Preach the word

On the 20th October this year I again preached at my home church, Becontree Avenue Baptist Church, on the subject of preaching the word even when people don’t want to hear what you have to say, even if they need to hear it.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Image result for open bible imagesSeveral years ago we were on holiday in Cornwall and we went to the local church which is very lively and attracts people from near and far to attend and become members. Sadly the preacher was the then local Methodist minister. After we had the Bible reading the minister got up to speak and the first words that came out of his mouth were “Everybody has their own ideas about Jesus and everybody is right” Maybe he didn’t realise the implications of what he had said, but it certainly didn’t line up with the Bible.

So according to this minister if you thought Jesus was just a prophet you were right. If you think Jesus was just a man you were right. If you hold another religion’s view on Jesus, you are right. Whatever you thought about Jesus you were right.

The Bible tells us exactly who Jesus is – the Son of God. To make him anything less than that is so wrong.

Recently I heard a local church minister telling a grieving family at their loved one’s funeral that the deceased is now an angel! Again, the Bible makes it clear that humans are humans and angels are angels. We do not magically become angels when we die. If we did I am 100% sure the Bible would tell us.

This same minster talks about “the circle of life” almost implying re incarnation. Well the Bible says in Hebrews 9:27Everyone must die once, and after that be judged by God.”

I am not sure if he thinks he is giving people comfort by telling what they want to hear, or he just doesn’t know the Bible. Or maybe he doesn’t believe that the Bible is God’s word as it has some difficult things to take onboard.

Our Bible reading talks about teachers who will give people what their itching ears want to hear. At a funeral many people want to hear that their loved one is safely in heaven, regardless of the fact the person was not a Christian and had never expressed any interest in God or Jesus.

Indeed, many will ask for a secular or non-religious service for their loved one and then read poems about God calling the person home to heaven.

None of us know what has gone on between someone and God in their last moments. After all we have that wonderful conversation between Jesus and a criminal as they are dying on crosses. Luke 23:42 & 43Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
But we really can’t assume that everyone gets to heaven; and it would be wrong of us to give people that false assurance. We can hope that someone has had a last minute conversion, but we can’t be definite about it, as we simply do not know.

Many years ago, when we were in the Church of England, we had Ken, a retired gentleman, come to our Home group. He told us that his father in law had just died and his grandson was asking questions about where great grandad was now. Ken told the young lad that great grandad could be that blackbird sitting in the tree. Ken was surprised when we asked him where he found that in the Bible. Yes, he had a Bible. His mum had given him one as he went off to war in 1939. But he really had never sat down and read it. So, when faced by one of life’s difficult questions he came up with the first answer he could think of.

So what does our Bible reading have to say about all this?

Paul wrote this letter to a young church leader, Timothy who had the advantage of growing up in the faith. We know from earlier in this letter that his mother and grandmother were believers: 2 Timothy 1:5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

Many people come to faith not having the benefit of growing up in a Christian home and not being aware of the Bible from an early age. Some may be the only believer in the family for many years, if not, ever.

Often when I visit people, I am told that mum or dad had a Bible but it was never opened. It was there almost like a talisman or good luck charm.

Some years ago, one of my brothers, who is a permanent deacon in the Catholic church, told me that an elderly lady in his church asked for help. There was, during Lent, an inter church house group and people were reading from the Bible. She didn’t know how to find her way round the Bible. Yes, she did have one, but years ago the Parish priest had told her she should have a Bible, but there was no need to read it as the priest would tell her what she needed to know!

I hope that you check out what I am telling you, to make sure that I do not go off message. There is a good precedent for this. In Acts 17:10 – 12As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Can you imagine going up to the Apostle Paul and telling him he’s got it wrong! The people from Berea were prepared to do that rather than simply believing everything he said. We also should be prepared to do that.

We should remember not to cherry pick from the Bible as Paul tells us: 2 Timothy 3: 16 – 17All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
I have had people say to me that the Bible doesn’t make sense and is confusing and contradictory. And yes, some parts are difficult to understand, but we should persevere and indeed ask God through the Holy Spirit to help us understand what we are reading.
I think it is useful to clarify that in saying “All scripture is God breathed” Paul is referring to what we know as the Bible not the books of other religions. We also have to be careful as some cults, particularly those that come knocking door to door, have edited and mistranslated the Bible to justify their own beliefs. A bit like taking a knife to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to get them to fit how you think they should.

The famous missionary and great man of God, Hudson Taylor once said: There are three great truths,
First: That there is a God;
Second, That He has spoken to us in the Bible;
Third, That He means what He says.

So if we agree with Hudson Taylor we should take the Bible seriously and certainly not misquote it or take verses out of context.

Let’s look at Ephesians 4:28. In it we read: “Anyone who has been stealing must steal” That’s good news if you are a thief, you can continue to do so.
But…..
What it actually says is: “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.”
You see the danger of misquoting the Bible.

Paul commands Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”

We have to bring the Word of God to people whenever its needed rather than whenever we feel like it. And we have to correct those who have got it wrong or have misunderstood, rebuke those that needed to be told off for their sinful behaviour and then encourage people who need to be encouraged and spurred on in their faith.

Paul goes on to say in 2 Timothy 4:3 & 4For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

You can see this to be true in some churches where no longer to do they promote Godly relationships but take the view that “anything goes”, or indeed you have some Christians saying “as Jesus didn’t say anything about this, it must be ok.” May be Jesus didn’t make a pronouncement about a particular sin because the Jews at the time were fully aware from the Bible that it was a sin, no matter how popular it may have been in other cultures.

Or we have churches which are happy to allow other faiths to worship and pray in their buildings, buildings that are dedicated to the one true God. They allow readings from these faiths’ texts even if the passage read out denies the truth of Jesus and who he is.

What about the cathedral that during the summer installed a helter skelter in the middle of the building? Another church had a crazy golf course.

You may recall from the gospels that Jesus was appalled at what he found going on in the Temple. We read in Matthew 21;13It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.

Sadly, people inside the church and outside want to have an easy gospel, something that makes them feel good and doesn’t compel them to change. A “no repentance needed” gospel. A “business as usual” gospel. And of course, they will be preachers and teachers who will happily go along with this, never mind that they should be correcting, rebuking and encouraging.

