Monthly Archives: May 2008

Sunday’s Sermon: Obedience – The Punch Line To The Sermon On The Mount

Well, I haven't as hoped made it to the 'impartation meeting' at Meadgate Church tonight. I had to finish Sunday's sermon this evening for family reasons, and didn't do so until a long time after the Meadgate meeting began.

Matthew
7:21-29

Introduction
Have you ever sneaked a look at the end of a book? A friend of mine once told
me he had a short cut to getting the best out of reading reviews: he read the
first paragraph and the last. Equally, sometimes I find myself reading an
article in a magazine, and I cover up the end of the piece, so that I don’t
suddenly see the punch line and thus lose the impact.

Today’s Lectionary Gospel reading gives us the punch line of
the Sermon on the Mount. If you wanted to know what it was all about and just
went to the end, you would read these verses. If you want to know why Matthew
put all these teachings of Jesus together into this block we call the Sermon on
the Mount, here is why.

And that punch line is about the importance of obedience. If
we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then obedience is central and critical. The
reading moves through three phases to get the point across.

1. Obedience Is Central
I don’t know about you, but for years I’ve struggled with the words of Jesus
that open this reading. How can Jesus tell people who call him ‘Lord, Lord’ to
depart from him, because he never knew them? Wasn’t confessing Jesus as Lord
the earliest Christian creed? Wasn’t that what marked out people as followers
of Jesus, in distinction to calling the Roman emperor ‘Lord’?

And what about the prophesying and casting out of demons?
Jesus expected his followers would do these things, and they are common
occurrences in the Acts of the Apostles. So how is it that people who are doing
the very thing Jesus expects of them are sent away from his presence at the
Last Judgment?

And if these people were prophesying and casting out demons
without being in a vital relationship with Jesus, does that make spiritual
power, the power of the Holy Spirit, even, just some kind of commodity?

I think it comes down to this. It’s possible to say ‘Lord,
Lord’ and for it just to be words. It’s easy enough to sing the words of our
hymns, but not mean them. Some of the staunchest defenders I’ve ever met of
Wesley’s hymns have been those with the least interest in believing what Wesley
believed, and in sharing the experience of God that he had. It’s possible to
say the creeds and the prayers without it ever translating into radical
obedience to the One whom we call ‘Lord’.

As to the prophesying and casting out of demons, maybe the
issue Jesus has here is something like this: are we committed just to random acts of
kindness, or to radical, day-by-day obedience to the teaching of Jesus? Because
if we are, what would it look like?

I’ve mentioned in the church newsletter[1]
that there is something controversial and allegedly remarkable happening in the
town of Lakeland, Florida right now. A Canadian evangelist called Todd Bentley began conducting some meetings
on 2nd April. They have had to keep extending the meetings and
moving to larger premises. There are thousands of claims of remarkable
healings, even of people being raised from the dead. The last thing I want to
do is be cynical about this, and I dearly hope that the accounts are largely
true, but if this really is the ‘revival’ that many are claiming it is, I shall
expect to see more than healings and resurrections.

More than healings and resurrections? Yes. I shall expect to
see people pooling their possessions to help the poor. I shall expect to see people
feeding the hungry. I shall expect to see Christians being active peacemakers
in their societies, and forgiving their enemies. All this in addition to
healings and resurrections, because these too are signs of sold out obedience
to Jesus Christ.

What does that have to do with us? We’re not seeing amazing
miracles happen. Christianity is quite ordinary and down to earth for most of
us. Yet we face a similar danger. Is there something glamorous or exciting that
seeks to take our attention in place of the obedience we should be giving Jesus
Christ? What good or worthy thing gets in the way of our obedience?

It’s instructive to note that Jesus says, ‘I never knew you;
away from me, you evildoers’ (verse 23). Those of us who don’t practice
regular, daily, frequent obedience to Christ are people who don’t know him, and
whom he doesn’t know. To know Jesus is to obey him. If we know Jesus as Lord,
we shall do what he wants. Obedience is central to being a disciple of him.

2. Obedience Is
Wisdom

Having seen that obedience is central, even essential, to following Jesus, we
now hear that obedience is wisdom. In
the story of the two house builders, one builds on rock and the other on sand. The
one who builds on sand is foolish, but the one who builds on rock is wise. What
is the wisdom of this builder? Jesus tells us at the opening of the parable:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (Verse 24)

Obedience to Jesus – hearing his words and acting on them –
is wisdom. You may think you’re not very clever, but that isn’t the same as
wisdom. Not everybody can be clever, but we can all be wise. Biblical wisdom is
obedience to Jesus. The simplest of folk can be wise. We just have to hear the words
of Jesus and do them. It doesn’t require
degrees, qualifications, or eloquence with words. It just needs a willingness
to listen to Jesus and transmit that to our hands and feet.

