parent, you long to protect your children from all suffering. But you can’t.
And one day that person in whom you have put your love, your trust, your hope will be taken away from you. 

It is possible to put too much of our identity, hope and trust in another person.
We actually prevent them from being the person who God made them to be because we see them only through our eyes, through our need of them.

Augustine wrote that we should love people 'for the sake of God'.
We should love them not as they relate to us, or as we relate to them, but as they relate to God and as God relates to them.
I remember in Holloway speaking with a single mum who was thinking about becoming a Christian. She was doing what the person who built the tower in Jesus' story did not do. She was trying to work out whether she could afford to follow Jesus. And for her the big stumbling block was whether she could love Jesus more she loved her son. 
She moved away, but when she came back two years later, she was a Christian. She told me how she had begun to realise what Jesus meant about loving him more than her child. Because whereas before she had imposed a burden that was far too great on her child - basically she lived for him, and had put all her hopes in him - she now realised that her child was a gift from God, that he belonged to God, and that it was her privilege and responsibility to love him and bring him up for God. Her son was not in the centre of her life, but her Jesus was.

And it is easy for us to put too much of our dependence on another person - to love them for our own sake, when we are called to love them for their own sake and 'for the sake of God'.

God, in his love for us, placed us in human families. It was his way of providing a system through which we can care for each other and love each other. But human families are provisional.

The bible tells us that when you were baptised, you died to your old way of life. You became a new person and you became a member of a new family. That is why baptism is not a biological family thing. It is fundamentally disruptive of the family. It is about how the person who is baptised becomes a member of a new family, a bigger family, a more important family. And this new family, the family of Father God, with Jesus Christ as the older brother, has become your true family.

It is not an excuse for running away from our earthly family, and from avoiding our God-given responsibilities to the members of our family. But this new family is the family to whom you owe your ultimate allegiance. Your biological family will pass away, but this is the family that will last for ever. 

That is why as Christians we are to love Jesus more than our fathers and mothers, more than our husbands or wives, and more even than our children.