Friday, 19 April 2019

The Window and the Mirror: A Good Friday Meditation

Windows and mirrors have something in common, they both enable us to see things that ordinarily would remain hidden to us.

We can’t see through walls. Windows enable us to see beyond our field of view into a space which would otherwise have remained invisible to us. Imagine living in a house with no windows. Likewise, God’s heart is hidden from us, but the cross of Jesus Christ is a window onto God’s heart and mind. They are on full display for all to see.

Also, we can’t see what we really look like. Mirrors enable us to see things about ourselves that would otherwise remain invisible to us. Imagine if you had never seen your own face. What idea would you have about yourself? The cross of Jesus Christ holds up a mirror to humanity showing us what we’re really like.

Jesus says it another way in John 3:19-20 “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed."

Jesus is our window onto God’s life, but he is also a mirror held up to ours and whether it’s the passive faithlessness of the disciples deserting Jesus or the active faithlessness of the Jewish and Roman authorities sentencing him to death, all of us, by nature, are lovers of darkness. Isaiah said it well (53:6): “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Our readings from Mark’s gospel help us to see this window/mirror contrast up close. The trauma of the crucifixion reveals the simple, profound and beautiful truth of all Jesus was, and at the same time it revealed how deceived, dark and dysfunctional we are.
  • Where we, like Peter, James and John, were disobedient and prayerless, Jesus wrestled in prayer on our behalf saying: “Not my will, but yours be done.”
  • Where we, like the disciples, refused to stand with Jesus, he stood with us, choosing out of love to bear our disgrace rather than leave us to face the wrath of God as the appropriate consequence of our actions.
  • Where we, like the guilty disciples, fled, because we didn’t want to die, the innocent Jesus offered himself up to die in our place.
  • Where we, like Peter, denied all knowledge of the truth before a low status servant girl, Jesus faithfully confessed the truth before the highest spiritual and political authorities in the world of that time.
  • Where we, like the rulers and authorities of this world, postured before Jesus challenging his seemingly ridiculous claim to be King and Messiah, Jesus silently rested in the confidence that who he was and what he had come to do had been given to him by God the Father and prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures.
  • Where we, like the common people, reviled Jesus because he didn’t do the miracles we hoped to see, Jesus performs the miracle of bearing all our sin and turning the other cheek to their mockery, saying “Father forgive them, they don’t realise what they are doing."
Perhaps the place where this window/mirror contrast is most obvious is when Pilate presents Jesus and Barabbas before the people and asks them to vote for who should be released. Consider what it is he offers them at the Passover festival:
  • Barabbas, is a zealot: a nationalistic, religious freedom-fighter. He will stop at nothing to see his homeland of Judah – the “Kingdom of God”, established in his the pattern of his revolutionary political and religious ideology, free from Roman occupation and with a fully Jewish king on the throne. He has tried to do this by violent force and as a result, he is on trial for murder.
  • Jesus is an itinerant preacher and miracle worker, also looking to establish the kingdom of God, but not by violently kicking out the Romans and re-establishing a pure-bred race, rather, by obedience to his Heavenly Father. It is for his obedience to his Father that he ends up on trial before the people.
  • Matthew tells us in his gospel (27:16-17) that Barabbas’ full name was Jesus Barabbas.
  • The name Jesus means “salvation.” The name Barabbas means “son of the father.”
  • So Pilate presents the people with two alternative “Salvations,” two “Sons of the Father.”
  • Jesus Barabbas is mirror to us of our own hearts. He is a treacherous and estranged rebel son made in the image of Adam his spiritual father. Adam, in Genesis 1, was the first “son of the Father.” Barabbas, like Adam, and like us wanted to seize God’s kingdom and establish it on his own terms. The consequence of that action was death for all.
  • Jesus Christ is the true and better Barabbas, the true and obedient son of the Father, who did not seize his Father’s kingdom or try to refashion it in his own image, but by faithful obedience he has established it according to his father’s will, meaning life can now be offered to all.
The crowd, stirred up by the religious authorities, chose to side with the one who is like them – the rebel son of the father, condemning the innocent son of the father to death.

Yet here is a simple but profound picture of the gospel. For as we look in this mirror we remember that we, like Barabbas, were the guilty ones who deserved death, but we go free.

We also look through this window and see how, in love for God and love for us, Jesus suffered on our behalf so that our declaration of acquittal and freedom might not come, like it did for Barabbas, through the false decree of a corrupt legal system, but by the true decree of the eternal, righteous God.

Praise God that when we were at our absolute worst: proud, arrogant, ignorant, self-deceived, mad, rebellious and wicked, to name but a few, God used all our evil actions to work something breathtakingly beautiful and enabling us to born again of the Spirit and to return to him as dearly beloved adopted sons and daughters.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Some Historical Background to Isaiah 8

The bit I didn't have time for from Sunday's Sermon...

