Monday, 15 December 2014

Another extraordinary but totally normal Sunday morning

I wonder how you think of church?  My hunch is that we tend to get used to it.  It becomes normal and therefore rather than being thankful for it we think of it as mundane.  We often fail to recognise what is really happening as we gather, as we sit, as we pray, as we sing, as we listen to God speak to us, and as we rise to respond.

Yesterday was just another normal day in the life of Grace Church.  If you'd been a fly on the wall you'd have seen people setting up, being welcomed, conversations - both mundane and more spiritually significant - being had, refreshments being served, biscuits and Christmas confectionery being consumed, people singing, praying, the Bible being read, and people listening to God speak.  Children playing, singing, acting, laughing and having fun.  It all looked so ordinary.  The church wasn't packed, we didn't have to get out more seats.

But something extraordinary was happening too.  People who would not normally think to darken the door of a church came, felt welcome, heard the gospel and discovered church wasn't so scary after all.  That actually church was for people like them, that people in church would speak to them, include them and care for their children.

There were no blinding Damascus road conversions, no excited queues of people signing up to do Uncover.  Just barriers to the gospel being put silently aside so that people could more easily meet Jesus again.  But we mustn't underplay that, we mustn't forget how significant that is.  In an area where church has so many negative connotations something extraordinary was happening.  Each person drawn there by God as part of his plan at his timing to hear from him.  Each person there hearing eternal truths of cosmic importance yet applicable to them as individuals.  Our prayer is simply that next Sunday would be another extraordinary but totally normal Sunday in our community coming to know, love and follow Jesus.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Challenges church growth poses

Most of us pray that our churches will grow, we long for it.  We'd love to see more and more people coming to faith in Jesus from our community, families and friends and then joining with us in our church family.  But is loving the idea the same as loving the reality.

We were looking yesterday at Acts 6v1-7 where we see the early church which has grown explosively from 120 to well over 5,000 facing the challenges growth brings.  It is a fascinating and helpful passage for our churches.  It helps us think about potential issues growth might bring and ways to plan for and resolve them.  Because growth brings dangers.  Acts 4-6 shows us the church under threat, in Acts 4 it is the threat of persecution as they are ordered by the Sanhedrin not to teach about Jesus any more.  Then in Acts 5v1-11 it is the threat of internal corruption as Ananias and Sapphire fake a work of the Spirit, and try to counterfeit grace.  Then in Acts 5 we see the threat of escalating persecution as the Apostles are arrested, divinely released and then rearrested and tried, and told not to teach anymore before being flogged and released.  Now in each case the Apostles and the church are not cowed or distracted from preaching the gospel or gathering together.

Then as chapter 6 opens we see a new threat to the church, in many ways perhaps the most dangerous because it is unexpected.  This threat has its genesis in the growth of the church.  As the church grows it gathers those who now follow Jesus from different cultures, and a simple oversight - the badly managed distribution of food by the overstretched apostles - leads to grumbling which threatens to turn difference into division.  The other danger that growth brings for the church is distraction for the Apostles from serving by preaching the word to serving by mercy ministry.  Growth brings pressures, it has with it dangers as well as potential benefits.  But this danger posed by growth also presents an opportunity to plan and re-imagine church so that growth continues.

God through Luke records for us their Spirit inspired way of resolving these pressure points brought about by growth.  The Apostles acknowledge the danger of difference becoming division and resolve that they mustn't be distracted.  The solution is re-imagine church and to appoint others to serve via mercy ministry whilst they focus on preaching and prayer.  Why?  Not because one is more important that the other, both must go hand in hand.  But because preaching the gospel of grace fuels the church.  It is the good news of Jesus taught and grace grasped that sees people won to follow Jesus and join the growing church.  It is the good news of Jesus taught and applied to believers that leads to unity despite difference and prevents those differences widening into division.  And it is the good news of Jesus taught and the growing awareness of God's amazingly gracious and generous love for us as needy people that fuels love and results in practical service of those in need.