But to many, following the teaching of Jesus doesn’t seem
like wisdom at all. Why forgive or care for the weak when you can trample on
people all the way to your destiny at the top of the pile? Why give generously
when you can build up riches for yourself? Why make peace when violence will
secure what you want? This isn’t wisdom, is it? Surely, it’s an exercise in
foolishness. It’s shooting yourself in the foot.

Actually, no. To obey Jesus is to saw wood along the grain
of the universe. To obey Jesus is to navigate in the direction of eternity. And
because of that, when the storms of life hit (and Jesus doesn’t exempt us from them),
we’ll remain standing.

Several of you commented on last
week’s sermon
about trusting and seeking God’s kingdom rather than worrying
about money. I talked about how tough things
had been for us financially, yet God had seen us through. This week, Scottish Power put up our monthly
direct debit for gas and electricity by around thirty pounds a month. It didn’t
do much for my stress levels! But it was a time to remember that going the way
of Jesus is the right thing to do, and that he will see us through this latest
storm, too. I’ve still started to do the sensible things like looking into
whether we should change energy supplier, and where we might be able to cut
back our energy consumption, but in the face of the storm we will stand,
provided we concentrate on hearing the words of Jesus and doing them.

So keep obeying Jesus. Whatever the storms bring and
whatever the world may say, you are going in the right direction. Obedience is
eternal wisdom.

3. Obedience Is True
Success

As the song asks, ‘What
is success
?’ The church has been asking that question for a long time. In the
face of numerical decline, social apathy and hostility from leading atheists,
many churches would love a sniff of success. When a church has a success story,
the minister becomes in demand. Conferences book him or her as a speaker, she
or he writes a book, and people flock to the church to see what the fuss is all
about and whether they can translate any of the ideas into their situation.

Note, however, the sign of ‘success’ here in Jesus’ ministry:

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and
not as their scribes. (Verses 28-29)

When Jesus began the sermon, he was only addressing his
disciples, but now he has the crowds. And it’s the fact that he teaches ‘as one
having authority’. The authority of Jesus’ teaching draws the crowds. Of course,
at other times they will leave him, because that same authoritative teaching
will put them off. But Jesus will never compromise. His only desire is to
please his Father, and that means delivering his teaching in word and deed.

What’s the message for us here? Drop the gimmicks, and
concentrate on obeying Jesus. Don’t worry about the latest fads and fashions; focus
on hearing Jesus and doing what he says.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t modernise, I’m not saying we
should stay with our beloved traditions. I’m saying that substance has to take
precedence over style. The substance of Christian discipleship is obedience to
Jesus. We can decide to follow all sorts of paths in expressing our faith, but
unless we have the core issue resolved, namely that we shall follow Jesus, then
all the rest of it, ancient or modern, is on a par with the emperor’s new
clothes.

Often in the face of church decline, people have responded
to new ways of doing church by saying, ‘We’re not called to be successful, but
we are called to be faithful.’ Well, that is true, but the problem comes in
defining what constitutes being faithful. We may hear it said that so-and-so is
faithful, but that may only mean that they are regular! Being faithful for the
Christian is about consistent obedience to Jesus Christ, and nothing less. It’s
also what God considers success.

So it’s incumbent upon preachers like me to share with you
what Jesus teaches, rather than spout forth personal opinions. If a preacher is
merely entertaining, do not entertain them. If a preacher makes the teaching of
Jesus come alive, listen intently and follow through with your actions
afterwards.

And it’s incumbent upon all of us to find ways of listening
to Jesus and responding to him. That’s why I favour the small group so much. John
Wesley put converts into small groups so that they could talk every week about
the joys and struggles of following Jesus, holding one another accountable. It’s
the place where we can thrash out together what a Bible passage means, and explore
how we might put it into practice. Because if we don’t do that, we’ll never ‘succeed’
in the eyes of God.

Conclusion
I began by talking about the punch line to the Sermon on the Mount. The problem
with talking like that is that it sounds like I’m talking about a joke, when
this is deeply serious.

No, obedience isn’t a joke. It can call on considerable
courage. But it is also a matter of joy. There is joy in obeying Christ. We
know that the demands seem tough, when set in opposition to our self-centred
tendencies. But when we allow Jesus to win in our lives, there is joy in the
satisfaction of having obeyed him. Not that we glorify ourselves, of course:
Jesus must receive all the praise.

So, let us be joyful in obedience. It is central to our
faith, it is true wisdom, and it is God’s plumb line of success.


[1]
And frequently on the blog in the last fortnight!

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Sunday’s Sermon: Obedience – The Punch Line To The Sermon On The Mount

Well, I haven't as hoped made it to the 'impartation meeting' at Meadgate Church tonight. I had to finish Sunday's sermon this evening for family reasons, and didn't do so until a long time after the Meadgate meeting began.

