Sunday, September 22, 2019

"Expanding Ministry" (Acts 6:1-10)


We saw last week how the early church was expanding rapidly through growing house churches. Of course, an immediate need would be for good leadership. This would be to ensure that the mission could continue unhindered, that the material aid being given to the general community could be maintained, and, that those who were part of the growing number of house churches could be well nurtured. With such rapid expansion, one could imagine that there would be certain complaints about certain people who might be missing out. Action would need to be taken … to expand the leadership, so that the various necessary and existing ministries of the church could continue.

We could see this passage from Acts chapter 6 … as  a bit of a case-study in (emerging) leadership. The early church seems to have been able to effectively adjust itself to various challenges, especially to the persecution being faced. Despite their circumstances, these ‘believers’ realised just how much their society needed a vibrant faith-promoting Jesus-following church. God’s glory and the relevance of Jesus must be enhanced … in the eyes of the world. We must continue to present opportunities to respond to God’s outworking grace.

A Problem to be Solved

Overarching this need to expand leadership, would be to have the right people in the right roles. The particular situation that the early church was in (here in Acts 6), was the report that a certain group of widows described as “Hellenists” were being neglected when the food was being shared out. This would have been a fairly ‘raw’ issue … with these poor people missing out on food. This may have been because of a language barrier, as the “Hellenists” only spoke Greek and NOT Hebrew or Aramaic. Maybe there was a bias that needed to be rectified. Sometimes worldly tensions between people groups can be brought into the church. Maybe there was just too few doing too much.

Whatever the case, there needed to be a plan to sort this out, and make sure, as much as possible, everybody’s food needs were met. There would need to be good plans generally … going forward, to cover all the needs and ministry opportunities that would come up. A disruption, like the case here in verse 1 would likely upset the church’s God-given mission. Wisdom, please! The twelve disciples, with all the ‘believers’, would seek wisdom over this matter … as they gathered together to discuss the problem.

Even though … this inequity in sharing the food … was an important matter, the first disciples, referred to here as the “twelve”, knew their time limitations, and felt that the good work they were doing in sharing the Word of God (v 2 & 4) and being committed to prayer (v 4) should NOT be disrupted. The load needed to be shared – besides … this was God’s design for the church – everyone involved – everyone serving (in various capacities). So, more leaders were required – ones who would be suited to the hospitality ministry – ones who could develop this in the best and most inclusive direction.

The “twelve” brought this before everybody. You could imagine, by this time, there might have been representatives present from the many house churches … all struggling with similar growing pains. This matter was for everyone to participate in solving. Who should take the lead among you? Who should be on the hospitality team?? A matter for prayerful discernment! This is NOT to say that any one is any more important than any other, just that each has a God-given role and calling to fulfil … as part of the team’s collaboration.

Leaders needed to be selected for this particular ministry task. One wonders whether there was a shortage of candidates (as is often the case now). It is interesting that the qualities required for distributing and serving food … were NOT cookery skills or having food-handling certificates, but rather character traits. The reason for this will emerge later. The qualities required were (verse 3): being in “good standing”, and being “full of the Holy Spirit” and “wisdom”. [It does say “men” in the text, but of course that was culturally conditioned. We know how both Jesus and Paul commended women in their ministry. And many women were in fact key and leading members of these early house churches.] A further character quality was included in describing Stephen … in verse 5 – as a man “full of faith”. I think we have, here, some really good pointers toward Christian leadership. 

Firstly in “good standing” before God – meaning that we have been forgiven, set aright, and able to forgive and accept others (for who they are). Living in that grace relationship, where we are continually receiving forgiveness from God, and offering forgiveness to others. Secondly, in “good standing” in church and community i.e. well-respected, consistent, faithful, reliable (runs on the board so to speak, ‘fruitful’). Then, "full of the Holy Spirit", wise, and "full of faith". Now lest everyone resigns, or sees themselves short of this mark … we should say some other things. This is NOT our work of character-building – this is God’s work in us – this is what God is bringing to us – this is what the Lord is doing in me.

This level of character is most clearly evident … through the fruit of the Spirit operating in a person’s life – which is what God is bringing into our lives as we continue to journey with Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit, according to Paul’s teaching in Galatians chapter 5 is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. To be “full of the Spirit” … is to be fruitful! To be ‘wise’ (wisdom itself is listed as one of the 'gifts' of the Spirit) … is to see things differently and more clearly than normally in the world; to be ‘wise’ is to see as God sees, and to think as God thinks. To be “full of faith” is to believe that great things are possible with God! The healing of brokenness, people coming to know Jesus in good numbers, churches filling to the brim and beyond, and communities positively changing in culture - are the great things that can happen ... seen by those who are "full of faith"! Stephen, and we too, need to be “full of faith” if we are to tackle the storms of life (with courage) and come through to the other side.

The possibility of Christian leadership begins when we simply and humbly ‘repent’, accept Jesus’ mercy, and begin on the journey of salvation … by following Jesus through life. We simply open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s filling, and be obedient in our discipleship and lifestyle – and from here emerges fruit, giftings, new understanding and wisdom, and the sort of faith that cannot be denied nor diminished! It is often, only as we tentatively put up our hand for responsibility, that our preparation and readiness will be noted. I’m sure that the seven men elected that day back then, were NOT entirely convinced that they met the high criteria put forward, but they were chosen nonetheless … I’m sure … very prayerfully and carefully.

What was seen by others, was the character qualities that God was bringing out of them. And so, to the first twelve disciples (minus Judas plus Matthias – 1:26), were added Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus (v 5). We don’t hear anything more about the latter five of this group – but one could assume they just quietly go about their particular ministry calling. Yet the seriousness of their responsibilities were noted, as the apostles (another name and role for the original “twelve”), prayed a blessing over them.

Great Outcomes

The ‘seven’ stood together with the “twelve” … for their blessing – as they were a team … not independent individuals, but rather a united front! The Holy Spirit brings diversity … into unity of faith and action. We should again hear what happens when good ministry abounds – read verse 7. Here again is a serious impact within the community, such that even those who were previously immovable opponents … were coming to faith. Don’t you get excited about that! Good ministries around the Word, prayer, and service to others … brings growth in God’s Kingdom.

But I extended the verses we read for a reason. What do we notice here (v 8 & 10)?? Stephen didn’t stay within the hospitality ministry for too long. He pretty quickly branched out! Once he put his hand up, the Holy Spirit acted mightily in him. Gracefully and obediently serving tables one day – capturing many souls for Jesus the next! Sometimes someone needs to be encouraged into a small role … before they are able to discover their bigger role. Sometimes people’s giftedness is very apparent, other times it emerges gradually – maybe through a little experimentation. Yet, ‘spiritual gifts’ only grow … as they are used in the ‘body’ for the common good. Philip too … we later hear how he progressed to become a successful evangelist – famous for that incident with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8. This can happen. We put our hand up for one task, but this is simply in preparation for the bigger things God has in mind.

Stephen performed “wonders and signs” – we don’t know exactly what – but these did … what they are always designed to do – bring attention to God. And when Stephen spoke, and even when people argued against him, the wisdom and spiritual truth of what he shared cut straight through. We regret that Stephen was so evilly stoned to death as a result of his preaching – yet the name of Jesus was on his lips as this happened (refer Acts 7:59-60). Was it this very incident, as we read the end of Acts 7, with Saul standing there as a witness – that laid the groundwork for Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road (and everything that followed)?!

Saul, as he met Jesus, and became Paul, is an example itself … how leadership can quickly emerge from surprising places. Christian leadership is much more than just about filling jobs. Gift-discovery should allow for creative new ministries to begin. What is God ‘welling-up’ in you … that could be brought into the church’s ministry and mission? As the Holy Spirit gives the ‘gifts’, God is opening the doors for them to be used.

Conclusion – our challenge

What is God saying to you about leadership? This church needs to build a leadership team for the long-term future. We need people to discover their callings and work in the areas God has gifted them for. Some of this will be serving in hospitality. Some will have the calling of teaching the children. Others will lead us in worship in various capacities. Some wonderful souls … will serve in multiple capacities until we grow and others can take over. Some are needed to help govern the church on our board. And some are needed to be discerned as spiritual elders to guide our pastoral responses in church and community. Please prayerfully consider where you fit in God’s masterplan of leadership!

