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Sermon blog: The Righteous King

Image result for a son is given

Isaiah 9:1-7

Victory speech

A man stands in the Hilton Hotel in New York. His speech is one of victory.

Come January 2017 the government of the USA will be on the shoulder of Donald Trump.

In the euphoria of the moment he makes some big claims:

“Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream”

“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

“We have a great economic plan. We will double our growth and have the strongest economy anywhere in the world. At the same time, we will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.”

“America will no longer settle for anything less than the best. We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring. We have to do that. We’re going to dream of things for our country, and beautiful things and successful things once again.”

“All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”

The new world according to Donald Trump.

Familiar verses

It is unlikely that anyone here this morning will have never heard the verses we read together.

If you have spent Christmas Eve preparing the vegetables whilst listening to Carols from Kings, then someone will have read “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.

If you have been to a church carol service then you will almost certainly have heard “for to us a child is born”.

If, like me, you have been a Christian for many years you will have heard these words over and over again. “wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace”.

And to all of us, whether we are long term Christians or those who have found themselves in church rarely, there is no puzzle in these words. We know that the words are about Jesus. The child who was born, and gave Christmas its meaning.

As Christians we are so familiar with these words.

And even as a non-believer attending a carol service, the context makes it very clear.

Most of us here this morning will know that there is something remarkable about these verses, which might be lost on someone who only ever hears them in the carol service.

The point is that these words were written approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This was no ordinary birth announcement.

This was a serious advance notice!

 

Isaiah’s audience

And I can’t help wondering, what it would have meant to the first people who heard these words?

As we have seen the words are taken from the first 7 verses of Isaiah chapter 9.

Isaiah, along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are collectively known as the major prophets, not because they were any better than the minor prophets, but just mainly because the books in the Bible attributed to these major prophets were much longer than those of the minor prophets.

For example, Isaiah has 66 chapters, Habakkuk, being minor, has only 3.

Isaiah was a prophet living in Judah. We are told that he was a prophet in Jerusalem for some 40 years. During that time Judah had no less than 4 kings. They would have dreamt of the stability that we have had in this country for over 60 years!

Many of you will know when Isaiah’s ministry started, he records in the opening verses of his book that he prophesied through the reigns of Uzziah (otherwise known as Azariah), Jotham,  Ahaz and Hezekiah.

His amazing heavenly vision is recorded as having been in the year King Uzziah died.

In his time Isaiah got to see a lot of what the kings were up to. And just these 4 give us a small glimpse of what the kings of Judah and Israel were like.

A mixed bunch

They were a right mixed bunch!

Take Uzziah for example. He was a good king, but then his pride got the better of him. His son Jotham was a good king, though he compromised on worship of idols.

His son Ahaz was a horror, even sacrificing his own child. Hezekiah was a good king who listened to what Isaiah had to say.

There always seemed to be a pattern. Good king, bad king.

And even the good were flawed.

And so Isaiah spoke into many of these situations. And Isaiah warned the people of Judah that time was running out. The result of their rebellion against God would be the fall of Jerusalem. Hezekiah listened and avoided calamity.

Later kings did not.

Lights off

In chapter 8 Isaiah talks about distress and darkness and fearful gloom.

Utter darkness.

It is as if the lights are all going out.

But chapter 9 starts with a hopeful whisper “nonetheless”.

Chapter 8 paints a picture of gloom. But Isaiah now says “there will be no more gloom”.

There is hope “for those who were in distress”.

Still in that verse he talks of Zebulun and Naphtali. These were two of the tribes of Israel. And were some of the first to be overrun by Assyrian invaders. Their peoples were humbled, and the verse suggests this was part of God’s plan to deal with a nation’s disobedience.

Lights on

But a place called Galilee of the Gentiles was to be honoured. A place that had been home to the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, with a mixed population, was to receive a prophet’s promise.

The gloom of chapter 8 is to be taken away. And so too is that utter darkness. As the people of Judah walk, or more likely stumble in the darkness, a light is switched on.

A great light.

“On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”  It seems this light is more than mere light. It is life giving.

Gloom gone.

Darkness to light.

Death to life.

Victory speech 2

What is this great message of hope that Isaiah is bringing?

He describes a victorious scene.

A nation enlarged.

A place of Joy.

Freedom from slavery and oppression.

An end to war.

A thriving nation.

So what can this be? What is going to bring this about?

WHO is going to make this happen?

The promises don’t seem that different to Donald Trump’s!

A child is born

The key it seems is a child. Not some adult with extraordinary powers, but the hope Isaiah offers is in a baby boy.

A baby boy who brings light, joy, growth, peace.

He goes on to say that “the government will be on his shoulders”.

A king.

A human king?

As Judah looked at its mixed bag of kings, perhaps they thought “that’s it!” A king is going to change all this. A good king. A powerful king. A king who will defeat his enemies and get us our land back.

God is going to provide the ultimate king.

But if they listened on they must have been puzzled by the description of this king.

“Wonderful counsellor”. That’s great – we could do with another wise king like Solomon.

“Mighty God”? No sorry I don’t get that for a moment.

“Everlasting father”. A king who is a father figure who everyone can look up to – that’s good. But everlasting?

“Prince of peace”. Oh how we could do with peace!

But as they thought of their kings, the bad ones, the good but flawed ones, the weak ones and the downright wicked ones, would they have wondered “how is any one human being going to fulfil all that promise?”

As we look at our own politicians now, whether Donald Trump or Theresa May – we hear the talk, but, we think,  if only they could guarantee their promises.

The God king

But we know they’re only human.

For no human being is everlasting. No ordinary man can lead us in this way.

And no mere man can be called mighty God.

Only God himself could meet those high standards.

Years before Isaiah , Israel had rejected God in favour of a king. Now full circle, they are perhaps realising that God was their king all along.

So Isaiah does not offer a prophecy which will avoid the destruction of Jerusalem. Rather Isaiah is looking beyond that now inevitable event, into the future when God will be king.

“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end”.

This is an everlasting kingdom. A king in the line of the great David, but so much more than David.

A kingdom of justice and righteousness.

The Lord Almighty is going to make this happen.

It’s a promise, but not one for those who listened to Isaiah so much. This was for future generations.

Jesus – the king

Who would be this king, who would restore the nation’s fortunes?

Around 700 years later a baby is born. Wise men look for him “the one who has been born King of the Jews”, in a palace, but he is born in humble surroundings and laid in a manger.

A man born into an ordinary family in circumstances people would nod and wink about.

A man who grew up and worked as a carpenter.

A man who it seemed had no home he could call his own.

A man who had a few followers over just a three year period.

And oh yes…

A man who died at the age of 33. Nailed to a cross of execution.

“The government will be on his shoulders”?

“Mighty God”?

“Everlasting father”?

What government?

But there were things he said. He claimed that he and God were one and the same.

He told people that their sins were forgiven. Something that only God was entitled to do.

He claimed to have existed before their great father Abraham.

He said that he was going to be killed.

And rise again.

Jesus as fulfilment

So how does Jesus fit the verses of Isaiah’s prophecy? What is the promise Isaiah brings?

A child is born. The gift of a son is given.

To Judah? To their future generations?

The verses we read suggest this is much bigger than that. Isaiah prophesies about enlarging the nation, but is this just about an earthly kingdom getting bigger.

