Monthly Archives: September 2010
Eight things pastors need to quit in order to be good for their congregations.
Project now supported by the Bible Society to feature the Bible in literacy lessons in schools and thus make it better known.
The job of pastors is to inspire church members to be a 'faithful presence' in the world, seeking the shalom of the city.
Project to ensure primary school children hear the story of the Bible.
Recently, for her bedtime stories, Rebekah has asked me to read some episodes from a children’s Bible that was written by the well-known Christian author Jennifer Rees Larcombe. We have been going through some Old Testament stories, and in particular she couldn’t wait to hear how Queen Jezebel came to a grisly end. For Rebekah, there was a real sense of justice in seeing a wicked person get her comeuppance.
However, when we got to Jonah and the part of the story where the Ninevites repented and God withdrew his threat of judgment, my beloved daughter was outraged. It just wasn’t right that God loved wicked people, in her estimation.
Just like Jonah himself in chapter 4.
So we come to this chapter today at the end of this short series, and we do so on Harvest Festival weekend. That is quite deliberate, because the Book of Jonah is about God’s desire for a spiritual harvest – for many more people to know his love and follow Jesus. That is, of course, often the theme of the Gospels where Jesus uses a harvest story in his parables.
This chapter could be conceived as being about the barriers to the spiritual harvest, and our first barrier is at hand here, in the way Rebekah echoed Jonah’s self-righteous anger.
I ended last Sunday morning’s sermon on Jonah 3 with these words:
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.
I could tell from many people’s body language that they agreed. It would be absurd to resent other people finding the love of God. But I ended that sermon that way deliberately, so that we could build up to the shock of finding that Jonah actually is a resentful, angry, self-righteous man. (Apart from that, he’s quite nice!) In the first three verses of chapter 4, he complains to God about his mercy towards the heathen sinners of Nineveh.
But self-righteousness is dangerously common among religious people, and Jonah is a warning to us. It’s amazing and heartbreaking to see the way the concern for a righteous life loses its bearings and becomes judgmental. Jonah forgot that he was a sinner who had been rescued by the grace of God through the merciful sending of the big fish who saved him from drowning. He forgets he is a rescued sinner. He reverts to type. He says to himself, “I am one of the chosen ones. I am righteous. These Ninevites are wicked sinners. I enjoy the love of God. They should not.”
I’ve seen it time and again in Christian circles. You will know if you read my life story in the church magazine that when my life went awry due to a neck problem at 18, I took a job in the Civil Service. I worked in Social Security. (No, please come back! Please talk to me!) I recall being on holiday one year where a Christian woman asked me what my work was. On replying that I worked in Social Security, she said: “At least you’re the right side of the counter.” Clearly to her, every benefit claimant in the country was a despicable scrounger. Hardly the attitude of heart needed for reaching out with the Gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Or I think of a church coffee morning Debbie and I attended once. The doors were open in the hope that passers-by would drop in and meet the church members, in the hope that eventually they would come to church. But as we listened to the ordinary conversation, with its routine criticism of anything young people liked, or – and this was the deal-breaker for me – their disdain for gadgets (!), we knew that church would need a lot of prayer for it to connect meaningfully with the world.
Contrast that with the man I met once when he and I were both in-patients on a hospital ward together for several days. Before we were discharged, he gave me his business card so that we could stay in touch. After his name were the initials ‘SSBG’. I couldn’t fathom what academic or professional qualification that might be, so I asked him. SSBG, he told me, stood for ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’.
That is where we all have to begin if we desire a spiritual harvest. Unlike Jonah, we need to remember that we have been rescued by God. That needs to engender humility in our lives. The great Sri Lankan Christian D T Niles once said that evangelism was ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. In the economy of God, it is the spiritual beggars who see the harvest. He calls us to humility.
We can notice the second barrier to a spiritual harvest in Jonah when we come to verse 5. After God asks him in verse 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?” we read,
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
In other words, Jonah left the city. The harvest had come when he had been in the city. Now he was outside, whingeing. Often the religious believer stays outside the places that need the Gospel and fires darts of criticism from a safe distance. Isn’t it better to be cocooned warmly with other Christians, enjoying fellowship?
Well, OK, there’s not much fellowship in Jonah chapter 4, but I hope you take my point. We do all our relating to people who do not share our faith, whether positive or negative in tone, from the outside. We even see that in the typical language we use about wanting more people in our congregations. We say things like, ‘How can we attract more people to come to us?’ Yet note those words ‘attract’ and ‘come’: our assumption is that we are here, and people need to move in order to be part of us.