As each of us step out, and pursue the gifts and callings that God has given us, whatever they are – we are all potentially leaders – because, potentially, we can all make a contribution and difference for good. Those who specialise in bringing encouragement to those serving, and regularly offer prayer for all our ministries … lead us with a great example. Praise God that there are those people who are able to perform such important responsibilities in support of the ‘whole body’. When people are ministering in the right areas, according to their gifts, as part of the ‘body’, this is the path to our health and growth. Even the most seemingly humble or small act of obedience and leadership, can change everything for somebody. We can together, through our combined and unified efforts, redeem what belongs to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

"Together" (Acts 2:37-47)

  1. Revision  

What I have been trying to do over the last three weeks … is talk about some crucial understandings about the Christian life. From Romans chapter 5 we saw that one of the central features of being Christian is being forgiven. We come humbly before the ‘throne of grace’ and find mercy there. Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, and through his resurrection, we enter a new experience of life as forgiven people. This changes everything, because we need … no longer … to live under guilt and shame, but rather in freedom. This is the freedom that we model in community – which becomes a distinguishing feature that others may also want to discover.

This experience is described, in John chapter 3, as being “born again” or “born anew”. From this moment, we enter what John calls “eternal life”, which means life in all it fullness – life as it was meant to be – or life with solid purpose. This means that we can bring the light of Jesus into any dark places that we encounter. There are so many people living in darkness, through what has been done to them, or because of some poor choices they have made, or just because this is where life has led them. As we have responded to Jesus and begun to follow him, we become lights to the world.

In the book of James, where the rubber really hits the road, we are confronted with the need to come under the discipline of the Word of God. This doesn’t just mean reading it or hearing it, but also applying it, into every facet of life – or in the words of James, being “doers of the Word”. So, for instance, those things that Jesus was concerned about, we will be concerned about. Where Jesus calls us to be witnesses (to him), we will be witnesses (to him). Where Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour, we will love our neighbour. Where Jesus exhibits love and compassion to the “least of these”, we will offer love and compassion to the “least of these”.

  1. Introduction

So … to this week’s text. Those who have been forgiven, and are walking in their salvation, and seeking to be disciples of Jesus – will want to gather together in the church. The Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost is available to us – to group us, to make us effective, to give us gifts of ministry to be shared for the common good, and to help us make Jesus present in our communities. We have read today from Acts chapter 2, the brilliant response to Peter’s powerful preaching following the Pentecost experience.

Those who were already ‘believers’, together with those that responded to Peter’s message that day, began to come together regularly in their homes – seen by them as ‘house churches’ – to practice their new found faith. We see the strong impact of their new faith in verses 42-47. How they now shaped their lives, was both as a response to the Gospel that they themselves received, and as a commitment to sharing that same Gospel with others (refer verse 41 and verse 47)!!! [As most people know, this is my singular goal in life – that people get the opportunity to come to know Jesus.]

  1. The Coming of the Spirit

When Jesus left his first disciples with the great commission of making disciples (and teaching and baptising them) – this was a scary challenge. Even believing in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection … was not enough for his first disciples to fully go forward with confidence. But Jesus had said, ‘Wait, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you’. Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit!! When this happened, of course, we know, there was no holding them back. The results were remarkable – this changed everything! That same Holy Spirit is given to us – making the great commission possible!

  1. New Life Experiences

As we have seen in our Acts 2 reading, coming to know Jesus was life-changing for the new ‘believers’. The way they did life completely changed. The biggest change I think is this – instead of pleasing themselves, they wanted to please God. Instead of having their own desires met, they wanted to serve others. Instead of just going to the temple once a week on the ‘sabbath’, they met regularly with their brothers and sisters (in the faith) in one another’s homes. And when they met in these homes, this was not just idle chit-chat, this was worship. They saw this as the necessary preparation for what God wanted to do (in the world) through them.

  1. Being Together

When they joined together, verse 42 indicates what their priorities were. There were much broader activities and shared experiences … that we see in this passage and later through Acts – “wonders and signs”, shared meals, generosity to the poor, common possessions – but I would argue that these broader blessings came out of their solid foundational intentions expressed in verse 42. I’ll come back to each of the four areas mentioned here, but I just wanted to mention how these ‘believers’ were viewed in their community. When the normal (sad to admit) cultural preference … for … one’s own needs to be met first, is broken through with acts of outrageous or random generosity, people DO take notice!

  1. Community Perspectives

There was opposition … to this belief in Jesus … from certain quarters, mainly, as it was for Jesus, within the religious and political leadership. There will always, it seems, be opposition to transformative faith … from those who it threatens (without any personal desire to change). Yet, we should examine how such faith, when it is lived out with such credibility, is generally seen around the community. Verse 47a – “… having the goodwill of all the people”!!! And why not?! However the principles of this faith in a ‘crucified prophet having been raised from the dead’ were viewed around the cafĂ© conversations of Palestine and beyond – the outcome of these people’s faith was kindness – and NOT only to the ‘insiders’, but to everybody!! And this was impressive! 

These ‘believers’ in Jesus had a reputation for going the extra mile in acts of compassion (right across the society of the time). Ancient writings, like those of Emperor Julian (4th century), revealed that the early Christians had a high reputation for caring for the poor, widows and orphans, as well as visits to those in prison or condemned to the living death of labouring in the mines. Early Christians provided graves and burial services for those whose bodies would otherwise have been left to the wild animals and birds.

We can use the term “overlap” to describe how our life in the church can transfer into everyday service in the community! Our lives in church, and in community should, “overlap”. In chapter 4 verse 32, we read that, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” – now that is always impressive wherever it is seen and experienced! And this seemed to open a path for the Gospel to be shared and spread; for we read in the next verse, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v 33). In other words, because of their witness to Jesus, ‘grace’ became clearly evident around them.

  1. The Apostles’ Teaching (verse 42)

The leaders amongst the ‘believers’ – initially probably the disciples that travelled with Jesus – and who were active in setting up the house churches – provided teaching. They would have needed to share the basics about Jesus … if these ‘believers’ were to go on with their faith. They would have recalled and shared the teaching of Jesus, and told about how his ministry reached out to people in a variety of transformative ways and contexts. They would have taught about the centrality of the cross and resurrection. As these memories and reflections were shared and passed on – the oral tradition (as it’s called), this would have formed some of the basis for the Gospel narratives (MMLJ) as we have them now.

These teachers would have also looked back to the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures), and how these reflected God’s seeking out of humanity toward redemption – and particularly how all this pointed to the coming of Jesus. This would have been familiar territory for Jewish converts, but new material for many ‘gentile’ converts to Christianity. We read that there was a devotion (“they devoted themselves” – v. 42a) toward being taught like this (as well as participating in these other areas of worship in verse 42). To be “devoted” means to be ‘whole-hearted’!

As already mentioned, we spoke last week about the importance of coming under the teaching of God’s Word – to come under its discipline, so that we too can truly be disciples of Jesus. We need to continually ask this question: ‘What does it mean in real everyday life … to be a follower of Jesus’? This is what I am compelled to continually address. The early church were able to have such a remarkable success in their mission, because they were so devoted to being well-taught – and then they, as a result, became true ‘doers’ of the ‘Word of Truth’.

  1. Fellowship

At the same time there was a commitment to growing together in friendship and human solidarity – the word that is often used is “fellowship” – i.e. getting together and sharing time and conversation and hospitality with others. The Greek word “koinonia” translated “fellowship” … refers to deep sharing, close relationship and real caring. This would become more and more natural and spontaneous over time.

Sometimes there would be great experiences held in common that could be shared with one another – the really deep burdens and joys of life … even times of suffering that could be explored for one another’s encouragement or strengthening. Sometimes, differing viewpoints could be shared, for the mutual enrichment of all. Sometimes, certain differences would have to be put aside, for the sake of the harmony of the ‘body of Christ’ (and their witness to the general community).  

