Is anyone thirsty? Silly question. I guess that especially in the ongoing pandemic, we can easily own up to a thirst and hunger for normality.And you might think it was a silly question for the prophet to ask God’s people. Exile, a whole nation being dragged away from their homeland, cut off from their Temple, unable to worship freely… Years later they would still be homesick, maybe making the best of it. Some of them getting on OK, building homes and holding down good jobs, but many of them still thirsty for something more than that. But still, he asked the question.
To get to the heart of this chapter, we need to go back to the haunting and beautiful “Song of the Suffering Servant” in Chapter 53. “We have gone astray” sums up the reason for the massive problem of all the suffering, loss, embarrassment, of the exile in Babylon. “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” sums up God’s answer to that problem. (v. 6) God’s answer is this Someone who “was despised and rejected, a man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief (v. 3). One who “took our pain” (v. 4) One who was wounded for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities (v 5). And that amazing Song calls them to a different life. After Chapter 53 with its Suffering Servant comes chapter 54 with its challenge to “Lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” (Isaiah 54. 2) Get a bigger vision. Then in Chapter 55, God says “is anyone thirsty?”
The thing about thirst, is that it isn’t just a desire: it is a need. A kid who is thirsty – but only thirsty for lemonade – isn’t really thirsty. But thirst is a felt need. It is possible to be dehydrated but not thirsty. People who sit around all day staring at computer screens, may find the mechanism that triggers “feeling thirsty” is suppressed. And lots of things – a job, a family, and even church activities – can mask our need for God’s presence, God’s word, God’s covenant relationship, in our lives. These are the water, wine milk and bread that God has for his people. And they are available free of charge. The Suffering Servant has already paid for us to have the Living Water we need.
And when God is really at work, God’s people are able to be his witness and “nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God has endowed you with splendour.” (v. 4f) Isn’t that what we are thirsty for? God’s word. God’s presence. God’s power. People we don’t even know, running to us because God is here.
Seek, call, forsake, turn (v. 6-7)
This chapter has seven imperatives (command words). Come, buy, eat, seek, call, forsake, turn. So if you’re thirsty, if you have a felt need for God, then there’s something to do. Coming to the water, receiving the gifts God freely gives, knowing his power and blessing, is free, but it’s not cheap. Our theme verse for 2021 is “Seek me with all of your heart”.
To seek the Lord, to call upon him means repentance. It means a turnaround. “Return to the Lord! ” It means change. “Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong.” (v. 7, NLT) That is what needs to happen. Actions and attitudes, need to change. What’s been happening in your behaviour? In the way you treat people? In how you speak? What’s happening deep inside you? Resentment, pride, Unbelief, idolatry? Just some things we need to repent of.
But God doesn’t intend to leave us there, in a mess. Repentance leads to experiencing God’s grace. Mercy and pardon are two ways of saying the same thing. Mercy is kindness, its roots are in compassion that feels for our pain and brokenness and shows us generous love we don’t deserve. Pardon is forgiveness: it rebuilds a relationship, withholds the punishment we do deserve. God will have mercy and pardon, freely, generously, abundantly. He does so because the Servant was wounded for our transgressions. This is the most splendid glorious thing about God. Not the power that created the world. Not the promise that he will one day reign and all his enemies will be under his feet. Not the power that led his people out of Egypt or healed the sick. But this is how his ways are higher than ours: in his grace. This is the glory that beckons us to come to Him in utter dependency, complete surrender and trust.
My thoughts, my ways, my Word (v. 8-13)
This chapter begins and ends with refreshment instead of thirst and desert. Our world has the amazing water cycle – water from the seas forming clouds that drop as rain. Just as that water cycle makes the earth fertile, in the same way God’s word can be relied on. We can trust what he says because it comes from Himself. It’s like the water cycle. It works. It will accomplish what he sent it out for. It does bring the refreshment we need.
The water turns everything upside down. Mourning in to dancing. God’s people go out with joy and peace. God may be talking about when his people leave exile and go back to their own land again. After repentance and forgiveness the journey continues. We don’t turn to God and receive his grace so we can stand still. And as we journey with Him in repentance, Even the mountains (which are usually obstacles on a journey) will break forth into song.
And the land God’s people journey through becomes a fruitful place with juniper and myrtle trees instead of thorns and nettles. That’s another image of productivity and refreshment instead of thirst. The desert becomes a garden – that flourishes as an everlasting sign of the Lord’s grace. The renewal, refreshing of his people and his world, is an experience of the coming triumphant Kingdom. God’s final victory over everything.
God wants to bless us. God wants to refresh our lives and our Church. He wants us to become a community that people run to because they want God’s kingdom. He wants us to be a sign, here and now, of his coming final victory. But the key is “Seek the Lord, while he may be found.” It’s a moment of opportunity, to return to the Lord.
Prayer: Take time to let God speak by his Spirit and show you anything you need to repent of. Then agree with the Spirit: quietly confess these actions or attitudes to gdo as sin. Then ask God to forgive you and refresh you by his Holy Spirit.
Pam and I met at college 40 years ago almost to the day. Chris and Julie met at a work conference. Time and again, I meet couples who met at a dance. But you don’t walk up to someone on the dance floor (or when you’re queueing up for lunch) and say “Woman, I command you to love me!” It doesn’t work like that. Love has to grow, it has to be nurtured, fuelled. It’s an overflow of affection, admiration, attraction, and attention; a response to what we find in the other person, of beauty, kindness, generosity, or simply of need and dependency (Like a mother with a newborn baby). So what are we to make of this command, to Love the Lord? How can that be?
God shows his people Himself: Deut 6. 4 says “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”. In the Old Testament, God reveals himself uniquely to the people of Israel. They weren’t a particularly good bunch of people: in fact they were pretty weak in lots of ways. But God had chosen them. He had honoured them by giving them a unique place in his plan. Every nation on earth was going to be blessed because of them Among them the Saviour of the world would be born. He had told them his mysterious name and revealed his unique identity as the only true God. He had become their God and made them his people. Hear O Israel. The Lord Your god, the Lord is one. What’s not to love about that?
God has shown his splendour, beauty, kindness, generosity to them. In return, he wants one thing from them. Their love. That’s the nature of the command. God has wooed them, honoured them, told them his secrets, What he wants is that they respond to that: love Him with all their heart soul and strength. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, this theme “With all your heart” keeps playing.
God knows they’re going to wander after other Gods, but says, that even then “if you seek the Lord with all your heart, you will find him.” (Dt 4. 29) and “return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul and I will restore your fortunes. (Dt 30. 2)
he promises “If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul – then I will send rain on your land” (Dt 11. 13f)
False prophets will suggest you can worship other Gods, but “The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Dt 13. 3)
God calls us into a wholehearted relationship with himself. The Hebrew meaning of the word love, is exactly that: it is to love. To love people – your children, husband or wife; your master; your friend, neighbour or a stranger. To love things – your food, drink, sleep, knowledge. To love God and for God to love us. It’s that mixture of affection, admiration, attraction and attention. It’s more than just belief. It’s more than service or seeking. It’s a relationship. To love God with all your heart – being, thinking, feeling, choosing. To love God with all your soul, everything that makes you alive; to love the Lord with all your strength.
That’s what God wants from us. Nothing else is good enough.
I wonder where that is going to take us, in terms of how we live our lives. How we earn our money and how we spend it. How we deal with people. How we treat people round about us. How we make decisions.
Once (See Mark 12. 18-27) , people were busy by trying to trip Jesus up with difficult questions. (Including a clever one about a woman who was married to seven brothers (one at a time: they all died.) The punchline question was “Whose wife will she be in next life?” In the middle of this discussion, someone came along who was quite impressed with the way Jesus answered these questions, and asked, “What is the most important commandment? And Jesus answers, by quoting this verse from Deuteronomy 6. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” And then, without missing a beat, he says “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself!’”