When Jesus came he told his listeners that his kingdom was not of this world. He constantly spoke about the kingdom of God. And he challenged his followers to think big.

The good news that Jesus preached, was not just for the people of Judah – God’s chosen people, but was for all God’s chosen people, past present and future, throughout the whole world.

Jesus did not come into the world just for the Jewish people, he had in mind you and me too. Whoever will believe in him.

Sure enough this son is to be powerful. The government will be on his shoulders.

Not a political king

But Jesus at no stage in his earthly life held that kind of political power. He demonstrated his power by many of the things he did, and showed an authority that no one else could seek to claim, over sickness, sin and death.

On occasion the people would try to make him king, but that was not his plan. His kingdom was to be very different.

When the Romans nailed him to the cross the words of charge above his head seemed to mock him “Jesus – King of the Jews”, but actually Christians will tell you that Jesus is the true king of the Jews. The true king of all.

Government on his shoulder? In his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells us that the “in him all things hold together”. He is not just a powerful politician or a great king. He literally holds everything together. Think about that!

What’s in a name?

Verse 6 tells us some of the names that are given to this king of all kings.

It is debatable whether wonderful counsellor is 2 names or 1. Jesus is certainly a counsellor. He spent the largest part of his time teaching his disciples, sharing his wisdom with the crowds. It would be difficult to say that the words wonderful counsellor would not describe him.

Even his enemies had to acknowledge “no one ever spoke the way this man does”.

One of his closest followers Peter recognised that Jesus was not just telling stories. He exclaimed “You have the words of eternal life”.

A wonderful counsellor.

Mighty God.

We have already stated that Jesus claimed equality with God. Even evil Spirits recognised his deity.

On one occasion, the disciples asked each other “Who is this? Even the wind and waves do what he tells them!”

Power over nature.

Power over sickness and even death.

Power to forgive sins.

Everlasting father. The apostle John made it clear that Jesus the Word, was with God in the beginning, and indeed he was God. He was involved in every aspect of the creation.

And he promised eternal life to those who believed in him.

The prince of peace. When we look at the war and hatred and discord in the world we need someone who can bring peace. We can never seem to bring it about.

If we look into our own hearts there is anything but peace – hurt and bitterness and hatred. Religion is so often described as the cause of wars. But really if we were to follow the teachings of Jesus, the prince of peace. If only we could.

He though is the peace maker, through his death on the cross.

Kingdom growth

It’s this king’s government rule, it’s his kingdom which is going to grow and grow.

The people of Israel and Judah had been let down time and time again by their kings.

Our royals, our politicians, will break their promises and disappoint us.

A child is born

How this world, this advent, this Christmas, needs to know the one who was born to be king.

How you need to know him. You need to listen to the wonderful counsellor, you need to worship the mighty God, how we need the abundant life that an everlasting father can give us.

How we need a father who will never fail us.

How we need a prince of peace.

In our own hearts, in our relationships with others, with God himself.

For to us a child is born.

Let that child be born in your heart today.

Sermon blog: A song for the Shepherd


Psalm 23

The passage we have read this morning is probably regarded as one of the high points of the Bible, with its poetry, it’s imagery and the comfort and strength that it has brought to so many down the centuries.

It is often read at funerals, as indeed it was recently when I attended a friend’s thanksgiving service. But this is more than just a psalm about death. It is a psalm about life, under the protection and care of God.

The psalm is written by the great singer songwriter of his day, King David of Israel, as were many of the psalms. He was truly gifted and prolific. And his songs became part of his nation’s worship.

David was chosen by God, to lead his chosen people, after the failure of the inaugural King Saul. David was anointed while a youngster and had to bide his time before his moment would come. His relationship with Saul was, to put it mildly, difficult, but he always utterly respected Saul in spite of his evil behaviour towards him.

David uses terminology that he knew from his own background.

When God told Samuel to choose a King from the sons of Jesse, there were many who looked the part, but there was one who God chose because of his heart for God. Youngest son David was out in the fields caring for the sheep when God’s prophet arrived.

It was not perhaps a task which carried much prestige or status, being given to the youngest in the family on this occasion, but people like Jesse had large flocks and so it was an important role. Often people regarded shepherds in those days with some contempt.

But there were shepherds and shepherds. There were those sometimes called ‘hired hands’ who had no direct connection with the sheep, but it was a job. When danger came, they would be off like a shot.

A shepherd worth his salt had a job to do, and needed to be courageous. David probably had no equal.

When David stood before King Saul, preparing to fight the Philistine blaspheming giant Goliath, it was not his skills as a soldier that he relied upon.

Or the king’s armour.

It was his experience gained as a shepherd. If he could face the things that he faced there, and protect the flock, then in his mind he had nothing to worry about sorting out this 9 foot 6 heathen.

In 1 Samuel 17 we read that David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

He was quite a shepherd! But as he speaks to Saul he gives an insight into his success, that it was not just his bravery, skill and good fortune, but it was his God who had saved him and so helped him to save his woolly charges.

David was a shepherd of sheep but as a King he still considered himself a shepherd – to the people of Israel. On one occasion when David had got things wrong, he said:

“I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong”. As he pleaded with God to punish him and not the sheep of Israel.

So it’s with that occupation in mind, that David begins this Psalm.

For David may well be a shepherd, but he too needed a shepherd. He too was a sheep. He too was prone to wander off. He would find himself in danger. He would stare death in the face. There were some things that even he could not do.

But as he had made clear when he stood to face Goliath, he shouted loudly that the Lord Almighty was with him.

He was a shepherd who sought protection from a greater shepherd.

He would be a King who would show allegiance to a greater King.

And so in the opening verses of this psalm, he goes back to his early days, and talks about the things he knows about. The sheep, the care, the dangers, and that hero the shepherd.

In that simple opening statement he sets the tone. He makes it plain where his confidence is.

“The LORD is my shepherd”.

He is totally dependant upon God.

As shepherd God is his guide, his protector, his provider.

In God, David’s life was complete. He says “I shall not be in want” or “I don’t need a thing”.

There was nothing he could want when God was supplying all his needs.

There was nothing he would need that he would not trust his God to provide.

David was a shepherd and he himself needed a shepherd. And as the Jewish people and ourselves take these words on our lips, we acknowledge that we need a shepherd. And he is God.

So when Jesus comes and announces himself as the good shepherd this would surely have struck a chord with his listeners.

For the prophet Micah had promised another shepherd, you may recognise his words: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” So there was prophecy fulfilled.

But I suspect too many would have thought of Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. In announcing himself as the Good Shepherd it seems to me this is another one of Jesus’ not so secret claims to deity. And as he said elsewhere “who is good except God?”

So I believe in a very real sense as Christians we can read Jesus the shepherd back into this psalm. And many of the things Jesus had to say about his role as shepherd are in line with the shepherd psalm.

Matthew in his gospel tells us that “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

And as he would teach, he would be that shepherd.

It may be this morning that as you look at yourself, you see yourself as a sheep without a shepherd. Harassed by circumstances and those around you and helpless in the face of dangers, alone and lost with nowhere to call home. Nowhere to find rest.