The year is 732 B.C. God’s people (in the bottom left-hand corner of the map) have been divided for about 200 years into the northern kingdom of Israel (light green blob) and the southern kingdom of Judah (brown blob). During that time they have had a stormy relationship - sometimes getting on with each other and at other times brutalising each other.

At the point we join the story, relations are at an all-time low and tensions are running high. This is because Israel under King Pekah and Syria, under King Rezin have joined forces to invade Judah and mount a coup to depose Ahaz. They want to place a puppet king known to us only as the “son of Tabeel” on the throne. Understandably, Ahaz is irked by this threat to his kingdom.

Enter Isaiah, God’s prophet who comes to Ahaz and says do not fear, trust in the Lord and all will be well. Problem is, although he had a godly father and was brought up in a godly household, Ahaz has become a spiritually dark whirlwind of a man. He knows all the right Christian jargon to say, but he has no interest in actually following what God says. In fact, he is hell bent on doing the exact opposite. He ignores everything that Isaiah says.

But there’s more to the intrigue. The reason Israel and Syria are ganging up on Judah and trying to mount a coup is because they fear the rising power of Assyria (not the same as Syria) as represented by the large purple blob on the map. Warlord King Tiglath Pileser III is violently and mercilessly throwing his weight around and creating the largest empire in the world at that time. Israel and Syria want Ahaz on board as an ally so that they can have a chance of fighting off the advancing Assyrians. But Ahaz doesn’t want to join forces with them so they decide to take matters into their own hands, trying to force Judah to join them through a coup.

The reason Ahaz ignores Isaiah and doesn’t want to enter into an alliance with Pekah and Rezin is because, deep down he seems infatuated with Tiglath Pilezer III (Tig for short) and when Pekah and Rezin eventually invade, instead of calling on the Lord for help, he sends messages to godless King Tig begging for him to come and rescue him. That rescue comes, but of course, it comes at a price; unswerving allegiance and lots of money for Tig and his empire. This will mean Ahaz raiding God’s house, the temple in Jerusalem, rather than his own, to pay off Assyria and leading God’s people even further into idolatry, forsaking the Lord who loves them.

In short, everyone seems to be bewitched by the power of Assyria, either living in fear of it, like Pekah and Rezin, or wanting to be like it, like Ahaz. Note that the issue here is not politics. The issue is confidence. In the face of the Assyrian threat, Pekah is putting his confidence in a military alliance with Syria (and Judah if he can coerce them) and Ahaz is putting his confidence in being able to win Assyria over. None of these kings are putting their confidence in God.

And it’s not just the kings who are godless, the people too are hell-bent on pursuing their idols with them. They might follow the living God with lip-service, but no-one is actually interested in meaningfully loving and serving the Lord. All the mighty acts of God in the nation’s past have been forgotten. As they place their confidence in the worship of idols, they are about to embrace catastrophe. The very thing they hope will save them, will soon almost destroy them. That’s the problem with idols, you think they will save or prosper you, but they end up destroying you by giving you what you thought you wanted.

Isaiah and the few left with him in Judah who refuse to go along with this idolatry and sham worship are overwhelmed with fear. For they know that the nation’s spiritual treachery will bring down a mighty judgment from God upon everyone, and they will be caught up in the disaster, possibly losing everything they have along with everyone else. It doesn’t really matter whether Ahaz throws his lot in with Tiglath Pileser on the one hand or with Pekah and Rezin on the other, they see beyond the immediate surface things and see that through the pursuit of dark passion and desire God’s people and God’s nation is suicidally bent at every level on its own destruction.

Now there are many differences between this story and our own times, but here are three similarities worth highlighting:
  1. Our current political crisis of deadlock and division over Brexit is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem. Whether in the form of military might in Ahaz’s day or money in our day, everyone seems to be enthralled both individually and collectively to the false god of worldly power and prosperity and what the best way is to get it and keep it. Irrespective of the outcome over the next days, weeks or months - whether Brexit happens or not, pursuit of worldly power and prosperity will eventually bring catastrophe.
  2. The voice of God coming through his faithful ones seems to have no traction in the public debates that are shaping our collective future. None of our leaders are publically seeking God. Whilst many will be praying in private, none are obviously praying. Though God is the reason they exist, people either don’t believe he exists or don’t believe he can help or they have been damaged by hypocrite Christians or they are just not interested in the kind of help he offers.
  3. The few faithful people who are left like Isaiah and others may have lived following God as best they know how, but they and their families will not be sheltered from any turmoil or fallout that may come. What happens to the nation, for better or worse, will also happen to them.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Lifegroup Notes - Followers who Fast - Luke 5:33-35

In the Bible, fasting is always tied to prayer. Just as a Christian understanding of sex is meaningless without marriage, so a Christian understanding of fasting is meaningless without prayer.

