Ale & Teviot United Church

Monthly Archive for August, 2010

The Good Shepherd became the sacrificial Lamb

22 August 2010 : Isaiah 53 & John 10 : 11-21

Last time we began to study the claim of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd, in stark contrast to the religious leaders of His own day, who failed abjectly in the primary task of the pastor, which is to feed the flock with the nourishing food of God’s Word, the Good News of how much God loves His people, and of the great plan and purpose God has for His people. That remains, to this very day, the No.1 priority of all who have a call to minister – feeding the flock with the Word of God’s love, mercy and grace.

That is the yardstick by which I, and my colleagues, shall be assessed in the courts of heaven, and every other aspect of ministry is subsidiary to that. The greatest visitor, the most avid fund-raiser, the most hilarious MC at weddings, the most active in political or social concerns, the most enthusiastic participant in Presbytery or General Assembly, great if that’s your thing, but in the end what really matters is teaching from the Word the truth that sets the people free. Beside that, everything else is an optional extra.

But for Jesus, it went beyond teaching. Far beyond. He lifted shepherding to a whole new level by laying down His life for His sheep. The ministry of Jesus in Galilee was a wonderful thing to behold. Luke 4 tells us that Jesus, doing pulpit supply in the synagogue at Capernaum, stood up and read the lesson from Isaiah 61 :

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favour has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. He then gave the shortest sermon on record : Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing : pronounced the blessing and left.

And for the next three years Jesus fulfilled that text. He brought the love of God, not just in words but in real tangible practical actions, to the people. Acts 10.38 says : Jesus of Nazareth went around doing good, healing the sick. I wouldn’t mind that verse being read at my funeral about me. And during those Galilee years, as Jesus enjoyed, by and large, high approval ratings – except in Nazareth, His home town, where familiarity with the boy bred contempt for the man – it was sunshine and roses all the way.

But Galilee was not to be where the climax of Jesus ministry unfolded. That had to be in Jerusalem, that teeming and tense city, where the Temple was, where the focus of the religious life of God’s people was, and as Jesus set His face toward the city, so the chill set in under the looming shadow of the cross. Ministry to some people, in some places, at some times, was one thing. Redemption, of all people, for all time, was the true goal.

For this purpose Christ was revealed, to destroy all the works of the devil. [1 John 3.8] Throughout the Old Testament, the people had brought sacrifices to their weekly act of worship – and, then as now, for many it was just that, an “act” – in order to fend off the wrath of God till next week. That was never God’s original plan, and was never good enough, for God’s people – but that’s a whole story for another day.

Suffice to say for the moment that Jesus came to make that sacrifice complete and universal, to set all people free, for all time, from all sin, and from all its consequences – guilt, disease, stress etc – past, present and future. God’s ultimate purpose for Jesus was to BE the sacrifice that released eternal redemption for the world.

Now, this morning, we’re going to dig quite deep – and if I’m going too fast for you, do NOT be embarrassed to ask me to stop and go back over something. This is one of the most important messages you will ever hear, so don’t miss any of it. It will go on the church website shortly to print off if you need it, OK?

In Genesis, we read that God made a covenant with Abraham, that he would become the father of many nations, that his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky, yet at that time Abraham was old enough for a free TV licence and his wife Sarah for a bus pass. And by the time their son Isaac came along, Abraham qualified for a telegram from the Queen. Abraham’s faith would surely be tested to breaking point already.

Yet in Genesis 22, we find Abraham instructed by God to take this long-awaited son and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. Now you or I, at that point, might have been sorely tempted to tell God : Look mate, I’ve had enough playing games. This is going too far. Forget it. But Abraham didn’t. So great was his faith that he knew, deep down, that if he went along with this bizarre command, God would work it out OK.

So, even as Abraham took everything he needed for the sacrifice, he had faith to say to the household servants : Hold on to the donkeys, lads. My son and I are going up the hill to worship … and WE will be back. Do you hear that note of faith in there? Not – I will be back, but WE will be back. God had promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and Isaac was the fruit of that promise. Abraham had faith that God could not and would not lie, and somehow God HAD to find a way to save Isaac.

But God kept Abraham hanging on till the very last moment. Just as he was about to kill Isaac, God spoke : OK, Abraham. Stop right now. Don’t touch Isaac. I can see how faithful and obedient you are. I will supply the sacrifice. Abraham turned round, and there was a lamb caught on a bit of wood. He sacrificed the lamb on that hill, Mount Moriah, which was later known as Calvary. When Jesus went to Calvary, He became that sacrificial lamb, to save – not just Abraham’s one descendant at that time, Isaac, but all his descendants, more numerous than the stars in the sky.

