Monday 18 December 2023

Advent, Christmas and Love



Every year, during Advent, and Christmas we celebrate the same gospel message, the coming of Jesus Christ, our Lord, the waiting and then the arrival of the Christ Child, born in a stable in Bethlehem all that time ago, and thereafter born each year in our hearts. The sermon may change but the message does not.

Once again, we to a favourite reading taken from the Gospel of John 1:14

The word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.

We can read these words and obtain the idea that this is poetry and indeed it is, we can read this text and sense that these words convey a profound truth and indeed they do. William Barclay commented that the Gospel of Mark deals with the story of Jesus, ‘plainly, bluntly and literally,’ but the Gospel of John, on the other hand sees things ‘subtly, profoundly, and spiritually.'

When you go inside a traditional Church building, as you face the chancel you will see the reading desk or the lectern to your left and the raised pulpit to your right. The kind of reading desk, this lectern I am particularly referring to often has a wooden carving of an eagle or a solid brass eagle integrated quite beautifully into it. This is not simply for decoration but rather it’s because the eagle is the symbol of St John and it’s on this reading desk, this lectern that you will find the church’s Bible and from there of course, the lessons are read out.

The eagle, I suppose, can represent many things, the soaring eagle which can reach heights of up to ten thousand feet and cannot be blinded when flying into the face of the sun. And so, the Gospel of John is simply not just an account of the life of Christ as recounted by the other gospels. But rather, the Gospel of John, like the soaring eagle transcends limiting boundaries reaching out to God in the spiritual realm. This is the word of God. We cannot really see God except through the manifestation of his creation, but we know that his creation is the manifestation of love of creative intelligence and of wisdom, God’s action in the world is also known as the Word. So, when John tells us that ‘the Word became flesh’ it means that Jesus was the Word, that God was met in Jesus. ‘Those who have seen me have seen the Father,’ said Jesus.

The word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.

We know that in this earthly life that it’s not given to us to know God entirely, it’s not given to us to come face to face with God, but through the scriptures we can read his word and we can hear his Word and know that we are his creation because we all bear the image of God. Jesus did refer to God as Father or Abba, that intimate expression between father and child and in doing so he was giving us a sense of our proximity to God. It's known as a filial relationship. That’s the relationship we should seek with God. And That relationship is supremely and simply a relationship of love and that love, the love of God is the ultimate reality. In the end, we can say that love is all there is. John in his first letter said that those who know love, love God and those who don’t know love don’t know God. Everything else is secondary, everything else is temporary, everything else impermanent. As St Paul put it:

 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (Cor 13)

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said to everyone ‘You are the light of the world’ he said. ‘Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ What Jesus wanted for himself he wanted for us too.

The word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.

Let the Word become flesh and make his dwelling amongst us. Let the living Christ that indwells each one of us become the light that shines before others so that we too may glorify our God, our Father in heaven. Amen.


 Photo: By NotFromUtrecht - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Saturday 11 November 2023

Paul 9

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren. Acts 14:2

In our previous sermon we considered the spirit filled ministry of Paul and Barnabas, how they both came to Iconium, that magnificent and major trading town under Roman rule as it was then. This town of Iconium now known as Konya which today we would say is situated in Southern Turkey.  It was there that both men, Paul, and Barnabas, entered the synagogue and preached so powerfully that, to belief in Christ, they won over a huge number, not only of Jews, but of Gentiles too.

 Again, I would remind you of those words of Henry Matthew, who in commentating on this story wrote:

Yet the success was not to be attributed to the manner of their preaching, but to the Spirit of God who made use of them.

‘They (that is Paul and Barnabas) spoke in such a way that a great multitude both of Jews and also of the Greeks, believed’ This is a phenomenal claim! How is it that such men like Paul and Barnabas could succeed on such a scale when going forward into history thousands of others have often failed. So, we must ask that question, ‘what was it that they had’ that most preachers lack? I think the answer is quite simply, because they stood aside and made room for God.

