1 Samuel 16

We all have our favourite Bible Characters.  It would be interesting to do a survey of yours.  I would be very surprised if David didn’t come in with the top ten.

Now I find this interest in Bible characters fascinating. And I have a parallel theory to put alongside it.

I believe God’s favourite way of imparting truth to us is to introduce us to a Bible character who has travelled that route before us.

The Bible is full of wonderful people.  None except Jesus was perfect and our character for today is a bright shining example …and although he did make mistakes ..and some of them major, he gives us so many patterns to copy.

In the New Testament next to Jesus my favourite is Barnabas, and in the OT my favourite is David.

…so I am very happy to be speaking about God’s choice of David and his anointing to be the future King of Israel.

We read about this in I Sam 16v1-13.

How we appear is not unimportant …for it is what our fellow man sees – this comes out as the story unfolds.

Firstly    Our story today is set against the tragic backcloth of Saul’s failure

Israel wanted a king so that they could be like the nations round about.

Samuel felt that they had rejected him …but God pointed out that they were really rejecting Him.

Saul didn’t want the job and hid amongst the baggage on his coronation day.

His reign wasn’t all bad but was on a downward trajectory  …and he was eventually rejected by God  because of his disobedience…and Samuel had to deliver that message.

Secondly   The Prophet Samuel was entrusted with a Daunting, Difficult and Dangerous Task

Samuel was instructed to take his anointing oil and go and appoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new King.  WOW!

He rightly points out to God that if Saul hears about it, he will Kill him – and he was right

But he had to go.  He went off to Bethlehem and when he arrived the local leaders trembled.  “Do you come in peace?”   We don’t have photos to go on but one get’s the impression that Samuel was quite a daunting character.

So Jesse’s sons were gathered and when first – Eliab – came before Samuel he said to himself – this is the one.   But in response God gave him a proof verse that we need to remember  “   But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” “   And it was the same WITH THE NEXT SIX.   , “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” 

I couldn’t do better than just quoting the Scriptures.  That brings us to our third and final point.

While I was in charge of Bethany Christian Trust we used an amazing number of volunteers.  Sometimes we got surprises.  One day I was reminded that I had to pick up a young man at Waverley Station.  I went up having been working in the attic (looking as if I had fallen off a flitting) – the train came in and people went their separate ways.  I saw nobody who suited my expectations.  Eventually there were only two of us left.  Me looking a mess and this lad who was obviously a follower of a group called The Cure.  He was dressed in black from top to toe with black sharp pointed black shoes.  His hair was quite long and stood straight up in the air.  Well we looked at each other then tentatively approached and said “Are you looking for…?”  He was our volunteer.  I was telling my wife of my surprise and our daughter who wasn’t as yet a Christian overheard our conversation.  She asked her mum where the verse from our reading was about God looking on the heart.  She wrote it out and propped it on my desk.  I was suitable reprimanded.  This young man is now our daughter’s husband and actually led her to the Lord.

Young people today are very conscious of appearance.  It is good for them, and us, to remember that God looks on the heart.

Jesus said some of His harshest words to the Pharisees because they so emphasised outward show and neglected the heart.  As Burns say.  The hearts aye the part that macks us right or wrong.

THREE  David was a God ordained and Wise Choice

History back the way and history forward would prove this to be the case.

First back the way.  If you look at I Chron ch1-2 you will find that David could trace his line right back to Abraham himself.   We could spend a long time looking at each of his ancestors.  Some you will recognise and others not.  Some you would be glad to have in your family tree and others would make you blush.

Abraham the father of Isaac, the father of Jacob (who had 2 wives and 2 concubines. They had 12 sons), one of these was Judah who had a son by his daughter in law, Tamar, who had dressed up as a cult prostitute – WINCE – he was called Perez, father of Hezron, father of Ram, father of Salmon who married Rahab the prostitute from Jericho and had a son called Boaz who fulfilled his family responsibility by marrying Ruth the Moabitess.    Boaz was the father of Obed who was the father of Jesse who was the father of DAVID.  Quite a tree.  A noble heritage… and if you look up Matthew’s Gospel you will see that the line goes right up to Mary the mother of Jesus.  And our character for this message is right there in the middle as a lynch pin.  Isn’t it amazing how God used all these different people …and he can use us too.

I am so glad that Samuel got this appointment right for, although David had to wait a while before he became King, he was the best King Israel had.

OK he made mistakes with his family and sinned horribly with Bathsheba.  But even here Grace Abounds, for Solomon was none other than the Son of Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah the Hittite – truly Amazing Grace.

David’s reign was the high point in Israel’s history.

When we look at the Psalms we are aware of how important this period of David’s life was.  He learned so much from looking after his sheep and keeping them safe.

Staying with his youth, this young man didn’t just have good looks – he had and developed great skill as a musician, as a poet and eventually as a soldier.

You are going to see him in action in two weeks against Goliath and it is so good that before he became king he had a high view of the Lord’s anointing and refused to kill Saul when he lay before him asleep in the cave even although Saul was hunting him.

It is a privilege to introduce to you a King in the making, I make no apology for choosing him as my favourite OT character  …and I hope you will learn much as you study him over these next weeks.

(c) Alan Berry

Joshua 3

I live next to Pittencrieff park in Dunfermline which is known locally as the Glen.  There is a small river there that winds its way around the lower parts of park.  I live just up from the bottom glen gates and the two entrances to the park closest to my street take you into the park near where the river enters the park.  I often walk following the river upstream as it weaves its way around the park.  Not far from where I am likely to enter the park there is a waterfall.  Throughout the Autumn, our harvest season, the river and the waterfall are in full flow.  The water flows at a fast speed, and the waterfall thunders.

But, in the summer, particularly after a few dry days, this same waterfall reduces to a little trickle of water.  A couple of weeks ago I met a friend for a walk in the park.  The river bed was so dry, with barely a trickle of water that I could cross the river from one side to the other on dry land, stepping over the gentle trickle.  I walked for a while up the river bed on dry ground.

When Gil spoke a couple of weeks ago on Joshua 1, he mentioned that the Israelites were to cross ‘this river Jordan’ meaning this time and this place.  This particular version of the Jordan..  And this particular version of the Jordan they were to get ready to cross, Joshua 3:15, tells us was the harvest time version.  The version that was in full flood.