Another quote from Hudson Taylor “Carrying the cross does mean following in Jesus’ footsteps. And in His footsteps are rejection, brokenheartedness, persecution and death. There are not two Christs – an easy going one for easy going Christians, and a suffering one for exceptional believers. There is only one Christ. Are we willing to follow His lead?

In the final verse in our passage Paul gives a simple instruction: 5 “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry”.

So, although not all of us are called to be evangelists or preachers we all have our part to play in advancing the Kingdom of God. In our conversations with people we must not give them what their itching ears want to hear but should try to give them what they need to hear which is the Word of God.

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Escape to Egypt

This morning I was at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch where they use the Revised Common Lectionary which sets out Bible readings on a weekly basis over the course of the church’s year starting on Advent Sunday. The readings for this week can be found here.

The passage I used today was Matthew 2:13 – 23:

13 After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.” 14 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
16 When Herod realized that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger – this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared. 17 In this way what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true:
18 “A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for they are dead.” 19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the land of Israel, because those who tried to kill the child are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel. 22 But when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. He was given more instructions in a dream, so he went to the province of Galilee 23 and made his home in a town named Nazareth. And so what the prophets had said came true: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

This time of year, many people enjoy going to the pantomime, with its mixture of heroes and villains and audience participation with shouts of “behind you” and “Oh no his not”.

We love to cheer the heroes and boo the villains. With a pantomime, no matter how bad things seem the hero always wins and the villain is always vanquished.

Well, our Bible passage has its own heroes and a villain. Its also packed full of references to the old testament prophets as Matthew’s gospel was written to convince his Jewish readers that Jesus was the Messiah and he fulfilled all the prophecies about his coming.

Although the we can all “boo” and “hiss” at Herod, the real villain behind it all is Satan, the devil who is desperate for the baby Jesus to be killed.

Herod is really a nasty piece of work.

Herod, who liked to be titled “Herod the Great”,  was King of the Jews, but was not a Jew. Neither was he a particularly nice man.

His family had come from Idumea in the south and had been forcibly converted to Judaism when the area was conquered by the Jews in about 125 BC. He was nominally of the Jewish faith, as some modern day politicians are seen to go to church and then promote and vote for obviously non biblical laws.

It suited his purposes to be thought of as a Jew, which is probably why he had the temple rebuilt on such a lavish scale.

He was king only because he enjoyed the support of the Roman Emperor. It was with the support of Roman troops that he had conquered Judea in 37 BC. He was a puppet king allowed to rule on the understanding that there was no trouble.

He was ruthless, having murdered his wife, three sons, mother in law, brother in law, uncle and many others. He had a network of spies through out the land to keep him informed of possible trouble. His troops were foreign mercenaries and his advisers mainly Greeks.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote an extensive portrayal of Herod whom he describes as both an astute politician and an oppressive tyrant. Whilst Josephus doesn’t mention the murder of the children in Bethlehem, it is probably because in size it was one of Herod’s less spectacular crimes.

He was unpopular with the traditional Jews, as they upheld the law and remembered the warning in Deuteronomy 17 v.14 & 15When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us’, be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.

So what about the heroes?

Joseph is an unlikely hero.

A young man, although we don’t know his age. In fact we don’t know a lot about him, apart from the fact that he is a carpenter. As trades used to be passed down from Father to son it is likely that his father had been a carpenter.

However what we do know is his ancestry all the way back to Abraham as detailed in Matthew 1. The Jews were very keen on genealogy hence throughout the Bible we are given information about a person’s parents, grand parents etc.

So we know that Joseph was a genuine descendant of Abraham as well as being descended from King David.

Not only is Joseph a Jew by inheritance but he is also a man of God. A man who listens to God’s prompting and obeys him.

Life had been fairly simple for Jospeh. He had a steady job and was betrothed to Mary. They had been looking forward to getting married to her and setting up their new home.
But life never goes to plan, at least not to our plans.

Mary is our other hero. A young girl who had been looking forward to marrying Joseph and when, no doubt, the time was right having a family.

However God had other plans for this young couple.

We read in Luke 1 how Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel to tell her that she is to by the mother of a special baby, no other than Jesus, the son of God. Mary accepts this even though she wonders how this going to happen as she was not as people say nowadays “sexually active”. Gabriel says that this will be through the power of the Holy Spirit and is a parallel to how the Holy Spirit brought life to the earth in Genesis 1:1 & 2.

Joseph and Mary marry and then with the baby due anytime they had to travel south from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census which happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The province of Syria included all of Palestine and a vast area to the North East of Palestine.

Thus Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem which as the Old testament prophets predicted would be where the Messiah would be born.

And Jesus was born, we are told, in a stable as there was no room in the inn.

His first visitors were the local shepherds who had been alerted to the birth of Jesus by a choir of angels.

Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem although 40 days after the birth of Jesus they make a trip to the Temple in Jerusalem so that Jesus can be presented before the Lord as the law required. Here they are greeted by two prophets Simeon and Anna, who were overjoyed to meet the baby Jesus. You would have thought that news of the Messiah would have spread from the Temple but it appears not because when the wisemen arrive in Jerusalem no one in authority has a clue about the baby they are seeking.

Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus return to Bethlehem and stay there for some time. We are not told why, when their actual home is in Nazareth.

Three KingsHowever the wisemen arrive, having first stopped at Jerusalem. After all the royal palace is where you would expect to find a new born prince.

Wily King Herod sends the wisemen to Bethlehem and asks them to come back and tell him where to find the baby so that he also may go and “worship the Messiah”.

Isn’t it interesting that none of the scribes or the priests want to go with the wisemen? They have been waiting for God to send the Messiah for hundreds of years and yet not one of them says “I’ll go with you to check this out”. Did they really want the Messiah to come, or were they hopeful that they could continue with “business as usual”?

The wisemen arrive at Bethlehem and bow before Jesus and present him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts were probably worth a king’s ransom. Frankincense was said to cost more than gold. We do not know the quantities involved but in 2 kings 5:5 we read that Naaman the Leper took with him as a gift to Elisha the prophet: “So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.” the 6000 shekels of gold would weigh about 68 kilograms or 10 ½ stone!

But what we can be sure of is that the wisemen’s gifts helped the family stay financially afloat, let along the thought that myrrh can be used as an antiseptic and an analgesic, a useful medicine to have.

