Creation & Stewardship 1

Over the course of the next 3 Sunday’s, we will have an opportunity to engage with the theme of Creation & Stewardship, beginning this week as we look at the basis of our role and responsibility as Christians in this world which God so lovingly created.  This will focus on our engagement with the flora and fauna that are so vital to ecology. In next week’s All Age Worship service, the focus will be on how as Christians we are to engage with one another, thinking especially of the nurture of children and young people.  The final week will introduce some suggestions for faith in action as we seek to do theology and apply Biblical teaching.

The Bible begins by declaring that God is the Creator of all that exists.  We see that set out so clearly in our reading from Genesis, and the logical order of creation with days of forming and days of filling.  We see that in how Genesis celebrates everything that God created as being “good”, and how God wanted to lovingly bless everything that he created.  We see that re-emphasised in Psalm 24:1 which states “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” 

The astonishing fact is we are called to be stewards of God’s creation.  In Biblical times, it wasn’t unusual for landowners to appoint a servant to manage and oversee their assets.  These people were in effect stewards.  We are called to be stewards and overseers of God’s creation – and that responsibility is implicit in being a Christian and the outworking of our faith. So, what does stewardship mean in our context today?  Stewardship is a God-given responsibility with associated accountability.  It is something that applies to every aspect of our life – we are called to be stewards of our time, our talents, and our resources – whether financial or otherwise.  Equally importantly, we are called to be stewards of this planet.  That isn’t something we do in isolation – instead, it is something that is integral to being Church and, in the family, or community of Church.  We are responsible to God, to one another and to the world of which we are part.

As stewards, humankind was given 3 specific responsibilities in creation:

  1. To provide, through the command to “tend” or “work” the garden, an indication that work was a part of God’s plan from the beginning (Genesis 2:15)
  2. To protect, through the divine directive to “keep”, “guard” or “take care of” the garden; and
  3. To lead, through the decision-making responsibility (Genesis 2:16-17) – but in a way that is consistent with us being made in God’s image and likeness. 

The responsibility we have in caring for and nurturing the environment as we demonstrate Godly leadership can be missionally compelling. That responsibility hasn’t ended.  Yet history shows us that we have failed to fulfil that responsibility, and not surprisingly we now begin to suffer the consequences through Climate Change making droughts, floods and storms more frequent and severe, the terrible problem of plastic pollution and extinction of many species.  Climate change is actually hitting people in poverty the hardest.  We have abused our power and responsibility in exercising dominion over and subduing creation, because of our lack of understanding of that responsibility and because of sin.

The science is clear: the climate crisis is being caused by us, especially us in developed nations, and the impacts are accelerating. We are running out of time to prevent the worst effects. We have to act fast and change the way we live, and governments have to be much more ambitious. But right now, we have a unique window of opportunity. How the government chooses to rebuild after the pandemic will shape our economy, climate and society in the decades to come. This is a crucial moment. In the Bible, Jesus tells us the most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours. Tackling the climate crisis is vital to both of these – honouring God by protecting his creation and loving our global neighbours who are hit first and worst by what is now a climate emergency.

It isn’t surprising that the Anglican Communion has established “Five Marks of Mission”, with the last of these stating our goal is, “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. In simple terms, the way that we as Christians engage and interact with the created world is missional. As a Church, collectively we have a moral and theological obligation to review our lifestyles to seek to fulfil our responsibilities as stewards of creation. How are we striving to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth?  

There is a plethora of guidance available online about how we can reduce our energy and plastic usage, live more mindfully of the impact we have on this planet, and learn to become good, wise and effective stewards. Amen

Our words are like a window on our heart

It seems to me that society has lost sight of the value and significance of words and truth.  Even people in positions of power can say almost anything, even blatant lies, and get away with it. That steady erosion of values is something that has affected the Church too, because we also sometimes lose sight of the importance and meaning of words and truth.  I think that is one of the many reasons why I personally find the book of James so challenging (https://ref.ly/Jm1.17-27).  It reminds us that what we say is actually very very important.  Our words are like a window on our heart, and our words can build up or destroy.  Jesus said “it is what comes out of you that defiles you.”  What do our words reveal about the state of our heart?  It might be that we think we don’t ever say anything offensive yet the person who has been offended might beg to differ.  We must be prepared to examine our motive, as well as our choice of words and how we present them.  I repent when my words show the sinfulness of my heart, and I repent when my words destroy.  I am sorry when my actions are not in keeping with my words, or when my words are not words of healing and truth and love and peace.  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

James tells us to be “quick to listen”.  Those of us who are trained listeners realise how important but also how difficult it is to listen…to really listen properly and engage in the practice of active listening.  We so often find ourselves tempted to jump in and add our “two pennorth worth”, as my grandma used to say!  Adlai Stevenson who was an American politician and statesman, noted for his skill in debate and oratory once opened an address to students at Princeton with these words: “I understand I am here to speak and you are here to listen. Let’s hope we both finish at the same time.” He also once said “Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them”.  But the truth is, a lot of church attenders get through listening long before the minister gets through preaching.