Jesus has shown us God’s grace, God’s generosity, God’s welcome, God’s favour. He has honoured us with the invitation to be part of God’s plan. And as our response to all of that, he repeats the first and greatest commandment. Love the Lord your God with heart and soul and strength (and Jesus adds “with all your mind”– which in the Old testament are part of the heart. Is he hinting that our minds and thinking are key to loving God and others?)
Where does that lead us? Jesus is clear as he refuses to stop with greatest commandment. The next in line is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s from Leviticus 19. 18. It’s often said that you can’t love your neighbour unless you love yourself: if you hate or despise yourself you’ll hate everyone else. But this isn’t about how we feel about ourselves. It’s practical. The context is lots of practical rules – about honesty, generosity to the poor. And in particular, verse 18 makes loving the opposite of getting even and bearing grudges. We can’t be like Tam o’Shanter’s wife “nursing her wrath to keep it warm.” I believe loving oneself is not about self indulgence or pampering yourself, or about insisting on your own rights. It is about forgiving yourself, accepting yourself and taking appropriate care of yourself as the first step toward change and growth. Don’t beat yourself up. And don’t beat other people up, physically, emotionally, financially.
The Pharisee who asked Jesus the question was even more impressed with the answer. “Well said Teacher. To love God and your neighbours is more important than all the sacrifices and offerings.” And Jesus accepts the compliment by saying, “You’re not far from the Kingdom!” Isn’t that devastating? Jesus had passed the test. But now he shows us who really was on trial: it was all of those who were firing questions at him.
God commands,“Love me with all of your heart, soul, and strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.” It’s a command, a call, to relationship – with God, and with our neighbours. God isn’t on trial here. He has earned our love by the love he has revealed to us in Christ. How we respond to these commands, puts us on trial. It shows what is happening in our hearts and how close we are to the kingdom of God.
So, how’s your relationship with your Heavenly Father today? Do you love Him with all of your heart? Is there admiration, affection, attraction and attention? Is it wholehearted? How’s your relationship with your neighbour – in the Church, in the wider community, in your own home? Do you love your neighbour as yourself?
When you are ready, make this prayer your own.
Lord, I know what needs to change so I can love you with all my heart and love my neighbour as myself. Please send your Spirit to renew my mind and make those changes happen, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
We can’t have the same “Verse for the year” as last year, can we? “I am doing a new thing”. New things sprung forth, like a lion, during 2020… and put a stop to just about everything, cancelling plans, cutting us off from contact… Was that God’s “new thing”? Or was the “New thing” effectively killed off by the events of 2020. I don’t believe either of these options. Perhaps we “didn’t see it” because the crisis of 2020 blinded our eyes to it.
I believe with all my heart that we need to embrace God’s new thing… and that Covid could have helped us to do that. It has called the church to consider what we are dependent on. It has challenged – exposed – the weakness in our relationships with the community around us and in our relationships with one another.
And perhaps we didn’t see it because we didn’t want to. Because we we prefer the weakness that 2020 exposed, to the change that it proposed. 2020 has shouted at us “it’s time for new things” How have we responded? So we come to 2021, with our 2020 Verse of the Year ringing in our ears: “I am doing a new thing!” But for 2021…
“You shall seek me, and you shall find me, when you seek me with all of your heart.”
from Jer 29. 13
God says “Seek me…” So what’s gone missing? What’s lost? For the exiles in Babylon, it was their freedom, their land. Their Temple. Their ability to worship the way God had told them to. That was all painful. (Sounds familiar?) But it was masking something else that had gone missing: God seemed to have gone missing too. They had lost that sense of relationship with Him. And that can happen to the Church too. Three of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 were half-hearted. Ephesus (Rev 2. 1-7) had lost its first love and needed to repent, to turn back to that love. Sardis (Rev. 3. 1-6) had the reputation for being alive but was dead, and needed to wake up. Laodicea (Rev. 3. 14-21) was neither hot nor cold – a bit of Jesus and a bit of Judaism, or a bit of paganism – and needed to choose.
God has a vision for his people. A new thing He wants to do. But it’s more than just a nice mission statement or a five year plan. Values, Aims, SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timed). I’ve done all that and it has its place. But in the end it’s about our relationship with God. It’s that we seek Him with all of our hearts. A people who are seeking him and following him, wholeheartedly not half-heartedly. God insists on being the priority in our lives and in our life together. Our first love, our life source, our true wealth. He wants us to want him, and to seek him, with all of our hearts.
In the Old Testament, the heart usually means more than just the pump in he middle of your chest. It is the bit of you that makes you what you are. Baptist OT Scholar Wheeler Robinson sums it up as Personality, Emotion, Intellect, and Volition. More simply, it’s being, feeling, thinking and choosing.
For Jeremiah in particular, being one of God’s people was not merely a matter of keeping the outward law but having God’s action in your heart,
I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord.
(Jer 24. 7)
‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord.
The Lord wants us to be real with him. For our worship, our praying, to be “with all of our hearts.” To be calling out to him with a wholehearted passion.
But this is not a command (though there is a command: “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, Dt 6 .5). This is a promise! It’s part of the restoring God plans to do. “You will seek me with all of your hearts.” This is the grace of God at work. Giving a new heart that is up for knowing God deeply by experience. A heart on which God writes his law.
“You will seek me. And you will find me when you seek me with all of your heart.” The people in Babylon were desperate to get back to their land. And God would restore that to them. But he would do it on his own terms. So first, he will give the gift of seeking. He would restore their relationship with Him. “You will seek me and you will find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
My good friend Phil gifted us a new logo during 2020. It features a heart and a bridge (one of the spans of the Queensferry Crossing). That speaks of God’s heart for Rosyth. Seeking God with all of our heart means seeking the heart of God in our heart, which will mean seeking the lost with all of our hearts.
I believe God has blessing and healing and restoration for us in 2021: he still says, “I am doing an new thing”. We want freedom, life, growth. God will give it – on his own terms. First he wants to give the gift of seeking. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” That’s the beginning of the restoration. It’s as we receive the gift of seeking Him with all of our heart, that the other blessings will come.
Sixth Value: A Connected people: working together with other Christians.
Text is Acts 15 v 1-31. Chris is the Speaker
Hi everyone, Today, I will be speaking on our sixth value as a church… a connected church…. a church that is not ‘independent’ but ‘interdependent’ with other church congregations. We don’t exist as an island… and we’re not ‘lone rangers’. Scripture says that we are connected to all believers.
As believers however, we do have different traditions which have resulted in different denominations. Different traditions can be a wonderful strength as Christ followers express their worship in different ways…. as long as we all recognise that we belong to each other as brothers and sisters, that we love each other sincerely, and we are in unity under the umbrella of God our Father in heaven, and Christ the Head of the church. The Baptist tradition for example, has many distinctions….
It highlights the priesthood of all believers in coming before God directly,
it highlights the fact that every Christ follower can discern God’s voice for themselves because they have received the Holy Spirit…
the Baptist tradition has no hierarchy or control over the local church such as Bishops or Archbishops, each local church can decide how to interpret the meaning of Scripture without this being imposed from outside.
This means however, that Baptist churches can be quite different to each other. In the past, many Baptist churches have split over their differences. In America, some saw slavery as acceptable, while others didn’t. In Scotland, some Baptist churches divided over how the bread and wine was to be administered, and who could receive it… other churches have divided over having women in leadership. There are Scottish Baptist churches that exist today only because a congregation divided over their differences many years ago… and some of them left to start another congregation. Perhaps there is good reason why the Baptist church tradition has sometimes been described as ‘the battling Baptists’!
Thankfully, God is gracious and those differences are long forgotten… BUT for a good while, some Baptist churches were not a good witness for Christ to those who were not yet believers.
