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Sermon blog post: The Church of Jane Austen


James 2

Last time we started looking at the letter of James together, and hopefully there was lot to learn in the opening chapter.

It seemed appropriate then to follow on into chapter 2.

As James develops his thoughts further and introduces new themes.

Brother James (chapter 1)

As we introduced ourselves to James last time we were quickly getting to know James the writer, and his incomparable family credentials. A man who could call Jesus his half-brother but preferred to call him his Lord. A man who was a pillar of the early church and yet calls himself a servant of God.

As we said then, he is a man who is on a level with his readers.

And as we step into chapter 2, that humility is there for all to see again. He does not seek to Lord it over these Jewish readers. Rather he is with them as “brothers and sisters” – all part of one family. Not the family of Joseph and Mary Carpenter, but a family of “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” – people of faith together.

As we will continue to be reminded, this faith is lived out, not just a belief we hold in our heads.

Favouritism (1-9)

For a start, these believers do not show favouritism.

Even in our churches, we are often too easily impressed by outward appearances – we suffer from Jane Austen’s disease –

PRIDE & PREJUDICE

Even though in the times of Samuel, God made it clear that he is interested in the heart of men and women, not the outward façade, we can still be too quick to judge people by what we see, maybe even by what we think they would bring to the church.

The man with the gold ring and fine clothes is escorted to one of the padded arm chairs.

The poor man in filthy clothes can sit on the floor, where he knows his place and can be kept an eye on.

As with the previous chapter we see

James echoing Jesus.

Jesus spoke into the futility of discriminating in this way:

‘When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you,“Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ ‘ Luke 14:7-14

It’s a pointless exercise.

Discrimination is out of place – James says that people who do these things are judges with evil thoughts.

“Believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” do not judge people as the world judges.

Again we start to see that these people of faith are not people

who judge, at least not as the world judges.

We are reminded by James to look at ourselves and our congregations and ask:

• Who are we mistreating or ignoring?

• Do we have favourites?

• Do we look for those who have most to offer to our church? Maybe even who would benefit our church financially?

In Jesus roles are reversed. We were already reminded in chapter 1 that these things don’t matter:

‘Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation – since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. ‘

There is constant appeal from James to his readers, and surely to us, as “brothers and sisters”. As it says in the song:

We are family.

And we need to behave like it.

The poor in the eyes of the world, says James, are chosen to be rich in faith. It is they who will inherit God’s Kingdom.

‘Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. ‘ Luke 6:20

The kingdom of God is not for those of recognised status, but is for “those who love Him”. That family is not rich in financial terms but is rich in all its variety and colour.

Not only are believers dishonouring the poor, but actually James reminds his readers that “is it not the rich who are exploiting you?!”

Who are dragging you through the courts.

Who are blaspheming the name of Jesus by their actions.

The Law & judgment (8-13)

James then quotes the royal law. The law (taken from Leviticus 19:18), that Jesus referred to as the “greatest commandment” and the “most important commandment”.

‘On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ He answered, ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” ; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” ’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ ‘

Luke 10:25-28

If we don’t treat the poor as we would like to be treated ourselves, if we show favouritism…

Favouritism is breaking the law – you are NOT loving your neighbour as yourself.

The law convicts us. We all fall short.

Breaking the law will bring judgment.

A murderer or an adulterer is a law breaker, but none of us can claim to be without sin. Even as Christians:

“If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. 1 John 1:8.

And yet James, as he did in chapter 1, continues talking about the law that gives freedom.

‘But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. ‘(1:25)

Somehow the law of God brings judgment AND freedom.

The law of God is a liberating way of life – the law was designed for our good.

But judgment and mercy can exist together. Ultimately God’s mercy triumphs over judgment.

God’s judgment will feel like mercy, for those of us who are “in that family of “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”.

His judgment will fall on those parts of our lives which are not of him. And all that will be left will be what is good and like Jesus.

Our pride and prejudice will be gone and all that is our obedience to the royal law will shine as a crown of life.

Faith and deeds (14-26)

At the end of chapter 1, James wrote about true religion. That cares for the widow and the orphan.

The faith you have is not just intellectual or spiritual. It is deeply practical.

What kind of faith is it, thinks James, which does not show itself in deeds? Belief in Jesus is active. It is visible not secret.

When there are poor people among you, they are not to be discriminated against.

They are in need of your help. It’s not just about words and beliefs. Jesus’ famous parable reminds us again of what it looks like to love our neighbour:

‘A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. ‘ Luke 10:31-33

The religious people do not demonstrate James’ true religion. They are inactive in the face of need.

Jesus challenged the teacher of the law to be like the Samaritan – to “Go and do likewise.”

Looking at those people who pass by on the other side, or who offer a spiritual blessing “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed”, when they have the means to meet the need, James asks:

“Can such faith save [the believer]?”

What good does it do?

Faith not accompanied by works is dead

Controversial stuff as far as people like Martin Luther are concerned. James seems to be at odds with his half-brother Jesus.

But before we settle too smugly in that position, let’s consider one of Jesus’ parables, that makes a very similar point.

A story of sheep and goats, in Matthew 25:

‘ ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?” ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” ‘

It has been said that the only difference in that story between 2 groups of people is “what they did and didn’t do” (Keith Green).

If it is good news for those who demonstrate their faith in action, disaster for those ignore those in need.

James and Jesus both make it very clear that the way we treat the vulnerable is particularly important.

Saved by grace through faith

The Bible is plain that we have God’s salvation in Jesus, not because we earn it by the things we do, but as a gift of God’s grace through the cross of Jesus.

There is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s favour.

Even while Jesus hung on the cross, this was made abundantly clear, as one of the criminals crucified with Jesus mocked him:

‘But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ ‘ Luke 23:40-43

That is grace. Totally unearned and undeserved, and in the case of the dying criminal there would never be an opportunity to make amends for a wasted life.

But James continues to press his point:

“Show me your faith without deeds…

…I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

Our faith is demonstrated not just by what we say, or by the church we attend and how often, but by what we do.

It’s not just believing the right things.

There is one God that’s true – but even the demons believe that – and for them God is to be feared (they shudder).

Faith role models

James is ready to offer proof that faith without works is useless. It is not works that save us, but works should certainly be evidence of the faith we have in Jesus.

Keeping the law is not a way to life but a way of life.

James offers us two role models.

Abraham believed God. And guess what?

He showed it by what he did.

There might be a number of examples of Abraham’s faith. Hebrews mentions a few. James refers to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac, after God had promised his lineage would be a great nation.

To quote Hebrews:

‘By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. ‘ Hebrews 11:17-19

The examples that James presents are not without moral difficulty.

If you or I claimed to show our faith by sacrificing members of our family we would rightly be condemned.

After the time of Abraham, God plainly said “You shall not kill” and voiced contempt for those whose religious practices included child sacrifice.

Such practices were common in the world around, but apart from the reasoning recorded in Hebrews, one thing is very clear. God recognised Abraham’s faith but prevented him from killing Isaac, making alternative provision.

Abraham though is called “friend of God” – a privilege that can be ours too.

The second role model is probably even more surprising. James is being truly provocative in his choices, just as he often is in the language he uses.

Rahab the prostitute is considered righteous.

She showed her faith by what she did.

Much of what she did of course did anything but demonstrate a faith in God, but she along with Abraham is recorded in the Hebrews list of heroes of the faith who cheer us on in the race of faith:

‘By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. ‘Hebrews 11:31

She saw what God was doing and acted accordingly.

Joshua 2:8-15 records:

‘Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, ‘I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts sank and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. ‘Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them – and that you will save us from death.’ ‘Our lives for your lives!’ the men assured her. ‘If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the Lord gives us the land.’ So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. ‘

People who acted.

But people first and foremost who acted BECAUSE they believed in God.

How is my belief in God, your belief in God, showing itself in the things we do and say?

Faith that counts for anything will show itself in action and good deeds.

A body without spirit is dead, faith without deeds is just as surely dead.

Is your religion nothing but a corpse?

It doesn’t need to stay that way. God’s Holy Spirit can breathe new life into dry bones.

Do you need to ask God to renew his fire within you, to live out a life of worship and gratitude to him, that draws others to his flame?

Then take the challenge again of chapter 1:22:

‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. ‘

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Sermon blog: Choosing my religion


James 1

Introducing James – the book

Today I am looking forward to taking the opportunity to look at the book of James with you. It is a book which has over years courted controversy.

Martin Luther famously described it as an “epistle of straw”. Luther of course brought about the vital realisation that salvation is through faith in Jesus and faith alone.

In James some have seen a conflict as it presents an emphasis upon good works.

Although the book never says that we can achieve our salvation through good works.

Many Christians have found the letter of James immensely practical and helpful.

Introducing James – the writer (1)

As with so many of our new testament epistles, we start by asking “who is writing the letter?”

The answer is James.

There are 3 men called James in the New Testament. The first is a fisherman, son of Zebedee, brother of John. This James was beheaded in the early days of the church.

James the Younger we know almost nothing about him.

So the third James is considered most likely. Not without any argument, most take the view that the James who writes this letter is James the brother of Jesus, or to be more precise Jesus’ half-brother.