Yet, how many Christians do you know who regularly fast and pray?  It has become the deserted discipline of our age. We have sleepwalked into depending on ourselves more than God and into the love of this life more than the eternal life and love of God. When we combine prayer with fasting we become aware of just how much we love the idols of consumption, convenience, comfort, control, conformity, compartmentalisation and compromise among others.

So what is fasting? It’s a mini death and resurrection.  It's emptying ourselves of the temporary life this world offers so that we can be filled with the eternal life that God offers. It’s not abstention, but replacement, not a formula for twisting God’s arm but an orientation of humbling ourselves before God and saying “Your will be done.”

Whilst we might say that many things “give us life” and that we can fast from TV, social media etc. the bible focuses on the kind of fasting that literally gives us life (namely food and drink). Fasting from leisure pursuits so you can pray is good.  Fasting from food and drink so you can pray is better.

In Luke 5:33-35, Jesus says the reason his people will fast is because they long for him. We have great joy in the Gospel, great power in the life of the Spirit, but there is also an unfulfilled longing. Christian fasting is not primarily about mission objectives, but about longing for Jesus. Even if this world was perfect, Christians would still fast because Jesus isn’t here, he hasn’t returned yet.

Whilst there are similarities in the Old and New Testaments, in the Old Testament fasting was shaped by the commands of the law and was for the preservation of the nation.  So in most recorded examples, they would fast when they had to repent of their sin or when they were threatened with annihilation from their enemies. However, in the New Testament, (especially Acts) fasting is powered by the Holy Spirit and becomes more about expansion of the kingdom of God and preparing the earth for Christ’s return.  Prayer and fasting stir up the Spirit in us.  See Luke 4:1 and 4:14.  What difference did prayer and fasting make to Jesus?  See also 2 Tim. 1:6-7.

Some pointers for getting going:
  • Pursue the love of God, not your health goals.
  • Fasting feels pointless, because we like to be in control, but that's the point.  Fasting is about giving control to God and waiting for him to come through.
  • The reason we fast is to make time to pray, so when you fast, change your routine to maximise prayer. But if you can’t change your routine, don’t worry, just pray when you can.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff – if you feel the need to take a fruit juice to help combat dizziness or mental fog, then do it.  Or if your child wants to feed you a bit of their dinner, that doesn’t invalidate your fast. One cornflake won’t kill your hunger and it won't invalidate your fast.
  • Where you can, fast with others so you can encourage each other.
  • Start small and grow in the discipline e.g. "Fast" the first half of your lunch break and go and pray.  It may only be a 30min fast, but it's a start and you can grow from there.
  • Exemptions:
    • Pregnancy and some medical conditions – seek medical advice.
    • Eating disorders, chronic anxiety, insomnia – if you suffer from these or have had a history of them – seek advice before fasting. The problem isn’t the fasting, but the mind games you can play around the fast can quickly become destructive, so be wise.
Some other resources:
  1. What stops you from fasting in order to pray?  Which idols above are you quietly / secretly bowing to?
  2. Jesus says that his people will fast because they long for his return, what does that statement provoke in you?
  3. How can you get going in fasting and prayer and what help/support do you need from others in order to do so?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sermon Notes for Confident Adventure #4 :: "Remembering" :: Genesis 17:1-23

Because we can read Abraham’s story in about 25 minutes, it’s easy to miss the weight of the 25 year wait he had to see the promises of God fulfilled to him. Abraham’s faith was best expressed through patience. When you are waiting for something you need to remember why you are doing it otherwise you will lose heart and wander off.

In the Bible remembering isn’t merely the factual recall of trivia like sporting results, it has a moral quality, such as when parking your car on a hill, you must remember to apply the handbrake. Forgetting to do so could have disastrous consequences. If we don’t make it a priority to remember who God is and what he has asked of us, then we will not only harm ourselves, but spread chaos and destruction in his world as well.

The context of Genesis 17 is God restoring Abram after a “fall.” Similarly to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, God seemed not to be acting on his promise to give Abram and Sarai a son, so they took matters into their own hands and got a son (an heir) for Abram via Sarai’s slave woman.

By the time Genesis 17 happens, we’re 13 years on. Ishmael, the son born to Abram via the slave woman is hitting puberty, and therefore manhood and starting to take his place as Abram’s heir apparent. But God turns up and says NO! Abram will have a son via Sarai. Initially, Abram doesn’t want to accept this word from God (not least because it means having to have a really awkward conversation with Ishmael). He wants Ishmael to be accepted by God and doesn’t want to have to start all over again after waiting 24 years to get to this point!

