Expressing God's character: Righteousness

Eph 6 14: “put on the breastplate of righteousness”.

We are to put on, to clothe ourselves, with the armour of God: to wrap truth around our waists. And to put on the breastplate of righteousness. That’s our text for today. So what is “righteousness”, and how does it keep our thinking and deciding safe and healthy?

William Tyndale
Public Domain image

The English word was actually first used by the Bible Translator William Tyndale, who adapted the existing word “rihtwis” or right-ways. But I kind of wish he hadn’t: “rightways” says it simply and accurately:

“Righteousness” means justice or moral rightness, or the fulfilment of the Law. Doing what God wants. It means being “rightways” in our relationship with god and our dealings with others. And what does God want? Sacrifices? Religion? Sabbath-keeping? Rituals? There were times when God’s people thought that stuff would swing it. They seemed to think (as we do sometimes) “God must be really into religion: he must really like sacrifices, and hearing our hymns or praise-songs, and to see people fasting.” But God’s not that petty and small-minded. He says “I hate your festivals ….” (Isa 1. 14)

  • Amos 5. 24. Let judgement run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream 
  • Micah 6. 8. God requires righteousness in us.
  • Isaiah 57. 15-17 says “The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head.”

So God is the first person to arm himself with a breastplate of righteousness!

But in the end, our righteousness is insufficient to God’s standard. It’s filthy rags (and that means menstrual rags, used sanitary products: its a crude and disturbing image of ritual and literal unclean-ness (Isa 64. 6). And yet, still, in the time of Jesus, people thought they could get God in their side, by doing things for him: the trivial things like sacrifices, hand-washing, Sabbath-keeping. But true righteousness is not legalism. It’s bigger than that. Jesus had a problem with people who thought they were so good. He says “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter God’s Kingdom.” (Matt 5. 20) And when Jesus was criticised for befriending Matthew (who as a tax-collector was seen as a “bad guy”) he said “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9. 13).

Paul builds on that by distinguishing between our own righteousness, and the righteousness that God gives us when we trust in Jesus. Everything else (including our own righteousness) is garbage, compared with having new life and God’s righteousness. (Philippians 3:9) Righteousness, he says, is God’s gift (Romans 5:17) God has dealt with our sin through Jesus and sees us as new people in him. But there is more to it than just a legal transaction, cancelling our debt. Paul also says “Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness (Eph 4. 24). There has to be a transformation. There certainly was in Paul’s life.

Let’s imagine a big lad called George. On Saturday night, he gets into a fight beats a guy up, and disappears before the police arrive. On Sunday morning, he comes to church and is gloriously saved. The pastor tells him that Jesus has wiped his slate clean. Later that day, the police catch up with him, and he’s arrested.On Monday, he is in the magistrates court, charged with GBH. How does he plead? Guilty or not guilty? Clearly guilty.

Fast forward ten years or so. After prison,George, has got his life together, got a lot of prayer and counselling. He eventually went to Bible college and became Pastor of a lively church. One day, one of the other leaders of the Church gets a phone call, from a newspaper reporter. “Hello, we hear your church has a violent criminal as your assistant minster.” if I got that phone call, I would want to say “No we don’t. George has a story to tell, but these days he’s a gentle giant who spends his time caring for people, praying for the sick, and telling them about Jesus.”

That’s what Paul is talking about. Righteousness is both a transaction and a transformation. It isn’t George’s own righteousness that please God. It isn’t his own righteousness that makes him a gentle giant: it’s god at work in him. Right actions spring from being counted righteous. Without the transformation, the transaction is meaningless: it’s a legal fiction.

So how is righteousness a breastplate? Well, what parts of the body are threatened if there is no breastplate? Mainly the heart and lungs. Today we know that the heart is about blood circulation. But that doesn’t help us understand the breastplate of righteousness. Nor does our idea of the heart as the place where we feel emotions. In the Bible, that was further down, in the bowels! The heart was the thought to be the place where we think and desire and decide. And Paul says “put on the breastplate of righteousness. …” A Roman breastplate was either made of large segments, small scales or chain mail, covered the body from neck to waist, protecting the heart and lungs very effectively. Neither a sword or dagger, not an arrow, javelin or stone, was likely to penetrate the breastplate (though you could get nasty and painful bruises unless you had a good thick padded shirt underneath)!

Righteousness, God’s gift of righteousness that transforms the way we live, protects our thinking and choosing. It is part of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus and warns us against worrying about food and clothes or the future. He says in  Matthew 6. 33, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [that we need and worry about] will be given to you as well.” He also says “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be” (v. 21) Michel Green entitles this whole section  “Jesus examines our ambitions.”  He says “our ambition as disciples must be to put God and his Kingly rule at the top of our list of priorities and we shall find that God takes care of the necessities of life.

And Paul says something similar in Romans 14. 17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The context there is the fact that some in the Church believed it was wrong to eat meat that had been used in pagan sacrifices. Others were OK about to eating whatever they wanted. The kingdom, Paul says, is not about rule-keeping or about upsetting others by deliberately breaking the rules. It is about being committed to please God by treating each other right.

The righteousness of God, his Holy Spirit’s action to transform us, arms our hearts, protecting us from desiring all the wrong sort of things. It is a righteousness, living right-ways (as a gift from God) that enables us to be uncompromisingly committed to the Kingdom of God. What do we need to do? Simply put it on. Receive the gift of righteousness. Agree to the transaction that God offers, to count you righteous and co-operate with the transformation that enables you to live “rightways”.

Amen

Nurtured with Truth

Ephesians 6:14a, John 8:31-47

Introduction

About 4.5 years ago I started running.  At first, I just did parkrun on a Saturday morning, and as I got better, I began doing the occasional run on my own through the week as well.  I didn’t call myself a runner; I just did it to keep fit, and because I enjoyed parkrun.  But around the end of 2018, I found that the winter was making my slow parkrun times even slower.  I was missing lots of Saturdays, and the darkness and miserable or icy weather meant I didn’t have much motivation to get out and do my own runs.

So, in January 2019, I joined an outdoor fitness group called Be Military Fit (BMF for short).  My aim for joining was to try to counteract the typical winter reduction in my fitness.  Through BMF I began to make friends.  And towards the end of summer 2019, a friend I had made through BMF, encouraged me to join the running club he was part of.  I did join, and settled straight away as I found I already knew loads of people there through parkrun. So now, although I’m not fast, I can no longer get away with saying I’m not a runner.  I’m in a run club so I’m a runner.

These days sport and fitness is becoming very popular, and it’s easy to pick up various items of clothing designed specifically for being active.  The material is lightweight, and wicks away sweat.  Shorts are common for fitness activities, even outdoors in the winter months.  And for those who prefer longer trousers, sports bottoms are designed either to have cuffed ankles, or to be tight fitting all the way down the leg to the ankle.  Waists have tight fitting elastic, and usually also a draw string as well for extra safety.  Sports clothes are basically designed for being very active, without the clothes in any way getting in the way of any activity. 

Sports clothes are not always the best for carrying any kit needed on the activity, though.  Some have pockets, but they are often tiny.  My husband uses a sports belt whenever he goes out running.  It’s tight fitting and uses the same material as other sports clothes.  But it adds the functionality of having lots of space in which to keep various items.  He’ll put in the car key, the house key, his phone, and sometimes his wallet, or any other smallish items he might need whilst running.  It aids his ability to be active as well as carrying anything necessary for the activity.

In Biblical times, though, there was no sports clothes, and not only that, clothes tended to be long, flowing and loose, and would be a genuine tripping hazard when any attempt to run, or to be particularly active was made.  So, in order to be ready for action, including the action of being in a battle, people had to gird their loins.  Girding loins is a weird phrase which basically means fastening long clothes secure and tight around the waist, just above the hips.  It’s not a noun, but rather an action.  But a waist fastening does aid in the process of girding loins because something secure around the waist allows the robes to be tucked in; and, a bit like Dave’s running belt, can allow for necessary objects to be attached to, or put into the fastening.  Only once their loins were girded was a person ready for action at all.

This morning we are beginning the new series that Gil introduced last week.  Using the armour of God in Ephesians 6 as a basis, we will spend the next 7 weeks looking at 7 things we need to take into 2020.  They spell out NEW LIFE, and are seven things we need if we are going to grow afresh in 2020.  The first of these is that we need to be Nurtured on truth.

In Ephesians 6 the aim of the armour is for the church to take it’s stand against the devil’s schemes.  In order to be able to stand defensively against these schemes the very first thing the need to do is gird their loins with truth.  It is truth that holds the armour together, truth that enables any action to happen at all, and truth that allows the space to carry the sheath for the sword.  Without truth around the waist nothing can be achieved at all against the devil’s schemes, and no sword can be carried into battle.  In order to be of any value to God we need to be nurtured on truth, so that it surrounds our very being, enabling us to be active for God.

I find truth to be a challenging word though.  I can sometimes find myself a bit irritated when it’s used in an overly simplistic way.  When Jesus tells Pilate at his trial, that everyone on the side of truth listens to him, I can understand why Pilate, who didn’t yet know Jesus enough to fully understand what he was trying to say, retorts back the question ‘What is truth?’

In an episode of ‘friends’ that I watched recently Phoebe tells the scientist, Ross, that she doesn’t believe in evolution.  Ross gets very defensive and sets about trying to prove to her that evolution is scientific fact.  In other words, Ross says that it’s not something to be believed in, it’s something that just is and that’s that.  But Phoebe responds by pointing out how many times in the past science has turned out to be wrong about things as more data is gathered over time, and asks Ross if it’s even a tiny bit possible that evolution might end up being proved wrong in the future. At that point Ross concedes, he admits that science in the future may show evolution to be wrong.

My point in telling that story is not to argue for or against evolution, but simply to make the point that our knowledge as humans is finite and subjective.  We can do our absolute best to make the best sense of our observations, but our limitations make truth a slippery term, subject to change according to perspective and availability of data.   But Scripture tells us what truth is and how we can know it.  Truth isn’t supposed facts.  Truth is a person.  Truth is Jesus.  Truth is simply listening to Jesus and being open to being transformed by Him.  

