Ale & Teviot United Church

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Familiarity may breed unbelief

7 November 2010 : Matthew 11 : 20-30

The Jesus we meet today is not chuffed at the reception He has had around Galilee, and He is not backward in coming forward as to what He thinks about it. What exactly has been going on? Basically, the people Jesus has poured out His heart to, the people in whose midst He has taught so faithfully the life-changing gospel message, and has so freely healed the sick and performed signs and wonders, don’t want to know.

It’s as if there’s a great big sign round their necks – DO NOT DISTURB. The mindset of the people of Galilee, Jesus’ own home turf, was : I’m comfortable just how I am. Don’t ask me to change. I’m content with what I believe. Don’t ask me to think.

They would insist, with some indignation, that of course they believed in God. After all they were members of the synagogue. They went, they paid their tithes, they did their religious bit. But that religious observance never really went beyond a superficial level. They weren’t truly open to revelation. Their minds were as closed as a railway that Beeching got his hands on, their hearts as hard as last month’s Gregg’s pie.

How do we know this? Because the Son of God was right there in amongst them, living in their midst, walking up and down their streets, fulfilling the prophecies set out in the scriptures they read so solemnly every Sabbath day, and doing so out in the open for all to see and hear. There was nothing Jesus ever said or did that could not be traced back to an Old Testament promise. All Jesus did was to bring to pass what God had said would happen, and the evidence was there in the scrolls read at worship.

Despite all that, despite the miracles happening to people they knew, on the streets of their own community, they did not believe. More precisely, they would not believe. The more Jesus proved who He was, by what He said and what He did, the more angry and resentful they became at Jesus for challenging their smug complacent attitude.

How ironic. These silly religious folks would beat themselves up and tie themselves in knots trying to do things and tick legalistic boxes in the vain hope of earning God’s approval by their own efforts – and all the time there was One right there, breathing the same air, shopping in the same market, walking down the same dusty street ; One whose name and family background they knew [or at least thought they did] ; One whose face and voice they recognised instantly ; One who, if they but accepted Him, would gladly, freely and unconditionally give them more than they ever dreamed of.

It must have broken the loving heart of Jesus to say what He said in this morning’s lesson about these communities He knew so well, about these people whose homes He as a self-employed builder and general craftsman, had worked in, whose furniture He had built with His own hands, the same hands that made the universe. Jesus never came to condemn or judge anyone. John 3.17 tells us : God did not send the Son into the world in order to judge (to reject, to condemn, to pass sentence on) the world, but that the world might find salvation and be made safe and sound through Him.
I want to you to note carefully two very important things I’m about to say. One. God never excludes anyone from the circle of His love and His saving power. 2 Peter 3.9 says : God is patient with you. He does not want anyone to be lost, but he wants all people to change their hearts and lives.1 John 2.2 : Jesus died in our place to take away our sins, and not only our sins but the sins of all people. 2 Corinthians 5.19 : God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.

Hebrews 9.12 : Christ entered the Most Holy Place once and for all. His sacrifice was his own blood, and by it he set us free from sin forever. Is anyone here in any doubt whatsoever, even from just those four scriptures, that the declared and unmistakable will and purpose of God is to reach out to and embrace with His forgiving, reconciling healing life-giving love every single human being who has ever drawn breath? That is the plain and simple message of the Word of God and you’d need the spin-doctor from hell to get you to misunderstand it. Point one, God never rejects anyone.

But – point two. Many people reject God. Jesus Himself acknowledged this to be the case, even as He prepared to make the sacrifice for all sin for all people for all time. Jesus remarks on this with bitter disappointment in Matthew 7 : You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to destruction is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to true life. Only a few people find that road.

Here’s the situation. God wants everyone to enjoy a wonderful life, a life without end, a life spent in fellowship with Himself, secure in the knowledge that we enjoy His love and blessing. Not only does God want it, but God has paid the price to make that new life freely and universally available, through Jesus dying on the cross to pay for our stupidity and selfishness and to break the curses attached to human disobedience.

