The God-shaped hole

This is the text of my sermon from last Sunday. The audio file is available on my podcast as usual, which is why I don’t normally post my text anymore. But a few people have asked about this one, and it does seem to have been “one out of the box” in some ways. May God use it for his glory in whatever form.

Sermon text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. Preached at All Saints’ Greensborough.

Introduction

Time … It’s the element of our lives we most wish we could manipulate, and yet the one we least control. More often than not, if anything, it seems to control us!

Time travel is one of the core elements of nearly every sci-fi book or movie. And it takes it’s place so well in that genre because fiction is just what it is! .. We frequently use phrases like “if I had my time over ..”, knowing full well that it will never happen, ever!

I could keep going .. Time is one of the great levellers of the universe, because everyone has it in precisely equal measure. I have 24 hours in my day; so do you; so does the Prime Minister; so does everyone.

Rupert Murdoch may have 70% of our nation’s print media readership, yet he has just the same quantity of time as the man in the Centrelink queue.

The woman waiting for the bus that’s already ten minutes late, has no more and no less time than you have when the 5pm deadline is looming, and the boss wants the report.

When I have a sermon to prepare and 3 meetings to attend, I’m no richer in time than any one of the homeless people in our streets.

Time … When something is both: foundational to life and existence – and full of riddles – then one of the most consistent ways we clueless humans respond is to sing about it. (Just consider how very few songs there’d be on the radio if life, the world and people made sense .. if men understood women and vice-versa .. if romance and romantic relationships were entirely logical and predictable .. if the ways of God were transparent to the human mind. What would be left to sing about?!)

Welcome back to the wonderful and perplexing book of Ecclesiastes … And our host and guide to the riddles of life is this man who styles himself “the Teacher”. In chapter 1 he’s identified himself, by implication, as King Solomon. But he seems to want us to know him as “the Teacher”. That’s how the NIV renders it, which I think is reasonable. (It’s a typical rendering of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which seems really to be a kind of title, for a person who presides over an assembly, with a particularly academic or teaching bent.)  So “the Teacher” is what I’ll call him from this point on …

The Teacher has taken his iPad (just like this one here …) and headed down Main St to study life. (Or as Glen put it two weeks ago, to take a PhD in life ..) If he were more of a Luddite, I suppose he’d have taken a clipboard and pen. But he strikes me as a pretty hip kind of guy, so I’m sure he’d have used an iPad. And so far he’s examined the monotony of life .. and he’s considered life through the filters of philosophy, wealth & pleasure – especially the latter! He’s had a darned good look at that angle, denied himself nothing (2:10). In the language of the 1960s he’s lived the life of sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll (right there in chap 2, in just about as many words). .. But that left him with .. a few clues, but far more questions than answers ..

And now he’s moved on to this great riddle of time. And like so many others in the face of mystery, song has been his way to express mystery .. We have no music, but certainly verse (3:1-8) .. to expound the mysterious yet undeniable phenomenon of the ordered and yet uncontrollable character of time. And if you were a rocker in the ’60s, then you may have grown up listening to it [iPhone into mic] Turn! Turn! Turn!, written by Pete Seeger in 1954.

A song about life and time 3:1-8

At first glance, it sounds like a song of monotony. A time for this, and a time for that .. and round and round it goes, day in, day out, week after boring week, year after year – when can I get off?! .. But if you listen a little more closely, you may discern a world, which though mystery-filled, is a world of beauty and order. In fact “beautiful” is what he calls it in his analysis at v11 .. but there’s a sign of that right in the opening verse: 1 There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.

Seasons .. How depressing would your life be if there were no seasons .. if nothing ever changed? .. if there was no contrast?  We say we’d like an endless summer, but we don’t mean it, do we? Who’d want twelve months of sweat, flies, mozzies & sunburn?! So is it not a cause celebré that under God’s providential care, life is rich in variety, and the year has its seasons?

But then the riddles really do start: The big one, the big riddle, that undergirds and encompasses all the others is near the top in verse 2. NewsFlash, folks: Life itself .. your life .. is not in your control! .. There’s a time to be born, and a time to die – both determined by someone else.