Of course, outside the Baptist church we see differences between the Protestant and Catholic churches…. and going back even further… differences between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
And yet we are not called by God to be the same as each other… each congregation, each local church… is a living thing and will look different and grow differently depending on which cultural climate it is birthed in. But we are called to love one another… Jesus says it is by our love for each other that the world will know that we are Christ followers. In other words, not having love for each other is like losing the only badge that identifies us… you and me… as true followers of Christ. If we don’t have love, everything else is just talk… Brothers and sisters, if you’ve lost your love, find it again in God… because that is what communicates to the world… that we belong to Christ….the rest is just religion… Christ in us means relationship, not religion.
Christ followers from any church tradition should be able to worship in any church where Jesus Christ is Lord… because we are all Christians… and all of us have been saved by His grace. Differences should not get in the way of us worshipping together, having fellowship together. Scripture says we are the body of Christ… and a body is connected… there is no such thing as a ‘disconnected body’.
In our Scripture today in Acts 15, we find ourselves about twenty years after Christ’s death and resurrection. The good news of the Gospel has already spread to a number of cities. The apostles have discovered that the Holy Spirit is coming upon… all those that believe… not just Jews. The Scripture prophecy was coming true… God’s spirit was being poured out on all people (Joel 2:28). The Jews regarded everyone else as Gentiles. Many Jews were becoming Christians and many Gentiles were becoming Christians.… but these Gentiles were from very different backgrounds to Jews. The Jewish Christians had many ceremonial laws that they had followed for centuries… to do with food preparation, eating, washing… and every male being circumcised… and now, as Christians, they continued with these practices… even though they were no longer necessary. Christ had fulfilled the law through His death and resurrection. It is Christ that makes people holy… not the ceremonial laws.
Under Christ, Jews and Gentiles have become one people, a new people… filled with the Spirit of God, born again with a new nature by God’s grace. But living as one people, one family… takes some adjustment. There is adjustment needed when you have children adopted into a family isn’t there?… The natural brothers and sisters need to adjust to the adopted brothers and sisters… and of course, the adopted children need to adjust to their new brothers and sisters… perhaps from very different backgrounds.
The apostle Paul and Barnabas are preaching at the church in Antioch… many Gentiles are receiving the Good News about Christ and becoming Christians… but some Jewish Christians are saying to them, “you now need to be circumcised like us”. Paul and Barnabas say, “No you don’t! … Christ has brought us into a new agreement with God, a better covenant which does not require believers to follow the old ceremonial laws…everyone who believes in Christ is free from all that now!” Verse 2 says that there was ‘sharp dispute and debate’ on what these new Gentile Christians had to do. And we can understand it can’t we? The Jewish Christians had believed in… and worshipped the one true God throughout their history… now they have received Christ, but they are keeping the old religious ceremonial laws too. They feel that they need to explain to the new Gentile Christians that they need to live like them. The apostle Paul is saying, “No, none of that is necessary anymore, God does not require it…”
The church at Antioch decides to send Paul and Barnabas south with a few believers, to the church at Jerusalem to get some guidance from the apostles and elders there. They want some clarity and a way forward that is right… a way forward that has God’s blessing. Jerusalem is the first Christian church.
The journey is over 400 miles long, about two weeks of travel. As they pass through the region, they tell the believers they meet, how the Gentiles had received Christ and been converted. We read in verse 3, that the believers were ‘very glad’. It’s good news… God’s forgiveness and new life is available to all who believe and repent. In Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas are warmly welcomed but some Jewish Christians say that these new Gentile Christians need to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.…which includes all the Jewish ceremonial laws. (v5) What to do?
The church at Jerusalem has mature Christian leaders who know the Scriptures and are filled with the Holy Spirit. James, the brother of Jesus, is the overseer of the Jerusalem church. It is James who wrote “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it shall be given to you.” James chapter 1. The apostle Peter, the ex-fisherman, and one of Jesus disciples… is also at the Jerusalem church.
So what happened? The apostles and elders met to consider this question v6. After much discussion v7, Peter gets up to speak. Peter has been preaching to the Gentiles and he can vouch that God “did not discriminate between us and them” (v9). The Gentiles have been accepted by God, he says that he has seen that, they too… have been given the Holy Spirit. He agrees with Paul and Barnabas that the Jewish ceremonial laws are an unnecessary burden for the new Gentile Christians.
When Paul and Barnabas speak about what God has done among the Gentiles through them, we read in verse 12 that the whole assembly ‘became silent as they listened’. Eventually, it is James that stands up ‘when they finished’ v13. He refers to a Scripture passage of prophecy that confirms what is happening as something that God is indeed doing, and then summarises with a proposal:
He knows that for the new Gentile Christians to integrate in the church with Jewish believers, some compromise needs to happen. The compromise he proposes doesn’t change God’s word or meaning however. The Gentile Christians are free under the Gospel… not to follow any of the Jewish ceremonial laws, but he proposes that they nevertheless… abstain from four things that particularly matter to their Jewish brothers and sisters. They don’t need to get circumcised, but James proposes that they don’t eat food that is sacrificed to idols, they are not to eat the meat of strangled animals, or meat with blood, and to abstain from sexually immoral living. The last point applies to all Christ followers of course, but the Gentile lifestyle was generally known for being sexually immoral compared to the Jews.
James doesn’t want there to be a stumbling block that prevents Jewish Christians worshipping and having fellowship with the Gentile Christians. He also doesn’t want to make it difficult for the new Gentile Christians… in v19, James says, “it is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” The other apostles and elders and the whole church, accept James’ proposal and agree that a letter be sent to the Antioch church with the four instructions. The letter however, is sent from the ‘apostles and elders, your brothers’. James does not need to claim the credit or emphasise status. He is the overseer of the church, but he is a first among equals. The letter is gentle in tone. It is clear and to the point. It has a pastor’s heart. It acknowledges that the Gentile Christians in Antioch have been ‘disturbed’ and their minds ‘troubled’ v24 by being told that they had to keep all the Jewish ceremonial laws, including being circumcised. ‘No, you don’t need to’ says the letter, ‘just abstain from these four things’. The letter was sent with Paul and Barnabas, and two men from the Jerusalem church, Judas and Silas. The letter commends Paul and Barnabas as “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v26). In other words, these believers are authentic, they are the real thing… they don’t just talk… they walk the talk.
The church at Antioch find the letter ‘encouraging’ and were ‘glad’. (v31) The churches at Antioch and Jerusalem were ‘connected’ and strengthened by each other.
Being a connected church is seen when we have visiting speakers, joint services or worship events with other churches, or commemorate Easter together with other churches in a town, or support missionary workers in other places. Connected churches help each other. Their leaders and people have relationships with each other.… A connected church looks outside of itself and recognises Christ followers from different traditions and accepts them because God has accepted them…. perhaps agreeing to differ on some things, but always loving and building up other believers, working for peace and unity, and not passing judgement on things that are not important. By all means, we need to keep our own conscience clear, but we also need to let others live by their conscience. We need to avoid making unnecessary stumbling blocks for others.
Notice how in our passage, there was no ego or pride from the leaders that could have got in the way. Instead there was humility, understanding and gentleness. They worked for peace, they aimed for unity. They discussed but they didn’t just give personal opinions. Instead, they were guided by Scripture, they prayed, and took note of what God was clearly doing.
I finish with what Paul wrote to the Rome and Corinthian churches about how to relate to other believers…. and other churches with whom we might have differences in how we do things:
From Romans 14:
‘Don’t quarrel about disputable matters’ (v1)
‘Why judge?’ (v10)
‘Let us stop passing judgement on each other…’ (v13)
‘Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.’ (v13)
‘..make every effort to do what leads to peace and to building each other up’ (v19)
From 1 Corinthians 12:25-26:
‘there should be no division in the body… its parts should have equal concern for each other… if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’
Let’s take these instructions to heart. They will help keep us being… a connected church.