I think it works like this – in a struggle for faith, in a struggle for faith and to live a life of witness to God, a life of witness to Christ, failure often arises because we get in the way of God. We get in the way of God because of our pride, because of our vanity. You might think that good preaching is all about performance and polish and popularity, but it can become an ego trip where there’s no room for God.  An example of this ‘getting in the way’ of God or the temptation to personal vanity can be found in this little story of when somebody once told John Bunyan that he had preached a delightful sermon, “You are too late,” Bunyan replied, “the devil told me that before I left the pulpit.’ 

This story gives us an example of Bunyan’s personal humility and that story warns us too, that all glory must go to God. All glory must go to God – we cannot preach God, we cannot serve God, unless we make room for him, unless we let him in – otherwise we will just be full of ourselves. When we get in the way, when we are full of ourselves the glory of God cannot become manifest, the Holy Spirit will be absent when we are puffed up with pride and when we are puffed up with our own self-importance. 

Paul was once known as Saul, the Pharisee Saul, the persecutor of the Church until he was blinded and humbled on the road to Damascus. Afterwards he was filled with the Holy Spirit, but not before God speaking of Saul said, “he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the children of Israel, for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake - God’s words – I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.

Years later, in his second letter to the Corinthians, the most personal of Paul’s letters that we have, Paul recounts how much he did suffer for the Gospel of Christ, how much he did suffer for God.  The hard work, the hardships he had to face, the beatings he had to endure, the shipwrecks at sea and the burden of worrying about the Church and all its problems.  What a transformation had been wrought in Saul! Saul the zealous Pharisee, persecutor of the Church, blinded on the road to Damascus and then had to be led by the hand, like a child, into the city.  And it was all part of God’s plan, all part of God’s plan. We might recall those words from Frances Havergal’s hymn “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee”:

Take my will and make it Thine,

It shall be no longer mine.

Take my heart: it is Thine own,

It shall be Thy royal Throne.

That’s what God did to Paul – God broke his self-willed spirit; he broke his pride in readiness for the Holy Spirit enter in. 

Years ago, put up on the outside walls of this chapel was a message reading, ‘that we as a chapel individually don’t hold the same beliefs, but rather that each person is encouraged to develop his or her own Faith in a continuing search for truth.’ But this statement we had on the walls of our chapel totally ignored that God through his creation had already proven the truth of his existence. As Paul put it in his Letter to the Romans, such people, in the face of such evidence of the existence of God, such deniers as they are, are godless and wicked. We come to the same problem again; pride. On the other hand, the message of the early Church was to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. That message means we must throw away our pride as Paul had to throw away his.

So, when we think of the humbled and transformed Paul, we can also think of Frances Havergal’s hymn, Take my life and let it be – And if we want further proof of what God’s desire is for each of us we only have to turn Psalm 51: 17

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise.

If we just break that Psalm down and consider it for a moment, we can see that it really says a lot.  It says, it tells us, what God is looking for – and what He wants from us.  In the simplest of terms, it is the abandonment of pride, to see the sheer futility of our vain selves, when we see it and know it for ourselves it will break our hearts, it will lead us to that contrition, that repentance, it will lead us to cry as Augustine did to cry these words: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

And so now I hope we’re beginning to get the picture now, the picture now of what is required from each one of us and I’m hoping also we’re also beginning to get a spiritual description and understanding of Paul and his preaching, and I mean preaching, not oratory or cleverness as the world would have it, but rather to say it was something much more awe-inspiring than that. His preaching was accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sense of the supernatural, a sense of the supernatural going out to the congregation, going out to those who were listening, a palpable sense of the presence of God.

And so, I think it is worthwhile to consider that this points to the calibre of the men, and the required holiness of the preachers, who should be called to lead our Church today.  I think it is worth our while to be discerning about the churches we might attend or associate with. In such churches we should ask are we merely being bored or are we being entertained or on the other hand is God’s spirit really there in the worship and in the preaching?

