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Jonah, Queen of the South and all that

20 March 2011 : Matthew 12 : 38-42

Matthew 12, as we have already seen, finds Jesus in a no-nonsense mood, especially with the wretched Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who seem to have perfected the unhappy art of getting it wrong time after time after time, and in consequence earning a tongue-lashing from the Lord. It’s interesting that Jesus conducts himself with truly amazing grace when he’s dealing with what you might call obvious sinners, on the basis that they are aware of their faults and their need of deliverance from those faults, but he will cut no slack at all for the self-righteous pretence of the religious leaders.

Make no mistake. Jesus went to the cross to deal with every human sin. Forgiveness is to be found, freely, unconditionally, in his shed blood for every wrong action, every wrong word, every wrong thought. There is no act of human misconduct so repulsive to God that the sacrifice of Jesus does not fully wipe it away. BUT … we must come to Him in honesty and humility, agree with Jesus that we’ve been wrong, and not try to hide behind a fig-leaf of cowardly excuses and pompous self-justification.

But that was a step way too far for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They liked to think they had the exclusive franchise on God. No way were they – graduates of the theological college of their time with all the academic fol-de-rols to prove it – going to get down on their knees before this upstart from a no-horse-town in the backwaters of Galilee, this tradesman with no formal education, this outsider who did not belong to the club, and give him the least bit of respect. And nothing Jesus said or did would change their mind, challenge their prejudice, or disturb their smug self-righteousness.

Today we find them asking Jesus to strut his stuff for their amusement : Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you. No they didn’t. The last thing they wanted was to see God’s glory and power at work through this man they loathed and despised. Their attitude here would later be echoed by Herod, when Jesus, having been arrested, was bounced around between Roman and local jurisdictions, each trying desperately to avoid having to sign off the death warrant for Jesus, though both wanted him dead.

Jesus wouldn’t play ball to entertain the ineffectual windbag that was Herod, nor was he about to indulge the whims of these religious leaders. Now, had they come to him with even half-an-ounce of integrity, even the faintest hint of openness to the gospel of grace, that would have been a different story, but Jesus could read them like a book, hence the stinging rebuke he delivered to them here.

We have all heard of Jonah, how he was called by God to go preach to the notoriously heathen population of Nineveh ; how he bottled it and headed off for a cruise instead ; how he found out the hard way that God is not mocked ; how he made quite a splash and had a whale of a time – sorry! – before ending up going and doing precisely what God had called him to do in the first place. You will see from the story that Jonah had a remarkably successful evangelistic campaign. Nineveh cleaned its act up big time.
Yet by the end of this tale we find Jonah whinging at this hugely impressive result, complaining that God hadn’t, in fact, zapped them with bolts of lightning and wiped Nineveh off the map. Actually, Jonah doesn’t come through as a particularly appealing character. His collection of iffy attitudes ranged from rebellion against God to racism against the people he was ministering to. Yet God used even Jonah, mightily, and used him to reach out to those beyond the Jewish nation, to save people he didn’t like.

And I don’t think the Pharisees would have enjoyed that comparison. They would be all indignant, asking : Wait a minute, Jesus, why are you talking about Jonah? You’re not saying we’re like Jonah, are you? You don’t think we’re disobedient to God’s will like Jonah, are you? You’re not suggesting that we should be trying to save Gentiles, are you? Jesus didn’t get into anything about that. If the cap fitted, let them wear it.

The real point Jesus was making was that, just as Jonah disappeared into self-inflicted darkness and separation from God, just as it seemed his number was up, and his life had ended in pathetic failure – yet on the third day he came back miraculously, larger than life – so too it would be with Jesus. He would die a shameful, ignominious death, the abuse and derision of the entire city ringing in his ears. He would be buried and his enemies would raise a glass to toast “good riddance” … but just wait till the third day.

Would the Pharisees have understood? At that moment, not one little bit of it. But after Easter, as the account of Jesus’ resurrection spread through Jerusalem like wildfire, as the disciples who had scuttled away like frightened rabbits and hidden quivering under the bed following the crucifixion were now out, bold as brass, in the crowded streets and temple precincts of Jerusalem, boldly proclaiming that this Jesus was alive again, daring the authorities to stop them, beaten and threatened but bouncing back for more, yes, I suspect one or two of the more intelligent Pharisees would have joined the dots.

But Jesus wasn’t finished. Vs.41-42 would have been immensely offensive to the Pharisees. The hated Gentiles of Nineveh would stand before God justified whilst the religious elite of Jerusalem would be condemned? They had responded to the ministry of a buffoon like Jonah, and God would be pleased with them, but they, the Pharisees, the custodians of God’s Law, would be judged for not responding to one greater than Jonah … you mean this builders’ labourer from Nazareth? What!

Jesus continued to pile on the agony. Now he introduces to the conversation a football team from Dumfries. It takes a special kind of faith to prophesy that the Queen of the South will get promoted! Joking aside, the Queen of the South, better known perhaps as the Queen of Sheba, was notorious for her flirtatious behaviour with King Solomon. Once again, she was a Gentile, and the suggestion that a Gentile would, on the day of judgement, enjoy better standing with God than a Pharisee, was outrageous to the max, and Jesus’ claim to be greater than Solomon was the icing on that unappetising cake.

But let’s not miss the passing reference to a wicked and adulterous generation, which Jesus sort of sprinkled into the mixture. Again, this would have been like a slap in the face for the Pharisees. At best, this was an indictment of their failure to provide leadership to the people under their care. If, on their watch, the people of Israel were a wicked and adulterous generation – and it appears that the probably were – their stewardship of the things of God was clearly not making much of an impact.

But there was a second prong to this attack, and it’s the implication that the Pharisees themselves were guilty of these very sins. There’s an intriguing little episode in John 8 where a woman caught in the very act of adultery is hauled before Jesus by, who else, the Pharisees. They demand that the woman be stoned to death, as per the Jewish law, and ask Jesus to concur with the sentence. Jesus says nothing but scribbles in the dust.

They keep pressing Jesus for an answer. Eventually he says : OK, but which ever one of you is without fault gets to throw the first stone. There is a shocked silence, before they all slink away in embarrassment. Draw your own conclusions from that tale.

All right, that’s us whistled our way through the story. Let’s fast forward 2000 years to see what it says to us today. Let me start at the end and work forwards. The age of the New Testament was not the last to qualify as a wicked and adulterous generation ; you could probably say the same about today. People doing their own thing, according to their own selfish desires, without much thought for the consequences on anyone else, yes, we know that one. We have to say that the moral vacuum all around us is a pretty stern indictment of the ineffectiveness of the church, as it was with the Pharisees.

I said a couple of weeks ago that it seems we don’t know what we believe, and what we say is carefully modulated so as not to cause offence. The trouble is, we are called to be light in the darkness, and if we’re not doing that, I’m not quite sure what purpose we’re actually serving. And it’s not just a matter of issuing a series of thou-shalt-nots. To lay down the law isn’t that difficult, but it’s not what Jesus wants us to do.

Being a light in a dark world is about living by grace, living in such an attractive and godly way that people outwith our number will be intrigued by our quality of life and want what we have. The way to counter the wicked and adulterous influences on our society is not just to speak condemnation over them, but to point the way to something better, to embody a truly Biblical alternative lifestyle to which the love of Jesus is central, to model our ministry of true prosperity and wholeness, overflowing with kindness and compassion, living long, living strong, living 24/7 as an act of worship.