You might think it only natural that James would play a full part in the family business of spreading the good news of Jesus, but a quick look at the history shows that James’ path to writing this letter was far from straight forward.

We are first introduced to James in Matthew 13:55-56:

‘‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ ‘

 

The people queried Jesus’ claims about himself because they knew where he was from, they knew his family.

If you would be tempted to imagine that being the half-brother of the perfect Son of God would be easy, then it would seem you would be wrong. The few references we have to family relations suggest things were more than a little awkward.

Matthew again (12:46-49):

‘While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. ‘

 

Jesus brothers, no doubt including James, were far from convinced by him:

 

‘Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No-one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him. ‘ John 7:3-5

 

In fact they had major doubts about his mental health (Mark 3:20-21):

 

‘Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ‘

 

And one of Jesus’ final acts from the cross was to commend his mother Mary to the care of his disciple John. Were James and the others not thought fit for the task?

It’s very unpromising beginnings, but something changed. When Paul is seeking to prove the eye witness testimony for the physical resurrection of Jesus he tells his readers:

‘After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, ‘ 1 Corinthians 15:6-7

 

The Bible tells us nothing else about this meeting but it is clear that James’ life was changed when he met his resurrected brother.

James then becomes a person of some standing in the early church. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says:

‘Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother’ Galatians 1:18-19

 

And in the same book James is described as one of the ‘pillars’ of the early church in Jerusalem.

When Peter escaped from prison, he was at pains to make sure that those in the prayer meeting told James what had happened.

James too is an important and vocal figure in sorting out some of the conflicts over the Jewish law and customs as Gentiles came to faith in Jesus.

You might think this is one very important man. Literally Jesus’ right hand man, a leader in the church, so we might expect James to list his credentials at the start of this letter.

 

But James is not one of those celebrities who if refused entry at the door would complain, “Don’t you know who I am?!”

 

If ever a man had an excuse to name drop.

 

James is simply this: “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the themes of James’ letter is to be humility and here he is humility personified.

 

He assesses himself as a servant or slave. His relationship with Jesus is not as brother and brother, but is as servant and Lord. He is not claiming any special status here. He is on the level with his readers. More of that soon.

 

Introducing James – who is this letter written to? (1)

 

An important question always. But the answer is not that illuminating. It does not seem to be written to one particular post code, but is written to a group of people who are scattered among the nations.

James starts by bringing greetings to 12 tribes – this is a letter from a prominent Jewish believer in Jerusalem to Jewish believers scattered throughout the nations.

Not only are they all Jews. They are all servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Back to those complainers about the letter of James. Apart from the perceived conflicts with other parts of scripture, some have argued that important doctrinal matters have been left out.

But of course not all new testament letters cover the same ground. How odd would that be?

It is a letter which has its own style.

It has been compared to the book of Proverbs in style of writing, a series of wise thoughts more than a formal letter format.

It has also been compared to the sermon on the mount in many of the themes discussed. Taking from his brother’s great sermon, themes which he might have heard preached on regular occasions.

Far from being unbiblical I believe we will see that James’ letter is full of scriptural truth.

There are a number of themes that run through this first chapter. Firstly:

Facing trials (2-4, 12)

James has some encouragement from verse 2 onwards for his brothers and sisters. He’s going to give them something to be joyful about. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters”.

Now that’s a great start to a letter. It’s good news.

But probably not the good news readers and listeners might be hoping for.

What is this joy? It is when Christians face trials of many kinds. The language is plain too. James says “when”. Trials are to be expected for those who follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is not a way of ease and health and wealth and happiness.

It is a way of trial. Things WILL be tough.

To go through the trials of life might not be something we would welcome. Perhaps we thought as Christians we would now be exempt. But new particular trials come our way too because of our faith.

But James is adamant that these trials should be welcomed as having a positive effect. There is a process going on here, a progression. Trials test your faith. Faith in turn produces perseverance (not giving up in the face of difficulty).

Experiencing the pressures of life will demonstrate the strength of your faith.

Perseverance is working in you. To make you mature and complete.

Perhaps James is thinking back to the words of his brother’s most famous sermon:

‘ ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ‘ Matt. 5:11-12

 

This was always going to be the case for people who set out to follow Jesus. But from the start Jesus taught that it would be worth it.

We are reminded of similar words from Paul in Romans 5:3-4:

 

‘Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. ‘

 

So the ultimate goal, if we face our trials, is maturity and completeness. Echoing Psalm 23, James assures his readers they will “not lacking anything”.

I wonder is that your experience? Would you be able to say that because Jesus is your Lord, you have everything you need in and through Him? Or do you feel there are a whole load of other things you need to make your life complete?

Later on in verse 12 James continues to encourage perseverance. It is the way to experience God’s blessing. God is truly pleased with those who keep going in the face of trouble. The crown of life will be their reward.

In more ways than one the Christian life as a race is to be seen as a marathon rather than a sprint and the writer to Hebrews uses sporting language to make a similar point:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. ‘ Hebrews 12:1-3

 

Because of Jesus we can truly say we lack nothing and now James turns his attention to a particular quality faith in Jesus can bring.

Asking for wisdom (5-8, 16-18)

James now recognises a Christian’s need for wisdom and provides a simple solution for this. Ask God for it!

And God will answer.

Again perhaps he has his brother’s sermon in mind:

‘ ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. ‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! ‘ Matt. 7:7-11

 

An important part of our prayer life is to ask for the things we need. Jesus reminds us that God is a good Father who longs to give us good things.

 

Some have argued that James does not mention the Holy Spirit in his letter but perhaps there is an echo of Him in Luke’s version of Jesus’ words:

 

‘If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ ‘ Luke 11:13

 

We need wisdom, and with the Holy Spirit living in us, that is not just a forlorn hope.

 

It all seems very simple. You need it? Ask God for it! And this might surprise us – God “gives generously”.

 

Is your view of God as a generous Father God or are you constantly trying to get on the right side of him? Are you convinced that he will never answer your prayers, that you will never know his blessing?

 

Perhaps you think you are not good enough. The second surprise then is this – God gives wisdom to his children “without finding fault”.

As Christians we need to see God through different eyes, to have an unshakeable conviction in the fundamental goodness of God. God is for you, will always be for you and will never be against you.

God is your loving Father.

Ask and it will be given. This is a prayer that God will answer.

What do you need wisdom for?

Wisdom for life? Wisdom for a particular situation? Wisdom to understand God’s ways?

Ask.

But James challenges. When you ask for wisdom…

“Believe and don’t doubt”.

The one who doubts is unstable. Tossed about by life’s trials.That will not result in receiving the Father’s wisdom.

We need to be careful here though. To be a Christian is not to live a life free of doubt. We will have our doubts. It’s often there again that we find our faith is real as we persevere against all that we feel.

Don’t give in to doubt.

A man once said to Jesus “I do believe. Help my unbelief”.

Thomas famously doubted but he was ready to believe.

The Bible distinguishes between doubt and unbelief. We need to be honest about our doubts which are a normal part of the life of faith. But unbelief is more of a refusal to believe in what God offers us.

Don’t be double minded. Show that you are a believer.

Earlier we mentioned that the theme of humility runs through James’ letter:

Be humble (9-11)

James presents us with humility and pride. He actually presents us with a humble pride!

 

Those who are poor might not have much to be proud of, but James encourages them to be proud of their high position.

 

High position?

 

Where is their high position? Their high position is who they are in Jesus. Not in what abilities or material things they have. Not in what they have but in who they are.

 

Who are you as a Christian? A child of God. God’s masterpiece. Made in his image. A new creation. Clothed in Jesus’ righteousness, a temple for God’s Spirit.

 

Not a slave but a child.

 

Not a servant but a friend.

 

Forgiven and accepted. Those are things to truly be proud of in the right sense.

 

There will though be rich and poor. The poor cannot boast in the riches they don’t have. The rich must not boast in the earthly riches they do have, whatever the temptation.

There is a need to recognise we are all equal before Jesus, who once said:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘ Matt. 5:3

 

We have faced up to trials, but there is something else we have to face up to:

 

Facing temptation (13-15)

Temptation. We all get it.

Where does it come from? Can we say that it comes from God?

Wrong! James says, God does not tempt.

Temptation rather comes from within our own selves. We cannot pin it on anyone else. We cannot point the finger as Adam did at Eve. Or Eve at the serpent.

When we are tempted we need to take responsibility.

Of course we are all tempted. Jesus was tempted.

It is not a sin to be tempted but it becomes sin when we give in.

But James reminds us that we can be our own worst enemies in this area. We don’t help ourselves.

It’s your own evil desires being allowed to lead you, when you give into temptation.

But you and I need to take care what we are feeding our minds hearts ears and eyes with. We might just be storing up trouble for ourselves for later.

Feed sin in this way and its ultimately a fatal disease.

James then turns his attention to anger.

Face up to anger (19-21)

A time to listen and a time to keep your mouth shut. I wonder do we often need to listen much more than speak?

Be slow to be angry. It’s not the way of God to let anger take control and it’s not what he requires from his children.

