Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Haven't shared on this blog for a while...

Dear all,

When COVID-19 hit, I stopped sharing on this blog, but didn't think to let you know that!

Instead, I set up a Mailchimp mailing list for both congregations and I've been using that on a weekly basis to let people know about the Service Details and distribute links to watch Recorded Services or join Zoom Services live. If you are not on this list and would like to join, do let me know!

Best wishes,


Sunday, 29 September 2019

From a Garden to a City...The Story of Worship


Harvest is a special time of thanksgiving in the church calendar. We give thanks for those who work the land so that we have so much good food to enjoy, but ultimately, it’s about giving thanks to God, who makes it all possible. As the hymn goes: “He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.”
Thanksgiving is an integral part of worship and so celebrating Harvest is as much about worship as it is about thanksgiving. 

Does anybody remember learning a Catechism in school? Many traditional churches have Catechisms. The Methodist Church in Ireland doesn’t have one, but the British Church does and at least one of the American Methodist Churches.
A Catechism is a way of teaching church doctrine by a series of questions and answers. One of the most famous catechisms was produced by the Presbyterians in 1648 and it was called ‘The Westminster Shorter Catechism” to differentiate itself from ‘The Westminster Larger Catechism”. Out of all 107 questions, the first question in the ‘The Westminster Shorter Catechism” is the most well known and most quoted, and the question is:

What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

In other words, we were created to worship God. And the story of humanity is therefore interwoven with the story of worship. And the story of worship takes us on a journey from a Garden to a City, from Genesis to Revelation, from Eden to the New Jerusalem, from Creation to re-Creation, from Fall to Restoration.

There’s an old children’s hymn that goes like this:
God has given us a book full of stories, 
Which was made for his people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden, 

And ends with the city of gold.

In the Bible, the garden of Eden is a place where God is especially present and the humans who live in it enjoy a close and intimate relationship with him. Some writers suggest that the command to ‘‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ meant that God had in mind an expansion plan for the Garden of Eden, so that Adam & Eve’s descendants would enlarge the garden into the surrounding wilderness so that God’s special presence would eventually fill the whole earth.  

But we all know what happened. They are kicked out of the garden and the land becomes subject to a curse and Adam’s work becomes much harder than it was in the garden – it takes much more effort to produce food. 

And then we have Cain who murders his brother and now he’s under a curse which means that he can’t grow anything. God tells him that he is to be a restless wanderer but still under God’s care and protection. But instead, what does he do? He leaves God’s presence, goes to live in the land of Nod and builds a city. Of course it was nothing like a city as we would recognise it today, but this is hugely significant. He creates the first rural/urban divide.

The rural lifestyle that Adam & Eve adopted after leaving Eden was a significant downgrade both in terms of the work required but also in terms of their relationship with God. They lost the glory that they had been crowned with, and much of the intimacy that they enjoyed. But they were still living off the land, working in a rural environment, let’s call it a village, that was geographically shaped by God and dependent on Him for rain and sunshine and security. In a sense, they were still working in partnership with God and His creation to make a living, albeit at a spiritual distance.
Cain, on the other hand, builds a city. The Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him, but he didn’t trust in God’s security. He built a city to try to create his own security. He built a city and shaped it the way he wanted, so that he was in control, not God.
There’s an interesting contrast between the village and the city. In the village, everyone knows each other. In a city, despite there being far more people, you can be completely alone. The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that means that an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. It’s much harder to create that same environment in a city.

From Genesis 4, the story of the city really picks up in Genesis 11. It tells us that the people who are supposed to be spreading throughout the earth get to the Plains of Shinar and are settled there. They begin to build a city. In fact, they wanted to build a tower that would take them up to God. They wanted to make a name for themselves.
This is the spirit of the city of man: I don’t need God, I don’t need his glory. I’ll just make my own glory. Of course, we know what happens. This city becomes the city called Babel, and throughout the Bible, Babel—that very nature of a city that’s all about human strength and human glory—evolves into what becomes Babylon: the city that is set against God and set against God’s people.

The story of worship takes an important turn with the giving of the Law through Moses and the worship institution that the Law established. God gave them a very specific set of instructions that included a building (Tabernacle/Temple), a priesthood, a sacrificial system and an ethical code. There is huge symbolism in this and we’ll touch on this later.
In contrast to Babylon, there’s another city established: the city of Jerusalem. It is chosen by God to be the place of His dwelling among his people. It was the focal point of Israel’s worship, especially at festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when all Jews were incumbent to gather in Jerusalem.