Although it’s tiny in comparison, if I chose to cross over the river in the Glen, I know exactly which version of the river I would want to cross, and it wouldn’t be the harvest time version. With the exception of the bit just below the waterfall, the river in the Glen is, in most places, less than a meter deep, and maybe three meters wide, even in full flow.  The river Jordan, though.  Well, there was no way around it for a start.  I looked at the river on google satellite view and it just went on and on and on.  Google tells me it is 251km long.  There is the river bed, then there is a valley, which is within another valley.  The river bed where it flows when it is not in full flood is 5-8 meters wide.  But when it is in full flood it bursts the banks and spreads out across the lower valley which is called the zor.  The zor is as much as 50 meters wide and between 3 and 6 meters deep.  Add to that the fact that the waters are fast flowing as a river always is in flood; and because the zor is only part of the river bed for several months each year, the combination of being well watered, and then receiving sun, means that it is covered in really dense shrubs.  So, we have a fast-flowing river 50 meters wide and as much as 6 meters deep filled with bushes, shrubs, and trees that create further dangers in the water.

As soon as the secret spies return with their amazing report that the people of Jericho are melting in fear there is absolutely no hesitation on the part of Joshua.  Verse 1 says that early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites went to the river and camped before crossing over.  This is only a short journey from Shittim, so nice and easy, less than a day’s journey.  And they set up camp in the valley – by this 50m wide, 6m deep fast flowing river.  For two nights they camp there looking at and listening to the roar of this river.  How are they feeling? 

There are two things I think it would be good for us to take from this passage.  The first is that we need to be Spiritually alert.  And the 2nd thing is that we need to rely on God to work as we step out in courage.

We need to be Spiritually alert because, if we want to enter into God’s will for Rosyth Baptist Church, we need to keep our eyes on God, and be aware of what he is doing.   The place to which God is leading this congregation may be somewhere entirely new and different.  Something very unlike anywhere we have ever been before.  Seeing what God is doing, and never having been this way are entwined together in Joshua 3. There are three things about being Spiritually alert in verses 2-5.  Knowing which way to go v4; you have never been this way before v4; and being consecrated. V5

The Israelites are about to go through a process of change from wilderness wandering, and living off mana, to living in a lovely promised land. However, change is an incredibly difficult thing to handle.  The process of change is the difficult thing, because there needs to be a willingness to let go of the old, and an awareness the old is no longer the right thing.  A person, or a group, needs to be sure that the change is going to have more benefits than harms.  Losses are going to be incurred.  And if the change is to something completely new that has never been done before, or a way that has never been gone before, then it might be difficult to know that it is indeed a change that should be made.  Even if things in the present are not going well.

For the Israelites to be willing to go somewhere they have never been before, they all need to see and believe that this is indeed the way to go.   Crossing the Jordan is to cross into something new.  To cross the Jordan is to go from a place of thinking, that maybe there might be some benefits in change, to taking a plunge and being ready to walk into an entirely different way of life – one never known before.

In verse 4 knowing the way to go, and to be able to walk into the new things God has for them, is connected with seeing the ark of the covenant and keeping a 900m distance from it.  Now keeping a distance from the ark was always a thing in the wilderness.  In the tabernacle it was protected by a curtain.

In the tabernacle, the tent of God’s presence, was the Holy place.  A place with various items of furniture than symbolised God’s presence, but the ark was in the Holy of Holies, on its own, behind a curtain, and only once a year could the high priest go behind the curtain.  When the Israelites moved camp, the ark was wrapped up in its protecting curtain, then a layer of leather, and then wrapped in a special blue cloth.  When it was carried it was carried on long poles so the priests were not right next to it.  People had to keep a distance from the ark because it represented God’s presence and the respect and reverence that went with that.  God is holy, and humans are not.  But – nowhere else in Scripture is a distance like 900m needed to be kept from the ark.  If you’re not sure how far 900m is, it is the distance that an average person would walk in 10-12 minutes.

From the context of verse 4 it is likely that part of the reason for everyone, except the priests carrying the ark, to keep this long distance from the ark, is so that

everyone could see where it was.  Everyone could see and trust, and believe, this was the way to go.  If there is no one crowding around the ark then there will be no short people jumping up and down shouting ‘I can’t see where the ark is going!  I can’t see what is happening! I need a tree to climb up!’

V5 says that the people are to be consecrated before God before following the ark.  What that meant was that the people needed to make sure they were as right with God in their hearts, minds, and strength as they could be.  It included practical things like taking a bath and washing clothes and abstaining from sex.  And things like giving back anything stolen, forgiving a brother or sister, and generally just focussing on God.  The people needed to see the ark, and be ready, Spiritually, to follow where God was leading.  They needed to be alert to what God was doing amongst them.

In 2021, and especially as we face changes of our own, we need to be Spiritually alert.  We need to get our hearts right with God, we need to focus on him, keep our eyes on him.  We need to try to watch out for what God is doing in the world around us.  How he is changing things, and searching and seeking our Lord so that we can know which way he is leading us. 

Every church is in a process of change just now, and has been for the last 18 months. For us the changes will include change in leadership, but, because of that, this moment, that is a moment of opportunity for every church, is even more so a moment of opportunity for us.

It is likely that God is taking us somewhere we have never been before.  Somewhere new, somewhere radically different.  If, as a whole congregation, we are to follow God’s will for us all of us need to be able to see where God is leading us.  All of us need to be Spiritually alert and looking out for God’s will, because if some of us can’t see it, we’ll hold others back, because we’ll be looking in the wrong direction insisting that the river that God wants us to go through makes no sense and is the wrong way to go.

Rely on God

That’s the first thing:  the 2nd thing – relying on God: The people spend 3 days looking at the water by their camp.  They know that to cross this, if this is the way God is calling them, then they will need God to act. 

Joshua has received the message from God to be strong and courageous.  He is ready to act on it and be courageous even in the face of the seemingly impossible, and daft.  Who would try to cross ‘this Jordan’?  The sensible response is to wait three-six months and cross the river when it is at its lowest water level, and when it is slow moving and easy to cross.  The sensible response might be something like ‘well, we’ve been travelling around between Egypt and Canaan for 40 years.  What difference is a few months going to make?’ 

