Friday, 26 May 2006

John 15:1-17

JOHN 15:1-17

Many of us are driven to seek success

It could be because we have a passion for a cause: and we wish the cause to succeed. Or it could be that we see success as a way to something else that we really desire: respect, money - or to prove (to ourselves or someone else) that we are someone

And as a result, people will spend literally thousands of pounds going on courses which claim to be able to make you more successful.

I've got good news: we don't need to spend that sort of money. Or at least you don't need to spend that sort of money to get the things that really matter in life. You can get them free. You can actually get them from this church

Church: offer 4 things

  • We offer people space to take time out, to enter a different world (particularly at this 11am service) and to really think: What matters? What do I want out of life?

  • We offer wisdom for living - wisdom that comes not from us but from God. We find it here in this book

  • We offer a community - of pretty ordinary people, who are pretty messed up, but who are committed to learning to love one another, and to love other people.

  • We offer, and this is most important, a person: an opportunity to meet with someone who once lived on this earth, who was crucified, but who rose from the dead - and even though we can't see him - is now alive, and who one day is coming back.

And this book tells us that when we are united to this person, when we are obeying this person, we will not necessarily be successful as say Alan Sugar might be defined successful, but we will be human. We will live effective and fruitful lives, we will live authentic human lives.

And the section that we read from this book today, from John's message of good news to us, show us how we can live authentic, fruitful lives.

1. To be fruitful we need to get united to Jesus
2. To be fruitful we need to stay with Jesus

1. To be fruitful we need to get united to Jesus
It is only when we are united to Jesus that we can bear authentic fruit. Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener".

It is obvious: To be fruitful we need to be in touch, united to the one who is the giver and source of life. We need to be united to God, to God's son, to Jesus.

So how can we be united to Jesus?

The bible is absolutely clear on this one (Romans 6; Colossians 2): by receiving baptism.

Please, I am not saying that we are united to Jesus because a vicar, or someone, throws water over us.
The significance of baptism is not the external symbol. The significance of baptism is that by being baptised we receive God's washing, God's forgiveness and God's promise of the Holy Spirit and new life.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. He tells them that they are already united to him: like branches in a vine. But he also says in v3: "You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you".

Most of the first disciples, as far as we know, were not baptised by having water thrown over their head. Most of them were not baptised by being immersed in a river. They were baptised when Jesus knelt down and used water to wash their feet. At the time, Peter couldn't accept it: he said, "Lord, you shouldn't be doing this". Jesus says to him: "Peter, if you don't let me wash you, you are not part of me". So Peter says, "Well wash the whole lot of me". "No", says Jesus, "If you have let me wash your feet .. that is enough".

In baptism, in saying yes to Jesus washing us, we are saying yes to what God offers us. We are saying yes to Jesus' word of forgiveness and the promise of the Holy Spirit.

And in receiving baptism (and it does not matter when it happens), a person receives God's NO and God's YES. God's NO - you are dirty, inwardly dirty, and you need to be forgiven. God's YES - His gift of love and forgiveness.

It is very special when a child is baptised - because we are saying that now by faith William is united to Jesus, he is part of the church of God. And we have great joy in this baptism because we know that Claire and Paul will bring him up as a member of the church. And I guess he will grow up knowing Jesus - being a friend of Jesus. He will grow up, and will naturally assume that God loves him and has forgiven him. And one day, when he is 5 or 9 or 15 - we don't know when - he will have to decide whether he wishes to remain receiving Jesus - or move out. But the mark is there. He can always come back and again receive his baptism.

And we are united through Jesus, through baptism - through receiving God's word of forgiveness and God's promise of the Holy Spirit. And when we are united to Jesus, the Son of God, it is as if we are a branch connected to a vine. The sap, the life of the vine flows into us and through us, so that we bear fruit. The life of Jesus flows into us so that we can begin to live the life of Jesus.

2. To be fruitful we need to stay with Jesus.
Jesus says, "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit"
It is all very well to have been united with Jesus in baptism, to have received God's message of love, of forgiveness - but we need to stay in him.
And the way that we stay in him is through obedience: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love" (v10).
And his command: "Love each other as I have loved you". This is much bigger than love of family or friends (the devil loves his own, because it is in his interest to do so). This is about being willing to be crucified so that another person (even your enemy) might get to know the love and forgiveness and new life that God would give them.

Of course, none of us are there. That is why we daily need to go back to our baptism and receive the word that Jesus has spoken: that we are forgiven and that he has promised us his Holy Spirit.
The Christian life is a journey of daily renewal and of daily growth. There will be long periods when it seems we are going in the wrong direction. But as we grow in love, so we discover that this really is the way to live, and we discover joy. "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (v11)

To love really is to live.

So what are the things that really matter? What is this truly effective life we are talking about? What does it mean to be fully human?

It is about loving people the way Jesus did. That is the way that we were made to live.
There is a prayer that Jesus will always answer: "Father help me to love as Jesus loved - I pray this in his name and for his sake". But a warning - he may answer that prayer by making us less successful or by stripping us of things. The reading from John talks about God pruning us.

It was Billy Graham who said, "Mountaintops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valleys".