Are you unhappy with the timing of your birth .. ? Too close to Christmas ? Well too bad .. who’re you going to complain to? Your parents? .. They may have planned your conception .. but not much about your birth was in their control any more than it was in yours!

And it’s no different with death. Just a week ago, the world was reminded how little control anyone has over the timing of their death. It came very prematurely and without warning to 3000 people in NY a decade ago.

And it goes the other way as well. Several years ago I conducted the funeral of a dear sister in Christ, aged 101. The order of service for the funeral had been planned by Doris herself, and we used, I think, draft 4 or 5. Draft 1 had been penned 22 years earlier.

At 79 Doris decided she had lived long, well and happily enough in her Lord’s service, and was ready to go home. But the Lord, it seemed, did not share her perspective on time. In fact he took no notice at all. And so over those 20+ years a succession of ministers and elders had been asked why she had not yet been taken, and none could provide an answer, and heaven remained silent the whole time.

Her puzzlement only increased when her eldest son turned 65 and retired, and death was no closer. What was she doing with a son that age?! But the silence continued, and so did the family retirements. Finally – unseasonably late from her perspective, Doris received her reward.

So the Teacher’s right .. There is a time to be born and a time to die, and neither is in your remit. And – that template of start / finish .. flourish / decay .. living / dying, is stamped on every sphere of existence:

  • in the garden (a time to plant / uproot) 2b
  • in human relationships (kill / heal) 3a
  • even on the building site and in your workshop (tear down / build) 3b

Between life’s bookends of birth & death are the  endless cycles, which occupy the middle lines of the song: joy & sadness .. close relationships & more distant or guarded ones .. valuing what we have and holding material things lightly …. all seasons of a life lived under the direction of the One who alone drives it.

And having begun the song with birth and death .. the Teacher ends it (v8) with the positive and negative poles that unite or divide people and nations. There’s a time for:

  • love & hate
  • war & peace

Asking why

When Pete Seeger wrote the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, he went no further than v8. And if you too stopped there you might well wonder whether time is just a merciless tyrant, who keeps us all chained to a perpetual treadmill of futility. And if you thought that about time itself, you might think no better of the God who stands behind time.

… which is why you need to keep following the Teacher in his enquiry into life. The song is a description of how the world works. And Ecclesiastes is full of Descriptions & observations of life (I saw .. I have seen .. ). And along with the observations are plenty of sometimes brutally frank exclamations of how senseless and unfair this life seems to be … And yet interspersed here and there among them are moments of insight, and statements like this: I turned my mind to understand (7:25) …

In other words, he asks “why?” .. And in asking why, he demonstrates the power of seeking, when what you’re living in is an ordered universe. If you look at the world, life, with all its riddles .. and you ask why .. and again .. and keep on asking, will you always find answers .. ? No. Will there still be mysteries .. ? Yes, and plenty of them! But if you keep seeking, asking .. from time to time, you might just feel the breath of God in your own circumstances, or glimpse his shadow in the confronting puzzles of the world around you.

Ecclesiastes gives you permission to ask the riddles, to air the doubts, to say how unfair it all seems to be. To do so is no enemy to the life of faith. But if you read this book, and stay with the Teacher .. then it won’t let you stop at the riddles & doubts. It will draw your eye to the ultimate reality beyond the present puzzle. .. In other words, it will bring you face to face with God.

That’s why Pete Seeger should have read beyond verse 8. Because the following verses set the undoubtable mysteries of time against the backdrop of eternity.

The first few lines of the Teacher’s analysis of the mind-numbing merry-go-round that time seems to be, are brutally honest. Starting in v9: “What’s the point of it all!?”, he rales. What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. .. One thing you can’t accuse the Teacher of doing is airbrushing the picture of life in God’s world. He hasn’t tucked his very human wrestling away in some obscure footnote on p.497 where no one will ever find it. .. It’s right there in public view, in the first breath of analysis.