What's the result?  A church growing in maturity expressed in unity and service of others at cost to self, and others seeing this gospel fuelled community in action and hearing the gospel which has created this amazing community and responding to the call to follow Jesus and becoming disciples in numbers.

It is so helpful as we aim to be churches taking the gospel of Jesus to a needy world to be aware of the challenges growth will pose.  To ask where are we facing these challenges?  And to reaffirm our commitment to prayerfully teaching the gospel, to be looking to multiply ministers so we can serve others well and care as the gospel calls us to.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Job: a hard slog but worth studying

Earlier this year I set out to read the Bible through at pace, reading for about twenty to thirty minutes a day from Genesis through to Revelation.  As I read it reminded that there are some books of the Bible that I have avoided, not deliberately, but unthinkingly because I just don't get them, I don't get how to teach them, I have not heard great teaching on them, and I find them hard.  One of those was Job.  And so my challenge was that for two months I was going to do a deliberate and detailed study on Job, working my way through reading it with the help of a good pastoral commentary.  I chose Christopher Ash's contribution to the 'Preaching the Word' series.  Having just finished the book and the study I am immensely grateful for the time Christopher Ash has put into the book as I found it very helpful.

It is honest about the books complexities and difficulties but just as honest about our need to understand it as we seek to live for Christ in a broken world.  One of the things I found most helpful and challenging was the exposing of the faulty logic, or 'system', which the three friends base all their advice on.  Tragically so often as Christians we can partially parrot some of this advice when we see others suffering.

Job is a book that confronts us with the brokenness of the world, a world which isn't simple in terms of good stuff happening to good people and bad stuff bad people.  It is a book that confronts us with the sovereignty of God even over Satan who is active but not free to do as he pleases.  Job is a book that constantly calls into question some of our unbiblical suppositions, and throws us back on the majesty of God.  It has not been an easy study, at times I have opened it with a heavy heart, other times I have closed it with a heavier heart, but at the end I am left more sure of the goodness of God and the wonder of his love incarnate in Christ, and aware of my creatureliness in light of his majesty.

Are we on the defensive when it comes to evangelism?

How do you feel when someone starts asking you questions about your faith? ‘How can you believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world?’ ‘How can you believe in the Bible when we now understand so much more about the universe because of science?’ ‘What about other faiths?’ How do you react when someone asks you those sorts of questions? What about when someone mockingly says ‘You don’t believe that do you?’ as if they expected you to be cleverer, or less gullible, or more enlightened. We tend in both those situations to go on the back foot, to go on the defensive, either in our answers or by going quiet. We almost apologetically answer the questions if we know the answer, or we mumble something about ‘finding out’ as we feel got at. Or we come away thinking this is what I wish I’d said.

Those reactions come from a faulty understanding of what is happening when we’re questioned. As we look at Acts 5v12-42 this morning my prayer is that our thinking will be turned on its head. Because we’ll realise that as we’re questioned God is with us, he wants the gospel proclaimed, and he is sovereign even over any hostility we face. And secondly we aren’t on the defensive the world is because it is opposing God and can never win.

God is at work through his people(12-16)Give us an astonishing snapshot of the church gathered and united and its ministry in, and effect on, Jerusalem. Luke highlights the “many signs and wonders” that the apostles are doing. So great is their reputation for doing the miraculous that just like with Jesus people come from all the surrounding towns and bring their sick and possessed(16) and they are healed. In fact there are so many healings that people just long for Peter’s shadow to fall on them(15). Do you remember the purpose of the signs and wonders? (2:22)They were Jesus accreditation by God that he was the Son of God and the Messiah, Saviour and Lord, that God was at work in him and therefore people should listen to his words. Now God is at work through the apostles in just the same way. Accrediting them as his spokesmen by signs and wonders, calling people to listen as they preach about Jesus risen and still at work by his Spirit. Every wonder and sign shows that God is at work through his church and apostles and that he approves of their message, that their message is his good news to the world.