Who like Paul and Barnabas could speak now so that great multitudes would believe?  But we’ll leave it there, to think about later, because now we come again to our text, the second verse of Chapter 14 of the Acts of the Apostles

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

It’s here then, that despite everything that can be said, the spirit-led preaching, the sense of the presence of God, that we now, we come back to earth with a bump.  It takes only a little acid to sour the milk, only a little yeast to leaven the bread.  Because often it seems, you know, you can get a good thing going, a project or a campaign, a good organisation up and running; whatever, but that project can soon become a casualty, that project can become a victim of its own success in its early stages when it encounters opposition.  And the opposition, we should not have any reason to doubt, arose in Iconium from the same kind of opponents that Paul and Barnabas had met in Antioch. That opposition could be summed up in two words: 'vested interest.’ They were up against other interests, other considerations.

You see, it was unacceptable to the Jewish leaders to hear that the resurrected Christ was indeed the fulfilment of their own prophetic scriptures. But that message was indeed the message of the early Christian church – and to the ears of the Jewish leaders it was an anathema.  And in any case, since they had Gentiles of some social standing attached to their synagogues, who were making generous contributions to the upkeep of the synagogue, such Jewish leaders would be in no mood to countenance the arrival and the message of the Christian Church.

So, we have that verse (again)

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

I suppose you could say that this story just looks like a rerun of the previous episode in Antioch, in terms of what could be seen as the usual kind of opposition. Of course, but I’d ask you to stay with me anyway, because there’s much more to it than that.  We are talking here about the establishment of the Church, Christ’s Church.  And the thing we must consider is that Christ himself, Jesus came into the world in the teeth of opposition. We remember for example, how Herod murdered the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the infant Christ. How John, in his Gospel, wrote of Jesus, described Jesus as ‘the light,’ saying,

And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (1:15)

And this is the condemnation, that light came into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (3:19)

But even so, there were those who did receive the good news of Jesus Christ with great joy, they received it from Paul and Barnabas, as you know, before they were expelled from Antioch, before they reached Iconium – and they left behind them in Antioch followers and disciples who were filled with joy and filled with the Holy Spirit. One thing to bear in mind though – to hear some people speak of Christianity, you’d think that becoming a Christian lead to a gentle and passive alternative life-style. And when you hear some versions of Jesus, you’d think he was a laid-back hippie who embraced woke liberal values. If that was the truth then perhaps there wouldn’t be too much opposition to Jesus today.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  You don’t need a degree in theology to know that.  Just hear these words from the Gospel of John (3:36)

He that believeth in the son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the son shall not see life, but the wrath of God shall be upon him.

These are uncompromising words; they are hard words. They are hard words because spiritually speaking, we exist in a war zone. There is an ongoing struggle between good and evil – earlier I spoke about the sign outside the chapel that sign that appeared to advocate different paths for the spiritual quest– but what does Jesus say about this?  If we are to turn to the Gospel of Matthew (7:13 – 14) we can see that there are only two choices as Jesus said,

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.

Let us come back to our text again:

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

We need to be clear about this – the leaders of the synagogue opposed Paul preaching Christ, for their own reasons, and stirred up the Gentiles against such preaching too.  It can be said then that they would rather maintain the status quo and the predominance of Judaism than allow others the freedom to come to Christ. The situation in the world is the same today – I mention Judaism, because Christianity grew out of Judaism and I mention Judaism to be faithful to the story and events recorded in the scriptures of the New Testament, but I think we do have to be clear, there is an exclusivity to Christianity, that today the inter-faith proponents have conveniently forgotten. It’s something that many Christians have forgotten. The broad gate and the broad path represent the world and all the other religions, the narrow gate and the narrow path represent Christ. And what did Jesus say?   

I am the door (gate): by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. (John 10:9)

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

Well, you can’t get any more exclusive than that. We should know that the world cannot and will not accept the exclusive uniqueness of the Christian faith. Today they are so offended by they call it fundamentalism and they are offended by those who uphold the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Jesus said:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. John 10:34.

