Sunday, 22 January 2006

JUDGES 6:11-17,33-40

JUDGES 6:11-17, 33-40

I have a friend who says that being a Christian is not about believing 3 unbelievable things before breakfast

In our passage the angel comes to Gideon (and by the way this angel obviously does not have wings or a halo - he probably looks just like another person. In fact Gideon needs the angel to prove that he has been sent by God. And when Gideon realises that he is talking to an angel, he gets very scared). Anyway, this person - who turns out to be an angel - comes to Gideon and tells him two unbelievable things: and as far as we know this may well have been before breakfast.

V12: "When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior".

1. Unbelievable fact no 1: "God is with you"

It did not seem to be like that.

The situation is dire.

The Midianites, Amalekites, Amorites, Staligmites are invading the land that the Israelites were living in. (v4,5). They have ravaged the land. Gideon is threshing wheat in a winepress. You don't normally thresh wheat in a winepress. The reason he is doing it is because if he threshed the wheat in the normal place, it would be discovered by the local Midianite thugs, and taken away. And Gideon and his family would starve.

And the people could not understand: "God", they said, "You brought us from Egypt. Our fathers and mothers tell us of all the amazing things that you have done. We heard how you led your people through the red sea, through the desert, across the river Jordan. We hear how you provided manna and quail for them in the desert. We hear how you made the river Jordan stop flowing. We hear about the battle of Jericho. And now - now we are crushed and oppressed. We are starving. Our children are dying. God why have you abandoned us?"

There was a theological reason. God has sent a prophet who tells the people: "I warned you that this would happen if you turned from me and would not listen to me". But the people could not hear that, because they would not listen.

And so when this person - who turns out to be an angel - tells Gideon: "The Lord is with you", Gideon laughs: v13: "But sir, if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? If the Lord is with us, why am I threshing grain in a wine press? The Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian"

That sense of being abandoned by God can be very real. I was talking to someone last week who said, "God abandoned me".  They had been through a series of devastating deaths in the family, and they had dropped deep into the pit.

And we cry out to God, 'rescue me', and he is not there. I would love to be able to give people the answer: to say, "Pull yourself together. Think of people who are worse off than you". Or to say, "Put this or that right in your life, and it will be OK". I would love to be able to pray with a person, and for them always to know the presence of God.

But it simply does not always work like that.

Metropolitan Anthony writes that if we talk about the real presence of God - when we meet for worship or prayer or around the Lord's table - we also need to recognise the right of God to at least appear absent.

But I think that that is the clue. It is not that God has abandoned us - because if he had abandoned us, it really would be hell. And hell is where there is no faith, no hope and not even a glimpse of love. Hell is not only when we stop loving, but when others stop loving us. No. God has not abandoned us - although it might seem that he has abandoned us.

And God had not abandoned the people of Israel. In verses 7-10 he sends them a prophet. And now he comes to Gideon.

And it is significant that the person who is honest with God, the person who is saying, "God has abandoned us" is the very person who God intends to use to save the people of Israel. V14: "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" And we begin to see how that happens in verses 33-35

Maybe we are looking at a situation, and it really does seem as if God has abandoned you. Maybe we look at the situation of the people of God in this country - of declining churches; of the sheer arrogance or complacency of so many of us before God; of our profound inability to hear what God is saying. Maybe we are praying that God would do something: "Come and transform our nation, our people. Come and bring revival". And God seems silent.

But God is not silent: he continues to speak to his people - and he asks you and me to be the people who will make the difference.

2. And I guess that that leads us on to the second unbelievable fact:  "God is with you, mighty warrior"

Gideon does not see himself as a mighty warrior: "But Lord, how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family"

God, I think you have got the wrong person. I really am nobody. I don't have the gifts. I'm too young. I'm too old. I've not got the contacts. I've not got the time. I've not got the courage. I don't know enough. I'm not strong enough.

Gideon joins that list of men and women who have tried to avoid the call of God by claiming inadequacy or sinfulness or inability: men and women like Moses, Saul, David, Jeremiah, Mary, Peter.