Their signs and wonders and teaching produces a curious but normal set of reactions. People are both fascinated and yet fearful, amazed attracted and afraid. People know the opposition the church faces, they know what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, they can see the power and authority of the apostles, some are amazed and think well of them but are too afraid to join the church(13). But others “more and more men and women” come to faith in Jesus. There’s a curious fascination with the church but a fear of joining for some, but others come to faith. We shouldn’t expect any less, God is at work through his people.

But they aren’t the only reactions(17f). As we’ve seen before the gospel preached always brings two reaction; faith and opposition. (17-18)The high priest and other religious leaders are filled with jealousy, so they arrest the apostles and throw them in jail. But God sends an angel for a prison break and tells the apostles to go back and preach again in the temple courts. Before the confused Sanhedrin have them arrested again and brought to trial.

It’s a slightly comical incident isn’t it? Can you picture it? The jury are all gathered together and told the apostles will be brought out, the captain of the guard is sent to get them. But they aren’t there and a confused captain reports back that the jailed is tightly locked up, the guards are still stood at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no-one inside(23-24). No wonder everyone’s puzzled. No trick brick in the wall that opens a secret passage, no tunnel dug with a spoon, no insider among the guards. They are just gone, disappeared, it’s as if they were never there in the first place.

And then it just gets stranger, because where are they? They are back where they were originally arrested, preaching about Jesus in the temple courts, and so they are rearrested and brought before the Sanhedrin.

We have to ask why did God free them? When the Sanhedrin put them in prison for the night what were they intending to do the next morning? Put them on trial. God releases them but notice they still end up on trial the next morning. Nothing really changes for all their miraculous escape. So why did God do it? Why the temporary get out of jail free card? Why not tell them to run? Why send them back where they would get caught again?

There are two reasons. Firstly God is showing the Sanhedrin that they aren’t in control. God is and he is at work through the apostles and will decide what happens to them and when and where, not the Sanhedrin. And secondly God is showing that he wants the gospel proclaimed, God frees the apostles and sends them back out to “tell the people about this new life.” Sharing the gospel is God’s work, the apostles aren’t alone against opposition God is at work, God is with them, they are on his mission and he isn’t a silent partner or uninvolved. God Father Son and Spirit are invested in taking the good news to the world.

The Sanhedrin can only do what God allows them to do. Their power is limited. They can’t keep them in jail, they can’t arrest them by force because they fear the people. God is at work. Can you imagine the encouragement that gave the apostles as they went to face the Sanhedrin, God is sovereign, he wants the gospel preached, he is at work in us by his Spirit and he is sovereign over even the opposition, they can do nothing he doesn’t permit.

But there’s one other thing we need to see here. God is answering his people’s prayers. Do you remember their prayer(4:29-30)? Here God answers it as he empowers them to perform signs and wonders and to speak boldly, as he encourages them to do so.

Do you see how that transforms our thinking as we take the good news of Jesus to a needy world. God is at work in the church – we don’t just gather out of habit, we gather expecting God to be at work. That means when we gather together we should expect to hear from others how God has been at work in their lives and in our lives together. When we pray for God’s help in his mission to make the gospel known we should expect God to answer.

It means that as we share the gospel with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues we’re not alone. God wants Jesus proclaimed to the world, that’s why Father, Son and Spirit planned for Jesus to come and die and rise again so that the world might find life with God in him. So that people could be resurrected from being spiritually dead and given Jesus life and relationship with the Father. That’s why Jesus sent the Spirit, (Acts 1:8)the Spirit comes to enable and empower his people, us, to be his witnesses. God is with us as we share the gospel, God is with us as we answer out friends questions, God is with us as we face those who mock us for our faith, God is with us in their reaction whether it is hostile or trusting Jesus.

