Exodus 33:1-23 The Necessity of His Presence Introduction How long did it take to notice? A classroom in which the teacher is absent and the children merrily doing their own thing; an office from which the manager is away on business; a competitive sports fixture without a referee? What about a church carrying on its activities without the presence of the Holy Spirit of God? To assume that God will be here all the time no matter how we behave or how our hearts are towards Him is foolish and naïve. Jesus warned in Revelation 2-3, the letters to the Turkish Churches, that He would withdraw His presence if they did not love Him and serve Him as they ought to do. They could read of the warnings to the Israelites in the Old Testament, but it appeared complacency had set in- something the 21st Century church needs to guard against every bit as much as these early congregations. Without the active presence of God we are merely a religious club, instead of a group of people in fellowship with the living God. If we do not take Him seriously He will not work in our lives, in this church as He desires and offers to us in His Word. Are we taking God seriously seven days a week? How seriously do we take our calling for private and corporate prayer to plead for God to move in our midst? Moses here knew the importance of this subject because in Exodus 33:15 he declared (literally): If you [God] don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How reliant, how dependent are you /am I on the presence and empowering anointing of God the Holy Spirit? 1. The Withdrawal of the Presence (Exodus 33:1-6) (a) The Reason The reason for this extraordinary and solemn declaration by God was the act of blatant and conscious sin by the Israelites concerning the golden calf, recorded in Exodus 32:7-8. These verses state: Then the Lord said to Moses, Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. God’s reaction is clear and His verdict chilling to the spirit of Moses. The Lord continued: 9 I have seen these people, the Lord said to Moses, and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation. 11 But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God. Moses pleads for the people
not because they deserved a different outcome –they didn’t. The people believed in God; the calf was meant to be a representation of Yahweh on the grounds that Moses is not here, let’s have something else to symbolise the presence of God, despite it being a clear breach of the Second Commandment to have no visual images representing God. They claimed a freedom that God had not offered. They sought to improve on what God had said and done. All of us are tempted at times to seek personal exemptions from some aspect of Scriptural teaching. This is how God views such decisions. Ultimately God isn’t too concerned with the styles of services long or short; whether with music of varying styles or without; whether psalms, hymns or shorter songs predominate; which accurate Bible version we use; whether we sit in pews or chairs or meet in a sanctuary or a secular venue; or a whole lot more issues – what really counts is whether we are a people who individually and collectively are earnestly seeking God; are passionate about seeing people come to faith or backsliders
restored; How do each of us pray for a Sunday service; what are we asking God to do? If we ask for nothing -don’t be surprised if that is the outcome. Remember Jeremiah 29:13: You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. (b) The Risk (Exodus 33:1-3) 1 Then the Lord said to Moses, Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants.' 2 I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way. Continue doing the right things –
in their case heading for the Promised Land. However, do not expect My presence; you are not taking Me seriously how can you expect Me to accompany you on this journey? This is not just an Old Testament issue. Jesus at the Last Supper gave an equally frank warning to His followers about their own spiritual lives. In the picture language of the Vine and the branches in John 15:6-8, He declared: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in Me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to My Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.
God is not obliged to overlook our transgressions; we cannot presume on His amazing grace; the fact that we are treated by Him far better than our sinful conduct deserves is a ground for wonder and thanksgiving at His amazing patience and love. But we need the presence of God in our midst to go forward; on our own we can do nothing. When you and I are tempted to skip our personal times of prayer of Bible study; our attendance at prayers meetings or even regular Sunday services, remember these words of Jesus. The less we, in practice, depend on Him the weaker will be our relationship with Him and the effectiveness of our service for Him will also be correspondingly less. At the start of a New Year we must make a point of prioritising God’s place in our lives, our schedules –the first place, not somewhere in the mix of things ‘to do’. The failure to take God seriously in much of Western Christianity in recent generations has resulted in spiritual apathy and unfitness to receive the potential blessings He wants to pour out on His children. (c) The Response (Exodus 33:4-6) 4 When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no-one put on any ornaments.5 For the Lord had said to Moses, Tell the Israelites, 'You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.' 6 So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb . Removal of ornaments was a sign
of humility and serious mourning for something in that cultural context. The pretence that all was okay had gone and the people of God began to take their relationship with their Heavenly Father more seriously. When we cry out to our Father then He delights to respond to the cries of His obedient and earnest children. In November 2000 in the Free Church of Scotland congregation in South Uist and Benbecula held their first communion season during the new pastorate of Rev. Iain MacAskill. The minister was asked to give an account of the weekend. His report included the following lines: ‘Our first communion in South Uist and Benbecula has been the most amazing experience where God came down in awesome power. A lot of prayer was made leading up to the weekend and God answered. People who were The Lord’s were given strength to come forward and people whom we‘ve been praying for in the congregation were converted over the weekend. On Friday night we had six come to the Session including two local girls from an RC background. O Saturday we had four more plus Chris Macrae who is applying for the Ministry. On Sunday we had our Evangelistic service in the morning in South Uist with over 60 in attendance. The Session met with four others after the service. Many spoke of real conviction of sin and there was much brokenness in evidence. The Sacrament was celebrated in the evening with 140 in attendance. Out thanksgiving prayer meeting on Monday evening was so moving it didn’t finish until 11pm. Ryno
Morrison, one of our converts, went home on Saturday under deep conviction. He read his Bible and couldn’t stop reading about Blind Bartimaeus. Ryno’s prayer when he went to sleep was “Rabbi, I want to see” Kenny Macdonald’s text on Sunday morning was –you’ve guessed it…”Rabbi I want to see..” I’ll never forget the scene of Kenny (who himself is nearly blind) leading Ryno by the hand upstairs to the session room. Our assessor elders from Lewis who have been Christians for many years were moved by the whole experience. An unforgettable quote: ’Do you think Pentecost was like this Alasdair”… ‘I don’t know…but its better than Stornoway!!’ The Spirit is still working in our midst with many onlookers at the evening service now reading their Bibles and asking questions –watch this space…To God be the glory …for great things He has done [E-mail date 25 Nov.2000] In how
many services in Scotland in the last ten years could anyone ask the question ‘Do you think Pentecost was like this? Has anyone ever expressed similar sentiments about a service in a church in this town? In this congregation? We need to plead for the presence of God that He might come down in mighty power on us and on this community, for Jesus’ sake and glory. 2. The Location of the Presence (Exodus 33:7-11) 7 Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the tent of meeting. Anyone enquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp.8 And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. 9 As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshipped each at the entrance to his tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young assistant Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. (a) Its Significance (v7) outside the camp The distinctive feature of Israelite life had
been God’s presence in their midst. Now because of their sin God had to separate Himself from them. Our sin separates us from God. Isaiah 59:1-2: Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear . In the
New Testament book of Hebrews (13:12) there is a reference back to this situation. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood. To seek the presence of God for guidance, intercession, or to offer praise, for
examples, we need to repent of our sins –an attitude of humility for our shortcomings. Hebrews (13:13, 15) goes on to say: Let us then go to Him outside the camp bearing the disgrace He bore… Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise –the fruit of our lips that confess His name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased . The people of Israel, whether Moses
or others could not meet Him in the camp –on God’s terms in God’s place –this was not a geographical issue more a moral and spiritual one concerning their hearts. It was a calling to prayer to seek His face. II Chronicles 7:14 If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land . Do you
‘need to go outside the camp’ –in modern terms have the humility to accept you need Jesus for salvation? Or as a Christian to seek grace for a restoration of fellowship because of a sin issue that you need to address? Or as a Christian to let go of the pain and heartache caused by the wrongful conduct of other Christians? Isobel Kuhn one of the greatest 20th missionaries in China and Thailand had to overcome the grudge of a referee whose report caused her initial rejection by the China Inland Mission. This individual gave a false character reference that would delay her acceptance for overseas service by several years. In the extra years at home she worked in a young women’s evangelistic mission in Vancouver, which turned out to be invaluable 3
preparation for the mission-field. Many of the girls she reached through this ministry turned out to be amongst her strongest prayer supporters in future years. She told numerous stories of the impact of intercessory prayer for her work. At the time she had definite struggles with some real heartaches but looking back Isobel could later see the hand of God in the midst of some of these unpromising situations [ Evangelical Times March 2007, p.14]. When God places a desire on your heart to pray for someone or a situation of need –it is because He intends to work in that situation and invites your participation in this initiative through prayer. In 2012 will you be willing to commit afresh to earnest pray for the people and situations God places on your heart? (b) Its Symbol (v9) the pillar of cloud In Exodus 13:21 there is an explanation of its significance. First of all guidance: By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. Then in Exodus 14 we see protection; 14:19-20: Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other; so neither went near the other all night long . Psalm 34:6 For the angel of the Lord is a guard; he surrounds and defends all who fear Him . Next in Exodus 33:9 it is a symbol of communion; As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses .
Fellowship between Moses and God; the people learned where to find that place of fellowship, that place set apart outside the camp; do you set time aside for fellowship with God? Our lives can be hectic but is there a space where we could hear the still small voice (NKJV) or gentle whisper (NIV) of God as it was described in I Kings 19:12. Here was an astonishing level of intimacy between God and His servant Moses, Exodus 33:11 records these extraordinary words: The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. It was not just Moses –what about his assistant Joshua? this verse speaks also of him: his young assistant Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. Here was a devotion to duty, yes, but more than that, it was a desire for fellowship with God. Moses was unique as Numbers 12:7-8 records: When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all My house. 8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord . We cannot copy
the example of Moses, but that of Joshua’s dedication to desiring the presence of God is an inspiration to us. To follow this example be warned it is a lonely place as few follow this path as Isaiah 59:16 declares: The Lord saw that there was no-one, He was appalled that there was no-one to intercede; so His own arm worked salvation for Him and His own righteousness sustained Him. We need the presence of God for guidance and
protection, but above all for regular communion with Him. 3. The Restoration of the Presence (Exodus 33:12-23) (a)An Essential Requirement (vs12-17) 12Moses said to the Lord, You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, 'I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people. 14 The Lord replied, My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.15 Then Moses said to him, If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all
the other people on the face of the earth? 17 And the Lord said to Moses, I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name . Verse 14 is
our assurance here: The Lord replied, My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. But we must never presume that this is automatic as although we cannot lose our salvation we can lose the blessings God has for us and the felt sense of His presence. Moses recognised the seriousness of this matter and so must we. He said in v15: Then Moses said to him, If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. Moses had interceded in Exodus 32 to save the lives of sinful Israelites now he pleads to secure God’s grace and blessing, especially for a sense of the felt presence of God in their midst. James 5:16 declares: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results (NLV). God is looking for earnest men and women who will plead to Him and for Him in this nation desiring to see His name honoured and uplifted both in the churches and in the nation. Can He count on you in 2012? (b) An Indescribable Privilege (vs18-23) 18 Then Moses said, Now show me Your glory. 19 And the Lord said, I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim My name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.20 But, He said, you cannot see My face, for no-one may see Me and live. 21 Then the Lord said, There is a place near Me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen. As a book Exodus tells the story of
redemption from slavery through the covering of the blood of the lamb in Egypt, through the establishment of the sacrificial system to make atonement for the ongoing sins of the people. They gained their freedom but longed for more- the felt presence of God. Moses could not see God in all His glory as this is impossible for sinful creatures that would be utterly consumed. Yet God allowed Moses a glimpse of His glory, a sense of His amazing presence. In John 14:9 Jesus said some amazing words to Philip who had asked to see the Father. He who has seen Me has seen the Father. Knowing the presence of God gives us more confidence in the power of God. On one occasion in the early 1950s a Lisu tribal leader unexpectedly renounced a long-standing feud. Isobel Kuhn recorded the exact date so that she could find out who had been praying for that need. Months later an elderly supporter wrote giving that date and time that three ladies had stopped their household duties to give a whole morning to prayer for the Three Clans Village and were convinced at lunchtime that the prayers had been answered. Isobel made the following note in her papers: Now these prayer warriors were not seemingly of the earth’s mighty ones. Mrs K was delicate, had a heart condition. Mrs W was expecting a serious operation, and Mrs J was going blind. All three were too frail physically to cross the small town and gather in one place, but each in her own kitchen was joined to the others in spirit [Evangelical Times March 2007, p.14].
Yet God used their prayers as a means of transforming a situation across the world in China or Northern Thailand. This is our God and we like these elderly saints have access to His heavenly resources. John the apostle saw the exalted Jesus in His glory in Revelation 1 and fell at His feet awestruck by the sight –one day you and I will get that privilege in heaven. 17 When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. Then He placed His right hand on me and said: Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19 Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. This is our God
who declares: My presence will go with you and I will give you rest…May we be assured of His resources as we step out in faith for Him in this New Year, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Luke 15:11-32 The Joy of the Father Introduction There are some things in life that we are so familiar with that we take it for granted that we know everything about them. There are various tasks we perform in our homes; routes we drive on a regular basis in our cars, or routes others may travel regularly by bus or train; likewise in church familiar routines are part of what we do. The same is true with some stories in the Bible. We have read them many times and are so familiar with the storyline that the shock factor or particular emphasis of the narrative on the first hearers has been well and truly lost. Part of this is natural as we live in a different culture and country two millennia later compared with the time when Jesus was active in ministry on earth. However, we need to try and stand ‘in the shoes’ of His first hearers and sense something of what the particular story meant at that time to those people. The story of the ‘prodigal son’ begins with a title that uses an unfamiliar word in our cultural context. Although the majority of modern versions update the vocabulary here to render it the ‘Lost Son’; a few like the ESV retain the older terminology. Yet the outstanding question to ask is this: which son in the story is lost? Most hearers / readers then and now would regard this as a stupid question as it is ‘obvious’ which son is ‘lost’. I am not so sure that Jesus would agree with that assessment. It is important to ask who the audience were to whom He was speaking, prior to making a final judgement on this point. 1. A Picture of Rebellion (Luke 15:11-12) (a)The social context of the story (Luke 15:1-2) Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them. A teacher prepares their lesson plan to fit the age group of
the class. It would be useless preparing an Advanced Higher Physics lesson for a Primary One class that were assigned to do a ‘science’ class. No-one would do that! Like wise when we look at the biblical text it is important to ask who was the first audience; for whom was this message given? What was the key point the biblical author was seeking to make? In a parable of Jesus there is usually, but not exclusively, one main point, so rather than trying to explain every detail of the story it is better to seek to grasp what Jesus intended His audience to hear when He told this particular story. In this case the main group of hearers were the tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:10. They heard Jesus gladly and rejoiced in His messages concerning the wonderful grace of God. However, in the midst of teaching the larger audience, Jesus told the stories recorded in Luke 15 to address the concerns of a smaller group of people who were troubled by the increasing number of ‘sinners’ Jesus was attracting to His meetings. Luke 15:2 reminds us: But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them. They were not happy that people they had written off as beyond hope of salvation were now taking an interest in God and showing up at religious meetings! Sadly some churches are like that very content with the regular few that show up week by week, but new people coming in disturb them with questions like ‘why do you do this?’ ‘Could we try something different?’ and a whole lot more inconvenient questions; After all these new people might sit in your regular pew and might even volunteer to take a turn at duties you have always done! In essence these religious leaders were struggling with the fact that God was at work changing lives. We need to ensure that we never fall into a similar trap in our generation today. Jesus knew as well as they did what 1
these people had done. That was not the issue; His focus, though, was on what by God’s grace these people could become and this God-centred priority led to a very different form of ministry than the Pharisees could ever have entertained seriously. (b) The serious rebellion by the son (Luke 15:11-12)11 Jesus continued: There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. Like the other stories Jesus told the setting is very familiar to His hearers. They all
knew people who had left the country to work abroad. At the time of Jesus 500,000 Jews lived in Israel but approximately four million Jews lived and worked overseas [J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p. 129]. It sounds very similar to Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries! However, this particular situation was different. This single young man was not taking advantage of an opportunity to study or work away from home, which many younger adults have done over the years for the most legitimate of reasons. By contrast, his motivation was one of rebellion against his father and the whole way of life with which he had grown up. He was bored with life in the countryside and the simple lifestyle of people in this rural community. He wanted the faster pace and brighter lights of urban life and the removal of all the restrictions his father might have placed on his choices. The request for the share of his father’s estate, something that would have fallen to him upon the father’s death, was in effect saying: ‘Dad I wish you were dead’. In an honour culture then and now such sentiments were anathema. In uneducated Muslim cultures today we hear a steady trickle of cases of young people, especially young women, being killed for refusing to marry the right kind of person whether with respect to social class or tribe. On occasions both the man and the woman have been killed for disrespecting the honour of their father or their extended family. It was not impossible that this outcome might have resulted had this story taken place in real life in parts of rural Israel in Jesus’ day. And what is more the audience listening to Jesus would not have complained about such an outcome either! The younger son’s actions were disgraceful, dishonourable and totally disrespectful for all that his father had done for him. It would not have been out of keeping had some of the audience shouted out words of condemnation against this young man for his irresponsible misconduct. 2. A Pattern of Ruin (Luke 15:13-14) (a)A lifestyle that brought him to ruin (Luke 15:13)13 Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. Now in the bigger picture we grasp that the father in the story represents God, the younger son represents sinful people out of fellowship with God and the older son a person in fellowship with God, at least in the sense of the Pharisees attending this meeting. Some people may have a moral dilemma here. Why would God the Father allow one of His children to deliberately go astray in their lives by providing or allowing him to obtain the means to engage in serious acts of sin? Surely God only ever grants our wishes if they are good and holy and right? Actually this isn’t true, although it is God’s preferred course of action. But there are times when God allows a person to go their own way and face the consequences of their own actions. Sometimes we will not listen to God or other people advising us in a particular way and insist on doing something that other people think is inappropriate for us. There are some lessons we can only learn the ‘hard way’ by being allowed to make our own mistakes. In Psalm 106:13-15: They soon forgot His works; They did not wait for His counsel, 14 But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, And tested God in the desert.15 And He gave them their request, But sent leanness into their soul (NKJV). It is an encouragement to us to be careful what we
pray for. God might grant us what we ask for sometimes, even though it might have been better had we not sought it. In the same way parents may permit a child to do something or go somewhere against their better judgement, hoping that the child might learn from the 2
experience and not make the same mistake again. Proverbs 27:6 states: Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful (NKJV). In other words someone who doesn’t have our best interests at heart may encourage us to do wrong, but a friend will speak the truth to our face, even if it hurts, because they want the best for us. A good friend, for example, will tell you when shopping that the garment size is too small whereas someone less close might complain about inconsistency of sizes on labels in shops. It might be true but only someone close will dare say you are a ‘14’ when you want to hear you are a ‘12’ or whatever the figures are for you! Another point to consider here was raised in a reflection of the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In a context where he was speaking about promotions or new jobs in the workplace, he once said: ‘The worst thing that can happen to a man is for him to succeed before he is ready. If you have longed for success in a certain area and it hasn’t come, be thankful for it. It could be that one day you will be very glad you didn’t get what you asked for, unlike the prodigal son.’ [R.T. Kendall, The Parables of Jesus, p.258] In the opening section of the story it is unclear what this wild living consisted of. However, in the words of the older son in Luke 15:30 it becomes clear that the younger son had resented the moral restrictions of life at home and wanted to enjoy a sexually promiscuous lifestyle. Over the centuries there have always been people willing to provide a service for which others are willing to pay significant sums of money. For a young man unused to handling cash the money would have disappeared very quickly. The novelty that being the centre of attention brought would quickly pass then and now. (b) A lifestyle that brought him to his knees (Luke 15:14) 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. This was a very foolish young man. He didn’t stop and think once half the money had gone –and consider how he needed to obtain an alternative source of income in the place where he was staying. But it is no different today. How many times have we heard that people in serious financial trouble simply obtain another credit card and run up the maximum balance on that card as well. It is sobering that for many people they only begin to look up once they have hit rock bottom. It may be that the situation has to reach crisis point before their pride allows them to admit they have seriously messed up. This is certainly the case with some people with addiction issues who finally summon the courage to address the problems they face. Yet it doesn’t have to get that bad before action is taken. All of us at times make mistakes. The challenge is whether we are willing to take action to correct our course of action before it is too late. Or that we are willing to heed the advice of good friends to correct our ways, before the negative consequences overshadow our pathway. Here the downward spiral of this man’s life was brought to a head by a severe famine. It was not just a local supply issue. It was over a wide geographical area and he was unable to get out of the situation. As a result if he didn’t want to die he had to take a job that under all normal circumstances he would have rejected out of hand. He had begun the first step to his recovery by recognising his need. It might be said that he had no choice but to acknowledge his plight, but there have been many people over the years that apparently could not see what should have been staring them in the face! Did the Father know what had happened to his son? We have no idea, but if he did he deliberately waited patiently for the son to come to his senses. If he knew what was going on then it would have hurt him a lot inside to allow his son to stay in his predicament. However, some people only are willing to take control of their own lives when they have finally been left to face the consequences of the actions they have taken.
3. A Pause for Reflection (Luke 15:15-19)
(a)The wages of sin were unwelcome (Luke 15:15-16)15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything This is a story to a Jewish audience
about a Jewish young person, so we can take it for granted that they all recoiled in horror at the prospect of working on a pig farm. There was no lower form of employment in their eyes. Can we give him credit for doing something rather than nothing? It is a close call! However, at least he has begun to try and regain control over his messed up life. At this stage there is still no prospect of him returning home. It is too difficult to entertain the thought that he would be welcomed by his extended family and the wider village community where he had come from. He had ‘burned his bridges’ and knew that he had no right to expect anything ever again from his family. What did it take for you or me to see our need of God? for some people the disillusionment of attaining success, wealth or fame; for others a time of personal crisis forces a rethink about what is important in life; it doesn’t matter what it is as long as we are asking the question what does God, my heavenly Father, want me to do with my life? His wages are virtually non-existent and insufficient even to provide enough food to overcome his hunger pangs. For this young man it took a crisis of this proportion before he would acknowledge his father. What does it take for you and me to put our trust in God? What does it take for us as Christians to keep our eyes fixed on Him? (b) The wisdom of the father was attractive (Luke 15:17-19)17 When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' On a typical Jewish farm of that era there
were three types of servants employed. First of all the bondservants who belonged to the family, stayed in their home and enjoyed numerous privileges; secondly there was a lower class of man servants and maidservants employed for a time on what would be the equivalent of a regular contract; lastly there was temporary hired help, employed on a casual basis, and these came from people on the margins of society. This younger son was hoping that he might find favour as one in the lowest class of employees [S. Kistemaker, The Parables of Jesus, p.219]. What a transformation from the arrogant young man who ‘knew everything’ and whose dad ‘knew nothing’ to a much wiser individual who had begun to learn his lesson, but at a terrible cost to himself –as he saw it. Actually how many of us growing up thought we knew ‘better’ than our parents at times as teenagers, but when we got into our twenties we saw just how much they had learned –or was it us that had begun to mature and grow up! Many people think that they can tell God how to improve His handling of the Universe. It is easy to be full of words –all of us can manage that. Yet wiser people recognise that humility in the light of who God is and what He has done for us is the most appropriate course of action. There is so much we will never understand about life. All kind of things will happen for which we have no reasonable explanation, but we learn to trust the Lord and acknowledge that He is in charge of our lives as well as the wider world. When we come as sinners for salvation confessing our sin and acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Saviour, or whether as believers we come asking for fresh grace and strength, it is in both cases as suppliants to an almighty God who is Lord of all. Are you looking up to Him to lead and guide you? When you make decisions about things in your family, about employment choices and a whole lot more –do you ask for His guidance to make the right choices? I hope we all do that.
4. A Plea of Repentance (Luke 15: 20-24) 4
(a)The deliberate act by the son (Luke 15:20-21)20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' Who set off first?
Easily â€“the young man he had been walking for days to get home! In one sense that is true, but how many days had the father gone to look down the road to see if there was any sight of his errant son returning home? The father could have sent his servants with a letter to summon the young man home much earlier than the time of his eventual return. Yet the father consciously chose to allow the rebellious son to come to his senses and acknowledge his sin before returning home. For the good of his son he held back. God the Father could easily force all humanity to trust Him and obey Him, but He has chosen to work through the Holy Spirit opening our hearts and minds to see the truth of the gospel so that we freely and willingly yield to His call on our lives when we come to Christ. At the time of our conversion it usually appears to most Christians that we did the primary choosing, but as we look back we start to see the hand of God at work putting in place the circumstances that led to our heeding the Spiritâ€™s voice. God is sovereign in salvation yet we are also responsible for heeding His effectual call. Here is a beautiful picture of the grace of God to an undeserved sinner. None of us deserves to be saved, but the wonder of the Gospel is that because we are saved through the righteousness of Jesus, who died as our substitute on the cross, He accepts us because Jesus was good enough. Paul put it this way in II Corinthians 5:21: God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him (Jesus) we might become the righteousness of God. Once we grasp this we will be less tempted to look down on other Christians who may have made less progress in the faith or who have been less dedicated in His service. The young man had rehearsed his lines in a plea of mitigation, expecting the worst, but amazingly the father representing God showed incredible grace and love. (b)The decisive action of the father (Luke 15:22-24) 22But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate. The son having been given his inheritance was officially cut
off from the family. He had no right to expect to be welcomed home or even acknowledged at his former home. However, the father had him clothed in new clothes; a useful step for someone whose one set of clothes were impregnated with pig smells! But more than that, by putting a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet the father was declaring that he was welcoming the young man back home as his younger son. He was now, for a second time, welcomed into the family. He was in effect, born again. The rejoicing was genuine but extravagant and showed the depth of welcome there was for this repentant young man. Yet this is not just a feature of this story. In the previous parable about the shepherd who finds his lost sheep, the man invites his neighbours round to celebrate the finding of the missing animal. In addition, Jesus says: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7). This is an incredible verse in the Bible. It appears to imply that when
someone is converted on earth that this event is announced in heaven and some kind of celebration takes place. No wonder heaven is such a joyful place when people come to faith somewhere in the world every day! But think of it personally when you trusted Jesus â€“your conversion was announced in some way in heaven! Our sin problem is more serious than we ever imagined, but as His people we are loved by God more than we could ever imagine possible. 5. A Plan of Redemption (Luke 15:25-32) 5
(a)The problem of good son (Luke 15:25-30)25 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' 28 The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' Our heavenly Father loves us all
equally and it greatly saddens His heart when His children don’t get on with each other. In too many churches there are cliques and factions, the in group and the rest; there is no place for that in a God-glorifying, Christ-honouring, Spirit empowered church. This man struggled with the concept of grace, that his father could love the undeserving. If we think (wrongly) God saved us, somehow, because in some way, our goodness contributed to our salvation, then the natural tendency will be to look down on those people who seriously mess up their lives. The Pharisees present that day identified fully with the older son and would see nothing wrong and everything right with his reaction to the father’s actions. So when someone shows up at church who hasn’t been there for weeks months or even years we don’t say in a solemn voice and with a huge frown: ‘where have you been?’ rather we express our delight to welcome them as God does. Part of our problem can sometimes be a jealousy or frustration that other people are not pulling their weight. Peter when Jesus recomissioned him, after the resurrection, could not resist slipping back into the old Peter mode when he enquired with respect to John Lord, what about him? (John 21:21). We need to keep out eyes on Jesus and model ourselves on His gracious approach to people. There may be truth in what the elder son says, but what he has failed to grasp is the grace God gave that prevented him from committing all the sins his brother fell into. In church so often we prefer to hear the dramatic testimonies of former ‘wicked’ sinners who did things considered socially very bad, and fail to give due honour to the witness of those spared such failures. Remembering that God loves us equally will help put some situations into a clearer perspective. (b) The grace of the generous father (Luke 15:31-32)31 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' Actually, as a result of the younger son
pressurising his father into giving him his own inheritance, by definition, the older son received his (everything else) at the same time. Yet he had no joy in the blessings he was experiencing. His jealously at the minor blessings poured out on his brother caused him to lose all sense of perspective. What damage can be caused to friendships when jealousy and envy force their wicked way into relationships. Let’s pull out these weeds when their seeds start to grow in our hearts. By contrast may each of us seek a gracious and loving heart like the Father to needy people, so that they too might also come to share the blessings we enjoy in Christ; and do so together that this church may ever be a reservoir of grace in this community, to the glory of God, Amen.
Luke 17:1-10 Preparing for the Final Banquet Introduction The focus of this message will be mainly on verses seven to ten, in the context of Luke’s Gospel and his teaching on what it means to be a servant of our heavenly Master. His teaching in this context was seen of great significance in a culture where so many ordinary people were ‘in service’ or had been in service at some point in their lives to a human master. The passage addresses issues of Christian discipleship and invites the followers of Jesus to keep their hearts and minds on the calling He has entrusted to us. Our Lord knew that then and now the world contains so many distractions, good things, things of no particular significance or bad things that can take up our resources, our time and our abilities and the years can pass by so quickly and so little is sometimes accomplished. For most of us as Christians the challenge is to discern between the good and the best; between what may be permissible or desirable and what is God’s will for our lives; It is often difficult when life takes some surprising turns to know how God would have us react to them. Some people struggle with success and it turns their heads away from honouring the Lord as they enjoy putting self on the throne; other Christians struggle with adversity –why did God allow this job to be lost, this career to be denied; my health to break down or relationships in my family to fracture? There are often no simple answers or explanations. Yet in line with the example of Jesus our calling is to keep our focus on our Lord and the way He honoured His Father in the way He conducted His life. Jesus spoke about those who are faithful in little things being honoured with greater opportunities for service. Although the opening verses of Luke 17 do not easily link with verses seven to ten, the broad points Jesus is making are clear enough to His first hearers and readers today. 1. The importance of deeply rooted faith (Luke 17:1-6) (a)The necessity of a good example (Luke 17:1-2)1 Jesus said to his disciples: Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Jesus’ main focus here is on each disciple making the right choices for
their own walk with God, but in the first two verses, following the appallingly bad choices of the rich man with respect to Lazarus in the previous chapter, there is a strong appeal to live uprightly in order to avoid hindering the spiritual progress of other followers of Jesus. This is incredibly serious leading other people astray, either by wrong teaching or misleading conduct. This is especially the case with respect to younger people. What does Jesus say here? Luke 17:2, the actual words of Jesus: It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Here it could literally be a child or younger person or a person young in the faith who has been told to disbelieve the Bible or encouraged to disobey its teaching in their lifestyle. This is especially true for people who teach God’s Word. James 3:1 states: Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. This is how God views heterodox theological opinions about the eternal realities of heaven and hell or ethical matters about how we behave. If God has spoken then to say well the Bible says this but I think it is wrong is blasphemous. It is what God has spoken that we believe not what happens to be popular in the wider culture. Do we fear God most or the opinions of those around us at work or in our social circles or wherever? It can never be both. Paul reminds us of our calling in II Corinthians 5:9-10: So we make it our goal to please Him, whether we are at 1
home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad .
This could be a costly business in twenty-first century Britain. There are a small but increasing numbers of Christians who have lost their employment not because they have done anything wrong, but because an employer or manager took exception to their Christian faith. Until the last few years there were hardly any cases like this at all, but the so-called ‘Equality-Laws’ passed by the previous Labour Government, privilege some people’s rights above others and a number of recent court cases show the inevitable outcome of such discrimination. It affects Church life. The disgraceful scenes in some churches where people living lives dishonouring to God can be accepted as Ministers, Lay-leaders and Church members can only bring the cause of Christ into disrepute. It is though personal as well as collective and while pointing the finger at the sins of others is easy, it is essential that there is no cause for concern in our own Christian pathway. We are all sinners and but for the grace of God could commit every sin listed in the Bible. Therefore, we have to take a watchful eye to our own motives, words and conduct, so that we honour the Lord and encourage others to join us glorifying His name through right living. (b) The scandalous nature of grace (Luke 17:3-4) 3So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him. Some people think Christianity is for losers or weak people. Have they ever tried following Jesus? I don’t think such people have even begun to grasp what it is about when they make such claims. There are two aspects here to our care for fellow believers, in addition to first watching over ourselves. (i) Intolerance of sinful conduct If your brother sins, rebuke him… (Luke 17:3a). Paul in Galatians 6:1-5 expanded upon this principle. Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempte d 2 Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load. Here there is a constant balance between concern for the actual sins of others
and the possibility that we ourselves might need to be corrected by other believers sometimes. The easiest thing in the world in such situations is to look away and pretend we didn’t notice anything. Not getting involved makes life so much easier, but it is not the way of Jesus. The way of love is to seek what is best for a brother or sister in Christ. Therefore, a constant watch to see that the Lord is honoured in our midst will glorify Him, but it must be with humility and a conscious awareness of our own shortcomings. We will never take pleasure in the mistakes of others; that should only bring genuine sorrow at their failures. (ii) A generous spirit of forgiveness if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him (Luke 17:3b-4) . In the world how tragic is the quantity of bitterness and unforgiveness people carry around with them; what is worse how disturbing are the number of cases of Christians doing exactly the same. Jesus, in Mathew 6:14-15 declared: 14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. This is incredibly tough love. Only the enabling power of the Holy Spirit
will enable us to love people like this with a sincere heart. (c) The remarkable character of faith (Luke 17:5-6) 5 The apostles said to the Lord, Increase our faith! 6 He replied, If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:3-4 seems as
tough as it could possibly be, but He continues with a statement about the remarkable character of the faith we have in our Almighty God. The mustard seed, although not the smallest known to us today, was certainly the smallest seed known to the people of Jesus’ 2
day. So Jesus is saying that the believer with the slightest faith in God can accomplish extraordinary things for God. This bush or tree was reputed to be as strongly rooted as any in the Holy Land at that time. Its roots were also incredibly deep and under normal circumstances uprooting such a bush or tree would be well nigh impossible for a person armed only with a spade or shovel. In effect Jesus is declaring that a person deeply rooted in Him will accomplish things in His service that they would have previously considered as well beyond their capabilities. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians in Ephesians 3:20-21 reflects such a spirit: Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, 21 to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen . This is the mindset Jesus
commends to His followers. The words of Luke 17:7-10 must be seen in this context. 2. The example of Jesus in God-honouring service (Luke 12:35-38) Luke has already addressed this subject in Luke 12:35-38: Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning,36 like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.38 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. In these verses Jesus has warned His disciples to be constantly watching out for His
return, at the same time as going about their daily business. Paul had to rebuke some Thessalonian Christians who were sat about doing nothing waiting for Jesus’ return (II Thessalonians 3:6-12). The Christian (who is healthy and full command of their faculties) will be busy making their life count for God at home, in the workplace as well as in church activities. Yet in extraordinary role reversal the One in authority chooses to serve those under his authority. They could not have expected it nor could they have assumed they were entitled to it, but the Lord over them models a way of life that is so contrary to worldly standards and values. In Luke 22:24-27 this teaching is confirmed with some words from Jesus at the Last Supper: Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Luke does not choose to include the illustration of Jesus washing the
disciples’ feet, as John does (John 13:1-17), instead he cites just the teaching that followed that lesson into the nature of Christian service. Paul, in his great hymn of praise to Jesus, wrote about His earthly ministry in this light: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!(Philippians 2:6-8). This is
shocking teaching to people living in a rigid hierarchical class system where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. The nearest we have to it today is the Hindu caste system, which though abolished years ago is still practised in many parts of India to this day. Following Jesus is not about asserting our rights it is about taking delight in exercising the right of service in His name. We do this because He first modelled this approach in His own ministry here on earth two thousand years ago. 3. The nature of Christian service (Luke 17:7-10) 3
(a)The social context of this story In our culture only the wealthy can have their resident maid, housekeeper, butler or gardener. However, in Jesus’ day only the poorest of the underclass did not benefit from the service of other people. The very poorest people allowed their children to work as servants in order for them to eat and survive. The homes of the ordinary people of that day would have had only one hired helper in their homes. This individual may in turn work as a ploughman, a herdsman and the chief cook and bottle-washer! The Jewish Talmud, the lengthy volume giving guidance for observant Jews in the centuries around the time of Jesus, ‘assumes, as a matter of course, that the ordinary man has at least one slave’ [K.E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p.115]. In this story we must not assume the man in question is a wealthy landowner; he may be a man of modest means who rents a piece of land to grow crops for his family or to feed his animals. This is the world in which Jesus’ hearers lived and the teaching given in association with the story assumes that His hearers could recognise this social environment as their own. (b) The telling of this story (Luke 17:7-8)7 Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? 8 Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? In our modern age when the
average worker is assumed to work Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm it appears deeply unfair for this servant in the story to be working all hours with no apparent time off. There is no question that unlike the previous story in Luke 12:35-38 this story reflects life as it was lived in Jesus’ day and no-one hearing Jesus speak would have raised any issues with it. The master has complete authority over his servant and can expect absolute obedience in return. The form of the wording in Luke 17:7 requires a negative answer. No-one listening to Jesus would expect to behave in the way described in that verse. The man ploughed the field because he was entrusted to carry out that task. He could not expect special honours simply because he had completed the tasks assigned to him. In the same way many members of the public in our country rightly question the appropriateness of giving honours in the Queen’s Lists to politicians or civil servants or other people who have done no more than what they are often well-paid to do in the first place. Honours ought to be reserved for people who have rendered exceptional service in some form of human endeavour which is recognised by the wider community. We, like the servant in the story, need to exercise the self-discipline that goes with whatever vocation or calling we are engaged in at any particular time. A professional footballer ought not to expect praise because they are physically fit – it goes with the job. An office worker should not expect praise because they have some basic computer skills, it goes with the job. It is never inappropriate to encourage and express appreciation for one another, but that ought never to be the basis on which we approach our work. In the same way in our Christian discipleship our Master has given us instructions how to live our lives which we will follow until He comes again or calls us home first. (c) The significance of the story (Luke 17:9-10) 9
Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' Jesus is teaching clearly in this story that the Master is in charge and His servants must
yield full obedience to Him. They are not his equal. Therefore a master would not eat in that social context with his servant. However, although Jesus could make such a claim on His status He chose to eat with His disciples and with people others considered ‘sinners’ and beyond the reach of God’s saving grace. In John 15:12-17 Jesus said some extraordinary words: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit— fruit that will last. Then the 4
Father will give you whatever you ask in My name.