The early church genuinely was a revolutionary force, a counter-culture, who earned respect for their stand because the way they lived was so obviously more fulfilling, more satisfying, more joyful, than that of the unbelievers around them. That’s a much more demanding task than just tut-tutting at the world’s failures, but it is the witness we are commanded to give, and when we are truly born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, it is the witness we are supernaturally empowered to give. In Christ, we can!
Our God delights in doing the seemingly impossible. You may not think he can do very much in your life, with all your faults and failings, but all that stands between your mess and your message is your willingness to let Him in. Remember that our God raises the dead. Figuratively, this is what happened to Jonah. Literally, it is what happened to Jesus. Spiritually, it is what – potentially – he can do for you, right now.

It may seem strange, bizarre even, but no-one need be a prisoner to their past. To Jesus it matters not a bent halfpenny if you have no academic qualifications, if you have no easy way with words, if you have spent many years without darkening the church door, in the wilderness of doing your own thing without reference to him, if you have made major mistakes that have ended up hurting other people or yourself.

As compared with the act of redemption Jesus completed at the cross, all that stuff’s just like a snowflake in a microwave. Decide today that you’re no longer going to be a prisoner to your past. Instead you’re going to receive the forgiveness Jesus bought and paid for, you’re going to have faith for the future, and you’re going to have peace in the present. Many of the most effective witnesses Jesus has in the world today are people who got off to a bad start, but they’re determined to have a good finish.

So people look down their noses at you because you did something terrible, something shocking when you were younger? So that event is the one thing that people remember every time your name’s mentioned? So what? If you’re born again, the person who did those awful things is dead. You are a new creation in Christ – 2 Corinthians 5.17. Show the world how much Jesus has changed your life. Show them how the love and grace of Jesus is oozing out of you, how he has turned your mess into your message.

Final point for today. The fundamental error of the Pharisees was that they thought they could earn God’s favour by fastidious observance of the Law. Still today, that mindset of death gets in the way for so many people. They believe, or at least hope, that not being a bad person, that ticking the religious box once in a while, is enough to keep them out of hell. That nod-to-God attitude may be the most destructive deception the devil has ever dumped on the human race. Please get this, it may save your life.

Nothing you can ever do, or not do, will get you into heaven. Do not attempt to make yourself a link in the chain of your salvation, because if you do that chain will break. However offensive this is to the pomposity of the 21st century human race, there is only one way to be acceptable to God, and that is recognising that, in and of ourselves we can never be, and that’s why God sent a Saviour, who died that we might live.

Jesus came to settle in full all the debts run up by the disobedience of the human race, including ours. He bought our ticket to heaven, which we could never do. For you, for me, the heaven/hell issue, and the quality of life here on earth issue, hang on just one question – are we willing to nail our selfish self to the cross and make Jesus the Lord of our life? No excuses, no obfuscation. Yes or no. Our life, for eternity, depends on it. Maybe for one or two of us here today, this is the day to make that call. Choose life.

Confessions of a short-distance runner

13 March 2011 : Matthew 12 : 30-37

Over the past 2 weeks, as we’ve studied this passage, we’ve dealt with major issues such as the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and the vital connection between what you are and what you do. If you want to follow what was said, I’ve posted the messages on the church website.

And so, at the third attempt, we try to put these 8 verses to bed, but there is a sting in the tail. Or perhaps I should say a bite in the fangs, as Jesus delivers a colourful rebuke to his opponents – a brood of vipers. Not an accidental description, either, as you most certainly don’t want a close encounter with a viper’s mouth, and it is precisely what comes out of the mouths of these characters that causes all the problems.

The heart-and-mouth connection is important, and I promise you’ll be very glad you heard this. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. That’s what Jesus said, v.34. We’ve heard Jesus use this word overflow elsewhere, in John 10.10, when Jesus declared that He came to earth that we might enjoy life, in abundance, till it overflows.

If we’re living that abundant life in Jesus, the words that come out of our mouth ought to reflect that. Positive, affirming, encouraging, faith-filled words. But if, like the Pharisees to whom the statement was addressed, you’re still tied in knots by fear and insecurity, jealousy and resentment, guess what words are going to come out of your mouth? Negative words, destructive words, critical words, complaining words, words that no-one else will want to listen to. And here’s an interesting thing.

Your words are dynamic, one way or another. If your words encourage, uplift and build up the people you are speaking to, they will want to be around you. Those words will nurture and strengthen your relationships. They will also, I might add, bring out the best in other people. But if your words are harsh, judgemental and discouraging, no-one’s going to enjoy being around you. People will stay away from you, you will trash your relationships, and you will make life difficult for yourself in many ways.

Think about it – who would you rather spend time with? Someone who is always ill-natured and critical, who never has a good word to say to you, who never praises, compliments or affirms you in any way, who always finds fault and whinges at you? Or someone who always has a smile, is always pleasant, who goes out of their way to speak to you in a courteous manner and takes every opportunity to commend you on anything you do well, and to be gracious on anything you don’t do so well?

It’s not a hard choice to make, is it? Well, remember that other people will also come to conclusions about us, based on the way we speak to them. And remember also that, because we are associated with Jesus, people will come to conclusions about Jesus, based on the words we speak. It’s that old ambassador thing again. The gift of speech is tremendously powerful, a huge privilege – and a huge responsibility. And if anyone knows the power of words it’s God Himself. Let me illustrate that from Scripture.
John 1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. How did God create the universe? By the Word of His power. Now don’t try to feed me all the garbage about evolution. The universe, in all its fantastic beauty and complexity, did not just happen by chance.

Any honest scientist or mathematician will tell you that the odds against this planet being just the right distance from the sun, with just the right climate, to support human life, purely by chance, are way out beyond the realms of realistic possibility. Look at a new-born baby, and dare to suggest to the proud family that the wee one is just the umpteen-times great-grandchild of a pair of baboons. You’ll deserve all you get!!

There is infinitely more chance of Albion Rovers winning the Champions League than the universe, and indeed of human life here on this earth, being a random event, a throw of a dice somewhere. It was by the Word of God that everything came into being, and it was by the Word made flesh, in Jesus His Son, that God saved the world from the consequences of its own stupid, disobedient, rebellious behaviour. And how did Jesus come into the life of this world? Check Luke 1 : 26-38 : God sent His angel to Mary to tell her she had been chosen to bring God’s Son into the world. Words. Mary replied : I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said. Words.

On the cross, when all the sin and guilt and punishment and condemnation for all the messes mankind has made got dumped on to Jesus, the words of prophecy of Isaiah 53 were precisely fulfilled : he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities – the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

When all that took place, Jesus said : It is finished. Words. But what breathtakingly powerful words. At that moment, those three words catapulted human history on to its head, as Jesus consented to carry the weight of every sin, every sickness, every wrong thing done to or by every human being, past, present or future, and by doing that to break forever the curse of sin and guilt, disease and death. His words signal a total transformation of your eternal fortunes and mine. On that dark Jerusalem day He took our sin and guilt for a time and He gave us His righteousness for eternity. Using words

And your words and my words, Jesus tells us, are vitally important too. Romans 10.10. with the heart a person believes (adheres to, trusts in, and relies on Christ) and so is justified (declared righteous, acceptable to God), and with the mouth he confesses (declares openly and speaks out freely his faith) and confirms [his] salvation. Also. Mark 11.23 : Jesus says : if you have no doubts in your mind and believe that what you say will happen, God will do it for you. Words – of faith, hope and promise from Jesus

God’s words have creative power, and if you are a child of God through faith in Jesus, so have your words. You and I have been given tremendous authority to speak your own destiny, so let’s not mess it up by what Jesus calls in v.36 careless words.
You wake up in the morning a bit stiff : Oh, my back’s killing me. Excuse me? The Bible says that by the wounds of Jesus you have been healed. So why speak those careless words over your life? All you’re doing is confusing and discouraging yourself
I’m always broke. I’ll never have any money. Hang on, the Bible says that God’s will is for us to prosper and enjoy health, spirit, soul and body, and that He will supply all our needs through His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. But speaking careless words will shift your focus from God’s promises to your problems. That’s not clever.