But the story doesn’t end well. Despite having God’s presence, Jerusalem’s leaders don’t walk in God’s ways most of the time and sometimes the Temple is honoured, and sometimes it is filled with sacrilegious images. It is eventually destroyed, then rebuilt, then destroyed again. When God himself comes to dwell on earth in the person of Jesus, it’s in Jerusalem where He is rejected and crucified. It’s in Jerusalem where the veil of the temple which cut off the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world is torn in two. 

It’s in Jerusalem where interestingly, two Gardens feature prominently in the crucifixion story – the Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden Tomb. One is a place of anguished worship in the darkness of impending Death, the other a place of jubilant worship in the light of the Resurrection.
And Jerusalem is the scene of Pentecost, the birth of the church as the Spirit is poured out on all and the true worshipers can now worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. So Jerusalem is a city of contrasts in the story of worship. With the birth of the New Testament church, it loses its centrality and influence in the worship of God but that’s where the story of the heavenly Jerusalem—the New Jerusalem—picks up.
In John’s vision in the book of Revelation, there is a heavenly city which is the fulfilment of all the promise of Eden. Heaven, the dwelling place of God, comes to earth, the dwelling place of humanity. The people of the city enjoy the presence of God in full measure.
There is no temple in the city, because the city is effectively one massive temple.

There are important links between the New Jerusalem and Old Testament worship. For example, the Holy of Holies in the heart of the Temple was a perfect cube, as is the New Jerusalem in John’s vision. The desert tabernacle Holy of Holies was 10 square cubits (about 15ft square) and in Solomon’s temple it was 20 square cubits (30ft square). The New Jerusalem is 1,400 square miles. The Holy of Holies only needed to be big enough for the Ark of the Covenant and the High Priest whereas the New Jerusalem has to be big enough to fit all of redeemed humanity.

Then we have the stones that adorn the foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 201:19-20). They are the same ones that were part of the breastplates of the high priests as described in Exodus 28:17-20. In the Old Testament, only the high priest wearing the stones could enter God's presence, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Now the city itself wears the stones, so that all God's people can live in God’s presence. There’s more! The High Priest had to wear a gold plate attached to a turban, which said: “Holy to the Lord”. In the New Jerusalem, Revelation 22:4 tells us that in the New Jerusalem, all God's people will wear His name on their foreheads.

The role of the cherubim (divine beings) in the story of worship is also worth a mention. At the end of the Eden story, cherubim are placed as guards to stop humans gaining access to the tree of life. Two carved cherubim sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant (an earthly representation of the throne room of heaven) - protecting the very throne of God in the Holy of Holies. They could only be seen by the high priest once a year but in John’s vision, the cherubim surround God's heavenly throne in Revelation 4 and all God's people can see both them and the one who is enthroned among them. 

The New Jerusalem clearly represents a renewal of the garden of Eden. Not only does it portray a restoration of intimacy with God, but central to this dwelling place of God among His people is a life-giving river that waters the tree of life that once stood in middle of the Garden of Eden. 

And best of all, this is what awaits us! We get so caught up in daily annoyances and petty disagreements, and yet our destiny is a Holy City where we will worship and serve a Holy God and live in His awesome presence for eternity! As God’s people today, the story of worship is our story. We can trace our history back to the Garden of Creation but we can look forward to our future in the City of re-Creation. Heaven is a place where God’s people worship and serve Him continually. And so, in the meantime, we should get in some practice!

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Stifling the Spirit (2)


This is part 2 of a short series on ‘Stifling the Spirit’.

Last week, we looked firstly at Resisting the Spirit, and we saw how there are different levels of resistance, from non-Christians who are completely closed to hearing the gospel all the way down to Christians who accept the Bible, but don’t do what it says.

Secondly, we looked at Grieving the Spirit and how this arises when we allow sinful things from our old life, to persist in our new life.  

So, after that catch up, we’re ready to move on to number 3: Quenching the Spirit and our key verse is 1 Thessalonians 5:19 which in the King James version says: “Quench not the Spirit”. The old 1984 version of the NIV says: “Do not put out the Spirit's fire.” And the Amplified Version of the Bible says: “Do not subdue or be unresponsive to the working and guidance of the Holy Spirit”. Either way, the idea is stifling or restricting the Spirit. 

