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! .