Sounds good. Sounds brilliant. But, sad to say, most people in Galilee and Jerusalem 2,000 years ago – and, I dare to suggest, most people in the Scottish Borders now – seem to have chosen not to take up that option. Why? One word – pride. You see, life as God intends for us, life as Jesus has purchased for us, comes only one way, and that is total submission to the Lordship of Jesus. And that is the choker for many of us.

At a certain age, we became church members. It was what you did at that age, a rite of passage. Maybe we were told that we had to join the club to get married in the church, to have our children christened in the church, to gain our get-out-of-hell-free card.

Maybe we were told that it was the done thing to turn up regularly enough to keep our names on the church roll, stick some money in the plate often enough to make sure the place was still here when the time came for us to check out of this earthly life. Maybe we were given the idea that signing on the dotted line and paying our subscription now and again as fire insurance was all that was expected of us. Or maybe we did dip our toe at least a little deeper into the water. But not too far.
Maybe, if truth be told, we quite the enjoy the experience of coming to church on a fairly regular basis, meeting up with people we are comfortable with, going through an order of service we are comfortable with, belting out hymns we are familiar with, and in all this familiar comfort zone finding a sort of oasis from what can seem at times a pretty hostile and threatening outside world.

And if that’s where, in all honesty, some of us are at, all I would say – and I say it in genuine love and concern for you – is that God has so much more for you than you’re presently experiencing, that God wants you to enjoy the journey of life so much more, and experience so much more joy and peace, and exercise so much more power and authority, and make so much more of an impact for the Kingdom on those around you.

What God wants to pour out in you and through you really is all good, and I would encourage you today to raise your level of expectation. Jesus didn’t go through all He went through just so you could white-knuckle it till He comes for you, bounced around like a cork in an ocean storm, just as fear-filled and fatalistic in the face of economic recession, health problems or family issues as the atheist next door.

If you are not walking in total health and prosperity of spirit, soul and body ; if you are beset by anxiety or stress ; if you are renting space in your head to bitterness, anger, resentment, insecurity or inadequacy – you’re missing God’s best for you, which is a shame because the price of your deliverance was paid in full on the cross. But it will take regime change. Decide to ditch the mediocre struggling life you now have under your own steam, a mere existence you know isn’t really working. Bin it. Kill it off.

Then choose to enter into new life with Jesus in charge, Jesus who loves you so much that He gave His life for you, Jesus who is with you always and who will never let you go or let you down. That’s what Jesus called being “born again” – some people don’t like that phrase but it was Jesus who said it – then determine to grow up and mature.

Get into the Word of God on a regular basis and allow what God says to renew your mind. Lay aside, once and for all, any and all opinions that don’t completely agree with what God’s Word teaches ; any and all beliefs that don’t completely agree with what God’s Word teaches ; any and all emotions that don’t completely agree with what God’s Word teaches ; any and all attitudes toward other people or toward yourself that don’t completely agree with what God’s Word teaches.

Once you find yourself submitted to, and agreeing with, what God says about you in the New Testament, and for the true born-again believer it really is all good. Jesus has promised He will never lay unreasonable burdens upon you. Yes, He will encourage you to aim high, but He will also equip you to do it. He will call you to be generous and forgiving, but in His grace and strength. He will give you opportunities to witness to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues, but He will give you the words to say. Be smarter than the folks in Galilee. Don’t waste your life trying to exist by your own limited human ingenuity. Invest your life in Jesus, and you will blossom and bear fr

Guild dedication – grace and works doesn’t!

Sunday 31 October 2010 : Guild Dedication :
Galatians 3 : 6-14 & Matthew 11 : 11-19

Today’s message may turn everything you believe upside-down. I would go far as to say that, if you hear it correctly, you’ll either storm out of church mortally offended, or you’ll dance out of church, liberated for life. This next 15 minutes, then, should be interesting, one way or another.

