Temptation and Obedience

Luke 4:1-13 // 1 Corinthians 10:12-13

When a person is saved, the battle with sin does not stop. When we repent of our sins and turn to Jesus Christ as Lord, our sins are forgiven and we are put right with God through our faith. We also, at that moment, set out on a journey of being transformed by Jesus. However, Satan does not give up that easily. Sin does not lose its ability to tempt us. And so we must expect to continue facing the temptation to sin every day. We see this illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ Himself.

 In today’s reading, Jesus has just had an amazing encounter with the Heavenly Father. He had finalized His decision to follow God’s mission for His life by being baptized by John … then the heavens had been torn open and the Heavenly Father’s voice had spoken out: “This is my beloved Son” … and then Jesus had been filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus never had to be saved from sin because He never sinned. But this moment in the life of Jesus is the closest we’ll get to seeing in Jesus what happens to us when we are saved. We make a decision to follow Jesus … we are accepted by God as His children … and we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. In a sense this moment in Jesus’ life models our own moment of conversion and salvation.

 But notice what happens to Jesus next. He is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted there by the devil. Please be aware that God did not send Him there for Him to fail. God sent Him there for Him to overcome the devil so that the remainder of His ministry would not be hindered by the temptations He overcame in the desert. God was allowing Jesus to settle a few issues even before He got into His ministry. And in those moments of temptations … the Holy Spirit was with Him all the way!

 This scene out of Jesus’ life should also be a warning to us that we will also be tempted. I’m sure that’s why Jesus actually spoke about this ordeal to His disciples. I mean, that’s the only way it can be in our Bibles today. There were no other witnesses in the wilderness … and much of what happened was unseen anyway. So Jesus must have spoken about His experiences to the disciples and explained to them the deep secrets of His own temptations. Why? I believe it was in order to make them strong for their own battle with temptations. And I have no doubt that they recorded what Jesus said in order to make us strong for our temptations … and to help us to overcome them!

 

A. The nature of temptation

Here’s a great everyday illustration of temptation: the insect zapper. You know those electrified gadgets with the blue light. The blue light attracts the insects … they fly closer … and zap … they die! When the gadget is on, that happens all night. Hundreds and hundreds of bugs can die in a kind of bug-holocaust … night after night … the killing continues unabated. But why? It’s temptation.

 You would think that the millionth insect might just perchance look down as he flies bewitched towards the big blue light … you’d think he would notice the dead bodies of his relatives and friends lying there all charred. You would think he might just say, “Whoa – wait a minute! Every time one of my family fly out into the dark night to follow the exciting glow of the big blue light … they don’t return.” You’d think that that clever little bug might consider resisting the irresistible big blue light. But alas … zzzzap … another bug bites the dust!

 That’s temptation isn’t it? Satan the tempter puts the big blue light of sin out there. It looks so wonderful … so beautiful … so free … so exciting. Our minds ignore the obvious and not-so-obvious consequences of sin … and we plunge straight into the trap. We are never tempted by something negative and harmful. It is always something that looks incredibly attractive and appealing that lures us. But it is the hidden cost … the sting in the tail … that we should be looking out for. What is the sting? Romans 6:23 puts it this way … “the wages of sin is death!” Sin always destroys us. Not always in huge obvious ways like the “mozzie zapper” … but irresistibly and as sure as gravity sin draws us slowly further and further from God and deeper and deeper into the brokenness of the world.

 Temptation always makes sin look so good and so harmless. Notice that Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones in to bread … that seems a great idea. He tempts Jesus to show off His power to draw a following … that seems a very effective way to start a ministry and draw a crowd. He tempts Jesus to gain worldwide success magically by bowing down to the devil and worshipping him. Okay … that’s pretty obviously diabolical … but the big blue light was to be king of the world … something that the Father had sent Jesus to do. Cleverly the devil tries to draw Jesus into going about His mission the wrong way … the easy way … the worldly way. We owe our salvation to the fact that Jesus overcame the temptations. But they are here in the Bible to warn us of the nature of the temptation we will face when we seek to follow Jesus … not just the temptation to sin … but the temptation not to do things Jesus’ way but rather to take the easy and popular way. They warn us that temptation is ALWAYS attractive and appealing!

 Temptations should carry the advisory notice … BEWARE use of this product will lead to your death. But of course it doesn’t. It comes under the false advertising … this product will make your life BETTER and EASIER! That is quite simply the nature of temptation.

 B.         Overcoming Temptation

 So we can see why resisting and overcoming temptation will demand great wisdom and discernment on our part. In the wilderness, Jesus models this for us. He does not present us with a three step programme to overcoming temptation. But He gives us a model of how to overcome through His own example.

 1. Desire to bring God great joy

Luke 3:22 shows that Jesus’ baptism (just before this temptation) ends with God saying of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased!” This is a clue to Jesus’ victory over temptation. Above everything else in the world, He wanted to give His heavenly Father great joy! His relationship to His Father was THE most important thing in His life!

When His hunger drove Him to desire to turn stones into bread He resisted by remembering that it was God who satisfied His hunger and not mere bread. When He was tempted to test God’s promise of protection He remembered that because He loved the Father He could not put Him to the test. When tempted to worship Satan in order to get power more easily He remembered that only God was worthy of His worship and adoration. It was all about God, His Heavenly Father. So Jesus refused to do anything that would take away His Father’s joy in Him.

For most Christians today, the highest desire of our lives is not much different to the rest of the world. Most people desire their own comfort, ease and pleasure more than anything else in the world. And so temptation has great power over us … because this is exactly what temptation appeals to.

So the first key to overcoming temptation is making our relationship with God our Heavenly Father THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF OUR LIVES. If we truly have no higher desire and aim than to bring JOY to God the Father, then anything that would steal God’s joy away we would NEVER be willing to do!

Above all else in our lives we must desire to bring God joy! In many ways this robs Satan and temptation of the power to lead us into death.

2. Seek to know God’s will

When you want to please someone and bring them joy, you have to study that person’s likes and dislikes. You have to figure out how to bring them joy. Without that knowledge, you may be well-meaning but you will probably fail to bring them any joy at all.

That is what Jesus had obviously been doing in the wilderness all those 40 days. He so freely quotes the Old Testament that it seems likely that He has been spending His time meditating on the Hebrew Scriptures, in which the will of God is made clear. The temptations He faces are so subtle that He might have been fooled into thinking that they were okay to do. After all Satan even quoted Scripture. He was trying hard to trick Jesus into thinking that He could do these things and still be pleasing to God. He was even using the calling Jesus knew He had to become king of the world … and to meet the needs of others … But Jesus was not fooled. He knew the Scriptures better than Satan. He knew God’s will … He knew what pleases God because He had studied God deeply.

Without studying God’s Word and reading it daily, we will be easily fooled and lured by temptation. So many people are being fooled today because so few people truly know the Word of God. They are tricked by the argument, “If it feels good it can’t be wrong!” Even “Everyone’s doing it”, still works. One popular argument is that God’s ways are outdated and another that the “end justifies the means.”