Then know the compassion of Jesus this morning. He knows your need and you can fully trust him.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”

When life was frantic, as it often was, when the pace was relentless, and the dangers very real, David was able to find a place of rest and restoration. In the care of his shepherd. Whatever was going on around him, somehow God was able to take him away from all that at least for a while.

To quote the Message version, “ you have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word you let me catch my breath”.

God is good. He provides the best pasture, refreshing water. Somehow there is a sense of peace and tranquility in all this.

That can be our experience too as we follow Jesus the promised shepherd, the perfect shepherd. In the midst of turmoil there can be times of peace.

And when life still becomes too much the ultimate eternal promise of John’s Revelation is “For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Those times of safety and peace now are a glimpse of a perfect future where there is perfect rest that no one or nothing can ever take away.

Verse 3 continues, “he guides me in paths of righteousness”. Sheep need a guide. Left to their own devices they will wander off. They will get stranded. They need to hear a voice.

David recognised his need of a guide when it would have been easy to try to take his destiny into his own hands.

We need a guide. In a world where we hear so many competing voices we need to hear the voice of Jesus calling us, leading us on.

So many voices compete for our attention. We can fill our eyes and minds and ears with so many things. So much “wisdom” that people have to offer, from friends to politicians, from counsellors to clairvoyants.

But we need to be tuned to the voice of Jesus.

In John 10 Jesus taught his listeners “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”.

Earlier he said of himself “and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

I used to wonder how true that was.

A few years ago my family had a holiday in mid Wales. I’m from South Wales myself so I always thought it was such a cliche when people talked about Wales and sheep.

It was true though! There were crowds of them everywhere!

Every time we went for a walk we walked through fields of them. When I went in the shop I expected to be served by one!

And I thought “do sheep really recognise voices?”

As soon as I entered a field they rumbled me. They were off. When I tried to reassure them they kept running. They weren’t listening to me.

One sheep was alone, obviously in the wrong field. I held the gate open for ages and encouraged him to join his friends in the next field. He was never going to move. He knew I was not the shepherd.

‭And now as Jesus lives in his followers by his Holy Spirit, we too as his sheep can know his voice, seeking his guidance, chiefly through his word, but surely as God the Spirit works in our lives to teach us and to make us more like Jesus.

If it all sounds a little too idyllic, David acknowledges that following God the shepherd does not exempt him from experiencing the dark side of life. Contrary to what some Christians would try to tell you, following Jesus is no guarantee of a perfect life.

There are times of danger, but David stares the darkest of times in the face. We know there were many times when his very life was in danger, especially from jealous King Saul.

Verse 4 brings this home to us “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..” Most of us have probably not got an angry King trying to pin us against the wall with a spear, or actively planning our downfall.

But death is a reality for us and for those around us. These experiences are certain, but David’s confidence is absolute.

“I will fear no evil”.

He is unwavering.

Why?

“For you are with me”.

Even in the darkest of times, the Shepherd is there, walking at his side.

There is security in that knowledge. The shepherd’s crook is there to promise safety at the worst of times.

In face of death Jesus and his love for us, and his work of salvation for us, are a reality.

I recently attended a friend’s funeral. Although it was not called a funeral.

It was a thanksgiving service.

It was a time of mourning. But amongst that was one of the most exhilarating times of worship I can remember in a long time.

In one song we sang:

“And on that day

When my strength is failing

The end draws near

And my time has come

Still my soul will

Sing Your praise unending”

In another we declared:

“No guilt in life, no fear in death,

This is the power of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath,

Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man,

Can ever pluck me from His hand:

Till He returns or calls me home,

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

For my friend had known that to be true.

And through their tears his family knew it be true.

And many of his friends knew it to be true.

That Jesus walks in the valley of the shadow of death.

But there is so much more.

Jesus told the parable of the shepherd with 99 sheep. Well actually he had 100, and his greatest concern was for the one who got away. The wanderer. The lost sheep. And so he went to find him and brought him home on his shoulders rejoicing.

And that is how he views you and me. Lost and helpless. Sheep without a shepherd, but his mission is to find us, and bring us home with singing.

And of course that goes far beyond carrying out a thorough search. For the good shepherd goes further than that. He goes further than any sensible shepherd would ever consider going for a silly animal.

To return to John, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Elsewhere he says to his critics “ the Son of Man came to seek the lost”.

No. He went further than that.

He came to “seek and to SAVE the lost”.

He goes so much further.

Through trust in him we can know a confidence in Death Valley.

Because Jesus went their first.

Because Jesus died for you and me.

And because through his resurrection he has blown death apart!

And though the pain is real he has taken away death’s victory.

What a good shepherd!!

As the Psalm continues the imagery seems to change. Instead of giving his followers the best pastures, he is now laying a table.

Instead of giving us grass he is preparing us a feast.

As the Message puts it “ you serve me with a six course dinner – right in front of my enemies.”

Jesus love for us is lavish.

So wide.

So high.

So deep.

His provision for us is equally extravagant, as he blesses us with every spiritual blessing.

As his death and resurrection make everything possible for us!

In the presence of our enemies?

For the sheep, the wolves and lions could look on, but they were safe with the shepherd.

David certainly had his enemies. But they would not overcome God’s chosen shepherd King.

Now, in Christ, we are treated like royalty.

Feasting.

Anointed.

With a cup that overflows. With the goodness of God.

Goodness and love will follow us through all our lives.

For Jesus is the good shepherd, who never lets us out of his sight, even when we take our eyes off him. He is there.

And his love, his mercy, is as without measure as it is undeserved.

Whether in good times or bad, in darkness or light, life or death, we need not fear, for his goodness and love follow us.

And that love is not just so abundant. It is eternal.

Unfathomable.

Never ending.

For the promise to those who love him is this.

“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

What a privilege for lost sheep like you and me to be found and to find ourselves at home in the house of the Lord.

And not just as house guests, but making our home there FOREVER.

As Peter wrote “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.

Is he yours?

That’s what he offers to us all.

A closing blessing:

“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Seeing is believing?


“When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”‭‭Matthew‬ ‭28:17‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Today in church someone read what is known as the Great Commission from Matthew 28, where Jesus tells his disciples to go and make more disciples for him.

One verse in that passage struck me again as being odd.

But I think significant.

Verse 17.

Many of us know of Jesus’ disciple Thomas. 

Unfairly branded “Doubting Thomas”.

Totally unfair.

You see Thomas had a problem. The other disciples had all met Jesus after his resurrection. Thomas was double booked that night.

And he didn’t believe them when they told him that Jesus was alive again.

But this verse.

Wow.

The disciples all sat before Jesus. They saw him with their own eyes. They heard him with their own ears.

But even then as they worshipped.

Some doubted.

How could they? We would say “if only we had been there, if only we could know”.

But kneeling before Jesus some still doubted.

I don’t know why this was the case, but this underlines something for me yet again.

If people who had met Jesus face to face, had followed him, shared his life, seen his death and been eye witnesses of his risen body still doubted, then isn’t it understandable that you and I have doubts? Even just sometimes?

Doubt is not a sin.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith.

It is the other side of the coin.

It is part of authentic faith.

Real faith struggles with the issues unashamedly.

Something changed, for we are told those disciples did believe. And they followed Jesus and in many cases gave their lives literally for him.

What changed for them? I don’t know.

