Who writes in your diary?

On Sunday 24th February I again had the privelege to preach at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. As this was an all age service the talk could not be in as great a depth as if it was for the adults alone.

Acts 8: 26 – 40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

Let me ask you a question: Who writes in your diary? Who sets your agenda?

When we are at school, we have a timetable which tells us what lessons we will be having and when. When our sons were in secondary school, they had a school diary in which amongst other things they would write when homework is due to be handed in.

For us adults we often have appointments and meetings made for us, say hospital visits or a check up at the dentist and so on.

As a self-employed man I make most the appointments in my diary as people need my services.

person uses pen on book

But in all our busyness and our meetings and schedules, does God get a chance to put his arrangements in your diary?

Let’s have a look at a man who let God have his diary and organise his agenda. This man was called Philip.

So who was Philip?

He was one of the seven men chosen by the early church to take on some of the administrative and pastoral work that had been overwhelming the apostles. Acts 6 v 3 – 7 says: “ Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 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.”

Sadly as we know soon after this came the arrest and stoning of Stephen followed by a great persecution of the church. Many fled Jerusalem and of course they spread the gospel wherever they went. I just wonder if these folks would have gone out of Jerusalem if the Lord had not allowed this persecution to take place? After all we all like our comfort zones.

Phillip ends up in a city in Samaria. Some translations state it is the old city of Samaria which was originally known as Shechem but is now known as Nablus. It is of course often in the news as the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians continues.

However, Phillip proclaims the good news of Jesus as we find at the start of Acts 8Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed.  So there was great joy in that city.

So the gospel was being preached and accompanied by signs and wonders and many were being saved. I don’t know how you would feel if that was you in Samaria and God was using you like that to bring salvation to so many people. I once heard a Chinese pastor, Brother Yun whose story you can read in the book “The Heavenly Man”, speaking about how 375,000 came to faith in one city in China. Just imagine trying to baptise that many people and then teaching and disciple them! We rejoice when we have one person come to faith, but how would we cope with that many?

In the middle of all this work, Phillip hears from God. Its probably not what he wanted to hear, given that he had fled Jerusalem and had now settled in Samaria where he was doing very nicely. But here is this command from God “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

Phillip does as he is told. It would appear he didn’t argue with God or even query as to who was going to lead the church in his absence. Being a busy church leader his diary would have been full of meetings, committees and everything else that seems to fill our days.

Or perhaps Philip might have used the argument I heard a while ago “God called me to minister here and that’s where I am staying.” This of course doesn’t leave room for the thought that nothing stays the same and that God not only appoints people but he dismisses them, and moves them on to minister elsewhere.

But all we are told is that Philip just goes. We don’t know what he thought as he trudged along that desert road. It was probably about 30 miles from Samaria to Jerusalem and then about another 50 to Gaza. It’s a bit like God telling you to go to Chelmsford as he wants you on the A12 going to Ipswich. You may agree as long as you can go by car, but walking in that heat?

Back in Philip’s day poor people either walked or rode on a donkey. It was only the rich and the important people who rode horses or travelled in a chariot.

Its not even evident what he is to do on the desert road. No mission plan, no support team with him maybe not even time to get the usual prayer letter and press release out. Just him and God and no idea why he is going there. How many of us are willing to step out in faith like that?

Soon Philip discovers why he was on that lonely desert road when along comes the Ethiopian finance minister in his official chariot. What an opportunity! The man is reading scripture, the prophet Isaiah, and is struggling to understand it, and here suddenly is someone who can help him. Phillip seizes the initiative and presents the Ethiopian with the gospel. It seems that this man is thirsty for God and he readily accepts what Phillip has to say.

At this point I want to ask: How well do you know your Bible? Could you have answered the Ethiopian’s questions? I am often surprised at people’s lack of Bible knowledge.

Incidentally knowing your bible inside out just proves you know your bible. It doesn’t prove that you have been born again and have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Just remember that the Gospels tell us that the devil quoted scripture at Jesus to try and lead him astray.

Philip however knows his stuff and the Ethiopian is convinced and wants to do something about it. He says “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” Incidentally, some Bible scholars think that the place where this baptism took place was at the brook where David picked up the stones used to defeat Goliath. Fortunately Phillip was a man of the Word and the Spirit and baptised the man.

Phillip isn’t phased by the fact this man is not a Jew but a foreigner. But we know that the good news of Jesus is for all men and women irrespective of where they come from.

So the Ethiopian is baptised and goes home rejoicing. Tradition has it that this man started the Coptic church in Ethiopia which is still flourishing 2000 years later.

Philip however is directed by the Holy spirit to move on as his work here has finished. He goes to Azotus and then onto Caesarea where incidently according to Acts he stays for the next 20 years.

As we can see our actions can have far reaching consequences. Through the obedience of Phillip, the gospel is taken to Ethiopia and many people are brought to salvation.

So who sets your agenda?

If God speaks to you do you listen and obey? Or is your life so full of stuff that you can’t possible reschedule your life to include God in the agenda? Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 4:2 that we should “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”

Maybe God has big important appointments for us as he had for Philip. Or maybe its something smaller like speaking to the new kid in school who’s looking lost.

Many people have not met with Jesus and don’t know him, and let’s be honest here, none of us know if we have a tomorrow. So for the unsaved every second is vital. If they are going to be saved it’s down to us. I conducted some 350 funeral services last year and only in a handful could I feel that they had a faith in Jesus. So I had arrived too late for them, but I always pray that I can plant seeds in the lives of those who attend the funeral.

When we were in Cornwall several years ago, I preached at Tubestation one of my favourite churches, on a similar theme and after the service Tim came and talked with me. He had been out to Zimbabwe on business and had met amongst other folk a  pastor. A few weeks later he flew into Zimbabwe again and as he came out of the airport, he felt that God told him to go and see the pastor. His driver agreed to take him on the three hour journey through the bush. When Tim arrived, the pastor threw his arms around Tim and wept. He had been in such a state of despair that morning he had prayed that the Lord would send a Christian brother to pray with him. And there was Tim!

It’s about being in tune with the Holy Spirit’s prompting and going when and where he says.