With so many modern trends being totally unbiblical we have got to know and understand what pleases the Lord. Ephesians 5:17 says, “Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do.” This is the point I’m making. Jesus could resist temptation because He had trained Himself to know what the Father’s will was! If we are to resist temptation we must not only make pleasing God our highest desire … but must also get to know God’s desires through His Word. And then we must accept that even if it goes against the norms and trends of the world … this is the way to please God!

3. Trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit

One thing we must never ignore is the fact that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert … and returned from the desert in the power of the Holy Spirit. All throughout His wilderness experience of temptation, the Holy Spirit was there giving Him the power to overcome.

 It was not automatic that He overcame. He needed more than just the Spirit … He needed to make His choices for Himself … but He could never have done it without the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was the One who helped make pleasing God Jesus’ highest desire. The Spirit is the One who helped Jesus discern from Scripture what pleases God. The Spirit is the One who warned Jesus of the “big blue light” of temptation and set alarm bells ringing when satan came knocking.

 For us too, the Holy Spirit is at work to help us to overcome and we must trust His guidance. That comes through our consciences primarily … He helps us to just know when something is wrong! When we are not sure, we must ask Him to help us discern God’s will. When we read the Bible we must ask Him to let the Word sink into us deeply. When we know what is right and wrong but are still struggling to overcome, we must plead with Him for the power to overcome. And He will help us.

 Remember we have that wonderful promise of 1 Corinthians 10 to hold onto: “No temptation has come upon you other than what is common to all men. And when you are tempted God will always give you a way out from under it.” There is always a way. There is therefore no excuse for the believer to live in sin or to constantly give in. If we are finding that temptation is beating us time and time again then we need to go to serious prayer … asking the Holy Spirit to make God’s joy our highest desire … asking Him to help us see from Scripture what it is that brings God joy and what saddens God … and then asking Him to give us the power to resist temptation at all times.

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Our Father

Our Father in heaven

One of the most striking scenes for me in Mel Gibson’s now famous movie The Passion was Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. In anguish he cries out to God, “Abba! If it is possible, let this cup be taken from me!” That anguished cry of Abba was so haunting. It reminded me of how a child … whether me as a child, or my own children when they were small … would automatically scream out “Mommy” or “Daddy” whenever there was pain or danger or anything whatsoever evoking trauma or fear. There is something primal within every human child that cries out to the one they love and trust more than any other. It is a cry from the depths of their heart that touches the hearer at the very depth of their heart too. And in the garden, Jesus cried out, “Abba!”

Abba was the way Jesus usually addressed God Almighty when He prayed. Kenneth Bailey tells of a time when he was on mission to Lebanon and was teaching the Lord’ Prayer to a group of village women in a remote mountain village. He says that in class he described “Abba” as a first-century Aramaic word, and says that as he spoke he sensed a certain restlessness in the class. When he stopped an asked for any comments one woman at the back shyly put up her hand and (to use his words) “very gently told this poor foreigner, ‘Dr Bailey, Abba is the first word we teach our children.’ On investigation I found this to be true across Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. These countries were once all Aramaic speaking and this precious word has survived even though the language of the people is now Arabic.”

As a young man raised in a home where Aramaic was the first language and Hebrew was the language of learning, Jesus would have grown up calling Joseph “Abba”. It was the equivalent of our “Daddy”, “Papa” or “Dada”.

When the disciples overheard Jesus praying to God, they must have been surprised to hear Him addressing God as “Abba”. It must have shocked them … even scandalized them!

But now, in a startling twist, when they ask Jesus to teach them to pray, the opening word He tells them to use is, “Abba”. Jesus, the unique and only begotten Son of God called His Father, Abba. And Jesus, our Lord, who saved us and brought us home into a relationship with God as our Father invites us also to pray to Him as “Abba”.

But what does this mean? What does it mean for our prayer lives that Jesus commands us to pray to Almighty God as Abba?

The daughter of an atheist once said to a friend: “I was brought up without any religion. I do not believe in God.” Then she added a little wistfully, “But the other day in an old book I came across a prayer, and if the God of that prayer exists I think I could believe in Him.” Her friends asked, “What was that prayer?” Then she repeated slowly … “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name …” The Lord’s prayer. It’s not only about what we ask … but about the God of the prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is a vivid reminder to us that when we pray we are appealing to:

  1. The Source of our lives
  2. The Protector of our lives
  3. The Lover of our lives
  4. Our Father

Source of Our Lives

The first thing the name Abba suggests to me is that the God to whom we pray is the Source of our lives. To Jesus it is vitally important that we remember this when we pray. The fact that we pray to Abba is a constant reminder that we do not pray to a god who is unable to answer us … we pray to the God Who gave us these lives in the first place.

The name “father” has always carried this meaning. Our father is the giver of our lives. This is one of the reasons Scripture refers to God, even in the Old Testament, as our Father.

In Deuteronomy 32:6, Moses asks the rhetorical question: “Is God not your Father, your Creator, who made and formed you?”

James 1:17-18 proclaims: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of changing. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” (Jas 1:17-18)

I find myself quoting that Scripture at almost every funeral service I lead, as a reminder to the gathered family and friends that their loved one’s life was a gift to them from God. Every good gift comes from God. Our lives come from God.

God enabled me to win the race to conception. God fashioned me in my mother’s womb. God breathed into me the breath of life. All of these are Scriptural truths. My life comes from God. When I pray “Abba” I am praying to the God who is the source of my life.

The Protector of our Lives

The tragedy of human brokenness through sin means that while every human being knows that they have a father who is the source of their life … for many people their biological father is not much more than that. I have heard young people talk about their fathers as nothing more than a sperm donor. That was the only role they felt their father ever played in their life.

And this is where the danger of using a word like “father” to refer to God is so evident. Muslim theologians explain that Muslims are not allowed to refer to God in human terms because this will lead down the slippery slope to idolatry … it leads us to create God in the image of our human experience. To them God is God and should not be described in human terms.

We can see this danger here in the use of the word “father” as a metaphor for God. To some, to think of God as Father is to think of God as an abuser … or a runaway … or a manipulator. But when we do this, we have turned it all around. God is the perfect Father. God is the model for every human father … rather than our human fathers being a model of what God is like. Of course, that is the high calling of every human father … to model what God is like … but of course, every human father will fall short to one degree or another.

And so, rightly understood, the name “Father” is a powerful symbol of protection. It is the nature of a good father not to abuse or hurt his child in any way … but to be the ultimate protector of that child. The perfect father protects his child’s body, mind and spirit. This is what God does. He is our Father and He desires only what is good for us … and He is at work to protect us from what is bad for us.

In speaking of the Israelites as God’s children, Moses said in Deuteronomy 32:10: “He found them wandering through the desert, a desolate, wind-swept wilderness. He protected them and cared for them, as he would protect himself.” Isn’t that amazing. God protects His children as He would protect Himself. That is so profound a statement. We could just sit and meditate on that for an hour or two.

But our reverie would be interrupted by Revelation 7:15 which also says of believers in heaven: “That is why they stand before God’s throne and serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will protect them with his presence.”