  1. The Breaking of Bread

Most commentators believe that the “breaking of bread” in verse 42 … refers mainly to communion – to the remembrance of what Jesus shared with his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’. [The sharing of normal meals is what is referred to in verse 46, although the two were totally connected in the early expressions of church within homes.] This “breaking of bread” showed a real obedience to what Jesus had requested of those disciples present that ‘Passover’ night. Whenever they gathered and shared hospitality, they took up the bread … and the cup … in remembrance of what Jesus had done for them. In this way, their gatherings were totally focussed on Jesus.

Although communion can still happen in homes and in small group meetings – over the centuries, communion (in its various forms and the various ways it is referred to) has been transplanted into the formal worship service of the church. And communion DOES sit well here. For when we are together, we must remember why we are here, and what binds us together. We are here because of the grace of the cross. On a weekly basis, this centres us on Jesus. Many other things happen as expressions of faith, but the cross is where it starts, and our communion focusses us there.

  1. The Prayers

We need the Word of God to guide us, so that we don’t lack direction. We need fellowship – that very human touch – so that we don’t lack encouragement. We need communion – the breaking of bread and drinking the cup – to continually remind us that the church is NOT a club, but rather a spiritual movement. AND WE NEED PRAYER – to build our relationship with God and each other, as we seek the Spirit to guide us in our particular ministry into the world. The Bible gives us the timeless truths; but it is the Spirit, through our participation TOGETHER in prayer, that brings the necessary and life-changing applications into our daily situations … and the activities of our church … in 2019 and beyond.

This will be our theme in two weeks-time. But for now, I just wanted to highlight, that this reference to prayer in verse 42, is particularly about engagement with “the prayers” of the church body. This is NOT so much about our personal praying (crucial as it is), nor, so much about praying FOR the church (crucial as that is) – but rather praying WITH the church … for the church’s engagement with the world.

This is joining together in solidarity around all the prayer needs of church and community (while also being able to celebrate the great outcomes brought about through God’s faithfulness to us). Praying together in good numbers … before God – opens significant opportunities to understand God’s will and purposes, while releasing God’s blessing upon ourselves and our community. So hold that thought for two weeks-time! Imagine what it would mean to be praying TOGETHER for this community and this church’s mission!! Have a look in advance at Acts chapter 19.

  1. Conclusion

Acts 2:42, in the context of the verses around it, provides a great pattern for our life of worship together. We are committed together to God, and devoted to our worship of Him. In this, we need good teaching around God’s Word, the encouragement of sharing real life in all its turmoil and joy, and the regular reminder that the cross is central to our experience of salvation and new life. Praying together binds all this together, and points it outwards towards all who need to hear the good news.

All this is part of a vibrant relationship with God. When this is all happening with Spirit-led fluency, we will certainly be, “praising God” in full and vibrant worship, as we read in verse 47. Also, I reckon, just like in the days of the early church, we can “have the goodwill of all the people”, in such a way … that they come and join with us. Amen!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

"Walking the Talk" (James 1:17-27)

Vision / Dedication

I see a church which wants to grow in their appreciation of God’s Word. Because of this, they will grow in their concern for their neighbour, and daily seek to live out the life of Jesus. In this, they will become closer to the God who travels with us, and Who opens up opportunities to bless others. We have a ministry to anyone God brings across our path. We can light up that path! We can reflect the hope … that trials can be endured, and evil can be restrained. We can testify together to a merciful and faithful God. I see a community in need, yet one that will appreciate … that there is a church that cares, albeit imperfectly. I see people in that community, responding to the good news of Jesus and joining us in worship. In this we celebrate. To this end, I dedicate this message from God’s Word.


We talked last week, around our examination of John chapter 3, about how our light might shine in the darkness. Once we have believed in Jesus, and been “born again”, and begun on the path of salvation and eternal life – we are also moving from “darkness” to “light”. I talked about how this involved both internal and external change. The change within was based on Jesus being the “Light of the World” – Jesus being the One, through his life, death and resurrection, that makes a complete change in our life possible. The external change is motivated by Jesus saying to his disciples, and by extension to us, “YOU are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14)! This … provides us with a job description.

At the end of last week’s message, I asked the question … ‘How can we reveal the light this week’? The answers received concentrated mainly on conversations that were expected in the coming week, and hopefulness that these conversations would go in a good direction. As conversation is one of the main dynamics of life, these answers would seem very wise. What we believe i.e. about Jesus and Who He Is for us, should be so much a part of who we are … that our conversation would, more and more naturally over time, point towards him. Maybe not directly by Name … at first, be we would certainly be bringing Jesus’ light into dark places. And, unfortunately, there are many dark places … of abuse, cruelty, dishonesty and violence. 


So, I went to the most practical of all New Testament books – James. Chapter 1 and verses 17 to 18, seem to summarise where we were last week. All the good that can be done, or we can do, has its source in “the Father of lights”. The wondrous God who created all the universe in benevolent love – and who IS, and sheds light, upon everything He created – is the ultimate source of all the good that can be done in the world. More than this, we ourselves were created to be the channels of these “generous acts of giving”. The capacity for goodness flows from God to us, so that it might spill out from us.

As we look at verse 18, we see that each of us here, as part of our original birth, and certainly via the “born again” experience – have the potential to become a “kind of first fruits”. All creation is waiting, as Paul would put it in Romans 8, for the revealing of the children of God (v 19). James, in verse 18, refers to the “word of truth”. I think this is best understood as God’s self-revelation – God explaining or describing or showing … what He is like. So, as we are generous, God becomes known as generous. Ultimately, this self-revelation of God, this “word or logos” of truth, was seen in Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know the Father. The pages of the Holy Scriptures in the New Testament show us Jesus, and thus reveal who God is.

The Implanted Word (verse 21)

We read in verse 21, this great phrase … “the implanted word”. This is the idea that God’s Word can be planted deeply in our lives. We are going to head on to say … that we need to be “doers” of God’s Word – but to progress to being “doers” … to truly have God’s Word implanted in us – we first have to be ‘listeners’, ‘readers’ and ‘hearers’. We have to sit under God’s Word. We also need to be prepared to let God’s Word take effect in our lives. We need to place our lives under the discipline of God’s Word. This is why the Bible, along with the leading of the Spirit, is the major driver of our worship. The Bible should also guide our home groups, and the priorities of our church.

We read here that we are to “welcome” with “meekness” (verse 21b) … the “implanted word”. To “welcome” means to willingly allow access and gladly receive; “meekness” means that we know we need the Word, and are ready to learn, are teachable, and willing to receive new (life-changing) insights … being prepared to make the prescribed changes. The Word needs to be planted deep within us, so that it grows roots, springs up, and produces a crop of beautiful fruit. God’s Word becomes part of us – part of who we are – a driver for how we operate. This often requires a sacrifice of our own desires, and even long-held viewpoints – towards a preference for the calling … God has designed for us (or designed us for).

We need to study God’s 'Word of truth' – because it is likely to help us stay the journey, and also to fuel our maturity. Part of the process of salvation we are on, is the application of God’s truth to our everyday life. As we ‘believe’ in Jesus, commit ourselves to him, and follow him – God’s Spirit can be leading us into greater understandings and applications of the Scriptures. This is how we will learn more about God, and therefore be more likely to shine a bright light into the darkness.

Part of this “welcoming with meekness” is what comes earlier in verse 21. Sometimes … often really … there will be the need for us to make more space for the ‘Word of truth’ to be planted (in us). Old crops might need to go; and certainly weeds could be taking up needed space! “Therefore rid yourselves of …” whatever would fill up the space that ‘the Word’ would need to occupy. I will come back to this point. For now, we could just quote Jesus saying, “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20)! Also, having the Word “implanted”, would mean that we would say the right things … more often, and the wrong things … less often. This is because we are allowing God’s Word to change our default settings – or who we are down deep. We read in Psalm 119 verse 11: “I treasure Your Word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you”.

It is NOT just the letter of the “Word” that we are welcoming, but also its full meaning – especially those strong and repeating themes throughout the 66 books. As we “welcome” the “Word”, the Holy Spirit can bring us very significant applications (which would, of course, need to be based on a broad understanding of the breadth of the Scriptural witness). We would need to look deeply into how the ‘words’ reveal the character, attitudes, priorities, and will of God. We would need to discover how the Bible defines our service to others.