I’m too old and too far gone for Jesus to bother about me. I’ll never change at my age. Pardon me, but the Bible tells me of a gangster about to face the death penalty who changed his mind at the last minute and Jesus said : Good call, buddy, today, you’ll be with me in Paradise. What makes you think you’re the world’s only hopeless case?

I believe what’s for you won’t go past you. It’s just fate, just your luck. I don’t see how your words can affect your life. Really? Trust me, sunshine, they already are affecting your life. How do I know that? Because you keep telling me you’re ill, broke, busted and disgusted, and you’re going about with a face like a wet night in Workington. Trust me, if you don’t like how your life’s shaping up, change your words, and since your words come from what you think – remember Jesus said : out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks – you’ll need first of all to get your brain into gear.

Last week I said to you that if we’re saying one thing, and Jesus is saying something different, one of us is wrong, and it’s not Jesus, Why is it that we Christians so often open our mouth and pour our careless words that go against what the Word teaches? What are we doing to ourselves, talking that rubbish? The Bible tells us, basically, that we shall have what we say. Too many of us get stuck saying what we have.

Understand the difference? Most of us chunter on and on about our problems, instead of talking of Jesus, the One in whom there is an answer to our problems. We could bore for Scotland about what’s wrong with us, when we’d do far better to zip the lip about that stuff, get into the Word, remind ourselves what God’s promises are to deal with our situation, and speak it out in faith. A wee funny story against myself here.

After the long winter break, when I got back to linesman duties on Saturdays, I found myself puffing and panting and turning blue in the face at the exertion, and that was just the pre-match warm-up routine! The penny dropped that, at my age – for the next week and a half I’m older than Herself, oh dear – if I wanted to stay involved in semi-professional football, I’d better exercise more. So I started doing a couple of laps each day round the rugby field down at Jedburgh, but I did it with a bad attitude.

I hate this running stuff. I despise running. What a bore. Grump, moan, complain – and I ended up ready for the scrapheap after a lap and a half. Anyway I took today’s message to heart and went out the other day : I love running. Thank you, Lord, for the privilege of running. By the second lap, my praising God for running was so extravagant I could hardly move for laughing – but I managed 4 laps nae bother.
I had to swallow the medicine I’m serving up to you. Today in your hymnsheet I’ve laid out a whole bunch of positive confessions for you to use. Don’t just leave them at the door as you go, don’t shove in the recycling pile, take them away and use them. Put them up on the fridge door, on your desk at work, wherever you will see them and reminded of them when you need them, and speak them out loud.

No-one else needs to hear it, because you’re actually giving yourself a good talking-to. By speaking out these words of faith, you are helping to re-programme your brain with positive, godly thoughts that will bear good fruit – remember we talked about that last week? – in your life. Remember all that Jesus went through so that you could enjoy life to the max. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Don’t fall into the trap of being hung by your tongue! Let’s make a new good habit of encouraging ourselves from the Word of God, and watch our life begin to turn round. And do let me know how you get on!

10 CONFESSIONS OF FAITH : God’s promises to overcome your problems!

God loves me so much that he gave his one and only Son so that I, by believing in Jesus, may not be lost, but have eternal life [John 3.16]

Jesus came that I may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance to the full, till it overflows. [John 10.10]

Jesus used his servant body to carry my sins to the Cross so I could be rid of sin, free to live the right way. His wounds became my healing.
[1 Peter 2.24]

Jesus intends me to have good fortune in everything I do, and to have good health—that my everyday affairs prosper, as well as my soul.
[3 John 2]

Christ took away the curse the law put on me. He changed places with me and put himself under that curse … so that God’s blessing promised to Abraham might come through Jesus Christ to me. Jesus died so that by my believing I could receive the Spirit that God promised.
[Galatians 3.13-14]

I will not worry about anything; instead, I will pray about everything. I will tell God what I need, and thank him for all he has done. Then I will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything I can understand. His peace will guard my heart and mind as I live in Christ Jesus.
[Philippians 4.6-7]

I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.
[Philippians 4.13]

God will meet all my needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4.19]

I give all my worries and cares to God, for he cares about me.
[1 Peter 5.7]

The LORD’s love for me, as I respect and honour him, continues forever and ever, and his goodness continues to my grandchildren.
[Psalm 103.17]

Three big words and a dish of fruit

6 March 2011 : Matthew 12 : 30-37

I promised – or should I say threatened? – to return to these verses today as we pick up Jesus in feisty form. Last time we learned that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was the unforgivable sin – that is, stubbornly holding on to the traditions and superstitions that we’ve been brought up with, and the beliefs and the opinions and the attitudes that we have chosen to hold, when Jesus plainly teaches something different, is the very thing that has the potential to keep us out of heaven. When what we choose to believe differs from what Jesus teaches, one of us is wrong – and it isn’t Jesus. Got that?

Right, moving on. You may recall that, in this passage, Jesus is having a disagreement, shall we say, with the Pharisees. Not for the first time, not for the last. I wonder what they made of the comment about the tree? For some time, I have tried to emphasise the fundamental all-or-nothing spiritual truth that it’s not what you have done that makes us righteous in God’s sight, but what Jesus has done for us.

The New Testament makes it abundantly plain that being a nice person, who always tries to do our best, and never does anyone any harm, will not get you into heaven. To stand in the presence of God for eternity demands absolute 100% sinless perfection and holiness, not just trying our best, and not one of us comes anywhere close to that. As Paul puts it in Romans 3.23 : all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

But if we put our entire faith and trust in Jesus, and in the blood sacrifice He made once, for all people, for all time, then the next couple of verses of that same chapter come into play for us : All are justified and made upright and in right standing with God, freely and gratuitously by His grace (His unmerited favour and mercy), through the redemption which is [provided] in Christ Jesus, by His blood [the cleansing and life-giving sacrifice of atonement and reconciliation, to be received] through faith.

In Christ alone, our hope is found, as that wonderful hymn states. So, you may ask, if being good doesn’t buy brownie-points with God, is it OK to be bad? If our behaviour doesn’t affect our standing with God – and it doesn’t ; nothing we can do or fail to do can make God love us one bit more or less – then what does it matter if we act like a hellcat for the rest of our days? This is not a new question.

If you read Paul’s letters you’ll see that his radical preaching of radical grace brought huge criticism from the traditional religious control freaks, the thou-shalt-not junkies, who were afraid that the preaching of grace gave church people a license to sin – all the while quietly ignoring the fact that the people were sinning quite happily without a licence, thank you very much. So, let’s face the question. Does it matter how we act?

Of course it does, and at two levels. First, remember we said that we are ambassadors for Christ. We are the first point of contact people outwith the church have with Jesus. And if we are rude, unhelpful, judgemental, and so on, we are painting a picture of Jesus that is, to say the least, unflattering. How must Jesus feel about that?
And this leads us to the second and – actually – fundamental point. Do you not think, in the light of all that Jesus has done for us, that it would be nice to demonstrate our gratitude by seeking to become like Him? Remember everything Jesus went through : the beating by whips and sticks, the piercing by spear and nails, the insults and profanities of Roman soldiers and everyday passers-by, the lies and manipulation of the religious authorities, the rejection by the people, the desertion by his friends, and all of that to bring us over from the realm of the devil, death, darkness and despair, to the kingdom of God, of life and light and hope : and remember it was all for you.

Don’t you think, in the context of all that, it makes you want to step up to the plate and become all that He has called us to be – just to say Jesus, I thank you ; just to say, Jesus, I love you? And for no other reason than to bring a smile to His face? If you love someone, that should be reason enough. You don’t need payback.