God promises to bless Ishmael. In his mercy, he won’t let Ishmael take the hit for the mistakes of his father and his mother’s mistress, but neither will he let Abram and Sarai’s mistake dictate the course of salvation history – he will do things as he planned them.

To help remind them of his promise, he gives them new names – Abraham and Sarah, a new instruction: Walk before me blamelessly and a new initiation – circumcision. Circumcision was a “sign” which reminded them of God’s promise to Eve (that she would bring forth a son/a “seed”) and also pointed forward to the coming of that seed – the Christ. The cutting away of the foreskin was also symbolic of God’s refusal to allow the potency of man specifically, and the human race generally, to do God’s work for him. We cannot save ourselves, only a miracle of God can do it.

To his credit, Abraham doesn’t sulk under a tree when he realizes God is yanking him back onto the right track, rather he humbles himself, immediately obeying what God has said.

Today, we are not circumcised, because the promised coming of the “seed” (Gen 3:15) has been fulfilled in Christ. Our sign of being God’s covenant people is baptism. Just as what happened to Abraham (circumcision) had to happen to his household, so too, what happened to Christ has to happen to us otherwise we do not belong to him. If we believe in Christ we must be baptized in water and the Spirit like he was (Matt.3). Baptism is symbolic of a past “dying” to our old way of life in rebellion to God and being raised up to live for God by the power of the Spirit. It’s also a reminder that one day, when Christ comes again, he will raise us from the dead, the work of the Spirit will be perfected in us and we will live with God forever in the new creation.

To that end, we must cultivate regular, routine remembrance of God, for this gives life our souls.
  • Confession: declaring to our hearts and to God who God is and who we are as a result of all his goodness to us. Thanksgiving and praise: the things that should flow from confession.
  • Bible reading: this is the main and plain, bread and butter way God speaks to us. Fasting: humbling ourselves, emptying ourselves and recognizing that all our power to do what pleases God comes from him not us. Prayer: talking to God, reflecting on all that we are learning from him.
  • Simplicity: renouncing the lie, that the joy of our life comes from the glitzy abundance of possessions, accolades and entertainment and embracing a kind of Celebration that takes the greatest joy from seeing God do amazing and deep things in the hearts of people – including us.
  • Solitude: being one to one with God and shutting out the clamour of both the outside world and our anxious hearts so that we can wholly be with him and Gathering with the people of God so that they can help keep us on the straight and narrow path, as well as encourage us to keep going on it when times are tough.
  • Serving one another: sharing the load of all that God has asked us to do so that no one person or group of people burn out and… Being served. We all love being served, when the service makes much of us, but we don't like being served if it means we must admit weakness. At times like these, it is hard for us to accept help, but don’t let pride rob you of an opportunity to receive God’s grace in this form.
As we do these things regularly, little by little, we will build a massive reservoir of testimony and legacy that will be remembered before the throne of God, with praise, forever.

Suggested questions:
  • What is the thing you have had to wait longest on God for? Are you still waiting for it? Would you have the patience to wait 25 years for God to fulfil a promise to you like Abraham and Sarah did?
  • When we have invested much time, money and effort into something and God says no to it, it is a hard word to receive. Has this ever happened to you, what was it and how did you respond – with obedience or denial? Or are you going through it now? God is asking you to revoke a mistake you have invested in for years, and you are finding it hard to renounce. What help do you need to go God’s way?
  • Have you been baptized in water and the Spirit, if not what is stopping you from obeying God’s command on this and following in the footsteps of the Master?
  • Of the “routines of remembrance” that give life to the soul which ones do you find easy, which ones do you find hard? What’s the next step you need to take in order to allow God to breathe life into your soul? How can we help each other cultivate these?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The What and the Why of Biblical Fasting

A quick search on the internet will give you all kinds of ways and tips on how to fast. My aim is not to repeat all that good advice, rather it’s to give you a few biblical encouragements as to the what and why of fasting.

Firstly, fasting is not a uniquely Christian activity, nor does it have in and of itself of any spiritual value. It’s like money, its value comes in how you use it. When done well, fasting increases our appetite for God, brings our hearts in line with his, enables us to feel the kinds of deep longings that we know we should feel for him and makes us sensitive to the Spirit’s voice in our hearts. However, when it’s done badly, it makes us grumpy, self-obsessed, proud and entitled. Bad fasting makes God the servant of our agenda, rather than making us the servants of his.