And God is sovereign even over opposition and how that shows itself. They can do nothing that God does not permit them to do. That doesn’t mean there will be no suffering as we share the gospel. Sometimes we may get the equivalent of the get out of jail free card, but other times that will mean suffering for sharing the gospel as in(40). But God is for his people, he wants Jesus to be made known, he is sovereign and he’s at work through his people.

To oppose the gospel is to fight against God(27-40)Why are the Sanhedrin so angry with the apostles? There are three reasons(28). The apostles disobeyed their charge to stop teaching the people. They are angry about the spread of the message they “have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” that Jesus is Saviour and Lord. Thirdly the Apostles are “determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

How would you react to being put on trial on those charges? Peter doesn’t go on the defensive. He turns the tables and puts the Sanhedrin on trial. (30)The Sanhedrin want the apostles to disobey God and they won’t. The Sanhedrin are opposed to God because God raised Jesus whom they killed to life and God has declared Jesus to be Prince or ruler and Saviour. In Jesus there is forgiveness if people repent and the Sanhedrin won’t accept him, and (32)they are ignoring all the evidence and the eye witnesses. In short the church is now the people of God and the apostles the leaders of God’s people. The Sanhedrin is in opposition to God.

(33)The Sanhedrin’s reaction is no surprise is it. They just want to kill the apostles. But God sovereignly intervenes again, at work even in the Sanhedrin through the actions of those who oppose him. Gamaliel speech is the key to this chapter really, especially(38-39). Other groups have come and gone, they didn’t last he says “Therefore, in the present case I advise you; leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Acts charts the proof that it is from God. As the gospel spreads and more and more people come to faith, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Gamaliel’s words are proven true – God is at work and opposing the gospel and the church is opposing God himself.

Again we need to realize that and adjust our thinking so that we live in the light of it. God is at work in the gospel and through his church. To oppose it is to oppose God and there will only ever be one winner. The church is unrelenting, it endures even though it faces opposition from without and within. That must change our thinking, it isn’t us on the defensive it’s the world on the defensive.

As a church as we take the gospel to our community and family and friends in the run up to Christmas we are to expect both acceptance and rejection. But we can confidently hold out the gospel because God is at work, God is with us, the gospel is God’s good news he wants the world to hear and we participate in his mission. And to oppose God’s church is to oppose God.

History tells us that. Under communism in the last century the Chinese governments aim was to eradicate Christianity, yet today more Christians will meet together in church in China than in the whole of Europe. That same growth despite persecution happened in Romania and other countries that were behind the Iron Curtain. It is happening today in places where persecution continues to be the norm. To oppose the church and the gospel it holds out is to oppose God and you cannot win.

We don’t need to feel defensive, we need to pray and go trusting God, empowered by the Spirit.

And do you see the confidence these two facts bring the Apostles. God is at work through his people as they join in his mission of making Jesus known. And to oppose the gospel is to oppose God. (40-42)Even as they suffer for the gospel, they know events are not out of God’s control. In fact they count the dishonour of being flogged an honour because the stripes of their flogging echo those of their saviour. “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” And they never stop teaching and proclaiming Jesus as Saviour and Lord(42). They don’t take a step back, they don’t retreat, they don’t go on the defensive. Because God is at work and is for his people and they treasure God above all else.

Isn’t that helpful. Isn’t that encouraging. Shouldn’t that change our thinking. We’re not alone, we’re not on the defensive. God is at work through his people taking his message about Jesus to a world in need and we have the privilege of cooperating in his mission. God is with us by the Spirit and it is his powerful message about his Son that we have to share. And opposition is futile, they can do no more than he allows, because you can’t fight against God and win.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why we do what we do at Christmas

I was outlining the upcoming plans for Christmas:  A Nativity service on the 14th Dec, an impromptu Nativity Service on 21st Dec, a Christmas Eve Carol service, and a Christmas Morning Service.  When someone asked me why we do what we do?  Why have two nativity services?  Why do a service on Christmas Eve?  Well here's my reasoning:

The Nativity service is when the Sunday school children put on their Christmas play/nativity.  There are a number of reasons why we do this:  Firstly it's a great chance for the church family to allow the children to serve us, and for us to show our appreciation and love for them.  Evangelistically this is the service non believing family members are most likely to come to, be it dad or mum, or Aunt and Uncles or Grandparents.  We've had them all the in the past and we want to make the most of that gospel opportunity as we share the good news of Jesus, God with us.