But here’s the vital point we can’t afford to miss. How we act MUST flow out of who we are. The person who is always trying to his best, without a living relationship with Jesus, will always be frustrated and disappointed, because he will never be able to rise above the limitations of his own human ability. He will exhaust himself, and in the end his slip will show. Anyone here know how demoralising it is to bust a gut trying to be what, in essence, you’re not? You can bark, sit up and beg, and try to wag your tail as much as you like, you won’t succeed trying to act like a dog, because you’re not a dog.

Just the same way, if you have never truly received the life-giving, life-changing grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ ; if you’ve never, to use the expression that I know annoys a lot of folk, if you’ve never been born again, you can try to be a good Christian till the cows come home, but that attempt is doomed to failure because you don’t have Jesus in you. The picture Jesus uses here is at tree. A fir tree can try as hard as it likes to be an apple tree, but apples will not grow on it. The tree and the fruit go together.

If, in your heart, you have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, you’ve received His grace to forgive you and put you in right standing with Father God, you’ve chosen to embrace the gift of new life and set off on that exciting pilgrimage of faith, if all that is true of you, then the Holy Spirit – the living presence, power and personality of Jesus Himself – is inside you, and the inevitable consequence of that is that you will begin to bear good fruit as you mature in your walk of faith and love.

This will happen just as naturally as an apple tree will, in due time, bear apples. If you are into arboriculture – and there’s a good word for you before Sunday lunch – you may be aware that some of the fruit on a young tree might be small and a bit sour, but given time, it will become bigger, juicier and more appetising. So it is with new life in Jesus. I have pointed out before that the Holy Spirit acts in two quite distinct ways.

We saw that in Hebrews 10.14 : By one sacrifice Jesus has made perfect, for ever, those who are being made holy. Two distinct spiritual blessings in Jesus, and since we’re on a roll with big words today, you can sit back and enjoy this pair.
The first is justification – a one-off legal transaction. Jesus HAS made you perfect, forever. The minute you truly and honestly give your life to Jesus, you are forever in right standing with God. Your human spirit is permanently united with the Holy Spirit and nothing and no-one can reverse that. That’s your spirit sorted, once and for all, by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Full stop. Whatever happens, you’re heaven-bound.

But, like the God in whose likeness we were created, we are three-part beings, and although that once-for-all act of justification deals with our spirit, the part of us that is truly everlasting, we have a soul and a body to consider. And so there is the lifelong process, also driven by the Holy Spirit, of sanctification – we are being made holy.

It doesn’t usually happen overnight, in fact for 99.9% of us we are a work-in-progress till our dying day. That’s why sometimes, even when we’ve been true believers for a long number of years, we have days when we get it wrong, when the fruit in our life isn’t all that appetising. So here’s how to handle that. Don’t get into condemnation over it. Say sorry to God, and to anyone you have hurt, as quickly as possible, deal as best you can with any consequences of your action, but then walk in His forgiveness.

Don’t beat yourself up today over the mistakes of yesterday, last week, last year, 1944. Jesus forgave every one of them at the cross, and if you follow Him, He does not hold it against you. Ask His help to be stronger in the face of temptation in that particular area of your life, and then relax. Trust in His sanctifying grace. Good fruit will grow. One dodgy apple doesn’t make you a bad tree that needs cut down, though a wee bit of pruning here and there might help – but as the Holy Spirit guides you, not human guilt.

You may not be aware of it, but over time, the Holy Spirit within you is bringing forth more and better fruit. Over time, your witness for Jesus Christ in ordinary, everyday life is becoming better and consistently better as you learn to stand firm in His grace and nourish yourself on good spiritual food. Now let’s keep this in balance.

You don’t need to come to church, pray, read your Bible, go to Bible Study groups, or watch Christian TV to get to heaven – Jesus has already arranged all that the minute you gave your life to Him – but as you know, if you starve your body, or feed it on nothing but junk food, you become weak and ill and unable to function properly.

Likewise, if you starve your soul, or feed it on nothing more substantial than TV soap operas, Sky Sports or glossy magazines, your soul will become weak and ill and you’ll be unable to function properly in your life as a disciple and an ambassador of Christ. As they used to say in computing, garbage in, garbage out. Or, to put it another way, you don’t need to feed on God’s Word to go to heaven, but you’ll get there a lot quicker than you need to, and you won’t enjoy the journey nearly as much!

One of the areas of our lives that gives God most concern is how we speak., but I think we’ll leave that till next week. Bet you can hardly wait! .

Unforgivable sin versus radical over-the-top grace

20 February 2011 : Matthew 12 : 30-37
Last week we spoke of the privilege and responsibility of being ambassadors for Jesus, and before we move forward I’d like to spend a few more minutes developing that, because you and I may be the first and only Bible some people will ever encounter.

Let me explain. The truth is that many people today do not have a Bible in their home, or if they do it’s an elderly King James version with tiny print. The KJV, which is 400 years old this year, was revolutionary in its day and has served the church well. But, let’s be brutally honest, it’s not really accessible to today’s text-message generation – the ones who are overwhelmingly unchurched, the ones who will lead this nation and this world, and for whom, I hope, we have a heart of love and a sense of mission.

The future of this nation and this planet depends on them accepting Jesus, but if the Word is not speaking to them with power, how is that going to happen? Through the church? Well, that’s precisely what we’re here for, but at present we are not, by and large, making much of a positive impact upon this present generation, and we need to understand why. To most people under 60, make no mistake, what they have seen of the Church of Scotland as an organisation does not do it for them.

The Kirk does not come over as having a radical cutting-edge message with real impact on their everyday lives in the 21st century, and I have to say that we have, to a considerable extent, been architects of our own downfall. We tend to do what we do, the way we do it, because we are comfortable with it. It doesn’t challenge or threaten us, and what I see of the mindset of the denominational church is survival mode.

Cling to the familiar, don’t rock the boat, and it will last long enough to see us out. And so the gospel of radical and costly grace poured out through the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, to be appropriated by a personal decision to love and trust in Jesus in every area of life, and to believe that in the Bible, especially the New Testament, God speaks and we ought to listen, is seen by many as too controversial, too exclusive.

So Biblical truth is watered down in the hope of making it more user-friendly, more relevant, more in synch with the spirit of the age – and those very words were used in a recent General Assembly report. At the same time as we’ve soft-pedalled the life-changing content of the message, we have become very conservative as to how it is presented. Immense passions have been expended on, and people have fallen out over, tiny matters such as hymn tunes, or the colour of the church loo, or whose turn it is to make the tea. We have strained at procedural gnats and swallowed theological camels.

At a human level, I understand the motivation behind that mindset. We don’t want to alienate the people who are already on the church roll. We want to provide for them a safe haven in a time of uncertainty in the world, a time and space to re-create in this one peaceful hour the innocent days of our childhood, when it genuinely seemed that all things were bright and beautiful. So we become anxious not to frighten the horses.
But here’s the bitter irony. In an age when there is so much uncertainty and insecurity, we are not helping anyone to look forward in faith if we don’t address, with integrity and boldness, the real issues with the power and authority of God’s Holy Word. What people need is not for the church to nod sagely and say that we understand and accept and sympathise with your doubt, and try to find some lowest common denominator on which we can all agree, but to proclaim the evangelical certainty of Jesus Christ.

You see, at the same time as the doctrinally liberal traditional churches like the C of S are in the business of managing decline, there are churches which are growing, which attract the new generation. What’s their secret? They tell the truth in love. They don’t pull their punches. These growing churches, by and large, are what’s called word-faith churches, and they bsaically do what it says on the tin. They have faith in the Word, as brought to life by the Holy Spirit. They believe, as it says in Hebrews 13.8, that Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever. We believe that too, don’t we?

