Category Archives: The Story

The unexpected visitor

Highlights from my message from Week 22 of The Story: The Birth of Jesus

I wonder if you have ever had an unexpected visitor? have ever had someone turn up at your door completely unexpected and unannounced. If you could speak to my wife’s parents they would tell you of a strange day a few years ago. A day when someone arrived at their farmhouse – a house in the middle of their farm, a farm which is 45 minutes walk from the nearest bus stop. A bus stop that is about an hour from Lockerbie, which is about three hours from Edinburgh. Well as they stood there doing the dishes after lunch a strange man appeared walking towards them with a smile on his face – coming to see them with a message just for them.

Have you guessed it? Yes, that man was me and the question was – “can I marry your daughter?“! I had booked the day off work and travelled all the way to their farm in rural Dumfriesshire to surprise them and ask for permission to marry their daughter. Do you know what they did? They laughed!

Well in this passage we encounter a similar unexpected guest. This time not with a question, but with an answer. The guest is not a dreamy eyed, idealistic, naïve, love struck young man, but a radiant angel. Not this time with thoughts of hopeful marriage, but of a centuries -long promised birth, not to ask permission but to announce God’s certain purposes.

21 weeks we have been walking through the Old Testament – ups and downs, mainly downs?! Now 400 years of silence and then…BOOM God breaks through. How would we get on waiting 400 years for something? We can’t even wait 4 months! How does a people wait longer than their own lifetime for a promise? Through tradition – stories passed down, poetry recited, songs sung – woven into the fabric of the culture. The weaving keeps them alive, but also “represents” the promises, rather than actually being the same thing. Things are emphasised, other things are pushed to the background, until finally it all becomes folklore and myth. Just a sweet story to tell your children when they can’t sleep, or tell yourself when you are broken by life.

A folklore had developed around the “Messiah”. A warrior king, in the pattern of David to restore the nation of Israel. This is what the people wanted, it what they expected, but it is not what God had in store, at least not how they expected to be rescued.

It would seem that we have a built in desire to believe that somebody one day will rise above the limitations of our human state. We tell stories to each other about a single individual, born at a special moment in time who will change the course of history. One with special abilities, in harmony with nature, able to rise above the mundane, able to overcome our limitations, one that represents humankind, but is not destined to live as just another human.

maxresdefaultSo we read it in Lord of the Rings – prophecy of the coming king Aragon

The prophecy in Star Wars – the one who will restore balance to the universe, Anakin Skywalker

The prophecy in The Matrix – the chosen one Neo

But all these are fictional, they are Just a fairy tales. Is this only The stuff of films and literature? Where does this desire for a hero come from? I would say that These are all echoes of the original – the One who will come and change our reality. In the same way that our obsession with romantic films echoes the desire in our hearts for a soul mate, so this recurring theme echoes a divine longing that God has put in each of us.

So, the unexpected visitor arrives at our front door and says, get ready, He (capital H) is coming…

he is coming in your lifetime you will see him Mary, 

He is coming with your eyes you will see him Mary

He is coming your arms will hold him Mary

He is coming your body will nurse him Mary

He is coming your womb will protect him Mary

He is coming to your town, to your family, to your body…you are so blessed, so fortunate, so privileged

The promise Adam heard in the garden you will see fulfilled

What was whispered to Abraham in the night sky you will embrace

The vision that overwhelmed Daniel will hold your little finger

The wisdom that formed the earth you will teach to read

What a moment in her life! What a moment in history, this is the defining moment of history, when everything changed, when all our hopelessness was banished forever. Do we wonder at this event? I pray that God would break our familiarity with this great event, that he would free us from years of Christmases.

I want God to break through our hardness and numbness to the incarnation. To really, really contemplate it for just a few minutes. To hold it up before you as something beautiful, like a jewel in the light, that you might marvel at its radiance. Oh that God would help me do just that – who is sufficient for such things? To do justice to the moment when the Son of God – who has no beginning and knows no limitations, squeezed himself into a human body, to forever identify the creator with his creation, to overcome our corruption with his perfection, to breath our air and feel our pain…as a real live human being!