This is My command: Love each other . In
Revelation 3:20 the Lord Jesus is pictured knocking at the door of a church that had excluded Him from its affairs. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me. Jesus could have chosen in Revelation chapter three to give strong orders or commands to that church that had lost its way. Instead the gracious way He approached them provides a model for any of us in approaching people who have wronged us or wronged the Lord. It is also commending humility in each of us about how we view our own service for the Lord. Jesus’ teaching here was in line with a number of rabbis from generations prior to His time on earth. Rabbi Simon the Just, who lived around 300BC is reported to have said: ‘be like slaves who serve the master not with a view to receiving a present: and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.’ [Mishnah, Pirke Aboth, 1:3] Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai (30-90AD and the leading rabbi of Judaism after the Fall of Jerusalem inAD70)), was also reported to have said: ‘If you have accomplished much in the law, don’t claim merit for yourself, for to this end you were created.’ [Pirke Aboth 2:8]. There is a significant word Jesus uses in verse 9: 9 Would he thank the servant because he did
what he was told to do? Literally the text reads: Does he have any grace / favour for the
servant…? Does this recall any memories of the Christmas story as Luke recounts it? In Luke 1:26-30 there is the record of some words spoken by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary: 26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. the basis of the choice of Mary
was the grace of God. The right treatment of the servant in the story depends on his Master having grace to give him. The servant has earned no right to special favours he is simply dependent on the grace of his master. This story is about our justification by God and reminding us that salvation cannot be earned by good deeds. It was a direct challenge to the teaching of the Pharisees who taught the opposite to Jesus on this subject. In our preparation for the final heavenly banquet when we will stand before the Lord, trusting that He will welcome us into His eternal home, it is important to remember that: The believer at best is God’s servant / slave and is expected to obey and known his /her place as a servant. We will not make a point of seeking to tell God how to do His work, only to seek to do our best in that entrusted to us. God’s salvation is a gift of His grace, not a reward for the completion of our duties. We work faithfully at the tasks assigned, recognising the sense of privilege we have to serve Him. God is our Master, but our obedience is manifested in our response to His Son who modelled for us the perfect example as God’s servant on earth. True believers will be rewarded in heaven because they served not for the reward, but to honour their Lord and Saviour [based on K.E. Bailey, through Peasant Eyes, p.126]. The apostle Paul expressed it this way in some very familiar words in Ephesians 2:8-10: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no-one can boast.10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. May He enable us live lives pleasing to Him, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Luke 24:13-35 Dinner with the resurrected Jesus Introduction Everyone of us has had some experiences that we will never forget. My friend Revd Fred Wilson had one of those moments when he and his wife Muriel were invited to spend an evening at Buckingham Palace with the Queen and some other guests. Why would Her Majesty request the pleasure of the company of a Baptist minister and his wife at a dinner in honour of a visiting head of state? The mystery is easy to resolve as Revd Wilson was President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain that year and the visiting head of state and his wife were Baptists. I cannot remember who the visiting dignitaries were but my memory of all those years ago is of Fred and Muriel wondering what on earth you should wear for dinner in Buckingham Palace. They packed their suitcases and duly arrived on the appointed day and were shown to their rooms in the afternoon at the appointed hour. Staff at the palace came and measured them up and later that day returned with evening wear in the appropriate sizes. All the guests would be kitted out in similar clothes so no-one would stand out. He must have said something about the dinner and the conversation but all I can recall is their nervousness about all that needed to be sorted out for mixing with royalty and other people of high social status. Cleopas and his wife Mary for the rest of their lives would remember this walk with the stranger on that seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, in particular the moment when they were reclining at the table at their home when the stranger said grace while breaking the bread. At that very moment they recognised it was Jesusthat Jesus was alive not dead after all â€“ just as they had been told, but had not believed. The day would end as the most unforgettable of their lives. 1. The Problem that Crushed Them (Luke 24:13-24) It is Sunday the day of resurrection. The followers of Jesus had congregated in Jerusalem, stunned by the death of the One they loved. They had waited in the City of Jerusalem consumed by their grief â€“now it was the third day. They could not continue in mourning forever. They had to get on with their lives -irrelevant though it seemed at that time. Cleopas (also known as Alphaeus â€“according to Hegessipus a 2 nd century AD historian living in the Holy land) was the brother of Joseph, the late step-father of Jesus. The grief was not solely that the One they believed was the promised Messiah had died; it was also a matter of a family bereavement as well. The apostolic circle was a close-knit community with many of those people also blood-relatives of each other, as well as being followers of Jesus. It was all too much to take in. The resurrection of Jesus was the last thing they expected, except at the last day when God would raise with new bodies the righteous who had died, in line with the standard Jewish view of the end-times. Despite the clear teaching of Jesus concerning His death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) neither fact had sunk in to the consciousness of His followers. Like many an intimation announced in churches up and down the land where words are clearly enunciated, but the information provided does not register with a proportion of the people in earshot of the intended communication! To express amazement that they did not recognise Jesus is to miss the depth of their bereavement. In an unfamiliar place we do not recognise friends we did not expect to see and may not return greetings. In a context of a traumatic loss of the person around whom your life was centred and on whom your hopes for the future
rested concentration on anything will be at a minimum. I suspect that the last thing this couple really wanted was company on their lonely walk back to the village of Emmaus. In such a case eye contact would have been minimal if at all. Even if the stranger gave his name as Jesus this name was one of the most common first names of that era –not so in any future generations because the majority of Jews avoided it to prevent association with the followers of the Nazarene prophet. Christians likewise declined the use of this name out of reverence for their Lord. At a time when people were looking for the Messiah and hoping that it might possibly be their son –giving a boy the name Jesus (meaning Saviour) was a perfectly natural thing for them to do in that religious and cultural context. After all the man who led the zealot gang on trial before Pilate at the time of Jesus’ arrest was called Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:1617), but for reverential reasons to our Lord the first name of this terrorist / freedom – fighter was omitted from the text of Scripture. Origen the 4 th Century Church Father was of the view that ‘no-one who is a sinner [should be called] Jesus’. Jesus’ first words to this couple and their response set the tone for the majority of this encounter. Luke 24:13-18 states: 13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognising him.17 He asked them, What are you discussing together as you walk along? They stood still, their faces downcast.18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days? Cleopas is
only making polite conversation. He is struggling to grasp the possibility that the stranger alongside them has missed the tragedy that has unfolded in Jerusalem. Jesus does not give the game away by the open question what things? recorded in verse 19; This provides the opportunity for Cleopas to outline the nature and extent of his faith in the Lord Jesus in verses 19-24: About Jesus of Nazareth, they replied. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see. Cleopas is clear whom he
viewed as the Messiah –Jesus of Nazareth. He describes Jesus as a prophet. From early in His ministry Galileans had recognised Jesus as a prophet. In John 6:14, after the feeding of the ‘five thousand’ people said: Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world. This is a reference back to Deuteronomy 18:15: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to Him.
Here was a committed follower who like the other disciples struggled to find the correct vocabulary to describe Jesus, but had offered total loyalty to Him during His three years of public ministry. Verse 21 makes it very plan that this hope has been crushed: but we had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. It is likely that in common with the majority of the Orthodox Jews of that day this couple had seen Jesus as a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom by force. This teaching of the Pharisees was held by all the devout people in the land –though not by the sceptical Sadducees; only a tiny proportion of people like Simeon and Anna in Jerusalem had any kind of inkling that the work of the Messiah might not be in line with traditional expectations.
Even the early reports from the women of the resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent confirmation of an empty tomb had made no impact upon them as Luke 24:22-24 records: 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see. Any notion of the
disciples of Jesus making up the resurrection of Jesus is utterly inconceivable –such a notion would never have entered their heads. 2. The Person that Changed Them (Luke 24:25-31) 25 He said to them, How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. 28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going further. 29 But they urged him strongly, Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over. So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight.
The words of verse 25 to 26 uttered by Jesus must have taken them by surprise. The stranger who appeared ignorant of the events of the past week was now rebuking them for their lack of understanding of what had taken place. Cleopas and Mary had thought the stranger was foolish because he was apparently unaware of the sad events that had taken place in Jerusalem. It had been a week that had begun so well with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus challenged them to look at all the Scriptures –the Old Testament- and see how there was a clear reference to a suffering Messiah. Many rabbis both before and after the death of Jesus accepted that the Messiah would suffer; those Jewish scholars who wrote after the New Testament era naturally pointed to a future messiah still to come, they did not accept it was Jesus of Nazareth, otherwise they would have become Messianic Jews, that is Jewish believers in Jesus. We can only guess at which Scriptures Jesus chose to expound on the road to Emmaus. It is probable that some of these passages were amongst those used in sermons recorded in the book of Acts by Luke. Jewish Christians in the synagogues would also have been likely to follow our Lord’s selection of Scripture verses –if that information was available. Jesus’ use of the Old Testament was revolutionary to this couple. This was not because He was doing anything different in His use of the Bible from before His crucifixion, but because the concentration on this one subject was greater and more penetrating than before. It had taken the crushing of their misguided hopes as to the nature of Jesus’ messiahship and the nature of the kingdom of God that He was proclaiming, before they could really grasp something of what Jesus was trying to teach them. However are not we equally guilty sometimes of seeking to get God to bless our plans rather than requesting guidance for the discernment of His direction for our lives? Many Christians have testified over the years that it was in their desperation that the Lord met with them and lifted them out of their depression, despair or some form of difficulties. Praise God that no problem is too big for God to handle. Jesus indicated when they arrived at their home that He would continue on His journey. They had to make a determined effort to persuade Him to stay the night at their house. He never imposes Himself on people in any generation –rather inviting us to follow Him as Lord and Saviour. To be a Christian we have to heed His voice and call upon our lives and enter into a relationship with the living God. As Christians we
must seek to grow in our fellowship with God and in our love for God. It is sobering to think how easily they could have missed out on knowing that they had met with Jesus! Exactly the same dilemma faces us –if we are not open to following Him as we should. However they invited Jesus in and as He said grace over a very simple meal their spiritual eyes were open to recognise the guest in their home. Normally the host said the grace –but something must have happened for Cleopas to invite the guest to say the prayer. Bread was symbolically broken and a piece eaten after the grace signifying that the meal was now being eaten. We walk by faith, not by sight –just at the moment their eyes were opened Jesus disappeared from their sight. Enough evidence of the identity of their guest led them to finish their meal in a hurry and then start back on the journey to Jerusalem – this time as firm believers in the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. 3. The Prospect that Confirmed Them (Luke 24:32-35) 32 They asked each other, Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon. 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.
Aren’t we all grateful for the benefits of hindsight! So many things are so obvious later in so many areas of our lives. Included in that understanding of the past is our relationship with Jesus; why did I not come to faith sooner? What was it that prevented me from acknowledging Jesus as I should have done? Or as a Christian are there any current blind-spots that are hindering me from living for Jesus as I should? This couple and other early Jewish followers of Jesus would often have asked –why did it take me so long to grasp what He was meaning in His sermons? Why was it that it was only after that first Easter that we grasped what He was saying about His death and resurrection. The past cannot be changed but the future can be –it is up to us to make the best use of our time to live for the Lord as we should. It was getting late even by the time they had arrived at the house. Verse 28 stated that it was nearly evening. It most certainly was evening when they did set off –a time when virtually no-one was on the roads with legitimate business. However it is likely that they could get to Jerusalem before it was totally dark. What a transformation of the scene in the Upper Room to the one Cleopas and Mary had left behind earlier in the day. From doom and gloom to joy and great celebrations because Jesus had met with them that evening in Jerusalem. Jesus had also appeared that day to Simon Peter (I Corinthians15:5) though the details are not recorded on that occasion. A later meeting with Peter is recorded in John chapter 21. Now Cleopas and Mary’s story was simply another confirmation of what the others already knew. Within a short period of time Jesus was again to appear in their midst – however as Jesus was to tell Thomas a week later in John 20:29: Because you have seen Me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. The resurrection of Jesus transforms our lives because it is the final and demonstrable proof that God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross in our place. It is also a solemn reminder that if the Bible has been proven true regarding the details of Jesus’ first coming then we need to take with the utmost seriousness the reminder of His second coming as the judge of all the earth. God will fulfil all those prophecies too. For us as Christians He has left the Great Commission with us to urge us on to share the good news. Cleopas and Mary played their part –the question remains will you and I do the same in our generation? Amen.
Mark 16 Are you looking for Jesus? Introduction Truth is stranger than fiction on many occasions. At first sight there are some stories we assume must have been invented or inflated, but on occasions the information provided is completely accurate. ‘EU snaps up Gaza croc woman’ was a BBC news headline on Monday 26 March 2007. What images does this conjure up in your mind? Gaza is part of the Palestinian territories but not exactly known for its reptile population! What could possibly have happened here? Incredibly a woman was stopped by border customs officials who were suspicious that although she might have been as large as her clothing size suggested, it was somewhat questionable. When she was asked to remove her large outer garments the guards found three living crocodiles strapped to her body. The three crocodiles 40-50cm /15-20 inches long were hidden under her dress. An EU spokeswoman, Maria Chavarri, for the border police, said ‘no-one had ever been found guilty of smuggling live crocodiles under their clothing before, this truly beats a few extra duty-frees’. On the following day the BBC News bulletins showed some incredible pictures of a giant male cane toad, the size of a small dog, captured in Australia’s northern territory. These poisonous toads have been responsible for the death of crocodiles, after they had eaten some of the toads. The captor of one of these giant toads, Graeme Sawyer, was reported as saying: “He is huge. I would hate to meet his big sister!” (BBC News 27.3.07). Real life is stranger than fiction. The events of that first Easter were beyond the wildest imaginings of almost, if not everyone, close to it in Jerusalem that weekend over 2,000 years ago. On the day we call Good Friday Jesus was confirmed as dead by 3pm and placed in a stone tomb on the outskirts of the city by sunset. They thought it was all over and no-one could have blamed them for it. Mark 16:1-13 records the initial responses of followers of Jesus early on the Sunday morning, the first Easter Sunday morning. What was their response? (Mark 16:1-8): When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb3 and they asked each other, Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb? 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 Don't be alarmed, he said. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
1. Their Devotion (Mark 15:40-41, 47) 40
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. Who was it that remained at Jesus’ cross when the vast majority of followers
of Jesus had gone into hiding? No speeches of devotion from these ladies to rival the oratory of the male disciples at the Last Supper. Here there was silent suffering as they supported the mother of Jesus helplessly observing the death of her eldest son.
Who was it that observed where the body of Jesus was taken after Pilate the Roman governor gave it to Joseph and Nicodemus, leading Jewish figures who had taken responsibility for burial arrangements after His death, but had never had the courage when He was alive to identify with the cause of Jesus of Nazareth, because of the possible cost to their reputations or career? It was these women who were consistent in their loyalty and devotion. There are people in our society who are sceptical about the accuracy of the resurrection accounts in the Bible. They tell us: ‘dead people cannot come back to life, it is impossible’. What they often don’t know is that in that culture a woman was not acceptable as a witness in a legal case. Had the Gospel writers been writing fiction, rather than describing a historical event, there was zero chance the ‘witnesses’ would have been women. All would have been male in order for the story to have credibility. Therefore, for each of the Gospel writers to tell us that the people who had the honour of recognising that Jesus had risen from the grave were female could only be because this is exactly what had happened on Sunday 5 April AD33, 1979 years ago. The credibility of the male followers of Jesus may pick up later, but they hardly cover themselves in glory by their conduct up to this point in the story. However, we need to ask how we would have behaved in that context and under the pressures they were facing. Would we necessarily have done much better? We can never give a definitive answer to that question because those events have passed into history. Jesus is looking today for such people men and women of conviction and dedication not afraid to stand for the truth, not afraid to face opposition for their beliefs, not afraid to be in a minority when what they believe is of vital importance. Not afraid to speak up when others are silent –can God count on you? This can mean in the first instance committing your life to Jesus. Have you ever taken that first step of public commitment to Christ –or is this day the day when you will acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and Saviour? As a believer is this the day when you will come forward and say I too will be willing to confess my faith in baptism as Jesus calls me to do –the first step of obedience for Christian disciples. 2. Their Sacrifice (Mark 16:1) When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. This was not all, Luke 23:56 records that prior to the start of the Jewish Sabbath they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. Funerals in the Middle East to this day take place remarkably quickly
after a death. It is not uncommon for funerals to be arranged and carried out on the same day as a person’s death, where this is possible. A mixture of the hot climate and Middle Eastern cultures had led to this practice becoming standard. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were two wealthy men who had done at least all that the law required in terms of taking care of the body of Jesus and arranging His burial. What these ladies did went beyond that in their love and devotion; not forgetting the high financial cost of their actions. Money and material things, however, was not the source of their motivation in life; doing what Jesus wanted was number one for them. Aromatic oils had been purchased to anoint the body of Jesus and spices to offset the odours from a decomposing body. As this was the third day after Jesus’ death, only the most dedicated follower would engage in such a practise so late after death in that culture. In addition, it has to be remembered that no followers of Jesus were expecting His bodily resurrection, despite Him mentioning it on numerous occasions to them. The Bible portrays God’s people honestly as they were, revealing their strengths and
their weaknesses. The fact that none of them was really convinced anything good would happen on that first Easter Sunday reminds us that they like us at times are weak in faith and having low expectations of what God might do in our midst and in our lives. What about you and me, what is our motivation for living? What is it that gets you out of bed on a Monday morning? You need a motivation simply to resist turning over after silencing the alarm clock! What keeps you going when you have taken another knock or discouraging blow for what you believe or are trying to do? These events that first Easter remind us that God can take very ordinary people weak in faith and doubting what difference they can make for Him to accomplish far more than they might ever dream of or pray for. Easter Sunday was the special date in the church calendar from the third or forth centuries onwards when believers were baptised. The change came about after the official recognition of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine. At that time many people flocked into the churches. They were put through preparation classes that lasted the best part of a year. If this seems a little excessive to us we need to remember how recently regular martyrdoms had been for these Christian Churches and on a pastoral level it was felt that extensive preparations would help prepare believers for the challenge of living in a hostile society. The identification with Jesus in His dedication to the call of God in His life is so vividly represented by what this ordinance signifies to us. Baptism symbolises a dying to self and giving God the old life as we go under the water; emerging out of the water it is a new start to live the future of our lives 100% for the Lord. Have you taken this step of faith yet? Or as a Christian baptised many years ago how are you getting on with keeping your promises? Do you need to ask Godâ€™s forgiveness and pledge afresh to put Him first, to give Him the place to which He is entitled? 3. Their Obedience (Luke 23:56) Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment (Luke23:56). Too often when the subject of religion
comes up some people immediately have the mental caricature of emotional women and hard-headed men addressing this subject, with only the former â€˜needing religionâ€™. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the real world it is so often the women who are prepared to be honest with each other about their feelings or how life is going. By contrast too often men stick to safe subjects such as work, sport and the weather to avoid discussing what is really going on in their lives. Women are more willing than men on many occasions to stand up for their principles when men may be absent. It has often been commented that when candidates are sought by Christian mission societies for service in some of the toughest mission fields overseas, that a large majority of the candidates are women, in proportions greater than from a representative sample of church members. On the contrary here it was the male disciples who had gone all emotional and hidden themselves away after the death of Jesus had been confirmed. Then and now it takes real guts to take a stand for Jesus at school, university and in the workplace, where a majority of people will hold to different views. These ladies knew exactly what they were doing. They were upset, but their emotions were under control. The trauma of the occasion did not disguise their determination to do what they could, nor did it stop them from observing the Jewish law regarding how they ought to conduct themselves on the Sabbath day. Their
devotion to Jesus was seen in the costly materials they had purchased to take to the tomb. Yet it was not an impulsive purchase as might be the case of some items in the trolley or basket we might obtain in the supermarket. Like the lady Mary (John 12) at Bethany who anointed Jesus with a jar of alabaster oil, a most expensive perfume, where some men criticised her actions for extravagance, Jesus’ comments were challenging: She did what she could (Mark 14:8). She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. If you or I was to die tonight –would a fair reflection on our Christian lives be ‘he/she did what she/he could?’ Only God and you /me knows the truth of the answer we might give to Him. 4. Their Reward (Mark 16:5-11) 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 Don't be alarmed, he said. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. 9 When Jesus rose
early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with Him and who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen Him, they did not believe it. Who was it who received the wonderful news of the resurrection of Jesus? It was the followers of Jesus who had been most faithful to Him in these dark hours; Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32-33: Whoever acknowledges Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever disowns Me before men, I will disown him before My Father in heaven. Jesus Christ is looking down into the hearts of
each one of us today. Where do you stand? I thank God for those who have acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Saviour and have had the courage to tell others what they have done –have you taken the stand for Jesus, because He is also calling you to acknowledge Him today. The supreme honour on that Easter morning went to Mary Magdalene. John in John 20:10-18 records Jesus’ special encounter with her. Listen to what John recorded of that occasion: 11 but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.13 They asked her, Woman, why are you crying? They have taken my Lord away, she said, and I don't know where they have put Him. 14 At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.15 Woman, he said, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? Thinking He was the gardener, she said, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him. 16 Jesus said to her, Mary. She turned towards Him and cried out in Aramaic, Rabboni! (which means Teacher). The rewards of following Jesus are not
measured in material terms, even though for some people their embracing of our faith enables them to leave behind destructive lifestyles that have impoverished their lives in a variety of ways and it is no surprise if they are better off in almost every way once they become disciples of Jesus. The greatest reward is having the assurance that we are pleasing the Lord Jesus and honouring Him in our daily lives and recognising that one day He will acknowledge us before His Father in heaven.
5. Their Responsibility to tell other people about Jesus (Mark 16:7-8; John 20:17-18)
In John 20 we have the account of how Jesus encouraged Mary to go and tell the other disciples of her meeting with the risen Lord. Until the good news was passed on they were missing its blessing. 17 Jesus said [to Mary], Do not hold on to Me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to My brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.'18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: I have seen the Lord! And she told them that He had said these things to her. Mark (16:7-8) indicates how hard this was for them in the first instance 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. It took real effort to overcome their fears to
talking to people about Jesus. You and I may have those fears as well at times, but we need to overcome them and tell other people the good news. When we struggle in verbal witness for the Lord Mark 16:8 reminds us that the first followers of Jesus also found it just as hard in their cultural context. Are there people or a person that God has been asking you as a Christian to share your faith with? If God is speaking to you about this just now –will you honour Him by pledging to get on with this today, or this week or as soon as possible! Conclusions These women showed total dedication to Jesus? Will you do the same whether a first step of commitment to follow Jesus or a pledge to give Him 100% as a Christian. Are you a private Christian struggling as these ladies did with telling others about your faith, but now is the time for public declaration of your faith –in baptism? Their sacrifice was something they accepted as part of following Jesus –was it something that encouraged Joseph and Nicodemus to take a stand? Will you give a good example to others in the way we follow Jesus? They were obedient just doing what Jesus asked them to do –that is all He asks of us too! Their reward to be the first witnesses of the resurrection; God honours those that honour Him that includes you and me, but we cannot say how that will take place, but be assured it will happen. Finally, they had the responsibility to tell others just as we do today as well, Amen.
II Chronicles 7 v14 God’s invitation to His people Introduction Many years ago when fountain pens and ink were used by children in school and desks were still issued with ink wells, the following incident took place in a classroom. It began with a question out of the blue from a child to the teacher: ‘Is God everywhere?’ asked the child. ‘Yes dear’ said the unsuspecting teacher keen to move on to the work in hand. ‘Is he in my inkwell, then?’ A significant pause occurred as the teacher sensed the conversation might be heading in an unprofitable direction. A less than convincing ‘yes dear’ was repeated by the teacher. The child then quickly blocked off the top of the inkwell and exclaimed triumphantly: ‘Got him then!’ What is your understanding of God –who He is and what He is like? It is easy to smile at this child’s naivety, but how big is your view of God and mine? Do we try and fit God into a metaphorical ‘box’ of our own creation. Do we try and limit Him to work in ways that we have already determined? In effect simply using prayer as a means to get Him to confirm what we have already decided is going to take place already? Our vision of who God is will have a significant impact on how we pray and the passion with which we pray for Him to work. Solomon had at this time grasped something of who God is and this motivated his passion to pray for his nation. II Chronicles 6:18 states: 18 ‘But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain You. How much less this temple that I have built! 19 Yet, Lord my God, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in Your presence. Do
you have a glimpse of this awesome God who reigns? Do you stand in awe of this majestic King who reigns over the universe? Do you bow with a sense of awe and wonder at the prospect of the return of the Lord of Lords who will come to reign for eternity? We serve an incredible being One who is too marvellous for human words to describe; too pure to tolerate iniquity; too holy to look upon sin, but too gracious to treat us as we deserve because of our sins. Instead showering His great love upon us in Jesus whose once-for-all-time sufficient sacrifice for sin took in full the punishment for our sins, so that instead of condemnation we might be welcomed into God’s family. This is our God! Do you know Him? Do you love Him? Do you serve Him? II Chronicles 6-7, Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple, are central to the theology of the books of Chronicles and at the heart of the Jewish faith concerning the covenant between the children of Abraham and Yahweh, who made that agreement with their forefather Abraham roughly four thousand years ago. It is a powerful restatement of where these people and their nation stood in relation to the promises of the covenant with their Sovereign Lord. Solomon will plead the promises of God. He is determined to ask the Lord to honour His own name through deliverance of His people from a series of unwelcome situations. The culmination of this encounter with the Lord will come in II Chronicles 7:1214: the Lord appeared to him at night and said: ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a temple for sacrifices. 13 ‘When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people, 14 if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. What a
glorious promise! What an incredible invitation! What a solemn responsibility! God here invites His people on earth to participate in His glorious work through intercessory prayer. We are not called to say prayers, instead to pray from the heart crying out: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. However, are we eligible to use this text as a basis for our prayers?
1. Is this conditional promise applicable to Christians? (II Chronicles 6:32-33) There have been Bible commentators and writers who have stated that these promises related to the land in the Old Testament only were applicable to Old Testament Israel. They say we cannot use these verses as the basis for our prayers in the New Testament era, in the post-Pentecost age when the Church of Jesus Christ began roughly 2,000 years ago. These words here in II Chronicles 6-7 are the inspired Word of God. Is there any encouragement in these verses to utilise these verses to motivate us in intercessory prayer? It is inevitable that the main focus will be on the Jewish people of Solomon’s day. This day of dedication of the Temple complex was one of the greatest in Israel’s short history. It would have been understandable had the entire day been a focus on the Jews and their relationship with the Lord. However, the Holy Spirit inspired Solomon to make reference to people like us – Gentiles – and our privilege or responsibility to seek the Lord in prayer. In II Chronicles 6:32-33 there are these words recorded: 32 ‘As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when they come and pray towards this temple, 33 then hear from heaven, Your dwelling-place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of You, so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your own people Israel, and may know that this house that I have built bears Your Name (II Chronicles 6:32-33). This is our God also; not instead of the
Jews, but together we come in the name of Jesus, God’s Son our Saviour. Do you take the opportunity to come before God in prayer? Hebrews 4:14-16 encourages us to come as we are before the Lord, not because we are special or good enough, but because we come in the name of the One who is perfect and who has invited us to come before Him. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Has there been a time when you prayed and
committed your life to Jesus? Do you need to do that today? The Lord invites us to take that step of faith if you have never done so before. As a Christian have you held back from reaching out in earnest prayer because you we holding back control of part of your life from Him? The old hymn says: ‘All to Jesus I surrender... I surrender all, I surrender all; all to Thee my blessed Saviour, I surrender all’. Solomon has made plain that he believed under divine inspiration that all of us can truly seek God’s face and plead His promises for Him to work again in our land. 2. The Prayer of Solomon (II Chronicles 6:12-42) Let us look briefly at the prayer of Solomon to identify some of its features: (a)The nature of his prayer (II Chronicles 6:12-13) Notice: (i) His posture (6:12-13) He stood with his hands held out open and empty. The king the people normally saw as distinct from them was now identified with them as a suppliant in prayer. He was one of them, not someone who had everything he needed. At this time in his life Solomon had a sense of dependency on God. He could have this attitude because some time before in his life when God told him that he could have anything he wanted his choice of gifts from God was absolutely spot on. II Chronicles 1:7-10 recounts a dream the King had of God asking him to request anyone thing and it would be granted. What a temptation that might have been! What did Solomon ask for? II Chronicles 1:7-12a states: 7 That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, ‘Ask for whatever you want Me to give you. 8 Solomon answered God, ‘You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. 9 Now, Lord God, let Your promise to my father
David be confirmed, for You have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. 10 Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?’11 God said to Solomon, ‘Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honour, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, 12 therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. If tonight you were in that position
and God spoke to you with a similar offer –what response would you give to Him? This is not a silly question, because God knows what is really important to us. We will not pray with a passion for God to work if our every waking thought is focussed on getting something else. Jesus challenged His disciples with these words in Matthew 6:20-21: But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. What is your heart
most set on this morning? This is an incredibly difficult question to ask –though I don’t apologise for doing so. It is all about priorities. Are your eyes fixed on Jesus? One of the leaders in the mass evangelism movement in North America in the middle of the twentieth century was a young man from Canada, Charles Templeton, born in 1915. He was generally acknowledged to be the most versatile of the new young evangelists. Templeton soon rose to prominence, even surpassing another dynamic young preacher, Billy Graham. In 1946, he was listed among those best used of God by the National Association of Evangelicals. As the pastor of the rapidly growing Avenue Road Church in Toronto, which he had started with only his family and a few friends, Templeton also became one of three vice-presidents of the newly-formed Youth For Christ International organization in 1945. He then nominated his good friend, Billy Graham, to be field evangelist for the new ministry. Templeton, Graham, and a few others regularly spoke to thousands, winning many to Christ both in America and in Europe. Yet in the period 1947-48 Templeton warned Graham that it was ‘intellectual suicide’ to not question the Bible and to go on preaching God’s Word as authoritative. [www.answersingenesis.org website] The two men had various conversations and time in prayer.
One came more clearly to the conviction of the need to trust God completely and declare the simple truth: ‘The Bible says…’ and the other ultimately died in total apostasy almost unknown and forgotten. Solomon knew whom to trust and stretched out his hand open to the God he had come to love and trust –do you love Him? Have you placed your faith and trust in Him? This is the most important decision you will ever take in your life. (ii) His position (6:12-13) before the altar of the Lord … Solomon had allowed the Priests and Levites to carry out their appointed duties (II Chronicles 5:2-13a) and following their consecrated service –II Chronicles 5:13b-14 records: Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, 14
and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God. Each in turn had done what God had called them to do. Each needed the
benefits of the blood shed on the altar to cover their sins. We today no longer need these kinds of sacrifices because of Jesus’ once-for-all time perfect sacrifice as the substitute for sinners. Hebrews 9:12-14 declares: He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, so obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (iii) His nation (6:12-13, 21) in front of the whole assembly of Israel… Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling-place; and when you hear, forgive. We pray for ourselves, our families and our church family – yet here is an
example of a man who earnest prayed for his fellow citizens. Will you pray for your nation? Will you pray for the people of Scotland or UK to turn back to God? Isaiah 59:15-16 provided a most solemn challenge to the Old Testament people of God that was not taken up: In II Chronicles 7:14 we read: if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. But what happened –Isaiah 59:15-16: Truth is nowhere
to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16 He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intercede ; so His own arm achieved salvation for Him, and His own righteousness sustained Him. Can God count on
you? Can He count on me to intercede for our nation? (b) The Purpose of His Prayer (6:14-21) (i) The One addressed in prayer (6:14-15) 14 He said: ‘Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like You in heaven or on earth – You who keep your covenant of love with Your servants who continue wholeheartedly in Your way. 15 You have kept Your promise to Your servant David my father; with Your mouth You have promised and with Your hand You have fulfilled it – as it is today. Do we have this confidence in God as he did that day? It is
the basis of successful praying that we believe in the One to whom we bring our petitions. We can take prayer for granted or even our relationship with God, but to grasp the amazing honour that is ours in coming directly into the presence of the King of Kings is an amazing privilege. To keep before us what is truly the significance of prayer will keep us active in it when we are tempted to drift in our prayer life and neglect to safeguard its place in our daily routine. (ii) The past relationship with God (6:14-17) 17 And now, Lord, the God of Israel, let Your word that You promised Your servant David come true. On the basis of Your past promises I come with a sense of expectancy concerning what You will do in the present and into the future. God is unchanging. Psalm 90:1-2: Lord, You have been our dwelling-place throughout all generations.2 Before the mountains were born or You brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God. Hebrews 13:8 reminds us: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today for ever. Our time on earth is but a moment in the context of eternity, but we come to One who
knows the end from the beginning before the world began. Therefore we come with confidence to Him. (iii) The plea to God (6:18-21) In Jesus’ name we have free access to come to God in prayer (see Hebrews 4:16); ancient Israelites had to come through a human priest. (iv) The special occasions when people will pray (6:22-40) taking oaths in legal matters (6:22-23); after a defeat in war (6:24-25); in a time of drought (6:26-27); when natural disasters strike (6:28-31); when the country is going to war (6:33-34); when experiencing captivity and exile from the promised Land (6:36-40); each of these are seen as major collective crises where particular divine intervention is required. (v) His concluding plea to God (6:41-42) God will You glorify Your name, in accordance with what You have promised, which by definition must be for the collective good of Your people also. In effect, Lord align our heart’s desires to seek that which is according to Your will –now that is powerful praying – how did God respond to that powerful plea? 3. The Response from God (II Chronicles 7) (a)God’s visible response by fire (II Chronicles 7:1-10) When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘He is good; His love endures for ever.4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord. 5 And King Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty-two thousand head of cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats. So the king and all the people dedicated the temple of God. 6 The priests took up their positions, as did the Levites with the Lord’s musical instruments, which King David had made for praising the Lord and which were used when he gave thanks, saying, ‘His love endures for ever.’ Opposite the Levites, the priests blew their trumpets, and all the Israelites were standing. 7 Solomon consecrated the middle part of the courtyard in front of the temple of the Lord, and there he offered burnt offerings and the fat of the fellowship offerings, because the bronze altar he had made could not hold the burnt offerings, the grain offerings and the fat portions.8 So Solomon observed the festival at that time for seven days, and all Israel with him – a
vast assembly, people from Lebo Hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. 9 On the eighth day they held an assembly, for they had celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival for seven days more. 10 On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people to their homes, joyful and glad in heart for the good things the Lord had done for David and Solomon and for His people Israel. This was neither the first nor the last time when God manifested Himself to Israel with
this particular visible sign. After the appointment of Aaron and those with him to their priestly and serving roles, and all the appropriate ceremonies and sacrifices had taken place, Leviticus 9:23-24 states: Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down. Our God reigns! Another
example of the same phenomena came in the time of David’s rule after he had sinned by ordering a census of the armed forces. On the very place where God had directed David to purchase the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offer a sacrifice as an atonement for his sin- and collectively that of the nation –something carried out in full. I Chronicles 21:26 records: David built an altar to the Lord there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. He called on the Lord, and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering. What is especially significant is that a generation later on that very spot Solomon stood praying for the nation and pleading with God: When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple…(II Chronicles 7:1). This was holy ground, because God was in that
place. God had been exalted and His people - and visibly their king –had humbled themselves before Him, and seen their prayers answered. Does it matter enough to us to see God answer our prayers for His glory and consequently our good? Covenant blessings are conditional on covenant obedience by God’s people Jew or Gentile in every generation. (b) God’s answer to His praying people (II Chronicles 7:11-18) 11 When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, 12 the Lord appeared to him at night and said: ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. 13 ‘When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people, 14 if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that My Name may be there for ever. My eyes and My heart will always be there. 17 ‘As for you, if you walk before Me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe My decrees and laws, 18 I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, “You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel.” Notice the key revelation from God was not dramatic or in public, but
when Solomon was in bed one night thirteen years later (See I Kings 6:38-7:1, 9:10). Over the years in reading the Bible I have often failed to spot the lengthy time gaps between prayers for God to work by various people and the time it took to receive the answer to their prayers. How we need patience to wait God’s timing on so many things, in so many situations in our lives. The length of time is not determined necessarily by the earnestness of our prayers or the holiness of our lives, though both are important aspects of Christian discipleship. God works on a much longer timescale than we do –failure to grasp this can cause us to become discouraged because of a lack of a visible response to the Gospel when we reach out to people, but when we do grasp it we can put into perspective current blessings and challenges. God is not like a heavenly version of Santa Claus who delivers his gifts because it is that date on the calendar again. If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves- what does that mean in practice here? it requires a changed attitude with respect to oneself, a renunciation of putting self on the throne where God alone should be honoured and adored. This is one of the hardest things you and I can ever do. Humility is despised in our 5
culture and taken advantage of –yet it was a characteristic of Moses [Numbers 12:3: Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth ], who led a demoralised bunch of slaves and transformed them into a nation on the verge of inheriting a land God had promised to them. It was a characteristic of our Lord Himself that the apostle Paul highlights in that hymn of praise in Philippians2:8: And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death –even death on a cross! We sing: ‘Its all about You Jesus…When the music fades All is stripped away And I simply come Longing just to bring Something that's of worth That will bless Your heart I'll bring You more than a song For a song in itself Is not what You have required You search much deeper within Through the way things appear You're looking into my heart I'm coming back to the heart of worship And it's all about You, It's all about You, Jesus I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it When it's all about You, It's all about You, Jesus –Michael W Smith [CMP1016] This
is so easy to say but so hard to practise. Why? because there are key moments in our lives when we so desperately want a particular outcome to our prayers that we cannot conceive of an acceptable alternative outcome. Do you /do I need the help of the Holy Spirit to come to this place in our lives? Undoubtedly on some occasions more than others –what about today? This is not something we can do in our own strength –only in His! If there have not been any times in your life when you have not seriously struggled with either accepting God’s will or finding it as a Christian then you are an exceptional person, as it is the norm. It was for Jesus in the wilderness before He started His earthly ministry and endured the temptations of the evil one and as His ministry drew to its climax on the cross in Gethsemane and probably on a number of occasions in between. Wrestling with injustice, wrestling with tough choices for ourselves or other people is part of our human experience. Anyone who thinks following Jesus means your problems are over has been seriously misled. What He promises is to stand with us in the storms of life and in humble dependence on Him be overcomers in Jesus’ name. Humility, that is a conscious heartfelt desire to put God and His will first in our lives, in whatever circumstances, is the position with which we come to the other requirements from God in this verse. and pray… this is the opposite of self assertion, acknowledging God’s right to make decisions and ‘judge’ our life choices. The word in Hebrew here rendered pray is related to a verb meaning ‘judge’ in Hebrew. and seek My face this is a single-minded determination to find out as best we can what the Lord wants us to do with our lives, sometimes in more general terms and on other occasions in very specific terms. and turn from their wicked ways.. this points to a conscious act of will; after discerning what God would have us do, the decision is made to follow that course of action, not just for a day but for the rest of our days, as far as we are able with His help. This is what the human author of these words was inspired by God to write for our instruction and walk with God. The theory of being a Christian is the easy bit. The hard bit is living it in real situations with flesh and blood human beings in daily life. (c) God’s warning to His people (II Chronicles 7:19-22) 19 ‘But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will uproot Israel from My land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple which I have consecrated for My Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. 21 This temple will become a heap of rubble. All who pass by will be appalled and say, “Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?” 22 People will answer, “Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshipping and serving them – that is why He brought all this disaster on them.”’Covenant blessings in Abraham, or New Covenant in Christ are two-sided God’s part
and ours; both parties must be faithful in fulfilling their obligations for blessing to follow. God has not changed. He will keep His promises. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (I Corinthians 15:58).