But God had called for strength and for courage, and he had called them to cross ‘this Jordan’ and Joshua is ready to see what God can do for Israel.  He isn’t afraid to trust God and wants the people to trust God too.  Sometimes the option that seems the sensible, or easier option, at least at face-value, is just not the right option when God calls us forward into something new.  God calls us to adventure with him, and sometimes that means taking risks, and doing what would, in other circumstances, seem the wrong thing to do.

The ark of the covenant of God is so central to Joshua chapter 3 that it is referred to 14 times in these 17 verses.  God’s presence.  God is the one leading the people forward.  God is the one making the miracles happen.  God is the one the people need to rely on.

God told Joshua where the priests were to carry the ark to.  Joshua passed this information onto the priests.  But the priests had to be courageous.  Taking the ark, with all the people watching, into the fast-flowing river, not knowing what would happen. At first it probably looked to the people like nothing was happening.  At the very moment the priest’s step into the water’s edge, the water begins to pile up around 12 miles up-stream.  The water would have slowly begun to recede.  The process of the river

drying up would not have been instant, as the water all still had around 12 miles to travel from the place it stopped flowing.  Trusting God, and being courageous also means being patient and not instantly dismissing this as the right way to travel if the risks that were taken don’t immediately appear to pay off.

Practical

We can’t make the miracles happen ourself.  It is God that makes them happen.  God will not make the miracles happen if we have not gone the right way.

Sometimes we want God to make the miracles happen when we have gone the wrong way.  We want to see miracles even though we are not watching God closely enough to see which direction he wants us to go in, and even though we are not willing to take risks, or be patient in those risks.  God won’t make the miracles happen if we are not ready to change in the ways that he wants us to change, or don’t yet see the value of the changes he wants us to make.

We may be tempted to choose a leader that will keep us in a place where we are comfortable.  And even if we choose a leader who challenges us to take risks, we need to be a people willing to follow that leader into uncomfortable changes.

In Joshua: Even when the miracle had happened, and the river Jordan dried up, and the priests and the ark had moved into the middle of the Jordan, it wasn’t over yet.  This wasn’t an easy river to cross even on dry land.  There were the dense bushes in the zor to figure out how to get past.  And the people needed to cross anyway.  And then they had to keep trusting God, even on the other side of the river.

Conclusion

The first step to change is beginning to become aware that change might be beneficial, but not yet being ready to do anything about it.  The second step to change is beginning to see that doing things differently is something that is a genuine possibility, and beginning to think about maybe changing.

The third stage to change is being willing to be courageous and strong and begin the process of making changes.  And being patient while the changes take effect.

The fourth stage is maintaining the change, avoiding temptation to go back to the way things used to be.  What stage are you at?  Are you ready to be strong and courageous? Are you ready to go somewhere new, as God leads?

Love (1 Corinthians 13)

Introduction

There are some passages that pop out of the Bible.   Passages that are well known and well loved by many.  My colouring in Bible has popped out many such verses to be coloured in and reflected on.  Those most loved passages get a full page to themselves, and a few even get a double page spread.  1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages that gets a full page.  Even if they don’t know where exactly it is in the Bible, it is one of the passages that almost all Christians are at least somewhat familiar with.

Although there are more confusing sections in the passage, there’s something quite poetic about its description of love in verses 4-7.  These verses are so simple, and elegant, and beautiful, that we could simply read the passage, and walk away, so as to let it speak clearly for itself.  Not surprisingly it’s these beautiful verses describing love that are popped out for colouring in and reflection in my Bible.

This passage stands very nicely alone, and works amazingly as a text for weddings because it speaks into relationships including the deep and special relationships that are marriage.  But, like every Scripture passage it has a context.  In the case of 1 Corinthians 13 it is part of a wider letter about differences, difficulties, divisions, quarrelling, and some boasting.  And its particular place in that wider letter is right in the middle of a discussion about diversity coming together to make one body, the body of Christ.  Differences in things like gifts, abilities, personality, culture, outlook, and even theology and beliefs.

Paul knew that those differences between us are important and necessary to the work of the Kingdom of God being done proficiently.  But he was also aware that these differences can also hinder the work of the Kingdom of God because we humans find difference difficult and as a result, we can find it genuinely hard to love our neighbour as ourselves; and lack of love causes all sorts of problems.  Although some in the church in Corinth boasted in their gifts and their spirituality, love for each other was severely lacking.

Love as the key sign of the Holy Spirit

In Corinth the people felt they were filled with the Spirit because there were all sorts of amazing and spiritual gifts among them including tongues.  Paul doesn’t dismiss their gifts; in fact, he encourages them.  But what he does do is to say that the most important sign of Spirituality is love.  Without love it doesn’t matter how spiritual your gatherings seem, it is nothing but outward show.  And showing off is pride.

Being a Christian is about journeying in love.  An expert in the law once put Jesus to the test with the question ‘which is the greatest commandment in the law?’ and Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’

Jesus is our ultimate example of love.  People were drawn to Jesus because he showed genuine care and compassion for people.  He also showed genuine acceptance of people.  Especially people that religious folks tended to look down on.  He had a reputation for eating with tax collectors and sinners. 

When someone I know was a child, their parents used to say to them, ‘Do as I say, don’t do as I do.’ The problem with it is that the most natural way to learn is by example.  When I was a child, we had a poster up in our house with a poem on it.  My memory tells me it was hung in the downstairs toilet but I’m not entirely sure the memory is accurate.  The poem went something like this:

Children Learn What They Live. If a child lives with criticism, they learn to condemn. If a child lives with hostility, they learn to fight. If a child lives with ridicule, they learn to be shy. If a child lives with shame, they learn to feel guilty. If a child lives with tolerance, they learn to be patient. If a child lives with encouragement, they learn to be confident. If a child lives with praise, they learn to appreciate. If a child lives with fairness, they learn justice. If a child lives with security, they learn to have faith. If a child lives with approval, they learn to like themselves. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, they learn to find love in the world.

People learn by what it lived out around them in their cultures.  Everyone, though, longs to live in a culture of love.  People long to feel loved, and if they sense that they will be truly loved, accepted, understood, and valued in a Christian community, then they will be drawn in. 

Journey and Humility

I mentioned earlier that pride is the opposite of love.  The other week I read a book on the journey of following Jesus.  The book was by someone called Joshua Hopping, and it was based on his doctorate thesis. Throughout the book the author drew on the writings of an ancient saint called Saint Maximus.  I say this now because the next two things I say are from the book. 

