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.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Understanding God's ways from the book of Proverbs (part 2)

Have you ever claimed a reward?  Found someone’s dog, or wallet?

When someone sets a reward amount, it’s usually in proportion to the value of the thing that’s lost. A dog might have a reward of €100. A valuable painting might have a reward of thousands of euro. At one point in the story of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, there was a reward of £2.5m for information leading to her safe return.

So in general, the greater the value of the person or thing that needs to be found, the greater the reward on offer.

We’ve been looking at Proverbs and Wisdom, and we discovered that Wisdom and Understanding are to be highly prized.

Wisdom is worth more than rubies, silver or gold. 

We’re told to search for Understanding as if we were searching for hidden treasure.

Chapter 4 says: “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” 

How much is all you have?  If as a church, we decided to pursue Wisdom and Understanding at all costs and we all sold up everything we had in order to finance the venture, how much would we raise?  £240m.

So Wisdom and Understanding are very valuable indeed!

And Proverbs takes the view that most people don’t have much Wisdom or Understanding of God’s ways and so they have to seek them out diligently. Proverbs encourages you to devote yourself to the quest for God’s Wisdom and Understanding. 

So here we have these two related things – Wisdom and Understanding, they are extremely valuable, they need to be found and like all valuable things that need to be found, there is a big reward on offer.  But before we talk about the reward, let’s talk about how we should go about finding these valuable spiritual commodities.

Last week we looked at some different methods of learning.  Firstly, we looked at the “live and learn” method, which is ok for some things in life but doesn’t work in the whole area of personal morality. Then we looked at the “listen and learn” method, which is much better because we can benefit from the advice and experience of others and so avoid life’s pitfalls. And in particular, when the advice comes from God, we can trust it completely and avoid getting ourselves into all kinds of bother.

But then we looked at the best method of learning, the “understand and learn” method. Because when you understand the principle behind something, you are more likely to put it into practice and you can apply what you’ve learnt to different situations.
So last week I arrived at the conclusion that the key to putting God’s ways into practice is to gain an understanding of them. 
For example, I believe that fasting is an extremely beneficial spiritual discipline. Fasting occurs throughout the Bible. Jesus fasted and encouraged others to fast.  Although Jesus disciples didn’t fast while he was with them, Jesus indicated that when he returned to heaven, they would include fasting as part of their spiritual disciplines and he gave them some advice about it. Jesus said “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do…

Notice He said “when you fast, not if you fast”.  So why do most Christians not fast regularly? Because they don’t understand the point of it.  What’s the point of going hungry?  Why would you want to do that? What good would that do anyone?  If you don’t fast, it’s probably because you don’t have a spiritual understanding of what fasting is all about.

You could say the same about other spiritual practices like speaking in tongues, prophecy and sacrificial giving. Most Christians today don’t speak in tongues, or prophecy or give sacrificially (I’m talking about giving over and above the tithe) because they just don’t see these things as relevant for today.

One of the things that the Holy Spirit does, is to “open our eyes” to spiritual things. The Holy Spirit gives us insight into God’s ways.  The Holy Spirit gives us a spiritual understanding of things like fasting and tongues and prophecy and giving generously and so forth.  Without the Holy Spirit, they don’t make sense to us.  That’s the essence of our reading from Corinthians earlier:

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to them, and they cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 

Now, just because you don’t have a spiritual understanding of one particular aspect of the Bible or Christian life, doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have the Holy Spirit at all.  When we become a Christian, we receive the Holy Spirit, but we don’t instantly understand every spiritual concept.  Some Christians are what Paul calls “infants in Christ” and they are not expected to have all the answers.  Others, however, are mature Christians who over time, have built up a level of spiritual understanding of God’s ways.  And so we have to be careful not to be judgemental but to be patient with each other and encourage each other along the journey towards spiritual maturity.

So back to my point: The key to putting God’s ways into practice is to gain an understanding of them, a spiritual understanding of them. The Holy Spirit can give us this understanding, but we must do our part – we must ask, seek and knock, searching for understanding as we would search for hidden treasure.  We must give the Holy Spirit some room to work in our hearts. We must spend time in stillness, meditating on Scripture and listening to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.