That Scripture makes me think of how as a child I never felt safer than when Daddy was home. If Daddy was present I felt safe. No burglar could possibly have broken in when Daddy was there. I was privileged to know my dad as my protector. But Scripture affirms that the heavenly Father is a protector of all who call on Him as Father. Psalm 91:4 says: “He will cover you with his wings; you will be safe in his care; his faithfulness will protect and defend you.”

When we pray to “Abba” we are praying to the God who is, by His very nature, our Protector.

The Lover of our lives

If Jesus called God Abba, and encouraged us to call God Abba, then the best place to look for what this means is to see whether Jesus perhaps taught about a father anywhere. And you know as well as I do that He did. Perhaps His most famous parable is a parable about God in which God is a father … the father of the prodigal son.

Perhaps Jesus was building on the image of Hosea 11 which begins with God saying, “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from Me.” As the litany of the pain Israel caused to God by his rebellion continues in Hosea 11, the 8th and 9th verses stand as a beacon of light. God says: “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over Israel? I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate you. For I am God, and not man, the Holy One among you.”

It’s the point I made earlier that God is not like our human fathers, He is a perfect Father. But it also shows that as our Abba, God’s heart is filled with love for us … love that does not diminish when we hurt Him … love that is always reaching out to us, wanting to restore us and give us the life we have thrown away.

And so, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son. We are that son. He tells how the son walks out on his father and takes the gift the father has given him and goes to waste it through sinful living. We did the same with the gift of life God gave us. But the point of the parable is not really the prodigal son. The point is the love of the father … that love which sees the prodigal son returning in repentance and runs with wide-open arms to embrace and forgive and restore.

Henry Nouwen, writing about this parable, says: “This is the portrait of God, whose goodness, love, forgiveness, care and compassion have no limits at all.”

No matter what we have done as God’s children … when we pray to “Abba” we are praying to the God who loves us with an everlasting love … even when we have turned from Him.

Our Father

Finally we have to tie it all together by being reminded that throughout this prayer we are not taught to pray to “My Father” … but to “Our Father”. God has no favourites. He is OUR Father.

This is true at 2 levels:

  1. To one extent, in the very broadest sense of the word, every human is a child of God … because He is the Giver of all physical life. Even atheists or those opposed to Christ are, in this sense of the word, children of God. But they are runaways. They are prodigals. They are the ones God is waiting for and patiently drawing home to Himself. When we pray to “Our Father” we are reminding ourselves that we share a common dependence on God with all humanity.

 

  1. Yet, to another extent, in the narrower sense of the word, only believers in Christ truly know and experience God as Our Father. John 1:12 says that to those who receive Christ, to those who believe in His Name, He gives the right to be called children of God. We have been adopted into God’s family through faith in Christ. Romans 8 stresses that through faith in Christ we are adopted into God’s family and that the Holy Spirit within us enables us to cry out to God, “Abba, Father”. When we pray to “Our Father” we are reminding ourselves that we are not an island … we are part of the family of God through faith in Jesus.

 

I hope and pray that the next time you pray the Lord’s prayer you will be reminded that the God to Whom you pray is:

  1. The Source of our lives
  2. The Protector of our lives
  3. The Lover of our lives
  4. Our Father

 

The Prayer of Secrecy and Simplicity

Matthew 6:5-8

Today we begin a new Sermon Series entitled “The Prayer of Jesus”. A good few years ago now the little book “The Prayer of Jabez” took the Christian world by storm. Using just one Biblical verse tucked away in a genealogy in the Old Testament, Bruce Wilkinson wrote a very popular and powerful book on how to pray like Jabez.

The series we begin today is based on just 11 verses tucked away in Matthew chapter 6. But rather than being based on the prayer of a man called Jabez, this series goes one better … it is based on the prayer of a man called Jesus … and not just any one of His prayers … the one He taught us to pray saying, “Our Father who art in heaven …”

But today, before we get to the actual prayer Jesus taught us, which we know and love so well, we need to hear the truth that He teaches in the first 4 introductory verses of this passage.

By way of introduction let’s step for a moment in to the world in which Jesus lived. It was a world where religion influenced daily life far, far more than it does today. Jewish national identity was inseparably intertwined with Jewish religion. Right living and Sabbath-keeping and prayer times were all strictly regulated and were observed by a majority of Jews.

In this highly religious society there were also set prayer times. Three times a day at least, faithful Jews would stop what they were doing, turn towards Jerusalem and either kneel down or stand and pray. Much as we see faithful Muslims today laying down their prayer mats or rushing off to mosques or prayer rooms at certain times of the day, the Jews of Jesus’ day would also often be seen stopping in the midst of their daily activity to pray. The kind of praying Jesus was criticising was when Jewish pray-ers would stand in public places like street corners and synagogues and pray aloud or make a show of their private praying. He was not attacking public prayer … not at all … there was always a place for public prayer … instead He was attacking so-called private praying with the wrong motive of being seen by others to be a devout and pious person.

Praying in order to impress people did not impress Jesus. Essentially He said that if you pray to impress people and they get impressed, then you got what you were after and your prayer goes unheeded by God because you never intended it for God in the first place.

Secondly Jesus made reference to the babblings of pagans. A number of the pagan religions of Jesus’ day (which many of the Roman soldiers and citizens in Israel would have followed) included as part of their religious practices a form of prayer that amounted to repeating words or sounds in a mindless chanting or, as Jesus put it, “babbling”. Seneca referred to people who prayed like that as “wearing out the gods”. We could also refer to the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel with Elijah in 1 Kings 18:22-40, and the way they shouted and screamed and even cut themselves to try to get the attention of their gods. Yet nothing happened in response to their prayers. And then Elijah prayed a simple prayer to the Lord God Almighty … and fire fell from heaven and consumed the offering. Longwinded-ness and volume and outward show in prayer did not impress Jesus.

Jesus instead gives us two basic principles for personal, private prayer that is pleasing to God: Secrecy and Simplicity. In everything we will learn throughout this series, let us not forget that the foundation of personal prayer is secrecy and simplicity.

Secrecy

One afternoon a few weeks ago, one of the prospective tenants from the building next door came to ask about how the parking lot works. He explained to me with great enthusiasm that his business was like a gym without any real exercise. Yes, it’s true. You can get the body you’ve always wanted … all you have to do is let him clip you onto his amazing machines for 20-30 minutes 3 times a week (and of course part with a significant amount of money for the privilege), and you will get the body of your dreams. It’s apparently great for physical recovery from pregnancy and operations, etc. That all sounds amazing and I’d love to believe that it works, but experience has taught me that without sweat and pain, there’s just no gain in the physical realm … and without calloused knees, there’s no gain in the spiritual realm either.

There are so many gimmicks out there for exercise. How many of us don’t have an Abswing or a Health-walker or an Orbitrek machine somewhere at home with the laundry hanging on it? We are suckers for a quick and easy fix. But there simply isn’t one. Getting physically fit involves a lot of exercise. And we have to do that exercise for ourselves. We cannot pay someone else or their machine to do it for us. We cannot short-circuit the way our bodies are wired. Getting physically fit involves a lot of hard work. We call that work exercise. Getting spiritually fit involves a lot of exercise too. We call that exercise prayer.

