When SAS came to church

I recently did an all-age service at church, for both the adults and kids, from week 10 of The Story. I used 7 words to spell out the message, the kids opened up envelopes and had to figure out what each word was – this is a summary of my message:

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28:  Daniel Sturridge (R) of Liverpool is congratulated by teammate Luis Suarez (L) after scoring his team's third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield on January 28, 2014 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Many people are fascinated by the SAS – no I don’t mean the Special Air Service, but they are pretty exciting, neither do I mean Suarez and Sturridge – Liverpool’s goal machine last season…no I am talking about Samuel and Saul. These two are two of the biggest characters in this period of the Old Testament. Their lives are intertwined and their different personalities and spiritual devotion provide the light and shade of the books of Samuel and Kings.

One word to summarise Samuel? Devotion – learnt from his mother, he was 100% committed to his God. One word for Saul? Impulsive – evidence throughout his life he made pragmatic decisions on the spur of the moment that often got him into trouble. The immovable Samuel and the impulsive Saul…they had some memorable meetings! Samuel is driven by faithfulness and loyalty, Saul by fear and jealousy. Open the envelope, break the seal…

1. SAM 

Let’s look at Samuel first, or Sam as we have called him here. Samuel was the son of Hannah – a son of prayer and promise. Samuel grew up at the feet of the priests in the temple of God. From his earliest days he learnt the ways of God – he even heard God speak directly to him. Remember what happened? He thought it was Eli, three time he went to Eli, until eventually the old man realised God was speaking to him. As he grew up God guided him and protected his words, so that he was respected by all as a prophet and priest for the nation – to provide spiritual leadership to the nation.

2. SAD

But as Sam grew older it became clear that things were not right in Israel. This chosen nation that had been taken out of Egypt and planted in the promised land was withering. The people were tired of being told what to do by the judges, they wanted someone more impressive to lead them than old Sam, whose sons were not of the same character as him. They looked around and saw  the other nations had something they thought they did not – a king. God had been their king, leading them into battle, fighting for them, protecting them, and Samuel was their priest and prophet. Now they were rejecting God as their king and so they asked Samuel to give them a king like the rest of the tribes. This made Samuel very sad, but it was really God their king they were rejecting. 

3. ANOINT

So God let the people break the kingly bond between them and him – he warned them what a king would require of them and how a king would trade their best land and sons and daughters…but they still wanted him. The sign of a king was the anointing oil poured over his head, this signified the blessing of God being poured out onto the person and the setting aside of their life for a special purpose. It was Samuel’s job to anoint the new king. God tells Sam to anoint the person he points to – someone who would look like the other kings around them.

4. SAUL

Head and shoulders above the rest, Saul was an impressive young man. Although initially shy and reluctant, Saul finds his boldness when one of the cities is threatened. So, a promising start for the new king. But as is often the case power goes to our heads and things quickly fall apart and under pressure Saul makes some bad impulsive decisions. But worse than that, not just bad decisions, but sinful decisions. Decisions that reveal where his heart really lies – and show that selfishness and pride lie at the heart of this man. Saul was impressive on the outside but weak inside…he obeyed as long as it was comfortable.

5. SIN

On two occasions Saul disobeys God – first in offering an unauthorised sacrifice when he got fed up waiting for Samuel to come and offer them before his battle with the Philistines. And then by keeping alive the King of the Amalekites and the best cattle and sheep when God had ordered it all to be destroyed. In the first incident Saul oversteps his rightful authority to encroach on Samuel’s Territory – driven by the fear of man, rather than the fear of God. In the second he allows his pride to decide what bits of God’s law he should obey. He sets his own will above that of God, and he pays the price. 

Here Saul is a picture of all of mankind – doing what we think is right, editing out the bits of God’s law we don’t find convenient, obeying him as long as we don’t look foolish in front of people. This king cannot help us, because he is just like us.

6. TORN

Finally Sam confronts Saul and tells him that God has rejected him as king – that he cannot continue under the blessing of God and his sons will not continue the monarchy. In his haste Saul grabs Samuel’s coat and as Sam turns away he tears it – this is what God has done to his anointing – torn it up! You see Saul had been torn between the fear of man and the fear of God, he had been torn between convenience and obedience…and had made the wrong choice each time. His heart was torn between the love of the world and the love of God, now his kingly reign on this world was torn away by God.

So the kingdom is taken away from Saul – not right then, he still remained king for many years, desperately holding onto his throne against the young upstart called David, who we will meet next week. And Saul is very sad by how popular David becomes – jealousy and hatred overwhelm Saul in his later years. He lived from a place of fear…fear of losing his position, of being exposed and replaced, the seed of destruction had been sown and time was running out. Saul would eventually run out of options and desperately seek Sam out even after he had died, and find that the end was nigh. More than that his beloved Jonathan would also die with him and the kingly line be extinguished. 

So for us the consequences of our sin take time to appear, right back in the garden Adam and Eve were told they would die if they disobeyed, but they ate and nothing happened…immediately. But the egg timer had started to pour and their death was certain.