So lets pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the sensitively to listen to his prompting and the courage to step out in faith when he asks us. Amen.

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I have to do what!

Last Sunday 17th February I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. I talked about the healing of Naaman a man from Syria who had leprosy.

Jesus provoked the crowd in the synagogue at Nazareth when he said that a prophet is not believed in his own town and added  “And there were many in Israel with leprosyin the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

As usual I begin with the scripture:

2 Kings 5:1 -14

1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. 2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” 8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” 11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. 13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.

Have you ever noticed how God asks ordinary people like you and me to do extraordinary things? Sometimes impossible or improbable things?

God doesn’t see people as we do. He looks at people’s hearts rather than their physique or their resume. There is one perhaps insignificant player in this story who actually plays a significant part – a Jewish slave girl who is used by God as the story unfolds. Lets just remember that we may be insignificant in the world’s eyes but God has a part for each one of us to play in his plans.

Firstly a brief history lesson. Naaman was a general in the army of Aram, the country we now know as Syria. Aram had gained its independence from Israel during the reign of King Solomon and until its conquest by the Assyrians in 732 BC was often at war with Israel. Sometime, Judah joined in on Aram’s side and other times Judah went to Israel’s aid. And today, some 2800 years on, Israel and Syria are still enemies.

What do we know about Naaman? In our passage we read, “Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army, was highly respected and esteemed by the king of Syria because through Naaman the Lord had given great victory to the Syrian forces. He was a great soldier, but he suffered from a dreaded skin disease.Image result for Syrian chariot

Obviously this man was a national hero, perhaps of the standing of Montgomery or Eisenhower. A successful and popular man, no doubt famous throughout the country. Here is Naaman, at the height of his fame and power and military prowess, with the writer of the Book of Kings even attributing his victories to God. This may seem strange, but we know that The Lord used the nations surrounding Judah and Israel to punish and discipline his people when they went astray. Given that the then king of Israel was Jehoram son of the evil King Ahab it is hardly surprising that Israel went through periods of judgement at the hands of its enemies.

So at the peak of his career, highly respected and not doubt well rewarded for his victories, he has a problem. He has leprosy. Even if you dress it up in its modern name of Hansen’s disease, it was and for some still is Bad News. It is only in recent years that a treatment has been available, and that treatment is fairly simple if the disease is caught early enough. However, in Naaman’s day there was no cure, just the gradual spread of the disease and the characteristic deformity caused as nerves died away and opportunistic infections of unnoticed or uncared for injuries take their toll.

For Naaman the outlook was disfigurement, disability and finally death. Once the secret was out, his public life, his friendship with the King of Syria, his career, his family life would end and he would be an outcast driven out of society as leprosy sufferers are today in many parts of the world. All he  had worked for would come tumbling down around him. All would be lost.

You can imagine the turmoil in Naaman’s household at the news. What would happen to Naaman? How would the family manage if he had to go away? In the midst of all this, another piece of the jigsaw fits into place. Some would say it was pure chance or coincidence, but when you look at the story as a whole you can see God at work in people’s lives. In v2 we read, “In one of their raids against Israel, the Syrians had carried off a little Israelite girl who became a servant of Naaman’s wife.

How many of us fail to see why we are in circumstances that are not to our liking? We all too often look at things from our point of view rather than God’s. Here is this little girl snatched away from her family in a Syrian raid and enslaved in a foreign land yet she is to play her part for God. Maybe she felt like a discarded bananas on a fruit stall – useless, discarded and unwanted. If we look in Genesis we would see how God was able to use a young man in similar circumstances to save not only his people but also the people of Egypt. That man was Joseph.

Would we do the same? Would we witness in difficult circumstances? In our families or our work? Sometimes if we don’t do what God asks us to do, no one else can or will do it. This unnamed girl played her part and passed on the good news that a cure was possible.

“One day she said to her mistress “I wish that my master could go to the prophet who lives in Samaria! He would cure him of his disease.””

Right from the time of Moses when God gave the law to the Jewish people there was the expectation that people could be cured from leprosy. They would have to be examined by the priests and confirmed “clean”. However apart from Naaman, there is no record in the Bible of anyone being healed of Leprosy until Jesus came – see Luke 17:11-19.

Fortunately Naaman decides to take the advice, perhaps out of desperation rather than hope or belief, but he goes. I think it is interesting that he goes by the official route, almost as if was a diplomatic visit rather than a personal pilgrimage. He has his king’s permission to go and takes with him some amazingly valuable presents and a rather ominous letter for the King of Israel, which really places the onus on the king of Israel to cure Naaman. I wonder if the king of Syria was using the situation to pressure on his neighbour? Look what the letter says: “The letter that he took said ‘This letter will introduce my officer Naaman. I want you to cure him of his disease.'”

There is an interesting parallel between Naaman bearing gifts and seeking a cure with the wise men also bearing gifts and seeking a saviour. They all went to the earthly king when they needed to seek out the heavenly ruler. Anyway Naaman arriving in Samaria the capital city of Israel must have caused quite a stir. To have the commander of a hostile neighbour’s army appear at your palace with what looks like an impossible request or demand must have caused King Jehoram great consternation. He no doubt could see the veiled threat behind the request. We read “When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes in dismay and exclaimed, “How can the king of Syria expect me to cure this man? Does he think that I am God with the power of life and death? It’s plain that he is trying to start a quarrel with me!””

At this point the second of God’s people in the story makes his appearance. He does not however come to the palace and heal Naaman. No, he sends the following message: “Why are you so upset? Send the man to me, and I’ll show him that there is a prophet in Israel!

So Naaman and his entourage swept out of the palace and make their way to Elisha’s house which was no doubt in the poorer end of Samaria, given that prophets didn’t seem to have that good a life style. Can you imagine the way Naaman feels he is being treated; firstly being sent to the poor end of town and then insulted by Elisha not even coming to the door to see him, the great commander of the mighty Syrian army. Surely the prophet should have come out and said a prayer, or cast a spell as no doubt the magicians back home would do, or maybe tell him to do some amazing task to achieve his healing. This is what happened: “Elisha sent a servant out to tell him to go and wash himself seven times in the river Jordan, and he would be completely cured of his disease

Poor Naaman now he has injured pride to add to his leprosy. The great man wouldn’t deign to see him. How dare he! Who does he think he is? Why should I go and jump in that muddy stinking river? There are some wonderful mountain streams and rivers back home that are far healthier. Forget it!