In one previous circuit, I knew a group of Christians who left the United Reformed Church in the town, because they said they believed God was calling them to reach out with the Gospel to a needy housing estate in what was otherwise a generally prosperous town. They hired the St John Ambulance hall, and began weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. They also ran the Alpha Course. There was only one problem. None of them ever moved onto the estate.
We cannot expect a spiritual harvest if we ‘leave the city’, if we don’t get involved in the middle of people’s lives rather than staying at arm’s length and expecting them to come running gratefully to us. Those of you who were at the welcome service three weeks ago may recall I made reference in my short speech to John’s Gospel. In John 20, the risen Jesus says to the disciples, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore, I said, to know how Jesus sends us, we have to know how the Father sent him. And for that we go back to John 1, where we read, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus’ approach to mission was very largely ‘go’. It was to live among the people he wanted to reach.
So if we desire to see a spiritual harvest of people finding faith in Christ and following him, we need to abandon the ideas that a church needs to put together an attractive programme so that we can invite people to enticing events. It is less important to build programmes than to build people.
You will hear more from me on this particular theme as we get to know each other. Do not ‘leave the city’. Be part of the city. Bless the people who do not yet know the love of Christ. Make your lives the kind that provoke questions. And then be ready to answer them.
The third barrier to a spiritual harvest that Jonah demonstrates comes in his attitude to the mysterious Jack and the Beanstalk-type plant (maybe a gourd, maybe a castor-oil plant) that God causes to grow and then wither (verses 6-8). Jonah enjoys the shade it provides, but starts moaning again when it has gone. God brings him up short in the final three verses of the story:
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
In other words, the barrier here is that Jonah has a consumer’s attitude to God. Jonah is happy when God does something for him. But when God doesn’t, or when he requires him to do something unappealing, he wants out.
It’s the same attitude we see in Christians who frequently move church, because no church ever satisfies them. Their assumption is that they are consumers, and they should be satisfied by what is provided. So you hear Christians saying, “We left that church because we weren’t being fed.” Well, what happened to feeding yourselves? Mature Christians should have cultivated ways in which they take on board spiritual nurture for themselves! Any idea that it should all be spoon-fed to them is quite outrageous! The job of the pastor – the shepherd – is not to feed the sheep, but to show them where they can feed themselves.
Faith is not simply about what we can get out of God. If you remember the famous words of John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” could be translated into spiritual terms. “Ask not what your God can do for you – ask what you can do for your God.”
Now don’t misunderstand me. Of course we should rejoice and seek the many things God does for us and wants to do for us. But when we simply turn the spiritual life into ‘what I can get out of it’, we have missed the demands of discipleship, and especially the call for discipleship to be practised in a missional way in the world. Those who think that Jesus and the church are here simply to provide for their spiritual preferences are the very people who are usually a barrier to church growth. They so absorb the time of others and distract good Christians from better purposes that they wring the life out of Christ’s church.
All of which rolls us round quite neatly to the theme of harvest. Today, we celebrate what – by the grace of God – we can give, so that others may flourish. Commonly, we think of that in physical and material terms. We give food, money or other items so that the needy may receive what they need.
But there is a spiritual parallel. As we seek not be spiritual consumers but spiritual givers, people who are keen to see what we can do in the service of God’s mission, then other people will receive their spiritual needs. They will find the love of God in Christ for the first time and commit their lives to being disciples of Jesus. They will ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God’. They too will become missional disciples.
And if too we have been people who have chosen the path of humility, not self-righteous anger; and if we have been people who have not ‘left the city’ for the Christian ghetto but dwelt in the midst of humankind in all its needs; then might we not indeed begin to see a spiritual harvest, and – unlike Jonah – rejoice in it?
Uses Google Maps to show you where certain incidents in the Bible happened.
An American friend pointed me to The Official Practice Citizenship Test. Try taking it: it’s barking. Tell me if the most important tests of potential citizens are to know the percentage of Muslims in the UK to one decimal place, or the number of minors in the country to the nearest million? Exactly how does such knowledge make a candidate a better or more loyal citizen? Or do we just want a nation of civil service statisticians?
But then look at the kind of questions we ask of foreign nationals in other circumstances. A minister friend of mine used to represent Christian converts from Muslim states who had fled here and sought asylum on the very reasonable grounds that they feared persecution, even death, if they returned to their homelands. Understandably, the authorities wanted some kind of evidence that they had truly become Christians and were not using this as an excuse to live here.
So what questions would you ask someone in order to discern whether they were a Christian? Try this one: what is the traditional dinner Christians eat on Christmas Day?
And on their answer to that and similar questions, the Home Office decided the life and death fate of many people.