The Good Shepherd became the sacrificial lamb. And the results of that sacrifice reach so much further than most of us have ever recognised. For every sin ever committed, from the Holocaust to a parking ticket, full forgiveness was released at the cross by the grace of God. There is nothing you have ever done, or said, or thought, or failed to do, that is beyond the forgiveness of Christ poured out on the world at Calvary.

If Galilee saw Jesus fulfil Isaiah 61, Calvary saw him fulfil Isaiah 53 :

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.

Because the Good Shepherd became the sacrificial Lamb for the sake of His flock, you and I may be 110% certain that ALL [not just some, not just the little ones, but ALL] our sins HAVE BEEN – not might be, or will be, but have been – forgiven … AND … ALL [not just some, but ALL] our illnesses and diseases HAVE BEEN – not might be, or will be, but have been – healed. That is what Isaiah prophesied, and Matthew 8.17 and 1 Peter 2.24 both confirm that prophesy to be fulfilled in Jesus. Is that clear?

To whom does this wonderful redeeming power of the Lamb who was slain belong? Potentially, to the whole world. That’s what the Bible teaches. 1 John 2.2 : Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 Peter 3.18 : Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 2 Peter 3.9 : God does not want anyone to be lost, but he wants all people to change their hearts and lives. But does that mean all ARE saved? Sadly, no.

God in Christ has done absolutely everything to provide life, in abundance, to the full, till it overflows, for everyone who breathes, as a gift, by His grace. Ephesians 2.8f : God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this ; it is a gift from God. But God’s gift must be appropriated by faith : faith, as we have already seen, being the hallmark of Abraham. Trusting God, not our circumstances.

Galatians 3.13f : Christ took away the curse the law put on us. He changed places with us and put himself under that curse. It is written in the Scriptures, “Anyone whose body is hung on a tree is cursed.” Christ did this so that God’s blessing promised to Abraham might come through Jesus Christ to those who are not Jews. Jesus died so that by our believing we could receive the Spirit that God promised. Believe and receive. That’s it.

It really is as simple as that. Sometimes people want to make this whole Christianity thing so complicated and so airy-fairy and angst-ridden. It’s not. Jesus died to set you free from the curse of human disobedience. The way you move out of curse and into blessing is to believe in Jesus and receive from Him by faith. And as you walk out day by day that life, in abundance, to the full, till it overflows, you witness to those others spoken of in 1 John 2.2 who as yet haven’t believed and received and so are still under the curse. That is why we are here, to reach out to the lost sheep here and now.

The daughter of Jairus was ill with a virus …

Sunday 15 August 2010 :    Matthew 9 : 18-26

Today, once again, we find Jesus conducting a ministry of healing, and if you wonder why I put such an emphasis from the pulpit on the importance of healing, it is for one reason only – simply because Jesus put such an emphasis on healing as He carried out His ministry here on earth. When Jesus brought the gift of renewed life and health and strength to the body for a time, it was a sign and a promise of His ultimate purpose to bring renewed life and health and strength to the inner being for eternity.

Acts 10.38 says : Jesus of Nazareth went around doing good, healing the sick. Today we will see this healing ministry of Jesus kicked up to another level in this remarkable double-header. Once more, Matthew exercises great economy of words to record a day’s work that was already very well known throughout the whole church, and is related in far greater detail in Mark 5 : 21-43. Most of us are familiar with these events.

Jesus is approached by a man called Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue – the parish minister, if you like – who has a major crisis at home. Stop right there. Before we even start to look at the actual incident, let’s consider Jairus himself. Can you imagine how much courage it took for a man in his position, a pillar of the religious establishment, to go to Jesus – who was anything but the religious establishment’s cup of tea – and ask Jesus to intervene miraculously to save his daughter’s life?

Whatever Jesus did for the wee girl, Jairus could very easily find himself hauled before the equivalent of Presbytery or the General Assembly and turfed out on his ear for this. But Jairus, unlike so many of his colleagues and contemporaries, was able to see the wood for the trees. He’s been paying attention to what Jesus has been up to, and has done so with an open mind, not prejudiced against this joiner from Galilee who does things differently. Jairus isn’t judging the book by its cover.

In John 10, Jesus has one of His many run-ins with the temple authorities and it’s very interesting to see how He challenges them. “The miracles I do in my Father’s Name speak for me, but you don’t believe. Don’t believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do, even if you don’t want to believe in me, at least believe the miracles”.

Jesus offers what He does, as an accurate reflection of His Father’s nature and purpose, as evidence of His identity. So many of the Jewish leaders didn’t want to know because He wasn’t “one of them”. Jairus, however, at great risk to his own reputation, did what Jesus called for, and he was about to receive the fruit of his faith. And how!

