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The Beatles – From me to you: I should have known better!

And so it was from the beginning…

Wednesday.

29th.

May.

1963.

A big afternoon for me.

I am in St Joseph’s, surrounded by nuns, sisters of Annecy to be specific.

In the delivery room I imagine, because it’s difficult to remember, the nuns carry out their midwifery skills to the sound of music.

There’s nothing a nun likes like a good sing, as we know from the films.

As midwife 1 tosses me to midwife 2, she yells “from me to you”. My Mother Mary looks on as I get an introductory slap, beneath a painting of the Lady Madonna.

It’s a romantic way of putting it. In other words, the day I was born, the Beatles, the Fab Four, were number 1 in the hit parade, their second chart topper “From me to you”.

One of my earliest musical memories is of singing a song, maybe at 2 or 3.

“She loves you yeah yeah yeah” repeatedly. Those were the only words I knew.

I remember too singing “ we all live in a yellow sumber reen”. I guess I would have picked these things up from my brother. I certainly didn’t learn them in church!

History of course is that the Beatles broke up when I was just 7. By the time I was getting seriously into music it was the mid-70’s and the band were history.

Our English teacher at the grammar school would talk about the Beatles, chiefly in relation to evaluating the poetry of Lennon & McCartney.

I remember in my student days I had two double LPs, the red and blue albums. I didn’t keep them. The band that had been there for me from the beginning, was discarded just like that, with no sign of gratitude.

I discovered other bands and would avidly collect everything they released, some still to this day.

Other bands and artists would just be regarded as greatest hits types.

And so in the CD era I bought “1”. The 27 number ones all on one disc. In the back of my mind it occurred to me that there were other songs, some which only managed to reach number 2, others that were never even released as singles.

I don’t know when I started , but probably in my late 40’s, I began to descend the slippery slope that I had with other greatest hits bands by starting to buy their other albums.

I bought a Paul McCartney CD/DVD set “Good evening New York City” and watched through the first half with interest as Beatles songs intermingled with familiar solo songs and other songs that were unknown to me.

Into the second half and the lights were coming on for me. I watched and listened almost open mouthed as the band played:

Back in the USSR

I’m down

Something

I’ve got a feeling

Paperback writer

A day in the life

Let it be

(Live and let die)

Hey Jude

Day tripper

Lady Madonna

I saw her standing there

Yesterday

Helter skelter

Get back

Sgt Pepper’s lonely hearts club band

The End

And it dawned on me, not just that I was watching an extraordinary musician and song writer, but what an amazing body of work he had just run through, leaving plenty of other songs untouched.

Who else could have done that?

Hit after hit after hit. Not to mention that I was now familiar with some of the album tracks which were featured in his set. At 48 I had to admit that the Beatles were now one of my favourite bands. I had all their albums. It had taken almost half a century but I had got it.

Recently I went to the theatre to see the musical “Let it be”. I enjoyed the musicianship, the stage sets, the costumes, the psychedelic effects, the nostalgia.

But more than anything it was about the songs.

At 53 the Beatles are definitely 1 of my top 3 bands, maybe even top 2!

I’m reading the books, listening to the albums, exploring solo work, and watching the DVDs. It’s becoming an obsession. But a beautiful one.

Over the years I had heard people talking about albums like “Rubber soul”, “Revolver”, and “Abbey Road” and now I’m appreciating these as classics.

I listen to those early albums too and feel the raw energy. Whilst I would prefer much of the later stuff, some of those early songs are just so catchy!

Another new film out on DVD. The exploration and the enjoyment continues.

It’s not THE END yet….

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Sermon blog: You say you want a resolution?


Daniel 1:1-8

2 Chronicles 20:1-4

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

30 New Year Resolutions!

I’m never entirely sure about New Year resolutions. What is it that is so special about this one time of year?

From a Christian point of view I am never sure whether God is too concerned when January 1st comes round again. I mean when do they celebrate New Year in heaven? Do they cheer the fireworks  with Australia or the UK or the US?

I believe after all that God is the God of new starts, and that that can even happen in July!

Or on a daily basis.

It’s a time of year that gets you thinking though. You look back. Maybe you have some regrets. You look ahead and you think “this year will be different”.

So what will my resolution be?

When it comes to it, after all the questions, I don’t tend to bother.