7. RETURN (of the king)

What would God do? The people had rejected God as their king and Saul had failed God. He would find a king who would be someone with his character, a man after God’s own heart. But even this king would fail. Ultimately He would take back that kingly role to himself, one day…one day another king would come, one who would honour God above all else, who would not fear the disapproval of man, or the suffering of obedience. 

God would unite the role of prophet, priest and king in one person, one man. The king would arrive in Israel while they were sleeping and he would return the union between God and his people. He would rescue and redeem them, not through war as Saul did, but through sacrificing himself. King Jesus, the true king, never flinching, never wavering, never compromising. 

You see not only did the Israelites reject God as their king, we too rejected God as our rightful king. We by nature rebelled against his rule over our hearts and said…”we will not have this man to rule over us”. If you are a Christian this morning you have bowed the knee willingly to this king, and pledged allegiance to him. We have given him our hearts, lives, everything we have, and found that he is a king we can trust, a king we can exalt and worship. Will you worship him today? Will you let him restore what has been torn and remove the sin in our hearts?

I see no scullery maid!

eleanor-tomlinson-poldarkThe following post is a summary of a message I gave a couple of weeks back from Week 6 of The Story:

“If you have been here recently you will know that we have seen the birth of a new nation ‐ right back to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, through the birth of the promised child Isaac, through the growth of the nation in Egypt and their exodus from Egypt to now being a tribe of well over one million people. There are two census in Numbers and each one comes in at just over 600,000 men aged over 20 years old.

Up until now God has spoken to one person at a time, be that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph, how would he guide and lead a tribe >1,000,000 people? The promises are starting to be fulfilled, but what happens next? Some sort of order and structure is needed to organise this mass of people, some system of living is essential to prevent anarchy.

You can see all the yellow blocks below shows all the chapters about laws and regulations that God gives them. God tells them how he wants them to worship him, what they should eat, what to wear, how to fight, how to celebrate… etc. In the past people could claim ignorance and say they didn’t know any better ‐ not any more. Very little of life would be not be covered now.

Numbers Explored pic 1

But things were not as simple as one would hope. External enemies and internal resistance marred the progress of the Israelites becoming God’s people acting in accordance with his plan. The story of Numbers is the story of opposition ‐ opposition to the will of God for his people. We see scene after scene of failure to follow God in faith and trust. Every step forward seemed to be accompanied by another step backwards or sideways.

Numbers Explored pic 2

As soon as they leave Sinai we see the Israelites demonstrating every human, even natural weakness ‐ hunger, envy, fear, jealousy, thirst, impatience & sexual immorality. We see God’s provision and protection being constantly questioned, we see Moses’ leadership being repeatedly challenged and we see God judging and showing mercy to his fickle people…not much has changed has it? Are we so different? These are the results of a divine perfection colliding with imperfect sinners.

Through it all God was looking to find out if his people would trust him, if they would trust in his protection and provision and follow him obediently. God through Moses sets out the way to life before them ‐ all the yellow blocks… he says blessings will come if you obey, and curses will come if you disobey.

So what do we need to learn from all this? Deuteronomy 30.1 – when all these blessings and curses come upon you…ie some time in the future, when you come back in repentance, then God promises to circumcise their hearts in v6 so that we can love him with all our hearts…V 15‐19. When God says to you obey my law and you will live, we should respond “I cannot do it, I am too sinful, too weak. I chose not to live by the law. If keeping the law is the only way to life then I am going it die. My heart desires to obey, but my will is too corrupt, my emotions too fickle…give me another way or I am completely undone.”

Look at Romans 7.7-13 – the law teaches us that we cannot keep the law, it reveals sin in us. It is good in itself, but by its very goodness and our badness, the law brings us to our spiritual knees. And when we are on our knees finally, because we have failed over and over and over again and look up, what do we see? We see a dying Saviour, giving his blood to give us an alternative to living by the law…through a righteousness apart from the law. This is what the Israelites couldn’t understand, that the law could never make them right with God. Abraham believed God and it was credited as righteousness.

Later on in Romans 10.5-10.  Paul is deliberately putting these two passages alongside each other and saying Moses sets down a righteousness by law, Christ the righteousness by faith. So many Christians get this all mixed up, we don’t understand our relationship to the law. So many of us still live by the law, thinking that we will be accepted if we just try a bit harder. We must receive as a gift what we could never earn as a payment.

It reminds me of Poldark ‐ one episode he marries his scullery maid Demelza (a big scandal!) and after the wedding she goes back to scrubbing the floors and cleaning the pots. She hasn’t realised she is his wife now, she is still serving her master rather than loving her beloved. Eventually she learns how to be his wife, and even others notice ‐ at a ball one of the older ladies asks “who is that young person, quite lovely don’t you think”…”That’s Demelza, Ross’ wife”…”The scullery maid!” she replies with a look of horror. She has grown up so much that one of them turns to the other and says ‐ “I see no scullery maid Ma’ma!”

That is what God wants for his church. Faith in a promise, not my performance. He looks at us this morning and says to us I see no scullery maid! I see my  bride. Deuteronomy 30.19 vs Romans 10.9 the word of obedience vs the word of faith. Choose which one you will serve today ‐ choose faith, choose grace, choose life.

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.