We know … that this is NOT just an intellectual quest – for we are to be “doers, NOT just “hearers” of the Word (verse 22). [[I read this pointed quote from church planting guru Neil Cole … and I see the challenge of it. “It is possible to have the creed and NOT the deed; we don’t need a statement of faith – we need a real faith that makes a statement”.]] A M Hunter, wrote: “Truth is something to be done, not merely believed; and a right act is so much of the truth made visible”. Some can be deceived, that just because they hear the Bible read, or sit under some preaching, that they are actually okay or fulfilling their obligations. However, unless the Word of God becomes “implanted” in us (verse 21), and flows out of us, we are unlikely to be serving God’s purposes to our full capacity. We need to avoid any such self-deception!

What does it mean for you to be a “doer” of God’s Word???

The Law of Liberty (verse 25)

One of the spaces that might need to be cleaned out, so that we can fully appreciate God’s Word, is how we feel about other people. This sort of negativity can fill up space where the good Word could otherwise be implanted! These might be people who have hurt us. These could be people with very different lifestyles or motivations to us. These could be people that tend to repel us. James uses another description of “the implanted word” in verse 25 i.e. the “perfect law” or the “law of liberty”. God’s Word clearly points to God’s desire that people will experience freedom. As other parts of the book of James point out (e.g. 2:8), loving our neighbour toward their spiritual freedom is the “perfect law”! [Referred to actually as the "royal law" - you can't get bigger than that!] The Bible generally reflects God’s long search for lost souls.

As we saw last week from John chapter 3, God desires that none should perish, that none will be condemned, and it is a tragedy indeed when anyone chooses to reject God. The famous John 3:16 is followed by verse 17 – “Indeed, God did NOT send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”. This reflects the “law of liberty” – the Word that says … God comes into the world with mercy that brings freedom. This freedom then (as we consider verse 27) extends quite broadly – from relieving the injustice and distress endured by others on the one hand, to being less and less affected by any negative (or false) worldly values on the other (or being better placed to avoid things that may lead us astray)!

We see at the end of verse 25, that there is a great “blessing” on offer for those who “look” {the Greek here indicating ‘looking intently’} into the “law of liberty” … with perseverance – acting on what they hear. James returns to this theme in chapter 2, where we read, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). So … as we have received mercy, we should promote mercy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5:7)! I said last week, we should NOT want to condemn anyone, but rather understand their predicament, as God has understood our predicament!

We should NOT expect anyone to act in a ‘righteous’ or God-fearing way, if they haven’t yet experienced the ‘Light’ shining in the darkness … or, if they haven’t yet experienced the Spirit sufficiently to properly understand or interpret God’s Word. For, when we make (often unfortunate) judgments, we also act (negatively) out of those judgments. James goes on, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). God’s mercy covers a multitude of sins – praise God for that!


So, as I reflect on this passage from James, I can clearly see the need to clear the space to have God’s Word implanted in me – to be actively welcoming and responsive to this ‘Truth’ about life, and in life. In so doing, I will understand more of Who God Is, and the bold and wonderful mercy that I have been afforded. As I get a greater grip on that generous gift of mercy, I will be more ready to reflect that same mercy to others – this in very real terms … bringing light into dark places. I will NOT just be a hearer about mercy, or a just recipient of mercy – but also a channel of mercy! We might also say … that to be a “doer” of God’s Word – is to act as Jesus acted. Amen.


“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good, so that you may do His will, working among us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21).  

Sunday, September 1, 2019

"Living in the Light" (John 3:1-8, 16-21)

Last week we looked at Romans chapter 5. Before we did so, I asked some questions in the congregation around what distinguishes a Christian. I went on to talk about God’s love … that was so prevalent, that Jesus came and died for “the ungodly”, the “sinners”, and God’s “enemies” (all the different ways this was expressed by Paul). The Gospel message was encapsulated in those four words – “Christ died for us”. My point was, that we Christians are ‘forgiven people’, which is certainly a distinguishing factor as we live out our lives in community.

It was interesting that the comments around the room in response to those questions, were about how we live, or about what other people might see in us. The fruit of the Spirit was mentioned, and then expanded upon by others in terms of expressing kindness or experiencing practical deeds of love. This fitted well with the first part of Romans 5, where we read … that the peace with God … that we gain through forgiveness, leads to a rejoicing … that even occurs through our suffering – building our resilience, and leading to a greater depth of character.


So, I wanted to press this a little further today, by examining another famous and significant new testament text – which, in the words of Jesus himself, shows how the process of accepting him, leads to a different way of life. The latter part of this John 3 passage, particularly verse 21, points to the idea that those good deeds of service … that we endeavour to do, point directly towards the God whom we follow and works within us. Thus, this message is entitled ‘Living in the Light’. Last week’s passage reflected on the world’s need … of hope entering into despair – this week’s text focusses on … light entering into darkness.

Believing and Eternal Life

Some clarification … around verse 16. The best understanding of what John means by “eternal life” (in verse 16 and many other places) … is ‘life in all its fullness’ or ‘life as God meant it to be’ which begins from the moment we are ‘born again’ (here on earth). As said last week, from this point … we are in the process of being saved, in the process of being ‘sanctified’ or set apart for God’s purposes, and our character is being reformed toward the image of Jesus. This means we will want to be an active part of a God-centred church community – worshipping and serving together … toward the good of others. To get to this point … we need to ??? what ??? – “believe” … in Jesus.

This does NOT just mean intellectual agreement with certain propositions. To “believe” … means to accept and appreciate all of what Jesus brings to life. To “believe” means to completely buy into Jesus, and stake our lives on his credibility. To “believe” is to see that the cross and resurrection change everything. To “believe” is to say YES to God’s grace. To “believe” is to wholly commit our lives over to Jesus. To “believe” is to live in the ‘Jesus way’, seeking to emulate how he lived. This all takes the humility to accept we need help. And as Ken Manley comments, “[This] is possible … by trusting that God’s [Holy] Spirit will sweep you away from your old ways and traditions, and into a new life”.

Darkness to Light

To believe in Jesus … and move into “eternal life” … means we are moving from “darkness” to “light”. “Darkness” and “light” is a major theme in John’s Gospel. “Darkness” is a metaphor for the absence of God, while “light” represents the presence of God. Jesus, the Redeemer, has come into the world as ‘Light’ … in a dark place, clearly to bring the “light” of salvation. Later Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world”. 

Jesus also says, to the crowd gathered for the 'sermon on the mount' (Matt 5:14) ... "YOU are the light of the world"! So, there are two ways of looking at this process of moving from “darkness” to “light”.

Firstly, there is what happens within us - as a result of Jesus being the "Light of the world". We ourselves could have been living in “darkness” – in a state of slavery or (powerlessness) to sin, combined with NOT knowing the truth about how Jesus can bring God’s mercy into our lives. This was where Nicodemus was at. Despite being a leader of the Jews, Nicodemus had not yet understood or experienced grace. Where we read that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night” (v 2), we are being led to understand that this Nicodemus was currently unenlightened and unsaved.

We might imagine that the conversation Nicodemus had with Jesus was longer than this (what we have in the text), but we have here the crux of the matter. Nicodemus had correctly recognised something in Jesus … well beyond the ordinary. Changing water into wine at a wedding feast, and throwing people out of the temple area who were disrupting people’s opportunity of worship – were quite remarkable “signs” of Jesus being special and significant. These were deeds of “light” … shining out in the “darkness”!

In questioning Jesus on this, Nicodemus was confronted with the notion of changing his life completely – in a spiritual sense … starting over! Jesus called this (as it is variously translated) … being “born from above” or “born anew” or “born again”. This is a spiritual restart. More than this, it is a complete change in life orientation – from self-governed to God-governed!!! Now isn’t this crucial … to be 24/7 God-centred! Each of us … were once upon a time … born in a physical sense – we each require a second spiritual birth.