The wisemen warned by God in a dream leave Bethlehem and return home avoiding Jerusalem. They have played their part and leave the stage. Whether they spread the good news of the birth of Jesus in their home country we do not know.

What we do know is that when Herod realises the wisemen have done a runner he is not at all happy. He is angry, he is frightened, he is also threatened by this child, a claimant for his throne. And so he decides to take drastic action. He will kill the child and just to make sure he will kill every boy child of two years and under in the Bethlehem district. He sends out his soldiers to carry out the grizzly task. I do wonder how the soldiers felt carry out these executions? Or were they just obeying orders? Perhaps they knew if they didn’t do it, they would be killed.

It’s not know how many children died. Some commentators think less than 50, and given the violence inflicted on the population by Herod its hardly surprising that this massacre is not specifically recorded.

Fortunately Joseph also has a dream from God and flees with Mary and Jesus into Egypt and safety. These weren’t economic migrants as some folk will tell us, but they were genuine refugees fleeing for their lives. They were in grave danger.

At our church we were recently supporting a young couple who had fled Iran. He had been in prison for a year and she had spent a month in prison. Their crime: being Christians in a muslim country. Sadly the Home Office found it hard to believe their story, thinking they were economic migrants.

The family stay in Egypt until Herod is dead and the danger is over.

One hundred miles in a direct line from Bethlehem would carry Joseph well over the border of Egypt. Two hundred miles would bring him to the river Nile. In Egypt he would find friends, possibly acquaintances. There were at that time about one million Jews in the Nile valley. In Alexandria, a city of 300,000,from one-fifth to two-fifths of the population were Jews, two of the five wards being given over to them; and the Talmud describes how, in its great synagogue, all the men of like craft or trade sat together. Thus Joseph might there find fellow-craftsmen, as did Paul in Corinth ( Acts 18:3 ).

Some commentators state that the family was not in Egypt for long before Herod died at age 70 in the 37th year of his reign. Joseph again hears from God, this time that it is safe to return to Israel.

However, when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, Joseph was afraid to go there. By his last will and testament Herod divided his kingdom among three of his sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip. The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar consented to the provision of this will. Each of these sons bore the name of Herod, like their father.

But in the very beginning of his reign Archelaus massacred three thousand Jews at once, in the temple, at the time of the Passover, because they called for justice upon the agents who performed the barbarities of his father’s reign. Not long after this a solemn embassy of the Jews went to Rome, and petitioned Augustus to remove Archelaus, and make his kingdom a Roman province. After a reign of nine years, Archelaus was banished to Vienne, in Gaul, where he died in A.D. 6. After him Judea had no more native kings, and as prophesied in Scripture the sceptre departed from Judah. The land became a Roman province. Perhaps the governor who we know most about was Pontius Pilate.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth where Jesus was to spend his formative years. So Jesus became a resident of Nazareth, a Nazarene. Nazareth was a despised place as we read in John 1: 46:“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.”

So we can see in this passage God’s wonderful provision for Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. We see how God uses people who believe in him, as well as those who don’t believe, to fulfil his purposes.

Let us pray that God will speak to us and we will listen to his voice and allow ourselves to be used to fulfil his purposes and spread the good news of Jesus Christ wherever we go. Amen.

 

 

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lazarus come out!

On 24th November I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. It was an “all age” service so our children and young people stayed with teh adults for the entire service.

Therefore the talk had to be pitched at the wider age range that were present.

The story of Lazarus is a very familiar story and as the passage I used is quite lengthy you can find it here: John 11:17 – 44 .

Most of us have or have had friends.

Some we have known for years and years, others we have only met recently.

There are friends we see often and some infrequently.

For some people our friends are better than family: “Friends you chose, relatives you are born with” as the old saying goes.

Dave and I met on our first day at Grammar school back in 1966. Nowadays we may not see each other for months, but we know if needed we are only a phone call away. Dave was there to help me when I was 20 and my father died so suddenly and unexpectedly. And I was there for him when he had difficult times.

So today we are looking at a story concerning friends.

But before we get to our story I want to ask you a question:
I wonder how many of us would own up to finding God frustrating particularly when he appears not to answer our prayers?

Do we even sometimes think that he has n’t heard us?

I know that when we either don’t get answers to our prayers or we don’t get the answer we expect, there are all sorts of excuses given by well meaning people as to why God hasn’t answered our prayers. We might be told that you are lacking in faith, or your spouse is a non-believer so God can’t possible answer your prayers, or any of the many other platitudes I’m sure you’ve heard. However, the truth is more complex. Though of course, sometimes we are the problem because of our own wilfulness or our hardness of heart or our own embittered attitude or even the fact that in reality we don’t want to be healed.

In Isaiah 55 God says “ As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Put it another way God knows far more than we do and seeing things from an eternal perspective he knows what we really need. That being so, his timing is perfect and inevitably his answer comes right on cue. Often he has something far better in mind than we can ever imagine.

Up until about a year ago our Tom was a delivery driver for an organic food wholesaler based in North London. He would be driving his Mercedes Sprinter van around London and further a field in all weathers. Every time a job came up in the office he applied for it, knowing that with a bit of training he could do it. However he was far too useful to the company as a driver so he never got the better paid jobs in the office. So eventually he left and went to work elsewhere. About a month ago there was a big fire at the company’s warehouse which, with all the stock in it, was burnt to the ground. Had Tom stayed working at the company he would along with everyone else have been made redundant.

Even though he may not admit it, God made sure that Tom was saved from being jobless.

Faith is about trusting God even when we can’t see what he is doing; and things appear, from our point of view, to be hopeless.

So what was happening in this story about Lazarus?

Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, was ill and his sisters Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus, no doubt in the hope that either he would come in person or would heal Lazarus at a distance. After all they knew that Jesus could and did heal people who were sick.

Even though it is clear that Lazarus was a very special friend of Jesus, he didn’t rush to Bethany to be at his friend’s bedside. I suspect that most of us would have gone as quickly as possible to Bethany. Yet Jesus listened to his Heavenly Father rather than to his friends and stayed where he was. Is there a message for us? Do we react to events and situations emotionally rather than prayerfully and thoughtfully?

Can you imagine what Mary and Martha must have thought? You can picture them looking anxiously up the road to see if Jesus was coming. Hours drag into days and still Jesus hasn’t come. Why? Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he realise how serious this illness is? Then the awful moment arrives and Lazarus breathes his last, and the sisters were grief stricken and probably angry with Jesus who had let them down. You may have said to God in the midst of your troubles “Don’t you care?”