Fifth value: An embedded people, engaged with our local community.
Jeremiah 29. 1-14; Luke 10. 10-12
I don’t think I would have wanted Jeremiah’s job. He was called to be a prophet during the dying days of Judah as an independent country, when thousands were taken in to exile in Babylon. People were hostile to his warnings and accused him of treason; and his message was challenged by false prophets who openly rubbished his warnings. One of these was Hananiah who said that this exile would be over in two years, and then everything would be fine again. Jeremiah was wearing a yoke and saying “Submit to the yoke of Babylon” but Hananiah broke Jeremiah’s yoke.
And while that was happening, the exiles were hearing (and believing) the same fake prophecy: “This can’t last long. We’ll soon be back home.” The logic was (1) “As long as Jerusalem is standing, that is home and God will take us back there soon,” and (2) “Jerusalem can’t be destroyed – can it?”
But Jerusalem would be destroyed, and in chapter 29 Jeremiah says (and writes to those in exile) , “No, it will be seventy years, not two. There are no easy answers. The world is changing. The unthinkable is happening. So in Babylon, do the normal stuff of life, plan for the future, raise families. And seek the good of the land you are living in. Seek the good of the foreign, oppressive, pagan, idolatrous world that has its capital city in Babylon.” And some people (the history-makers) did that.
Daniel, a devout Jew, carried off as a youth, picked out as smart, and from a good family, was educated by the Babylonians and faithfully served three Kings of Babylon and Persia…
Esther, a good Jewish girl, joining the royal harem and getting herself tarted up with beauty treatments she probably didn’t need, so she could become the wife of the King …
Nehemiah, another devout Jew who rose to become the cup-bearer and confidante of the King Artaxerxes. (Not just a wine-waiter, but a trusted servant with significant responsibility…)
Each of them lived life in the foreign country, sought the good of the community around them, and served God in amazing ways.
That’s the model Jesus himself followed. It’s the second Sunday in Advent. We think about the incarnation. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. Billy Graham used to tell how as a wee boy, walking with his Dad, he accidentally trod on a small anthill, and was shocked to see the ants scurrying around in panic. He said to his Dad, “Can’t we do anything to help them?” And his Dad said “Son, in order to help them, you would have to become an ant.” That’s what Jesus did. Long before Jesus fed 5000, he himself was fed at the breast of a young girl called Miriam (We usually call her Mary). And in adult life he was baptised by John like so many others; he went to the synagogue; he had meals with some interesting people, he allowed needy people to surround him as he healed and taught, before bearing our sins.
And that’s the model Jesus gives us. He sent out the twelve, then the seventy, to be embedded in the towns and villages. Going to the places where he himself planned to go. Eating their food. Healing their sick. Driving out the demons. Loving God and speaking his word: “the Kingdom of God has come near you”.
n a similar way, he used and uses people – ordinary, unnamed people – to tell their story among their own people.
Once there was a man – a foreigner – who was in the terrifying grip of a whole army of demons. He was beyond control but Jesus drove the demons out and enabled the man to return to normal life. The man wanted to jump in the boat and go travelling with Jesus but Jesus said “Go to your own people and tell them what God has done for you!”
Another foreigner – a Samaritan woman who lived such a dodgy life that she had to watch her step even among her own people. Jesus began by asking her for a drink from the well. After they had talked she went back to her own people and said “Come and meet someone, a total stranger, who knows all about me and my bad life!” So people went out to meet Jesus and he stayed in their foreign village about two days.
That’s our model for Mission. Embedded. Doing life among people. Demonstrating the Kingdom and speaking about the Kingdom and how it has changed our lives. Not only giving people our food but eating their food. We love as a church to be hospitable and generous. Before lock-down we were planning another curry night. When that will happen now, I don’t know. But hospitality and generosity are a two-way traffic. And even that is challenged in our current situation. But we have our people – co-workers, neighbours, friends, family – and we need to be as creative as we can about being embedded in our world, doing life, giving and receiving, praying prayers of faith and telling the Good News.
We’re used to the idea of “bubbles” under Covid restrictions. And we tend to see reality in bubbles.
There’s the “God-bubble”. John was allowed to see something of that in Revelation 4. The God-bubble is bursting with light, colour, energy and beauty. And interestingly it radiates these things, they are flowing outwards from his presence.
And there’s the “world-bubble” where people live, work, suffer, and celebrate.
We are called to bring these two bubbles together, to live in both of them. Sadly too often, we allow that middle-ground to morph into a “religion bubble”. It’s not really experiencing the power and glory of the “God- bubble”, but out of touch with the “World-bubble”.
Our belonging is always to Jesus, to the Kingdom of God and to the people of God.
Our behaving – doing life – is always to be done in our place of exile, in our towns, and villages. In the cities and beside strange rivers. Among broken and sometimes hostile people. Yesterday I heard a guy called Don Palmer give three challenges which sum up what I believe God is saying to us about being embedded in our world… “Be Present. Be Different. Be ready.” Ready to serve, to pray the prayer of faith and to speak God’s word to people.
As in Jeremiah’s time, the world is changing. Any suggestion that it isn’t, is false prophecy. And any suggestion that we can evade embedding in the land we are living in, is false prophecy. Simply expecting revival to happen so everything becomes easy, is false prophecy. But Jeremiah does have good news: “I know the plans I have for you… to give you a future and a hope.” Last week on Zoom Julie quoted those words: but she used them in the context of the story of her grand-daughter’s birth after 2½-day labour. You can’t claim God’s future hope without the present pain of bearing Christ, embodying his love, living for him where we are and blessing and challenging those around us in his name. Our fifth value is being an Embedded people. Building bridges to our neighbours. Doing life. Singing God’s song in a strange land. Being present, being different, being ready. That’s what God has called us to. You can’t claim God’s promises without doing God’s will.
Fourth Value: A relational People, made up of small groups.
Text is Romans 16. Speaker is Dawn
Last week Chris spoke on how pastoral care is not the responsibility of a pastor, but rather the responsibility of everyone, and that the pastor is, instead, the overseer of the pastoral care.
If we are to be a pastoral people the natural question it raises is: how can we cultivate the relationships necessary to be a pastoral people?
Back on the 1st November Gil introduced our series on values by explaining that each of our six values were part of three bridges. Spirituality, fellowship, and mission. Although others might give these three bridges slightly different names, many scholars would argue that without these three things a church cannot be a church. A fancy philosophical term for this is the irreducible minimum of church. All our values belong on these three bridges because they are the basis of what it means to be church.
How these three things are worked out in practice often varies from culture to culture and era to era. At times it is possible to confuse our cultural expressions of how we do things with their basis in Scripture. When we are seeking fresh vision in any of these three areas we need to return to their basis in Scripture. If fellowship is part of the irreducible minimum of church, one thing we do know, is that we cannot get by without being in relationship with one another.
Romans 16, I believe, brings us back to the basics of Christian fellowship. The chapter may seem like a boring read with a big bunch of names that are difficult to pronounce, but the truth is there are really quite interesting things about relationships that we can learn from this chapter which shed light on how we can develop the relationships necessary to be a pastoral people.
Paul sends his greetings to around 26 individuals that he knows personally or knows of through his missionary journeys. But, alongside the individuals, at least three different house churches are also mentioned. These appear in verses 5, 14 and 15. There may, actually, be as many as five different house churches referenced, but it’s not clear whether the references to the groups in verses 10 and 11 are house churches or just extended families. The Greek behind the text is ambiguous as it just says ‘greet those who are from’ Aristobulus in v10 and ‘greet those who are from Narkissus’ in v 11
We sometimes forget that there were no public church buildings in Rome. In fact, in Romans 1:7 Paul doesn’t address his letter to the church in Rome, rather he addresses it ‘To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people’.