Regular posting is still difficult, I’m afraid. My diary is choc-full and I can’t do much about it. Meantime, here is tomorrow’s sermon in the series on Jonah.
One of the most popular British Christian websites is called ‘Ship Of Fools’. Its strapline is, ‘The magazine of Christian unrest’, because it once used to be … a magazine. And I was a subscriber during its short publishing life in the 1980s.
The articles were often humorous, but always making a serious point about the life of faith. One of my favourites was ‘The Ship Of Fools Dictionary Of Sanctified Jargon’. It poked fun at some of the words and phrases regularly used in church circles. Under ‘Suffer the little children’ it said, ‘See next entry.’ The next entry was ‘Sunday School’, which was wickedly defined as ‘In most cases can be an effective means for inoculating children against the effects of Christianity for life.’
But I want to talk about another of the definitions: ‘Laid on my heart’. The definition read, ‘Roughly translated, this phrase means that God has caused an individual to be concerned about a particular need or situation. Avoid using I’ve had leprosy laid on my heart, etc.’
‘Laid on my heart.’ Yes, it’s a Christian cliché. As is much of our talk about ‘God’s heart for’ someone or something. But sometimes we can’t do better than this language. And I think our passage today is a case in point. It may not specifically talk about God’s heart for Jonah or Nineveh, but in religious shorthand, that’s what it’s about.
So we begin with God’s heart for Jonah. If you remember last week, Jonah, who had preferred the idolatry of comfort to his calling, was preserved by God in the severe mercy of the big fish for a purpose, and Jonah promised to lay down his idols. In the opening verse of chapter three, we get a further flavour of God’s gracious purposes for his rebellious servant:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.
A second time. Here is confirmation of God’s intention to use Jonah, even Jonah, who had not simply missed an opportunity but had energetically tried to get as far away from the call of God as possible. God does not take the view, “Well, Jonah, you fouled up and walked away from my call. I’m going to look for someone else to fulfil my purposes with regard to Nineveh.” No: God says, “Here’s a second chance, Jonah.”
A friend in the circuit where I grew up once had some advice for the teenage Christians about seeking God’s guidance when we are not sure. She said, “When I think God might be saying something to me but I’m not sure, I say ‘No’, because I know that if it’s really him, he’ll ask me again.”
I’ve told that story to some people who find it quite dangerous. Clearly, if you get yourself too easily into a habit of saying ‘no’ to God, you will harden your heart and close down the possibilities of ever hearing from him. But if you do it on the basis that God doesn’t just give us one shot at knowing his will but is prepared to speak to us again and again, then there is a real chance that my friend’s advice has some wisdom.
Remember, after all, the young Samuel who struggled to recognise that it was God who was calling him. It took three times before he realised it was God, and that was with the help of the highly fallible priest Eli.
Of course, Jonah is different from Samuel. Jonah knew what God had said first time, and deliberately chose to disobey. Samuel just needed to get tuned into the voice of God.
But take some good news from God speaking a second time to Jonah. What are your regrets in the life of faith? Do you believe God can speak to you again? Because he can. What opportunities have you missed for him? Do you realise that he hasn’t thrown you off the team for those mistakes? He is working at creating new openings where you can serve him.
But more than that: are you aware that there are areas of your life where you have significantly let down God, because you deliberately chose the path of disobedience and sin? Have you felt since then that the best you can do hope for is to hang around on the fringes of the church, but never have a hope of doing anything worthwhile for him again? The story of Jonah encourages you to see that God’s heart for you is very different.
What, then, will be Jonah’s heart for God? We read very quickly in verse 3a:
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.
When you realise just how full of grace God is for you in Jesus Christ, the only option that makes sense is to respond in obedience. God’s grace is not only about his forgiveness of our sins: his mercy extends further than that, to the granting of second chances. If you are hearing God give you a second opportunity after an earlier failure, then let that grace stimulate your heart to grab the new chance with both hands.
Jonah did. Simon Peter did after having denied Jesus three times. You are no less cherished by your heavenly Father than these ancient servants of his. Perhaps even today you are hearing the God of the second chance speak to you. If you are, then right now you have a golden opportunity to say to the Lord, “Today, I say ‘yes’ to you. Today, I will begin to obey you out of gratitude for the second chance you have given me.”
God has a heart of grace – of second chance grace – for you. Do you have a heart of gratitude for him and for his purposes?