And if we believe that, then it means that the same free and unconditional grace of Jesus that embraced the woman caught in the act of adultery, and the wee tax-collector who’d been on the fiddle for so many years, and the woman at the well who had gone through five husbands and was now shacking up with someone else, and the thief at his side on the cross, is available NOW to anyone and everyone who will receive it.

If we believe that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, then it means that the same healing power that Jesus exercised toward the centurion’s servant, the cripple who’d been moping beside the pool at Bethsaida for 38 years, Jairus daughter and the wee woman who grabbed his coat on the way to see Jairus’ daughter, is available NOW to anyone and everyone who will receive it.

If we believe that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, then it means that every single promise in the Scriptures that found its fulfilment in Jesus is available NOW to anyone and everyone who will receive that promise. And if we don’t believe exactly the same forgiving, reconciling, healing, delivering, life-giving, life-changing power is available NOW to anyone and everyone who will receive it then – logically – we cannot truly claim to believe that Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

Matthew 12.30, then, is an urgent word addressed to the church right here in Scotland, right now in 2011 : He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. Our calling as the church, the body of Christ, at this time and in this place, is straightforward, to gather with Jesus. This we do by being totally committed to the revelation of God’s supernatural love that He has brought into the world.

Anything that gets in the way of that, any watering down of the message, any reversion from radical grace to rules and rituals and traditions of men that, as Jesus says, make the Word of God ineffective, does not gather but scatters. Our recent visit from presbytery highlights some areas in our church life that we do need to address in the near future, especially in terms of our mission to the unchurched generation.
Pray that we will have the obedient heart to do what it takes, and pay what it costs, to open the door for the Kingdom to come to people in this parish who, up to now, may have written us off as a quaint little club with nothing worthwhile to say. That we will be bold to put forward New Testament Christ-centred Spirit-led answers to the real and pressing questions that people are asking.

And as we move from v.30 to v.31, we must deal with another massive challenge to the church, and that is to take seriously the very strong warning Jesus sends out here about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which He describes as the unforgivable sin. Two questions stand out. What exactly is this, and why can it not be forgiven?

Firstly, what is the work of the Holy Spirit? In John 16, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, and will bring glory to Jesus by taking all that is His and giving it to us. That’s good, isn’t it? So blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be to say what is not the truth about God and Jesus but claim that it is, or to say that what Jesus did is not God’s will for us today, or to take the devil’s stuff and claim that it is God’s will for us. Blasphemy against the Spirit is to call good evil, or evil good.

Things like : God sends sickness and suffering to humble us and teach us patience. God sends earthquakes and hurricanes and 9/11 as a judgement against the world. God took away my husband, my wife, my child, because he must have needed them more in heaven than I needed them on earth. Healing and other miracles were only for Biblical times but God took them away when the Bible was written. There are many ways to God, and it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe something

We’ve all heard that sort of stuff. Religious-sounding garbage that is completely and utterly against what the Bible actually teaches. What the Bible teaches is that the devil is a thief who comes only to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus came so that we might enjoy life, in abundance, to the full, till it overflows. To ascribe to God the stealing, killing and destroying that’s actually the work of the devil is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Plain and simple. And if people hear that trash from people associated with the church, no wonder they get turned off God. Scattering, not gathering.

We all quite clear what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is? We all quite clear how much it breaks God’s heart? But to step it up to a whole new level, what does it mean to say that it is an unforgivable sin? Simply this. Most people who make comments of that sort do so just because they don’t know any better, because they’ve been taught wrongly since 19-canteen. That in itself is not unforgivable, which is just as well for people like me who have opened our mouths and spouted such drivel in ignorance.

And when someone comes along and explains it, and exposes the wrong teaching, and gives you a revelation of the true nature of God as we see in Jesus, unconditional love and grace, and suddenly a light goes on in your head, and suddenly the spiritual penny drops – as Paul writes in Romans 12.2 : you do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind …
Instantly you receive the complete forgiveness that Jesus died to release into your life.
The difficulty is when someone hears the right teaching but steadfastly refuses to accept it, who obstinately rejects the truth and continues to embrace the lie, who will not allow the Word of God to change their carnal, wrong, opinions. That attitude gives the devil a spiritual foothold in your brain, and the longer you close your ears to the truth and cling to the traditional religious junk that the devil is happy to spew forth at any time of day and night, the more that foothold hardens into a stronghold.

And if eventually it gets to the stage that you stop going to church because you can’t stand the truth of the Word that contradicts your opinion, or start going to some other religious thingy, it could even become a stranglehold. There is only one thing that can make a sin unforgivable. You ready for this? It is when somebody hears the truth, loud and clear, over and over, knows deep down through the witness of the Holy Spirit that it is the truth, but absolutely and consistently and stubbornly refuses to accept that truth and gets to the stage of believing that they are right, and the Bible is wrong.

God will never give up trying to get the truth through, but at the end of the day, it is up to each and every one of us to accept – or not – the free gift of His grace, His truth, His forgiveness, His blessing, His healing. And if not, although Jesus died not just for the sins of the church but of the whole world [1 John 2.2], and it is not the Father’s will that any be lost but rather that all be saved through faith in Christ [2 Peter 3.9], God will not cosh us over the head and drag us kicking and screaming into heaven. One of the unique features of being human is freedom of choice, and God respects it.

Today we have dealt with 3 verses. We’ll return to this passage next time and see if we can push on a little bit further. But I make no apologies for spending considerable time on this today, nor for the uncompromising nature of the message. I hope you will find it convicting – not condemning – and help you to be stronger and more resolute in that life of faith as an ambassador of Christ in a world that needs to meet Him.

Ambassadors of Christ

13 February 2011 : Matthew 12 : 22-30

Once again we see Jesus engaged in a difference of opinion, to put it mildly, with the religious establishment. This is a recurrent theme throughout the gospels, and as we noted last time it is the street-map to the cross. What has happened here?

First, Jesus has performed a mighty miracle. Nothing new there, then. By this action of love and power, Jesus is making a very strong claim to be listened to. Here’s a point we need to bear in mind. Though our standing with God, our righteousness, owes not one tiny little bit to any actions of our own but is 100% down to the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ who went to the cross in our place, our standing with people is affected by our conduct toward people. And because of who we are and what we are in Jesus, this means that our reputation and the reputation of Jesus are inextricably linked.

Paul describes the church as ambassadors of Christ. What are ambassadors? They are people who represent one sovereign nation in and to another nation. I think it was Bill Winston who spoke of visiting a dirt-poor Central American country, where the people ground out a miserable existence, and keeping body and soul together on a daily basis was a demoralising uphill struggle. In the midst of the slums and shanty towns of that nation there stood a handsome building, the residents of which dined handsomely on fresh produce flown in daily. Amid the poverty, they lived in luxury.

The ordinary people of that poverty-stricken nation would look through the high fence surrounding that building with a real sense of longing that they too could share in that prosperity over the wall. It was obvious to them that the people on the other side of the fence had a better life, and the people wished they could have it too. That building was the United States embassy. It spoke to the people of that other nation – it may have been Haiti, I don’t recall for sure – of the wealth and prosperity of the USA.

Now I know that picture immediately creates a certain moral ambiguity, but if you stick with me and follow the reasoning through, I’m sure you’ll agree that two things arise out of that scenario. First, when we see someone who has something good that we don’t have, the natural reaction is to think : how can I have that too? Second, from the other side of the fence, as it were, when we see people who don’t have the good things we have, we ought to be very powerfully motivated to share our blessings.

Let’s translate that into spiritual terms. You and I, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, are called to represent the Kingdom of God to and in the kingdoms of this world. We are called to represent Kingdom values of love, compassion, generosity and power in the Holy Spirit, to put into effect the policies pursued by the Kingdom of God, in and to a society, a culture, a world without Christ – a world creaking and collapsing under the dead weight of greed, lust, hatred, perversion, negative thinking, wacky beliefs – the policies pursued by and, I may add, ruthlessly enforced by, the kingdom of darkness.

