Ale & Teviot United Church


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What “sin” is and how to smash it

Sunday 10 October 2010 : Matthew 10 : 32-42


We find Jesus today in a no-nonsense mood. In this chapter, He has been sending out the 12 disciples on a mission trip, telling them what He expects of them – and telling them what to expect from the people they go to. It is a strange thing, but not everyone welcomes the Good News of Jesus Christ. Not everyone is grateful for the offer of life in abundance, to the full, till it overflows. Not everyone wants to receive the power of Jesus’ love to bring forgiveness for their sins, and healing of all their diseases.


Jesus warns the disciples, in no uncertain terms, that they are likely to face a hostile reaction from many people, especially the self-righteous and the religious. How sad. Sadder still – just as it was then, so it is now. There are still people, in church as well as outside it, who cannot and will not receive the forgiveness Christ died to give them, because they cannot and will not accept that they are “sinners” needing forgiven.


The story is told of a fur-clad stalwart of a prestigious suburban kirk who stormed up to the eager and earnest new minister with these words : Young man, I’ve been a member of this church for 60 years, and I do not appreciate being told I am a sinner! Part of the problem, I think, is the word “sin” itself. It manages to combine a sense of overbearing Victorian judgementalism with, at the same time, salacious modern media sensationalism – either way, “sin” is linked in most people’s minds with, how can I put it with a degree of understated delicacy, bedroom activities. That’s misleading.


“Sin” is a term that derives from the world of archery, and it means, quite simply, missing the target. I have never handled a bow and arrow, but I have played darts, and if I am looking for a double 1 to win the game, but my dart strays into the 20 instead, that would qualify as sin – missing the target – just as surely as if I took my dart and aimed it straight into the eye of my opponent with malice aforethought.


“Sin” is missing the target, by any distance, for any reason. There is absolute and utter perfection, or there is sin. In God’s eyes, there is no halfway house., no league table of big sins and little sins. James 2.10 : whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. Paul says in Romans 3.23 that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And that’s the good news! Why? Because if we’re covered by Romans 3.23, we’re also covered by Romans 3.22 : righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe : and Romans 3.24 : we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.


Anyone like the promises of Romans 3.22 and 3.24? Here’s how we qualify for them – by recognising that we fit under Romans 3.23. The only qualification required to be eligible for the saving grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ is that we know we need it. I think it’s a shame that so many of us try desperately to weave a web of self-justification round ourselves rather than receive the free gift of righteousness that Jesus died to offer us. I try to do my best, I like to think I’m a decent person, I never do anyone any harm. I’m better than so-and-so who did such-and-such.

Whatever. That’s not the point. Jesus said in John 16.9 that sin, in essence, is not what we do or don’t do. Sin is a refusal to believe in, and trust in, Him. End of! Jesus also says in John 3.3 that unless someone is born again, they cannot enter the Kingdom of God. I know a lot of people don’t like that verse, but it was Jesus Himself who said it, and if you think about it logically, how else can you enter into the joy of new LIFE, in abundance, to the full, till it overflows, other than by new BIRTH, spiritually?


Refusing to put our faith and trust in Jesus keeps us out of God’s best for us, and as sin is, by definition, missing the mark, settling for what we’ve got without Jesus IS sin. God does not want you to settle for second-best. Jesus did not suffer on the cross as He did for you to faff about in mediocrity and frustration all your days and die ahead of time, without fulfilling the purpose God sent you here for. Jesus did not die so you could just muddle through from one crisis to the next, one illness to the next, one stressful situation to the next, one unhappy and unfulfilling relationship to the next.


Can you see why it’s so important to get the true gospel across to our young folks, so that as they find true life in Jesus, with meaning purpose, they will be released from bondage to the world’s system of failure and hopelessness, a system that lies to them that the way to happiness is going with the flow [remember, only dead fish and sewage go with the flow] ; if it feels good, do it ; hey, everybody gets blitzed on Friday night, no harm in that ; no problem if you want to try different partners, it’s a free country ; doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you believe in something..


All that garbage is fed relentlessly to our young folks, by peer pressure, glossy magazines, silly soap operas – and, deep down, they know it’s trash, it’s not working. They still feel empty and insecure, tying themselves in knots, selling themselves short, compromising to be “accepted”. When, all the time, the truth is that Jesus Christ accepts them – and all of us – just as we are, whatever mess we’ve made of our lives. Jesus takes us just as He finds us, He loves us unconditionally, He extends total forgiveness and reconciliation with Father God – and then He gets to work in us.


Today I invite us to have the courage to face facts. I’m going to tell it as I see it, and I am sorry if that offends anybody, but it is the TRUTH of God’s Word that sets us free, not the DECEPTION of a touchy-feely world. So here we go. None of us, off our own bat, is perfect. There’s a revelation, eh? Anyone here perfect? Anyone here married to someone who’s perfect? Anyone here married to someone who thinks they’re perfect?


And because, in and of our human flesh, we’re not perfect ; because we are – to use the technical term – sinners, great! We are eligible to draw on the saving power that Jesus released on the cross. Galatians 3.13f – you know it off by heart by now – Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written – cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to us through Christ Jesus, by faith.