Jesus tells us in John 8:31-32 that if we hold to his teaching then we will really be his disciples and we will know truth, and that truth will set us free.   Based on that statement the rest of this talk will look at three things: 1. Being true disciples; 2. Knowing truth; 3. What it means to be set free.

Being true disciples

In John 8 Jesus is speaking to Jews who had believed him.  But he still says they must hold to his teaching in order to be really, or truly his disciples.  That implies such a thing as false or temporary disciples.  The difference is between those who hold to his teaching and those who don’t.   In this little section of Scripture, Jesus is showing these Jews the inadequate, shallow nature of their faith.   Are they really going to stick around and truly listen to Jesus?  Or are they going to turn hostile against him?

The word ‘hold’ is from the Greek μένω (meno) which means to stay firm, or to live.  If we are living in the teaching of Jesus then we are being nurtured by it all the time.  It’s not something we visit from time to time, but something that stays a part of us and influences our daily living.  If we are not consistently seeking to be nurtured by the teaching of Jesus then we cease to be true or real disciples and we aren’t on the side of truth.  If we were once disciples and think we now know everything we need to know, then we are not truly on the side of truth.  We can’t learn for a little while and then stop learning.  To be able to get ourselves ready for battle by fastening truth around our waist we must be consistently living in the teaching of Jesus; consistently seeking to be nurtured on that teaching.  We need to be continually growing and changing as Jesus leads and guides us by His Holy Spirit, because living isn’t a static thing, it’s ongoing.

Knowing truth

Knowing truth then means knowing Jesus.  Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life.  And, as we live in his teaching, we get to know him more and more.  I’ve heard it said that the average friendship lasts seven years as a result of changes in life circumstances.  The best friendships continue on for many years, even in difficult circumstances.  For friendship to last a life time though is really rare and special.  Friendship across a distance, when life circumstances have separated friends is always different from the friendship before the separation.  Over time, the intimacy and detail in the knowledge of the other person decreases over time.  You still know each other, but as the frequency of being with each other in person decreases, so does the level of truth in our knowledge of each other.

Being truly Jesus disciples means knowing Jesus.  If we cease to spend time listening to him, even though we know him, and believe in him, we stop truly knowing him.  Jesus isn’t a fact to know.   He isn’t something that once you know it you know it. He’s a living person, and we need to stay with him to know him.  Since knowing Jesus equates to knowing truth, the more distant we are from Jesus, the less we know truth.  The closer to Jesus we are, the more the Holy Spirit will continue to lead and guide us into good ways of thinking and being.  It’s an ongoing thing that doesn’t stay still as the times, and seasons change around us.   Jesus may have walked this earth over 2000 years ago, but His Spirit remains active around us and through us.  We need to know Jesus to know what he is doing in our lives, in our church, and in our town, today, and through 2020.  To know Jesus as true disciples means living not only Scripture, and listening to those who help us understand it, but living in our world, in a current, relevant application of the teachings of Jesus.

Being set free

In John 8, as I said, Jesus is testing the trueness of the Jews faith in him.  His statement that they need to live in his teaching in order to know truth and be truly free really annoys them.  The statement is a test of their faith in him, because in their mind they are already free by the very nature of their identity as Jews.  And they believe that it is simply in their identity as Jews that they receive salvation.

They saw their descent from Abraham as their ancestor as the only necessary requirement for their receipt of the promises given to Abraham, and their salvation from their enemies.  And freedom was a huge part of their identity because Moses had set the Jews free from Egypt, and all Jews saw themselves as free.  In fact, the whole context for the ten commandments and all the laws that flowed from them was their freedom.  The opening statement of the ten commandments is ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ and it is only after that opening statement does God go on to say ‘you shall have no other gods before me’ etc

Jews were free, they weren’t slaves to anyone.  Although a Jew could become a slave to another Jew there were strict rules regarding that slavery.  Extreme poverty was the only reason for slavery and any Jewish slaves were to be set free in the seventh year, once all their debts had been cancelled.  And they were also meant to be set free with a financial blessing from their owner.  Any slave who wanted to stay with their master could do so, but in that case they are freely choosing to remain a servant out of love for the family. All slaves had the same rights as everyone else.  Any slaves were to be treated well, because they knew that it was like to be treated badly when they were in Egypt as slaves.

In the narrative of John this chat Jesus is having with the Jews in chapter 8 occurs roughly around the time they are celebrating their freedom at the festival of shelters.  In that context it’s not too surprising that these Jews react badly when Jesus implies they aren’t actually free unless they are true followers of him.  But it also shows that they weren’t truly open to who Jesus is and to God’s ongoing revelation of freedom through Jesus.  Jesus explains that they are still slaves to sin.  However, they don’t quite get that Jesus is the son of God and that freedom now comes through him.  They don’t get that Jesus is genuinely able to set them free from any consequences of sin and become part of God’s family.  Instead, they begin to see him as talking nonsense. 

They don’t believe that God is Jesus’ father and they may have heard rumours that Jesus was illegitimate.  That could explain why they respond with a bit of sarcasm that they are not illegitimate children, but that Abraham, and indeed God himself is their father. But Jesus knows that since they are rejecting his teaching on freedom they are not on the side of truth.

To reject Jesus is to reject truth, and to reject truth means to reject freedom from sin.  These Jews have missed the point in the story of Abraham that it was faith, and obedience to God’s Word that was important.  Jewish Rabbi’s often held Abraham up as a moral example to follow.  Abraham was receptive to revelation from God.  The fact that these Jews don’t realise that Jesus is from God shows that they are not Abraham’s children because Abraham had faith, and he would have recognised Jesus for who he was.  They need to become God’s children by faith, not by descent from Abraham, or by circumcision.

Knowing Jesus, then, means freedom from sin:  As Romans 8:1 says ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’  And knowing Jesus also means freedom from fear because fear has to do with punishment.  But in truth there is freedom ‘to’ as well as freedom ‘from’.  Freedom to live as God’s children, as true members of the family.  Freedom to do God’s will and to go into battle ready for action.  Freedom to be led by Christ.  Freedom of movement and action because the loins are girded.  Those who refuse to listen to Jesus remain, for now, slaves to sin.   Sin is itself a rejection of Jesus because sin is a lack of openness and positive response to divine revelation by the Spirit, and sin a belief in the lie that we do not need Jesus for salvation.   And from the very beginning the devil has tempted people away from a trust in God’s revelation and guidance through lies.

Unity

Once we are empowered for action through truth, we can stand firm against the devil’s lies.  But we can’t do it individually.  Truth is about a dependence on Jesus and a closeness to him.  But we need to be fastened with truth all together.  As Gil said last week, Ephesians is all about the body.   The request to put on the armour of God in Ephesians 6 is addressed to the whole congregation in Ephesus.  In order for us to be effective against rejection of Jesus in our communities we have to all be close to Jesus.  It doesn’t work if just a few people are.  We all need to work together in the act of listening to the Holy Spirit and discerning the way forward.  Have you girded your loins with truth?  Are you ready for action?

Ephesians 6 v 10-13

2020 Vision: Hope and Reality:

I couldn’t resist the temptation to cal this talk “2020 Vision”. But what does 2020 vision mean? It means seeing reality clearly and accurately. During the Vietnam war, a US Navy pilot called Jim Stockdale became a prisoner of war, held by the Viet-Cong in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” camp. When he was released he went on to rise through the ranks eventually becoming an admiral, and he gave his name to the “Stockdale Paradox”. That, put simply, means holding both hope and reality together. Through his years as a POW, Stockdale remained hopeful: he never doubted that he would eventually be released and that his experience would be used for his good and the good of others. But he saw others lose hope: he said these were the optimists: they told themselves they would be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again. Stockdale said that these guys “died of a broken heart”.

There is both hope and reality in our reading.

Hope. (Orientation) God is strong , and he wants you strong. (The Message). Paul uses 3 words for strength or power.  “Be empowered in the Lord and in the force of his strength.”   Our hope is in God. In who God is and in what God can do.  God’s power is a big theme in Ephesians. Today Jesus is “seated at the father’s right in the heavenly places” and is “head over everything for the church” . Today all the forces of evil are under his feet. (1. 20ff)

And it’s also about what we can do with what God can do.  When someone is going through challenging times, you might say “be strong, dear!”  But that’s NOT what Paul says. But the command “be strong” literally means “be empowered”. It’s a verb that is both active and passive. So it’s not just about being tough. It’s about receiving God’s power for yourself. Actively letting God empower you (CEV).

So we start with hope.  It’s a hope that’s based on what we can do with what God can do.  But can we in reality, hope for 2020 to be any better than 2019? 

Reality.   (Disorientation) There are challenges to face in 2020.  Whistle a happy tune (from the King and I) won’t cut it. In lots of ways, the world is messed up and in lots of ways the Church has messed up… Our church, like many others, is struggling numerically, financially and missionally: we aren’t easily able to reach our community with the gospel.  We’ve lost the sense of a common language with our neighbours. We have become complacent about mission. We have developed a habit, like a tic, of saying “nobody’s interested any more!” You know the sort of thing I mean: “How many people go to your church?” “Oh, not so many, people just aren’t interested in the Gospel these days!” Yes, the world is changing. That is true. But the other half of the equation is that we have stood still, culturally. As the world has changed, we have stayed the same. And in doing so, we have changed the Gospel. Because we have made it into something irrelevant.

Those challenges are bigger than us. They are about movements in society: about principalities & powers in high places. In a fallen world, everything is broken. Paul’s explanation for all of this is …“our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.” (J B Phillips translation)

This world and all of its institutions, are under the sway of the enemy. The enemy has been busy, sowing the seeds of modern secularism, for many years. And in fact those seeds were sown and did pretty well, in the soil of “Christendom.” We can’t turn the clock back to a Golden age when everyone went to church, because there never was a Golden age. The strings the devil pulls are not always the obvious ones like secularism or challenging family values but also the subtler ones like  prejudice, division, suspicion, and exploitation.