Listen to what Paul writes in Ephesians 6 : be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Whether we like it or not, we are in a spiritual war, and there is no neutral territory, no politically correct safe middle ground.

In our text today Jesus spells it out [v.30] : He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. It’s quite simple. We’re either with Jesus, or against Jesus, and we get to choose. We choose to receive the grace poured out at the cross, the grace that sweeps away all the garbage the devil has thrown at us, the grace by which our every sin has been forgiven, our every disease has been healed, every aspect of the curse of the Law cancelled – or, by default, we live under the Law.

We choose the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and receive righteousness, right standing with God for eternity, because of all that Jesus is, and all that Jesus has done , or we condemn ourselves to have to try to earn God’s favour by our own performance, and that is a hopeless, soul-destroying task. I want you to be absolutely and totally clear on what I’m about to say. You can’t afford to miss this, OK?

There are precisely two ways of relating to God, and only two – law or grace. That is what Jesus teaches, that is what Paul teaches, that is what Peter teaches, that is what John teaches, that is what the anonymous writer to the Hebrews teaches. We have the choice to opt into grace, by faith and trust in the person and the finished work of Jesus, and know the freedom of having every debt paid by His blood, and knowing God in a personal way as Father, Saviour, Redeemer, Healer, Provider and Friend.

Failing which, the default position is law, relying solely on our own performance, and needing to perform perfectly every moment of every day, because whoever breaks one bit of the Law has broken it all. Those who do not choose to relate to Jesus as Saviour and, through Him, to God as Father will inevitably have to relate to God as Judge.

There is, and this is a good time to mention it, a provision under the covenant of grace for the children and grandchildren of believers to be counted as righteous because of our faith – see, for example, Psalm 103.17, Acts 2.39 – and that assurance of inherited grace is tremendously comforting for those of us whose descendants have not, as yet, accepted Jesus, but in order to walk in the fullness of God’s overwhelming blessing in this life, as God longs for us to do, there has to be a personal commitment of faith.

All of which brings us back to this ambassador business. There ought to be something so different, so attractive, about your life and mine, that the people around us long to know what we have that they haven’t and to receive it for themselves. In their spiritual hunger, a bit like the people staring through the gates of the US Embassy, they ought to be looking at us and longing to be like us, because the love, peace, joy, generosity, radiant health, wholesome relationships and general goodness in our lives shines out.
And on the other side of the coin that fullness of Christ in us should lead us to be very proactive indeed in doing whatever we can to bring the love and power of Jesus to bear on the lives of the people round about us, so that they also might know Him as He truly is and have their lives transformed by Him.

Note also that ambassadors act with the power and authority of the nation that commissioned them. Our obedience to Jesus releases the same supernatural power and authority that Jesus exercised, and that should be no surprise to us because Jesus has promised in John 14 : Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

So often, Jesus ministered to people first and foremost by addressing their immediate physical needs, whether it was feeding the 5,000, stilling a storm, turning water into wine, or getting rid of illness and disability. He did that BEFORE these people were “saved”. His miracles were signs and wonders to transform their lives for a time on this earth, pointing to the greater reality of total salvation for eternity.

We read in v.22 of this demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. Question. Was this man a member of the church, a regular attender, a generous giver? Had he done anything at all to earn or deserve attention from Jesus. Absolutely not! He was demon-possessed! He was in all likelihood someone who was despised, feared and shunned by the local community.

He was not “saved” when Jesus came along. Jesus healed Him completely and utterly by grace. Then, I imagine, after Jesus had turned his life around, he believed, big-time. He would be the most committed and effective evangelist in the parish. He would have had 20 times more faith than all these pompous self-righteous muttering religious gasbags whose intelligent contribution we see in v.24. It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.

In terms of stupid comments, the Pharisees could come up with some crackers, but this is one of the real classics, and Jesus must have been this close to laughing out loud in their soor-ploom faces. Were they really so dumb as to think that the devil would shoot himself in the foot by giving some of his minions their marching orders so that God would get the glory? The devil may be thick, but he’s not THAT thick!

Jesus points out to them, in no uncertain terms, that they needed to use their heads for something other than a hat-stand. What they were saying just didn’t make any sense, and anyone whose IQ was at least as great as their shoe size could see that. In fact, what Jesus had done was to storm through the enemy fortress and release a man who, for so many years, had been held captive by demons, his life trashed by these crispy critters who had robbed him of hope or purpose.
And be sure that when Jesus did that, Satan wouldn’t extend a congratulatory hand, nor offer to crack open a bottle of 20-year-old malt to celebrate the happy occasion. No, the devil was as sick as the proverbial parrot. He’d lost ground, and because so many people saw what had happened and went away telling everyone about it, it was absolutely certain sure that he’d take an even bigger hammering as more and more people heard about Jesus and came to see, and receive, for themselves.

Back to v.30 : He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. You could bet your mortgage that the man released from those demons, who now enjoyed again the power to hear and speak, would have no doubt whose side he was on from that day forward. But how had he got there? What magic formula had he put into effect to move from death to life? Had he gone through a whole series of communicants’ classes, counselling courses, or whatever? No.

In fact, he hadn’t even turned up that day under his own steam. Other people who had, we may be sure, already experienced the love and power of Jesus, brought him along. He wouldn’t have heard the sermon. He was deaf. He just knew, deep down inside, despite all these yucky demons screaming and downloading all their junk on him, that this Jesus was his one and only hope. He believed, and he received.

Maybe today, you just need to recognise that Jesus is your only hope, and simply believe and receive. Maybe today, you can think of someone you are concerned about, someone who does not know Jesus, and ask God to show you a way of allowing them to meet Jesus – first and foremost, by being yourself an ambassador to Christ for them.

Receive the Giver, not just the gifts

Sunday 6 February 2011 : Matthew 12 : 14-21 [p. 977]

Today we pick up Matthew’s gospel once again, starting with the verse on which we finished way back in November : v.14 : the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. You may remember that the reason identified by Matthew for this decision by the Pharisees is that Jesus declared Himself to be greater than the Temple [v.6] and Lord of the Sabbath [v.8]. This rocked their cosy little world for them.

In other words, Jesus claimed to have authority to interpret the Jewish Law and not be hog-tied either by the letter of the Law, or by the Pharisees’ reading of it. Even more worrying for the Pharisees, Jesus was able to appeal both to the Scriptures themselves, and to their own conduct, to support His understanding of things.

Conclusion? Jesus was a dangerous subversive who had to go. His crime? Claiming to know better than them what God’s will and purpose was. To make matters worse, Jesus by now had gathered quite a following around Himself, and we see [v. 16] that many followed Him and He healed all their sick. As of this moment, the shadow of the cross looms darkly over Matthew’s gospel, and a new resonance is given to Jesus’ warnings toward the end of chapter 10 :

Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me

Those who now followed Jesus to receive what He could do for them – healing and so on – would soon have to decide where their true loyalties lay. What was more precious to them – the gifts or the Giver? I believe we must still keep this question before us. For some years I have believed and preached, and will continue to believe and preach, that it is the declared will of God to intervene directly in our everyday lives to bring to His people supernatural blessing. It is God’s declared will and purpose that we prosper and enjoy life – rich, abundant and overflowing life – in every way.

However, great as the gifts are, I firmly believe it is infinitely more important for us to receive the Giver Himself, and commit ourselves – and I know that for many people commitment is a dirty word in the throwaway society of the 21st century – commit ourselves completely and unconditionally to a personal relationship with Jesus.
I can promise you that, 200 years from now, it will not matter one bit how successful we were in business, how much money we made, how many newspaper headlines were written about us, how many people fell over themselves to be our friend, nor even how many church services we attended nor how many committees we served on.