So – if today you make a commitment of faith to Jesus Christ, for the first time or for the 101st time, it’s good news all the way. Life need no longer be an uphill struggle, a white-knuckle ride, a bore or a chore. You are redeemed, liberated, from having to settle for second, third or 43rd best. Because Christ has redeemed you from the curse of the Law, the 10 commandments and all the ancillary rules and regulations tacked on to them, you no longer have to try to keep the Law in every minute detail. So – listen …!


If you are a born-again Christ-follower, according to God’s Word, you need no longer be subject to these curses : famine, inability to have children, financial ruin, failed business, fever, inflammation, mildew, tumours, boils, itches, madness, someone else running off with your spouse, the bank repossessing your house or your car, your children turning away from you, scorn, ridicule, hunger, thirst, insect infestation, every kind of disease and sickness. If you don’t believe me, read Deuteronomy 28.15-68.


If you choose to follow Jesus, you have God’s deliverance from these things. If, on the other hand, you choose to deny that you’re a sinner needing saved, and insist you’re a decent person who tries to do your best – in other words, if you trust self-righteousness instead of Christ-righteousness, you are still subject to all those nasties. Bad idea.


So if, as a believer, you are set free from the curse to enjoy the blessing, what exactly is the blessing? Deuteronomy 28.1-14 : empowered to succeed in business, you and your children prosperous, attacks on your character or activities will fail, you will lend but never borrow, you will be the head and not the tail, always on top and never below – and you’ll find a succinct New Testament commentary on all this in 3 John 2 : you will prosper and enjoy health of spirit, soul and body.


It’s a bit of a no-brainer, really. Choose faith in Jesus and enjoy blessing, choose to ignore Jesus and endure cursing. But here’s a wee bit of a sting in the tail. When you make the decision to follow Jesus, as we said earlier, people won’t exactly queue up to shake your hand on your wise decision. Some people will be most unhappy about your new-found faith, because you won’t want to act like an idiot any more like they do.


They’ll be watching you. They’ll be looking for any slip-up, and if you do – when you do – they’ll tease you about it. They’ll try to tell you this holy-roller stuff is just a wee phase you’re going through, you’ll get over it, you’ll be normal again soon. Here’s the thing. Whose love and friendship and approval really matters to you? These clowns, who clearly don’t have your best interest at heart, or Jesus who gave His life for you?


In this passage, Jesus has some tasty things to say about putting Him first, above anyone and anything else. Don’t try still to be a Saturday night sinner and then put on a Sunday morning saint face. I tried that for years. It nearly killed me. You can’t have the old sinful life and the new blessed one at the same time   Jesus wasn’t ashamed to go to the cross for you. Don’t be ashamed to stand firm for Him, and never mind what anyone else may say to you, or about you. Last time I checked, God hadn’t retired and put your unbelieving friends or colleagues in charge of your destiny. Stick with Jesus.


Grace and Faith

Love drives out fear

19 September 2010 : 1 John 4 : 15-19  & Matthew 10 : 1-10

Today we find Jesus marking a whole new phase of His ministry as He commissions His 12 disciples to go out on a mission trip. At risk of stating the obvious, Matthew 10 follows on from the last two verses of Matthew 9, where Jesus spoke to the disciples : The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

That’s what’s happening in this chapter. Up to now, the 12 have been watching – and, hopefully, learning – while Jesus has actually done the job. That was the foundation class, “Discipleship 101”. Now they graduate to the next level of the apprenticeship programme. They get to do the stuff, with Jesus supervising. We recognise this pattern from everyday life. When you reached the stage of learning to drive, you had probably watched a parent, or a friend, behind the wheel of a car. You’d seen what they do, where all the controls were. You knew, in theory, how to drive.

But theory doesn’t get you from A to B. You had to get behind the wheel, turn on the ignition, mirror, signal, manoeuvre. You had to learn by practical experience the feel of the clutch pedals, and when to change gear, and the importance of being aware of other road users, not all of whom – you very soon discovered – were of sound mind!

In the early stages, you had an instructor sitting beside you for a formal lesson, and in between times a family member or friend with nerves of steel and a bottomless pit of cash to put you on their insurance – and if not, I don’t want to know! Learning to drive was a step-by-step process that took you from passenger to driver, and the end-game was clear. It was that joyful day when the examiner’s granite expression momentarily softened to advise you that you had passed, the L-plates got shredded, and for the very first time – at least the first time legally – off you went all on your own-i-o.

Well, the word “disciple” simply means “learner”. At this point, the 12 still had their L-plates on, but the day was fast coming – though the 12 hadn’t a clue just how fast – when Jesus would no longer be sitting beside them, coaching them, cleaning up the mess they made. He would be back home with His Dad in Heaven, and the ball would be in their court, God’s rescue mission for the human race entrusted into their hands.

And there is a very real sense in which our presence here, in this very place, at this very moment, is a continuation of that very same mission. If we say we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that makes us linear descendants, in the worldwide family of faith, from Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John and so on. The same promises they enjoyed, we are to enjoy ; the same responsibility they exercised, we are to exercise.