The situation he’s in is grave. Literally. His daughter has died. Matthew comes straight out with that, no beating about the bush. Mark has it that her life was in the balance, and that her death occurred as Jesus was on his way to the house. Whatever way you shake it, this is a case of the dead being raised. There aren’t many such incidents, even in the life of Jesus. You could count them on the fingers of one hand. Hundreds, if not thousands, of healings, but only a handful of cases of the dead being raised to life.

We may wonder why this is, but let’s think it through. If you or I die in faith, would we want to come back from the glory of heaven to this life? I wouldn’t want to come back unless the Lord Himself told me to do so and use the experience to encourage and witness to others. One well-known preacher, Creflo Dollar, was in a horrific car crash. The Lord told him “not time yet, too much unfinished business” and he emerged from that wreck, miraculously, and is carrying on a ministry all the more powerful.

On the few occasions when Jesus raises people from the dead, it’s out of compassion for the families – a young girl here ; a young man at Nain whose mother depended on him as breadwiiner ; and Lazarus, a personal friend whose sisters, hostesses to Jesus and the disciples, were beside themselves with grief. Not for nothing does Jesus say He does only what He sees His Father doing – He would carefully check out with His Father whether or not each individual should be raised again, or left in eternal glory.

So what, you ask, surely this doesn’t happen today. Not often, that’s for sure, especially in societies like ours where people are reluctant to acknowledge any sort of miraculous activity from God, and the medical community are very nervous about authenticating a raising from the dead, because of potentially alarming repercussions for law suits etc.

One minister we partner with, Andrew Wommack, based in Colorado, tells of his son being raised after several hours out of it, and there were about 30 or so medically certified cases associated with the Lakeland revival in 2008. It’s not unheard of, but not something we see every day of the week or advertise in the church notice board, OK?

Anyway, back to Jairus and his daughter, and see how simple and direct his request to Jesus is. “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand upon her and she will live”. Now that is a model of intercessory prayer. State the problem, in as few words as practical, and then profess the faith required to solve that problem.

No Brownie points are awarded, no extra credit given, for going all round the three lochs before coming to the point. Eloquence is no substitute for humility and simple trust. God doesn’t need a full running commentary, in flowery pious phrases, on what’s going on, nor does He need buttered up to deal with it. God knows what’s going on, and how He’s going to handle it. He knows, but He wants to be sure you know, and that that you are in agreement with what His word says about your situation.

If – as we’re dealing with today – it’s a physical health issue, what God is listening for is your word of faith in what He has done in Jesus, as in 1 Peter 2.24. True faith is agreeing with God that, whatever hole we’re in, whatever mess we’ve made, whatever crisis we’re in the midst of, He is bigger and stronger and more powerful than that problem. Not only that, but God has already dealt with that problem through the atonement of Jesus Christ, and we’re not begging for a special favour, we’re going to the grace autobank to draw upon what the Bible says Jesus has already done for us.

Jairus didn’t have a New Testament in his hands like we do, but even on his relatively less knowledge of Jesus, he was very clear in his own mind that Jesus could do the job. That’s faith, slap bang in the middle of horrible circumstances. But his faith was soon to be put to a very severe test. There was an unscheduled diversion. As Jesus is making his way to Jairus’ home, suddenly this woman turns up with a problem of her own.

And Jesus stops to deal with it. Again, if you check Mark’s parallel version, you’ll see it was quite a little saga. The woman comes up behind Jesus in the midst of a crowd and touches the hem of his coat. Jesus stops, turns round, and demands to know who touched him. The disciples are anxious, impatient, trying to shoo Jesus on to this urgent appointment, but he’s having none of it. There’s another job to be done first.

We’ll think of the woman in a minute, but just consider what must have been going on in the mind of Jairus. Time is not on his side. Every minute Jesus spends dealing with someone or something else is a minute not devoted to dealing with the parlous plight of his daughter. But again Jairus gives us an object lesson in dealing with delay.

He kept his faith solid, and kept his trap shut. It would have been so easy for Jairus to have opened his mouth and stuck his foot right in it by speaking a negative confession. Our words are important. Romans 10.10 : It is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Proverbs 18.21 : The tongue has the power of life and death and we will eat the fruit thereof.

It is just so in line with human nature, when things are going wrong, to complain to people about it, and because you’re talking about it, you think about it, and because you keep thinking about it, you talk some more, and so you get into a tailspin of unbelief and doubt and just generally hinder God’s plan. In the trade, we say you get “hung by the tongue”. Far better to keep talking about the promises of God’s Word, and because you’re talking about them, you think about them, and because you’re thinking of God’s Word, you speak more Word, end you encourage and build yourself up in faith.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect while Jesus was busy ministering to this lady with the long-standing blood loss, Jairus was giving himself a good talking to, reminding himself over and over again why he had approached Jesus, and keeping his faith high. While we’re at it, this lady had some faith too. The bald outline of the story doesn’t make it clear, but in Jewish society, her health problem made her ritually unclean and subject to harsh disciplinary action – like stoning to death – if she mixed with a crowd.