The enemy has been sowing seeds in the Church too. A paganism that is tolerant of dishonest racist regimes, because they “defend the faith”. A false belief that the programme we have always followed must have God’s blessing on it because it worked in the fifties, or the seventies or eighties or nineties. A false belief that all we need is a shiny new programme. The Church, as an institution, has to guard itself against the ways the enemy infiltrates organisations. And that is not always about false doctrine. Sometimes it is just about lack of motivation, inability to change, hopelessness, or clinging to the past.

The Battle is not just about survival as individual believers or churches. It is about the Mission. It is “the fight to set men free” (as H E Fosdick says in his hymn “God of Grace & God of Glory”). Paul talks about weapons that “demolish arguments that set themselves against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10.5). The battle is about mission. And mission will always be a battle.

The reality is that the ministry of the Church is contested at the highest level by the Enemy! That needs to be soberly accepted. Not dismissed as superstition. Not obsessed about so it takes us into areas of unreality or paralyses us with fear.

Vision. (Re-orientation) The right response, them, is this: we put on, clothe ourselves in the whole armour of God: For the next 7 weeks we will be looking at that armour: 7 things we need to take with us into 2020, and they are all connected with Jesus. And they spell out NEW LIFE:

  • Nurtured by the Truth
  • Expressing God’s character. Righteousness
  • Walking among people with the Gospel of Peace
  • Leaning on God in faith
  • Identity as a child of god. Salvation.
  • Focus on mission with the Word, in the power of the Spirit.
  • Expecting movement as we pray

Those are not a vision for 2020. They are simply things we need to take with us into 2020.

So what’s my “2020 Vision“?  The thing that God intends to use to show his wisdom to the principalities… is the Church,  (3.10) Paul speaks of God receiving glory, now, in Jesus,and in the Church. (3. 21) So that’s my “2020 Vision”: it is glory in the Church, showing God’s wisdom to the principalities and powers.

My 2020 vision is for us to be a Body. Paul talks about the Church as a body eleven times in Ephesians,

  1. Ephesians 1:23:”which is his body”
  2. Ephesians 2:16: and in one body to reconcile both of them through the cross,
  3. Ephesians 3:6: “Members together of one body,
  4. Ephesians 4:4: There is one body and one Spirit,”
  5. Ephesians 4:12: works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
  6. Ephesians 4:15: to become the mature body of Christ.
  7. Ephesians 4:16: From him the whole body, grows and builds itself up in love, a
  8. Ephesians 4:25: all members of one body.
  9. Ephesians 5:23: Christ is the head of the church, his body.
  10. Ephesians 5:29: they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church
  11. Ephesians 5:30: for we are members of his body.

And these eleven references have two themes: “one Body” and “Christ’s body”!

So my 2020 vision is to be one body, where we care for each other and for the lost, and do life together. And to be the Body of Christ, expressing His life, his core values, his character, and his conduct. To be a healing community where we are reconciled to one another; and where we bring the healing and reconciling news of Jesus to our world.

Our strength is in Christ. Our armour is Christ. Our vision is Christ. And there is hope for 2020.

  • If we can grasp what God can do there is hope!
  • If we can grasp the whole armour of God, there is hope!
  • If we can grasp that Biblical Mandate there is hope!

© Gilmour Lilly January 2020

Luke 1. 67-79

Zechariah: Praise for the coming of Messiah

Zechariah’s back story: “His (the 8-day-old John the Baptist’s) father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied….” Zechariahs’s back story goes like this: Born into a priestly family, and married as a young man, he and Elizabeth (we heard about her a fortnight ago) grew old childless. Until the day when, on duty in the temple, the angel Gabriel came to him and announced that Elizabeth was going to have a child in her old age: not only that – but this child would prepare God’s people Israel for the coming of their Messiah. “Your prayers have been answered Zechariah. Prayers apparently unanswered over the years. Prayers for your nation.”

And how did Zechariah respond? “How can this possibly happen? Don’t get our hopes up. It’s too late for all that! We’ve accepted the situation – sort of.” Maybe that’s how you or I would have responded. And for nine months, Zechariah had been struck literally dumb. Not a word. (Maybe God didn’t want his negative talk to dent Elizabeth’s faith!) It was a humbling time, a time of isolation, and a time for deep reflection on God and his word. So maybe it didn’t do Zechariah any harm.

Anyway, Elizabeth got pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy and eight days later in a Jewish family was circumcision day, the baby’s first big public appearance. When the priest asked, Elizabeth wanted to call him John – the name the angel had given Zechariah for the boy. But everyone started to argue, so they asked Zechariah. He wrote on a wax tabled “his name is John”. Then he got his speech back, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and this prophecy – this inspired song of praise – is what came out.

I want to begin by encouraging us. So you’ve wasted nine months – or nine days or weeks or years, in neutral because of unbelief. Or it seems like God has wasted nine or 59 years of your life by withhold his blessing. God can still fill you with his Spirit. God can still speak to you and through you.

Zechariah’s Song. Blessed Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited (seen, overseen or supervised) and made ransom for his people.

  • It’s rooted in history. ”Blessed Lord, the God of Israel” is a direct quote from the Greek version of Psalm Ps 41. 13. It’s rooted in the awareness that Israel has of being a nation. It is good to know and understand what our back-story is, who we are and where we have come from. (And incidentally, it is impossible to be a Christian, take the Bible seriously, and be anti-Semitic, because Jesus was Jewish. But Jesus challenged what was wrong in Judaism, so as Christians we don’t have to approve of what Jewish people do or of everything the nation of Israel does.)
  • In contrast to Zechariah’s previous unbelief, (and in contrast to the temptation to be sentimental about becoming a dad for the first time!) his prayer is full of faith. Now that the baby has been conceived and born, Zechariah is able to believe that this is the beginning of something: the angel said John would prepare the way for Messiah. Against all odds, John is here in Elizabeth’s arms. So God is going to send Messiah! God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David”; it’s as good as happened.
  • It’s about salvation: and that is never just from political enemies but from spiritual enemies as well: it includes the forgiveness of sins (v. 77)
  • It is full of purpose. Salvation, the coming of messiah, the new salvation season that the brings, Rescue from enemies is intended to enable God’s people to serve him without fear… (v 74f)
  • And it is personal. You my child… Zechariah’s task and purpose for the next however many years is to get this wee boy ready to prepare the way for Messiah.

Zechariah’s problem. Can you spot it? Let me give you a hint: Who is the salvation for according to verses 69, 71, 74? “Us!” and who are the “Us” that Zechariah is talking about? Israel. Descendants of Abraham. That “rootedness” the nationhood, history and promises, leaves this prophecy sounding very insular. It’s all about “Us.” Howard Marshall notes that this song “Does not take the gentiles into account.” But it’s worse than that. It divides the world and its population into two. “Them” and “us”. There’s “Us,” the ones God has made promises to; and there’s “everybody else, our enemies, those who hate us.” And for me that is a problem . Why?

  1. Because it misses out on the place of the “nations” in the ancient promises. John’s work was to prepare for the day-spring to come from Heaven. (v. 78) the same word is used for the sun or a star “springing up” and for a plant or shoot “springing up”. So v.78 reflects back to Isa 11. 1-10, which talks about a root springing from David’s family, so that even the natural world is at peace, the earth is filled with the glory of God and the nations will come to him.
  2. It fails to anticipate that in fulfilment, Messiah brings the Kingdom of god for the

Zechariah’s prophecy. The Messiah’s light will shine on “those who live in darkness.” Can you think of another prophecy that speaks about those in darkness? Isa 9. 2. “Those who live in darkness have seen a great light.” Zechariah doesn’t understand this, but Luke, writing the story does. “Those in darkness” are the gentiles. Zechariah’s prophecy is one of those ones that makes more sense after the event than before it. whole of the world. The Messiah’s light will shine on “those who live in darkness.”

Jesus, the Jewish Yeshua and Messiah, was perfectly clear that he was the lamb of God that takes away the sin of he world. That his Kingdom was to bring healing for the whole of creation. That among the saved there are to be a great crowd that nobody can number from every tongue and tribe and nation.

God speaks to and through Zechariah despite his brokenness and failure. To this elderly Jewish Priest, and new dad, God speaks a Jewish message about the Jewish Elijah who would make a people prepared for the Jewish messiah. But that Messiah was the saviour of he world.

So when God speaks – by the Spirit, through the written Word, or through the prophetic word, he begins where we are at. But he never leaves us there.

Like Zechariah and John, our roots, our identity, our history are important. Especially in times of radical change we do need to know who we are. But God’s purposes are always bigger than we expected.

© Gilmour Lilly December 2019

The Humility of Mary

This morning is the third part of our advent series in covering Luke 1:26-Luke 2:40. The story so far is that the angel Gabriel has visited Mary to tell her the mind-blowing, and scary news, that she will become pregnant without a man involved.  News which Mary accepted with faith and trust.  Part of Gabriel’s message was that nothing, not even a virgin conception, is impossible for God. 

And to show that nothing is impossible Gabriel mentions that her aged cousin, who had spent her life unable to conceive children was now pregnant.  So, Mary goes on a long journey to see Elizabeth, which will confirm the angel’s message.  Gil spoke last week on the meeting of the cousins, and he spoke about how Mary needed the blessing that Elizabeth spoke over her when she and the unborn John the Baptist heard Mary’s greeting.

Mary had a lot to be sad, or anxious or worried about.  She was a poor, ordinary, young girl, lumbered with the worries of being pregnant and unmarried, in a culture that gave no rights to females, and were highly judgmental of pregnancy outside of marriage, to the point that Mary was in real danger.

When Mary heard Elizabeth’s blessing, she could have ignored it, and responded by telling Elizabeth about everything negative, and worrying that she was facing.  She could have been critical of God for using her in a way that would seem extremely sinful to everyone around her.  She might have thought that surely God could bring the saviour into the world in a way that would at least look like it complied with his own laws, so that it didn’t put her in danger. 

She had a lot to be negative about, or even angry at God about.  And Mary may have felt that Elizabeth would have been a safe space to vent.  Afterall Elizabeth’s own miracle pregnancy would have meant that she would have understood Mary’s story about her un-natural pregnancy and an angel.