Life – receive it with thankfulness

I don’t know about you. But at that point I’d feel like grabbing the Teacher by the lapels, and demanding some answers. “For pities sake, give us some hope! Where’s the good news?! ..” But the Teacher is committed to an exhaustive study of life. And he’s just not going to cut to the chase soon enough for C21st people in a hurry. There are not a lot of answers to life’s riddles in the book of Ecclesiastes, at least until the end in chapter 12 – and even then he won’t spoon feed them to us. So we’ll need to be patient a while longer .. But if we are patient, there are clues to hold us along the way, morsels of wisdom to chew on. And one of those is a gentle invitation to a thankful life .. to acquire a habit of receiving all that life brings, its blessings be they many or few, as gifts from the hand of a purposeful God.

It’s an invitation echoed many times in the NT letters. It’s more than implied by Paul in Romans 8, when he muses that if God would not withhold from us even the very life of his only Son .. then can there be any doubt that with Christ he would give us all things. (Rom 8:32) And in other letters he says it more directly as a command: e.g. Eph 5:20 always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As disciples of Jesus, we are those from whom the Creator God has held back nothing, and so we have causes for thankfulness the Teacher in his time could scarce have imagined. But even he, centuries before Christ, could look at life with all its riddles and reflect at the end of chapter 2: A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? .. And here in chapter 3 he returns to the same thought at v12 … there is nothing better … than to be happy … to do good … [to] eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all … toil—this is the gift of God.

So there’s one of the clues that Pete Seeger didn’t wait to find. Life doesn’t need to be free of mystery for us to receive it again and again and again, daily, in a spirit of thankfulness to the One who gives it so freely and in abundance. Keep asking the riddles, but recognise the gift and be thankful. And in being thankful, you may find the fear of God …

Lost hearts longing for home

… And that’s not the only clue in these few verses after the song. Something dawns on the Teacher, just after his honest rant in vv9f … Perhaps God has a reason for laying this burden on human beings. Is this not the God who makes everything beautiful in its time? (v11) Nature and creation tell us that it’s so. So then, why .. do we experience so much disappointment in life? Why?! .. And he seems to conclude that it’s because God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Now what does that ponderable line mean … ?

I’ll take the 2nd half first. It means simply – you are not God. I am not God. So don’t imagine that it will ever be in your power to find the answer to every conundrum in the universe. Don’t make the presumption that eternal mysteries will simply dissolve into plain logic on your say so.

You are not God .. And yet, we are made in the image of this God who is eternal, and that image is planted deeply in our beings. God is eternal, vast, without beginning / end. We are finite, tiny, fleeting, frail. There is a vast chasm between us and God .. and yet, God has placed in us an ache for the eternal. A kind of a homing device, fixed to our souls ..

And that simply means that no human being will ever be satisfied, fulfilled or at peace, except in relationship with Him. The 60s generation tried sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll, and it gave them a few thrills – but it left them largely restless and as unsatisfied as ever. The Teacher wouldn’t recommend that path, .. but he’d understand it only too well. (He’s tried it!) And his diagnosis I think would be that it’s one of the innumerable symptoms of lost hearts longing for home, and taking just a few of the vast array of wrong turns along the way.

The Teacher lived a long time ago. But God has raised up successors to him in the many generations since, and a number of them expressed very similar insights. Let me tell you about three of them – in reverse order historically:

• C S Lewis (writer, English scholar, mid-C20th) – [paraphrasing] [Cars are designed by people] to run on petrol, and [they wouldn’t] run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on himself. He is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. [And no other food will satisfy].’

• Blaise Pascal (French, mathematician, C17th) – There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.

• St Augustine (great Christian teacher, C5th) – Lord, you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in You.

Three great post-biblical Christian thinkers, all merely re-echoing the mind of the Teacher centuries before Christ, his wisdom handed down to us in Scripture.

If time strikes you as a merciless merry-go-round that won’t let you off .. or if life seems like a burden devoid of purpose .. then it’s simply that your heart is restless, longing to know the God who created you, and who has made his love unambiguously known in his Son Jesus.

Conclusion

Is there something in this life that you crave, and just want more, and more of it? And then you get more, and soon want more again!!? … Another job .. promotion .. better car .. a house in a more pleasant neighbourhood, or with more rooms .. a more attractive wife / a more useful husband .. better technology …. that holiday you’ve been dreaming of .. another DIY project .. a redecorated living room .. professional recognition .. seats at the world cup (of whatever your favourite sport is) .. ? And if you got it, would you be satisfied … ?