St. Maximos was a philosopher and theologian in the seventh century, and he says this about the relationship between humility and love ‘The person who fears the Lord has humility as his constant companion, and through the thoughts which humility inspires, reaches a state of divine love and thankfulness.’ 

In other words, to act lovingly is to walk humbly.  Love is to be actively seeking the good of others even if we don’t believe they deserve it.   Jesus did just that Romans 5:8 tells us that God demonstrated his love for us by dying for us while we were still sinners.

1 Corinthians 13 ends with the words ‘now these three remain.  Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.’   On Faith, hope and love Hopping says this: ‘It is our love for Jesus that starts our journey and keeps us moving forward with him, while faith allows us to trust him as we embark into the darkness of life.  Hope provides the destination towards which we walk…’

In my own words I believe what is being said is that love both starts and drives our discipleship journey.  Maybe a bit like a journey that is about swimming or rowing down the river of love.  Life is often dark, confusing, and hurtful.  Faith allows us to trust God as the river of love takes us through all the challenges of life.  Hope keeps us looking forward to our destination as we travel down the river.

The last section of chapter 13 contrasts life in our discipleship journeys here and now with life when that destination of hope is reached at the second coming of Jesus.  Faith, hope, and love are all that we need to live our lives for Christ here and now.  But love is the greatest because it characterises both now and the future time for which we are hoping. 

The gifts of the Spirit are not about the future.  They help us in the present as we walk our journeys of faith, hope, and love.  But they are helps for this present time.  They are not independent of love, but can only be effective in the flow of love.   You need to be in the river to use the gifts effectively.  Love isn’t something that people do or give.  Love should be holistic and characterise all that we are as Spirit filled Christians. 

The first three verses of the chapter say that it does not matter which gifts we exercise, without the example of love they do no good to others, or to ourselves.  It wouldn’t matter how amazingly I could preach on 1 Corinthians 13, the real sermon that I preach, is in all that I am.  And the sermon that you preach is in all that you are.

Let’s look more closely at the beautiful verses describing love.  Patience and kindness work well together as a pairing.  Patience is passive, while kindness is active.  When others act towards us in ways that we struggle with, patience does nothing to change the action of the other person.  When we do act, it is in kindness.  Kindness is gentle and encouraging.   Kindness is able to promote the well-being of the other person, no matter what.  We can’t do that without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Love does not envy. 

Envy or jealousy, boasting, pride, and self-seeking go together.  All of these actions are about promoting ourselves, and aiming to get ahead of others for position, or favour.  These kinds of actions go hand in hand with putting others down. To big up ourselves, usually includes belittling some one else, or some other group because of differences.  But love does not belittle others. 

Love is building up others, even at the expense of ourselves.  Again, we can’t do that without the help of the Holy Spirit.  Our natural inclinations are to want what is good for ourselves.  To be able to set aside our own desires for the sake of others is something we can only grow into with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Love is not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs.  These are about acceptance and forgiveness, and also relate back to the fist two verbs.  Not getting angry is a form of patience.  Not keeping a record of wrongs is not something we can do with ease.  Forgiveness is a big and difficult topic, and can’t really be dealt with to any satisfactory level in a short talk on love.  In short, it is about giving up the act of trying to get even for wrongs that have been done to ourselves, or that we have seen done to others around us.  Again, these things are impossible without the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We need the help of the Holy Spirit to help us to grasp that Jesus died for the wrongs done against us or others, just as he died for any wrongs that we have done.

Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.  Love is able to rejoice when it sees love in action.  When it sees others released and comforted from their pain and suffering.  It rejects joy in seeing our enemies fall. 

Intermission 1 John

            Love is only possible through the Holy Spirit, and it is what shows others we are Christians.  The book of 1 John is an entire book about love, and about how it is the case that we recognise true disciples of Jesus, by love.  I’m going to read quite a long chunk from 1 John because I think it is important.

1 John 4:7-21 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

How love helps

We can only love because God first loved us.  We are able to love others because we know that we ourselves are imperfect and yet are loved.  We can only forgive others because we know that we are forgiven and loved in all of our faults.  Love is able to say I am not in any way any better, or more important than you are.  Love is able to say that those things that divide us, that pit one group of people against another, and seek the superiority of one group over another, are nothing because we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Love is challenging because we are not usually very good and being kind when people wind us up, irritate us, or frustrate us.  We tend to want to fix people.  We want others to change their behaviour, and sometimes we take unkind action to get them to change.  Perhaps by losing our tempers. 

In Gil’s fable last week, the body parts got angry at the Belly and wanted it to change and tried to make it change.  But God had made the Belly just how he wanted it.  Love is about letting go and trusting in God’s work in others.  we can’t change others.  a) it’s not our place, and b) we lack the understanding necessary to decide what changes a person needs to make.  We’ll get that wrong, and perhaps what we want to change is something that is perfect just the way it is.

We can’t change others, but we can change ourselves.  Love is about changing ourselves, not trying to change others.  We tend to want to make others photocopies of ourselves.  The Holy Spirit wants to create a bigger picture out of our differences.  Love is about seeing the beauty in diversity, like the beauty in the colours of a rainbow.

With only two or three exceptions verses 4-6 were all about the things we often do that are not love, but are the opposite of it.  Finally, in verse 7 we find some more active and positive words.  Love protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.  There is a sense of movement in these verses. Remember what Joshua Hopping said about faith, hope, and love:  It is our love for Jesus that starts our journey and keeps us moving forward with him, while faith allows us to trust him as we embark into the darkness of life.  Hope provides the destination towards which we walk…’

We can protect others, and persevere in challenges in our discipleship journey because we are working towards the hope of the future, and we trust that God will work in the lives of others between now and then.

Conclusion

Remember in its context this passage is about difference, and working together as the body of Christ.  Love is a way to live well in the midst of difference; and it provides a way of coping with difficult situations that involve other people.  Every person, and every group is on a unique discipleship journey.  That journey is in the tension of the present suffering, and the hope of the future.  Love is a trust in the Holy Spirit to bring us, and all our loved ones, to the final place of perfection.  Each person’s discipleship journey is a journey of love: of being loved, and loving others.  Everyone is at a different place on that journey.  But we need to make our own journeys in the power of the Spirit, and trust the Spirit to work in the lives of others to bring them on their journey.  Let go, and let God.