The woman also was putting everything on the line because she had faith in Jesus. She, in fact, was risking her neck going out there, crawling on her hands and knees through this mass of people, for just one touch of the Lord’s coat. She had a determination to receive from God, and to do what it took to receive it. She wasn’t seeking attention for herself – but she knew exactly what she needed, she was humble, and she was sure – she didn’t need to be up on stage giving her testimony before the TV cameras in order to be healed, quietly would have been enough for her – but not, however, for Jesus.

Jesus knew power had gone forth from him, but He was determined to find out who it was that touched Him because there was more than just a medical issue at stake here. There was someone who genuinely believed in Him, but who was imprisoned by the attitudes and traditions of others. For this person to enjoy shalom, the social exclusion factor had to be dealt with as well. He would not let the matter go till this woman was willing to stand up, stand tall, and be counted. She went away from that encounter healed in every way it is possible to be healed. Where someone is ready to give it all to Jesus, Jesus gives it all back – there are never any half-measures with our Saviour.

And for the patient, trusting Jairus, this incident – far from being a distraction – turned out to be an encouragement. He was reassured to see, once again, what Jesus could do, and by the time he got home I am convinced Jairus was completely at peace, totally unmoved by all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I can just see it – everyone else in the village clad all in black and red-eyed with grief, and Jairus large as life, full of the joys, singing “Shout to the Lord” or whatever his favourite praise song was.

And do you see what Jesus did when he went in to the house? He cleared out all those who were boo-hooing and howling, indulging in bouts of doubt, unbelief and negative thinking, and only those who believed in Him were allowed anywhere near that prayer time with the wee girl. A bit of advice. If you ever need someone to pray with you, or for you, make sure it’s someone who truly believes what the Word says!

You know the people who always see the worst and talk the worst case scenario. Don’t let them anywhere near you for prayer, because their negative worldly mindset of doubt and unbelief will just get in the way. Thank you for your kind offer, but no thank you. Make sure you surround yourself with prayer partners who will walk in agreement with you on God’s promises. Matthew 18.19 : If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, says Jesus, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

Now that is a heavy-duty industrial promise for believers. Two of us standing firm on a word from God in the Name of Jesus – sorted! It’s called the prayer of agreement : not one believer and one praying vacuous hot air that they don’t believe, but two believers identifying a promise in the Word and holding firm to it, whatever – and your story will have a happy ending too, just like Jairus, who had the pleasure of taking his daughter for the equivalent of a Happy Meal at McDonald’s that night. And I bet it tasted good!

Christ-righteous, not self-righteous

Sunday 8 August 2010 : Matthew 9 : 9-17

Last time we saw that  Jesus’ choice of Matthew as an apostle sparked off quite a row with the Temple bigwigs and brought to the surface the dangers of self-righteousness, a nasty spiritual disease which leads us to take upon ourselves, and our own good deeds, the responsibility for our standing before God. Self-righteousness causes us, if asked what makes us think God will let us into heaven, to point to our church membership, our respectable lifestyle, our generosity to good causes, and so on ; rather than point to Jesus, who – the Bible says – carried our sins in His body to the cross that we might die to sin and live for righteousness, and by whose wounds we are healed.

Preaching in the city of Pisidian Antioch, Paul declared : We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God—something the law of Moses could never do. That’s Acts 13.38f, and it’s wonderful news, except for those who are trapped in self-righteousness.

Paul again, writing to the church in Rome about God’s salvation plan : if he chooses us by grace, it is not for the things we have done. If we could be made God’s people by what we did, God’s gift of grace would not really be a gift. That’s in Romans 11.5-7. And finally Paul to the church in Ephesus : Ephesians 2.8f : God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this ; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

In other words, we have a clear, stark, mutually exclusive choice – self-righteousness or God’s righteousness in Christ. And it’s obvious to us all which is better, but sadly it’s also obvious that many of us try to cover our options by having a bit of both, claiming faith in the cross of Christ but – just in case that’s not enough – being anxious to bank a few good deeds as well as back-up. That’s the wrong way round.

Good deeds and right living are meant to be the evidence of our personal relationship with Jesus, not the price we have to pay to buy that relationship. If we try to make ourselves, and our goody-goody things, a link in the chain of salvation, then we need to remember the old axiom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And when we get to the pearly gates we want it to be Jesus meeting us and saying : Welcome, my good and faithful servant ;  not Anne Robinson! Get my drift?