Elizabeth did understand Mary’s predicament and shouted a loud blessing.  Elizabeth’s faith and blessing had a positive effect, and Mary accepted Elizabeth’s blessing with joy.   And so, Mary responds.  Her response is not to vent anger at God, for the injustice of giving her a pregnancy that seemed unlawful.  Instead, she soaks up Elizabeth’s message of blessing and praises God, in a song that is full of real happiness. 

A Song of praise for God’s salvation

The angel Gabriel’s closing words to Mary, after mentioning Elizabeth’s pregnancy, had been ‘for no Word from God will ever fail’.  Mary was now thoroughly convinced that no Word from God will ever fail and so she sings about it.  A song of praise for God’s salvation.

This song of praise comes from deep within her whole being.  Soul and spirit used in parallel at the beginning of the song are used to express every bit of her being.  This is not just a little bit of surface, momentary happiness because Elizabeth blessed her, but a deep, deep joy, that goes well beyond a blessing from a relative.  Happiness is something that comes and goes, and usually focuses on fleeting moments of things going well.  But joy is something different.  It is a substantial sense of delight and hope that is present even in the most challenging circumstances.    

And, in her joy, she wants to magnify God which means to make him great p.  This song is sometimes known as the ‘Magnificat’ which is Latin for magnify.  This song is all about making God great.  And all because He is her saviour.  It is a song of joy in a knowledge that salvation has come.  This song teaches us three ways to find joy, and a knowledge of salvation. These are humility, a trust in the mercy of God, and in thankfulness.

Humility of Mary,

There is a great deal of focus on humility in the song.  Mary is self-aware enough to know that she isn’t good enough, that she is no better than anyone else, and that she needs a saviour.  As we saw already, this is why she is singing.  Salvation begins with the knowledge that we need saved, and Mary had that knowledge.

Mary identifies herself as a humble servant.  With this comment in her song, she is acknowledging that, in the eyes of the world, she is of low status:  She is poor, she is barely more than a child, and, as a female, she is little more than property that is soon to belong to Joseph.  1st century female Jews had very few rights. 

Mercy for Mary

She believes herself also to be humble in the eyes of God.  She knows she is nothing without the blessings of God.  Mary sees the blessing she receives from God as coming in his mercy.

Mercy and humility go hand in hand.  Mary says that the Mighty one has done great things for her, but only because his mercy extends to those who fear him.  She expresses her trust in God when she says that the Lord is the holy.  He alone is able.

Thankfulness

Mary could have been dwelling on her burdens, but she isn’t.  We can find it so easy to dwell on the negative things in our life.  We need to learn from Mary to focus on the positive in every situation:  to focus on the positive things that are said about us, and not the negative.  And to focus on the good that is in the world rather than the bad.  We can question why a good God allows bad things to happen to us, and in the world around us.  Mary saw the blessing of God even in the midst of immense challenge and difficulty. 

She saw this blessing because she was looking outside of herself.  She had the eyes of her heart firmly on her Lord, and on what he was doing long-term for the whole world.   If we look to ourselves, and only our own immediate circumstances we will never be able to find joy.  Like Mary, we need to see the bigger picture, a sense of God’s kingdom that will one day make all the wrongs right.  Mary is filled with joy because she sees the salvation of the whole world.  That day when there are no wrongs, and everything is right. 

From Now On

In verse 48 there is a little phrase ‘from now on.’  It is an expression that implies something significant has happened and things will never be the same.  For example, Luke uses it in chapter 5 when he calls his disciples, and demonstrates to them with a miraculous catch of fish, that from now on they will be fishing for men.  Something significant has happened, it changes everything, and life will no longer be the same. 

Mary believes that God’s dealings with her are in keeping with his general attitude towards people.  If he loves Mary then he loves everyone else too.  

If anyone has seen the film ‘the greatest showman’, you will know that there is a song in it called ‘from now on’.  Significant things have happened to the main character P.T. Barnum.  As a result, he has realised that he has been selfish in the way he has pursued his dreams: His selfishness has hurt his wife, and the people in his circus business.  If he doesn’t change his ways, he will lose both his wife, and the circus which has burned down. The song expresses that ‘from now on’ he will focus his life on the right things, rather than selfish things.

Something significant has happened to Mary, and from now on everything changes.  Verses 51-54 express the source of Mary’s joy.  The salvation of the world:  They use a tense that looks like she is speaking about past events but Greek uses tense in a different way to English.  There is no past tense in Greek.  The tense used is the aorist which is used in a variety of different ways.  It most commonly refers to an action as a whole without regard to its beginning, or end, or the length of time. Neither does it express whether it was momentary, or repetitive.  It is often best expressed in English using the past tense, but that doesn’t always give the full meaning. 

Here the aorist is used either to sing about these expressions of God’s mercy beginning now, but being fully completed at the end of time.  Or used as a prophetic aorist which expresses things that have not yet happened, but are so certain that they are expressed in confidence as though they have already happened. What has begun in Mary she knows will result in God’s Kingdom.

humility,

Like Mary, we can find the joy of salvation, but just it was for Mary, the keys for finding this joy are in humility, in a trust of God’s mercy, and in thankfulness.  Like Mary, we need to acknowledge that we need a saviour and that all the wrongs in the world cannot be made right by humans alone.

 Some people misunderstand Christianity and believe it to be a crutch to help people cope with life.  But that is because they do not understand salvation. 

If we think we are able to do things right on our own then we are proud and we are expressing our lack of need for a God.  If we expand that idea of being able to do things right to the whole of humanity, we are saying we are able to have the perfect political system on our own.  We can accomplish true justice for everyone, so that everything is perfectly fair for everyone.  The truth is we are kidding ourselves if we think that. 

Jesus didn’t come to earth to teach us to be nicer people.  He came to bring God’s perfect Kingdom, because we can’t.  Although there is an instinct for most of us to desire to right the wrongs of the world, deep down we know that it is something that we cannot do ourselves, neither individually, nor collectively.  We cannot accomplish true justice.  Knowing we need a saviour to do that is humility.  Pride and self-confidence are the main sin against God.  In verse 51 Mary connects the proud with God’s enemies, that need to be scattered.

Another side to pride is to acknowledge that we cannot achieve the perfect society, as in some way everybody is messed up, but, in response, to ignore the world, and God, and find self-satisfaction, in fleeting moments of happiness.  In this scenario the proud are looking to riches, or to be exalted in the eyes of the world, in order to find fulfilment. 

Mary’s song says that those who look to the world for happiness end up with nothing – there is no joy in these things.  There is no blessing in these things.  Instead it is those who yearn for God, and the things of God, that will be satisfied and who will be truly blessed.  And from now on people will see Mary as an example of being blessed for that reason.  She is lowly in the eyes of the world, and humbly trusts in God.  From now on, God is beginning his exaltation of the lowly.  He is scattering the proud – those who have no place for God. 

Mercy

God’s mercy is expressed in the sending of a saviour who turns the social order around.  Who does so with mercy since everyone falls short of the glory of God, and everyone needs mercy. 

The coming Kingdom should bring about a social revolution, bringing the life of humanity in line with God’s will.  A kingdom that truly cares for the poor.  In verse 50 Mercy is connected with those who fear God (from generation to generation).

Verse 55 takes us back to Abraham.  In the conception of Jesus, God is showing that he is continuing to remember to keep the promises that he made to Abraham.  The promise that God will bring blessing to everyone on earth, was made to Abraham at the very beginning of his call to leave his land and follow God.

That promised blessing, a blessing of salvation is in Mary’s womb, and it is received by faith. In the Greek versions of the old testament, the word mercy is used for the Hebrew word Chesed.  A word that is very difficult to translate into any language.  It is God’s deep love for mankind, that is connected with all his promises, including this one to Abraham.  It is God’s mercy, his forgiveness, and love, that washes over every human wrong, and makes things right.  A mercy that cares, for the poor, the lost, the lonely, the humble, to everyone who trusts in the Lord.

Salvation

While the salvation expressed in the words of Mary’s song in verses 51-54 is not yet fully realised, there is an already aspect to salvation.  God’s Holy Spirit is now at work in those who believe in the saviour born to Mary.  The Holy Spirit is at work right now in the world, in caring for the poor.

Mary lived in a world that suffered from oppression under Roman invasion, but she saw the big picture so clearly that she was able to say with confidence and joy that the Lord, whose name is holy, has performed mighty deeds in scattering the proud, bringing down rulers, and filling the hungry.  Because he has remembered his promise to Abraham, in using her to give birth to the saviour of the world.

 At the time of Mary’s song Israel had been waiting hundreds of years, for their saviour and everything looked bleak, yet Mary sings.  Things may look bleak for us too.  Our Lord has promised he would return, and yet thousands of years have passed.  God’s promises are not fulfilled in our imagined time-scales. Yet they are never late.

Practical: Motivation

Mary’s joy: her humility, her thankfulness, and her trust in God’s mercy, didn’t appear out of nowhere, though.  It was developed by Scripture, by her experience of God, and from her relationships with others.  Those are the three places where we too can find the joy of salvation.

Mary’s song is her own, but it borrows heavily from Scripture.  In particular another song in Scripture, the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, when she dedicated her son to the Lord, and left him in the temple with Eli. 

Mary knew Scripture, she had memorised it, she probably sang it.  If we don’t know Scripture, we won’t be able to find joy.  But Scripture alone is not enough.

Mary had a personal relationship with God.  She knew him as her saviour, as well as the saviour of the world.  She had also had a very significant experience of God, in the visitation of the angel Gabriel and the message he brought.  She is able to sing ‘he has done great things for me.’ 

But the third aspect that combined to bring about her song of praise and salvation was the blessing and encouragement of her cousin Elizabeth.  We need to experiences, and the encouragement of other Christians around us, and share our experience with others too.

If we trust Scripture, look for God in the world and are thankful, experience him personally, and spend time with other Christians, learning from them, then we have the ingredients in which we can find lasting joy.  Philippians 4:4-8

Luke 1. 39-45

Elizabeth : “Blessed are you”

Foreword: the Story… or stories!!!