But there are those who will encourage you, “go on, make a resolution for 2017”.

One internet blogger suggests 29 possible resolutions you can make and none of them on the face of it appear to relate to giving up chocolate, so perhaps I should pay attention. Actually she lists 30:

  1. Start a meditating practice – doesn’t say what precisely.
  2. Learn something new everyday.
  3. Pick up a hobby – if you’ve got time…
  4. Play more.
  5. Eat fewer calories – oh I guessed there might be something like that in there! Possibly chocolate?
  6. Write a business plan.
  7. Move more – get up and get active.
  8. Read more books – for example there are apparently 12 Russian books you need to read before you die!
  9. Be more grateful.
  10. Stop procrastinating. Hmm I need to think about that…
  11. Set aside an hour a day to achieve your dreams.
  12. Spend more time in nature.
  13. Start doing planks everyday – apparently that’s a kind of exercise! It’s nothing to do with the old Tommy Cooper film.
  14. Enjoy the little things.
  15. Become more confident.
  16. Be more conscientious.
  17. Increase your charisma.
  18. Increase your IQ.
  19. Increase your EQ – your emotional intelligence.
  20. Learn a new skill.
  21. Bring more peace into your life.
  22. Be kinder to yourself.
  23. Create a positive attitude.
  24. Strengthen your personal relationship.
  25. Tame your monkey mind. Apparently you have a monkey in your head? Shrug…
  26. Keep a journal.
  27. Get your documents in order. I can make recommendations on that if you wish, though I haven’t brought any business cards with me.
  28. Easy – doesn’t say how far…
  29. Volunteer
  30. Write a blog. Then I suppose you can come up with 29 things for other people to do.

It’s an interesting list and I’m sure there are some good things in there. It strikes me too though, as I often think when I consider making a resolution, that many of them are not things which are really ultimately under my control. For example how can I bring peace into my life? How can I be sure I learn something new every day?

So today I thought we’d take a look at this and maybe make some suggestions for resolutions. You will be glad to know that I have not come up with 29 or 30.

Just 3 will have to do us.

There are 3 occasions in the Bible where people are said to have resolved to do something, and each one I think brings out something that we could all learn from and put into place.

Rather than chronological order we’ll take them in logical order.

In my humble opinion.

1       Resolving to live differently

Daniel and his friends were in exile. They had been taken from Judah by force. Things had gone very wrong in the times of King Jehoiakim. It was the end of the line it seemed for a nation that flouted its covenant with their God.

Daniel and his 3 friends Hananiah, MIshael and Azariah thrived in their new environment, as the book of Daniel tells us. There is no mention of any attempt on their part to flee their captors in Babylon and return to Jerusalem.

They were enrolled in Babylon University in recognition of their physical and intellectual qualities and would all go on to graduate with flying colours and hold positions of great political influence within Babylon.

Whilst they seemed to settle in and be very much part of what was happening around them, there would be occasions when they would stand out from the crowd in other ways. Ways in which they would not compromise their beliefs.

They would never forget their nation and more importantly they would never forget their God. They were quite ready to go against any king’s orders in order to be obedient to their God. And each time God would honour that, famously in the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, but also at the start of their time in Babylon.

Daniel made a resolution.

The best food was available to these young men. The very food that the royal family ate. Must have been fantastic, but Daniel resolved “not to defile himself with the royal food and wine”.

Now there’s nothing wrong about good food and wine in itself, but this was a matter of principle. It is most likely the case that the first portion of all meat was sacrificed to the Babylonian gods.

Daniel and his friends would not be associated with this. He suggested a vegetarian diet, washed down with nothing but water.

Their supervisor was sceptical, and no doubt concerned at the king’s reaction to this when it went wrong, but we are told God honoured the initial experiment and the men thrived more than any of the steak eating students.

Daniel and his friends had laid down a marker, putting God first and this set the tone for their lives in Babylon and their extraordinary success.

Success built on a resolution to live differently.

Why don’t you resolve to live differently this year? Dare to be a Daniel.

Not saying you need to be different for the sake of it. Not suggesting that you need to be peculiar or weird.

But God calls to be holy. A people who are attractive as they seek to live like Jesus. Doing and saying those things which he taught.

Holding a different set of values. Causing people around us to ask questions. What is it that makes the difference in you? Why do you react differently to difficulties? Why do you seem to be calm when everyone else is stressed? What is it that drives you if it’s not money and success?