Can’t you just imagine his reaction? Maybe that’s how some of us would react in similar circumstances. I suspect that then, as now, there was a personality cult with preachers and healers. After all, many people     go to healing services when there are going to be famous men or women there. Look at the hype when famous preachers like Maurice Cerillo or Benny Hine come over to this country. Rather than accept than God can and does heal through anyone he chooses, we tend to seek healing from the “famous healer”. For some folk around here it has to be the vicar or pastor who visits when they are sick. Apparently no one else will do! On the other side of the coin I have come across people who boast that they heal people, rather than God graciously healing through them!

Fortunately for Naaman, his servants had more sense than their master or indeed were detached enough from the situation to be able to see what was happening. “His servants went up to him and said ‘Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. Now why can’t you just wash yourself as he said, and be cured?” Don’t we sometimes need someone to be the voice of reason in our ears when we think that God is asking us to do something ridiculous or embarrassing?

Naaman did as Elisha had commanded him. But think about what was involved in this. As a general he rode in a chariot whilst the common soldiers walked. He had to get down from his chariot and strip off all his fine clothes before wadding into the river, not knowing with any degree of certainty if he would be cured. He is at a place where his status, represented by his fine chariot, and all his possessions and achievements, represented by his clothes and war gear have to be put to one side and he has to come to God just as he is. All this stuff does not impress God, it might impress our fellow men, but not God! It is as Isaiah said “All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.” This is where our title comes in as Naaman finally does as God wants him to and he ducks under the water seven times to emerge healed. Praise God!Image result for naaman the leper

If we had read the next verse in this chapter we would have heard something amazing from someone who up to know had been a non believer and an enemy of God’s people: “He returned to Elisha with all his men and said ‘Now, I know that there is no god but the God of Israel.’” I wonder how many of us thank God when our prayers are answered, and then tell others how God has worked in our lives? Shouldn’t we testify to God’s goodness?

So what lessons are there for us in this story?

I think the major point is that there is a parallel between Naaman’s condition and that of mankind. Man is suffering from an apparently incurable disabling, disfiguring disease called sin. Where leprosy kills off the nervous system, sin deadens our conscience so that we are not aware of the damage we do to ourselves by the way we live, the choices we make.

There is a cure for sin as simple as the cure for Naaman’s leprosy. It too can restore the damage done to a person’s life. But from man’s point of view, God’s cure for sin is just as improbable, as we all want to do it our way just as Naaman wanted to do it his way.  Just as there were three stages to Naaman’s healing there are three stages to our healing from sin.

Naaman was told:

  • Go
  • Dip
  • Be healed

We are told:

  • Confess
  • Believe
  • Be saved

Romans 10: 9 puts it this way “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death you will be saved.”

Do you need God’s cure? If so, like Naaman you need to:

  • Shed your pride, you cannot save yourself because of who you are.
  • Recognise that your human achievements really mean nothing to God and they must be dropped as Naaman dropped his uniform.
  • Be obedient to God.

If you feel that like Naaman you have a problem that is beyond man’s help bring it to the Lord today and when he tells you what to do just obey and see the Lord work in your life.

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Lost and Found

I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday 25th November 2018. We dealt with the subject of “Lost and found” and as part of my talk for the children produced a list of items left behind on London Underground and Heathrow airport which was quite amazing. We are still wondering why anyone would take a 14 foot boat on the underground let alone Two-and-a-half hundredweight (125 Kilo) of sultanas.

Luke 15:1 – 10
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

No matter what sort of background we come from, we will at some point have lost something. Sometimes it’s a trivial item other times its vital like our door keys or our bank card. Or maybe its of great sentimental value such as jewellery or photos. Some losses we get over and others can make us inconsolable.

Before we look at the reading I would just point out that throughout the Bible we have opposites, things that are either one thing or another and not anything else. For example good and evil, truth or lies, saved or unsaved. And of course: lost and found.

Sadly in today’s society people don’t like absolutes. And they don’t like to be offended by having the truth pointed out to them. After they argue something may be true for you but it isn’t necessarily a truth for me.

Today we are looking at the two stories that Jesus told dealing with the loss of something that is precious to its owner.

You may say what’s the big deal – its only a sheep. But to the shepherd his animals were very important, every one of them. His sheep were his livelihood and indeed his wealth. He was always with his sheep and indeed when they were in the sheep fold at night, the shepherd slept across the gate way to keep them safe. Jesus said in John 10 v7I am the gate for the sheep.” Even though there are 99 other sheep in the field, the missing sheep is still of great concern to the Shepherd.

We know from the Psalm 23 about the care a shepherd would take of his sheep.

Perhaps you know the old hymn “All people that on earth do dwell” which is based on Psalm 100. This talks about God’s people being the sheep of his flock.

In several places in the Old Testament God’s people are described as his inheritance. That’s how he regards us, those who believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ. We are so precious to him that we are his inheritance. This is from Psalm 33:12Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance.“

Image result for lost coinAnd what about the woman with the silver coins? Most likely the silver coins were her dowry, the wealth from her family that she brought into the marriage. The coins were often worn on a headdress. The coins in this case were probably drachma and each coin was worth about a day’s wages. In this country the Office for National Statistics states that the average wage is around £500 pw ie £100 per day. So the woman has lost something precious not only in monetary value but also sentimental value.

Both the shepherd and the woman search diligently to find what is lost. Never mind that the rest is safe, it’s the concern for the lost which is paramount for them. And the rejoicing when they are successful in their search.

But not everyone seems that concerned over their possessions. Perhaps we in the west are so economically blessed that losing something doesn’t matter so much. Just look at the list of lost property from London Underground we thought about earlier.

However when people lose their pet cat or dog they put up posters detailing the animal that has been lost, often with a picture and sometime offering a reward for the safe return of Snuggles the Cat.