Mary had her story of an encounter with the angel Gabriel. And Gabriel had already told Mary about Elizabeth’s miracle. (v. 36) And it was to Elizabeth and Zechariah that Mary went with her immensely challenging story of angels miracles and Messiah.

And Elizabeth had a back story… Sixty or seventy years old.  Childless, then miraculously pregnant after the angel Gabriel had visited her husband in the Temple… So this elderly lady was already heavily pregnant.

Mary greets Elizabeth. “Greeting” was a lengthy and formal thing where what really mattered was the message that the visitor brought. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary was “Hi, favoured one chosen by God. God is going to be with you”! Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth was therefore likely to be something like this: “Hi Elizabeth. I have news. I have been chosen by God to bear God’s son who will be the Messiah.” That is quite a mouthful for a thirteen year old girl to blurt out as soon as she walks in the door! How on earth is Elizabeth to respond to this? Does what she has experienced enable her to have faith? If that faith faltered for a moment, something else happened…

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in the womb. Not an ordinary fetal movement. The intention is NOT to say that by coincidence the baby moved (that would be a sign in itself) or even that the baby responded to his mother’s intense emotion, but that the baby himself felt joy in his spirit that he expressed in the only way he could.

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit activity is a significant feature in Lukes Gospel and on particular in the birth narrative. And she shouted out something: shouting loudly was a mark of inspired utterance and public praise.

The point.

A skilled story-teller, or historian like Luke, tells his story with a sense of purpose… It’s annoying when a story is put into a biography for no particular reason, or perhaps just because it is a funny story. The narratives of John and Jesus, of Mary and Elizabeth are clearly parallel. The same angel is involved in both. Both are about miraculous births which herald the in-breaking of God’s wonderful kingdom. They could be parallel but independent; kind of co-incidences. But this episode binds them both together. They are not independent stories; they are part of one story. Or, to put it more sharply, despite her miracle, despite her joy to become a mother, to bear a child in her old age… despite all of that, what is most important to Elizabeth at this point in time, is this: “Why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (v. 43). It is Jesus. It is her Lord, that matters. Her story is bound up with the Story of God, the story of Messiah coming into the world, the story of the coming triumph of God’s Kingdom.

And so, out of the joy of having her story joined to the story of God, the story of Messiah, she shouts at the top of her voice, this amazing blessing. It’s not quite a song: it’s not poetry but “high prose”: memorable like Churchill’s wartime broadcasts or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

The Problem

Hearing her elderly cousin speak, bless, prophesy in this way may have startled Mary, but this Blessing is just what Mary needs at this point in time…

‘Blessed are you among women.” Blessed is “eulogemenos”, which literally means well spoken of. To “bless” someone is to speak well of them or to speak good things into their life. She needed that. How would the women and men in her own neighbourhood speak about the young girl who got pregnant before she was married? How would Joseph speak about her (before God spoke to him?) Her parents? Her friends? What would people speak into her life? But this lovely old lady says “Blessed are you among women!”

What a healing for Mary, what an inoculation against the poison that would be thrown at her. She’s believed. She’s valued. She’s well spoken of. She has good spoken into her life. Isn’t it good to bless other people?

The difference…

“ …and blessed is the child you will bear!” That is kind of obvious, though Mary’s firstborn would be spoken of badly too, at times. But He is blessed. He is the one supremely for whom we give thanks to God. Thank God for Jesus. And it is because of Jesus that Mary is blessed. Not because she is anything special. She is just an ordinary teenage girl, who happens to have listened up in the Synagogue, knows the Scriptures (by hearing not reading!) and is able to believe what God says to her, and pay the price. Elizabeth finishes off her speech with Blessed (this time the word is “makarios” happy, enriched or enlarged) is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’

And listen, it is because of Jesus that you and I are blessed as well. And it is because of Jesus, that the blessing can spread, like runny honey, across the surface of our community, to touch the people we touch just as the blessing leached out and touched Elizabeth, then Mary….

And Mary sings : that’s the song that Dawn will be exploring next week. But I just want to finish with this. How good to be able, like Elizabeth, to bless someone, in such a way that they in turn can sing. In such a way as to call the song from their heart. Maybe we can’t sing a song. But maybe we can bless someone who can and will.

When our story is joined with the story of Jesus, the Spirit comes. The anointing flows. God shows his power. We can all be blessed because of Jesus: because of who He is. We can all speak out to glorify and praise Him. And we can all speak blessing into the lives of other people.

Gabriel brings news to Mary

Introduction    

Last week when Gil was speaking about the gospel, he explained that news is something that impacts us personally.  The first two chapters of Luke are filled with news and announcements about Jesus at the time of his birth, or before he is born, or in the case of this morning, before he is even conceived.   Jesus impacts everyone personally, but to some, particularly Mary, who we are looking at today, the news about Jesus impacted them in a particularly unique way.  Normally news reports on things that have happened in the past, or simply speculates about things.  But much of the news about Jesus in the opening chapters of Luke is very different:  This news is true and real, but is either given in advance of things happening, or immediately as they happen.

Conception and Birth in General

The conception and birth of planned or hoped for babies is rarely easy.  It is often a time of fear because unlike Mary we are not given news in advance about conception, birth, or the future of our children.  For some people conceiving a child at all is an impossibility, or near impossibility.  For others, numerous miscarriages are devastating, and there may become an intense fear each time a baby is conceived that it will just become another miscarriage.

Actually, with medical advances, we can have some news about our babies before they are born.  We can learn the gender if we want, and we can learn sometimes when things are going wrong – In those cases it’s unclear whether knowing this news is helpful or not.

In the news that Mary is given she is told she does not have to worry about difficulty conceiving, or miscarriages, or still birth.  But she does end up with a whole bunch of quite different worries.      

Mary’s news.

 At the point of Gabriel’s visit though her mind is probably a million miles away from the concept of having children.  Although she is engaged, engagement was pretty different to what we think of it today.  Mary was a young girl, likely only 13 or 14 years old, living with her parents, and probably making the most of what was left of her childhood before she became Joseph’s wife.

The New Testament and angels.

At a casual reading of the conversation between Mary and the angel, as Luke describes it, it sounds like a pretty ordinary conversation.  But it’s not an ordinary conversation, and it’s not ordinary to be visited by angels.  Especially when the visiting angel is bringing a message from God.

The New Testament does hint that angels are among us, but that we are usually unaware of them, and they don’t usually introduce themselves as angels.  Hebrews 13:2 tell us to show hospitality to strangers, because by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without realising it.  I have heard various stories of strangers turning up in moments of difficulty, providing help, then seeming to disappear – these might possibly be angels. 

But if an angel introduces themselves as an angel, and brings a message, well that’s a whole new ball game.  When someone meets an angel with a message, it likely means that their life story is colliding head on with the front line of action in God’s unfolding story, and that, I think, is pretty scary.  Angels, or angelic beings, do appear in the New Testament from time to time, often in dreams, and often at key moments in the ongoing journey of the gospel to various people groups.  And there are a couple of occasions in the New Testament of dramatic rescue of apostles from prison with the help of an angel.  But the main appearances of angels to people other than Jesus, physically, and in person, and bringing messages, occur around the conception, the birth, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus.

Mary and the Angel

 So, Mary is just an ordinary, young girl, who is about to have her life turned upside down by prophetic news via an angel about a yet to be conceived baby.

 I reckon Luke’s retelling of the encounter between Mary and Gabriel sounds fairly ordinary because it is a summary of the conversation.  Some of what happened, and some of was said, or felt, is missed out.   Luke tells us that the angel that talks with Mary is specifically the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel doesn’t introduce himself with his name in the recorded conversation, yet Mary knows he is Gabriel, so that is one indication that this is a summary.  And it’s not the only one as we’ll see later.  There is a lot of mystery left in this passage.   Luke gives us what he knows about the story in the best way he knows how.  Much of the dialogue that we have reflects Old Testament Scripture and that is to show the prophetic and Divine nature of the encounter: It shows us that this story is a key part of God’s unfolding story, and something of deep importance to humanity is about to happen, and Mary is directly in the centre of it.

Gabriel’s Greeting

It’s not as clear in the English as it is in Greek, but the Gabriel comes to Mary indoors, nothing more is said about how he comes to Mary.  His initial greeting also says very little, whilst also saying a lot, and it leaves Mary greatly confused and anxious.  The problem with translating Greek into English is that it can be quite hard to get the feeling of the words across into the new language.  Most Bibles have Gabriel saying ‘greetings’ to Mary, but that’s just because the common word for greeting changes so often in our culture.  The Greek word is ‘chairé’ which is basically the typical, ordinary word of greeting in Greek.   The Message version goes for ‘good morning’ which is a bit more relaxed than ‘greetings’ because nobody says ‘greetings.’  Gabriel probably says something much more normal like the equivalent of ‘hi.’

He calls her ‘favoured one’.  ‘Favoured one’ basically means that she is specially favoured by God, in terms of being chosen for a task.  The final part of the greeting, ‘God is with you,’ implies that God will be with her to help her in the task that has been chosen for her task.  Putting that together, an angel comes into a young teenager’s house and says to her something along the lines of ‘Hi there, you who are specially chosen by God, The Lord will be with you and give you all the help you need.’

 It’s no wonder she is puzzled and anxious about the greeting.  It’s as though she has been spoken to in a way that sets her apart with some of the great people of the Old Testament, using some of the same language of finding favour with God.  The Old Testament tells us that the likes on Noah, and Gideon had found favour with God.  

She doesn’t yet know what task she has been chosen for, but the whole concept of an angel coming right into to your house, and telling you God has set you apart for something that seems to be very important, would be very very scary.  Especially when you have no idea what it might be that you have been chosen to do. 

Gabriel tries to reassure her by telling her a bit more about her task.  She will have a baby boy.  But no ordinary baby boy.  While we can know something about our babies before birth, no modern technology can tell us about how our children will grow up, what they will be like as people, or what job they might do.  If, in some cases, it might be better we don’t know in advance what our pregnancy will be like, that is even more the case with our kids as the grow up.  We are meant to work it out as we go along, otherwise we might be too afraid to have children.   But Mary is given prophetic news about her child after the birth because…well because this child will change the world.  Just like an angel coming into your house with a message from God is mind-blowing.  This child is also mind-blowing.

