Monday, 15 July 2019

Conference Report

Conference Report from Wicklow Methodist Church 14th July 2019

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Losing your spiritual baggage


Colossians 3:5-14

Last week, we looked at growing in grace and holiness – we continue that theme, looking at the spiritual baggage that we bring from the old life to the new and what we can do about it.

The city of Colosse was near Laodicea (one of the 7 churches of Revelation) in modern day Turkey. It is currently and unexcavated Tell (a large mound of rocks, bricks and earth).

The church in Colossse was probably founded by Epaphras while Paul was ministering in Ephesus for about 3 years. It was a multi-cultural congregation with mixed social status - Jews, Greeks, Barbarians, Scythians & Slaves which caused all sorts of tensions that Paul felt he needed to address.

Purpose of the Book 
(1) Combat false teaching that was undermining the centrality and supremacy of Christ
(2) Stress the true nature of new life in Christ and its demands on the believer

The book of Galatians describes the battle between the Flesh and the Spirit in chapter 5 and this passage similarly contrasts the two.

The “old self” and its practices
Paul sees a clear distinction between life without Christ and life with Christ.  Most of us will recognise an “old self” that existed before we asked Jesus into our lives.  Paul lists some of the practices of the old self.
• Sexual immorality
• Impurity
• Lust
• Evil desires
• Greed (which is Idolatry)
• Anger
• Rage
• Malice
• Slander
• Filthy language
• Lies

The “new self” and its practices
• Compassion
• Kindness
• Humility
• Gentleness
• Patience
• Bearing with each other
• Forgiveness
• Love

We have been given a new nature in Christ, but the old one, the Flesh, hasn’t completely gone away. It’s still trying to exert an influence on us. What’s happening, is that our “new self”, our “new nature” is in a process of transformation. The Spirit of God is slowly changing us from the inside out. But of course, we have to be willing to change, we have to be open to the work of the Spirit – we can resist it, or we can embrace it. This process of transformation is often called Sanctification and it’s described in several places in the Bible. Here are some of them:

Romans 12:2
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

2 Corinthians 3:18
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Colossians 3:10 (from our reading today)
“…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

The “new self” is being renewed in knowledge in the image of God.  But, we still have some of those old ways in us.  Old habits die hard.  We don’t enter into new life in Christ empty-handed. We bring a lot of baggage from our “old self” with us.
One of the problems in the church at Colosse was that cultural baggage was causing tensions, in particular between Greeks and Jews. Both groups brought their cultural baggage with them to church and this led to disputes.

Acts 6:1
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 

One of the first disputes in the early church was between these 2 different cultures - The Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic and followed Jewish culture. The Grecian Jews spoke Greek and most were born outside of Palestine. They followed Greek culture, also known as Hellenistic culture. 

Paul’s answer to the disputes caused by cultural baggage in Colosse was to remind them of their total equality in Christ.

Colossians 3:11
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 

So Paul reminds the Colossians and us, that as far as the church is concerned 
  • cultural background is IRRELEVANT,
  • nationality is IRRELEVANT and
  • social status is IRRELEVANT!
We are all EQUAL in the eyes of God.

GOD knows that these things are irrelevant but we are still being “renewed in knowledge in the image of God” and so we can easily think and act as if they are important. If we’re honest, we tend to have more time and respect for people who are just like us. We get far more upset when we here about a plane crash in Europe than one in some other distant continent. We get more upset about domestic incidents than wars and natural disasters on the other side of the world – unless people like us are caught up in them. In theory we recognise that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, but we don’t really live that out. 

Whether we realise it or not, we are all carrying cultural baggage. Mary McAleese got into trouble some years ago on the radio when she suggested that many Protestants in the North transmitted to their children an irrational hatred of Catholics. She was simply making the point that cultural baggage has consequences. When Liana and myself lived in the North while I was training for the ministry, a Methodist couple we knew called their first child “Patrick” – their friends couldn’t believe it! They thought it sounded far too Catholic!

What do we tend to do with our cultural baggage?  

• Pretend that it doesn’t exist
• Hang around with people who have the same baggage as ourselves
• Pass judgement on other people’s baggage (find speck but ignore the plank)

What should we do with our cultural baggage?  

• Acknowledge it and identify it
• Give the Holy Spirit permission to deal with it
• Bear with each other as we all sift through a lifetime of experiences and influences, trying to discern what is worth holding on to and what needs to be discarded.  

This process takes time and that’s why we need to bear with each other

Look around you – everyone here is loved by God, regardless of cultural background, nationality, or social standing. In fact, God’s love is even more embracing than that. God’s love for you is not based on your level of Christian commitment or your level of performance in His kingdom, it is based on the fact that you are made in His image. As Philip Yancey wrote: "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do to make Him love you less"

Do we love people the way God loves them?  We don’t yet, because we are still being transformed. The more that our minds become renewed in knowledge and in the image of our Creator, the more we will love each other!