Now, like with exercising, we have to do prayer for ourselves too. We cannot rely on someone else to do it for us. Every believer has been given the incredible privilege of being allowed into the presence of the Living God through prayer. I don’t have a “hotline” as so many people tend to think the minister does. Every believer has a hotline. And today Jesus is teaching us that the handset of that hotline is hidden away in the secret place of your life.

True private Christian prayer is prayer that happens in the secret place. Jesus says: “Go into your closet”. That word closet is “tameion” in Greek. It referred primarily in Jesus’ day to a storage room or pantry, and the tameion was also used in most humble homes for privacy. In wealthier homes there would even be a special small room on the roof to provide a sheltered place for devotion. Albert Barnes, in his commentary says: “Over the porch, or entrance of the house, there was frequently a small room the size of the porch, raised a story above the rest of the house, expressly set apart for the place of retirement. Here, in secrecy and solitude, the pious Jew might offer his prayers, unseen by any but the Searcher of hearts. To this place, or to some similar place, our Saviour directed his disciples to repair when they wished to hold communion with God. This is the place commonly mentioned in the New Testament as the “upper room,” or the place for secret prayer.”

The whole point of what Jesus is teaching here is that rather than spending time in personal prayer in a public place where others can observe us … we ought to find a place where it is just us and God.

Jesus Himself practiced what He preached. There were times when His desire for private personal time with God led Him to wake up while it was still dark, to get away by Himself. There were other times when He went into the wilderness or up the side of a mountain … and still others when He literally sent the disciples away from Him to cross the lake while He spent time alone with His Father. Luke says that “He often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16)

 Jesus said that the people who pray in public to be seen by others have already received their reward – they have been seen and others have been impressed; and that is their reward.

But those who genuinely pray in private have actually also received their reward. Because the true motive of the person who truly prays in private is God Himself. True private prayer is not something we do to get something from God … it is something we do to get to be with God Himself. The secret place is our personal place of fellowship and intimacy with God. In this world we want instant formulas … but God wants intimate fellowship with us … and there is something deep within every human heart craving for that too!

The secret place is not necessarily even a literal place. It is a place within ourselves that we go to in order to be with God. It is a moment when all of our concentration and focus is on God. Yes, having a private physical place and time is crucial. But even in the car or on the train or on a beach or at our desks or in a lift or in the toilet, we can go to the secret place by simply turning our hearts and minds towards God in conversation.

Friends, find your secret place. Find it physically. But when you’re there physically, find it spiritually too. And the next point plays a major part in knowing what I mean by saying we ought to find our secret place spiritually.

Simple Sincerity

Jesus’ next point about prayer is that it ought to be simply sincere. Truly great personal prayer is when we open our hearts up completely to God and show Him everything that is in them. We don’t need complicated formulae for prayer … we certainly don’t need fancy and flowery language. What we need is honesty and simplicity. We need to let God into our heart of hearts by expressing our hearts to Him in prayer.

Don’t think, says Jesus, that you will be heard because of your many words … or your fancy words … or your mantras or incantations. Anything that goes beyond honest simplicity is drifting away from being true prayer. Anything that becomes ritualistic or rote or “put on” is not true prayer.

Just take a moment to notice WHY Jesus says we should avoid babbling on like the pagans. He says, “FOR (that indicates that a reason is about to follow) your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

By praying we are not trying to twist the arm of God into doing something for us. By praying we are engaging in communication with God. And communication is the lifeblood of any relationship. So prayer is a whole lot less about us getting God to do something for us … and a whole lot more about building the intimacy of our relationship with God. That needs to be the bedrock of our understanding of prayer. Before prayer is about getting God to do something … it is about deepening our relationship with God. So when you pray don’t babble like a pagan but rather take what is in your heart and present it to God. If there’s something you truly need, you will ask for it as you bare your soul to God – but the point is to be simple … honest … sincere … and to lay ourselves completely open to God.

When should we do this?

1. In the morning. Before we begin the day, have an honest conversation with the Lord about what faces you in that day and commit yourself to His care.

2. In the evening. When the day has ended, what better time could there be to offer thanksgiving for the mercies of the day, and to ask forgiveness for what we have said or done wrong?

3. We should pray in times of difficulty and confusion. Such times occur in everyone’s life, and it is then a privilege and a duty to go to God and seek his direction.

4. We should pray when we are challenged by strong temptations. That’s how our Saviour prayed in the garden of Gethsemane (compare Heb_5:7-8), and so we should pray when we are tempted.

5. We should pray when the Spirit prompts us to pray; when we feel like praying; when nothing can satisfy the soul but prayer. Such times occur in the life of every Christian. Prayer to the Christian, at such times, is just as much a blessing as conversation with a friend when the heart is filled with love; and as the most delicious banquet is to the hungry.

I’ll end with another quote from Albert Barnes. He says:

“Prayer, then, is the element of being – the breath of vital air; and, then, the Christian must and should pray. He is the most eminent Christian who is favoured with strong emotions urging him to prayer. The heart is then full; the soul is tender; the sun of glory shines with unusual splendor; no cloud intervenes; the Christian rises above the world, and pants for glory. Then we may go to be alone with God. We may enter the closet, and breathe forth our warm desires into his ever-open ear, and He who sees in secret will reward us openly.”

 

Mission Service 2013

Romans 10:9-15

(This message served as an introduction to the reports of our missionaries in Bosnia and Claremont during our annual Mission Covenant Service.)

Paul’s logic in this passage is inescapable.

The gospel message is this:

  1. For somebody to be brought home into a saving relationship with God all they need to do is to call on the name of the Lord saying “Jesus is Lord”.
  2. But to call on Him they first have to believe that He lived and died and was raised from the dead by God, otherwise they would have no cause to be calling on Him in the first place.
  3. But, says Paul, to believe in Jesus through this gospel message, you first have to have heard the message!
  4. And to have heard the message, of course, someone first has to have conveyed that message to you!
  5. And for that person to have conveyed that message to you, they first have to have been sent.

That is infallible logic. No-one who has not heard the message of salvation through Jesus will ever get to hear it unless people are sent to tell them.

Jesus told a parable about this work of being sent to tell people the good news. Read Luke 14:15-23.

Banquets are fun. Banquets are celebrations! Banquets are times of feasting and dancing and laughing and overflowing joy! Life as part of God’s family is good … very good! And God is sending out an invitation for anyone and everyone to come and join the banquet of life in Him!

As children of God and servants of God, all of us are called to go and invite people to join us at the banquet. Jesus, after all, commanded us to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. But this reading also highlights something else. It highlights the truth that there are so many different people and kinds of people out there to be invited. Some are at work in their businesses or farms. Some are in the streets and alleys of the town. Some are out on the highways and the by-ways, the roads and country lanes.

As I thought and pondered this Scripture I thought of all the different ways that we invite people to things … and of the different people we would send those invitations to:

  • To a child we send a colourful piece of paper (normally to their parent actually) with lots of pictures and “movement”;
  • Teenagers would be invited by a text message;
  • Activists in the Arab Spring were invited to protests by facebook and twitter, and we use the same medium to send invitations to special events to our friends;
  • My step-mother would be horrified to receive an invitation any other way than through the post on a fancy card in a lovely firm envelope – preferably with some calligraphy thrown in to the deal somewhere;
  • Lloyd and Andrea sent out their wedding invitations mainly by email with a link to a webpage.
  • When I was a child, the coolest sort of invitation was when your mate shouted from next door: “Hey come and play!!”