Habakkuk 2v 18 to 3 v2 From the Problem to the Answer –Turning to God 1. Our Perception of Reality Perceptions of reality can be misleading. The communities of Dull and Boring have paired up, but other towns have found odd or quirky names a burden. Should they celebrate their innuendo-laden titles? Never before has such a frenzy of interest surrounded Dull and Boring. The latter, a town of 15,000 in the US state of Oregon, has voted in favour of "pairing" with the former, a small Perthshire village. In a version of events suggestive of a whimsical British feature film, the arrangement had been suggested to Boring Community Planning Council by the Dull Women's Book Club. Ingeniously witty the connection may not be, but it has succeeded in generating acres of publicity for the twin settlements. Both hope their link-up will attract tourists eager to be photographed alongside signs displaying legends such as "Dull, in association with Boring". The two latest quirkily-named communities to make the news have long traditions of their own to draw upon. It is thought that Dull's name is derived from the Pictish word for fields, while Boring was named after William H Boring, an early resident [BBC News magazine 6 June 2012]. Too many people in our country wrongly
either deny the existence of God, because of an apparent lack of visible activity in current affairs or assume that He is not interested and has withdrawn from active participation with humanity in the light of great evils of recent centuries? Both of these perspectives are false. This important little book attempts to challenge its readers to grasp the bigger picture of what is really going on in history –that it really is His Story – we simply need to learn how to ‘read’ it. Habakkuk began with his complaint to God about evil in the world, especially in his own country. He had prayed about it but nothing had happened. God why won’t You do something! God’s reply was simple: I am doing something –raising up the Babylonians! God how can you do that when they are sinful arrogant and opposed to the things You stand for? How could God teach His wayward people Israel a lesson through the activity of unbelievers? These are great questions we also may have asked. However, by chapter two Habakkuk has turned from worrying to waiting on God. I will stand on my watch and station myself on the4 ramparts. I will look to see what He will say to me … (Habakkuk 2:1). God then gave His servant a revelation concerning God’s fivefold critique of the Babylonians and their shortcomings –yet still planned to work through these very flawed people. This is an encouragement to you and me when we feel down and doubt our usefulness to God, that He can still use you and me despite all our weaknesses. The Lord can accomplish more through you and me than we can ever imagine –but we need to entrust our lives fully to Him and allow Him to work in His time for our good and for His glory. In the midst of the five woes are three glorious promises and assurances to God’s people that have been foundational in impact on Christian history. Assurance one in Habakkuk 2:4: the assurance of His grace. A grasp of this point allowed devout monk Martin Luther to come to a real conversion and trust in God that played a huge part in what we call the Protestant Reformation four hundred years ago. It enabled a fresh realisation of what the gospel is all about. Assurance two in Habakkuk 2:14 the assurance of His glory throughout the world: this enabled lateeighteenth century Evangelical Christians to grasp the missionary call of evangelisation around the globe which has led to the incredible growth of the Christian Church over the last two hundred years. This vision of God being honoured by a people worshipping Him and witnessing for Him in every people group and country liberated inward-looking Christians to have a worldwide vision of mission as God had intended from Pentecost onwards (Acts 1:8 – to the ends of the earth). Assurance three in Habakkuk 2: 20-the assurance of His governance in the world. God is in control of His universe and this world, despite the 1
outward appearance of the opposite at times. This is so vital because we all face times when we pray and nothing appears to happen. The apparent silence of God can really get to us in some situations. Yet God is in control. This encourages us in worship and especially in prayer. All three are foundational pillars of the Christian life. 2. The Enticement of Idolatry (Habakkuk 2:18-19) (a)What is idolatry? It is giving a place in our thoughts, words or actions to someone or something that belongs only to God. So many people have a world view that fits in with their preconceptions of how they wish it to be. A significant proportion of self-proclaimed atheists admit that their convictions have been shaped by the lifestyle they wish to lead. Because they don’t want to admit there is a God to account to, they try and banish Him from their thoughts. Paul expressed it this way in Romans chapter one: They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised. Amen (Romans 1:25). Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that if ‘person x’ could see a little
more evidence for the existence of God then they would put their faith and trust in the Lord. The reality so often is that a worldview that a person may hold onto prevents them from grasping the significance of the evidence already in front of them. It is about wanting the world to be different to what God created it to be. It is also about viewing our own place in the world inappropriately –whether too highly or the opposite denying the significance of our lives and the opportunities God has and will place across our pathway. Lucifer (Satan’s real name) suffered from the delusive power of the first lie to view himself more highly than he ought to have done which resulted in his expulsion from Heaven. Isaiah 14:12-14 states: How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13 You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ There can only be one person at the centre of your life and mine and only one
person in charge of the universe? It is far better when that is the one being God Himself. He alone knows the end from the beginning and all things in between. This then resulted in his determination to corrupt humanity, the pinnacle of God’s creation to entice us to doubt the goodness of God and His graciousness towards us. It began in the Garden of Eden with that piercing question: Did God really say you must not… (Genesis 3:1b)? Follow up questions sought to widen the trust gap between Adam and Eve and God. The sugar-coating on the bitter pill here was given in Genesis 3:5b: For God knows when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Adam and Eve didn’t stop and think – hold on a minute we already know good in abundance –why would we want to know about evil? It never occurred to them how good their lot in life was –until it was gone. Idolatry goes far beyond the bowing down to items a person or a craftsman or woman has fashioned. It is a determination to hold on to a worldview marked by the absence of God and the substitution of self or something else in the place to which God is rightly entitled in our lives. Are you or am I, guilty of idolatry at the present time? No-one else can answer that question for us. (b) How to speak to followers of the gods? ‘Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.19 Woe to him who says to wood, “Come to life!” Or to lifeless stone, “Wake up!” Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.’ (Habakkuk 2:18-
19). It is very hard for us to put ourselves in the place of a person who would make this kind of image to represent some kind of god or goddess and place our trust in them –the prophet here speaks of the one who makes it [the idol] trusts in his own creation. The contrast for us is given in Habakkuk 2:4: the righteous will live by his faith… Our trust is directly in the living 2
God, our creator, not in things He has made as a substitute for Him. Various authors in the Old Testament contrast genuine faith in God with the inadequate devotion to idols. Psalm 115: 1-8 makes this point very clearly: Not to us, Lord, not to us but to Your name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness. 2 Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God? 3 Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him. 4But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. 5 They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. 6 They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. 7 They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. 8Those who make them will be like them and so will all who trust in them. How
many people in our day religiously read their horoscopes or similar astrological nonsense and swear by it. That is no difference to bowing down to a carved idol and seeking direction for your life from it. Idolatry is never absent from any culture, it just takes different forms. Paul in a discrete way makes this same point in Acts 17 in Athens. It was a city full of statues and altars to numerous gods of the ancient world. This was hardly promising territory for a visiting Evangelist who wanted to tell these people that there is only one true God whom they must worship. How did Paul seek to raise this subject to gain their attention? His opening words are captured in Acts 17:22-24: 22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. In this presentation he first commends them for their religious beliefs –i.e.
that they recognise there is a higher power or God to whom we are responsible. He has thus got a basis for developing his argument. In our conversations to day with people of other faith we can similarly acknowledge (with Jews and Muslims) the importance of worshipping the one true God or with those of other faiths a statement about the importance of faith so lacking in the lives of many people around us. The kinds of issues to raise with atheists, for example, will be different. One of the biggest intellectual challenges they face is the problem of evil. It is every bit as big an issue for them as for us. Why? because there is good and evil in the world and every honest person knows that. However, for an atheist these value judgements are only meaningful if there is an absolute standard against which to measure events taking place around us. Too often Christians think we are the ones struggling with the most difficult questions –don’t forget that accounting for the world without God takes more faith and is a bigger step into the dark than its proponents would care to admit. Paul’s second step is to find a basis for engaging their interest. He has spent time noting the names of the gods inscribed on these hundreds of altars. He carefully has found an altar that tells a powerful story that would probably have been familiar to some of his hearers. Why would an altar have such an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD? This is quite simple – six centuries earlier the plague struck Athens. Sacrifices were made to all the known gods to propitiate their anger at whatever wrongs had been committed by the citizens. Yet nothing stopped the plague. A decision was taken to send to Crete for a respected religious leader called Epimenides. He told them that they had failed to seek the assistance of the god who could stop the plague. An altar or altars were dedicated to the god whose names were unknown. Within a day the plague had lessened and within a week it had ceased and the sick people recovered their health. Epimenides also for good measure prophesied in detail about a war due to take place ten years later, which was totally accurate. They were in awe of him. Yet he declined to take a penny in reward, requesting only some measures to be agreed for the common good of residents of a number of Greek city states [D. Richardson, Eternity in their hearts (Regal Books, 1981), pp. 8-18]. Paul had found out about the history of the altar he refers to and this provides a strong basis for his sermon that day. Only a handful of people were converted, but many more went away with plenty to think about. Paul quickly moved onto Creation and the Creator, challenging their evolutionary views and then culminated in reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Having first done his homework the apostle gained their respect 3
and a hearing for his evangelistic message. This was a formal occasion, which is naturally different from an informal short conversation at work. It is never a disadvantage to know a little about the faith of a person you are seeking to witness to, just as it is equally helpful to try to learn a few words of a foreign language when visiting another country. (c) Recognising the potential for idolatry in all our hearts Anything that lessens our affection for God or prevents us from honouring Him with out time, our gifts and financial contributions to His work is an issue to address. It is easy to point to people with an obsessive passion for a sport or a hobby or something else that dominates their whole life, yet there can sometimes be misplaced affections in the Christian life. In Corinth this was a church that had an unhealthy attitude to following particular Christian leaders in the wider world and denigrating others. I Corinthians 1:10-13 states: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? This isn’t anything like as big an issue at the present time as it may have been
some generations ago when virtually every network of churches had a collective suspicion regarding the theological soundness of most of the other denominations, but it isn’t entirely absent today. We need to ask ourselves what am I most enthusiastic about? What do I most want to talk about with other people? Where do I seek guidance when choices have to be made? What are my aspirations and goals for the future? what am I hoping for or praying for, for my children or grandchildren? Asking these kinds of questions will help us evaluate whether we are in danger of giving God less than the place he is entitled to in our lives. 3. The estimation of God’s greatness (Habakkuk 2:20-3:1-2) The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.3 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. 2 Lord, I have heard of Your fame; I stand in awe of Your deeds, Lord, repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy (Habakkuk 2:20-3:2).
Psalm 46:10 states: Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Habakkuk has been struggling with an issue and we too have our trials as well. When we take our eyes off the Lord and solely on the problem at hand then it can so easily threaten to overwhelm us. I have difficulty believing that there is anyone here who has not had moments in their life when they did not feel overwhelmed by some situation that had arisen in our family circle or in our workplace –and sometimes even in church life. Now Habakkuk has taken a step back from his questions to find a space to worship God. When he recognises in a fresh way how great God is and how worthy He is of all our praise and adoration then his view of the problems he faced had changed. The situation itself was very real and the problems did not go away, but through his encounter with God Habakkuk was changed. This may be what needs to happen sometimes in your life or mine. God may not take away the problem we face, but may give grace to enable us to live with it and endure the inevitable implications of the trial. I am sure each of us has planned a visit to someone going through extremely difficult circumstances and been apprehensive about how we could possibly have anything to say to them that would be either comforting or encouraging. Yet having completed the visit we come away with real joy as that person has encouraged us through the encounter more than we think we could have blessed them! The secret so often I have observed is directly connected to that person’s relationship with God. They have encountered Him in a way that strengthens them to overcome their own natural weakness. Some years later after going through the trauma of exile to Babylon, Ezekiel has the unenviable task of bringing encouragement and hope to a totally traumatised people. Not only 4
have they lost everything from their homeland, but now as slaves digging canals in chains by the River Chebar, a wretched life from which for most there will be no escape until the release of death from this life, what could their pastor Ezekiel possibly say that would bring some consolation? Or where would he even get the strength to speak to them? Ezekiel chapter one describes something of the indescribable of a vision of the glory of God. Ezekiel 1:28 states: 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking… A personal encounter with the living God was the
secret source of strength he received. Although there is much of what he says that is difficult to understand the emphasis of their dependence on the presence and glory of God is abundantly clear. In Ezekiel 10-11, as a result of the literal idolatry of the nation God’s glory departed the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet if they would return to the Lord He would return to them. Ezekiel 11:16-24: 16 ‘Therefore say: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.” 17 ‘Therefore say: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.” 18 ‘They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.’ 22 Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. 23 The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. 24 The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit was not confined to a consecrated place of worship. He would meet with
them in Babylon where they were –if they sought Him with all their hearts. Are we seeking Him as we should? The greater encouragement to the exiles was that God had for them a hope and a future. In Ezekiel 43:1-5, there is a future blessing anticipated in a restored temple in Jerusalem: Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, 2 and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory. 3 The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the River Kebar, and I fell face down. 4 The glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east. 5 Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. Yet this is not our focus or aspiration as Christians,
because one greater than the Temple graced this earth with His presence 2,000 years ago. John 1:14 declares: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Have you seen His glory? Have you met with Him by faith? As a Christian have you taken your eyes off Him and need to regain your focus on Him? Jesus is Lord of all! Does He have that place in your life? It is only when like Habakkuk we take a step back to focus on Him that our trials are seen in their proper perspective. Do we think this world is getting worse and worse –be encouraged Revelations 22:7, 12 and 20 repeat these words of Jesus: I am coming soon… Are you ready for the coming of the King? I trust we are even tonight for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Habakkuk 3:1-16 Looking back with confidence at the greatness of our God Introduction [Scripture reading Mark 9:14-32] Habakkuk has begin to move his focus from the very real problems of the country in which he lives, and from the means whereby God will act to judge those who have done wrong (and sadly the innocent who will suffer as a consequence of the actions of the wicked), to the One who is sovereign over history. We sing many songs that have words that express ‘How great is our God’, but do we need to take time out alone with Him and His word to reflect on how great and awesome He really is? I have to confess that in my times of doubt and worries that I have taken my eyes off the Lord and been overtaken by the issues that I as a fallible and limited human being cannot ever resolve. Are you in that place this evening with something going on in your life? It is okay for us to admit it to the Lord as that can be part of the process of overcoming our weakness and becoming more dependent on His strength. This truth was seen so clearly in the story recorded in Mark 9:14-32 where the disciples of Jesus tried and failed to heal a child; where the religious leaders argued about the problem and forgot about the child and then Jesus came and in a pastorally gracious manner reached out to the family and restored the child to wholeness. What happened that caused so many of God’s people to fail to be effective in their service for God that day? 14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. 16 ‘What are you arguing with them about?’ he asked. 17A man in the crowd answered, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.’ 19‘You unbelieving generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.’ 20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’‘From childhood,’ he answered. 22 ‘It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ 23 ‘“If you can”?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. ‘You deaf and mute spirit,’ he said, ‘I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, ‘He’s dead.’ 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up 28After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’29 He replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer [or prayer and fasting]. The issue was
not about whether everyone could be healed depending on whether they have sufficient faith or not [untrue in any case], rather the key verse is Mark 9:24 in the cry of the father. He spoke for the vast majority of God’s people down the centuries in his heartfelt cry. The disciples and the religious leaders, like Habakkuk in the first part of his story, had taken their eyes off the Lord and onto the circumstances. Thankfully the last chapter of this book encourages us to look up to God and place our lives wholly in His hands. Are you / am I willing to do that –again! We do it and then take it back again, because we think we can manage… what was it that enabled Habakkuk to gain such confidence and encouragement that would allow him to make such a magnificent statement of faith in the final section of his letter? He looked back and remembered what God had done in the past. He had obviously read it and committed a fair bit of the outline at least to memory. The history of God’s work with His people in the Bible and in Church history is not to be left to specialists –too precious for that. We can only take comfort in what Habakkuk draws comfort from when we have read and reflected on the acts of God in our personal history and the collective history of the people of God, locally, nationally and throughout the world. 1
1.Recognising God’s acts in history encourages prayer (Habakkuk 3:1-2) (a)The description of his prayer (Habakkuk 3:1) A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. This is a musical term which indicates that the music will be solemn and serious, the very opposite of a light hearted ditty. It is used elsewhere in several Psalms that are cries to God from the heart about really tough and difficult situations. Psalm 17:1-2 begins: Hear me, Lord, my plea is just; listen to my cry. Hear my prayer –it does not rise from deceitful lips. 2 Let my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right. David is surrounded by enemies who are endangering his life. He writes in Psalm 17:10-14 this plea: They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance.11They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground. 12 They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a fierce lion crouching in cover.13 Rise up, Lord, confront them, bring them down; with your sword rescue me from the wicked.14 By your hand save me from such people, Lord, from those of this world whose reward is in this life . In David’s case it was a crisis for himself and his men, for Habakkuk it
was a national crisis and the tone of the song was suitably somber to reflect the sense of danger, but also to hint at the glory and majesty of an awesome God. Another Psalmist, in this case the author of Psalm 102, uses this term and form of song to echo his own struggles in a crisis. He begins with an acknowledgement of his personal distress: Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you. 2 Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly (Psalm 102:1-2), but after some explanation of his predicament makes this observation about the Lord in Psalm 102:12: But you, Lord, sit enthroned for ever; Your renown endures through all generations. 13 You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favour to her; the appointed time has come. This
observation provides the turning point for the Psalmists and for Habakkuk. For some time in their distress their energies and focus had been directed at the growing problems and difficulties they were facing. It was emotionally draining and discouraging and their cries to God were getting increasingly frantic. ‘Lord -won’t You do something!’ Then something happened to enable them to look up to the Lord and catch a glimpse of His greatness and His glory. Do you and I need to do that today? It is not a denial of the problems we are facing – but it is a fresh appreciation of the God who stands with us in the situation. It is a recognition of the faithfulness of God to His people. Jeremiah, you may remember, in his little book, Lamentations allows us a window into his grief at the trauma of death and destruction and exile in the city he cherished – Jerusalem. Yet in that difficult book there is an extraordinary ray of sunshine that penetrates the gloom, like a patch of blue sky appearing after hours when it has been completely overcast. Lamentations 3:21-24 says this: Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: 22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.23They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.24 I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait for Him.’ Do you need a fresh glimpse of the faithfulness of God?
do you need afresh to sense the all-embracing love of God in the midst of the hard times you are going through? Interestingly for the Temple orchestra not all the instruments got to play in this Psalm. Habakkuk 3:19 is a note For the director of music. On my stringed instruments . The mood of the piece will never be light or jolly but it builds up gradually and ends with a firm confidence in the goodness of God, which His people will experience in the future. Psalm 102 fits that pattern so well, as does Habakkuk 3. There is, however, another term that is found in a number of the Psalms, as well as here in Habakkuk 3. You will note part way through verses 3, 9 and 13 the text includes a strange word –selah. What does it mean and why is it there in the text? It is important to admit that scholars are not totally clear concerning the meaning of this term. It is found seventy-one times in the book of Psalms, in addition to the three references here. It has been suggested that it is a direction about how some words should be sung or more likely what emphasis 2
should be expressed as the music is played alongside certain sentences. One commentator indicates that the accompanying music should be played more loudly at these three points in the Psalm in order to enable the worshipper, tangibly, to feel something of the awesomeness of God and His majestic coming (J. Mackay, Habakkuk, p. 226). These musical notes indicate very clearly the tone and nature of this Psalm that is also a prayer to God. (b) The nature of his prayer (i) God centred not man-centred 2 Lord, I have heard of Your fame; it is likely that after his encounter with God this prophet sat down and over time composed this response to the revelation from God. Many of the greatest hymns and songs we sing in church services were written during or after God’s intervention into His people’s lives. It gives a depth of insight and significance to words that might otherwise be perfectly accurate theology, but not delivered from the heart. When what we say and do is accompanied by a sense of the presence and power of God it creates an expectancy concerning His intervention in our lives day by day. This may not be dramatic or in anyway taking our problems away, but it does give us a fresh vision of God and His love for us in the midst of our daily lives. As Christians we can go beyond Habakkuk and rejoice in the Lord Jesus and what He had done for us on the cross and by sending to assist us the blessed Holy Spirit, our comforter, encourager and enabler. When God is at the centre of all our plans and purposes individually and in our families as well as in our church family, the actual details may not change, but the sense of purpose and perspective concerning the direction of our lives will be all the greater. God is on the throne of the Universe! Jesus is Lord! Hallelujah! In the light of how great God is we are humbled to see how small and insignificant we are in and of ourselves by comparison. Therefore the words of our prayers will be (ii) Spoken with humility by a creature to our Creator I stand in awe of your deeds, we do not deserve it for God to listen to our prayers, let alone answer them. When we reflect on the size of this universe and potentially how many creatures He has made that engage His interest, it is mindbogglingly amazing that God gives attention to the inadequate prayers offered by any one of His children. The contrast between the spirit in which Habakkuk prayed in chapter one is significant. There it echoes with complaints. God that’s not fair! He’s getting desperate for God to act. Yet was lacking the patience to wait that God was at work, but on a longer timescale and in a way Habakkuk least expected. Now although still as passionate about God’s glory in the land, there is a greater trust in God to deliver the answer to his prayers, because of God’s consistent track record from the past. On a number of occasions people in the Bible declare that God has kept His promises. Joshua 23:14b is one of the better known ones: You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. Do you need that truth underlining today? The One who desires to hear my prayers is also as delighted to answer them, for His glory and in His timescale not ours. I have said this time and again with respect to our building plans. Proverbs 16:9: In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. (iii) Bold requests for more glory to God Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known (Hab.3:2); when we come acknowledging the greatness of God and who He is and the glorious attributes He possesses, and at the same time humbly admitting our weaknesses and total dependence on Him, we are then constrained to look up with a passionate and all consuming desire to see greater honour come to His name on the earth. If this is a God who has acted consistently in this way in the past, then my lifetime is equally suitable as the time when the Lord can work in amazing ways in our midst, not just on other continents and in other congregations, but here in this city, in this community, in this church, for the glory of His holy name. Do you know Him? Is He the lord and saviour of your life? Do you need to be bolder in your prayers at this time? Sometimes our prayers are so general that we might not have a clue what it might look like if God did grant our requests! We must never be presumptuous telling the Lord what to do. But when we are claiming His promises 3
and asking Him to act in accordance with His previously declared plans and purposes to do that which glorifies His name, then we are on very solid ground. (iv) Our relationship always about grace not merit in wrath remember mercy. The fragrance of grace will be experienced around any God-honouring, Christ-glorifying, Spirit-empowered congregation of His people. God does not treat me as I deserve. I let Him down in thoughts words and actions so many times, yet His grace is so amazing freely given to us, reflecting His great love for His Church, the people for whom He died. ‘Mercy’ in the Old Testament can often be a translation of a word that means ‘covenant love’ –that is that He keeps on keeping His side of the bargain, even when we fall short –again and again. This is at the heart of the Gospel and is unique to our faith amongst the world’s religions. This is our God ; we are His people, therefore we go forward with confidence grounded in Him. Or in the words of Psalm 40:1-4a; I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and He turned to me and heard my cry.2 He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.3 He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what He has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord .4 Oh, the joys of those who trust the Lord (NLV).
2. Recognising God’s acts in history leads to adoration (Habakkuk 3:3-7) (a)The awesomeness of our Creator God 3 God came from Teman,(Habakkuk 3:3a) Sometimes the language of the Bible can come alive as connecting with our current age and circumstances; on other occasions as here the language is of a very different age and form of expression. Teman was the name of a district and its main city in the south of Edom (Jeremiah 49:7; Obadiah 9). Edom as a territory was south and east of the Dead Sea [J. Mackay, Habakkuk, p. 225]. What is important is to see what the author intended to communicate to us by his choice of words. Here the word used for God was old-fashioned even in his day! It was more commonly used in the book of Job and also in Deuteronomy –the first usage in the Bible in Deut.32:15b, which referred to Israel in a time of rebellion against the Lord: They abandoned the God who made them and rejected the Rock their Saviour. This term for ‘God’ is used with reference to God as creator and ruler of the world. The One who is sovereign over all and has everything under His ultimate control; It is very much a picture of God separate from His creation, but upholding all things by His power. In other words in his prayer or expression of praise here Habakkuk begins by acknowledging the greatness of God the creator. This is exactly what happened in the Early Church in the prayer meeting recorded in Acts 4:23-24: On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ‘Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them . In context Peter and John had been arrested for their faith and were
being held by the authorities but were later released without charge, some thing for which the congregation had been praying. Is this something you ever reflect on the extraordinary work of God as creator? The world did not evolve from nothing to a primeval soup [add billions or millions of years as required] and then humanity arrives eventually! God brought the world into being by the power of His word. Even ardent evolutionist David Attenborough admitted on 6 March 2012: ‘The problem Darwin never solved was how an inorganic molecule became a living one. We are still struggling with this one.’ The Universe is fine tuned for life. There are fifteen constants in the design of the Universe [ie 1x10 40 chance of it just evolving by chance] that had to happen in a particular way or life as we know it would be impossible. For example other liquids freeze from the bottom up but water from the top down enabling many life forms to survive under a solid icy surface. Your genetic code of DNA if stretched out end to end would reach to the moon and back several times –it all had to be in sequence for you and me ‘to work’ –what an awesome creator we have. The best computers we have 4
are child’s play compared to the complexity inside a single human being. If Habakkuk had something to rejoice about in God as creator –we have many times more reasons. If God created the cells that are the basic building blocks of living organisms with the incredible complexity they possess then how much more does He care about you and me? No wonder we sing: ‘O Lord my God when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Your hand has made, I see the stars I hear the mighty thunder, Your power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul my saviour God to You, how great You are, how great You are…[CMP506]. (b) The covenant love of our holy God the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Habakkuk 3:3b) The second unfamiliar phrase from Habakkuk refers to another aspect of the relationship of God with humanity, in this case His covenant relationship with the Israelites, inaugurated in the Sinai mountains. The desert of wilderness of Paran was the area the Israelites moved to after leaving Sinai. Mount Paran was a significant feature in that region. This place name is also rarely mentioned in the Bible, though it is used in the poem produced by Moses prior to his death in Deuteronomy 33:2. The emphasis here seems to be a general reference to the majesty of God and the sense of awe and wonder amongst the Israelites, at the time of the giving of the Ten Commandments. It evoked a sense of privilege that this amazing being should set His love on an insignificant people and fashion them into a nation and take them on an epic journey to the Promised Land. God is here described as ‘the Holy One’. This was the hallmark signature title used of God in the messages of Isaiah, whose prophecies would have been familiar to Habakkuk. The God who is so pure He cannot look upon sin (Hab.1:13a), requires that His people also seek to reflect however faintly His holiness. Leviticus 11:44-45 states: I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. 45 I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. The impact on individuals to
whom this truth was revealed or grasped is an awareness of our own sinfulness in His presence. Isaiah 6 is the classic example of this fact. After a vision of God in all His holy glory, Isaiah’s mind became acutely aware of his own imperfections. Isaiah 6:5-7 states: ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ A
person who catches a glimpse of who God is and a grasp of the sinfulness of their own inner person is in a position to receive the outrageous transforming grace of God that enables us to become more and more of the person God desires us to be, for our good and for His glory. (c) The glory revealed of our Almighty God His glory covered the heaven and His praise filled the earth.4 His splendour was like the sunrise; rays flashed from His hand, where His power was hidden. (Habakkuk 3:3c-4) Habakkuk 2:14 touched on this theme as a motivation for
worldwide missionary service. Here the aim is probably more directed at encouraging us to worship and adore such a wonderful God, as we sense more and more His entitlement to such expressions of praise and thanksgiving for who He is and what He has done. It is difficult for us to find adequate words to use in this context. Exodus 24:17 describes how the Israelites viewed their glimpses of the glory of God on Sinai. To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. John in Revelation 1:12-18 had a similar awe-filled encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ: among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (Revelation1:13b-16). Oh that we may catch a
glimpse of how wonderful God is so that we might worship Him more fully as He deserves. 5
(d) The judgement executed by our righteous God (Habakkuk 3:5-7) We rejoice that God is a God of love, but we forget at our peril that He is truly righteous as well. Habakkuk is describing apparently natural phenomena –ironically today sometimes called ‘acts of God’ by insurance companies- and declares that God can use these things to execute judgement on people for their sins. In Exodus chapters seven to twelve there is an account of the plagues God used to challenge the supposed powers of the gods of Egypt and guarantee that His people would be freed from slavery. 5 Plague went before Him; pestilence followed His steps (Habakkuk 3:5); Various actions of God made nations tremble, including His acts in the wilderness for Israel. Joshua 2:9-11 describes the impact of them on the Canaanite peoples according to Rahab. She said to them, ‘I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts sank and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. How sad that people
can sense something of the presence of God and not want to put their faith and trust in Him. 6
He stood, and shook the earth; He looked, and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed – but He marches on for ever 7 I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish (Habakkuk 3:6-7). One day when Jesus returns this
will be the reaction of arrogant people who rejected Him in this life and it is now too late, as Revelation 1:7 makes plain: ‘Look, He is coming with the clouds, and ‘every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him’; and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of Him. ’So shall it be! Amen. What will your reaction be when Jesus returns? Are you ready now?
3. Recognising God’s acts in history highlights His invincible power (Habakkuk 3:8-15) (a)God the holy warrior (Habakkuk 3:8-11) 8 Were you angry with the rivers, Lord? Was Your wrath against the streams? Did You rage against the sea when You rode Your horses and Your chariots to victory? 9 You uncovered your bow, You called for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers; 10 the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high.11 Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of Your flying arrows, at the lightning of Your flashing spear. God is lord over all –but for our good and His glory. The
crossing of the Red Sea in which elite units of the Egyptian army drowned when the waters came back (Exodus 14:21-28); or when the Israelites were supernaturally aided against enemies in Joshua 10:13b-14: So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. 14 There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel! (b) God the triumphant king (Habakkuk 3:12-15) 12 In wrath You strode through the earth and in anger You threshed the nations. 13 You came out to deliver your people, to save Your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, You stripped him from head to foot. 14 With his own spear You pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us, gloating as though about to devour the wretched who were in hiding. 15 You trampled the sea with Your horses, churning the great waters. Here in summary a reminder of evidence of the triumph of our king, Amen.
II Kings 6v24 to 7 v20 Is anything too hard for God? Introduction Chris and Louise Booth appeared on the surface to have a good set of circumstances with a nice home steady work for Chris and two young children Billy and Pippa. However, more than a couple of years ago before Billy was two they recognised something was not right with their son. He was easily overwhelmed with the slightest deviation to his daily schedule and tears with accompanying tantrums were as familiar as night following day. It was soon diagnosed that Billy was autistic. It became an increasing struggle for his parents to help their son as there was no easy resolution to Billy’s problems. However a visit to a Cat Protection shelter twelve months ago transformed their lives. It had been a general visit to look at the animals there with no commitment to any particular animal. On the day Billy chose to sit down on the floor in a room where there were a number of cats. One cat Fraser, who had experienced a very difficult life prior to his rescue and had, therefore, good reason to be wary of humans, nevertheless walked over with confidence and promptly stretched out across Billy’s lap purring. The little boy looked up to his parents and simply said: ‘Fraser is our cat he can come live with us’. In the last twelve months the cat has barely let four-year-old Billy go out of his sight and whenever he is developing a tantrum comes over and cuddles up to him which has an amazing soothing effect. Happiness and calm have returned to the household to a degree unexpected, prior to Fraser the cat’s arrival [Daily Mail 16 June 2012]. There are a number of times in each of our lives when we face some very difficult
problems or pressures that have no simple resolution. We pray earnestly and persistently but they do not go away and we wonder what God could be saying to us through or in spite of the circumstances He has allowed to cross our pathway. On occasions there are miraculous healings or other extraordinary answers to our prayers. However, in the vast majority of situations God provides the grace to live with and overcome the trials we continue to experience in daily life. In the ideal world we would like heaven on earth now, but this is not the world we live in. The apostle Paul learned after a serious struggle to accept this revelation from God, recorded in II Corinthians 12:9 : My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. There are occasions where it may be that God plans to grant our request but not yet and we need to rest in the Lord trusting that His timing will be revealed in due course. Our Bible verse for the year Exodus 33:14 says: My presence will go with you and I will give you rest –in other words trust Me with your future steps. The years have passed as we have prayed and made plans and engaged in all kinds of practical endeavours to erect fit for purpose premises for the work to which He has called us. In His time this work will be accomplished because nothing is too hard for God. 1. The unbelief of the king (II Kings 6:24-33) 24
Some time later, Ben-Hadad king of Aram mobilised his entire army and marched up and laid siege to Samaria. 25 There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels. 26 As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, ‘Help me, my lord the king!’ 27 The king replied, ‘If the Lord does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?’ 28 Then he asked her, ‘What’s the matter?’ She answered, ‘This woman said to me, “Give up your son so that we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.” 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, “Give up your son so that we may eat him,” but she had hidden him.’ 30 When the king heard the woman’s words, he tore his robes. As he went along the wall, the people looked, and they saw that, under his robes, he had sackcloth on his body. 31 He said, ‘May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today!’ 32 Now Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. The king sent a messenger ahead, but before he arrived, Elisha said to the elders, ‘Don’t you see how this murderer is sending someone to cut off my head? Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door and hold it shut against him. Is not the sound of his master’s footsteps behind him?’ 33 While he was still talking to them, the messenger came down to him. The king said, ‘This disaster is from the Lord. Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?’ This situation has become critical. The large Syrian army 1
of occupation has devastated the land around Israel’s capital city stripping it of its resources of food and other useful materials. However they don’t have the tools to overcome the defensive fortifications of the city of Samaria. This city was built on a hill, though lacking natural defences like Jerusalem, forty miles south of this city, or Tyre in nearby Lebanon, it was still an impressive site and with strong defensive walls made it almost impregnable [G. Turner, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, p. 212]. Food prices are astronomical. A shekel was the monthly wage of the average working man at that time. This puts the prices into perspective. This is not an unusual occurrence. In Richmond, Virginia, during the American civil war the following prices were advertised in March 1865: ‘Bacon $20 a pound [£192]; live hens $50 [£481] each; beef $15 [£144] a pound; butter $20 a pound.’ [B. Davis, To Appomattox, p. 9]. However, this is not the best joints of beef or dining like kings in a Five Star hotel an absolute fortune is being paid for a donkey’s head or a small portion of some unappetising seed pods, popularly described as ‘dove’s dung’! These prices mean that only the richest citizens can afford to purchase such ‘food’. Ordinary people have nothing left to eat. This siege, therefore, has been going on for months and life is totally grim. Here in this city believers and unbelievers alike experience the same conditions, but their reactions are very different. The scenario of the two women and their children is a desperate one; words fail to convey the utter horror that would drive anyone to behave in this way. This tragedy causes the king to lose the place completely. His nominal belief in God and respect for Elisha, that was well grounded (see II Kings 6:8-23) in some extraordinary answers to (other people’s) prayer, vanished. He came to the point of rejecting God completely and blaming Him for the plight of his people. He probably felt just as keenly his own utter helplessness to do anything to assist his people. There are men and women I have met, and probably you also, who have made such a choice after some tragedy in their lives, possibly a bereavement or a divorce or some other major loss. It was barely twenty-four hours before these people would see the extraordinary power of God at work in their midst, but this man and probably others also in the city gave up any hope of a divine intervention in their lives. Where do you and I as Christians stand today? We can grow weary in God’s work. Yet at such times there are promises to claim, such as Galatians 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Or the apostle’s reminder to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 15:58: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. God’s timescale is often much longer than we would prefer –
but He will always keep His promises. Are you here as someone who has yet to put your faith and trust in Jesus? We serve a God who can be trusted through the hard times as well as when it is ‘plain sailing’. I want to encourage you to trust the Lord. This does not mean we can always see where He is leading us or know why obstacles are allowed to cross our pathway. The words of the king at the end of II King 6 (verse 33) are profoundly sad: The king said, ‘This disaster is from the Lord. Why should I wait for the Lord any longer? The reason is quite simple and stated in the exhortation in Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. This is a promise well worth heeding and living by. 2. The scepticism of the official (II Kings 7:2) 7 Elisha replied, ‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: about this time tomorrow, a seah of the finest flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.’ 2 The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, ‘Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?’ The vast majority of people
in secular Britain today are not atheists; only a handful of people subscribe consistently to 2
that philosophy, but a much greater number sit on the fence and profess some form of agnosticism –if pushed to identify their allegiance. This in reality means very little difference to the former category in terms of decision-making in everyday life means very little difference to the former category in terms of decision-making in everyday life. This senior military official was a tough individual with a deeply sceptical view of life. He had probably attended many a civic service in his time, but had not only no personal faith in God, but also no desire to trust Him either. These words he uttered could so easily have been stated in our own generation by the many who would have echoed his sentiments. What we need to note here is not just his rejection of the man of God Elisha, but his direct challenge to the God of Elisha. When a follower of the Lord speaks God’s words accurately and they are dismissed, it is a direct challenge to the Lord Himself. Likewise when our brothers and sisters in Christ in their thousands are discriminated again in a wide variety of ways or imprisoned, tortured and killed each year then it is not primarily them but the Lord Himself who is being attacked. Remember Jesus’ words to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:3-6: As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? 5 ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ He replied.