The Psalmist is full of this thought. Here’s a sampling:

‘the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. ‘ Psalm 103:8

 

‘The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. ‘ Psalm 145:8

 

‘But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. ‘ Psalm 86:15

 

And not everyone liked that about God. Jonah the reluctant prophet moaned when God forgave the wicked city of Nineveh as they repented:

 

‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. ‘ Jonah 4:2

 

There is a place where God shows righteous anger, but it is so far removed from the uncontrolled anger that we often show.

What he wants from us is righteousness above anger. But do we get angry about the things God gets angry about?

Get rid of moral filth and evil, James says. As we have already said, think about what you are feeding yourself with.

Get rid of what you have allowed in.

And show that humility again. Accepting God’s word planted in you. A far better thing to plant than many of those other things.

Feeding your evil desires leads to death, but it is by the word of God in us that we are saved.

And now to one of those well-known sections of James.

 

Doing the word (22-25)

The word that saves you should also shape the way you live.

You don’t just read it for a good read. You live it out.

How often do we allow the word of God to just go over our heads?

How much does what we hear on Sunday shape us on Monday?

How often do we forget our daily bible reading before breakfast?

James compares this Bible amnesia with looking at yourself in the mirror. And then walking away and forgetting. Perhaps we might even choose to forget if we don’t like what we’re reading!

James’ view is that it is a nonsense to treat God’s word in this way!

It is interesting too how James refers to the word of God as a mirror.

The Bible shows us Jesus.

But also a lot of the time it shows us ourselves.

It tells us how we should be and sadly shows us as we are.

Mirrors were a rarity in James’ day. There wasn’t so much opportunity for people to stand around looking at themselves.

Section 161 of the Highway Code reminds us that we need to use mirrors frequently and effectively throughout our car journey.

Throughout our life journey we need to be looking into the word of God.

Why?

Because it is the perfect law that gives freedom. Not a list of rules to tie us down.

Looking intently, is what we need to do. Not just forgetting but actually doing the things that God tells us to in his word.

Again that is where we find blessing. Just as those who persevere in trial, God will be pleased with those who obey his word rather than just reading it as a text book.

Again we are reminded of some of Jesus’ words from that sermon. What are we basing our lives on?

 

‘ ‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’ ‘ Matt. 7:24-27

 

Yes. It’s that wisdom again!

 

And so we come towards the end of the chapter.

 

Acceptable religion (26-27)

We tend to reject religion in our day. “I’m not religious, I’m a Christian”.

But religion is OK. James says so. But it is probably not the religion that we think of.

That gives us a set of rules to obey. That marks us out as a bit eccentric. Or judgemental of others.

Remember James talked about the law that gives freedom.

Worthless religion, he says, is being unable to control your tongues. Believing one thing but speaking another! James has much to say later in his letter about controlling the tongue.

James is not looking for a religion which is a set of beliefs which has no impact upon your speech (or our behaviour, as we have already seen).

Pure and faultless religion is what James calls for. This has 2 aspects.

Care for the needy, e.g. widows and orphans. It is important how we treat others.

Personal holiness is also seen in true religion. It actually matters that we live moral lives, not polluted by the standards of this world.

So as we look back over this chapter, what is our religion like?

Do we give up when the going gets tough?

Do we seek God’s wisdom?

Is my life all about ME?

Do we give in to temptation?

Do I let my anger take control?

Do I read the word of God as just a religious exercise?

Does my religion not just change me but actually make the world a better place for those around me?

Let’s face the challenge.

 

 

 

Easter sermon blog: You know my name

 John 20:1- 18

With audio:

http://www.stbudeauxbaptist.org.uk/sermons/preacher/anthony-longville/

It was all over for Jesus’ followers. Their leader was dead.

They had followed him, some of them, for three years. They had hung on his every word and action. They left everything to follow him. Jobs and security and the comforts of family life.

High hopes

They had had high hopes of Jesus.

Andrew told his brother Peter “We have found the Messiah!”

Philip told Nathanael “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote”.

Nathanael said to Jesus “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.

Nicodemus greeted Jesus as a “teacher who has come from God”.

The Samaritan people recognised him as the “Saviour of the world”.

Martha, through her grief acknowledged “You are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world”.

Simon Peter boldly stated “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.

They had high hopes of Jesus.

Finished

They were often puzzled by his words and actions, and they frequently got it wrong, but they were sure he had come to rescue his people. Surely he would turn their world upside down and restore their nation to its glory.

But now he was dead.

And his last audible words for those who stayed within earshot:

“IT IS FINISHED!”

“Yes”, they thought, “It’s certainly finished. It’s all over now”.

What was that 3 years all about?

They thought he was the one, but now, their minds in a whirl, they must have thought, “we got it wrong!”

Jesus was dead and buried. His body placed in the tomb by 2 secret disciples, Joseph and Nicodemus, his closest followers having made a run for it when the pressure was on.

And after the darkness of Friday it was now the Sabbath. The day for religious worship. For one day, for the Jewish religious leaders at least, those who had plotted Jesus’ death, Jesus was forgotten. For those who played their part in Jesus’ execution there was a day to be religious.

And while the disciples grieved at their loss and at their own failings, there was nothing more they could do today. Their world had fallen apart. Their teacher, friend and inspiration was gone. But they had to wait for Sunday morning to at least do what they could.

He was their friend and they loved him, but did they wonder “what’s the point?”

Did they even think “He was just a man after all. We fell for his lies”?

At best, could his life and teaching continue to be an inspiration to them, even now he was gone?

Mary and the empty tomb

It was still dark on Sunday morning, and Mary Magdalene was off to Jesus’ tomb. Mary’s life had been transformed by meeting with Jesus. He had thrown demons out of her. He had stepped into her dark, painful world, and had set her free.

No wonder she followed him.

And so she set out for the tomb. The gospel of Mark tells us that she was not alone. A group of ladies walked together. Mary herself, Mary the mother of James, Salome. Were these among the ladies who we are told supported Jesus’ ministry financially?

Mark also tells us why they went to the tomb. To anoint Jesus’ body.Although he also notes that they wondered “How are we going to get the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”

The stones used were often slid into a groove which sloped downwards so would have taken some strength to push it back uphill along the groove.

But they went. Perhaps as their final act of respect and friendship.There was nothing to be gained by this loving act, but today Mary was to be more than a mourner. She would be a witness.

For something earth shattering happened that morning.

Something that would change Mary and Peter and John and his many followers, that day and in the days that followed, and down the centuries. Something that changes us. That can change you and me.

And for the most part it is the reaction of those early Jesus followers to events of Easter Sunday that we look at together today.

And how we will react.

Puzzling events.

Frightening events.

Emotional events.

The only problem that the ladies could think of as they walked along, turned out was NOT a problem! The one practical obstruction to their work was gone. The stone was rolled away!

Were their spirits lifted that some kind souls had sorted this for them?

Or were their hearts in their mouths? What was going on?

We are not told that they looked but plainly they did, for as Mary ran to Peter and John (the other disciple), she reported that the body of Jesus was missing. The ladies had no idea where he was, but he was gone.

Already grieving, this turn of events throws them into turmoil.

Perhaps like Mary, there is an emptiness or a turmoil in your life right now. Jesus isn’t part of things. You are alone, grieving, scared, confused. What is life all about? Perhaps Mary felt all or most of those things on that morning.

John and the empty grave clothes

There was a lot of running going on that morning. Perhaps this was where the Sunday early morning run originated. Mary ran to Peter and John.

“They have taken the Lord’s body!” she said as she tried to catch her breath.

John doesn’t talk about ‘Peter and John’. He refers simply to Peter and “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved”. This is generally regarded though as John’s modest way of referring to himself.

And now the two men race to the tomb.

John is fitter and quicker. Perhaps he is the younger of the two. He arrives at the tomb first. He stoops and sees the strips of linen once wrapped around Jesus’ body.

Peter comes along huffing and puffing after him, but like a good runner he bursts through the finishing line without hesitation and he is in to the tomb. Peter is never one to hold back!

He sees the strips. But he also sees the cloth that was around Jesus’ head. If someone had stolen the body then surely the strips would have gone with him. It is as if he has stepped out of his grave clothes. Who would have taken the trouble to unwrap the body?

Finally John is beside Peter in the tomb and he sees. But not only are we told that he saw. We are also told that he believed. But what did he believe? Did he believe what Mary had told him – that the body had gone – or did he come to realise something much more?

Interestingly John comments in verse 9 that the disciples still had not understood from the scriptures that Jesus was to rise from the dead, even though Jesus himself had talked to them about this often. John does not say what he believed but it seems likely that he believed at that moment that Jesus was risen.

Peter and John had seen something more it seems than the ladies had. They did not just see the emptiness of the tomb. They saw the empty grave clothes.

In your own darkness and emptiness, perhaps you have heard a whisper that Jesus is alive. That your life can somehow be different because of this. That there is a hope for you this morning. For the tomb is empty and so are the grave clothes of Jesus.

So they had a mixture of thoughts surely.

Who has taken the body? And why?

Has Jesus risen from the dead? If so, where is he?

The disciples simply went home. What did they do? They came, they saw, and they went home!

Had they seen all they were going to see that day? Did they even have a clue what to do next?

Did they go back to the other disciples to consider their next move?

Mary, the angels and the gardener

Mary stayed behind though. Her mind still in turmoil. The thought still uppermost in her mind? “Where has the body gone?”