It is, of course, no excuse. If God calls, he will equip. It is in fact a surrender to fear: a fear of what others will think, a fear of what might happen to us and to those we love, a fear that no one will listen to us, a fear of letting ourselves down, of embarrassing or shaming ourselves.

But God says to Gideon: "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together".

Gideon is called to trust God and to be obedient. He is called to stand up and be counted.

God asks him to
1. Stand up to a sin in his family: amazingly, having destroyed the family idol, his dad stands by him
2. Stand up to a sin in the local community

And then, having proved himself faithful, comes the big test. Gideon puts himself on the front line. He blows the trumpet (v34), and calls Israel to follow him into battle against the oppressors.

I'd like to add a few words about the fleece (vv36-40). It is not a practise that is encouraged in the NT. However, Gideon is being obedient - and the die is cast: the army is out there on his doorstep. But Gideon gets cold feet. "If this goes pear shaped, I'm going to get stuffed". So he asks God for reassurance, and God in his mercy gives him reassurance.

God is not calling you or me to be a mighty warrior, to blow the trumpet, to gather the army and to strike down the enemy. It is very important that as Christians we recognise that the sword of the OT has given way to the cross of the NT. We win our battles not by killing others, but by letting them kill us.

But he is calling his people to be mighty warriors in another sense. He is calling his people to stand up and make a difference. To live different, as people driven by a different love, a different purpose, a different ambition, a different destiny, a different perspective: in which God works through the weak, the fearful, the doubting and the sinful.

Paul writes, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me"

We really cannot grumble; we cannot say that He has abandoned his people, or that He has abandoned me - and then do nothing. If you feel abandoned by God, don't give up - seek him, fight for him, struggle with him. Gideon is not given the luxury of being an armchair critic.

And it might just be that God has a specific call for you or me. You see something that is wrong that is destroying lives. You have a passion for something that is good and right and true. You have a vision of what could be.

Or you have a sense of who God would call you to be. Up to now God has been on the edge. And you know - you know in here - that God has to come into the centre of your life.

It is often said that Jesus Christ comes to solve the problems of our lives. That was not Gideon's experience. Jesus Christ actually can complicate lives. He makes us face up to issues, issues about our attitudes, possessions, relationships, our time. He moves us out of our comfort zone.

And God loves us too much to allow us to hide behind the excuse that he has abandoned us. And he will not let us hide behind the exuse of our own inadequacy or fear. He reminds us that he will be with us, and that is all that we need.

Sunday, 15 January 2006

1 Peter 2:1-12

1 Peter 2.1-12

This passage is about living as the people of God. It is about living as members of the church.

The passage talks about:

1: THE HEART OF THE CHURCH - Jesus Christ (vv4-8)

The church is about Jesus. He is the rock on which the church is established. He is the building into which the church grows to become.

He is the living stone (v4): Picture here is of a building. Jesus is the stone at the foundation on which the church is established. Take him away and the whole thing comes crashing to the ground. He is also the capstone. Many hands on museums have a small area where you are invited to build a foam rubber bridge. The capstone is the one that goes into the middle.
If you put the capstone in, everything else will fit into place
If you take the capstone out, the building will crumble.

He is the one who has been chosen by God (v4): People may have rejected him 2000 years ago. People may reject him today. Jesus Christ is the most cursed person today. People use his name as a swear word. And yet, we are told he is the way, the truth, the life. He is the one who God has chosen.

The heart of the church is the person of Jesus. He is the one who holds us all together. As we begin this week of Christian unity we remember that he is the one who we have in common.  We are united by our faith in him, by his dwelling in each of us, by our membership in him. He is the one under whom we live, for whom we live, in whose strength we live. And he is the one in whom we are called to put our trust (v6b: 'and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame')

And because he is the living stone, because he is the chosen one, if we do not put our trust in him, if we do not follow him, we will stumble (1 Peter 2:8): however successful our lives may appear, we are destined to stumble if we do not obey.

We are like the man who fell to his death when he was climbing one of these high profile high rise buildings. He had climbed many such buildings - it was his hobby. He was getting towards the top of this particular building when he saw something that he could hold onto. He let go of one hold to grab this better hold, and he fell to his death. When they managed to pick the pieces up, they discovered, gripped in his hand, a cobweb. He had obviously seen the cobweb and in the fading light thought it was something different - something that could hold him.