In and of themselves, not one of these things, nor any combination of them, adds up to true, lasting blessing or prosperity, nor can they buy us a ticket to heaven. 200 years from now, all that will matter is whether or not we made a quality decision to receive Jesus in our heart and be in a committed personal relationship with Him.

Jesus has warned us ahead of time that to make such a decision may rub some people the wrong way that we’d rather not rub the wrong way, may repel some people that we’d rather be close to, may cost us money or seniority or status.

And this is where we see the dividing line between those who love Jesus, pure and simple, and will remain loyal to Him no matter what ; and those whose attachment to Christ and His church is, in essence, for what they can get out of it, and when religion no longer serves their purpose, it’s bye-bye. What do I mean by that?

A few examples. It’s not so long ago that being a pillar of the kirk, better still an elder, was something you would make a point of emphasising in job interviews, especially for professional posts. Until fairly recently, there was a steady stream of young people going through church membership classes so they could, once again, tick the box to get married in the parish church. Sometimes I hear of people in some sort of trouble making a bargain with God – get me out of this mess and I’ll start going to church.

And I’m not saying that these attitudes are always totally wrong, and I’m certainly not saying that God can’t build upon even these rather shaky foundations, but I think the overwhelming evidence is that when our basic motivation is to use God for our own self-centred purposes, rather than to love God and invite Him to use us for His good and generous purposes, whatever spark of faith there might be is far more easily snuffed out. Make no mistake, any true relationship with Jesus must be on His terms.

True faith isn’t about what things we can squeeze and manipulate out of God to further our own self-centred agenda. It’s about dying to self. It’s about inviting the Holy Spirit to take charge of the deepest places of our souls. It’s about allowing our personality, our nature, our thoughts, our feelings, our desires, to be submerged into the person of Jesus Christ. Basically, a life of faith is no longer primarily about us, but about Him.

And if you’re anything like me, your brain will presently be frying as you think – you know what? I just can’t do that. Let me just quickly encourage you by referring you to a verse we looked at last week – Hebrews 10.14 : By one sacrifice Jesus has made perfect, for ever, those who are being made holy. The second we make a principled, honest decision to leave behind forever the emptiness of formal religion and instead to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ, we are instantly transformed by His grace.
Instantly, we move from death to life. Our eternal destiny is settled once and for all by the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus. Our names are written forever in the Lamb’s Book of Life – and there is no tippex, no delete button. We receive the free gift of righteousness – right standing with God for eternity. But alongside that all-or-nothing revolution in our standing before God, there is also a gradual process set in motion.

God knows that those who are born again need time to grow up. Most of the people, most of the time, don’t go from being outright sinners on Saturday to unblemished giants of faith on Sunday. As I said last week, God is patient with us as we go from being spiritual babies, through the toddler, childhood and adolescent stages, to arrive at mature faith. You and I want it all to happen yesterday, and we’re really gutted if we have a bad day when we act the way we used to, bite people’s heads off, and so on.

The devil jumps on that mistake and pours a bucket-load of guilt and discouragement. I’m a hypocrite. I’m such a failure. I’ll never make it. God will just give up on me. When you get such invitations to a pity party, that’s when you need to give yourself a good talking-to and stand firm on Hebrews 10.14 : I have been made perfect in the sight of God, forever, by the sacrifice of Jesus, and I am on the way to holiness by His Holy Spirit working within me. God said it in His Word, so it must be true, and I choose to believe it. So, devil, go back to hell and take your lies with you.

Matthew finishes this section by giving a description of the person of Jesus, from the very Jewish scriptures that the Pharisees, instead of foaming at the mouth and tossing their toys out of the pram, should have known. It’s from the prophecy of Isaiah 42.

Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight ; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out ; no-one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.

Jesus is the One whom the Father loves and in whom the Father delights – we heard His voice from Heaven say as much at His baptism. He proclaims heaven’s justice – all human sin and all human suffering for all time paid for in full by His sacrifice. Jesus did not wilfully pick arguments, and when the religious so-called experts chose to pick a fight with Him, He answered them back only from the Scriptures. Jesus does not attack or pick on the weak and vulnerable and disadvantaged, indeed He shows them special consideration and kindness to heal, deliver and restore. Jesus is the hope of the nations – not just the Jewish people, but all the nations of the earth.

The prophet saw that, six centuries before Jesus came. The Pharisees couldn’t see it, even though Jesus was right there under their noses. This is the Saviour ; this is the One whom God has sent to you, to me ; this is the One who came to fulfil our every possible need. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s not always be asking Jesus to do things for us as if He was no more than our personal assistant.
If the relationship of a husband and wife was based completely upon the wife getting the dinner on the table at sharp, making sure the house was spotlessly clean and her husband had his shirts freshly cleaned and ironed every morning, how many of you think that would be a happy marriage? How many of you think there is room for improvement in that partnership? And the sooner the better! Or there might just be a flying frying-pan before some people are much older!

Likewise, if our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is all about what we want Him to do for us, and there’s no quality time to simply enjoy Him, get to know Him, share what’s on each other’s heart – can we see that relationship is way out of balance, falls miles short of living faith, grieves God, and is in need of urgent review?

So let’s get our priorities right. Let’s concentrate on knowing Him as He really is ; loving Him because He first loved us. Seek first the face of Jesus, and His hand will delight to reach out to us and meet our every need more abundantly than we can ever ask or imagine. We will experience true healing of every part of our being, spirit, soul and body. We will experience true prosperity which – as Kenneth Copeland puts it – consists not in the abundance of what we own, but in the abundance of what we sow.

We will experience the pure joy and peace, beyond any mere human understanding, that only Jesus living by His Holy Spirit in our heart can bring. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it. And whatever that relationship may cost our flesh is well worth it.

Stalked in the cornfield – liberty triumphs over legalism

21 November 2010 : Matthew 12 : 1-14

A recurrent theme of the gospels is the ever-increasing tension between Jesus, and the Pharisees and their cronies – the Temple establishment, if you like. It simmers and festers all through Jesus’ ministry before erupting in such an ugly and violent fashion at Easter. This morning we find an almost comical encounter in a cornfield.

The first question we must ask is – what on earth were these respectable religious men doing in a cornfield on the Sabbath anyway? What a sight they must have presented, in their flowing robes and their big fancy hats [which always make me think, irreverently of 1960’s lampshades] up to their knees in cereal, batting off the corn lice, faces as sour as fortnight-old milk, mustering about as much dignity as a BMW in a ditch.

Had they not somewhere else they needed to be, something else they needed to do, on a Sabbath day? Was this the most productive use of their valuable time, stalking Jesus … stalking? Cornfield? Get it? Well, it’s the best you’re going to get today!

Here we find these august gentlemen, hopping up and down with excitement like so many train-spotters who’ve just seen a new engine for the first time – wonder how I know about that? Look! Look! Gotcha, Jesus! Your disciples have broken the Sabbath! Out with the blackberry, press a few buttons, scroll down the appropriate paragraph and sub-section of the Torah, jab the screen with their index fingers in agitation, take a few shots with the digital camera as incriminating evidence for the Sanhedrin.

All right, slight anachronism, but hey, you get the idea. I suspect Jesus was having real difficulty keeping his face straight during this little contretemps. Cast your mind back to the verses we read two weeks ago at the end of Matthew 11. Jesus has just spoken of the unresponsiveness of the people of Galilee. He has proclaimed that glorious and unique intimacy He enjoys with the Father, which He is longing to extend to anyone who is just willing to forget all their pathetic little hang-ups and receive from Him.

You remember how The Message translation brought to life those closing verses of Matthew 11 : This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.