In the meantime, we need to bear with each other.

It’s only as we begin to fully realise how much we are loved by God, that in the light of that love we will demonstrate compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience towards others.

It is vital that we do these things because if we don’t, then people will take offence and grievances will arise between people in the church.
And when that happens, there’s only one way out of it – forgiveness.  And that’s hard. It’s better to be patient with someone early on than to let things get to the stage where there’s a grievance and you then have to go up to someone and ask for their forgiveness.

In summary, 

• Due to our “old self”, we all have our own cultural baggage to deal with
• We are all in the process of having our minds renewed and consequently:
     o We do not yet see people the way God sees them
     o We do not always act in godly ways towards our brothers and sisters in Christ
• We need to treat each other as EQUALS and bear with each other in all compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience  

As a response, consider this question: 

This is an opportunity to practice the Gospel Waltz that I showed you last week.

Let’s Pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you for your Word, which constantly challenges our thinking and our lifestyle. We Repent of the wrong attitudes we carry towards some our brothers and sisters in Christ. We Believe that Jesus came to show us a better way and that through the Cross we have new life and the Holy Spirit within us, renewing our minds to the likeness of Christ – but we have some way to go. Help us to Obey your Word to us this morning, as we gather around the Lord’s table, one in Christ and one with each other. Amen.   

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Obedience to God

The American comedian Robert Benchley once said “A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.” 

The American preacher and writer Charles Stanley says ‘The bottom line in the Christian life is obedience and most people don't even like the word.’ 

We naturally react against obedience. There’s an instinctive human reaction to kick back against authority, and yet obedience is vital for society to function well. For example, an can't be run if soldiers don't obey orders. Some people don’t want to be answerable to others, but how do they react if their employees don’t want to carry out their instructions? 

Obedience to God is a fundamental concept
Obedience to God is loving acceptance of God’s authority – rightly relating to God.
Disobedience is rebellion against God’s authority – wrongly relating to God. 

It applies not just in the Christian life, but also in the Spiritual Realm. 

Disobedience to God has serious consequences

Satan’s disobedience led to a rebellion in heaven, which introduced sin into the spiritual world affecting the angelic race and the spiritual creation. 
Adam & Eve’s disobedience introduced sin into the physical world affecting the human race and the physical creation.

In both cases, disobedience had not only immediate consequences, but eternal consequences.

Old Testament Covenant – Blessings & Curses
In the OT, the focus is on Israel and the Covenant God made with them. They had a straight choice: Blessing for obedience and Curses for disobedience. There are four whole chapters in Deuteronomy (27 – 31) that spells it all out in detail as to what they were to do on entering the promised land, and Joshua 8 recounts a summary of what they actually did.

Half the tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim to pronounce the blessings for Obedience and the other six tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce the curses for Disobedience. They were in the heart of Israel, with the city of Shechem at the bottom of the valley. As you can see from the photo and description, it formed a natural amphitheatre.
According to tradition, Mount Gerizim was lush and fertile while Mount Ebal was rocky and barren, clearly portraying the ramifications of their choices: They could choose the good path, following God and walking in His ways, leading to a rich, fruitful life. Alternatively, they could disobey God and obey their natural desires, leading to an empty and barren life.

The fact that God instructed the Israelites to carry out such a dramatic and memorable event highlights the importance of Obedience to the Law that He gave them. Their obedience was the key to their prosperity. In contrast, their subsequent disobedience was the root of their undoing.

Even in Genesis, we find that the Old Testament points to a future obedience to Christ.

Genesis 49:10
‘The sceptre will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and th
e obedience of the nations shall be his.’

Judah was the most significant tribe, in terms of territory and influence. Jerusalem lay on its northern border just within the much smaller tribe of Benjamin. When the kingdom was split after Solomon’s death, the other 10 tribes were referred to as “Israel” and these two as “Judah”. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC and the 10 tribes were scattered among the nations. Judah lasted for about 130 years longer until it fell to Babylon – but there was always a remnant in Judah, and there was a return from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. This was all in accordance with Jacob’s blessing that “The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet”…until…we get to the NT.
“he to whom it belongs” refers to Jesus and the “obedience of the nations” refers to those who submit to his Kingdom rule, both now and in the age to come, when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Before we leave the OT, we should mention the key verse from our OT Reading:

Obedience to God is good for us

Deuteronomy 5:32 
‘Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.’

Obedience to God is more important than church attendance
Another key lesson from the OT can be learned from when Saul disobeyed God and kept some of the animals that he should have destroyed to offer a sacrifice to God. Samuel reprimands him sharply:

1 Samuel 15:22
‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

In the Old Testament, Sacrifice was Worship. So in today's language, Obedience to God is more important than church attendance!

Christianity is a call to Obedience
In the NT, the call to be a Christian is a call to loving obedience.

Romans 1:5

‘Through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.’

