It was John Newton, the famous 18th century hymn writer, who once said that he remembered only two things: firstly, that he is a great sinner and, secondly, that Christ is a great saviour. It is precisely this tension that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Only when we realise our own sinfulness can we begin to grasp the breath-taking nature of God’s love for us. This is precisely the message of this week’s Bible passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3. In this, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we see part of this love as Jesus wrestled with temptation for our sakes in the desert. Although it is not always culturally acceptable to talk about our sinful natures, the message from the Gospels is unequivocal. Men and women have chosen darkness and condemnation if they reject the light of Christ. Perhaps in our modern age we do not dwell enough on our sinful natures. Perhaps in our preaching and worship today we only focus on the love of God and not the wrath of God. Therefore, it is good to sometimes read old Christian books and sing old hymns so that we don’t get caught in the blind spots of our present culture. The amazing reality is that, because of God’s grace, we do not need to perish or stand condemned. Of course, it was John Newton who captured this truth so eloquently in his most famous hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. This is a marvelous basis for reflection as we continue to journey through Lent.
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
As Christians, is it ever right to be angry? Is it ever right to show hatred? In truth, most Christians shy away from these character traits. Perhaps, as children, we have been overly influenced by Sunday school messages of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. In our churches, we emphasise love, forgiveness and ‘turning the other cheek’. Anger and hatred do not seem to be a feature of the modern church. Nevertheless, is there a place for anger and hatred in our Christian ministry? The Bible passage for this week, the third week in Lent, is the account of Jesus overturning the tables of the money lenders in the temple. This is one of the times in Jesus’ life where he demonstrates anger – profound anger. I wonder whether we, as modern day followers of Jesus, should be angrier. Angry at the injustices of poverty, homelessness, sex trafficking and countless other ills that confront our world. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider, shouldn’t we vent our righteous anger by speaking up against these divisions in our society? What about hatred? If we are simply passive towards social injustice then we will not be sufficiently motivated to act. If we hate injustice, we will have a greater incentive to put right the wrongs. Therefore, in answer to the question posed at the beginning, yes, I believe it can be right to be angry and to hate injustice. More importantly, this was precisely the attitude shown by Jesus as he confronted the social ills of his day where the bankers were ‘fleecing’ the poor people in the name of religion.
The Bible passage for this week, the week beginning 25th February, is the story of Jesus explaining about his need to suffer and be put to death. Peter then takes Jesus aside and reprimands him for saying such things. Peter, Jesus’ great friend, then receives a stinging rebuke from Jesus for wanting to protect Jesus from harm. Why such harsh words for Peter? Surely Peter was just showing concern for his Messiah, so why the telling-off? The answer is that it wasn’t Peter who was speaking these words to Jesus. Jesus, being fully human, was wrestling with enormous temptation to avoid the path of suffering. As the Son of God, he could easily avoid any pain at all. Here, from the mouth of Peter, Satan is replaying the wilderness temptation that Jesus faced about self-glorification. Satan is skilfully using one of Jesus’ closest friends to dissuade Jesus from the road he must take. No doubt, Peter’s arguments made absolute sense in human terms. Why should God’s Messiah have to suffer at the hands of the Gentile oppressors? The answer to this is that there was no other way to save humanity. What is the application for us in this, the second week of Lent? In our lives, we will frequently be presented with very persuasive arguments to turn away from God’s path for us. Indeed, sometimes those who are nearest and dearest to us, who are completely unaware of Satan’s plans, will make these arguments. Nonetheless, if we are convinced of our calling by God to do something, then we must be faithful to that calling irrespective of the temptations to do otherwise. This is a message for us all, not only in this season of Lent, but at all times throughout the year.
This week, beginning 18th February, marks the beginning of Lent. The Bible passage is the account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In our world, we generally regard temptation as a bad thing. Temptation is viewed as something that Satan uses to make us stumble and fall before we become wracked with a sense of guilt and inadequacy. However, it is pertinent to note, according to Mark’s Gospel that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted. Why? One simple answer is that for God, temptations are not sent to make us fall but rather to strengthen us. Temptations are not meant for our ruin but for our good. In some translations of the Bible, the word temptation is replaced by the word testing. While we do not like the pressure of tests, we do acknowledge that by being tested we emerge a better person. In a physical test, we emerge a better athlete and in mental tests, we emerge a more knowledgeable scholar. It is the same when God allows Satan to tempt us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to emerge a more spiritual person and a better warrior for God. Remember, God does not want us to lead easy contented lives as much as purposeful lives in which we continually grow in character. As we journey through Lent, let us rejoice in all the temptations that face us and see them as a way of deepening our relationship with God. In addition, if we do stumble and fall, let us just pick ourselves up, seek forgiveness, resume the fight and continue the journey.
The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 11th February, is the account in Mark’s Gospel of the transfiguration. Jesus was at a pivotal point in his ministry. He was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross. What does he do? He turns to his Heavenly Father to get his endorsement. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and needed to be sure that the searing pain he was about to endure was fully part of His Father’s plan. Moses represented the ‘law’ of God and Elijah represented the prophets of God. By receiving their validation, Jesus was positioning himself to be fully in tune with God’s plan of salvation wrought in history. If Jesus had God’s backing, then he would be able to cope with the unimaginable pain of the crucifixion, death and temporary separation from His Heavenly Father. What is the application for us? Two things, I suggest. Firstly, before we embark on any major journey in life, we should seek God’s approval first. Secondly, once we receive this approval, we should boldly go forward in the sure knowledge that whatever the devil throws at us, we have the power to overcome.