The house church system of Roman Christianity was most likely formed as a result of some Roman Jews witnessing the first Pentecost in Acts 2, returning to their individual, independent synagogues with their new faith and, out of this, forming house churches. Over time, these house churches then became both Jewish and gentile as non-Jewish God-fearers joined in the faith. Because there was no central beginning place for the faith, the resulting house church system would have reflected that lack of centralisation.
The Roman Christian community was hugely diverse in nature. In ancient Rome names were associated with different groups of people. For instance, there were names that were set apart as slave names, specifically. These names would never be given to a wealthy person who owned slaves. The names in Romans 16 show that the church in Rome consisted of both Jews and gentiles; males and females; slaves and free; the wealthy and the poor. And all of them were involved in the ministry of the church.
Yet this diverse Christian community was also unified. Paul was able to write to ‘all in Rome’ and expect every Christian in Rome to hear the letter and receive their greeting irrespective of which house church they belonged to.
Rome is not the only place where Christians generally met as small house churches in the New Testament, in fact the idea of house churches crops up repeatedly in Paul’s letters. Large centralised buildings for church was not the norm at all for early Christianity.
The Christian community in Rome was small groups rather than one that had small groups as an optional extra. This means that not only is everyone taking part in ministry, but they are all in fellowship with each other in the deep way that only works in small groups where strong friendships can form.The Christian community was a paradox of the small and the large at the same time. One large and very diverse community consisting of many small groups –and there was probably a lot of diversity within the small groups themselves.
But this raises the question: What has the makeup of New Testament Christian communities, particularly in Rome got to do with 21st century Christianity? That seems totally foreign to us so it might not feel even remotely relevant.However, a growing number of Christian thinkers in the 21st century believe that, like the New Testament Christian communities, our Christian communities and churches also should be made up of small groups, rather than have them as an optional extra.
One of the speakers at the recent BuS event ‘Canopy’, Brian Sanders, talks about the paradox of churches that are both big and small at the same time. And he talks about something called ‘the goldilocks principle when it comes to the size of a church.’ Everyone knows the story of goldilocks and the three bears. Only some things are ‘just right’ for goldilocks. When it comes to church size, we can ask what is the ‘just right’ size of a church? What is the goldilocks principle for church size? Western culture often has the idea built into our thinking that bigger is better. We imagine that the more people we are gathered together in the one place at the same time the better the church must be.
Brian Sanders suggests that while there is no exact answer for the goldilocks principle in relation to church size, it is probably smaller than we think. He makes the bold claim that we need to allow ourselves to grow smaller.
But, before you all start to panic, small is not all that we should be. In Growing smaller we also allow ourselves to grow bigger. Big church is important too. There is a place for gathered worship. We see the big and the small in Romans 16. The one united community made up of small entities.
When Paul begins to convey greetings from other churches in other places, and the various people he is working with, he is reminded into a need to warn the Roman Christians about the dangers of people who may come to Rome with teaching that is deceiving. He warns the Roman Christians not be naïve, and accepting of all teaching; but instead to be wise and discerning. In order to do that they need to have people with some kind of oversight over all the Christian house churches. There needs to be pastors who are learned and who can keep them all right. They need to be one church of small churches.
The Big is necessary to ensure that everyone is kept from Spiritual Naivety. It allows for the true diversity of the church to shine; and for everyone to be able to worship and share and learn together.
The small allows for deep friendships of genuine love and the ability to care and disciple one another. Each part of the body playing its role. Each part active in pastoral care, mission, worship, and discipleship.
It’s much easier to have deep, loving relationships in the environment of a small group where you feel safe, valued, and accepted just as you are. Last week Chris mentioned two verses about Christian relationships that are worth repeating again: 1 Peter 1:22: Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. And John 13:34 where Jesus encourages his disciples with the words: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Many Christians are searching for those real relationships. And in fact some recent research done amongst Scottish Christians who are part of small house churches shows that one reason for them choosing small church is that it can sometimes be a challenge to form deep friendships in larger churches. You see, church was never meant to be a passive spectator sport. The early Christian communities were not a place of passive learning. Church is being part of the body of Christ. When we lose the small we lose mutual accountability in the faith.
Sometimes we can worry about growth. But actually it is sometimes the smallest things that grow the most easily. Deep relationships draw people in. And small groups give people the courage to lead their own small group. When it’s just a handful of people praying and reading Scripture together, or watching a YouTube video like this one and discussing together, it’s easy to think something like ‘this is easy, I could do this’ and a new group emerges. The church grows.
When we worry about church growth we are worrying about human things. The trick is to be creative and adventurous for the Kingdom rather than worrying about how we grow bigger. One of our values that Gil has already spoken on. The Kingdom of heaven is here. It began before our life-times, and if we pass away before Jesus returns it will continue on beyond our lifetimes too. the Kingdom of God is always growing, and we. We are a part of the body of Christ, in the Kingdom of heaven.
Let’s give thanks in prayer.
Lord God we give you thanks for drawing us to Yourself. We thank you that you love us. Enable us now, Lord, to love all Your people.
Thank you that your church is always growing and spreading around the world. And thank you that we get to be a part of us.
Text is Paul’s letter to Philemon Chris is the Speaker
Today, we are in week 3 of the 6 part series that Gil introduced as the values of Rosyth Baptist church. Last week, Gil spoke on the second value: an adventurous church that takes risks. Today I will be speaking on the third value: a pastoral church where everyone who is part of the church is pastored… and everyone takes on their pastoral responsibility.
This leads to questions: who is part of the local church? Is it just members? Or is it everyone who comes? Does everyone want to be pastored. Some people who come to church services prefer to be in the background… to keep themselves to themselves… and go straight home after the service. ‘Church at a distance’… without really knowing others… and not allowing themselves to be known. For different reasons, some people are not ready to entrust themselves to others just yet. God is patient and loving… and we are to be the same.
But the Christian life is not just about our relationship with God. Having a heavenly Father means we have brothers and sisters… in Christ. And even as Christ loves us… we are called to love each other deeply from the heart… 1 Peter 1:22… with a depth of love that led Jesus to the cross and to His death on our behalf. It isn’t enough to have a vertical relationship (with God) without having horizontal relationships (with each other)…. When Jesus said, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ it means that the vertical love needs to translate… into a horizontal love.
So it is God’s love for us… it’s His care for us as Father God, and His interest in us… that needs to be reflected in pastoral care for the people of His church.
It’s in these times of community break-down… more than ever… where it is possible to live for years in a street and neighbourhood and not know anyone… or be known… to live anonymously (so to speak)… to live and perhaps even die on your own… undiscovered for days and even weeks… it’s at these times that the church is to show the way… in first pastoring its own people and then being available to provide pastoral support to others… so that those outside the church can experience God’s love. It starts with God: ’we love because God first loved us..’ 1 John 4:19
So if the local church has a pastor, does that mean that everyone in the church will be pastored? A pastor’s role is not to pastor every person…. it isn’t for the pastor – as one person – to provide all the pastoral care… instead it is to make sure that pastoral care is available …to everyone in the church. As a church family… we are called to be available to pastorally support each other… to live the Christian life. A pastor is to be an example of pastoral care and an overseer…. BUT we are all responsible for pastoral support of each other.
The church starts with the Gospel… which means ‘good news’… the news that… even though all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… we are forgiven and restored to relationship with a holy God… because of Christ, not of our own doing… for those who believe. The Gospel ‘levels’ everyone… no one is better than anyone else… we have all sinned… and we have all needed God’s grace to be born into a new life. No-one earns their salvation. It may be that some have more money, more possessions or higher social status, they may receive greater respect because of their position at work, or their earnings… but under the Gospel, there is no favouritism with God. Whatever our standing in the world’s eyes… in God’s sight and in the church ….we are equal in God’s sight… with a pastoral responsibility for each other. If we are followers of Christ… there’s no room for staying offended…. no room for withholding forgiveness from each other, we need to have a sincere love Romans 12:9, 2 Cor 8:8. We know that some people leave a local church because they fall out with someone, and perhaps they were unwilling to forgive. Some fall out with someone but they stay. But they allow the warmth of relationship to become cold… and like radiators that stop giving out warmth in different rooms of a house, the danger is that the love within God’s house… can become cold too. That’s when the church can lose its witness… the power of the Gospel is compromised, and the light of Christ cannot be seen.