So they prepare Lazarus and have him buried, no doubt in accordance with Jewish custom by sunset of the day he died. Jesus isn’t even there to comfort them as they bury him. If he came now, it would in their opinion, be too late. But then they only have a human perspective.

Jesus does come but four days after Lazarus has died. Why the delay? Jesus says in John 11 v 4The final result of this illness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory.” That just makes it sound as if the illness is not as serious as the messenger has said. But do note that the illness is being allowed so that God’s healing when it happens will cause Jesus to be glorified and indeed it will bring others to faith, as we shall see. It is rather as Paul stated in that famous verse from Romans 8We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

As Jesus and the disciples prepare to go to Bethany, Jesus tells them “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I will go and wake him up.” Initially, the disciples think that Lazarus is actually asleep, but Jesus is using a euphemism and has to explain, “Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad I was not with him, so that you will believe.”

Jewish tradition said that the soul stayed near the body for three days after death, in the hope that it may be brought back to life. So by delaying for four days, it will be absolutely obvious that Lazarus is dead and beyond human hope of coming back to life. When Jesus goes to Bethany to wake up Lazarus there will be no mistake that this is a miracle, bringing Lazarus to life after he has been in the tomb for four days.

I don’t know what you would have said if you were in Martha’s place when Jesus arrived in Bethany? Well, Martha firstly brings out her criticism but then shows her faith in Jesus. She says, ” If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Perhaps she is beginning to see the answer to the question posed to Abraham in Genesis 18 v14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Can you answer that question truthfully? Can you say with Martha “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask“?

I think it worth hearing again the rest of this conversation between Jesus and Martha as he encourages her in her faith.

Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her. “I know” she replied, ”that he will rise to life on the last day.” Jesus said to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes Lord,” she answered, “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world“.

How about us? In the midst of all our own sufferings and disappointments and let downs can we make a statement of faith like this? Do we really believe that Jesus is the resurrection? That new life is possible not only after physical death but also here and now for us who have been spiritually dead through our sins?

What about Mary who from the story in Luke 10 appears to be the more spiritual and thoughtful of the two sisters? We can’t tell whether her comment to Jesus is made out of disappointment or anger or despair. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!

Many people have thought that when Jesus saw the grief of Mary and the others he was moved to tears out of sympathy and this could well be true. Clearly the Jewish onlookers thought so because they were quoted as saying “See how he loved him!”. But there is also the thought that it was the people’s lack of faith in him that brought him to tears. Some of the Jews were heard to doubt him “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?

So we now follow Jesus to the root of the problem; Lazarus dead and buried and decomposing in the tomb.

Jesus knows what he is about to do, but look at the excuses and the reticence of people to let him deal with the problem.

“Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered. “But Lord” Martha, the dead man’s sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!” Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?

Fortunately for Lazarus and indeed for us, Jesus takes no notice of the excuses and once the stone is out of the way, he calls in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out!Image result for lazarus"

He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave clothes, and with a cloth round his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them “and let him go.”

How amazing; the dead coming back to life at Jesus’ command. Lazarus must have been a frightening sight wrapped in his grave clothes rather like a character from a Hollywood horror film. But he is no zombie! And removing the grave clothes completed the miracle.

When Jesus touches people’s lives and brings healing and new life, there are quite often the trappings of their former lives and problems to be taken care of. These are our responsibility to help remove. We are not to leave the person in the grave clothes with the excuse that they have been like that for sometime so its alright and we don’t want to upset them. Jesus tells us to untie the person and let him or her go. In other words help them to be free of the trappings of whatever their problem was.

It isn’t always pleasant, but we are doing the Lord’s work in this matter so we have to obey when he tells us to remove the grave clothes from someone he has brought to life. The Lord once sent me an ex male witch to counsel and pray with. Removing his grave clothes and untying him was not easy or pleasant but that was the Lord’s command to me for that man’s healing.

What was the reaction of those who saw what happened at the tomb in Bethany? Some saw and believed and put their faith in him. But for others, even the raising of the dead did nothing for their faith. Many of the religious people were outraged because Jesus was a threat to them and their established view of God.

Isn’t that the same in this day? Some see God at work through the power of the Holy Spirit and believe; yet others, sadly reject him and disbelieve the evidence particularly if it threatens their view of how God should be. Perhaps they like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day don’t realise that they are actually opposing and rejecting God by their actions.

Jesus was a good friend to Lazarus and his sisters. But he put his relationship with God above his relationship with his friends. God came first his life. Even so, as the onlookers observed Jesus really did love Lazarus and healed him in a most miraculous way.

And Jesus wants to be our friend. A friend who will never let you down. A friend you can rely on and a friend who truly loves you no matter what you have done. A friend who wants the best for you.

As the old hymn tells us “What a friend we have in Jesus”.

 

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to deal with a giant

Following on from my talk on “Giants” on 1st September, I preached on “How to deal with a giant” on 8th September.

Again the Bible passage was rather long, and can be found here.

Last week we say the consequences of the people of Israel not dealing with the supposed giants that lived in the promised land.

The Israelites were condemned to wander the desert for 40 years until all of the adults who rebelled against God had died. Only two men Caleb and Joshua were left from the original 12 spies who had gone into the promised land.

Joshua took over from Moses as the leader. God promised him in Joshua 1: 5As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Eventually under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites entered Canaan by crossing the River Jordan. They conquered most of the country, but sadly after Joshua’s death didn’t fulfil God’s command to drive out all the other peoples who lived there. This only led to trouble in later years. And don’t we find this true for ourselves if we don’t do all God tells us to do?

Interestingly enough there doesn’t seem to be any reports in Joshua or Judges of the Israelites having to fight with giants. Too often our fears don’t come to anything,

One group of people who were a problem for many many years were the Philistines. Israel and the Philistines were at war on and off for generations.

And war had broken out again as we read in 1 Samuel 17.

The opposing armies had set up camp on opposite sides of a valley. They seemed to be waiting for the someone to make the first move.

The Philistines had a champion, a giant called Goliath.

He was huge. It is said he was nine foot tall. His coat of armour weighed 5000 shekels or about nine stone or 57 kilos. The spear head weighed 15 pound or about seven kilos, let alone the weight of the shaft.