When we do these things, we will gain Wisdom and Understanding and all the rewards that go with them. 

So what are the rewards? I found at least three in Proverbs 2, and very briefly, they are:

1.    Right Relationship with God

Proverbs 2:1-5
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God and find the knowledge of God.
When we gain a spiritual understanding of God’s ways, the first reward is that we will enter into a right relationship with Him.  The right way to relate to God is to fear Him. 

Remember Psalm 25:14:

Friendship with the LORD is reserved for those who fear him

If you still haven’t got your head around what the fear of the Lord is, then let me encourage you to do the research, find out for yourself, and the Holy Spirit will give you a spiritual understanding of it.  You will get a revelation from God about what it means to fear Him and it will open up a new dimension to your relationship with Him.

2.     Victory

Proverbs 2:6-7

For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory in store for the upright…

When we gain a spiritual understanding of God’s ways, another reward is victory!

If I was a prosperity teacher, I would be getting very excited about this verse.  In some Christian circles, victory is all about success – especially financial success, and there are verses that point in that direction, however, let’s be very careful of the context here.

Proverbs is a book about morality, about right living, and so when it talks about victory, I’m inclined to believe that it’s talking about moral victory.  I’m sure you’ve watched a football match where one team plays dirty, the full forward dives in the box to get a penalty and they win the match.  The other team played fair – they lost the trophy, but they can claim a moral victory.  They did the right thing, even though they lost.

You might be up for a promotion at work and then you see something happening in the company that’s just not right. Customers are being misled. Sales are up but for the wrong reasons and so you speak out about it and suddenly you’re not in line for promotion any more.  Taking a moral stance is a moral victory in God’s eyes, but it could cost you your job.
In fact, you can lose everything that the world values – your job, your savings, your pension, even your family.  You can lose it all and still have a moral victory as far as God is concerned (it happened to Job).

Countless saints throughout the world have stood up for Christ and lived victoriously even if that meant a victorious martyrdom.  Victory can be costly.

3.    Protection
Proverbs 2:6-8
For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.  He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.

When we gain a spiritual understanding of God’s ways, yet another reward is divine protection!
This is another concept that can be misunderstood. We like to think of God’s protection in terms of keeping us healthy, and out of danger and away from suffering and hardship, but that’s not necessarily what God has in mind for us. If we never face trials and tribulations, then we won’t grow in our faith.  Jesus said “in this world, you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world”. We see this in the book of James, where he seems to welcome suffering!

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

So what sort of protection are we talking about here?  Again, I come back to the context. Proverbs is a book about morality and so I believe that what we are promised here is protection from moral failure.  If we take the advice in Proverbs to heart, then we will avoid moral failures. 

“The Lord … is a shield to those whose walk is blameless”

I’m reminded about the shield in Ephesians – the shield of faith. What is its purpose? To
extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

The devil is out to lead you astray through his flaming arrows of lies & deception & false accusations, but if you have invested time in understanding God’s ways, you won’t be led astray by these, you will stay on the right track, you will be protected from moral failure.
So those are just some of the rewards of understanding God’s ways, my prayer is that you will experience them for yourselves.

Let’s Pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for your Word which shows us how to live and we confess that so often we question it or ignore it altogether.  We thank you that you love us and that you want the best for us.  We thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who convicts us of sin and teaches us the hidden truths of Your Ways. Help us to make room for the Holy Spirit in our lives. Help us to make time for stillness and reflection, that we might hear His voice and grow in our understanding of Your ways. For we pray in Jesus name.  Amen.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Understanding God's ways from the book of Proverbs (part 1)


 ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’
Isaiah 55:8-9

God does some things that we would never do (we would have let Ananias and Sapphira off with a caution). God doesn’t do some things that we would do (remove evil dictators).

If we were in charge, then we would do things differently – but then we’re not God, we don’t know everything, we don’t know the end from the beginning. We have the Bible as God’s revelation to us about Himself, about ourselves and about what God is doing in and through humanity. Until we get to glory, our quest should be to seek God’s presence and His Power and His kingdom, but also to seek an understanding of God’s heart and God’s nature – why does He act differently to how we would. In short, we need to try and understand God’s ways, as revealed to us in the Scriptures. We sit under the authority of God and under the authority of His Word. 