 All kinds of people are out there ready to be invited to join us in the banquet of Spirit-filled life! But they all need invitations framed in different ways. They live in different places and have different cultures. Some of them you and I can go to … and to them Jesus has sent us to go.

But not all of us are able to go to all of them. Not all of us speak the same language as they do … and I mean that literally and figuratively. Not all of us can relate to all of them. That is why certain people have a special calling to go to a particular kind of people.

Paul the apostle had a special calling to go to people who were called “gentiles”. Most translations of the Bible still call them Gentiles because that’s who they were – non Jewish people. The latest version of the Bible which I am reading, however calls them “Outsiders”. I like that because CMC has a couple called martin and Lesley who run a mission to people called “Outsiders.” They will tell us a bit about that in a moment.

The apostle Peter on the other hand had a calling to go to the Jews of Jerusalem and Asia Minor. Early church history tells us that:

  • Philip had a calling to the Greeks.
  • Nathanael went to Persian and India and even took the gospel as far as Armenia.
  • Thomas went to India too, and there is some evidence that he was buried in Chennai.

So some are called to go far away to people of foreign languages and cultures. We also have a young lady called Belinda who is called to go to a far away people of a foreign language. We will hear from her in a moment too.

But neither Martin and Lesley, nor Belinda, can go where they are called to go unless we as their church send them. We need to bless them in their going. We need to support them financially in their going. We need to pray for them in their going. We need to cheer them on in their going. Why? Because they are going for us!!

Let’s hear from them now.

Covenant Service 2013

Matthew 11:28-30

Today we meet as a faith family in the Methodist tradition, to do something that goes back in an unbroken chain to 1755. Back in that year, the great revivalist John Wesley felt the need to lead his church in a solemn recommitment to their personal covenant with God. Ever since that day every local Methodist church has continued to do so year after year. Every year we have the opportunity to make a personal recommitment of our lives to our covenant relationship with God through Jesus. But it is also a little more than that … because we do this in community. I believe that today’s recommitment is also a recommitment to our covenant with one another to be a faith-community, living in obedience to the call of Jesus on our common life, and so today we will also have a special moment where we induct our 2013 leadership and re-commit ourselves to being a Christ-centred community that shares God’s love with the world.

But let’s start off by understanding …

1. What is a Covenant?

A covenant is a concept deeply entrenched in the Bible. Our most similar modern equivalent would be a treaty between 2 individuals or two nations. In essence it’s a “formal agreement” that binds two individuals or two nations together in a formal relationship. A marriage between a man and a woman is a covenant – a formal agreement which binds their lives together in a particular relationship.

Biblically speaking, a covenant is an agreement that God enters into with an individual, a group of people, or humanity in general. This agreement will always contain promises that God makes to us … and most times also includes conditions … the promises that we must make to God. To put it perhaps in more modern language, a covenant is a formalized relationship between God and people.

The good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to mediate a Covenant … a Covenant that would be available to all humanity. He came to open the door for anyone who would want to do so to enter into an eternal covenant with God Almighty. We call this open covenant The New Covenant as opposed to the Old Covenant, which was God’s Covenant made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinia – the Old Covenant was based on the Ten Commandments, and a relationship with God was lived out through obedience to the Law of Moses.

Here is how our Methodist liturgy very simply expresses the truth of our new covenant: “Our Lord Jesus Christ has made a New Covenant with all who trust in Him. We stand within this New Covenant and we bear His Name. On the one side, God promises in this Covenant to give us new life in Christ. On the other side, we are pledged to live no more for ourselves but for Him.”

Today we’ll look to understand both sides of this new covenant.

 

New Life in Christ

In our New Covenant with God, you and I have been promised new life in Christ by God. Here’s what that new life entails.

My past is forgiven

Marganita Laski, a well-known humanist, in a televised debate with a Christian made this admission: “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness. I have no-one to forgive me.” What she identified there was the truth that every human being lives with the burden of past mistakes, sins and rebellion. We carry around with us a burden of guilt and shame and disappointment. We know that we have done wrong and the older we get the more we realise that certain wrongs we have done simply cannot be made right by us!

If we carry that burden of sin throughout our lives, we tend to become hardened. We harden our hearts to God and to others. If we are not that kind of person then our reaction to the burden of guilt is despair and depression. Still others work the magic of convincing themselves that there is no such thing as right and wrong, except what I decide is right or wrong for me … and so they drive themselves into a lifestyle of ever-increasing immorality. Ultimately all of these reactions results in spiritual death – the person dies on the inside.

But Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

In Acts 10:43, in one of the earliest Christian explanations of the gospel, Peter says of Jesus that “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.”

When a person comes to Jesus and entrusts their life to Him, all of their sins are forgiven. The Bible testifies that this means that:

  • God removes our sins from His sight: Isaiah 38:17, “You have cast all my sins behind your back.”
  • God removes our sin from reach: Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” And Micah 7:19, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
  • God removes our sin from His mind: Isaiah 43:25, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” And Jeremiah 31:34, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
  • God causes our sins to cease to exist: Isaiah 44:22, “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” And Acts 3:19,  “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.”

In Jesus our past is forgiven.

My present is Life with Him

New life in Christ also brings with it a permanent companionship with Jesus.

While it is true that many people go through life alone and feel no loneliness at all, many others go through life alone and experience profound loneliness. Many others go through life surrounded by a family at home and by crowds of people at work and in their leisure time, and still feel profoundly alone.

But each of those people, in the still moments when they are utterly alone with their thoughts, and if they are completely honest, realise that no-one truly and completely knows and understands them. You can spend a life-time married to the same person … and the longer you are together and the more you get to know them, the more you realise how little you actually know and understand them. We humans are a profound mystery – sometimes even to ourselves. And yet we feel a deep and pressing need to be fully known and to be fully understood. We feel the need not to be alone in this world!

Seeing this need in His disciples, Jesus speaks to them in John 14:16-18, saying: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, who will stay with you forever. He is the Spirit, who reveals the truth about God. The world cannot receive him, because it cannot see him or know him. But you know him, because he remains with you and is in you. “When I go, you will not be left all alone; I will come back to you.”

When a person trusts in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Himself enters our lives through the person of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus. Andrew Murray, the great pastor and author of the early 1900’s explained what Jesus does like this:

“The life of a plant lives and animates every part of it; and our soul is not limited to dwell in such or such part of the body, the heart or the head for instance, but penetrates throughout, even to the ends of the lowest members. The life of the soul pervades the whole body; the life throughout proves the presence of the soul. It is in like manner that the Holy Ghost comes to dwell in our body. He penetrates its entirety. He animates and possesses us infinitely more than we can imagine.”

As Romans 8 says, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in us. The Holy Spirit of Jesus enters us and penetrates our lives, infusing new life into every part of us. God Himself dwells in us and imparts His life-giving power. We are never alone.