Peter has the same understanding:
1 Peter 1:1-2
‘To God’s elect ... who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood’

This idea of loving obedience to God prompted C.S Lewis to write: ‘I was not born to be free – I was born to adore and obey.’ 

I read a book some time ago about Discipleship written by Eugene Peterson, author of the Message version of the Bible: The title is “A long obedience in the same direction”. In it he suggests that a life of discipleship is a long-term attitude and consistent practice of obedience to God.

In Romans 6, Paul tells us that whether we like the idea of being obedient or not,
We’re all obedient to something!

Romans 6:16-18
‘Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.’

We either obey sin or obey God (the flesh or the spirit), one leads to sin and death, the other leads to righteousness and life.

The New Testament often groups people into those who are obedient and those who are disobedient to God.

In Paul’s letters, he sometimes refers to unbelievers as “those who are disobedient”, or “the sons of disobedience”. He also describes the former life of Christians (including himself) as a life of disobedience.

Those apart from Christ are ‘disobedient’ to God
Ephesian 2:1-3a
‘As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.’
Titus 3:3
‘At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.’

In contrast, Paul associates those following Christ as ‘obedient’.

Those following Christ are ‘obedient’ to God
Romans 16:19
‘Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you’

2 Corinthians 9:13
‘Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ’

Acts 6:7
‘So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’

What is this obedience that Paul is referring to?

Obedience to God is simply following Christ’s commands

John 14:23
‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. ’

Matthew 28:19-20
‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’

2 John 5-6 has a similar theme: “I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands”.

Jesus is our example
Philippians 2:7-8
‘he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!’

Hebrews 5:7-9

‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.’

A life of obedience to God is a life of humility and reverent submission to God. It’s also a life of learned obedience. I was curious about this phrase so I dug deeper. It’s not that Jesus had to learn how to go from disobedience to obedience, it's that there are different types of obedience:

1. Professed Obedience (An initial declaration of Obedience)
    a. We sing songs like “I will offer up my life…I have decided to follow Jesus”
    b. The seed that fell on rocky ground and the seed that fell among thorns both started out with professed obedience but it didn’t last.

2. Learned Obedience (An obedience that is tested over time)
    a. Jesus’ Obedience was a tested obedience. “tempted in every way, yet without sin”

    b. Sometimes we learn by obedience, sometimes by disobedience

3. Proven Obedience (An obedience that is faithful to the end)
    a. Run the race, fought the fight, lived out a long obedience in the same direction
    b. Exemplified by Jesus and the martyrs, ancient and modern and thousands of unknown ordinary saints who have lived lives of consistent obedience to God.

Let me wrap up by mentioning two variations of learned obedience:

1. General Obedience (to God’s Word)
2. Specific Obedience (to God’s Spirit)

The Bible tells us generally how to obey God – we have Jesus’ general commands for example. But Christianity is not just about keeping Jesus’ commands in general, it’s about a relationship with the Holy Spirit. And because we’re all different, with different personalities and different spiritual gifts, the Holy Spirit gives us specific commands that are only for us and only for a particular time and place.

We see this in how Jesus dealt with people – he commanded everyone to be generous (in general) but he asked the rich young ruler (specifically) to give away everything he owned. It was specific, because in his case, it was always going to hold him back.

I was on a working holiday in Australia in my twenties and God clearly told me to give up alcohol. I believe Scripture teaches that Christians can consume alcohol in moderation, but He was telling me to abstain completely. I resisted at first and convinced myself that moderation was ok for me. The next 3 times that I drank, something negative happened each time that wouldn’t have happened if I had been completely sober until I copped on and eventually decided to obey God. It was a learned obedience and I have to say it’s been a blessing to me. God knows more about us than we do, so we should trust His guidance.

I’ve learned a lot from this study – here’s a quick summary and a definition.

1. Our ‘flesh’ naturally reacts against obedience
2. Obedience to God is fundamental
3. Obedience to God is good for us
4. Obedience to God is more important than church attendance
5. We’re all obedient to something
6. Obedience to God is following Christ’s commands
7. Jesus is our example
8. Obedience to God will be tested until proven
9. Obedience to God is both general and specific

Obedience to God is rightly relating to God by lovingly accepting His authority over us.

Let’s spend a couple of moments in quietness and as a response, you might like to consider the 2 questions on the screen and then I’ll close in prayer in short while.

Let's Pray: Heavenly Father, you are God and we are not. You created us and you know us intimately. You know what’s best for us and you have shown us through your Word how to live well. As we study your Word and as we listen to your Spirit, help us to learn obedience through our struggles and our victories. Give us courage to make godly choices when the flesh and the world try to tug us in the wrong direction. Give us a complete trust in you and your ways, for we ask it in Jesus name.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

The Gospel Waltz


I learned about this tool from some Discipleship material produced by Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The thinking behind it is that the Gospel is just as important for our Sanctification, as it is for our Justification.