Matthew
7:21-29

Introduction
Have you ever sneaked a look at the end of a book? A friend of mine once told
me he had a short cut to getting the best out of reading reviews: he read the
first paragraph and the last. Equally, sometimes I find myself reading an
article in a magazine, and I cover up the end of the piece, so that I don’t
suddenly see the punch line and thus lose the impact.

Today’s Lectionary Gospel reading gives us the punch line of
the Sermon on the Mount. If you wanted to know what it was all about and just
went to the end, you would read these verses. If you want to know why Matthew
put all these teachings of Jesus together into this block we call the Sermon on
the Mount, here is why.

And that punch line is about the importance of obedience. If
we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then obedience is central and critical. The
reading moves through three phases to get the point across.

1. Obedience Is Central
I don’t know about you, but for years I’ve struggled with the words of Jesus
that open this reading. How can Jesus tell people who call him ‘Lord, Lord’ to
depart from him, because he never knew them? Wasn’t confessing Jesus as Lord
the earliest Christian creed? Wasn’t that what marked out people as followers
of Jesus, in distinction to calling the Roman emperor ‘Lord’?

And what about the prophesying and casting out of demons?
Jesus expected his followers would do these things, and they are common
occurrences in the Acts of the Apostles. So how is it that people who are doing
the very thing Jesus expects of them are sent away from his presence at the
Last Judgment?

And if these people were prophesying and casting out demons
without being in a vital relationship with Jesus, does that make spiritual
power, the power of the Holy Spirit, even, just some kind of commodity?

I think it comes down to this. It’s possible to say ‘Lord,
Lord’ and for it just to be words. It’s easy enough to sing the words of our
hymns, but not mean them. Some of the staunchest defenders I’ve ever met of
Wesley’s hymns have been those with the least interest in believing what Wesley
believed, and in sharing the experience of God that he had. It’s possible to
say the creeds and the prayers without it ever translating into radical
obedience to the One whom we call ‘Lord’.

As to the prophesying and casting out of demons, maybe the
issue Jesus has here is something like this: are we committed just to random acts of
kindness, or to radical, day-by-day obedience to the teaching of Jesus? Because
if we are, what would it look like?

I’ve mentioned in the church newsletter[1]
that there is something controversial and allegedly remarkable happening in the
town of Lakeland, Florida right now. A Canadian evangelist called Todd Bentley began conducting some meetings
on 2nd April. They have had to keep extending the meetings and
moving to larger premises. There are thousands of claims of remarkable
healings, even of people being raised from the dead. The last thing I want to
do is be cynical about this, and I dearly hope that the accounts are largely
true, but if this really is the ‘revival’ that many are claiming it is, I shall
expect to see more than healings and resurrections.

More than healings and resurrections? Yes. I shall expect to
see people pooling their possessions to help the poor. I shall expect to see people
feeding the hungry. I shall expect to see Christians being active peacemakers
in their societies, and forgiving their enemies. All this in addition to
healings and resurrections, because these too are signs of sold out obedience
to Jesus Christ.

What does that have to do with us? We’re not seeing amazing
miracles happen. Christianity is quite ordinary and down to earth for most of
us. Yet we face a similar danger. Is there something glamorous or exciting that
seeks to take our attention in place of the obedience we should be giving Jesus
Christ? What good or worthy thing gets in the way of our obedience?

It’s instructive to note that Jesus says, ‘I never knew you;
away from me, you evildoers’ (verse 23). Those of us who don’t practice
regular, daily, frequent obedience to Christ are people who don’t know him, and
whom he doesn’t know. To know Jesus is to obey him. If we know Jesus as Lord,
we shall do what he wants. Obedience is central to being a disciple of him.

2. Obedience Is
Wisdom

Having seen that obedience is central, even essential, to following Jesus, we
now hear that obedience is wisdom. In
the story of the two house builders, one builds on rock and the other on sand. The
one who builds on sand is foolish, but the one who builds on rock is wise. What
is the wisdom of this builder? Jesus tells us at the opening of the parable:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (Verse 24)

Obedience to Jesus – hearing his words and acting on them –
is wisdom. You may think you’re not very clever, but that isn’t the same as
wisdom. Not everybody can be clever, but we can all be wise. Biblical wisdom is
obedience to Jesus. The simplest of folk can be wise. We just have to hear the words
of Jesus and do them. It doesn’t require
degrees, qualifications, or eloquence with words. It just needs a willingness
to listen to Jesus and transmit that to our hands and feet.