Please recognise that you keep wanting it [or more of it .. or an extra dose of it], precisely because it is never enough – and it never, ever will be. It may tantalise you with some short or medium term reward. But it can never satisfy you, and it will never give your heart rest. There is a divinely implanted homing device fixed in your soul. And the signal it keeps on sending out is an ache for eternity, and nothing however pleasing or tasty or attractive or richly upholstered in this earthly life will cause it to cease transmitting, because it is your heart’s innate longing for the eternal. God made you for himself, and knowing him personally, and experiencing his love tangibly, and trusting him completely .. nothing but that can and will satisfy. And without that satisfaction, your heart, your spirit will still be restless and half empty forever.

If you’ve never known that satisfaction, or if it’s become a memory more than a present reality, then can I encourage you to reach out [again] for the eternal life that Jesus will give to all who come to him. And  let me encourage you to ask some people you trust to pray with you for your heart’s rest.

The final test

Text: Jn 15:9-17 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 6/2/05

Introduction

Ask any politician, and they’ll tell you that topping every opinion poll for 3 years is worth little if you lose the election at the end. It’s no comfort to a professional sportsman or team to start in poll position, or finish the season as minor premiers, or tee off with the lowest handicap .. if they go down at the finish and someone else takes the flag or the cup or the shield or the jacket.

Paul, I think, would have understood that. He urged the Philippians not to be satisfied with the quality of discipleship they currently had, but to press on towards the completion of Christ’s character, which was the purpose for which Christ had called them. He says of himself “I forget what lies behind, good or bad, and I keep straining forward, pressing on toward the goal, to win the heavenly prize for which Christ first called me.”

Some people describe chapters 13 – 16 of John’s gospel as “Jesus’ last will and testament” .. John presents these chapters to us as Jesus’ final exhortations to his friends before he took the path that would lead him to the Cross. What Jesus sets out in these few chapters are the essentials that, whatever else they do, his followers must not miss. These pages contain the distillation of what Jesus wants those who trust and follow him to prize above everything else in their lives. Whatever you know, whatever you study, however eloquent you are, whatever you achieve, whatever gifts you have, whatever you do with your life .. if these things are lacking, the rest is of no account. The parting plea of the Son of God to his church.

Much of what Jesus lays upon his followers in these pages comes down to fruitful discipleship, patterned on the Cross, and produced by the work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts.

The commandment

.. And it reaches it’s zenith in a single command; we read it a few moments ago in Jn 15:12 – Love one another:

• just three words in English .. two in the Greek in which the NT was originally written

• .. but as we’ll learn in another moment those few words mark out one of the final frontiers to be crossed in the Christian life, before it can be said that the Spirit of God truly rules the Christian heart. It’s the final test for a Christian, and it can be the making or breaking of a church.

• I’ve spoken before about loving lost people after the pattern of Christ. Can I suggest today that loving other believers – consistently and over the long-term – is much harder. We assume, I think, that loving eachother within the body is the easy part .. and maybe that’s why we stumble on it. .. These parting words of Jesus to his friends in the face of the Cross, imply that this is the kind of love that demands everything from us. .. Don’t be fooled, friends .. this is hard love, this is difficult love .. to take this command seriously (and note – Jesus spells out that it’s a commandment ..) this will stretch us and challenge our maturity in Christ to the limit – because it takes us to the limit ..

Look again at how Jesus describes the love he’s talking about:

• “12 …love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In verse 12 he’s speaking about our love for eachother within the church, and he says it’s to be the kind of love that he has acted out toward us. Note the wording carefully .. I have loved you. Does that mean Jesus has finished loving us – that he used to love his friends but now he’s jack of them? Well of course not, since Scripture is full of Christ’s love for his church, his bride and ends in Revelation with the marriage supper of the Lamb.

So then , what does I have loved you mean? .. It means he’s not simply telling his friends how he feels about them; he’s referring to something specific he has done .. Just in case that could possibly be ambiguous, in verse 13 straight after, he points to the Cross, where he was about to lay down his life for his friends.