2       Resolving to seek God’s guidance

Some time before these events, Jehoshaphat was a king of Judah, reigning in Jerusalem for 25 years. He didn’t always get everything right but he is described in the history books of the Bible as one who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord”. Many of the kings of Judah and Israel couldn’t say that! Even on a part-time basis.

We are not told it was January 1st, but Jehoshaphat made a resolution. In the face of a very real danger. Judah’s enemies were getting ready to attack.

Messengers came to Jehoshaphat telling tales of a “vast army” approaching, and we are told that the king was alarmed. Judah, it seems, would have been largely outnumbered.

As a king he could call upon his armies. He had commanders who could advise on the correct strategy for defence and offence against a bigger enemy, but though he was alarmed Jehoshaphat did not panic.

Neither did he go the obvious route and tell his commanders to sort it all out.

Jehosphaphat made that resolution.

There and then – on the spot. He “resolved to enquire of the Lord”. In the midst of grave danger his strategy was to ask for God’s guidance. To pray.

And not only did he pray but he called his whole people to prayer and fasting. Imagine if our political leaders called us to do that today. The contempt they would face!

And so the people got together and prayed as a nation. “God what do you want?”

The rest of the story is worth reading.

In a surprisingly straight forward way, Judah asked God, and God replied. Speaking through a prophet.

“The battle is not yours, but God’s. You will not have to fight this battle”.

Yes they were to march, but Jehoshaphat’s trust in God’s promise was so strong, that they were to do so as an army of fighters with an army of singers marching in front.

In obedient trust the army was led by a choir praising God for “the splendour of his holiness”.

“Give thanks for the Lord for his love endures forever”. It’s a funny way to fight!

Whatever the intention, Judah did not have to fight its enemies. They fought each other. The job was done for them.

A victory won on a resolution to ask for God’s guidance and a victory built on the praise and worship of the God they trusted.

You’re not a king. You don’t have that kind of status or responsibility. But maybe a bit like Jehoshaphat you feel under attack.

Maybe as you enter 2017 you feel there are some big challenges ahead for you. Or the world just seems to be one scary place with everything that is going on.

Whether it’s in your family, your workplace or the wider world, it may be that you are alarmed.

So why not make that resolution to “enquire of the Lord”.

Ask God for the solution. Seek his wisdom for the situation. Recognise that “the battle belongs to the Lord”. He can be trusted.

  1. Resolving to trust the cross of Jesus

Paul was God’s messenger. A religious man of great learning, who having set out to destroy Jesus’ followers had become one himself. His life turned 180 degrees by the original “Damascus Road experience”.

He had met the risen Jesus, the one who he was persecuting by persecuting his followers.

And now his mission changed. To spread the news of Jesus the Christ. And he was prepared to travel in the process.

In his travels he and his companions came to the city of Corinth. Like most parts of Greece, Corinth liked to get philosophical. A good intellectual debate would go down a storm. There was nothing they liked more than human wisdom.

While there may have been times for intellectual debate, and elsewhere it seems Paul was quite prepared to get involved in it, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians later he made it clear that his approach when he visited had been a different one.

The church at Corinth was pretty mixed up. There was amazing evidence that God was at work in them in extraordinary ways, but plenty of evidence too to show that they struggled to live out their faith and even to get on with one another.

A large part of their problem was that obsession with wisdom. They had their favourites. Paul. Apollos. Peter. Who was the most eloquent? Who was the wisest, the cleverest? The suggestion seems to be that Apollos hit the spot in the intellectual stakes.

But ultimately to share the gospel of Jesus is not a matter of intellectual persuasion. Paul recognised that there was a greater power at work and it was that power that would change people’s hearts and lives.

Paul did not choose the way of wisdom. Rather he came in “weakness and fear, and with much trembling”. Perhaps they saw him as a pretty unimpressive character as he came to them.

But Paul had one message. One foundation on which his trust lay.

Paul made a resolution.

He resolved to “know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.

That is what he preached. He preached Jesus. He preached that salvation comes through the cross. And though at face value the message may not have been the sort the Corinthians were looking for, the power of God was plainly at work through Paul.

It was that Holy Spirit power that had changed people’s lives and they would have known that and, it seems, needed to be reminded of that as Paul wrote to them.