But I know what changed for Thomas. He didn’t give into his doubts.

He wanted to see for himself and Jesus answered his prayer.

A second audience with the disciples largely for Thomas’s benefit. And true to his word, he believed.

So what do we do with doubt? Do we try to ignore it?

I think we acknowledge it. Struggle with it. Share with others.

But don’t give into it. Keep holding on.

For that promise keeps encouraging us to keep on –  “blessed are those who have not seen. And yet believe”.

Sermon blog post: Keep on running


Hebrews 12:1-3

Audio available here:

http://www.malboroughbaptistchurch.co.uk/

12 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, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart
The short passage we have read today is one that encourages us to persevere in our living as Christians. To be disciplined, to be focused and not to be discouraged. That’s a message that all of us need to hear on a regular basis.

The passage forms part of a letter went to Hebrew Christians. As many will know, the author of the letter is unknown. Whereas most letters of that day opened with the name of the sender, this one does not. It’s as if the writer forgot to use his headed notepaper.

There is enough in the letter though, and specifically in the short passage we are looking at, to speak to us in a relevant way.

The imagery used in the passage is sporting, something which might please some listeners but not others, which is helpful though in thinking about some of the issues.

The first word in the chapter is “therefore” and so we will also spend some time looking at the chapter previous to this one, in order to unlock what is being said.

The context is set in verse 1. We are in a race. We as Christians have a race to be run. I suspect it’s more akin to a marathon than a sprint! Although the application works either way.

As we run there are a number of things we are conscious of. When I run about the only thing I am conscious of is how unfit I am, and why on earth am I trying to do this.

The first thing is what ties us back in to the verses in chapter 11. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. If you’re in the Olympic stadium you’ll be conscious of the noise, which drops as the race is about to start, and then takes off as the starting pistol sounds, until it reaches a crescendo at the finishing line.

The sporting crowd makes a difference. Many in the crowd might be against you, if they’re supporting another runner or another team. But what if the whole crowd is behind you? That’s the picture in these verses. This whole cloud, or crowd, is right behind you, cheering your every move.

Willing you on.

From the start.

To the finish.

There’s encouragement. There’s advice.

But we are let in on who this crowd is. 

Often when you watch sporting events the TV director will zoom in on people in the crowd. For year’s it’s been Andy Murray’s mum, or the wife of the batsman who has just scored a hundred. Or maybe a famous Hollywood actor. Usually in those cases I’m completely clueless.

It is a huge crowd we read about, but they are all highly qualified to spur us on. We are given some examples, some of the biggest names amongst them in chapter 11. So it’s with these great men and women in mind that the letter writer encourages us to look and to run.

I’m not someone with a lot of experience of participating in sport. I have been in the crowd a fair few times though and shouted for my team, or sometimes at my team. When I used to go to see Plymouth Argyle, I used to shout a lot.

“What on earth are you doing?!”

Mark Cavendish is one of Britain’s most successful cyclists in recent years, a world championship and Olympic medallist, and a major contestant in the Tour de France. Recently he was taking part in the Tour of Britain and stopped riding at one point, to speak to a spectator.

The spectator had apparently been shouting abuse at the cyclists, perhaps particularly at Cavendish, and it seems he had some suggestions as to how he could do better.

Cavendish had a suggestion for the spectator too. He got off his bike and offered it to the spectator. Essentially he was saying, “come on then, you sit on the bike, let’s see if you can do better!”

The man didn’t take up the offer.So you see it isn’t always helpful to have the crowd shouting advice at you. Cavendish would always be a better rider than the man in the crowd. And whatever you think of Plymouth Argyle, there’s no doubt that every man on the pitch knew a whole lot more about football than me.

Stick me in midfield and you’d soon find me out!

But who’s in the crowd for the Hebrews. It’s a whole load of people who themselves have run the race of faith and have run it successfully. People who when they speak are actually worth listening to.

John White explains “The writer’s point is to bring witnesses before us who will testify that faith is worth it”.

Because if we’re honest we all have times as Christians if we wonder if it’s worth it.

The crowd says yes.

So who’s in the crowd today?

There are some big names. Right from the early days.

Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. Men who believed in God’s call on their lives.

Because of faith these great people acted.

Noah built a boat in the middle of nowhere.

Abraham left his home even though he had no idea where he was going.

Moses led the people out of Israel.

Those leading lights are joined by the people of Israel who escaped by faith, through the parting waters of the Red Sea.

It was their faith in God which caused the walls of Jericho to fall.

Great examples of faith to us. Been there and done it and got the FAITH tee shirt.

“Consider them” the writer says. They can inspire us.

But there’s more. Back when I was younger I used to love nothing better than sitting down in front of the television and watching the cricket. From start of play to the close.

And if I had to be away from the TV, then I had my radio permanently welded to my wrist, listening to Test Match Special.

The team that broadcast was made up of a mixture of those who loved the game and those who had played it to a high level. The expert opinion was provided by people like Freddie Trueman.

Freddie was one of the most successful fast bowlers that England ever had. So if he had something to say about the match being played in front of him, he had earned the right to be listened to.

Unfortunately he became known as someone who was very critical of the players he watched. He was not impressed with the modern game. The most common phrase he used was “I don’t know what’s going on out there!”

It was that sort of attitude that eventually it seems lost him the job as expert. One of his fellow commentators said how on one occasion Trueman had said “I don’t know what’s going on out there” 3 times, with increasing exasperation.

And that was just before the captains tossed the coin!

The problem seemed to be that he had been a great player. And he knew it. And the new younger players were not up to his standard. Young players would be demoralised by his comments.

The thought would be “How can I ever be as good as him”.

For us the question might be, “How on earth am I going to measure up against a super star of the faith like Abraham, or Moses? How am I supposed to be encouraged by their example?”

They are so far above you and me.

Well there’s news here. All the people mentioned had their faults. They did great things by faith, but they were far from perfect.

Abraham took God’s plans for a son into his own hands. Sarah scoffed, not surprisingly perhaps, at the thought of having a child in her old age. Noah got drunk. Moses got angry.

And then the writer goes on to talk about Rahab the prostitute, an unlikely example of faith, we might think.

We should be starting to get the idea that God uses imperfect people. So God can use you and me.

The list goes on as the writer sees he is running out of paper.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel.

Just look at some of those.

Nervous Gideon.

Samson the violent gambling drunkard.

David the man after God’s own heart. Oh and a murderer and adulterer.

But whatever their faults, and they were many, these people are given to us as examples of living by faith.

Huge personalities.

Big achievements.

But actually not one of them is looking at you and me, as we slip, as we get it wrong, saying “I don’t know what’s going on out there”.

Because they do know it.

These are real people.

Flawed people of faith. Consider them.

As Calvin puts it:

“There was none of them whose faith did not falter…In every saint there is always to be found something reprehensible. Nevertheless although faith may be imperfect and incomplete it does not cease to be approved by God. There is no reason therefore why the fault from which we labour should break us or discourage us provided we go on by faith in the race of our calling”.

Consider them – they can inspire us

The other interesting thing about many of these heroes was that theirs was a faith awaiting fulfilment. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never got to see this great nation that was promised to them. Moses never made it to the Promised Land.

