Bible Sunday

Remember that ever since you were a child, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” 2 Timothy 3.15 (GNB)

Today is Bible Sunday and we will be looking at the Word of God together in this sermon. One of the sessions that we cover on the Alpha course is about why and how we should read the Bible and we will be touching upon some of the material used in that session in this sermon.

But to begin with, I would like to ask you to do something…grab a piece of paper and a pen and in a couple of minutes write down all the reasons you can think of for why we should read the Bible.  Once you have your list, take another piece of paper and now write down all the reasons you can think of for what makes reading the Bible difficult or challenging.

Ghandi said to the Christians of his day: ‘You look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle torn planet. But you treat it as though it were nothing more than a piece of literature.

The Psalmist says “The words of God are more precious than gold.” (Psalm 19:10) At her coronation the Queen was handed a Bible by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, with these words: “We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.

During their ordination, priests within the Church of England are presented with a Bible “Receive this book, as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.

Christians when giving evidence in court take an oath on the Bible.  As their hand is placed on the Bible they say “I swear by almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The question is why?

Jesus said “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) The tense used makes it clear that God’s word is continually being spoken.

There is a great saying – “The Bible is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions.”  We get a sense of that in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Psalms paint some wonderful pictures of the Word of God. The extract from Psalm 119 in our reading today is no exception. The Word of God, we are told, is:

  • Like purifying and cleansing water (v.9)
  • A treasure (vv.14, 72, 127, 162)
  • A companion and a counsellor (v.24)
  • A song (v.54)
  • Like honey (v.103)
  • A light (vv.105, 130) and
  • A heritage (v.111)

What on earth would life be like without these things?

The psalmist goes on to suggest why we should value the Word of God. The reasons all relate to what it does:

  • It brings happiness (vv.1-2). It has been said that “key to happiness is to live in God’s Word and to let his Word live in us.” If we walk according to God’s Word we will be blessed and know happiness.
  • It produces cleansing and purity (vv.9, 11). “The agent the Spirit of God used to regenerate the hearts of all of us who are saved.” We get a sense of this cleansing, and washing in the word in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:25-27)
  • It gives liberty and freedom (v.45). Sin always promises to bring freedom, but it only creates bondage and causes us to become slaves to depravity (2 Peter 2:19). It is the truth of God that brings true and lasting freedom (John 8:32).
  • It provides direction (v.105). The Word of God provides the direction we need, a lamp to out feet and a light for our path. It is like a light shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).
  • It produces understanding (v.130). Our walking and understanding are inseparably linked. In addition to shedding light on our path, the Word of God enlightens our minds (the ‘eyes of our heart’ become enlightened) so we can discern what we ought to do.

Paul said “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Reading the Bible helps us:

  • Become like Jesus, as we are ‘transformed into his likeness’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)
  • Know the presence of God, joy and peace in the midst of life’s storms (Psalm 23:5)
  • Find guidance (Psalm 119:105)
  • Know life in all fullness, health and healing (Proverbs 4:20-22)
  • Be defended against spiritual attack (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Experience God’s power…it can convict us deep in our hearts, challenge us, affirm us, and build us up (Hebrews 4:12)
  • Cleanse our minds (John 15:3)

Living according to God’s word then helps us:

  1. Keep our ways pure
  2. Not to sin
  3. Teach and admonish one another with wisdom. I think that Christian are often very poor at speaking the truth in love because they don’t have the Word of God written on the tablets of their heart and they don’t recognize their own poverty of spirit
  4. Develop an attitude of gratitude in our hearts

We do this by:

  1. Studying it. God’s purpose in giving his Word was to point us to himself. We are, therefore, to seek him through his Word (v. 2), and this seeking is to be done wholeheartedly (vv. 2–10). We are to ‘look’ into his Word (v. 6) and to learn its judgements (v. 7). It really helps if we do this together and here we have several in your church you may have several opportunities to dig deeper into God’s word – perhaps in Housegroups, or nurture Groups. There are also some really great Daily Bible Reading Notes you can buy that aren’t too expensive – and readily available at Christian bookshops.
  2. Obeying it. The duty of obedience is set forth in these verses in several ways: walking in the law of the Lord and in his ways (vv. 1, 3), keeping his testimonies (vv. 2, 129), and taking heed to our ways to make sure they correspond to the teachings of God’s Word (v. 9). We need to encourage one another in this…it isn’t easy, but God gives us strength to prevail and grace and mercy when we fail.
  3. Storing it. We hide it in our hearts – the centre of our being. We get a sense of this in Proverbs 7:1-3: “My son, keep my words and store up my commands within you. Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart.
  4. Declaring it (v.13). Studying the Word of God will cause our hearts to burn within us, just as they did with the disciples on the Emmaus road when Jesus explained the scriptures to them (Luke 24:32) in such a way that we won’t be able to keep it to ourselves. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
  5. Rejoicing over it (vv.14-16).   The rejoicing of verse 14 and the delighting of verse 16 are connected by the meditating of verse 15. As we reflect on what the Word of God is and what it does, we will find the rejoicing and delighting to be inescapable.