He was a formidable fighter. Additionally, he had a large shield and a sword.

He terrified the Israelites. None of them would face him in combat.

Of course, the man who should have dealt with Goliath was the King of Israel, Saul. We learn in 1 Samuel 9:2 that “Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else. “So Saul was the tallest man in Israel and was probably about six foot given that in Bible times people were shorter than we are now.

But Saul would not face Goliath.

Saul had started off as a good king but had decided many times to do it his way rather than God’s way. Because of his repeated disobedience to God, he was no longer God’s man and clearly was not up for the fight. He desperately tried to recruit someone else to fight what should have been his battle. In 1 Samuel 17:25 we read “The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.” But no one seemed interested in taking on Goliath.

For 40 days, twice a day Goliath would come out and taunt the Israelites. It’s thought that Goliath timed his challenges to coincide with the times the Israelites should have been praying to God.

So, a most unlikely champion appears to help the Israelites. A young shepherd boy called David. Three of his seven older brothers are in Saul’s army. David comes to see them and bring them some food from home.

David asks what’s going on and why no one has challenged Goliath. His oldest brother doesn’t like David being there and snaps at him in V28When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”“
Have you ever noticed how jealous some people become? How they misinterpret you motives and think ill of you? But nowhere in the Bible does it say that Eliab was prepared to fight Goliath. In fact, he is lumped in with all the rest of the army as we read in v11On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified. ”

Some people when they are not willing or able to fight the battle even turn on those of their own side who are able to take on the giants. Last week we looked in Numbers 13 at how the Israelites wouldn’t face the forces arrayed against them in the promised land. If we had continued into the next chapter, we would have read this in Numbers 14 v10But the whole assembly talked about stoning them.

But David decides something must be done and speaks with King Saul: 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.” 33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.

As a shepherd David has faced great danger to keep his sheep safe. Traditionally the shepherd had his staff and a rod to protect himself and his sheep. The staff may have a curved end to hook round a sheep to pull it out of a ditch or a tight spot. The rod was more like a spear or javelin to throw at wild animals. But David also had a slingshot or catapult to use. It could be used by soldiers to launch a volley of stones against their opponents, but a shepherd would use it to warn off animals that might hurt the sheep.

He has fought with a lion and a bear, just using his hands and his own strength against these dangerous and ferocious animals. david

And David is confident that God will be with him in the fight against Goliath. Look at what he says “The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine

David also recognises this giant for what he is. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” There is more here that a physical challenge. If this giant should win, then what message does it send about God and his chosen people?

Are well keen to protect the good name of our God and his wonderful son? Or do we like the Israelites let God be mocked?

How many times are people told “you’re too young” or even “you’re too old” or “you don’t have the right qualifications”? Do remember that Saul operated in the “flesh” he didn’t have the Holy Spirit to guide him he didn’t have a close relationship with God to be able to seek God’s wisdom and discernment. As we know at the end of his life Saul turned to witchcraft in a desperate search for guidance. Sadly, many people today do exactly the same they ask everyone including demonic spirits for guidance and fail to seek out the one true God who is the answer to all of their problems.

Eventually Saul agrees that David can fight Goliath and gives him armour and weapons to use as we read in v38 & 39Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armour on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. ”

Have you ever noticed how people try and weigh you down with what you don’t need for the battle? This was Saul’s equipment not what David needed or knew how to use.
David knew what he needed for the fight and that is what he took. As Christians we have the immeasurable power of the Holy Spirit available to us in every situation we face. We have God’s armour to put on as detailed in Ephesians 6.

So, David goes to fight Goliath knowing he is about God’s business. He is ready and equipped for the fight and importantly the time was right and he had recently been anointed as we read in 1 Samuel 16 v 13So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.” If the timing is not God’s timing, then it’s not right.

It must have been frightening experience to face Goliath all 9 foot of him, and yet David does not let Goliath get the better of him. Not only does he knock out Goliath but he finishes the job by removing the giant’s head. Many people in fighting the giants in their lives don’t always go for the kill Goliath

and finish the job. If you don’t there is always the danger that you will have to fight the battle all over again and not necessarily at a time of your choosing!

I don’t know what giants you have to face in your lives, but I am sure that with God’s help you can have the victory particularly if you are:

• Close to God and full of the Holy Spirit
• aware of you enemy
• Prepared and equipped for the fight

Let’s pray: Father God you know that throughout our lives we face various giants many of which can frighten and unnerve us. We ask for your Holy Spirit to comfort, encourage, equip and enable us and prepare us for the battles we have to face. Help us to stay close to you and to always be aware of your presence. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giants

For two consecutive Sundays (1 and 8 September) I preached at my home church of Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. I dealt with the subject of “Giants” , firstly looking at people who would not face up to their giants and then how one young man dealt with a giant.

As the Bible reading is rather long you can find it here.

Many times, in our lives, I’m sure we’ve looked at situations and thought “If only….”
I recall some years ago listening on the Radio to an extract from a biography. If I remember correctly it was Charlie Chaplin. He was just a boy of 14 when his brother drowned. His mother due to the shock and the grief was committed to a mental asylum. Years later she said to him about that fateful day “If only you had made me a cup of tea, I would have been alright”

If only…

So here we are in the desert. Moses acting under God’s authority has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They had been slaves for many years and the Egyptians had treated them harshly even having the male babies killed.

If you know the story, then you’ll remember that Moses requested of Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refused and so brought upon the Egyptians a series of plagues which got worse and worse until eventually the Angel of the Lord killed the first born of every household in Egypt except where the Israelites lived. They had been told to take a lamb, kill it and eat it. The blood from the lamb was smeared on the doorposts of the house and the Angel of the Lord “passed over” the house and the people were saved. Hence where the Jewish feast of “Passover” comes from.

Then Pharaoh let the Israelites go. However, he had a change of mind and pursued them with his army. God parted the Red Sea and the Israelites walked through it on dry land, but the waters closed in after them and Pharaoh’s army drowned in the waters.

God had miraculously provided food and water for the Israelites as they crossed the desert. And they groaned and grumbled all the way. At some points they were so fed up and ungrateful that they said they would prefer to be back as slaves in Egypt and they reminisced about the onions and the cucumbers they had had in Egypt. If only we were back in Egypt. They were so ungrateful. They didn’t however mention how badly they had been treated as slaves in Egypt. All the way across the desert you can hear the moaners and groaners “If only….”