Secondly, fasting without praying is like turning up to the cinema, but not going in to watch the film. There’s no point to it. That statement has to come with caveats, of course. We must avoid the fallacy of suggesting that a certain amount of prayer will obtain a certain amount of blessing. Nothing in the Bible makes such a crude formulaic connection. For example, a single person who can spend an extra hour a day praying when they fast, does not automatically, receive more blessing than the parent who can only spend an extra ten minutes praying in the day because they have to prepare meals for their kids and put them to bed etc. And there are always unforeseen things that call us away at certain times from the praying we set out to do. We don’t need to feel guilty about that. But all that said, fasting without making some conscious decision and effort to seek God in prayer either on our own or with others is pointless. God is our heavenly father, not our heavenly formula. He knows our hearts and the constraints on our time and energy. He sees the steps we make towards him (as well as the excuses) and is more than able to show us how to use what we have to honour him and bless the world. He is the multiplier of our efforts, not us.

Thirdly, by not eating, we remind ourselves that the body, as important as it is, is not the ultimate reality of our lives, our souls are. And when we use our time fast and seek God, we give a nourishing boost and “growth spurt” to our souls, (which by the way, will continue to grow in God forever when they get new bodies, after the death of these ones). Fasting is the deliberate humbling of these bodies of ours with all their desires, reminding them of their proper place in the order of the universe as servants of our souls, not masters of them, helping us to submit to God. It is the opportunity to remind our hearts of what is truly real and what will last forever, not just what will last for this lifetime.

Fourthly, fasting is not limited to food, you can fast from leisure activities too. But food and drink fasting and fasting from sleep are the only kinds done in the Bible and the benefit of fasting from food or sleep is that every time you have a rumble in your stomach or feel weary, it reminds you to lift your eyes to heaven and say “Jesus our eyes are upon you to do all that you have promised. Thank you for calling me into your amazing adventure. Help me to be obedient and effective in all that you desire!”

So why not fast? If you have fasted a meal before, why not fast a whole day? If you have fasted a whole day, why not fast a few days etc. What have you got to lose?

If you have never done it before, then try skipping a meal. For example, skip the evening meal and go to your bedroom, read the bible and then pray. Or skip lunch and go for a walk in a local park and pray as you walk. If you have a small child who is no longer breastfeeding, why not fast lunch and then pray when your child is napping? There are endless possibilities, we just need a little imagination and encouragement from others who have done it before.

Nothing truly great comes easy and yes, it is hard at times, but the benefits always outweigh the costs because, as we often say, you can never out give God. He will always give us more than we give to him.

Whatever you decide. be accountable to someone and remember, the main thing is to pray like Jesus prayed – that God’s kingdom becomes a reality on the earth like it already is in Heaven.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Notes on Mark 10:35-52

This week our text considers two requests made to Jesus. They made their requests face to face, but we make our requests to him through prayer, and prayer at its simplest form is talking with God.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he has told his disciples that the time has come for him to be crucified (10:32-34). The disciples are terrified by this for once they are done with Jesus, will the authorities not then turn on Jesus’ followers in an effort to “cleanse” the nation of his teaching? Along with this fear the disciples’ sense of self-importance is bubbling up to the surface as they argue about who of them is the greatest.

James and John figure that if they are to suffer with Jesus they want to be guaranteed some kind of reward in the next life so they “ask” if they can be enthroned next to him in eternity. They had spent three years with the greatest person who has ever walked the earth yet instead of imitating his example, they want to use their privileged position with him to secure honour for themselves.

Jesus, knowing the tumble of emotions going on within them, indirectly and lovingly rebukes them by showing them a better way. Heaven is a world of love, where there is no grabbing at status or compensation, instead all serve one another for that is what love does. Those who seek positions and honour have not yet truly understood or been perfected by love. Love serves all without finding fault.

Mark then shows us perfectly how Jesus is full of love and service and recounts the healing of blind man, Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus in Aramaic meant “son of impurity."  Due to, amongst other things, a misinterpretation of Leviticus 21:16-23, the culture of Jesus’ day looked down on disabled people, not just as less useful, but as spiritually unworthy people. In healing this man, Jesus not only gives him the precious gift of sight, but symbolically makes him fit for worship and service to God.

The disciples are too busy wallowing in their sorrow, fear and sense of self-importance to hear this cry of faith and desperation. In calling Jesus the Son of David, Bartimaeus is expressing faith that Jesus is the Messiah and that he has power to restore all things – including his sight. And when his sight is restored, he beholds the saviour of the world. Imagine that moment.

Jesus asked the same question to both James and John and Bartimaeus, but he got very different responses. He asks, not because he doesn’t know the answer, but because he wants us to lay hearts bare before him and for us to realise what is in our hearts. What do you want Jesus to do for you today?