Moving on … Jesus is questioned about fasting. Now, I may be bang out of order here, but I have a suspicion that fasting doesn’t form a regular part of our spiritual discipline for most of us. Going without food for days on end is not something we practise on a regular basis – correct? It has its place, of that I have no doubt, but only as a private and voluntary act of devotion to, and concentration upon, the Lord – and then, I suggest, only on His specific direction. Actually, it probably wouldn’t do most of us any harm to fast to some extent, from the point of view of knocking our selfish flesh into shape, but to fast or not to fast, and how, and when, isn’t the real issue Jesus addresses here.

It’s not the act of fasting itself but the attitude behind it that’s at stake. In Luke 18.12, the so-called prayer of the Pharisee, although it looks more like a press release from a spin doctor to impress an audience, than a prayer from the heart to touch base with God who is spirit, ticks the box of dutifully fasting twice a week. In those days, Adam Clarke notes in his commentary, people fasted in order to have lucky dreams, to obtain the interpretation of a dream, or to avert the evil import of a dream. They also fasted often, in order to obtain the things they wished for.

In all these things, the purpose of the fast was not so much to sharpen up any awareness of the presence of God as to be used as a bargaining chip to twist God’s arm. Fasting was also sometimes a bit of a pantomime, with theatrical make-up applied to the face to create an air of mourning, a public pity party to demonstrate sorrow for human sin – but, dare I say, without any great conviction that the tendency to sin will change any time soon? In Matthew 6.16-18, Jesus has dismissed that sort of nonsense as hypocrisy.

Here again, Jesus trains his guns on this sham sorrow. OK, John the Baptist’s disciples have an excuse – John’s busted, languishing in a dungeon, waiting for the chop – and as far as the Pharisees and their cronies are concerned, most of them were imprisoned by their traditions and just followed them without thinking about it. But what had the 12 got to be sorry about? They were slap-bang in the middle of the greatest time of their lives – day by day fellowship with the Son of God, seeing and hearing and being part of amazing things that Jesus was doing. The roller-coasters at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers had nothing on the thrills of those three years of Jesus’ ministry.

But the time to be sad was on its way. The three years would soon be up. Gethesemane, Judas, Herod and Pilate, Calvary and a borrowed grave would crash in on them almost before they knew it, and then would be time to fast and pray, and mean it – but, even then, the mourning season would be very short, quickly overtaken by a joy that no-one and nothing could ever take away. The acute agony of Friday, the dark desolation of Saturday, swept aside by the pure delight and exaltation of Sunday.

And that’s the wallpaper, if you like, behind the bad-hair days in our own lives. Every one of us knows what it’s like to go through spells when everything we touch seems to turn to dross, when the only light at the end of the tunnel is the next train bearing down on us, when the Biblical promises of health and prosperity of spirit, soul and body for us and for our loved ones seem so far from coming to pass. Anyone know about that?

But even when the fur and hair is flying, resurrection power is at work. God is working behind the scenes, and shifting the scenes. Angels are hard at work, out of sight, paving the path for our deliverance. It’s Friday, but – praise God – Sunday’s coming. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome : in all things, God is working for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose [Romans 8.28]. Whatever you’re going through at the moment – bad news from the doctor, the bank, your employer, a member of the family, whatever – it’s not over till it’s over.

God has the last word over His children, and it’s a Word of blessing. The proverbial cheque is in the post, with a heavenly postmark, and it will arrive, bang on time. This is no time for sorrowing or mourning, no time for self-pity, resentment or recrimination. This is the time to dig deep into the wonderful promises God has made to you, to give thanks for His every touch on your life, to take up the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit which is His Word. God will not let you down. I believe Kenneth Hagin used to say : Keep standing, therefore, till you receive what you’re standing there for.

Jesus then proceeds to a lesson in home economics. Don’t patch your trousers with a bit of material that hasn’t shrunk into shape, or the whole thing will fall apart, and don’t put new wine into old wineskins, or they’ll burst and you’ll lose the lot. This is a twin saying, two parallel expressions of the same truth, and I’m sure you’ll cut me a bit of slack when I say that I know nowt about repairing clothes but a little bit about wine, so that’s the part I’m going to use to develop the point Jesus is making.

Those of us who were around the edges of the big explosion of Holy Spirit renewal in the 1980’s would have heard this text adduced to teach people to come out of their existing churches and start new ones. The traditional denominational churches were the old wineskins. They were tired and stiff and brittle, and if you tried to introduce new teaching or new worship, it would be a disaster. The church would split, and the bitter fallout would discourage and destroy the new-found faith of those recently converted.

I can understand why that was taught, and at least in those days there was empirical evidence to back up that teaching, but I don’t honestly think it’s what Jesus meant when He said it. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but it’s interesting that so many of the new fellowships and house churches have been and gone over the last quarter of a century, but the Church of Scotland is still here. Let me qualify that a bit.