But to many, following the teaching of Jesus doesn’t seem
like wisdom at all. Why forgive or care for the weak when you can trample on
people all the way to your destiny at the top of the pile? Why give generously
when you can build up riches for yourself? Why make peace when violence will
secure what you want? This isn’t wisdom, is it? Surely, it’s an exercise in
foolishness. It’s shooting yourself in the foot.

Actually, no. To obey Jesus is to saw wood along the grain
of the universe. To obey Jesus is to navigate in the direction of eternity. And
because of that, when the storms of life hit (and Jesus doesn’t exempt us from them),
we’ll remain standing.

Several of you commented on last
week’s sermon
about trusting and seeking God’s kingdom rather than worrying
about money. I talked about how tough things
had been for us financially, yet God had seen us through. This week, Scottish Power put up our monthly
direct debit for gas and electricity by around thirty pounds a month. It didn’t
do much for my stress levels! But it was a time to remember that going the way
of Jesus is the right thing to do, and that he will see us through this latest
storm, too. I’ve still started to do the sensible things like looking into
whether we should change energy supplier, and where we might be able to cut
back our energy consumption, but in the face of the storm we will stand,
provided we concentrate on hearing the words of Jesus and doing them.

So keep obeying Jesus. Whatever the storms bring and
whatever the world may say, you are going in the right direction. Obedience is
eternal wisdom.

3. Obedience Is True
Success

As the song asks, ‘What
is success
?’ The church has been asking that question for a long time. In the
face of numerical decline, social apathy and hostility from leading atheists,
many churches would love a sniff of success. When a church has a success story,
the minister becomes in demand. Conferences book him or her as a speaker, she
or he writes a book, and people flock to the church to see what the fuss is all
about and whether they can translate any of the ideas into their situation.

Note, however, the sign of ‘success’ here in Jesus’ ministry:

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and
not as their scribes. (Verses 28-29)

When Jesus began the sermon, he was only addressing his
disciples, but now he has the crowds. And it’s the fact that he teaches ‘as one
having authority’. The authority of Jesus’ teaching draws the crowds. Of course,
at other times they will leave him, because that same authoritative teaching
will put them off. But Jesus will never compromise. His only desire is to
please his Father, and that means delivering his teaching in word and deed.

What’s the message for us here? Drop the gimmicks, and
concentrate on obeying Jesus. Don’t worry about the latest fads and fashions; focus
on hearing Jesus and doing what he says.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t modernise, I’m not saying we
should stay with our beloved traditions. I’m saying that substance has to take
precedence over style. The substance of Christian discipleship is obedience to
Jesus. We can decide to follow all sorts of paths in expressing our faith, but
unless we have the core issue resolved, namely that we shall follow Jesus, then
all the rest of it, ancient or modern, is on a par with the emperor’s new
clothes.

Often in the face of church decline, people have responded
to new ways of doing church by saying, ‘We’re not called to be successful, but
we are called to be faithful.’ Well, that is true, but the problem comes in
defining what constitutes being faithful. We may hear it said that so-and-so is
faithful, but that may only mean that they are regular! Being faithful for the
Christian is about consistent obedience to Jesus Christ, and nothing less. It’s
also what God considers success.

So it’s incumbent upon preachers like me to share with you
what Jesus teaches, rather than spout forth personal opinions. If a preacher is
merely entertaining, do not entertain them. If a preacher makes the teaching of
Jesus come alive, listen intently and follow through with your actions
afterwards.

And it’s incumbent upon all of us to find ways of listening
to Jesus and responding to him. That’s why I favour the small group so much. John
Wesley put converts into small groups so that they could talk every week about
the joys and struggles of following Jesus, holding one another accountable. It’s
the place where we can thrash out together what a Bible passage means, and explore
how we might put it into practice. Because if we don’t do that, we’ll never ‘succeed’
in the eyes of God.

Conclusion
I began by talking about the punch line to the Sermon on the Mount. The problem
with talking like that is that it sounds like I’m talking about a joke, when
this is deeply serious.

No, obedience isn’t a joke. It can call on considerable
courage. But it is also a matter of joy. There is joy in obeying Christ. We
know that the demands seem tough, when set in opposition to our self-centred
tendencies. But when we allow Jesus to win in our lives, there is joy in the
satisfaction of having obeyed him. Not that we glorify ourselves, of course:
Jesus must receive all the praise.

So, let us be joyful in obedience. It is central to our
faith, it is true wisdom, and it is God’s plumb line of success.


[1]
And frequently on the blog in the last fortnight!

Sunday’s Sermon: Obedience – The Punch Line To The Sermon On The Mount

Well, I haven't as hoped made it to the 'impartation meeting' at Meadgate Church tonight. I had to finish Sunday's sermon this evening for family reasons, and didn't do so until a long time after the Meadgate meeting began.