The human state … is often such that … a minor repair will never do! The wound is too great. Any temporary repair job … is just that … temporary! Sometimes we may just try to make ourselves better … in our own strength – with activities, possessions, human relationships. Yet the problem goes way too deep to be helped by any of these. We don’t need a band-aid, but rather a major operation. We need to be “born again”! We remain human, as we were born human; we remain the physical age we are!!! But something deep happens – generating a spiritual re-start. And, as already said, such is the power of the Holy Spirit, that such a re-birth can change so much.

This can happen at any age – it seems that Nicodemus was NOT a young person by any means (refer verse 4). God patiently waits and continues to love, and has intentions of creating a place for us in His eternal house (John 14). Yet, the earlier we respond the better – for there are many blessings to enjoy in this life, and opportunities to participate in God’s mission – that kick-in as soon as we enter that spiritual re-birth. There is a grand vision here, especially in verse 8, that we can move from struggling under human limitation (at one end of the spectrum), to being released into the flow of God’s Spirit (at the other end of the spectrum).

So, the first way we move from “darkness” to “light” is within ourselves. The second way, then, is about the path that we take (from there) i.e. choosing to walk in the ways (or ‘rays’) of “light”. This is in response to Jesus saying, "YOU are the light of the world"! This means focussing on the ways Jesus would have us live. This, of course, doesn’t mean isolating ourselves, or hiving ourselves off into ‘holy huddles’ – quite the opposite actually. It means taking the “light” of God into the “darkness” around us. It means carefully and intentionally taking God’s light (through our own reformed being) into the “darkness” about us – so that others may also be “born again”. Yet … … easier said than done!

We will need all of the (flowing) resources of the Holy Spirit with us … to pull this off. As Jesus showed, there is a great struggle … when you face off against evil. “Evil” hates the “light”! “Evil” does NOT like to be exposed by the “light”. So, of course, it will be tough! When you find yourself defending or debating faith against the tide, or trying to be thoroughly consistent in your witness … there are great challenges. Again, this is why the mercies of God abide at the foot of the cross … every time we need to reset or recharge. Cracks will appear – for we are often still vulnerable and fallible. Rough edges may emerge under pressure. Our progress can stall from time to time under life’s testing. So, we say ... thank-you for the cross, Lord!!

The Power of Light

We can talk about Jesus, and, of course, we should … a lot. But last week’s answers, showed that living out the life of Jesus … is the credible way forward … and what distinguishes a Christian! Of course, more and more, it seems, people are NOT interested in conversations about God and Jesus. So, therefore, we need to raise their interest in other ways: random acts of kindness, being truly interested in their well-being, encouragement, generosity, sacrifice, practical help. This is bringing “light” into “darkness”. This is how we promote the “Light of the World”. This is where the good deeds of service that we endeavour to do, point directly towards the God whom we follow (and who works within us, and through us).

We see in verses 18-20, how people bring judgment upon themselves by ignoring the “light” and doing “evil”. This is the reality we face … head on. But with God, we don’t want anyone to miss out! We should NEVER feel superior (or content). Verse 17 provides the context – Jesus came that none might be lost! We should NOT want to condemn anyone, but rather understand their predicament, as God has understood our predicament. People can prefer “darkness”, like Nicodemus, because they don’t yet understand the “light” – or maybe they haven’t even seen any bright enough “light” yet! This should motivate us and move us. For, “God so loved the world …”.


What further do we know about Nicodemus? Jesus laid the truth out before him, and then continued to model this truth in a very public way – a life orientation that Nicodemus would have surely noticed. In John chapter 7, Nicodemus courageously objects to the Pharisee’s blanket rejection of Jesus, suggesting that Jesus should be given a better hearing (7:50-51). And, later, in John 19, Nicodemus, after the crucifixion, assisted with Jesus’ burial (19:38-40). We read, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”.

Such a generous act (outside the norm and against the tide) … would suggest that Nicodemus has moved out of the “darkness” and into the “light” – both internally and externally! Although it is not specifically said, I like to think that Nicodemus became a fully-fledged follower of Jesus. We, too, can, when we see the “Light”, make a right decision, which begins something new … and which is proved to be true in the light of day – where the truth of what we believe, becomes evident in how we live. The question then: How can we reveal the “Light” this week?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

"Being Forgiven" (Romans 5:1-11)

Community Question

  • What are the marks of a Christian?
  • What depicts, distinguishes or differentiates a Christian (or Jesus-follower) from the crowd?
  • What makes a Christian … a Christian?
  • How should a Christian stand out?
  • What allows a Christian to be seen in a positive light?
  • What is special about being a Christian? 


When Paul gets to chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans, he starts to lay out how a life is changed (from old to new) – which carries on through a number of chapters. And, we read a sort of Gospel summary statement in verse 8 … “But God proves his love for us, in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us”. There is the Gospel – God’s unconditional love … reaching out to sinful human beings … through the most remarkable voluntary sacrificial act!

Earlier, in verse 6, in a similar vein, Paul wrote, “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly”. This is how God reacted to our separation from him – NOT with disdain … no way! Quite the opposite – with compassion! When God could NOT stand this state of separation any longer, God sent Jesus into the world, who would ultimately die to take away the burden of guilt and judgement from those that he loved (i.e. all of us – everybody). There would be an open offer, from this day forward, to each human being, to respond in humility, gratitude, repentance and commitment.

Therefore, a key marker of being a Christian, is that we are a “forgiven people”. And as this passage, and the whole of the new testament points out – we are NOT forgiven simply for our own (eternal) sake, but rather to follow Jesus (in this life), engage in all of God’s intentions for the world, be led by the Holy Spirit, and make new disciples for Jesus – baptising and teaching them (Matt 28:18-20). As we shall see, the earlier verses in this Romans 5 passage, show the sort of new demeanour that an experience of forgiveness brings about.

Needing Forgiveness (vs 6-9)

God proved his love, by reaching out, in a way we might see as remarkable. Even though, from a human point of view it is rare, it might have made sense if Jesus died for those considered good. Yet, Jesus didn’t just die for good people … just to put some icing on the cake. Jesus didn’t particularly die for those who already felt justified or “righteous” in themselves. God was actually responding, in love, to … WHO?? The “ungodly” (v 6), the “sinners” (v 8), and his “enemies” (v 10). Remarkable … extraordinary love!

And, God didn’t just love us when we turned to him, that love was well in place … all the way back (in time). Love is Who God Is!! Jesus died for everybody … Jesus died with everybody in mind, because everybody has sinned. Jesus died so that ‘sin’ could be positively dealt with! Each of us has made wrong choices that has led to various consequences for ourselves and others. These were anti-God decisions that led to alienation from God. I don’t think any fair-minded person anywhere, would suggest that they hadn’t ‘sinned’ – either by something they had done, or something they had failed to do! Often we would have to admit to quite a list of transgressions.

We have here (in verse 8) a historical statement – “Christ died”, accompanied by the best theological statement of all – “for us”. That Divine sacrifice on a cross recorded in the annuls of history, counts for us today! Here was our salvation forged in the cut and thrust of human history. This sacrificial death (of Jesus), takes effect, for anyone who will admit their sin and sincerely want to change (despite the number and depth of their sins). So, we come to the foot of the cross, and admit our fault, and our need, and become a forgiven person.

The Bible leaves us in no doubt, that at this point, a transaction takes place. We read in 1 John 1:9 these words: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just {faithful enough to die for us, and completely righteous or just in his purposes}, will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Wow!! That is really something! The One whose standard we have offended … died himself to save us!!! In this way, any [real or perceived] punishment or penalty is dispensed with!

But we do need to actively say ‘Yes’ to Jesus … for ourselves – receiving the gift (into our own hands), and saying thank-you to Jesus … that you did all this for me. Jesus is seeking to deliver us from the mistakes of the past, from the power that sin can have over us, from the evils in the world, and from any negative judgement. Also, we have to say, that Jesus died to change everything about the world!! Jesus died to bring light into the darkness! Jesus died to defeat the plans of the enemy! Jesus died so that all injustice would bow to him!