See what Jesus is calling for? .. He wants us to love eachother with the kind of love that’s patterned on his love by which he sacrificed his life for us (he loved us) .. and it’s a love of such quality that there’s no other kind of love greater than it “13 No one has greater love than this,”.

Now please note something else as well: This is not the only place in this section of John’s gospel – the one that I said has been described as “Jesus’ last will and testament” – where Jesus issues the command “love one another as I have loved you.” At the beginning of this big section – and it’s really the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry – Jesus took a towel and humbly washed his disciples’ feet. .. Now listen to the way John introduces his account of what happened. John 13:1 It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world (so he’s talking about the Cross) and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. And John in his wonderfully skilled way is telling us about two events in the same breath: 1. the footwashing, in which Jesus will act in a way that demonstrates his love by choosing to act for his friends at the expense of his own dignity; and 2. John’s intro and the footwashing itself both pointing to the real act of humiliation in which Jesus will really love his own to the very end .. the degradation of the Cross – his life for ours.

Now, it’s at the end of that chapter – having just washed his disciples’ feet, sacrificing all his dignity for their benefit .. and having pointed the way to the ultimate sacrificial humiliation of the Cross – that he says John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you … [and then he adds] 35 By this all … will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” .. If you don’t love your brother or your sister with the quality of love Christ has dealt to you, Christ will not be known by the world ..

Now, let’s put it together: it’s a greater love than any .. it’s a love that would sacrifice every right or dignity for others in Christ’s family .. and it’s a love without which Jesus will remain invisible to those yet to find him.

12 …love one another as I have loved you .. You can’t paddle in the shallows of discipleship with a commandment like that .. it demands everything you’ve got to give for your brothers and your sisters in Christ – all of them. .. And if you will not, if you do not love like that .. then you can forget about loving the lost because they won’t be listening anyway ..

That kind of love is the highest and hardest stage in the climb to the pinnacle of discipleship, which means the likeness of Jesus displayed in us with full brightness.

• But like any tough climb, it’s also the most exhilarating achievement .. when it’s complete. And Jesus says (v11) that if you reach love of that standard .. that will result in the pinnacle of joy for Christ in us, and us in him.

The test

We started our journey together two years ago with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – an image par excellence of God’s vast vision for the Church. And once during those months we paused over Eph 3:10, in which Paul presents God’s purpose to display by means of the church his comprehensive wisdom in sacrificing his own son to restore people to God and to eachother. I’m glad that next week Ps Erin Shaw will be among you to open God’s word. Erin is from Capstone Church and is chairman of the Wyndham Christian Ministers’ Network. He will speak with you about how you might be part of what God is doing in bringing the one body of Christ together in this community. That’s the unity of the wider fellowship of Christ ..

My charge to you today is really the one I began with through Ephesians 2 years ago .. concerning the unity of Christ’s people within this congregation. To remind you again: How does God intend the church to display the perfect wisdom of the Cross? .. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)

.. That’s simply Paul’s way of expounding at length what Jesus said in a few words: “love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12).

Love has grown here in this fellowship; unity has been observed in a way not observed or perhaps even tasted for years; those observations have been made to me both from within the congregation, and from interested observers of this church outside .. Let’s speak plainly here: Today this church farewells a minister in a united spirit for , I believe, the first time in over 15 years. Let it not be the last ..

But the real test is about to come, about to begin in a sense. How will this church respond to the test? At some point – I hope many years down the track – the time will come for Darren to be farewelled also. Will that parting also happen in a spirit in keeping with the Gospel which says all people can live and keep living in reconciled relationships with God and each another?

In other words, the worth of these two years which I’ve been honoured to share as your pastor may truly be proven only in the long-term .. in the manner of the next parting of people and pastor. If the oneness we see today has evaporated tomorrow, heaven’s verdict on these past two years will be that the word scattered on the ground has failed to take lasting root in the soil of these hearts. Or in Paul’s metaphor in 1 Cor 3:12 .. that we have sown in hay or straw, and not in gold or silver. .. I’m persuaded that there are good reasons for confidence .. But please .. do not lose focus on the unity of the Spirit .. and please do not underestimate the determination needed to love one another as you have been loved by Christ ..