It’s a reminder to us that our faith is in something that we cannot see. Chapter 11 opens with the words “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.”

At times that not being able to see can get pretty tough. But others have been there. Inspired by the vision of a future given to them by God.

We too as Christians have that sure and certain hope of an eternity in the presence of God the father, worshipping Jesus the Lamb of God, who has taken away our sin.

The writer goes on then to give us some more advice. To throw off hindrances.

If you watch the London Marathon, you can tell who the serious runners are. Or at least, you can certainly tell who they aren’t. They are not ones who dress up in fancy dress, wearing gorilla costumes or turning up as a pantomime horse in the sweltering heat.

If you want to win, you’re not going to do that!

You’re down to the running shorts and vest and trainers. You don’t want anything that is going to weigh you down.

So what is the stuff that we need to throw off in order to run the race?

What are the things which trip us up and prevent us from running the race to win?

There are so many distractions in this world.

Material things.

Ambition.

Also the writer says “sin”.

We can let good things get in the way of living for God.

But we can fall into doing the wrong things too.

Let’s do all we can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to avoid those things that are going to slow us down in our run for the line.

The recent Olympic games in Rio were very enjoyable and of course very successful for the Great Britain team. The one downside was that many of the major events took place when we were all asleep. It would take a real enthusiast to set the alarm for 2 am to watch Usain Bolt running for less than 10 seconds.

We awoke one morning expecting news of our great hope Mo Farah who was running in the 10,000 metres. The news was not good. Farah had fallen about half way through the 25 laps.

Some of you will know though that I’m only telling you a small part of the story, because not only did Farah get back up, but he went on to win the gold medal. An example to us of perseverance.

And a reminder to us too, that even when we do fall, when we get it wrong, we can still get back up and complete the race. The writer tells the Hebrews, and us, to persevere in the race which is marked out for us.

But while the cloud of witnesses can inspire us, the writer does not leave it there. They can only take us so far.

Verse 2 tells us where our eyes need to be. Not ultimately on the crowd, not on those around us, not on the finish line, not thinking about the prize.

Fix your eyes on Jesus.

Jesus can do more than inspire us. He is our supreme example, and it is in him, and only him, that we can have confidence for the race ahead.

As we run the race, “Christ is always near and in sight” – Westcott.

Jesus – the pioneer of our faith.

He is the one who has done everything needed for our salvation. He is the one who has gone ahead of us, not just as an example like Abraham or Samson, but winning the victory before we run.

Jesus – the perfecter of our faith.

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but he has done everything perfectly. Even though our spiritual efforts and the things we do can be good, they can never make us right with God. Only Jesus can do that.

And while the cloud of witnesses inspires us, having Jesus firmly in our sights will strengthen us for the struggle ahead.

So what is it Jesus has done?

Jesus too was focussed. His focus, says verse 2 was on the “joy set before him”. In other words his focus was on his ultimate victory. His goal to put us right with God. But that could not be done without struggle and intense suffering.

Jesus was the servant king. Another way of seeing this verse is that he put the joy that was his experience in heaven on one side. He became one of us. He lived for us.

And he died for us.

He endured the cross.

Runners will often talk about a pain barrier. A point where they are ready to give up but know they have to keep going. I usually get that very quickly – just as I get to the end of my road.

Jesus went through the most extreme pain barrier. Facing so much more than we could ever face, although Jesus certainly promised his followers that they would suffer in following him.

He scorned the shame of the cross, the writer says. The curse of being hung on a tree. The humiliation of crucifixion, a criminal’s death for the perfect Son of God.

His goal was the finish line.

His prize you and me.

And where is he now? He is seated at the right hand of God.

One of the enduring memories of the Olympics, was provided in the Tae Kwondo, a strange looking sport, where people get points for kicking their opponent in the head!

Britain’s Lutalo Muhammed was heading for the gold medal, and in the very last second of the fight, his opponent caught him and gold turned into silver. He was in floods of tears. He had missed out on the highest prize in his sport by one second.

But Jesus is on the winner’s platform. He is at God’s right hand. And even there he is on our side. We are told elsewhere that he is there praying for his.

He is the victor. And he is to be worshipped for eternity in the light of all he has done for us.

As verse 3 of chapter 1 tells us, “When he had made purification for our sins, he sat down”.

Consider him, says the writer. When things weigh you down. When you’re feeling the struggle.

When we do sin, we can be forgiven.

When we do fall we can be restored.

Don’t be downhearted. Don’t give up.

Jesus faced such opposition.

But Jesus won.

Ultimately victory is ours if our lives are in his hands. In the hands of the one who is on the winner’s throne.

The former saints that inspire us saw just a partial picture of the fulfilment of God’s promises to them, but it is Jesus who completes and fulfils all those promises.

The writer goes on to say “Don’t give up too soon”. When he says “don’t grow weary” he reminds us to keep pushing for the line. It’s no good collapsing just before the line, you can do that after. Push on through.

One of the funniest memories from the recent Olympics was in the semi-final of the 200 metres sprint, when Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, was seen turning to the man running next to him and sharing a joke as he went over the line.

That’s not the way anyone is trained to finish a race. The runner is taught to lean forward to gain the extra inches which will get him or her to the line first. Sometimes it can be a tiny fraction of a second that wins the prize.

So as we continue on in living our lives for Jesus, as we inevitably will struggle, let’s set our minds on those who have been before. Some of the great names we have mentioned. And some too that we have known. And let’s be inspired.

And let’s be focused. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. The one who has won the victory for us in advance, and waits for us at the finish line.

It is worth finishing with some words from Isaiah 40:

28 Do you not know?

    Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

    and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

    and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

    and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

    they will walk and not be faint.

KEEP ON RUNNING.

Sermon blog: Zacchaeus; come on down!


Luke 19:1-10

It is always challenging thinking about what to speak about on these occasions.

More and more recently, I find myself being drawn back to some of the more familiar Bible stories, many which seemed to form part of my Christian upbringing in Sunday School.

And frequently what I find is that those stories have much more depth to them than I remember. And they are a reminder that although these stories were recorded so long ago, they still have a great deal to say to us today.

So when we come to the story of Zacchaeus I am instantly taken back to Sunday school and the song which told us all about him.

Well actually it didn’t tell us very much.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing.

We sang that he was “a very little man”, and that he climbed into a sycamore tree “for the saviour he wanted to see”.

And we remembered that Jesus said “Zacchaeus come down, for I’m coming to your house for tea”.

A good song for kids. It certainly did not attempt to give us the full dark picture of what was going on in Zacchaeus’ life before Jesus, and the change that Jesus brought.

Just a simple story about Jesus having tea and cupcakes with a little man.

The 10 verses we read give us significant extra detail, quite apart from the back story that sheds further light on the incident.

 

Our passage starts by telling us the place where all this happened.

In Jericho.

Interestingly it seems that Jericho is not Jesus’ planned destination. We are told that he was passing through. He had somewhere and something else in mind.

It would be an interesting study in itself to look at all the events recorded in the biographies of Jesus, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, where Jesus met people while he was on the way somewhere else.

It might have seemed like an unwelcome interruption, but it was often in those circumstances that Jesus reached out to heal those who came into his path.

As followers of Jesus, I wonder how we compare. When you have got your plans, maybe even plans to do something for God, if you were interrupted would you view that as irritating, looking for an excuse to move on as quickly as possible, or an opportunity to be grasped?