In the short letter that the apostle Paul writes to Philemon… we see an example of the Gospel in action. Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who has run away from his master, Philemon. The letter is about Onesimus, but it contains the DNA of the Gospel.
It seems that Paul is under house arrest in Rome as he writes the letter. He cannot leave the house but he can receive visitors. A young man called Onesimus has met Paul in Rome and become a Christian. He then helps Paul in his ministry in Rome. It’s when Paul gets to know him, that he learns… that Onesimus was a slave in the city of Colossae but ran away from his master. It seems that he also stole from his master. As they talk, Paul suddenly realises that Onesimus’ master is someone he knows! He knows Philemon because Philemon had became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. Philemon is a wealthy man and the church meets in his large house.
What does Paul do? Onesimus has done wrong, but he is now helping Paul. Colossae is 1200 miles away by land and sea. Perhaps Philemon has already replaced Onesimus with another slave. Paul could send a message to Philemon and give him the news that Onesimus is now a Christian and he wants to keep him in Rome. It seems reasonable. Paul could pull rank (so to speak) as an apostle of the church and tell Philemon to accept this.
But Paul is under the Gospel. Christian leadership is not coercive. He wants to honour Philemon. By Roman law, a slave who has run away needs to go back to his master. Paul acts out of conviction to send Onesimus back to Philemon…..But Roman law allows a master to have a runaway slave put to death. Why would Onesimus go? He could just ignore Paul’s instruction and stay safe in Rome. But Onesimus is now under the Gospel too. He also knows the right thing to do is to go back and face whatever consequences. (Following Christ means living as He wants us to… not just doing what we want to do.) All he has with him for comfort…. is a letter that Paul has written. A letter that Paul has given him and said, ‘give this to Philemon when you see him’.
Paul letter is an appeal.
‘I prefer to appeal to you’ v9
‘I appeal to you’ v10
‘Any favour you do’ v14
‘Welcome him…’ v17
‘Welcome him as you would welcome me. Welcome your runaway slave as you would welcome an apostle of Christ. Give him the same treatment as you would give me.’ Why? Because of the Gospel. The Gospel changes everything. The Gospel brings family into being where there was no family before.
Paul speaks with humility, not rank. He describes himself instead as ‘an old man’ (v9) and ‘a prisoner of Christ’. He makes several references to being in prison. We now know he had 6 or 7 years to live. In worldly terms, he has no status, no power, no authority….. And even though in Christ, he has spiritual authority, he doesn’t want to compel Philemon to do anything. Paul is confident in the Gospel that he knows Philemon has received, and he trusts that Philemon will do the right thing voluntarily because of his submission to Christ. (v14)
Paul speaks of him as a partner… twice v6, v17… refers to other believers with him as ‘fellow-workers’. He doesn’t claim higher status and is not ashamed to be a man who loves: Paul describes Onesimus as ‘dear to me’ and ‘my very heart’. What makes a man with Paul’s great responsibilities for a number of churches…. take so much trouble over one person… a person of low worldly status, a slave…? Isn’t it because Paul knows that even though this case seems small… it has a bigger importance…. because it is all about the Gospel. It is a test of the Gospel…in real life. In other words, professing to be a Christian is one thing, but living out your faith is the evidence. The action is what confirms our faith as real, and the Gospel as true.
As a leader of many, Paul focuses on the one. Like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable, Paul’s focus here, is on the one, not the ninety-nine. Paul wants to see reconciliation. Onesimus has already been put right with his heavenly Father through Christ. Paul now wants to see Onesimus reconciled to Philemon. Onesimus was lost, but now he is found. He is the prodigal wondering what kind of reception he will get when he goes back home. Onesimus has repented and been forgiven by God. But will his earthly master forgive him? Philemon may be angry, resentful…but he is under the Gospel. The banner over him is love. Philemon has been forgiven his own sins. Will he now forgive? It is a test of the Gospel he professes. All our knowledge of the bible and theology don’t matter one bit…if as believers we do not forgive. In 1 Corinthians 13 we are told ‘if as a believer you do not love…you have nothing…’
Paul himself has experienced God’s grace. In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul says about himself: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.’ We remember Jesus’ words in Luke 7 ‘he or she who is forgiven much, loves much’. Paul indeed loves much.
Paul intervenes on behalf of Onesimus. He intercedes for Onesimus. Paul says to Philemon, ‘If he has done you wrong…. or owes you anything, charge it to me…’ v18. Charge it to my account! Does this not remind us of someone else? Who was it that intervened for us when we were sinners? Who is that intercedes for us, even now? Who is it that says about our wrongdoing, ‘charge it to me….charge it to my account? It’s our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul sometimes dictated his letters… but this one he wrote himself (‘I am writing this in my own hand’ v19). He is communicating humility and forgiveness… he’s communicating God’s love, mercy and grace… essential to any pastorallyhealthy church. (Remember, mercy is not getting what we deserve… grace is getting what we don’t deserve.Every now and again in church, we may notice some faces missing. Where is Beryl nowadays? I’ve not seen John for a while…. And sometimes, it’s not because they are ill or on holiday. One or two may be feeling low. One or two are may be feeling unworthy about something. One or two may be feeling hurt about some conflict with another member of the church. One or two may be overwhelmed by life’s circumstances and feel they have to pretend if they come to church. Brothers and sisters, let’s intervene on behalf of the one, let’s intercede for the one. Let’s not depend on our leaders only for the health of our fellowship. Let’s do all that we can not to leave anyone behind as we journey with God.
Second of our six values: A flexible, obedient, adventurous people! 1 Samuel 14 v 1-23
Fighting the Philistines, was Saul’s life’s work. That’s why the people of Israel had wanted a King in the first place: to lead them against their enemies. Saul seemed like the right guy – he was head and shoulders above every other candidate. And yet things were not going well. In fact, they were quite dire. The Philistines had three thousand chariots with three men for each chariot, – and as many foot-soldiers as grains of sand on the beach. Frightening numbers. Israel’s army melted away: people were hiding in caves and clumps of bushes. Saul was left with six hundred men (v. 2) And the Philistines had got rid of all the blacksmiths (killed them, enslaved them, threatened them?) so nobody had weapons and even getting farm equipment sharpened was becoming a crippling cost. So only Saul and Jonathan had swords. Everyone else had whatever they could find: sickles, clubs and slings. Frightening odds. So there is this tiny army, waiting around their King who is sitting under a tree, in regal splendour, not sure what to do. They are in a deep valley and the Philistines hold the ground above them.
And one day Jonathan takes his young armour-bearer aside and says “Let’s go over and have a look at what we can see of this Philistine army. Now Jonathan was probably no more than an teenager himself, and his armour-bearer a couple of years younger. And what Jonathan didn’t do was go and talk it over with his dad. Saul only found out what had happened and who had taken action, later on. So the two lads sneaked away from the Israelite camp…totally unauthorised. Totally with nobody covering their backs. He broke all the rules.
The point is that what he did was unorthodox. It was different. He was prepared to “think outside the box” and act outside the box. I am not talking about breaking the rules just for the sake of it. The point isn’t rebellion. It isn’t individualism. It is flexibility and creativity. I am suggesting that we need to take risks, to do new things.