There are basically 3 ways to learn: 

1. Live and learn

School of hard knocks. The way we learn a lot of things in life – once bitten twice shy


First hand experience – your mother can tell you not to go out without your coat when it might rain, but when you get wet yourself, you’re more likely to do it.


Can be very damaging – experiment with fire can burn your house down, experiment with drugs can lead to serious addiction, experiment with adultery can destroy your marriage. “Live and learn” is ok for some aspects of life, but not for others.

2. Listen and learn

Take advice from others, do what the teacher says, do what your parents say and if you go on to college, you get training for your career. So we all listen and learn to some extent in order to avoid the drawbacks of the “live and learn” method.  

If an electrician adopted a “live and learn” attitude to his training and to his work, then he’d probably electrocute himself and burn down a few houses before he got it right!  An electrician has got to listen and learn very carefully for his own safety and the safety of others.

This method actively seeks advice e.g. buying a stereo or computer, look at customer reviews, research.


Benefit from the advice and experience of others.


You may not be convinced by what others have to say.  You might think that you know better or you want to find our for yourself.

The advice we receive might be untrustworthy. (could be from a salesman! Could be an advertisement that emphasises the pros and doesn’t mention the cons).

3. Understand and learn

Superior method!

Not only do we listen, but we take the time to think about what we hear and to understand it. When we come to an understanding about a certain concept, whether it’s farming, or engineering, we are far more likely to apply what we have learnt correctly.

What’s more, when we understand the principle behind something, we can then apply the same principle to all sorts of different circumstances.

Example: 12 times 13?  How did you work that out when you didn’t learn it in your multiplication tables?  12 times 24?

Another example – 2 principles behind most financial products.

(1) Find out the APR (Annual Percentage Rate) “true interest rate” as opposed to the misleading interest rates that people quote.   [25% after 5 years is not 5% a year, 4.56%]

(2) Stay within the rules. [early withdrawal from fixed rate interest rate will incur penalties] 

Credit card limit, pay late, overdraft, free banking, pension contribution holiday can remove terminal bonus.

You see you learn all sorts of things when you come to church!

What’s all this got to do with Proverbs?

Let’s compare “Live and Learn” to “Listen and Learn”. Proverbs was written from a father to a son to give moral guidance and it’s basic premise is that when it comes to morality and right living, “Live and learn” doesn’t work. “Live and learn” will let you down. “Live and learn” may look attractive at the time but in the end it will destroy you. In the language of Proverbs, “Live and learn” is folly. “Live and learn” might be ok to teach us certain things in life but when it comes to the business of personal morality, “live and learn” is inadequate.  

Throughout Proverbs there are seemingly endless warnings about falling into bad company and adultery and gossip because these are exactly the kind of things we do when we’re left to our own devices, when we think we know best, when we say to ourselves “if it feels right, do it”, when we don’t heed good advice, when we “live and learn”.

And there’s the first application for us today. When it comes to issues of personal morality, we cannot afford to just do what seems best to us at the time and learn from our mistakes, because those mistakes can be too costly. Instead, we should find out what God has revealed to us about each issue.  In this case, you don’t need to wait for a voice from heaven or a visit from an angel – all the moral guidance we need is contained in the Scriptures. That should be our first port of call.

What about the “listen and learn” method?  Well, Solomon is much more in favour of this.  Seventeen times in Proverbs, you’ll find the word “listen”. Here are just some of them:

  • Listen, my son, to your father's instruction
  • Listen, for I have worthy things to say;
  • Listen to advice and accept instruction
  • Listen to the sayings of the wise
  • Let the wise listen and add to their learning

I said earlier that one of the disadvantages of “listen and learn” was that the person giving the advice may be untrustworthy, or they may be a perfectly genuine person who doesn’t have all the facts and is passing on bad advice in good faith.

The other disadvantage I mentioned is that we might not be convinced about the advice we receive, we might think that we know better.

When it comes to listening to advice from the Bible however, there’s a simple verse in the next chapter (3) that you all know, and that knocks both of those shortcomings on the head.

Proverbs 3:5

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.