Who is this Child?

Using terms from Scripture Mary is told the news that her child is the coming Messiah and that she is to name him Jesus meaning ‘God saves’.  Essentially, she is told that she and her child, Jesus, will be fulfilling Isaiah 7:14 which says ‘the virgin[b] will conceive and give birth to a son, and  they will call him Immanuel.’  In other words, he will be known as ‘God is with us.’  No wonder he will be called ‘great’.  But then Gabriel goes on to explain more about what it means that he will be ‘great.’

He will be called ‘the son of the Most High.’  Coming first in the explanation of his greatness, this sets the importance on his sonship.  Not just a prophet of the Most High – but a son.  That implies something much deeper and closer to God than that of a prophet. 

Add this together with the names associated with the child:  Jesus, meaning ‘God saves,’ and Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us,’ and something beyond comprehension seems to surround this child:  Something very closely connected with God himself.  The Most High is a common name for God in the Old Testament, and is often closely connected with his works on earth including creation.  It is used to show that the Lord is the ultimate and final power on earth.  And Jesus will be called the Son of this highest power.

But the mind-blowing nature of Jesus doesn’t end there.  Gabriel says that He will receive the throne of David.   In other words that meant he would be King of Israel in the family line of the ancient King David.  And even more than that, his Kingdom would never end.  The last Davidic King, in fact the last King of the descendants of Israel, had been Zedekiah, King of Judah.  His reign had ended just over 400 years before Gabriel brings this news to Mary.  But the end of the Davidic line of Kings was only meant to be temporary.  This temporary end was prophesied by Ezekiel at the time of Zedekiah

There were a number of prophesies in Scripture, even going back to the time of David himself, saying that the Kingship of Israel, would be returned; but also, that a great descendant of David would come and rule the Kingdom of Israel forever.  Included in these prophecies was the idea that this future King would be the messiah, sent to rescue the world. 

The news given to Mary says that her son will reign over Jacob’s descendants, but if you remember the story of the wrestling match, you’ll know that Jacob was renamed Israel.  One such prophecy about this never-ending reign is Isaiah 9:6-7, which is in a similar place in Scripture to the one about Immanuel.   This prophecy reads:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
 and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and for ever.

As a result of the prophecies in Scripture, the nation of Israel had been waiting over 400 years for the Messiah, the Son of David, who would restore the Kingdom of Israel.  And Mary is right at the heart of the fulfilment of all those prophesies.

The Virgin Birth

Mary’s Question‘How will this be’ implies that Gabriel has already told her that she will conceive imminently, without any man being involved.  Just like Gabriel introducing himself this piece of information is not explicitly in the text.

The Virgin birth is one of the most important, but also one of the weirder aspects to the Christian faith.  It is one of the reasons why some people have difficulty believing that Christianity is true and real. However, when you consider the nature of the child that was to be conceived in Mary, and all that has been said about Jesus, it would all lose its power if the conception was something ordinary.  The conception kind of has to be as mind-blowing blowing as the prophetic news, otherwise it would be much harder to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the most-high, God with us.  This miracle of virgin conception and the meaning behind it is the reason for Gabriel’s visit to Mary.

We do not know how the virgin conceived.  Like much of this conversation between Gabriel and Mary, Scriptural words are used to describe it.  The conception of Jesus is a new creative act of the Holy Spirit.  The same Holy Spirit who created the heavens and the earth at the beginning is again doing new things.  This is a whole different kind of conception, something that the human mind cannot quite fathom; it is a conception entirely outside of the kind of creation by natural means we are used to.

 Gabriel says almost nothing about how the miracle takes place, and that is because it is a mysterious event, and there are no words to describe it in a way that would make sense to Mary.  But one thing is clear, there is no sexual act involved. The Greek word that is translated into English as overshadow is used in the Greek versions of the Old Testament to describe simply God’s presence, or a sense of God’s protection.  Nothing more is said.  In an unknown, and unknowable, miracle of God, Mary will conceive the promised messiah, the son of God, the everlasting King of Israel.  And as a confirmation of this miracle, Mary’s relative Elizabeth also has a miracle pregnancy.  And there the news ends.

Let it be to me

Mary must have been utterly shocked, confused, and rather bewildered, as well as afraid.  She won’t be worrying about still births, but her statement ‘Ok, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me, according to your word’ is actually words of deep humility, and trust in God in the face of immense challenge.

First the challenge of being pregnant, long before she was ready and thinking about such things.  Second, the challenge of coming to Joseph and telling him she is pregnant.  She has no idea how he will react, and it is likely to be a very negative and strong reaction.  And third, she is faced with the impossibly daunting task of being on the front line of God’s story.  Giving birth to the Messiah.  And likely raising a child who is the son of God and described as ‘God with us’, and who is not an ordinary child because his Kingdom will never end.  Yet she not only believes, but accepts a challenge beyond comprehension. ‘Let it be to me’ is humbly submitting to God and trusting him with her life.

Us       

The miracle of the conception and birth of Jesus is matched by the miracle of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  Just before his ascension Luke records a key conversation between Jesus and his disciples.  At this point in time the disciples of Jesus are still trying to understand Jesus and his never-ending Kingdom. The conversation is recorded in Acts 1 and it says this

 The apostles gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’

The favour that Mary received from God to be the mother of Jesus was not necessarily anything to do with her own goodness or particular acceptability for the task.  God’s choice is always his, and he equips his people with all they need to do his will.  The word favour means a kindness, a blessing: a kind of gifting.  And God gifts us with all we need. 

God has not chosen you or me to carry or deliver, or parent Jesus.  But nonetheless you and I are chosen, and given favour, and gifts towards a task, and not because of any goodness in ourselves, but simply because we have been chosen, and given an honour.

  We have a promise that one day Jesus will return.  In the mean time we know that while the Kingdom of Jesus is not fully established, we have been given a task in the bringing in of God’s Kingdom.  You and I are called to be witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth.  In our case we are called to be witnesses of Jesus in Scotland.  It’s a daunting task, but just like Mary we are told that God will be with us.  Mary carried the son of God within her.  We carry the Holy Spirit within us.

Mary gave her life to God and the question comes to us too:  are we willing to give our lives to God, to use as he will, knowing that he will be with us and give us al we need to undertake his purposes. Are we willing to humbly submit to God and say as Mary did ‘I am the Lord’s servant.’?

Dialogue: what’s the good news?

Mark 1. 1-15; Colossians 2. 9-15

We have taken a lot of time to talk about

  • Blessing other people.
  • Relying on the Spirit: receiving and releasing his power.
  • Eating together
  • Attending to Jesus, and
  • Dialogue that is listening, gently challenging, telling the story of God and our own story, through everyday conversations.

Now, we’ve been learning that “One size doesn’t fit all” and that we must listen rather than simply dumping our message in people’s head-space. But I want to finish off with this question: What is the message? If someone says “Yes, I do want to get to know God better,” or “what is the core of your Christian message?” then what do we say? “Come to Church on Sunday and our Pastor will explain everything!”? I want to give you the tools to answer the question for yourselves. What do people need to know, what do they need to respond to, in order to connect in a living way with the Christian faith, and be “saved”?

Mark opens his Jesus story, by telling us us this is the “beginning of the Good news about Jesus.” And a number of times, in the very first chapter, Mark talks about the “Good news of the kingdom of God.” People were to be told, “the Kingdom of God/Heaven has come near you!” Two-thirds of mark’s Gospel, is about the things Jesus said and did that show what the Kingdom is like. The other third, is about the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. How he died and why.

The first thing to say is rooted in this idea that “The Kingdom of God has come near!”

God is good, he is love, his plan in creating the world was for good. He sees a broken world and it is not the way he wants it to be. So in order to sort it, God made promises to specific people, (the family that became Jewish nation). From the start, the reason he did this was not just for their own benefit but so that the whole world might benefit. As time went on they came to understand these promises to be about the “Kingdom of God”: God’s rule on the earth. God’s rule instead of the other Kingdoms: the kingdom Caesar, the Kingdom of darkness, the Kingdom of “me.” And through the coming of Jesus, those promises were fulfilled.

Saying “The Kingdom of God has come near” means that, despite everything that isn’t the Kingdom of God, despite everything that is the Kingdom of me and the kingdom of darkness and fear and despair and death, God has not forgotten about his world. He plans good for the world. And he keeps his promises. Jesus shows us all that. And by the life he lived and the things he did, he shows us what the Kingdom of God is like: healing for the broken, justice for the oppressed, challenge for the oppressors.

And the second thing to say is about how “Jesus died for our sins”.

Before it happened, Jesus interpreted his death as “a ransom”, a costly sacrifice made to set other people free. (Mark 10. 45) And after it happened, Paul said that the bill for our sins was “nailed to the Cross” (Col 2. 14) and that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15. 3) and rose again. That’s important, because it lifts what Jesus did above and beyond the sacrifices that young men and women made on the battlefields of the Somme, the beaches of Normandy, or the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan. When thousands had died in the trenches, thousands more came to take their place. No one death was, by itself, a triumph. But the death of Jesus utterly defeated death itself: so we are saved from our sins by Jesus death and resurrection.

Jesus’ death and resurrection deals with the “Kingdom of Me” problem that we all have. It deals with the penalty of it. It deals with the power of it. I don’t think we need to go too far into how that works: it’s like someone taking someone else’s punishment. It’s like someone paying someone else’s debt. It’s like someone paying a ransom. It’s like someone dying while rescuing someone else from drowning. It’s like someone dying fighting someone else’s battle. It’s all these things and more.

And there is more. The third thing to say is that the Spirit makes us new.

When he preached the Good News for the first time on the day of Pentecost, Peter called people to respond and promised “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Faith is more than a transaction. It is a transformation.

Something happens in a person’s life. God moves in. Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians to deal with wrong ideas people had about keeping the “Law” and being “Circumcised” in order to be have new life. But as they have trusted in Jesus, that new life has already happened! Did you notice that in verse 10 he says “You have been brought to fullness in him”; verse 11, “circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands” and verse 13, “God made you alive with Christ” .