Part of it is due to the short attention span created by the media. Another part of it is that we are largely lazy and undisciplined. Yet another part of it is that we are constantly encouraged on every hand to talk. The thinking seems to be that if we talk enough, we will come to discover important truths. But the greatest part of it is that we do not prize the Word of God as we should.  If we did, then surely we would have a hunger to hear and know more?  How can we expect to be doers of the word if we don’t listen to the word?

I try to attend a weekly session of silent prayer led by a friend of mine online in which people have time and space to do something that is very precious…be still, be silent and listen to God.  James goes on to say that we need to be slow to speak, and we need to be reminded that we have a tendency to speak to ourselves – that internal dialogue we all find we have. Unless we are slow to speak, how can we be in a position to listen.  We need to give words a chance and especially God’s words.  In other words, when the Word of God is being declared, we must be on guard against the tendency to be inwardly raising objections. Then James says that we should be slow to anger! When the Word of God is accurately preached, we may find that it challenges and makes us feel uncomfortable. It is a sword that pierces and cuts (Heb. 4:12)! How do we respond when this happens? Do we become resentful and combative? If we allow anger to come in, the Word of God will not come in!

We find that God’s word can illuminate the sinfulness of our lives.  And that sinfulness is like a barrier or a filter.  We speak through that filter, and we hear through that filter.  And so, James exhorts us to “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”  We need to communicate with no filter in place.  When James says humbly accept the word he literally means to give it ‘a welcoming or appropriating reception’. It’s the same word Luke used to describe the Bereans’ response to God’s Word: “… they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Paul also used the same word to describe the response of the Thessalonians who, when they heard God’s Word, “welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thes. 2:13).  So what does receiving the Word of God mean?

The word ‘humbly’ tells us that we are to come to the Word with a soft, gentle, teachable disposition, recognizing the authority of God’s Word and submitting to it.  And that Word is planted in us, in each and every Christian. We are to go on receiving the Word of God in such a way that it becomes more firmly and deeply planted in our lives than ever before. We are to go on opening our hearts to it and welcoming it so that its truth will be transfused and transmitted into our lives.  I liken it to writing God’s word on the tablets of our hearts.

Unless we are willing to do this, we run the risk of becoming hypocrites.  One of the biggest criticisms you hear about Christians is that we are hypocrites. That is what we become if we are hearers of God’s Word, but not doers. Jesus described hypocrites by quoting from Isaiah:

“ ‘These people honour me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.

7They worship me in vain;

their teachings are merely human rules.’

8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.

Perhaps our prayer should be: “Wash me clean of my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:2, 10)  Lord, give us ears to hear, a heart to follow and the wisdom to be faithful to you.  Amen

The Armour of God

Mark’s gospel tells us that we are to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength.” (Mark 12:30).  This is because we are emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical beings, and we are called to love God with every aspect of our being.  Yet we live in an increasingly materialistic world in which it is all too easy to overlook or even lose sight of the spiritual aspect of our being.  We may be aware of struggles and challenges that manifest themselves physically – for example war, oppression, abuse, family or societal breakdown – but the root cause is often spiritual.  There can also be spiritual strongholds in a family, a community, an organisation or even an institution.

As believers, we are called to be aware of this spiritual struggle and to “be strong in the LORD and in his mighty power.”  To be strong at anything, we need to work at it; and we can become strong in the Lord through Bible study, prayer, fellowship and obedience to His will in our lives – all of these things help us to remain or abide in Christ.  We are told “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  But in this struggle, we are not defenceless.  We are instructed to “put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, we may be able to stand our ground, and after we have done everything, to stand.”  We are called to put on “the full armour of God, so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes.”  Many writers and commentators have said that the greatest trick that the devil ever pulled was to convince people that he doesn’t exist.  When the enemy, the father of lies (John 8:44), attacks with his lies, half-truths, and distortions, we believers can stand on the truth we believe. The devil is a liar and delights in causing dissent, disunity, and destruction.  The devil seeks to undermine and destroy anything that is of God.  But “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8), and if we “Resist the devil, he will flee from us” (James 4:7b). Standing our ground and standing firm requires intentionality and purpose on our part.  We need:

  • the belt of truth buckled around our waist
  • the breastplate of righteousness in place
  • our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
  • the shield of faith, with which we can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one
  • the helmet of salvation
  • the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
  • We are to pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. 