So perhaps you could resolve to be like Paul. Your beliefs might not be those of those around you. It may be considered foolish to believe in Jesus and his cross and resurrection in 2017, but Paul proved it to be true in his life.

As a church as you go into 2017, how will you communicate the good news of Jesus with those around? Do you look for a new wisdom? Do you author a new message which will be more successful than the old one?

Will you really try to rely on your wisdom and your abilities or will you rely on the power of God the Holy Spirit through the death of Jesus on the cross?

The cross of Jesus always has been and always will be fully effective to save us.

It justifies us before God the judge.

It brings about atonement, taking away the barrier between us and God, making us at one with him.

It reconciles us to a relationship with God .

It seals our adoption as children of God the Father.

It pays the price of our redemption. We are bought back from slavery to sin.

It brings the promise of resurrection, following in the steps of Jesus for an eternal life.

It sanctifies us – purifying us and enabling us to live differently.

It  brings the promise of glorification – that one day we will see our saviour Jesus face to face, and be like him.

Wouldn’t we all rather see the power of God in our lives rather than struggle on in our own way?

So this year tame the monkey in your mind, do planks and read 12 Russian books before you die.

Or:

1) Resolve to live differently

2) Resolve to seek God’s guidance and

3) Resolve to trust in the cross of Jesus.

I would suggest those to you.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas sermon blog: Let it be

LET IT BE

Luke 1:26-38

CHOSEN

It’s a great thing to be chosen.

• To be chosen as a winner of a dozen doughnuts or a new car.

• To be chosen to represent your school in the football team.

• To be chosen for a school or college

• To be chosen for a job with prospects.

• To be chosen for the Olympics.

• To be chosen as a husband or wife.

• To be chosen for promotion.

• To be chosen for a £250,000 investment in your business by Lord Sugar.

• To be chosen for a Nobel prize.

• To be chosen as prime minister.

• To be chosen for entry to the rock & roll hall of fame.

You’ll tell everybody you are so fortunate, so honoured, so blessed, and in some cases you might make a speech thanking a long list of people.

So what about being chosen to be the mother of God’s son? How would that feel? And would it be a sheer fluke like winning the doughnuts or a recognition of your talents?

YOUNG LOVE

Our familiar story takes us to Galilee. Nazareth to be more exact. To a young lady, probably just a girl.

She’s already been chosen. By a man called Joseph, who is a man from the line of King David, not royalty himself, but from good stock.

She was pledged to be married to him. And she was a virgin. She was waiting for her wedding day. Saving herself for Joseph.

The young lady is called Mary. It’s an everyday story of romance and family life. Another couple with their hopes and dreams. Elsewhere we’re told that Joseph was a carpenter. He had a trade, he worked with his hands. But they had hopes. Maybe they talked about their plans.

GABRIEL

Out of nowhere heaven steps into that ordinary life and nothing will be the same again.

We know nothing of the setting, but an angel stands before young Mary, with announcement to be made.

We’re told it’s not just any Angel. This is Gabriel, previously depicted in the book of Daniel the prophet, explaining the meaning of Daniel’s mind boggling visions, and explaining God’s mysteries.

From the throne room of God to a humble town, to a young girl. An angel with a mission.

The angel greets her, he tells her that she is favoured. God is with her.

What did Gabriel look like? – we are not told.

We are not told that Mary is startled by his appearance. Maybe he’s in disguise.

But she is alarmed by his words.

“Highly favoured?”

“God is with me?”

“In what way?”

“Why me?”

Mary is about to hear the news.

She has been chosen.

Chosen by God.

FEAR NOT

People who were confronted by angels in the Bible were frequently struck with fear at their appearance. And the most common words from an angel’s lips seemed to be “Fear not!”

Don’t be afraid.

Mary is more troubled by Gabriel’s words. What does this mean? What is he saying?

It’s here that Gabriel speaks “fear not!”

“You don’t need to fear the news that I am bringing you Mary”.

“You don’t need to be afraid because God is pleased with you”.

An angel bringing good news.

It’s a birth announcement. “You are going to have a baby”.

For so many people the sort of news they want to hear more than anything.

One of our own. A family.

But the angel has more to say.

After all, God doesn’t send an angel to announce every baby. That’s usually left to the doctor.