In Jn 15, Jesus says that fruitful discipleship comes from remaining in living union with him (v4), keeping on drinking deeply from the well of his love through obedience (v9), and loving one another. That last has exercised my mind and spirit this past week in preparing for this day. .. Loving one another .. consistently, continually .. and sacrificially .. because that’s how we have been loved by him who “loves us, and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” (Rev 1:5) ..

My friends, you have grown in loving one another and in loving a pastor, through a time which has been really relatively predictable and with little change. Loving is generally easier then anyway ..

But what about now .. ? .. God has spoken to us today by his word, of the hardest task of the Christian, and the test that must be passed for the world to believe. It means loving one another out of love for the lost. .. When your pastor, out of obedience to Christ’s Gospel call to him, invites you to go in directions you’d rather not, to go to people you’d rather not, to change as you’d rather not … will you then love him?

That test of love will come – it must; it’s happened in the past .. why imagine that the future will be different? That’s the nature of change, the nature of relationships, and the nature of leadership. .. When tested thus .. will you love your pastor? .. Or will you be like the people of Israel under Moses, who – as we read from Exodus this morning – withheld their hearts from the servant the Lord had sent, hankered for the passing comforts of Egypt, missed the joy that awaited them, and realised too late that it was not Moses they had resisted – but God?

… Your commitment to the difficult and exhilarating journey of loving one another and loving your leaders after the pattern of the Cross, for the supreme joy of Christ in you, .. that commitment will be tested .. it’s just a matter of when. And when it is tested .. this time .. I ask you: Will you stand that test? .. Will you love Darren? .. Will you love the lost people of Wyndham? .. Will you love one another as your Lord has loved you?

A new government

Text: Isa 9:1-7 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ Christmas Day 2004

Introduction

The Religious Liberty Prayer Letter of 15th December reports this:

On Sunday 12 December, two Protestant churches in Central Sulawesi, Eastern Indonesia, were attacked during evening worship. The Anugerah Church in Palu City was attacked by four men on two motorbikes who rode up to the church enabling their gunman to open fire from the road before they sped away. Windows were shattered, and two people in the back row were rushed to Undata Hospital with serious gunshot wounds. Minutes later a bomb exploded only 500m away at the entrance of Immanuel Church. A guard was seriously injured, and several worshippers were hospitalised suffering shock.

… [And in ]Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, … in an effort to safeguard Christians this Christmas, Surabaya’s police chief … will post police guards on all Surabaya’s 332 Christian churches.

All of that while we gather and worship and eat and exchange gifts in peace.

Light, joy, peace

The people of Israel in the time of the prophet Isaiah were at a point in their history where they would very soon know the anguish now being experienced by the Christians of Indonesia. And speaking into that Isaiah says yes, there will be anguish, sadness. You don’t escape that in this world. But the anguish will end when God steps in. And when that happens he says it’ll be as if someone just turned on the light; and the gloom and humiliation are gone .. and in their place is joy and victory.

And in v4 he says it’ll be like the day of Midian’s defeat. And he’s referring to the time of Gideon, a particular military engagement when God saved Israel from annihilation by a large army of Midianites, using a squad of just 300 men without a weapon being raised. (Jdg 7). .. Isaiah says, there’s a new day coming which will be like that .. God will end the anguish .. darkness .. gloom .. oppression .. and he’ll do it through a child .. Isaiah is looking forward to a day when it will be said: a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace

Only God can fix the mess. Who but God could save a nation through an army of a few hundred without a weapon? .. Who but God could save the world through the birth of a child?

An impossible rescue, an unbelievable victory, a turn in world events no man or woman could imagine – much less bring about .. What power and what wisdom could pull off something like this? – A new government of endless peace, starting with a baby. .. Only The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. It can happen because God is passionate and determined to restore the world. He is heaven-bent on saving people who don’t deserve his favour and haven’t given him or his Son a second thought. .. A child is born for us, a son is given to us .. and he will rule the world through a peace that lasts for ever. .. There’s going to be a new government.