As the church, we need to be very careful that we do not grasp cobwebs. It is very easy to depend on buildings (we're so privileged to worship in this building - but we cannot allow it to become our God), professional management techniques, titles, academic qualifications, publicity, technology, styles of music, choir or band, wealth or latest teachings of church growth theorists. All of that is good in its right place - but if it is what we put our trust in, if it is what we build on, we are destined to stumble.  

The church will stand when it is built on Jesus Christ, on who he is, on his love for us, on his call to us, on his purpose for us.

Jesus is the heart of the church. He is what we are all about.


We receive our identity from Jesus.

He is the chosen one. As we come to him, we are chosen in him: God never chooses one person instead of another. He chooses one person for the sake of the other. Jesus was the chosen one, so that we might be blessed. You have been chosen, in order that others will be blessed.  And it seems to be a spiritual principal that often others are blessed through the suffering of the one who has been chosen.

He is the living stone. As we come to him, we become living stones (v5): it is an amazing picture. We are rocks being built together: each person is a rock that needs to be shaped and then placed alongside other rocks that are being shaped and placed.

The true building of the church is not the bricks and mortar around us. It is here

And we are called to become a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices (v5)

One of the great reformation principles is the idea of the priesthood of all believers. It came from the realisation that because Jesus has died on the cross for each one of us, you do not need a priest to pray for you: We cannot hide or excuse ourself by saying: I don't have a priest, or my priest is hopeless. Jesus has done it all. It is down to each one of us to be right with him.

I like the story of the Australian vicar walking through his churchyard. A drunk called out, "Say one for me". He replied, "Say one for yourself you lazy coot".

And we are called to be a royal priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices. Martin Luther wrote, " Not only are we the freest of kings, we are also priests forever, which is far more excellent than being kings, for as priests we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things".

Or as another person said,  "I am a pastor in the church; but a priest in the market place". So each of us could say, "I am a chorister, reader, coffee rota person in the church; but a priest in the market place"

And together we are that priesthood. Yes, we have our different roles within the body of the church. I've been called to focus on prayer, teaching the word of God and being a pastor. Through ordination I've been given the authority by my brothers and sisters within the church of God to speak with the authority of the whole church. That is why vicars will say 'you' in the absolution or blessing. I'm not excluding myself, but I'm speaking with the authority that Jesus gave to all of us together to forgive sins. But it makes me no more or no less a priest than you.  We all have the privilege of direct access to God. We all have the responsibility of declaring the forgiveness of sins and of new life in Jesus, and we all have been given the gift of beginning to live that new life.

Two other descriptions are given of our identity as members of the church:

We are a holy nation: We are citizens of this nation, and we are called to pray for our rulers and to obey our rulers in all things that are right. Gordon Brown is talking about having a British national day, and I'm sure that is probably necessary. But we have to realise that our ultimate allegiance is not to this nation -  nor to another nation on earth. We are members of another kingdom. Actually, here we are aliens and strangers. We are people controlled by a different allegiance, a different motive, a different love, a different destiny.

We are a people belonging to God: That was the title of the people of Israel. God says, "I will be their God, and they will be my people". We are a people who belong - not to ourselves, not to our family, not to our career or work, not to our school - but to our God who loves us. We belong to him in the same way that a husband belongs to his wife and a wife belongs to her husband in an act of intimacy.


In some ways this has already been mentioned, when Peter writes that we are to be a 'holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices'

But Peter emphasises three things here:

1. We are called 'To declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light' (v9): to declare the praises of Jesus Christ who can be trusted, who has poured his mercy on us, who makes us new people.

And that needs to be reflected in our services: in our litury, our prayers and hymns. But it is also to be reflected in our service, in our lives. Are we people of praise - and it is true: as we learn to praise God, we also learn to praise others.  

2. We are called to abstain from sinful desires (v11). They belong to our old identity as people of the world. They have nothing to do with our new identity as members of the people of God.

I guess that there are echoes here of the first few verses: calling us to rid ourselves of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander. They have no place in our calling to be members of a royal priesthood and a holy nation.