We also need to consider God’s heart for Nineveh. You may think at a glance that God’s heart for Nineveh is purely that he desires its destruction. Jonah’s message is summed up as,
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Verse 4)
But listen. There is more to it than that. God describes Nineveh as ‘the great city’ (verse 2), and the TNIV’s rendering of verse 3 as ‘a very large city’ omits a possible additional reading of, ‘even by God’s standards’. God sees this huge ancient city and is full of compassion for its inhabitants, lost in sin. For Jonah’s message again is “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Forty more days. If God simply wanted to destroy these wicked sinners, then why the forty days? The patience of God is evident here. Through Jonah, he gives them time to hear the message and respond. Again, it’s not simply a case that if you don’t grab the message at the first opportunity that’s your lot, you’re fried. It is always good to respond to the voice of God when you hear it. But such is the heart of compassion that God has for sinful human beings that his grace extends beyond the immediate, the instant, the now.
If you listen to the stories of how many people come to faith, a common pattern is that a whole series of events and conversations happened over a period of time to draw them to Christ. And in a time when people know the basics of Christian faith far less than in earlier generations, we can more and more expect the journey to faith often to be a long, and even a slow one. But this is God’s heart: it is one of patient, loving persistent for those who are lost from his love.
So again, we ask the question: do we share God’s heart? The call to mission is a call to be involved with people for the long term. I am not criticising special missions and mission events, because they have their place. But what we cannot do is use occasional short campaigns and think we have then discharged our responsibility to share the love of God with the community, run back over the Christian drawbridge, pull it up and huddle together until the next occasion in a few years’ time. If we share God’s heart for those who do not know him, we shall commit to long term engagement with such people. ‘Hit and run’ won’t do: God engages for the long term with people. Will we?
For look what happens when we examine Nineveh’s heart for God. When they receive the message of the holy God who is nevertheless patient with them and full of compassion, they respond just as Israel, the people of God did in repentance – with sackcloth and fasting (verse 5). When it comes down to it, they’re just human beings – human beings loved by God – not enemies to be stereotyped. If they can respond like this, don’t we owe it to them to treat them with dignity and love?
In fact, there is a totality of response to God. Even the animals are involved (verse 7). The Persian custom was that animals shared in mourning ceremonies. Here, then, it indicates just how thorough the response to God’s message through Jonah is.
It’s something underlined when the king appears in the story (verse 6). He calls the people to do more than indulge in the ritual of sackcloth and fasting (verses 7b-8a), but to match the ritual acts with changed behaviour. He calls people to ‘give up their evil ways and their violence’ (verse 8b).
Now that’s interesting. Not just their general ‘evil ways’ but specifically their ‘violence’. Calls to repentance are specific. The Holy Spirit does not simply leave people with a general feeling of condemnation, just telling them they are useless and worthless. That voice comes from the enemy, who wishes to reduce us to utter despair.
Instead, the Holy Spirit puts a finger on something specific and says, ‘This is what you need to leave behind.’ Violence is a pretty good specific sin for Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was known for its aggressive behaviour. They know what they have done wrong, and they turn from it. Zaccheus knew he had to turn away from his greed and exploitation. Those with a heart to turn to God will know that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, and therefore any turning will be specific.
It also means that when we are involved in mission, our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will show people the specific actions they need to take in order to be right with God. Sometimes the Spirit uses our voices to tell them (although we have to be careful not to sound harsh or judgmental), and sometimes the Spirit does it by a direct whisper into their hearts. But whatever means God chooses, this will be one inevitable consequence of meeting Christ at the Cross.
What we also know about the Ninevites’ response is that just because they discover a gracious and compassionate God, they don’t simply treat God as a celestial chum, as if he is no more than a spiritual mate. Listen to the caution in the king’s voice:
Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. (Verse 9)
As Christians we want to respond with more than a ‘Who knows?’ We want to say more than that ‘God may relent’, but without sounding presumptuous. It is our privilege as bearers of the Gospel to promise the Good News of a God who will relent from judgment when repentant people turn to him through Jesus Christ.
That’s what we read he does here in the final verse of the chapter. As the sailors in chapter 1 received mercy in the storm and as Jonah received mercy from drowning via the big fish in chapter 2, so here the citizens of Nineveh receive mercy from what their sins of violence deserve. The book of Jonah keeps before us the vision of the God who is extravagant in mercy and outrageous in grace.
A good friend of mine is an Anglican vicar. However, some years ago he left parish ministry to work with an evangelistic organisation. Not only is he involved in special weeks of missions with churches and areas of the country, he is also involved with the community in the village where he and his family live in the Fens. He regularly emails me his prayer letter. He doesn’t see as many conversions to Christ as I am sure he would like to, but when he does, you can feel the joy as he writes about them. He has a heart for the God who has a heart for him and for the world.
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.