If you have ever looked at this passage before you may notice that there is one part of our body that at first appears to be unprotected…our back.  I believe that is because we are not alone, and Jesus Himself is watching our back.  It is by doing this through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit that we are more than conquerors and those spiritual strongholds are torn down. We then come to our Gospel reading, where the importance of remaining or abiding in Christ is emphasised, and also how challenging that can be.  But it is only by remaining in Christ that we have a secure foundation and can be strong and take the stand we are called to take.  Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” This challenged some of Jesus’ followers – they were only able to understand this from a physical, worldly perspective.  In fact, it was so challenging that some grumbled and some turned back and no longer followed him.  Yet Jesus was inviting them to open their eyes to understand the spiritual perspective, made clear by him saying “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.”  Jesus is the source of love and life, the living bread or bread of life.  We are fed spiritually through Word and Sacrament.  We might pray that as we read God’s written word it might reveal to us his Living Word; we might pray that as we receive Communion it is more than a remembering but something in and through which we are renewed and transformed.  On experiencing the disappointment of grumbling and some falling away, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”  Simon Peter’s response says it all when he answered, “LORD, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Do we really desire life and life eternal?  Many people today turn away from Christ when they discern his real message; they are not prepared to take up their cross and follow Him instead wanting faith on their terms, if at all. Others pretend to follow, going to church for status, approval of family and friends, or business contacts. When it comes to following Jesus, the choice is binary – we either accept him or reject him.  May you have the wisdom to discern and understand the life that the Spirit gives, may you put on the full armour of God and be equipped to choose Christ and take your stand for him.  Amen

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Some years ago, I shared about a ½ page advert that featured in the broadsheet newspapers.  It featured 3 pictures in a row.  Let me see if I can describe these pictures to you.  The first picture featured 2 key people.  One was a businessman wearing a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase who walking down the street.  The second was a punk wearing leather and chains, sporting a magnificent Mohican hair style.  The punk was looking at the businessman and grimacing and was clearly poised to run at him; there was palpable tension in the picture.  The second picture showed the same 2 people, but in this picture the punk had reached the businessman and was reaching out towards him.  The businessman looked absolutely terrified, clearly worried about being mugged or having his briefcase stolen.  If you were that businessman, quite likely you would have been terrified too.  It isn’t until the third picture that the context becomes clear.  The businessman had been walking down the pavement beside some scaffolding, and the scaffolding had started to collapse and was about to fall on him and crush him.  The punk had seen this and had run towards him to push him out of the way and quite likely save his life.

We should never assume that we know everything there is to know about any given situation or person because we often don’t see or even fully understand the bigger picture.  That lack of understanding can manifest itself in both our behaviours and our prayers – both in terms of how we act or pray and what we might pray for.  That is why it is so important for us as believers to try and see the world through God’s eyes and not our own and allow the Bible to speak into and shape our life, and to inform our understanding.  We may do this through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  God sees the full picture, God knows the full context, and it might be that in the here and now we wonder why certain things happen, but the truth is God is always in control and God has a plan.  That is a plan that began at the creation of the world, which will be realised in the fullness of time.  There really is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.

A key part of God’s plan was, of course, the sending of himself – Jesus is fully man and fully God – God incarnate, in the flesh.  It is incredible that God would go to such an extraordinary lengths to redeem us and restore our relationship with him.  Through Jesus, born of a woman, born under the law, we have received “sonship” and been adopted as God’s children.  It never ceases to amaze me what a privilege that is.  We are no longer slaves, but God’s children, and since we are his children, he has made us also his heirs.  Just take a moment to think about that.

The truth is that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus.  There was nothing special about Mary’s background or position.  But we see from her response that she truly was full of grace and humility.  When Mary said, “From now on all generations will call me blessed,” she wasn’t being proud. She was recognizing and accepting the incredible gift God had given her. If Mary had denied such a privileged position, she would have been throwing God’s blessing back at him. Pride is refusing to accept God’s gifts or taking credit for what God has done; humility is accepting the gifts and using them to praise and serve God.  We often don’t realise what a gift we can be to one another and we can be that gift because of the blessings God has given us – our gifts, our talents, our resources.

Mary’s song is inspiring – a powerful declaration of faith which invites us to look at things from God’s perspective because what is seen is not always all that it seems. God takes the world’s values and expectations and turns them upside down. God himself would come to earth and face rejection by the proud, the powerful, and the rich. He would lift the lowly and fill the hungry. And God continues to do that today. God is mighty and merciful, ruthless against pride and injustice but sensitive to individual needs. God knows humanity’s sinful, stubborn nature, and he sent his Son to redeem sinful human beings.

Mary’s song echoes all the great Old Testament themes of redemption, freedom, and justice, and demonstrates incredible wisdom and her understanding of God’s plan and purpose. She captured a vision and understanding of God that would sustain her through Jesus’ earthly life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection.  Mary’s life and testimony invites us to trust in God, to capture that vision too and to see things from God’s perspective, quietly confident that God’s will will be done.  Her example invites us to embrace Jesus’ salvation that brings deliverance from the oppressions of sin, sickness, and materialism. Lord, help us to have faith like Mary and open our eyes that we might recognise you at work in our lives as your plan unfolds.  Thank you that you have a plan to prosper us and not to harm us.  Help us to trust in you and see the world through your eyes.  Through your Holy Spirit, may you give us understanding of your Holy Word that we can write it on the tablets of our hearts and apply it in our lives. Amen

A life worthy of the calling

If you cast your mind back almost 7 months, you may remember that the reading I selected for my licencing service here was the reading from Ephesians (https://ref.ly/Ep4.1-16) that we have heard today.