Christians in many parts of the world today face conflict, persecution and even murder.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:11-13)

So, let us pray for the strength and courage to face conflict and persecution, and not for us to be discouraged but rather to let our faith be a continual source of joy to us: 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16). Amen


Wednesday 4 October 2023

Paul 8

That collection of books we know as the Bible are a bit of a mystery to most people, and I think even as a regular church goer, when you are asked to consider even one of the more well-known titles in that collection of books like the Acts of the Apostles for example, written by Luke, it can still be a challenge.  I mean, who today, outside of the Christian church circles, could tell you in simple terms what that book called “The Acts of the Apostles” is all about?

And yet, the story of the Acts of the Apostle’s is fundamental to who we are today, where we came from and how the church began. After all, we are talking about the church of Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus lived on this earth, between 3 BC and 33 AD. Whilst he lived amongst us in mortal form, he healed the sick and he preached the word of God, he revealed God’s love to mankind and he died for our sins. After his resurrection he promised his followers, he promised his disciples, that they would not be alone, saying, ‘lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ And in the first chapter of the book of Acts, Jesus said to his disciples,

(5)   For John truly baptised with water – but ye shall be baptised with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

 (8)   But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.

And so, as we know, according to the Acts of the Apostles it was on that day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, where the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, came upon those fearful disciples transforming them, so much so, that from then on, they would preach Christ boldly and fearlessly.  Thus, the arrival of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the beginnings of the Christian Church – this story, the Acts of the Apostles, gives witness to the power of the Holy Spirit, which is really the story of the early Church. In this sermon, we will find the apostle Paul, still on his first missionary journey between the years AD 47-49. Our text is taken from the first verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

And it came to pass in Iconium that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake that a great multitude, both of the Jews and also of the Greeks, believed.

Now, before this, Paul and the apostle Barnabas had been actively preaching at the Roman city or garrison town of Antioch in Pisidia, where, we are told, they had been driven out by the forces of opposition and so according to Acts 13:51, Paul and Barnabas shook off the dust of their feet and came unto Iconium.

Iconium, I know that some of you, quite naturally, as I would, might wonder what or where Iconium is?  We have a time scale now, we already know the period in which those events were taking place, that first missionary journey between AD 47 - 49, but in this text, in this episode where in the world are Paul and Barnabas?  Where is Iconium?

Let me answer that by saying that it’s in Turkey and these days Turkey is a popular foreign holiday destination and that’s where Iconium is, except that today it’s known as Konya. Konya is a major city in central Turkey and quite beautiful and that makes it a popular tourist spot.  We can get a glimpse of the importance of Konya or Iconium in Roman times, and the time of Paul, when we consider that even then, Iconium was the major town in the area and that running through it were the highways from Syria, to Ephesus and Rome, making Iconium a vast trading city.  If it were possible to have a tourist brochure for Iconium for those ancient times you might read something like this:

With its beautiful plains, made productive by the streams from the Pisidian Mountains, it was a centre of grain and fruit, known especially for its plum and apricot orchards, and its fields of wheat and flax, it was considered to be one of the most beautiful and fertile places in the world.  

Even then, Iconium was an ancient city, apparently so ancient that its inhabitants claim it to be even older than Damascus and Damascus according to archaeologists is estimated to be between 10,000 – 12,000 years old.

So, leaving Antioch, it was to this city of Iconium that Paul and Barnabas walked, a journey of 80 – 90 miles to the west of Antioch, and into the synagogue they went.  We should be reminded that this was always the pattern, it was always to the Jews, to the synagogue of the Jews and the gentiles who worshipped with the Jews that Paul visited and preached to first.  And again, we are to be left in doubt of the effectiveness of his

preaching. His ministry, his preaching at Iconium is dealt with rather briefly in the Biblical text; so briefly that it seems that it’s almost passed over, but I think we’ll see that this ministry is not such a brief interlude as we might allow ourselves to think. 

Paul and Barnabas going together into the synagogue in Iconium, not just as individuals, but as a team of two working together, speaking and preaching, not so that they would win one or two converts, it doesn’t say that in the text, does it? But rather it says that a great multitude of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed

‘The Greeks’ means the Greek speaking gentiles (Greek being the universal language of the time).  A great multitude – we’re not given any specific numbers here but the results of such preaching were tangible, self-evident in fact Paul and Barnabas were hugely successful.  We can say then that there was an impact – that ministry of Paul and Barnabas’ had a great effect.