So off they go, unseen by either side. You could say it was foolhardy (as one commentator does!) But it was faith. What is driving Jonathan was something theological. It was belief, an understanding of truth; but an understanding of truth that was practical, full of expectancy and leading to action. “God’s on our side” (That’s the point in referring to the Philistines as “uncircumcised”) “Maybe he will give us a victory.” (It’s more than just “perhaps…” but there is still a bit of uncertainty; Jonathan is moving forward one step at a time. “Let’s see what God does here. He can give victory through a huge army or through a couple of commandos.” So they went… asking the Lord to confirm what they were doing by making the Philistines in the outpost tell them to come up – which is exactly what the Philistines did… Faith is theologically based – rooted in what God can do. And faith is obedient to what God wants us to do.
And the Lord did give them the victory. The Philistines may have thought they were surrendering or defecting. They certainly weren’t ready for a couple of young lads to spring up on them and start killing them… so the rest of the army panicked, and there was an earthquake. All of it sent by God… Then Saul was able to get his six hundred men onto the battlefield to push home the victory that God was giving them. This kind of unconventional, risky, adventurous living, releases the power and victory of God into our situations.
Our second value as a Church is to be flexible, creative and adventurous. John Wimber used to say “Faith is spelt ‘R I S K!’” Jonathan gives us a great example of that. He is unconventional. He is full of faith. He lets God lead him. And his adventurous faith releases the power of God in to the situation..
We see the same thin throughout the Bible. Abraham, going off on a journey at the age of 75. Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt. Durign Saul’s reign, young David taking on Goliath with a sling. A young lad, with no military training. No sword, no armour. Queen Esther – a good Jewish girl entering a beauty contest – to become the wife of the Emperor. Then going without being invited,, into the throne-room (which could have resulted in her being executed) to appeal to him for her people. That sense of adventure summed up in her words “If I perish, I perish.” I think of Jesus breaking the rules by healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins, calling God his father before offering himself as a sacrifice for sin. I think of Peter going to tell the Roman officer Cornelius the good news (and having to explain the the rest of the elders afterwards!) I think of the Church at Antioch, welcoming non-Jewish people into the Church and Paul going all the way to Europe (a place filled with total savages!) Flexible, adventurous. Unconventional, faith-filled, obedient. And as a result, seeing God move in power released.
But what of Saul? Saul was exactly what you would expect a king to look like. Tall, imposing. The natural choice, you might think. But there he is, while Jonathan and his armour-bearer are making their attack on the enemy camp, sitting on his backside under a tree, keeping his six hundred men together. I wonder if he was sitting in the pose he certainly adopted later in life with his spear in his hand? And look at who he has for company. A priest called Ahijah, son of Ahitub son of Phinehas. But the writer gives us an unusual detail to put into someone’s family tree. He doesn’t just call Ahijah “Son af Ahitub”, but son of Ichabod’s brother Ahitub. Ichabod means “The Glory has departed.” He was born immediately after a battle in which his father Phinehas was killed and the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. The Israelites had taken it into battle like a magic charm, and yet they had been totally defeated. I wonder if the writer is trying to give us an insight into Saul’s religion. All the symbolism. Sacrifices and casting lots to find out God’s will, sometimes quiet legalistic, but very little real obedience…. Read chapter 13. Saul wouldn’t wait for Samuel to come to make sacrifices. He did it himself to try and keep his army together. Read chapter 15. Saul let his people keep the best sheep and cattle as plunder instead of killing them when they were told to.
It’s great to say “We want to be led, shaped and empowered by the Holy Spirit.” But what’s the point in the Spirit of God leading us, unless we are prepared to obey his leading. And what’s the point in the Spirit of God empowering us, unless he empower us for obedient action. The challenge to be unconventional, faith-filled, obedient, adventurous, follows naturally from the offer of the Spirit’s leading, shaping and empowering. They are both part of the bridge to relationship with God, that we need to cross daily.
First of our Six Values. Led, shaped and empowered by the Holy Spirit
Text is Acts 16. Speaker is Dawn
This morning we are looking at the first of six values that Gil introduced last week. Here is just a quick reminder of what those six are:
A Spirit-dependent Church. One that is “Led, Shaped and Empowered by the Spirit.”
A flexible, fluid, and adventurous Church.
A pastoral Church, where all are cared for.
A relational Church where we have good relationships with one another.
An embedded Church – embedded in our local communities and families.
A connected Church, in partnership with other Churches.
So today we are going to delve a little bit deeper into the idea of being a Spirit-dependant church, where we are led, shaped, and empowered by the Spirit. In the passage that Ian read we see the Spirit leading Paul, and his companions on a missionary journey that is shaped and empowered by the Spirit in order to bring about a new Christian community in the Macedonian City of Philippi.
In Acts 16 Paul is on his second mission journey. Paul, together with his friend Silas, starts his journey revisiting the young congregations from the first missionary journey in an area called Galatia. They meet a young, gifted Christian called Timothy in the new congregation Paul had planted in Lystra, and they decide to take Timothy along with them. It seems that they see a lot of potential in him as a missionary. Paul and Silas and Timothy visit the last two young Galatian churches, but plan to go into a new area to plant more new churches before they go home. They want to continue the spread of the good news of Jesus and they know that doing so is an important task that the Holy Spirit has set them too.
But they quickly begin to encounter problems.
The area of land to the West of Galatia was known in those days as Asia. It’s not the Asia we know, but a portion of what is now the west coast of Turkey. But the Holy Spirit said ‘no, you are not to preach the Word in Asia, at this time.’ There isn’t much information as to how they knew the Spirit is saying ‘no’, but it just seems like there are absolutely no opportunities to speak.
They keep journeying up through Galatia listening out for the guidance of the Holy Spirit with no idea where they are going except that they need to keep going in a forward direction.
Which reminds me of Abraham’s journey. Abraham trusted that God would use him for something great. Not knowing where he was going, or what the end result would be, he continued travelling forward, a few steps at a time, listening for God’s prompting each moment of the journey.
So, Paul, Silas, and Timothy head north through Galatia following the border of Asia. To the north of Asia and Galatia was a place called Bithynia. They reached a point where they had got the Northern Edge of Galatia and had two choices. 1. Head North into Bithynia, or, 2. Head west into the Northern Region of Asia called Mysia. Since they had been prevented from speaking in Asia, they expect that Bithynia will be the way to go. But, again, the Holy Spirit says ‘no’.
(It’s worth noting that in verse 6 the text says that the Holy Spirit Prevented them from speaking in Asia. But here in verse 7 it is the Spirit of Jesus that won’t even allow them in to Bithynia. There is a sense of Father, son, and Holy Spirit leading and guiding this small group of missionaries. Jesus only speaks the words of the Father, so where Jesus leads the Father goes too.)
At this point in the story the small group of travellers are probably lost and confused. They feel a call to a new area, but they can’s speak in Asia to the west and the south. Beyond Asia is water. And they can’t even get in to the land to their North – Bithynia. Many would double back through Galatia at this point thinking, ‘it’s no use, there’s nowhere we can go with the message of Jesus.’ They were already far from home, and I imagine the journey was getting scarier, and it looks like they’ve hit something of a dead end.
Here is a rough map of their journey so far.
The red line follows their journey to the border between Galatia, Bithynia, and Mysia. Asia is the land in green of which Mysia is a part.
But this little party are sure that the Holy Spirit has led them to this point and so they carry on their journey forward rather than backwards. The Holy Spirit was saying ‘no’ to preaching the word in Asia, but at least they were allowed in it. They carry on journeying around the Northern border of Asia until they reach Troas on the North West Coast of Asia.
This is when the Holy Spirit stops just saying ‘no’ and preventing things, and finally gives them something of a direction. So far, they have been journeying with little idea of where to go except from where they have been prevented.
When they are in Troas, however, Paul has a dream about a man from Macedonia asking for Paul and his companions to go over to Macedonia to help them.