Footnote

I believe a sermon like this one deserves a little footnote though.  When we live with others who do not act towards us, or others around us in love, we don’t go undamaged.  Yes, we need to be patient and kind, but we also need to know that lack of love in relationships causes harm to ourselves and to others.  There may be times when it is wise to make a little distance between ourselves and others who are causing us harm, so that we are able to be kind to others and to ourselves.  If that is you, don’t be afraid to speak to someone about what you are going through.  Speak to a friend in the fellowship that you feel safe with, and trust to pray with you.  we’re not quite in the place yet where we can have a prayer team available on a Sunday morning.  Social distancing makes it a little tricky.  But that doesn’t stop us all being available by phone.  The healing hurting hearts course might also be a good thing to take part in as well.

The Vine and the branches

https://anchor.fm/rosyth-baptist-church/episodes/The-Vine-and-the-Branches–John-151-17-evbro6

This morning we continue our series on life in the body, life in the Spirit.  Before Easter, we were, in part, following Jesus on his journey from the last supper, and the washing of his disciples’ feet to the garden of Gethsemane.   From next week we are going to be looking at life in the body, life in the Spirit in the book of 1st Corinthians.  But, before we start a new section of our series, it’s good to look at this section of the journey to the garden, because it is so important to life in the Spirit. 

The repetition of words in this section shows its importance.  When the Spirit repeats things we need to take notice.  The three most repeated words in today’s reading are love, remain, and fruit.  And, tying these three words together is a picture of a vine. 

There are lots of different kinds of fruit that grow on vines.  These include tomatoes, grapes, melon, kiwi, and passion fruit.  But there are lots more.  My knowledge of how vines grow is pretty limited, so I used the internet to help me find out some information.  Vines can grow along the ground like the tomato plant and watermelon, but other vine fruits are trained to grow up and along a fence or trellis.  These kinds of vines include grapes, but other fruits grow on supports as well, like Kiwi.

The three words: love, remain, and fruit go together. Jesus is the vine, love is the nutrient that flows through the vine, and through all of its branches, and the result is fruit.  But it can only flow if the branches remain in the vine.  Fruit is repeated 8 times in the passage, love or loved is repeated 9 times, and remain is repeated 12 times.

The love that runs through the vine is a chain reaction.  V9-12 say ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: love each other as I have loved you

Love comes initially from the Father.  As the one who cares for the vine, he provides love for it as it’s nourishment.  The chain reaction is the Father, to son, to us, and from each of us to the others around us.  And it is that love for one another that brings the chain reaction back to the Father.  The sign that we are connected with the love of the Father is our love for one another.   And this brings glory to the Father.

The chain reaction only happens when the branches stay in the vine.   Remaining, or ‘staying’ somewhere has a sense of just lingering.  Not wanting to leave; not wanting to go anywhere else.  The word can also be translated live.  We might say to someone ‘where do you stay?’ when we are asking where about their home is.  Or, up north, sometimes the question is asked in the words ‘where do you ‘bide’.   Some translations use the word abide.  But, I love how the message translates verse 4. ‘Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.’

The paradoxical key to being fruitful is that it’s not primarily about doing, it’s about staying.  It’s about resting at home with Jesus.  Comfortable and safe in his love.  Jesus said ‘I am the true vine.’  He is the only source of true fruit.

The fruit that is produced is fruit that grows out of love.  Love for God and love for people.  Fruit here means primarily bringing others to Jesus, but it is also about growing in our relationship with Jesus.

Story

When we remain in the love of Jesus, he calls us his friends.  Take a moment and think about a close friendship that you have, or have had. 

A good friend is an amazing blessing.  True friends love us, even when we mess up.  There have been various times when I thought I had made too many mistakes and lost a friend only to discover that the mistakes I made actually brought us closer together, not further apart.  True friends are willing to be there for us even in our darkest moments. 

There was one night in particular when I was 21 years old, when I thought I had messed up so much that I reckoned I had almost certainly lost one of my closest friends.  But the next day I received an email from my friend expressing care and love, and also saying how glad they were to have made friends with me, how much they appreciated my friendship; and even how proud they were of me.  That email blew me away.  In and of itself it provided much healing in the space of a few moments.  I printed the email out, tucked into a diary, and it’s been there ever since.  Our friendship with Jesus is like that.  It’s a real love that brings healing to our darkness and sin. 

More about friendship

Another thing about friendship is that a good friend is a safe space in which to share your thoughts, your feelings, and your struggles in life! Because you trust they will love you even when you share your dark bits, you can truly get to know each other.   Friendship is about knowledge:  In verse 15 Jesus contrasts friendship with being servants.  Servants don’t get to know anything about their master’s business, they just get told to get on with tasks without any information about why they are being asked to do it.  They might not even know if they are working towards good or evil.   But, on the other hand, a friend helps out another friend on purpose because they know the heart of their friend.  Being there for a friend is not a burden, it’s a joy because we delight in showing love to our close friends and family and helping them accomplish their goals.  In v 10, the challenge to staying in the love that nourishes the branches, is to keep the commands of Jesus.  But this is not a blind obeying.  Jesus first loves us, and he calls and chooses us as his friends, and therefore there is joy for us in the keeping of the commands.  This love and joy should become an ongoing cycle:  the more time we spend getting to know Jesus, and trusting him with all that we are, the more we experience that love and joy in following him.

Doing things in the power of the Holy Spirit, not our own strength.

A few years ago, I went to an organised retreat day.  The theme of the retreat was ‘I have called you to be with me, and to send you out.’  This theme was based on Mark 3:13-14 which says ‘13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out…’ 

At the end of the retreat day, each person was given a fridge magnet with the words ‘I have called you to be with me… and to send you out. Mark 3:14’.  I’m now reminded every time I go to the fridge that Jesus has called me to be with him, just as much as he has sent me out to preach, or anything else that I do.’  It’s easy to forget that the first half of Mark 3:14 is the important part.  We cannot be sent out if we do not know the heart of our friend Jesus, and we cannot know the heart of our friend Jesus without taking time in his presence.

People, and churches, run the risk of focussing so much on the being sent out part that they just jump immediately in to the task of making disciples.  We can start looking at plans of action.  Organising events, or picking up material, or planning discipleship courses.  Getting on with doing things that others say work, or that may even have worked for us in the past.