The full graphic is shown here. If you click it, you can save the full size version and print it out.

A simpler version is shown here:

The idea is that you write in the middle the Context (i.e. the sin you are struggling with) and then answer the questions and pray through the 3 steps in order: Repent, Believe & Obey.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Day of the Lord


Reading: 2 Peter 3:1-15

I grew up in Athlone and attended the local church of Ireland school which meant I was often at services in the local Church of Ireland. The only thing I can remember from all the sermons I heard was one phrase. The rector said: “We must avoid fundamentalism but get back to the fundamentals”. Fundamentalism is frowned upon these days. Muslim Fundamentalism is behind modern jihadists. Christian Fundamentalism is associated with right wing, bible thumping, sectarian judgementalism that is severely lacking in humility or grace.

It didn’t start out like this. Historically, Christian Fundamentalism originated in the early part of the 20th century as a reaction against Modernism, a form of liberalism which questioned the Bible and traditional Biblical truths. They focussed on 5 fundamentals:
  • Biblical inspiration
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus 
By the end of the 1930s, Modernism was in the ascendency but then the 1970s saw a re-emergence of conservative Christianity.

Personally, I believe that there are fundamental Biblical truths that we need to believe in and attend to. If that makes me a fundamentalist, then so be it, but I’ll try to be a gracious and humble fundamentalist as I share what I believe is important for Christian life and witness.

There are fundamentals in other spheres of life. There are fundamentals in marriage – things like love, respect & fidelity – if you don’t believe and live out these fundamentals, then your marriage will most likely fall apart. Likewise, if you don’t believe and live out certain fundamentals of Christianity, then your faith will most likely fall apart.

One of the fundamentals is the resurrection of Jesus. Paul makes it quite clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is futile!

I believe another of the fundamentals is our subject this morning - the return of Jesus, His second coming to the earth. If you don’t believe this is ever going to happen, then you run the risk of aligning yourself with the scoffers in our reading and they are not good company to keep. Or, you run the risk of getting weighed down by the suffering in the world and you start thinking – why doesn’t God do something? Maybe he doesn’t care, maybe he’s not there at all…

On the other hand, if you firmly believe that Jesus will return in power and in justice to end all suffering, then you have the sure and certain hope of God’s people, who are patiently waiting for Jesus to keep His promise.

So, let’s get stuck into 2 Peter 3:1-15. The heading in the NIV is “The Day of the Lord” and it refers to the Second Coming of Christ and the end of this present age. The phrase “The Day of the Lord” crops up in both Testaments in multiple places. It’s in OT prophetic literature and it can mean a day when Israel triumphs over its enemies or indeed when Israel’s enemies triumph over them, because of Israel’s disobedience and spiritual adultery. Some of the OT references are prophecies far into the future to the Second Coming of Christ. And of course, this is the event that the NT references point to, apart from one or two that refer to Sunday, being the Lord’s Day.

I was going to look at this passage from 2 Peter from 3 angles. Incidentally, this is a useful way to approach a passage in a Bible Study.

1.     What does it tell us about God?

2.     What does it  tell us about people?

3.     What does it  tell us about the interaction between God and people?

But I realised that there was a full sermon in the first point, so I’ll have to finish it on another day!

So, what does this passage tell us about God?

1. God created the world 
Verse 5 “… long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed…”

It was a perfect creation but is now tainted by the Fall. And not only are we waiting for Jesus to return, but the whole creation is waiting too!

Romans 8:18-21 says:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

In verses 3 and 4, we find the scoffers I referred to earlier:
Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’

At least they believed that God created the world, many people today believe it created itself!

2. God will re-create the world
Verse 7 “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire…”

Peter calls this cataclysmic event “the Day of the Lord”.  You may have seen some of the great disaster movies, like “Deep Impact” and “The day after tomorrow” – this is much more serious than a meteor or an ice age, even more serious than the great flood which gets a mention in verse 6. ‘By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.’

Since the original creation, there have been two major events affecting it. The first was the Fall, which affected nature as well as humanity. The second was the great flood which destroyed the creatures living on the earth. We’ll look at these in more detail another time.

Whereas the earth was destroyed by water during the Flood, after which God promised not to do the same thing again, the re-creation will happen by fire.

We had verse 7 earlier:
“By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire…”

We see fire mentioned again in verses 10 and 12.
Verse 10: the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.  
Verse 12: That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens [skies] by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.

Revelation has multiple references to fire coming down from heaven to scorch the earth.

2 Thessalonians also talks about the Lord Jesus being revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.

But as well as the destruction, we have the renewal.  Verse 13 “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

The idea of a new heaven and a new earth is prophesied in Isaiah 65 and 66, along with Revelation 21.

3. God does not want anyone to perish during the process of destruction and renewal

God’s desire is that everyone will come to repentance and live with Him in this renewed world. Verses 9 and 15 explain give us some insight into why Jesus hasn’t come yet.