When SAS came to church

I recently did an all-age service at church, for both the adults and kids, from week 10 of The Story. I used 7 words to spell out the message, the kids opened up envelopes and had to figure out what each word was – this is a summary of my message:

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28: Daniel Sturridge (R) of Liverpool is congratulated by teammate Luis Suarez (L) after scoring his team's third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield on January 28, 2014 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Many people are fascinated by the SAS – no I don’t mean the Special Air Service, but they are pretty exciting, neither do I mean Suarez and Sturridge – Liverpool’s goal machine last season…no I am talking about Samuel and Saul. These two are two of the biggest characters in this period of the Old Testament. Their lives are intertwined and their different personalities and spiritual devotion provide the light and shade of the books of Samuel and Kings.

One word to summarise Samuel? Devotion – learnt from his mother, he was 100% committed to his God. One word for Saul? Impulsive – evidence throughout his life he made pragmatic decisions on the spur of the moment that often got him into trouble. The immovable Samuel and the impulsive Saul…they had some memorable meetings! Samuel is driven by faithfulness and loyalty, Saul by fear and jealousy. Open the envelope, break the seal…

1. SAM 

Let’s look at Samuel first, or Sam as we have called him here. Samuel was the son of Hannah – a son of prayer and promise. Samuel grew up at the feet of the priests in the temple of God. From his earliest days he learnt the ways of God – he even heard God speak directly to him. Remember what happened? He thought it was Eli, three time he went to Eli, until eventually the old man realised God was speaking to him. As he grew up God guided him and protected his words, so that he was respected by all as a prophet and priest for the nation – to provide spiritual leadership to the nation.

2. SAD

But as Sam grew older it became clear that things were not right in Israel. This chosen nation that had been taken out of Egypt and planted in the promised land was withering. The people were tired of being told what to do by the judges, they wanted someone more impressive to lead them than old Sam, whose sons were not of the same character as him. They looked around and saw  the other nations had something they thought they did not – a king. God had been their king, leading them into battle, fighting for them, protecting them, and Samuel was their priest and prophet. Now they were rejecting God as their king and so they asked Samuel to give them a king like the rest of the tribes. This made Samuel very sad, but it was really God their king they were rejecting. 

3. ANOINT

So God let the people break the kingly bond between them and him – he warned them what a king would require of them and how a king would trade their best land and sons and daughters…but they still wanted him. The sign of a king was the anointing oil poured over his head, this signified the blessing of God being poured out onto the person and the setting aside of their life for a special purpose. It was Samuel’s job to anoint the new king. God tells Sam to anoint the person he points to – someone who would look like the other kings around them.

4. SAUL

Head and shoulders above the rest, Saul was an impressive young man. Although initially shy and reluctant, Saul finds his boldness when one of the cities is threatened. So, a promising start for the new king. But as is often the case power goes to our heads and things quickly fall apart and under pressure Saul makes some bad impulsive decisions. But worse than that, not just bad decisions, but sinful decisions. Decisions that reveal where his heart really lies – and show that selfishness and pride lie at the heart of this man. Saul was impressive on the outside but weak inside…he obeyed as long as it was comfortable.

5. SIN

On two occasions Saul disobeys God – first in offering an unauthorised sacrifice when he got fed up waiting for Samuel to come and offer them before his battle with the Philistines. And then by keeping alive the King of the Amalekites and the best cattle and sheep when God had ordered it all to be destroyed. In the first incident Saul oversteps his rightful authority to encroach on Samuel’s Territory – driven by the fear of man, rather than the fear of God. In the second he allows his pride to decide what bits of God’s law he should obey. He sets his own will above that of God, and he pays the price. 

Here Saul is a picture of all of mankind – doing what we think is right, editing out the bits of God’s law we don’t find convenient, obeying him as long as we don’t look foolish in front of people. This king cannot help us, because he is just like us.