But, if we are not taking time to stay with Jesus, the truth is that we can sometimes run events outside of the nurture of the vine, outside of the will of Jesus, and start doing them in our own strength.  But, verses 4-5 tell us that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.  We aren’t able to love others the way Jesus wants us to, if we aren’t first receiving his unconditional love for us, with all our faults and failings, by spending time with him and resting in his deep love for us.

Being with Jesus is not just a thing we come back to from time to time, like on a Sunday morning.  It’s an all the time thing.  Always with God, always listening carefully to him, not rushing.  Walking each step in-tune with him, and doing nothing in our own strength.  That’s when there is fruit.

Prayer and knowing the will of God.

We were last in this section of John 15 on the 1st November last year when Gil introduced our 6 values.  At that time he spoke of our six values as being based on the crossing of three bridges.  The bridge of Spirituality, the bridge of fellowship with one another, and the bridge of mission into the world.  Crossing that third bridge of mission brings fruit, but we cannot get to that bridge without the bridge of Spirituality – of staying with Jesus; and without the bridge of learning to love one another.

Verse 7 says ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’

Remaining with Jesus, means getting to know Jesus, absorbing his teaching and learning to live it out.  It also means taking time to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can be led by the Spirit.  The result of staying with Jesus is that our prayers become increasingly in line with his will so that when we pray, we are praying in the Spirit and able to ask for the right things.  Our prayers are the most effective when we pray in accordance with the will of Jesus.

Pruning.

There can be a painful side to resting and remaining in the love of Jesus as well, though.  Branches that do not bear fruit are pruned, but even branches that do bear fruit are pruned back so that the fruit continues to be healthy, fresh and juicy.  Every part of the body of Jesus needs to be pruned and that means you and me, and it means Rosyth Baptist too.  Pruning is essential to physical vines.  And it is essential to the imagery of us as the branches of Jesus the true vine. 

Again, I did a bit of googling on pruning.  Pruning a grape vine needs done every single Spring, and it’s extensive.  A properly pruned grape vine has 80-90% of its growth removed.  If it isn’t pruned all the good growth that happened the previous year actually gets in the way of the growth in the new year, and the result is that the vine becomes a great deal less fruitful, and the fruit of poorer quality.  It becomes too much leafy guff and not enough fruit.

That speaks to me of the need to be fresh.  Our second value is to be adventurous: being ready to follow where the Spirit leads.  The Spirit leads us in new directions, and the old needs pruned.  Even most of the really good and fruitful stuff that was from a previous time needs pruned off so that there can be new growth.  It’s painful to let go of the really good stuff.  I believe it is only possible to cope with that pain by resting in Jesus, and listening carefully to the Spirit.  Knowing with as much certainty as we can know, where the Spirit is leading us, so that we can let go of what hinders the present mission in the present time, and thereby creating space and light for new fruit.  But that doesn’t stop the process of pruning from being painful, it simply gives us more confidence to face the pain.

Practical

Before I end this talk, I thought it would be good to give some practical tips on how to grow and remain in the love of Jesus, and of the Father.  At the beginning I mentioned that some vines are trained to grow up and across a fence or trellis, and this provides the support for the growing vine.  Developing good habits can provide the support we need to rest in the presence of Jesus, soaking in his unconditional love, being filled with the Spirit, and learning to know the will of the Father.  This supporting trellis can be called a rule of life.  It’s how we can order our time to create the space to hear God’s voice.

Last week at zoom Gil mentioned this idea of a trellis of habits, and he mentioned that habits can be as simple as turning off our phones for a while.   Habits take time to develop and they have to work for us.  We’re all different people, with different life requirements so good habits like praying and reading Scripture need adjusted to suit individuals.  One person might feel quite comfortable with getting up early and spending an hour in prayer before they start their day.  Someone else might find 30 seconds of prayer at regular intervals such as setting their watch to beep every hour a more helpful pattern.

One person might spend a full 15 minutes in one go reading Scripture; while another prefers 5 mins in the Old Testament, 5 minutes in the New Testament, and 5 minutes in Psalms and Proverbs, split into different moments of the day.  But we need to stick with our decisions for at least a month so that our new habits can have the time to form.  Other good habits include spending longer times with God at least once a week, and spending time sharing your faith journey regularly with a good friend.  Old bad habits take a while to be gotten out of, so we need to be aware of our bad habits too and work to replace them with good ones.  Bad habits can be beginning our day with unhelpful things like social media or the news instead of beginning our day initially with God.   Or being distracted by phone notification or other things when we should be spending time with God.

Alongside praying and reading Scripture there are a variety of Spiritual disciplines that we can develop into habits.  These can include challenging things that need to be done with care such as fasting; but they also include really simple things like being silent or walking.  But these things are done with an awareness of the presence of God, and an openness to hear God speak to us as we observe the world around us.

Unity; Ephesians 4:1-16

Unity

Introduction

There is a well-known saying that says ‘you can choose your friends, but not your family.’ 

I don’t know about you, but I find pleasure in the company of friends who agree with me in many ways.  I find it much harder to enjoy the company of people who have really quite different viewpoints and ideas than I do.

I suspect, that the existence of the saying ‘you can choose your friends, but not your family,’ implies I’m not alone; and you might also prefer the company of friends who are similar to yourself.

In families, we don’t have that option.  Many families get along great, but in others there may be divisions.  Sometimes these divisions can cause deep wedges in families, that drive people apart.

Even in great friendships forged on similar outlooks on life, challenges can emerge when we begin to find the places where we don’t agree.  Cracks can begin to form in the friendship if each person presses their own view-point hoping the other person will eventually agree.

Todays passage speaks of the connections that are automatically the case in a Christian community. As Christians we are all family together, a family that God has put us in.  Some of our Christian family relationships might be easy and fun, whilst others might not be so easy, or fun.  Today’s passage is looking at the Christian community, and speaks into how love and unity grows amongst us, even through the trying bits of being in relationship with each other.

Last week we were looking at John 14:1-14, which spoke of the unity of Jesus and God the Father.  We considered how the ascension of Jesus to God the Father was a positive thing for the disciples and for us.  We are friends of Jesus, and he is the source of our Spiritual and Physical life.  We follow Jesus’ way of life as the way to the Father.  And, as we follow him, we also show Jesus to others around us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

There are some connections between John 14 and Ephesians 4.