Conclusion

As you open surprising gifts today, may God surprise you oh so much more .. as you contemplate what this world could become under the rule of Christ, as God has planned. May you realise in a way that perhaps you haven’t before that he truly is in control of the seemingly uncontrollable journey of your life. “As on the day of Midian”, the prophet said .. “so on the day of Christ” .. On that day God stepped into your world and mine in a way that didn’t make sense, and to many still doesn’t.

But the day God arrived on our planet, he brought light to the world’s darkness, joy to the world’s pain, wisdom to the world’s confusion, power to the world’s weakness, fatherly care to the world’s abandoned, peace to the world’s strife .. all beginning with the birth of a child, a son, a king who was worshipped alike by local shepherds and foreign spiritual seekers, and whose reign of peace – unlike that of his great ancestor King David, unlike the Caesars of Rome, unlike Napoleon, unlike any President or dictator of our time – a king whose reign of peace will never come to an end.

Look back at the news of the world in 2004 .. Think of Iraq .. Darfur .. Indonesia .. Afghanistan .. Nth Korea .. The UN can’t bring about peace. The President of the US can’t command peace. The military muscle of several nations can’t make peace happen. But Jesus, the one whom today we declare was born a child for us .. he is the Prince of Peace … That’s the peace that can be yours today. It can transform your life, heal your broken relationships, bring you forgiveness for your sins – every one of them, turn a nation around .. it can do all of that and much much more .. provided it can first reign in your heart. And that can happen today, right now; if you will allow it .. if you will invite Jesus to form a new government over your life .. to be your source of wisdom .. to be your God of power .. to nurture you as no earthly father can .. to bring you Peace with God for ever by the blood he shed for you on the Cross.

Jesus can do all of that. That’s why there needed to be a child born for us .. that’s why God’s Son has been given to us. That’s why there’s Christmas. May yours be filled with light, joy and peace as you welcome him as your king today.

Poor enough to be rich

Text: Phil 4:10-19 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 12/12/04

Introduction

About 18 months ago, I told you about one of the most challenging expressions of Christian discipleship I’ve ever heard. And I’d like to remind you of it again this morning. I attended a conference here in Melbourne around about 1995, which was run by a team from YWAM. One of the key speakers was Loren Cunningham, the founder of YWAM. I don’t think I was the only one squirming in my seat as he spoke at much length about how to deal with money. He said: “If you ever get any money, the best thing you can do with it is give it away.” He didn’t mean give away a tenth of it or some of it, or what’s left of it .. he meant all of it.

And it was something far more than a nice idea he had for someone else to do. You wonder about that with preachers sometimes, don’t you .. I wonder with myself sometimes… But this wasn’t the buck-passing style of preaching – this was a message with integrity as well as punch. .. Just as we noted with Paul’s testimony last week, when he urged the Philippian believers to make rejoicing a habit – he was simply asking them to do what he had already done when he rejoiced that the Gospel was advancing as a result of his imprisonment.

Loren Cunningham’s challenge about money had just that kind of integrity. He described an extraordinary instance in YWAM’s own international ministry, in which they had been saving over many years to buy a ship to use for their ministry. .. Now please note, the word is “ship” – that’s not a rubber dinghy or a kayak or rowing boat .. something a bit bigger, like an ocean liner! .. like the Titanic only with a longer shelf-life and more buoyant prospects. I’ve been looking out for one in the Target Christmas catalogue, but somehow there just doesn’t seem to be a market for them among the Target clientele. A few too many digits before the decimal point, I think.

YWAM had almost saved all that they needed, when they learned that another Christian mission organisation (OM) had an urgent need to replace one of their ships. So they gave all that they’d saved away to OM.

One of the most extraordinary exercises I’ve heard of, of Jesus’ exhortation: (Mt 6:19-21) 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven … [And then he says] 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Don’t store up treasure for now, store it up for eternity, store up what lasts, invest in glory…

A resident of Sanctuary Lakes died and went to heaven. He was greeted at the gates, and escorted to his new residence. On the way, they walked past many beautiful mansions and it looked just like his own street .. until finally they arrived at a weatherboard shack with rotting boards and a rusted roof. He was shocked, and said “Why am I being given a rundown hovel when all of these others have fine mansions?” St. Peter responded, “I’m afraid we did the best we could with the money you sent us.”