The bigger of my two new churches, Knaphill Methodist Church, has for some time had its own website. You can often find audio of recent sermons there. So if you go to the link above and click on ‘Latest Sermon or Talk‘, you will find my sermon from yesterday, and can hear how the text I posted here came out in real life. If you can stand the thought of hearing my voice, that is!
And as of today, the church also has its own Facebook page. Do pop over if you are on Facebook and ‘like’ us. We are likeable!
Still finding it difficult to get back to regular blogging – the diary has been frantic for the first couple of weeks in the new appointment. I hope to resume soon. Meanwhile, here is tomorrow’s (no, this morning’s) initial sermon for Knaphill. It’s Covenant Service, and I’ve introduced a sermon series on Jonah to highlight the theme of mission. A Local Preacher did Jonah chapter 1 last week. I join in at chapter 2.
Last Sunday morning, while I was innocently engaged in taking my first service at Addlestone, something dastardly happened here at Knaphill. I understand that Graham Pearcey brought the rest of my family up to the front where they were asked to share information about me.
I understand you were told that I cannot sing. Well … that is entirely correct. You will want to shower the AV team with chocolates and expensive unMethodist liquids for them fading down my microphone during the hymns and songs.
But while I am poor at singing, I nevertheless love music. Not without cause did I mention in a piece I wrote for Flight Path, the circuit magazine, that one of my favourite gadgets is my iPod. One band I particularly enjoyed during early adulthood was Talking Heads. Their most famous song was called ‘Once in a lifetime’. The lyrics to the first verse go like this (don’t worry, I won’t be singing them):
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?
And that – it seems to me – is a good place to begin looking at Jonah chapter 2 in this series on Jonah, the reluctant missionary. How did I get here? There are three questions I want us to ask about Jonah from this chapter, and they take us a little further along the road of his journey into the mission of God. So the first question is this: how did Jonah get here?
And I think my short answer is that Jonah has a warped view of the life of faith, and this leads him away from God’s call to mission. When the call first comes to go to Nineveh, he heads for Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was a luxury destination: King Solomon’s fleet had returned from there with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). In the ancient imagination, it was like Paradise. It was Shangri-La. Jonah preferred comfort to calling. That’s something we might well chew on as we renew our Covenant with God later in this service. Are we opting for comfort or calling?
One of the circuit Local Preachers clearly thought we had come to the land of milk and honey in moving from Essex (oh dear) to Surrey – as if it were some contemporary Tarshish. Maybe not so much land of milk and honey, but land of Waitrose. Many others have informed us that the manse is in the most desirable road in the village. So have we come to Tarshish? Let me make one simple observation: by coming here, our insurance premiums have increased!
A recent report suggested that one reason many children of church families don’t continue in the Christian faith is that what they witness from their parents and their church family is not radical, risk-taking faith in Jesus Christ, but comfortable, respectable living. It has no attraction. It is Tarshish faith, and you end up living in a fish.
Jonah has another warped attitude to faith. Let me introduce it this way. Suppose I ask you what the main purpose of Christian faith is. In my experience, the answer most Christians give is, ‘to worship God’. Wrong answer.
Are you shocked by my saying that? Consider this: it was Jonah’s answer. He told the pagan sailors in 1:9, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. His life was about worship. But just focussing on worship didn’t stop his disobedience and his destiny in the alimentary canal of a large fish.
A better answer about our purpose is not that we are here to worship God, but that we are here to glorify God. The Westminster Catechism, so beloved of Calvinist Christians, more correctly says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We glorify God both in the church and in the world, in worship and in mission. A church that simply concentrates on worship and on internal matters is one that will find herself sooner or later in a predicament.
In this respect, Jonah stands in the book as a representative of ancient Israel, who was called by God to be ‘a light to the nations’, but who was reluctant to fulfil that destiny. The historical Jonah described in 2 Kings 14:25 is one who is more concerned with nationalism than with the blessing of the nations.
If we want to end up – metaphorically speaking – inside a fish, spending our time swimming in half-digested food and toxins, then we could do no better than to concentrate on worship and internal matters, and give no thought to engaging in the mission of God. That – and his preference for comfort – is how Jonah ended up in the fish. Are there warped faith priorities that have put us in a similar place?
The second question is this: why is Jonah in the fish? You may say I’ve just answered that question. But I want to take it further. Why has God put him in a fish? There is a surprising answer.
We may think that his hotel reservation in the belly of the fish was God’s punishment for his disobedience. However, Jonah was booked for drowning, when the pagan sailors threw him overboard. God sent the fish, not to punish him, but to rescue him. The fish is like some underwater lifeboat, come to save him from going to what the Jews called Sheol, the place of the dead. In his prayer, Jonah sees it as deliverance (vv 1-7).