Where congregations have welcomed this time of refreshing by the Holy Spirit, where there’s been a readiness to turn to God’s Word, to embrace new songs and new ways of worship that put Jesus first, where congregations have been willing to place on the altar everything but the truth of God’s Word, there has been growth. Traditional churches that resist change in style, but water down the message, are dying, and good riddance.

There are those so desperate to be inclusive, to avoid offence, to say nothing that might rock the boat, to survive as an organisation, that they are prepared to do so at all costs – including the sacrifice of theological integrity. If the Word offend thee, ignore it. If the Holy Spirit offend thee, repress Him. God is not glorified in that, and the time is not far off when these false shepherds will be removed and replaced by men and women who honour God, who preach His Word, who move in His Spirit, who share His heart.

And God’s heart is one of unconditional love and grace, of seeing His children walk in His will and purpose, enjoying His blessing. God’s heart is that His children prosper and enjoy health in every way as we put our faith 100% in Jesus, committed to love Him, follow Him, and carry on the ministry He left to us when He returned to Heaven.

The real thrust of this teaching on wine and wineskins is this. We cannot possibly be all that Father God wants us to be if we’re half in the Word and half in the world. There is no way we can realise the full potential God placed within us at our birth, and wants to nurture via the Word and harvest via the Spirit, if we won’t make that full commitment.

There is no way He will be able to work through us as fully as He has planned to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bring Good News to the poor, or to love our neighbour, if we’re not prepared to let Him take charge of every aspect of our lives. The glorious new wine of life in the Holy Spirit just won’t go into a hard, inflexible old wineskin that says – Sunday morning is God’s, fine, but how I conduct myself at work, or behind closed doors with my family, or what I watch on TV, or the internet websites I look at, or what I do with my money – that’s my private business, and I’m keeping it that way.

That’s not going to work. The new life in the Holy Spirit, characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control ; working itself out in supernatural gifts, talents, abilities, ministries ; characterised by wholeness in every aspect of our being, nothing missing, nothing broken – all that IS God’s will for you. Make no mistake about that. The Bible teaches that from beginning to end. Jesus died to win it back for you out of the clutches of the thief and liar called the devil.

All that is out there. That is the new wine. But you and I need to look at the wineskin – namely, our way of thinking. If we still think as the world thinks, whether it’s the homespun homilies our granny taught us, what the Sunday Post, or the Guardian, or the Discovery Channel, or the government, or the Scottish Executive, or even Life & Work are telling us to think, our wineskin is likely to burst and God’s blessing will simply get spilled all over the floor. For those stuck in the world’s way of thinking, what will be will be, what’s for you won’t go past you, blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed, look after No.1, survival of the fittest, Jesus died in vain.

But for those willing to trade in that dud old wineskin, that trashy way of thinking, and submit to God’s way of thinking as revealed in His Word, not even the sky is the limit. The choice is ours. Let’s choose wisely – believe and receive God’s Son as Saviour and Lord, believe and receive God’s promises for this life and the next, believe and receive God’s plan and purpose for a life that make a difference for good.

And don’t ever let anyone, whoever they are, or think they are, talk you out of His glorious destiny for you. Now is the time for new wine, new wineskins.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I don’t care

Sunday 1 August 2010 : Matthew 9 : 9-17

No unauthorised structural alterations to houses today, no mass suicide of farm animals, just Jesus continuing in his resolute path of doing what was right, rather than what was popular or expedient. We see him add a new disciple to the team – Matthew. It’s hard for us to appreciate just how offensive this would have been for many devout Jews in 1st century Palestine. The job of the tax collector was to extract money from the faithful for the benefit of the infidel, the despised pagan occupation force of the Roman Empire.

It was bad enough for a heathen to do that, but a Jew? That was treason. That was fund-raising for the devil. Matthew would be the target of all sorts of abuse, perhaps physical as well as verbal, and certainly he would not feature in the guest list of any respectable Jewish household. And as for this Jesus, whom many people thought – as it happened, incorrectly – might be the man to lead a holy war against Rome, for Jesus to welcome into his inner circle the traitorous taxman Matthew was outrageous.

This choice by Jesus would have put a serious dent in his approval ratings, but Jesus could not care less. He saw past the labels and the limitations that people hung like an albatross round the necks of others, to the real person inside. Jesus saw past the insults of the crowd and the outward circumstances to the untouched potential inside Matthew, and this gospel we’re studying is one fruit of that decision of Jesus that day.