Now I can see panic starting to appear in the eyes of some at that prospect. Over many centuries we’ve been led to believe that it’s just ministers that minister, and indeed some denominations have concocted a theory known as the apostolic succession.

Which means, basically, that there are two classes of Christian, drivers and passengers, and only those who have been ordained get to do anything beyond filling the pew and filling the plate. That is a very unhelpful and unbiblical notion, which serves only to imprison the vast majority of the church in ineffectiveness. Paul gives us a much more insightful view of ministry in Ephesians 4.11-13, New Living Translation :

These are the gifts Christ gave to the church : the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

In the local church, the job of “the minister” is as a pastor / teacher, to feed the flock with the nourishing spiritual food of God’s Word and so to enable and equip everyone else in the church to minister, and to fulfil our individual potential. As the apostle John affirms in 1 John 4.17 : we are to be like Jesus in this world, not just the next.

What about us, the local church, here in the Scottish Borders, in the 21st century, in a society that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the truth of God’s Word, that makes an idol of inclusion and tolerance and spirituality of the vaguest possible nature, that points to our own decency, our own worthy deeds as sufficient grounds to qualify for whatever after-life there might be, that defines right and wrong according to the flavour-of-the-month chat-show and the politically correct fad du jour?

What about us, here and now? Well, quite simply, WE stand in succession to the first disciples, under the same chain of command, with the same authority that Jesus gave to them. But have we the courage and integrity to rise to that challenge and exercise spiritual leadership in a culture that thinks itself so sophisticated … yet just scratch the surface, penetrate the veneer, and you will see the fear, the stress, the insecurity, of a generation who are spiritual orphans. We are to point them back toward their Father.

How do we do that? Do we beat them over the head with a Bible and tell them they’re worthless sinners who are bound for hell? The older I get, the more I’m convinced that turn-or-burn preaching really isn’t a true expression of the Father-heart of God, and that, actually, the vast majority of people are all too sin-conscious, all too aware of their faults and failings. Satan has already kicked lumps out of them with a sense of condemnation and unworthiness, and why would they be attracted to God by a church that simply echoes the judgement and the finger-pointing of the enemy?

As New Testament believers, we surely recognise that the nature of our God is love. That’s what 1 John 4.16 tells us. It’s not just what God does, it’s who God is, and the message we have to share with the people around us must reflect that faithfully. Let’s see what we can learn from the instructions Jesus gave the first disciples : Preach the message – the Kingdom of Heaven is near.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.

The message Jesus gave the disciples, to speak in words and illustrate in actions, was one that conveyed very powerfully the love of God that changes lives for good. There is a consistency between words of hope and deeds of goodness. Their mission was to be all about taking the genuine, active, love of God out where it was needed – to reach out and restore people broken, down-trodden and down-hearted by years of struggle and hardship without a revelation of that love.

The specific circumstances facing the people of Palestine 2,000 years ago were different from those facing the people of the Scottish Borders now, but the principles were the same. They were desperate to know, for sure, that they were loved and valued and individually precious as they were, for who they were, not just for how they could be used or exploited by others. They longed for a vision of what the whole point of their life actually was, because this daily grind surely couldn’t be as good as it gets.

They needed to know there was a solution to the hurts and the problems in their lives that no so-called expert, and no amount of money, could solve. In short, there was a big hole right in the middle of their life, that only the love of God revealed exclusively in the ministry of Jesus who did only what He saw His Father doing, could solve.

That, I suggest, is exactly where Scotland is today. Behind the stage props of wi-fi and ipods and tom-toms and blackberries and Starbucks, behind the plastic smiles of false bravado, God’s children of this generation are scared stiff of what the future holds, and scared even to admit to being scared. Whether it’s climate change or bird flu or cancer or terrorist attacks or meteorites crashing to earth or whatever irresponsible hysterical nonsense is whipped up in the media or on facebook, it’s all based on fear.

Remember what John wrote? Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love [1 John 4.18]. Perfect love originates in God, who is Love, and is transmitted through the church of Jesus Christ as we do what the first disciples did – speak of the new Kingdom of love and illustrate our message by acts of love. Break the grip of fear as we proclaim the Good News that God loves us all so much that He sent His only Son to break the dead hand of sin and guilt and condemnation and fear and punishment and disease and death.

Live in freedom, speak of freedom, and minister freedom, as we give generously to lift the poor out of poverty ; and we boldly pronounce acceptance and welcome to all who have spent far too long guilt-ridden and burdened by the unreasonable expectations of others ; and faithfully minister healing to the sick – it may not be in our Presbyterian tradition but who gives a rat’s tail about THAT when it IS in our Bible? If you know anyone who is ill, get them along to our healing service tonight, even if you have to offer them dinner as a quid-pro-quo. We have a gospel to proclaim, in word and deed, and Jesus who is our commanding officer will honour our faithfulness with His.

Jesus – He is love – He gives life – let’s welcome Him in our hearts today.




Ale & Teviot Church

Scottish Charity No. SC 016457

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