This is the new life. This is why Jesus said: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

My future is secure

When I die, what happens next? This is a question that bothers many people … I actually believe it bugs most people … it’s just that many don’t want to admit that it bugs them.

The person who has received new life in Christ has no reason to be concerned about their future after death … because the new life we have in Jesus is eternal … it is infinite.

I love the way 2 Timothy 1:10 puts it: “Our Saviour Christ Jesus, abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Immortality! Living forever! Never dying! That is our destiny.

1Cor. 15:19-20 says: “If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world. But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised.”

Those who are in Christ have bodies that are going to die. But we ourselves are not going to die. 1 John 2:17 says, “The world and everything in it that people desire is passing away; but those who do the will of God live forever.”  And what is the will of God? In John 6:29  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

So when Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest” He is also promising us the rest of immortality! All who trust in Jesus Christ will live with Him … even though their bodies die.

New life in Christ is a life where my past is forgiven, my present is infused with His presence, and my future is secured.

 

Life under His Yoke

But now we have to remember that this is a Covenant. The New Life is God’s Promise to us. But in order to receive these promises we have to enter the Covenant. I’ve been alluding to that throughout. I have pointed out at each point that forgiveness of our past comes when we trust Christ … that the infilling of the Holy Spirit comes when we trust Christ … and that we receive immortality through trusting Christ. So by now you realise that our part in this Covenant is to trust Christ.

Jesus explains what that trust entails by saying: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” New life comes, says Jesus, when we take His yoke upon us.

Now a yoke was a wooden beam shaped in such a way that when it was thrown over the necks of two oxen, it would keep them together. They would be bound together and now they would be sharing their strength to pull the cart behind them. One of those oxen would generally be the lead ox who would direct the others and they would all follow him.

To live under the yoke of Jesus is to choose voluntarily to bind ourselves to Him in complete dependence on Him for our direction in life … it is to voluntarily submit our moments and our days to His guidance and leading … but it is also to depend completely on His strength. It is to bring ourselves into “junior partnership” with Jesus. This partnership with Jesus is beautifully expressed in Colossians 1:29: “I labour with all of His energy which so powerfully works in me.”

Our Covenant liturgy says this about living under Jesus’ yoke: “To take His yoke upon us means to be content that He appoint us our place and work, and that He Himself be our reward. Christ has many services to be done; some are easy, some are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves. In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all this is given us in Christ, who strengthens us.”

The Covenant Prayer you will be invited to say in a little while expresses to Jesus the desire to recommit yourself to be positioned in His yoke with Him. I can only encourage you to do so … and to live each day of the rest of your life in joyful submission to Jesus’ Lordship, so that as you journey through life you will experience the joy of being constantly WITH Jesus and of being constantly EMPOWERED by Jesus.

Reaching for the Prize

Philippians 3:12-16

So how are your 2013 New Year Resolutions going?

As Christians I guess often our resolutions are misguided because we approach them in almost exactly the same way a non-believer might. We look within ourselves to find out what it is we want to become or what we want to change.

 

But of the many resolutions we may feel like making, I think it is most important for us to ask the Lord what changed behaviour He wants to see in our lives in 2013. For the disciple of Jesus the question is not, “How do I want to improve my life in 2013?” Instead it ought to be, “How does Jesus want to improve my life in 2013?”

 

Today I hope that we can get some principles for 2013 out of this Scripture in Philippians and allow the Holy Spirit to speak!

 

First let’s set some context. In verses 8 through 11 Paul recited what he gained when he came to Christ. He says that he gained the knowledge of Christ, the righteousness of Christ, the power of Christ, the fellowship of Christ and the glory of Christ. This is quite an amazing list of spiritual blessings. And I remind you that this is our inheritance as believers too. We too have come to know Christ … we too have been given the righteousness of Jesus for free (God sees us as though we have not sinned) … we too have been granted the indwelling Spirit of God, the power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us … we too have intimate fellowship with Jesus … and we too are looking forward to the resurrection from the dead! This is who we are in Christ.

 

But notice that Paul hastens to add from v.12 that he has not yet attained spiritual perfection. That’s his intent in this passage. He wants us to know that he is not perfect. He has not reached spiritual perfection even though he is a new creation and has received all of these amazing blessings in Christ … he has not arrived yet. He is not perfect.

 

Peter understood what Paul was trying to get at when he wrote in 2 Peter 3:18, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” He was saying the same thing Paul is saying here. There’s a growing process.  There must be the running of the race. That’s the point. We are called to constantly press towards the finish line.

 

So the basic thrust of the passage then is a call to pursue the prize. It’s a call to pursue the goal which is spiritual perfection. We are to give our whole life to this, that’s what he’s saying in verse 14. “I press toward that.” The word “press” meaning I pursue, I chase it, I run after it.

 

And this is the challenge of God’s Word that I want to set before us at the verge of. The Word is challenging us this morning to make it a resolution of our hearts and lives that in 2013 we will pursue spiritual perfection!

Now, in this passage we have 4 principles for pursuing the prize, and I want to share them with you.

 

1. An awareness of the need to pursue a better condition

 

Please note I didn’t say a better position, our position in Christ is fixed by God’s grace through Christ. But your condition must be improved. We are not what we should be, we are not what we can be, we are not what we will someday be when we see the Lord. So we have to start with an awareness of the need to pursue a better condition.

 

Paul says in v.12: “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect.” And that’s where he starts, an awareness that he hasn’t arrived. Paul the Apostle, 30 years after his conversion is saying, “I’m not what I ought to be.” I can stand here and echo that testimony after 20 years of walking with the Lord and 16 years of ministry, I am not what I ought to be. I haven’t arrived. I’m not spiritually perfect. I’m not morally perfect. I haven’t reached Christ’s likeness. I have not reached God’s perfect standard. I am not what I ought to be, I am still in process.

 

F.B. Myer said this, “Self-dissatisfaction lies at the root of our noblest achievements.” Whatever we achieve spiritually begins with dissatisfaction. I am not pleased with where I am in my spiritual life. I am not content with my spiritual condition. If you are content, you have reached a very dangerous point. It is a point at which you will find yourself insensitive to sin and defending yourself when you ought to be admitting your weakness and pursuing spiritual growth.

 

So spiritual growth, this whole pursuing, starts with recognising that I’m not where I ought to be. It’s a runner at the beginning of the race saying to himself, “The whole idea is to get to the end of this thing. I’m not there, I’ve got to run this course.”

So just take a look at your life right now and be honest. Are you where Jesus wants you to be as His follower? If you’re honest you’ll have to say, “No!” And if you do say, “No,” that’s great … because that is the start of the race … to acknowledge that there is a finishing line … and it’s way over THERE!!

2. Maximum Effort

 

There must be maximum effort to pursue that better condition. Look at verse 12 again: “I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” I press on translates the word, “dioko”, which means, “I run, I follow after, I pursue, I chase”. It’s used of a sprinter and the word means “aggressive energetic endeavour”. He says I’m running after this thing with all my might. There’s no half-measure here. This is the straining of every spiritual muscle, this is running to win, this is pursuing the prize with all your might. This is fighting the good fight  (1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7). Paul’s saying I run, I pursue, I chase, I haven’t arrived, and so I apply maximum effort.