It’s difficult to place this verse in an exact context because it comes in the middle of a whole list of instructions at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Just before this verse, Paul gives them “4 always”. You might have heard of the “4 Alls” of Methodism, well here we have “4 always”. In verses 15-18, he says: always be kind, always be joyful, always pray and always give thanks. Then he says: “Quench not the Spirit”. In trying to pick up his train of thought, a verse from Romans 12 comes to mind which says: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour.” And it’s also in the context of being kind and joyful and prayerful. 

And so it seems that Paul is describing a Spirit filled life where a person is so “on fire for God” that they are really experiencing the blessings of a Spirit filled and Spirit directed life. Where the Spirit has free reign with no blockages, you get continual joy, continual prayer, continual thanksgiving and for Paul, this is how things are supposed to be and if you accept anything less, then you are quenching the Spirit. 

How sad it is that we tend to regard Christians who are always joyful and always praising God as “a bit strange”, or “a bit gushy”, a bit “over the top”, taking God “a bit too seriously”. In actual fact, we could well be the ones who are quenching the Spirit while they are busy doing God’s will and living an abundant life.” When we accept mediocrity in our spiritual life and don’t pursue all that God has in store for us, then we are quenching the Holy Spirit

Now we move to the more serious stuff! The next one is insulting the Spirit. You might think to yourself, well at least I haven’t done this one!  Let’s find out, shall we? The context is Hebrews chapter 10. We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. It may have been Paul but was can’t be sure. Anyway, in chapter 10, the writer compares the Old Testament animal sacrifices with Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice on the cross for our sins. He makes the point that the animal sacrifices only dealt with the sins committed up to the time of the sacrifice and so the next time you sinned, you had to have another sacrifice and it went on and on. On the other hand, Jesus’ sacrifice was far superior, in that it was for all your sins – past, present and future. At the time of writing, the Christians to whom this book was addressed were going through a tough time of persecution and so there’s a whole section from verse 19 to 39 entitled “a call to persevere”. In the middle of this section on perseverance, we have verses 26 - 31 which are pretty scary! They make for uncomfortable reading, but read them we will. We can’t just accept all the nice verses in the Bible and ignore the challenging ones.

Hebrews 10:26-31
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Now the book of Hebrews was written to Christians, not unbelievers. It’s written to those who have received the knowledge of the truth. It says: “The Lord will judge his people”. We really don’t what to let things get to the stage where we insult the Spirit - this is definitely one to avoid! The crux of it all is verse 26: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment…”

It sounds ominous, because we know we’re all sinners – nobody’s perfect. All Christians sin every day (even the Apostle Paul admitted his own struggles with sin) and we believe that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for our sins and makes us right with God. We are under grace, not law. But there’s more to it than that. Jesus’ death on the cross also broke the power of sin over us. We are no longer enslaved by it – we’ve been set free (redeemed) and so now we have a choice. We can choose not to sin, and the Holy Spirit will give us the power that we need to resist temptation. We won’t succeed every time, but we should see more victory than defeat and what’s most important is not whether we sin or not, but what our attitude to it is. Do we hate sin, or do we tolerate it, or do we even embrace it?

If we make a profession of faith but then ignore the Spirit’s promptings and deliberately, wilfully and persistently indulge in our favourite sins, then we make a mockery of the whole thing. It calls into question the sincerity of our commitment to Christ and ultimately it will lead to insulting the Spirit and all that goes with it.

But at least there’s still forgiveness for insulting the Spirit – we may have gone astray, but there’s a way back through repentance and rededication to Christ. Unlike our final point - the whole concept of blaspheming the Spirit. 

This is so serious that it is referred to as “the unforgivable sin”. The context is Jesus being accused by the Pharisees of various things and in particular, casting our demons by the power of Beelzebub who was the prince of all demons. So, the Pharisees did not recognise the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus ministry, instead they attributed his power to demonic forces. And in Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus said to them: 

“And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

The very idea of doing something that will never be forgiven is so scary that many Christians actually live in fear of blaspheming the Spirit by accident and thereby condemning themselves to eternal damnation. Well I’ve got some good news here. Most Bible teachers would say that if you’re worried about whether you’ve committed this sin...then you haven’t!