Matthew
7:21-29

Introduction
Have you ever sneaked a look at the end of a book? A friend of mine once told
me he had a short cut to getting the best out of reading reviews: he read the
first paragraph and the last. Equally, sometimes I find myself reading an
article in a magazine, and I cover up the end of the piece, so that I don’t
suddenly see the punch line and thus lose the impact.

Today’s Lectionary Gospel reading gives us the punch line of
the Sermon on the Mount. If you wanted to know what it was all about and just
went to the end, you would read these verses. If you want to know why Matthew
put all these teachings of Jesus together into this block we call the Sermon on
the Mount, here is why.

And that punch line is about the importance of obedience. If
we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then obedience is central and critical. The
reading moves through three phases to get the point across.

1. Obedience Is Central
I don’t know about you, but for years I’ve struggled with the words of Jesus
that open this reading. How can Jesus tell people who call him ‘Lord, Lord’ to
depart from him, because he never knew them? Wasn’t confessing Jesus as Lord
the earliest Christian creed? Wasn’t that what marked out people as followers
of Jesus, in distinction to calling the Roman emperor ‘Lord’?

And what about the prophesying and casting out of demons?
Jesus expected his followers would do these things, and they are common
occurrences in the Acts of the Apostles. So how is it that people who are doing
the very thing Jesus expects of them are sent away from his presence at the
Last Judgment?

And if these people were prophesying and casting out demons
without being in a vital relationship with Jesus, does that make spiritual
power, the power of the Holy Spirit, even, just some kind of commodity?

I think it comes down to this. It’s possible to say ‘Lord,
Lord’ and for it just to be words. It’s easy enough to sing the words of our
hymns, but not mean them. Some of the staunchest defenders I’ve ever met of
Wesley’s hymns have been those with the least interest in believing what Wesley
believed, and in sharing the experience of God that he had. It’s possible to
say the creeds and the prayers without it ever translating into radical
obedience to the One whom we call ‘Lord’.

As to the prophesying and casting out of demons, maybe the
issue Jesus has here is something like this: are we committed just to random acts of
kindness, or to radical, day-by-day obedience to the teaching of Jesus? Because
if we are, what would it look like?

I’ve mentioned in the church newsletter[1]
that there is something controversial and allegedly remarkable happening in the
town of Lakeland, Florida right now. A Canadian evangelist called Todd Bentley began conducting some meetings
on 2nd April. They have had to keep extending the meetings and
moving to larger premises. There are thousands of claims of remarkable
healings, even of people being raised from the dead. The last thing I want to
do is be cynical about this, and I dearly hope that the accounts are largely
true, but if this really is the ‘revival’ that many are claiming it is, I shall
expect to see more than healings and resurrections.

More than healings and resurrections? Yes. I shall expect to
see people pooling their possessions to help the poor. I shall expect to see people
feeding the hungry. I shall expect to see Christians being active peacemakers
in their societies, and forgiving their enemies. All this in addition to
healings and resurrections, because these too are signs of sold out obedience
to Jesus Christ.

What does that have to do with us? We’re not seeing amazing
miracles happen. Christianity is quite ordinary and down to earth for most of
us. Yet we face a similar danger. Is there something glamorous or exciting that
seeks to take our attention in place of the obedience we should be giving Jesus
Christ? What good or worthy thing gets in the way of our obedience?

It’s instructive to note that Jesus says, ‘I never knew you;
away from me, you evildoers’ (verse 23). Those of us who don’t practice
regular, daily, frequent obedience to Christ are people who don’t know him, and
whom he doesn’t know. To know Jesus is to obey him. If we know Jesus as Lord,
we shall do what he wants. Obedience is central to being a disciple of him.

2. Obedience Is
Wisdom

Having seen that obedience is central, even essential, to following Jesus, we
now hear that obedience is wisdom. In
the story of the two house builders, one builds on rock and the other on sand. The
one who builds on sand is foolish, but the one who builds on rock is wise. What
is the wisdom of this builder? Jesus tells us at the opening of the parable:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (Verse 24)

Obedience to Jesus – hearing his words and acting on them –
is wisdom. You may think you’re not very clever, but that isn’t the same as
wisdom. Not everybody can be clever, but we can all be wise. Biblical wisdom is
obedience to Jesus. The simplest of folk can be wise. We just have to hear the words
of Jesus and do them. It doesn’t require
degrees, qualifications, or eloquence with words. It just needs a willingness
to listen to Jesus and transmit that to our hands and feet.

But to many, following the teaching of Jesus doesn’t seem
like wisdom at all. Why forgive or care for the weak when you can trample on
people all the way to your destiny at the top of the pile? Why give generously
when you can build up riches for yourself? Why make peace when violence will
secure what you want? This isn’t wisdom, is it? Surely, it’s an exercise in
foolishness. It’s shooting yourself in the foot.