3. We are called to "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (v12).

I love that verse.

The effect of the Christian life lived out in difficult situations can be so dramatic in its impact on the non-Christian.  A former criminal, Kozlov, later a church leader, wrote of life in a Soviet prison:
   "Among the general despair, while prisoners like myself were cursing ourselves, the camp, the authorities; while we opened up our veins or our stomachs, or hanged ourselves; the Christians (often with sentences of 20 to 25 years) did not despair.  One could see Christ reflected in their faces.  Their pure, upright life, deep faith and devotion to God, their gentleness and their wonderful manliness became a shining example of real life for thousands."

Or as Mark Twain said, "Always do right; it will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

I guess that this is saying that our faith has to be worked out in reality. Our faith becomes practical when it is expressed in two books:  the date book and the check book.

John Wesley's Rule of Conduct:
Do all the good you can, to whoever you can, whenever you can, wherever you can to as many people as you can in the name of Jesus.  

Rick Warren writes (Purpose Driven Church :20). "I love the church of Jesus Christ with all my heart. Despite all its faults (due to our sinfulness) it is still the most magnificent concept ever created. It has been God's chosen instrument of blessing for two thousand years. It has survived persistent abuse, horrifying persecution and widespread neglect. Para church organizations and other Christian groups come and go, but the church will last for eternity. It is worth giving our lives for and it deserves our best".  

I echo those thoughts. I love the church of God - not always the institution: which is made up of people, people like me, who get tired, who make mistakes, and who sometimes do things that are plain wrong.

But I love the church, the people of God, as we seek to be faithful to God's vision for the church, for his people. His vision of a people who are built and founded on Jesus, and on trust in Jesus; of a people who are invited to share in the identity of Jesus; and of a people who are called to declare the praises of God and to live radiant lives.

It is as we seek to be obedient to that vision, that our town will be changed, our nation will changed and our world will be changed.

Thursday, 5 January 2006

Crossing the Barrier; Joshua 3

JOSHUA 3:14-17; 4:1-9: Crossing the Barrier

The river Jordan stands as a barrier between the people of Israel and the promised land.

It is a barrier that the people have to cross: not because they wish to: they've become quite used to the nomadic existence - and we read in Deuteronomy that some of the tribes do settle on the 'wrong' side of the Jordan. They have to cross the Jordan because God is calling them to do so.

And this is quite a barrier. There are times and there are places where the Jordan can be a little stream. But not here and not now. In fact we are told that the river is swollen (3:15)

And for Joshua, the new leader, this was the first real test of his leadership. God has called him. God has spoken clearly to him. And he had to trust God and he had to be obedient.

I wonder whether we are facing a barrier that we know that we have to cross. Maybe it is something we cannot avoid. Maybe it is something that is holding us back, that prevents us from moving on in our relationship with God, that prevents us from growing in faith, understanding and love.

It could be anything. It could be an overwhelming problem. It could be personal sickness or the sickness of someone we love. But sometimes it is the petty problems of life that can paralyse us (eg. getting Christmas tree out of church). It might be about 'letting go'. It might be something that has got a grip on us - a destructive habit, ambition, jealousy, desire for revenge. It could be something quite different: someone wrote to me once and said, "I have a problem. I'm married, but I've fallen in love with someone else". It might be conflict. It might be a question of letting go, or of saying 'yes'. It might be a lack of resources.

River Jordan is often associated with death: Hymn: "When I tread the verge of Jordan". Pilgrim's progress. And the barrier could be death: again, facing up to the reality of our own death - or the reality of the death of someone who we love, and who we believe we cannot live without.

Whatever it is, the river Jordan stands as a metaphor for that barrier. That barrier that we need to cross if we are going to grow into the people who God would have us be.

Two ways to deal with barriers: We can think, "Oh dear, here is a barrier" and we turn around and walk in the opposite direction; we run away. We put it off. We give up. Or if it is not possible to run away, we pretend it does not exist: we allow the debt to get bigger; we pretend that we are not dying or that they are not dying. We stick our head in the sand. We really can see that the grass is greener the other side, but we settle for the desert that we are in. We settle for mediocrity in our Christian lives. The barrier is there - we run away

Or, like the three billy goat gruffs, we can face the barrier head on

How does Joshua deal with this barrier? This dirty great river that is stopping him from crossing over.