She looks into the tomb again as the day gets lighter. Are there any clues? Well as she looks she sees something that the disciples had not seen. Not the empty grave clothes, but 2 figures dressed in white. 2 angels John tells us, head and foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid.

“Why are you crying?”

Her thoughts are still the same as she replies. “They have taken my Lord, I don’t know where they have taken him”.

Who were “THEY”? Was she thinking of the Jews? The Romans?Grave robbers?

It is then that something happens which is both amazing and strange. Mary sees Jesus standing before her as she turns, you gasp as you anticipate a happy ending, but she doesn’t recognise him.

John had seen an empty tomb and empty grave clothes and believed. Mary had Jesus himself standing before her and didn’t know it was him.

Jesus asks Mary the same question.

“Why are you crying?” and;

“Who are you looking for?”

And with the risen Lord stood in front of her she continues with her story about Jesus’ body having been taken away. She thinks this is the gardener and wonders if he has had something to do with the disappearing body.

We might ask ourselves, why did she not recognise her Lord? The one who meant so much to her, who had changed her life, the one she had followed. But John doesn’t tell us.

People have different theories as to why this might be. Could it just simply be that Jesus was the last person on earth that Mary expected to see in that moment?

Was it her grief? Her tears obscuring her view?

Did he in some way look different? This is not the only post resurrection appearance where Jesus was not recognised. Yet as many of us will remember his hands feet and side still bear the scars of his crucifixion.

Did he even in some way obscure his appearance?

The theories are there but it took one word to change everything.

One word to provide Mary with all the answers.

One word. As it grew lighter that day, one word made all the lights come on.

“Mary”. As Jesus spoke her name she knew. This was him. Her teacher.

Jesus once described himself as the good shepherd and said how his sheep recognised his voice. With one word this sheep Mary recognised the risen Jesus.

Jesus knows each of us by name this morning. He knows your situation. He knows your history, just as he knew Mary’s story. He speaks to you this morning and he speaks to you by name. He is alive. And he loves you. He can fill that emptiness in your life. Why are you crying? He knows.

If, unsurprisingly, she wanted to hug him, Jesus discourages her. “Not now. I’m not leaving yet.”

“Go and tell the others!”

There is a time for us to spend time at Jesus’ feet in worship. But there is also that time to get up and tell others. Telling others is a call repeated throughout the resurrection appearances.

Mary went again. I’m guessing she ran again! She told the disciples “I have seen the Lord!” She knew now. And they would soon see for themselves.

It’s extraordinary that the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection was a woman, someone who in that culture was not considered able to give evidence in court. Yet Jesus turns this upside down. Mary is a woman with a mission. John would not have made this up.

So how do you and I respond to this story.

This morning could be your beginning. A new life that faith in the risen Jesus brings.

This morning our cry is “HE IS RISEN!” The call this morning is to recognise him as your risen Lord and God.

On Good Friday we remembered when Jesus cried “IT IS FINISHED”. That was not a cry of defeat. He was not saying “Well that’s it. I did my best, but it didn’t work”.

He was announcing that the work he had come to do was complete. He had once and for all demonstrated the extent of his love for us.

On the cross Jesus revealed his glory. He proved how deep and wide and long was his love for you and me.

If you are tempted this morning to think “Jesus doesn’t understand”, he has been where you are and can be there for you right now.

We are reminded that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.”

Through his sacrifice we can be forgiven. We can know healing from all that is broken in our lives.

Truly Good Friday was not the end. It was just the beginning.

Easter Sunday vindicates Jesus completely. It is the other side of the coin.

It says “Jesus is alive forever”.

It says that just as Jesus dealt with everything wrong in us on the cross, that just as he rose to new life, so we can experience new life through his death and resurrection. Life without measure or end.

Ask the risen Jesus this morning to come into your life.

For those of us who are already followers of Jesus, today could be for you a glorious Easter reminder that Jesus is alive, but not just alive, he is alive in you. Let your heart fill with worship again.

Now we worship at Jesus’ feet, but then we share his call to Mary to “go and tell the others”.

We have good news to tell today!

And everyday.

Sermon blog: the return of the King

Matthew 24:36-51 

The title of our talk this evening is “The return of the King”.

King Jesus is coming back!

My sense is that this is something we talk about less in our churches these days.

I wonder are we even slightly embarrassed to talk about it?

I think today we tend to talk more than we used to about living as Christians in the here and now. And it’s quite right that we should do.

The church I grew up in had the weekly 6.30 pm Gospel Meeting, where Jesus coming again was frequently a major feature. Indeed we were often told that Jesus could come back by 7.30!

In the early part of this chapter Jesus is talking to his disciples about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, but he looks beyond that to the signs of the end of the age. The day when he, the king will return.

“Heaven and earth will pass away”, he says in verse 35.

So when is this all going to happen? Could the disciples mark the date and time down in their calendars?

Date and time?

Jesus is clear and to the point:

“No one knows”.

The angels don’t know. They are not in on the secret.

The son doesn’t know. Jesus doesn’t have the date.

Only God the Father knows.

Woah!

Let me rewind that a bit!

“Nor the Son”.

Do you hear it?

Jesus, the Son of God, the word through whom everything was created, says to his disciples:

“I don’t know when I’m coming back. I’m still waiting for instructions”.

Just think about that for a moment.

Jesus doesn’t know? Of course he knows.

That’s not possible.

Jesus is God isn’t he?

God knows everything.

But Jesus says “No one knows.

Not even me.

Only God the father”.

Is Jesus God?

Absolutely.

Did he cease to be God when he became a man?

Absolutely not.

He was man and God all at once.

But something had changed. In the words of the worship song he had “laid aside his majesty”. He had become one of us and in so doing had given up much of what was rightfully his.

Even the knowledge of God’s plan for this world’s future, it seems.

Now as he is sitting at the right hand of God the Father one would think surely he knows, but back then:

“Only the Father knows”.

Which begs a question:

If that is true then why have so many people, even so many Christians spent so much time and energy trying to work out the date and time of Jesus’ return, when it is something that men and women cannot know?

It has been said that “speculation on dates is inappropriate, indeed blasphemous.”

But many have tried.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted Jesus’ return in 1914. When he did not show up, rather than admit they were wrong, they argued that he had returned but in a more secret and mysterious way!

Christians such as Darby and Scofield set out detailed timetables.

Popular writers like Hal Lindsay in the 1970’s made predictions.

Some predicted the return of Jesus and the end of the world as we ticked over into this millennium.

But Jesus’ words seem plain enough surely. We cannot know.

Beware anyone who says he’s got inside knowledge!

In verse 37 Jesus compares the times leading up to his return with the time leading up to Noah’s flood. To a large extent, though we will see perhaps not entirely, these are both unexpected events.

People taken by surprise.

As in the days of Noah – life goes on. Eating, drinking, marrying.

It’s business as usual.

People either oblivious to the impending danger or refusing to listen to warnings. Peter describes Noah as a preacher in his second letter.

Was it that no one knew? Or was it that they didn’t listen to the preacher?

So today surely there is a mixture of those who have not heard and those who have rejected the good news of Jesus.

Noah’s flood was of course not the friendly children’s bible story we often portray it as. It was a calamity.

An act of judgement against the wickedness that God saw on the earth.

So the second coming of Jesus is presented as a time of judgement, a time to be feared. A disaster to avoid.

And yet there is another side.

Just as the ark brought deliverance to Noah and his family, so Jesus’ return is also to bring deliverance to his followers here on earth.

Only recently a friend in our house group was saying how she had become a Christian in the 1970’s. Largely out of fear. Out of what would happen to her when Jesus returned. And my recollection of much of the preaching I remember from those days was that it was negative and frightening.

Jesus’ return was often presented as a disaster rather than something that could be of great joy.

Of course there is a right place for warning, but surely the message of Jesus is first and foremost a positive one of hope and forgiveness and new life.

It bothers me that as I look at myself that I do not anticipate and look forward to the return of Jesus as much as I should.

In recent years I have developed a theory that so much of that gospel preaching of my youth was about judgement at Jesus’ return, that I still often see his return as something to fear.

I’ll even admit to having those episodes in Sainsbury’s where I’m walking up and down every aisle, with my wife Bev apparently nowhere to be seen and wondering if she has been taken and I have been left behind. If only I’d known she was in the changing room!

We Christians have reason for wonderful unbreakable hope in the return of Jesus to make everything right, and an eternity in his presence.

Our friend talked about how her friends would talk to her about passages such as the one we have read tonight.

Jesus talks about 2 men in verse 41, 2 women in verse 42. On the face of it they look very similar. Colleagues and friends.

But there is a huge difference when Jesus returns.

One man is taken, one left.

One woman is taken, one left.

This was indeed the sort of passage that inspired Christians in the 1960’s and 1970’s particularly.

An American singer Larry Norman sang “I wish we’d all been ready”, with the lines:

“A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head. He’s gone. Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still”.

Certainly as we’ll see the title of the song was bang on.

An English duo Malcolm & Alwyn had a song Tomorrow’s News:

“Have you seen the paper? Have you read the news? 200 million disappear and the whole world is confused. The churches are empty now, no one goes anymore. The remains of the Bibles lay scattered on the floor. Remember Mr Tomlinson whom everybody knew. He vanished from his home last week – he was one of the chosen few”.