SAVIOUR

We might dream about what we’d like our children to be, but what hopes before they are born? Probably all we hope for is a safe delivery. We take things a step at a time.

Gabriel has more to say.

“Never mind the scan. It’s a boy.”

Well that’s spoiled the surprise!

“Wonder what we’ll call him?”

And you’re going to call him “Jesus”.

“Oh great that’s decided as well!”

A name which means “the Lord saves”.

And, so not surprisingly, this baby will be great!

He will be called the son of the most high. A grand title for the son of a carpenter!

The Lord will give him the throne of David. Joseph and Mary’s baby is going to be a king?

He will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever. His kingdom will never end.

Forever?

Never ending?

What on earth is this angelic announcement?

Forever is one big word!

What man could reign forever? The questions are swirling round in Mary’s head.

“Who is this baby? Most high? A King? Immortal?”

IMPOSSIBLE

But she apparently voices none of those questions. One thing puzzles her above anything else. It’s a very practical point.

“How can this be? How can this happen to me? How can I be pregnant?”

A virgin. Pledged to be married. Saving herself for the man she loved.

Virgins don’t get pregnant. She must have thought this was going to happen some time in the future when she and Joseph had set up home together.

It can’t be now. Maybe the thought of now didn’t even cross her mind.

If that was the explanation Mary sought she soon knew different.

Gabriel sets things clear. “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you. This is a holy child. The son of God.”

This is NOT Joseph’s child. We are talking seriously supernatural here.

God’s doing miracles again.

“Your older cousin Elizabeth is having a baby even though she can’t. You are having a son in spite of being a virgin”.

When God says something is going to happen it happens.

LET IT BE

Mary must have many questions, but her response is humble and obedient.

“I am God’s servant. I’m ready to do this”.

Chosen.

Gabriel bids farewell.

Mary knows she didn’t imagine this.

It really happened.

God had called her. She had accepted the job of carrying the Son of God. There was enormity to her calling that she surely couldn’t have taken in.

This meeting from out of the blue.

REALLY?!

Time to pass on the good news to her family.

Perhaps it was then as she thought about it, the words started to jumble up. It starts well. “God has called me and I’m obeying him. I’m going to be the mother of God’s son. This must be the messiah!”

What are people going to think of that? “Who does this girl think she is?”

Some young girl getting carried away with her imagination.

As she meets with her cousin Elizabeth, Gabriel’s word is proved to be true. Elizabeth is expecting!

And Mary is full of praise to God. He is totally in control. “All generations are going to call me blessed”.

This is going to be an amazing experience.

At what stage did it hit home that this was going to be anything but an easy ride? As she explained to her family, to Joseph, her friends?

At some point the meaning of Gabriel’s words must have hit like a sledgehammer.

“I’m having a baby. It’s not yours Joseph, it’s God’s. I haven’t been with anyone else. I’m faithful to you and waiting for our wedding day. But the Holy Spirit has helped me conceive”.

Matthew records that Joseph didn’t believe her. Can we really be surprised by that?

He decides to end their relationship quietly. He doesn’t want her to be disgraced or even stoned for adultery.

Her neighbours would see her walking by. Heads would turn as they saw her growing. Engaged to be married (Betrothal was actually a much greater commitment even than that).

People were not so naïve all those years ago that they didn’t know what made a baby.

Joseph and Mary couldn’t wait, said the rumour.

Maybe it’s not his, said another.

Tongues would wag. Heads would nod. Eyes would wink.

“Oh and this is a good one – she says it’s a virgin birth!”

The talk had started and I would guess that the talk never went away.

A disgrace. A joke.

There would always be talk of that family. Perhaps they would never fully be respected.

But Mary had said “let it be”. I’m ready for this calling.

REALITY

And as Jesus grew up, he left the family business, and gathered a following. Mother Mary encouraged people at a wedding with no wine to “do whatever he tells you”, in order to save the day.

His first miracle. Water to wine.

He taught great crowds. He stirred up a reaction. She and Jesus’ brothers would wonder “is he out of his mind? We’d better bring him home, before he gets in trouble”.

But Mary had said “Let it be”.

What were Mary and Elizabeth’s hopes for their special sons? Jesus and John. A King on David’s throne? His right hand man?

Whatever crossed their minds I bet it never occurred to either of them that they would both be dead in their early 30s.