Let us learn to ask like Bartimaeus in faith and humility, recognising our true and desperate need and seeking mercy and grace. And as we ask like Bartimaeus, let us be like Jesus – laying down our lives in service to all, not dictating the terms like James and John, but obeying whatever it is that Jesus asks of us.  Serving not just the people we like or who are like us or who we think will be useful to us at some point, but serving all without finding fault in them, without expecting anything in return and seeking their true flourishing as we lead some of them, one day, to Christ.

There is an abundance of grace, but there is not an abundance of choice, we either pick up our cross and follow Jesus in humble, joyful service or we don’t. There is an abundance of grace, but there is not an abundance of time. In eternity, time will be a abundant, but in this life it is a precious resource, don’t waste it – choose obedience and choose it quickly.

  • What would have been going through your mind if you were one of the disciples following Jesus to his death in Jerusalem?
  • In what ways are you tempted to dictate to Jesus the terms of how you serve him?
  • What had James and John not yet understood about love and God's kingdom? Have you understood it yet?
  • Who are the Bartimaeuses in your life, can Jesus rely on you to bring them to him or are you too absorbed in your own world to notice?
  • What do you need the Holy Spirit’s help with as a result of thinking on these things?

Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Prayer to Endure: Sermon Notes on 2 Thessalonians 3:5

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

Summer is a better time to take stock than Christmas and New Year, because it’s busy and it is dark and cold.

This verse is a window on how Paul was praying for the Thessalonian Christians and no doubt all the Christians he knew.

One of the values that guides our prayers as a church is to endure in the faith ourselves like Jesus did and to build a community of Christians here that endures for as long as there is a town called Reading on the map of what is currently called the United Kingdom.

The Thessalonian Church was a church under fire. If you read Acts 17, you find that the mob was out for them. Paul writes two letters to them and in this second letter, one of the issues he is addressing is that some have given up working for their daily bread and for the Lord because the opposition was intense and somehow, maybe through grief and discouragement, they believed the “Day of the Lord” had already come and that they would be imminently carried off to Heaven or some such. Paul exhorts and admonishes them to persevere in their responsibilities to the Lord and to each other, to be busy both in work to provide for their bodily needs and in the work of the Lord because the end has not come just yet. What might seem like the end times to them in their bubble, is not the end times to the rest of the world and they need to be diligent in serving the Lord for some time yet.

Two thousand years later and we are all still here! Some of those Thessalonian Christians would have their tails between their legs if they knew! Whilst our context is not a context of violent pressure like theirs, pressures still exist. The call to persevere remains, even if it comes from a different angle and the power to endure still comes from the same place.

I want to ask three questions relating to this verse:

  1. What is the love of God?
  2. Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
  3. How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

What is the love of God?
The true and living God is a community, a family of love: God the Father and God the Son delighting in each other through the fellowship of God the Holy Spirit. All three of them are fully distinct personalities, yet all three of them are fully God. And yet, they all dwell in each other so fully, that if you have met one of them, you come to know them all.

But here is a question. If the Father, Son and the Spirit enjoy true bliss and satisfaction in each other and have no need of anything else, then why are we here at all? Surely that means God lacks something, needs something – why otherwise would we be here.

The good news is that you and I exist not because God has some gaping hole in the soul, or because the trinity all got bored of each other, but because God is love.

You see true love shares and gives. When you truly love someone you want to share all that you have with them and you want to give all of yourself to them.

True love is self-effacing and self-sacrificing. True love does not say “look at me, I’m important.” True love forgets itself, it is too delighted with another. True love says I want to give everything I am and have to the one whom I love.

God the Father loves God the Son and desires to give him the greatest gift he possibly can. That gift was not the latest smartphone or even a stash of cash the size of the Himalayas, but people. More specifically a people who would love the son, and delight in him the way the Father delights in him. A people who would share his delight in his beloved son and be united to the Son in that love.

Think about that for a moment. As a human being you are, along with all other humans, the person sat next to you, your family and friends, and all the people who fill the earth are, in God the Father’s mind the greatest possible gift he could think of giving to his Son. Let that thought fill you with dignity that it should for a moment. Poke the person next to you and tell them they are the greatest gift the Father could think of to give his Son. You are not just a biological machine, you are not just the sum total of all your worldly titles. Whether you realise it or not, you as a human being, as the pinnacle of God’s creative genius are a gift – a gift from the father to the son.

And the Son is not passive in this gift giving process. He is not up in his bedroom in heaven playing computer games and shouting downstairs every half an hour when he wants a snack. When the father offers him this gift of a people to love and be loved by him, he doesn’t say Meh! Got anything else? He says Wow! That’s the greatest gift I could ever conceive of receiving. Father you are the greatest father there is and I desire that just as I have enjoyed your love eternally and honour you for that love, so too, I want to do everything I can so that this people you give to me, come to know that enjoyment of your love also.