6. TORN

Finally Sam confronts Saul and tells him that God has rejected him as king – that he cannot continue under the blessing of God and his sons will not continue the monarchy. In his haste Saul grabs Samuel’s coat and as Sam turns away he tears it – this is what God has done to his anointing – torn it up! You see Saul had been torn between the fear of man and the fear of God, he had been torn between convenience and obedience…and had made the wrong choice each time. His heart was torn between the love of the world and the love of God, now his kingly reign on this world was torn away by God.

So the kingdom is taken away from Saul – not right then, he still remained king for many years, desperately holding onto his throne against the young upstart called David, who we will meet next week. And Saul is very sad by how popular David becomes – jealousy and hatred overwhelm Saul in his later years. He lived from a place of fear…fear of losing his position, of being exposed and replaced, the seed of destruction had been sown and time was running out. Saul would eventually run out of options and desperately seek Sam out even after he had died, and find that the end was nigh. More than that his beloved Jonathan would also die with him and the kingly line be extinguished. 

So for us the consequences of our sin take time to appear, right back in the garden Adam and Eve were told they would die if they disobeyed, but they ate and nothing happened…immediately. But the egg timer had started to pour and their death was certain.

7. RETURN (of the king)

What would God do? The people had rejected God as their king and Saul had failed God. He would find a king who would be someone with his character, a man after God’s own heart. But even this king would fail. Ultimately He would take back that kingly role to himself, one day…one day another king would come, one who would honour God above all else, who would not fear the disapproval of man, or the suffering of obedience. 

God would unite the role of prophet, priest and king in one person, one man. The king would arrive in Israel while they were sleeping and he would return the union between God and his people. He would rescue and redeem them, not through war as Saul did, but through sacrificing himself. King Jesus, the true king, never flinching, never wavering, never compromising. 

You see not only did the Israelites reject God as their king, we too rejected God as our rightful king. We by nature rebelled against his rule over our hearts and said…”we will not have this man to rule over us”. If you are a Christian this morning you have bowed the knee willingly to this king, and pledged allegiance to him. We have given him our hearts, lives, everything we have, and found that he is a king we can trust, a king we can exalt and worship. Will you worship him today? Will you let him restore what has been torn and remove the sin in our hearts?

I see no scullery maid!

eleanor-tomlinson-poldarkThe following post is a summary of a message I gave a couple of weeks back from Week 6 of The Story:

“If you have been here recently you will know that we have seen the birth of a new nation ‐ right back to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, through the birth of the promised child Isaac, through the growth of the nation in Egypt and their exodus from Egypt to now being a tribe of well over one million people. There are two census in Numbers and each one comes in at just over 600,000 men aged over 20 years old.

Up until now God has spoken to one person at a time, be that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph, how would he guide and lead a tribe >1,000,000 people? The promises are starting to be fulfilled, but what happens next? Some sort of order and structure is needed to organise this mass of people, some system of living is essential to prevent anarchy.

You can see all the yellow blocks below shows all the chapters about laws and regulations that God gives them. God tells them how he wants them to worship him, what they should eat, what to wear, how to fight, how to celebrate… etc. In the past people could claim ignorance and say they didn’t know any better ‐ not any more. Very little of life would be not be covered now.

Numbers Explored pic 1

But things were not as simple as one would hope. External enemies and internal resistance marred the progress of the Israelites becoming God’s people acting in accordance with his plan. The story of Numbers is the story of opposition ‐ opposition to the will of God for his people. We see scene after scene of failure to follow God in faith and trust. Every step forward seemed to be accompanied by another step backwards or sideways.

Numbers Explored pic 2

As soon as they leave Sinai we see the Israelites demonstrating every human, even natural weakness ‐ hunger, envy, fear, jealousy, thirst, impatience & sexual immorality. We see God’s provision and protection being constantly questioned, we see Moses’ leadership being repeatedly challenged and we see God judging and showing mercy to his fickle people…not much has changed has it? Are we so different? These are the results of a divine perfection colliding with imperfect sinners.