Verse 9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

This doesn’t mean everyone will come to repentance, in fact many choose to reject God.

There’s a similar thought in Verse 15 “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him.

See the consistency between Peter & Paul on this point.
(the longer God waits, the more people will be saved).

There’s also a consistency with Jesus in Matthew 24 when he talks about the end times. In order that everyone has an opportunity to repent and be saved, Jesus said: this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

As you can imagine, we are getting close to the point where the gospel has been preached to all nations and people groups, but we’re not quite there yet.

4. God views time from the perspective of eternity

Verse 8: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
This thought is also expressed in Psalm 90:4.

A thousand years looks different to God than it does to us.  God can accomplish in one day, what we might expect would take a thousand years, or He can take a thousand years to accomplish what we would like to see done in a day.

Ever since the day of Pentecost, we’ve been living in “the last days”.

Christians in every generation since the time of the apostles believed that they would see Jesus come again in their lifetime.  Here are some examples:

Gregory I, pope from 590 to 604 AD, in a letter to a European monarch, said: "We also wish Your Majesty to know, as we have learned from the words of Almighty God in Holy Scriptures, that the end of the present world is already near and that the unending Kingdom of the Saints is approaching."

As you can imagine the year 1000 was widely believed to be the year of Christ’s return, probably generating as much speculation as our own Y2K.

"The Anabaptists of the early Sixteenth Century believed that the Millennium would occur in 1533."

The great Reformer Martin Luther, predicted that the end was imminent. According to one authority, he stated: "For my part, I am sure that the day of judgment is just around the corner."

Our own John Wesley speculated that Christ would return by 1836 based on the writings of Johann Albrecht Bengel, a contemporary Lutheran Pietist.

William Miller, generally credited with founding the Adventist Church, is quoted as saying: "I am fully convinced that sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, according to the Jewish mode of computation of time, Christ will come.

In 1835, Mormon leader Joseph Smith predicted the Coming of the Lord 56 years later.

Before 1914, C. T. Russell of The Watchtower Society said Armageddon would be finished not later than 1914, and in fact it had already started in 1874! The Society then predicted the end would come in 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, the 1940s, and 1975.

Hal Lindsey wrote the first edition of Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. In it Lindsey claimed that the world would come to an end by destruction in thermonuclear war, "within 40 years or so of [May 14,] 1948" — the date of the establishment of the modern nation of Israel.

When it didn’t happen, he kept writing. In a later book, Lindsey stressed the importance of the 1967 "Six-Day [Arab-Israeli] War." Although he refuses to set a precise date, he hinted that 2007 would be the likely year for the Second Coming, with the "Rapture" occurring in 2000. When Lindsay appeared on Art Bell's Radio Program on February 9, 1999, he insisted that Jesus would definitely come again within the lifetime of those who witnessed Israel's statehood in 1948. He also speculated that Y2K chaos would make a particularly good time for the appearance of the Anti-Christ, whom he believed to be alive and living in Europe. Hal turned 89 last month and he’s still active in ministry and has a website where he reports current events from the perspective of the End Times.

The lesson from all these failed predictions is that only God best, so we leave the timing to Him. Our responsibility is to be ready, watchful and thankful.

To be continued…

Let’s Pray

Father we thank you for your Word that tells us about your wisdom and your ways. We thank you that you sent Jesus to be our Saviour and that you have commissioned us, as your church, to preach the gospel to all nations, to give as many as possible an opportunity to repent, for it is your will that none should perish on the Day of the Lord. We thank you for Jesus’ promise that one day He will return to earth in glory. In some ways it frightens us because we may not feel ready just yet, and there are people we know who are definitely not ready. We thank you that you are the God of history and the God of the future. We thank you for your creation and the re-creation that will result in the new heaven and the new earth, when all suffering will cease and you will dwell with your people.

May we be ready and patient, trusting in You all the days of our lives, for we pray in Jesus name.  Amen.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Blessed are the Peacemakers


Life would be better if we chose to...

I want to focus on one of the Beatitudes this morning, not just because it ties in with Armistice Day, but because it’s at the heart of the Gospel.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9

In this world, there are different kinds of people.

In the context of this sermon, I’m going to consider four kinds of people.

Firstly, there are the troublemakers. Some people go out deliberately looking for a fight, or a war, or even just an argument. These people like to “stir things up” to provoke conflict.

Football hooligans are one example of troublemakers – many of their “firms”, as they are called, are highly organised.

In our journey through proverbs, we found some troublemakers:

An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.

A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.

Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.

Secondly, there are what I call the “troublekeepers”. I made up this word! These people don’t deliberately make trouble, but they are quite happy for it to continue. For example, some people involved in a war have a vested interest in it being prolonged, so they can enjoy status and power in the faction that they belong to.