The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a deliberate and continual rejection of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A person who commits this sin has so hardened their heart to God that they don’t care in the least whether they have offended Him. God always responds to repentance, and so this is for people who will never repent. It is an extreme case and so if you are worried about it, it shows that you are repentant and so you’ve nothing to fear.

To summarise, if we look at all five ways of stifling the Spirit, we’re probably all guilty of at least the first three to some extent or another, so what can we do about it? Let me suggest a few steps:

1. Be honest with God and acknowledge that you can’t do this Christian thing without His help.
2. Get the handout and work through the passages in your own time. Read around them, look at the context and ask the Holy Spirit to point out the areas in your life where you are stifling His work. Write them down.
3. Recommit your life to God sincerely, repenting of the sins and failures that the Holy Spirit has revealed to you.
4. Thank God for what He is doing in your life and trust Him for the future.

Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, we thank you for all that you have done for us in Christ. We thank you for the promise and the reality of the Holy Spirit living inside us. We pray that you would reveal to us the various ways in which we hinder the work of the Spirit in us. We confess our failures, asking that we would become more sensitive to your Spirit and more obedient to your Word. All this we ask in the name of Jesus and for His sake. Amen.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Stiflling the Spirit (1)


In English grammar, the imperative mood is used for a command or request. A command becomes a request if you put the word ‘please’ in front of it!

The world is full of commands. Have a look at these for example:

Keep left, use the handrail, turn off the taps. None of these are requests! What is the purpose of all these commands? To protect us or to spoil our fun?

The world is also full of warnings. Here are some examples:

What is the purpose of all these warnings? To protect us or to spoil our fun? The world can be a dangerous place and nobody wants to get sued for negligence!

The Bible is also full of commands and warnings from God. Many people think that they are there to spoil our fun, when they are actually for our protection and for our good.

In recent weeks, I’ve been dealing with the person and the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible has various commands as to how we should interact with the Holy Spirit, in order to have a fruitful Christian life. These are mainly in Galatians and Ephesians, for example:

The Bible also has various warnings about things we should avoid, so that we don’t inhibit the work of the Holy Spirit:

There are 5 specific areas that we need to avoid, so as not to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in us and in the church, and that’s what we’re going to look at over the next 2 weeks.

This might sound like a very negative subject but let me encourage you to see this topic in a positive light. I deliberately focussed on God’s love in the kid’s talk because that’s our starting point. God give us commands and warnings because He loves us so much and wants the best for us and so we need to not just heed them but embrace them as God’s loving discipline.

If you had a blocked drain, then you’d want to get it fixed right? You’d make a call and a couple of guys in a very brightly coloured van would show up, identify the cause of the blockage and remove it. The process might be disruptive and inconvenient, but when drain functions well again, then it’s worth it! Same goes if you have a blocked blood vessel! You might need angioplasty or a stent or even bypass surgery, but if that’s what you need, then you’ll put up with the discomfort and the recovery time because your health is your wealth, as they say.

In the same way, there are things in our lives that block the flow of the Spirit. Things like certain attitudes or lifestyle choices, or maybe a lack of knowledge or understanding about God or the Bible. If we can identify these things and takes steps to work on them, then by God’s grace, we will have a positive outcome, even if it’s a somewhat painful process.

You see, we have the Holy Spirit, the most powerful person in the world, living inside us. Jesus tells us that with the Holy Spirit we should be able to do greater things than He did, but the reality is that we don’t. There are things preventing us from experiencing the power of the Spirit in and through us. The Bible tells us that we should have the fruit of the Spirit in abundance, but the reality is that we’re not as loving and joyful and peaceful and gentle and kind and faithful and patient as we’d like to be, especially when things don’t go our own way. We should be growing in grace and holiness, but many Christians find themselves ‘stuck in a rut’ spiritually, or even backsliding. I think we can safely assume that there is nothing lacking on God’s side, so the problem must be with you and me. Without realising it most of the time, we are stifling the work of the Holy Spirit. And in order to diagnose the problem, we don’t go to the plumber, or the surgeon, or even the minister – we go to the Bible. We have to read the Bible and then allow the Bible to read us.

If you can identify the areas in your life where you are stifling the spirit, and take steps to rectify them, then the result will be a fuller experience of the Holy Spirit. You will feel closer to God; you will have clearer guidance from Him, you will see more of the gifts of the Spirit at work in you and you will be a much nicer person to be around as you become more loving and gentle and patient and all those other good things associated with living out the fruit of the spirit.