Earlier this week the PCC completed the last of 6 sessions of the Leading Your Church into Growth course.  That has given us an invaluable opportunity to deepen bonds of fellowship and friendship as together we seek to discern God’s vision and plan for this Church.  Our next step will be to distil that learning and experience into a mission action plan which will be communicated to the wider Church in due course.

For me, engaging with the PCC in these sessions has enabled me to subtly echo Paul’s charge to the Church in Ephesus…“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  That’s something I have encouraged you all to do too over the past few months, especially as we journeyed through the challenges and frustrations of Covid.

It’s been good to get to know people better through conversations, visits where possible, and meetings.  It’s a privilege for me to get to see people exercising their giftings, calling and ministry – for example when the pastoral team came together for a meeting, at PCC meetings, or at the recent Sunday School and Seekers relaunch event and in many other ways too.  That reminds me of how “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service.”  We are ALL blessed with gifts and talents, we all have a role to play, we are ALL part of the body of Christ.  In functioning as the body of Christ and giving opportunity for people’s giftings to be used we see the body of Christ being built up.  This is for a noble reason…so that we might all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  In that we might bring glory to God.

That isn’t always easy…change and transformation can sometimes be challenging.  But there is a need in this to speak the truth in love, as I do and as I always will, acknowledging the responsibility and accountability we have to God and also to a lesser extent one another.  A healthy church is one that grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  A healthy church is one that tends its garden, pulling up the weeds, pruning unhealthy or unfruitful branches and clearing away the things that stifle growth and inhibit people from being all that they are called to be in Christ.  We have to get the foundations right.

All of this speaks of the need for and the importance of discernment and belief – which is at the heart of our gospel reading today.  Many who sincerely seek God wonder what he wants them to do. The religions of the world have many answers to this question, but Jesus’ reply was brief and simple: Believe in him whom God has sent. Satisfying God does not come from the work we do, but from whom we believe. You can’t have orthopraxy (doing the right thing) without orthodoxy (believing the right thing).  What we believe affects what we do, and why we do it.  What does it mean to believe? The first step is accepting Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. We declare in prayer to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Accepting Jesus means giving him control of every area of life. To believe means to yield our wills, our desires, our plans, our strengths and weaknesses to Christ’s direction and safekeeping. It means moment-by-moment obedience. It isn’t about pursuing our own personal agendas.  It is about saying “your will be done, not mine” and then acting upon it.  Believing is a relationship with the one who promises to live within, trusting him to guide and direct us to do his will.

Jesus offers the ultimate spiritual satisfaction and fulfilment: If we believe in him, we will never hunger or thirst. But in a broken world, that does not mean an escape from life and its problems. Thousands of Christians still face physical hunger, and millions face crushing difficulties. The gospel frees us to face life and gives us hope. In the middle of the world’s increasingly pessimistic and despairing outlook, the gospel unflinchingly claims that Jesus offers infinitely more than this life can give. We must always live in the present, mindful of the past and expectant of the realisation of our future hope in Christ.  It means in the face of adversity – through sin, struggles or failures – we can claim “I know that my redeemer lives”.  One of Jesus’ last statements was, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33). And this is my charge: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction…keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

Prayer 3

Over the course of the past couple of weeks in this mini-series on prayer, we have taken a look at the Lord’s Prayer and then the great prayer than Daniel prayed when in exile in Babylon.  The Lord’s prayer reminds us that the purpose and focus of our prayer is to be in fellowship with a holy and awesome God.  Our prayers should never be a shopping list, but a way in which we deepen our relationship with God and our faith.  Our prayers should be in accordance with what we know in Scripture and the character of God – if we have reverential respect and love for God, we would never ask for anything that is not in line with his character.  For example, I might like an Aston Martin DBS, but I would never pray for one.  Someone might like to win the lottery, but it diminishes prayer to pray to win.

In prayer we can praise God, intercede for his work in the world, ask for provision of our individual daily needs (recognising our needs are different to our wants), and request help in daily struggles. It is a pattern of praise, intercession, and request that helps us understand the nature and purpose of prayer. Prayer is all about:

  • Relationship – being in relationship with God, as we draw close to his heart, with a focus on God
  • Worship and praise – acknowledging God’s holiness as we approach him in reverence
  • Confession
  • Intercession – we intercede with God for people or circumstances that are on our heart
  • Chatting with God from our heart – as you would with anyone you were close to
  • Declaring the truth
  • Expressing our faith, hope and love
  • A recognition of the need for God in our lives, so an act of humility
  • A request for God to act from an open hand of need and hope

So then we turn to our reading today which is one of the three greatest illustrations of petitionary prayer in the Old Testament (Exodus 32:11–14; Amos 7:1–6). Through this humble prayer, Abraham was successful in persuading God to agree to spare the city of Sodom if six successively smaller totals of righteous people could be found within the city.