Christians made Films such as “Thief in the night”.

More recently the “Left behind” series of books have been Christian bestsellers and have been made into films.

The picture is of people disappearing, airline pilots being whisked away in mid-flight, and the whole world wondering where they have gone.

Is Jesus simply illustrating the difference that his return will make between friends and colleagues and neighbours, or is he literally saying that his return will be a secret?

I’m not so sure. In verse 27 of this chapter Jesus has said, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”.

Jesus’ return I believe is going to light up the sky. The greatest spectacle of all. No one will miss what is happening.

Could it be as secret as the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest?

Michael Green says “No, it will be the most public event in all history. It will be impossible to miss it, for it will be like sheet lightning from one side of the sky to the other.”

Elsewhere we read of angels, trumpets and loud voices.

But Jesus seems to be saying to us that for some that will be a spectacle that brings great joy, but for others it will be a day to fear.His return will divide people.

As Jesus later left this world, the disciples were told to expect a physical, visible return. “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ [the angels] said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” Acts 1:11.

In Revelation chapter 1, John promises “Every eye will see him”.

So the word from Jesus is to be prepared for that day when he returns.

“Keep watch. You can be sure I’m coming back. Even if we don’t know when.”

So how do we keep watch?

No doubt those early disciples thought that Jesus would come back in their life time.

Many generations have thought since.

Still we wait. How do we wait?

Jesus looks to the idea of theft again. If the householder knew the thief was coming he wouldn’t go to sleep. He’d be ready for him. His house would be secure.

Nowadays we would spend money to get an alarm installed in the house so we can thwart the burglar and sleep soundly at the same time.

But that is dealing with a potential risk. Jesus is talking about a certain event. Even more so all of us need to be ready.

As Jesus looks at how we prepare ourselves he tells another story, the story of a faithful and wise servant. The challenge is this. When the master returns, what will he find his servant doing?

By analogy when Jesus returns what will he find us doing?

In the generation before mine this was often issued with a warning to sober living.

“What will you do if Jesus comes back and finds you in the cinema or in the dance hall?”

What a calamity! Of course the short answer is that we probably won’t ask Jesus to hold on so we can see the end of the film.

Jesus has already reminded us hasn’t he, that life goes on as normal in the days leading up to his return. Even in leisure time!

I believe it’s not so much about how we spend a particular evening but how we spend our lives.

The picture is of a servant who gets on with his work, as against a servant who gets complacent and ill-treats his colleagues.

The one will be rewarded. The other faces a surprisingly dramatic(and violent) end.

Michael Green comments about anticipating Jesus’ return:

“Jesus did not tell us to get out our calculators and polish our crystal balls, but to live a holy life in preparation for meeting him”.

Peter in his second letter recognises that as we preach the return of Jesus we will face a cynical response, just as perhaps Noah had experienced in his day:

“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”

The message of Jesus’ return though is one that we need to preach.

Paul also reminded the Christians in Thessalonica of how they should live, given that the time is not known:

“Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4.

As I have been preparing this, our daughter Becky was getting ready to deliver our first grandchild. Sophia was 8 days late. It’s tempting to become impatient and think this is never going to happen. But it is a certain event. There have been plenty of signs and just the shape and size of Becky’s tummy told you that baby was coming, quite apart from all the pain!

She and her husband had been preparing for months, decorating, buying all the right bedding and clothes, learning what to expect in the labour ward. Nothing more needed to be done. The hospital bag was packed and when the labour pains came they were off to hospital.

Our role was to sit by the phone for what seemed like an age!

It was a certain event and they were prepared.

Peter challenges his readers further:

“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

Of course there will always be discussions about these things.

Some will argue that the day that Jesus returns is a fixed day in history. God has got the date and time written down.

Others have suggested it is a moveable date based on certain circumstances. Perhaps they look at Peter’s hint about how we can “speed its coming” or the need for the world to be evangelised first.

The inference from the story is that we need to be serving God faithfully, doing the work that God calls each of us to do. Enduring the hardship that might come our way.

For those of us who know him and love him, that will be a day to look forward to.

It will be an end to history as we know it. A time for good to be shown to have triumphed over evil. Visibly seeing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.

A time of restoration. For the creation of a new heaven and new earth.For everything to be put right. For tears to be wiped away. The final breaking in of the kingdom of God.

Yes there will be judgement. People will be divided as Jesus said.

The Nicene creed reminds us that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.

There will be judgement but we need not fear that if we know Jesus as our saviour, knowing that his grace has covered all our sins.

The question is do you know him? Have you trusted your life into Jesus’ hands?

We can know with the writer to the Hebrews:

“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him”. Hebrews 9:28.

Let’s be waiting.

Jesus will fulfil his promise:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am”. John 14:3.

However we view these words of Jesus. One thing is evident. Jesus’ return is 2000 years nearer than it was when he spoke these words. It might not be in our lifetime, but it just might be.

It is a reminder to us to sort out our priorities, to watch the signs, and to live holy lives that attra others to see Jesus for who he is. To encourage as many as possible to be ready…

…for the return of the King.

‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

 

Sermon blog: Reach out!

Mark 3:1 -12

On your Marks

January, it has to be said, is a good time to study Mark’s Gospel, as you are.

Let’s face it.

Mark hasn’t really had a look in over Christmas. Matthew and Luke have cornered the market on Mary & Joseph, angels, Bethlehem, shepherds, wise men, and the Baby.

John is rather more poetic in his description of the events, gloriously taking us on a journey back to the very creation of heaven and earth.

Mark is generally thought to be a major source of research for Matthew and Luke as they wrote their biographies of Jesus. But they certainly didn’t get the Nativity from Mark.

The reason of course that no one reads mark at Christmas is that he does not talk at all about those events.

Is he the original Ebeneezer Scrooge?

A big “Bah humbug!!”?

I don’t think so.

He just has different priorities to the others.

Adult Jesus

He begins instead with the adult Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.

Mark goes headlong into the drama surrounding Jesus.

Healings and controversy.

By the time we get to this reading the scene is well and truly set.

The dividing line

Opinion is hugely divided.

Where Jesus is concerned it always has been. And always will be. There will be opposing views when people talk about Jesus.

Chapter 3 finds Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Exactly where a Jewish man would be expected to be, especially one who was already gaining some renown as a religious teacher.

Presumably there was a good number in, but Mark records only 2 of them:

Jesus.

And a man with a shrivelled hand.

Actually there are some other people, simply described as “some of them”.

Some of the people were not just there that Sabbath to worship. Some of them had an agenda that day.

We probably now look back at the life of Jesus as a wonderful thing. A good man, a healer, a wise teacher. What was there not to like? We can imagine the word getting around, and his popularity growing.

Mark though is certainly not going to give us the idea that this young rabbi had any kind of honeymoon period. As we said Jesus divides opinion, and after 2 chapters it is fair to say that Jesus already has enemies.

Because of the way the gospels are written, I am not going to be accused of spoiling the story, to say that the opposition Jesus experienced would lead ultimately to death at the hands of his enemies.

The events of the cross we remember at Easter, and call the passion. Some have gone as far as to say that Mark’s gospel is just a passion narrative, with a very long introduction.

It is worth recapping that in chapter 2 Jesus was doing all sorts of things that, whatever his purpose, had the effect of putting certain people’s backs up.

Firstly he was accused, by the teachers of the law, of blasphemy. For claiming to forgive the sins of a sick man. Only God can do that! It barely mattered that the man was healed.

Secondly he ate with unsuitable people. Tax collectors and “sinners” as the teachers labelled them. If Jesus was a teacher like them, he needed to behave like one of them.

Thirdly he didn’t encourage his followers to keep to religious good habits. “Why weren’t they fasting?” asked the Pharisees.

Finally he allowed his disciples to work (by the Pharisees’ strict definition) on the Sabbath, in breach of God’s law. Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath.

So we can safely understand that the “some of them” we read about in chapter 3 contain some of those Pharisees and teachers.

We are told they are looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They have already been asking some hard questions but now they are looking for some concrete evidence, something that will prove that he is not in their inner crowd.

Watching

Are they there to worship?

Who knows.

But first and foremost they are there to watch Jesus.

One thing they knew already is that Jesus healed people. That doesn’t seem to be in dispute. From the events of chapters 1 and 2, the Pharisees and teachers of the law seem to have no doubt that Jesus can heal.

That is not their question.

They have also picked up a slightly unconventional approach to the observation of the Jewish Sabbath, the day that God had plainly ordained as a day of rest.

Healing a few sick people on a Wednesday lunch time would be one thing. But would Jesus heal someone on the Sabbath?

To their mind, interestingly, healing was work.

Planted?

One suspects therefore that the main reason Mark knew of the presence of the disabled man, might be that the teachers and Pharisees had planted him there. Laid as a trap for Jesus.

Yes he is a healer, but surely this young teacher will know that there is a time and place for healing. And the Sabbath is certainly NOT that time.

And so as eyes watch and ears listen, Jesus singles out the disabled man.

“Come and stand at the front”.

The man comes forward slowly, uncertainly.

“This is it. Is Jesus about to walk into our trap?”