Theologically the coming of the Spirit is part of the “Messianic age”. John the Baptist says about Jesus, “I baptise you with water, but he (the coming Messiah) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1. 8). When the Spirit came, Peter says. (Acts 2. 17, quoting Joel 2. 28) “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” In 2 Cor 5. 17 Paul says if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here.” Literally “if anyone is in Christ – new creation.” Boom, by the Spirit, not only are people made new, but they become part of the whole new creation, the present-and-coming Kingdom of God.

So the good news is these three things:

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  1. The Kingdom of God has come near; God plans good for is world and keeps his promises.
  2. The King (Christ, the Messiah) died and rose again for our sins.
  3. The Spirit makes us new and causes us to live in God’s new Kingdom.

We need to respond to the Good News.

Paul, Peter, and Jesus himself all agree that this Good News demands a response. Jesus said, “Repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1. 15). On the day of Pentecost, Peter told people to “Repent and be baptised…” Paul mentions baptism in Col 2. 12 and says in Rom 1. 16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

Three simple, practical responses:

  1. Repent, which literally means change your mind. Turn around, walk in the opposite direction, as you decide to put God in charge of your life.
  2. Believe, the Good News. Trust that these three big statements are true: they may not be verifiable apart from a step of faith, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true.
  3. be Baptised. Take action to bring that commitment out into the open. Do you have to be baptised to appropriate the new life in the Kingdom? Paul would answer “No!” Well, actually, he wouldn’t understand the question; he’d say “How else are you going to take action to “close the deal” with God?

Malcolm Duncan says the Gospel “is not a secret, hidden transaction agreed at night between ‘me’ and God. It is public, it is pervasive and it is transformative. It pulls me into community. It works at the very centre of my being and the very edge of my life. It leads me out to a broken and hungry world and leads me in to the God Who comes to dwell within me in resurrection, life giving, life releasing power… [it] is the only thing that can rescue us from our own ruin in this moment in our history and propel us into a better future.

So that is the Good News. If you’ve never responded to it, I invite you do do so today, And if you have, I invite you to become familiar with these truths so that you can comm8unicate them easily when called upon to do so.

Dialogue about Jesus…“Your call!”

Colossians 2. 2-6

In prison, Paul got a visitor who brought news of the Church in Colossae. They were growing in their faith – bot some had got hold of some odd ideas about what God is like. This letter does two things that Paul reckoned the Colossian Christians needed. Firstly, it speaks about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. He’s the image of the invisible God, he has made peace by dying for us on the cross. Secondly, it talks about how his followers should live their lives as people who follow Jesus. And part of that is about how they – and we – should engage in mission.

Paul speaks of three ways to engage in mission…

1.Prayer. Prayer is part of our calling. Committed/persistent, vigilant (wide-awake), thankful prayer. We can play our part in mission by praying for people who have a specific ministry or a specific challenge. Was Paul praying for an open door to let God’s word in to people’s lives, or to let God’s word flow freely and boldly from his own mouth?

2. Behaviour. Being wise in how we walk (walk around; in English we would say “go about”; behave) with (or in sight of) those outside. That should be a constant question on our minds as we go around: how does the way I live, the way I behave, impact people outside my comfortable circle as Christians? Of course we have to do what is right, not just what we think will be popular. But it’s worth asking “Do I sound smug? Do I talk a different language? Do I look grim? Does the way I live my life say something good or something bad about Jesus?”

3. Speaking. Conversation (v. 5) is “Logos” which means “Word”. A very ordinary word that becomes in the NT (especially in John’s Gospel) a very special word. It is the same word that Paul uses in verse 3 (“our message” literally “the word”). Conversations, the “word” spoken by ordinary people in ordinary life situations, can have exactly the same value as the “word” spoken by a great leader like Paul to a crowd in a city square. We all have conversations. How can we make sure they are mission conversations, dialogues about faith?

  1. Buying every opportunity. “Make the most of every opportunity” (v. 5) literally means “Buy every Kairos moment”. Kairos is a “time” word. But it’s not just any time: it’s the right time. There’s a right moment to bless someone; to demonstrate God’s love; to offer to pray for someone; there’s a right moment to talk about Jesus; there’s a right moment for telling your story. We need to buy those moments, whenever we see them, like someone at the Black Friday or January sales: we’re going to be first in the queue when the shops open, to grab that bargain. Don’t just theorise. Don’t be like Georgie Girl in the 1960s song, “always window shopping but never stopping to buy.” Be like a bargain hunter… Alert in prayer. Listening carefully, watching for the moment. Seize the moment! Carpe diem! (That’s Latin for “Sieze the day!”)
  1. Filled with grace. May your word, your “Logos” be always “in grace”, soaked in Grace. Grace-filled conversations. Talking about grace. Reflecting Grace. Grace (Charis) is more than God’s undeserved favour. It is beauty, kindness, favour, delight, goodwill, generosity. It is all that we are thankful for, all that we admire and are pleased with from God. Conversations filled with pointers to God’s gracious character. Michael Frost suggests that things like beauty, justice, creativity, compassion, are things that pertain to the Kingdom of God – so we need to make connexions with these gracious and positive things, in our conversations. These may be where some of the Kairos moments are coming from.
  1. Seasoned with salt. Why do we season our food with salt? To make it tasty! Now our conversation should never be dull, boring or insipid. What makes our conversation “seasoned” and interesting
    1. Asking questions and telling stories (as John McGinley says in “Mission-shaped Grace”). Asking at an appropriate time “Do you mind if I tell you how Jesus has changed my life?” or “Would you like to know God personally?” And telling a bit of our own story (without boring people or bragging about our amazing achievements!)
    2. knowledge of our culture, of literature, history.
    3. A genuine interest in other people. Dale Carnegie (of “how to win friends and influence people” fame) describes sitting listening to someone talking about themselves for half an hour or more at a dinner. Afterwards the person told someone else what a good conversationalist Dale Carnegie was. Carnegie hadn’t said a word! Most of us are actually quite interested in our own story! If you can be interested in someone else’s story, you’ll be interesting!
  1. Lastly, dialogue is just that. It is dialogue. We need to know how to answer everyone; and we aren’t answering if they aren’t asking, or if we’re not listening. And everyone means “each and every person”. Not just “everyone” as a kind of lump of humanity. But “each and every person”. What there isn’t in mission, is a “one size fits all” answer.

We need to engage people in grace-filled conversations. that are seasoned with good stories and genuine interest in others. All of us are called to that ministry of the word. And all of us are called to back that up with prayer and with practical, loving kingdom lifestyle.

© Gilmour Lilly November 2019

Telling the Whole Story of God the Father

The Importance of Story

D – Dialogue about the gospel

This morning we are continuing the BREAD series on mission.  Continuing with the letter D, we are looking at the importance of story.

The purpose of John 1:1-18

John 1:1-18, is the prologue or introduction to John’s gospel.  It is sometimes described as being like a porch into the gospel. It is built into the gospel, contains many of its themes, and yet is in some ways set apart from it and different. 

Often prologues to books are written after the main body of the book has been completed.  The author can reflect on the book and provide the reader with the perfect introduction to the book to prepare them for what is to come; and to help them understand it.    Some scholars think that John 1:1-18 was written in much the same way as contemporary book prologues: That it, despite it running straight into the gospel smoothly, without a break, it was likely written subsequent to the main portion of the gospel.  And like other prologues it was written by the same author, but after much reflection on the gospel, and written to prepare the reader for what is to come.  It’s similarities to the letter of 1st John also imply that John wrote the prologue himself, but possibly at a slightly later date than the main gospel.

And I think John took quite a bit of time over this prologue – getting it just right.  The careful poetic structure that runs through much of it implies that.  And I believe that John intended the reader of the prologue to use it to give greater depth into their understanding of the gospel. 

Fresh Prince

As I was thinking about poetic prologues it was the Fresh Prince of Bel air came to my mind.  The Fresh Prince of Bel air was a TV show that ran through the early 90’s featuring Will Smith as the main character.  For those who don’t know, the theme tune is pretty awesome.  It’s a rap, and it is sung by Will Smith in the character he plays on the show as the fresh prince of Bel Air.  The rap tells the story of how the character, Will, moved from West Philadelphia to LA to move in long term with his auntie and Uncle and cousins.  You could watch the TV show without its theme tune; but without it it would be much harder to make sense of the show, and of why Will is the character that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Bel Air family.

V18: made known

Kind of like the theme for the Fresh Prince, John 1:1-18 is important if we want to understand the stories in John’s gospel well.  As the prologue comes to a close it says this in v18. ‘No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.’  The Greek word used here for make known is ἐξηγέομαι.  Whenever it is used in the New Testament it means to draw out in narrative, to tell the story in full.  Other than in John 1:18 it only appears in Luke’s books of Luke and Acts, and each time Luke uses it he is talking about someone telling others stories about what they have experienced.  For that reason, a scholar called Andreas Kostenberger writes in his commentary on John, that in the final words of his introduction John makes the important point that the entire gospel to follow should be read as an account of Jesus telling the whole story of God the Father.

Who is Jesus?

If the prologue tells us that we should read this gospel as Jesus telling the whole story of God with his life and ministry, it also tells us the story of who Jesus is and why he is the one to tell this story, a bit like how the theme to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air is an introduction to who Will is and why he is telling the stories that follow in the TV series.

            Pre-Creation vv1-3 (v18)

So, lets go back to the beginning of the prologue and find out who Jesus is and why he is telling the story of God:  The words ‘in the beginning’ that open the prologue take us all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis 1, before the world was made.  It was ‘in the beginning’ that God created everything.  John says that the Word was with God and the Word was God.  The Word is different in person, yet everything that can be said about God can be said about the Word.

 In the beginning God speaks, and his words create.  The first thing the Word creates is light, because without light there cannot be life.  Light and life are closely connected both in Genesis and in John’s gospel. 