Much of the media are troublekeepers. The media feeds off conflict. Journalists don’t deliberately set out to break up a celebrity marriage, but they make money from reporting every detail of long and bitter divorce proceedings. I saw a Jamie Oliver program where he told the story of a journalist calling him up wondering was he hitting his wife Jools!

Thirdly, there are the peacekeepers. And most of us probably fall into this category. We don’t like conflict and so we try to “keep the peace”. Being a peacekeeper is better than being a troublekeeper, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying cause of a conflict. A peacekeeper is primarily concerned with outward appearances. As long as everything is ok on the surface, a peacekeeper is content.

For years, Irish soldiers have served in the Lebanon as UN peacekeepers. They played an important role, but the underlying resentments were never dealt with and they keep resurfacing, such as in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, in which over a thousand people died.

Sadly, many marriages are being maintained by ‘peacekeeping’. Everything might look fine on the outside in public, but serious issues exist behind closed doors that are not dealt with, and that express themselves in resentment and disharmony.

The “not the nail video” is a funny example of one person not wanting to deal with an issue!

Fourthly, there are the peacemakers. Peacemakers don’t sweep problems under the carpet – they confront them, even if the process is painful. Peacemakers actively seek to resolve conflict, not just keep it under control. Peacemakers are rare, because peacemaking is hard work. I found it hard to find a picture of peacemakers! Here's one of a young peacemakers club in Kenya:

There is a big difference between peacekeepers and peacemakers. Let me show you a couple of pictures of peacekeepers:

Peacekeepers are intimidating. Their message is: “If you will not keep the peace, you will be punished”. Peacekeepers carry weapons to back up their threats. In military conflicts, the weapons are guns, missiles and sanctions. In family conflicts, the weapons are violence, emotional withdrawal, financial deprivation and separation/divorce.

In contrast, peacemakers are not threatening. They don’t issue ultimatums. They don’t give commands. Peacemakers first and foremost listen. Peacemakers take the time to hear a person’s grievance and understand things from their perspective. Peacemakers are patient – they understand when someone needs time to work through an issue. Peacemakers are in it for the long haul.

It’s interesting to look at the Northern Ireland situation and the various attempts to bring peace. In 1969, British Army soldiers were brought in as peacekeepers. In the early 1970’s, peace walls began to emerge. The stated purpose of the barriers was to minimize sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. They are made of iron, brick and steel, sometimes up to 25 feet high. There are currently more than 60 such interface barriers across Northern Ireland, which are managed by the Department of Justice and the Housing Executive. Many of the peace walls are a legacy of the Troubles, but several more have been erected during the last 20 years of relative peace. In fact, there are now more peace walls across Northern Ireland than there were before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

These walls were clearly designed to keep peace, not make it. Peacekeeping troops and peace walls are visible attempts to bring peace but they only serve to contain a conflict; they can never resolve it. On the other hand, the real peacemakers in Northern Ireland tended to work behind the scenes. They kept a low profile, talking to both sides, seeking to understand the different perspectives. Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed in the 1987 Eniskillen Remembrance Day IRA bomb was an example of a peacemaker. Hours after the bombing in an emotional TV interview, he forgave the killers saying: "I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge". Peacemaking is difficult and costly. He went on to have meetings with Sinn Féin, with the IRA, and with loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to persuade them to abandon violence.

The Rev. Cecil Kerr founded the Renewal Centre in Rostrevor. I had the privilege of staying in that centre many times. It was a peacemaking initiative. Its focus was on prayer and reconciliation.

The integrated schools in Northern Ireland are also examples of peacemaking. While peace walls are designed to keep Protestants and Catholics apart, integrated schools are designed to help them grow up together. Sadly, they haven't become mainstream.

Peacemaking in not always popular. In the 1980’s, the Rev. Ken Newell and Fr. Gerry Reynolds set up a bible study group between a large Belfast Presbyterian Church and Clonard Roman Catholic Monastery. It was intended as a response to the Troubles, to foster understanding and dialogue between the Christian traditions, but it caused uproar from middle class churchgoers who preferred troublekeeping and peacekeeping to peacemaking.

In the Methodist church, as you know, ministers are stationed around the circuits. If a major conflict arises between a minister and a congregation, the solution has often been to simply move the minister. This is a peacekeeping exercise. If the underlying problem was a congregation with impossible expectations, then they would be likely to put the same pressure on the next minister. On the other hand, if the underlying problem was a minister who was a control freak, then, more than likely, that minister would do the same to his or her next congregation. Unless the root causes are dealt with through peacemaking, everybody loses and history repeats itself.  

I remember watching an episode of Supernanny where one of the sons in a family of six used to fight with his older sister. The parents controlled this behaviour by shouting at him and threatening him. Supernanny sat him down with his parents and discovered that the reason for his behaviour was that he felt his father had no time for him. And it was true. His father had plenty of time to go to football matches with his mates, but he never brought his son. When the father changed his behaviour, and started doing things with his son, his son’s attitude towards his sister changed. Peacemaking is hard work, but it gets real results. So the question for each one of us, not only in church life, but in the whole of life, is what is our default response to conflict? If we’re honest, I think perhaps we would put ourselves closer to “peacekeeping” than “peacemaking”.