Next week, I should have a handout with the key verses, the context of each and the application. I encourage you to take one and work through it yourself. A couple of sermons is not going to sort all this stuff out! I can only provide the tools that you and I need to do this and a few pointers; we all have to work through this on our own with God.

So let’s turn to the first way in which we can stifle the Spirit, and that is by resisting Him. In our reading from Luke 11:47-54, Jesus is denouncing the Jewish religious leaders both past and present for killing God’s prophets because they didn’t like their message. He prophesies that they will persecute and kill the next generation of Christian prophets and apostles, which of course they do. And we find the first example of this in Acts 7, where we come across the first Christian martyr, whose name was Stephen. Stephen is hauled up in front of the Sanhedrin, which was an intimidating assembly of 71 Jewish judges who constituted the Supreme Court and legislative body of the Jews. Stephen defends himself in a long sermon about the history of Israel and how every true prophet of God was persecuted by the religious authorities and then he tells the Sanhedrin that they are no better because they participated in killing Jesus.

Let’s look closely at verses 51 to 53 in the NIV.

51"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him - 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." 

Harsh words! And instead of listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through Stephen; instead of being convicted by the Spirit of their error, they continued to resist the Spirit by stoning Stephen. And who was minding their coats? Saul, the Pharisee of Pharisees, as he described himself.

In terms of applying the concept of “resisting the Holy Spirit” to today we can see three kinds of people. In verse 51, you have stubborn people who don’t have a heart to please God and are not open to what God wants to say to them. They are not necessarily obnoxious people, but as soon as you bring up God they switch off.
In verse 52, you have people who reject God’s messengers and God’s Word. Quite often today, you find people who say they have their own “spirituality” often it’s a New Age philosophy, and they’re not interested in going to church or reading the Bible. This is called a “home-spun theology”. It can sound quaint, but it’s a form of resisting the Spirit.
But resisting the spirit can be also me much more subtle. And in verse 53, you have those who accept the Bible but don’t obey it. People like you and me!

Mark Twain famously said: “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

So in these 3 verses we can see (1) non-Christians who are completely closed to hearing the gospel; (2) Agnostics who have their own ideas about God and life and reject the Bible and those who preach from it; (3) Christians who accept the Bible as the Word of God, but don’t do what it says. All three are resisting the Spirit of God.

Let’s move on - another way in which we can stifle the Holy Spirit is by grieving Him. We find this in Ephesians 4 verse 30:

"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."

So what does it mean to grieve the Holy Spirit? Well, the context leading up to this verse is a passage which the NIV entitles “Living as Children of Light”, where Paul contrasts the difference between a Christian’s “old life” (before they come to faith) and their “new life” (after being converted). You can see this on the chart:

He tells the Christians in Ephesians to “put off your old self” i.e. don’t lie or steal, or curse or gossip etc. Instead, he says “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (v24).

This “new self” involves speaking truthfully, encouraging others, being kind and compassionate, forgiving each other etc.

So in this context, we can say that “grieving the Spirit” is when we allow sinful things from our old life, to persist in our new life. As Christians, the Holy Spirit is trying to work in us to bring out all the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace and all those good things, and so when we don’t co-operate with Him and persist with or fall back into our old way of living, we grieve Him.

It's like a young man who gets in trouble with the law and his parents say to themselves: “Where did we go wrong? We didn’t teach him to behave like that”. They are grieved because his behaviour is inconsistent with all their hopes and aspirations for him. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has big ambitions for our lives and He’s trying to steer us along the right path and so when we choose to go the opposite direction, then He is grieved, but thankfully He doesn’t give up on us. There is mercy and grace and forgiveness and a fresh start every day.

We’ll continue this study next week, but we’ll finish up with a response. Let’s take a moment to challenge ourselves with these 2 questions. The first is about resisting the Spirit, the second is about grieving the Spirit.

1. What clear teaching of Jesus am I not being obedient to?

2. What behaviour of mine is not consistent with my ‘new life’ in Christ?

Let’s Pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you for your Word, that comforts us, but also challenges and convicts. We thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, our Companion and our Guide. Forgive us when we resist the Spirit by not putting your Word into practice. We thank you for the new life that you have given us in Christ. Forgive us when we refuse to move on from old habits. We know that your way is best, and so give us the grace that we need to live godly lives that please you, for we ask it in Jesus name. Amen. 

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.

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