Reading the Word of God has an effect and an impact on us. It leads to transformation and it draws us closer to Christ. We are told:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

Reading the Word of God is an intentional or purposeful act, just like putting clothes on.   In the first part of the passage from Colossians (3.12-14), Paul uses the metaphor of putting on new clothing to describe the transformation of God’s chosen people. When we make that choice to follow Jesus, we leave behind the rags of our old lives and ‘put on’ the glorious robes of our new lives. It is only when we begin to leave behind our old selfish selves and move forward with Christ’s love in our hearts that we can attain the perfect unity expressed most wonderfully as Christ’s body here on earth, the church.

These signs of a transformed and re-formed believer are the outward ‘clothing’ of a transformed heart, one that is at peace with God, oneself, and others (3.15). We the evidence of that in the use of the gifts of the Spirit and the Fruit of the Spirit. This must form the basis of the missional heart of the church, in which the primary reason for our existence is to worship and glorify God.  And as we give thanks for God’s goodness and grace, we can’t help but express our gratitude in acts of service to others both inside and outside the church in thought, word and deed (3.15-17). We recognise or own poverty of spirit and capture a glimpse of the length and breadth and depth of the love of God.

The message of Christ, that we are justified not by our own efforts but by faith, and saved, not by our works but by God’s grace, is expressed in a heart for mission, rigorous teaching, exuberant worship and heartfelt thanksgiving to God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (3.16-17).

If you want to know more of Jesus, and feel held back and in a dry place – why not ask for prayer ministry?

As together we read the Word of the Lord… let’s remember the Words of Jesus who said “Everyone who hears these words of mine puts them into practice…(Matthew 7:24)

Let’s close with this silent prayer….

Lord Jesus Christ, help us to live according to your Word.  May we be clothed in your truth; with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and over all of these, love.  May your kingdom come, your will be done and your church shine with your light.  Amen

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The Wedding Banquet

Whether we like it or not, I think everyone tends to have their own standards of right and wrong and of justice. What is right for one person may be very wrong for another and there is often commentary and debate in the media regarding whether a criminal got a fair or just sentence, or got ‘what was coming to them.’

The thing is though, in this country and on this side of heaven we uphold the ‘rule of law’ and the British judicial system and as such we entrust right, fair and just sentences to be given out by a judge who is far more aware of both the bigger picture and the context and detail than we are, even if there are times when just like the rest of us, they are very human.

There is a problem though in that the media sometimes comes across as being like a ‘final arbitrator’ as if they have the right to take justice into their own hands and this at times leads to people becoming very sceptical of authority and very sceptical of the fairness of the judicial system. It somehow diminishes and undermines authority and we only need to look around the world and see the consequences in countries where the rule of law is absent. It is all too easy to take a stand against something without ever having the courage or wisdom to stand for something.

In the book of Romans we are told “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)

I think it is balanced to read this in the light and context of 1 Timothy 2 which says “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

We are to submit to governing authorities BUT we are also to pray for governing authorities and specifically that they may allow us to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. When I wonder was the last time we prayed for governing authorities in our personal prayer lives?

The scepticism of earthly authority though can escalate into a scepticism of heavenly authority and also a complacency. We sometimes see the church becoming like the media – giving a clear message of what it is against rather than a clear message of what it is for. It’s all too easy for the church to formulate its own view of what is right, fair and just. Yes the church has an authority but it also has a responsibility and accountability to God…it is HIS church after all.

In our reading today, we are told of the great wedding banquet. And it is to this banquet that specific guests were invited. And we are told very plainly that “they refused to come.” We have all heard the saying “you can lead a horse to water…but you can’t make it drink.”

In what way is their refusal honouring and respecting the authority and sovereignty of the King? On hearing of their refusal the King was both gracious and magnanimous and once again issued the invitation with a plea…“ I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.