In John 14 Jesus is the way to the Father.  It is also, the Father living in Jesus, who has been working through Jesus’ words and actions.  In Eph 4 God the Father is over all, through all, and in all (v6).  Ultimately our unity is based on relationship with God the Father, he is the creator of all things (3:9), who is working out his will in all things (1:10-22), and is the one who appointed Jesus head over the church (1:22).

In John 14 Jesus is going to the Father, and that will result in Jesus being able to serve his followers in new and better ways.  In Eph 4, Jesus has now achieved victory in his ascension to Christ, and as a result is now able to give grace to others from the results of that victory (vv8-10)

Eph 4 follows nicely from John 14, in that it gives us more detail into how we can follow Jesus as the way to the Father, not relying on our own resources, but rather on grace that is given to us.  The end goal of all the practical stuff in Eph 4:1-16 is to gain the knowledge and the likeness of Jesus (v13,15).

In the Christian faith diversity and unity co-exist together.  There is diversity within God as Father, Lord, and Spirit; and our diversity as a community is expressed in a variety of ways such as a body, faith, and baptism.  But there is also unity in this diversity.  All Christian’s are baptised into the one community of the Christian faith, the one body of Christ.  When diversity is able to be harmonised, it creates a beautiful unity.

I opened with the saying ‘you can choose your friends, but not your family.’  And its implication that relationships are not always easy.  The practical aspects of Ephesians 4 are about how we can put in the effort that is necessary to work well together, and limit the friction that can occur in relationships.

There is a lot of practical stuff in these verses.  We are urged by Paul, as someone who cares for his readers, to change our characters (1-3); and we are challenged (11-12) to be aware of our giftedness.  vv13-14 are about why we need to make these changes; and vv 15-16 speak into how we can grow in the changes that we are making.

character traits

Although there is a sense in which Jesus has already achieved unity for us by his victory (eph 2:14-15), There is another sense in which we need to expend effort to achieve greater unity (v3)  It’s not going to be easy.  The particular character traits Paul urges us to develop are humility, gentleness, patience, the ability to bear with one another, love, and peace.  Actually, Paul is describing some of the fruit that comes from walking in the Spirit (Eph 4:3, Gal 5:16).  Together these traits speak of being able to see our own faults, before we even think about anyone else’s faults or weaknesses; not having an exalted view of ourselves, but instead considering others as better than ourselves; not approaching relationships with a self-centred agenda, but being willing to change ourselves in the light of this relationship.  In our interactions, being aware of the other person and how they might react, and therefore having self-control and an even temper so as not to bruise the other person, even when provoked. 

Gifting

When we move to the development of unity through the exercising of gifts, the most important thing to note is that not one of us is excluded from ministry, as, of course, none of us are excluded from character development.  Verse 16 tells us that the body only grows as each part of the whole does its work in tandem with the others; and verse 7 tells us that grace is given to each member.  Grace has been given to you.  Grace that Jesus is only able to share with us as a result of his hard-earned life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  This grace is grace given in order that we might be able to undertake all that God calls us to do as we follow Jesus.  Grace is measured out correctly to each person, so that each of us has the right amount of power to accomplish our tasks.  Even Paul can only do his work by the grace given to him (3:2,7-9). 

In contrast to some other gift lists in the New Testament, the list here is quite short.  All of the gifts listed are related to teaching and leading the people of God.  They are all New Testament gifts.  Paul, here, emphasises the activities of teaching and leading in a variety of ways, because he is putting importance on the need for teaching in the hope of avoiding his readers being tricked or deceived by unhelpful teaching (v14).  Good teaching helps the body towards greater Christlikeness.  But, none of us are excluded from being teachers.  We are all able to teach others to be more Christlike whether through words, song, drama, or in our ordinary living and actions as we help each other follow Jesus better (Col 3:15-17).  No one is excluded from teaching, and no one is excluded from ministry in the wider sense of the term of serving God in all the ways in which God has gifted and enabled people.

Each one of us is equipped and is being equipped (v12) for ministry, and this ministry builds up the body of Christ, and this building up helps us to grow more and more like Christ.  The word equip has a sense of being prepared, with things put in order.  Like the idea of kitting out a dentist room with all the furniture, tools, and equipment necessary to allow the dentist and the assistant to come into the room and successfully meet the needs of that day’s patients.  Christ has put in place everything that each part of the body needs to successfully work towards its mission and goal.

How to change

A literal translation of the Greek into English of verse 15 explains how we achieve greater unity, and Christ-likeness.  ‘Truthing in love we grow in all things towards Christ.’  Truthing isn’t an English word, but if we imagine it is we can grasp the idea better than the translations that add the word speaking.  Truthing is about embodying a truthful was of living.  Since truthing isn’t easy, we can only change through continued striving as we draw energy and help from Jesus as the head of our body, and the source of the grace we receive (v16).  

Sometimes we think that everything has to be good all of the time, but God uses even our bad relationships towards the goal of unity and love in the body, because even there he can accomplish his purposes and help us grow.  There is continual, mutual adjustment between the connections of the body as they are joined and held together.

Why

Why is the effort of living this way worth it?  Imagine what it could be like if we lived in unity.  Imagine a world where everyone is at peace with each other.  Imagine a world where everyone was treated with kindness and respect.  The more we all play our own parts to work on our own character, and work to use our giftedness, the more we will influence others.  when we do our bit, however hard it is, the love we show will start to spread around the other parts of the body, and the whole body grows just a little bit closer towards unity, even in the midst of our diversity.

Seeking God’s face

Psalm 27

Sometimes life is tough.   Sometimes it seems like the people around us are pulling us down rather than encouraging us.  Sometimes it feels like all we hold dear in life is falling apart.  Sometimes those challenges overwhelm our emotions.  We might end up feeling angry, or upset, or frustrated, or anxious, or sad.  Or even just empty and numb.

We are all living through tough times just now.   The restrictions imposed by the coronavirus are necessary, good, and important; but they’re also tough.  For each one of us life has changed, and for various reasons most of us are grieving the loss of something, or even someone.   But, on top of that, everyone else around us is also struggling.  The exact way in which coronavirus affects each of us is different.  In some cases, one person might be struggling for the exact opposite reason of another; but almost no one is immune to its effects.  The result of all of that can be difficult relationships in the midst of difficult changes to the pattern of life.

The way we worship God as a congregation has changed too.  For close to a year, we have been unable to worship together in a shared physical space.  That’s a huge change that can be difficult to cope with.  Especially when it continues for a long time. We miss each other, and we miss the way we used to worship.  We might even find it harder to worship God and be with Him.  Psalm 27 speaks of the constant nearness of God in difficult times, and therefore speaks into the situation that we are all facing right now.