We’re picking up where we left off a couple of weeks ago, with Jesus speaking about John the Baptist. Here Jesus pays tribute to him, that there has never been, throughout history, up to this moment, anyone greater than John. Really? What, his hearers must have thought, about Abraham, Moses, King David, Isaiah? How come this guy with the camel coat, the leather belt and the attitude, standing up to his knees in water, with dried honey and locust legs matted in his beard, qualified as greater than them?

Well, partly because men like Isaiah prophesied that he would come, and a prophet always points to someone greater than himself. Isaiah 40.3 looks forward to : A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. This certainly fits the bill for John’s ministry, as The One sent on to prepare the people for the coming of the long-promised Christ.

But also because, unlike all these great figures of Old Testament history, John would see with his own eyes, and hear with his own ears, the fulfilment of all that the Old Testament pointed to. Everything from Genesis to Malachi, in a sense, looks forward to Jesus, if only by showing, in some of the bloodier parts of Kings and Chronicles and things, how bereft of true revelation the people were before Jesus came.

Truly John was blessed, truly John was esteemed in the courts of heaven – but … and this is the bit that may very well fry your brain totally … however great John was, his standing is less than yours or mine, if we are born again. That IS what v.11 is saying! According to the lips of Jesus Himself, if you have given your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, you have a righteousness and an empowering that men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Isaiah, etc, could scarcely dream of.

Even John the Baptist did not have that anointing in fullest measure because it could only be released by the finished work of Jesus at Easter and Pentecost, first His death in our place on the cross to cancel the entire massive debt of human disobedience ; to endure the curse of being hung on a tree to redeem us from the curse of the law ; to forgive our every sin and to heal our every disease, and to reconcile us to Father God.

Then His resurrection from the dead, the first fruits of the resurrection of all humanity – which, for those who put our faith and trust in Him as Saviour and Lord means the resurrection to everlasting life of a whole new quality, starting now, to be enjoyed in abundance, to the full, till it overflows, as we make the choice to love God with all we have and all we are, and express that practically by loving our neighbour with the same measure of love we apply to ourselves – and that includes a decision, made not by feelings but by faith, to love our enemies. What a stand for Jesus THAT is!
Finally, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the church at Pentecost, without which discipleship would be but a pipe-dream. The Holy Spirit, the real personal presence of God in us, transforming our inner being from self-centred to God-centred, enabling us to walk daily in love by faith, whether we feel like it or not. Whether in the flesh we feel as happy as a dog let loose in a butcher’s shop, or as irritable as a wasp with a hangover, the Holy Spirit enables us to over-rule our flesh, and force it to shape up.

The Holy Spirit, the parting gift of Jesus to believers as He went home to His Dad in Heaven, brings God’s Word to life in our minds and hearts ; creates conviction within us as to who we truly are, God’s precious and much-loved kids ; takes root in our spirit and starts to bear fruit in our character – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control ; and – now we get controversial …

The Holy Spirit empowers us with charismatic gifts to get the job done – speaking in tongues, prophecy, supernatural knowledge, wisdom and discernment of good and evil, healing, miracles etc – in other words, since we are the body of Christ, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, both in the collective sense as the church and as individual members of the church, with a Great Commission to fulfil, by doing the things Jesus used to do, we are also given the power to do those things. Now I know that teaching may put noses in a sling, but it’s what God’s Word teaches, so take it up with Him.

And here’s the thing. John the Baptist did not experience all these outpourings of the grace of God, because He died before Jesus did. In that sense, even the most humble born-again believer has – according to scripture – greater anointing, responsibility, authority and power than even John the Baptist had. And I believe it’s about time the church started to rejoice in the fullness of that grace, and stopped arguing about it. Listen. If we don’t have it, it’s not because God didn’t give it, it’s because we didn’t receive it, and that’s a very special category of not-very-bright!