In the light of such a contemporary mindset how do we as Christian communicate something of our faith in a way that people grasp the reality of its relevance and applicability to daily life? In essence it is quite simple –are we walking the walk of faith in our congregations or just talking the talk? If the latter then it is irrelevant to the outsider and only confirms their view that churches are religious clubs, an alternative to the Rotary Club or the Bowling Club or some other equivalent institution for people of a similar mind. However, when they come into our midst and see real community in action and sense the presence of God they can catch as glimpse of something that hopefully they will want to experience more fully for themselves over time. The challenge for Christians is how we can build natural bridges to connect with the people who don’t have everything in place; with the people who are looking for a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Activities for parents and toddlers; older people’s clubs, cafes and many more options are gateways into our communities in which we need to invest, that over the medium to longer term will result in lives transformed by the good news of the Gospel. More people are searching that we ever realise but they are also very wary of commitment to anything unfamiliar and will take as long as they need to find out in formation before they would consider a step as big as joining a local church. In the last twenty years informal evangelistic outreaches such as Alpha and Christianity Explored have been a useful tool that has resulted in people coming to faith in Jesus, but what matters most to people who have yet to come to faith is that they see something of Jesus in you and me. 3. The faith of the prophet (II Kings 6:32 & 7:1-2) (a)The place of the prophet and the elders (II Kings 6:32)
Now Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. The king sent a messenger ahead, but before he arrived, Elisha said to the elders, ‘Don’t you see how this murderer is sending someone to cut off my head? Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door and hold it shut against him. Is not the sound of his master’s footsteps behind him?’… Notice the leaders of the nation and that city were not with
the king they were with the man of God in his house. The symbolism of this action must not be missed here. These men trusted the word of the prophet more than the king who was in charge in secular terms. Yet human rulers, whether Presidents or Prime Ministers, have only a limited say over the affairs of human beings; there is a place for politics and we value the ones that truly serve their communities and their nations. However, what they can deliver may fall significantly short of the rhetoric displayed at election times. Where are you placing 3
your trust today? Where do the people around you place their trust? Proverbs 1:33 states: but whoever listens to Me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.’ Is the most influential voice in your life the one from the Lord? Many of us at times struggle over hearing what God is saying to us about particular situations in our lives. Other Christians sometimes cover up their personal insecurities by claiming that God has directed them to speak or act in a particular way when that clearly has not been the case. We all need humility in the presence of God and when seeking to represent what He may be saying to us. In Psalm 31:14-15a David makes the following statement: But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’15 My times are in your hands; our future both individually and together is in His hands. Can you say that? Can we say that with respect to the potential development project we are exploring just now? When like these leaders of God’s people we can put the timescales in His hands it takes some of the pressure off us –not to procrastinate! But instead to seek His way in His timescale which is always the better plan. The king was desperate to find a solution to his problem, but what he was proposing -the execution of Elisha- would not have helped anyone. God’s people need to be in God’s presence seeking His will and trusting Him for their future. In Philippians 4:19 the apostle Paul, from prison declares: And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus . That day in 1999 Dominggus Kenjam, an Indonesian Christian, will never forget. He was woken up early in the morning hearing a Muslim mob shouting ‘Allah-u-Akhar’ (God is great); he was grabbed out of his bed and blows rained down upon him from a number of assailants. A voice shouted out: ‘kill the men and spare the women’. He was already fading from consciousness when he saw a man produce a sickle and start raining blows down upon his neck. The trickle of blood became a steady one and he was convinced his time on earth was drawing to a close. At that very moment, he reported, instead of fading into total unconsciousness he felt his spirit leaving his body and being escorted away by two angels. As he ascended he looked down to see his body huddled on the floor, convinced he had died. The feelings of fear and pain vanished as an indescribable peace flooded his being: ‘I am going to be with Jesus’, he thought. Just at that very moment he heard a clear voice say: ‘it is not time for you to serve me here.’ Then he felt that he was slowly floating back to his body on the floor in his home. He regained consciousness listening to two paramedics wondering which funeral parlour to take his body to –a Christian one or a Muslim one. ‘I am a Christian’ he said weakly, shocking the two men that the supposed corpse had spoken [Jesus Freaks, Vol.2, pp. 74-75] However, it is not just in Muslim Indonesia where this is true. In an increasingly sceptical UK the same truth is applicable –our times are in His hands. (b) The proclamation of the prophet (II Kings 7:1-2) Elisha replied, ‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: about this time tomorrow, a seah of the finest flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.’ 2 The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, ‘Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?’ ‘You will see it with your own eyes,’ answered Elisha, ‘but you will not eat any of it!’ it was to this prophetic word that the royal official had been so sceptical. Now it
is important to note that this message was specific detailed and could be proven demonstrably to be false or true within a specific timescale. It was also completely based on information communicated by God to Elisha, not on any reasonable prediction of future events in the city. Elisha’s credibility is on the line. Now the prices given here are not like Christmas sale prices provoking long queues to gather hours before the shops open. The cost of the flour was still approximately the equivalent of the average monthly wage. The cost of the barley will still be six times higher than the listed price in neighbouring Babylon, for example. So although there would be good quality food on offer in the marketplace instead of what had been the fare for the few who could afford to buy it at outrageous black market prices [D.R. Davies, II Kings The Power and the Fury, p. 121.] What is most sobering is what is said to the sceptical official. You 4
will see that this is coming to pass, but you will not benefit from it because you doubted the power of God and His goodness to His people. This is not about having a big faith or a little faith in God; on the contrary it is trusting our great God to take care of our future. The difference between these two positions is vast. Have you committed your life to Jesus? if you have never done so then please do so today –it is the most important step you can take. 4. The conscience of the lepers (II Kings 7:3-10) 3
Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, ‘Why stay here until we die? 4 If we say, “We’ll go into the city”– the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.’ 5 At dusk they got up and went to the camp of the Arameans. When they reached the edge of the camp, no one was there, 6 for the Lord had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army, so that they said to one another, ‘Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!’ 7 So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives.8 The men who had leprosy reached the edge of the camp, entered one of the tents and ate and drank. Then they took silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them. They returned and entered another tent and took some things from it and hid them also. 9 Then they said to each other, ‘What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.’10 So they went and called out to the city gatekeepers and told them, ‘We went into the Aramean camp and no one was there – not a sound of anyone – only tethered horses and donkeys, and the tents left just as they were.’ The lepers knew what to do but probably had struggled with
doing it for some time. At last the day came –this very day of Elisha’s message from God, when they stepped out in faith and would be blessed for taking this step. When prompts you to say a word for Him or send some form of communication or perform an act of kindness for someone. Don’t hesitate to do what He asks you to do, because He may have a bigger purpose behind it than you realise. Steps of faith can be nerve racking at the time, but the blessing that flows from obedience is more than a reward, it brings delight to our Father’s heart. Then their consciences bothered them because they had kept God’s good news to themselves. Have you been too shy with the Gospel lately? Or are you available to God to pass on the greatest news of all should the opportunity arise? Praise God they didn’t keep it to themselves or a city full of people might have perished physically. Men and women in our land are facing eternal peril if they leave this life without Christ? Will you pray for opportunities to speak to your work colleagues / family members or maybe even a total stranger God places across your pathway? Praying for those God moments where He is already working is so exciting when they come to pass. The question is this: would you or I see more special God-moments if we were more sensitive to His voice? This is very possible. 5. The goodness of God (II Kings 7:11-20) 11
The gatekeepers shouted the news, and it was reported within the palace. 12 The king got up in the night and said to his officers, ‘I will tell you what the Arameans have done to us. They know we are starving; so they have left the camp to hide in the countryside, thinking, “They will surely come out, and then we will take them alive and get into the city.”’ 13 One of his officers answered, ‘Make some men take five of the horses that are left in the city. Their plight will be like that of all the Israelites left here – yes, they will only be like all these Israelites who are doomed. So let us send them to find out what happened.’14 So they selected two chariots with their horses, and the king sent them after the Aramean army. He commanded the drivers, ‘Go and find out what has happened.’ 15 They followed them as far as the Jordan, and they found the whole road strewn with the clothing and equipment the Arameans had thrown away in their headlong flight. So the messengers returned and reported to the 5
king. 16 Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. So a seah of the finest flour sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley sold for a shekel, as the Lord had said. 17 Now the king had put the officer on whose arm he leaned in charge of the gate, and the people trampled him in the gateway, and he died, just as the man of God had foretold when the king came down to his house. 18 It happened as the man of God had said to the king: ‘About this time tomorrow, a seah of the finest flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.’ 19 The officer had said to the man of God, ‘Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?’ The man of God had replied, ‘You will see it with your own eyes, but you will not eat any of it!’ 20 And that is exactly what happened to him, for the people trampled him in the gateway, and he died. Praise God for the officer who urged exploration of the message delivered from
God. If the king had got his way then there would have been no testing of the Word of God in practice. The king was convinced there had to be a catch. It must be an ambush. Well, that was possible then and now in a time of war. But had not prayer been offered to God about this situation? Yes lots of it, I am sure! Now He had answered their prayers. What does this incident teach us? The simple lesson is that God answers prayer. The second thing is that God answers prayers in a timescale often that we are not expecting –sometimes quicker than we expect and on other occasions taking much longer in days, weeks, months or even years than we had thought desirable. Thirdly, God answered their prayers for deliverance in a manner totally unexpected. What they had sought would happen but not in the way they had expected or planned for it to happen. In Isaiah 55:8-11 these powerful words are appropriate ones to conclude this message: ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord.9 ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,11 so is My word that goes out from My mouth: it will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it,
Habakkuk 3:16-19 Looking forward to the future because God is sovereign Introduction What is the most difficult situation you have experienced in life? Oh I’m not asking for a verbal response –you may never have related that matter to another human being. For some people their memories of the horrors of war, or a painful relational breakdown or the agonies of some form of physical, psychological or mental abuse or … are simply too difficult for them to address without real emotional input and therefore, these memories are buried as deeply in their minds as may be possible with a view to getting on with life in front of us. In such times as these how did we relate towards God? Did you feel unable to pray or was it a real struggle? Or for some people when we are really desperate the words just flow –but if the problem does not go away, how do we handle that issue that is there at the back of our minds, or on the edge of our lives and might intrude once more in the future? Were anger or tears a regular feature at that time? This powerful passage of God’s Word speaks into these kinds of situations, but we will only grasp something of the profundity of what is said if we too have gone through some similarly overwhelming trials. Hope coming out of a time of despair, not wishful thinking dreaming that the problems will go away, but a solid ground for confidence in the future because our lives are in His hands; Rick Lance, a Baptist pastor in Alabama, related the following story from a previous pastorate: I came to the hospital answering a call from one of my church members. His daughter had been in a traffic accident and the situation looked grave. I entered the room with a sense of dread. "What was I to say?". That question became eclipsed by the comment of my deacon friend who looked up with a smile and said, "now we have an opportunity to put into practice what we have learned and we have taught others through the years". He was saying, "now we embrace the Lord who is faithful and practice what we have preached". I didn't say much after that statement because this mature Christian had ministered to me in ways he never imagined. He had "embraced" the Lord in good times and yes in the bad times too. That is a testimony to God's trustworthiness. I pray that it will be ours too as we look to an uncertain future, with faith in a trustworthy God! [Rick Lance sermon online]
Habakkuk has run through the whole range of emotions just as you and I do when the storms of life cross our pathway. The devil can seek to discourage us by telling us that unlike our brothers and sisters at church who don’t have their doubts and fears or times of despair or tears we have so far to go in the faith that it is barely worth continuing. What nonsense! Jesus spoke about the effectiveness of faith as small as a mustard seed, but placed in our great God, and therefore, in the right place to seek the resources to stand and overcome through our trials (Matthew 17:20: Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. ’). 1. Our Situation may be Serious (Habakkuk 3:16-17) I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 17 Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls
(Habakkuk 3:16-17) The incredible words of the end of Habakkuk 3 are not spoken at a Sunday School picnic or lying on the beach on a happy summer holiday. If you are in any doubt read Habakkuk 3:16. Had we seen him uttering these words we might have felt tense or nervous for him! What we may never know is whether the Lord had given this prophet an insight into the horrors of the siege and fall of Jerusalem that would destroy his beloved city and country within a few years. If that was the case, then it is easier to understand the depth of emotion as he took his stand and resolved to trust God with his and his nation’s future. Let us try and see these words through his eyes and in the social context of Judaea near 2,600 1
years ago. The economy of Judah was based primarily on agriculture, growing crops and raising cattle. There were the permanent staple crops that people took for granted as available every year, from fruit trees, olive trees and the products of the vine, together with the annual field crops, like wheat and barley. According to this verse, what parts of this economy have failed? The first three items: figs, grapes, and olives – that is, all the permanent crops nonexistent! The next item: food from the fields; that is, the annual crops, the staple foods, the source for most of the calorie supply. So neither the permanent nor the annual crops have yielded anything. If this is the experience for more than a year the death rate will be very high indeed. The potato famines in Ireland and the western Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the nineteenth century and other parts of the world today recall the horrors of famine. For many of us the pictures from Ethiopia when Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure organized the Live Aid events in July 1985, when 1.9 billion people in 150 countries watched the concert and presentation, which brought home the reality of the suffering this can bring –an experience that had vanished from our country four or five generations earlier. Yet this was not the worst of it –he raises a further trial: though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls (Hab.3:17c); no prospect of any food left at all –as happens in a siege of a major city that has gone on for long enough in the ancient world. How do we translate that into the social circumstances of twenty-first century Britain? Maybe something like this: “Even though I’ve lost everything; even though all my income disappears.” We might say, “When I lose my job and I am ineligible to claim any social security benefits; when I can’t work and am denied my disability living allowance; when the bills come in but no money comes in to the current account at the bank or building society.” Yet his situation was considerably worse than we might ever contemplate as there were no food banks run by Christian or other charitable concerns; there were no agencies like Bethany or Shelter to assist the homeless. It inevitably pointed to death, first the weakest members of society, the very young and the very old and those with health issues. I cannot imagine what it is like to experience such horrors nor can I envisage such circumstances arising in the United Kingdom. I do remember Sandor, a team leader with Hungarian Baptist Aid, describing the scenes when his aid convey, one of the first into the shattered city of Grozny, Chechnya, arrived at the scene of where First Baptist Church had once stood. That magnificent building had been reduced to rubble and the vast majority of the 500-strong congregation murdered in scenes of absolute horror. An examination of the site located a handful of elderly ladies living in the rubble of the foundations of the church. In the trucks they had plentiful supplies of food and medicines and basic items for survival such as tents and blankets; they (the aid workers) asked the ladies who had survived for sometime on rainwater they had collected and dead rats –what they would most like to receive –the response was unforgettable; would he lead them in a communion service. There had been no opportunities since the killings took place. When I first heard him recount that story with its graphic details at a Baptist Union Council meeting in Glasgow some years ago there was not a dry eye in the place. It is in such a context that Habakkuk knew could very easily be experienced in his own country within a few years that he makes this statement. In essence Habakkuk finds his reason for living not in perishable things, or we might add the material comforts of life, that he described in verse seventeen. On 15 April 1912 when the Titanic was sinking, women and children were being loaded on the lifeboats. A lady apparently asked permission to run back to her room one last time for something she did not want to leave. She was given just a few minutes or someone else would take her place. When she got back to her room, many of her possessions were piled against the wall from the steep incline of the sinking ship. Above her bed was a jewelry box of expensive diamond rings and necklaces. She brushed them aside and quickly grabbed two oranges and one apple. Our priorities change when life is at its most challenging. But ought they to be what they are at 2
present in our lives? It ought not to take a life-threatening crisis to make us realise what is the most important in our lives. How does Habakkuk respond to this situation? 2. Our Salvation is Secure (Habakkuk 3:18) ...yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour (Habakkuk 3:18). The problems
that Habakkuk was deeply distressed about in chapter one of his little book have not gone away. The explanation of God how He was going to deal with the sins of His people provided no encouragement for someone wanting to live in a black and white world where the good people receive only good things and the bad people bad; the real world is an incredibly complex place where blessing and trials too often bear little relation to the lifestyle of the one that experiences them â€“at the human level. The perspective we have is like looking at a beautiful rug only from the other side with all its knots and interwoven threads. One day we will see the world from the other side and, only then will some things make sense that may never be understood in this life. (a) Habakkuk is now in a new place in himself through his prayers and time of wrestling with God. In this place he has been changed by his prayers not the outward circumstances. Of course there are many occasions where at the human level we can say that through prayer particular circumstances have been changed, but we need also to grasp that we ourselves can be changed through our prayers. This is clearly what has taken place here. (b) Habakkuk is living firmly in the real world one of the strengths of the Old Testament prophets was that they were well aware of what was happening around them. They did not ignore the very real problems their nation or other countries needed to address. In the world today with our personal entertainment systems, or even without any technological distractions, there is the opportunity to withdraw into our own personal space and pretend not to notice what is happening to other people. Churches where members only have friends in the church and never have any social contact with people outside the faith and rarely ever invite someone yet to come to faith to a church-related event can lose a sense of perspective concerning the culture around them, as much of the media and entertainment industry appears to have little comprehension today of what it means to be a Christian and the fact that our faith relates to the whole of life throughout the week, not just something we take out for a few hours in our private time on a Sunday. These things happen only gradually and those individuals or organisations most seriously affected can be completely unaware of the problem. (c) Habakkuk embraces Godâ€™s revealed will he could so easily have resigned himself to it. I have no choice God is God so what does it matter how I feel about things. He has come to a place of deeper trust in the Lord. He does not ignore the real human issues or the actual evil around him â€“that could never be done with integrity. However, he has come to terms with the fact that he will never see the fuller picture that God sees, in this life, and therefore, must accept that God who sees the end from the beginning has a better perspective on the wider picture. In a sense in very simplistic terms a person viewing Ben Nevis and the surrounding area from the first vantage point maybe thirty minutes walk from the Youth Hostel in the valley below and another looking around from the summit. What can be seen from the two places is significantly different. He has come to a place of contentment in his circumstances. The apostle Paul also came in his later years to grasp this truth also, in Philippians 4:10-13: I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. It may be no accident that it is often only in later years that many
Christians come to this place. I have certainly struggled with this issue and wanted to know 3
how God was going to work through some issues or situations that I or other people were facing and not wanted to be patient and wait to see how He would work them out. It is, though a further step to consciously do what Habakkuk has done in verse 18: ...yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour (Habakkuk 3:18). In view of the imminent invasion of the Babylonians which could and most probably would result in the destruction of his nation the future looks bleak, but yet God has a purpose that He might never grasp to bring about something for the ultimate good of His people. Habakkuk not only foresees the possibility that he could lose everything; he foresees the certainty that the world as he knows it – along with everything and everyone he loves, probably will be destroyed. And in this extremity he says not only, I won’t accuse God of being unfaithful, I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour (Habakkuk 3:18). How can he say this? Over the years there have been both religious and secular examples of people who have risen above their circumstances to the amazement of people around them. In the secular world the conduct of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in taking his country forward in the post-apartheid era has been inspirational. Seeing him wearing the Springboks’ jersey in the Rugby Union World Cup final in South Africa on 24 June 1995 –was an extraordinary (and right) step to take. The Lord can enable us to do that which at the merely human level is beyond our natural abilities in the power of His Spirit. It is to this point that the prophet turns in the last verse of his message. 3. Our Strength comes from God (Habakkuk 3:19) 19
The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to tread on the heights (Habakkuk 3:19). This verse explains why Habakkuk can rejoice in the midst of
the terrible suffering he foresees. Consider three questions that arise as we try to understand what he is saying: Why does he say his feet are made like those of a deer? What is implied by on the heights? And what does he mean by He enables me to go? (a) He made made my feet like the feet of a deer American pastor Coty Pinckney some years ago illustrated this point from the experience he and his wife Beth had in 1979. He wrote: If Habakkuk had lived on this continent, he might have said, “like those of a bighorn sheep.” In 1979, Beth and I hiked for a week in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Frequently we would look up at a rocky, seemingly inaccessible peak – and there near the top we would see bighorn sheep. They would climb to the uppermost crags, and run over rock fields as easily as we would run on the beach. Why are bighorn sheep able to do this? Because of their feet – their tough, cloven hooves. These hooves aren’t hurt by sharp rocks, but are able to grip even small outcrops. God designed their feet for climbing. They don’t slip. They don’t fall. Note that the point is not the power of the sheep, but the design of the sheep’s foot. Habakkuk uses the word for the female deer, not the male, to make this point. The female deer too is able to climb to the highest heights, to run over rocky fields, because of her special feet. So Habakkuk rejoices that his feet are made like deer’s feet, like the feet of bighorn sheep – designed by God to travel over the most difficult ground. In other words though I may not
realize it He has given me the spiritual resources to stand in my time of trial. It may be facing serious illness or a major operation; it can be a whole host of different trials and tests, but whatever it may be God will provide for my need. (b) On the heights We must not interpret this phrase in the manner that would be natural in the Western world in the last couple of centuries. For many of us scenes readily come to mind of walking in the hills on a beautiful warm day with a gentle breeze. This is especially true for the keen mountaineers amongst us, but for everyone it can sound a rather enjoyable time and engaging in exercise that profits our bodies results in a double bonus, as our general fitness and sense of wellbeing may also benefit. However, until the last four or five generations the idea of exercising for pleasure, let alone day trips or holidays, was completely outside their experience. A very wealthy few could engage in non-essential trips but ordinary people could not even entertain any notions of such luxury. Mountain-climbing as we know it began in the nineteenth century. Habakkuk is thinking here of places or experiences that we 4
find very difficult, where we would not go unless it is absolutely necessary. So ‘the heights’ or ‘high places’, depending on the English translation, is describing circumstances through which we are allowed to pass by the Lord. For many of us it is major health situations personally or in our families, and ultimately death; it can be very hard times at work or struggles in human relationships. In essence, the situations we wouldn’t wish on ourselves or other people, yet which we know are part and parcel of the human condition. Recently one of my younger colleagues was diagnosed with Huntingdon’s Disease, an increasingly debilitating condition for which there is no cure; another in his twenties a few years ago was diagnosed with a brain tumour, though remarkably his treatment appears to be working and he was even at the June 2012 Ministers’ Conference, but the cancer, humanly-speaking, will not go away, but it was humbling to hear him so full of joy in the Lord. In 2001 in the year of the foot and mouth outbreak that began apparently on pig farms in Northumberland the sad sight of pyres of burning carcasses was an increasingly familiar sight in rural England. I remember a few trips around that time down the M74 as the pyres were burning a strange and disturbing sight as the animal life was extinguished in a given area. Coming from a country farming background I was well aware that this is not a job but a way of life for many farmers. The slaughter of precious lines of animals that have lived with generations of farming families for some was traumatic. Newspapers predictably sought ought stories of lambs or calves or other farm animals being hidden from inspectors in farm houses. What made matters worse was the arbitrary policy of the government. The decisions about exclusion zones for slaughter varied from week to week and appeared to bear little relation to the advice given by the specialist vets in each region. Rural communities lived in fear for months on end that the plague would visit their community. In a valley I know well the dreaded news of slaughter finally came. One of the worse aspects to it was the total silence that followed for days as all the living creatures had been eliminated for several square miles. In that context most of the families were Christians and associated with a nearby Methodist Church where, after the slaughter, they gathered to meet in God’s house to respond to the situation. The passage of Scripture chosen for that service was Habakkuk 3:1719: Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; He enables me to tread on the heights. Apparently
it was an incredibly emotional gathering but the living Word of God was very real and relevant to that situation. (c) He enables me to go The NIV translates this, “enables me to go on the heights.”Most English translations use two verbs here: the New King James, for example, “make” and “walk”, the NIV, “enable” and “go”. But in Hebrew, there is only one verb, the usual verb for “walk”, with a stem change that indicates the subject is caused to do the normal action of the verb. So in this case, the phrase might mean: “He leads me to these high places; He makes me go there even though I don’t want to.”Or, it might mean (as the NIV interprets it):“He enables me to walk on places I could not go without his help.”[Coty Pinckney comment] It appears likely that Habakkuk includes both of these ideas. He is fearful of
what God may allow to cross his pathway as he is unsure of how he would cope under such a trial because it would be so hard and in his case dangerous as well. He has also come to terms with the fact that God is leading him to a place he does not want to go. Yet, at the same time he willingly affirms that God is his strength, and Habakkuk is confident that God will enable him to do what he could never do on his own. And that is why he is joyful! God led him to this very spot. And though there is pain and difficulty here, he knows that God will either rescue him from the danger or allow him to die. But even death is controlled by God, and only will come about if God so directs. Therefore, he will affirm The Sovereign Lord is my strength (Habakkuk 3:19). As a result because God is good and all-knowing and is in control of His world I will rejoice in the assurance that though I cannot see the way ahead I will place 5
my life securely in the hands of the One who does. Is this something you and I need to grasp afresh today? Therefore, in our schools, colleges or universities and workplaces or in retirement, where the Lord has placed us, we can stand in the midst of our trials, although we readily acknowledge that walking by faith (Habakkuk 2:4b) can be much harder than walking by sight. It is often natural to seek to take care of our life circumstances and ‘be in control’ – whatever that means. Yet our satisfaction and fulfillment in life and our security are only ultimately found in the Lord. It is natural to seek the affirmation and honour of colleagues, friends and family –and it is right and good to mark achievements people have accomplished. Yet how arbitrary is such honour; how many great painters, musicians or inventors, for example, were only accorded greatness after their deaths? How many authors book sales or singer’s record sales only seriously took off after their deaths? Only the Lord will consistently honour fairly and appropriately those whose words and actions are truly deserving of recognition in the big scheme of things. To the one who lives by faith, God says, “Don’t pursue these things directly! You will not find them that way. I know, that’s the natural thing to do. But I tell you: Trust in Me! Delight in Me! And I will give you the desires of your heart. You will find true satisfaction, true security, true accomplishment, and true honor in Me alone!” The message of Habakkuk also teaches us that living by faith means loving God rather than loving the things He allows us to possess. Theoretically you could purchase a bundle of love-letters expressing endless devotion in an auction sale. If the author and recipient were unknown how meaningful would they be? If they had belonged to your parents or grandparents or even you or your spouse it would be another story. The significance is purely down to the personal element in the particular case. It is easy for us to delight in the gifts and blessings God grants us and to become angry or disillusioned if they are taken away. It takes more effort to love the Lord for who He is than when He has blessed us with all kind of material or other this-life related blessings. Habakkuk challenges us to declare that God is our delight, our portion and our treasure, and that we desire nothing compared with Him. Whatever your high places might be, know that God has either allowed us to be there or guided us there. In that place He will enable you to endure, He will enable you to rejoice for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Romans 1:1-15 What matters most to you? Introduction On 24 May 1738 a discouraged Anglican missionary to North America went with a great deal of reluctance to a Bible study and prayer meeting in London. It would be a meeting that would be significant for the rest of his life. He wrote in his journal: ‘About a quarter before nine, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ I am sure a significant number of you will know exactly whose testimony I am reciting with these words, none other than the great Methodist preacher John Wesley. In the context of the evening someone had been reading the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on the Letter to the Romans. This was not intended to be an evangelistic tool, as the meeting was a gathering to encourage Christians in their faith, yet here was an enthusiastic and highly disciplined Anglican clergyman who had never been told of the need to place his faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. A few months before that date, another revealing journal entry contained these words: ‘I went to America to convert the Indians; but Oh! Who shall convert me?’ Praise God, that night in the fellowship meeting in Aldersgate Street in London the Holy Spirit used the teaching of this New Testament letter, as explained by a man converted through his own studies in Romans chapter one (Martin Luther). This extraordinary letter by the apostle Paul, much longer than the conventional letters of his day has been used to transform the lives of countless Christians over the centuries. I trust that as we go through it that our own lives will be impacted by its wonderful teaching. 1. The context of this letter (Romans 15:23-33) (a)Paul had always wanted to visit this church (Romans 15:23) But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you,
However, he was always conscious of the shortness of time and that his priority was visiting major cities in the Roman Empire to establish churches where no earlier Christian missionary had gone. This point Paul made clear in Romans 15:19b-20: So from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. 20 It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. How large is this geographical area? If it is grasped that Illyricum corresponds
roughly to modern Albania, then he is saying that over this extremely large area corresponding to the modern countries of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Albania, all the major cities in these places had been visited either by Paul or people under his leadership in less than twenty-five years. [Picture of map of Roman world showing the extent of Paul’s travels –use at this point]
When we remember that most of the journeys were on foot, though some by sea, without any modern forms of communication, it is an extraordinary accomplishment. The mission strategy of Paul was to establish a church in the main urban centre(s) of a Roman province and then ask the newly-established congregation to take the responsibility of then taking the gospel to the towns and then the smaller villages and hamlets of the district. His words here do not mean that he had visited every settlement in these countries or even passed through them, simply that the task he had set himself was accomplished in less than a quarter of the century. His mind now turns to the ‘What next’ could be done in the remaining years of his life. It is in the context of what he plans to do next that the opportunity for a visit to the Church in Rome becomes both possible and necessary. His ‘home church’ for his work in Eastern Europe and what we call the Middle East had been at Antioch in Syria, the home of the first Christian missionaries. However, with his thoughts turning to Western Europe a new base for his ministry was required and he viewed the church in Rome as suitable for this purpose. It is a profound challenge to us about making our lives count for the Lord. The time we have is very short –we need to ask ourselves is my time management, my choice of activities over the weekly or monthly schedule the best balance it can be with the responsibilities the Lord has entrusted to me? None one else can answer that question for us. Paul and many subsequent pioneering male and female missionaries chose to remain single because of the demands of this kind of work. Some church leaders in the modern era, like John Stott, have done the same for very similar reasons. The question for all of us is not should I copy this or that great Christian man or woman from the past, but am I willing to be whom God called me to be and to carry out the work He has provided for me to do? (b) Paul was planning to start church-planting in Spain (Romans 15:24)24 I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and that you will assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. He is writing the letter from the port of
Corinth in Greece. The post-woman who will deliver his letter to the Church in Rome is Phoebe, a lady deacon of the Church in Cenchrea, the port of Corinth (Romans 16:1-2: I 2
commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. The apostle mentions her in the body of the
letter so that the recipients of the letter know that this is not only a genuine letter from Paul, but also delivered by the person to whom he is entrusting the letter. How we would love to know more about this lady. It is likely that Phoebe (like Lydia, the Turkish businesswoman in Philippi Acts 16:14) was a wealthy businesswoman who had interests not only in Greece, but also in Rome, capital city of the Empire. She was not only one of the key Christian layleaders in the area, but had provided funds for God’s work in a fair number of places, including covering expenses for Paul and possibly other team members on some of his missionary journeys. Paul, having been given notice of her forthcoming trip to Rome takes the opportunity to write to this local church to prepare the way for a future visit by him. He is hoping that the Church in Rome will adopt him as a link missionary working in Spain. However, they have never met him and he feels it appropriate, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to set out the Gospel he proclaims on his missionary tours. It is not a systematic theology covering all the major theological topics, rather an evangelistic message covering the problem of sin (chs1-3); the provision of salvation (chs4-5); the process of sanctification (chs6-8); the particular position of the Jewish people (chs9-11); prior to some ethical instruction for living out the faith as a minority community in the Roman world (chs 12-15), together with personal greetings at the end (ch16). In Corinth Paul’s host is Gaius (Romans 16:23; I Corinthians 1:14), a man he had baptized when previously in Corinth, another prominent business person in whose home Paul is staying while working in Corinth. It was also the location of the meetings of the Church in Corinth, so it is clearly a large Roman villa of impressive proportions. Erastus, Timothy and Sopater were with Paul when Romans was written (Romans 16:21, 23) and also when he was in Greece (Acts 19:22; 20:2-4). On both occasions Paul intended to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome (Acts 19:21; Romans 15:24-26, 28). (c) Paul’s immediate intentions were to visit the Church in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-33) 25
Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. 28 So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this contribution, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. 29 I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. 30 I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. 31 Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, 32 so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. 33 The God of peace be with you all. Amen The first believers in
Jerusalem had made huge financial sacrifices in the early years of the Christian Church to support the needs of new converts who were staying on in Jerusalem after their conversions. The apostle was conscious that money or other investments normally put aside to assist in later years had been spent on assisting believers from other countries; therefore, they in general terms, not necessarily people who had been personally assisted, had a responsibility to support these Jewish believers as a sign of their fellowship together in the Gospel. The local congregations may have been autonomous, but were responsible to one another, to support and assist each other where appropriate. Paul wanted the joy of passing on the money collected by Churches in Greece for their poor brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, before coming to Rome. However, he did not know how he would get on when he visited Jerusalem as a small number of fanatical Jews who had opposed his missionary work might stir up the crowds against him there, as well as in their own countries, and humanly-speaking, in that 3
context, anything could happen. However, unless things went seriously wrong Paul expected to be in Rome in the not-too distant future. Likewise we ought to plan for the future as wisely and carefully as we can, but at the same time be very conscious that our lives are in His hands and what He may allow to cross our pathway good or challenging may be very different to what we had anticipated. Yet we pray that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 2. A description of the author of the letter (Romans 1:1) (a) Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus (1:1a) The letter writing convention of that day was to begin with the name of the sender prior to the name of the addressee. In this case the introductory section is much longer than according to the standard conventions of the day. However, this is not a standard letter of either the business or personal variety. In addition, the author does not know the recipients and probably felt obliged to declared his credentials. How does he describe himself? His first term is one reflecting his humility as a ‘doulos /slave’ of Jesus Christ. This was following the Old Testament pattern where individual believers referred to themselves in this way. The author of Psalm 116 wrote: O Lord, truly I am your servant… (Ps.116:16a); In Isaiah 43:10 the nation collectively is referred to by God as my servant whom I have chosen; the model of humility was shown by Jesus in the New Testament (Philippians 2:7), both in His acceptance of His ministry on earth and in particular instances as at the last Supper where He washed the disciples feet (John 13:1-17), a task usually delegated to a Gentile slave. All believers are called to serve one another and others in His name, and for His glory. However, the second title of Paul was held by only a few individuals. (b) called to be an apostle (1:1b) Jesus set apart twelve of His followers as apostles (Luke 6:13); after much prayer and deliberation. Paul was added to their number with his personal call from the Lord on the road to Damascus (Galatians 1:1: Paul, an apostle –sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father… ). What qualifications were laid down before someone could claim this title? Acts 1:21-22 state: Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection. These words were spoken after the death of Judas
Iscariot and the deliberations by the Early Church on the criteria for appointing a successor. By contrast this was an exalted title, a privileged position but election in the Bible is for service and no-one endured so much hardship as Paul did in those first few decades of Christian history, nor did anyone else have as great an impact in laying the foundations for the future growth and prosperity of the Christian Church. In addition he states: (c) and set apart for the gospel of God (1:1c) The Greek word translated here as set apart is the same root word from which the term Pharisee is derived. Jewish readers would probably have noted this marker laid down by the apostle who has changed from being a fanatical Pharisee opposed to all the Christian Church stood for to being a man totally dedicated to advancing the work of this witness, having been commissioned to it by the Lord Himself. In Galatians 1:16 Paul wrote: But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach H im among the Gentiles…; this statement is remarkably similar to Jeremiah’s description of his own call to ministry six centuries earlier (Jeremiah 1:5). Therefore although a humble man conscious that he was undeserving of his office, Paul was equally bold in pointing to his authoritative position as the apostle to the Gentiles. It is as the officeholder of this position that he will articulate the message God has revealed to him concerning the nature of the gospel He is compelled to preach to the nations. Our calling (Matthew 28:19-20) from Jesus to spread the good news by word and deed is equally the top priority of Christians in each generation. 4
Others may have apostolic commissions as those sent out as missionaries and churchplanters, but the first generation of Christians contained some unique individuals set apart as apostles and prophets, unlike any office-holder in subsequent generations. Paul in Ephesians 2:20 wrote that the Christian Church was: built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone.
3. A summary of the gospel with which he has been entrusted (a)The origin of the Gospel the gospel of God (1:1c) This conviction is not only foundational to the letter but to the entire witness of the Christian Church down the ages. The message we proclaim is not a way to approach a deity, but the revealed means of salvation for all humanity from God Himself. This is not a popular message in today’s pluralistic society where the public convention is of many opinions, but no absolute truth. This is of course nonsense. In various Olympic events, for example, competitors have found to their cost that even an unintentional minor infraction of the rules can lead to disqualification and the crushing of their hopes for a gold medal. It is equally true in many areas of society or fields of knowledge today. When we share our faith personally on a one-to-one basis or at a public podium, we may not utter the words: ‘Thus says the Lord…’ or ‘God says’, but we could have justification for that in principle, even though it may not be wise to do so in practice in many situations. Therefore, this renders it very serious when a person rejects a witness to the truth because they are not just turning their backs (hopefully only on a temporary basis) on someone’s opinion, but on the very gospel of God Himself, the ultimate act of folly. (b) The authority behind the Gospel the Holy Scriptures (Romans 1:2) 2 the gospel He promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible was, and is, authoritative for God’s people and is the ground through which we can know the revealed will of God. For example, in I Corinthians 15:3-4, in the famous chapter on the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for our later resurrection, the apostle uses a distinctive expression to emphasise the authority behind his words: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… ; a different expression is used in
Romans 3:21: to which the Law and the Prophets testify…but means the same thing. Peter, writing later concerning Paul’s letters and how some people were misusing their contents for a different purpose, writes in II Peter 3:16, that they also have been doing it also with the other Scriptures. This book has a unique place in human civilisation as the Word of God. We respect the claims of other faiths regarding their sacred writings, but in line with the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century, we proclaim ‘Sola Scriptura’, the Bible alone is our authoritative account of the revealed will of God for His people. (c) The heart of the Gospel is Jesus (Romans 1:3-4) 3 regarding His Son, who as to His earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by His resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Christians have been criticised for ‘always talking about Jesus, singing about Jesus, praying in the name of Jesus’. It is actually a compliment, because a church where Jesus is not at the centre of all that is taking place is not a biblical New Testament Church. In Romans 1:9 Paul writes: God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of His Son…Its all about You Jesus [Robin Mark, ‘Jesus all for Jesus’] is absolutely spot on. Unlike any other world religion, Christianity would cease if Jesus was removed from it. Or if His death and resurrection had not in fact taken place; what does Paul mention in this brief summary of the place of Jesus in the Gospel? (i) the humanity of Jesus who as to His earthly life was a descendant of David. There were sects who denied that one who was truly God could become a human being; a true presentation of the Gospel will affirm that Jesus was truly human in the 5
way that you and I are human beings, with feelings, mental faculties and physical capabilities –yet without sin, as distinct from us as Hebrews 4:15 points out: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. If Jesus was not truly human and capable of
yielding to temptation, then this verse looses its power. However, because He perfectly withstood every temptation to sin, through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, we too can be empowered to stand firm in our faith. However, the importance of the Holy Spirit, here called the Spirit of holiness, in the ministry of Jesus (and, therefore, equally important postPentecost in the lives of His followers), cannot be overstated. (ii) the deity of Jesus Jesus was the ‘Son’ or descendant ‘of David’, a messianic title from the Old Testament (examples include: II Samuel 7; Isaiah 11:1,10), but also stressed here is His title: the Son of God, to emphasise His deity. The deity of Christ is understood behind Paul’s words in Romans 5:10, with reference to Jesus’ sacrifice in our place on the cross: For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life! Similarly in Romans 8:3: God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering …; yet the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus is
grounded on His resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). Our salvation was procured by the death of Jesus, but confirmed beyond doubt by God raising Him from the dead. The powerful action of the Holy Spirit in raising Jesus from the dead gives us the confidence not only to proclaim the Gospel to others, but upon it to ground our own hopes of resurrection life beyond the grave. Following His resurrection, the one who humbled Himself was exalted to the highest place as Philippians 2:9-11 declares: Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. How does Paul state the distinctive Christian confession:
Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:5). This became the baptismal confession of each candidate that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10: if you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved . This
title used of God the Father in the Old Testament (Isaiah 45:22-24) is correctly used also of Jesus, an extraordinary thing to say in Jewish circles in New Testament times. (d) The scope of the gospel is world mission (Romans 1:5-6) 5
Through Him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for His name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. The wording is different to the great commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20
or Acts 1:8, but the message is the same. Christ-centred, Spirit empowered, followers of God will never rest content while there are people on earth who still face an eternity separated from God. Behind the urgency of the gospel proclamation stands the eternal realities of heaven and hell. Jesus came to save us from hell and transform us to be like Him in heaven and in so doing to play our part in the transformation of God’s created order to fulfil His original purposes for it, as Paul will explain later in Romans 8:18-21. Therefore, if you and I claim to be followers of Jesus we will pray for people who need Jesus, seek to speak to people who need Jesus, invest in mission at home and overseas to support this end. Paul, in effect is bringing his introductory remarks to a climax by inviting this congregation to become a missionary people not only at home, but through investing in Paul and his missionary colleagues in work in other lands. (e) The specific local application of the gospel in Rome (Romans 1:7-15) 7
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all 6
times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. 11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. He follows these key introductory remarks
with a commendation of their exemplary faith which is encouraging fellow believers all over the world (Romans 1:8b)! If that is true then –how much is this important that each local church endeavours to encourage other believers by its faithful witness for Jesus. Partnership in mission but also partnership in prayer one for the other; we may not be able to go in person to overseas missionary service; we may not have financial or other gifts to support the work, but no believer can excuse themselves from praying for the extension of God’s kingdom at home and overseas. Only a minority of Christians can visit churches in other lands at any given time, but all can recognise our partnership in the Gospel through regular intercessory prayer. This serves to remind us that we are part of something so much bigger than we could ever imagine. You are not on your own, part of a local congregation, part of the wider family of churches, part of the roughly 800 million, and growing, Evangelical Christian family around the globe, together proclaiming the Gospel of God, together exalting the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit; together playing our part in the fulfilment of the prayer model passed on by Jesus, may Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), Amen
Matthew 14 vs 22 to 33 The Call to Follow Introduction How willing are you to trust people? What are the criteria you would use to make such choices? If, for example the individual in question was (a) your best friend or (b) a person you do business with regularly, or (c) someone who had let you down on more than one occasion, then the levels of trust would be significantly different between these three people. We cannot (and probably should not!) operate any other way with other people as it is part of the growing up process in life. One of the wonders of young children is their innocence in trusting people. Sadly they will have to learn as they get older that sometimes our trust in someone has been misplaced, as not everyone is as reliable as other people in keeping their promises or doing what they had committed to carrying out. Yet it is not just the ‘other person’ that has made wrong choices; most if not all of us at times has had occasions where we have let someone down or broken a prior commitment or made a wrong choice with our finances or in work decisions or with respect to some family obligation. Most of the time in daily life we operate on a kind of automatic pilot as the choices we make are routine and our expectations of people around us are consistently fulfilled in the choices they and we make in the ordinary everyday activities of life. However, what about our relationship with God? How are you getting on in your trust of the Lord and keeping your side of the relationship with Him? To what extent do you rely on Him to take care of you and watch over you in whatever life throws at us? Now we are expected to be sensible and wise about the decisions we make; but our reliance is supremely not on ourselves to cover all the issues that might arise, but on God who strengthens us. Yet it is so often only when we are feeling weak and vulnerable that we find out how deep is the level of our faith as Christians. Sometimes we are doing okay, but on occasions, we can drift along not depending on Him and when the storms of life come along we can seriously struggle to regain our focus and need to recognise that keeping close to the Lord is an essential priority for us as Christians. In Matthew 14:22-33 Simon Peter had a very practical test of his faith which he was confident of passing, but to his horror he failed miserably. Before we pass judgement on Peter –how many times would you or me react in exactly the same way if we were put to the test? What is most encouraging is that Jesus persevered with him enabling him, in time, to become one of the most significant Christian leaders in the Early Church. Yet it took years to get to that place. In exactly the same way God is at work in your life. The sign is up ‘God at work –not finished yet’. In Romans 8:29 the apostle Paul wrote these words, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. In simple terms, before you were even born, God had a plan for your life. His intention was to change you over time so that by the time you are with Him in heaven you will be perfect in attitude, words and conduct, just like Jesus, His Son and our Saviour. When I look in my own life at how imperfect are my thoughts; how inadequate at times my words and how many times I would do certain things differently had I the opportunity to go back and try again! I am amazed that God perseveres with me. What is more, that He will not give up on any of His children who have trusted Him, through faith in Jesus, and continue to work in us until His goal is 1
accomplished. I don’t know about you, but I find that very humbling! However, we take a step back to Simon Peter and the opportunity he had to demonstrate his faith in Jesus. 1.The presumption in his faith (Matthew 14: 22-28) (a)The context of this story (Matthew 14:22-23a)
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowd. 23 After He had dismissed them, He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray… What was the context in
which this story unfolded? The day in question was an unforgettable one for any of the thousands of people who had been present. Jesus had been teaching for a large part of the day, something common with the rabbis of that time. No-one would have taken issue with that; and it was entirely a voluntary choice to both attend the meeting and stay for its duration. Up to this point nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. What happened next would mark out Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel. He asked His disciples to organise a main meal for the vast crowd that had gathered. In an age of subsistence farming, where catering firms had not been invented and when wholesale grocers and supermarkets would wait another two millennia before becoming a regular feature of the western world, this was impossible for ordinary citizens to accomplish. Even the royalty of the day would have struggled to deliver such a spread on a daily basis. From the modest quantities of bread and fish available –an older child’s daily portion! Jesus fed thousands of people with enough food for them to be fully satisfied with its quantity. The word miracle at times is over-used, but on this occasion no other description could suffice. Many of the Galilean peasants present grasped the point of the feast –to show who Jesus is –the one prophesied about in the Old Testament. (John 6:14-15 makes this very clear: After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself .)
Knowing how volatile the situation might become Jesus took prompt action to diffuse any potential difficulties with the Jewish or Roman authorities - 22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowd.
The atmosphere here is electric – not just equivalent to Mo Farah winning gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the London Olympics, but of completing a clean sweep of gold medals from the 100 metres to the marathon! At the same time He went in the opposite direction, alone to spend time with God to re-orientate Himself after such an extraordinary day. 23 After He had dismissed them, He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray. This was the context of this test of Peter’s faith. (b) Jesus’ sovereignty over nature (Matthew 14:23b-26) Later that night, He was there alone, 24
and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear. It was common for storms on that lake to begin with almost no warning and very quickly
become a real danger to the small boats that fishermen used at that time. Even with the best boats of the present day fisherman still lose their lives and ships are sunk when storms catch them out. The major Bible commentators seem to suggest that the boat here has travelled at least halfway across the lake, but to be in that place in a storm is most vulnerable as there is a serious risk of drowning which ever way the crew members choose to row or sail their boat. On this occasion it appears that the disciples lives were not in danger, but their best efforts to command the craft’s journey were causing little progress to be made and exhaustion would become a major factor after a few hours. The specific expression used by Matthew in verse 25 indicates that the time of this incident is between 3am and 6am. In a community where swimming was not taught, and therefore to be outside a boat in the water ensured a serious risk of death, the sight of someone on the water was unexpected to say the least. However, 2
not only is this stranger apparently walking on water, but also doing it in a storm when the waves would be bigger and more powerful. The disciples are convinced that their mental faculties are malfunctioning as they are seeing a ghost on the water. Possibly some of them were beginning to think that their time was up, even though the weather conditions were not quite that bad! In this context the disciples have forgotten what had taken place less than twelve hours earlier; they had also forgotten about Jesus –or at least assumed He was unaware of what was happening to them. It is very possible if visibility was good that night, that Jesus had been able to observe their progress, or lack of it, at any point in time during the night, prior to His walk on the water to rescue them. We too at times have blind panics when we lose the place and make decisions that are rash and foolish. These disciples were acting as if their lives were not secure in God’s hands –and God’s people down the ages have also done exactly the same on occasions. Is that where you are at today? Do you need a fellow Christian to pray with you to help you regain a sense of perspective on your life circumstances? No situation is outside His control. Psalm 93:3-4 states: The seas have lifted up, Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. 4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea – the Lord on high is mighty. Do you, do I need to hear that message
today? (c) Jesus’ reassuring words were an invitation to faith (Matthew 14:27) 27
But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’ 28 ‘Lord, if it’s You,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to You on the water.’ The occupants of the boat are fishermen who
know that it is not normal for someone to walk on water. The ancient Egyptian symbol for something that is impossible was ‘two feet walking on water’. However, they hear and recognise the voice of Jesus. In literal words Jesus said in verse 27: Be courageous I AM Don’t be afraid This was more than a statement of the obvious; it was a declaration of his true identity as God in human flesh, identifying with the God of the Old Testament, by the choice of words used. In Isaiah 51:12-13 it states: ‘I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass, 13 that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretches out the heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth…Interestingly further on in the same passage, in Isaiah 51:15, the prophet reports God as declaring: For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar –the Lord Almighty is His name. There
are many situations in life outside our control, but not outside His. Listen to these words from Isaiah 43:2-3a from the New Living version: When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
2. The invitation to his faith (Matthew 14:28-29) (a)Peter’s challenge (Matthew 14:28) 28 ‘Lord, if it’s You,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to You on the water. It is interesting that Peter’s words here to Jesus appear sincere and promising.