Vv4-5 read ‘One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple, for in the day of trouble he will keep me in his dwelling: he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent, and set me high upon a rock.’

There are a lot of words piling up in that single sentence that refer to a place, a home even, where the Lord is, and where we can meet him and be with him, long term.  These are: house of the Lord, temple, dwelling, shelter, and tabernacle – tabernacle is just a fancy name for a tent.

This is a psalm of King David, and in his time the presence of God was associated strongly with the ark of the covenant.  The ark of the covenant, and God’s presence with it, goes all the way back to the time shortly after the Jews escaped Egypt.  When Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 commandments, he also received instructions for making the ark of the covenant along with the promise that God would meet with him above the cover of the ark.  Over 400 years later when David became King, he brought the ark to Jerusalem where he placed it in a tent.  Later, his son Solomon built the temple where the ark was placed.

Exodus 24: 21-22 to go on screen during above paragraph: ‘Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.’

But these verses are not referring to David wanting to spend all his time in the tent close to the Ark.  David knew that there was more to God’s presence than the ark of the covenant.  Instead, these verses refer to the idea of being always in God’s presence wherever a person is.  They speak of a desire to make a conscious effort to live life in an awareness of living life with God.

These words for being at home with God are about two things: presence and safety.  Verse 4 is especially about presence, and verse 5 is especially about safety.

First presence: (v4 on the screen) When a person falls in love with another person, a desire to live with that person grows.  To not just visit the other person, but to really know them intimately in everyday life.  To eat with them every day, sleep with them, share their life, and to have that person as a constant companion. 

When we make the Lord our constant companion, he is steady and unchanging.  We can share all the ups and downs of life with him whatever we are facing, knowing he will understand and he will care.  He never changes, he is always there.

God never changes, but the things of earth do.  No one knows what happened to the Ark of the covenant.  When the Babylonians overturned the Jews and they were deported to Babylon, the Ark of the covenant disappears from the pages of Scripture, it was either captured or destroyed.  Yet, the presence of God went with the people into Babylon.

What they faced in the removal of their ways of worship was devastating (Psalm 137:1-2,4).  Yet, over time, the people were able to find even more of the presence of God.  The temple, had actually, got in the way of their worship as Jeremiah had tried to explain to them (Jeremiah 7:2b-11).  As a result of a number of not very good kings, the People of Judah had been living their lives however they wanted, breaking the covenant, and then turning up at the temple thinking they were safe because of a past promise that it was the place of God’s presence.  During their years of captivity in Babylon, the Jews were encouraged and challenged by prophets like Ezekiel to find the presence of God where they were and eventually true faith was renewed.

In the same way as the people lost the temple and the ark, yet turned back to God, because they sought him in every moment of their lives, our inability to find the presence of God in a church building, worshipping in community, might just give us the opportunity to find him once again in our daily living. 

Two active verbs are used to describe being with God.  To gaze on him and to seek him.  I believe that to gaze on the beauty of the Lord is to consider all the great things about him.  Consider what Scripture says about who he is, and all the promises that God has made and kept.  But also, to see the good things God has done in our own lives.  We need to look for his beauty in our world and in our lives v13.  Seeing that beauty gives us hope.  It’s rarely easy to feel God’s presence – especially in difficult times.  But we can always think about what we ‘know’ about God, and remember past times when he has been our helper v9. 

When we seek God, we seek to be with him in prayer (v7), and we are longing for him to want to be with us too – even as we know our imperfections (v9,12).  In seeking God in prayer, we are also seeking to understand his will, and the right way forward for us in our lives (v11)

Safety (v5 on the screen):  These verses also speak about being in God’s home, spending time with him wherever we are, as being a place of safety from danger.  Surrounding verses 4 and 5 in this Psalm is a sense of danger, and David is clearly facing difficulty and pain. 

Have you ever heard the children’s story of the bear hunt?  In the story, 3 children head out with their Dad on a bear hunting adventure:  they sing: ‘we’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to find a big one, what a beautiful day: we’re not scared.’ They travel through all sorts of obstacles like mud, and a shallow river.  Eventually they find a bear cave, but when they do see the bear all their courage goes out of the window and they run back home, back through all the obstacles, into the front door, up the stairs, into bed and under the covers.  It is in their home that they can finally feel safe. 

Like the family in the children’s story book, when life makes us anxious, it is our home that can bring back feelings of safety and security.  And that is especially the case when we are at home with the Lord, wherever we are.

Psalm 27: 1 Talks about the Lord being our light and our salvation.  At the moment we are in winter.  The dark comes early, and even when we are in daylight it’s a dark sort of daylight.  Last Sunday afternoon I took a long walk.  I went a route through Pattismuir and through the woods behind Pattismuir.  It’s a familiar walk for me, but the walk felt different to how it usually feels.  Part of that was that I started and finished in a different place due to moving house; but part of it, I noticed, was that it felt dark.  I realised that I usually do the walk in the warmer months to avoid some of the mud, and although I did the walk long before the sun set, the whole thing just had a dark feel to it.

 A lack of good quality daylight tends to lower people’s moods and that is why Monday just past is known as blue Monday.  A dark Monday in the midst of winter with little to look forward to.  Light, on the other hand brings joy, energy, and lightness to our spirits.  As Ecclesiastes 11:7 says: Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.  And The Lord being our salvation is more than just about the Lord rescuing us from danger.  He himself is our place of safety.

Putting our trust in Jesus, seeking to be with him in prayer all the time, seeking to know him more; seeing him as our light, and as our salvation, is the answer to overcoming fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.  When we are with Jesus, we know we are in safe hands.  He gives us the hope we need to be patient through the difficulties we face, and to trust his timing, and his answers to the difficulties.  we need To trust in the goodness of his answers to our prayers, even if they aren’t the answers we hoped for.  Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.  He is our light and our salvation.

Isaiah 55: “Seek the Lord while He may be found.

Repentance”

  1. Thirsty? (v. 1-5)

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Mark 12… 28-34 “With all of your heart”:

With all of your heart… It’s a relationship.

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.

With all your heart… Jeremiah 29. 13

With all your heart…

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.

(Jer 31.33f)

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.

Values (6) A Connected people

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.