Ever since what the Bible calls “the Fall” when sin came into the world and spoilt God’s relationship with mankind, God has been looking for us, to bring us back to him.
God is holy, that is separate from everything else. He can’t abide evil and sin. Mankind’s sinful nature ie the selfish, hurtful things we say and do prevent us being in God’s presence. He cannot turn a blind eye to sin. There are sadly many people who think that because God is love, and we know that to be true because the Bible tells us, God will at the end of the day let everyone into heaven. These people think that murderers, rapists, abusers etc will just walk straight into heaven and God will smile and say “you were a bit of a rascal when you were on earth. But I don’t mind.”

Many of the people I visit in the course of my work automatically assume their recently departed loved ones will be in heaven. It will be business as usual. Never mind how good, bad or indifferent people have been here on earth, whether they believed and trusted in Jesus or not, they’ll all be in heaven.

I have to say that is very wrong.

In the gospels, Jesus talks more about hell than heaven. He warns us about judgement. He longs for people to avoid the penalty for their sins. He longs for the lost to be found.
The Bible is the story of God’s search for men and women who have lost the close personal relationship they were intended to have with God. It tells of God’s rescue plan to find us and bring us home to him.

The two Bible stories have an interesting point. Neither the shepherd who still had 99% of his flock or the housewife who had 90% of her dowry were happy. They didn’t say “Well I’ve got most of it. That’s fine. I’ll worry about the rest later”. No, they didn’t rest until they found that which was lost.

Searching for  the coin was time consuming and it cost. The woman had to light a lamp which would use valuable oil and then she searched thoroughly and carefully for the coin. She did so until, oh joy of joys, she found the coin.

Similarly the Shepherd goes off to search for his missing sheep. It may be caught in bushes, have fallen down a ravine, or been attacked by wild animals. It doesn’t matter to the shepherd. He just goes after that sheep and searches until he finds the animal and brings it safely home.shepherd with sheep

And our wonderful amazing God is the same. He continues to look for us, to call out our names, to try and bring us home. And he will keep trying until the day we die or until Jesus returns. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise to return, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent.”

He never gives up on anyone, despite those who tell you that God can never love them, or they’re far too bad for God to care for them.

What nonsense! How they limit God’s love for mankind. Just look at John 3:16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” There are no conditions except you have to believe in Jesus. Doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, well educated or ill educated, or where you come from, this offer is open to all.

Jesus described his mission as this, in Luke 19:10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Jesus came to bring mankind back to God. There’s no need to worry about being good enough, as we never can be. Jesus by his death on the cross has paid the price for our sins. If we ask his forgiveness for our sins and put our trust in him, we can be forgiven and have new life, with a restored relationship with God. We can know him as a loving caring Father. And absolutely no one is beyond redemption, if they want to come to Jesus.

Sadly some folk do not recognise that they are lost. Some years ago I went with an old friend to a Men’s Conference at Wood Lane Baptist Church where the speaker was the evangelst Dennis Pethers. My friend bought a copy of Denis Pether’s DVD “More to Life“, which he lent to his sister in law and her husband. They looked at the video and returned it saying that it was very interesting but didn’t apply to them as they have never done anything wrong.

Over the years many people have tried to find their own way home to God. But not every road leads us home. The Beatles in the late 1960’s got into eastern mysticism, Tom Cruise, the Hollywood actor, has gone down the road of scientology , poor Amy Winehouse turned to alcohol and drugs. Others like the scientist Richard Dawkins decide that if they deny the existence of God, then they can’t be lost, so there’s no problem.

Other religions do no help us to find our way back to God. There is only one way to God and his name is Jesus!

The good news is that we don’t have to find our own way. We just have to listen to Jesus’ call to us to “Follow me” and obey it.

We sung this earlier the old hymn “Amazing grace” written by John Newton. He had been a slave trader but God had found him and saved him in the midst of a violent storm at sea. He knew it was God’s grace that saved him, nothing that he had done himself. And so he wrote:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but know I see.

Let me tell you about John. He had been a professional musician, a talented man until alcohol got hold of him. But through the love and care of people at the church he came to faith, repented of his sins and was born again. Sadly the years of drinking had taken their toll and he died. At his funeral the final piece of music was by a band called Blind Faith “Can’t find my way home” I was able to tell the mourners that that was a lie and that John through his faith in Jesus had gone home. He had been lost until Jesus found him.

I have to ask: are you lost or found?

If you haven’t come to faith in Jesus, don’t think that you can find your own way home because there is only one way home and that is through Jesus as he said in John 14:6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

If you feel that you hear God calling you to come home, come and speak with me or one of the leadership team after the service and we will be pleased to talk and pray with you.

And if you are “found” what are you doing to help find the lost? At the very least we should be praying for them. I realise that our family and our friends are often resistant to the good news of Jesus, but we mustn’t give up. After all God never gives up on people till their final breath. We should never write someone off even though you think they are the last person who would ever come to faith.

In Matthew 28:19 & 20 we read “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

So there’s our job description to help the lost be found. But we can only do that if we have come to faith in Jesus and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us, encourage us and empower us.

 

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Be strong and courageous

On Sunday 28th October 2018 I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. Knowing that many folk are going through difficult times, I chose to base my talk on Joshua 1:1 – 9

1After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: 2″Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them–to the Israelites. 3I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates–all the Hittite country–to the Great Sea on the west. 5No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
6″Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Whose ever been afraid?

The English language has many words to describe that feeling:
• afraid
• scared
• fearful
• frightened
• terrified
• petrified
• uneasy

The Bible mentions the word “afraid” 206 times. “Fear” is mentioned 253 times. So this is obviously an important topic.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. Situations we have to face, things we have to go through. They take us out of our comfort zone and we just don’t like it.

For most of us, its not knowing what’s going to happen, a fear of the unknown that gets to us.

Some time ago a friend of mine asked me to pray for him as he was having to undergo an unpleasant medical investigation involving a camera. After the event I spoke with him and he told me the worst part was the ½ hour in the waiting room before the procedure.

When I started school in 1959 I was left at the school gates by my mum and had to wait with 40 other four and five year olds for our teacher to come out and collect us. None of us had been allowed into the school before to see what it was like, or to meet our teacher. It was all so strange – we even had outside loos with no roof on so they were cold and wet in the winter!