            In-between creation and Incarnation vv4-5 (vv16-17)

The light communicates life and gives mankind spiritual insight.  Spiritual insight brings with it the responsibility to act on God’s Word.  But whilst still in the opening chapters of Genesis the light and life that came by God’s Word wasn’t taken seriously enough and death entered the world.  Death and darkness in John’s gospel represent spiritual blindness and separation from God.

Even though death and darkness came into the world in Genesis the light kept shining in the darkness.  God loves his world and so the darkness couldn’t fully take hold of the light of life to snuff it out.  The light keeps evading the grasp of darkness, maybe because the darkness can’t understand it.  That is the hope we have.  There will always be the light of life, and connection to God, no matter how much Spiritual darkness we think we see.

Life and light are in God’s words, and after creation God continued speaking.  God spoke and worked through the likes of Abraham, Jacob, and others.  Later God spoke through Moses, specifically in the giving of the law.  But an even greater kindness was still to come.  The Word that brings light and life was about to come in a very personal way bringing renewed and richer grace and truth in the form of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

            Incarnation vv9-11 &14

            The centre part of the prologue, verses 9-14 are all about how the Word of God became a human being.  He became flesh.  He was not something heavenly and spiritual that just took on human appearance, he was in every way human.  He was born a baby, and grew up as any child does, trying to make sense of who he was and his place in the world.  The story Luke tells of Jesus aged 12 in the temple shows part of Jesus trying to make sense of his world.

It is in John’s gospel that we can see the most human aspects of Jesus. Out of all the gospel writers John most clearly articulates Jesus’ emotions and frailties.  John 4:16 says that Jesus was tired, John:11:35 says Jesus wept; and three times in John Jesus is deeply upset and troubled inside: when he cries over Lazarus in John 11; when he starts thinking about his approaching death in John 12; and when he becomes acutely aware he is about to be betrayed in John 13.  The Word became flesh puts Jesus into history and gives a starting point for a real human being.   This human came into the world in a concrete way and lived as a Jew from an insignificant region called Galilee.  A Galilean Jew growing up in a small town, that nobody thought very much of, called Nazareth.

            He made his dwelling among us.  Which in other words means he came to stay and to live.  A bit like when Will turns up at his auntie and uncles house in the TV program: the Fresh Prince of Bel Air:  Will went to live with his Bel Air family – his uncle, auntie, and cousins – long term.  The Word came to live long term on earth.

The Word coming to us as a human being by the name of Jesus is of as much importance as creation.  It was another new beginning.  The Greek for made his dwelling among us can be equally translated ‘he pitched his tent among us’, or ‘he tabernacled among us’.  John is purposely taking us back to the Old Testament when the Jewish people were wandering in the wilderness, but God was with them in the tabernacle.  Jesus takes the place of the tabernacle or temple.  But he came much more personally, walking about amongst the people.  God’s Word with skin on.

            God’s words becoming flesh and telling the story of God is the key to the whole gospel. Only humans can tell stories that other humans can relate to.  In the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Wil stands out in his posh wider family.  Although he goes to live in Bel Air he came from a rough area in West Philadelphia.  He brought something different with him from West Philadelphia.  In the program he impacted his family in a positive way, despite them finding it hard to relate to him.  Will brought to the Bel Air family home a kind of fresh atmosphere.  And Although Jesus came to move in on earth as a Galilean Jew there was something different about him.  He brought a kind of fresh atmosphere with him:  He brought his life with God and eternity with him.  Jesus told the story of God to the 1st century Jews he came to live with them, telling the whole story of God to them whilst connecting with them as his own family.

            Why Jesus can tell the story

            Jesus is able to tell the whole story of God because he is the Word of God.  In the beginning he was with God and was God.  His relationship with God is so close that he is able to embody and personify the life-giving words of God.  But he was also a human, able to relate God’s word in terms of human experience, and the stories of being human.  Part of the significance of being human was that he was fully involved in the limitations of that humanity.  That included the limitations of time and space, and of culture.  He was only able to tell God’s story really well to one particular culture, that of 1st century Judaism in Galilee and the surrounding areas.  Jesus could bring God’s story in a personal and relevant way to those around him.          

Passing on the story

(John 1:12-13)

Although John 1vv11 & 14 tell us that Jesus became flesh and that he came to a very specific people in time and space, this poetic prologue finds its climax in the centre.  It is a chiastic structure which is a fancy term for a mirror image structure, where the end and the beginning relate to each other all the way in to the centre.  The central declaration, which is in vv12-13, moves the coming of the Word beyond the Jews, and out to the whole world.  His story is for everyone.  Many of the Jews did not receive Jesus but vv12-13 say: ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’  To all means the whole world:  the light of life in Jesus is freely available to anyone in any time or any place. 

John states the purpose of his gospel in chapter 20:vv30-31, it is the very last statement before his epilogue.  John’s statement of purpose says this: ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’  The purpose is that you, whoever you are, may have life in Jesus’ name.  John could tell the story of Jesus in this gospel because he was the disciple whom Jesus loved.  He was close enough to Jesus to experience him enough to tell the story of Jesus. 

John 12

Pam spoke a couple of weeks ago from John 12.  In John 12 Jesus is thinking about what will be accomplished when he is lifted up – in other words what will be accomplished when he dies.  He says this: ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’  He is the single seed that must die to produce many seeds.  The context of the passage is that some Greeks want to get to know Jesus and become his followers.  In that moment Jesus realises his job is done.  It is time to move beyond the Jews, and reach the Greeks.  But that is not his job.  The stories of other people will relate better to the Greeks.  The Greeks will tell others, and God’s story will go out to the ends of the earth bit by bit, across geography and time in the power of the Holy Spirit.  A power that can only come fully once Jesus has died.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the light that Jesus brought into the world, now multiples into millions of lights, reflected from Jesus.

Jesus grew up in a quite random, not well known, and kind of looked down on, little town called Nazareth in the region of Galilee.  He came to the Jews because he was born a Jew.   We live in a quite random region of Scotland called Fife.  Our church is in a fairly insignificant wee town in West Fife called Rosyth.  It is kind of connected to the larger and more well-known town of Dunfermline.  Our little corner of the world is West Fife in Scotland.  We can relate best to other folks from this area, and across Scotland in general because our stories relate to them.  The best people to tell the story of Jesus to the people of West Fife are the people who know and understand West Fife because they have come to live there too.

The power of story

Jesus told the whole story of God, John has given us his story of Jesus in his gospel, and now it is our turn to tell just a little something of that story.  We pass on the story of Jesus, as we begin to grow in our knowledge of him and then live our lives as folks who live in West Fife who know and love Jesus.    As well as living our lives we can pass on something of the story of the gospel by telling stories about our lives. 

As human beings the most powerful way that we can relate to one another is by telling stories.  Have you ever noticed how much of what we do is story?  When you are remembering something, you remember it in story format.  When you dream or daydream you are imagining stories.  Everything we are and do is narrative. Stories are how we think and make meaning in life.

I actually really enjoy reading non-fiction books.  I enjoy learning concepts.  But if I put down a book about God or about church that is not written in story and pick up something that is written in story my brain goes ‘ah now that is much easier.’ 

I can read for longer, I can read quicker, and I can read with greater enjoyment when I am reading something that is written as a story.  Sometimes books that teach concepts use aspects of story within them and the sections that are written in story tend to be much easier to read and be much more enjoyable than the sections that aren’t.

My absolute favourite kind of non-fiction is stories about people’s lives.  I like to learn about people and what it is that makes them who they are.  At the moment I am reading an autobiography by one of my favourite TV personalities, the documentary maker Louis Theroux.  Reading about his early life has actually really surprised me, and I am enjoying reading a little bit before going to sleep at night.  I struggle to read books that are mainly abstract concepts and non-story right before sleeping as my brain is tired, but I can read story no problem, and I believe it calms my mind and helps me sleep.

Stories talk about real human experiences, they engage our imaginations, our intellect, and our emotions.  There is something comforting and familiar about stories; and we can picture ourselves in the story as well, almost feeling like active participants; feeling the emotions of the story.

When we tell others stories about ourselves and our lives we are able to share with other people both our sadness and joy; and we can share something of the meaning in our lives.  And if our lives are impacted by and for Jesus then that should naturally come out in our stories.  For those listening story helps them connect with is.  If we were to tell a friend about Jesus in a teaching kind of way, they might put up defences and not really listen; but if we tell stories that they can relate to all the defences come down and differences are overcome.  Stories are the best way to persuade people because they engage the listener with both information and emotions.

Actually, stories help us understand ourselves better, as well as creating connections with others.  So, when we tell stories about ourselves it might even help us to see better what God is doing in our lives as well as helping others see God at work in the world.  The best way to tell stories is simply to tell them with no further explanation, and let the story impact the other person wherever they are, and in whatever way works for them. We can tell the stories, but how the stories affect the other person is out of our hands and in God’s hands.

I am part of a very small group of people that meet once a week to do a bit of fun exercise together.  During that exercise stories are almost always told: we warm up, and stretch whilst discussing life and telling stories.  I am a quiet person and mostly listen to the stories of others, but I need to get better at telling my own stories.  I sometimes go along to this group feeling tired, and maybe even a bit down.  However, I can guarantee that by the time I go home an hour or so later I will be feeling so much better than when I arrived.  The human connection through both the exercise and the story telling can be really quite healing.  Others in the group have commented things like ‘coming here is better than therapy.’  I’m not the only one that usually leaves feeling better and happier.

So, when we are with our friends, whether Christian or not, telling stories about our lives, and listening to the stories of others, can be an amazing way to connect with ourselves, others, and God.  We have our story of how we became Christians.  I often tell that story slightly differently depending on who I am talking to and why.  But I also have a life filled with stories.  41 years’ worth of stories in fact, and about 24 years’ worth as a Christian.  God is at work in my life and he is therefore in some small way in every story.  Not just the good and happy stories, but he is there in the difficult times too.  The most important thing about story telling is to be authentic, and not just pick out the happy things.  And God might just use the stories I tell to bring someone else just a little bit closer to him, without me even realising it.  And he might use the stories that you tell, to bring someone else just a little bit closer to him too.