And so together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they created the universe we see around us. A place that is vast in size and yet intricate and balanced to the finest detail. A place full of beautiful variety and yet ordered and harmonious in that variety.

And at the centre of that creation they placed Adam and Eve, the babies of the human race. And in this world of love, beauty and perfection, all we, the human race had to do was give our yes and amen to God by loving and trusting them and doing all that they asked of us so that we could grow, flourish and mature into a beautiful people who filled the earth with the happiness of God and when all had been fulfilled – when we came of age, God would give us in marriage to his son forever.

The problem was, we didn’t say yes and amen to this plan, we said no, no way. We didn’t say “I do,” we said “I don’t.” And in that moment, we became spiritual orphans and adulterers.

We became orphans, not because God the father died, but because we refused to recognise his existence in our lives as the Father of our souls. We became adulterers because instead of giving ourselves in faithful love to God the Son we gave our hearts and our bodies in obedience to another voice – the voice of the serpent. We have all lived in the shame, guilt and slavery of that decision ever since, deaf and dead to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

At that point, the Father, the Son and the Spirit could have thrown in the towel outraged at our faithlessness and consigned us and the universe we live in to the dustbin of Heaven and got back to the drawing board saying “Let’s try that again.”

But the God of the Bible is love, and true love does not give up. True love pursues. The greater the love, the greater the pursuit. The greatest love gives birth to the greatest pursuit.

More than that, only tragedy can truly prove how great any love is and so the greatest tragedy – our rebellion against God, whilst far from being the plan and no one plans tragedy – is nevertheless the opportunity for the greatest love to show itself true.

Whilst it is absolutely outrageous that the God of the universe should be humiliated in such a way, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is nevertheless, the moment in history where the love of God and the glory of that love is most truly displayed. And where the Son of God proves that he is worthy to receive all our adoration and affection as our future bridegroom.

For it is there he said I love you. It is there that he became our representative and stood in our place. It is there that he said:

  • Let me take your shame so that you can receive my glory.
  • Let me take your guilt so that you can receive my perfection.
  • Let me take your punishment so that you can receive my peace.
  • Let me take your bondage so that you can receive my freedom.
  • Let me take your darkness so that you can receive my light.
  • Let me take your chaos so that you can receive my rest.
  • Let me take your weakness so that you can receive my power.
  • Let me take your spirit of lawlessness so that you can receive my Holy Spirit.
  • Let me take your death so that you can receive my life.
  • Let me take everything that you are so that you can receive everything that I am.
  • I love you, I love you, I love you and my father and I want you to be with me where we are!

Paul sums it up like this in Ephesians 2: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Thanks to the kindness and mercy of God, at the end of history, there will still be a great marriage when God the Son, in the presence of his Father will be united in love to all those out of every nation on the earth who have believed and trusted in him.

The Apostle John puts it like this in 1 John 3: Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 2: No eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, nor has any mind conceived of the things that God has in store for those who love him.

David the Psalmist, puts it like this in Psalm 45: Listen, my daughter, and pay careful attention: forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord. All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.

Whoever you are, whatever you have done, whatever your history, whatever your trajectory, the Father and the Son desire that we all should join them forever in a renewed world unspoiled by our darkness and evil, and they have made provision such that no barrier can ever get in the way of us believing him. The only thing that can possibly stop us now coming to him is our refusal to receive his love. He will not force his love upon us, but neither will he wait forever, if you hear his voice today, don’t wait to receive his love and obey his voice.

Have you said yes to this call from him?

The Love of God is the Story of History

But what about the here and now, we have just looked at the beginning and end of human history, but where are we here and now in Reading in 2017 at whatever age and stage we are.

I have spoken much about the Father and the Son, not so much about the Spirit.

Which leads us to our second question...

Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
It is the Holy Spirit who the Father and the Son have given to us to guard us and to prepare us meet them and to help us prepare the world for it to be God’s future home.

In the Old Testament, the guardian of God’s people was the Law – the law guarded God’s people and helped them prepare for the coming of Christ. The Law was to be a seal upon their hearts reminding them who they belonged to and light to their eyes showing them how to live.

The Spirit of God is the true and better guardian of God’s people. He is the true and better Law. He is preparing us for the return of Christ. He is the true and better counsellor, he is our the true and better advocate. The Law brought people near to God, the Spirit unites our hearts to God.