Receiving Salvation (vs 10)

As sin once separated, because of accepting what Jesus has done for us – we are now reconciled as children and friends of God. This is, of course, the beginning, not the end – a new beginning! Our future begins with this step of repentance and commitment. We have indeed committed ourselves to a process of change. This is the process of salvation. We are being saved. As we read in verse 10 … “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, MUCH MORE SURELY, having been reconciled, will we be saved through his life”.

Within three short days, Jesus’ death on a cross was turned on its head … through his resurrection to life again! In the same way, we are being drawn from an experience of death  (i.e. in our sin) … into new life (through our forgiveness). This is what ‘baptism’ represents – a dying of the old, and the beginning of something ‘new’! We are invited to experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. So, we now engage in the life of Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit (which is on-gifted to us – refer v 5), growing each day, expressing the fruit of the Spirit, learning to contribute the spiritual (and other) gifts we have been given to the local (church) body (for the common good).

Each time we fail to produce that fruit – we return to that cross where we continue to find a tender hand of mercy. [Communion provides us this regular opportunity.] It is important to remember that Christmas didn’t immediately become Easter! Between Jesus’ birth, and the events of the first Easter, were three years of considerable and significant ministry to people. The life Jesus lived through 3 years of ministry (on earth) has been completely vindicated by his resurrection. So, Jesus’ ministry is the sort of ministry … that we are called and empowered to emulate. This is the life … that we are saved INTO! Jesus should change our perspective on everything that happens in life.

Entering Celebration (vs 11)

Verse 11 suggests even more … from forgiveness to salvation … to even more than that! “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. What does this mean? Obviously, we are NOT boasting about anything we have achieved. And, we would NEVER say … look what we’ve got and you haven’t. We are NOT bragging about God in any impersonal or abstract way. We ARE ‘boasting’ though … about our (special) relationship with God … achieved by Jesus – and how this has changed everything for us! And, we ARE ‘boasting’ about the mercies of God. The NIV and NLT helpfully translate this word “rejoice”. We are ‘rejoicing’ in now knowing Jesus as our friend and Lord.

We are ‘rejoicing’ with the full understanding of where we have come from – lostness and deep need. We are saying, look! Look … what the Lord has done in me!! We are being verbal about our growing relationship with God. We are testifying publicly to our friendship with Jesus. So, we ARE unapologetically worshipping the God who, while we were caught up in sin, provided a way out for us – and gave us a new future. We will celebrate this. There is an old saying … about “joy” … that “joy” … is peace {that inner peace that comes from God alone} dancing!! In this, as John Stott suggests – we would be revealing our humble confidence … that God will complete what he has begun.

Sometimes we might think worshipping with enthusiasm, misses the fact that there is so much unresolved trouble in the world. I sometimes feel that. But that is possibly thinking backwards. It is in celebrating what God has done, and is doing, that we can actually encourage and enlighten the world around us … about the reality of God, and about the wonderful grace of God!! This is why worship must always be God-centred – expressing all thankfulness to Jesus. We still, of course, take time to mourn, and pray for all those areas of concern that crop up on a daily basis – but at the same time … as enthusiastically and faithfully worshipping the God … who can bring about tremendous change. Therefore, we sing LOUDER!

Growing Character (vs 1-4)

There is an earlier reference to “boasting” or “rejoicing” … in verse 2 – which carries on into verse 3. We “rejoice” in “our hope of sharing the glory of God”, and also we “rejoice” in our “sufferings”. This all comes out of … the changing nature of our lives, because of the peace … with God … that we now enjoy. We are no longer at war with God or ourselves, because we have been forgiven … and reconciled with our Creator. One definition of this “peace” that I read this week went … “a condition free from [all] obstacles in [our] relationship with God” (J R Edwards).

To be “sharing the glory of God” – is to be regarded as a child of God, and to be thus … realising the potential of what we were created to be. We can be pleased that we are now participating in the life of God. And, because our lives are changing under the influence of this new sense of peace, all our suffering has a new perspective – and so we even come to ‘rejoice’ over that. That sounds a big leap – but that’s the power and potential of the Gospel. We should be the most joyful and positive people in the world!

So, as we reflect on verse 3, we come to look at our “suffering” much differently – as something NOT just ours – but something intrinsic to a broken world. Also, the new testament generally, sees suffering as normal or inevitable for the Christian. Despite our pain, we consider what this “suffering” is teaching us; and to where, and to whom, this “suffering” is leading us. Easy to say, I know … but where scripture teaches it, we have to come to grips with it.

Suffering is taking us on a journey towards endurance – which is much more than just putting up with it. Today, we might use the word ‘resilience’. All of that suffering Jesus endured on the cross – lest it be wasted, lest it become cheap – was designed to create resilient, joyful, peace-filled, new creations in Christ!! In our own suffering, we can experience again and again … the intimate presence and strength of the One who knows all about suffering (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4: 14-16).

This is all about the (re)forming of our “character”: who we are becoming! ‘Character’ has been described as, “the quality of a person who has been tested … and has passed the test” (Stott). Such ‘character’ brings “hope” – ‘hope’ that all is NOT lost, ‘hope’ that things can be better … no matter how life currently looks – ‘hope’ that we can live into our neighbourhoods; serious and significant ‘hope’ … that can go wherever we go.

As we said last week, it is NOT our ability that changes things around us for the better, but rather allowing God’s strength to enter our weakness. This is also part of the process of salvation – our discipleship, i.e. our lives coming under the discipline and teaching of Jesus. In the old words – this is our justification (and reconciliation) turning towards our sanctification – or our forgiveness taking root in the conduct of our daily lives – God renewing us towards his purposes for us.


We are forgiven people! This is a key marker of being a Christian. This is something that has happened to us on the inside, that then is lived outwards. We are ‘forgiven people’ gathered together, so that we can encourage the best out of each other. This won’t necessarily always look as wonderful as it should, if we are honest – but there should always be the hope of growing character, that will bring all those around us closer to the possibility … of also experiencing that great gift of grace – that God continues to lovingly offer to all humanity. We are being saved! “God proves his love for us, in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us”! Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sunday message - "Bouncing Back" (Mark 1:29-39)


From the very beginning of Jesus’ three-year ministry … he was busy. We see this in Mark chapter 1 verses 29-39. Jesus went to a private home, was confronted with a very ill host, and healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. A crowd then gathered … expecting Jesus to meet all their needs (we read “the whole city” in fact) … and Jesus cured the sick and cast out the demons. Wherever Jesus went, people were searching for him (v.37). Despite being the Son of God, we should never underestimate the toll this would have taken on Jesus. Jesus was facing off against immense evil.

So, we should definitely note the central part of this passage – verse 35. Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to rest and spend time with God. This was clearly necessary, and clearly related to the busyness of his ministry and the many challenges ahead of him. This all shows that Jesus was fully human – that he needed to step aside, be quiet, rest, and spend quality time with God … no doubt for all sorts of reasons.

We note that Jesus withdrew for prayer when it was still dark. Now this is often related to the benefit of early morning prayer, which is true. But the mention of “darkness” in the gospels … is also related to strong and significant challenges that need to be faced. Jesus was certainly wanting to do some serious work with God. The very presence of many illnesses and deep spiritual needs, and the expectations around Jesus to bring healing, would certainly be enough to bring Jesus to his knees. The time taken up by this would have likely been exhausting. Let alone all the decisions that needed to be made … around where he and the disciples would have to travel in sharing the Gospel.

This also shows, that, if Jesus needed to quietly withdraw to rest and pray, then, we would certainly need to do that very same thing – for all sorts of reasons. Jesus, being Jesus, being God, was able to rebound quickly (really quickly)! We could say that, when the disciples found Jesus – he wasn’t really given much choice (but to reengage). Probably, Jesus’ disciples did not yet understand this crucial need of quiet times of prayer. Jesus was able to get straight back into it; we, however, at times, are likely to need longer serious periods of special time with God.

Life’s Bumpy Road

Life is complex; life is often complicated. Pressures can come from many directions … sometimes all at once. Just think of the various struggles that come across your path at any given time!! Anyone, at any time, can just need to find space to be with themselves … and with God. Life can seem unfair. We can feel battered, bruised and broken. The world can seem to be moving too fast. There is too much happening. There are too many voices (which can tend to block out the voice of God). We can easily become tired, overwhelmed, reactive, disappointed – spinning out, and second-guessing everything.