Changing class in primary school could be challenging especially if your new teacher is new to the school and no one knows him or her. What is he or she going to be like? Will I like him or her?

Even at secondary school we have new teachers, new subjects to face.

All through life we have beginnings and endings. New challenges and dangers to face: from babies learning to walk, to children learning to ride bikes without stabilisers or learning to swim without arm bands and floats and then in later years learning to drive.
Change brings excitement and it brings worries. For adults its changing jobs or even retiring from work.

Moving house can be a great challenge and seem daunting to many people. When my niece Katy was about three, my brother and his family were moving to a bigger house. Katy was distraught because she didn’t like the toys that were in the new house. She thought that you left your toys in your old house and inherited the ones left in the new house. A silly thing to those in the know but to three year old Katy it was too much to bare.

Moving to a new country to make a new start can be worrying.

Fear and worry are very closely linked. I am told that the root of the German word for worry is strangle, and sometimes that is exactly what our worries and our fears do to us.

Somebody once described worrying as sitting a rocking chair. It can take a great deal of effort and gets you nowhere.

The American preacher and author Max Lucado in his book “Come thirsty” writes this about worry:
• 40% never happens
• 30% is about unchangeable deeds of the past
• 12% focuses on the opinions of others that cannot be controlled
• 10% centre on personal health which only worsens if we worry about it
• 8% concern real problems that we can influence.

Lucado concludes that 92% of our worries are needless.

God doesn’t want us to live our lives full of fear. Many times in the Bible he tells people not to be afraid, or he says “Do not fear”.

If only we can see situations as they really are, as God sees them. We get so engrossed in our lives that we either forget who is really in control, or perhaps we’ve never actually made that step of faith and placed our lives in the hands of Jesus.

We may have heard about Jesus, we may have even read our Bibles and been to church for years, but we’ve never actually taken that step of faith and put our lives in God’s hands.

So lets look at our Bible passage for this morning. Its about a man who had every reason to worry, bearing in mind the task he had been given.

Joshua has just taken over the leadership of the Jewish people from Moses who had obeying God, led them out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years.

Joshua had a difficult task.

According to Exodus 12 there were 600,000 men plus all the women and children. Just imagine being in charge of all those people and responsible for them! I wouldn’t want the job.

Joshua was to get all these thousands of people and all their animals and possessions over the River Jordan and into the promised land where they are to not only conquer every town and city they find but then settle down and live there.

Many of us find it enough just to organise the family holiday or moving house. But moving all these people and animals and then fighting battles to remove the existing inhabitants? That seems overwhelming.

But now Joshua has to lead the people into the promised land and conquer it. So what does God say to him?

• v3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.
• v5 No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life.
• v5 As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
• v6 you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them.
• v8 Then you will be prosperous and successful.
• v9 the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

And what does God expect Joshua to do?

1. v7 Be strong and very courageous
2. v7 Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you
3. v8 Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night
4. v9 Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged.

Do you notice that several times God stresses to Joshua he is to be strong and courageous. Often our courage fails us when we have something new or difficult to undertake or we are uncertain of what we are doing.

There are some big challenges ahead for Joshua and his people. The River Jordan to cross and then cities to over run and armies to defeat. If you read Joshua you may think it’s rather unpleasant that God condemns all these people to die, but if you look into the religious practices which included human sacrifices then you would understand how angry God was with the Canaanites.

We all have our own challenges. We have strongholds of the enemy in our lives to be overcome, difficult people to deal with, awful situations to work through, as we make our way through life. Or perhaps God tells us not to compromise with non believers just as the Jews were not compromise with the Canannites. And maybe, as we read in Joshua 7, “sin in the camp” prevents us fulfilling God’s plan. Maybe its our wrong lifestyle or habits that stop us in our tracks. That’s why we need to do as God commanded Joshua in v 7 & 8 of our reading: “v7 Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you and v8 Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night.”

In our own lives God tells us to do some difficult things. It’s not because God is a spoil sport but because he loves us that he tells us to avoid certain situations or not to get involved with certain people.

Whilst Joshua was alive the Israelites did as God told them and all went well. However after Joshua’s death they decided that they knew best and brought a whole heap of trouble on themselves.

So today as we have new challenges or just have our everyday tasks and duties lets hold onto God’s promise to Joshua and claim it as our own: Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

 

 

 

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Living bread

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and natureOn Sunday I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch. They use the Revised Standard Lectionary and the gospel reading for Sunday was John 6: 51 – 58.

So as usual I give you the reading  before we get to the talk.

John 6:51‑58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever. The bread that I will give you is my flesh, which I give so that the world may live.” 52 This started an angry argument among them. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked. 53 Jesus said to them, “I am telling you the truth: if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them to life on the last day. 55 For my flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.57 The living Father sent me, and because of him I live also. In the same way whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This, then, is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the bread that your ancestors ate, but then later died. Those who eat this bread will live forever.”

Our reading today from John’s gospel comes soon after the account of the “Feeding of the 5000”, when Jesus fed many thousands of people from just five loaves and two small fishes.

Bread has feature as a part of mankind’s diet for thousands of years. The first traces of bread making are possible 30,000 years old. The world’s oldest evidence of bread‑making has been found in a 14,500 year old Natufian site in Jordan’s northeastern desert.

Bread is eaten virtually every where in the world except south and east Asia where rice or noodles are the staple food.

In Slavic countries such as Russia and Ukraine, visitors are welcomed with a gift of bread and salt.

Often we talk about breaking bread with someone when we share a meal with them.

Or the main income earner in a household is referred to as the “bread winner”.

Bread features throughout the Bible. There are 246 references to bread in the Bible. The first is in Genesis 14 when Abraham meets Melchizedek king of Salem.

https://davidfowlerpreacher.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/c42a3-screenshot_2014-04-23-16-18-38-1.png?w=220&h=157Famously God fed the Israelites with Manna, bread from heaven everyday for 40 years until they settled in the promised land of Canaan and were able to grow their own crops. God was able to get the Jews out of Egypt in a night but it took 40 years to get Egypt out of the Jews, so that they were ready and willing to do things God’s way. Yet through out that time he fed them.

When God gave to Moses detailed instructions on the building and furnishing of the tabernacle which proceeded the Temple in Jerusalem he said that there were to be 12 loaves of bread in the holy place, one for each of the tribes of Israel. This was the “Show bread” or “bread of the presence”.

So the Jews were aware of the significance of bread both from a physical sense and a spiritual sense.

 

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness by the devil. This is what we read in Luke 4:1 – 4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, AIf you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.@ Jesus answered, AIt is written: >Man shall not live on bread alone.”

Jesus rebuked the devil with a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3 “…. people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD

Image result for bibleI wonder how many of us have memorised scripture so that we can recall it in time of need?

When I was still in the Church of England I led a day time Bible Study Group and one day I asked if people knew any Bible verse by heart. Encouragingly several people came up with scriptures they had learnt, but one elderly lady who had been a church member for many years and head of the Mothers Union came up with what she thought was a bible verse “they say you are nearer to God in a garden“.

So here in John 6 the crowds who Jesus fed the previous day have caught up with him and want to see him do yet more miracles. Some no doubt want to be sure that Jesus is who he says he is. Other are just here for a free meal or to watch a good show.

This is part of the conversation:  31 After all, our ancestors ate manna while they journeyed through the wilderness! The Scriptures say, Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat. 32 Jesus said, AI tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. 33 The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. 34 Sir, they said, give us that bread every day. 35 Jesus replied, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

You do wonder from the Jews’ reaction if they get that Jesus is talking about spiritual food, rather than physical food. After all life for the average Jew at the time of Jesus was fairly tough so being well fed would be great and a real blessing. And never being hungry again would be brilliant in a land where you can never rely on the rains coming at the correct time and all the other problems that can beset farmers.

Earlier in John 4, Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well and she misunderstood Jesus speaking about spiritual thirst with physical thirst. John 4:13 – 15Jesus answered, Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won=t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus points out that those who ate the manna, the bread from heaven, have died, but those who eat the bread that Jesus brings will never die.

The Jews of Moses’ time who ate the manna, physical food, have died. Yet those who eat the spiritual food Jesus offers will live on past physical death.

People naturally got worried when he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. To some this could have seemed like human sacrifice or cannibalism which were abhorrent to the Jews as indeed was drinking blood. How are we going to eat him and drink his blood?

The Jews of Jesus’ day were used to the idea of animal sacrifices, after all that is went on from dawn to dusk, day in and day out, at the Temple in Jerusalem. And it is what the Passover meal was about, a lamb being sacrificed and eaten by the people and the blood used on the doorposts of the house to save all who were inside.

But Jesus is talking about him being a sacrifice, his body broken and his blood poured out on the cross of Calvary for our salvation. Jesus paying the price for our sins to put us right with God.

All we have to do to have eternal life is to believe and trust in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. When we come to faith in Jesus we have the Holy Spirit within us to help us feed on Jesus to become more like him as we grow and mature in our faith.

Just as when we eat physical food we absorb its energy and its goodness into our bodies, so through faith we can absorb Jesus’ life and goodness into our lives, our spirits.

And Jesus’ words point us to the Last Supper. We read in Luke 22:19 – 22And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, AThis cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

Jesus wants us to have a personal intimate relationship with him. We are not to keep him at a distance. We are not to say “yes we believe” and then do nothing about it.

I visit many families who will tell me that mum or dad believed but weren’t church goers or anything like that. And sadly there is no evidence of them actually having a faith in Jesus, which is very sad.

So how do we feed on Jesus?

I would suggest that we:

  1. Spend time in prayer, both talking to God and Jesus, as well as listening to them.
  2. Read and study our Bible
  3. Meet with fellow believers for prayer and worship and fellowship
  4. And also we need to celebrate Communion as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11:23 – 26 “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, AThis is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.@ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, AThis cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.@ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord=s death until he comes.”

We do not need anything else to have eternal life. We cannot earn our way into heaven no matter how hard we try.

Sadly some people get led astray and walk away from Jesus to the equivalent of eating spiritual junk food. It may taste good and fill you up for a while but what does it really do to you?

Others say that they believe in Jesus and do nothing about it, so sadly at best they are more or less bonsai Christians.

Jesus is the way to heaven. There is no other way and no matter how sincere followers of other faiths may be, they are sincerely wrong. Jesus said in John 14:6  “Jesus answered, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

We are all going to die, unless the Lord returns whilst we are still alive, but we have his promise to hold on to from John 6:54 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them to life on the last day.”

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Off with his head

Today I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch. They follow the “Revised Common Lectionary” so I worked the Bible reading scheduled for today which you can find here: Mark 6:14 – 29.

The life of a prophet in Israel was always full of danger and not for the faint hearted.

John the Baptist is thought of as the last of the “Old Testament prophets”.

Jesus in Matthew 11:11 describes John as follows: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist….”

The prophets told the people what God had to say to them. Sometimes it was things that the people had to hear, but didn’t want to hear.

In Hebrews 11 we read about men and women of faith and what was done to them because of their faith in God. “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated

According to Jewish tradition Isaiah the prophet was sawn in half whilst hiding in a hollow tree. He had clearly upset the then King Manasseh who amongst other vile crimes took part in the ritual sacrifice of children to the god Moloch.

Nobody ever seems to have volunteered to be a prophet. It was more that God chose them.

This is what we read about the call of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:4 – 10 4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. 6 Alas, Sovereign LORD, I said, I do not know how to speak; I am too young. 7 But the LORD said to me, Do not say, I am too young. You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you, declares the LORD. 9 Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.

It was not an easy life being a prophet. As being God’s messenger you had to deliver bad news to some very powerful people many of whom didn’t want to hear what God had to say to them. And sadly that is still true today.

The prophets were called to speak “truth to power” and that is what we Christians have to do today.

We have to be salt and light in society.

We have to tell the unpleasant truths. To misquote the well known fairy tale, we have to say that the Emperor’s new clothes don’t exist and that he is in the “all together” even if powerful people don’t like it.

We are fortunate that our Queen is a Christian, but sadly many of our politicians are not, and they take their inspiration and guidance from many other sources. They seem to listen to the vocal minorities who shout the loudest   and ignore what God has said. And so we see the flouting of God’s word is so many areas of public life. At times its getting to the 1960’s catch phrase “If it feels good, do it!”.

And sadly some parts of the church go along with this view as they argue “all you need is love” and assume that anything people say is love is okay.

So lets see what happens with John the Baptist.

John was a miracle baby. His parents were past child bearing age and I am sure that his mother Elizabeth in particular had suffered the shame of being childless. In those days having a large family was taken as a sign of God’s blessing, so you could wonder what was wrong with a couple who had no children.

Related imageAnd yet as we know completely out of the blue, in human terms, John’s father Zechariah, a priest,  receives a visit from an angel whilst he is burning incense in the Temple.

We read in Luke 1 the job description for John: Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteousCto make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

John’s reaction to the angel’s message about the baby is quite understandable “You’re having a laugh mate!”.

After that Zechariah is struck dumb until the baby was born.

Something I had never thought of before is that the angel says Zechariah’s prayer has been heard. He must have been praying for a child for many many years. And yet quite unexpectedly his prayer is answered. It teaches us to persist in prayer even when we think the situation is hopeless.

We don’t hear again about John until he starts his ministry around the year 29.

John served as the forerunner or herald of the Messiah and was to prepare for him by fulfilling an Elijah‑like role by calling the nation to repentance. In Luke 3:3 – 6 we are told 3 So John went throughout the whole territory of the Jordan River, preaching, “Turn away from your sins and be baptized, and God will forgive your sins.” ” As it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Someone is shouting in the desert: “Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel! 5 Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain leveled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth. 6 The whole human race will see God’s salvation!‘ ”

Image result for john the baptistJohn baptized people as a sign of their repentance.

John was approached by some poeple who the religious authorities would have said are beyond hope. But whilst we may write people off, God never does. As we know from Jesus’ encounter with the thief on the cross, people have until their dying breath to repent and seek forgiveness.

This is how John dealt with these people (Luke 3:12 -14)  12 Some tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what are we to do?” 13 “Don’t collect more than is legal,” he told them. 14 Some soldiers also asked him, “What about us? What are we to do?” He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”

John doesn’t tell them to give up their jobs, but he tells them to do them properly, not trying to make a bit on the side. Be honest in your business dealings with others. There still is a culture in society of trying to avoid paying tax or its alright to steal office stationary etc.

I am paid a high percentage of my fees in cash and some colleagues tell me I am stupid to declare to the Inland Revenue everything I earn. But I am answerable to the highest authority in all creation. I must be honest in my dealings. And yet a good number of years ago there was a retired minister who conducted many funeral services a week often having the cheques made out to different family members. This was he was able to buy a nice retirement home as well as a holiday home for his daughter. He obviously hadn’t taken to heed Jesus’ remark about paying taxes in Mark 12:17Then Jesus said to them, Give back to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is Gods.“”

So what had John done to get himself banged up in prison?

He had criticised Herod Antipas the ruler of Galilee for marrying his half brother Philip’s wife Herodias. Herodias wanted John dead for daring to criticise her actions. But it seems that Herod had him arrested almost as a sort of protective custody.

Herod liked listening to what John had to say even though it disturbed him.

We are not sure how long John was in prison but finally there came a day where Herodias could get rid of John once and for all.

At Herod’s birthday party, his step daughter Salome danced so amazingly well that Herod stupidly said she could have anything she wanted as a reward.

So at her mother’s prompting she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Herod having rashly promised her anything she wanted felt he had no choice but to agree and ordered John to be beheaded there and then.salome-w-head.jpg

If only Herod had engaged his brain before opening his mouth things may have been different.

How many of us are guilty of doing the same thing? We act on impulse without thinking or praying about a situation.

John had fulfilled his role. He had proclaimed that Jesus the Messiah was coming. He had urged people to repent of their sins and to be baptised.

He had also spoken truth to power.

As Christians we are Christ’s ambassadors also proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. But all Christians should be aware that persecution could await us. And sometimes it can come from within the church.

Recently a man was arrested outside St Paul’s cathedral for breach of the peace. He was reading aloud from the Bible and the cathedral authorities objected to him doing this.

However just as John the Baptist stuck to his role right to the end, so we should, aided by the Holy Spirit, be faithful to what Jesus has commissioned us to do, when he said in Matthew 28:19 & 20 Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

 

 

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Do you want to be blessed?

Last Sunday (24 June 2018) I again preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church .

With the children we explored names both in society and in the Bible and how are names soemtimes define who we are.

So our Bible reading deals with a man who had been named Jabez which means “Pain”. Imagine going through life with a name like that.

Well our short reading from the Bible, a snapshot in reality, tells us what this man did and how God blessed him.

1 Chronicles 4 v 9 & 10

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

How do you feel about being blessed by God?

For many it’s the nondescript “God bless you” we wish people in a vague way or tack onto the message inside greetings cards.

Many of us were bought up not to ask for things. You may have been taught the old saying: “Those who ask don’t get and those who don’t ask don’t want”

However at times like Christmas and birthdays some people write out lists of what they would like to receive. Often this starts once the Christmas cards start appearing in the shops – usually just after Fathers’ Day in June!

There are people who think God is rather like a cash dispenser. You know how they work, you put the cashpoint card in the slot and type in the PIN and bingo out comes the cash. I am sure none of you treat the Lord like that.

You know: say the prayer, shout “Amen” and grab the blessings!

This is the sort of prosperity religion we see mainly in the States. Some people call it “Name it and Claim it”.

Yes God can give us more than we can ever ask for but we have to ask in accordance with his will.

Of course some people in their asking God for blessings misunderstand how he works.

Many years ago when cash dispensers were first installed, I am told that a bank customer arrived at night at an obviously empty dark bank branch. He wrote out his cheque to cash and put it with his cheque book, and cheque guarantee card through the letter box and rushed round to the cash machine and waited and waited for his money. He was convinced that one of the bank’s cashiers was on duty in the darkened building to cash his cheque and push the money out of the slot in the machine!