Perhaps Jesus saw that Matthew – unlike many of his colleagues – didn’t trouser more than his fair share of the money but played it by the book. Perhaps Jesus saw that Matthew managed to treat hostile clients with calm respect even though they insulted, maybe even assaulted, him. Perhaps Matthew was in Jesus’ mind when He taught that those who are faithful in small things set themselves up to be trusted with bigger things.

We are not told why Jesus chose Matthew, but one thing we can say. Jesus paid more attention to Matthew’s inner heart than his outer circumstances. Jesus valued Matthew for who and what he truly was, an individual made in the likeness of God – not for what the religious bigwigs said about him based solely on what he did for a living.

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to dismiss another human being as unworthy of our concern because of one aspect of that person’s life – the colour of their skin, their ethnic origin, their accent, what school they went to, what foot they kick with, what job they do, what their marital status is, what clothes they wear, what church they do or do not go to, what social circle they do or not belong to, they drink or they don’t drink, and so on.

Or we make one thing that person did, one time – and very rarely is it a positive thing – become the definition of their whole life. One foolish act 20 years ago, and the minute that person’s name is mentioned, all these years later, we have this instant association – oh, you mean that thief, that liar, that cheat, or whatever it may be. Here is a newsflash. That wasn’t how Jesus worked then, and it’s not how Jesus works now. You want one more newsflash? We better be very glad it’s not how Jesus deals with us.

Each of us commits sin, one way or another, but Jesus doesn’t immediately dismiss us as sinners because of it. He continues to love us. Nothing we can ever do, or not do, can make him love us one little bit less, or one little bit more. When Jesus went to the cross 2,000 years ago, forgiveness was purchased for ALL sins, past, present and future ; ALL sins, big ones and little ones. Forgiveness is a done deal. And aren’t we grateful!

Now, in saying that, am I suggesting that sin is no big deal, that we can do whatever we like because it’s been forgiven anyway, so it doesn’t matter? Actually, Paul was so strong in his preaching of the grace of God released through the cross of Christ that he was accused, all the time, of teaching that sin didn’t matter. And, I suppose, in one sense it’s true that a Christian could, theoretically, go on sinning and not worry about it, because it’s already been forgiven – but I think that would be a very unhappy Christian.

If we truly love Jesus, we wouldn’t dream of deliberately going on doing the selfish and harmful things that we know cost Him so dearly at the cross. And when we do slip up, if we truly love Jesus, we want to go to Him as soon as we get back to our senses and say : Lord, I am so sorry for letting you down like that. Please help me to walk in grace and faith so I can be a better and more faithful witness to you in future.

Knowingly disobeying God is daft, because it steals our peace and our joy. It robs us of our confidence in God’s protection. It makes us feel unworthy of God’s blessing. We’ll find it hard to receive healing when we’re in a place we know we shouldn’t be – please note, NOT because God’s heart and mind toward us has changed one little bit. When God called us, our lives were a mess and it didn’t stop Him loving and blessing us then.

What’s changed, when we’re intentionally body-swerving God’s best for us, is our heart and mind toward Him – and the devil will exploit that mercilessly. He’ll jump on us like bluebottles on roadkill and hammer us with guilt and condemnation. He’ll tell us we’re failures, frauds and freaks. He’ll tell us that God won’t love us and can’t use us, that we’ve really blown it this time. Now all that is a complete load of garbage, but it’s what happens when we wilfully ignore God’s Word. It won’t undermine God’s love, God’s grace, God’s will, God’s purpose, but will undermine our faith to receive it.

So what if, today, we know – deep down – we’re walking in disobedience to God, and it’s ripping us up inside? Remember Jesus went out and chose Matthew, a collaborator with the Roman Empire. Remember the risen Jesus chose Paul, a vicious persecutor of the early church. Remember Jesus doesn’t look disapprovingly at your past. He looks enthusiastically at your future – even if you’re getting on a bit. Moses didn’t start his ministry till he was 80. And Abraham and Sarah? We won’t even go there!

It’s never too late to change direction. It’s never too late to tune into God’s plan for our lives. It’s never too late to renew our minds from the Word of God, to change our way of thinking, and so change our destination. Let’s have the guts to realise that if we’re out of step with God, one of us needs to change, and it’s not going to be God! Amen?

But I think we also need to remember that, just as Jesus gladly forgives and forgets our misdeeds, so in the same way He wants us to cut others some slack as well. In fact, our willingness to see past someone’s past and give them grace is a very powerful sign and witness of real commitment to the Kingdom of God. Any fool can be religious, but if it doesn’t work itself out in a better to attitude to other people, it’s as phoney as a £3 note.