A sick woman came and touched Jesus’ robe so that she would be made well, when he was actually on his way to attend to a dying girl. His journey delayed, the girl died. But Jesus had time for the woman, and indeed did an even greater miracle for the girl and her family in raising her from the dead.

5,000 men, along with their wives and children, turned up hungry for teaching and for food, when Jesus was trying to get away to spend some quality time with his disciples. And yet in his compassion he taught them all and fed them miraculously.

I wonder if you and I are open to the Holy Spirit’s leading when the uninvited guest crosses our path, when our own plans are frustrated. If we were more like Jesus we would more than likely see his plans in those circumstances.

Whatever Jesus’ plans, it seems one man in particular is going to meet with Jesus before he can move on.

His name is Zacchaeus. Luke fills in the gaps from the old Sunday School song.

Zacchaeus is a tax collector. And a wealthy man. You might think somebody of some standing in the community, but you’d be missing the whole story.

There are of course, it is said, two certainties in life – “Death and taxes”. We like neither of them.

Over Easter my wife and I visited a National Trust property in the Midlands and whilst I was in the second hand book shop I had an unsettling experience of a complete stranger attaching herself to me, convinced that she knew me from somewhere. Had I been there before? Did I used to live in Stoke-on-Trent?

I denied it all. Her final question shook me.

“Have you ever worked for the Inland Revenue?”

“Certainly not I replied”, horrified by the thought. Something instinctive in me wanted to distance myself? I did not want to be seen as a tax man.

Even though I have known some very nice tax men!

If you’re a tax man or tax lady this morning, you may have found not everyone is excited to see you. And even the Beatles moaned about the Taxman half a century ago!

To be fair, when I meet someone and tell them I’m a solicitor, that doesn’t always have the most positive effect either!

Unless they want a bit of free advice. Usually on something I know nothing about.

I guess it’s not so much the tax man. He’s just doing his job. But it’s the fact that he’s after our money that we don’t like.

So we try to keep our tax bills down, or we try to get away with paying it all together. Only in the past few weeks, Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s best footballer, and certainly one of the highest paid has been handed a prison sentence for tax evasion.

It seems that he signed documents without reading them, something I would not recommend, and will probably avoid prison. The fact that he paid a voluntary payment of nearly £4 million also helped!

But Zacchaeus was not an Inland Revenue inspector.

And because of what he was, he would have been reviled by those people he came into contact with.

Firstly, he would have been seen as a traitor. Because he worked for the Romans. The occupying enemy. Understandably the Jewish people hated paying taxes to Caesar. And it was one of their own who was taking the money.

So was it a well-paid job this being a tax collector? Perhaps not as much as we might think, considering Zacchaeus was a wealthy man. But we are told he was the chief.

But he benefitted from ill-gotten gains.

Tax collectors were notorious for not just collecting what the Romans required, but to demand extortionate sums of money on top of the taxes, to put in their own pockets. That’s how they got rich, and as Zacchaeus will later acknowledge, that’s how he got rich. And the Romans were more than happy with the system as long as Caesar got what was due to him.

So was Zacchaeus a man of great standing in the community?

You bet he wasn’t.

A traitor and glorified thief. Hated by everyone who saw him.

But there was another reason why he was not a man of great standing. Because as the Bible records it, and as the song goes, he “was a very little man”.

In verse 3 we read that he wanted to see Jesus. Or he wanted to see who he was. But he couldn’t because of his height. All he could see was the crowd that surrounded Jesus.

Why did he want to see Jesus? Who did he think he was? What rumours had he heard?

We don’t know.

But as so often Jesus is surrounded by people, whether he is passing through or not. Are these people who are following him on his travels or those even who have seen him arrive at their home town of Jericho?

Whatever the truth Jesus has a following, and one man cannot see Jesus, because his followers are all in the way.

May we as Christians never be guilty of stopping the people around us from seeing the real Jesus. Our calling is not to join in holy huddles with Jesus in the middle and our backs to our neighbours and colleagues, but is to bring Jesus to them, so that they can see him clearly.

As Zacchaeus walked by a third of the crowd may have not seen the little man, a third might have hurled insults at the traitor, and the rest might just have turned to ignore the bad penny.

Zacchaeus was not going to be denied. He climbed a sycamore fig tree. Maybe this had 2 purposes, a vantage point where he could see and hear Jesus, and a hiding place, where he would not be seen.

Physically insignificant and unpopular.

Maybe you feel a bit like Zacchaeus this morning.

Not important. No one seems to care. No one notices you.

Unpopular. Not surrounded by friends. Maybe even having done things which have turned people against you.

“So if that’s how people feel about me, how can Jesus be different? Why would he want me? Why would he care?”

Verse 5 is the turning point. Zacchaeus’ world is about to be turned upside down.

The one man who matters has spotted Zacchaeus.

Jesus.

And he calls him by name.

And he calls each of us by name.

This morning it is not just about all the other people. Jesus might have something to say to you. He wants you to know that you are noticed. That you are significant. That you are loved, not hated.

And Jesus did not tell Zacchaeus to come and join the crowd. He wanted to spend time with him. He wanted to visit Zacchaeus in his own home, his own space.

Zacchaeus was only too glad to do this. I guess he was not used to being wanted. He had wanted to see Jesus and now here he was sitting in the dining room at Chez Zac!

Jesus meets you where you are. Surrounded by the people and the things that matter to you. He doesn’t want you to be a someone else and yet when you meet with him it changes you forever.

But Zacchaeus’ happiness was not shared by everyone.

The grumbling started. What on earth is this Jesus doing staying with a sinner? There is no doubt that however bad those people thought they were, this man was far worse. An A list sinner.

You see, it was one of the greatest complaints that the religious people of Jesus’ day made about him. They would protest to his disciples, “why is this man spending so much of his time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners? How can a man like that possibly be a man of God, the Messiah?”

But those were just the people that Jesus spent so much of his time with. Maybe Zacchaeus had heard this and thought “he is someone, one man who might actually care for me. Maybe, just maybe, God is interested in me”.

One of Jesus’ 12 disciples was Matthew, formerly Levi the tax collector. There are many references to tax collectors in the gospels.

Luke records early in his gospel that “even the tax collectors came to be baptised”. This may have surprised the onlookers but these men were drawn to Jesus. “Even the tax collectors heard Jesus’ words”.

Jesus challenged the religious people that they did not believe in him as Messiah, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.

Life was turned upside down. The religious people could not see him for who he was. But the tax collectors believed. People like Matthew followed Jesus gladly and threw parties so that their colleagues could discover Jesus for themselves.

I wonder if as followers of Jesus, our thinking needs to be turned upside down. Who are the people Jesus loves? Are they the people who are just like me? Are they significant people in society?

As Christians we need to be reminded again and again, as this story reminds us, that we cannot look down on anyone. We cannot view anyone as beyond the love of God. The Bible reminds us that all of us are sinners. None of us can approach God because of our own goodness.

Let’s not demand that people change to become more like us, before we invite them into our churches.

In Luke 18, a rich man turned away from Jesus, when the cost of following him seemed too great.

Jesus commented to his disciples “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”. The disciples were stunned as they watched a great catch get away.