The implications are that other disciples in the boat are doubting who it is that has spoken to them, but bold Peter is convinced it is Jesus and therefore all will be fine. At this stage all looks good and we are impressed with the depth of his faith and trust in the Lord. In your Christian life and mine there are days when we live and act by faith and demonstrate that in the choices we make and by our responses to the situations of life we are experiencing. We can even surprise ourselves that we have managed so well –but there is the danger if we think we have managed in our own strength and forgotten that it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can be overcomers for God in the trials of life. Paul in the familiar words of Philippians 4:13 reminds us: I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. Our faith is a gift from God and must be exercised continually for us to continue living effective 3
Christian lives. Hebrews chapter eleven gives us a series of examples of men and women who exercised faith in God in sometimes extraordinarily difficult circumstances and yet were triumphant over them. The principle is given in Hebrews 11:6: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. Many years ago the circus tightrope walker Blondin had thrilled
American audiences with his amazing feats on the high wire. In the summers of 1859 and 1860 crowds several thousand strong watched in amazement his performances at Niagara Falls. In the 1860s when the American civil war had drained any enthusiasm for public entertainment spectacles Blondin toured Europe and entertained vast audiences in public arenas. [Picture of Blondin] On one occasion after walking across Niagara Falls on his high wire he asked the audience if they thought he could carry someone across the falls with him. The vast majority affirmed that it was possible for him to accomplish even that feat. However, when it came time for volunteers this was another story altogether! (b) Peter’s opportunity (Matthew 14:29) 29 ‘Come,’ He said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. It is no different for you and me today. In principle it is easy to give the right answers as Christians. ‘Yes, I believe God can…’ –but the difficulty for us in practice can be a major struggle as our fears engulf our faith and we fail to gain the blessings which God may have planned to impart to us. We must give Peter the credit here for rising to the challenge. He stepped outside the boat and exercised the faith God had given him. He was not being reckless here. A probably apocryphal story was told some years ago of a man who was drowning in the water somewhere and cried out to God for help. A passerby threw a rubber ring to him attached to a rope, but he declined as God was going to help him. A lifeboat was launched to pick him up but again he declined to be taken on board; later much weaker a rescue helicopter winchman was lowered to pick him up and again he refused assistance and drowned. In heaven sometime later he asked God, I the story, why didn’t you save me when I asked you for help? God replied: I did, three times and you declined it. Peter was not foolish his actions on this occasion were considered and appropriate. There will be times when we must exercise faith and trust God in situations where we cannot predict the outcome. The principle of our decision-making as believers is like that of Daniel’s three friends, Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego when threated with death in a furnace if they would not deny their faith. Their response was recorded in Daniel 3:16-18: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’ The principle was of doing everything sensible within their
powers, but then stepping willingly into the unknown with God. Their vindication was more than they imagined possible and almost certainly more than they had dared pray for. In the coming week, months and years we will have opportunities ‘to step outside the boat’, both individually and collectively as a church. When these moments come the choice will be ours to make, as it was here with Peter. 3. The weakness of his faith (Matthew 14:29b-30) [Peter] walked on the water and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ The awful weather conditions had been forgotten as Peter was focussed on Jesus. The weather conditions by the time of this encounter were really serious. The word translated: tossed or buffeted in verse 24 is translated elsewhere as suffered or tortured or tormented, for example, in Matthew 8:6, where a Roman centurion tells Jesus about his servant. When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, asking for help. 4
‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.’ In Matthew 8:29, the same
word is used in the context of the words of some demon-possessed men who responded aggressively to Jesus. 29 ‘What do you want with us, Son of God?’ they shouted. ‘Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?’ Or with reference to Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and how he hated the evil things that were taking place on a regular basis in the city of Sodom where he was living, in II Peter 2:8: for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard. So we must not imagine a gentle breeze, but weather conditions that distressed seasoned fishermen like these in this boat. Yet Peter began so well. Matthew 14:29b records; [Peter] walked on the water and came towards Jesus. This is important to underline here. If only the disciples in the boat and Peter on the water had grasped what was taking place while his eyes and focus were on Jesus. Actually because his eyes were fixed on Jesus he noticed neither the storm nor the miraculous walk. The miracle itself was secondary to the presence of Jesus. These two points are important for the Christian Church. Some professing Christians sadly don’t even consider getting out of the boat. Others will do that willingly, but so magnify that brother …or sister… has walked on water that the focus on how great and wonderful Jesus is, is lost completely. In both these situations Jesus might have to walk on by as He is no longer central to these Christians. Hebrews 12:1-3 states: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
If only we could stop there with Peter on the water and v29b; what about you and me today? How are we in our faith journey? Do we need to stop and renew our trust in the Lord Jesus? But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ (Matthew 14:30). I can identify with Peter here, and probably you can as well. Peter looks at the weather conditions and the water and quickly admits he doesn’t have the resources to overcome the difficulty starring him in the face. What was equally true was that the situation was no different when he stepped out of the boat! The difference is the presence of Jesus; the difference is the power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit; the difference is the dependence on Jesus by His weak fallible human follower, who relies on Him not his own natural and inadequate human resources. Do you need ‘to step out of the boat’ tonight? I don’t know in what context you might need to take this action, but if the Holy Spirit is speaking to you about some situation, please heed His prompting and don’t miss the blessing He has in store for you when you heed God’s call to you-whatever it may be. Thankfully that was not the end of the story. When Peter (or you and me) began to sink it was still in the context of the loving of care of a heavenly father for His child. God has not changed. 4. The encouragement for his faith (Matthew 14:31-33) 31
Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ He said, ‘why did you doubt?’32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God.’ Jesus could simply have spoken the
word and calmed the storm, but He reached out a reassuring hand and caught Peter. Actually as there were two of them in the water in the midst of a storm this physical contact from another human being in itself ought not to have been sufficient to elicit such a response. However, Peter recaptures his faith and trust in Jesus and the situation is quickly resolved. It becomes a detail of the story, no longer a central feature, the fact that the storm has now ceased. With Jesus in the boat the disciples would have been confident that somehow they would make it to shore but the storm was simply here an opportunity for them to exercise 5
faith in the Lord. Jesus rescued Peter, but gave him and his colleagues a word on which to ponder. ‘You of little faith,’ He said, ‘why did you doubt?’32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God (Matthew 14:31b-33).’ Later in John 14:12, after the resurrection, in a similar faith challenge He said to His disciples: Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
This is a marvellous story for us to read, rejoice in and to reflect on for its implications for our lives individually and collectively in the coming days. God has not changed and will not do so. The issue is always about us and how we are exercising faith in Him. To Him be all the praise and glory, Amen.
Romans 1:14-17 The glory of the Gospel Introduction Augustinian monk Martin Luther desperately wanted peace with God and to know that his sins had been forgiven, but he was afraid that the austere God with whom he wanted fellowship would continue to reject him because of his imperfections. Daily and lengthy times were spent in the confessional with his superior Johann von Staupitz. The older and wiser Christian leader directed Luther to the Psalms and to Romans, passages of the Bible with which he was familiar. How could a righteous God accept someone who is a sinner? How could God forgive me an undeserving sinner and still remain righteous? This is not just an historical issue for a German monk approximately 500 years ago; it is the central issue of the Gospel for every human being living on the planet. How can a perfect God have fellowship with me and one day accept me into heaven without spoiling heaven? While wrestling with this issue Luther went on a pilgrimage to Rome, according to his son Paul Luther, to the Church of St John Lateran, where there is a set of medieval stairs said to have originally been the stairs leading up to Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, once trod upon by the Lord. For this reason they were called the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs.” It was the custom for pilgrims, like Luther, to ascend these steps on their knees, praying as they went. At certain intervals there were stains said to have been caused by the bleeding wounds of Christ. The worshiper would bend over and kiss these steps, praying a long time before ascending painfully to the next ones. Remission of years of punishment in purgatory was promised to all who would perform this pious exercise. Luther began as the others had. But, as he ascended the staircase, the words of Romans 1:17 came forcefully to his mind: “The just shall live by faith.” They seemed to echo over and over again, growing louder with each repetition: “The just shall live by faith,” “The just shall live by faith.” But Luther was not living by faith. He was living by fear. The old superstitious doctrines and the new biblical theology wrestled within him. “By fear,” said Luther. “By faith!” said St. Paul. “By fear,” said the scholastic fathers of medieval Catholicism. “By faith!” said the Scriptures. “By fear,” said those who agonized beside him on the staircase. “By faith!” said God the Father. At last Luther rose in amazement from the steps up which he had been dragging himself and shuddered at his superstition and folly. Now he realized that God had saved him by the righteousness of Christ, received by faith; he was to exercise that faith, receive that righteousness, and live by trusting God. He had not been doing it. Slowly he turned on Pilate’s staircase and returned to the bottom. He went back to Wittenberg, and in time, as Paul Luther said, “He took ‘The just shall live by faith’ as the foundation of all his doctrine.” This was the real beginning of the Reformation, for the reformation of Luther necessarily preceded the reformation of Christendom. (James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Volume 1: Justification by Faith. 4 Romans 1-4 (pp.123-4.)
On what are you relying to gain entrance into heaven? Is it by earning God’s favour –your good works exceeding your failings? Or is it by the free gift of God, through the sacrifice of Jesus in our place on the cross, received by faith alone that we seek entry? Paul will explain and explore this key point as he writes the letter to the Christian Church in Rome. 1.The Gospel is the debt to the world (Romans 1:14-15) (a)What does I am a debtor mean? (v14) I am a debtor [‘I am bound’ NIV] both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. The NIV renders Romans 1:14 I am bound to…, but Paul’s language is stronger in describing himself as a debtor. It is important to clarify what he is and is not saying. Now many of us are indebted to the bank. The monthly statement comes out and we may see a minus sign alongside our balance. This is not a good 1
sign! However, even more people are indebted to a bank or other financial institution for a mortgage for our homes. For a period of time, usually for twenty-five years, a rather large sum of money is borrowed and that together with a lot of interest is repaid over the loan period, until, finally, the loan is paid off –hopefully before you are due to retire! However, that is not the kind of indebtedness that Paul is describing here. Think of this scenario: You are entrusted with a fairly large sum of money for a child by their parents and asked to invest it and pass it on when they become eighteen – as a result of the agreement you are indebted to the child until that sum is handed over. You will feel a sense of responsibility for that money to discharge your obligations honesty. Paul has been entrusted with the Gospel message by the Lord Jesus Christ to pass it on to the Gentiles (non-Jews) in particular. In a world where the number of believers at the time of his own conversion was numbered somewhere in the low thousands, taking the Gospel to the world was a huge task. Yet he willingly committed the rest of his earthly life to sharing this gospel message with as many people as possible in the known world of the 1st century AD. (b)To whom did he feel indebted? (v14) both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish In a word –everyone who had not heard of Jesus! In specific terms he uses two parallel phrases to describe the people to whom he was taking the Gospel. both to Greeks and nonGreeks – non-Greeks is literally barbarians. It is possible that this phrase refers to people living outside the bounds of the Romans Empire, who were not Greek-speakers and who did not share the Greek cultural values accepted within the Empire. This is reinforced by the second descriptive phrase: both to the wise and the foolish – that is those educated in the manner expected of the cultured classes within the empire in contrast to the people that did not have that opportunity. Whatever the specific meaning of these phrases the apostle was seeking to use inclusive terms to declare that everyone had a right to hear the good news of Jesus from those who follow Him. (c) Do I share Paul’s eagerness to pass on the good news? (v15) That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. When you first professed faith how natural it was for most of us to want to tell other people about it –so that they too might trust in Jesus. Yet when so many people have no interest and decline our invitations it is so easy to become discouraged and keep the good news to ourselves. Paul, two decades after his conversion is still as enthusiastic about the gospel as in his first year. Do you and me need to ask the Lord to rekindle our enthusiasm for Him with respect to evangelism? The greatest thing that could happen in this church over the next year is not progress on the building project or successful programmes in church life or an increased bank balance (all good things!) but some one or some people coming to faith in Jesus –I earnestly hope you believe that. If this is the case then we will pray to that end for people who need Jesus and seek to find ways to communicate something of God’s love to people who need Him. In a few weeks time, for example, Christianity Explored will be restarting –now is a good time to start thinking of whom you might invite to the next course, not waiting till October when it is due to start. Whether people in our local community, other parts of our own country or overseas –may God grant us the passion Paul had for making Jesus known. 2. The Gospel is the power of God for the world (Romans 1:16) (a)Why might Paul have been ashamed of the Gospel? (v16) It is not talked about in Christian circles very often, but most of us, myself included, have remained silent in company sometimes when we ought to have spoken a word of witness. We were afraid of the likely reaction, of criticism for being a ‘bible-basher’ or ‘holy-Joe’ or some equivalent phrase. I know that I have sometimes spoken too much on some occasions also, but that is another scenario. Here is a reference to a more common issue that most of us face in an 2
increasingly secular society where for some Christians even mentioning a Christian view on a topic can result in a disciplinary hearing, a demotion or a possible dismissal from the workplace. Although on occasions he was as bold as a lion in proclaiming his faith, in I Corinthians 2:3 he admitted that when he came to Corinth, I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. Earlier in the same letter there are hints of the nature of some of the criticism he received. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumblingblock to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Corinthians 1:18-25).
There can be intellectual ‘shame’, not least in University Biblical studies departments, some of which have been hostile to staff members that showed any sympathy with the Christian faith. Yet it can happen to all of us in other contexts – ‘you don’t believe that- do you?’ There are those like Alan Judd, an adviser to education secretary Michael Gove, who is quite open in his listing of dangerous extremists who ought not to be allowed to run schools, to place Evangelical Christians first on his list (‘Free Schools…’, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2012). There were, naturally, plenty of protests, but he is still in his job. There can be social shame in the early Church the vast majority of Christians were slaves or from other humble circumstances. I Corinthians 1:26-28 records: 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Pressures of life in the upper classes are irrelevant to the vast
majority of Christians, but there will be a few who pay a social price for accepting Jesus as Saviour and Lord in this country. This takes no account of the pressures people from some other faith community backgrounds experience when they make such a choice. There can be moral shame; in some contexts the presence of a Christian could cramp people’s style. The offence of the Gospel contrasts with the hedonistic lifestyle of sexual promiscuity and excessive drinking etc of sections of our society; it also contrasts with the business values that can accommodate libor rate fixing [interest rate for banks borrowing unsecured money from each other] and similar misdemeanours in the banking industry; and dodgy tax avoidance schemes and other unethical practices in some other industries and businesses; if there are particular circumstance where you struggle with some area of your life arrange to meet with a Christian you trust to pray with you through this situation to enable you to win the victory over it. (b) Why was Paul not ashamed of the Gospel? (v16) For I am not ashamed of the gospel, (i) The nature of the Gospel because it is the power of God In addition to his own conversion experience, he had seen lives changed by Jesus that were truly transformed with which no one could argue. Testimonies of people like John Newton of Amazing Grace fame, converted from a foul-mouthed hard-living slave-trader to a wonderful humble Christian man who accomplished so many wonderful things for God in his day. And, every other man, woman, boy or girl whose life has been committed to Jesus. God has not changed. (ii) The purpose of the Gospel that brings salvation The power of God through His spoken word that brought the world into being (Psalm 33:6) and the dynamic power of God that raised Jesus from the dead is the very same power that awakens someone dead in transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1) and made us alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). When we pray for someone we are in touch with the most powerful being in the universe who is 3
able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…(Ephesians 3:20). We can become discouraged when we don’t see quick results from our prayers, but need to grasp that God’s timescale is far greater than our own. (iii) The scope of the Gospel to everyone who believes at the very least to transform every human being created in His image to be like Jesus, but God does not force the good news on people –but they risk the eternal consequences of rejecting Him –if they decline His wonderful offer of salvation. People of every race or people group will one day sing His praises in heaven. I felt greatly uplifted at our Baptist World Congress in Birmingham, England in 2005 when people from well over one hundred nationalities sang God’s praises together. How much more wonderful it will be in heaven! We must never forget that we are part of something so much bigger than what is going on in our local community. To be the only Christian in a workplace or family can be very hard at times; in parts of the Islamic world some Christians may go for years without meeting a fellow believer, yet grasping the bigger picture of God’s saving purposes for His world stops us from too narrow a focus to recognise the scope of the impact of the gospel in the world. (iv)The priority of the Gospel first to the Jew, then to the Gentile Both Jew and Gentile alike need to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Saviour of sinners; the exclusive claims of Jesus as Lord are non-negotiable. The Jewish people have the priority as the chosen people, descendants of Abraham set apart to bless the world with God’s salvation (Genesis 12:3b) and with whom He established an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:7); Paul recognised the importance of Jewish mission as well as the greater time and resource commitment in Gentile mission work. Acts 13:46-48 records Paul’s words to unbelieving Jews in Turkish Antioch: Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘“I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”’ 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. In total
numerical terms the Jewish people are a miniscule part of the world population, but like Paul we too make no apology for supporting a Jewish mission, ‘Christian Witness to Israel’, as well as other agencies working amongst the wider world population of ‘Gentiles’. Paul felt ‘indebted’ to people until he had passed on the good news of Jesus to them; he was eager to share the responsibility for evangelistic work, no matter how hard it was at times. He was also not ashamed of what he stood for, even though by implication he was admitting that there had been times in the past when he had been. May we stand with him in these priorities for our own lives. 3. The Gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness in the world (Romans 1:17) (a)What is the righteousness of God that Paul mentions here? (v17) For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed There are a number of aspects to this glorious truth. (i)The attribute of God Himself God cannot turn a blind eye to sin and pretend everything is okay when it is not; instead He has to be true to Himself. In Romans 3:25-26 Paul wrote: God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood – to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished 26 – He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. This is both
incredibly serious –in that the cost of your redemption and mine required the sacrifice of the perfect, sinless, Son of God as our substitute and sin-bearer on the cross. We receive salvation as a free gift, but it is only free of cost to the recipient at the time of acceptance, the price has already been paid by Jesus. We are familiar with the National Health Service being free to the hospital patient yet the enormous cost has been willingly underwritten by British 4
taxpayers. The wonderful gospel of God that we rejoice in has to be a gift that cannot compromise His holy name or character. Yet this is only the first aspect of the gospel presentation. To stop at this point only highlights the gulf between a perfect God and sinful humanity. Therefore other aspects to this truth must come into play here. (ii) The activity of God Himself in salvation In various passages in the Old Testament this point is explained. Psalm 98:2-3, for example: The Lord has made His salvation known and revealed His righteousness to the nations.3 He has remembered His love and His faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. In Isaiah 46: 12b-13a God declares: Listen to Me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are now far from My righteousness. 13 I am bringing My righteousness near, it is not far away; and My salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion (God’s people). The wonder and glory of the gospel is that God brings about the
deliverance (or salvation) of His people in a manner that does not compromise His holiness. In fact, it not only confirms that God keeps His promises to save His people, but that no amount of evil in the world can ultimately frustrate this purpose from being carried out. How often do we see situations in the world where evil appears to triumph? How often do wicked people appear to get away with things? Paul reminds us ‘Our God reigns’. He is on the throne and will be victorious. At a moment in time in history we see but a miniscule cross-section of what is going on. In the Bible from Genesis to Revelation we see the bigger picture from Creation to New Creation, and the final accomplishment of the perfect world God planned for His creation. The book of Revelation and other passages of the Bible give us the smallest of glimpses into that future –enough to encourage to persevere in our faith, to know that we will one day be vindicated in our stand for Him. In John’s extraordinary visions in Revelation these wonderful words were articulated in heaven: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He will reign for ever and ever (Revelation11:15). This is incredibly exciting that Almighty God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, would go to such lengths to save you and me, and yet do so in a manner consistent with His holy character. (iii) The accomplishment of God Himself Paul in Philippians 3:8-9 explains His conversion and its implications in these terms : that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. What does Paul mean? He is
referring to a status we must have if we are ever going to be good enough to enter heaven. It is something that became possible because Jesus died in our place on the cross, shedding His precious blood so that we might be forgiven for all our sinful thoughts, words and actions. He is incredibly careful here to state that it is not my own ‘righteousness’ or good deeds that earn me a place in heaven. I could never manage that. Instead, Paul makes it plain that God’s righteousness is a gift to us (Romans 5:17: For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! ) This righteousness is received by you and me through faith (Romans 3:22: This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe .) In II Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes some extraordinary words that I am always thrilled to read: God made Him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God . Do you get this? When God looks at His
children by faith –believers, He sees us ‘clothed’ with the perfect righteousness of Jesus and thus treats us as if we were as sinless as Him. Paul will come back to this subject in Romans chapter four, but when we grasp what the gospel is about this truth does not crush us with the sheer impossibility of earning our way to heaven, instead it ought to cause us to rejoice in the wonderful good news that Jesus has obtained for me what I could never have accomplished on my own. (b) How does this righteousness of God affect me?– a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,(v17) In practice what does this mean to me as a Christian? It is more than a 5
guarantee of heaven when we die –though that would be more than we could ever deserve. It means direct access to God when we pray –that He hears our prayers and answers them. Because many of us have been taught this from childhood we can so easily take it for granted as an entitlement. It is not! Rather it is an incredible privilege to come before Almighty God, in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with our feeble words that can contribute to the transformation of circumstances not only locally, but on occasions on the other side of the world. It is also an assurance when the devil puts thought in our minds that ‘you are a failure’ you can never be good enough for God. In such circumstances, we can reply, God already knows that. My salvation was granted because Jesus was good enough; my place in heaven is assured because Jesus was good enough; my relationship with God is based on the fact that Jesus was good enough… The true child of God will not use such truths to think I can get away with living a sinful life and still get into heaven. Instead they will want to give their lives in service to such an amazing God who has done all this for them. They will show in their character evidence of the grace of God at work in their lives. Having received such love from God we surely will want to pass it on. Are you here today as someone who has never received God’s salvation, His gift of righteousness? Don’t hesitate to receive the greatest gift of all cry out to God for it – don’t delay because we never know if we will get another opportunity. We become Christians by faith and we live that way till we enter His personal presence in His eternity. It is a gift of God, but each of us has a solemn responsibility to take hold of it. Have you done so yet? (c) What is the significance of the quotation from Habakkuk? just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith (v17). It is a reinforcement of what he has said already in this passage. The wonderful good news of the gospel –the greatest good news in human history – must be received as a gift by faith in order to have God’s righteousness credited to our account because of Jesus. Yet in view of the extraordinary nature of this gift we must not take it for granted but live day by day, year by year with the same faith by which we trusted in God in the first place. There is no place for complacency. May God help each one of us to place our faith in Him through Jesus, but also keep on living by faith in fellowship with our great God and Saviour, Amen.
Luke 14:12-24 A welcome to all to come in Introduction How many of us had watched the Paralympics before the Bejing Olympics in 2008? I suspect very few indeed as the television coverage was minimal and in general terms the majority of the British public, like people in other countries, had simply chosen to be interested in other things. There had been Special Olympics of various kinds within this country for some years. In my previous church we had a number of people with disabilities –although we didn’t actually think of them in that way –we knew them by name and took it for granted that there were some within the church family with special needs of various kinds. Several of them won medals, one or two had quite a collection of them and they were duly celebrated the Sunday after they returned home victorious. One young man who was a good runner invited members of the church to join him in some of his training. I remember joining him on some laps of the track as others from the church that day cheered him on. However, the step up to top level Paralympic sport is a big one, like that for their able-bodied colleagues. Anyone who has been watching the athletics at the London Olympics will have been aware of the extraordinary accomplishments of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee from South Africa, who managed to get to the semi-finals of the 400 metres and was a member of the 4 x 400 metres relay team for South Africa. How do we view Pistorius’ participation in competition with able-bodied competitors? How do we view the millions of pounds spent on preparations for the Paralympic Games? If you have followed to any degree the discussions in the media it is fair to say that reactions have been decidedly mixed. Yet no-one can deny that Pistorius secured his place in sporting history by becoming the first double amputee to compete at the Olympics. He will be back in a few weeks to add to his haul of Paralympic titles, but the impact of the 95 seconds or so he spent in competitive action will reverberate longer in the sport than anything he achieves next month. Pistorius fought for the right to compete against ablebodied athletes, pursuing the IAAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport after it ruled that his blades offered an advantage over able-bodied rivals. The notion that a man without legs could have an edge over his able-bodied rivals seems like an affront to common sense, but Pistorius challenges preconceptions on many levels. He has long been accepted by his rivals. Kirani James of Grenada, the reigning world 400m champion who finished first ahead of Pistorius, demonstrated his respect for the South African by making a point of swapping numbers with him after the race (Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2012). It is possible, in time, that technology will
raise questions about the meaning of fair and equal competition, but not at the moment. What this young South African has accomplished is truly remarkable –though he is not the first disabled competitor to gain entry to the Olympics –Neroli Fairhall of New Zealand had that honour, representing New Zealand in archery at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She had been paralysed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident, and competed from her wheel-chair in a variety of sports. But what about the Paralympics in general? There have been many unkind comments on on-line debates on the BBC sport website with some people holding very questionable views with respect to the place of people with additional needs in our society. Yet the fact that the tickets have almost sold out for the first time for the Paralympics is a testimony to the perspective held by the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom. This is good news as Jesus welcomed all people to come to Him, in the context of a society that shunned the disabled and kept them hidden out of sight –as still happens in some countries today. Let’s look briefly at Luke 14:12-24 and reflect on Jesus’ and the Bible’s perspective on this subject, as it is important for our view of other people not just those who are good at sport.
1. God’s big welcome to people of all backgrounds without exception (Isaiah 25:6-9) The Old Testament image of the Gospel invitation as a feast was familiar to Jesus’ hearers. It was a vision not just of righteous Jews participating in God’s feast, but accompanied by righteous Gentiles (anyone who is a not a Jew). It was a vision that would complement the vision of heaven John had in Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holdin g palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Notice the emphasis in Isaiah’s vision as described in Isaiah 25:6-9: 6On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. 7 On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 He will swallow up death for ever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove the disgrace of His people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. 9In that day they will say, Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him, and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in Him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation. In eastern culture to have a meal with someone was a declaration not merely of
friendship, but almost an acceptance of that person as if they were a member of your immediate family circle. God’s vision is so much greater than just the chosen people of Jewish ethnic origins declaring their faith in Him; He wants the glory and honour from the praises and adoration of people from every background in every corner of the globe. God desires fellowship with believers of all social and ethnic origins. The shroud or sheet, mentioned in Isaiah 25:7 refers to the curse of death, that one day God would destroy its curse. Paul in I Corinthians 15:1257 explains how in the death and resurrection of Jesus this victory was accomplished. These words of Isaiah could not have been stressed more clearly: all peoples, all nations, all faces, from all the earth. When these people own Him as Saviour and Lord there is great rejoicing and blessing. Revelation 21:3-4 reflects Isaiah 25:8 in speaking of the ultimate victory of God in Jesus. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Praise God for such blessings.
However, many Jews in the Post-exilic period (the five centuries before Jesus’ birth) were so concerned to avoid impure idolatrous Gentiles that they toned down the radical teaching of the Old Testament to teach something very different to what God had said. An Aramaic language paraphrase of Isaiah 25:6-9 renders the first part of this text in this way: The Lord of Hosts will make for all the peoples on this mountain a feast and a festival They shall consider it for honour, but it shall be shame for them, even plagues which they cannot escape, plagues wherein they shall perish [J.N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Vol.1, p.463]. In fact this was the very opposite of what
Isaiah’s message from God declares. Other Jewish works from the Post-exilic period prior to the coming of Jesus also had no time for the Gentiles. In the century before Jesus’ time on earth the Qumran monastic community took this vision one step further, not only were Gentiles excluded from the heavenly banquet, but also imperfect Jews, including anyone who is ‘smitten in his flesh, or paralyzed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or smitten in his flesh with a visible blemish’ [K. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp.90-91]. The Pharisees present at the meal described in Luke 14 would probably have been familiar with these views. It is possible that they might even have agreed with them. When we read Luke 14:1-24 in the light of such knowledge, it is clear that Jesus affirms the vision proclaimed by Isaiah and offers a strong criticism of this restrictive view of God and the Gospel proclaimed by some of the Jews of His day. 2
2. God’s view of the human beings He created In the book of Genesis there is a remarkable description of our significance as human beings in the created order. Then God said, ‘Let Us make mankind in Our image, in Our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. 27 So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
These words are true equally of every person born on this earth. Each is a person of worth and value –this is profoundly important for our lives from conception to the grave. It impinges on our view of children in the womb. If we consider a woman is carrying someone created in God’s image then our attitude to abortion will be very different to the person who thinks they have the right to save or take the child’s life. Psalm 139:13-16 records some remarkable words of David: For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth; 16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be. Likewise, an
elderly person or someone terminally ill should not have their care rationed so that they pass on quickly; as people created in the image of God they as entitled to the best care we can provide as a society in their latter days. Our Bible verse for the year in 2010 was one precious to many of us from Jeremiah 29:11 : For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. These words are true for all of us and that quality of life implied in these words applies equally, regardless of colour or class, able-bodied or disabled and in whichever geographical region of the world we live. Therefore, we welcome the progress made in the care for and provision of services for people with disabilities in our society. Yet we recognise that both at home and especially in some other countries even more progress needs to happened. The Undefeated initiative, a campaign to encourage the Government to give greater assistance to people with disabilities, in which the Baptist Missionary Society is playing a part, is something which we can support as Christians. 3. God’s invitation to share in His Kingdom (Luke 14:12-14) 12
Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ The context of this message was an exclusive party for individuals who had the
right credentials to attend this prominent Pharisee’s feast. It was the equivalent to a Celebrity party today at which the guests want to be seen wearing appropriate clothes and having the right place at the function. In less sophisticated times the fuss was simply over the seating plan, but Jesus was horrified at the attitudes on display. It could not have been further from God’s view of people and the value on the life of each individual. Jesus wanted to redirect the thinking of His host and the other guests. He urged them to change their whole way of life, from focussing on being seen and honoured by the ‘in’ crowd to reaching out to people in need who could really use some help, but had been ignored. The challenge in any society today is this: are there any groups of people who are being overlooked in our community? Jesus gave quite a list of categories of people in that society. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed (Luke 14:13). This would have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon in a society where the sight of deep poverty or 3
disability was viewed as a punishment for sin either by the individual or within that family circle. This mindset even afflicted the disciples of Jesus. This is revealed by the question they asked Jesus in John 9:1-3a: As He went along, He saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3 ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus. This negative view of disabled people, sadly still found in various
countries today, can have serious implication on the quality of life both they and their families can experience. Jesus made a deliberate point here in challenging the prejudice against disabled people. There may not be many votes in it for politicians in assisting people on the margins. I came across that in a political context when I asked some key politicians if there was a chance that a number of empty flats in a particular geographical location could be used to house asylum seekers. The silence and then nervous responses from otherwise eloquent and gifted individuals revealed that my suggestion was unlikely to increase their vote at the next election. Over the centuries Christians have been very prominent in reaching out to the disadvantaged, not just opposing slavery and a small number of open evils in our society. Behind these campaigns was a clear recognition of the worth of the lives of each person; and this enabled campaigners to persevere –for years – until the cause was successful. This reminds us in our mission at home and overseas to ensure we don’t neglect the people who need our assistance. 4. God can turn obstacles into opportunities (Luke 14:15-24) (a) The Problem of Procrastination (Luke 14:15)15 When one of those at the table with Him heard this, he said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’
Won’t it be wonderful in heaven that all will be equal and what Jesus has just proposed becomes the reality? Yes, that will be wonderful, but it does not mean that we should not take action in the here and now. God wants His people to take a lead in making this world a setting that is closer to the one He envisaged for our lives when the world was created. It will always be imperfect, but in small steps and with individuals we can improve the quality of their lives by Christ-like actions and consideration. The current context of the Paralympics and the celebration of the accomplishments of those who have overcome sometimes great adversity is right and proper, but many disabled or disadvantaged people need a hand to do less prominent things. In many countries they still need adequate ramps to access public buildings or the adaptation of buses and trains and taxis to enable them to travel to carry out their normal business. Although our country has made major strides in recent years in these matters many others have barely begun to address these concerns. I had the privilege some years ago to visit a newly-opened residential centre and school for people with special needs. It was an attractive facility and the children present made us most welcome. Yet within a few minutes I sensed that something was not right; there were plenty of stairs but no lifts in the only centre for people with special needs in that region of that European country. I should have had the courage to ask the staff what provision had been made for wheelchair users or other with mobility issues. We should not leave to someone else what we can do to be rightly inclusive in our welcome in both the church and wider community. (b) The problem of priorities (Luke 14:16-24) 16 Jesus replied: ‘A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” 18 ‘But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.”19 ‘Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.”20 ‘Still another said, “I have just got married, so I can’t come.” 21 ‘The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”22 ‘“Sir,” the servant said, “what you ordered has been done, but there is still 4
room.”23 ‘Then the master told his servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.”’ The excuses given in the story of Jesus were deliberately ludicrous and
nonsensical. They would have provoked laughter from the audience at first as they envisaged a man saying that he could not come to a wedding or special banquet –because he had bought and field and urgently needed to see it! No-one in that culture bought a field without endless on-site visits and haggling over the price. Another alleged had bought five teams of oxen and needed to plough as field –to see if they could do the job for which he had purchased them! Again sales of oxen were announced well ahead of time. In the set day the owner would demonstrate how his animals could accomplish this task before inviting bids for their purchase –or even the opportunity for a prospective purchaser to have a go himself with the animals in the field. No-one would do what this alleged person proposed doing rather than attend the function. The absurdity of the excuses reaches its crescendo in the excuse about getting married. Yes I had planned to come to your party, but I had forgotten I was getting married that week –in the days before holidays or honeymoons were invented the man is at home having got married, presumably with his wife. It would be the obvious occasion to show off his beautiful bride to anyone who had not met her! I suspect the laughter was laced with a degree of nervousness as they awaited Jesus’ point here. The master of the feast them instructed his servants to invite the people no-one would have had on a guest list 2,000 years ago in that society. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (Luke 14:21). They did, but something we could easily miss was recorded by Luke in Luke 14:22: ‘“Sir,” the servant said, “what you ordered has been done, but there is still room . Treating the people with special needs fairly as a country, including the financial investment to provide the facilities and other resources they need for a good quality of life will not empty the treasury for the rest of the community. Some of the posters in the last couple of weeks on the BBC website I viewed suggested that less money should have been spent on the Paralympics, instead giving it for the less-well funded sports for able-bodied sportsmen and women. Jesus would have disagreed and so must we! Here in this story for people with disabilities and in Luke 15:11-32 for people on the margins, like the prodigal son, God gives an invitation to fellowship and celebration with Him so that my house will be full (Luke 14:23b) In the words of Mark Owen, Church Life secretary of the Baptist Union of Wales: The heart of God is for a full house! So He loves to party and clearly everyone is invited. Not on the grounds of wealth or ability, status or upbringing. Not because they were the elite or successful. Indeed Luke tells us in chapter 15 that there’s a party in heaven every time someone comes to know and accept Jesus as their Saviour and Lord (Luke 15: 10). The imagery here is that the master’s house is a place of invitation and welcome where, without prejudice and without discrimination, the uncompromising love of God is portrayed. What a wonderful imagery of what it is to be Church! Some years ago, Mark Owen stated, he read of an alligator attack on a little boy who’d gone swimming. His mother witnessed the terrifying events unfold and spoke of how, in utter fear, she ran toward the water yelling to her son as loudly as she could. From the shore’s edge, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. Then began an incredible tug-ofwar between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A passer-by heard her screams, and the alligator was shot. Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scarred legs. They were horrific. But then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have 5
great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my mum wouldn’t let go.” When Thomas was challenged by the other disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead his response was “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe it” (John 20: 25). And a week later as Jesus comes again and stands among His disciples His challenge to Thomas is: “See My hands … reach out your hand and put it into My side”. This same Jesus still bears the marks in His body as He now lives and reigns in heaven. As John Swinton [Aberdeen University theology professor] writes, “If perfection and the life of heaven is marked by what culture teaches us is ‘perfection’, then why does Jesus still carry his wounds?” These are the scars that speak of sacrifice – that cry aloud, ‘undefeated champion’” [BMS Undefeated resources citation]. We must encourage everyone to be whom God desires them to be in Christ, using the gifts and abilities entrusted to them, for Jesus’ sake, Amen
Romans 1:18-32 The consequences of violating God’s boundaries Introduction Paul has begun his letter to the church at Rome with a passionate expression of his commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is something he has given his whole life to proclaim. The pinnacle of Romans 1 is verses 16 and 17 –which are a real joy to read and to reflect on. But, there is a huge problem because many people are not interested in the good news offered to them. They are happy living life without God and have no interest in the message we want to share with them. This was a big issue in cities like Rome, Athens or Corinth in Paul’s day –just as much as in 21st century Britain. Fast forward to the present day, we have the answer to humanity’s biggest need, but a large proportion of the people we want to reach have no conception of their need of Christ. This is the biggest obstacle to people coming to Christ, their inability to sense a need of Him as Lord and Saviour. With any kind of problem a person must admit their situation before they can receive the help required to address their particular issue. The first of the twelve step’s of Alcoholics Anonymous states: ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol –that our lives had become unmanageable.’ The sad reality for many people under the grip of addictions of various kinds is their unwillingness to face up to what is really going on. Interestingly, AA steps two to six include recognition of the need for divine assistance to overcome the addictive substance or behaviour. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. [Alcoholics Anonymous (June 2001). "Chapter 5: How It Works]
Recognising the problem of sin in our lives is as important as an addict seeing what is damaging their quality of life and probably that of their family and friends as well. Paul will portray for the Church in Rome a glimpse of their own society at the heart of the empire, with all its idolatry, immorality and antisocial behaviour. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul is convinced, is the only hope for the transformation of that society, and ours. He begins in Romans 1:18 by stating the heart of the problem. 1. The Heart of the Problem (Romans 1:18) 18 [For] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, Paul’s letter to the Romans is a very logical treatise carefully planned out with a clear progression of thought. Unfortunately the NIV has chosen here and in a few other places not to include the ‘link’ word for which makes this clearer. (a)What is the wrath of God? This biblical truth has often been misunderstood or misrepresented by many writers and thinkers. First of all it must be made plain that it is not God being angry like humans getting angry in a variety of circumstances in daily life. We have to admit that there are times when not getting angry would be wrong, because someone else’ behaviour is so out of order that toleration or acceptance of it would be morally impossible. Yet there are other times when our anger is unjustified and we need to apologise. Nor can we allow the claims of others that this is purely metaphorical language because, they claim, ‘God cannot or does not express emotions like human beings’. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that Paul, and other biblical writers, are simply pointing to the cause and effect of wrongdoing. Criminals are usually caught and punished –at least eventually, for example. In a world of good and evil, right and wrong, God cannot take a stance of moral neutrality. His ‘wrath’ is His consistent holy hostility to evil, and His unwillingness to 1
accommodate it or tolerate it in the universe He has created. It must, therefore, be judged by Him. This is the fundamental difference we have with ardent atheists like Richard Dawkins who deny the existence of categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. They make such a claim, correctly from their point of view, because to use this moral terminology is to accept God as the ultimate authority who determines what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’. When put on the spot only a tiny proportion of people in Britain would agree with them, as almost everyone knows in their heart that certain behavioural choices are ‘good’ and others are certainly ‘evil’. The ‘problem of evil’ is only a problem for people who believe in the one true God who is both all powerful and all-good. On a superficial level the new atheists appear convincing and cogent in their claims, because they shout them loudly in the public square, but a closer inspection reveals fundamental flaws in their arguments that undermine their case. (b) What is this wrath revealed against? (i)The fundamental issue godlessness We may get angry when our pride has taken a hit! But there is no personal retributive aspect to God’s anger. He has an in principle settled conviction against evil in all its forms and on a consistent basis. Paul writes in Romans 1:18: [For] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people… The key to it here that is the basis of all evil is godlessness. It can appear in apparently minor forms, for example, in the published version of Liberal Democrat leader and atheist Nick Clegg’s recent speech on the subject of ‘Gay Marriage’. The copy of the speech released to journalists included these words: Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we 'postpone' the equalities agenda in order to deal with 'the things people really care about'." [BBC News website 11 Sept, 2012] ‘The
bigots’ he had in mind were people of faith and other people who held to traditional moral views. Modifying his speech by the time of delivery did not hide his underlying antipathy for biblical moral standards. The foundational sin in this world is to seek to remove God or to determine to live as if He did not exist. Paul in Romans 3:18 states: There is no fear of God before their eyes. It is a reference to David’s words in Psalm 36:1: I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes. The opposite is equally true. ‘The essence of goodness is godliness, to love Him with all our being and to obey Him with joy’. (John Stott, Romans, p. 72) It is a challenge to all of us as Christians: is my love for God sufficiently strong so that it influences my patterns of thought, the words I choose to speak and the way I behave? Have I ever taken the step of committing my life to God as Lord of my life, or have I been going my own way and failed to follow Him? The apostle lists two categories of wrongdoing here godlessness- that which is ‘against God’ and wickedness –that which is ‘against other people’. Paul will expand this point as this chapter unfolds. (ii) A serious charge who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18b) This is a serious accusation. Many authors have commentated that children have no difficulty with grasping the idea of God as creator and sovereign over the world. It makes sense to them. Only when they get older do the difficulties arise –in connection with the formulation of alternative world views. In addition, many atheists will openly admit that the world looks as if it was designed. There is no known planet in the Universe with the advantageous conditions for life like planet earth. It looks as if it was designed as does my car and yours too! This is because a reasonable interpreter of the evidence could be expected to reach that conclusion. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, a prominent atheist, wrote: ‘we take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…because we have a prior commitment to materialism… moreover that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.’ [Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997[Definition of materialism: The theory that matter and energy are the only objects existing within the universe, and that mental and spiritual phenomena are explainable as functions of the nervous system of people]
There is a problem with his line of reasoning on a number of levels –for starters confusing science with a prior commitment to atheism is illogical; then ‘we cannot allow’ reference to 2
God –since when were atheists made the moral arbitrators policing the rest of society, apart from in places like North Korea? John Lennox’s brilliant little booklet ‘God and Stephen Hawking: Whose design is it anyway’ (Lion Hudson 2010), provides a delightful response to such faulty thinking. Paul’s charge is that many unbelievers choose to reject belief in God, despite evidence that points to His activity in the world and the Universe. It is an inconvenient truth for them. The challenge to us as Christians is to model our lives in such a way that other people can see the reality of God’s love and grace in our lives which will attract people who are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. (c) How is this wrath revealed in people’s lives? The obvious answer is final judgement. In Paul’s words in Romans 2:5-6: … you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgement will be revealed. God will give to each person according to what he has done. In his first lesson to the Church in Thessalonica, the apostle told them that salvation through Jesus had saved them from the coming wrath (I Thessalonians 1:10). There is also judgement in this life which in some cases is carried out through the justice system which is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4). Paul will address this issue later in this letter. However, there is also a third form of wrath which is explained in the next section of Romans chapter one. Here it operates not by God’s direct intervention, but on the contrary, by His willingness to allow sinful people to choose to go their own way, in direct contravention of His moral law. Paul has stated the problem here very simply and clearly and the issues he raises about the cultural context of his day are remarkably similar to those of our own day. 2. The inexcusability of humanity’s rejection of God (Romans 1:19-20) (a)God has revealed Himself in creation (Romans 1:19-20a) 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made… The supreme revelation of God is in the person of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:3 declares of Jesus: The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being… However, in addition to the special revelation in Him, Christians
have historically believed in some version of what we call general revelation. That is, that in the creation we see something of God’s handiwork. Psalm 8 includes these words: Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens… When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, 4 what is mankind that You are mindful of them, human beings that You care for them ? (Psalm 8:1, 34); Psalm 19:1 simply states: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. After a declaration of some new finding about the origins of the Universe to the
American Physical Society in April 1992, an anonymous Guardian contributor wrote: It is difficult to know what the appropriate reaction to such mind-expanding discoveries should be, except to get down on one’s knees in total humility and give thanks to God or Big Bang or both, for cunningly contriving to allow this infinitesimal part of the Universe called Earth to be bestowed with something called Air’. John Stott recalled a letter from a consultant surgeon that made this same point. He wrote: ‘I am filled with the same awe and humility when I contemplate something of what goes on in a single cell as when I contemplate the sky on a clear night. The coordination of the complex activities of the cell in a common purpose hits the scientific part of me as the best evidence for an Ultimate Purpose.’ (both examples from Stott, Romans, p.74) Therefore, Paul declares:
(b) People are without excuse (Romans 1:20b) so that people are without excuse. In other words Paul is saying that human beings can see God’s power, deity and glory through the created order. However, this knowledge falls short of His fuller revelation in Jesus which is necessary to lead us to salvation and the reception of His glorious grace. The evidence that is before us is sufficient to make any reasonable person stop and think that there has to be design and a purpose to this world. In the light of this information Paul says people should 3
take note of God and His plans and purposes for our lives, as revealed in the Scriptures. Have you committed your life to God through Jesus? There is no other way to receive His gift of salvation. 3. The consequences of humanity’s rejection of God (Romans 1:21-32) (a)The nature of sin (Romans 1:21-23) (i) Sin is conscious rebellion against God 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him… The act of sinning is an outward manifestation of a prior act of rebellion against God. In essence it can be viewed as an act of idolatry in that something or someone has a higher claim on our allegiance than God. It is the placing of oneself on the throne without regard for God [or for the welfare of other people]. I decide, it is my choice alone and no-one will tell me what to do! The problem with this kind of thinking is that it often affects other people not just the person making the choice. Someone drinking and driving or driving recklessly, for example, could kill a family in another car or the impact of a crash could result in life-changing injuries for another person. A person who leaves a spouse and children because they have ‘fallen in love’ with someone else, who may also have similar relationship issues, has made a decision that affects an increasing amount of other people impacted by its implications. God, seeing the bigger picture, wants the best for each of His children, but only seeing part of the picture we can potentially make serious errors of judgement by ignoring God’s guidance for our conduct. (ii) To sin is a deliberate decision but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. James 1:13-15 articulates this process in a helpful way. When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. The act
of sinning is the end result of a process that James has articulated using the image of the conception development in the womb and birth of a child. For example, an armed robbery at a jewellers shop, most probably begins with a visit to the premises to ascertain whether there are the kind of items that could be quickly sold to less legitimate members of that profession. Issues of access to premises; the necessity for obtaining getaway vehicles and easy access to major roads or the motorway network ensure a plan of action is not created in a single day. Addictions rarely begin with the first drink or pill or viewing of unsuitable images on the computer. However, a pattern of behaviour emerges that feeds the interest, which becomes a habit, which in time may get to a point where an individual looses the ability to control their lives. At that point outside assistance by family or friends or a professional agency may be required to get them back on track. Liberation will only come, though, if that person corrects the wrong choices they have been making. (iii)To sin is an act of folly 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Idolatry would be much simpler to resist if it was only an issue of bowing
down to carved representations of gods of various religions. There are many passages in the Bible that critique that form of behaviour. But idolatry is putting something else in the place of God in our affections. In our Western secular society, wealth, power or fame are amongst the most significant idols; In pursuit of wealth one third of the population will voluntarily hand over a pound or much more in a voluntary donation to the Government each week in the hope that they can overcome the 1:14, 000,000 odds of winning the national lottery; how many politicians at national level, I wonder, are motivated more by power than public service? Only God knows the answer, but I fear too many at the present time; yet it is not only in particular sectors of society, the desire to control other peoples lives in an unhelpful way is an issue, for example, in management in companies and also in trades union ranks; 4
fame- what some people will do for their few minutes of exposure to the centre stage, but when millions of others would happily do the same, given the opportunity, it speaks volumes about the soul of our nation and the loss of a sense of purpose in life for a high proportion of our society. As Christians we have a message people need to hear, to help them find out why they are alive and the purpose and plan God has for their lives. But what happens when people consciously and wilfully reject the voice of God in their conscience and minds and choose to live in a way opposed to His standards? (b) The seriousness of sin (Romans 1:24-27) 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised. Amen. Idolatry unchecked inevitably leads to immorality of
one kind or another because not only is our relationship with God distorted or denied, our view of and relationships with other people can also be damaged. Regular users of pornography consciously or unconsciously adopt an unrealistic view of the same or opposite gender and foster a false understanding of sexual intimacy. Evidence from an increasing number of studies reveals the damage done through pornography leads to increased sexual and physical violence and growing alienation between couples. The statistics are sobering. Approximately 20% of women and 30-35% of men on a weekly basis are viewing for pleasure serious pornographic images and anecdotal evidence from Evangelical Alliance surveys implies that this problem is increasingly surfacing in Christian congregations too. Computers and the internet are great tools, but like everything else can be used in harmful ways. The anonymity of the internet has allowed access to materials once found only in dodgy backstreet shops, or the forming of relationships that once would have been impossible through the usual forms of communication. There are no simple answers to this problem, but as Christian Churches we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that this problem of epidemic proportions in the wider population will not be an issue for us to address. Not least if we hope to see people converted from unchurched backgrounds, there is always the possibility of engagement with some people who have been damaged in this way. From addressing the general principle of the dangers of sexual immorality the apostle briefly addresses two specific examples of inappropriate conduct that was extremely common in Roman society 2,000 years ago, namely lesbian and homosexual relationships. Despite the saturation coverage of gay rights in Britain only around 1% of the population are consistently practising homosexuals with 4-5% of others more properly identified as bisexuals. Despite the claims of homosexual lobbying organisations their numbers are nowhere near the 10% of the population repeatedly claimed by their spokespeople. In Romans 1:26-27 Paul writes: 26
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. The public debate for years has centred
on what is ‘natural’; many years ago Matthew Paris, the well-known political columnist and homosexual activist, wrote a very helpful article I think in The Times newspaper in which he explained that for over 90% of practising homosexuals, including himself, a gay lifestyle was a matter of personal choice. It was not ‘the way they were born’. [I am aware that a very small percentage of people have genetic or psychological issues that sadly cause their lives to be seriously damaged and difficult in terms of their sexuality and gender identity and for such people we can only have the deepest sympathy, but thankfully this group in numerical terms is very small, but tragic for the individuals concerned and their families] Now it is important to say that the development of human sexuality is incredibly complex and no-one has so far been able to explain comprehensively (in medical terms – leaving out moral issues) why some people with very similar backgrounds choose a homosexual lifestyle rather than a 5
heterosexual one. I suspect there are many contributing factors including relations with parents and other adults in healthy or abusive environments that lead to the development of a homosexual or heterosexual orientation in adult life. Recognising the reality of an orientation does not automatically lead to inappropriate conduct. God for our good has given clear guidance from Genesis two onwards that the full expression of sexual relations must be confined within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage, the most appropriate context for the procreation and nurturing of children. What our society fails to value is the significance of good platonic friendships and what churches have also often failed to recognise is the appropriate valuing of single people in its ranks as much as ‘families’; the obsession with ‘gay-marriage’ amongst the political classes in Edinburgh and London is as a result of loosing a moral compass and being guided by political expediency. The Church of Jesus Christ and the large majority of others in our society who value marriage have to stand firm for our principles so clearly based on God’s Word. (c) The consequences of sin (Romans 1:28-32) 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them. Idolatry leads not only to immorality but a
whole series of other anti-social vices that if unchecked will destroy the fabric of society. Paul’s list in Romans 1:28-32 is sobering and as accurate today as it was when first penned. God knows what is best for us and wants to spare His creatures the pain and heartaches that can result from living life outside His principles for human conduct. 4. Pastoral implications in daily living I want to turn briefly and last to a pastoral application. How do we react in our family circle when a member chooses a lifestyle so at variance with God’s plans for their lives? All the examples Paul gives here affect Christian families as well as those with no church connections. Every minister will have conversations with heartbroken parents and grandparents. First of all please don’t close the door on communications, pretending the individual concerned has left your life or that their behavioural choice hasn’t happened. Games of pretence are for children not adults. Secondly please be patient and pray. The values inculcated in earlier years can come to the fore later and opportunities to speak and guide can arise when relationships have been maintained. Thirdly although in some cases there is no reformation as far as we can tell, there are others that can have a longer term happier outcome. There are people who have entered homosexual or lesbian partnerships that years later come to see the mistakes they have made. I had the joy of speaking to a Christian parent in another congregation whose child after many years rebuilt their life and continues on that pathway. In their church no-one else knows the heartache that has been prayed over for many years. Others continue with the heartaches with no resolution yet in sight, but we serve a great God into whose hands we commit our families. Never give up hope, be gracious and patient and having done what we can, commit people into God’s hands who can do more than we may ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), Amen.