This location of filth and acid is actually God’s salvation for Jonah. The disgusting stench of the fish’s belly is … grace. By this drastic course of action, God preserves Jonah for his purposes of mission.
Grace isn’t always prettified and beautiful. After all, it depends on nails hammered through the flesh of Jesus onto a cross of wood. We affirm that ‘God works for good in all things for those that love him’ (Romans 8:28), and that means he acts in grace as much through the nasty episodes of life as the joyful ones. One author called it ‘A severe mercy’. You may identify with this from your own life. How many of you look back on certain painful or traumatic seasons of your life and realise – at least in retrospect – that God was working for good through that experience? Maybe he did something in your life that could not have happened unless you had endured something unpleasant.
I believe we can apply this to the life of the church as well as to our individual lives. Think of it like this. Jonah is rescued from death by God’s provision of the big fish. Consider the number of churches that have died. Look at their buildings now turned into carpet warehouses or places of worship for other religions. Now reflect on the fact that this church is still alive. Say what you like about things having been better in days gone by – although I believe that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and that the golden days were probably only nickel-plated. Whatever your fond memories of what you believe to have been better times, and whatever you might not like about church life as you know it today, the fact is that God has preserved this church.
So the question is why he has preserved us in grace. Surely it must also be that we might glorify him. Surely we are here not only to worship him but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, through our deeds and words.
Which means you now know why I picked Jonah as the opening sermon series for my time here. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I do not believe I came here ‘to run the church’ or ‘to keep everybody happy’. I came with a vision for a church that both gathers for worship and disperses for mission. I believe God has preserved this church in his grace and mercy for such purposes. At this Covenant Service, will you join with me as we renew our commitment to Christ in walking this way?
And that begs the third and final question: what will Jonah do? We read his response in verses 8 and 9:
“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ “
He rejects idols and promises to sacrifice and keep his vows. Idols are those things or people we set our hearts upon, and to which we will sacrifice. They can be good things to which we wrongly assign absolute status. I am sure you can think of many examples without much problem, especially within our society.
However, since we are considering our own lives right now, let me offer some suggestions about the sort of idols that can afflict religious people. We can be guilty of racial or denominational pride. We can be guilty of moral or doctrinal superiority. But let me offer one particular idolatry that afflicts us all too much: church work itself. This can manifest itself in various ways. Here are a couple of examples.
At one stage in a previous circuit, I had to look after an additional church temporarily for eighteen months. During that time, one of the faithful elderly ladies died, and I was asked to conduct her funeral. I met with her relatives, who told me that the church had been her whole life, not just in terms of worship and fellowship, but it had formed her entire social life, too. Clearly, they thought I would be pleased to learn of this.
However, it saddened me greatly. Why, when we are called to glorify God in both worship and mission, would we spend all our time in the church? Could it have assumed a level of importance far beyond what the New Testament calls it to have?
The other story goes like this. Some of you may remember the controversy in the mid-1990s over the dramatic charismatic-Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit that were labelled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’. At the height of that time, I flew to Toronto and spent a week at the church which was at the epicentre of the movement. As well as their regular Sunday morning services, they were running seminars for pastors morning and afternoon every weekday, and they were holding renewal meetings six nights a week. Without exaggeration, thousands of visitors from around the world came to the church every week.
You will not be surprised to know that in such a spiritually intense time and with the church attracting so much attention, enthusiastic members of that church were volunteering left, right and centre to help at the renewal meetings. Some wanted to come and be on duty every night.
But the church leadership said, ‘no’. Much as they needed the help to run all the meetings, they limited church members only to helping with one evening renewal meeting per week. On other nights, they wanted them to attend a home group, do something for Christ in the community and spend time with their families. I think that by doing that they not only encouraged balanced Christian living, they helped their members avoid church idolatry.
So, no, I don’t consider it a badge of spirituality to be down the church every night of the week. Renewing your covenant with Christ today might mean lessening what you do at church in order to give more time to family and community.
And we ought to take this seriously, because in these words of his I quoted a couple of minutes ago, Jonah uses language that is pertinent to the theme of covenant. ‘Those who cling to idols forfeit God’s love for them,’ reads verse 8 in the TNIV. But God’s love here is a weak English translation of a word that stands for God’s faithful covenant love. Dealing with the idols in our lives is about maintaining the faithful covenant relationship with God. Idolatry is something we should examine at a covenant service. It gets in the way of our calling to glorify God in the church and the world, however worthy it appears to be.
When we deal with it, then – like Jonah – we can offer our sacrifices and keep our vows – the vows we make at something like a covenant service.