Let’s be clear – the outcry coming from the victims of wrongdoing in Sodom was immense, and the cities’ sin was extremely serious. According to Ezekiel 16:49–50, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah included self-centred pride, neglect of the poor and needy, and doing unnamed detestable things.  Any person in their right mind would be clamouring for justice.  Imagine the outcry today if a serial killer was let off scot-free?  There are consequences of our actions.

So how does Abraham approach God in his prayer?  But before answering that question, it’s helpful to think why it might have been that God chose to reveal his plan to Abraham? Firstly, if all nations on earth were indeed to be blessed through Abraham, God was compelled to tell him the full extent of the lengths he was prepared to go to in order to bring that about.   Lot and his family were therefore removed from the city before all possibilities and opportunities to be blessed through Abraham had been exhausted.  Secondly, for Abraham to be able to teach his descendants righteousness and justice (18:19) so that they too might enjoy God’s blessings, he had to know first-hand how the righteousness of God works in judgment – to be able to keep the way of the Lord.  The key theme here is righteousness, specifically the righteousness of God and the extent to which sin – all sin – is an anathema to God. I think there’s a third reason too.  I believe God actually delights being in fellowship with us and in sharing his plan with Abraham he was inviting Abraham to respond, to be in fellowship.

So Abraham approaches God with humility and reverence.  We see Abraham’s respect for God (exemplified by him standing before the LORD, v. 22; cp. v. 27), his confidence in God’s power and justice (vv. 23, 25), and the patriarch’s compassionate concern for Lot and the other inhabitants of Sodom. At the same time the Lord’s extravagant mercy is seen in his willingness to spare the entire city on account of ten righteous people who lived there. In some respects, the discourse between Abraham and God in our reading today reminds me in many ways of a return to Eden, that place where there was such intimacy and closeness between Adam and Eve, and God.  That place where Adam and Eve walked through the garden with God.  That place of relationship, and fellowship.  It is a place we are invited into through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  So may you have the boldness, the confidence and the wisdom to approach God, to fellowship with him, knowing that God believes in you and delights when you come before him.  He delights when you show him how much you know him and his ways, how much you know the Bible – his love letter to humankind.  A praying Church is a healthy Church…let us pray….

Prayer 2

In today’s reading we find Daniel reading through the scriptures much like today we might read the Bible.  I think it is helpful to think about the context; Daniel had been in Babylon for sixty-eight years, taken into exile from Jerusalem since the age of fourteen.  In chapter 6, Daniel had risen to unprecedented heights of importance in Babylon.  In the new regime, he was second only to the king himself.  Although many years had passed since he last saw Jerusalem, even as an old man his faith is as fresh as ever.  Trials have not broken it (remember the story of Daniel and in the fiery furnace or Daniel and the lion’s den?).  Promotion has not eroded it or seduced him to love other things more than his God. 

In Daniel’s time the scriptures would have been separate scrolls individually rolled up.  And here we find Daniel reading from the book of Jeremiah.  It is even possible that as a young boy in Jerusalem before the exile, Daniel may have heard Jeremiah speak.  As he starts to read Jeremiah, he suddenly reads something that speaks so clearly to him in exile, a stranger in a strange land.  Imagine how his heart was quickened as he read:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”” (Jeremiah 29: 10 – 14)

Daniel’s response is what many people refer to as the finest example of prayer in the Old Testament. It is in this prayer that Daniel pours out his heart to God in confession for the sins of Israel, proclaiming God as wholly righteous in the punishment He had given (vv. 4–15). Based upon Daniel’s discovery in Jeremiah that the period of exile was nearing an end, Daniel interceded in earnest petition for the restoration of the nation in the land of God’s promise (vv. 16–19). Astonishing insight into the depravity of humankind is shown by how Daniel uses four different key words to describe the nature of sin:

  • Sin by missing the mark; or, failing to meet the perfectly reasonable expectations set on someone.
  • Committing iniquity, or wrong.
  • Doing wrong, and acting wickedly.
  • Rebelling.

It is reasonable to conclude from this indictment against Israel that they had well and truly blown it; they were guilty of all four forms of sin.  But the merciful nature of God is indicated in v. 18, as Daniel based his plea for restoration not upon the past or even the future righteousness of Israel, but upon God’s great mercies and covenantal faithfulness.

You may remember last week I gave out a sheet along with the noticesheet that featured the ‘ACTS model of prayer’.  Daniel’s prayer resonates well with that model since it contains expressions of humility (v. 3), worship and adoration (v. 4), co            nfession (vv. 5-15) and petition or supplication (vv. 16-19).

There is no indication that Daniel was officially qualified to take upon himself this ministry of intercession; neither did he belong to a priestly family.  Daniel was moved in heart, soul, and mind by the word of God to pray.  What we read in Scripture can so often quicken us and inspire us in prayer too – God’s word and prayer frequently go together.  And we don’t pray because God needs us to.  We pray because we need to.  Everyone and anyone can pray.

There are times when our sinfulness breaks the covenant with God and there is nothing in ourselves that can commend us to God.  Our only possible plea is the cross and what Christ accomplished through it through which God’s mercy triumphs over judgement.

God is a God of love and a God of mercy.  And God did indeed answer Daniel’s prayer and sent the angel Gabriel. When Gabriel comes Daniel is told that from the very first moment that he began to pray heaven has been listening – and Gabriel’s swift coming is the result.

My prayer for you is that as you read the Bible you also might be quickened, inspired and moved in heart, soul, and mind by the word of God to pray.  My prayer for you is that you might write the word of God on the tablet of your heart that it would speak into, shape and inform your prayers much like it did for Daniel.  A praying Church is a healthy Church, and the backbone of any healthy Church is a core of people who really have a ministry of intercession and a heart for God and his people.  And through reading God’s word and drawing close to him in prayer, I pray that you might have a revelation of the enormity of his love, his grace, his compassion and his delight in you. Amen

Prayer 1

A member of the congregation recently told me that they would like to know more about prayer.  The English Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill said “The self-sufficient do not pray, the self-satisfied will not pray, the self-righteous cannot pray. No man is greater than his prayer life.

Prayer is something that is so important and so vital for us both individually and collectively, especially as we as a Church seek to discern God’s plan and purpose for us.  I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time over the course of the next 3 weeks in our services sharing some teaching with you on the subject of prayer.  In this time, we’ll have an opportunity to explore together some of the inspiring prayers that feature in the Bible which give us some real insights into what prayer is all about.

Today, we are going to begin by looking together at the Lord’s prayer.  But before we look at that specifically I thought it might be helpful to begin by inviting you to turn to your neighbour and in 2s or 3s try answering this question…what is prayer?

Prayer is many things:

  • Chatting with God from our heart
  • At the heart of relationship and intimacy, in which we draw close to God’s heart
  • A declaration of truth
  • A lifeline to the Lord
  • A vehicle for confession
  • Worship & praise
  • A way of asking God to intercede in a situation that troubles us
  • A request for God to act from an open hand of need and hope
  • An expression of faith, hope and love
  • A recognition of the need for God in our lives, so an act of humility
  • Prayer can often be joyful and should be continuous, as natural as breathing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

We may ask ourselves if God knows what we need, and knows our thoughts before we even think them, why bother praying?  The answer is simple.  Prayer transforms us and helps us to develop an intimate, trusting and personal relationship with an abundantly loving God, who also happens to know us deeply. His knowledge of us should encourage us toward confident and focused prayer.

We know that Jesus is the corner stone or heart of how we are called to be as disciples.  He is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”   His practice in prayer was:

  • in secret, away from the crowds (Luke 5:15-16)
  • in conflict, anticipating his death (John 12:27-28)
  • in thanksgiving, upon return of the 72 (Luke 10:21)
  • in intercession, for the disciples (John 17:6-19)
  • in communion, at the transfiguration (Luke 9:28)
  • in choices, choosing the disciples (Luke 6:12-16).

So let us consider the Lord’s prayer. It is one of the most beautiful, complete and balanced prayers that we find in Scripture.  Imagine the tense expectation and excitement when one of the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11: 1b).

The first ‘half’ of the Lord’s prayer is centred on the glorification of God.  The second ‘half’ covers the physical and spiritual well-being of believers.  There is probably a reason for this.  The priority is clear and matches Jesus’ prioritizing of the Law elsewhere: “The first of all the commandments is: Hear, Israel.  The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12: 29, 30).

Jesus did not give this prayer as an incantation to be recited over and over—that would render it as ineffective as the “babblings” of the pagans (6:7). Jesus said, “in this manner, therefore, pray.” In other words, this is how I want you to pray—praise God (6:9), intercede for his work in the world (6:10), ask for provision of individual daily needs (6:11), and request help in daily struggles (6:12-13). It is a pattern of praise, intercession, and request that helps believers understand the nature and purpose of prayer in their relationship with their Father.

Prayer can transform our lives, transform the lives of the people we pray for and bring us into a deeper relationship with God and with one another. Let us pray…

Wir sind bettler. Das ist wahr

Most of our regular attenders in Church services will know that I am currently working through the course ‘Leading Your Church into Growth local’ with the PCC.  It is good to be prayerfully and carefully looking at growth together – in terms of numbers of people, our own individual spiritual growth and discipleship, and servanthood – our capacity to engage with and support our local community and share the Good News.  In the sessions so far, I have set out some hallmarks or values of how we are called to be as a Church community and we’ve touched upon in our discussions those things that inhibit, diminish or stifle growth.  You may remember that a few weeks I shared with you a simple statement: “What I am today is not what I will be tomorrow and not what I was yesterday.”  That means what defines me at this moment in time is not exclusively what I experienced through childhood and adolescence.  If we allow such things to define us, then we and other people will always struggle to look beyond that, and we diminish our capacity to change and grow.  Are you the same today as you were 10 years ago? I doubt very much that you are.

That brings me to today’s Gospel reading.  I want to talk to you about three things…Jesus, the people and his disciplesJesus had been in Capernaum and returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where he had been raised as a child.  Up until this point, Jesus had done incredible miracles and many people exhibited great faith in him.  But now in his hometown, when he preached in the Synagogue, people were amazed – not so much because they were convicted by his message to come to a place of great faith – but rather because they knew him simply as a carpenter and Mary’s son and struggled to come to terms with the change they saw before them as Jesus embraced his calling and ministry.  This made it difficult for them to look beyond and accept his divine authority; they were resistant to his message, and the power of God. We are even told, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

God is raising up and equipping lay leaders in this place.  Do we define them by how they were yesterday and in childhood and adolescence?  Do we only acknowledge them as ‘so and so’s’ son or daughter?  Or, do we acknowledge how God is at work in them, that they are different today to how they were yesterday?  Are we resistant to recognising and affirming their calling and ministry just as the people in Jesus’ hometown were resistant to his?  You see so often unless we step back and open our eyes, we fail to acknowledge how God is at work right here, right now.  And our very attitude can impose a glass ceiling on growth and realisation of potential.  We must work to create an environment of nurture, free from fear, where people can have a go and test out their calling.  We belong to one another.  There is a mutual accountability, a mutual and shared responsibility.  Leadership is not a right.  It is a privilege, a precious charge.  If any of us hold a view that we are not accountable, then we need to think again. What might Jesus say to us now?

When we think of the people of Jesus’ hometown, it is clear that there is a profound difference between doubt and disbelief or unbelief.  Disbelief or unbelief blinds us to the truth, robs us of hope and inhibits growth.  It is tragic indeed when people are without hope – hopeless – and perhaps because of a hardness of heart, stubbornness or pride are either unwilling or incapable of seeing God at work in someone else’s life.  Are our hearts hard? Are we stubborn and resistant to acknowledging God in our midst?  Are we filled with pride?

Jesus called the twelve and instructed them to travel in pairs, to travel light, to strip everything away that was not necessary, and to be uncluttered.  “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”  We learn that the people they encountered in the homes they visited might respond in either of two ways:

  1. To welcome them and listen to them, in which case the pair of disciples would stay there and minister to the household and bring blessing.
  2. To not welcome them and reject them, in which case the pair of disciples were instructed to shake the dust off their feet and leave as a testimony against that household.

Does that surprise you?  In my ministry, I have had many conversations with people who have given me a gracious welcome.  But I have also had conversations with people who have shown a hardness of heart, stubbornness and pride who were unwilling or incapable of seeing God at work in someone else’s life and unwilling or incapable of taking responsibility in their life and showing accountability.  I’ve even gone the extra mile with these people because I know God does not want anyone to be lost – but ultimately I have had to give them to God in prayer, dust my feet off and walk away.

I implore you, do everything in your power to avoid having a hard heart, to avoid being stubborn and full of pride.  The disciples “went out and preached that people should repent.”  People resist admitting blame, taking responsibility, appearing humble, showing accountability and asking forgiveness. We’d much rather be confident, in control, capable, and ‘on top.’ But faith starts with this old-fashioned, humbling exercise called repentance. It recognizes that God is in charge, and we are in need. It is His will that we pray to be done, not our own.  It involves accepting Jesus’ sacrifice, not as our right, but as his undeserved gift to us. On God’s terms, not ours, we begin our journey of faith. As we go, we remind ourselves that grace, not pride or personal power, keeps the journey fresh and vital in an environment of nurture and growth with the Holy Spirit at work. So come humbly to God. May we repent of our spiritual blindness and the times we inhibit or diminish growth and wholeness in Church and beyond.

I leave you with one final thought about Paul.  At no time after Paul gave his life to Christ do we see in him a hardness of heart, a stubbornness or pride.  What did Paul boast about?  Not his training, position, authority or accomplishments, but his weaknesses.  He confesses to the thorn in his flesh that tormented him and recognised the poverty of his spirit.  Paul’s testimony was of a gracious God who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response was, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

I said to the PCC…The truth is I am not worthy to wash your feet. As Martin Luther once said “Wir sind bettler. Das ist wahr” – “We are all beggars. This is true.” We are merely beggars seeking to show other beggars where to find bread.  It’s clear that we all have different gifts, we are called to use them for the glory of God and we must do all that we can to foster a loving and nurturing environment where Church members feel able to exercise those gifts, recognising and encouraging God being at work in their lives. Amen.

Freed from Suffering

Many years ago, I got to know someone who as a child used to go to church every Sunday – I am going to call him Steve.  It was an old church in Wales which had a strong and faithful congregation.  Steve suffered terribly from Grand mal seizures due to epilepsy.  One Sunday in winter when he was at church, he had one such seizure during the service.  Unfortunately, he fell off the pew, rolled underneath it and in his convulsions was pinned against a scalding hot heating pipe.  To this day he has a red welt on his back where he was burned.  They were hard times for him.  It was hard for him to do the normal things in childhood that we so often take for granted.  And in those days, treatments for epilepsy were not as extensive as they are today.