And no one is too old to bear this fruit. No one is too young. No one is too handicapped
Henri Nouwen wrote, "Living with ... handicapped people, I realize how success-oriented I am. Living with men and women who cannot compete in the worlds of business, industry, sports, or academics but for whom dressing, walking, speaking, eating, drinking, and playing are the main "accomplishments," is extremely frustrating for me. I may have come to the theoretical insight that being is more important than doing, but when asked to just be with people who can do very little I realize how far I am from the realization of that insight. ... Some of us might be productive and others not, but we are all called to bear fruit: fruitfulness is a true quality of love."

It is the way to peace. It is the way, I suggest, to become really effective - not in the world's eyes, but in God's eyes - as a human person. It is the way to joy. It is the way to bear fruit that will last to eternity - no, more than that, it is the fruit that will last to eternity and beyond.

This is my command: Love each other

Friday, 5 May 2006

1 Samuel 3:1-21

1 Samuel 3:1-21

We've heard the story of Samuel. Samuel was the little boy who Hannah so desparately wanted. But, she kept her side of the bargain, and when he was weaned, she took him to the temple. And Samuel became a ward of the temple.

And Samuel learns three lessons

1. God speaks

That is important. If we do not believe that God speaks, then we will not be ready to listen to him.
If Eli did not believe that God speaks, he would not have said what he said to Samuel. He would have told him: "Go back to bed and don't be so silly".

But as Christians we believe in a God who speaks.

The question is, "How does God speak?"

As Samuel lay on his bed at night he heard a voice: it was so real that he thought it was Eli. And then God told him what he was going to do.

Now Samuel is exceptional. He was a prophet. And I don't think that we should expect God to speak to us as he spoke to Samuel - although some people do hear an audible voice.

And God continues to speak.

It is fascinating the way that this chapter begins (v3). The ark was the place of meeting between God and his people. And in the ark was the law: God's message to the people of Israel.

And as Christians, we believe that God has spoken in the past and that God speaks today.

He speaks to us through Jesus.
Writer to the Hebrews says: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son". (1:1)

You might have an inner conviction, an awareness that you need God, a profound thought, a certainty as to what you should be doing, a set of circumstances that just cannot be ignored (I've spoken of the man who was reminded of a single verse in the OT in one day on 6 different occasions by 6 different people), a message you have to speak.
How do I know that it is God's word - and not my word? How do I know that I am hearing God - and not just hearing voices or my own thoughts?

Well, just as Samuel was sleeping next to the ark of the covenant - which contained the law of God - and just as his message had to be tested against the words that God had spoken - so we need to be next to the bible.

Because these are the words that tell us about Jesus
These are the words which teach us what Jesus said
These are the words which show us what Jesus was like
These are the words against which all claims that Jesus has spoken have to be checked

And even if we never have a dream or vision, or voice speaking to us in the night: if we are prepared to listen, then God will speak to us as we spend time with these words.

2. We need to listen

God speaks, but young Samuel has to be taught to listen. Eli tells him, "When the voice calls, say 'Speak Lord, your servant is listening'.

It is significant that in our society, in which so many words are chucked at us, many people feel the need to be silent. One of the criticisms of our services is that there is little time for silence.

And it is because of the many competing voices that we hear - from TV, internet, adverts, opinions, newspapers and magazines, books, preachers and desires - that many people turn to meditation, relaxation exercises, yoga. We wish to put it all to one side.

I remember reading about Tony Adams: smashing up stuff in a pub - being normal. When I wanted to go into a church, to sit down and to be still, they said I was out of my head.

Yes, we need to make time to be still. Christians have been doing it for over two thousand years - it is called prayer; it is the origin of the quiet time.

But it is not just about being quiet. It is about inviting God to come and speak to us: to allow a promise that he has made, a challenge, a reassurance, to reassess where we are in the light of his word.

Being prepared to listen to God is not a question of closing ourselves to the outside world - it is often embodied in the symbol of a figure who has their eyes closed and arms folded. Instead it is about opening ourselves to the One who is so much bigger, who is beyond the world - but who came into the world.

We need to quieten ourselves down, to be ready to listen to the one who has spoken. With Samuel, next to an open bible, we need to say, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening".  

3. When God speaks there is something that we need to do.

God does not just speak in order to bless us with an experience.
He speaks for a purpose.
  • He wishes us to become like Jesus Christ, in both his suffering for others and in his resurrection

  • He wishes, through us, for others to become like Jesus.

  • He wishes for his people to grow together and to become like Jesus

  • He wishes for us to fill us with the mind of Jesus and the love of Jesus and the  destiny of Jesus.

And because of that God takes the initiative - and we need to respond.

Alison and myself have started dancing lessons. For me, it is a terrifying experience. But with the particular dance that we are learning, we are told that the man must take the initiative and the woman responds. I'm not really quite there!

But it is the same with God. God speaks, and we need to respond.

In Samuel's case, God told him something that was not easy. He told him about a judgement that was going to fall on Eli and his family.  

But Eli, with all his faults (and his really big problem was that he turned a blind eye to his sons who were abusing their position as priests of God), was still ready to listen to what God had to say - and he didn't let Samuel get away with not telling him.

Samuel learnt his lessons
He learnt that God speaks: V21 "The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word"
He learnt that he had to listen
He learnt that he had to put into action what God said - even when it was difficult

One of my favourite verses is Deuteronomy 29:29
"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law".