Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

What is the gospel?

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The following is a talk for a children’s prize giving service, where there were lots of kids and I only had 20 minutes. It’s a quiz / message montage experiment!

Sometimes it is easy to over-complicate the gospel and lose sight of its simplicity. How would you summarise it in one sentence?

Simply put it is this: “God sought you beyond all the mess that you might desire him above all the gifts.” Note that God is the active one – he initiates the action; secondly God seeks – we are not the seekers, God is the original missionary, seeking us. Thirdly “beyond the mess” – God is not looking for people who have all the answers. He specialises in the mixed up, confused, failed. Whether we admit it to other people or not, we can hide it from everyone, but not God.

For what purpose does he seek us? To save us from hell? Give us a ticket to heaven? To be happy? To make our lives more fulfilling? No, ultimately He saves us to give us a new passion in life. In Mark 8.34 & 35 we read “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” God wants to give us a greater passion for him than our own selfish desires. A passion for him that exceeds our passion to seek what we want in life.

This is to be our passion, to desire him alone. Greater even than our natural (and right) desires for his good gifts. Many of us never get beyond the gifts – family, security, love, possessions and material blessings. He saves us to desire him above all these things.

That was what the cross was all about, God rescuing a people not just from slavery, but to himself. Want to think about what this means by listening to some of our poets – through their music…but first some disclaimers (slide 3; all slides are available here).

Then I started the quiz, rules are on slide 4. I split the room into the under 18′s and the over 18′s. Each took it in turns to guess the singer, the song (when I read out the lyrics) and the year.

1. Robbie Williams – Candy (2012). Lyrics:  “And if it don’t feel good what are you doing it for?” Comment: Are our feelings the best guide for judging what is right? Feels good = do it; feel bad = don’t bother. This is the exact opposite of Jesus’ call to self-denial and delayed gratification in Mark 8.34. Also read out lyrics from Feel (2002) “I just wanna feel real love, feel the home that I live in. Cos I got too much life running through these veins going to waste.” Comment: We all have a longing for meaning, purpose, acceptance, love from those around us.

2. Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011). Lyrics: “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M, just put your paws up, ’cause you were born this way”. Comment: Are we really perfect as we are? Is the message “you don’t need to change God loves you just as you are”? Jesus said, unless you are born again you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Must be born twice. Someone once said that “God loves you too much to leave you where you are”.

3. Adele – Don’t You Remember (2011). Lyrics: “When was the last time you thought of me, or have you completely erased me from your memory?..But I know I have a fickle heart and a bitterness and a wandering eye and a heaviness in my head.” Comment: We all make mistakes. We all want unconditional love and acceptance. But is that the kind of love we give to others? We build our lives around “the perfect one”, and all of a sudden they are gone. Nothing is certain, nothing lasts forever, yet we yearn for this kind of love.

4. The Script – If You Could See Me Now (2013). Lyrics: “I still look for your face in the crowd, oh if you could see me now. Would you stand in disgrace or take a bow? Oh if you could see me now.” Comment: We all want that acceptance of our family. Deep down we need security. There is nothing wrong with this, if we didn’t get it when we were young, we can spend the rest of our lives doubting others’ love. Can make us struggle to accept the unconditional love of God, which comes as a free gift that we cannot earn.

5. Upsy Daisy – In The Night Garden (2007)…one for the little ones!! No deeper meaning than wanted to give one for the pre-schoolers!

6. Michael Jackson – You Are Not Alone (1995). Lyrics: “You are not alone, for I am here with you. Though we’re far apart, you’re always in my heart. You are not alone.” Comment: We all want to be loved and for that love to always be there. It is a beautiful thing to find it in another person. But the call of God is to seek me above all others. To desire me above everyone else and everything else. Even your kids and wife or husband.

7. Joan Osbourne – One Of Us (1995). Lyrics: “If God had a name, what would it be and would you cal it to his face…What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus tryin’ to make his way home.” Comment: The point is that God was one of us! He had a name, it was Jesus. We can go through life asking the wrong questions. Not realising that the answers are already there. We sit on the fence with our favourite objections and never give God the effort or rigour that we put into choosing which mobile phone to buy.