And since we’re on a roll this morning, now is perhaps the time to emphasise what this bit of teaching from Jesus should make very clear. The difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament isn’t just a blank page between Malachi and Matthew, it’s a whole radical new way in which God relates to His people. I am fed up hearing well-meaning but ill-advised comments about needing to go back to the 10 Commandments. That is absolutely and utterly 110% wrong and an insult to Jesus.

The 10 Commandments were an interim measure put in place in the hope that God’s people might see for themselves that, in and of themselves, they were incapable of pleasing God and earning God’s favour by their own efforts. Even just 10 rules were too many for human beings to obey under their own steam, as it proved over and over again ; even when consequences were set out for breaking the rules. We looked last time, did we not, at the curses section of Deuteronomy 28?

Trust me, ladies and gentlemen, you do not want your destiny to depend on obeying the 10 commandments or relating to God by legalism. Ah but that’s not what I meant. We believe in Jesus but we should obey the commandments as well.
Well, let’s see what that one-time arch-legalist and Pharisee of Pharisees, Paul, had to say about that. Romans 11.5-6, Amplified Bible : At the present time there is a remnant (a small believing minority), selected (chosen) by grace (by God’s unmerited favor and graciousness). But if it is by grace (His unmerited favor and graciousness), it is no longer conditioned on works or anything men have done. Otherwise, grace would no longer be grace [it would be meaningless].

You can’t have grace and works together. That’s what Paul teaches in Romans 11, and again in Galatians 3.13f, where Paul describes the whole Old Testament mindset of obeying the 10 commandments, or else, as a curse, as well as all the stuff that came with the inevitable failure to obey the Law. We base our relationship with God either on the free and unmerited grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who died to set us free from bondage to the 10 commandments and all the other works of the law, and receive all the wonderful benefits we outlined earlier as a free gift.

Or we act as if Jesus had never turned up ; as if Christmas, Easter and Pentecost were just dates when the Post Office isn’t open ; and in foolish pride we try to please God by our own efforts. A covenant of grace sealed in the blood of Christ, offering eternal life of the highest order, or a covenant of works ignoring Christ, offering frustration, judgement and death. Folks, it really is as simple as that. Christ-righteousness, or self-righteousness. Grace, or law. Faith, or works. Life, or death. You choose.

I am not arguing for tearing the Old Testament out of your Bible, not at all. In there, you find many wonderful promises, which Jesus came and fulfilled by the hundred. The Old Testament is the background against which Jesus ministered. Without that historical context we’d find it difficult to make sense of some of the things He said and did. But we must always read it in the light of the New Testament, and remember that it’s Jesus, not our goody-goody works, who is the Amen to the promises there.

Far too many people in today’s church still haven’t realised that Jesus alone is the key to unlock all God’s gracious and supernatural provision for His people. They think everything depends on their limited human ability. They speak piously of the need to be very humble in the face of all the problems in the world, and recognise that God moves in mysterious ways. That’s like the behaviour of the characters Jesus refers to in vs. 16-18 : clinging to empty, meaningless shadows of religious observance that can never bring life, instead of letting go of all that dead stuff and embracing Jesus, the one and only source of true life and health and peace and fulfilment.

It’s not humility, it’s plain unbelief. Humility is recognising that God is always right. There’s nothing mysterious about His New Testament ways as they unfold in Jesus. And so it is time for the Kingdom to advance forcefully, to serve an eviction notice upon the devil and all his works, to tackle head-on and boot out the lingering curses of poverty, disease, stress, fear, depression, broken homes and relationships, and to do so in the power that Jesus Himself released, the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be that New Testament Kingdom people. Let’s rise to the challenge. Now.

John the Baptist’s message from jail

Sunday 17 October 2010 : Matthew 11 : 1-12

Today we find one of the odder encounters in the gospels, where the followers of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask, effectively, look, are you the real deal or not?

What’s all this about? Let’s check out the background to the story. John the Baptist is the man who, in some ways, paved the way for Jesus. He is a remarkable and colourful character of whom we read in Luke 1.41 that he did a wee praise dance in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when she heard from her cousin Mary the news of the Saviour’s impending birth. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born!