John beheaded by King Herod.

Jesus nailed to a cross. And

Mary stood at the foot of that cross and saw her son Jesus die. As an old man had once predicted “ a sword will pierce your own soul too”.

But Mary had said “Let it be”.

“Let it be to me as you say. I will follow God into the unknown.”

FOLLOW

I wonder what does it mean for you and I to follow God’s call on our lives. Of course God might share some details, but basically we don’t know.

We don’t know what lies ahead of us if we commit our lives to him, and follow him, with his help.

We don’t know whether when we follow his call on our lives, even if it’s plain we’re doing his will, if it will end in rejoicing or in tears.

For Mary there would be misunderstanding and rejection and confusion and the worst kind of pain. And ultimately great resurrection joy.

Who would understand or believe what she had to say. Who believed in virgin births? Who believed in a God who does miracles?

Things haven’t changed too much. Perhaps we face ridicule or rejection, or maybe just disinterest as we try to share what God has done in our lives with those around us.

Maybe even as we listen to ourselves we think “ how can I expect anyone to understand what I’m saying?”

Perhaps the call that God has made on our lives, has seen us walk a road which has been a road of great suffering, perhaps walking in the valley of the shadow of death itself.

There’s been a cost to relationships or reputation or careers or even risk to life for many who follow Jesus.

But Mary said “let it be”. Will you and I?

WHY MARY?

There’s a question that is still in my mind.

Why Mary?

What was it that made Mary the ideal choice to bear the son of God, to feed him, to protect him, to provide for him, to teach him?

We are not told. All we know of Mary to begin with is what read here.

She is highly favoured. The Lord is with her.

Indeed.

Most highly favoured lady as the song says. What a privilege.

The Lord is with her. That couldn’t be more literally true!

The word favoured suggests that God was pleased with her. She was chosen for a reason.

Whereas we are told for example why God chose Noah to build the ark, because of righteousness, we are not told why God chooses young Mary for this greatest of tasks.

I think it is implied though in the way that Mary reacts to the visit from Gabriel.

There is humility, there is purity, there is honesty, there is obedience, there is faith in a God of miracles, there is trust in him against the odds.

Often in our churches we can be wary of those who over stress the importance of Mary in Christianity. The result of that can be we ignore her all together, but we all need to be clear that she was a very special lady. She wouldn’t get everything right. Sometimes she would question her son’s words and behaviour.

But what an example to us of humble faith.

And there’s a lesson for all of us. None of us can claim that the salvation we receive in Jesus is a reward for our goodness. It is all about God’s grace. But who are the people who God is going to choose to do his work? Surely it is those who are already demonstrating just something of that Mary like faith.

People who when they hear God’s call to service, to costly living, to believe for great things, who even in times of trouble, whisper:

“LET IT BE”.

Mary could say “let it be”, because she was ready to face the unknown future of misunderstanding, danger, ridicule, pain – because this was no ordinary son.

KING FOREVER

This Jesus was born to be saviour. This Jesus was God the Son. This Jesus was an everlasting king.

His life would be cut short, but that was all part of his plan. The greatest plan of all. The plan for God to step into this world in the form of an ordinary looking baby.

Where God becomes one of us, and lives among us. Where a human face and hands and voice can show us exactly what God is like.

Where God in a human body demonstrates power over nature, and sickness and evil powers and the sin in people’s hearts and actions.

Where God the Son teaches the crowds the way to God

the Father and challenges those who rely on their religion to see them right with God.

A man who tells his listeners that there is nothing they can do to earn acceptance by God, and abundant, here and now, and eternal, forever after, LIFE.

But a God-man who does what we cannot do. Who lives the perfect life, and offers that life of perfection, to pay a price that we cannot pay, to bear our sin and wrongdoing on a cross of torture. That we might be forgiven.

That whoever trusts in him will know God’s favour and grace in the most amazing way.

And a God-man who goes on to prove that not only does he have authority over nature, and sickness, and evil, and sin, but has power to BLOW DEATH APART through his resurrection.

Mary said “LET IT BE” and God used her to carry the saviour of the world.

Your saviour, if you will trust him.

If God calls you to commit your life to follow him today, say “LET IT BE”.

If he is calling you to serve him, say “LET IT BE”.

Let it be the most wonderful meaningful joyful Christmas in 2016.

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.