Like the Law once was, now the Spirit is God’s seal upon our hearts reminding us who we belong to and so Paul writes in Ephesians 1:13-14: When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession. He is also light to our eyes showing us how to live. Again, Paul writes in Galatians 5:25: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

So in his role as guardian, what is it that the Spirit is to do?

His role is to take us from immature adulthood to mature adulthood.

When you and I turned 18, our status in law changed from child to adult, but that did not mean that you and I were immediately allowed to do everything that every other adult is allowed to do. Yes, we could legally drink in a pub without supervision, but nobody immediately handed us the keys to a jumbo jet, or the tools of a brain surgeon and said “Off you go, have a go”. If they had, they would have been ridiculously negligent. There was still a huge amount of training and maturing we had to go through, both in our technical ability and in our relational wisdom so as to become mature in our adulthood. And if you’re like me, you are still learning and still maturing. At 18, my status changed overnight, but my maturity and competence level most definitely did not!

Maturity isn’t a mix you can buy from the supermarket: “Instant Maturity:” Just add the Spirit.”

Just like the picture behind me, the girl who has probably just turned 18, has a different status in her family, but if she has any sense and her parents are any good at parenting, she will be constantly returning to them for help, advice and money as she learns to take her place in an adult world.

When God poured out the Spirit upon his people, it was a sign that their status had changed! Now they were truly born of the Spirit and children of God, now they were truly the betrothed bride of Christ, now they truly would reign with Christ and be seated in heavenly realms with him, but they were / are immature in that new status, and it was and is the Spirit who was given to help us to grow up and mature into who God has made us to be. Paul says in Ephesians 4:13 that we are to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Paul is not just referring to individual Christians here, his scope is much broader, he is referring to the people of God down history, including you and me.

The giving the Spirit marks God’s intention to transition the world and his people from this old way of life in sin, death and hatred of God to a new way of life, a way of light, life and the love of God.

But this process of maturing that the Spirit wants to do in us doesn’t come easy! Like Josh said last week, nothing great is easy. The greatest tasks are often the hardest tasks, so if this stuff sounds hard or even impossible to you then you are thinking the right things and asking the right questions.
So we come to our third question...

How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

We can face opposition in the world around us, but even more than that, we find sometimes that our hearts are at war within us. The greatest battle in our lives is the battleground of the heart. Our old task master, Satan, that great serpent, doesn’t just role over when we give the allegiance of our lives to Christ. Moreover, our own hearts are so used to living a different way that they find it difficult do synchronise to this true and better vision of life.

In these moments of internal and external conflict the Spirit of God will point our eyes to Christ. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The Spirit wants us to see Christ who is both our guarantee and our inspiration.

He is our guarantee in those moments when we are given to disappointment and frustration because we have let God down, that he will not forsake us. The blood of Jesus is always fully able to cover over and redeem all our failings and weaknesses. God will carry on to completion the good work he has begun in us.

He is also our inspiration for he has called us to finish the work he began and if we are facing difficulty in that work, we can look to him and his example so that we know how to proceed in the circumstances that we find ourselves.

What stops us from allowing the Spirit to direct our hearts?

At the root of it, what causes us to stifle the voice of the Holy Spirit is that we elevate the voice of our hearts above his voice.

Our culture is constantly telling us to listen to our hearts, that this is the way to flourish. Proverbs 14:12 disagrees, it says There is a way that seems right to us, but in the end it leads to death. What truly brings life to us is listening to the voice of God.

The danger here is not that we can’t be honest to God, we can and must be honest with God and with each other, the danger here is pride. Considering our voices more important than God’s voice which when you think about how great God is and how puny we are, is nothing short of madness.

This process can be subtle. You and I can fall into the trap of assuming that because we believe the right stuff that we have somehow been vaccinated against falling away from God, but if we let our emotions and desires be the prism through which we understand God’s words, rather than asking God’s words to be the prism through which we learn to understand our desires and emotions, then we are already half-way to living in disobedience, stifling the Spirit and giving up.

We may carry on being Christian on the outside, but there will little energy and appetite for obeying Christ’s command to complete the great commission and a strong desire to stay on the path of least resistance, maintain the status quo and avoid change.

Here are some emotions and desires we can elevate above God’s word in our hearts. The list is not exhaustive.

  • Disobedience
  • Failure
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Disappointment
  • Unmet expectations
  • Victimhood
  • Cynicism
  • Self-pity
  • Bitterness
  • Opposition
  • Fear
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Comfort
  • Pleasure
  • Overfamiliarity
  • Complacency
  • Deception
  • Fruitlessness
  • Frustration
  • Discouragement.

When these emotions and thoughts come we must speak the words of God to them and believe the Spirit as he reminds us of them and fix our hearts on the love of God and steadfastness of Christ.

Then, and only then, we will have the strength to endure to the end.