Tradition has it that John spent some time with the Essenes, an ultra-zealous sect of the Jewish faith who lived out by the Dead Sea and had nothing to do with mainstream religion. John was an “outsider” but when he began his ministry of strong turn-or-burn preaching, and water baptism in the Jordan, he certainly attracted the crowds. He was no diplomat, memorably blasting the religious leaders as a “brood of vipers” bound for hell, and later having a run-in with King Herod over the regal domestic arrangements.

It was this contretemps with the royal household that led to him being thrown in jail to await the chop, and it was while he was on Death Row that he sent some of his people for this chat with Jesus. We may wonder why. After all, John had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. He had heard the voice of God speak from Heaven about Jesus : This is my beloved Son, with whom I am pleased. Listen to Him.

But now the sands of time were fast running out for John. He had devoted his entire life to Jesus, his whole ministry pointed toward Jesus. Faith in Jesus had never been an issue for John – and if this was a momentary wobble, it was for one reason only, just to make 110% sure that his life’s work had been well-spent, one final confirmation that he had got it right. You don’t want to be about to breathe your last, only to find out that your entire life has been built on a mistake or a misunderstanding.

There’s a saying : don’t spend your life trying to climb the ladder of success, only to find it’s leaning on the wrong wall. What wall is our ladder leaning on? Is the house of our life built on the solid rock, or on the shifting sand? As we take stock of where we’ve been so far, and where we’re heading – and most of us, it’s fair to say, probably have more years on earth behind us than we have before us – what’s it all about?

Has it been about making a living, getting promotion at work, securing the big desk with the thick carpet and the good view out of the window, the nice house, the nice car, the nice lifestyle? Listen. There’s nothing wrong with these things in themselves, it is no part of God’s will for you to be in poverty, but if they are an end in themselves, you may very well end up resenting it all. Ask King Solomon, who was notoriously loaded, but who still could find no satisfaction in life – all, he said on a very bad day, is vanity. One of the first sermons I ever heard was on Colossians 3.23 – Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.
That approach to everyday living is the antidote for drudgery and resentment, a right attitude, a servant-heart. Remember also that the love of money – not money itself, which is morally neutral and, in the hands of a born-again Spirit-filled believer is a real tool for good – love of money is the root of all evil. There are many scriptural warnings about being selfishly and greedily rich, but God’s Father-heart is that you prosper in the material realm to the extent that the maturity of your soul allows.

One day Jesus will return in glory – and if He were to do so today, are we confident that He would say to us : Well done, my good and faithful servant? Some of us have practised the art of dipping a toe in the water of Christian life, but without ever giving ourselves fully, spirit, soul and body, to Jesus. We’ve kept Him at arm’s length, not daring to draw too close in case His Holy Spirit asks awkward questions about how we think, what we feel, what attitudes we have toward other people, what our priorities are in terms of time, abilities and resources. We’ve never really known Him personally

And if that’s where you’re at today, I’ve got good news for you. Jesus is here, and He is patiently waiting for you to invite Him to come in and take charge of your life. Jesus said : I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with Him and He with me. Those words were addressed by the Risen Lord to the church at Laodicea just after He had warned them what He would do to lukewarm Christians, who had never made a real commitment – He’d spit ‘em out.

Let’s not take the risk of ending up in the divine spittoon. Let’s stop trying to paddle our own canoe, let’s give Jesus all that we are and all that we have, and let Him make us into what He wants us to be – let’s be honest, it’s likely to be an improvement!

All right, let’s see how Jesus responded to John the Baptist’s last request. If you take a look at Luke 7.21, the parallel story there, you’ll see that at that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind, then He told John’s disciples to go home and tell their boss what they’d seen – as we see in v.5 : the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.

How true indeed what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4.20 that the Kingdom of God isn’t just talk, but action. Jesus does the business, and that is the evidence these men were to take back to John the Baptist to set his mind at rest. John, being a man steeped in God’s Word, would recognise that Jesus was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy here.