Through it all God was looking to find out if his people would trust him, if they would trust in his protection and provision and follow him obediently. God through Moses sets out the way to life before them ‐ all the yellow blocks… he says blessings will come if you obey, and curses will come if you disobey.

So what do we need to learn from all this? Deuteronomy 30.1 – when all these blessings and curses come upon you…ie some time in the future, when you come back in repentance, then God promises to circumcise their hearts in v6 so that we can love him with all our hearts…V 15‐19. When God says to you obey my law and you will live, we should respond “I cannot do it, I am too sinful, too weak. I chose not to live by the law. If keeping the law is the only way to life then I am going it die. My heart desires to obey, but my will is too corrupt, my emotions too fickle…give me another way or I am completely undone.”

Look at Romans 7.7-13 – the law teaches us that we cannot keep the law, it reveals sin in us. It is good in itself, but by its very goodness and our badness, the law brings us to our spiritual knees. And when we are on our knees finally, because we have failed over and over and over again and look up, what do we see? We see a dying Saviour, giving his blood to give us an alternative to living by the law…through a righteousness apart from the law. This is what the Israelites couldn’t understand, that the law could never make them right with God. Abraham believed God and it was credited as righteousness.

Later on in Romans 10.5-10.  Paul is deliberately putting these two passages alongside each other and saying Moses sets down a righteousness by law, Christ the righteousness by faith. So many Christians get this all mixed up, we don’t understand our relationship to the law. So many of us still live by the law, thinking that we will be accepted if we just try a bit harder. We must receive as a gift what we could never earn as a payment.

It reminds me of Poldark ‐ one episode he marries his scullery maid Demelza (a big scandal!) and after the wedding she goes back to scrubbing the floors and cleaning the pots. She hasn’t realised she is his wife now, she is still serving her master rather than loving her beloved. Eventually she learns how to be his wife, and even others notice ‐ at a ball one of the older ladies asks “who is that young person, quite lovely don’t you think”…”That’s Demelza, Ross’ wife”…”The scullery maid!” she replies with a look of horror. She has grown up so much that one of them turns to the other and says ‐ “I see no scullery maid Ma’ma!”

That is what God wants for his church. Faith in a promise, not my performance. He looks at us this morning and says to us I see no scullery maid! I see my  bride. Deuteronomy 30.19 vs Romans 10.9 the word of obedience vs the word of faith. Choose which one you will serve today ‐ choose faith, choose grace, choose life.

Wilderness Wandering revisited

family board gameOur church is going through The Story we are at week 6 and I was tasked with covering the Wandering chapter for the kids and adults this morning…here is the kids talk. We played the short “Teens” video clip for week 6 first for the whole church.

“This week we are learning about the wilderness wanderings…when I was little my Dad used to have a board game that we played on a Sunday called Wilderness Wandering. It was a game that moved you through the different events that happened in the wilderness as the Israelites journey from Egypt to Canaan. In fact I have found a picture of the board game and also a picture of us all playing it…my Dad didn’t have his moustache back then! You ask them about it after the service (maybe it wasn’t exactly like this!).

What are your favourite board games? Monopoly, kids of Carcasson, junior Cluedo? One of the best loved is Snakes & Ladders – what happens when at bottom of ladder? What happens when land on a snake? Go back to where you started from that’s what. How long does it take to get back to where you were?

The Israelites had been prisoners for years and been miraculously delivered from Egypt. Now they are on the edge of the promised land, but instead of going up a ladder they go down a snake. They take another 40 years to get back to where they were. Then they finally make it through. The ones who went in were just kids when they stood there the first time.

One day God will bring you to a decision point just like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land – he wants to know what is in our hearts, do we trust and love him, but only when times are easy? When we are in the desert we find out whether we are willing to follow him. Whether kids or adults what we decide determines whether we go on with God, or go backwards. One thing you never get in snakes and ladders is a snake and a ladder on the same square – but that was the challenge for the 12 spies. Only Joshua and Caleb trusted God, 10 spies went down the snake. You can trust God no matter what.”