So – in summary, God is calling us to renew our commitment to glorify him in worship and mission. To that end, as we make our covenant with him afresh today, will we stop making our personal comfort and other things – even church work – our personal idols? Will we reject those things that lead us to treat internal church life as a priority that has excluded our involvement in Christian mission? Will we recognise that the difficulties and uncongenial aspects of our lives individually or together may even be tools God has used to preserve us for this twin calling to worship and mission?
Could it be that God has brought us to this point – like Queen Esther – ‘for such a time as this’?
 Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant, p 15f.
 As suggested in Tim Keller’s book above.
Have you ever forgotten something you know you should have remembered and then said, “Silly me, I was having a ‘senior moment’”?
Sometimes we can laugh at ourselves when we fail to remember. But at other times, not remembering is painful. I think of Hubert, in the early stages of dementia, not always remembering that Vera is his wife. Some of you have been through experiences like that with a loved one.
And in 2 Peter 3, we hear how important remembering is for our spiritual health. We too face scoffers who mock our faith, and we too need to hear how the writer says,
I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles (verses 1b-2).
The early Christians faced scoffers, and we do, too. In our day, it ranges from friends and acquaintances who think we can’t possibly be serious about believing what we believe to sophisticated and organised atheist scoffers. Only in the last week the National Secular Society, an organisation of less than 10,000 members, have called for RE to be banned in schools. Richard Dawkins is always claiming you have to choose between evolution and a Creator God.
So it is worth us today hearing what Scripture says to us about how to stand firm when others mock our faith. To this end, 2 Peter 3 calls us to remember – to remember some things we already know, because they will fortify our faith. What are they, and what should we do about them?
Firstly, we remember what God has done – because what God has done in the past gives a sign of what he will do again. When you know what someone has done previously, it gives you hope for the future. God is not silent. He has not resigned. He is still up to the job. When we remember what he has done, we stand with hope in the face of mockers.
In particular, 2 Peter points to two things God has done in the past, and their counterpoints in what he will one day do again. Those two events are the Creation and the Flood. Just as God once judged the world in a flood of water (verse 6), so one day he will judge it with a flood of fire (verses 7, 10-11). And just as God made the heavens and the earth (verse 5), so in the future he will not simply destroy creation with the flood of fire, he will remake the new heavens and the new earth (verse 13).
How specifically does remembering these twin themes of Creation and Flood help us in the face of mockery? Let us take creation first. The fact that God has acted in creation (whatever means he chose to accomplish it) points to the new creation he will usher in at the end of all things as we know them now. Our Christian hope is not simply of ‘going to heaven when we die’; the biblical hope is that we shall receive resurrection bodies and live in a renewed creation. This is our destiny. The God who created, and who goes on upholding even this broken creation, will one day make all things new – including the heavens and the earth. And that renewed creation will be our home for ever. Remembering God’s work in creation firms up our faith in where we are going.
One thing Debbie and I did in preparation for moving here was that we bought sat-navs for our cars. They have been a great help in our first fortnight here. We know we only have to punch in the postcode and perhaps the door number of where we are doing, and – provided we follow the instructions – we will arrive at our destination.
Occasionally, of course, they go wrong. I had to educate mine to recognise that the postcode for this church did not put it in an unnamed road, but in Station Road! And occasionally, too, we go wrong. I did on Friday night, when we drove back from the circuit welcome service. We arrived at a roundabout in Chobham, I think, where I was instructed to go straight on. Only problem was, you had to go left or right. I knew I had been on a roundabout like that a few days ago, where the same thing happened, and the correct solution was to go right. In the dark, I thought I was at that roundabout.
Well … I wasn’t. Turning right led us ultimately down a narrow country lane, where further progress was blocked by a ford. Debbie is better at reversing in tight circumstances than I am, so she took the wheel and eventually the sat-nav recalculated a route home for us and we made it back.
The life of faith can be rather like that. We can end up on detours caused by our own foolishness or the actions of others, but when we live by faith in Christ, arrival at the ultimate destination is still certain. God’s creation and the promise of his new creation tell us that. And knowing that gives us a reason to stand firm when others mock us. We have reason to believe in a hope-filled future.
But you’ll remember it wasn’t just the Creation to which 2 Peter pointed, it was the Flood as well. As God once judged people’s sin in a flood of water, so this chapter tells us he will also one day judge with a flood of fire.
Is this just a case of saying that those who disagree with us have got it coming to them? No, it’s more than that. This chapter tells us that the reason some people don’t merely disagree with our convictions but specifically scoff at us is because they ‘come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts’ (verse 3). In other words, some people who vehemently mock Christianity do so because to accept Christian faith would be to invite judgment on their morally dubious lives. The Christian speaker, author and activist Tony Campolo tells a story of how a student who had previously been well disposed towards Christianity came up to him one day and said that he’d been having doubts about God for about six months.