One Sunday though, some years later he came to an evening service.  During the service members of the congregation were invited to come forward for healing ministry.  He stayed where he was.  But one of the ministry team said “I really believe that there is someone here tonight who God wants to heal.”  Steve had that “It’s you” moment and knew that he had to go forward for prayer.  He slowly made his way forward, knelt down and people laid hands on him and prayed for his healing.  After that Steve never again suffered from epilepsy.  He was truly astonished, but even more astonished were the doctors who had been treating him.  His healing quite simply wasn’t supposed to happen; it was a miracle.

As a young man, Steve’s faith grew and grew.  One day a good friend of his became terminally ill and Steve felt incredibly burdened to pray for him.  He spent a lot of time praying, after all if God had healed him, surely he could heal his friend.  He believed with all of his heart that God wanted to heal them too.  And incredibly his friend was fully healed…the doctors were again baffled.  There was simply no logical, scientific explanation.

In Steve’s life, a year after his friend had been miraculously healed he was approached by a young couple whose daughter was terminally ill.  They had heard how Steve had been healed as a child, they had heard about how Steve’s friend had been healed.  They had tried everything and they were desperate and so they asked Steve if he would come and pray for their daughter.  Tragically the little girl died, and Steve was both shocked and devastated.  He was so upset that later when he saw this young couple he went out of his way to avoid them and he didn’t return their calls.  But one day he bumped into them, and he wasn’t able to avoid them.  He could hardly look them in the face.  He simply said, “I am so sorry.”  The couple embraced him and shared with him some of the last words their daughter had said which were “Don’t be afraid mummy, I am going to be with Jesus.

Illness of whatever kind is undoubtedly difficult for all concerned.  It is perhaps hardest of all for the person who is ill; after all, none of us would ever choose to be ill.  When we are really ill, our life has to be put on hold whether we like it or not, and all the things that we are usually able to do become more difficult or even impossible.  Illness makes it difficult or even impossible for people to engage normally in society, whether that illness is physical, mental or even spiritual.

So, imagine how the woman in our gospel reading might have felt.  She had been subject to bleeding for twelve years!  That alone must have been terrible.  But we must also remember that she was a woman in a patriarchal society, and because of her condition she could never be ritually cleansed.  She was always considered unclean, and therefore she was on the fringes of society. She was an outcast. She may as well have been a leper, because that is how people would have treated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have become ceremonially unclean.  We are also told that she had tried everything to get better, she was desperate: “she had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.”  The woman was therefore also destitute.

The incredible thing is this…despite her affliction and the adversity that was part of her everyday life, she maintained a faith.  Oh, that we could hold fast in times of adversity, that our faith was not based on our external circumstances.  And she didn’t make a song and dance about her condition.  There were no histrionics or drama.  She simply approached her Lord and Saviour quietly and graciously and touched his cloak.  It was an outward expression of her deep inner faith.  She knew in faith that would be enough.  In God’s grace she was healed; and then Jesus asked who had touched his clothes.

The exchange between them is amazing.  She fell at his feet – she literally worshipped him and confessed everything.  And Jesus responded with love beyond measure…firstly he called her daughter.  That is like saying “This is what defines you and you are not alone. You do have status, value, a family, and are defined by the love I have for you.”  It reminds us all that we are children of God.  She who had been on the fringes and was destitute had been brought home, welcomed and embraced.  He then commends her faith, and declares her physically healed and spiritually saved “be freed from your suffering” and “go in peace.

And then when we think of Jairus’ daughter.  In that society she would have not had any social standing…firstly because she was a child who had not come of age, and secondly because she was female.  In her own way, she too would have been on the fringes of society.  And once again Jesus exercises compassion, mercy and love.  And even though the people came from Jairus’ house and said it was too late because his daughter had died, Jesus ignored them and said to Jairus “Don’t be afraid; just believe.

So what about people who are not healed?  It is in such times that we need to have a shift in perspective.  As Christians don’t we believe that death is not the end?  We believe that we are destined for eternal life?  We believe in a new heaven and a new earth where we will be God’s people and He will be our God.  And in our time in this broken world that has been, is being and will be redeemed and transformed we must remember that “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” It is not God’s fault that there is illness and suffering and death.

We so desperately need to be real and honest with God…to cry out to him and convey all of the emotions that we might be experiencing.  I know I do.  We need to ask him to broaden our understanding of what healing is.  If our starting point is from that position of faith, if we believe in God’s compassion, mercy and love and that ultimate healing is being with God and at peace with God, then it shapes how we might respond to people who are sick in mind, body or spirit.  We can perhaps begin in God’s grace to see them as God sees them, as his children who need to find their way home.  That couple’s daughter got it…incredibly she found herself in that place where she could declare “Don’t be afraid mummy, I am going to be with Jesus.

We are not destined for death.  We are created for life, and life eternal.  Jesus said “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” May we not be afraid and just believe, and may we have a deep inner faith that isn’t based on our momentary trials and tribulations. 

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen