Alternative facts and Fake news

Today I spoke at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church and as we are still within the Easter period I spoke about the Resurrection.

Last week our minister Sue Millar talked about the events of that First Easter day. Today our Bible reading deals with events later in the day.

Luke 24: 36 – 49
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. 44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Alternative facts and fake news has become common in recent months, particularly with politicians. If they are caught out they proclaim the truth is just “fake news” or of course there are “alternative facts”.

We saw that in the American presidential election last year and no doubt over the next few weeks we will have our own share of alternative facts and fake news in the run up to the General Election on 8th June.

How often do we hear politicians come out with alternative facts. Often in reply to a hard question they come back with “The truth is……..” and then come out with anything but the truth.

And to be honest it is sometimes hard to know what is truth and what is lies.

Just look at the recent use of sarin gas against people in Syria. Who did it? Are we certain it was the Syrian Air Force or was it the rebels? What is certain is that many people died or were seriously and awfully injured. A terrible evil has happened but everyone blames everyone else.

Many of us are on Social Media such as Facebook and we get fed all sorts of Alternative Facts. Sometimes well meaning but naive friends forward articles and news to us that has very little basis in truth. You know the sort of thing. Stories of how an unnamed friend managed to stave off a heart attack by standing on one leg and singing the Peruvian National Anthem.

I have received emails from the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations telling me that I have been the victim of a scam and how I am entitled to several $ million in compensation. All I have to do is to let them have my bank account details.

Similarly the FBI have similarly emailed me about fraud compensation. I never knew that the FBI email addresses are with hotmail!

And what about fake news. Often on Social media we see news items that a famous person is dead. But when we check it out with a reputable news website we find the truth.

Many years ago Gaynor’s Auntie Nell was accosted by an old friend in Grays and greeting with the words “Oh I thought you were dead!”

But alternative facts and fake news are nothing new.

Way back in Genesis we find Adam and Eve avoiding the truth with using alternative facts. They have eaten the apple that God told them not to eat.

The devil uses alternative facts to trick Adam and Eve into eating the apple. And then when challenged by God, Adam and Eve also provide a different version of reality.

And this continues through the Bible.

When Jesus is before Pontius Pilate, Pilate a skilled politician asks “What is truth?” But doesn’t wait for the answer. Perhaps he doesn’t want to know the answer. Many people don’t want to know the truth.

Sadly Christians are known to use alternative facts. One minister I heard preaching some years ago starting off his sermon with the following “Everybody has their own views about Jesus and everybody is right”. The truth about Jesus is that he is the Son of God and he died on the cross for our sins and rose victorious on Easter Day having defeated the powers of evil and reconciled us with God.

Another minister told folk at a Christmas Eve children’s service that Jesus was born at Christmas so that we could all have a lovely time as we are having today!

I was visited yesterday morning by a very earnest lady and a small child pedaling alternative facts about God and Jesus. She was very sincere, but sincerely wrong. Her cult’s false teaching about Jesus is certainly fake news.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is surrounded by alternative facts and fake news.

The Jewish authorities put out the alternative facts that Jesus was a fake, a troublemaker and a blasphemer claiming to be the son of God, when they decided he wasn’t. They were more than happy to have Jesus put to death to rid the country of someone they saw as a troublemaker. They told all sorts of “porkie pies” to support their case against Jesus.

They thought that with the death of Jesus they had seen the last of him but just in case his disciples stole the body to support Jesus’ prediction of rising from the death, they had a guard placed on the tomb.

But as we heard from Sue last week the tomb was open and the stone was rolled away . The guards had fled in terror and were paid by the Jewish authorities to provide fake news about what had happened.

This is what we read in Matthew 281 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. ”

and “11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Just to set the scene for our Bible reading, I am going to quote from Charles Colson who was involved in the Watergate scandal of 1973 and was imprisoned for his part in the crimes committed. Colson repented of his actions and came to faith in Jesus Christ.

This is what he wrote about the resurrection:

“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me, How? Because 12 men testified that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

All four of the gospels deal with the story of Jesus in different ways because they were written with different audiences in mind.

So each of the gospels deal with the Easter story in different ways.

Our reading from Luke’s gospel happens at the end of the first Easter Day.

The guards at the tomb had fled following an earthquake and the tomb opening.

The women had gone to the tomb and found it empty. Mary subsequently met Jesus whom she didn’t initially recognise – after all she had seen him die on a cross and then lain in the tomb. She was overjoyed when she realised that Jesus was alive.

The disciples didn’t believe the women. Remember, at that time women were not regarded as reliable witnesses in a court of law.

According to Luke, Peter went to investigate for himself.

We all have to make our own minds up on Jesus. No one can do that for us. No one can believe on our behalf.

Peter had found the empty tomb and the carefully folded grave clothes – but the penny didn’t drop. He wondered what had happened.

Later in the day two disciples encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they encountered Jesus.

As they are talking, Jesus appear in the middle of them.

They think they have seen a ghost.

But Jesus is quick to reassure them that he is no ghost. Luke 24; 37 – 43They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.”

Having given them the proof that he is who he says he is, Jesus then shares with them the scriptural evidence to back up that he had to died and then rise from the dead.

Incidentally there are some 300 old testament prophecies about Jesus and he fulfils all of them.

The Jewish people should have known their scripture, they would have learnt and memorised it from childhood. And yet Jesus’ followers need to be reminded, as in fact we do from time to time.

I can remember when the reality of scripture struck home for me, and I just knew that Jesus had died for me. What a revelation. Jesus loves me so much!

Jesus then tells the disciples that he has a job for them. They are to be his witnesses throughout the world, starting from Jerusalem.

But this is not going to be done in their own strength. Jesus says in Luke 24:49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit who Jesus had talked about in the days preceding his crucifixion. The Holy Spirit has many names and titles but one in particular we should remember is that he is the Spirit of Truth.

This what Jesus says on the matter in John 16:13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

So with God’s spirit with in us as our guide we should be able to see what is true and what is false.

We ourselves should not be involved in alternative facts and fake news. We should be people of truth and honesty. That may be difficult for us as we live our daily lives, but the Holy Spirit is the helper and the comforter who will be with us every step of the way.

And so just as the disciples were Jesus’ witnesses to the facts and the good news, so we have had the baton passed to us and it is our turn to tell people the Good News that they can, through faith in Jesus be forgiven for all the wrong things they have said and done.

The truth is that the Easter story is not fake news and that we can be forgiven and reconciled to God through faith in Jesus. Amen.

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Follow me

Today (12th March 2017) I preached at my home church of Becontree Avenue Baptist Church in Dagenham.

I chose to speak on the calling of the first of Jesus’ disciples and usual we start with the Bible readings:

Mark 1: 16 – 20
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Mark 2:13 – 17
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Two simple words that can change your life for ever “Follow me”

Image result for calling of simon peterFor Simon Peter and Andrew as well as James and John it means leaving behind the only job they had ever known. Probably fishing had been the family business for generations. A steady and dependable job.

Just as in this country until recently sons would follow fathers and grandfathers into farming or coal mining or ship building. In this area it would be Fords or May and Baker or perhaps Tate and Lyle.

Matthew would have been different. Nice people, religious people in Israel would not have been tax collectors. The tax collectors worked for the hated RomansImage result for calling of levi matthew who occupied and ruled the country.

The Romans would tell the tax collectors how much they expected from each person, but if the tax collector added his own percentage it wasn’t a problem. As long as the expected tax money came in, what else happened was up to the tax collector.

Many like Zacchaeus did very nicely out of it. As we can read in Luke 19:1 – 10.

Hence tax collectors were generally disliked by the people and hated by the religious leaders and of course those who fought to free Israel from the Romans – the Zealots. A later disciple of Jesus was Simon the Zealot, a freedom fighter or terrorist depending how you viewed the Zealots.

I wonder how Matthew and Simon the Zealot got on? It just goes to prove that Jesus calls all sorts of people to follow him.

Look how the Pharisees complained about Jesus eating with the tax gatherers: Mark 2:15 – 17 “ While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew or Levi as he is called in Mark’s gospel gave up a lot to follow Jesus. We are not told exactly what in the Bible but if the story of Zacchaeus is anything to go by, he was a wealthy man.

For many people wealth can be a problem. Jesus encountered a rich young man who couldn’t respond to Jesus’ invitation to give it all away and follow him. Mark 10:17 – 22.

Today Jesus challenges all sorts of people to follow him. Even those who are his strongest critics and enemies hear the call and respond.

Jesus’ message is for everyone. And indeed everywhere that the good news of Jesus is told people have the chance to follow him.

But what does it mean to follow Jesus?

Our priorities change.

We are no longer No 1 in our lives.

Jesus is No 1 and our deeds and our thoughts should reflect that.

We should become more like him in how we treat others.

It may be that we are called like those early followers to give up our present life and go on the road telling people about Jesus.

However, Jesus may call us to “follow him” by staying with our family, keeping on working and live for him where we are.

When we respond to Jesus’ call “follow me” we tend to forget that he is there leading the way. We follow where he has been ahead of us. We don’t have to find our own way through life. We follow Jesus. He knows what we are going to face on our journey and he is there to guide us, help us and support us, if only we put our trust in him.

If we think of the way Jesus described himself as the good shepherd it may help.

Image result for the good shepherdThe shepherd in Palestine would be out front of his flock leading them. He would know the best way to go to get his sheep as safely as possible to good places to eat and drink.

Even in the dangerous places the shepherd leads and protects his sheep. Psalm 23:4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The rod was really a spear to throw at any wild animals that threaten the sheep and the staff of shepherd’s crook with its curved end was used to pull sheep out of places where they got stuck.

I’m told that in the Middle East if you ever see a man driving sheep, he is either taking the sheep to be sold or to the slaughterhouse.

In the middle east if you find an animal on its own its inevitably a goat because the sheep will follow the shepherd and the goats will go their own way.

Jesus leads us. Those from other religions drive people to their eternal destination or fate.

In John 14:6 we read “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

I understand that in Jesus’ day guides would meet visitors to Jerusalem at the city gates shouting out “I am the way” or “follow me”. They would then guide visitors to their destinations.

When Gaynor and I have been abroad visiting a foreign city we have been in a tour party with a guide who would often carry a bright umbrella or something similar so that we can see him or her in the crowds and know we are safe. We just follow our guide, not any other guide because they may be going somewhere completely different.

Similarly we follow Jesus because he is the way to Heaven. No other guide will take us there no matter what they may promise.

Down at the Dartford crossing the Highways Agency police often escort fuel tankers and other dangerous vehicles through the tunnel. The lead police vehicle has an illuminated sign that says “Follow me”

God led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years. In Exodus 13:21By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.

Jesus still invites people to follow him. Its an invitation not an order. It is up to each person to decide for themselves whether to follow Jesus or to go their own way.

If you decide to follow Jesus and let him lead you through life, we know that he will never leave us or forsake us. We are never left to find our own way and he will see us safely to our eternal home. As John Newton put it in his famous hymn “Amazing grace” “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come, Tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home

Everybody follows someone.

If you don’t follow Jesus, who do you follow?

And if you don’t follow Jesus who is the only way to God, where are you going?

What will be your eternal destination?

Jesus’ invitation is the same now as it was 2000 years ago. Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, Jesus says “Follow me”.


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Loads of money

Last Sunday (30 October 2016) I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch (

The gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday dealt with a subject that is dear to many people: “money”.

Luke 19:1-10

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Money and how people use or abuse it features throughout the Bible.

You can do many things with money. You can do good or you can do bad.

Money and possessions can do many things to people.

Often we have to ask do we own our possessions or do they own us?

Many years ago the first hit record of Tamla Motown records was called “Money (that’s what I want)”. If you don’t know the song you can listen to it here:

“The best things in life are free

But you can give then to the birds and bees

I need money (that’s what I want)

Money don’t get everything, it’s true

But what it don’t get, I can’t use

I need money (that’s what I want)

Money (that’s what I want)

Lots of money (that’s what I want)

Whole lot of money (that’s what I want)”

We read in the Bible that Jesus has a lot to say about money.

Many people are reluctant for many reasons to part with their money.

So when asked whether people should pay their taxes Jesus has this answer in Mark 12:14 – 17Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”“Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”.

I am never surprised at people who try to avoid their taxes. Even Christians do it.

I was however amazed the other day when a young man I know who is being considered for ordained ministry said that he done a job for cash so that it didn’t have to go through the books.

Image result for pay cash no vatA long time ago I was on the leadership team of a church when we had an estimate for some vital safety work that had to be undertaken. We were told that if we paid cash we could have a 15% discount. That was the VAT rate at the time so it was clear that the work was not going through the contractor’s books. Some of the people at that meeting couldn’t see a problem as it would save the church money!

We can compare two conversations that Jesus had with men who have money. Only one has a positive outcome.

In Matthew 19:16 – 23 we read “ 16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honour your father and mother,’and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Clearly this man valued his possessions more than the chance of eternal life.

Having money it not the problem. Having it as the most important thing in your life is the problem.

Our Bible reading for today, deals with another rich man, but the outcome is quite different and maybe that is the reason we know the man’s name. Although one of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandra gives Zacchaeus the surname Matthias and claims that this Matthias was the man chosen by the disciples to replace Judas Iscariot. (See Acts 1:21 – 26)

In Hebrew the name Zacchaeus means “Innocent” or “pure”. Up until he met with Jesus in the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus would not have been considered innocent or pure.

He was the chief tax collector in Jericho for the Roman Empire. The RomanImage result for too much tax tax gathering system seems to have worked as a franchise. The Roman’s told the tax gatherer how much they expected from each person and the tax gatherer added his percentage on to the bill. And no doubt it could be a nice little earner.

Jericho being the centre for the lucrative production and export of balsam meant that potentially there was a lot of tax to be collected. Balsam was known in Biblical times as “Balm of Gilead”.

Zacchaeus was not only unpopular because he charged the people too much tax, but also he was a Jew working for the hated Roman occupiers. He was a collaborator.

History tells us how collaborators were treated in Europe after the 2nd World War was over and the German occupiers were defeated. However Zacchaeus would have been safe because of the Roman army in Jericho.

So Jesus comes into town. He is a famous teacher and lots of people want to see him and the streets are crowded. Zacchaeus had a problem seeing Jesus because of his lack of stature so that he couldn’t see over the crowd. No doubt the good people of Jericho made sure that Zacchaeus couldn’t get to a good vantage point.

As we read Zacchaeus was resourceful and climbed into a sycamore tree.

I wonder how Zacchaeus felt when Jesus spotted him and called to him. Maybe he expected abuse from the teacher for him working for the hated Romans.

But what Jesus says to the man is astounding. Luke 19:5When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

How did Jesus know his name?

The crowd were naturally angry. How dare this Jesus talk to this awful man? Not only that, but Jesus is going to stay at the man’s house.

Sadly I have known believers who are annoyed when perhaps “undesirables” come to faith. They forget that Jesus came to save anyone who willing come to him, whoever they are and whatever they have done.

However the greatest reaction is from Zacchaeus himself. In an instant he repents and shows his repentance, his change of heart: Luke 19:8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” “

What a change of heart. The man who loved money shows how sorry he is by his actions. Not only is he going to give away half his fortune to the poor but he is going to repay four times as much to those he has cheated.

He either had been a wealthy man to start with or he is going to bankrupt himself!

I believe that it was Billy Graham who said that the last thing to get converted is a man’s wallet.

Clearly this is not the case with Zacchaeus.

Jesus says Luke 19:10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” and as we are his disciples this should be our mission as well, irrespective of who the people are that God sends our way.

And also the Bible challenges us about our money, our possessions. Do we own them or do they own us?

Are we like the rich young man who can’t let go of his possessions or are we like Zacchaeus responding to Jesus’ call and being generous with what we own?

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Chosen for a purpose

Last Sunday (14 August) I again preached at my home church, Becontree Avenue Baptist Church in Dagenham.

Having the previous week talked about Israel’s desire for a king and how disastrous it was, I preached this time on King David who was probably the best King they had.

The Bible reading was 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13 which can be found here.

Last week we looked at the time the people of Israel asked for a king. If you remember, the prophet Samuel warned the people what would happen if they had a king. But they were insistent and God eventually allowed them to have a king.

Nearly all the kings were simply appalling. They led the people astray, away from God and into all sorts of trouble.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom however. There were some good godly kings.

The first was David. He took over as king when Saul, the first king, died in battle.

David was in fact king in waiting for many years as we shall see.

I think this is a great encouragement for all of us, especially when we feel that God has called us to a specific role and we are just waiting and waiting for the day we can do the job he has called us to do.

Saul started out well enough but had turned out to be a man who went his own way rather than God’s way.

God had enough of Saul and washed his hands of Saul. We can read about that in 1 Samuel 15. In fact we read at the end of that chapter these words: “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.“

So God sends Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel had previously warned Saul that this would happen in 1 Samuel 13: 14But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.

Anointing meant setting someone aside for God’s purposes. Often the person has oil poured over their head. In Leviticus 8 we read how Aaron and his sons were anointed by Moses to be God’s priests.

You can read the ingredients in Exodus 30, but here they are in modern quantities:
Myrrh                     6 kg
Sweet cinnamon    3 kg
Kaneh bosem         3 kg
Cassia                      3 kg
olive oil                    7 litres

Psalm 133 makes mention of the anointing of Aaron and compares it to the blessings of God’s people living together in unity:

1 How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! 2 It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. 3 It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

Samuel is obviously carrying some oil, but I suspect not the entire seven litres mentioned above. You would get absolutely soaked having that lot poured over your head. With 15 kilos of ingredients dissolved in it, this would be a very sticky version of the ice bucket challenge that was all the rage a couple of years ago. A bit like having a washing up bowl full of Barbeque Sauce tipped over you.

Samuel has to step out in faith. All he knows is that he is going to Bethlehem and is to meet with a man called Jesse whose son is to be the next king.

You can imagine Samuel’s thoughts “How will I know how to anoint?” “Will he be obvious?” “I expect he will look like a king or a might warrior” “He will be a born leader of men”

When Samuel arrives we read this: 1 Samuel 16: 4&5  When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons The town elders were frightened. May be they felt that trouble follows God’s prophet. Maybe they had heard about the dispute between King Saul and Samuel.and invited them to the sacrifice.

The town elders were frightened. May be they felt that trouble follows God’s prophet. Maybe they had heard about the dispute between King Saul and Samuel.

However the townspeople seem satisfied with Samuel’s response and so they sacrifice the animal that Samuel brought him.

Then Samuel has Jesse’s oldest sons to pass before him. But God says no to all the young men. No matter if they are tall strong and looked the part.

God reminds Samuel in  1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

I recall my days in banking when the most unsuitable people got promoted. The fact that the person rushed around all day with a bundle of files in their hands was interpreted as “look how busy and productive there are”. Someone who was loud and shouted at his fellow workers was seen as keen and passionate about the job. Whilst the ones who just quietly got on with their job were ignored and overlooked. And of course those who snuck out of the office for a fag break with the boss were often seen as suitable candidates for promotion.

Well, Samuel is introduced to Jesse’s sons who are there. But none of them is the right man, the future king. So Samuel has to ask, are there any others?

1 Samuel 16: 11 – 13  So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” 12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” 13 So 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 powerfully upon David.”

Isn’t it a good job that Samuel listened closely to God and didn’t rely on his own instincts and anoint of one David’s brothers? We read briefly about them late in the story of Goliath the Giant whom David fights and defeats. Three of his older  brothers are there but they, despite the human qualities Samuel had noticed, didn’t volunteer to fight the giant.

David was a young man who saw that it was not only a physical battle but a spiritual one as well. Goliath was defying and mocking God. Yet no one else would take him on.

As we know from the Bible, David fought with Goliath using his own weapons, ones with which he was familiar, to defeat and kill Goliath. He had honed his skills with a slingshot in the desert looking after his father’s sheep, never dreaming that he would one day fight with a giant.

In truth nothing is wasted in God’s economy. He can and will use the skills and abilities you have developed elsewhere and apply them to the situation you now find yourself in.

Sometime after I was made redundant from banking, I was asked to help set up and run a Counselling Charity and here the admin, accounting, and computer skills I had learnt in the bank came in very helpful.

David didn’t always get it right.

He got into a very difficult situation with Bathsheba and to try and get himself out of it, had her husband Uriah put into the most dangerous part of a battle so that he died in action.

David found out that whilst you can hide your misdeeds, your sins, form other men and women, you can’t hide them from God. The prophet Nathan was sent by God to deal with David. David admitted he had done wrong and was forgiven by God. You can read Psalm 51 which David wrote about how guilty he felt and how much he needed God’s forgiveness.

Without a doubt, David loved God.

We read about how he sung and danced when the ark of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 6:14 – 16Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.”

David is stripped down to his undies putting his heart and soul into worshipping God. His wife Michal (who was King Saul’s daughter) is appalled at his undignified behaviour. Perhaps she doesn’t actually know and love God.

I did have a family member who very condescendingly described modern worship songs as “Sing a longs”. She clearly had never been caught up in worship.

You may know the worship song “Undignified” by Matt Redman:

I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my King.
Nothing, Lord, is hindering the passion in my soul
And I’ll become even more undignified than this.
(Some would say its foolishness but)
I’ll become even more undignified than this.

So David; not an obvious choice, from man’s point of view, to be king. But as our Bible reading tells us: “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

And if your heart is right with God, then be prepared for him to use you in ways you never thought possible.

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It will all end in tears

On 7 August I preached at my home church, Becontree Avenue Baptist Church in Dagenham.

I chose to preach from 1 Samuel 8: 3 – 22 which deals with the time when Israel wanted to have a king. Prior to that Israel had been led by the Judges who followed on from Moses and Joshua.

The passage I chose is rather long and can be found here.

I think that if we are honest at sometime we’ve all wanted what someone else has got.

As small children it may be a toy that a friend or a sibling has been playing with. Or you see another child with an ice cream and you think I’d really like that.

As we grow up it becomes “I’ve got to have a PlayStation or an Xbox.” “Mum can I buy Grand Theft Auto? I know its rated 18 but all the boys at school are playing it and they’re only 10”.

As a parent I know how mean I must have seen, saying no to numerous requests from my sons.

I am sure its  the same with girls and fashion and make up. “But mum all the girls are wearing it…..”

“Everyone’s going to the party. Why can’t I go?”

The trouble is, as children we do not always know what is good for us, or indeed what is bad for us. But that is also true for us adults.

I used to love a pizza. But since I became lactose intolerant I know that the brief enjoyment of pizza would be followed by hours of discomfort, to say the least.

Similarly since early childhood, I have had a nut allergy. And I know that I dare not go anywhere near brazil nuts or walnuts or pecan nuts. Carrot cake is absolutely wonderful except for me. I could land up in hospital seriously ill because of the walnuts it contains.

So what is ok for some people is not okay for me.

A wise loving parent will do whatever they can to keep their children safe from danger even if the children don’t appreciate it.

Sometimes we are persistent in our requests for certain things. And maybe the parent reluctantly gives in, though often with the comment “It will all end in tears”.

So lets have a look at what is happening in our Bible reading.

The Jews were God’s special people. They were a unique nation. They had made an  agreement with God. He will be their God and they would be his people, They would have no other god but him. He would lead them and they would follow.

However whilst God is faithful and kept his word, his people were not always  faithful. And if you read the book of Judges you will find how the Jews kept going their own way, till they got into serious trouble. Then they would come running back to God for help.

They really didn’t learn. In fact it took 70 years exile in Babylon to cure the Jews of their desire to go and follow false gods and idols.

The people of Israel didn’t have a king. They were led by God who spoke to them through the judges and the prophets. They were a theocracy.

However all the surrounding countries had kings and the Israelites didn’t. They didn’t like being different. They wanted to be like the other countries and have a king.  In my minds eye I have a picture of Israel being a little child whining and complaining “It’s not fair!” as children often do when they feel they are missing out on something everyone else has got.

The trouble was that most kings of that time were absolute rulers. Many were not nice people and some thought they should be worshipped as if they were gods. You can read through the book of Genesis to see examples of how kings treated their subjects, or you can read in Exodus about the Pharaoh who had to deal with Moses.

This is what Samuel told the Israelites would happen if they had a king, 1 Samuel 8:11 – 17:

11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

In other words it will cost you dearly to have a king. We can see that today in many countries where the rulers claim the wealth of the country as their own and spend it on lavish projects or stash billions of pounds away into Swiss bank accounts whilst they people suffer and starve.

But the people don’t take on board the warning given by God. They want a king. In 1 Samuel 8:19 & 20 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

Finally God allows the people to have their king. Sometimes, the only way people learn is through their own mistakes. We can all be so stubborn that, we hear what we want to hear, and read what we want to read, and we insist on getting our way like some child with the “terrible twos”.

The first King of Israel was a man called Saul. He was to start with quite a good king and he listened to the prophet Samuel who told him what God was saying.

But the power of being king got to him. It has been said by 1st Baron Acton that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” .

We read of Saul not wanting to wait for Samuel to arrive before a battle and offering the sacrifice to God himself, despite knowing that was wrong.

Saul and his army had to fight some really horrible people called the Amalekites and God had instructed that everything the Amalekites owned was to be destroyed. The Amalekites had been attacking Israel ever since the people came out of Egypt several hundred years previously. But Saul decided to save the best sheep and cattle for himself. He also had built a monument in his own honour, to commemorate his victory over the Amalekites. When Samuel catches up with Saul, he is assured that everything has been destroyed 1 Samuel 15: 13 & 14 “When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.”  But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

God declared that he had had enough of Saul and later told Samuel to appoint another King. In due course David became king and we will talk about him next week.

To be honest David was the best king that Israel had.

Solomon, David’s son,  is described in the Bible as the wisest man who ever lived. Sadly in his later years he lost his way, marrying foreign wives who brought with them their foreign gods. Solomon even built temple to these false gods.

After Solomon, Israel split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern kingdom was known as Judah and comprised only two of the 12 tribes: Judah and Benjamin.

As time went on we read in the Bible that with a few exceptions the kings of both kingdoms got worse and worse. They worshipped false gods and idols and ignored God’s prophets. In fact they often killed the prophets because they didn’t want to hear what God had to say.

The kings made alliances with other countries who proved to be untrustworthy and the two kingdoms got into all sorts of troubles.

The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians who took away all the people and sent them to other countries never to be seen again.

Judah was over run later by the Babylonians who destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and took away many people to Babylon where they stayed for 70 years before being allowed back to their country by the Persian empire who had attacked and conquered the Babylonians.

God had warned the Israelites what would happen if they had a King. They only had themselves to blame.

How often do we ask for things that won’t be in our best interests?

A long time ago when I was in the Church of England our then organist had thrown a strop and had resigned. We needed another organist. So on the vicar’s instructions we prayed for an organist. And in due course a young man was appointed who was suitably qualified. This was just as the vicar left the parish. Sadly we hadn’t prayed for a Christian organist. During the time he was with us he caused all sorts of problems the greatest of which was that he was no longer entitled to stay in the country, his student visa having expired. Finally he just disappeared one night owning the church money.

We have to be careful what we ask for, or pray for. And certainly we should listen to God, particularly when he says “no” , otherwise we should be prepared for it all to end in tears.

Like a kind wise loving parent, our God truly knows what is good for us. So we should not only seek his guidance but then follow what he tells us to do.

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You are precious

This Sunday (5th June 2016) I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church.

I chose to speak on Isaiah 43: 1- 13.

1 But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. 4 Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth— 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” 8 Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf. 9 All the nations gather together and the peoples assemble. Which of their gods foretold this and proclaimed to us the former things? Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right, so that others may hear and say, “It is true.” 10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no saviour. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God. 13 Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”

We all need encouraging in life particularly when we are going through difficult times.

We all need to be reassured that we are special and of worth.

Years ago I had a boss who rarely thanked people for a job well done. He would say that we were employed to do the job properly. So why should he thank people for doing what they were paid to do? And yet, if people are thanked and praised for doing their job, they will often go beyond what is expected of them.

Our reading today fromTemple destroyed Isaiah 43 was written years Jerusalem to the Jews who were in exile in Babylon. They had been sent there when Judah had been conquered by the then super power of Babylonia. Jerusalem was a waste land and the Temple had been destroyed.

Here were the Jews in a pagan land feeling abandoned by God and wondering what the future held for them.

Having said that, the Jews had brought this on themselves.

For many years they had been disobedient to God and had began worshipping the false gods of the neighbouring countries. God portrays himself as a faithful husband, with the Jewish people being the unfaithful wife who has a series of affairs. Also they had gone against God’s wishes by making alliances with other countries who could not and should not have been trusted.

God had allowed the Babylonians to conquer the land of Judah because the people would not learn the lessons they need to learn any other way.

Sometimes we don’t or won’t learn the easy way. And so it proved with the Jews.

We read how awful the Jews felt in Psalm 137:1 – 4: By the rivers of Babyloenglish-by-the-waters-of-babylonn we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

So what message does Isaiah bring the Jews from God?

God reminds them that he created them.

It is he who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt all those years ago.

He has summons them and called them by name. So he knows them intimately. This is the God whom Jesus assures us knows how many hairs are on our heads. He is not distant, uncaring and impersonal like the gods of the Babylonians. He knows each and every person.

No matter what trials they are going through God says he will be with them. We read in Isaiah 43:2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” The Jews aren’t promised to be saved from troubles and hard times, but God says “I will be with you as you go through this”. And as we know today, followers of Jesus Christ go through all sorts of trials and tribulations. As God never changes and does not change his mind, we can rely of his promises for ourselves. In the New Testament we are reminded in 2 Corinthians 1:20 “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.

Isaiah foresees the release of the Jews when Babylon is conquered by the Persians. Cyrus the Persian King is elsewhere called “My shepherd” by God because of how he will see to the release of the captives. Isaiah 44:28who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” God says that “I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.” these are the countries that God allows the Persians to conquer when the Jews are allowed to return to Judah.

God reminds the Jews that he is with them and they are not to be afraid. He promises to bring all the scattered people from the four corners of the world back together.

Finally God reminds the Jews that he alone is God. He has done all this. Given the way the Jews had flirted with the idols and gods of surrounding countries and cultures, it is important that they realise it is only God who is real and who can save people. The other gods are not real and hence have no power over people. Isaiah 43:10 & 11 “Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no saviour.

The Jews had flirted with foreign gods and idol worship, despite what God had told them when they had come into the promised land many years before. Once they returned from exile they never committed spiritual adultery again. They learnt their lesson the hard way. God is the one true God and apart from him there is no saviour. No one else can save mankind from sin.

So what message does this passage have for us today in 2016?

We are precious and loved. If we have put our faith in Jesus Christ, then we are God’s . He has, through the blood of Jesus, redeemed us. He has called us and we have responded and we are his.

God loves us so much that he gave the most expensive and precious thing hJesus-Crucified-On-The-Cross-Picturee had in the whole universe to save us. He gave his one and only son Jesus to pay the price of our sins and set us free. That is how much God loves each and everyone one of us.

No matter where we are, no matter what our status, each and every Christian is precious to God and he will bring us all together in heaven at the end of all things.

We are all going to face troubles and difficult times in our Christian life. But we are assured that they will not overwhelm us. God in fact promises to be with us as we go through hard times. We do not have to go through things on our own.

We read in the gospels that when Jesus called people he often said “Follow me”. And I think it is fair to say that he does not expect us to undergo things that he has not gone through. Jesus the Good Shepherd leads us, his flock, through this earthly life on to our eternal life in Heaven.

Jesus isn’t like a First World War general leading his troops from many miles behind the front line. No he is there in the thick of it with us as we go through life’s battles. He is intimately involved with each and every Christian’s struggles.

So today hold on to all the promises that we read in this passage:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you

When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned

Do not be afraid, for I am with you

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At just the right time

On Sunday 22 May I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch.

It was Trinity Sunday and I chose the “epistle reading” for that Sunday as given in the Revised Common Lectionary. The reading does show the Trinity, one God in three persons, in action in a believer’s life.

Romans 5: 1- 8

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Christianity is certainly a paradox. It just doesn’t make sense to many people. Paul in 1 Corinthians describes Jesus’ crucifixion as foolishness to the gentiles.

Why should an awesome Holy God send his son Jesus to die in such an awful manner to pay the price for our sins?

Some people I know, just cannot understand that, if God is who he says he is, why didn’t he destroy us or condemn us all to hell if we are such wicked evil people?

Many people, believers and unbelievers alike, over the years have struggled with the concept of God’s love and mercy. That great hymn writer Charles Wesley wrote:

“And can it be that I should gain

An interest in the Saviour’s blood?

Died He for me, who caused His pain—

For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be,

That Thou, my God, shoulds’t die for me?

Amazing love! How can it be,

That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Firstly who were the Christians in Rome?

Well, let’s look at what St Paul says about this in his letter to the early church in Rome.

They were a mix of Roman citizens and slaves some of whom worked in Caesar’s household.

It can’t have been easy being a Christian in Roman society with its worship of false gods, its love of violence and its lack of morality. At times the Roman Emperor was regarded as an embodiment of one of the gods. So to be a Christian and hence deny that the Emperor was a god was treason and could end in your death.

For slaves it was even worse. They had no rights at all. They could be assaulted and even killed by their owners. Their bodies were not their own. Both female and male slaves could be raped by their owners and there was nothing they could do about it.

In Rome the Emperor Nero when he began persecuting Christians was rumoured to have had captured Christians dipped in oil and set on fire in his garden at night as a source of light.

And yet, here is a church, a beacon of God’s light in the heart of a dark empire.

We see the same today in the underground churches in China and North Korea as well as in many muslim countries where you have the death penalty because of your faith in Jesus Christ. Just look at what has happened to Christians in Syria and Iraq in recent years. There was a report recently in the media of a 12 year old girl being burnt alive by muslim terrorists for holding to her faith.

The Holy Spirit has clearly been at work in these Roman Christians most of whom will have come out of a pagan background where you had to appease the many gods with offerings and sacrifices. You could never be sure if you were ok. or if the gods were still angry with you.

But putting your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ means that you are justified and so at peace with God. Many folk cannot understand that the simple act of faith of asking Jesus Christ to enter your life and of repenting of your sins puts you right with God. There must be more to it? It can’t be that simple and yet, it is.

Last week we celebrated Pentecost and one of the readings was Peter’s sermon to the crowd in Jerusalem. This is what we read in Acts 2: 37 – 39 “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Previously Peter had said in Acts 2:21And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

So we are put right with God through faith. We are no longer God’s enemies but his precious adopted sons and daughters. Through that faith we can enter God’s presence.

Throughout the New Testament we are told to not be surprised if we are persecuted or have to suffer for our faith. After all, now we are part of the Kingdom of God and friends with God we now have to struggle with the world, the flesh and the devil. We have effectively changed sides in the long hard fight between good and evil.

But Paul tells us in Romans 5: 3 &4 “but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” As we travel on our Christian life the sufferings we endure strengthen and encourage us.

Just as when we were at school we started off with simple maths problems. Once we mastered them we moved on to harder problems and develop more problem solving skills. We are, as we progress, more able to persevere with the problems that are set for us.

Put it another way, you may recall from school science lessons, graphite and diamonds are both made of carbon. Graphite is grey soft and relatively worthless. Whereas diamonds are virtually indestructible, beautiful and precious. Diamonds are produced by subjecting graphite to immense heat and pressure.

Many of you ladies have an engagement ring. How would you felt if your intended had ring-finger-engagementgiven you a ring with a large lump of carbon on it where the gem stone should have been? I am sure you would prefer the diamond to the lump of carbon.

Well, God is in the business of transforming our lives to become beautiful and precious and he does this by allowing us to suffer troubles and suffering.

In Malachi 3:3 God is compared to a refiner of silver. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” In biblical times silver ore wrefined-goldas heated in a crucible and the impurities are either burnt off or skimmed off. The refiner knew when the silver was pure when he could see his reflection in the metal.

So God is at work transforming us so that we become more and more like Jesus.

Paul tells us that God has poured his love in to our hearts through the Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is truly the work of the Triune God. Our faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death puts us right with God who gives us his Holy Spirit to live in us and begin the work of transforming our lives to become more like Jesus.

Paul is very firm to make sure we know that it not of our doing, but is all of God. Romans 5:6 – 8You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

We can’t save ourselves and put ourselves right with God on our own.

We were all ungodly. We needed a saviour.

And the astonishing thing is that God loves us so much he sent Jesus to die for us to save us and put us right with God.

Jesus has done what we couldn’t do. He has put us right with God.

Whilst we were still God’s enemies Christ died for us. He didn’t wait until we came to faith. Because of God’s great love for us, Christ died for each and every human to give them all a chance of salvation.

We don’t have to understand it. We just have to believe it and Jesus will do the rest.

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I don’t believe it!

This morning I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church in Dagenham.

As this we are still in the Easter Season I chose to speak about the Apostle Thomas, often referred to as “Doubting Thomas”.

John 20:19 – 29

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I am sure that many of you are old enough to remember the TV comedy programme “One foot in the grave” featuring the grumpy Victor Meldrew whose catch phrase was “I don’t believe it!”

Maybe you’ve had Victor Meldrew moments when all you can say it “I don’t believe it” either in astonishment at something that has happened or in sheer bewilderment at what is going on.

I was like that at school with “A” level maths. The “O” level was easy so I thought the next step up would be okay. But I was wrong. 

To this day I have no clue about calculus despite my sons patiently trying to explain it.

I just didn’t get it and to be honest the teacher was more concerned about the lads who were destined for great things at Oxford or Cambridge. I just quietly sunk. Despite my failure to grasp quite a lot of mathematical ideas, I went on to work in banking.

People believe all sorts of things which are weird or wacky or just plain daft and yet when it comes to a known historical event such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ that first Easter Day, its beyond their understanding.

When I was in my teens, the books to read were by Erich von Däniken who said amongst other things that God was an alien who had visited earth in his spaceship and hence kick-started civilisation.

Or people happily go to spiritists or mediums to seek their guidance or to make sure that Granny is okay in heaven. Or slavishly follow their horoscopes in the newspapers or magazines.

Others quite happily apply feng shui to their house to improve the harmony in the home. Or they believe in the healing powers of crystals but they just cannot believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s a fairy tale to them.

I conducted a funeral for a lady who turned her back on Christianity and put her faith in magic crystals and the power of pyramids to heal her breast cancer. Much to her husband’s despair, she even travelled to Brazil to meet someone who used special healing crystals.

There are many things we find hard to believe. Some we just accept and others we just can’t cope with.

I remember my physics teacher telling me how in the 1930’s he had built a radio in his parents’ home in the Welsh valleys. When he switched it on and there was this man talking to the family gathered in the parlour, grandma could not believe that the voice was coming out of that box and rushed in to the kitchen to see where the man was hiding.

And yet here we are in 2016 taking such things as radios, TV, mobile phones, computers and space travel in our stride.

We don’t have to understand something to believe it.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who refuses to switch on an electric light because they don’t understand the intricacies of power generation and transmission. We just go and flick the switch.

God calls us to believe that his mighty power has overcome death and that Jesus the son of God has risen from the dead. He doesn’t call us to understand the mechanism of how it happened.

So what about Thomas?

His name is Aramaic and means “twin”. In Greek the name was Didymus. It is thought by some scholars that he was actually Judas Thomas.

We know that he was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus.

He seems to be a man who was honest in his doubts or lack of understanding.

In John 14:1 – 6 we read: “ 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.“

Perhaps the others were wondering about Jesus saying “you know the way to the place where I am going.” But only Thomas says “”Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?

Jesus’ words in reply are of course well known to many Christians  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

Of course this is a saying of Jesus which is helpful when we are faced with people who claim that anyone can get to heaven no matter what faith they follow. Jesus is the way. No one else is the way.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the other disciples on that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared to his followers. But we have to accept that he wasn’t there.

The disciples, according to Luke’s gospel had trouble believing that Jesus had risen from the dead.

This is what we find in Luke 24: 36 – 46While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

So it’s not surprising that Thomas had a problem when the other disciples told him  that Jesus is alive. John 20:25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

It is something to believe that someone you have seen killed in a most barbaric fashion has come back to life after three days in the grave.

But as we know the next time Jesus appears to the disciples, he deals with Thomas’ disbelief, by allowing him to see and feel the wounds in his hands made by the nails and the wound in his side where he had been speared by the centurion present at the crucifixion.

Presented with this evidence, Thomas believes that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead.

Jesus then makes this statement in John 20:29Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

There are countless millions who like us, have believed with out seeing him.

Although it is not recorded in the Bible, church history tells us that Thomas eventually travelled to India where he preached the gospel The church he founded in 52AD is still present in modern day Karelia in India.

I doubt that any of us have physically seen the risen Jesus although many of us here know him and love him and follow him. So our job is to present Jesus to people, so that they too can believe in him.

All of us know and meet people that perhaps no on else here can reach. So we each have a responsibility to take the good news of Jesus wherever we go and through the power of the Holy Spirit help people turn their “I don’t believe it” into “I believe!”

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The year of the Lord’s favour

This morning I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church and we looked at the start of Isaiah 61.

Isaiah 61:1 – 7
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 5 Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. 6 And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. 7 Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs.

Life can be unfair. We all suffer misfortune at times. Some are bad managers of our finances. Some folk just are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for whatever reason people fall on hard times, get into debt and other troubles.

When the Jewish people were preparing to come into the promised land, God through the prophet Moses gave them instructions on how to live.

One of the things God put into the plan was the Year of Jubilee which would happen every 50 years when outstanding debts would be cancelled and slaves would be set free and land returned to its original owner. You can read about it in Leviticus 25:8-55 . The idea was to restore equality amongst the people. But you could imagine that if this happened nowadays, bankers and other lenders would be very reluctant to lend money if they knew the jubilee was coming and their loans would have to be written off.

I am not sure if there are any records to prove that the Jewish people actually kept to the Year of Jubilee as it would be of more advantage to the poor and oppressed than to the rich and the powerful.

In our reading from Isaiah comes a prophecy about what God will do for his people. In fact when Jesus started his ministry he is recorded in Luke 4:16 – 21 as reading this passage from Isaiah when he visited the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. When he finished the reading Jesus added in Luke 4:21Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

You could say that this passage is Jesus’ mission statement and as followers of Jesus commissioned to do what he did, it should be our mission as well.

It seems to me that there are two main groups of people to whom we are to minister:

■    The broken hearted and those who mourn
■    The captives and the prisoners.

People can be broken hearted over many things, not just the end of a love affair as the famous soul singer Jimmy Ruffin sang many years ago:

“What becomes of the brokenhearted,

Who has love that’s now departed,

I know I’ve got to find, Some kind of peace of mind, help me, please”

People can be broken hearted when their football team doesn’t win the game. Last night on Facebook someone had written about our local team Dagenham and Redbridge: “Heartbreak for the Daggers as a late Kemar Roofe free kick earns Oxford the three points”.

Or when that project you’ve invested so much time, effort and money in comes to nothing.

Or maybe the political party you’ve worked so hard for in the elections gets thrown out of office.

Being broken hearted is very much like mourning.

We can mourn over many things. Usually we think it is about the loss of a loved one, be it spouse, parent, brother or sister, child, grandchild or good friend and so on.

But what about the sensation of loss we feel when we are made redundant? Some people’s sense of who they are is given by what they do. So to loose your job is a major trauma.

I was in that place in 1996 when after nearly 23 years with Barclays Bank I was made redundant. Aged 42 with Gaynor and four young sons to support. Its not only the pay packet that’s gone but your sense of who you are, the camaraderie of the work place and your sense of fulfilment.

We can mourn the loss of our health.

I realise that I was in mourning after I was told in July 2013 that I had prostate cancer. Suddenly I am ill, even though I didn’t have any symptoms at that point.

If I wasn’t a Christian I do not know what I would have done. But, thank God, I had many people who supported me in pray and upheld me as I went through the treatment and indeed I knew that God was with me as I went through this particular “valley of the shadow of death”.

How people cope with these sorts of problems without God in their lives, I do not know. They do get desperate and clutch at straws to save them. Anything from wacky pseudo scientific cures to faith healers and witchcraft.

You can mourn over your loss of independence whether that was through illness, accident or advancing age. This can be particularly hard if you have always been a doer. We saw this with my mum when over a period of just a few months she became housebound and then bedbound and finally went into a nursing home. She was not a happy bunny.

People can mourn over the loss of possessions. Often it will be items of sentimental value ie family jewellery or something given as a special gift or present. The loss of these items can effect some people seriously.

When we talk about prisoners we normally think of people who are incarcerated for having committed a crime and been through the court system. Of course is certain countries you can find yourself in prison for being a Christian or for wanting a democratic government.

Our passage refers to “release from darkness for the prisoners”. Often prisoners were kept below ground level where it was cold, damp and dark.

But I think our passage refers to other types of prisoners.

People can be held captive by their sins or misdeeds. Whilst the Bible tells us that we all will face judgement for what we have done: Hebrews 4;13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”, some people seems to suffer for their sins in this life.

We can think of alcoholics and drug abusers who have ruined their bodies because of their addictions. Or what about the man or woman who has an affair wrecking their own marriage and the lives of other people in the process.

Being involved in witchcraft and black magic can imprison us, as can consulting mediums and spiritists. Which is why the Bible tells us to not do these things.

Sometime ago I conduct the funeral for a man in his early thirties. His problems started at age 14 when he played with a ouija board. Whatever he got in contact with so frightened him and affected his mind that he stayed in his bedroom for the next three months. He had long term mental health issues and eventually he took to the streets, living rough and taking drugs.

Addictions can hold us prisoner. Anything can be addictive, not just drink, drugs, gambling and pornography. What about shopping? We hear about shopaholics. We have someone in our street who had been a shopaholic. She lied, cheated and stole from her friends and neighbours and even obtained a bank loan by impersonating one of her neighbours.

The words we say can imprison us. People swear that they will never forgive that person for what they have done. Unforgiveness can be a terrible gaoler keeping you locked in for years and years, torturing you with constant reminders as to what they did and why you can’t forgive them.

Someone once said that unforgiveness is letting your enemy live rent free in your head!

We can chain ourselves up by words such as “I will never forgive myself” or “I’ll never be any good”, “I can never do that”.

Words have a great power over us for good or evil.

So what are we to do?

We are to do what Jesus did. We have the power of the Holy Spirit in us, if we are believers, and so we can act with Jesus’ authority to bring forgiveness and healing as well as love and grace to people.

We are to quote Isaiah 61:3to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. “

Some we have to set free from the powers of darkness, by casting out demons. For others we have to break the power of curses that are over them to set them free.

We should certainly pray for people and support them.

When someone is set free by the power of the Holy Spirit the transformation is truly amazing.

Our passage from Isaiah talks about people being restored “ They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour. “

Lives are transformed so that people who were restricted in their spiritual growth as if they were bonsai trees, now grow tall and strong and beautiful.

So I think that it is a challenge for us all to take this on board as our job description as disciples of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, to comfort those who mourn and to set the prisoners free.

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Rules and Regulations

Today I not only preached at Trinity United Reformed Church in Upminster but also at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch.

Although the style of worship differed, the message was the same.

The Bible reading is the gospel reading for today as taken from The Revised Common Lectionary.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 7:2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 7:3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 7:4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 7:5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 7:6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
7:7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 7:8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 7:15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,
7:22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
7:23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We all need rules and regulations in our lives. Think how chaotic life would be if everyone did their own thing without regard to anyone else.

Just imagine what would happen if we chose to ignore red traffic lights and come zooming down Corbets Tey Road at 70 mph. Anyone get in the way and we mount the pavement. Want to shop in M &S ? No problem. Park where you want, never mind the yellow lines.

See something you want? Just take it.

Someone annoy you? Kill them.

We need order in our lives.

God knew this and it is why have gave the Jews, his chosen people, a set of rules to live by.

Some of the rules were about safe living in a hot country, to keep physically well and avoid infection. Hence the rules about eating pork or sea food. As we know you get all sorts of stomach bugs from eating badly prepared food. I suspect many of us here have had a dodgy takeaway at sometime and bitterly regretted it.

Other rules were about morality, our relationships with other people. Just look at the misery and pain there is when relationships fail, when people cheat on their spouse, when they get into relationships that God says are wrong.

Regardless if people say they love each other if they step out the safe zone that God has given them, then they enter an uncharted mine field often with disastrous results.

Society now tells us that any relationship is ok as long its loving. The website Ashley Madison has been in the news recently. Its strap line is “Life’s short, have an affair”.

But the Bible tells us otherwise.

I heard a report on the news a few years back of a priest who had finally been prosecuted. In his defence he said that he had been taught that adultery was a sin, but he didn’t know that having sex with children was wrong!

Finally there are rules about our relationship with God. These are for our spiritual well being.

If we are Christians then God is our Number 1 and him only. You cannot have a pick and mix approach to your faith. Many will remember the sweet counter at the long gone Woolworths with its pick and mix selection. It will do you no good to take bits out of the Bible and then mix in some buddhism, islam, hinduism and new age thinking. You just end up lost and confused. And if you are not careful you stray completely away from God and are lost for all eternity.

God says to us not to do certain things, because he loves us and wants us to be safe. How many parents here have ever prevented their children from sticking fingers or metal objects  into electric sockets? You did it because you love them, not because you want to spoil their fun or stop them exploring the home.

So when God says “don’t go there”, he is saying for our safety and well being.

The easiest way to check these things out is to see what the Bible says and then see if they fulfil this simple test in John 5:23He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”

If a religion does not  recognize and honour Jesus as the Son of God, then it is not something a Christian should be involved in. Never mind if they are nice sincere people, they are not teaching that Jesus is the one and only way to the Father.

And so to our reading from John 7. I picture the Pharisees circling round Jesus like a pack of wolves seeking a moment to over whelm him. They were always trying to prove him  wrong, and throughout the gospels we read about their attempts to trip him up with their questions.

The Pharisees knew the law very well. In fact in their attempts to understand it they made it even more onerous. For example when it came to washing their hands they didn’t stop with the hands but kept amending the law until you were washing all the way up to the elbow.

They were well meaning men who were afraid that they may offend God by not trying hard enough to keep to the rules. Indeed at the time of Jesus it was thought that if there was someone who could keep all the rules just for one day, God would then send the promised Messiah. One man did lead that perfect sinless life, and they missed him. His name was Jesus and he lived right amongst them.

So the Pharisees thought they had come up with a good one this time.

“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” they say to Jesus.

But they have confused the purpose of the some of the rules. Remember some are about hygiene and others about our spiritual well being.

These Pharisees think that what God wants is for everyone to obey all the rules all the time. And so they get into an argument with Jesus about how important it is for his disciples to wash their hands.

The Pharisees thought the rules were what made you holy, never mind what was going on in your mind. But Jesus was quite harsh in his criticism of them. Throughout the gospels we read that he treated the ordinary people with compassion and empathy but not the Pharisees. This verse is taken from The Message translation, Matthew 23:27 “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh.

Of course hygiene is important but that doesn’t necessarily affect your eternal life.

Anybody can follow the rules, What really matters is what goes on inside of you. What goes on in your heart. The heart has been thought to be the centre of one’s thoughts and emotions.

As Jesus said in our reading Mark 7:21 – 23For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The rules can’t save us from what comes out of our heart. That was a problem that the Pharisees didn’t or couldn’t see.

At a previous church we had a man who thought it was all about the rules, many of which were man made. He got so angry when he thought the rules had been broken. It was really surprising that his typewriter didn’t catch fire from the angry furious letters he wrote to the church council and the minister.

Many years King David recognised this problem when he was challenged by the prophet Nathan about his adulterous affair with Bathsheba which had resulted in the death of Uriah the Hittite. He wrote in Psalm 51:10Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a faithful spirit within me.”

Clearly something has to be done as the keeping the rules does not heal the human heart.

Jesus came not only to pay the price of our sins and put us right with God but also to fulfil God’s promises made in the Bible. This is just one of them and we read it in Jeremiah 24:7I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”

When you come to faith in Jesus, God gives you his Holy Spirit to live in you as your guide and counsellor and he does renew your heart so that you begin to become more like Jesus, although we all still struggle with our old broken human nature.

However when we do trip up and sin we have the assurance in 1 John 1:9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

So to sum up. When looking at the rules for living that God gave us in the Bible, some are for our physical well being, some for our moral welfare and the rest for our spiritual health.
And whilst some of the rules for living in a hot climate are not relevant to us now, the rules about morality and spiritual well being are still to be observed despite what many is society may tell us.

If you have been trying to live solely by the rules, maybe its time for you to accept the offer that Jesus makes to every man woman and child, that through faith in him you can be forgiven and given a new heart and the promise of eternal life.

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