It is quite astonishing then that some paid no attention and went off, and still worse others seized his servants, treated them shamefully and killed them. Such action is an act or declaration of war. No wonder then that the King was enraged and the murderers destroyed.

As a result of this all were invited to the wedding banquet – people from the highways and byways and the street corners – both the good and the bad. In this we are reminded of what Jesus had said earlier, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) We are told that the wedding banquet was filled.

Like so many parables and prophecies this is something that spoke clearly into the context in which it was first shared – but also into the context we find ourselves in today. At the time it would have spoken very harshly to the people of God who should have known better – and how the Jewish people rejected the invitation of the heavenly King, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and ultimately the ‘unrighteous’ gentiles were to receive the invitation. And today it perhaps speaks into the scepticism of authority and complacency we sometimes see in the church.

The wedding garments that we might wear come from us seeking to have the mind of Christ and be clothed in Christ and his righteousness; and the only way we can do that is to submit to Christ. The garment is a metaphor for righteousness, reminding us of where it says in Revelation ““Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)” (Revelation 19:7-8)

All are invited, but all are to be clothed in Christ who is “the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through him.” (John 14:6) We cannot get into heaven in our own merit; we are called into righteousness and that righteousness can only come from Christ and Christ alone. For the person to seek to enter into the wedding banquet in their own clothes is to scorn the host’s provision of wedding garments thus insulting the host and showed a lack of respect and a terrible complacency. There are overtones of Isaiah here. “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) That is the human predicament: we are literally not fit to be seen before God, let alone to enjoy the feast of his kingdom.

We have such a privilege – we can’t make an excuse that we didn’t know any better – we are children of God and ambassadors of Christ. Do we refuse to respond to the call of the heavenly King? Do we treat shamefully those who seek to spur us on in our faith? Do we take the law into our own hands? Do we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)? Divine election is a mystery…and we should not seek to question our heavenly judge “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

But as I have said before that there will be three surprises in heaven:

  1. The people who aren’t there
  2. The people who are there
  3. That in God’s grace we too might be there

But this sense of election works together with, rather than against, the reality of human responsibility, free will and the choice that we have just like the people initially invited to the wedding. God will not force people against their free will and individual responsibility. We can accept the invitation or we can refuse the invitation and treat those giving us the invitation shamefully. Not everyone is receptive to Jesus and his message and not all respond appropriately with a discipleship that brings forth the righteousness of the Kingdom. All are called; not everyone is elect.

The wedding banquet is ready; let’s pray that we might be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and seek first his Kingdom and His righteousness.

Amen

Coming home to harvest

There are times for all of us when we want to do our own thing, or when we want to go our own way. Times when perhaps we lose sight of the bigger picture or the wider context. We all know the song “My Way”. It says it all really. Even though penned in the 20th century, in the 21st century that song speaks into our own sense of independence and I understand it is the most popular song at funeral services today.

It isn’t wrong to be independent – if we have a dependency on others it isn’t necessarily always healthy – although granted at times something like illness can force us to become dependent on others – but that is only because during those times we simply have no other choice. But apart from those times when we need to receive care and assistance, to become overly dependent on someone can cause us to lose sight of our humanity.

As children grow up they certainly become more and more independent; it is no longer cool to hang out with mum and dad (or so my eldest son and daughter keep telling me). We wouldn’t want it any other way would we? You know when you drop your child off at the school gates for the very first time, when you are more nervous than they are and you wonder who is more upset? And as you walk away you shed tears of pride but also loss? It is great to learn to be strong and independent; but there is a huge difference between independence and rebellion, between independence and going off the rails and living a wild life – loose living. There is a huge difference between independence and interdependence. We cannot exist in a vacuum apart from each other. And we see that all the time so clearly in church and communities that thrive. At one extreme, independence forces us to descend into that vacuum of isolation and the risk and consequence is that we go so far down that road that we no longer recognise relationship – relationship with each other and relationship with God.

The story of the wayward or prodigal son which we heard today is a story about a son who went off the rails in a big way. I wonder sometimes if the story should be called the story of the forgiving dad because it also tells us about God’s great love for those who are distant, those who are far off, and the forgiveness, welcome and celebration they can experience when they come home. It is a time when the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak and the deaf hear – it is a time when people at last begin to recognise their very identity in God. It is a time when harvest time comes early!