The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 4th February, is the account of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law as well as many who were possessed with evil spirits. After driving out many demons, Jesus prevented the demons from speaking because they knew who he was. Why did Jesus do this? Why did Jesus not want his actions to be known? There are two inter-related reasons. Firstly, Jesus did not want to become a celebrity faith healer or celebrity exorcist. That was not his main aim but there was another, related reason. To understand this, we need to understand Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to this world. Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God. This was his over-riding concern and he talked more about the Kingdom than anything else. For this, he needed to spend time with his disciples. He needed time to teach them and train them because, when he was gone, they would have to take over the work of building the Kingdom. Now, if Jesus was known as someone more powerful than even Caesar, he risked immediate imprisonment by the Romans. If that happened, he would be unable to teach his disciples and his ability to establish the Kingdom of God would be hampered. We too should have an over-riding concern for the Kingdom of God. For this, we should also be wise as to the best way to promote it.
The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 28th January, is the account of Jesus driving out an evil spirit. Many Christians today do not seem to believe in Satan or, at least, do not believe he has any influence through his evil spirits. This is strange because Jesus certainly believed in the power of Satan. In addition, Satan seems to be more active in our lives when we start to promote the kingdom of God and this is why, in the Bible passage, Jesus had come to his attention. What about us? Have we ever come under attack for what we have done to promote God’s kingdom? There is a challenge for us all here. If we have lived our entire Christian life and never had our finances, career or family ‘attacked’, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, is Satan interested in us? This is precisely what the apostles meant when they urged us to rejoice in our sufferings. Rejoice because Satan has taken notice of you and therefore you must be doing something right! At the same time, we must be fearless towards Satan. Jesus, by His death and resurrection has defeated Satan. As a result, in Christ, we have nothing to fear. Yes, there may be skirmishes still going on, but the war is won and, with the authority of Jesus, we will prevail. In one of the earliest books in the New Testament, the author tells us to resist Satan in the sure knowledge that he will ‘run away’ from us and leave us alone. Once this happens we can continue to promote the kingdom of God and to annoy Satan in just the same way that Jesus did by casting out his evil spirits.
The Bible passage this week, the week beginning 21st January is the story of the call of James and John to become disciples of Jesus. The Bible records the fact that these two men ‘left their father and their boat and followed him’. On the surface, this seems a straightforward event until we reflect on the circumstances. James and John were fishermen. That was their life, what they knew and what they did well. It was also their source of economic stability, status and reputation. Moreover, in the ancient world, the father in the family was revered. Often, boys would aspire to be like their father and eventually take over the family business before handing it on, in turn, to their children. Further, because their father’s name is explicitly mentioned, it is likely that he was both well-known and a highly successful businessperson. Therefore, in giving up all of this to follow Jesus there would have been an enormous sacrifice for the two brothers James and John. They were choosing to give up all that they had, were, owned, did and aspired to become. However, that is what they did! God is less interested in our own status, profession and income than He is in our faith. God wants to build, not our wealth and fame but our character and faith. This is what is of eternal consequence. What about us? Will we give up everything to follow Jesus? Although salvation costs us nothing, discipleship costs us everything. We know, for example, James was one of the first to be martyred. Will we, like James and John sacrifice everything to follow Jesus? If we are prepared to do this, let’s start today.
Discipleship Training Course
The next session takes place in Room 8 at Emmanuel church on Tuesday, 30th January at 7.45pm. All welcome. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” Matthew 28:19.
Jesus once said to Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false”. In truth, we do not know very much about the disciples. Two of them, Matthew and John, succeed in writing whole Gospels without hardly mentioning themselves within the story. The Bible passage for this week, the week beginning 14th January, sheds some light on two of the disciples – Philip and Nathanael. Doubtless, these two were close friends and work colleagues, coming from the same part of Galilee. It is also likely that they both studied the scriptures together. Indeed, it may be that Nathanael was meditating on the scriptures away from the noise of the house, under a fig tree when Jesus first saw him. Jesus clearly had a high regard for Nathanael declaring that there was ‘nothing false’ in him. However, Nathanael, Philip and all the other disciples were also prone to despair, despondency, negativity and even cynicism. Nathanael, for example, declared, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip, in turn, could not believe that there was any hope for them to feed five thousand men on the hillside: “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bit!” I find it immensely re-assuring that these great people who went on to plant churches, revolutionise the world and give their lives for their faith all started from a position of weakness. God is less interested in what we have been and more interested in what we can become. This year, why not start the journey of being a better disciple so that, one day, like Nathanael, we can hear the words of God: “This person is a true follower of Jesus in whom there is nothing false.”
Discipleship Training Course
The next session takes place in Room 8 at Emmanuel church on Tuesday, 16th January at 7.45pm.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”
Too many people for too many centuries have laboured under the misapprehension that God is not pleased with them. God has often been viewed as a harsh judge who likes to condemn us for our wrongdoings. In my personal experience, of 30 years as a Christian, nothing could be further from the truth. More crucially, the notion that God is not pleased with us is not the message of the Bible. This week, the week beginning 7th January, the Gospel passage includes the words of God at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, whom I love; WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED.” The amazing reality is that, if we are fully united to Christ and imitate Him, then these words of God can be levelled at us! Maybe we should start 2018 by letting these words wash over us, again and again. Maybe this is the year when we should dispel the notion that God is not pleased with us because then, and only then, can we fully be the people God wants us to be in 2018.