There is a clear Gospel perspective to this business of Peacemaking. We see this firstly in Romans 5:1

‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1) That’s the essence of the gospel.

But then in 2 Corinthians 5, we see a bigger picture of what God is doing with the whole world, and we see that we have a role to play:

‘God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ…And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. ’

And so we can draw out a few key truths. Firstly, Jesus was a peacemaker while on earth. We see this in is ministry; He didn’t shy away from conflict - He dealt with issues by offering kingdom solutions. It is much easier in the short term to carry on being peacekeepers, but Jesus didn’t promise us an easy life. Thankfully we’re not on our own. God is a peacemaker, and He is on the side of the peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Secondly, Jesus is still peacemaking since His ascension into Heaven. Since the Fall, all creation (including sinful humanity) is out of kilter with a Holy God. However, the Bible tells us that through Jesus, God has started a process of peacemaking on a global scale. Through Jesus, God is reconciling Himself to His creation.

Thirdly, by faith, through grace, we have been reconciled to God through Christ – we have peace with God – that’s our salvation, that’s the Gospel.

And Fourthly, we’ve been saved for a purpose. We have been given the message of reconciliation and the ministry of reconciliation. The message is that peace with God is possible through Jesus. Your job is not only to communicate this to others but also to demonstrate it – to live it out. And if you are to truly live out this ministry of reconciliation, it will mean making a journey from peacekeeping to peacemaking. May God bless us all and strengthen us all as we seek to make this journey. 

Let’s Pray: Father we thank you for your Word that comforts us, inspires us and challenges us. As we consider the challenge to a ministry of reconciliation, we repent of the fact that it is our nature to take the easy option of preserving peace rather than facing up to real issues.

We feel inadequate, and so we need more of your grace to have the courage and the sensitivity to live out this calling to be peacemakers. Father we thank you that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, reconciling us to yourself, making peace through His blood shed on the cross. We thank you that we can know the joy of true peace and fellowship with you. Help us to share this wonderful news with others, for we pray in Jesus name. Amen.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The wife of noble character (Proverbs 31)

The saying goes: “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”

According to one website, this phrase was adopted as a slogan for the 1960/70s feminist movement, first having been used in the 1940s. It is less used in more recent years as the imagery of women being behind men is open to misinterpretation.That’s one way of putting it!

Proverbs is written by a Father to a son and it’s full of warnings about bad women.  It’s only when you get to the end that you find a woman described by the various translations as a wife of noble character, a virtuous and capable wife, a wife with a strong character, a valiant woman.

Proverbs 31 is an oracle that King Lemuel’s mother taught him.  We don’t know who King Lemuel is but some scholars believe it’s another name for Solomon which would make the original author Bathsheba. The section on the good wife from verse 10 is an acrostic poem: each line begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  This was often done to make it easier to learn. 

At first reading, it looks like we have a very industrious wife who does everything round the house in addition to running the family business, so her husband can sit around chatting with his mates until dinnertime.  However, let’s not forget that it’s all about a good wife – she is the focus.  If you wrote a poem all about a good husband, you’d probably find a passing reference to “her indoors” in amongst a whole list of activities that the good husband is involved in. So let’s not go too hard on the husband – he actually gets some good PR out of this passage, as we’ll see later.

After reading this through, you might find yourself disheartened. If you’re a woman, you might feel that you will never live up to this description – you’ll never be good enough! 
If you’re a man, you might feel that you’ll never find a woman like this!  The good news for all of us is that this woman doesn’t exist! As my study bible points out: “All the ideals set forth here will probably not be fulfilled by any one wife and mother”. 

As I read through this description a few times, it actually reminded me of an obituary, or possibly a speech by a husband at a 50th wedding anniversary.  It glosses over all the inadequacies and paints a picture of perfection – which of course isn’t the whole story because nobody’s perfect.  Even a wife of noble character will have her bad days and annoying habits but these are omitted in this poem. So you shouldn’t get too disheartened by this description, whether you’re a woman trying to live up to this impossible standard, or a husband wondering why you didn’t marry Miss Perfect. 

In the film “Good will hunting”, Robin Williams talks to Matt Damon about a woman he’s interested in and he says to him: “It is not about whether she’s perfect, nobody is, but what you have to figure out is whether she’s perfect for you.”

So that’s some background; nobody’s perfect, but we can learn some important principles from this description of the good wife.