Romans 2:1-16 A warning against hypocrisy Introduction It has been interesting observing the fall out that has emerged since the full documentation of the Hillsborough tragedy (15 April 1989) has been made available to the general public. Those who were so quick to place the blame on the ninety-six Liverpool fans and a few thousand others around them have been trying to shift the blame for their misjudgements onto other people . This was particularly apparent in the efforts by Kelvin McKenzie, the then editor of The Sun newspaper whose infamous headline, ‘The Truth’, on 19 April 1989, made his newspaper unwelcome in the homes of many Liverpudlians from then to the present day. In September 2012 he made a public statement blaming the Police force on duty that day for supplying him with the partisan viewpoint presented in the paper. As a result he was demanding an ‘apology’ for being misled. A wiser man would simply have held up his hands and offered an unqualified apology for what he wrote all those years ago. Mr McKenzie doesn’t appear to grasp that he had completely misunderstood what had happened on those football terrace. However, all of us at times can have a wrong view of what is happening in our own life or that of another person. We are human and fallible after all. But most of the time this is not a significant problem. Unfortunately this misunderstanding can relate to our spiritual state before God. Human beings can fail to grasp that they are sinners before God who need to seek His forgiveness in order to give us eternal life. It is easy to point to others who have done heinous things as ‘sinners’, but the Bible teaches that all of us are equally in need of God’s grace for salvation. Have you received, by faith, the gift of salvation from God? 1. The people Paul has in mind when writing these verses Paul has made a clear statement that human beings are guilty before God of breaking His laws and are without excuse in Romans 1:18-20: 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Each human being has within their conscience a knowledge of basic morality
and values placed there by God –whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Therefore, each person can be expected to live up to that level of moral behaviour –yet the sad reality is that the human story is a mixture of great goodness and gross wickedness and a range of behavioural choices in between. The apostle wants to hammer home this personal responsibility by repeating this point in Romans 1:32: Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. We need to remember that the chapter divisions in the
Bible were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury. Langton put the modern chapter divisions into place in around A.D. 1227. The Wycliffe English Bible of 1382 was the first Bible to use this chapter pattern. Since the Wycliffe Bible, nearly all Bible translations have followed Langton's chapter divisions. But they are not inspired –only a study aid. Paul’s argument continues into chapter two. [Of interest also: The Hebrew Old Testament was divided into verses by a Jewish rabbi by the name of Nathan in A.D. 1448. Robert Estienne, who was also known as Stephanus, was the first to divide the New Testament into standard numbered verses, in 1555. Stephanus essentially used Nathan's verse divisions for the Old Testament. Since that time, beginning with the
Geneva Bible, the chapter and verse divisions employed by Stephanus have been accepted into nearly all the Bible versions.]
The condemnation of human shortcomings continues in this next section but takes on a different angle of the same topic. Some Bible commentators have mistakenly assumed that Paul is addressing only Jews in Romans 2:1-16, assuming that those who saw themselves as superior to the sinners condemned in the previous chapter must be Jews! Of course that is faulty logic. Paul in this letter does clearly divide humanity into ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’, yet in this part of his letter he is stressing their equality in terms of their sinfulness and of the way they must approach God for salvation, through His grace, by faith alone in His Son our Saviour and Lord. The NIV translation could make it much clearer that Paul is addressing all humanity because he uses the words ω ανθρωπε (literally human being) in the opening words of chapter two: You, therefore, human being have no excuse… Why does the apostle need to make the points he raises in this section? It is simply because there were some Gentiles in his day who on reading Romans one could fairly have said –yes some people live appallingly bad lives and make some really poor judgements. I don’t share your belief in the God of the Bible, Paul, but I do practice the kind of moral values you profess. Seneca, the famous tutor to Romans Emperor Nero, was a good example of this. It was said of him: ‘Not only did he exalt the great moral virtues; he exposed hypocrisy, he preached the equality of all human beings, he acknowledged the pervasive character of evil…he practised and inculcated daily self-examination, he ridiculed vulgar idolatry, he assumed the role of a moral guide…[F.F. Bruce, Romans, p.87]. In essence, these
individuals are saying: ‘I can be good without God’. I don’t need a moral arbiter for the Universe in order for me to lead an exemplary life. I can manage fine on my own. I have met people who have held some version of this viewpoint –maybe expressed with more humility, but equally firmly stressing they could manage fine without the God I was commending to them. The kind of evangelistic approach that might reach such a person would be very different to another who had been convicted of ghastly crimes and had acknowledged that his punishment was truly deserved. I remember in another church an evangelistic event where a number of testimonies were given. The first came from a man who prior to coming to Christ had a criminal record that stretched to pages worth of convictions; the second was a an individual who had always lived roughly on the right side of the law but had not lived the best of lives. The third came from a Christian, brought up in a loving caring home who came to see their need of Jesus, but admitted that as a Christian he still made mistakes and was far from perfect but came across very much as a decent honourable person. After the event I spoke to a guest who had not made a public profession of faith. He indicated that the first speaker’s life was so far removed from his that it had actually meant very little to him (whereas the Christians present were thrilled that such a bad man had found Christ); the second speaker likewise had not ‘connected’ with this man; in fact it was the very ordinary local Christian who simply told something of their faith journey that most resonated with him. I suspect the committed church members present at that outreach event would have reversed the order of appreciation of the testimonies. These kinds of people hear us offering Jesus as the answer to their problems and (sometimes!) politely suggest that they are not asking that kind of question. Such a perspective is common today, but this passage informs us that it was also frequently encountered by Paul and his missionary colleagues. Yet this challenge was also directed towards Jews who thought themselves better than the kind of people that Paul criticizes in chapter one. Jewish literature from the centuries shortly before and after the time of Jesus on earth contains examples of people who thought that way. The book of 2 Esdras, chapters 3-14, is a Jewish work written around 100-120AD (Raymond E. Brown) in chapter 3 verses 34-35 states: ‘Now therefore weigh in a balance our iniquities and those of the inhabitants of the world; and so it will be found which way the turn of the scale will incline. When have the inhabitants of the earth not sinned in thy sight? Or what nation has kept thy commandments so well [as us]?’ A
similar perspective was presented in the book of Wisdom chapters 11-15. This latter book, 2
written in the 1st or 2nd centuries BC, for example, compared how God treated Jews when they did wrong compared with Gentiles and expressed it in this way: ‘When they [Israelites] were tried, though they were being disciplined in mercy, they learned how the ungodly were tormented when judged in wrath. For thou didst test them as a father does in warning, but thou didst examine the ungodly as a stern king does in condemnation (Wisdom 11:9-10) [the two quotations from L.L. Morris, Romans, pp. 107-108] Jews
who thought like this viewed all their own nation or religious community as being saved simply because of their ethnic identity. In the words of the Jewish tractate Sanhedrin 10:1: ‘All Israelites have a share in the world to come’. A sinful Jew could be punished by God for wrongdoing, but never placing their eternal salvation at risk at any point. However, by contrast, all Gentiles were condemned eternally, because they were not part of the chosen people. These are the two categories of people the apostle has in mind, primarily as he wrote this first part of Romans chapter two. 2. God’s judgement is inescapable (Romans 2:1-4) The apostle in addressing these people makes the following observations: (a) You are condemning yourself You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Rom.2:1) It is sadly a fact of life that our sin nature within us can cause us
to judge other people more harshly and ourselves more leniently for committing exactly the same breach of God’s moral standards. In such circumstances we may argue that although our conduct was less than adequate we had a reason, at the time, for making that judgement call; by contrast person ‘x’ was only making excuses for their failures. A similar pattern of behaviour can be exhibited when we hear of wrongdoing by a good friend and by someone else we struggle to get on with; how often will we seek in our minds to mitigate the offence of our friend but possibly even regard more harshly or at least in the standard fashion the shortcomings of the other person. A person who commendably has high moral standards and rightly is outraged by the vile sins committed by ‘evil’ people; yet if such a person is unwilling to deal with their own shortcomings then they are no better than those they are looking down on as the worst offenders in society. The standards each of us uses to judge others can be used by God as a base-line standard to evaluate our own conduct. (b) You will not escape God’s perfect judgement 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? (Rom.2:2-3) We are familiar with
Abraham’s assumption in his conversation with God in Genesis 18 over what should happen to the wicked people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham thought over various scenarios in his head before making another plea to God. The non-negotiable foundation of this exchange was the righteousness of God; that He could only act with total consistency to His holy character and as a result must do what is right. Genesis 18:25 records Abraham’s summary on this subject: Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church to urge them to fix their eyes on Jesus
and to remember the basis on which we ought to build our lives in the light of the day on which we will be called to give an account of our stewardship on earth. In I Corinthians 3:1115, he wrote: 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved— even though only as one escaping through the flames. The sins of the outwardly good respectable 3
person may appear to be less, but the most serious sin of failing to give God first place in our lives; failing to love Him with all our hearts and minds and strength is the most serious one of all –and is in fact idolatry –putting someone other than God on the throne of our lives. Is He Lord of your life? (c) Do you misrepresent God’s character? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of His kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Rom.2:4) You have observed it and so have I -a person using bad
language or engaging in some inappropriate act - and then with reference to a Christian present inviting God to strike them down if He exists? The fact that ‘nothing’ has happened is then used to claim either that there is no God to account to –so why worry about ultimate accountability or that God has to forgive us no matter how we behave or relate to Him Voltaire famously declared: “God forgives because it’s his business.” This prominent atheist could refer blithely to the God in whom he did not believe because he also had contempt for the biblical moral standards revealed by God. He would have argued that mercy and pity and forgiveness are not the traits of ‘heroic’ peoples and cultures. Meekness equals weakness to such people. The fact that God does not judge a person on the spot is evidence of His grace not an inability to take action. The apparent delay in Jesus’ second coming, likewise is an evidence of God’s graciousness towards humanity to allow more people to come to faith and trust in Him, as Peter explains in II Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Are you presuming on His kindness by putting off committing your life
to Him by repenting of your sin and accepting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour? You have this opportunity today, but no guarantees of tomorrow. Do you need to take that step of faith this morning? 3. God’s judgement is righteous (Romans 2:5-11) (a) Judgement cannot be evaded (Romans 2:5)5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed. Some people then and now were doubting the fact that one
day they would be called to give an account of their lives. Peter refers to this in his second letter, written less than ten years after Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (II
Peter 3:3-7). It is not just serious criminals who have carried out acts of great evil who have this sceptical mindset. Paul here is talking of outwardly good living people who are respectable citizens, but who live their lives without reference towards or thoughts of God. In God’s eyes idolatry –putting someone or something in the first place in our lives is the most serious sin a human being can commit. The very first of the Ten Commandments states: You shall have no other gods before Me (Exodus 20:3). This is part of the reason why in recent years we have had so many disappointments with the politicians in our Edinburgh and Westminster parliaments who have framed an increasing number of legislative bills that promote values that are contrary to the biblical standards of morality. When there are no agreed common moral values life in the public square becomes increasingly based on arbitrary standards and makes social interaction in many workplaces an increasingly challenging experience. Everyone needs to recognise that one day we will give an account of our lives to God and to live now in preparation for that day. 4
(b) Judgment will be according to our works (Romans 2:6-8) 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, He will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. Our salvation as Christians is based on God’s
grace alone, received through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-10), but genuine faith shows evidence of conversion in an individual’s life. James in his general letter to the Christian community in the Roman world underlined this truth. In James 2:17 he wrote: In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead . Yet this statement does not contradict Paul’s teaching. For example, he reminded the Philippian Christians about the way they ought to conduct their lives with these words: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil.2:12-13). The word translated ‘work out’ literally can be rendered
‘continue working to the finish (line) [A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures]’ It has the idea of selfdiscipline –keeping focussed on what we need to do to accomplish that which God has entrusted to our care. In this case, in the first instance, becoming who God has called us to be in Christ, and as a result playing our part in the building up of His Church here on earth. A truly converted person will want to gather with fellow believers in worshipping the Lord Jesus on God’s special day in His house; a genuine profession of faith will result in a desire to serve in the work of a local congregation. (c) Judgement will be fair (Romans 2:9-10) 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favouritism.
Here on earth the verdicts of many a court will be partial or skewed. Some times the innocent will be vindicated and on other occasions the guilty will get away with wrongdoing. However, when we stand before the Lord each person will be treated as their conduct merits, regardless of their ethnic origins; no favours because you are Jewish Paul declares; no favours because you have a lesser faith heritage as a Gentile. Therefore we must determine to be heavenly-minded in order to be of earthly use. To keep in mind the shortness of time and the nearness of eternity will help us make choices and determine priorities that might otherwise be different. Do you need to make priority changes in your weekly schedule? Or does the Lord have that first place? John Wesley’s famous maxim of living as if the Lord was coming back tomorrow but planning as if His return was delayed for a thousand years is so apt. This enabled him when once asked by a heckler what he would do the following day - if he knew that Jesus would return at the end of the next day- to get our his diary read out his list of public preaching engagements and say that he would do exactly what he had planned to do prior to meeting His maker! In the words of Paul from II Corinthians 5:6-10: Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please Him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Is it
your goal each day of your life to please Him by the priorities you hold and the choices you make?
4. God’s judgement is impartial (Romans 2:12-16) 5
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. Jews and non-Jews in their religious
practices may be quite different, but what counts is their obedience to the revelation of God which has been given to them. Verse twelve assumes that all of us are sinners and that outside of Christ our sin will condemn us to a lost eternity. The form of words the apostle uses in verse twelve points to the fact that this verse is a summary of each person’s life from the perspective of the day when we stand before Jesus on judgement day. There is in theory the works option for salvation; that is, in endeavouring to live a perfect life in thought and word and deed from birth to death. Some people who make no faith claims can lead remarkably decent and moral lives. They may be truthful, treat their parents’ right; hold high principles concerning sexual morality and be content with their lot in life. Yet even such people good as they are will have thought wrong thoughts as their consciences will bear witness. It is possible in terms of outward conduct to tick all the boxes. Paul, with reference to the Orthodox Jewish rules for conduct wrote of his pre-conversion life: as for legalistic righteousness, faultless (Philippians 3:6b). This is an extraordinary statement. But even attaining this standard is insufficient to get us into heaven because God also judges our words and our attitudes, and no-one could attain such a standard in their thought-life. Therefore, as Paul continually reminded his hearers, for example to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:31: For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” Have you accepted Jesus as your Saviour and Lord? This is the only ground on which we can be certain of an eternity with Him. If you havn’t done so yet, please take that step today, for your good and for His glory, Amen.
Romans 2:17-3:8 A Challenge to the Chosen People Introduction Paul has been highlighting the problem facing the whole human race - our own sinfulness. He has begun with coverage of people who in a particular culture, and their equivalents in our own, who might be considered ‘serious’ sinners. In chapter two he then addresses groups of people who might say to him: ‘Paul, those people are sinners, they need to deal with their problems, but I am not like that. I am a basically a good person, a decent neighbour and a good work colleague and doing okay within my family. Romans 2:1-16 covers the challenge from hypothetical persons who might claim ‘I can be good without God’. Now in the next section Paul turns to another group of potential readers of this letter who would also claim exemption from his classification of them as sinners needing to repent and turn to God. These people are Orthodox Jews. They would protest strongly at any sense in which they could be listed alongside Gentiles as ‘sinners’. They would remind him that God gave them the Law of Moses (the Ten Commandments), that is the revealed will of God for their lives, and the sign of the covenant (circumcision), to set them apart as a special people unto God. Did not God say through the prophet Amos: You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth (Amos 3:2)? Paul, in the light of these facts, and we could fill out the list as you know, there is no way Gentiles and Jews could be viewed in the same light before God. In Romans 2:17 to 3:8 the apostle will comment on the two things they highlight as unique features of their status before God, the Law and circumcision, and address some objections that might be made to his argument. 1. The Jewish people and the Law of God (Romans 2:17-24) 17
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know His will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (a) Paul highlights the marks of Orthodox Jewish identity (i) You call yourself a 18
Jew (Romans 2:17a) such a person is open about their faith and convictions; they are not hiding what they claim to be. Naturally this is commendable when someone is open about their beliefs –as we should be as Christians. (ii) You rely on the law (Romans 2:17b) that is the law of Moses, revealed to him by God on Mount Sinai; this was the foundation on which they built the practices they followed and which served as the authority for their conduct. We too should have no problems acknowledging that as Christians we declare the Bible to be entirely trustworthy from Genesis to Revelation. Scripture is the revealed will of God for His people and when accurately interpreted and applied is the authority for our faith and practices. (iii) You… brag about your relationship with God (Romans 2:17c) Paul uses the same vocabulary in Romans 5:11 (we rejoice in God) in the context of the blessings of being placed into a right relationship with God through Jesus sacrifice in our place on the cross, which we have received through His grace, by faith. It is commendable when someone wants to share their faith in God with a person who is yet to know Jesus. However, what these people were placing their confidence in, was believing in one God (monotheism) and an 1
exclusive relationship for Jews with God that was not open to someone outside Judaism. The gospel Paul wanted his readers to proclaim was open to all people of whatever race or class. In essence, the apostle was alerting his readers to grasp that the gospel really can be good news for everyone who hears it –as long as they are willing to receive it. The question he might put to us today is this: you are secure in your relationship with God through Jesus – are you willing to pass it on to other people? (iv)…You know His will (Romans 2:18a) you know what God wants people to believe and how they ought to behave; His standards on basic issues are clear in the Bible. If we assent to that then we are accountable to practice it! (v) You…approve of what is superior (Romans 2:18b) or as translated in Philippians 1:10 able to discern what is best… that is you are capable of making the right application of God’s law to your daily life. A parent could, in theory, give an instruction manual to a young child and instruct them to cook dinner in the oven while they were out. After all, the child could read the words in the manual. However, in practice, this would not happen because although the child might understand the words it would be inappropriate to place such responsibility onto their shoulders. In matters of faith, Paul declares, well-instructed Orthodox Jewish men and women are more than capable of applying their beliefs to typical life situations. (vi) You are instructed by the law (Romans 2: 18c) The reason for this capability is because of their training in their faith. No other faith community in the ancient world was as well-taught. In our context we have been so well off in terms of the availability of Bibles, concordances, commentaries and other theological books to help us understand God’s Word. (vii) You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark (Romans 2:19) many orthodox Jews understood the passages in Isaiah that we use to point to Jesus as the ‘servant of the Lord’ as a reference to the whole nation. Therefore, verses such as Isaiah 42:6-7 might be in mind here: “ I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. Or Isaiah 49:6: “It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” It is great when we can help one
another in our faith journey, maybe in a one-to-one context or within a house-group setting where it is amazing what insights can be discerned as God’s Word is studied by His people. These people Paul has in mind are capable for carrying out this task, because (viii) You have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth (Romans 2:20) As a former strict Pharisee Paul could rattle of this list with ease and know that its accuracy would be affirmed. Yes Paul you have summed it up well for us. (b) Paul presents five challenges to his hypothetical Orthodox Jewish reader Okay you affirm that I have summed up your situation accurately –do you practice what you say you believe? The apostle will ask them five rhetorical questions about their behaviour: (i) You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? (Romans 2:21a) (ii) You who preach against stealing do you steal? (Romans 2:21b) (iii) You who say people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? (Romans 2:22a) (iv) You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (Romans 2:22b) (v) You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? (Romans 2:23). Once again it is likely that a typical Orthodox Jew would reply –of course Paul I keep these commandments. It would be inconsistent with my profession of faith not to keep them all! However, there were too many Jewish people who were failing at this point. A number of Romans commentaries mention Rabbi Jochannan ben Zakkai, a contemporary of Paul, who lamented the decline of moral standards in his day. He drew attention to: ‘the increase of murder, adultery, sexual vice, commercial and judicial corruption, bitter sectarian strife, and other evils.’ [C.H. Dodd, Romans, p.39] Here Paul has asked his hypothetical debating partner an Orthodox Jew if in his actions he is practising what he 2
says he believes. This test or challenge would have been seen as most reasonable, but the apostle will later point out that we can possibly keep all the rules concerning our actions, but can we do so in our speech and in our thoughts? Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) reveals the total impossibility of having perfect attitudes towards other people (see Matthew 5:21-30). However, at this point in the argument living by the law was still an option for the conscientious observant Jew. After all, then and now, living a morally upright life, being a trusted work colleague and a good neighbour is the best way to live. 2. The Jewish people and circumcision (Romans 2:25-29) (a)The heart of the matter is obedience with respect to God’s laws (Romans 2:25-27) 25
Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. The other badge of honour for a Jewish male
was the covenant sign of circumcision. Some Jews thought that observing this ceremonial practice guaranteed them a place in heaven regardless of their lifestyle choices. There are a number of rabbis who make this point, both in New Testament times and in the centuries that followed. For example, Rabbi Levi (c.AD300) wrote: ‘At the last Abraham will sit at the entrance to Gehenna (hell) and will not let any circumcised man of Israel go down there.’ (for details and more examples -see C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans, Vol.1, p. 172) Not so, says the apostle in Romans 2:25: Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. Jesus in his parables warned his Jewish audience that a failure to honour God in their lives could have eternal consequences and people they thought were hopeless cases, might enter heaven and they themselves be excluded. Matthew 21:31b-32 states: Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. Therefore, Paul
declares: circumcision without obedience equals uncircumcision; but uncircumcision with obedience is the equivalent of circumcision. Now for the first time in this section the hypothetical Orthodox Jew is unhappy with what is being proposed. He wants to argue that possessing the law and receiving in his flesh the sign of the covenant is sufficient to be accepted into heaven. No states the apostle, a truly saved person will show by their obedience to God’s commandments the evidence of their salvation. Therefore, in heaven the following scenario may play out: The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker (Romans 2:27). Or as Paul expresses it in Ephesians 2:10: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Our profession of
faith from our lips is revealed to be genuine when its fruit is in evidence in our character and conduct in every day living. (b) A genuine Jew lives out his faith in daily life (Romans 2:28-29)28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. Paul’s argument here is not
new. It is consistent with God’s critique of His people’s behavioural lifestyles throughout the Old Testament. Leviticus 26:40-42 records something of God’s judgement against His chosen people because of their wickedness, but also holds out a restoration of covenant privileges, because of God’s grace –if they are willing at such a time to exercise genuine repentance from their sins. “‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their 3
unfaithfulness and their hostility toward Me, 41 which made Me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, 42 I will remember My covenant with Jacob and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. Moses challenged disobedient Israelites with these words in Deuteronomy 10:16: Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. In other words change your attitude towards God and take Him seriously –if you are
expecting Him to take you seriously. Right at the end of his life in a message that addressed how God’s people could live lives that were pleasing to Him, Moses explained how this would come about: The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live
(Deuteronomy 30:6). Yahweh is offering His people a ‘new’ or transformed heart to enable them to love and serve Him as they should. Ezekiel 36:25b-27 states: I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws. These words proclaimed
through Moses above pointed forward roughly seven hundred years to the time of Jeremiah who prophesied of the New Covenant that God would bring about in relationship with His people, that was fulfilled in Jesus. Jeremiah wrote: “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). Notice also some extraordinary words in Ezekiel 44:9 where God declares: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and flesh is to enter my sanctuary, not even the foreigners who live among the Israelites. Therefore,
Paul concludes this section: a ‘true Jew’ may also be a non-Jew, a Gentile, whose inner person has been spiritually transformed by the Holy Spirit. Outward ceremonies are appropriate, but they can only convey what we hope is a real sign of inner grace and transformation in our daily lives. The most powerful symbol in our faith is the practise of believers’ baptism. The outward act of obedience in water points to an inner spiritual transformation in a Christian’s life. Paul will explain this point in more detail in Romans chapter six, but for now Romans 6:4 will suffice: We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Paul would want to ask us –on what basis are we hoping to
be accepted by God for salvation? Professions of faith with our lips are essential. But they are only credible if they point to God’s Spirit at work in our inner person, transforming our attitudes and our speech as well as our actions. The sign of initial obedience to the covenant for a Jew was the act of circumcision. The sign of initial obedience under the terms of the New Covenant in Jesus is believers’ baptism? Is this a step you need to take? Is this something you have put off until now and need to take action on at this time? If that is something God is speaking to you about –please don’t put it off –receive the blessings of obedience to His commandments. As Jesus Himself said in His final commission to His followers in Matthew 28:18-20:“…All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” It is important to point out that His felt
presence with us is surely linked to our obedience to our Lord and Saviour. Is there a step of obedience you need to take at this time? 3. Is there any advantage in being Jewish? (Romans 3:1-8) 4
His hypothetical Jewish opponent(s) then raises four objections to Paul’s teaching: (a)Paul’s message undermines the covenant (Romans 3:1-2) What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. It has been agreed that God chose Israel as His
special people entrusting them as the guardians of His moral law, for the nations, together with circumcision as the sign of their covenant commitment. Yet if a person may be acceptable to God who is not ethnically Jewish and who has never be circumcised, then what value is there in this special status for the Jews? Has God dispensed with the Jews under the ‘New Covenant’? A fuller explanation of this point is given in Romans 9-11. The blessings of being Jewish will be explained in Romans 9:4-5. However, at this point in the argument the apostle says is it not a big enough privilege to be entrusted to take care of the Word of God? The revelation of God in Holy Scripture was entrusted to the Jews alone. You ought to rejoice in that! The anonymous author of Psalm 147 does exactly that: He has revealed His word to Jacob, His laws and decrees to Israel. 20 He has done this for no other nation; they do not know His laws. Praise the Lord (Psalm 147:19-20). As people with personal copies of the
Bible, something unknown to many Christians in North Korea and probably a number of other countries as well, what a privilege is ours, but do we take the time each day to read a little and meditate on it? Or are we missing out on the blessing our privilege can bring? (b) Paul’s message calls into question God’s faithfulness (Romans3:3-4) What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge” John Stott has helpfully and more literally translated Romans 3:3 in this way: If some to whom God’s promises were entrusted did not respond to them in trust, will their lack of trust destroy God’s trustworthiness? (John Stott, Romans, p. 96) Verse four begins with a
Greek phrase that conveys the deepest emotion and passion in rejecting such a notion. The idea of such a notion is totally ludicrous. God is entirely trustworthy. God cannot be other than truthful and reliable in every respect. Human beings all fail but not God. He is perfect. David recognised this fact when confessing his sin with Bathsheba. Psalm 51:4 records: Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are right in Your verdict and justified when You judge. It is painful to me as a pastor, and I suspect equally so to
some of you, when we come across a man or woman who once followed the Lord but now does so no longer as a result of the sinful misconduct of a professing Christian. God has been blamed for the wrongdoing of another human being. The one who has fallen into sin has in effect brought His name into disrepute. However, that is not a legitimate excuse for walking away from God and from fellowship in a local congregation of His people. God will always maintain His complete integrity in every situation. Are there not times, though, when you and I think God might have been less than fair or just in permitting certain things to happen in our lives or in other people’s lives? On the surface it certainly can look that way sometimes. As some people seem to face so many more hardships in life than other people; Paul wants to reassure us that God will never act in a manner inconsistent with His holy character. Our difficulty arises because we see so much less of the situation in question than God. Had we the ability to see a situation through His eyes then our perceptions might be different. Therefore, the apostle encourages us to have total confidence in God in His dealings with us. If there is something you are struggling with members of our prayer team are available to pray with you in this situation with a view to helping you to overcome this trial. (c) Paul’s message denies God’s justice (Romans 3:5-6) But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing His wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6 Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world?
Here (and again in Romans 6:1-2) Paul responds to the individual who claims that if God can gain glory and honour as a result of dealing with my unrighteousness then this appears to be a license to sin even more in order to give God the opportunity to be even more glorious in 5
dealing with it! Therefore, if this is the case, does it not call judgement for sin into question when God is glorified through this situation anyway? Of course declares the questioner, God was right to punish the immoral Gentiles (Romans 1:18ff); certainly God was right to take action against the people who look down on other people, thinking themselves better than these ‘sinners’ (Romans 2:5)! Surely Jews as God’s people are exempt from divine judgement at the end of the age? No says Paul, can’t you see that if Jews are excused their sinful misconduct then how can God be consistent and not also decline to punish the Gentiles for their sins? Once more Paul uses that same passionate and strong phrase to reject out of hand such a ludicrous notion. The N.I.V translates it as Certainly Not! (Romans 3:6a). God is the judge of all peoples and will judge each person with perfect and fair judgement at the end of the age through Jesus, as Paul made clear when preaching in Athens to an audience of philosophers. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead ” (Acts
17:30-31). All of us Gentiles together with Jews have a duty to live holy God-honouring lives, because He is both consistent and righteous. (d) Paul’s message falsely increases God’s glory (Romans 3:7-8) Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” 8 Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! This objection follows on from the previous one. If my
condemnation glorifies God as does my vindication by holy living, then why does my wrongdoing lead to my condemnation when God is glorified either way? Surely as verse eight notes, could not the carrying out of more sins bring more glory to God? Putting this in more contemporary language, the argument here is something like this: my testimony is too ordinary; I really cannot plead guilty to committing GBH in primary school; arson and manslaughter in high school; and racketeering and organised crime in my twenties. But what a testimony it would make should I make up for lost time in criminality and then ‘repent’ of it. I could get a book deal for my story with a Christian publisher and be a guest speaker at numerous churches that might not give me a second look now…No! Never! A recipient of God’s grace who truly grasps what Jesus went through on the cross to procure my salvation will never think this way. They / we will want to honour God by our love for Him; our devotion to Him and a holy lifestyle that brings pleasure to Him. God will be most glorified when I trust Him implicitly in each and every area of my life and seek to practice it in daily living? Do you need to spend some quiet time alone with Him reflecting on how He can be even more glorified in your life? This passage is a particular challenge to Orthodox Jews, but there are clear pointers to each of us how we too can reflect on how we are getting on in our faith journey. May God help us to address any issue that He by His Spirit has raised in our consciences today, Amen.