God is completely trustworthy.  You may not be able to trust a double-glazing salesman or an estate agent or even a minister, but God is completely trustworthy and he has all the facts – he knows everything. He knows how the world works and He know how we work and His advice is completely reliable, even when it doesn’t make sense to our own understanding. So what are you going to place your trust in? God’s insight into moral issues, or your own ideas?

So, I’m just reinforcing what I said earlier:

When it comes to moral issues, we can’t afford to experiment with our own ideas, we can’t afford to “live and learn”, we need to “listen and learn”.  We need to read God’s Word and find out what God says about a particular issue.  “Listen & learn”.

But even that’s not the whole picture … God gave the Israelites the Law – it was straightforward, they believed it was from God, they learnt it off religiously, they could recite it by heart… but they didn’t always put it into practice. 

And Solomon knew this and he realised that “Listen and learn”, while being much better than “Live and learn” still had its deficiencies as a learning method.

And so in the book of Proverbs, although Solomon says “listen closely, listen well, pay attention”, he also places great emphasis on the need to understand why his advice is to be heeded.  Solomon wanted his son to “Understand and learn”. 

Chapter 1, verse 1

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight.

It’s one thing to listen to words of insight, it’s quite another to understand them.

We read from Chapter 2 earlier, where Solomon said to his son: “store up my commands” (that’s the listen & learn part) and then “apply your heart to understanding”.  “Call out for insight… cry aloud for understanding”   “search for understanding as you would for hidden treasure” 
Live and learn doesn’t always work. Listen and learn is much better but Understanding is the key to putting God’s ways into practice! “Understand and learn.”
We have to remember that Solomon is writing Proverbs in the context of the Old Testament Law.  Although the Law was intended to bring life, it became a religion of rules and so Solomon is saying, don’t just obey the rules, understand why you should obey the rules, because then you’re far more likely to follow them.  And much of Jesus’ teaching was about correcting commonly accepted misunderstandings about the Law.  When Jesus was only 12 years old, he was in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions and everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

In the Scriptures, God has given us a vast storehouse of knowledge and wisdom. He has shown us His ways, we know how we should live, but like the Israelites, we don’t always do it.  We question it, we look for loopholes, we try to justify alternative courses of action or we simply ignore it, and it seems to me that one of the main barriers to putting God’s Word into practice is a lack of understanding.

Which brings us back to Isaiah. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.

God’s ways don’t always make sense to us, and rather than invest time in trying to understand where the Bible is coming from, we tend to just do what seems right to us at the time and then regret it later. But thank God that Chapter 2 has some good news in this regard because it says that “Understanding God’s way of doing things” is possible, it is attainable.  It requires effort and diligence, but if we look hard enough, we will find it. Verse 6 says that the Lord gives wisdom, knowledge and understanding. He doles it out.  In the book of James we read “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. “

So God is in the business of dispensing His wisdom and understanding to people – but what kind of people?  The ones who really want it and will search for it as for hidden treasure! 

I often come across a verse or a passage that doesn’t make sense at face value. So I meditate on it, read around it, look at it in context, then look at the cross-references in my Bible and look up other verses.  I read some commentaries to see what other people think the verse means and finally, after much searching and meditation and prayer, the Holy Spirit gives me insight into the verse or passage. I can see how it fits in. I can see how it is consistent with the rest of Scripture.  It takes time and effort but the search for understanding is rewarding because you learn so much along the way.

You’ll never understand all the mysteries of God, but if you search diligently, the promise of Scripture is that you will understand more and more about God’s ways and you will find yourself wanting to put them into practice.  There are many rewards associated with this – we’ll look at them another day but let me leave you with just one of them - God’s protection, which is promised in verse 11. To those who gain insight and understanding into God’s ways, the promise is that:

‘…wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.                      (v 10-11)

Let’s pray.

Father we thank you for your Word which reveals to us the truth about your Ways.  We confess that we don’t always take the time to find out what it says or do what it says.  We often lean on our own understanding instead of trusting in You and Your Word.  Help us to be a people who want to know more and more about You.  Give us a desire for wisdom and knowledge and understanding so that we will be equipped to live lives that will honour you and to pass on spiritual wisdom to the next generation. For we pray in Jesus name. Amen.

The Gospel Waltz

09/12/2018 I learned about this tool from some Discipleship material produced by Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The thinking behind...