Just recently, 5 or 6 weeks ago, this happened to me. There was a lot happening, my mind was full (cluttered), I could no longer think clearly, I was basically spent of all energy. In hindsight, this would have been building for a while, but crept up on me, and then hit hard. I needed to go away. I needed to take stock and clear my mind, and make sure that I could get some clear perspective. There were certain issues that I needed to deal with, and for this I needed some time, and some measure of quiet.

For me to leave suddenly, and go on leave, would not be ideal. It certainly wasn’t ideal for those, like John and Adam, who would have to pick up a lot of the slack. Yet, it was necessary for me. I regret those who may have been disconcerted by this, at the same time as appreciating all those who understood my need of rest. I thank all those who have taken on extra responsibilities; and you would have seen more of what team ministry looks like.

The lesson is, of course, to recognise the need to balance and blend our lives well – always taking time to withdraw into sacred spaces of prayer and encouragement and refreshment. Any of us who are giving out, in any sphere of ministry or community or family, must have resources coming back in. We should not ignore the signs of needing quiet rest or special time with God.

The disciples of Jesus’ day would have to learn … that ministry into their community … would require significant pressing into the empowerment and wisdom of God. So let us NEVER try to do things alone, or simply in our own limited strength, or according to our own views of what is right or important – but rather withdraw into an undistracted conversation with God.

Sometimes we can be so badly affected, that we can’t find the way, or the words, to get out of this situation and go forward. Let’s then remember that Jesus promised to be with us forever and everywhere. God’s Spirit is close to us. The Holy Spirit is breathing in us and through us! Our deepest needs are known to God. And that’s not about parking places, or areas of comfort – but rather about what really is happening in the depths of our being. God’s Spirit will speak the words that will be divinely interpreted toward our good. We just need to put ourselves in this Divine space – withdrawing, like Jesus, to be with God!

Divine Resources

Sometimes we will also need that great and abiding resource of Scripture. That reads like a complete understatement! For instance, Paul writes about seeing our weakness as an opportunity to experience God’s strength. We should not fight against our human frailty, but rather embrace God working in our lives (bringing us to the completion God wants to bring). In the context of Paul desiring his “thorn in the flesh” (that was tormenting him) to be taken away, he writes (in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10):

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul seems to have taken some time to come to this conclusion. Yet, it was probably the single most important concept Paul had to learn! God’s grace is an extraordinary (yet often untapped) resource for us to experience. It should NOT be our last resort to withdraw and pray for God’s grace to fully fall upon us – this is the most sensible, humble, proactive, life-giving, effective … thing we can do! Our own abilities will NOT change the world, but rather … making ourselves available for God’s grace to work through us.

The biblical psalms can help us a whole lot here. Various psalms can lead us into prayer, and then, when we seem short of words to express ourselves, speak the words that we feel. Let me share with you four different segments from the Psalms that I have recently found helpful. In any search for guidance, reassurance, security and healing … these words are remarkably powerful.

Psalm 121 verses 1-2 & 8 … brings an invitation to pray, and gives a sense of the guidance we will receive from such prayer:

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Now, we are not short of hills to look towards here, from where we appreciate the greatness of our Creator. We might sometimes forget who we can go to for help, or life’s disappointments lead us to ask the question. But having coming to faith … we soon answer in the affirmative … that God will help us! We are being encouraged to bring to God the areas of life that worry us, or cause us to feel alone, or where we feel weak and lack hope; and it is an act of both humility and maturity to do so! Where we put our trust firmly and resolutely in God … ultimately we will never be disappointed. Even when a (certain) door closes, another one is sure to open!

Psalm 3 verses 3-5 … brings a reassurance that God hears and addresses our needs:

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the One who lifts up my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.

From those “hills” that we have cast our eyes towards, comes a Divine response. It might not be always instantly clear, but it is coming! It might not always be what we expected or wanted, but it will be the best available!! God knows what we need most. God understands what we face. We may not always understand what God is up to, but God is undoubtedly working away in our best interests – good things will happen just at the right time! And … here … is a great image for me to hold on to – God is the One that lifts my head … whenever something goes wrong. Because God accepts me [and you], and values me [and you], and I belong to Jesus – my head is lifted!!

Psalm 34 verses 4-6 … reflect on a total turnaround in the way life looks, and brings a new security:

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.

Not only can our head be lifted, but once again our face can be radiant i.e. light-filled. This is, again, because of God’s grace (the Divine favour that comes upon us) … which leads to forgiveness – the lifting of all guilt and shame. The trouble … that our own minds keep rewinding back to … and even predicting to reoccur … is quelled by the loving presence of God in our lives – that brings a peace that surpasses all understanding. Fears are dealt with … such that our faith has space to grow! Whenever trauma reappears, our resilience and daily coping mechanisms have grown to higher levels.

Psalm 147 verse 3 – in the context of the verses 4 & 5 … reminds us of God’s desire and availability and power to heal us:

He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.

The God who created the universe out of nothing so long ago, and knows everything in creation intently and intimately – cares for me and for you … and will not stop at anything to see us redeemed, healed, and in relationship with Jesus. As each of the stars are named, so God surely knows our name (and all about us). God continues to love us, despite anything and everything, and continues to seek us out. We might scratch our heads about what is happening to us and around us – but we can know that God understands all the complexity of this world, and will respond in exactly the right ways.


The question is: why is all this so important? Especially to me … maybe to you to. Yes, we need to keep growing in our relationship with Jesus and dependence upon God. Yes, we need to become more resilient, and develop in character that aptly represents the character of Jesus. Yes, we need to be enjoying God, and growing into maturity … into the image of Christ. And yes, we need to recognise the lost world around us – that needs to know about Jesus – that needs to be offered a witness to the wonderful things Jesus can do in life when given the opportunity. And yes, we need to maximise the potential of the church to change outcomes for people.

Everything we do … needs to be firmly rooted in, and grow out of, our relationship with God. Jesus was quickly able to bounce back into his life of service … each and every time that ministry was available to him. As we saw earlier in Mark chapter 1 – when his disciples came to him with any particular need, Jesus was able to respond in the best possible way. That was because Jesus was wholly focussed on God, God’s Kingdom on earth, and God’s will; and Jesus maintained that focus through withdrawing into God’s intimate presence whenever he needed to.

Now, we might take a little longer to bounce back than Jesus did. But, bounce back we can. Bounced back … I have. Let us always remember to press into God. And let us be God’s people together, God’s church in this locality, God’s body in this place – that will be prepared to love and encourage one another enough … that we can each (freely) withdraw into that special place of healing, security, reassurance and guidance … that is, God’s wonderful presence. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

"Going the Journey" (Hebrews 12:1-3)


Over the last two Sundays, we have talked, firstly, about ‘rising above’ those human thoughts that tend more to be negative, by developing a closer more intimate relationship with God. Secondly, we talked about ‘moving beyond’ any tendency to be conformed to this world, by having our mind renewed by God’s Spirit. In these ways, we can have a better chance of acting according to God’s will – pursuing what is good, acceptable and perfect.

Today, we are talking about ‘going the journey’ – that is, making sure that we can travel with Jesus right the way through our lives. Or, as verse 3 (of Hebrews 12) puts it, “so that you may NOT grow weary or lose heart”. We need to keep our faith active, current and vibrant. By this I mean, we need to keep our faith moving outward, addressing today’s challenges, while expressing joy and worship. This sits in the context … where there is often a human tendency to gradually slacken in resolve (without due attention).

Faith is a Journey

Christian faith IS a journey. It begins when we accept God’s grace and start following Jesus, and keeps going from there. Yet, sadly, many people, unfortunately, stop the journey just a little while after the ‘start’ – they either go into reverse or stay completely still. Many are happy to hear words like forgiveness and salvation, but NOT so much words like discipleship and commitment. Some don’t hear enough about the ‘finishing’ of faith, or don’t understand it, or even reject the notion.