Romans 3:9-20 Humanity’s biggest problem Introduction One of the pre-eminent literary figures at the start of the twentieth century was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). He had a penetrating mind and powerful pen as he addressed many of the key issues of his day. On one occasion The Times newspaper asked its readers a question concerning what was the biggest problem in the world today? Many people wrote in to lament the great evils present in the world, but one letter stood out above all the others not just by its eloquent simplicity, but by the profundity of its contents. Chesterton wrote: ‘Dear Sir, I am, yours faithfully, G K Chesterton. In the latter twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the point he was making sadly needs a little explanation for some people. Chesterton was not claiming to be the most wicked person on the planet, or even potentially so, he was pointing to the sinfulness of the human heart as being the root problem that lies behind the acts of wickedness and evil that have so damaged our world. In 1973 secular Psychiatrist Karl Menninger who a book ‘Whatever became of sin?’ The publishers blurb contained the following extraordinary words: In the present book Dr. Menninger attempts to apply psychiatry to a world-wide affliction, the depression, gloom, discouragement and apprehensiveness which are so prevalent. The word "sin" has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, but the sense of guilt remains in our hearts and minds. The prisoners punished in our jails are a small minority of all the offenders; "all we like sheep have gone astray." While a few deplore their guilt, many remain blandly indifferent or vaguely depressed or bitterly accusatory of others. Are these states of illness? Not until the EPILOGUE, which he calls a deferred preface, does the author tell us how he came to write this book and how he has come from many years of experience to consider moral values an essential aspect of psychiatry. If, as he believes, mental health and moral health are identical, the recognition of the reality of sin [my emphasis] offers to the suffering struggling, anxious world a real hope not of belated treatment but of prevention. This task enlists the physician, the psychiatrist, the minister, the lawyer, the editor, the teacher, and the mother in a common army- an army against
These counter-cultural words penned at a time when the revolt against Judao-Christian moral standards was at its height, are incredibly powerful and harmonise incredibly well with the section of the letter to the Romans covered in this message. self-destruction and world destruction.
1. The definite charge (Romans 3:9) What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. The apostle here in Romans 3:9
repeats the question asked in Romans 3:1 concerning whether the Jews are in a better position than Gentiles before God? He has answered this in Rom.3:1 with a ‘yes’ and in Rom.3:9 with a ‘no’. However, as the whole book of Romans is a carefully argued presentation of the Christian faith, it is obvious that Paul has something different in mind on the two occasions he asks this question. In Romans 3:1 he has in mind the privileges the Jews had of access to God’s Word and the associated responsibilities they had to make the Gospel known throughout the world. In that sense they had a great advantage- as do we –of reading and hearing God’s Word proclaimed. However, by contrast in Romans 3:9 the apostle is bringing together his concluding remarks about the universality of the problem of human sinfulness. He wants to make plain that in this matter Jews and Gentiles are in exactly the same position. All need redemption from our sins. Every one of us needs a Saviour –God makes no exemptions in this matter. The phrase Do we have any advantage? in some translations is rendered Are we better than…[Gentiles]? Paul wants to do away with any possibility of any 1
sector of the society of his day thinking that they didn’t have a problem to deal with because they were better than other people. The good news of Jesus is equally applicable to people of all social classes; all racial backgrounds; rich or poor, male or female. Yet too often discrimination goes on. I remember years ago early in his time as Baptist Union Mission adviser, Robert Breustedt challenged us on this point. He had come to faith from a wealthy background and had given up a prosperous career to enter the ministry. He told us something of his story. He remarked that in the well-to-do area where he lived prior to his conversion he could not remember any church putting leaflets through their doors, let alone knocking them. Yet a nearby council estate was regularly visited by Christians going round the doors. The challenge then and now is to acknowledge that the people we may most expect to want to come to Christ may not be the most responsive; others with whom we had little hope of an interest in what we believe may be more open to hearing about the Lord. Paul wants to make it absolutely plain to the followers of Jesus for whom this letter was first written that we cannot discriminate between people with respect to human sinfulness. All of us are in exactly the same position as sinners before God. There is no dispute that some people have chosen act on sinful desires in a manner that the majority of other people find difficult to comprehend how anyone could behave that way. Yet in the light of God’s perfect holiness all of us fall short of His standards. When we grasp this truth it will affect, for example, how we relate to other people when they have failed in some matter. Although sin can never rightly be swept under the carpet, a recognition that ‘but for the grace of God go I…’ enables us to be much more gracious and loving in seeking to help someone correct their mistakes; we are either unforgiven sinners or forgiven sinners with respect to God and the gospel. However, only when we grasp our need of forgiveness of our own sins, and come to see Jesus as the Saviour from our sins will we then want to put our faith and trust in Him. This is a foundational matter of our faith and provides the explanation for the necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice in our place on the cross. Have you had that time in your life when you acknowledged your sinfulness within and asked God to forgive your sin and owned the Lord Jesus as your Saviour from sin? This is the most important step we take in life. Paul will very soon come to the good news, but in Romans chapters one to three he sets out the bad news that reveals the necessity of what God did to put both humanity and His created world in order and back on track. The problem is very serious as he will explain in the series of biblical quotations, but he has declared already his confidence in the remedy God has provided for us in Romans 1:16-17: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
2. The universal proof (Romans 3:10-18) Paul provides a series of quotations from the Old Testament to back up his case. One quotation comes from Ecclesiastes, five from Psalms and one from Isaiah. His approach was in line with that of most rabbis of the day, who would list the passages of the Bible they believed supported their case, prior to offering an explanation of their significance where they thought that was necessary. Although in earlier sermons on Romans I have quoted rabbis who did not agree with what Paul was teaching here, others did share this conviction of the universal sinfulness of humanity, both Jews and Gentiles alike. A Jewish document from this era records information of a public discussion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiba. A brief segment of the exchange included these words: [R. Eliezer asked R.Akiba, ‘Akiba have I neglected anything of the whole Torah?’ Akiba replied, ‘Thou, O Master, hast taught us, For there is not a just man upon earth, that doest good and sinneth not’ [Sanhedrin. 101a, quoted 2
in L.L. Morris, Romans, p. 166.] The
apostle then uses these Scripture passages to make essentially
three points. The first is: (a)Sin in human character (Romans 3:10-12)10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. He begins with a quotation from Ecclesiastes 7:20: Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins . This is the fundamental reason why so many people are
totally disinterested when we seek to share our faith with them. The foundational sin of humanity is failing to give God His place; that is failing to give Him the glory and honour due to His holy name. The more we have an habitual preference for self-centredness or the more a person takes pleasure in some form of sinful attitude, or conduct the further they are from placing their trust in God or having any real desire to put Him first in their lives. The ungodliness of sin is revealed here in a stark and depressing way. It is easy to look in horror at a figure like Hitler who in his thinking was deeply influenced by the atheistic philosopher Frederick Nietzche and put into practice this philosopher’s creed of the advancement of ‘the strong’ (or survival of the fittest) and the elimination of ‘the weak’ and ‘defective’ in his death camps. Or at individuals like Jimmy Saville who preyed on the innocent and vulnerable and list them as serious sinners. However, we are all sinners as Paul and the quotation from the book of Ecclesiastes have declared. The issue for each of us, though, is not what these people did, but in terms of my attitudes, the words that come out of my mouth and the behavioural choices I make –how close am I to being the person God wants me to be? Are there issues that He wants me to address? The Ecclesiastes quotation reminds us of the benchmark of perfection which God attains and we cannot reach, no matter how hard we attempt it. To fail an exam at school or university or through work by one percent or fifty percent has the same end result; it is psychologically better to come close and be convinced that another attempt will get us over the finish line! But in both cases it is a failure. The ultimate sin is to fail to recognise or honour God, therefore, in an absolute sense a life lived without God will always fall short of the quality of life God intended for that man or woman. Paul then cites Psalm 14:1-3 (or Psalm 53:1-3 which are virtually identical) which states: The fool says in his heart,” There is no God.”They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.2 The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. The apostle is not saying here than a person who wants nothing to do with God
plunges recklessly into acts of great evil, whereas if a person recognizes their need of God that without exception they all live outstandingly holy lives. Life is never so simple and black and white! What he is saying is that godlessness is the essence of sin. God’s charge against humanity is that collectively we do seek to follow Him as we should; that we do not constantly seek His glory as our chief aim and objective; that He is not central in our thoughts on a regular basis and we do not love Him as we should. Jesus, in response to a question about which was the greatest commandment, in Matthew 22:37-38, declared: 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. John Stott (Romans, p. 100) expressed it this way: ‘Sin is the revolt of the self against God, the dethronement of God with a view to the enthronement of oneself. Ultimately sin is self-deification, the reckless determination to occupy the throne which belongs to God alone. ’ What is it
that I get most passionate about? What do I choose to spend the largest proportions of my free time on? What is it that constantly pops up in my thoughts, apart from the obvious things in the workplace or our family circle? The apostle’s words at times in our lives can be deeply challenging to each one of us when we get things out of perspective. Is there something you need to address today? (b) Sin in human conduct (Romans 3:13-17) It is not just in our thought life that there can be problems, what is inside will always eventually come out. Paul is seeking to highlight the 3
pervasiveness of sin through these quotations of Scripture which refer to sins of speech and conduct. (i) Sins of Speech (Romans 3:13-14)”13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”“The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Romans 3:13 begins with a quotation of part of Psalm 5:9: Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with malice. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongues they tell lies. The final part of that verse comes from Psalm 140:3: They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips . Romans 4:14 is a citation of Psalm 10:7: His mouth is full of lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue. Through
these different quotations Paul is referring to corrupt speech, deceitful words, uncharitable utterances and blasphemous language. All of us have heard conversations where these descriptions could fairly describe what we have heard. Yet can anyone say that we have never spoken inappropriately? That our words have always been wise, judicious and appropriate? It goes beyond our thought-life we can have problems with our tongues. In James 3 the writer draws attention to the problems that can arise through misuse of the tongue. James 3: 7-10 states: All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (ii) Sins of Conduct (Romans 3:15-16)”15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” It doesn’t stop at sinful
thought-patterns or inappropriate speech, but develops like an infection into misconduct. Paul here makes reference to Isaiah 59:7-8: Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. 8 The way of peace they do not know; it is not insignificant that earlier in that chapter Isaiah presents this charge against the people of His nation: But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear (Isaiah 59:2). All our faculties were given to us to use
not only for our own benefit but for the good of others, through which we might bring glory to God by living in a way which He intended for us. A biblical understanding of the problem of sin reveals to us that it is all pervasive and mars the thoughts, words and actions of even some of the best of people. Some great actions can have improper or even base motives; or simply to make us look good (or not look bad) in the eyes of other people. All of us at times have done things for other people that are good which we really didn’t want to do –not because we necessarily begrudged the person that service, but because, for example, we may have had to sacrifice doing something we judged more important. We rightly can be critical of politicians making promises at election times that afterwards reveal no serious intentions of putting into practice their promises. But, have we not been guilty at times also of speaking too hastily? In essence, the apostle is saying that everyone Jew or Gentile has failed to live to the high standards set for us by God. We may never be as bad as we could be (thankfully!) but equally our thoughts words and actions are often not as good as they might be either. (c) The cause of human sinfulness (Romans 3:18) 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” So why ultimately does humanity have this awful problem that Paul has spent the best part of two chapters of his letter describing? He once again makes reference to a Psalm, in this case Psalm 36. In that song David was reflecting on why human beings do bad things? I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes. 2 In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin. 3 The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good. 4 Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong (Psalm 36:3-4). Paul has been speaking in general terms with respect to Jews and Gentiles. There are
always exceptions to rules and within any culture and society there are always minorities who behave better or worse than the vast majority of the population. However, a large proportion of the people will simply go along with what they perceive are the opinions and values of the 4
majority. It is like the tribal militias in Afghanistan. When they think the Taliban are stronger they sign up with them and currently it appears that the Government side is in favour with three major militias signing up with President Karzai’s forces. A lack of absolute convictions can leave us floundering in a moral mess. Ultimate and absolute goodness is derived from God who is absolutely good. It is in the light of who He is that human beings have a plumbline to measure our own conduct. In practice, God has gone much further than we could ever imagine or expect in asking Jesus to come down to earth to show us how to live and then to die in our place as a substitute for sinners. However, the bottom line is that we either want the approval of other people most or the approval of God. We cannot truly revere (fear in the sense of the highest respect) God and not want to live in a way that pleases Him, even if it is out of step at times with other people. Whom do you most want to please the Lord or people around you who are still to come to faith? Sometimes this is an extremely difficult call in practice. In principle, in church, it is easy to give the right answer, but standing firm for your principles can require courage and real conviction. Paul in another letter spoke about the spiritual battle in which we are engaged and urged God’s people to stand firm. 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand
(Ephesians 6:10-13). Do you need to pray: Lord help me take a stand for you as a Christian? 3. The personal application (Romans 3:19-20) 19
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. Clearly Paul must have felt that some Jews were trying to wriggle out of
acknowledging their sinfulness and so his concluding words of this section are very specifically addressed to them. He points out to them that the Law of God is good, but through knowing the law we find that we fall short of its just demands upon us. The Law is beneficial, but like the sun shining through windows we have just washed on a summer’s day it can expose things we would rather not have seen! Windows that looked completely clean after they had been washed in that purer searchlight were exposed as less than fully cleansed of the grime. When the light of God’s law shines on our lives and in our consciences it reveals the inadequacy of trying to earn God’s favour by our own good works and drives us to Christ for salvation and the gift of God’s glorious grace. Have you received God’s salvation through Jesus? If you have never taken that step can I urge you to take it today? If you have been away from God and need to renew your fellowship with Him then again can I urge you to do so today?
In Romans 1:18 to 3:20 Paul has highlighted five things, prior to moving on to the remedy for human sinfulness. 1. Conviction of sins from the experience of Human Life (Romans 1:18-3:6) 2. Conviction of sin from the Word of God (Romans 3:9-18)
3. Conviction of responsibility for sin and our own sins (Romans 3:19) so that every mouth may be silenced 4.
Conviction of guilt before God (Romans 3:19) and the whole world held accountable to God.
5. Conviction of human helplessness with regard to obtaining a right standing before God (Romans 3:20) Therefore no one will be declared righteous in Godâ€™s sight by the works of the law.
May God help us to turn from our sins, turn to Jesus and give our lives wholeheartedly to Him as Lord and Saviour, Amen.
Romans 3:21 The Great transformation Introduction Romans 3:21-26 has been described as ‘possibly the most important paragraph ever written’ (L.L. Morris, Romans, p. 173). Leon Morris, an Australian Anglican Bible commentator and New Testament Scholar and one of the greatest Bible expositors in the second half of the last century was well placed to make such a judgement. Paul’s letter to the Romans was a carefully produced treatise on the essential truths of the Gospel proclaimed by Paul and other early Christian preachers. It was a summary of what they proclaimed. Paul has great confidence in this Gospel (Romans 1:16-17) as a remedy for humanity’s greatest needs. Yet he needed to take two and a half chapters of this book to demonstrate our need of God’s good news. Only someone who grasped that they are a sinner and in need of God’s gift of salvation would want to put their faith in Jesus Christ, the One through whom we are saved. Only when we truly understand the bad news can we really appreciate the good news. If your GP told you I have good news and bad new to give you as a result of the tests you recently undertook – which would you ask for first? For me that is a no-brainer! I want the bad news first in order to contextualise the good news to come. In such a context the doctor might say unfortunately you have been diagnosed with cancer, but the good news is that it has not spread to another place in your body, as far as we can tell, and we are optimistic that there is a high chance of removing the cancer because we have caught it fairly early and with this particular cancer there is a high rate of success following early intervention. The bad news is that you may need to go through chemotherapy or radiotherapy (or both), but I am very hopeful that the course of treatment will be successful. This is a bitter-sweet pill to swallow. As a patient in such a setting you might have been expecting that news, but hoping your fears were unfounded. However, the bad news –which is genuinely bad news- is not the last word, instead an obstacle to be overcome. The problem of human sin need never to be the last word; the guilt that we can feel following mistakes we (or sometimes someone close to us) make – which for some people can be disabling and even lead to their death can be overcome through the intervention of God’s amazing grace. The fallout from the Jimmy Savile case claimed another victim on 14 October 2012, when the former TV presenter’s nephew died on 5 Nov 2012. Vivian Savile had barely eaten or drunk since the disclosures about the man he ‘heroworshipped’ came out. Within weeks of this sad scandal coming out this man a keen cyclist lost the ability even to walk very far and died a relatively short time later, according to his family [BBC News website 5 Nov.2012]. The world is so full of bad news, yet Paul reminds us we have a message of good news that gives us a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). Our Bible verse for 2012 which I have not quoted too often in sermons this year is particularly apt. It is God’s promise to Moses for the people of Israel who were uncertain about their future and were afraid of what might be in store for them if they went forward in the direction God appeared to be leading them. God’s promise was this: The Lord Said: My presence will go with you and I will give you rest (Exodus 33:14). It is part of the Scottish psyche to focus on the bad news –there always has to be a ’but’ to good news! Actually it’s the opposite with the Christian Gospel. In a world of bad news it is the ultimate good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who 1
believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:21-22). The best known verse in the Bible is John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. What is it that God did to
demonstrate His love to us? How did that love effect our salvation and reconcile us to our heavenly Father? What is the contrast between the old way in the Jewish faith and this new gospel that Paul is proclaiming? 1. The contrast and transformation in Paul’s own life. If being good and ticking all the moral and social boxes were sufficient to get to heaven then Saul of Tarsus (Paul the apostle) would have made the grade. He could have had himself in mind when he addressed the orthodox Jew’s objections to his gospel in Romans 2:17-3:9. After all in a passage that recorded part of his personal testimony Paul told the Church at Philippi these words: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith .(Philippians
3:4-9). A devout Jew, an outstanding university student, possibly the most able rabbinical student in what might loosely be called Jerusalem ‘University’ appeared to have everything going for him. He had looked down on the followers of ‘The Way’ those who placed their faith in Jesus of Nazareth. Yet on an extraordinary day on a journey to Damascus with his fellow vigilantes off to arrest followers of Jesus, like American bounty hunters of the nineteenth century, his life was transformed. Luke records several accounts of this extraordinary event in the Book of Acts. Acts 9: 4-6 tells us: He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”5“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Meanwhile in Damascus the local believers have been having some
prayer meetings. They have been reminding the Lord that this man –Saul of Tarsus –was so bad that the Lord ought to keep him out of Damascus as he could only do harm not any good. A key leader in that church was a man called Ananias. Luke continues with the story: In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”“Yes, Lord,” he answered.11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength (Acts 9:10-19). Ananias had a huge problem. Saul’s track record was so
bad. He was not sorry for what he had done, but wanted to do more of the same –a million miles from an apology. It had never entered the head of these Syrian believers that God might want to do a work through this unwelcome young man. Ananias had a problem – had God made a mistake. He knew what this man and his friends had been up to and he wanted to go 2
no-where near them. Would he take a faith step for the sake of the Gospel? Now that God had apparently opened a new chapter in this man’s life would he be willing to consider what God might be doing in Saul’s life? It is in the light of this extraordinary transformation by God in Saul’s life that we read Romans 3:21 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. Are we willing to exercise sufficient confidence in the Gospel to take risks to share our faith in word and action with people who need Jesus? Do we need to pray for boldness to ask the Lord to make us like Ananias who in actual fact did far more than we probably will ever have to do –he put his life on the line! Saul of Tarsus had been an enemy of the Gospel but now had been transformed by the grace of God. Some years ago, when the apartheid scandal was being address in South Africa, our colleagues in the Baptist Union of South Africa and the Baptist Convention of South Africa recalled a momentous day when their networks of Baptist Churches (the one mainly but not exclusively white in racial terms and the other almost exclusively black in membership) met to resolve the differences between them. Various meetings had taken place but many members in their respective churches were sceptical that the issues that had held up their friendship in the Gospel had been resolved. This was a real problem as that day’s gathering was a communion service. The large church was pretty full but the members of the respective bodies sat separately for the service. The leaders wondered how to take things forward. Although I have forgotten much of the detail now those present were asked to write down the things they had against individuals or the other collective body and write them down on a piece of paper. They were then asked to come forward and place them in some kind of receptacle underneath the communion table. They were asked to allow the blood of Jesus to cover the hurts and sins of the apartheid era, intended or unintended, and allow a new beginning to take shape with the past left with the Lord. I cannot pretend that a queue quickly formed that day, but slowly and steadily members of both groups came forward and tears flowed as God was at work in their midst. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known amongst Baptist Christians in South Africa. The Gospel of transformation of Paul’s day is the gospel we have to proclaim in our generation, in our community –is it not? Is it not? As we model this gospel we commend Christ to people without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12b). 2. The contrast and transformation revealed in the gospel (a)From wrath to welcome Paul, earlier in this Gospel, in Romans 1:18 stated the big problem for humanity: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people… In order to earn ones way to heaven meeting God’s perfect standard is required –if self-righteousness is the way to go. However, God knows that we can never obtain that standard and so He took the initiative to deal with our sin and to give us the gift of the right standing (righteousness) of Jesus who died in our place as our substitute on the cross. This is what Paul was referring to when he wrote: But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify (Romans 3:21). Sin cannot be overlooked, it must be punished. Has there been a time in your life when you acknowledged you are a sinner and in need of His grace? It is these people to whom Jesus extends His welcome and forgiveness of sins. Paul goes on to say in Romans 3:22: This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Everyone must come to Him the same way- by faith. Do you need to
take this step of faith today? (b) From condemnation to justification (Romans 3:23-24a) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace… Our salvation is not like a mortgage on your home that is only cleared after a lifetime or twenty-five years when all the 3
payments are made. Jesus made all the payments for your salvation and mine. It is a free gift which He offers to us –obtained at the cost of His life on the cross. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10). This is so important to grasp
because our calling to do good works is a response of love and gratitude to God for His goodness to us in Christ, rather than out of fear that He might throw us out of His family for making a mistake or failing in some aspect of our Christian discipleship. Now the follower of Jesus whose claim to faith is genuine will show evidence of a love for the Lord in their desire to gather for worship with His people and a desire to serve in a variety of different ways to show the reality of what is going on in our lives. They will ask him to help them discern the right priorities for their life and make the time for what is at the top of God’s ‘list’ rather than giving God the ‘spare change’ of their time. Paul’s letter will proceed on the basis of this secure status for God’s people. For example in Romans 5:1: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. He spells this out more strongly in Romans 8:1-2: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. There are some people who never have grasped this issue and others who struggle
with acceptance of God’s welcome and cannot seem to stop condemning themselves. This is not a new teaching of Paul. John 3:17-18 highlights Jesus’ teaching on this point: For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. 18 Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son . Do you need to change your status
before God? He expects every person to take that personal responsibility. Do you need to grasp His forgiveness and welcome and value your security in Christ? (c) From bondage to freedom People sin most of the time because they enjoy it. Too often ministers and other preachers have misrepresented the motivation people have for violating God’s Law. A lot of the time, at least to begin with, it may bring pleasure. The problem comes later in the consequences of small acts of fraud or minor acts of sexual deviancy, or a few little lies, or whatever it may be, might appear useful even enjoyable and enabling us to progress our lives smoothly in the present. However, these issues accumulate over time and what once may have been a minor matter having little impact on our lives can become a major problem enslaving the one who thought they were in control. How many people addicted to nicotine, alcohol or drugs (or ?) would have taken the first puff or the first drink had they known how things would turn out. Freedom for such people has become a form of bondage. The good news of the gospel we proclaim speaks into this situation as well. Paul in Romans 7:6 declares: But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. How do we gain from this change? Just a few verses earlier the apostle in Romans 6:22 he states: But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. One of the sad things when a church hasn’t seen anyone
converted for years is that they (we?) can quickly forget the liberation experienced by a person truly set free to be who God wanted them to be in Christ when they are converted. (d) From exclusion to inclusion all churches say that new people are welcome to join them, but how many people within those churches actually mean it? How many silently or even audibly grumble because somebody is sitting in my row or pew? When new people get involved in a church they may do tasks in a different way or bring a different perspective on familiar approaches to ministries- and someone may be annoyed because ‘we’ve always done it this way?’ The list of potential irritations or adaptations that can be required in the big scale of things may be modest, even if it doesn’t feel that way. However, we need always to 4
remember, ultimately, it’s not about me and my preferences, but about God and giving Him the glory through the conversion of sinners and our collective transformation as Christian disciples to be like Jesus. Paul had to emphasise this point particularly to Jewish followers of Jesus who were not all thrilled at Gentiles coming to faith. In Ephesians 2:13-19, in particular, this truth is explained. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.14 For He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in His flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. How willing are we to welcome in people who are
different to us, but who want to follow Jesus? In the 1960s and 70s there were influential voices promoting the Church Growth Movement. The gist of the message was that churches grow fastest by focussing on attracting people like existing members. People of similar ages of the same ethnic background and the same social class; how is that different from the golf club, the working men’s club or the health club? The Church of Jesus Christ is intended by her Lord to be an inclusive church that welcomes people of all ages, races and social classes, united by a common desire to glorify God and to enable other people to come to faith in Jesus as they witness disciples of Jesus supporting one another as they grow in their faith. This requires much grace and patience with one another, but unless people can see that the Lord can enable congregations to overcome the challenges of diversity they may not want to come to share our faith. 3. The Gospel is really good news What does this mean in practice at a personal level for me if I trust Jesus as Lord and Saviour today? (a)I can be saved today Too often as people who were converted years ago we forget the amazing wonder of what it means to know our sins forgiven and to have the gift of eternal life. There are many people who hope to go to heaven when they die, but are not sure whether they qualify or not? There are people who hope their good works will outweigh their wrong thoughts, words and actions –so that God will let them in, yet have no assurance that this will be the case. What a tragedy to go through life like this. It could not be further from the experience of the words Jesus spoke in John 10:10: I have come that they may have life; and have it to the full. Paul in these amazing words in the later part of Romans 3 wants to lift his readers’ horizons to grasp the simplicity of the gospel and its reception even by a child . Paul wrote here in Romans 3:22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile. It is a gift from God. On the cross when Jesus shouted out: It is finished (John 19:30) the work of atonement was complete. God had accepted His sacrifice as sufficient to cover not only your sins and mine, but as a sacrifice of infinite worth to cover the sins of every person who reaches out to God for pardon. Have you done that? This gift of God’s righteousness, or the gift of salvation, can be yours or mine the moment we turn from our sins, believe Jesus died as our substitute on the cross and receive Him into our lives as Lord and Saviour. It can happen today. Is this the message you need to grasp today? Paul in II Corinthians 6:2 wrote: I tell you now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.
(b) I can be certain of my salvation If my salvation in the final analysis depends on me then I could both gain it and lose it. ‘Saved today and lost tomorrow’; In my early 20s I twice spent the summer working as a Camp Counsellor at a Salvation Army camp in the USA. 5
There were many good things that happened and precious memories of people met at that time. However, one thing that puzzled me after the morning service we held each week. There were a number of individuals who came forward to be saved several times during the summer. In conversation with one or two of them there was a clear but mistaken belief that if they had sinned during the week that their salvation was lost and that they needed to be saved again on Sunday. How sad that conception of God’s live and grace. Which human parent would say to their child –because you shouted at me today or used some bad language or [insert some other offence] you are no longer my child? We don’t behave like that, but neither does God! If God has accepted Jesus’ sacrifice in my place or yours, then we are saved for ever –once the gift has been received by faith. Romans 11:29 states: for God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable. Praise the Lord! Do you need to receive this assurance today? This is why Paul can tell the Christians in Philippi: being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). (c) I must give all the glory to God Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded (Romans 1:27a) If my salvation is all of God’s grace then I cannot claim my share of ‘credit’. I must never see myself as better than other people both in the church and outside it. The blessings I have in life really are gifts from God. Our heavenly Father has given us so many good things – supremely our salvation, but much more besides. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10). This is such a big issue to grasp. When we
get it, it will enable us to overlook the petty irritations and mistakes of other recipients of God’s grace in our church family. It will enable us the more readily to accept other imperfect people into our church whom God has yet to send into our midst. It is truly amazing grace that God saved me- with all my faults and imperfections. How could this perfectly holy God allow me into His heaven? When I look in my own heart and see my shortcomings there are times when I wonder at His patience with me –so slow to learn so many spiritual lessons; going back to Him for the innumerable time to confess the same shortcomings in my walk with the Lord? I suspect that all of us are in that place –but to grasp it is to catch a glimpse of the wonder of the Gospel. May each of be able to rejoice and give God the glory for the wonders of His love and grace to us, Amen.
Sunday 25 November: Be what you are! Colossians 3.1-17 Sometimes in life you come across people who are trying very hard to be people they clearly are not. Paul in writing to the Colossian Christians is telling them the exact opposite - to be what they are! You are Christians – so live like them! Be what you are! Who are you? If you are a Christian here today – then what Paul writes about the Colossians will be true of you V1-4; 12. We are people who have been raised with Christ (V1). Paul uses picture language – he alludes to the symbol of baptism that the Christians at Colossae would have experienced after they became Christians and put their faith in Christ. Baptism as practised by the Christians in Paul’s day would have been what we call believers baptism – a baptism following a person’s faith in Jesus – done in a public place as a declaration of the fact that they were now a follower of Jesus. The believer’s baptism is an outward sign of an interior change. As the Christian goes under the water – it is as if he/she is buried in death; as they come up from the water – it is as if they are being resurrected to a new life. Regardless of whether Christians have experienced believers baptism – if they have trusted in Christ – accepted the free gift of God’s forgiveness - then the truth of what it represents is equally true. Ie we have a new life “hidden with Christ in God” as Paul puts it v3. He puts it another way in 2 Corinthians. 5.17 “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (He says you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (v3) The old way of life gone. We are secure in Christ. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour - But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical death to present you holy in his sight – reconciled to God (1.22)) But that’s not all! In v12 Paul says we are Chosen – Holy – Dearly loved - All terms that used to be used in reference to the Jews – but now Paul uses them with reference to the Gentiles – God’s grace and mercy is now open to all. That’s our position in Christ! That’s who we are! Chosen - from before the foundation of the world – to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph 1.4) What a mystery! What a privilege! Holy – Set apart – dedicated to God Dearly loved – valued, precious – so precious that Jesus died for us.
But now we have come to Christ like the Colossians – been raised to new life through our faith in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross – we are now united with Christ through our faith. Chosen, set apart, dearly loved. If all this is true Paul says certain consequences should follow. So what? Why were we reconciled? So that we might live a holy life – set apart for God. (1.22) Paul says that we should: a) Have a different set of goals and affections – “set your hearts on things above” What truly motivates us? What do we have a heart for? What are we passionate about? Money? Sport? Family? Clothes? Entertainment? Work? Easy to tell – what do you spend most of your time, money and energy on? b) Have a different mind set - “Set your minds on things above” What influences our attitudes and values? Do we value people over things? Reconciliation over revenge? Choosing to serving others rather than want pride of place? What’s best for others than what’s best for ourselves? He says if it truly is our experience then – certain consequences must follow. we must BE what we ARE! What is the point of being a Christian? Surely it is so that we can BE Christian. That Christ can live his life through us – what a challenge! What a privilege! We who have trusted in Christ – most of us here I’m sure – were reconciled to God Why? So that he might present us holy in his sight! (v22) God may regard us as forgiven and clean because of our faith in Jesus but he wants us to make that an actual reality in our lives. I went to a private school George Heriots in Edinburgh. When you became a pupil at the school, put on the uniform or rugby strip – certain standards of behaviour were expected. You were a Herioter – so had to behave like one! So it is with us. We are God’s new creations. We should behave as such! Paul is very practical. Spells out in plain detail what behaviour is expected and what is not.
We need to kill off and take off! Radical action called for. He carries on with the idea of Christians having died to their old way of life and says we need to kill off what belongs to our old pre – Christian selves. This requires an act of our will! Does not hesitate to give a very frank list of things in v 5 that might result from having our affections set on the wrong things – Sexual immorality, impurity, lust (very relevant to our highly sexualised culture), evil desires – (doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it – The Message), greed – a Greek word which really means the desire to have more – an insatiate desire that the Greeks said was like trying to fill with water a bowl with a hole in it. (The person whose life is dominated by the desire to get things has set up things in the place of God – and that is precisely what idolatry is – replacing God with something else.) We might think surely you won’t find these things in the church. But let’s not fool ourselves. Paul knows what human nature can be like. Let’s be honest – Christians are just as susceptible to sexual temptation as others. Many Christian men struggle with on-line pornography – you may be one of them. Also in our highly consumer driven society – easy to get caught up in the desire to have more and more, better and better, the most up to date. Paul says this is greed and a form of idolatry – because in effect – other things are more important to you than God. Then he moves on in v 8 & 9 to perhaps less salacious but equally damaging forms of wrong behaviour. Much of it the result of what we say. Firstly – anger – the Greek word is used for the type that suddenly blazes up and then quickly dies, whereas the word translated rage means an anger that is slow burning, which refuses to be pacified and in fact is deliberately nursed and kept alive. There is no place for either. Malice – deliberately making wrong and evil choices. Slander, filthy language, lying. It was very encouraging at our church meeting on Wednesday night that although people clearly had different points of view – that people were polite and civil to each other. Sad to say I have heard of church meetings which were anything but – and where the most unkind and unChristian things were said to follow believers. JAMES was right when he warned about how much damage can be done by something so small as the tongue – “consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body”. 3.5,6. For good reason he wrote: “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” 1.19 May God help us to guard our tongues! Paul’s aim in all this is that in our personal relationships we should exemplify what the gospel has done in our lives and show that no matter the human
differences between us that we have a unity which crosses over all barriers. Human society is great at creating different groups. Paul lists some of the main ones with which he was acquainted – some based on ethnicity others on religion. The ancient world was a very barrier ridden place – barriers that restricted people to certain positions in society from which it was extremely difficult to move. The coming of the Christian gospel destroyed these fist century barriers. The barriers of nationality – as people of different nationalities who might otherwise have tried to kill each other sat side by side at the Lord’s table. The barriers of ceremony and ritual. Circumcised and uncircumcised together. The Jew and the Gentile. To a Jew every person of another race was unclean. When he/she became a Christian, every person regardless of nationality became a brother or sister. The barriers of culture. The Scythian was the ignorant barbarian of the ancient world – the Greek a member of the educated elite. Both can sit in perfect fellowship in the Church of Christ. The barriers of class. The slave and the free came together in the Church. There are examples of churches where the slave was the leader and the master the humble member. However in addition to some of these we have plenty of our own. Divisions between young and old, male and female, rich and poor, black and white, middle class and working class, pro Scottish independence and anti Scottish independence – not forgetting the Strictly Come Dancing fans v the fans of the X Factor. Sadly the same is true in today’s church – we have so many divisions. One was just revealed this week in the C of E – those pro women bishops and those anti women bishops – but there are so many others Catholic and Protestant, Liberal and Conservative, Charismatic and anti-charismatic, even those who raise their hands in worship and those who don’t. Paul wants there to be no divisions – but simply that Christ should be all and in all. Interesting that a number of other Christian leaders on hearing about our talks about a possible union with PVC have commented on how encouraged they have been by them - to hear about two churches coming together to state the unity of their faith – rather than another example of churches dividing and going their separate ways. These forms of behaviour says Paul are the ones that need to be put off. Maybe you feel that there’s a few things there you need to work on. If so, - be encouraged! Paul reminds us that it’s a process. He says (v9,10) you have taken off the old self and put on the new self – WHICH IS BEING RENEWED in knowledge in the image of its Creator. We’re all a work in progress – BE PATIENT WITH ME –GOD’S NOT FINISHED WITH ME YET!”
But he says that if we’ve got behaviour to throw off – so we have some to put on! Compassion – kindness – humility – gentleness – patience – v12 Don’t know about you, but are these not qualities we associate with Jesus? Jesus wants to live them out in our body and personality. V 13 Bearing with each other – ie putting up with each other! So practical! Paul knew how people can rub each other the wrong way and annoy each other and so he knew if we are to get along we would need to forgive each other. Now doesn’t part of you wish he’d stopped there? But he adds – forgive as the Lord forgave you! Forgiveness isn’t easy. If you’ve been hurt or offended by someone – or even if someone close to you – a friend, a family member, some other member of the body of Christ – has been hurt – it can be very hard to forgive. You might feel they don’t deserve forgiveness. Mayb e that’s why Paul added this command. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. How has the Lord forgiven us? TOTALLY UNRESERVEDLY UNDESERVEDLY If he hadn’t – we would not be here today That’s why we must forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven. Because we realise we have received God’s undeserved love, mercy and forgiveness – and so we in our turn offer it to others. If we do not forgive others – we do not appreciate God’s mercy and grace to us – and says Jesus we cannot expect to be forgiven. Isn’t that why Jesus told the story of the servant who was forgiven millions of pounds and yet although he was forgiven the entire amount – would not forgive his mate who owed him a measely £50. Because he did not appreciate God’s generous love and mercy to him – the king changed his mind and refused to forgive him. Isn’t that why Jesus taught his disciples to pray – forgive our sins as – in the same way – as we forgive those who have wronged us. We have a wonderful message to share with the world. Many outside the church – and even some within it have a picture of God very unlike the God of we see in Christ. Think of the most strict teacher you could have at school– the one everyone wanted to avoid – always getting people into trouble for the smallest thing – so demanding and impossible to please. That’s many peoples idea of God. So different from the God of the New Testament who says “You don’t have to earn my favour. I’ve done it all for you. Jesus has died . Come as you are. Receive my love and forgiveness.” If those outside the church are ever going to believe in such a wonderful – almost too good to be true message of forgiveness - , then we in the church need to embody it. We need to live it out in our relationships – and demonstrate the power of Christ to forgive.
And of course – the characteristic above that should mark our lives and relationships – “binds them all together in perfect unity” – love! Less pause for a moment. What do behaviours do you and I need to take off today? Wrong actions or thoughts in our sex life Greed – Wrong use of the tongue - leading to wrong angry words – hateful words – attacks on other people’s character and behaviour - untrue statements about others – lies What do you need to put on? Compassion – kindness- humility- gentleness- patience- the ability to put up with others who annoy you – forgiveness – are there people you need to forgive from your heart – love. Ask God now to show you what action you need to take. Ask him to give you no peace until you have dealt with whatever needs to be dealt with and to continue to speak to you through the scripture so that you may indeed BE WHAT YOU ARE! Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ – the Message – have the run of your house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail of your lives – words, actions, whatever – be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.