I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Wonderful, liberating, life-giving words. A tremendous opportunity to cast off the shackles of dead empty past-its-sell-by-date tradition and ritual, and enjoy the reality of faith, of a personal relationship with the author of all life and Saviour of all nations.
But what was the principled spiritual response from these pillars of Hebrew society? Ill-natured narrow-minded nitpicking. And I have a nasty suspicion they were actually quite proud of themselves for doing it. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be hilarious.

How did Jesus deal with this crass behaviour? Let me say, if it had been me, and I had the power Jesus had, I think I would have turned the lot of them into frogs on the spot! That’s why I’m so glad He’s Lord and Saviour and I’m not! What Jesus did was the same He always did in the face of opposition. He didn’t abuse them. He didn’t get into an argument. He turned to the Word of God to expose their – er – misunderstanding.

Just the same way as He dealt with the devil in the desert, so He dealt with the devil’s mouthpieces in the cornfield. He refers to 1 Samuel 21:1-6, where the young David is on the run from King Saul, who has gone totally off his trolley. David turns up before Ahimelelch the priest to ask for food. The priest points out there’s nothing in the larder except some consecrated bread. David says : that will do nicely, and off he goes with it

Then Jesus reminds his critics of Numbers 28.9-10, which specifically authorises the priests at the temple to override the Sabbath legislation to fulfil God’s command. Now these 2 scriptures should have been, and probably were, well-known to the Pharisees, as was the clincher. Matthew 12.7 : I desire mercy, not sacrifice is a straight lift from Hosea 6.6. Again, The Message offers an arresting translation of these verses.

There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—’I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual’—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he’s in charge.

And this is the real point at stake. The Old Testament law was a type and shadow of what was to come. You will see this when we come to look at the Transfiguration, in Matthew 17, at some point in the future, if the Rapture hasn’t happened first! The Old Testament was only a temporary measure till the New Testament came. The Law was never meant as an end in itself. It was but a shadow. Jesus is the substance, the reality, of God’s unfolding plan of salvation, not just for Israel but for the whole world.

Here’s the ironic thing. The Sabbath was given for man’s benefit, time off from the hard grind of working for a living just to relax, draw breath, and enjoy God’s presence. But these characters had turned it into a chore. They had lists of things you could not do on the Sabbath, a list long enough to wallpaper a decent-sized room. Believe it or not, in some ultra-zealous groups, going to the loo was breaking the Sabbath.

And you could be stoned to death for it! Breaking the Sabbath was a capital offence! How perverse can you get? A gift from God, to be enjoyed by His children, turned into a stick to beat people over the head with! Jesus, who came to release people from the curse of the Law, was having none of it. What a ludicrous situation that the teachers of the Law dared try to stand in judgement over the giver of the Law. Bad move.

Incidentally, since we are no longer under Law but grace [Romans 6.14], Christians are under no obligation whatsoever to observe the Sabbath. As a matter of fact, we don’t anyway. The Sabbath is the last day of the Jewish week, running from nightfall on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The practice adopted by the early Christian church was to honour God with the first day of the week, what we call Sunday, but for them it was a normal working day. They attended worship early in the morning before work.

Listen. It is good stewardship of the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, that God gave us, to ensure that we take time out for re-creation, to worship God, to spend quality time with family and friends, to enjoy leisure pursuits. It is foolish to be a workaholic, and a person who does not take time off is liable to reap the nasty harvest of that decision. Also, it is even more foolish not to spend time in the presence of God to give Him the honour He is due and to receive the blessings He longs to pour out.

But I wonder how many people were put off God for life by some of the repressive traditions that – with no New Testament justification whatsoever – became attached to the old-fashioned Scottish Presbyterian Sunday? Because of which, I think the baby of Bethlehem may well have been thrown out with the religious bathwater as far as many people of my generation are concerned, which cascades to the following generations.

That’s the problem when limiting legalism gets in the way of liberating grace, when the petrified practices of past generations interfere with the fresh revelation of God’s love for today, when the traditions of men make the Word of God ineffective [Mark 7.13]. You end up with what Paul calls a form of religion with no power [2 Timothy 3.5], an empty shell, incapable of drawing others to Jesus the way we’re supposed to.

The Church of Scotland is presently having to ask itself some searching questions as to its future, but I believe we would help ourselves considerably if we would all agree to take a firm stand on the things that are clearly taught in God’s Word, and be very easygoing about what is purely a matter of personal preference. For example, styles of worship can be an emotive issue. The older I get, the more comfortable I am with our middle-of-the road Radio 2 style here, rather than a Radio 1 or a Radio 3 format.

In other words, if I were to walk into a church where the worship was gangsta rap style led by someone in a back-to-front baseball cap, my carnal flesh would be screaming : I’m a Presbyterian, get me out of here. Likewise, if it was very high church, all bells, smells and fancy robes, not my cup of tea either. I might be inclined to genuflect my way quietly to the exit! I’m reminded of the wee boy from the tenements of Glasgow whose parents took him to a cathedral one Sunday for a wee dose of culyur!

As the clergy were processing in all the finery, incense burner swinging solemnly, a lone treble voice piped up : Haw Missus, your handbag’s on fire! Moving swiftly on! Who am I to take the hump at these outward things? High church, low church, happy-clappy church, doesn’t matter 2p so long as the true gospel is being preached of God’s free and unconditional grace, ministered through Christ alone, received by faith alone.
We need to be passionate about ensuring that the true Word of grace and mercy and forgiveness and fullness of life with health and prosperity is being taught faithfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of Jesus Christ, but at the same time be very relaxed about different forms of church government, different styles of praise, and so on. The Bible has nothing to say about any of that, so let us not be dogmatic about it.

If God’s not that bothered, why should we be? There’s more than enough for us to get our teeth into as we seek to fulfil the Great Commission, proclaiming Jesus as the one and only Lord and Saviour who brings life in all its glorious fullness forever, teaching Scotland to trust in Jesus and do the things He did in the same spirit of love as He did.

Our attitude needs to be like Jesus in this passage. Given a hard time by the Pharisees, He didn’t argue, He just quoted Scripture and got on with the job – as Acts 10.38 says, and as we see illustrated in vs.9-13 : He went about doing good and healing the sick. Jesus did not let Himself be distracted by the opposition of people who, ignorantly or wilfully, took it upon themselves to judge, criticise or condemn Him.

Make no mistake, as long as the church is content to do its own thing behind closed doors among consenting adults, keeping the show on the road at all costs, scurrying to move the scriptural goalposts so as not to offend or exclude anyone, even those whose way of thinking and way of living is way off-message, we won’t encounter much opposition because we won’t be treading on the devil’s toes.

But faithful, joyful, radical, Bible-based, Spirit-filled obedience to Jesus is a whole new ball game. It will put us on the devil’s radar. It will bring attacks from people, even church members, who feel threatened by the new life they see in us, and are secretly envious of, but who don’t want to pay the price of total submission to Jesus that we have had to pay to get there – the price of putting our selfish flesh in its place.

To be effective witnesses for Jesus may be costly and painful for us. No surprise there. It was costly and painful for Him. But the rewards are out of this world. If you and I want to hear : Well done, my good and faithful servant – let’s focus all our attention on what Jesus says and what Jesus wants, and be prepared to sit very lightly to all our man-made rules and regulations, rituals and traditions, personal opinions and tastes.

Those are the things the Pharisees used to get hot and bothered about. As Jesus noted, with delicious irony, they would hyper-ventilate over a procedural gnat whilst gulping down a scriptural camel without noticing. The day of the Pharisee, a day of legalistic bondage and frustration, is over, praise God. Now is the time for the glorious liberty of the children and heirs of God – through Jesus, that’s us. Let’s enjoy it, and as we step out in that freedom, we’ll encourage others to experience the fullness of Christ as well.

Ale & Teviot Church

Scottish Charity No. SC 016457

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