Just as Jesus is the “author” or “pioneer” of our faith … the point at which our faith started, we also need him to be the “perfecter” of our faith. This means working with Jesus every day on our best way forward. Understandably, there will be setbacks, times of doubt, trust being tested, dramatic challenges – but we need, especially in times of ‘smooth sailing’, to NOT take the future for granted, but rather be making sure we can go the whole journey.

Last week, I tried to explain that, while we will never be perfect in this life, we need to know what ‘perfect’ looks like, what we need to be seeking to emulate – and I tried to show that ‘perfect’ looks like Jesus … the way he carried out his ministry – the way his sacrificial service and compassion … modelled the very heart of God. This is also how Jesus is the “perfecter of our faith”. His perfection inspires us. It’s NOT just about what Jesus did, but also who Jesus IS!

We need to allow Jesus sway in our lives. Jesus wants to be our ‘finishing school’. Jesus wants to apply the polish to us, that will allow us to shine for him. Although we need to first make ourselves available, it is Jesus who will do this work for us. The One, Jesus, who is the “author” of our faith, wants also to be the “finisher” of our faith. As the New Testament writers seek to motivate us … to maintain an active, current and vibrant faith … they point us straight to Jesus.

Finishing our Faith

Jesus has gone before us in every way, preparing for our path … into our best future. We are asked to persevere through the tougher times, because Jesus endured the cross – in all its public humiliation and torturous pain – as verse 3 puts it, “Consider him [Jesus], who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may NOT grow weary or lose heart”. The NLT translates verse 3, “Think of all the hostility [Jesus] endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up”.

We can also persevere, because we know that God has raised Jesus from the dead and installed him on the throne of the Kingdom of God. The worst that humanity (or the ‘world’) could throw back in God’s face … could NOT defeat the redemptive purposes of God. We can truly be on the ‘winning side’. Jesus continues to barrack for us, and sometimes enters our suffering … to help bring us through to the other side. In this way, and in many others, Jesus is the “perfecter” of our faith.

This concept of “finishing” our faith involves a process of surrender – dropping off and leaving behind anything that is dark, dismal or unnecessary … anything that is weighing us down – what I call ‘life clutter’. This includes anything that tends to disrupt relationships rather than reconcile them. Hebrews mentions “sin” that “clings closely” (v 1) – probably so … because we fail to see it. We need to draw close enough to Jesus … for anything that weighs us down and makes us weary, to be revealed to us.

Our faith needs to be more about the possibilities of the future, than the difficulties of the past. We need to be brought forward out of some of those past experiences … which have been destructive and disruptive, into a new place where the only remaining impact of those old times … is what we’ve learnt out of them. So, we need the hand of Jesus working away at our lives … on an ongoing basis. Sometimes, we may just need to prayerfully narrow our focus … purely onto Jesus – to avoid (any and all) recurrent distractions.

Donald Guthrie writes, that we need, “an ever-deepening attention to the glorious object of Christian faith – Jesus himself”. For, as we read at the end of verse 1, there is a ‘race’ that is “set before us” – a particular path in life – meaning that we each have a best case scenario, out of the heart and will of God, before us! This is the best laid plan! It sometimes sounds illusive or maybe even over-idealistic, but I do want to be … exactly where God wants me to be … most of the time!

The Joy Set Before Jesus

There is an interesting phrase in verse 2, that is worthy of our deep consideration. We are here given a reason why Jesus chose to endure the shame of the cross – “for the sake of the joy that was set before him”! What does this refer to?? What was the “joy” set before Jesus?

  • His resurrection, and offering this new life to others … to all of us?!
  • Giving us the Holy Spirit?!
  • Returning from whence He came … to the presence of God (from which he had been somewhat separated through carrying the sin of humanity – so burdensome that Jesus was caused to say from the cross , “My God my God, why have you forsaken me”)?!
  • Being the ultimate leader of a movement of (Spirit-led) disciples, who would take on the ‘great commission’, in going out to the lost and broken, offering them God’s love and grace, so they could come to ‘repent’ and ‘believe’, and become disciples themselves?!
  • The whole experience of opening the door of heaven to so many people?!
  • I would suggest the answer would be all of this and more!!

The Cloud of Witnesses

There is another interesting phrase here, this time in verse 1. We are given a reason why we should respond positively to these verses. This reason is, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”. The NLT helpfully expands this to say, “Since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith”. What does this mean??

  • As the previous chapter, Hebrews 11, just listed a whole lot of heroes of the faith from Old Testament times, this would likely be part of it. We are likely being encouraged to appreciate and emulate faithful and resourceful people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, and the prophets. Their list of achievements (in Hebrews 11:33-38) includes – faith conquering kingdoms, the (good) administration of justice, promises realised, the mouths of lions closed, strength being seen in weakness, and various expressions of courage and strong commitment to God’s cause. [Yet from verses 39-40 (of Hebrews 11) there is a sense of incompleteness in their faith … until they are drawn into the New Testament experience of Jesus in the fullness of God’s time.]

  • Another possibility are those Jesus-followers we know, who have recently, or are currently, putting themselves out there, out of their comfort zone, seeking to serve and share the value of redemptive faith with others.

  • And then there is still a further possibility we should see in line with this. Human faith in God is always lived out in community. Real faith, that is active, current and vibrant, will be noticed – there will be “witnesses” … those watching!! The whole world is a ‘witness’ to faith being expressed (or not)! It is the very fact … that there are always “witnesses” to faith, that makes faith so valuable … and so necessary. These “witnesses” are also our friends, family members, co-workers, people in our community groups, and people who serve us in shops; etc, etc, etc. So, it is most unfortunate when ‘believers’ cannot be recognised as ‘believers’.

  • Therefore, we should respond positively to the notion of persevering in the race … and allowing Jesus to “finish off” our faith, because, (i) so many people have set such a fine example before us, and, (ii) we are teamed-up with many who are on mission now, and, (iii) that so many people are watching, hoping that there is more to life than what first appears!! As groups of Jesus-followers humbly worship, travel and serve together, this can bring mighty witness and support to whole local communities.  

Practical Work

So, here are some ways of avoiding (or dealing with) ‘growing weary’ or ‘losing heart’ – suggested in an article written by Chuck Lawless, and then worked over by me. Chuck says, “Too many of us … have settled into a monotonous routine Christianity that lacks passion and power”. We can even come to feel apathetic, and NOT really care about nurturing our faith anymore. Chuck says, “When your Christian life has become routine, here are some ways to relight the fire”:

  1. Be honest with somebody else about your struggle. Don’t try to win this battle on your own. In fact, it’s sometimes trying to go it alone, without input from others, that contributes to our faith becoming static.
  2. Enlist prayer warriors to pray specifically for you. Just knowing that others are praying for you, can begin to make a difference.
  3. Take an audit of the possible causes behind any weariness. Sometimes temptation, sin, or worldly compromise (on the one hand), or some form of doubt or a life crisis (on the other hand) … have, maybe even unconsciously or gradually, turned us in a different direction (than where God is found). We can easily get out of the habit of good spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, bible reading, and service to others. Start to work on these causes.
  4. Remember the beginning of your Christian journey. Try to recall the excitement, joy, freedom and peace … you felt at the time.
  5. Renew your commitment to Jesus. Also consider … is there something missing … that you need to do or seek e.g. believer’s baptism, or prayer for the Holy Spirit’s movement in your life?
  6. Read at least one chapter of the Bible each day. Even if you don’t understand everything you read, you have placed yourself where God’s Spirit can speak into your life (in a life-changing way). The Gospels (MMLJ) are the best place to start a new bible-reading program.
  7. Make yourself tell somebody the good news. Trust God … that you will have the right words … that can be heard by another in the best way. Being able to share the gospel – telling others about Jesus – can enliven us, bring joy, and encourage our own faith.
  8. Tackle a God-sized task. Rather than avoiding risk (or potential failure), put yourself forward for a challenging task … that undoubtedly you would need God’s help with … to succeed.
  9. Thank God throughout the day for each provision. In this way you can be reassured about God’s presence, goodness and care. This also leads to the sort of humility and worship that grows our faith.