Luke 1:5-25, 57-66 Zechariah and the message of the angel Introduction This account of the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth contains a story with which most of us are very familiar. Yet it was a disturbing and uncomfortable time for them. Luke 1:18 hints at this problem in the account of Zechariah’s words to the angel: How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years. Later on in Luke 1:66 an insight is given into the thoughts of the wider community at the time: Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child [John the Baptist] going to be?’ (Luke 1:66). We live in a rapidly changing world that increasingly is a
less than comfortable place for many people. We wonder where the changes will end –or if? As we get older and hopefully wiser we begin to see ‘radical new ideas’ come round again and it is salutary to remember that the advocates of some of the so-called new ideas or fashions had not been born when they were last in vogue! It is easy to withdraw into a private world that ‘remembers’ a time when things didn’t really change all that much or that they were much easier to handle! Unfortunately such a time has never existed. There have always been issues with which each generation of people has had to grapple. However, what is true is that there are times of major cultural change when the form of society and its values that has existed for a number of generations or even several centuries begins to break down with no replacement in sight. The United Kingdom has had an explicitly Christian heritage of various forms easily for a millennium or more, including a social transformation in the later nineteenth century under the leadership of a small group of influential Christian men and women whose contributions today are often either forgotten or sidelined. Now in the last couple of decades the leaders of the various political parties are largely devoid of Christian principles, coming from backgrounds that have very little, if any, experience of faith and its practice and fail to grasp how integral our faith is to our everyday lives. As a result the highly secular elite who run our country increasingly cannot understand not only Christians but also people of other faiths as well in the contemporary world. The awful blunders in Kosovo, Iraq and now Syria are caused to a large degree by this problem. In a world where the number of atheists has declined by two-thirds over a century, but increased in most of the Western countries has led to a growing instability internationally and a sense of confusion as to where it will all end. This is remarkably similar to the world of two thousand years ago when old ways, cultures, and in their case many of the old religions, were discredited leaving a large proportion of the population of the Roman Empire searching for a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. An overall picture of life back then was anything but tranquil. Israel, part of the province of Syria –in Roman administrative terms, was at the periphery of empire, but not immune from an awareness of what was happening elsewhere. In this story we step back in time into a rural hamlet in southern Judea where an apparently elderly couple (probably in their forties!) were well-respected neighbours in a small community of private homes. There were no cars or televisions, stereos or nightclubs to disturb the peace – some may think it was an idyllic place to grow up? Unlikely –life was basic and hard, but for that time it would have been acceptable. Here are two respectable people, valued by their neighbours and local community. Was it possible that in their lives was deep sadness? Yes! Behind the public façade and the drawn curtains of their home this devout couple whose commitment to their faith in principle and practice was exemplary longed for a child
they appeared unable to have. The seasons of family festivities for them were overshadowed at times when other people were happy to celebrate with their children and grand-children. As we approach the Christmas season let us be sensitive to the couples who would have longed to have a child or children to observe opening their presents on Christmas day; or pleasures to share as they passed through the stages of infancy and then school years. Let us too remember those who family circles have lost loved ones or whose relations live miles away and are unable to gather together as many of us are able to do. However in the lives of this couple something extraordinary was about to happen –for which I imagine they were no longer even praying for. 1. Zechariah’s Devotion to God (Luke 1:5-7) (a) The Moral Context (v6) Here was a couple whose trust in the Lord was exemplary; Verse 6 is an extraordinary statement: 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. This is God’s report on them. They did not have the problems they faced because they had sinned in some way- exactly the opposite. Living for God does guarantee an easy life. We will still face the same problems in life as everyone else. (b) The Social Context (v5) 5 In the time of Herod king of Judea That name in that generation amongst Jews conjured up the same kind of fear and revulsion as a Hitler or Stalin in the twentieth century. His reign was marked by terror; his brutality knew no limits; his eldest son and favourite wife were put to death on the grounds that the former might want to take the throne too early and the latter tempted to adultery, so although there was no evidence to suggest that either had entertained any such notions prevention was deemed always better than cure, leading the Roman Emperor of the day to remark that it was better to be Herod’s pig than family member or courtier as your life expectancy was deemed potentially greater! This was a man who piled up the titles like Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989), the former President of Romania, adding ‘the great’ to his names on the official coinage. Peaceful happy Palestine, a sub-province of the Roman province of Syria, was a myth; many people had lost hope, just keeping their heads down -in such a context God was at work. (c) The Religious Context (v5) there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. In such a social context there were a small number of
people whose faith had been maintained and example was an inspiration to other people. Praise God for Christian homes where biblical values are maintained and standards upheld. The bedrock of our society is marriage and the family in which children can be raised in a secure environment. Elizabeth was the daughter of a priest; Zechariah was a priest who served for a week at a time in the temple when his turn, that is his division of priests, one of twenty-four units of approximately a thousand men, came up on the rota came up once every twenty-four weeks. From 25-50 years old they served covering the various cleaning stewarding administrative as well as religious duties involved in running the Temple in Jerusalem. 700 of these men in each priestly division –once in a lifetime- would get the opportunity to go into the holy place and put the incense on the altar at the time of the 3pm prayer service. Zechariah was soon to experience the greatest day of his spiritual life as he had been given this honour. (d) The Personal Context (v7) But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well on in years. In that culture it was expected that couples would have children. It was shameful for a woman not to produce sons to carry on her husband’s name. The one thing they both so earnestly had wanted –a son
– had never been possible. Under the Pharisaic prosperity theology at the time godly people were healthy and relatively prosperous materially; conversely no children or bad health indicated the presence of sin and failure. This theology was behind the question posed to Jesus by his disciples when they met a blind man, in the story recorded in John 9. They asked Jesus: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Neither this man nor his parents sinned, said Jesus (John 9:2). Even if their neighbours never said such words, some of them deep down were thinking it. Life was overshadowed by this problem –let us remember that approximately one in seven couples today are unable to conceive a child naturally without some assistance. We all make assumptions about the lives of other people. Hurts can be hidden or buried –being gracious and sensitive with one another to enable our church to be a safe place for those in need of some compassion is important. Yet at the same time being willing and able to encourage one another to grow in our faith and understanding so that we can be released from the heartaches, pain and disappointments from that past that can prevent us from living the quality of life God intends for us in the present and future. 2. Zechariah’s Doubts brought to God (Luke 1:8-25) The highest of honours had come to Zechariah, the nearest equivalent in our culture for a boy may be scoring the winning goal in a Cup Final at Hampden Stadium. There was an incredible sense of privilege. Nothing else would have gone through his mind for days prior to this sacred moment –all thoughts concerning the sadness of their lack of children would have gone –at least for the moment - as he prepared his heart to undertake his calling. Twice a day incense was offered in the temple at the early morning and 3pm (evening) prayers. The committed believers in the Jerusalem area gathered after work for the 3pm prayer service. At a special time the gathering would be silent and the incense offered as the people of God sought God to redeem His people. Zechariah is the one priest allowed at that service beyond the huge curtain in the temple. His task would usually take only a short time as it had been for other priests on duty. But this occasion would be like no other one for this man of God for a number of reasons. (a) An Answer to Prayer (v13) your prayer has been heard. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.13 But the angel said to him: Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. It was a small remnant that was praying for the
redemption of Israel for a Messiah who would save His people from their sins. The vast majority of Jews, even of believing Jews sought a political / military Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. Even as late as Acts 1:6 disciples of Jesus even after the resurrection were still asking: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? By contrast Simeon and Anna mentioned in Luke 2 continued to be sensitive to the Old Testament, their Scriptures, recognising that the Messiah God spoke of was very different to the perceptions of ordinary imaginations in the land. Acts 2:38 Anna the elderly saint on hearing of the good news of the birth of Jesus: gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. What an extraordinary statement from the angel in v13. For
year after year this couple had pleaded with God for a child and almost certainly now had given up accepting that God’s will be done –now in old age they receive the answer for which they had longed. In your prayers for people’s salvation, restoration
or personally for the right marriage partner or the ability to have children or whatever it is that is on your heart and yet for a considerable length of time there appears to have been no answer –take heart and encouragement from this story. Zecharias was undoubtedly shocked at this delayed blessing, from a human point of view, yet I suggest that this was a matter they had left before the Lord. There are times to pray when He gives us a burden to pray and times when there is no burden for a particular matter –sometimes –to leave it with the Lord. (b) A Reward for Faithfulness (v13) your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you are to give him the name John The names of this couple are appropriate to this context: Zechariah: ‘The Lord remembers’ and Elizabeth: ‘My God is (the absolutely faithful one) an oath.’ God always has a long-term perspective in view. We live in an instant culture and many of us struggle with patience and waiting for things to progress. God is looking for Christians who are faithful persistent and keep on going for Him knowing that in His time He will reveal His guidance and direction to them. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.
(c) Anxiety About God’s Plan (v18) How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years. It seems too good to be true. How much of the instruction he remembered when he went home and how much the Lord had to prompt him later we will never know. What is clear to this couple and to us as readers of God’s Word, this child would not be an ordinary child. His life was to be special amongst the people of God. (i) The Pleasure (vs14) 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth God wants us to have pleasure –real joy in serving Him. It is not meant to be deeply sad and solemn on all occasions –yet sometimes God’s people can make it appear so; others by contrast are so flippant and in danger of the opposite excess of recognising the awesomeness of God. There was rejoicing in heaven at the birth of John and God was in favour of a bit of pleasure on earth at his coming as well! (ii) The Purpose (vs 15-17) 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Why the focus on these restrictions? After all this is hardly the diet of a baby? What was God trying to teach His people? Leviticus 10:9-10: Then the Lord said to Aaron: You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You must distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the unclean and the clean. John would be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit from his
mother’s womb. Prior to Pentecost the people of God had limited empowerments from the Holy Spirit for particular tasks, but in the New Covenant era the Holy Spirit lives with us for ever. We could also in a limited sense see a hint here of the importance of the contribution of little people in our church family. They can engage in evangelism at home or with friends at school every bit as clearly as adults; they can point out sometimes more clearly than adults what God has to say to us –we can complicate things to much and on occasions need to ask for a child-like (not childish) praying spirit and humility before the Lord. What would John do? Here is a job description before his birth! 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous— to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. He was the forerunner of the long-awaited Messiah (iii) The Problem (v18) 18 Zechariah asked the angel, How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years. Lord I don’t need to remind you my wife
and I are old enough to be grandparents? There are times when we can do things naturally and that time has passed. Lord how can what you have said come to pass? 4
Have you /Have I not been there also about a whole variety of matters? We need to acknowledge honestly our doubts before the Lord and lay them before Him –after all there is nothing impossible with God. The man of God lost the powers of speech for nine months but he in that strange way gained new insights into the power of God to accomplish what He had said He would do! 3. Zechariah’s Delight in God (Luke 1:57-66) 57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. News of God’s amazing answer to their prayers spread through the rural
community in which they lived. The ‘bush telegraph’ that was still in good working order when I was growing up in rural Lancashire some years ago! Our witness is primarily through our lives. The opportunity to use words follows on from the credibility of a life that shows something of the likeness of our Lord and Saviour. (a) Acceptance of the Name from God (vs59-64)59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, No! He is to be called John. 61 They said to her, There is no-one among your relatives who has that name.62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, His name is John first because Zechariah cannot speak the
congregation at the synagogue ask Elizabeth for the name. In that culture the eldest son always had the same name as his father. The shock that resulted from her unexpected answer made them unwilling to accept her answer. Momentarily there is a pause in the service while someone dashes out for a writing tablet to offer to Zechariah. What he wrote was emphatic: John is his name. John means either: ‘The Lord is merciful’, or ‘The graciousness of God’. The occasion began with a customary question to which all the people thought they knew the answer-what is he to be called? However more importantly the people went away with a question (v66) Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, What then is this child going to be? For the Lord's hand was with him. Have you put your faith in Jesus? Have you recognised
that God has a plan and purpose for your time here on earth? Your life is not just your own. Each one of us needs to recognise and acknowledge our Creator and humbly recognise His Lordship over or past present and future. (b) Obedience to the Purposes of God (vs67-80) Listen to Zechariah’s words: 68Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come and has redeemed His people.69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as He said through His holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— 72 to show mercy to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, 73 the oath He swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve Him without fear75 in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. 76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, 77 to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Simeon the old man of
God in the temple was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:22-26) When he saw the baby and held Jesus in his arms. Simeon said: Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You now dismiss Your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your
people Israel (Luke 2:29-32). God does not require necessarily great numbers on earth
to carry out His will. He only requires sufficient people whose hearts are open to God and totally committed to seeing His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our God is a God of surprises whose ways of carrying out His will on earth are often outside the expectations of His people. What this story teaches us is that God will always do what He has promised. The Bible gives us a glimpse of the bigger picture to make sense of the world and our place within it. Godâ€™s amazing plan for the birth of John and later Jesus was one of the greatest miracles ever. This same God is at work today. He desires to work in your life and mine and may yet have blessed surprises in store for us as well, for the glory of His name, Amen.
Matthew 1:24 The Obedience of Faith Introduction What shall I do? If you are an average man or woman there will have been a number of occasions this year [possibly an understatement!] when you have asked this question. It could be a time issue – your plans have to change your hand has been forced and you cannot carry on with what you intended to do. It can be a people issue, someone else’s words or actions necessitate a change of plans. Maybe many of you have recalled in your mind just now one of those situations. In the first week of December 2006 Brandi Ervin, mother of a twelve-year-old boy, had one of these moments. Her son had found and opened his Christmas presents. Apparently he had entered his great-grandmothers home and taken the presents from their hiding place without her consent. What should she have done as mother of this child? Brandi called the police who arrested the boy for theft, handcuffing him and took him to a York County, South Carolina, police station, where he was charged with this offence. His mother was reported as saying: ‘He has been going through life doing things… and getting away with it…it’s not even about the Christmas present. I’d rather call (the police) myself than someone else call for him doing something worse.’ The boy in question apparently had repeatedly taken the present, a Nintendo video games console, from its hiding place [BBC News website 6.12.06]. I applaud this mother for doing what she believed was the best thing for her son. Doing the right thing can be the hardest route to follow; the most challenging way to go. For the majority of Christians on the planet, outside the Western world, it can be a very dangerous lifethreatening commitment to follow Jesus. We need to ask this question: ‘What shall I do?’ because it is not the response of the person sitting next to you and me that counts –we live in a society where a minority of 30% and declining get involved in activities for the good of the wider society, at a cost to themselves. We are called to be the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men (Matthew 5:13). We don’t have the right to
criticise politicians if we don’t vote; we don’t have the right to complain about society if we are not willing to be part of the solution to its problems; likewise in the church of Jesus Christ early retirement is out of the question –or opting out of getting started in the first place –you and I have a ministry to exercise for God –it is simply the when and where not an ‘if’ that is in question. Our God is a God of surprises Joseph ben Jacob was a simple carpenter in rural northern Galilee, who expected only to leave his village for the annual trip to Jerusalem for worship in the Temple, usually at Passover. He was content with his lot in life, imagining a settled family life with Mary, who had been betrothed to him in marriage. [Betrothal more than engagement –it was the legal part of the marriage ceremony conducted one year before the wedding celebrations, a time in which either party could raise questions re the suitability of the arranged marriage.] But God had a different idea for this young believer –a teenager, just as He had other ideas for the older man Zechariah, who had thought he was past playing a significant role in the future of God’s work. It is not our age that counts but our obedience to God to walk by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit –in the future He has prepared for us.
1.The Fact to Face (Matthew 1:18-19) 18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
(a) The Life-Changing News “Joseph I’m having a baby” – nothing could be more natural in human society than the announcement that a baby is on the way. Yet it is not always as blissful a situation as it ought to be; I can recall the pain I sensed in the voice of a father of a girl in her late teens, some years ago, as he told me of how his daughter’s life had changed –one quick foolish encounter with a complete stranger on one occasion, probably under the influence of alcohol in a nightclub, and a child was on the way. Only once in her life, and yet she will live with the implications of those few minutes for life –while the unknown man may never know of the child he has played a part in bringing into the world. This man and his wife were not angry with her for what happened. They were, however, deeply saddened at the unfairness of life, at how some actions in our lives can overshadow the rest of our time here on earth, for better or for worse. The child in question was welcomed into that family home. ‘What shall I do? –the questions that come through our minds time and again when we feel so helpless and that things are out of our control; it is nothing new, most human situations like the one I have just mentioned occur in every generation –the only difference is the consensus opinions of the wider society. In the Sixteenth Century in Geneva Jean and Idolette Cauvin had to cope with the teenage pregnancy of his brother’s daughter who was living with them in their home after the loss of her own parents –what a scandal in morally upright Geneva! Human living is not a comfortable experience. We will have our joys and our blessings, but our sorrows and disappointments may be equally prominent; when our feet are metaphorically knocked from under us. In such situations we need to remember such promises as James 1:12 Blessed is the man [or woman] who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him . We can easily be tempted to give up our faith or our ministry for God when beset by trials and temptations. We must remember I Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
(b) The Character-Forming Choices What shall I do? The Jewish law was clear, death by stoning for sex outside of marriage, but so few cases happened at that time and only in the rarest cases was the matter carried through to execution –for Joseph this was out of the question, but how as a believer could or should he handle the situation in a way that would bring glory to God. He had no easy answers, but wanted to honour the Lord. Maybe this week, maybe into next year, you and me as individuals, within our family circles or our church community may be faced with challenging facts. The issue at stake is not the problem, but how we handle what lies in front of us. Will we seek to show obedience to the walk of faith to which He has called us and go forward by faith or crumble in the face of adversity. I trust we will resolve as men and women of God to rise up and walk by faith and trust God for the outcome to the challenges we face.
2. The Conception to Consider (Matthew 1:20-23) 20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
(a) Revelation from God (vs20-21) The context – as he considered this (v20); there was no rash decision that would have been so easy to make. Days, possibly even weeks passed as Joseph thought and prayed, wrestling with what to do; God is not wanting to keep us today permanently in the dark not knowing what He would have us do! There are times when He calls us to trust Him, when there is precious little if any evidence of a response to our cries to heaven. These can be dark hours indeed, but Jesus understands as He endured the absence of fellowship with God on the cross in His cry My God My God why have You forsaken Me? (Mark 15:34) –yet He was never more obedient to the Father; in no context did Jesus exhibit faith in His Father’s will more than on the cross for us. Yet in this context the focus is on encouragement to Joseph. Here was a person seeking to be true to His faith, desiring to act with a clear conscience yet from a heart full of compassion. Here was a man who was not into heaping condemnation on people who had done wrong like the tabloid press –but equally determined to maintain the highest standards of personal integrity. To such a person God through His angel revealed the answer Joseph needed to hear. We seek guidance from God. Now some of us, me included, are not always good listeners to what God might be saying or the person through whom He might be speaking. We can be so focussed on something else or some other way of addressing a situation that we could so easily fail to listen to the still small voice of God. We want the dramatic answers to prayer and supernatural demonstrations of the purposes of God. Yet His way is normally so different. In I Kings 19 Elijah was completely exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally after the extraordinary victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He fled south to the desert of southern Judah and took time out and experienced a fairly serious depression for a time. God’s people are human beings. Some times we have a faulty theology that allows for physical illness and medication to treat it, but rejects the reality of mental or emotional conditions that may also, on occasions, need medical input to correct. Here Elijah had turned in on himself forgetting that God was in control of the situation. The Lord, in I Kings 19:11-13 gave him an insight into His operations. 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God
had a plan of action for His servant in the Promised Land, but Elijah could not see what God was doing, in contrast, he could only see possible obstacles in the way of its success. What is worse, insurmountable obstacles –in his view prevented God’s plans from succeeding, not least was the fact that he was the only believer left! It wasn’t true –God’s plans were so much bigger than his; there were other people he had discounted who were wanting to serve the Lord and do His will. We too in our darker moments can have a similar tunnel vision when God has something better in store for us than we had imagined and greater resources of people and other means to accomplish His goals. A call to the obedience of faith –as Joseph here – is our calling as well. 3
In a previous ministry context I was talking to a teacher in a particular Primary School about a proposed Bible World Exhibition in that community. The teacher in question had made no profession of faith and had no church link, yet could not have been more helpful in assisting with this initiative. She came up with a plan of action for how we might get the maximum number of schools in the area involved, and at the same time make the best use of the sessions available to us. The conversation was entirely spontaneous and happened a few hours before a group of church leaders in that community had arranged to meet to discuss how our idea for this project might be realised. I had not the slightest doubt that day that God had spoken through that teacher and her proposal was readily adopted that evening. Was it just a coincidence – or was the timing of the conversation God-ordained? In our lives, in our church community are we sufficiently open to sense how God might be at work in our midst in answer to our prayers? I believe this year God has worked to answer our prayers in a number of matters through the timing in which opportunities had opened up for us in our relationships with other churches here in Broughty Ferry. God may speak through another Christian, though a time of prayer, through His Holy Word as we meditate on it, or through some most unexpected apparent coincidence – but our lives are not subject to luck or chance, or whatever fate has in store for us ‘what is for you will not pass you by’, is a common expression I have heard often in various places in Scotland. Our lives are in God’s hands He calls us to trust Him like little children but also to have a sense of expectancy that is part of child-likeness. Sadly too often adults confuse child-like with childish; the latter is immaturity that we must leave behind; child-like trust in God is something we must retain, or as Paul put it in Philippians 1:6 being confident that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus . Joseph was afraid when he looked at what lay ahead. Otherwise Gabriel would not have suggested he banish his fears and trust God to address all the outstanding issues that he could foresee as possible difficulties. The problem for Joseph was not one of understanding what was being proposed, but in the practical arrangements required to see it through to completion. God had opened up a way to accomplish His purposes on earth. The question was whether the human beings asked to carry out this work would trust Him to see it through and grant them the resources to carry it out. Like Mary and Joseph 2,000 years ago we feel vulnerable stepping outside our comfort zone. Yet the extraordinary thing was that God had asked two teenagers, who had never been away from home before on their own, to go to the other end of the country, and then go to the neighbouring country as asylum seekers for possibly four years! Put yourself in the place of Joseph and Mary’s parents, especially if you are a parent here. Compared to the challenges / opportunities we can foresee in our partnerships with local Christians in other congregations –how did this rate on your scale of risk? It was a huge step of faith and until this young couple returned to Nazareth with a child of nursery age, they would have heard nothing from them directly –even whether they were dead or alive through those years. Now, given that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived probably within twenty miles or so of Bethlehem it is not impossible that until Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt (see Matthew 2:13-14) that at least these relatives could see how the baby and his mother were getting on, and thus report back to their families in Galilee. Thank God Joseph didn’t know all that! God gave him enough information to act in obedience upon it. He does the same with us today. His will is revealed one step at a time. We often have to live with some questions unanswered-possibly for years- until we see how God will work things out.
What was it that would justify such a large step of faith by these teenagers? Matthew 1:21 tells us: And she will have a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” We know the ‘how’, through dying on the cross at Calvary. They were not told these details. What Mary and Joseph needed to know was that the baby in her womb would be the Saviour for which their nation had been praying and indeed for whom other people outside their faith had been longing, though they may have expressed their hopes using other terms. In terms of the future of this congregation it is in God’s hands. He will give us glimpses of the future and ask us to walk with Him by faith. He will allow us to see a brief insight into the future, but never the fuller picture. The question that comes back to us is this: Am I / are we willing to step out in faith and trust Him with our future and what He has in store for us both as individuals, in our families and in our church family? (b) Fulfilment of Prophecy (vs22-23) 22 All of this occurred to fulfil the Lord’s message through his prophet: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” Jesus is the Greek
form of Joshua meaning ‘God saves’ or ‘God is salvation’ –in other words our confidence is in the acts of God in history because all His actions are purposeful and appropriate and supremely are carried out that He might be glorified. When we stop and think –what is the purpose of my life? Why am I here? The answer is -to bring pleasure to God! That He might observe how I am living and be able to declare of you and me as He did of an Old Testament saint to Satan. Have you considered My servant Job? There is no-one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil (Job 1:8). Joseph was asked by God to accept that there was a purpose to
His life and that the things that God allowed in His sovereignty to be a part of his life was part of His plan to bring salvation to the world. This prophecy given centuries before the birth of Christ – quite specifically a virgin birth –the Good News Bible footnote on this quotation from Isaiah 7:14 is horribly wrong. God inspired the prophet to use the specific word best suited for using in this context, not the general Hebrew word for a ‘young woman of marriageable age’! The name Immanuel means ‘God with us’ and was repeated time and again in that section of the book of Isaiah to reinforce the fact that God does not abandon His people. He is here and will be with you this week each step of the way; He is here with us as a Church through the decisions we make and the activities we plan –oh may we keep close to Him so that what we do may be a cause of joy to His heart. Hebrews 13:15 expresses it this way Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise –the fruit of lips that confess His name.
3. The Obedience to Offer (Matthew 1:24-25) 24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.
(a) A Time to Wake Up! (Matthew 1:24) It was, though a time for decision – there is rightly time for research, exploration and study; time for quiet meditation and prayer, both individually and corporately, but there comes a time for action. By temperament some of us are keener on one than the others, but all have a place as we seek to discern God’s will and purposes. When Joseph woke up –in his case literal sleeping! Too often today the Church of Christ in Scotland is spiritually asleep with the devil delightfully rocking the cradle so that such people are not disturbed –in case they woke up and did things that undermined the kingdom of darkness! Do you need to wake up spiritually this morning? It may not be a question of committing your life to 5
Christ for salvation, though that may be the case? But as a believer saying Lord I’ve been drifting for too long I need to get back into action for you –show me how to get my life back on track as a spiritual warrior in prayer or in some form of ministry; or as Church is it time for action in going forward with what God has laid on our hearts this year? I believe it is! (b) A Time to Act He did as the angel of the Lord commanded (Matthew 1:24). From numerous biblical examples and from much human experience in our own lives, we can be the most generous people in the world –that message was just right for someone else -what a pity they were not here this week! We may need to stop and to consider: Lord I am here what is it that You want to say to me today? Have you /I used the excuse we are to busy when God asks us to do something? And felt easily able to decline the call of the Holy Spirit? Some times it is a reassessment of priorities because we genuinely are in need of rescheduling of them; at other times better stewardship of time and gifts would allow us the opportunity to use our gifts in the way that is needed for His glory. Or is it simply a matter of obedience to that which God has already revealed His guidance to us? The issue for you or the issue for me individually will never be exactly the same as for another Christian? Too often we are like Peter when Jesus was challenging him about his commitment in future service in John 21 – the red herring Peter threw in Lord what about him?(John 21:21) Jesus brought Peter back to the point –what about you? Let’s take a few moments of quiet prayer as we allow the Lord to minister to us, both individually and collectively as a congregation, by His Spirit for His name’s sake. Amen.
Matthew 2:13-23 God’s will will be done Introduction On 14 December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, unspeakable horrors were being reported in the midst of a community described as one of the safest in America. Within hours of the tragic events of that day taking place local police officers confirmed that twenty children and six adults had lost their lives. A twenty-year old young man entered the school with a number of guns and appeared to shoot people at random, prior to turning one of the guns on himself, taking his own life. It was not the kind of community where violence or gun crime was expected. One parent, Stephen Delgiadice, whose eight-year-old daughter was at Sandy Hook School on Friday but was not harmed, said the shooting was traumatic for the small town. "It's alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America," Mr Delgiadice told Associated Press. What causes someone to carry out acts like these? How do you put into words an adequate response to such an event? At the White House, in Washington DC, United States President Barrack Obama drew attention to a series of unconnected guns attacks in the USA in 2012: In July an attacker killed 12 people at a premiere of a Batman film in Aurora, Colorado. In August six people died at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Just this week two people died in a shooting at a shopping mall in the state of Oregon. At the White House, an emotional President Barack Obama cited those incidents as he called for "meaningful action... regardless of politics"."Our hearts are broken today, for the parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers of these children, and for the families of the adults who were lost."Mr Obama offered condolences to the families of survivors too, saying "their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain". He wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke of the "overwhelming grief" at the loss of life. [various news websites, December 2012]
In our imagination we could travel around the world and name country after country where serious violence is taking place and injustice is rampant. We struggle to comprehend how difficult life is for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq or Somalia, for example. Matthew 2:13-23 covers the part of the Christmas story that is usually omitted not only from nativity plays, but also from sermons and other Christmas messages. Like certain types of TV programmes that require later evening slots due to their content, passages like this one are less than appealing in the season of ‘good will to all peoples’. Yet this is part of the narrative of our Lord’s life and a reminder that our own will also be overshadowed at times by hardships and disappointments; by sorrows and frustrations, yet not exclusively so as we also have our joys and blessings; our rejoicing at answered prayers for ourselves and for other people. What is important here is to see that God’s will was not hindered by the actions of an evil tyrant like Herod. That man tried to carry out his evil plans, but God had the final word. In the midst of our joys and sorrows we too can know that He stands with us through each stage of our earthly lives. Matthew in his Gospel is convinced that the Old Testament prepares the way for Jesus and provides both explicit and implicit guidance concerning His coming, His life and the purpose for which He came. Therefore, when Matthew refers back to the Old Testament he does so both to cite clear quotations of key passages, but also to refer in more general terms to the fulfilment of God’s plan and purposes in the person of Jesus. This point will become clearer as we look briefly at the three references Matthew makes to the Old Testament in Matthew 2:13-23. Behind it all he wants to reassure his readers that though at a human level the rampage of evil appears unabated God’s ultimate purposes for His world will be realised. His timescale is often much longer than we would like, but His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 1.The warning given to Joseph (Matthew 2:13-15) 1
(a)The message from the angel (Matthew 2:13) When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” God asked
Mary and Joseph to undertake an extraordinary task, but also provided supernatural resources to assist them in carrying out their responsibilities. Zechariah saw with their physical eyes an angel and heard Gabriel’s voice proclaiming God’s message to them; Joseph received God’s guidance in a number of special dreams. In a situation where the odds are definitely against the success of this mission, divine intervention ensures that God’s purposes are carried out. It is interesting that the wise men also heeded a dream warning against returning to Herod in Jerusalem and as a result left for home by a different route, almost certainly by crossing over into the territory today known as Jordan, outside Herod’s political jurisdiction. The place where God directed Mary and Joseph to go, Egypt, was a familiar refuge for Jews who wanted to live for a time or long-term outside the Holy Land. Various sources have suggested that not only did most Egyptian cities have a Jewish quarter, but one Alexandria had almost a million Jews in residence in a number of districts which were almost totally Jewish in population. As a result, it is likely that there would have been some people of their own ethnic and religious identity who might have been willing to assist a young family who had recently come from their homeland. Notice the familiar biblical pattern here. Joseph was told to go to Egypt and to stay there until God told him - until further notice. Joseph would have been less than human to want to know exactly where he had to go and what he had to do, and how long he had to stay in exile. But God didn’t give him that information. We too only receive sufficient information from God to take the next step of obedience in response to His revealed will to us. Paul had to remind the Corinthian Christians: For we live by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7). Maybe you need to be reminded of that this Christmas, on the threshold of a new year. Joseph did get a reason for taking this step – Herod’s plan to murder Jesus. Some liberal Bible scholars doubt the accuracy of Matthew chapter two claiming that the flight to Egypt never happened. They may not have noticed that the enemies of Jesus in the Jewish faith while He was alive on earth had no doubts. There are a number of comments in their writings that make reference to Jesus’ exile in Egypt (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p. 34; See also Jewish tractate Sanhedrin, 107b, cited in L.L. Morris, Matthew, p. 43.) so it is best to conclude with contemporary observers that Matthew records accurately the events described here. (b) The action taken by Joseph (Matthew 2:14-15a) 14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. When Joseph had grasped that no change was not an option; that staying put endangered his family he took the only course of action open to him and took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The action taken was decisive and appropriate. He could have delayed and put their lives in peril, but instead he heeded God’s revelation and was blessed by the preservation of their lives. However, this did not mean that life was easy in Egypt. There must have been difficult days when all did not go well; in addition to others when it was clear they had done the right thing. As we on the threshold of another new year contemplate what God has in store for us we cannot expect it to be any different for us. There will be encouragements as we go forward in faith that will cause us to rejoice. There will also be some disappointments and challenges that need to be overcome, but in His strength we will accomplish the goals He has planned for us. (c) The prophecy cited by Matthew (Matthew 2:15b) And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My son.” Matthew is rightly convinced that the whole focus of the Old Testament is to point forward to and prepare for the coming of Jesus. The work of God in the Old Testament era also reaches its climax in the person and work of Jesus. In Old Testament theology there is often an interplay between the ‘one and the many’; in which a large group may be personified as if ‘one person’ or in which one person 2
represents the whole wider body of people. It is important to understand this point here if we are to interpret rightly the significance of Matthew’s use here of the Old Testament. The first usage of this imagery concerned the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Listen to these words of instruction from the Lord to Moses in Midian prior to his return to Egypt to speak to the Israelites about God’s future plans for the nation. 21 The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is My firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let My son go, so he may worship me.” (Exodus 4:21-23). Hosea in a sermon that makes various references to Israel’s history
includes these words which have as a primary reference the calling of the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Hosea 11:1: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. Matthew sees the greater fulfilment of the Old Testament promises and blessings in God’s Son par excellence –in Jesus. Therefore, he sees an extension of this miraculous blessing in the preservation and deliverance of the baby Jesus from Herod and His eventual safe return from Egypt. The use of the ‘one and the many’ also works the other way round in the New Testament. Do you remember at Jesus baptism the words of God the Father, recorded in Matthew 3:17: This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased ? Now link them to the message of the angels from God to those who put their trust in Jesus, recorded in Luke 2:14: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people with whom He is well pleased . The blessing of obedience by Jesus and the blessing to His followers on earth in parallel here; This is not how we would present a case in our era but Matthew’s Jewish readers would have had no difficulty in grasping it and seeing the link with Jesus to God’s purposes for the Jews in the Old Testament. In essence Matthew says –please look for God’s bigger picture at work’ don’t fix your eyes primarily on the present time as your spiritual vision will be blurred and confused as you will miss so much of what God is doing. This is so timely in view of what he will record in Matthew 2:16-18 or as we make any kind of sense of much of the evil and suffering in the world today. 2. The massacre carried out by Herod (Matthew 2:16-18) (a)The massacre ordered by Herod (Matthew 2:16)
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Some commentators said Herod or any ruler would never do anything so cruel! Which
world do they live in! There have been in the past and in the present and no doubt in the future, rulers who will not hesitate to stoop to any depths to strength their own position. When Herod came to the throne he marked his accession by slaughtering all the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Parliament. On another occasion to show he was in charge he ordered the execution of three hundred court officials. Later he arranged the murder of his beautiful wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra; his wife was so beautiful, he reasoned that she must attract opportunities to be unfaithful to me –so I can prevent that ever happening. He killed his eldest son Antipater who would have succeeded him as King of Judea. The reason for this death- in case his son got ideas above his station and wanted Herod’s job too soon. Two other sons of Herod, Alexander and Aristobulus, were also disposed of on the orders of their father. Shortly prior to his death he ordered the execution of some key respected leaders in Jerusalem. The reason was simple: he wanted to ensure that tears were being shed at the time of his own death and knew full well that no-one would mourn his passing, but they would for these good men (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, pp. 36-37; see also Josephus, Antiquities for a contemporary account of a selection of Herod’s atrocities) . Does anyone doubt that a man who would carry out the acts recorded above, and many more 3
like them would hesitate for a moment to wipe out two village primary school classes in the hope of eliminating a child prophesied as a future King of the Jews? This is not the action of a sane stable well-balanced character any more than the actions of Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane or the young man who caused so much grief in Connecticut. The fact that this event was not recorded in official records at the time is not proof that it didn’t happen. The harsh reality is that Herod committed so many vile atrocities that people took it for granted that this was what he would do and sought to blank them out, in the way that ordinary people in some loyalist or nationalist communities in Northern Ireland might have done at the height of the troubles there in the last few decades of the twentieth century. It is not a surprise that this part of the Christmas story doesn’t feature in nativity plays in our schools. Every one without exception (probably!) stops with the coming of the wise men. The reason is simple we want to live in a nice world where only good things happen. We want the good guys to always win and the bad guys to loose. The selective accounts of the first Christmas story are no different to how we want to view our world today. We want to see human history as progressive –and want to forget that the twentieth century was the most brutal violent and bloody in human history. Europeans want to be seen as in the premier league of civilisation –but in the light of the slaughter on the battlefields of World War One in France and Belgium; together with the genocidal activities of the Nazis in their gas chambers, these facts and others place that in serious doubt. So are people from other parts of the world therefore superior to us? No! No better and no worse; A moments reflection of Asia and Pol Pot and the tragedy of Cambodia comes to mind; think of Africa and the slaughter in Rwanda cannot be forgotten; and many more examples can be given from each region of the world, apart from Antarctica! Humanity is as capable of great evil as of great good. The world then and the world now contained, and contains, unspeakable evil, but that is never the last word. The world then and the world now contained, and contains, the potential for great good, for which we were created by God. We have the ability to make moral choices and are accountable to God and each other for the decisions we take. What is important for us here is that we keep our eyes fixed on God who has called us to live for Him in such a world; to accomplish the purposes to which He has given us the resources by His Spirit to the greater good not only of our families and friends, but also of the wider society. We must be heavenly minded in order to be of great earthly good. Or in the words of the author of Hebrews 12:1-3: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. This
I trust is inspirational advice to all of us in the face of the adversity we all face at times. (b) The prophecy cited by Matthew (Matthew 2:17-18) 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Notice the way
this reference in Jeremiah 31:15 is cited does not imply a causal link, as if God ordained the killing of these children. On the contrary, the words in the book of Jeremiah relate to the people exiled in Babylon who had seen children and other family members killed before their eyes and had viewed life as hopeless. They thought there was no future at the time. In any context of extreme violence and brutality it is no surprise that the future looks bleak. To the people of Bethlehem after Herod’s actions local people would have taken years to recover any sense of normality after experiencing such traumatic events in their midst. When an Old Testament passage was cited by a New Testament writer they wished their readers or hearers to turn to that passage in its context to pick up the fuller meaning from it. To the exiles in Babylon Jeremiah continued with these words of assurance in Jeremiah 31:16-17: 16 This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, 4
for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord.“They will return from the land of the enemy. 17 So there is hope for your descendants,” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land. That whole section of the prophecy of Jeremiah was communicating a message of hope in the midst of tragedy. The best known verses from it is Jeremiah 29:11-14 : For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” Evil is always evil. Pain and suffering, although part of this life
was never part of God’s original purpose for His world. God’s purpose for His creation was wholly good. The evil one came to harm and to destroy that which was good. I John 3:8b reminds us: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection the power of the evil one was destroyed and the final triumph of God’s plans for His creation was assured. In the coming of Jesus, and in your life and mine to a lesser degree, God plans to work for the good of His people. Evil will never have the final word, whatever form it takes. There is never a totally hopeless situation with God. Herod thought he could thwart God’s purposes with a massacre of the innocents. He was wrong! Matthew’s citation of the Jeremiah prophecy was to say just as the Jewish people came back from exile to resurrect the nation after the mass killings by the Babylonians so also Jesus in the purposes of God was brought back safely from exile in Egypt. Therefore, be encouraged because He is also at work in your life and circumstances for your good and for His glory. 3. The fulfilment of prophecy concerning Jesus (Matthew 2:19-23) (a)The message from the angel (Matthew 2:19-20)19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” Joseph had to be
patient in Egypt to wait for God’s timing of the return to his homeland. God’s provision for his needs was clear. Once again one step at a time; as Joseph is obedient to the revealed will of God the way opens up for him to go forward. Exactly the same pattern is in place for each generation of God’s people. Will we trust Him to take care of our future? Matthew’s intention in writing this passage under the guidance of the Holy Spirit was in part to encourage his readers to see God at work in their own lives and to trust Him with their futures no matter how bleak they seemed at the time. We can struggle with health issues personally or in our family circle; it could be work issues or some problems in our relationship with the Lord, or some other pressing matter for us… however, whatever it may be the clear message of this passage is that there are no hopeless situations. Many appear to be hopeless, but that is not the final word on those situations as far as God is concerned. In the midst of our trials it may at times be appropriate to ask: Lord what are You trying to teach me through this situation? What can I learn from this predicament for my good that will be beneficial in the future? Sometimes like Job the Old Testament patriarch, the Lord impresses on us a call to trust Him more deeply with our future. If we are honest we all have our doubts and fears at times. God wants us as His children to entrust our future to Him. In the words of I Peter 5:7, taken from a letter written to believers enduring great hardships, the apostle and great Christian leader wrote: Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. May He enable us to do that in the power of His Holy Spirit in coming weeks, months and years. (b) The action taken by Joseph (Matthew 2:21-23a) 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. Herod had ruled a 5
territory larger than the Romans usually allowed to client kings. Therefore he divided his territory into three areas under the rule of three of his sons; leaving Judea and Samaria to Archelaus; Galilee and Perea to Herod Antipas and the regions of Iturea and Trachonitis in the northeast and beyond the Jordan to Philip. Archelaus marked the commencement of his reign with the slaughter of three thousand leading citizens of his territory. Anyone noticing the maths of the slaughter will note that this was a tenfold increase on the terror inflicted by his despotic father. Even for the Romans with their toleration of the cruelty meted out by Herod the father, this was too hard to stomach. Archelaus lasted less than ten years before he was replaced by a Roman Governor in AD6. His love of barbaric behaviour was damaging the stability of Judea. No wonder Joseph was afraid to settle in that part of the country. Matthew appears to hint that Joseph was minded to return to the Bethlehem area where Jesus was born once they returned from exile rather than go north to Galilee where their immediate family was living. Matthew does not tell us that Joseph and Mary were brought up in Nazareth, nor does he deny it. His focus is to stress the divine guidance which directed their paths. In essence Joseph and Mary were living examples of the truth of Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to Him, and He will direct your paths. Is that a promise you need to clam today concerning some
area of your life? Is it an assurance you need to hear about the future of the work of this congregation as we go forward trusting Him to direct our pathway in the months and years to come? (c) The prophecy discerned by Matthew (Matthew 2:23b) So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that He would be called a Nazarene. The precise wording Matthew uses here implies that he does not have a specific verse in mind –and this is factually true as there is no Old Testament verse with these specific words. What he appears to be saying is that the presence of this family back in Nazareth in Galilee was not the product of chance but within the providential care of God. At the human level then and now it appears that luck or chance plays a major part in many things that take place in our lives. Matthew wants to underline that this is not the case in reality. It was not true in the life of Jesus nor will it be true for us in this generation. Our lives are to be lived under God’s guidance as we seek to discern how He would have practice our faith in this generation. In time we will see His leading, but often for a significant period of time we cannot discern how He wishes us to proceed. He calls us to trust and obey Him, because our future is kept safe in His hands. God’s will, will be done. At the human level at time we cannot see beyond Rachel weeping for her children or whatever difficulty is strewn across our pathway. However, by faith may God help us to rise above our difficulties and declare our trust in Him and affirm together that God’s will will be done, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.