I wonder this morning as we think about the story if we can see ourselves in any of the characters? Who might we identify with the closest? Who are the players in the scene? We have:

  • We begin by looking at the youngest son who lost his way and wanted to do things his way and nearly ended up losing everything.We can see the desire for independence and rebellion, the desire of the son to do things his own way. “‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’” And as we know he pursued a road to ruin and in a distant country “squandered his property in dissolute living.” When we are in rebellion against God we so easily squander the many blessings He has given us and we do that because we have taken our eyes off him. We must life up our eyes to the mountains though.   “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121) When we do that there is only ever one outcome – it is ironic that in our pursuit of independence we often find that we end up in a place of need and dependence! And as we know the youngest son “began to be in need” and he lost sight of his dignity and working as a swineherd. Sometimes in life we have to have hard knocks – where we lose something of that vain pride and arrogance and come to a place of knowing and grace. St Augustine wrote “Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You “resist the proud,” — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”The youngest son did indeed come to that place of knowing and grace. In returning home he said to his father “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is the truth. And likewise, there is nothing in us that can commend us to God.
  • And then we turn to the eldest son who at first glance appeared to be doing everything right – or was he?We can sometimes get so caught up in the task that we lose sight of why we are doing that task in the first place. For us at church, we must never ever lose sight of why we are here. We are here first and foremost to worship and be in relationship with God – that is the primary reason for existence. But a direct consequence of that is how we then are with each other and how we are with people in our community. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) The eldest son was so caught up with himself and his own narrow sense of pride, justice and righteousness that he had lost sight of the blessings he already had, the benefits of being his father’s son and the inheritance he was called into. All that his father had was his. All he had to do was ask. He could have had a celebration every night! His brother returned and received all the blessings a son could ever desire. The eldest son could have experienced the very same thing, but he really didn’t know all that his father would do for him. Sometimes we also miss all the blessings that are around us – the food on our tables, the clothes we wear, our family, and friends. God has blessed us with so much, and we don’t always recognise it. The eldest son became angry and refused to enter in to fellowship and it seems that for years he had fostered resentment in his heart – it was eating away at him. The elder son said “‘For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with loose living, you killed the fatted calf for him!’” It is very aggressive language isn’t it? I worked like a “slave for you”, “you have never given me even a young goat”, “this son of yours” – he has pushed himself so far out of fellowship and relationship that he loses sight of the love his father has for him, the many blessings that he was given and taken for granted, and he loses sight of his brother.If things don’t always go how we want or expect, do we respond like the elder son? Do we become angry and refuse to participate and take ourselves out of that place of blessing and out of fellowship? Yet we are told to “seek first his Kingdom AND his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) – we have to recognise that righteousness cannot come from us.We are not told how the eldest son subsequently responds…the question is left hanging in the air. It almost beckons us to ask ourselves how might we respond? It is a gentle challenge.
  • And we conclude with the father who was overjoyed to see his precious son return home.The father has the toughest of all the jobs. Who deserted the father – the youngest son or the eldest son? They both did! The father must have felt so hurt, so let down and disappointed. And yet the father is the one who is the seeker and responder, the one who is calm and in control, the one who is filled with grace, mercy, truth and righteousness. The father’s response to his eldest son was “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” You are always with me – nothing will ever stop me from loving you – all that is mine is yours – and see how the father’s heart is that his eldest son might capture such a vision of grace and mercy and forgiveness and love.And when we consider the gracious and compassionate response of the father to his youngest son, we are told “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” and then “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”And we know God is our heavenly father and shows us mercy that triumphs over judgement and rejoices whenever we come home to be back in fellowship and relationship with him.

I share these thoughts with you because today we celebrate Harvest time. What might the harvest have looked like for each of the players in our story?

For the youngest son and the father…the Bible tells us “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5) The youngest son and the father both sowed with tears and journeyed through a breakdown of relationship to a place of restoration and reconciliation – a place of joy.

Harvest time is such a great time to express thanks for all the blessings we have – all good gifts around us – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our homes, our jobs, our families and friends. It is a good time to remember that whoever we connect with closest in that story, we are always welcome just as we are.

Always remember that God, like the father in our story, has the very best planned for us even if we have a tough journey to get there. Even if we feel far off and distant He will make the effort to come to right where we are and invite us home for the harvest celebration. Home is a place of forgiveness, a place of safety, a place of growth, a place of acceptance, a place where all the family should be able to come as they are, a place of celebration where all can gather. Let’s give thanks to God for the many blessings he has given us and ask that we might welcome people into our hearts and our spiritual home and pray that the harvest might come.

Amen