But finally, the whole nation of Israel is on the boarders of the promised land., ready to go in and take over.

However, before they cross into Canaan, God tells Moses to send 12 men to go on a recce and spy out the land.

The men set out and eventually after 40 days return laden with samples of the fruit they have found – a bunch of grapes so big it took two men to carry it. It truly seems to be a fruitful place. For people who have been wandering the desert it must have sounded wonderful.

However, in the few hundred years that the Jewish people have been in Egypt other people have moved in and settled the land and have naturally built fortified towns and cities to protect themselves.

This is what the spies reported: “They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.”

One of the spies has no doubt that if this land is promised to us by God then we can go in there. We read in Numbers 13:30Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

Remember the Israelites had seen Pharaoh’s army swallowed up by the Red Sea. One of the most feared fighting machines in the ancient world was destroyed just like that. They had experienced God’s amazing provision for them as they travelled through the desert. Water flowing out of rocks and manna falling form heaven. They had fought off other tribes as they crossed the desert. They knew how powerful God was, and they knew he had and would protect them.

And now when they are facing another problem, their faith in God seems to fail them. Caleb had no doubt that the Jews should go for it and possess the land but the rest of the spies, except for Joshua, are not so sure: “31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.

The Nephilim were a legendary race of giants who were mentioned in Genesis 6:1 – 4.

The spies felt that they were so small and insignificant compared to these giants. A bit like you and me looking down on grasshoppers.

And here the people’s courage failed them. In Numbers 14 we read that the people had a meeting and this is what they said Numbers 14: 1 – 4That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.

I am sure many of you will remember the TV series “Dad’s Army” and the aging Corporal Jones who would shout “Don’t Panic” as he did exactly that.

Many years ago I was on the church council at the church where Gaynor and I grew up. We were face with repairs to the church roof possibly costing £12,000. What were we to do as we only had £30,000 in the bank after everything else had been paid. People were in a terrible state. They were wringing their hands in despair rather than lifting them to God in prayer.

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.

I’m going to read a short passage from a children’s book, in fact one that I used to read to my sons when they were very young. You may think that the Mr Men can’t teach you anything but you’ll be surprised.

“It was a beautiful autumn morning. The sun was shining. The leaves on the trees had turned to a glorious red. And the wind stirred gently in the treetops. A single leaf fell gently from the tree right outside Mr Jelly’s house and quietly brushed against his bedroom window as it fell. Mr Jelly awoke with a start.

“What’s that terrible noise?” he cried, “Oh heavens! The house is falling down! Oh disaster! It’s an earthquake! Oh calamity! It’s the end of the world!” And he hid under the bed clothes, trembling with fright”

An extract from Mr Jelly by Roger Hargreaves.

A quick search of the Bible found 116 references to “Do not worry”, “Don’t be anxious” “Don’t be afraid”. So it must be important because it is repeated so often.

Sadly the Jews rebelled and refused to go into the promised land. For their lack of faith and their rebellion, they were condemned to live in the desert for 40 years until all of the adults had died, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. It would be the next generation under Joshua’s leadership who would make that journey into the promised land.

Maybe that’s a lesson for us in that if we don’t deal with the giants in our lives, God may not be in a position to bless us and we may not enter into what God has promised us.

We all have giants to deal with in our own lives. They may not be physical giants as they are few and far between, although there is a man who works on security in my local Tesco’s who is over seven foot tall.

But physical, emotional or spiritual problems can stand as giants in our lives.
Illness can threaten our wellbeing as well as our lives.

What about redundancy? Losing our job, our means of livelihood can be a major problem and overshadow us like a menacing giant.

When we’ve experienced the death of someone close to us it can be frightening.
We have to, with God’s help, face up to our giants.

23 years ago I was made redundant. There I was with a wife and four young sons and not in the best of health. By God’s grace we survived for three years on Gaynor’s student nurse’s bursary. God provided for us as we learnt to trust in his provision.

And as many of you know I was diagnosed with prostate cancer just over six years ago. Yes, at times I was frightened, but I knew that God was with me in the battle and that many many people were supporting me in prayer. So here I stand 5 ½ years clear of that cancer. Praise God!

I think it was the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke who founded “Christ for All Nations”, who said that sometimes when we hear the devil roaring it’s only a mouse with a megaphone.

In other words, our enemy is just noise and no substance.

Our God is far greater than our enemies.

So, what should we do when we are confronted by giants in our lives?

We can do what the Israelites did and refuse to deal with them and in effect run away, or we can do what Caleb wanted to do when he said “”We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

When 40 years later the Israelites under Joshua entered the promised land, God gave this promise to Joshua, which I would urge you to take to heart as you face the giants in your life. Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

 

 

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tower of Babel

On Sunday 4th August I led worship and preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. 

I chose to speak on the “Tower of Babel”.

The Bible reading was Genesis 11:1 – 9

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.
6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

How many languages do you think there are in the world?

Apparently there are 7,111 languages are spoken today. Some have less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Meanwhile, just 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population.

The most popular language in the world is Mandarin Chinese. There are 1,213,000,000 people in the world that speak this language.

Next is Spanish with about 480 million native speakers.

English is third with 360 million native speakers, with nearly twice as many second language speakers. It’s also the official language of the sky – all pilots have to speak and identify themselves in English.

So you would think that in this country where we all speak English we should be able to understand each other?

There are so many different accents and regional variations in English that sometimes we find it hard to understand people.

When I was about seven years old we were on holiday in Norfolk and we went to visit my dad’s cousin Percy who was a farmer in the depths of Norfolk. His accent was so strong that I could hardly understand a word he said.

Some times we miss hear people and get what they are saying terribly wrong. Perhaps you’ve played the game “Chinese Whispers”?

Even if we don’t speak another language we can sometimes have a vague idea when we look at road signs or shopfronts as some words are similar in French, Spanish or Italian. However when we were in Greece last year we were flummoxed as their alphabet is so different.

The Bible tells us that ever since the Tower of Babel people have struggled to really understand each other. Babel is where we get our word “babble” from.

And many people think it would be a really great idea if everyone throughout the world spoke the same language.

Wouldn’t that be great?

You could speak to someone and they could understand you and you could get what they are saying.

So far mankind’s efforts to achieve this have never succeeded.

Mighty empires have come and gone, often with their attempt to have everyone speak the same language.

In Jesus’ time most of the known world was under the control of the Roman Empire. The official language was Latin and that was spoken not only by the Romans themselves but by many people throughout the Roman Empire. However most of the ordinary people used their local language. Latin remained the official language of government in many countries for a long time even after the Roman Empire had been swept away.

In 1887 Ludwik Zamenhof invented the language called Esperanto. It was hoped this could be a universal language. According to Wikipedia, there are some 2 million Esperanto speakers in the world. So that hasn’t gone very well.

How did we get to this state of having 7,111 different languages?

Let’s see what the Bible has to say about this.

A long time ago God was so upset with humanity and how awful most people had become he decided to do away with them. This is what we read in Genesis 6:5 – 7The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.

However there was just one man and his family who wasn’t like the rest of mankind. Noah.

This is how he is described in the Bible: Genesis 6:9 & 10This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.”

God told Noah to build an ark so that he, his wife, their three sons and their wives would be saved from the coming flood. They were also to take pairs of animals and birds on the ark.Noah Builds an Ark

Well, the Bible tells us that it rained for 40 days and the earth was flooded and everyone who was not in the ark drowned.

So mankind could start again without out all the terrible wicked people who had so upset God.

For a while all was well but within a few generations things had deteriorated.
Noah and his family had been told by God to spread out and repopulate the earth, yet we read that some decided to build cities and create kingdoms. The first reco

rded ruler was Nimrod who is mentioned in Genesis 10:8 – 12Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD.” The first centres of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.”

Nimrod was clearly not a nice man and to be honest many kings and rulers aren’t either.

So peoples have come to Shinar which is thought to be in modern day Iraq between two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. They decide to settle down on this flat plain between the rivers and build a city. Even more they decide to build a tower.

It is thought that the Tower of Babel was probably a Ziggurat or stepped pyramid. A bit like a layered wedding cake with each layer smaller than the one below. The remains of one ziggurat found in the ruins of Babylon show that it was originally 91 metres high – about 300 feet. The Great Ziggurat of Ur

Ziggurats were huge buildings made of brick. And as we found in our Bible reading they made bricks and held it all together with tar instead of mortar.

If you recall from the story of Moses, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and they were forced to make bricks which would go into all the major buildings in Egypt. Slaves were also used on the pyramids which were made of stone.

Even today there are people in slavery who work in the brick fields of India and Pakistan. In fact all around the world people are in slavery which is certainly not what God intended for men, women or children.

This tower is truly man made. The people wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted people to remember them.

Its like people today who want to be celebrities. And a celebrity is just someone who is “well known for being famous”.

Fame doesn’t last for ever. We may recall famous inventors and scientists or even composers and writers or indeed sports stars. But who here knows the name of the man who invented the wheel? Or the name of the person who designed the first ship?

We remember people for a few generations. Very few of us will know the names of our great great grandparents.

Its far better to be known and loved by God. If you are a Christian then your name is recorded in the one book that ultimately matters, which in Revelation 20 is called the “Lamb’s Book of Life”.

The people in Babel wanted to build their tower to be nearer to God. Elsewhere people believed that their make believe gods dwelt on the mountains so they would make temples in high places to be near their gods. When there weren’t mountains the people would build ziggurats or towers to get nearer to the heavens. And this is what the people in Babel did.

All through the Old testament we read about altars and temples to the fake gods being in “high places”.

Well God sees what the people of Babel are up to and He decides to take action. Genesis 11:5 – 7But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

God then scatters the people across the world and they lose their common language. Their scheming to reach the heavens and become like gods comes to nothing.

History shows us mankind’s repeated attempted to reach out to God, whilst the Bible is the story of God reaching down to man.

Ever since empires have come and gone. In the life time of several people here we have seen the rise and fall of many empires and countries. The Third Reich that was to last a 1000 years ended in 1945 after some 12 years. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and the British Empire faded away after the 2nd World War. There was a time when school atlases showed the British Empire in pink and it extended right around the world.

Kingdoms and Empires always think highly of themselves although many of the people in them are little better than slaves. God is not keen on countries like this and this is what he has said about them, in Isaiah 40:15Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

When you empty a bucket there is always a tiny drop in the bottom. Similarly if you have weighed ingredients such as flour on a set of scales there is always a little bit of flour left in the pan. And that is how God views these so called mighty countries.

God is not impressed by wealth or military might.

He is more concerned that people have a relationship with him. He loves people and that is why he sent his son Jesus to die for us, so that we can have a relationship with him . We can be known by him and be with him in heaven through out eternity. 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.

Man’s attempts at unity will always fail.

But God’s plan to reconcile humanity with him and with each other will succeed as the Holy Spirit, given to each believer, works away in each of us to make us more like Jesus.
So whilst on earth we may be divided by different languages we are united in God’s Kingdom through the Holy Spirit.

 

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lost Son

On 31st March 2019 (Mothering Sunday) I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch.

The gospel reading for that Sunday is in some Bibles entitled “The Prodigal Son” and in other translations “The Lost Son”. At Nelmes Church they use the Good News translation and so I quote that version below:

Luke 15:1 – 3 & 11b – 32

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:
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’
20So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.
27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

Family life is never easy.

It can be wonderful, or it can be awful.

Even for Christians family life has its moments.

Some years ago, I took a funeral for an elderly lady. She and her late husband had been “pillars” of their local church. He had been an elder and I believe she had helped run the Sunday school. As far as the church was concerned, they were a wonderful Christian family. And yet when I met with the son, he told me that he and his sister nick named the family home “The Somme” as they never knew what battle would be going on between the parents. Crockery, cutlery etc would be flying between the protagonists and yelling and shouting would fill the air. Not a good environment for children to grow up in.

Many families have wayward children or difficult parents. One day last year I visited five bereaved families and each one had a “black sheep”. It was quite depressing. But sadly, that’s how life is for some people.

On the other hand, there are families where they all pull together to care for a loved one at home. Often having a rota to ensure at least one person is always there.

So in our Bible reading Jesus is challenged by the pharisees as to why he eats with “sinners” and he tells three parables in reply. All are about “lost and found” and illustrate the lengths someone will go to when they are looking for something or someone who is lost.

Before we look at the longest of these three parables, some 20 years ago when I was still in the Church of England, we had some new folk come to the morning service. They had been attending the Alpha Course at the church. One girl in her 20’s had tattoos and scars on her arms. She had been a drug addict and had self-harmed to seek release from the mental and emotional pain she had gone through.  Sadly, she got some looks from certain members of the congregation. You know the sort of look. “We don’t want her sort in our church” “What’s she doing here?”

And so, to our parable.

The younger son has an outrageous request. “Father, give me my share of the estate”. Normally a person’s estate is not divided until they are dead. So, is the young man saying, “I can’t wait for you to be dead so that I can get my hands on your money”?

Sadly, I have seen some family businesses where the next generation aren’t interested in the business and so won’t put in the hours they should, but want the rewards. And you know that when the current owner dies the son or daughter will sell up and take the money.

We don’t know what the father thinks of this, but he divides up the property and gives the younger son his share.

Isn’t the younger son just like Esau in the Old Testament who sold his inheritance, his birth right, for a pot of stew. Sometimes we just don’t realize the true value of what we have.

So, the son leaves home and goes off to live the life of Reilly. He lives the high life. With lots of money he, of course, has lots of friends.Related image

George Best, the famous Irish footballer, was quoted as saying “I’ve spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just sqaundered

Many years ago in the bank where I worked, we had a customer who had won £280,000 on the football pools. At the time it was a fortune and the man who was probably in his 50’s would have been set for life. However suddenly he had a girlfriend and many other friends who were very keen to help him spend his money. The men he met in the pub and bought him a pint were clearly better investment advisers than the professionals in the bank. After all the bank didn’t recommend the sure-fire earner of buying a clapped-out taxi that he could rent out . Neither did they recommend buying a second-hand electrical goods shop  that was sure to make a fortune. Sadly, within a couple of years it had all gone. He didn’t even have the money to cover the mortgage on his ex-council flat.

So, what about our hero in the Bible passage? The money ran out and surprisingly his friends disappeared too. To quote an Eric Clapton song “nobody wants to know you when you’re down and out“.

Our hero was desperate. He was penniless and hungry. Destitute and in a foreign land. He was willing to do anything to make some money. He even looked after pigs. No Jew in his right mind would have anything to do with pigs. They were “unclean” animals. You had nothing to do with them. But this young man felt he had no choice. There was no other job available to him.

It must have been a truly miserable existence for him.

Then one day he has a “light bulb” moment. A sudden thought comes to him. perhaps he was thinking of home, the good old days on the farm. Even my father’s farm hands are better off than me. They always had more than enough to eat. I should go home and work for my father at least I would have food and shelter.

And so he set off for home. You can imagine him rehearsing what he was going to say to his father, about how sorry he was, and could he have a job on the farm? He probably thought about the possibility that his father would turn him away. If that happened what would he do next?

He is still quite a distance from home when his father sees him coming and runs to him, hugs him and kisses him.Prodigal returns

This is not how respectable people behaved in Jesus’ time. The father was clearly a man of some standing and his son should have come to him. Instead the father in his joy at seeing his son alive breaks all the cultural conventions. His son is so much more important to him than what people may say. We can be certain that those listening to the parable would have been shocked at the father’s behaviour.

What happens next is even worse. A fine robe, the family ring and sandals are all provided for the young man. The father is showing that despite his shameful behaviour the young man is part of the family. The father is more concerned with the safe return of his wayward son than with family honour.

Sadly, we hear of some communities, some cultures, where family honour is a matter of life or death. So, girls who refuse an arranged marriage or people who marry inappropriately are murdered to preserve the family honour. Also, for some becoming a Christian dishonours the family and they may well be murdered for their faith in Jesus.

The father in our story is so delighted that his son is safe that he organises a feast. What a thing to celebrate!

Sadly, one person is not happy with the outcome. The older, dutiful son. He has worked hard for his father, never gone off the rails and never got into trouble. He is not pleased. In fact, he is furious. It’s not fair!  Maybe Jesus is equating the Pharisees with their dutiful following of the law to the older brother.

Look what he says to his father “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” He doesn’t acknowledge the lad as his brother. He distances himself from the lad.

His father replies “My son you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found“.

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Do we side with the older son, the one who has always played by the rules? It doesn’t seem fair when you look at the younger son’s behaviour.

The Scribes and the Pharisees thought that keeping the rules got you into heaven. The trouble was that they had added manmade rules to the “law” as given to Moses and the Israelites in the desert. They didn’t seem to have a love for God or indeed any compassion for those who got things wrong. They were so weighed down with the rules and regulations they couldn’t look up to see God.

They condemned Jesus for eating with sinners because they lacked compassion for their fellow men and women who struggled with sin.

Jesus met with people because he wanted to give everyone a chance to turn their lives around and be saved. How do people have a chance to change their lives if no one tells them the good news and they just get the message that they are miserable sinners? It’s like going to see you doctor who gives you the diagnosis but doesn’t prescribe the cure.

But to change your life, to be healed of sin you need to take the cure. Sadly, many don’t want to change. They want to stay with the pigs in a foreign land rather then return to the Father. For some they just want to live life their way. For others it’s a matter of pride “I can never own up to being wrong” or indeed it could be “I’ve been so bad God can never forgive me. He could never accept me”. Let alone those who decide the diagnosis is wrong and there is nothing wrong with me.

Perhaps some people have been told that God wouldn’t want them to come back to him, to come home as he doesn’t want them. A few years ago, when our eldest son’s marriage fell apart because of his wife’s inability to keep her wedding vows, his mother in law said to him “I don’t know where you are going to live. Your parents won’t want you back!” What a lie! We were disappointed that things hadn’t worked, but he is our son so of course he was welcome.

Image result for signpost homeSimilarly, God always welcomes people who turn away from their sinful lives and want to come home to him.

I think that most of us have, to varying degrees, been with the younger son, living a life that was not honouring to God, squandering what he gave us. Maybe we didn’t end up with the pigs but somewhere in our journey we started to head towards God, and he met us in his son Jesus, and we were welcomed into the heavenly family.

So our job is to tell others that through Jesus, our Heavenly Father welcomes home all who wish to come. Jesus is the only way to heaven, so they have to come through him. But firstly, they have to leave their old life, their sinful actions and lifestyle behind, turn their back on it and set out in the direction that brings them home.

 

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Talks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment