Tag Archives: Sermons

The Master’s mind

At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.

We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better.   Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:

i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:

  • Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
  • Cremation practice and law in Britain.
  • The banana industry.
  • Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.

Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.

So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.

ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.

Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel.   To the natural man it is foolishness.

There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.

iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.

Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.

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!

Ruthless Rehoboam

This post is a summary of my message on Week 14 of The Story. Today we are looking at the events immediately after the death of Solomon. From now on it will be a steady downward path towards apostasy, spiritual decline, military defeat and eventual exile to a foreign land. This is not a happy story – the glory days stand behind us now. Hope you enjoyed them!

imageReverse Referendum
In a referendum the people are given a choice – they answer yes or no to a specific question. In our passage today, we see the reverse, the people come to the new king with a specific question that requires a yes or no answer. Will he say yes and ease their labour conditions, or say no? He decides to phone some friends, in fact two groups of counsellors. But he chooses the wrong advice – the old and wise heads urge caution and prudence, the young guns advise boldness, dominance and ruthlessness. Clearly the people had been dissatisfied with their forced labour under Solomon but had been reluctant to challenge the status quo. Rehoboam goes for bravado over brotherly kindness and machoism over mercy. And what would you know, there just happens to be an enterprising young man ready (Jeroboam) to mobilise the resistance. The mighty Kingdom of Israel is split over a single decision on employment terms and conditions.

All this was from the Lord – 1 Kings 12.15 states it clearly, Rehoboam’s pride and arrogance are the means whereby God brings his previously declared judgement upon Solomon. Jeroboam loses no time in establishing himself as a rival king in the northern tribes – fortifying cities, creating a counterfeit worship system and installing his own priesthood, so the people don’t need to go to Jerusalem. But he also opens the door for all the other idols around them.

While God had purposed that Jeroboam be the means of splitting the kingdom in two, he had not wanted them to worship other gods. From now on Israel would edge steadily towards spiritual disaster. As king after king continued and deepened the sinful practices and habits.

Repeated Rejection
We almost always think of warnings as being negative things, but warnings can be wonderful. The fire alarm that wakes you up in the middle of the night and saves your life will seem a wonderful invention when you are stood outside in the dark. The flashing light on your dashboard warning you of your fuel filter is boring, but if you don’t have it you can end up losing power on the motorway. Warnings can be wonderful things when they are genuinely aimed at protecting us from harm.

Throughout this period in Israel’s history we see God actively and intimately involved in the key events. We see in these passages is a God who passionately cares about his people, and the decisions they make, the people they hurt and the desires they hold, especially those that they put above him. Unfortunately it is a story of repeated rejection of God (all references are to 1 Kings):

Ruthless Rehoboam pic1

Remnant Remain
In the midst of all the warnings, the judgements, the destruction of the kingdom, there is a jewel. Living for God in those times must have been very tough…everything that you had enjoyed about being the people of God was being dismantled. What hope is there? 1 Chronicles 11.13-17 – these five verses give us a ray of hope that the light has not been totally extinguished. The Levites see what is happening and turn their backs on the land that was rightfully there’s and leave for Judah.

They were rejected by Jeroboam and in some ways you might say they had no choice. But in 16 we read about the people, the faithful remnant who had set their heart on seeking the Lord, they also left their homeland and came to Judah and strengthened it and supported Rehoboam as God’s anointed king. It is a spiritual exodus from unfaithful Israel to faithful Judah.

In all the darkness of these days God had not left himself without a witness. These had not bowed the knee to Jeroboam, or his false religions. Their love for God cost them their homes and land, they left all for the sake of their God. So a remnant remained – and this will be the case throughout the rest of Israel’s history. The faithful few who sought the Lord and swam against the prevailing spiritual decay and backsliding.

Conclusion
Finally a few words on what this means for us today, how do we understand what is going on here?

Each warning was sent in love – to restrain an evil intention or rebellious act. But each warning went unheeded. The key thing is that they are written for our encouragement Paul says in Romans 15.4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

A key text is 1 Corinthians 10.1-13: all received the blessings, but not all were pleasing to God. God was making a point with the Old Testament events, an example for all time, that we might learn and not repeat the lessons of history. So what are we to learn? God wants our hearts! At the heart of what He desires, is His desire for our hearts.

Have you ever watched a sailing boat tack across a lake to try and sail upwind? One minute it is heading towards its destination, the next it is heading in what seems like the opposite direction. If you didn’t know anything about sailing you might question the sailor at the rudder, but all the while the boat is slowly making its way upwind and upriver. So it is with this passage, it is like a moral maze that we find ourselves in with this passage. The question we need to ask is, what is God doing in these verses? Is he for Israel or against them? Why is he so strict with his own people?

The answer, I believe lies in 3 deep truths…firstly the impartiality of God, secondly the divine, righteous jealousy of God, and thirdly the progressive, deepening, revelation of God seen in scripture.

  1. God shows no partiality – he is a holy God and a loving father who knows what is best for us and does not want us to be satisfied with lesser loves – whatever they may be. His love drives him to intervene, sometimes requesting, sometimes allowing, sometimes restraining and sometimes judging. We must have a holy fear – of ourselves and our weakness, fear of God and his righteousness, fear of starting well, but not finishing the race. Do our lives please God?
  2. God is jealous for our love – we almost always view jealousy as a bad thing. But in its pure form, striped right back to its essentials jealousy can be beautiful thing. It says: “I know what is the best thing for you, and it is me, not anybody, or anything else, but me”.
  3. God has established a covenant of grace with us not a covenant of works; not of obedience, but faith, a righteousness apart from the law. We stand on a foundation of unconditional love. Our experience of this love in our daily life is conditional upon our obedience. The covenant of law is not good for sinners, Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Solomon, the Man of God – all discovered this the hard way. The covenant of grace is the only refuge for the sinful person.

This is the referendum choice we all face – do you believe that I am the Son of God? This is the complete obedience to every warning, the blameless lamb of God, who is yet rejected for us. This is the king who has rescued a remnant, do you know you are one of his children today?

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?

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

What is the gospel?

Gospel.bmp

The following is a talk for a children’s prize giving service, where there were lots of kids and I only had 20 minutes. It’s a quiz / message montage experiment!

Sometimes it is easy to over-complicate the gospel and lose sight of its simplicity. How would you summarise it in one sentence?

Simply put it is this: “God sought you beyond all the mess that you might desire him above all the gifts.” Note that God is the active one – he initiates the action; secondly God seeks – we are not the seekers, God is the original missionary, seeking us. Thirdly “beyond the mess” – God is not looking for people who have all the answers. He specialises in the mixed up, confused, failed. Whether we admit it to other people or not, we can hide it from everyone, but not God.

For what purpose does he seek us? To save us from hell? Give us a ticket to heaven? To be happy? To make our lives more fulfilling? No, ultimately He saves us to give us a new passion in life. In Mark 8.34 & 35 we read “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” God wants to give us a greater passion for him than our own selfish desires. A passion for him that exceeds our passion to seek what we want in life.

This is to be our passion, to desire him alone. Greater even than our natural (and right) desires for his good gifts. Many of us never get beyond the gifts – family, security, love, possessions and material blessings. He saves us to desire him above all these things.

That was what the cross was all about, God rescuing a people not just from slavery, but to himself. Want to think about what this means by listening to some of our poets – through their music…but first some disclaimers (slide 3; all slides are available here).

Then I started the quiz, rules are on slide 4. I split the room into the under 18’s and the over 18’s. Each took it in turns to guess the singer, the song (when I read out the lyrics) and the year.

1. Robbie Williams – Candy (2012). Lyrics:  “And if it don’t feel good what are you doing it for?” Comment: Are our feelings the best guide for judging what is right? Feels good = do it; feel bad = don’t bother. This is the exact opposite of Jesus’ call to self-denial and delayed gratification in Mark 8.34. Also read out lyrics from Feel (2002) “I just wanna feel real love, feel the home that I live in. Cos I got too much life running through these veins going to waste.” Comment: We all have a longing for meaning, purpose, acceptance, love from those around us.

2. Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011). Lyrics: “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M, just put your paws up, ’cause you were born this way”. Comment: Are we really perfect as we are? Is the message “you don’t need to change God loves you just as you are”? Jesus said, unless you are born again you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Must be born twice. Someone once said that “God loves you too much to leave you where you are”.

3. Adele – Don’t You Remember (2011). Lyrics: “When was the last time you thought of me, or have you completely erased me from your memory?..But I know I have a fickle heart and a bitterness and a wandering eye and a heaviness in my head.” Comment: We all make mistakes. We all want unconditional love and acceptance. But is that the kind of love we give to others? We build our lives around “the perfect one”, and all of a sudden they are gone. Nothing is certain, nothing lasts forever, yet we yearn for this kind of love.

4. The Script – If You Could See Me Now (2013). Lyrics: “I still look for your face in the crowd, oh if you could see me now. Would you stand in disgrace or take a bow? Oh if you could see me now.” Comment: We all want that acceptance of our family. Deep down we need security. There is nothing wrong with this, if we didn’t get it when we were young, we can spend the rest of our lives doubting others’ love. Can make us struggle to accept the unconditional love of God, which comes as a free gift that we cannot earn.

5. Upsy Daisy – In The Night Garden (2007)…one for the little ones!! No deeper meaning than wanted to give one for the pre-schoolers!

6. Michael Jackson – You Are Not Alone (1995). Lyrics: “You are not alone, for I am here with you. Though we’re far apart, you’re always in my heart. You are not alone.” Comment: We all want to be loved and for that love to always be there. It is a beautiful thing to find it in another person. But the call of God is to seek me above all others. To desire me above everyone else and everything else. Even your kids and wife or husband.

7. Joan Osbourne – One Of Us (1995). Lyrics: “If God had a name, what would it be and would you cal it to his face…What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus tryin’ to make his way home.” Comment: The point is that God was one of us! He had a name, it was Jesus. We can go through life asking the wrong questions. Not realising that the answers are already there. We sit on the fence with our favourite objections and never give God the effort or rigour that we put into choosing which mobile phone to buy.

8. Candi Staton – You’ve Got The Love (1986). Lyrics: “Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air, I know I can count on you. Sometimes I feel like saying “Lord I just don’t care.” But you’ve got the love I need to see me through.” Comment: There is only one person who can help us when life is so tough and rough and messy. And that is the Lord Jesus, who says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

9. Matt Redman – Blessed Be Your Name (2002). Lyrics: “Blessed by your name, on the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering. Blessed be your name.” Comment: Desire is the greatest achievement in our walk with God. Something I am learning more and more in my life: seeking God, praising God, blessing God, should be, needs to be, the one consuming goal of my life. Above every other love, aim, goal or achievement.

10. Charles Wesley – Jesus The Name High Over All (1749). Lyrics: “Happy if with my latest breath, I may but gasp his name. Preach him to all and cry in death: Behold, behold the lamb.” Comment: The greatest desire of my life is God himself, given us through his Son – this is The Greatest Love. His deep, never giving up, never breaking, always pursuing, always patient love. And he calls us to follow him. I also read out And Can It Be? (1738) “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace. Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me.” He offers us the unconditional love and acceptance we crave – through His Son’s bloody death on the cross and his resurrection.

So these are the two ways to live (slide 15). The broad and the narrow, self-centred or God-centred. What I can get vs What I have been given. We are all on one of these paths. If you are not a Christian, not seeking God. He is right here. He offers us acceptance and love that meets our greatest need. He offers us the opportunity to “feel real love for the home that we live in….” Many Christians still wander on the left hand side, we are looking for love and acceptance in the wrong place. The deeper you go in your relationship with God, the less you will need these other pleasures and comforts.

So this is the gospel (slide 16). Life is messy, our own poets have shown us that. God is on the hunt…the mess of our lives won’t stop him. He is ready to pour his love into your heart. He is calling you to leave all the faded hopes behind. “You are not alone…God was one of us.” In Mark 8 Jesus says take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me. Leave the self-centred pathway you were born on, and begin the most glorious adventure there has ever been.

Indestructible Faith

This has been a crazy week…if there was ever a time when my message impacted my life and my life spoke into my message this is it.

My faith has been severely tested and yet I have been blessed because of the free gift that God has given me. And he offers it to each of us. If you don’t have faith, can I encourage you to listen to this message? It’s just 34 minutes of your life…what harm could it do? God gave me the blessing of Psalm 46 for this time and I share it with you as a gift. For those at Carnoustie Community Church on Sunday thank you for a special day.

So, the fourth message in my series of Characteristics of A Genuine Faith: #4 “Indestructible Faith” from Psalm 46. You can download the mp3 file here.

faith

Advice to a new preacher

I have recently been speaking with a good friend who has the opportunity to preach his first sermon. I started to think about all the things that go through my mind when I approach a passage and the pulpit. I thought I would share them with you. So, John this is for you brother!