Actually, no. To obey Jesus is to saw wood along the grain
of the universe. To obey Jesus is to navigate in the direction of eternity. And
because of that, when the storms of life hit (and Jesus doesn’t exempt us from them),
we’ll remain standing.

Several of you commented on last
week’s sermon
about trusting and seeking God’s kingdom rather than worrying
about money. I talked about how tough things
had been for us financially, yet God had seen us through. This week, Scottish Power put up our monthly
direct debit for gas and electricity by around thirty pounds a month. It didn’t
do much for my stress levels! But it was a time to remember that going the way
of Jesus is the right thing to do, and that he will see us through this latest
storm, too. I’ve still started to do the sensible things like looking into
whether we should change energy supplier, and where we might be able to cut
back our energy consumption, but in the face of the storm we will stand,
provided we concentrate on hearing the words of Jesus and doing them.

So keep obeying Jesus. Whatever the storms bring and
whatever the world may say, you are going in the right direction. Obedience is
eternal wisdom.

3. Obedience Is True
Success

As the song asks, ‘What
is success
?’ The church has been asking that question for a long time. In the
face of numerical decline, social apathy and hostility from leading atheists,
many churches would love a sniff of success. When a church has a success story,
the minister becomes in demand. Conferences book him or her as a speaker, she
or he writes a book, and people flock to the church to see what the fuss is all
about and whether they can translate any of the ideas into their situation.

Note, however, the sign of ‘success’ here in Jesus’ ministry:

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and
not as their scribes. (Verses 28-29)

When Jesus began the sermon, he was only addressing his
disciples, but now he has the crowds. And it’s the fact that he teaches ‘as one
having authority’. The authority of Jesus’ teaching draws the crowds. Of course,
at other times they will leave him, because that same authoritative teaching
will put them off. But Jesus will never compromise. His only desire is to
please his Father, and that means delivering his teaching in word and deed.

What’s the message for us here? Drop the gimmicks, and
concentrate on obeying Jesus. Don’t worry about the latest fads and fashions; focus
on hearing Jesus and doing what he says.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t modernise, I’m not saying we
should stay with our beloved traditions. I’m saying that substance has to take
precedence over style. The substance of Christian discipleship is obedience to
Jesus. We can decide to follow all sorts of paths in expressing our faith, but
unless we have the core issue resolved, namely that we shall follow Jesus, then
all the rest of it, ancient or modern, is on a par with the emperor’s new
clothes.

Often in the face of church decline, people have responded
to new ways of doing church by saying, ‘We’re not called to be successful, but
we are called to be faithful.’ Well, that is true, but the problem comes in
defining what constitutes being faithful. We may hear it said that so-and-so is
faithful, but that may only mean that they are regular! Being faithful for the
Christian is about consistent obedience to Jesus Christ, and nothing less. It’s
also what God considers success.

So it’s incumbent upon preachers like me to share with you
what Jesus teaches, rather than spout forth personal opinions. If a preacher is
merely entertaining, do not entertain them. If a preacher makes the teaching of
Jesus come alive, listen intently and follow through with your actions
afterwards.

And it’s incumbent upon all of us to find ways of listening
to Jesus and responding to him. That’s why I favour the small group so much. John
Wesley put converts into small groups so that they could talk every week about
the joys and struggles of following Jesus, holding one another accountable. It’s
the place where we can thrash out together what a Bible passage means, and explore
how we might put it into practice. Because if we don’t do that, we’ll never ‘succeed’
in the eyes of God.

Conclusion
I began by talking about the punch line to the Sermon on the Mount. The problem
with talking like that is that it sounds like I’m talking about a joke, when
this is deeply serious.

No, obedience isn’t a joke. It can call on considerable
courage. But it is also a matter of joy. There is joy in obeying Christ. We
know that the demands seem tough, when set in opposition to our self-centred
tendencies. But when we allow Jesus to win in our lives, there is joy in the
satisfaction of having obeyed him. Not that we glorify ourselves, of course:
Jesus must receive all the praise.

So, let us be joyful in obedience. It is central to our
faith, it is true wisdom, and it is God’s plumb line of success.


[1]
And frequently on the blog in the last fortnight!

Video Jukebox

Want an ongoing stream of random YouTube videos based on your favourite music? Go here, log in your Last FM username or the name of a favourite artist, and let the website do the rest.

Healing, Verification And Resurrection

I saw some more Todd Bentley on God TV last night. (Please don’t yawn if this is boring you, but this is a big issue for me, given impending meetings in Chelmsford. In any case, my wife and children will be back from a half-term holiday tomorrow, and I shall have less chance to watch and blog then.)