“Is that when you started sleeping with your girlfriend?” Campolo replied.
And he was right. The student’s intellectual objections were a cover for his rejection of Christian sexual ethics.
It isn’t that every objection to faith stems from that motive – of course not! But 2 Peter 3 reminds us that some of our opponents have hidden, unworthy motives for attacking our faith. The more mocking they are, the more likely it is. And they won’t get away with it in the long run. God sees their lives and their hearts. This is not anything for us to gloat about – in fact, we should be stirred to pray for such people. But it is a reassurance that we serve a God whose ultimate purposes are justice.
So the first step in coping with mockery of our faith is to remember what God has done and recognise what he will do. We gain confidence in God’s good future for us, and in his justice.
Secondly, we remember God’s character. The original readers of this letter were being mocked for their belief that Jesus would return and that God would judge creation. “Where is the promise of his coming?” (verse 4), they taunted. So 2 Peter 3 reminds them of Psalm 90,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (verse 8 )
and from that draws the conclusion that God has delayed his final purposes in his divine patience, because he does not want any to perish, but to come to repentance (verse 9). He does not want to have to judge the mockers – he would rather they found new life in Christ. Nor does he want Christians to fall away – he desires that we resist that temptation and stay faithful, even when it would feel more comfortable to disown our Lord and Saviour.
What, then, do we need to remember about God’s character? One word: grace. We would not know God in Christ were it not for his grace, his unmerited favour extended in love to us through Jesus and the Cross. God wants to demonstrate that same love even to those who ridicule his Son and our faith in him.
Every now and again, I read discussions on the Internet about the existence of God. Some of the comments from atheists are arrogant and hateful. My instinctive feelings towards such people are not good. But I need to remember that these are people for whom Christ died, and had God not been gracious to me I would never have known him. It is when we forget truths like this that we may be most likely to slide away from true faith into a parody of true religion that is full of self-righteousness rather than God’s extravagant love to the world through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we need to remember just how much God has forgiven us, and let that fact inform the way we relate to difficult or hostile people. God wants them to know him. He may well want to use us in reaching them. That will have implications for our words, our actions and our attitudes.
The third and final thing we need to do is to remember God’s call. If we have a future in the new creation, and if God is both just and gracious, what kind of people does he call us to be? Let me just draw together a couple of fragments.
In verse 13, where we read about the new heavens and the new earth, we learn that the new creation is a place ‘where righteousness is at home’. If we want to be at home, we need to lead a consistent life, a righteous one. And to that end, the final plea of the letter in verse 18 is that its readers might
grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
What does this amount to? If we believe in God’s coming new creation, then we need to live in harmony with it. That means righteousness (and justice – the Greek word covers both). And if we believe that God is gracious enough to want even his enemies to find his love and put their faith in him, then we need to grow in grace – to become more like him, especially in becoming more full of grace to others ourselves.
All that amounts to a tough call. In the face of opposition and mockery, God calls us not to give up or mingle with the crowd, but to live righteous and just lives that are full of grace for the most undeserving of sinners. But how else are we going to live a convincing witness to Jesus Christ in the world? We are deluded if we think all we have to do is provide the right answers to people’s questions – although that is important. Jesus calls us to a difficult assignment, but an important one: to live the life of faith, even and especially when we are under fire.
But he’s simply asking us to do what he did when the heat was on, and the good news is that he gives us the Holy Spirit in order to do his will. When I read the claims of atheists on the Internet, I realise they not only need to hear reasonable answers from Christians, they need to see Christians show by their lifestyles that a different way is real and possible.
And that’s a good place for me to end my first sermon here, with that challenge. Our calling is to live different, Jesus-shaped lives in the midst of the world and not just in our religious ghettoes.
Who is up for the challenge?
Sorry for the lack of posts recently – all due to the move of appointment, which I begin today. Here’s a short piece to get back into the swing.
Bollywood is making a film about the life of Christ. It will have a cast of children, but will star a Bollywood heart-throb. Even Jesus has to be good-looking. It will cover from the birth to the crucifixion, the Guardian says. (Not the Resurrection? I wonder why.)
The film would include seven devotional songs, [the director] added, but would not feature the rumbustious music and dancing characteristic of Bollywood.
I suppose that is for reasons of reverence, but doesn’t that miss the Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard?
Still, the motives are worthy: director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao says,
“Wherever there is conflict, pain, war, we would like to take the message of peace and love.”