But just at that moment, there is no healing.

Rather the young teacher speaks. He asks them a question.

“What is LAWFUL on the Sabbath. What is the RIGHT thing to do?”

“Do you do good or evil?”

“Would you be better to save someone’s life, or to be a killer?”

In your eyes

Eyes fixed on Jesus turn to each other. Confused, questioning eyes.

The lights don’t seem to come on so Jesus’ enemies can only keep their silence. What could they say?

Some eyes gaze at the floor, other eyes are fixed on Jesus.

And his eyes return the stare.

In their eyes he sees accusation, confusion, maybe some amusement at the thought of what he might be about to do.

But his eyes…

In the eyes of Jesus his opponents see anger.

Anger and distress.

Anger and distress that the Pharisees and teachers, the so called experts, don’t have an answer.

Can they REALLY not make a choice between good and evil, life and death??!!

Stubborn, stubborn hearts.

The waiting is over.

Jesus has one thing to say. To the disabled man.

Reach out

“Stretch out your hand”.

Jesus simply tells him to do something. Something impossible.

This hand does not stretch.

And yet…

Is it an instinct? Is it faithful obedience? Is it the look of encouragement in Jesus’ eyes?

In a moment it is over. The hand stretched. Complete healing.

Jesus chooses to do good and to give life.

He’s nailed his colours to the mast.

Horror!

And there is much horror.

How COULD he do this? On the Sabbath?

In that moment, amazingly as it might seem to us, Jesus is public enemy number 1.

He needs to be got rid of.

And the Pharisees waste no time in going out to plot his death, which of course they WON’T be doing on the Sabbath…

Their chosen allies are the Herodian party. This was a political party loyal to the Herodian dynasty. If you think about that nativity character King Herod, there had always been a desire to get rid of Jesus, a threat to the king of the Jews.

The Lake

As for Jesus, it is time to get away, with his followers off to the lake.

There is no suggestion that this is an escape from the Pharisees, but rather it is an escape from the crowds.

Throughout the gospels we are shown those times where Jesus wants to be alone with his disciples. To teach them. To pray. To rest.

On many of those occasions, as here, those plans appear to be thwarted.

All that happens is that a crowd follow him from Galilee. They have seen the healings. Perhaps they loved what he just did in the synagogue. He stood up to those Pharisees. They could just feel the electricity.

What would he do next? What will he say now?

“Let’s go along for the ride”.

And the crowds are coming from Galilee. And Judea. And Jerusalem. And Idumea. From across the Jordan.

And even from Tyre and Sydon – gentile areas from beyond Israel’s borders. People to be avoided maybe.

Fame has spread.

Jesus is box office.

The boat

And so Jesus encourages his followers to get him into a boat. Is he trying to escape? A quick get away?

It doesn’t seem to be. Rather it seems to be Jesus’ way of getting some elbow room. Everyone wants to get close to him. This man is a healer!

Those with all sorts of sicknesses are looking to crowd in on him, ready for the miracle.

Jesus though would on occasion use a boat as a pulpit, to teach the gathering crowds. Although we are not told on this occasion what he had to say, we can assume that he did take the opportunity to address the crowds.

Perhaps too there was a further time of healing. We are not told.

What we do learn is that there is another encounter.

Evil spirits

There are other enemies present. Impure spirits.

It seems that at least some of the sicknesses represented on that day are caused by the activity of evil Spirits.

It’s not always something we find easy to understand. Some people like to see the devil in everything. We link certain illnesses to evil spirits, causing distress in the process.

Or on the other hand we see the devil in nothing. There is no such person. Both are dangerous.

The late Keith Green sang a song putting into words the devil’s point of view:

“I used to have to sneak around, but now they just open their door. It’s getting very easy now, ‘cause no one believes in me anymore.”

We need the discernment that God’s Holy Spirit gives us.

Whereas the teachers and Pharisees have failed to see the evidence in Jesus actions, these evil Spirits are immediately aware of his true identity.

They bow down in submission to him, recognising his authority. And they are not quiet.

“You ARE the Son of God!!”

Jesus responds to them with an order. This is to be their secret! No one else is to know.

They must keep the reality of his identity quiet.

Tell no one. It seems Jesus’ following is not to be dictated by these sort of events.

Seeing?

So as you read, where do you see yourself in the narrative?

Who do we see?

We see the religious people of Jesus’ day. Teachers of the law and Pharisees. Religious, devout in their keeping of the law and encouraging others to do the same.

And yet.

They can’t even see what the evil spirits so clearly see.

As the son of God stands in front of him they cannot even see him. They are so bound up with their petty interpretation of God’s law that they miss that God stands in their midst, reaching out in love as God does.

Their plans are to get rid of him at all costs.

There are challenges there for us as Christians.

Are we strong believers, committed to the church, regular attenders? But can we actually come to a worship service and fail to see Jesus? Are we truly knowing what it is to worship?

Don’t just be filling the pews!

Are we so content with the way things are done in our church that we fail to see what God is doing? We don’t want anything to change.

Could we even be guilty of the sort of legalism that the Pharisees displayed, bending the law of God to absurd extremes? Burdening people with rules and regulations rather than helping to set them free?

Getting in the way

Unfortunately we Christians are all too often the worst adverts for the Christian faith. We are better at turning people away from Jesus than we are at bringing them to him. At other times Jesus disciples even blocked a tax collector’s view of their master, unkindly turned children away, or rebuked an elaborate worshipper for wasting money.

Do the things that I do or say, the things that we do as a church, make Jesus attractive to others or are we getting in the way of his love? Let’s pray that’s not the case.

Spectators

There are other people there too surely. Apart from the “some of them”. Those who were also present. Were they worshippers? Or were they just spectators? On the outskirts just wanting to see what was going on, but not really getting involved. Let’s pray we are not like that.

More likely though we will be those who accept Jesus or reject him, experiencing that same dividing of opinion that Jesus always brings.

Happy days!

Outside the synagogue building the activity continues. Jesus’ attempts at a getaway are frustrated.

There is a crowd who just want to see more. They’ve seen the healings and they want to see more. They want to be part of the action. Perhaps understandably they want to experience Jesus’ healing power for themselves.

Jesus, as much as he gains opposition, is also garnering a great deal of popularity.

Oh to follow Jesus and see miracle after miracle, prayers answered in their hundreds, life being wonderful in every respect.

But Jesus was never looking for a fair weather following.

Not to be the winner of a popularity contest.

Could we ever be people who are all too keen to follow Jesus, when everything is going well? When the worship is spectacular when the church is booming, when God blesses us with health and wealth and happiness?

The way of suffering

In time Jesus would tell the crowds that his way was to be a way of suffering. The way of the cross. Not just for him but also for those who would follow him.

Yes there were healings. Signs, to those who could see, of his God-ness.

But the way of Jesus is the way of sacrifice. Our greatest blessing is sealed through his death.

This news would in time cause many to turn away. It was too hard.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. We don’t know what that will ultimately mean for any of us, but we can trust our lives into the hands of the Son of God.

The Apostle Paul is an example that we can learn to be content whatever our experience of life. Riches or otherwise.

Healing

Or maybe you are that man back in the synagogue. Standing before the crowds. You might be baffled by all the conversations going on around you.

You just know.

You need Jesus.

And when he calls you?

You stretch out your hand.

And you receive the healing, the forgiveness, the life that he has for you.

Sermon blog: FAITH

Mark 5:21-43

This is one of those stories. If you were brought up going to Sunday School, this story would have been heard often. This was one of the really big stories of Jesus. On a Jesus miracle scale 1 to 10, this was an ELEVEN.

There were many amazing miracles and healings recorded in the gospels but there were three that stood high above the rest.

The ULTIMATE.

Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter and that other chap. These were the big ones.

Raised from the dead.

You don’t get any bigger and better than that.

We could almost have managed without reading this passage today.

We could have relied on all the old Sunday school pupils here who would have reeled off the details.

  • Jairus
  • Synagogue ruler
  • Daughter dying
  • A crowd following Jesus
  • Their journey interrupted by a sick woman
  • That she suffered from bleeding
  • The touch of Jesus clothes
  • The sense of power going out of Jesus
  • The disciples apparently telling Jesus not to be stupid
  • The fact that Jairus’ daughter died before Jesus got there
  • The mourners who cried…
  • …and then laughed when Jesus said she was only asleep
  • The fact that this girl with no name was 12
  • That the first thing she needed to do was have something to eat

There are many things we could focus on this story, but what we can see in this incident, is what it means to have faith.

So what is it we learn from this passage about faith and how it operates?

Different Christians have different perspectives on faith it seems to me. At the top end of the faith spectrum, faith is the total absence of doubt.

It is bold brash total certainty. God will do everything you want. All you have to do is ask. Believe and do not doubt.

Those of this persuasion might look at today’s passage and say “Jesus raised the dead – go and do likewise!”

Let this week be a catalogue of miracles for everyone you come into contact with, with your faith strengthened by today’s lesson in Jesus’ power.

Let nothing worry you.

There is an emphasis on faith in this story, but it is not seen here the story ends. Mark does not comment in any way on how these miracles affected the faith of the woman or Jairus and his family.