There is a lot that is mysterious about this dream, but Paul has his ear always open to the Spirit and has no hesitation in believing the vison to be guidance from the Spirit.
Macedonia is modern day Greece. It was in Europe and required crossing the Mediterranean sea to get there. The journey was not necessarily easy as they stop at a tiny island called Samothrace on the way. When they land in Neapolis they journey to the leading city of that area of Macedonia: A City called Philippi.
The Holy Spirit has now led them to someplace they would never otherwise have imagined going. But the Holy Spirit still has more of the unexpected for them.
After several days in Philippi they are recovered from their journey, rested, and ready to see why God has led them here. [2nd map]
There were Jews in places as far away as Rome and so Paul and his companions expected to find a Jewish place of prayer in Philippi. Nowadays if we wanted to find a local place of worship, we would use the internet to find it, so a good online presence is a benefit for visitors.
But, for Paul and his companions, without internet, they went in search of the nearest river. Locating synagogues by rivers had the dual purpose of allowing visitors to find them as well as providing running water for purification. Jews outside of Judea called their synagogues, places of prayer.
Maybe Paul went the river expecting to see the man who had appeared in his dream. But Paul didn’t find a synagogue in Philippi, and he didn’t find the man. Instead he found a small group of women who had gathered by the river for prayer.
Undeterred the missionary team begins here. This is where the Spirit has led them through a series on no’s and unexpected turns. And finally, they have opportunity to speak about the good news of Jesus.
The ladies listen and one named Lydia, who was a gentile interested in the Jewish God, is empowered by the Holy Spirit to listen, to understand, and to believe the good news of Jesus. Lydia was the first European convert to the Christian faith. Her family are all baptised because of her lead, it looks like she is the head of her household, and the Philippian church begins in her house.
When Paul later writes the letter ‘to the Philippians’ he is writing to the church that began with Lydia, and the church that meets in her home. She was the first leader of the Philippian church, and it’s a church that remained close to Paul’s heart for the rest of his life.
There is much more to the story of Paul’s time in Philippi, and his time in Macedonia and down through Macedonia to Corinth. But without the leading of the Spirit, and the empowering of the Spirit to shape the church in Philippi the story of the spread of the gospel would have been very different. Jesus wanted the gospel preached in Europe so it could continue its journey to the edges of the world.
And Jesus chose Lydia to begin the church in Philippi. The small missionary team probably expected a male as in the dream. But the Spirit shaped the church through Lydia, through her gifts, abilities and resources. Although she lived and worked in Philippi she was originally from the Asian city of Thyatira. She sold a unique product native to Thyatira, purple cloth, and this would have made her a key person in the community. She had the resources of being a well-known and intelligent business woman with a large house to use as a church. She is generous in offering her house to the church to worship in, and she is kind and loving. She provided a safe place for Paul and the other Christians when they faced tough times in Philippi.
Like Paul, and Abraham before him, we need to journey into the unknown led, shaped, and empowered by the Spirit. We need to accept the Holy Spirit’s ‘no’s’ but remain sensitive to the whispers of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. When the Spirit says ‘no’ it does not mean we are not being led forward, and that we should turn back. Instead we should remain sensitive to the Spirit for the next few steps. And we need to be prepared to expect the unexpected. We may be led in unexpected directions, and shaped in unexpected ways, as the Spirit empowers us to do his will. ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. ‘Romans 8:28
Father God, open our ears and hearts to hear Your word as you did with Lydia. We are your servants Lord, lead us where you will; shape us as you will; and empower us to bring your word to those who most need to hear it today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
I was very impressed with this photo Veronica took a few weeks ago of our three bridges… and Jesus gives us three bridges we need to cross, three relationships we need to develop.
First, the Bridge of Dwelling. We make much, in Gospel-preaching Churches of letting Jesus into our hearts. But we forget that we are in Christ. He calls us to remain (NIV) or abide in Him. The word means to stay, to live somewhere, to rest. Jesus says “rest in me. Rest in my love”. He has let us into His heart!
His love is amazing!
He loves us like his father loves him. Affirming us. Pleased with us. Trusting us. Speaking to us…
He loves us with a love that lays down its life for its friend. With a love that call us friends.
He loves us with a love that chooses us and appoints us (v. 16) He wasn’t drawn to us, nor were we drawn to him, because of anything special about us. He took the initiative.
By God’s grace, Jesus has made the bridge – his love is the bridge – between us and God. From studying Hebrews we know that he is our High Priest. He is the “go-between” between us and God. The Latin word for priest is “Pontifex” which probably means someone who makes a bridge. Have you begun the journey, by putting your trust in Jesus as Saviour?
As believers, we are called daily to “Dwell” in Christ’s love. “Remain”. Dwell means to take up residence. It means to be at rest. When we dwell in his love, we find
Joy is complete. Jesus’ joy springs up from his obedience to the father. Obedience to His commands – the condition to resting – isn’t a burden: it’s a source of joy.
Friendship leads to knowledge. Jesus calls us friends not slaves! A key difference is that the slave doesn’t know the master’s business: she does what she is told. Friends share what they know. Today, we may want to ask “What on earth is God up to?” And then, “What do I do with my life, my opportunities and challenges?” “What should our Church be doing?” In the Church which is the Body of Christ, Vision & Values can only come from one source: from Jesus who is the Head of the Body. And they can only come through activity: resting, dwelling, with the Head.
Fruitfulness happens. Primarily, the lasting fruit of other people coming into God’s kingdom too. Fruitfulness is the result of resting in Jesus love, and is connected with believing prayer and the power of the Spirit.
So we are called to cross the bridge of “Resting” daily, to developing a relationship with Him. He’s the Source of the Spirit, the Gateway to guidance, the Focus of fellowship and the Motive for mission.
Secondly, the bridge of fellowship. The bridge into relationships with one another that are defined by our relationship with Jesus. John 13. 34 “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” It’s not optional. It’s a command. His command. His one new command. Archbishop William Temple comments that “Love & obedience are linked.” His love, pure grace, calls us to friendship with him: intimate abiding in Christ’s love. That relationship is sustained by obedience… keeping his commandment… to love one another… Jesus says if we don’t forgive, we forfeit the blessing of God’s forgiveness. In the same way, if we don’t love, we forfeit the blessing of friendship. Or rather, we extinguish it. Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12. 29) and we say “make me Thy fuel, flame of God. It costs to love and to forgive. But if we won’t let God’s fire transform us, we’re putting the fire out.
So we are called to cross the bridge of fellowship into relationships with one another. Have you crossed that bridge?
Thirdly, the bridge of mission. The bridge into relationships with our world, that are defined by our relationship with Jesus. Jesus says “If they hated me, they’ll hate you too!” (v. 18-25) Part of our calling in Christ, what he has chosen us for, is a different relationship with the world. We’re not supposed to go around trying to get ourselves hated, or trying to be as unconnected to the world as we can be. The world didn’t hate Jesus because he was ignorant, bullying and self-obsessed. They hated him despite the fact that he was intelligent, humble, compassionate and generous.
Se we are in the world as Christ’s servants, his representatives. Our relationship with Him is defined as friendship. Our relationship with the world is defined as Christ’s servants. We’re there to do what Jesus wants done. He says “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20. 21) Like Jesus we are to live lovingly for God, in the world, speaking His words and doing his wonders, in the power of the Spirit.
So we are called to cross the bridge into relationships with our world. Have you crossed that bridge recently?
For the next six weeks, we will be looking at six core values for the people of God. Being people who are
Led, shaped and empowered by the Spirit.
Flexible and adventurous
Connected with the rest of the Church and
Embedded in our local community.
Each of these values is about our relationship with Jesus, each other , and our world. Each of them involves us crossing these three bridges.
We sometimes say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it!” These three bridges are right there in front of you, every day of your life. Relationship with Jesus, that defines our relationship with one another and our relationship with our world.