But Jesus went on to say “What is impossible with man is possible with God”. Something that is great to know!

So what about this wealthy man, Zacchaeus. Will he be the proof that God can do the impossible through Jesus?

Zacchaeus stands up and speaks to Jesus. He acknowledges 2 things.

His riches and his dishonesty.

For starters he is looking at his possessions and he promises to give half of them away.

Then he makes an offer to put things right. “If I’ve cheated anyone I will pay them back 4 times over”. He had met with Jesus and his life had changed. Greed had changed to generosity. Grasping hands had changed to open hands.

Zacchaeus has responded gratefully to a call from Jesus to a tea time meeting, and the result is a changed life, as Jesus exclaims “Today salvation has come to this home, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham”.

The religious people of the day claimed that they were children of Abraham, but Jesus dismissed this, insisting that their behaviour was not consistent with that claim, but here was one who showed it by his actions.

So what had happened? Did Jesus accept this man and give him salvation because of his generous acts? Did he buy his way into God’s kingdom?

The salvation and forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus offers never work that way.

It started when Zacchaeus discovered that Jesus actually was interested in him! But something had happened in that meeting to change him. And that changed life showed itself in a changed attitude to possessions and money.

We can never earn our way into a relationship with God. The religious people of Jesus’ day couldn’t do it by their religious acts and good deeds, and neither could the tax collectors by promising to change their ways.

Rather the changed behaviour was the result of Jesus’ salvation, the outcome of a changed life.

If you want to earn your way into God’s good books this morning, forget it now – that never works. Everything that is necessary for our salvation, for us to be children of God has already been done.

It is why Jesus came, as he reminds those who will listen, in verse 10, he came “to seek and to save the lost”.

Jesus seeks us. He came looking for Zacchaeus as he hid from the others.

And Jesus saves us. That is why he came into this world. That is why he died on the cross to purchase our forgiveness.

If you are lost this morning, then you can be found.

But it is never by trying to impress people or even God. Salvation is found as we recognise who we are.

Jesus had said about the difficulty for rich people in the previous chapter of Luke. But he also told another story in that same chapter that perhaps provides the key.

He told of two men, a fictional story maybe, but one with a large grain of truth in it. Two men go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a religious man, who is full of himself. He thanks God that he is not like other men. But Jesus comments that those who exalt themselves will be humbled – that man was not justified before God that day.

But the humble, he said, would be exalted. The other man was…

A tax collector.

You see people were always saying he was a sinner. But he didn’t need them to tell him. He knew he was a sinner. He knew that there was nothing that he could do or say to commend himself to God. He just knew that he needed God’s mercy.

“God have mercy on me, a sinner”.

Those could as well have been the words of Zacchaeus himself and now his life would never be the same.

None of us can offer anything to God to make him accept us. To sin is to fall short of his perfect standard – we all do that. But there is mercy to be found in Jesus. Amazing grace.

So this morning let’s be like Zacchaeus.

Seeking Jesus.

Responding to his call.

Recognising ourselves for what we are.

Falling upon his mercy as the only way to make things right.

Ready for him to change us from the inside out.

 

Sermon blog: How NOT to make a prophet

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Jonah 1 & 3:1-4:3

This morning we are going to look at an unusual Old Testament story. An unusual story about a most unusual character. I would think that most people here know about Jonah.

Some of us might cast our minds back to some of the stories we were told in Sunday School.

  • Adam & Eve
  • David & Goliath
  • Noah & the ark
  • Samson & Delilah
  • And more than likely Jonah & the whale

A story of a man who ran away from God and got swallowed by a big fish. Unfortunately that is probably all that many people would know about Jonah.

The background to Jonah is not easy. The best Bible scholars are hard pushed to place Jonah in any sort of historical context as there is no apparent cross referencing in the book.

Just one reference appears elsewhere in the Old Testament to Jonah and gives us therefore an approximate placing of these events. There is no reference anywhere else to the repentance of Nineveh which is reported in this book.

Nineveh now lies desolate and its ruins can be found east of the Tigris in modern day Northern Iraq.

Apart from the lack of historical information, there is then the question of the fish/whale/whatever it was. Although not the central character of the story he does tend to get a lot of attention!

Apart from Jonah, the puppet Pinocchio was the only one to experience life inside such a creature. And that of course was a children’s fairy story, so how can we believe such things?

I am not sure we need to get too bogged down with the finer detail here. Are we talking fish or mammal? All have tended to be very good at swallowing bits of people.

In his book “Answers to tough questions about the Christian faith” Josh McDowell records that in the 19th century one James Bartley survived a day and a half in the belly of a whale.  Unfortunately James couldn’t be here this morning to tell us more.

So, is the story of Jonah fact or fiction? Well the strongest argument for the reality of the events is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew 12, Jesus spoke of Jonah in a way that showed that this was no fairy story.

The people were asking Jesus to perform a miracle. To prove that he was from God. He refused to play along. “The only sign you will get from me is the sign of Jonah, the one who was 3 days in the belly of a fish”. Jesus gives the story the highest endorsement.

So what do we know about Jonah?

  • He was a prophet
  • He was the son of Amittai (“son of who?” you might well ask).

Well that brief description is helpful for Jonah son of Amittai is also referred to in 2 Kings 14. King Jeroboam II was an evil king of Israel. However he had listened to a prophet and some positive progress was made. That prophet was Jonah son of Amittai. Jonah was a prophet from Gath Hepher.

So there is our man. In around about the eighth century BC being used by God to speak to a wicked king. Bringing good news to God’s people.

But he wasn’t bringing good news to anyone this time.

This time Jonah’s call was not to his own people. Not to his own wicked king, but to a city which in its day personified everything that was evil. Nineveh was everyone’s worst enemy. So Jonah you would think would be delighted to go and preach against that city.

We are given no detail of what Jonah is to say but from the use of the words “preach against” you can feel that God’s judgement is to be announced.

A man who shows elsewhere he is brave enough to confront an evil king, should be up to the task.

So Jonah is called to speak to his worst enemy. The most wicked city known to man. To preach against them. God knew of their wickedness and it seems their fate is sealed. God has chosen his man for the task.

Think about your prophets of the Old Testament. Elijah springs instantly to mind. Standing up to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, calling down fire to prove that his God is the only true God.

A lesser known prophet Nathan, boldly confronts King David, a murderer and adulterer, pointing the finger “You are the man”.

Just two examples of men of courage who spoke God’s word without holding back, at risk of their own lives. Prophets are God’s spokesmen.

Speaking for God is their job description and their reason for being.

Jonah is the biggest contradiction of them all.

A prophet who refuses to speak.

God called.

He ran.

And he didn’t just run anywhere. He didn’t stay at home. He ran as far as he could imagine. And in what can only be a major misunderstanding of the nature of a God who is everywhere, the writer tells us that Jonah ran away from God.

He set off in the opposite direction. He decided to head off some Mediterranean sun. To Tarshish, part of modern Spain. He tried to invent the Spanish holiday, to get away from it all. A sea cruise would be great.

Jonah seriously did not want to go to Nineveh!

By verse 4 Jonah has left home, got to Joppa, caught a boat and God has sent a great storm. The story is moving along fast. We are not told about any discussion with God. Jonah just had to go.