They must have felt like they could do anything, with Jesus on their side. Faith is not shown as the end result, but rather is demonstrated to be the key to unlocking Jesus’ miracles.

Let me say straight away, I believe in miracles. I believe God is in the business of healing. We worship and serve an almighty God. I am convinced we can trust him to work miracles in and through us, but I believe that in this passage the emphasis is not on miracles.

Even the most spectacular of all.

The emphasis is rather on the faith of the people involved.

And that faith is not bold and brash and without doubt.

But it is faith that makes a difference.

Jairus and the woman who was healed faced different but difficult circumstances and in both cases they saw the answer in Jesus.

The story is full of people. Jesus is surrounded by crowds of people but the focus is on the faith of one man and one woman.

Both came from the direst of circumstances.

Jairus was clear that his daughter was dying. That is the blunt truth portrayed by Mark’s words.

The woman had tried everything to sort out her medical problem. No national health service. She has spent all her money on the private specialists and nothing could help. In fact the suggestion is that the doctors made her worse.

Jairus had little time, the woman had no hope. But for both there was Jesus.

Their last hope, but hope there was.

Jesus specifically mentioned faith as vital to the unfolding events, certainly as far as the woman was concerned and I am sure that Jairus too demonstrated his faith by his actions.

Faith is something that will express itself, it is not a private thing. In his letter James reminds us that faith will show itself by the things we do. It will be evident in our actions and in our devotion to God.

Faith is not just an idea or a belief.

Jesus said it plainly “Daughter, your faith has saved you”.

What can we learn of the faith of these two people?

FAITH showed itself when it counted.

In the moment of their greatest need, they reached out to Jesus. It is invariably in the darkest times of our lives that our faith is tested.

Sometimes there can be a feeling of peace in the face of suffering, sometimes faith can just as easily be a sense of holding on in desperation, when everything is telling you to give up.

Both Jairus and the woman had good reason to resign themselves to the worst but they still dared to believe. It is when we are up against it that our faith can crumble or it can rise to the occasion.

FAITH showed itself, without fear of the reaction.

There are some questions you should never be foolish enough to ask in life.

  • Would a Manchester City fan cheer for United in his spare time?
  • Did David Cameron vote Labour in the council elections this week?
  • Would a synagogue ruler go to Jesus for help?

Of course not – the very idea is nonsense.

To most religious people of the day Jesus was at best deluded and at worst a blaspheming liar.

For them Jesus was public enemy number one. He needed getting rid of.

There was nothing good about him.

Jairus would be ridiculed and would potentially become an outcast, but he was desperate and somewhere in him was a small germ of faith. His peers didn’t worry him.

The crowds surrounding Jesus did not put him off. “Jesus, my little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live”.

A desperate situation demanded a simple prayer of simple faith. Sometimes as for Jairus faith is spelt R I S K.

FAITH showed itself in simple quiet trust.

The brisk walk to Jairus’ house is interrupted by the woman. She does not call out and confront Jesus as Jairus did.

For her it is quiet, perhaps slightly fearful.

Her faith is certainly not loud, but it is real. Quiet, but actually believing “If I just touch his clothes I will be healed”. Another definition of faith which I believe could well have fitted this woman is “Feeling afraid I trust Him”.

Not bold and brash but quiet trust.

Perhaps you are not sure if Jesus can really help. But where else can you turn? Jesus promise is to be there for you as you call to him.


 

FAITH showed itself in spite of religious prejudice.

The fact was that, due to this woman’s medical condition, according to Jewish laws, she was unclean. She should not have been coming into contact with people, let alone Jesus, a so-called Rabbi.

She faced disapproval and being shunned by the religious people if they knew her problem. But she came and she reached out in faith, through the barrier.

It is all too easy for us as Christians to give the impression that some people are beyond the love of God. The way they look, the way they speak, the way they behave. But we are reminded often by Jesus and here again, that the sort of love that he demonstrates to us, has no barriers.

His love has no exceptions.

The woman didn’t want to share her story but in the end she had to.

For Jesus the healing was not enough. She was not just going to slip away there was something that needed to be said. “Your faith has healed you”.

She went away healed and with a new peace.

You may feel that religion is not for you.

You may feel that religious people will look down their noses at you.

Sadly us Jesus followers are often not the people we should be.

Jesus longs to meet your need.

FAITH showed itself when all hope was gone.

Jairus must have been desperate as these events unfolded. His disciples must have wondered what was going on.

There was no time. They had to hurry and here was Jesus healing a woman with a serious but not life threatening condition, and then stopping to discuss the details.

The delay was fatal. The girl was dead.

Imagine if these two had been side by side in a hospital ward. A doctor who ignored the girl to care for the woman might well be called negligent.

Nothing Jesus can do now.

“Jairus, just thank Jesus for his time and willingness to help and go home to arrange the funeral.”

But Jesus spoke words, surprising words to Jairus.

“Don’t be afraid, just believe”.

Jairus could have said “Believe what? What can you possibly do now?”

But somewhere deep down he knew that all was not lost. Even in the face of death itself Jairus welcomed Jesus into the situation, not knowing what the outcome would be.

It occurs to me that in the darkest of times it can never be a bad thing to welcome Jesus into your home. Whether ultimately you experience his power in healing or his comfort in the darkness. That’s faith.

FAITH showed itself as a response to the voice of Jesus.

Jesus had spoken so Jairus believed. A belief I am sure mixed with doubt.

But the synagogue ruler had come a long way.

Pressing on through the crying, and then laughing mourners Jesus did the ultimate and told a dead 12 year old to come back to life.

Actually he put it differently to that. He told the people that the girl was only sleeping. When he knew full well she was dead.

Just sleeping.

And he spoke to the girl in those terms.

“Come on sweetheart. Time to get up”.

That’s Jesus. He shows his divine credentials. To him death is just as sleep. In him the ultimate enemy of us all is defeated.

The girl is handed back to her parents – a reward for a father’s faith that literally gave up at nothing.

And so the story ends quietly. A meal and an order to the parents to tell no one. But surely you’ve got to tell everyone!

Imagine what this will do for the neighbours – imagine even more people following Jesus. But as so often for Jesus the emphasis was not on the miracle.

To follow Jesus is not simply based on the extraordinary deeds of a miracle worker it is a matter of faith. Jesus never wanted people to follow him because of his miracles, but be simply to follow him as saviour and Lord. Ultimately his way was not the way of the miraculous, but was the way of sacrifice and death.

FAITH shows itself not in the highs of life but in the lows.

It shows itself when times are hard.

We may cry out, we may grit our teeth, but we keep walking Jesus’ way. We keep following him for all we’re worth. For all He’s worth. Sometimes the rewards of our faith will be to see the miraculous answers to our prayers. Sometimes the darkness will not be lifted but it will be enough for us to know that Jesus is with us.

For as this story reminds us, death is not final.

Jesus by his sacrificial death and resurrection has won an eternal future for us. Jesus is someone who deserves to be the object of our faith.

For us, as with Jairus and the woman, he gives us more than we can ever ask or imagine.

Jairus got more than he bargained for. Instead of healing, resurrection.

For the woman not just healing but peace.

Are you ready this morning to receive all that Jesus has for you?

But he may ask more of us too. Jairus had to face death before he saw Jesus work.

The woman had to face embarrassment in telling her story so that she could experience all that Jesus had for her.

Jesus felt power go from him at the woman’s touch. He became weaker so that she could be well.

For us he experienced the weakness of the cross so that we can be whole and forgiven.

And such is his work on the cross, and such his resurrection that Jesus proves the master of death. So that death can be defeated in us too.

So where is your faith today? How will it show itself?

Jesus is the one you can truly trust.

Christmas sermon blog: Shepherds’ delight

shepherdsofsignificance

Luke 2:1-20

“And so this is Christmas”.

Such a busy time – full on.

A time when our attention is filled with so many things and it’s good to have time to focus on what Christmas is truly all about.

A familiar tale?

It’s a story that we think we know so well, but often I think we know so little.

The gospels contain scant details about what we would call the first Christmas.

Mark does not mention it at all

And John writes high poetry about the eternal Word who becomes flesh.

There is no mention of shepherds and angels, or wise men, or even a baby.

For those details we turn to the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

But even there we are presented with the bare bones of the nativity story.

Using our imagination

The details are so thin that inevitably, and quite rightly, people have had to use their imaginations, to try to recreate those events.

What happens as a result of that is that the donkey, or the inn keeper, or the stable have come to be regarded as fact and are part of our nativity plays and our carols.

We even find room for snow in our Bethlehem story.

2 accounts, one story

Matthew and Luke choose to tell different aspects of the Christmas story, different characters are introduced, but the 2 complement each other marvellously.

This morning we have chosen to look at Luke’s take on the events. Luke is writing to a friend called Theophilus. In his opening chapter he describes how he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and has “decided to write an orderly account” of the life of Jesus.

History: Son of God

And so to start he puts things in their historical context.

The Roman emperor of the day is Caesar Augustus – he is the self-styled Son of God. He used the title Augustus intentionally to denote majesty.

There would be a great contrast with this emperor, who claimed the title son of God and the description Majestic.

Jesus we shall see is the true Son of God and profoundly majestic and yet subjected himself to poverty. Augustus sought to change the world by force.