8. Candi Staton – You’ve Got The Love (1986). Lyrics: “Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air, I know I can count on you. Sometimes I feel like saying “Lord I just don’t care.” But you’ve got the love I need to see me through.” Comment: There is only one person who can help us when life is so tough and rough and messy. And that is the Lord Jesus, who says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

9. Matt Redman – Blessed Be Your Name (2002). Lyrics: “Blessed by your name, on the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering. Blessed be your name.” Comment: Desire is the greatest achievement in our walk with God. Something I am learning more and more in my life: seeking God, praising God, blessing God, should be, needs to be, the one consuming goal of my life. Above every other love, aim, goal or achievement.

10. Charles Wesley - Jesus The Name High Over All (1749). Lyrics: “Happy if with my latest breath, I may but gasp his name. Preach him to all and cry in death: Behold, behold the lamb.” Comment: The greatest desire of my life is God himself, given us through his Son – this is The Greatest Love. His deep, never giving up, never breaking, always pursuing, always patient love. And he calls us to follow him. I also read out And Can It Be? (1738) “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace. Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me.” He offers us the unconditional love and acceptance we crave – through His Son’s bloody death on the cross and his resurrection.

So these are the two ways to live (slide 15). The broad and the narrow, self-centred or God-centred. What I can get vs What I have been given. We are all on one of these paths. If you are not a Christian, not seeking God. He is right here. He offers us acceptance and love that meets our greatest need. He offers us the opportunity to “feel real love for the home that we live in….” Many Christians still wander on the left hand side, we are looking for love and acceptance in the wrong place. The deeper you go in your relationship with God, the less you will need these other pleasures and comforts.

So this is the gospel (slide 16). Life is messy, our own poets have shown us that. God is on the hunt…the mess of our lives won’t stop him. He is ready to pour his love into your heart. He is calling you to leave all the faded hopes behind. “You are not alone…God was one of us.” In Mark 8 Jesus says take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me. Leave the self-centred pathway you were born on, and begin the most glorious adventure there has ever been.

Advice to a new preacher

I have recently been speaking with a good friend who has the opportunity to preach his first sermon. I started to think about all the things that go through my mind when I approach a passage and the pulpit. I thought I would share them with you. So, John this is for you brother!

  1. Preaching simply means to herald – like the angels at Jesus’ birth we are to deliver a message. Its not our responsibility to come up with the message, but it is our responsibility to deliver it in a way our hearers can understand.
  2. Get their attention from the first minute. If you don’t get them then you have to work harder later on. Use your opening minutes to anchor your sermon in the contemporary world. A good introduction is often the hardest part of the whole preparation and I leave it until last. If possible tie the introduction and the conclusion together with the same illustration. But don’t force it, sometimes it works other times it won’t.
  3. Delve into the passage until its message has gripped you and its truth has overwhelmed you. Begin to jot down what you are learning from God. Most of it will not be that profound, but as you work on it, true insights will start to form – make these the focus for your illustrations and application.
  4. Always give a piece of yourself in each message. Preach as Spurgeon said “as a dying man to dying men”. Let the people see that it cost you something to bring a message to them from God.
  5. Strive to be logical in order to convince the mind, but not so much that it becomes a lecture. Strive to move their hearts but not so much that it feels like manipulation. Strive to bring them to a point of confrontation with their sin, but not in a way that sets you above your hearers.
  6. Exegesis, application and passion – like salt, pepper and chilies (!), each must be mixed in the right combination to make the perfect curry. Too much application and your sermon becomes too shallow and man-centred, too little and it becomes abstract and distant. Too much exegesis and you turn your hearers into pupils, too little and you turn yourself into a dictator. Too much passion and your hearers switch off from discomfort, too little and they don’t believe that you believe what you are saying.
  7. I often feel like preparing a sermon is like giving birth (I imagine!). Sometimes it feels like you are making little progress, but persistance and prayer almost always leads to a breakthrough and the effort bears fruit (even if you have to restructure your entire message with a week to go!).
  8. Always seek to hear God’s heart for your text, not your own voice. What does that mean? Well, don’t fit your neat application into a text that it doesn’t fit. Always exegete first (understand what the passage really says), then ask yourself what that means for today. Ask the questions the people in the street are really asking – what would the guy next to me at work think of this? Would he understand it?
  9. Beware of formulas and systems – don’t copy anyone, but learn from the more experienced. No one is so good that you can copy everything or so bad that you can learn nothing.
  10. Strive to live your life ready at each moment to step into the pulpit to stand before God and his people. The cleanliness of personal godliness will bring a secret strength to your message and an obvious anointing before your hearers.
  11. Start with you and the bible only – no commentaries or study guides. Delve into the text on your own before consuling other people’s thoughts, however esteemed they may be. Your bible and prayer are the two greatest weapons in forging a sermon of fire. Other people views can be helpful but they can also distract and divert the development of your thinking.
  12. Immediately after you have preached your heart out beware of the twin devils of pride and self-pity. Give each sermon as an offering, ask God that you might not be raised up by pride or cast down by failure. Your message is a fragrant offering, offered up and then gone forever. Do not seek to hold onto it.
  13. Before you begin spend a moment in silent prayer dedicating yourself to God asking him to make you a flame of fire in his hand.