Unlike the account of Paul’s sermon at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, we have no record of what was actually said, given the brevity of the text, but given Paul’s words in Antioch and the certainty that he was preaching the word of God in Iconium, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, we can easily pass over this fact, this period at Iconium without considering what we should be considering – and what we should be considering is what the story of Paul and Barnabas, in Iconium,  in the Acts of the Apostles, has to say to us today, individually and to the church and to its leadership.

Today most of the Christian churches in Britain are either dead, dying, or deserted, the seed bed, the younger generation that should be carrying that light of faith into the future are not with us. Only this week, I heard that a minister at a certain church in Ashton is reported to have said when faced with row upon row of empty pews, he said he felt he was just preaching to wood. Often, I hear this kind of conversation, and then there’s an awkward silence because nobody knows what to say. And it’s the same wherever you go whichever denomination you discuss, even those once confident evangelical churches.

Whenever we get lost on a journey it is often better to consider the problem by going back to the beginning to see where we started from. Where we started from and if we want to know where we started from, we must go back to the Acts of the Apostles, back to that very beginning of the Christian church. And it’s through that story, through that very early account that we are shown, the necessary preconditions required for a true church, the necessary preconditions as much as fuel, heat and oxygen are the essential preconditions for fire.

I’m not surprised that I’ve been led to speak of fire in relation to the early Church or the beginnings of the early Church because you will know, and I remind you that early beginning was heralded by ‘a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, as it says in the second chapter of Acts, and there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as fire and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. 

Those words, they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, such men became the foundation of the Church.  They were the rock on which the Church was built, they were its energy, its truth, its love, its driving force and its fire  But perhaps to some that might not really give any meaning in terms of addressing the problems of today until we put the answer into some context and the context is simply this: if the Spirit-filled Church of the apostles and disciples was essential to the founding, the growth and the survival of the church in those days, then it is just as essential now.

But what we hear today - and it often seems that this is the message wherever you go, is that the Church must become more relevant, more in step with the world it has got to be where people are in the world, it must get up to date because the times have changed. Did Christ ever preach such a message? Did Paul? Can you imagine that? I hardly need to tell you that the answer to this is an emphatic, ‘no!’ They would have recognised immediately that this is just the old choice dressed up as the new – the choice between the Spirit or the flesh. The choice between God or mammon.

This question in any case is answered by Jesus who said to his disciples “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  This answer stands today as a rebuke to the Church to all the churches that have grown worldly and are dying as a result.  This answer stands today also as a testament, as a witness to the Spirit inspired leadership of the early church. 

The 18th century preacher, Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Paul and Barnabas in Iconium wrote:

There seems to have been something remarkable in the manner of the apostles then which contributed to their success. 

He went on to say of Paul and Barnabas, of their preaching at Iconium that:

They spoke so earnestly, and so seriously, so boldly and courageously that those who heard them could not but say that God was with them of a truth.  Yet the success was not to be attributed to the manner of their preaching, but to the spirit of God who made use of that means.

The question that we have to ask today, that one crucial question is – Is God with us?  Is God REALLY with us?  And I think that question can be answered by asking what it is that we are hearing in our churches?  Does the preaching we hear conform to scripture?  Does the preaching we hear conform to the word of God?  Because without that Christ-centred, spirit-led preaching, there can ultimately be no Church.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, God must be with those preachers, you might like to think that leadership comes from a committee, or from a panel of marketing or managerial experts, but it doesn’t – leadership comes from the pulpit.  Listen to these words:

And how shall they preach except they are sent?  How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things!  (Romans 10: 15)

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10: 17)

And so it was that multitudes came to faith at Iconium because they heard the word of God and those who preached. Paul and Barnabas, could only preach because they had been sent by God, they walked with God, they walked in the Spirit and in their preaching, they exhibited the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.  We must pray for such God centred, Christ centred leadership for our churches today.