Jesus by love.

Indeed this apparently insignificant baby would end up confronting the greatest empire in the world.

God’s plan

The true God may be very much at work here but there is human activity working behind the scenes of God’s great plan.

It is Caesar Augustus who calls for a census of the entire Roman world.

A show of strength perhaps.

Luke tries to pin the events down further, saying this particular census was the one while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Dates!

It is unclear from the history books as to when such a census would have taken place, there is some confusion too over the dates of Quirinius

Elsewhere in the story we read of King Herod. As Herod died in 4 AD Jesus must have been born before then.

The calendar has long been known to have obviously gone wrong somewhere. Jesus was not born at year DOT, but over 4 years BEFORE CHRIST.

The place

The census Luke describes required people to go to their own town to register.

Matthew does nothing to explain how this came about but Matthew and Luke are both loud and clear in telling us that Mary and Joseph found themselves in Bethlehem.

Luke tells us that they travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Their ancestral home.

O little town

Bethlehem was not a place apparently of great significance, certainly not in terms of numbers.

But it had great significance for the people of Jesus’ day.

One of their prophets Micah had prophesied a ruler who would come from Bethlehem. The chief priests believed this to be Messiah, as they confirm to Herod in Matthew’s account, quoting Micah the prophet.

Small town hero

But this little town of Bethlehem, had another claim to fame. Israel’s greatest most famous of kings was a small town hero. A noble man of most humble beginnings.

The youngest of 8 sons. A boy tending sheep out on the hills of Bethlehem.

But from small beginnings came KING DAVID.

The carol rather exaggerates things in describing Bethlehem as “Royal David’s city”. Even at the time of Jesus birth it was no city, it was barely a town. “O little town of Bethlehem” is much more appropriate.

Some would say its population was perhaps around 1,000.

Royal family!

Joseph is of the house and line of David. Mary it is revealed elsewhere can also claim that lineage.

The child the angel spoke to Mary of was promised the throne of David.

God’s plan is being meticulously worked out.

Complications

So Joseph heads to Bethlehem with Mary.

They are betrothed, a status equivalent to marriage in every sense, save that they did not share a bed. Mary – pledged to be married.

But also expecting a child!

It’s quite matter of fact but in that day, would have been a scandal.

Joseph had needed an angel in a dream to convince him that Mary had not been unfaithful to him.

Matthew makes it clear that Joseph was minded to divorce her quietly, rather than having her stoned according to the letter of the law.

But then the angel and the Gospel truth.

I always suspect the questions would never have gone away. “Remember that couple? She’s the virgin who had a baby!”

Time

Joseph went with Mary – there is no mention of how they got to Bethlehem.

But the donkey is as good a guess as any.

The time now came for the baby to be born. Luke describes the baby as “HER firstborn, a son”.

 

Humble beginnings

He is wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. Doesn’t sound like much of a beginning.

Lying in an animal’s feeding trough.

The NIV explains why.

No room!

There is no guest room.

Most experts will agree that the translation of “no room in the inn” is the wrong translation. As far as I am aware the NIV is the only version which translates the words in what is believed to be correct.

It is considered unlikely that Bethlehem had an inn for two reasons:

Firstly it wasn’t big enough!

Secondly hospitality was second nature to people in that culture. There would have been no need for such a place. Even complete strangers would be entertained.

Rather there is no guest room available so they would have slept in the room otherwise occupied by the family’s animals.

Today’s equivalent might be sleeping on the settee in a sleeping bag.

Whatever the reason, it seems there is certainly a sense in which Jesus didn’t quite fit in.

Is that still true today?

“The lack of room for Jesus in our modern world is sometimes a deliberate refusal but, it seems to me, it is more often, now as then, that there simply isn’t quite space for him”. Paula Gooder – ‘Journey to the Manger’.

Shepherds: history repeats itself

The scene changes. We are now transported to the fields around Bethlehem.

Maybe these were even the fields where David himself was once found caring for the family’s sheep. David the shepherd boy.

In an interesting twist, it is shepherds out on those same fields, who are chosen as the hearers and carriers of the greatest news.

Given King David’s beginnings, and God’s constant Old Testament references to himself as a shepherd to his people (“the LORD is my shepherd”), it is surprising that by this time shepherds enjoyed a pretty bad reputation.

Shepherds it seems were despised. Largely uneducated. The rabbis regarded them as untrustworthy, always on the move. Their lifestyle made it pretty much impossible for them to observe the religious purity laws, and their sheep would stray on to others’ land.

They were certainly outsiders.

But Just as Jesus was born in humble circumstances, God does not make an announcement in a royal palace, in the temple, but rather out in those fields.

There they are: the night shift – guarding their flocks.

Angels!

An angel of the Lord appeared to them – at that moment heaven opened.

Unlike in other parts of the Christmas narrative, the angel is unnamed. There is nothing to suggest that it would be wrong to believe this was Gabriel once more.

There’s an angel. The glory of the Lord. Those dark hills are lit up dramatically.

It’s terrifying.

As always seems to be the case, it is the angel’s first job to put their minds at rest and to encourage them not to be afraid.

Good news!

The shepherds are not despised but are privileged to be chosen to hear good news.

Of great joy.

Good news of great joy for everyone. No exceptions.

Even shepherds.

A saviour has been born to you.

TO YOU! In your little town. The town of David.

This isn’t just for the others. This is so much more than an ordinary normal birth of a baby.

This is for them.

This baby is the long awaited Messiah, the Lord.

As Tim Keller puts it in his book ‘Hidden Christmas’, “God…wrote himself into the drama of history”.

Sign

And they can know this baby for themselves.

They can find him.

He will be exactly not where you would expect to see the Messiah.

The shepherds would not be welcome in palace or temple, but here they get front row seats.

The baby’s unusual birth was to be a sign to them. They are not given directions, mobile numbers, or street names.

“Look for the baby in the animal trough. This is a small place. You’ll have no trouble finding him if you ask around”.

Sing choirs of angels

As they struggle to take this in, the angel is joined by “great company of the heavenly host”.

Praising God.

“Glory to God in the highest”,

And pronouncing a blessing on this world.

“Peace on earth – to those on whom his favour rests”. This child is due to bring an end to enmity and warfare.

To quote the carol “God and sinners reconciled”.

Heavenly hosts when they do appear in scripture are normally ready to fight, as in 2 Kings 6:14-17, in the story of Elisha.

Or they are depicted around the throne of God worshipping day and night (1 Kings 22:19).

Now they raise their singing voices in worship and bringing of good news.

“The implication is that this event is so great and world changing that the shepherds are given a rare glimpse into heaven to see the angels praising God” – Paula Gooder – ‘Journey to the Manger’.

Let’s go!

The angels head back to heaven. Or heaven is once more closed up, and the fields are back in thick darkness again.

Did the shepherds discuss the events, this impressive show they had witnessed?

No their response was immediate and urgent:

“Let’s go and see this thing that has happened!”

“The Lord has told us about” this.

They hurried off

Just as they were told

They found Joseph and Mary and the baby – not sure how, but there they were.

The baby lying in a manger feeding trough – the angel’s words were true.

Tell us the story!

So what did the shepherds say? How did they explain their visit to Mary and Joseph?

What did they do? Did they worship? Did they bring gifts? We’re not told.

What did Mary & Joseph say? We are not told. The details of the meeting are not shared with us. They remain a secret between Joseph and Mary, the animals, the shepherds with the infant Messiah oblivious.

Spread the word

But we are told the effect this meeting had upon the shepherds. They spread the word about what they had been told about the child. The words of the angels. Maybe too the words of the young couple with the baby.

All who heard were amazed at what the shepherds said

Were they amazed at the message? Probably.

Were they amazed that the shepherds were chosen to spread the news? Probably.

Treasure

Mary we are told treasured all these things. This was a response of the emotions and the heart. With all that Mary and Joseph had experienced themselves, they heard now how the news was announced on David’s hillsides.

Praising

The shepherds return euphoric.

Glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard.

And for choosing to tell them.

Responses

Check it out

So what is your reaction today to the Christmas story?

Are you like the shepherds, you’ve heard that here in this story is a saviour, the Messiah, a king?

Will you be untouched by the news or will you determine to see for yourself?

Don’t just be a spectator at Christmas, but seek out the Saviour.

He is a saviour TO YOU.

Ponder

Will you be like Mary?

As she takes in the unfolding Christmas story, she drinks it all in. She makes sense of it all. But it’s not just an intellectual response. The events touch her heart.

She treasures these things.

Do we stop to think. What does all this mean to me? Its more than just a story.

Those of us who have been Christians many years, has it all become too familiar?

Time to let Christmas change our thinking and our hearts.

Telling others

Will we be like the shepherds who’s natural response to the amazing experience of meeting Jesus, was to tell others? Can we keep the good news of Jesus, the saviour, to ourselves?

 

 

 

Praising

Would those shepherds ever be the same after that night? They returned to their work. But they returned in an attitude and an atmosphere of praise and worship to God.

As you focus on the Christmas story again this year let it shape your heart and your mind and bring about a response of praise and worship.

Even when you’re in the middle of looking after your sheep.

Or whatever it is you do.

This story is good news of great joy, for all the people.

For you.