  1. Preaching simply means to herald – like the angels at Jesus’ birth we are to deliver a message. Its not our responsibility to come up with the message, but it is our responsibility to deliver it in a way our hearers can understand.
  2. Get their attention from the first minute. If you don’t get them then you have to work harder later on. Use your opening minutes to anchor your sermon in the contemporary world. A good introduction is often the hardest part of the whole preparation and I leave it until last. If possible tie the introduction and the conclusion together with the same illustration. But don’t force it, sometimes it works other times it won’t.
  3. Delve into the passage until its message has gripped you and its truth has overwhelmed you. Begin to jot down what you are learning from God. Most of it will not be that profound, but as you work on it, true insights will start to form – make these the focus for your illustrations and application.
  4. Always give a piece of yourself in each message. Preach as Spurgeon said “as a dying man to dying men”. Let the people see that it cost you something to bring a message to them from God.
  5. Strive to be logical in order to convince the mind, but not so much that it becomes a lecture. Strive to move their hearts but not so much that it feels like manipulation. Strive to bring them to a point of confrontation with their sin, but not in a way that sets you above your hearers.
  6. Exegesis, application and passion – like salt, pepper and chilies (!), each must be mixed in the right combination to make the perfect curry. Too much application and your sermon becomes too shallow and man-centred, too little and it becomes abstract and distant. Too much exegesis and you turn your hearers into pupils, too little and you turn yourself into a dictator. Too much passion and your hearers switch off from discomfort, too little and they don’t believe that you believe what you are saying.
  7. I often feel like preparing a sermon is like giving birth (I imagine!). Sometimes it feels like you are making little progress, but persistance and prayer almost always leads to a breakthrough and the effort bears fruit (even if you have to restructure your entire message with a week to go!).
  8. Always seek to hear God’s heart for your text, not your own voice. What does that mean? Well, don’t fit your neat application into a text that it doesn’t fit. Always exegete first (understand what the passage really says), then ask yourself what that means for today. Ask the questions the people in the street are really asking – what would the guy next to me at work think of this? Would he understand it?
  9. Beware of formulas and systems – don’t copy anyone, but learn from the more experienced. No one is so good that you can copy everything or so bad that you can learn nothing.
  10. Strive to live your life ready at each moment to step into the pulpit to stand before God and his people. The cleanliness of personal godliness will bring a secret strength to your message and an obvious anointing before your hearers.
  11. Start with you and the bible only – no commentaries or study guides. Delve into the text on your own before consuling other people’s thoughts, however esteemed they may be. Your bible and prayer are the two greatest weapons in forging a sermon of fire. Other people views can be helpful but they can also distract and divert the development of your thinking.
  12. Immediately after you have preached your heart out beware of the twin devils of pride and self-pity. Give each sermon as an offering, ask God that you might not be raised up by pride or cast down by failure. Your message is a fragrant offering, offered up and then gone forever. Do not seek to hold onto it.
  13. Before you begin spend a moment in silent prayer dedicating yourself to God asking him to make you a flame of fire in his hand.

For a preacher, speaking to people on God’s behalf is the most amazing thing you can ever do – to stand before them with a message from God will demand every ounce of your effort, gifting and character. It takes years to get to the point where we understand ourselves and our calling well enough that we begin to put the pieces together in the right order. But we never stop yearning and streatching for more power, more of the Spirit, more heart-piercing application. It is the hardest task I have ever done, and the most thrilling. If this passion begins to grow in you, then even though it be as small as a grain of sand it may be the beginning of a gifting to teach. Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, just start and you’ll find your own rhythm of preparation and delivery.

Look forward to hearing your message!

Running on Empty

Yesterday I spoke at my home church, Central Baptist Church, Dundee in my series of Postcards from the Prophets on Elijah at Mount Horeb from 1 Kings 19 titled “Running on Empty”. In it I sought to outline Elijah’s external persecution and internal despair along with his encounter with the whispering God. Through it all I sought to understand what Elijah’s experience can teach us in our trials and challenges in the UK today.

The slides are available here and sermon online here or to download here. During the service I also read out an article I wrote last year called “We need the tears of the prophets for a broken nation” – available here.

Is Jesus enough? Twelve searching questions for Christian leaders to ask

  1. Is there any recognition, respect or approval that someone can give me that will make me feel valued?
  2. Is there anything that I can achieve that will make me feel more valued by, and important to, God?
  3. Is there any height of ministry effectiveness that will make me feel like my life was significant?
  4. Is there any activity that I feel is wasting my time?
  5. Is it enough for me to be faithful if that meant being unknown and with little fruit?
  6. Do I behave differently towards someone that has influence in Christian circles?
  7. Do I desire to be useful to God, more than seeking God?
  8. Do I aspire to be respected for my gifting, more than aspiring to glorify the Giver?
  9. Do I aspire to sharing in the sufferings of Christ or becoming well respected by my peers?
  10. Do I rejoice in the ministry of others, even when I can see holes in their arguments?
  11. Am I spending more time face down before God than stood up before an audience?
  12. When I am old(er) and looking back on my life, what would make me feel satisfied?

I believe:

  • There is nothing I can do that can make God love me more, or less.
  • God is more concerned with who we are before him, than what we do for him.
  • There is no activity that is not holy, when done for the glory of God.
  • That personal godliness is better than powerful gifting.
  • That effectiveness for God is not based upon the amount of time we spend in the pulpit.
  • That there will always be some people who will like your ministry and others will not.
  • Truly effective service is based on what our Master thinks of us, rather than whether our name will be remembered.
  • That the most important audience are those that hear the daily sermon we preach as we share our lives over meals, walks and bedtime stories (ie our children).
  • That God tests each of our hearts at some point in our life to see if we will take some of the glory for ourselves.
  • That if we found more of our security, love, acceptance, and value in God, we would be less concerned about what other people thought of us.
  • That every sermon is a sacrifice of praise to God, to be given to him as a pleasing aroma without lifting us up to pride, or casting us down to despair.

Nuff said. Time for some sober self-reflection.