So why have an Impromptu Nativity Service.  This service is a bit more wacky I guess.  Very simply anyone can come along and play a part in the Nativity, it is more light hearted and fun, and we have a very gifted young lady in church we writes great scripts for this.  It takes a lot of improvising, last year one of King Herod's henchmen was batman, and you never know how many shepherds, kings, Josephs and angels you are going to get.  Why do we do it?  We have friends who come every year with their children dressed up to play different parts and who love it, we hope it'll become a tradition in the community.  It is light hearted and helps show those who come that we love to have fun.  But again it provides an opportunity for people to come along and hear the gospel taught.

Why Christmas Eve?  This is the first year we've run this service so I may think differently about it by the 27th, but the theory goes something like this.  We have had a number of people from the community ask us if we do a Christmas Eve midnight service.  Whilst we are not going that far, ours is at 5pm, we are hoping that it becomes something of a traditional way to mark Christmas Eve for our community.  It'll be traditional with lots of Carols, Christmas readings and a 7-10 minute talk.  We are praying that this service will include all those who've been to the two above and others from the surrounding area.  Unlike in many middle class areas most folks in our area aren't away over Christmas, they are here.  So we'll pray and we'll trust God and do it.

Why Christmas Morning?  What better way than to start Christmas (well 6 hours in for those whose children will be up around 4am) than singing God's praise and reminding everyone what christmas is really about.  And there is real joy in being able to do that with your church family too.

So there we are, that's why we are doing what we are doing over Christmas.  Please be praying for gospel fruit as people meet Jesus.

Can't stop listening to this

I came across this reworking of God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen at the weekend and I can't stop humming it...  Brilliant.



Monday, 17 November 2014

The tragedy of watching life on a loop

Sometimes it feels as if life is merely a repeating series of cycles, but then I guess if you've read Ecclesiastes you'd expect that to be the case.  One of the great frustrations is watching people repeat the mistakes of others without recognising that they are doing so.

I guess the area where this most commonly happens is in a gradual drift.  First of all you begin missing a few things because of work commitments or family things.  Soon with a promotion or change of hours you find you "can't" make home group.  Then something happens and you miss a few Sundays.  But when people raise concerns you reassure them that you are fine, that your personal relationship with God is strong.  But as the pattern continues and you drift out to the fringe of church, increasingly giving up serving others or investing in your church family, you gradually begin to feel not part of things and your heart begins to cool towards God.

The tragedy is not just that this happens but that the bible so often warns us against it.  In the parable of the Sower we see one seed that grows up and looks good initially before getting choked by the cares and worries of this life.  Or we read in Timothy of Demas who has deserted the work of the gospel because he loved this world.  Or we read the book of Hebrews, a whole book inspired by the Spirit filled author, addressing this issue of gradual drift and the dangers inherent in it.  And yet whenever I have spoken as pastor to someone about this issue they conclude that that isn't them, that somehow they are immune from that danger.  But all the while I am speaking to them I am aware of that danger in me, that any of us can find our devotion to Jesus choked and challenged and ultimately overturned.

Watching this process happening and all your warnings being ignored is painful and frustrating.  You know what is coming but feel powerless to stop it, and you pray God would warm their heart before it is too late, as they ignore the loving outstretched arms of the church family towards them.

It's partly a result of our over individualised culture.  Maybe the church is partially to blame too as we teach people about their 'personal relationship with God' when we should be emphasising our corporate relationship with God.  Believers need each other.  The moment we start to think we don't need our church family and that they don't need us we have laid the theological foundation for drifting and spiritual shipwreck.