Anyway – the point is this. He announced during the meeting (which would have been Wednesday night’s) that he is taking on staff to look into verification of the claims to healing that thousands have made in connection with the ‘Florida Outpouring’. He was clear that he would not claim that every healing was true, and I thought that was a step forward. He said they would pass on medically verified claims to healing to the news networks. It was Bene Diction in a comment on my first post two weeks ago who wrote this:

In April The Province (a BC newspaper) asked for documentation of healings…

“When The Province asked to speak to someone who had been healed
through Bentley in either B.C. or Florida, Fresh Fire was unable to
find someone at short notice, citing difficulties with outdated contact
information locally, and record-keeping problems in Florida.”

So let’s hope this is a move in the right direction, if that doesn’t sound too patronising. It would certainly be better than the past antics of scallywags like Benny Hinn, who was filmed for a British TV documentary on healing evangelists around eight years ago. It took the TV company three months of badgering before his ministry was willing to put them in touch with anyone. They ended up interviewing a family where it turned out that healing had not taken place, and that ‘Pastor Benny’ had told them they needed to give more. I think, if memory serves me right, they gave another $1000 and the healing still didn’t happen.

Bentley did get very excited last night about resurrections from the dead – and frankly, who wouldn’t, if they had happened? (I’m not saying they hadn’t, I’m just retaining my natural caution here.) In one case, someone had been dead eight minutes before coming back to life. I have no problem with such a story, except that I believe such stories also exist outside of claims to miraculous answers to prayer. I’m open to correction, especially from medics, if I’m wrong about that.

Another story came in by phone from Kenya. At first, it was mistakenly claimed to have medical verification from a doctor. It turned out that a doctor had prayed over the phone, and a hundred kilometres away, someone had been raised from the dead. That one awaits verification, I would have thought – much as I hope it is true.

Certainly, Bentley said a lot about resurrection last night. I felt that in his teaching, he let his excitement get the better of him. Emphasising that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and that if we have Jesus we therefore have life, he got within a whisker of saying that dying without being raised back to life was an act of unfaith. Am I being unfair? Did I mishear or misunderstand? It was the impression I gained, though. And if I’m right, then the tone of the teaching was that everything was ‘kingdom now’, resurrection now, a little bit like the Corinthian Christians whom Paul had to correct for believing that the resurrection had already taken place.

To that I would reiterate what I learned from the likes of John Wimber in the mid-80s, that the kingdom of God is a mixture of the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. I hope and pray that we get as much of it in the ‘now’ as God wills, however much that is. But clearly a large part of it is delayed, not least the resurrection of the body, conquering the last enemy death. (This is in contrast to resurrection-resuscitations, like Lazarus and the son of the widow at Nain, who came back to life, only to die again later.)

In that respect, I found something my college principal said when I was training for the ministry. Talking about John Wesley‘s controversial doctrine of Christian perfection, he said that at heart, Wesley had ‘an optimism of grace’. Bentley has a huge optimism of grace, and it may be that people like him are sent to the church and the world to encourage us to be less pessimistic in our belief in God. Yet however optimistic we are about the grace of God, we still need a theology for when the blessings of God’s kingdom are mysteriously deferred.

Finally, I thought I’d end this with a link to something Ben Myers wrote on the Faith And Theology blog yesterday. Talking movingly about his elderly father’s struggles with ill health, he quoted Karl Barth on the subject of illness and healing. Barth is writing about the medical profession, but as I read his words, I was struck with just how much charismatics and Pentecostals with healing ministries would want to say something very similar. The quotes below are from Church Dogmatics III/4, s55:

“Sickness, like death itself, is unnatural and disorderly. It is an
element in the rebellion of chaos against God’s creation. It is an act
and declaration of the devil and demons. To be sure, it is no less
bound to God and dependent on Him than the creature which He created.
Indeed, it is impotent in a double way. For like sin and death, it is
neither good nor is it willed and created by God at all, but is real,
effective, powerful and menacing only in its nullity, as part of that
which God has negated, as part of His kingdom on the left hand.…

“The
realm of death which afflicts man in the form of sickness … is opposed
to His good will as Creator and has existence and power only under His
mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can
never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with
the will of God, what humans ought to will in face of this whole realm
on the left hand, and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final
resistance.… Those who take up this struggle obediently are already
healthy in the fact that they do so, and theirs is no empty desire when
they will to maintain or regain their health” (pp. 366-69).

Furthermore:
“When one person is ill, the whole of society is really ill in all its
members. In the battle against sickness the final human word cannot be
isolation but only fellowship” (p. 363).

The full post is here.

Oh No, Not Another Todd Bentley Post?

Er, yes. Just to say that late last night I received an email from an acquaintance whose wife has recently spent three weeks at Lakeland. He has offered a chat about some of the things that have unnerved me. That may not be for some time yet, unless we do it by email. I hope to reflect on that in due course (without betraying any confidences that might be shared).