The storm must have been bad because we are told that even the sailors, the professionals were afraid. We are told that rather than check the manual, they were crying out their gods.

They must have been used to rough seas but this was something worse. Serious storms do tend to have an effect on people.

I remember in the 1970’ s with my family being aboard a broken down catamaran half way between France and Jersey, being tossed by 60 foot waves. Groaning. Stomachs doing summersaults, and an urgent need for paper bags. I was perhaps still young and naïve enough not to be aware quite how serious this was but I suspect people too were thinking about their mortality (a number of participants in the Fastnet boat race died in those waters that day)!

Jonah’s storm was certainly a heavy one judging by the reaction of the sailors so Jonah’s reaction is utterly amazing! He is tucked up in bed asleep!

Extraordinary! What are you doing Jonah? The captain doesn’t understand.

“Get up and pray! Our lives are in danger.”

The sailors meantime are yelling at their gods, they are doing all they can to lighten the boat, by throwing cargo overboard. And the prophet of God is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, by means of drawing lots, the sailors have insight that the cause of their current problem is Jonah. The storm is down to him.

So they want to know, who is this stranger? What does he do for a living? Where is he from?

Jonah’s answer to their questioning is illuminating.

“I am a Hebrew and I worship the God of heaven – he made the land and the sea that has our very lives in the balance”.

Pardon Jonah? You worship the Lord do you?

Let’s just recap:

You are the man called by God to speak and you are running as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

You are asleep, oblivious to the storm that everyone else is struggling with.

You are openly disobedient to your God and no help to these people at all.

But let’s not worry about those little details. You are a worshipper of the Lord for sure.

Jonah was a worshipper of God, but in this story his faith seems to have no outward way of showing itself. Jonah has done nothing to demonstrate his worship.

Well nothing until now that is. He recognises that this is all down to him. It is he who has put the whole crew in danger.

“Throw me overboard”.

Jonah recognises the only way is to sacrifice himself. He can surely have had no idea of God’s coming provision for him personally. To be thrown into this sea could only be one end for Jonah, but he considered this a price that needed to be paid. His life for all the others.

Maybe this shadows part one of the sign of Jonah that Jesus spoke of. One life laid down for many. For Jonah it was a spur of the moment decision in a desperate situation. For Jesus though it was all carefully planned.

The sailors tried other things first but in desperation they did what they were told and the storm immediately ceased.

As they watch all this unfold, we are told that the sailors worship the true God and offer sacrifices to him. It is one thing for someone to come to know God through consistent Christian witness, but quite another thing for someone to become a worshipper of God when the only example they have seen of a God worshipper is Jonah.

The prophet who says nothing, takes a nap (maybe a siesta as he’s on his way to sunny Spain), and does not lift a finger to help. Only God can work in that way!

The sailors were never in the original plan. Jonah should have been off to Nineveh, but God is working even through Jonah’s disobedience.

And then of course God is still working. He provides that fish and an unlikely rescue for Jonah. He hasn’t finished with him yet.

If we read on into chapter 2, we find Jonah praying from inside a large fish. Surely a dark time for the reluctant prophet.

What is surprising about Jonah’s prayer is that there are 2 things he does not say. He worships God for his rescue.

But he does not say sorry.

And he does not say “Get me out of this and I’ll go to Nineveh”.

In spite of his apparent lack of repentance God acts. It seems the storm was so bad that after 3 days, even the fish was feeling sea sick. And Jonah is back on dry land.

Here is part two of Jesus’ ‘sign of Jonah’. Jesus completes his victory after three days in the darkness of the tomb, with the resurrection of Easter morning.

When God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh again, he finds and obedient prophet to preach against that city. It’s a short message he has to bring:

“40 days. That’s all you’ve got. Then you’ll be in ruins”.

No trace of hope in the message. It’s all judgement and doom. There’s no call to repentance. There’s no glimmer of hope.

But the reaction to this message is astonishing. From the people of Nineveh who heard the message, right up to the king who heard about it.

Repentance. Sackcloth. Turning to God.

Even though the message is one of judgement, the king dares to hold out a hope that “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish”.

And the people follow his edict. Situation changed.

What a moment for Jonah. He had brought God’s message and seen God work in power and compassion. He had seen his Lord’s grace and mercy in action. Hallelujah!

Except Jonah is NOT happy. He is not praising God. He is one angry prophet.

Finally we get to fill in the detail of his running away in chapter 1. Why did he not want to speak?

“God, I knew you would do this. That’s why I never wanted to be part of this. It’s so typical of you!”

He lists God’s character, but rather than bringing them in worship each one is an accusation:

  • You’re gracious
  • You’re compassionate
  • You’re slow to anger
  • You’re abounding in love
  • You relent from bringing calamity

There is anger about God’s mercy.

Perhaps too there is anger that he will be discredited as a prophet. What he pronounced to the people of Nineveh has not come true.

Jonah is at the end of his tether.

He wishes he was dead. How on earth did Jonah get to this way of thinking, this conclusion?

So is it going to be a happy ending? We are not told. Jonah rebels and sulks and complains his way to the end of the book. We never get to know how he responds to God’s lesson that he was right to be concerned about this great city.

Nineveh’s destruction is avoided, but in fact only postponed (see Nahum for more details on that).

So what about you and me?

Jonah is the prophet who refuses to speak. As Christians we all have a message to share. We are all called, in different ways to share the good news of Jesus.

When God’s call comes to you, do you obey? When he wants to send you, will you go? Will we readily share what we know of the gracious, compassionate, patient, loving, relenting God?

Or are we, like Jonah, prepared to be a contradiction in terms?

Like Jonah, would you say “I am a worshipper of the Lord”? But if that is so, can people see it? Is worship just something we do on Sunday, but makes no difference to the way we live on Monday? Our worship needs to outwork itself in our living, for all to see.

Are we ever, like Jonah, oblivious to the needs of those around us? Could we even be guilty of sleeping peacefully, and failing to lift a finger to make a difference to the lives of those around us?

Are we even sometimes like Jonah in thinking, well actually that person or those people are so bad, there should be no mercy for them? God should just deal with them.

But the message of Jesus, reminds us that there is no one who is beyond the love of God, whoever they are, whatever they do. God’s love is for the world. All people without exception. That’s why Jesus died and rose again (the ‘sign of Jonah’). The message we bring is not, like Jonah, one solely of gloom, but is a message of hope in a gracious God.

It strikes me from the story of Jonah, that God works often in spite of us and our behaviour and disobedience. Although he may choose to use us, he is sovereign – in ultimate control.

A prophet runs away, sleeps through the storm, gets thrown in the sea, speaks a few words, rants at God, and then sulks to the point of being suicidal. Not much to work with is it? You and I are often not much for God to work with.

But then God is God. A crew of sailors, unwilling players in this drama, come to faith in the living God. A whole city repents of its wickedness and discovers God’ amazing grace.

For all my faults. And for all yours, we have a gracious, compassionate, patient, loving, relenting God who is bigger, who has bigger plans. How much better if we recognise his call on our lives, and his perfect plans?

Let’s be ready to follow where he leads us.

 

 

 

Sermon blog: Faith that counts

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, not wanting to sound like Hot Chocolate, but 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 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.