People are just as wrong and muddled in their approach to God, relying on myths and old wives tales and a lot of misinformation. It is thought by some that God’s blessing just drops into their laps without the need for faith or any effort on our part. Others don’t feel they could ask God for anything. They are right that we don’t deserve God’s blessings but then he is a loving generous God who delights in giving good things to his children.

Some people think they can earn God’s blessings, rather as people used to collect Green Shield stamps years ago and trade the full books in for various items from the catalogue. “If I do this for God then he will do something for me…”

You can’t earn your way into heaven or bargain with God to get his blessings no matter how many times you go to church on Sunday or how many cakes you bake, meetings you attend or whatever. God doesn’t work that way.

God’s children are those who are “born again”, who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, not just people who come to church regularly – they are church goers. You may have heard the saying “You can’t rely on God’s promises by merely visiting his premises”.

Being men, women and children of faith is far more than parking your backside on a church pew for an hour a week or watching “Songs of Praise” on the TV every Sunday evening.

What does God say on the matter of blessings?

Just see the effect that God’s blessing had on people who were faithful and obedient:

Abraham who obediently left his comfortable lifestyle in Ur to find the promised land of Canaan became a successful and prosperous businessman. And had an even greater blessing in that his physical and spiritual descendants are without number as God promised him.

Joseph remained faithful to God despite all that happened to him and became Prime minister of Egypt and saved not only Egypt but also the Jewish people from starvation.

Job had everything taken from him, yet stuck with God and was blessed by having even more given to him because of his faithfulness.

David despite his sinfulness was described as a man after God’s own heart and he was blessed with the Kingdom of Israel and the promise that the Messiah would be one of his descendants. Now isn’t that a real blessing?

And so to the hero in our story.

Jabez clearly hadn’t had a good start in life because his mother had called him “pain” as she had a very difficult and painful childbirth.

Anybody here a pain to their mums?

Yet Jabez has overcome his difficult start in life and has become the most respected member of his family. Clearly this wasn’t enough and he recognised that he couldn’t do it on his own.

Jabez must have realised that human effort can only achieve so much. He was wise enough and humble enough to know that all things come from God. So to really make his mark he needs God’s help.

Jabez wanted it “God’s Way”. So he calls out to the Lord: “Oh, that you would bless meRelated image

Jabez doesn’t limit his request with something trivial like the Old Testament equivalent of the Rolls Royce or a win on the Lottery. No he leaves it to God to provide the blessing.

God like any loving parent wants what’s best for his children and delights in providing for them. Because he is the creator he can bend the rules and make miracles happen. But miracles just don’t happen. We have to ask. Just look at the gospels to see how Jesus answered those who asked in faith

Yet some may say “Oh I haven’t that much faith”. But Jesus talks about us just needing faith the size of a mustard seed to see amazing miracles happen. As you may know a mustard seed is just a tiny black dot and you may wonder how anything of any size can possible grow from it. Matthew 17 v 20I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”

Jabez has the faith to ask for an increase in his territory – some translations say “land”. But a person’s territory is where he or she can have influence. Jabez was already well respected and wanted to have greater influence.

But for whose benefit?

This is something we should ask ourselves when we seek to increase our influence – is it for us? For our personal benefit or for God? Are we trying to satisfy our own desires or are we seeking to serve God?

Some may say but I have enough. I do enough already. I don’t want to get labelled as “religious”. All this stepping out in faith stuff is alright for church leaders or for people who have the time to study the bible and things but not for me!

Yes, stepping out in faith and asking God to bless you and use you is scary but the results are truly awesome and often beyond your greatest expectations.

Jabez, I am sure, realised that just asking to be blessed was not enough. He goes on to ask “Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm

If someone’s hand is with you or on you then you are close to them. The only way to keep that hand there is to stay close. Its rather like walking hand in hand with a child, to not only give them the comfort of feeling you there, but to keep them from running off or from falling over and hurting themselves.See the source image

Jabez realises even when God gives him the blessing, he needs God’s oversight to keep him safe. He needs to stay close to God.

Did you realise that a quarter of the Lord’s prayer is asking for protection?

All too often when things are going well we forget God. Some people treat him like the red box on the wall – “In case of emergency break your silence and pray“.

When there isn’t a problem we ignore the fire alarm don’t we?

So we too need to keep close to God and if his hand is restraining us we need to learn not to struggle and try to break free because he knows much better than we do the harm that will befall us if we go our own way.

We need also to learn to go at God’s pace not ours. Like the little child who has to learn that the hand he is holding is slowing him down for a reason we also have to realise that God doesn’t want us to run out of steam or indeed over balance and fall because of our haste to get things done.

Indeed Jabez was cute enough to realise the pain that can be caused by going his way rather than God’s way. Without God’s protection we are on our own in the dark. After all Psalm 119 v 105Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” My bible commentary says this about this verse “Apart from this (God’s word) I could only grope about in the darkness. We all know how much harm we can get into walking along an unlit path or negotiating the landing and stairs in the dark when the lights fuse or there is a power cut.

So what happened when Jabez prayed this prayer “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”?

We read “And God granted his request” We don’t hear again from Jabez in the Bible but we can assume he made his mark for God because his story is recorded for us to study and think about. Clearly the man’s life was changed and indeed his territory or influence is with us today. His story still bears witness to our wonderful loving generous God. Isn’t that something?

Just imagine if you prayed a prayer like Jabez and in three thousand years time, if the Lord Jesus hasn’t returned in the meantime, people are still talking about you as an example of a faithful believer would n’t that say something about your influence being increased and used by God?

If you desire to use what you have for God, to be an influence for him wherever you are, why not pray this prayer?

If you believe that God can and does bless people, and you are prepared to let him decide what the blessing will be and when it will be, why not pray this prayer? After all James says in James 4 v2You do not have because you do not ask

So if you do not ask, you do not get the blessings that God has ready for you and you miss out on the experiencing the God who describes himself as “abundant in goodness”.

Asking God to bless you, as he wills, means that your life will never be the same and he will be able to use you to be a blessing to others and a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

So lets step out in faith and ask God to bless us:

“Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” Amen.

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