In the meantime, I am hoping to attend the ‘impartation meeting’ at Meadgate Church tomorrow night, to witness things first hand. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Gavin Peacock

We had tried to invite Gavin Peacock to speak at re:fresh08 (a.k.a. the Chelmsford Christian Festival). He declined. Now we know why. He has a good reason. Every blessing, Gavin, for your new future.

The Gospel In All Its Forms

The Gospel In All Its Forms – excellent article by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan. There is one Gospel, not many. But that Gospel is not narrow. Do read this and leave a comment here. I'd love to know what you think about it.

Ban Cluster Bombs

Ban Cluster Bombs:

A meeting is happening in Dublin about this terrible problem. When these fall but don’t explode, small children look at them and think they are attractive. They play with them. Innocent children are killed by them. And the British Government is one of the administrations dragging its feet in the negotiating. Please sign this petition.

(Thanks to Mike Bossingham for the email.)

UPDATE: Richard Hall and PamBG have joined in, too. How about you?

UPDATE #2, Wednesday morning: Good news! It looks like our Government has been persuaded, according to today’s Guardian.

Todd Bentley: Violent Healing?

Now I am worried: the excellent Brian Jones has a disturbing YouTube clip of our friend Todd Bentley giving one example after another about how the Holy Spirit led him to perform violent acts upon people in order that they might be healed. He kicks an old lady in the nose with his biker boot; he chokes a man; he drop-kicks a pastor. Watch it yourself if you don't believe me. And watch audience members laughing as if it's a comedy routine.

For me, this goes beyond the weird and unusual methods in Scripture. It's way beyond Jesus using spittle in healing a blind person. It's even beyond God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, because in some of these instances, Bentley brazenly admits that he engages in the particular violent acts. In Abraham's case, it was a test and God restrained him at the end.

Not only that, I have known the odd pastor who would have taken this as justification for their own aggressive behaviour in church. I think I have alluded before to having been one of a group of charismatic church leaders who put pressure on another pastor to resign over his behaviour. In that man's case, it was the unholy triad of money, sex and power. The power came out in violence. Some of it was towards his wife and was witnessed by members of the church youth group. I wouldn't want that guy hearing Bentley.

As I said in a comment on yesterday's Bentley post, I've been trying to believe the best about people and hence I have tried to post in a measured and cautious manner. But I watched this video with an increasingly churning stomach and such a sense of revulsion. It's only two minutes long, but that was more than enough. Yes, God in his grace and mercy may be blessing and healing people in this 'revival', but I just can't square Bentley's unashamed methods here with the Jesus I read about in the Gospels.

And while I'm at the keyboard, let me raise one other question that's been bugging me. It seems minor, compared with what I've just written about, but some of the issues around the falling under the power of the Spirit still bug me, and I don't have any clear answers. My experience in the past of that phenomenon (both personal and witnessing others and hearing their stories) is that if the sense of the Holy Spirit is so powerful, it's difficult to get back on your feet quickly. However, people are getting back upright before very long in Bentley's meetings. I watched some again last night, and noticed how the stage is littered with bodies, but a few minutes later it isn't. Sometimes you see the people up and walking behind him in the camera shot. Peter Kirk also gave his account of just a brief amount of 'carpet time' at Dudley:

Of course it was bound to take a long time to anoint over a thousand
people. How they handled it was to line people up across the front of
the hall facing the stage, with space behind them. Trevor walked across
the line touching each forehead briefly with the cloth; I reckon he was
taking less than two seconds per person. At the touch most people fell
over, and were caught by “catchers” and lay on the floor- but only
briefly. For, as Trevor had warned would happen, after only about five
seconds each person was encouraged by the catcher to stand up
immediately and move away, so that a new line could be ready as soon as
Trevor finished the old one. It was a bit like serving communion at my
church, but faster.

Eventually, just before midnight, I got my place in a line. Despite
this conveyor belt approach, necessary simply because of the numbers,
this was a profound experience. The cloth touched my forehead with a
slight pressure but nothing like enough to push me over. But as it did
I felt the power of the Holy Spirit come on me and nudge me over. This
is not the first time this has happened to me, and sometimes I have
fallen over, although at other times for various reasons I have chosen
to stay on my feet. Last night I let myself fall over, and was caught
gently and laid on the floor. I felt God’s anointing on me, the
anointing which had arrived from Lakeland only that morning. I could
gladly have lain there and soaked in God’s presence. I wasn’t allowed
to, but getting up and going back to my seat didn’t take away the
anointing.

I'm simply puzzled. If anyone has thoughtful explanations, I'd be interested. Please post a comment.

But right now my biggest questions are about the video clip and the unashamed uses of violence in connection with blessing, and the attribution of it to the Holy Spirit. Your thoughts are most welcome.

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