In v.13 Jesus reminds His impeccably religious audience of an Old Testament teaching, Hosea 6.6, that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice. In many ways, what Jesus was proclaiming, they should already have known. The Old Testament makes it clear that a form of piety with no substance in terms of extending love, mercy and compassion to others, was deeply offensive to God. Why? Because phonies, hypocrites, make-believe believers, damage God’s reputation and are a turn-off to those He wants to save.

Listen to the self-righteous response of the Pharisees when Jesus went round for pie and beans at Matthew’s house, and all sorts turned up to join him. The Pharisees twisted on about this man eating with tax-collectors and sinners. Hang on – Jesus came with a call and a mission from God to save the world! How could He possibly do that, how could He possibly reach out to the lost and hopeless, if He avoided them like the plague?

In the gospels we quite regularly find Jesus hitting the hut, or I’m lovin’ it, with the sort of people the Pharisees would rather eat thistles than be seen within 100 yards of. Jesus the Good Shepherd actively went out to find the lost sheep. Do we take a similarly generous attitude to people that are different, people that are now where, perhaps, we were maybe 10, 20 years ago? Or do we stick on safe, unchallenging ground, with birds of a like-minded religious feather? If so, how can we fulfil the Great Commission?

Jesus memorably replied to the Pharisees : Listen, chums, it’s not the healthy that turn up at the doctor’s surgery – it’s those who are sick. I think the implication of that was a bit more subtle. Underlying it was the spiritual truth, still totally valid today, that there is no way He can help people who refuses to recognise that they have a problem. I think Jesus must, even now, weep when He sees so many people – even, in too many cases, church people – so much in denial of their spiritual disorder.

People who are terrified to confront what the real live Jesus is saying to them today, because they’ve built this respectable religious façade, active in church and community, and are hiding from reality behind it. Deep down, they know there’s more, but to go for it and embrace the fullness of Christ’s love and power in their lives might cost them ; might make people think they’re wacky ; might shatter the self-image they’ve carefully constructed for themselves. If I let Jesus in, I might end up raising my hands in worship, dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues, healing the sick. Perish forbid!

If that scenario comes uncomfortably close to where you are today, can I encourage you by saying you’re not the only one here who knows what that’s like. Some of us have already fought that battle, and realised it was one we were better to lose and let Jesus win – and, you know something, we haven’t grown three heads. Yet, anyway!

Sadly, the most vitriolic attacks against people who are 100% out there for Jesus, and who stand firm on the power of His Word, not the nonsense of the world, whether they be internationally famous TV preachers, or ordinary folks in ordinary wee churches who have totally sold out to Jesus, don’t usually come from total heathens – they couldn’t care less one way or another – but from people who claim to be Christians.

Claim to be Christians, and may indeed be very respected and prominent figures within the church, but are actually embarrassed and offended that these other people have a joy and a peace and an anointing that’s foreign to them ; shocked and horrified that people are being healed from cancer, or miraculously delivered from mountains of debt,  that dozens or hundreds are making public commitment to Jesus in a single day.

But not in their church, please. Not in their beautiful, orderly, dignified, respectable church – therefore all this born-again, spirit-filled, word-faith stuff must be wrong, must be of the devil – oh no, wait a minute, we don’t believe there’s a devil, ah well, it must be a sign of psychological disturbance. Can’t have the lame made to walk, and leave redundant wheelchairs all over the sanctuary. Can’t have demons getting cast out in the middle of the service – too noisy, too messy, disturbs the peace. These custodians of decency and order wouldn’t have enjoyed Jesus doing pulpit supply, would they?

Can I offer a bit of gratuitous advice to those who worry what other people will think of them if they go all-out for Jesus? Don’t rent space in your brain to what they might say. Kenneth Copeland, still a powerhouse for the Lord at 73, is often asked what he thinks abut the negative stuff churned out about him, sometimes in the secular press, more often by so-called evangelicals who seem to have lost the love aspect somewhere.

Ken’s response is exemplary : I don’t care. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I don’t care. That’s his attitude to noises off, to sniping from the sidelines, to those who have no evidence of blessing or anointing or Holy Spirit power in their own lives, their own ministries, their own churches, and are envious of what they see in those who have what they don’t have – but they’re not willing to pay the price to receive it.

If you’re walking in God’s plan for your life, if you’re enjoying God’s best in your life, if you’re exemplifying prosperity and health of spirit, soul and body, if you’re passing on God’s love freely and gladly to others, what does it matter what anyone else thinks or says? Your response should be, like Kenneth Copeland :  I don’t care. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I don’t care. If your motormouth critics have anything more substantial than candy floss between their ears, the penny will eventually drop that you’re doing something right, and they’re not – and they’ll want to know more about it.

Well, I had intended to get a bit further this morning, but we’ll leave it there for today and come back to this next week. Don’t miss the next exciting instalment!

Ale & Teviot Church

Scottish Charity No. SC 016457

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