 

You say, “Well, what am I after here?” Where exactly is the finish line?

 

Now follow verse 12, “I am pursuing in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” Now that is a fascinating statement. You see what he’s saying? He’s saying I’m pursuing the prize so that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. “What do you mean by that, Paul?” I mean that I’m pursuing the very thing that was the reason Christ pursued me. In other words, my goal in life is consistent with Christ’s goal for my salvation. He saved me for a purpose and that purpose of His in saving me has become my purpose in life.

 

But what is that purpose?” Look at Romans 8 verse 28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” talking about Christians. Now, follow this, “For whom He foreknew, or chose, that’s all believers, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” Now why were you saved? Why did God choose you and then save you? In order to make you like His Son.

 

What’s the goal of your Christian life then? It’s the same thing for which you were saved, He saved you to make you like His Son and that purpose for which He saves you becomes the purpose for which you live. You see? That’s what we’re all about. We’re all in a life-long pursuit of Christ’s likeness. And you may think that you have arrived at some point of spiritual perfection, but I think if you put yourself against Christ you’re going to be a little more realistic. Christ’s likeness is the goal. And it is going to take our maximum effort to arrive at that finish-line. You don’t become like Christ with a little effort … you become like Christ when you work at it with all your might.

 

So the next question to ponder is: “How much effort am I putting in to my spiritual growth?” As I stand at the brink of 2013 do I need to resolve to put in more effort to grow in Christ-likeness?

 

3. Focused concentration

 

Any athlete knows that when you’re running in a race you have to fix your eyes on something ahead of you. You cannot watch your feet or you’ll fall on your face. You cannot watch the people

around you or you will trip. Your focus is straight forward on the finish line that is ahead … or even just on the next stride. And that is precisely what the Bible is saying here.

 

In making maximum effort there’s a concentration point beyond you upon which you focus. Look at what he says in verse 13 about that: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet.” And then this, “But one thing I do!”

 

Paul was so focused. The man had an unbelievable level of concentration. This is necessary for being a great athlete. It is those totally focused people who succeed in athletics. It is those totally focused people who succeed in life. You know, the world is full of people who are clever at much and successful at nothing because they never can focus their life.

 

That’s why the psalmist prayed, “Lord, unite my heart, give me one thing.” That’s why James warned about a double-minded man who is unstable in all his ways and he’s blown all over the place. Paul was a man with a focused concentration. And the focus of his life was one thing … being Christ-like.

 

When your life has one driving compulsion and that is to be like Christ, you’re moving in the right direction. Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, wrote a book with an interesting title:  Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Purity of heart, he said, is to will one thing. Christians are only pure when they renounce all other things and pursue one thing … to be like Jesus Christ in absolutely everything I am, everything I think and everything I do! That has to be the over-riding driving force of my life! I want to be like Jesus!

 

Now such focused concentration is of course the product of a mindset. Notice verse 13, in order to be focussed Paul says, “Forgetting what lies behind,” that’s the negative. And then he says, “And reaching forward to what lies ahead,” that’s the positive.

 

Willing one thing means, number one, you eliminate the past. Don’t look back.

Don’t look back. It is irrelevant. Make a break with the past. This is such good advice.

This is what Jesus died to enable us to do … to be set free from the past. What things must I be set free from in the past? Everything. Now follow this, okay? Good things and bad things, achievements, good deeds, great accomplishments, spiritual ministries, as well as bad things…sins, failures, disasters. All of it. Forget it all! Why? Because it has nothing to do with the future. You cannot live on past victories. You cannot celebrate your value by your past … but you should also never be debilitated by your past sins and the burdens of guilt.

 

And yet most people are so distracted by the past that they never get around to running the future.

 

And that takes us to the positive in verse 13, “reaching forward to what lies ahead”. Let’s go, let’s move. The word here translated as, “reaching forward,” means to apply your extreme effort. This is a runner stretching every muscle to reach what is in front of him, the prize. Focused concentration, nothing to do with the past, just looking at the goal, moving as fast as possible.

 

Now ask yourself the next question…do I have that kind of focused concentration? What do I need to put behind me? As I stand on the brink of 2013, where is my focus?

 

4. Divine Resources

 

I guess to understand even the remote possibility of becoming Christ-like, we have to throw back to the things Paul said we received when we received Christ … and one of them was, “the mighty power that raised Christ from the dead.” When we received Christ we received His Spirit too … and His Spirit is the one who is transforming us from glory to glory. The Holy Spirit is the One who is at work in us empowering our every effort to become Christ-like.

I love the way Colossians 1:29 puts it: “I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.” And this is the absolutely key understanding to have … it is not by might that we will become Christ-like (although we have to strive with all our might) … and it is not by the power of our own effort … although we have to make a supreme effort … but it is by the power of the Spirit of God who is at work in us!

What power are you depending on in your race to holiness and Christ-likeness? Is it your power? Or is it the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit! He lives in you, you know! And why does He live in you? He lives in you to make you holy! So don’t rely on your own resources … rely on the Spirit!

And then the other divine resources that the Spirit also uses in our lives:

a. The Word. As newborn babes desire the pure milk of the Word that you may grow, constantly in the Word. Being constantly in the Word will keep you consistent, it will keep you on track. It will keep you moving, it will keep you pursuing the prize.

b. Prayer. Paul in writing to the Thessalonians illustrates this point when he says, “We night and day keep praying most earnestly, that we may see your face and complete what is lacking in your faith.” We’re praying that your faith will be complete. Stay in the Word, be in prayer.

c. Follow an example. Look at verse 17, the following verse in our text, “Brethren, join in following my example and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” Find somebody to pattern your life after. Get a discipler, a spiritual mentor who can help you pursue the prize consistently. It takes the Word, it takes prayer, it takes a model to follow and one more thing.

d. Trials. First Peter 5:10, “After you have suffered a while, the Lord make you perfect.” James 1, “Trials have their perfect work.” So, in the pursuit of the prize, the Word, prayer, following a

spiritual model, you move along and God brings enough trials in to your life to perfect you, to knock the dross off so that you’re pure. So when trials come along in 2013, do not forget that they are also divine resources to get you further down the road to Christ-likeness! And instead of moaning and complaining about the trials you face, see them in this context .. see them as part of God resourcing you for perfection!

 Conclusion

Okay, so let me wrap this up!

The foremost New Year Resolution that any believer should be making is that in 2013 I am going to become more Christ-like … and I am going to keep that goal always before me … and I am going to stay focussed on that goal … and I am going to apply maximum effort to achieve that goal … but in applying my maximum effort i am going to completely rely on the power of the Holy Spirit in me. I am not going to trust in my own devices … I am going to trust the Holy Spirit. I invite you to ponder what making this kind of resolution would mean in your life … What are the things you would need to put behind you? What are the specific changes you would need to pursue?