Actually he does neither. He doesn't turn round and walk away. And he doesn't charge at it.

1. He has listened to God. He knows that this is a barrier that he has to cross. There are times when God puts obstacles there because he really does not want us to go there. That was not the case here.

2. He has to get himself right with God, and the people right with God: sanctify yourself (3:5). For the Jew that involved ritual purification. For us, it involves putting aside time for God: examining ourselves in the light of what God has said, repentance, seeking God

3. Listening to the word of God (3:9): It is significant that it is the ark of the covenant that is to go ahead of the people into the river: the ark is in fact the supreme reminder of the presence of God and of the word of God: it was a box that contained the law as given to Moses. And God speaks to his people through his word, and here - he speaks to them through Joshua

4. He needs to remember. It seems to be a spiritual principal that God often works in ways that you have already seen him work. And getting the people of Israel across patches of water was becoming one of the divine specialities. Joshua had already seen God do it. So he had a confidence that what God had done in the past, God could do again.

5. He needs to trust God. In the end, having heard God he needs to be obedient. He needs to go for it Joshua had to order the priests to move forward and to put their feet in the water (v15).

I guess there might have been a bit of time waiting - wondering. Had Joshua lost it? But when the priests put their feet in the water, the water stopped. Just as an aside, there are other recorded incidents when the river Jordan has stopped flowing - usually because of a major landslide that has temporarily dammed the river. That doesn't take away from any miracle: the wonder is that it happened just then.

Maybe at the beginning of this year you are facing a barrier to personal growth. Maybe as a church we face a barrier.

We need to spend time with God.
We need to get ourselves right with him: in so far as we are able to do so.
We need to listen to his word: what is he saying to us? Is this a barrier that you need to cross? Is this the time to cross it. The opposite danger of what I have been talking about is that we rush in when we should actually stop and wait and listen. 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'.
And we need to listen to how he wants us to cross a barrier. Of course, there are times when God seems silent on the specifics. Often God does not tell us what he wants us to do. But he does tell us what sort of people he wants us to be.
But then we need to go for it. We need to trust him and, if you like, step into the river.

Touching the Void. It is the true story of a climber who has fallen into a crevasse. Nobody knows that he is there. He is on a ledge, and he has shattered his leg. He cannot climb back out. Below him the crevasse drops down into total darkness. He can either stay where he is and certainly die. Or he can lower himself down into the darkness below hoping against hope that there might be a way out at the bottom.

There are times when - in order to cross the barrier - it seems that God is calling us to go into the darkness
But when he does so, we know that we are not going alone.

  • We go with the memory of what God has done in the past: of how he has been with us in previous trials

  • We go with the reassurance that he is with us: that nothing can separate us from his love

Interesting that God asks the Israelites to bring stones from the middle of the water, where the priests stood. It is to be a reminder to them both of how God had worked, and of how he had brought them into the promised land. He didn't take them on a detour up to a shallow part of the Jordan. He took them through the Jordan.

And they are going to need that reminder in the tough times ahead

For us, we have those reminders. Not stone monuments - although our church buildings are a witness to the faith of the people in the past. But today we are going to have communion: a remembrance of how someone, many years later, overcame the barrier that separated men and women from God. That person listened to God, was obedient to God and trusted God. He did what God required. He went into the river of death, into the darkness of death and came out the other side.

And in fact, this is not just a remembering of what Jesus' did, but a celebration of his presence with us now.

And one final thing. Today we remember the baptism of Jesus. The crossing the river Jordan is often seen as a picture of baptism. Baptism is a barrier to the new life with God. Like Joshua, like the people of Israel, we need to go into the waters of baptism - to repent of our sins, to die to ourselves - before we can come out of the other side as new people.

And if we allow God to take us through the barrier: the barrier of baptism, the barrier of whatever it is that he is calling us to go through, even the barrier of death, we discover something astonishing. The barrier becomes the blessing.