Firstly, she is valued and affirmed by her husband & children: Verse 11 – “Her husband has full confidence in her”, Verses 28/29 – “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her; ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’”

For the husbands here, do you affirm your wife daily?  Do you tell your wife how much you love and appreciate her?  Affirmation is one of the reasons why this woman is so successful. Verse 25 - “She is clothed with strength and dignity.” Affirmation gives her dignity. Just before I got married, a couple of older men met with me and one piece of advice they gave me was that women respond to what they hear. Words matter. I’m sure you’re wondering what else those men advised me to do!

Secondly, she is devoted to her family (prepares food, makes clothes, teaches her children, she brings her husband good, not harm, all the days of her life). The feeling we get here is that this devotion is not out of a sense of duty but out of love and enthusiasm. There’s a lesson for parents here. In the midst of the physical and emotional energy we expend on raising children, we forget that they are a gift from God and to be cherished. 

Thirdly, she is devoted to God. She doesn’t rely on charm or beauty to be successful because she knows that “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (verse 30). Throughout the whole book of Proverbs, the recurring theme is that the key to a successful life is a healthy reverence and respect for the Lord.

Fourthly, she is compassionate. She doesn’t just think of herself and her family. Verse 20 - “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.”

Fifthly, she uses her time creatively and constructively. Verse 27 – “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” She manages things well and thinks ahead.

Sixthly, she’s not a worrier!  Verse 25 says: “she can laugh at the days to come.”. Why? Because she plans for the future, she trusts her husband and she trusts God. Despite Jesus’ command not to worry about food or clothes or what tomorrow will bring, some Christians are always worrying about something! Worry is a sign of lack of trust and it destroys your peace. But not this woman! Instead of worrying about the future, she laughs at it!

Seventhly (& finally because seven is the perfect number and this is the perfect wife!), she is content. Verse 15 (gets up early, not drags herself out of bed), Verse 17 (she works vigorously, not begrudgingly), Verse 13 (she works eagerly, not despondently). In some ways, she has every reason to be resentful – up early, busy all day, no time for herself.  But she is happy!  Why is she so content?

Because she is FREE!

Let me explain.  The more I looked at this passage, the more I kept getting the word FREEDOM. 

The mood in this passage is one of harmony in the household. And the chapter taken as a whole is about harmony in society. And the source of this harmony is FREEDOM.

Think about it.  If the king can avoid women and wine, then he has the FREEDOM to govern wisely and the people can then enjoy FREEDOM from oppression and exploitation and society is in harmony. 

In the particular family we’ve been looking at, the husband has the FREEDOM to sit on the local council with the elders. Who gave him that freedom?  The wife did. She has every right to keep him at home or tell him to work all the hours to put food on the table, but she gives him the FREEDOM to use his gifts for the benefit of the community.

Here we have a wife who has the FREEDOM to manage the household as she sees fit.  Her husband is not controlling or domineering or giving instructions – he has “full confidence in her”. She has the FREEDOM to play fast and loose with the joint cheque book. She buys fields and plants vineyards on them!

She has the FREEDOM  to employ servants.  The husband could have said: “We’re not going to waste money paying people to do things that are your responsibility”.  But he gives her the FREEDOM to take on staff, so that she can spend time on her home business. She is gifted in working with materials and she has the FREEDOM to use her gifts for the good of the household.

(Verse 25) “She laughs at the days to come”. This woman has FREEDOM from worry.  She is not afraid of poverty, or cold or enemy attack because she lives in a family and a society where FREEDOM is cherished.

I’m not making a judgement about “a woman’s place being in the home”. This is a family in harmony where each person is given the FREEDOM to use their gifts for the good of the family and the community.  FREEDOM leads to contentment.  The opposite of FREEDOM is CONTROL and it leads to resentment.

There’s a message here for families. Husbands and wives can engage in a power struggle of control and guilt trips and manipulation and keeping records of wrongs causing disharmony and resentment. Parents can try to influence their children in an unhealthy way, especially when it comes to college and careers.  In the film “The dead poet’s society”, one of the boys wants to be an actor and is very good at it, but his father is not impressed and insists that he is going to be a doctor. In the end, the boy shoots himself with his father’s revolver. The consequences of excessive CONTROL can be devastating.

There’s a message here for churches. As a minister, I have to be careful that I don’t pressurise people into doing the jobs that I want them to do. I have to give people the FREEDOM to exercise their gifts in the way God intended them to be used.

And as a congregation, you have to be careful not to try and shape me into the minister that you want me to be. You have to give me the FREEDOM to be myself and to exercise my gifts in the way that God has called me to use them.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for your Word, which speaks to so many aspects of life. We thank you for this insight into family life, that You need to be placed at the centre.  We thank you it was for FREEDOM that Christ has set us free, that through the cross, we have freedom from sin and guilt.  And as we receive that FREEDOM, help us to set others free.  Forgive us when we seek to control and dominate and manipulate, thinking that we know best.  Help us to trust other people and to allow them to exercise their God given gifts and abilities for your glory.  For we pray in Jesus name.  Amen.

Conference Report

Conference Report from Wicklow Methodist Church 14th July 2019