Salvation for All

Salvation for all

Isaiah 60:1-6 // Matthew 2:1-12

Last week we read this story of the Magi as part of the larger story of Joseph’s obedience to God in fleeing to Egypt. But today we read it for its own sake. It is a remarkable story of commitment and sacrifice … of adventure and discovery. And locked away in this amazing story … almost unnoticed … is the remarkable truth which is our focus for today … that Jesus comes offering salvation to all who will come!!

In a time of great national turmoil many centuries before Christ … when the people of Israel and Judah were in exile … held captive in a foreign land … Isaiah the prophet had held out to them a vision of a time when God’s people would be restored to their former glory. In Isaiah 60:1-6 he declares that a time is coming when the glory of the Lord would rise upon Israel and that in the darkness of a world lost in sin, Israel would radiate the glory of God. So bright would this glory of God be, as it shone through them, that nations and kings would come to present their offerings to God in Israel … and people of all nations would come to find refuge in the God of Israel. Salvation would be for all who would come!

This had, of course, always been God’s plan. To Abraham in Genesis 12:3, God says that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God always wanted His people to be a channel of His blessing and salvation to all humanity! It was always God’s plan to save EVERYONE who would come to Him and call upon Him. Think of Isaiah 55:7 which so beautifully expresses the gospel right there in the heart of the Old Testament: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord and He will have mercy on Him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.” Salvation is for all who call upon the Lord!!

And then to come back to today’s reading. In Matthew 2:1-12 we see God yet again taking the initiative to present His offer of salvation to ALL! Let’s look at four categories of those to whom God presented His offer.

The Pagans

The word Magi originally referred to a tribe of priests from amongst the Medes – an East Asian nation which was an important part of the Persian Empire. Remember in the story of Daniel how the advisers tell King Darius that he cannot change his law that anyone who prays to anyone other than himself will be thrown into the lion’s den “because the Law of the Medes and the Persians cannot be changed”. (Daniel 6:8). Amongst the Medes the Magi were a priestly caste. They served as advisors to the kings and emperors! In later usage the word “Magi” also referred to a priestly caste in the Zoroastrian religion. In a general sense the word is also used as a general name for astrologers and magicians.

The Magi – the dearly loved “3 wise men” of the Christmas story – were a bunch of pagan astrologers. They consulted the stars. They practiced divination and sorcery.

How did God feel about their lifestyle? Well here’s what He said through Moses in Deuteronomy 18:10-12: “There shall not be found among you … anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.”

God absolutely condemned their lifestyle. They were looking for God in all the wrong places. When God looked at them … he hated their lifestyle. Why? Because He loved them. We must always remember that God’s Law is in place because He loves us. Here were some of His children – the Magi – sensing their emptiness without God … sensing their need for a Higher Power … but looking for God in all the wrong places. God hates divination and sorcery and astrology and horoscopes because they lead His beloved people astray. They are like a mirage in the desert – promising water and coconuts … but delivering only dry sand and heat. These practices are lies and deceptions from the devil which lead people away from God and yet give them the false belief that they have found what they are looking for.

The Magi represent all those people who are searching for God in all the wrong places. Many would not even call Him God. They may call Him Ultimate Reality or “the meaning of life” or “nirvana”. But what they are really searching for is the One who can fill the emptiness in their souls. Some search in mystic religions … some search in magic … some search in science … some search in wealth and some in beauty … some search in the bottom of a bottle or a needle or a tik pipe.

So what does God do? Does He throw the Magi aside? No. What God does is mind-blowing. He sends them a star! He speaks to them in their language! God comes to them!

They were not coming to God … but God went to them. Rest assured … you may have people in your life who seem a million miles from God. Whatever you try doing to encourage them to come home to God seems to fall on deaf ears. They are looking for the meaning of life in all the wrong places. Rest assured. God will come to them! Pray for them. Ask God to meet with them. God’s dealings with the Magi reassure us that whoever we may be … God will make a way to reach us with the good news of Jesus and to invite us to come to Jesus. Salvation is for all … even the pagans!

Powerful

Herod was not looking for God either. More likely, Herod was looking to be a god. “Herod the Great” he was called. And he was great. He had many very impressive accomplishments. He built cities and fortresses and a magnificent palace! He rebuilt and extended the Jerusalem Temple to the proportions that made Jesus’ disciples gasp as they pointed out the great stones to Jesus. But why did he extend it? What was his motive? Well, perhaps it is revealed by the fact that if you read up on this particular temple it is generally accepted that it is called “Herod’s Temple.” This was not really a temple to glorify God. It was a temple to glorify Herod.

Herod represents those in the church and in the world who seek power and prestige in order to build themselves up and make themselves great. They too are looking for a higher meaning and purpose in life … but they are looking for it in power … power for themselves.

But guess what? God loved Herod too. God did not leave Herod out of His invitation.

It is so incredible to me that God sent the Magi to Herod. The Magi inadvertently became God’s messengers to Herod. Herod was powerful. Herod was a king. Herod didn’t listen to just anybody. And God wanted to get Herod’s attention. God wanted to invite Herod to come home to God! And God knew that no ordinary invitation would do. So he sent a camel train of foreign dignitaries … priests of Media with their entourage … to bring an inadvertent invitation to Herod. “Where is the one born to be the king of the Jews?”

This was the one question that would make Herod sit up and take notice. And it came from a source that Herod would listen to – Magi who advised the kings of the Medes. Through these unlikely messengers (as unlikely as God speaking through the stars really), God spoke an invitation to Herod. And Herod knew what God was inviting him to do. He told the magi that it was his intention to go and worship this king, the Messiah. God was inviting Herod to kneel down and surrender to Jesus as King!

The historian and moralist, Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

This is a sad truth. Power-hungry people and powerful people alike do tend to be corrupted by that power. Perhaps this is one reason Jesus teaches us that if we want to become great in the Kingdom of God, we need to be the servant of all. True life is found not in power but in servanthood.

Herod’s salvation was to be found in surrender and submission to Jesus. God offered him that salvation. But Herod refused … and resisted … and rebelled.

What is the lesson for us in this? I think it is that if we are powerful … God is inviting us to be saved by humbling ourselves, surrendering to Him and submitting to His greater power … by deciding to find our meaning and purpose in Him and not in how powerful we are.

But I think the lesson is also that of 1 Timothy 2:1-3: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour.”

We Christians have the revelation of how dangerous power is. We therefore have the calling to pray for the protection and salvation of all in positions of power!

Priests

It has always saddened and amazed me that the Magi journeyed alone.

They had seen the star. They had asked the question. The priests had the answer when Herod relayed it to them. They shared the answer with the pagans. But they themselves did not go.

They represent the tragedy of religious leaders like ministers and pastors who have the academic knowledge of Jesus and the gospel, but do not live it themselves. They know exactly how people ought to relate to God through faith in Jesus … and they call others to do so … but they themselves do not.

They also represent the Christian who hears the voice of God time and again calling him or her to a deeper relationship with Him … but they simply ignore that voice.

The priests in Jerusalem missed the Messiah because they were too busy with whatever it is priests do for God. They worked for God … but they missed Him in the day of His visitation.

Conclusion

The offer of salvation is for all.

It is for the powerful … for the pagan … for the priest. It is for the businessman, the prostitute and the pew-warmer.

The offer of salvation is for all. What will YOU do with it?