For a preacher, speaking to people on God’s behalf is the most amazing thing you can ever do – to stand before them with a message from God will demand every ounce of your effort, gifting and character. It takes years to get to the point where we understand ourselves and our calling well enough that we begin to put the pieces together in the right order. But we never stop yearning and streatching for more power, more of the Spirit, more heart-piercing application. It is the hardest task I have ever done, and the most thrilling. If this passion begins to grow in you, then even though it be as small as a grain of sand it may be the beginning of a gifting to teach. Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, just start and you’ll find your own rhythm of preparation and delivery.

Look forward to hearing your message!

Running on Empty

Yesterday I spoke at my home church, Central Baptist Church, Dundee in my series of Postcards from the Prophets on Elijah at Mount Horeb from 1 Kings 19 titled “Running on Empty”. In it I sought to outline Elijah’s external persecution and internal despair along with his encounter with the whispering God. Through it all I sought to understand what Elijah’s experience can teach us in our trials and challenges in the UK today.

The slides are available here and sermon online here or to download here. During the service I also read out an article I wrote last year called “We need the tears of the prophets for a broken nation” – available here.

The God Who Is There

I recently spoke at my church on the next in my series on Elijah. This time Elijah is facing the prophets of Baal, King Ahab and the people of Israel at the top of Mount Carmel. Its a classic passage from Israel’s history and I focussed on 1) A guilty silence (ie the people who refused to respond to Eljah’s challenge for faithfulness), 2) An impotent enemy (the prophets of Baal who couldn’t get their God to show up) and finally 3) The testifying God. On this final point I spoke about how God used the method of fire from heaven to testify to his presence throughout Israel’s history, but challenged us to whether we allowed God to change his methods? I gave a brief apologetic to explain how the UK has no place for supernatural events and why believing in miracles such as these is so hard for people today. I explained how Francis Schaeffer sought to understand and explain these changes back in 1968 in his book The God Who Is There, and what that means for us today. I finished by looking at 1 Timothy 2.5+6 as Jesus is presented here as God’s final testimony – better than fire from heaven, for as God’s character is revealed so his testimony is refined. The sermon is available here as a download, or online here, and slides here.

An Empty Jar and a Broken Heart

Last Sunday I preached on Elijah meeting the widow of Zarepheth from 1 Kings. It was the third in my series of Postcards from the Prophets. The sermon is available here and the slides here.

Famous Last Words

Here is the second in my series of sermons on Postcards from the Prophets, taken from Genesis 49.8-12 and Jacob’s prophecy concerning Judah.

In this message I focussed on how the final words of Jacob to his son Judah were remarkably fulfilled hundreds of years later and why this is relevant to us in the 21st century.

The slides are available here and the audio here.