Isaiah 61 : 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 broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Isaiah 35 : Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. It was the Word becoming flesh that John would recognise and be assured by.
One symptom of the lukewarm attitude to Jesus that He warns against in Revelation 3 is a lukewarm attitude to the Word of God. Well, I know what the Bible says, but the church really does need to come up to date. In some respects, I agree. The way we expressed our faith in the buttoned-up stern-faced Scotland of the Victorian era is not appropriate today – but be aware that the actual content of God’s Word hasn’t changed and is not up for negotiation. What Jesus said 2,000 years ago is still bang up-to-date.

Everything is negotiable except God’s Word. The words and deeds of Jesus, fulfilling the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament, and the commentary on Jesus of the New Testament writers such as Paul, must be the absolute bedrock of our faith and our life. It’s when we wander away from the Word of God, when we compromise on the Word to tie in with what our secular pluralist politically-correct society preaches, when we allow the traditions of men to make God’s Word ineffective, that the church loses the plot and God’s people end up settling for a pale shadow of true life in Christ.

The last word Jesus speaks to John’s disciples as they head for the bus stop has a wee sting in the tail : Oh, and blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me. The Amplified Bible translates Matthew 11.6 : Blessed (happy, fortunate, and to be envied) is he who takes no offense at Me and finds no cause for stumbling in or through Me and is not hindered from seeing the Truth.

There are people who are offended at Jesus. I believe, indeed, there may be people here today who are offended at Jesus. Offended, perhaps, because they didn’t get a prayer answered – maybe someone wasn’t healed when you asked and, because we’ve been told for centuries that God is sovereign and omnipotent, therefore it’s God’s fault the prayer didn’t work, and layer upon layer of festering resentment bubbles and stews within them against this Jesus in whose name you prayed but he didn’t deliver.

I would say to anyone who thinks that way, I’m glad you’re here, because the offence in your heart is almost certainly based on wrong teaching you have received, and I am privileged to be able to offer a corrective. The Bible teaches that when Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, forgiveness was released for every sin, healing for every disease, every curse was broken.- and all these things entirely by God’s grace, now available freely and unconditionally to anyone who truly believes and receives.

If a prayer was not answered, the problem is not at God’s end. That is far too big and complex a topic to cover in two minutes this morning, but keep coming, and over the next weeks and months we will unpack various roadblocks to answered prayer.

Another reason people may be offended at Jesus is that our human opinions don’t tie in with what He says in His Word. We may like to believe there are many paths to Heaven, and my spending time out on the hills, or the football park, or the golf course, or whatever, is as good as going to church. That may sound attractive, but there’s a problem with it. Jesus said, in John 14.6 : I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except by me. Only Jesus has paid for our ticket to eternal life.
Or there is someone that, not to put too fine a point on it, we just can’t stand, and we console ourselves by thinking God couldn’t possibly expect us to forgive that person after they hurt us so badly. Again, that view will get a lot of support and sympathy from other people, but not from Jesus. He says – look, if you don’t forgive others, you block your own forgiveness. And that comes right after He teaches the Lord’s Prayer.

With our human thinking, we convince ourselves one way. Then Jesus comes along and flat out contradicts it, so we end up with our nose in a sling, in the cream puff with the One who gave His life to save us. Anyone spot something wrong with that picture?
I’ll give you a clue. Proverbs 14.12, and again in 16.25 : There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. All right, final word for today.
If the Saviour if the whole world says one thing, but I say something different, only one of us can be right. No prizes for guessing which. So let’s pick up our lip, get over it, agree with the only One who has power to save us, and get on with enjoying His gift of abundant life His way – because guess what? There is no other way. Jesus is always right, because Jesus never says or does anything but what God says or does, and how blessed are those who don’t take a petted lip because of His faithfulness.

Ale & Teviot Church

Scottish Charity No. SC 016457

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