Generosity

Paul came to the closing lines of his letter to the church at Philippi, and expressed the same sentiment that Jesus taught. He commends them on their generosity in sharing practically and materially in support of him in his Gospel ministry, especially while in prison. But he says when you exercise generosity in sharing out of your material wealth, it’s not me who gets the chief benefit .. it’s you. He says 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. That’s God’s style of economics, and it doesn’t make a lot of natural sense. We thought last week in 4:7 about God’s kind of peace that doesn’t make much sense .. (Remember that? .. If you let God worry about your problems, then his peace that’s beyond understanding will post a guard over the thoughts of your mind and the passions of your heart, and fight off Satan’s assaults.)

Well now we’re discovering that God’s accounting practices don’t make much sense either. Look closely at what Paul says here: In verse 10 he says “I’m glad that you’ve finally had an opportunity to act on your concern for me.” But then he says in the next few sentences “I’d be content if nothing happened anyway.” (We’ll come back to that a bit later.) Then (v14) he returns to the matter of their practical kindness, commends them for it .. then he says “The profit will be yours”, and ends by saying (v19) “You’ll be rich with glory! .. God has so much glory stored up in Christ Jesus that as you generously invest in the Gospel he will meet all of your needs!” He mentions that their sacrificial generosity has satisfied his needs .. but he puts the final emphasis on their needs, and says those will be completely satisfied by God. So the more they give away, the more satisfied they’ll be.

Where’s the sense in that? You wouldn’t read that in the Financial Review, would you? The shareholders would make short work of the blue-chip company CEO who gave all the profits away as a growth strategy. (He’d get a good handshake, but that’s beside the point and it spoils the illustration.) .. But Paul says when what you’re investing in is the work of the Gospel, generosity pays dividends that by all natural logic shouldn’t occur. Not so very different, is it, from Loren Cunningham’s perspective: The best thing you can do with money/ wealth is give it away.

Contentment

I’ve highlighted before that Jesus had quite a bit to say about money. In fact the only topic Jesus spoke more about than money was the Kingdom of God, which was the core of his preaching. He announced the beginning of his own ministry by declaring (Mk 1:15): The Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe the Gospel. Every word he spoke after that pointed to what was involved in repenting and living under God’s rule. In that vein, he said more about handling wealth (how to view it .. what to do with it) than anything else.

Jesus had plenty to say about money, wealth. So did Paul. And in my reading of all Paul’s teaching, I think there are fundamentally two attitudes to money that Paul modelled in his own life, and that he commended to the churches he taught. Both of those core attitudes feature right here in Philippians 4.

The first is generosity, which is where I’ve put the spotlight so far this morning .. generosity patterned on the sacrificial generosity of Christ in his Cross. The other one is contentment.

One of the Scripture verses often quoted and memorised by Christians is verse 13: I can do all things through him who strengthens me. It’s a great affirmation of faith, and a great testimony to the Holy Spirit’s enabling. But it’s usually quoted on its own, without any reference to its surrounding context. .. Please note carefully what Paul actually meant by it. He didn’t mean he could lift anything .. swallow anything .. solve any problem .. climb anything .. He meant that he had reached a stage in his personal growth as a disciple of Christ, where he could rest and be satisfied whether he was well-off, comfortable and well-fed, or whether he was poor, under-resourced and hungry.

Twice he says he learned this, and at the end he says (v19 again) that God will satisfy them as well. .. In other words, this capacity for contentment isn’t some super quality that only a special class of spiritual giants possess .. There came a point when Paul learned it (which means he wasn’t at that point before) .. and you can reach that point too .. You too can reach a stage in your walk with God. where whether you’re full and rich or hungry and stretched – every need you have is satisfied in having Christ.

Christian contentment isn’t about getting more .. it’s about needing less because Christ and his forgiveness and the joy of belonging to him, are utterly satisfying. Contentment …

Conclusion

In another fortnight we’ll be exchanging treasures under the tree, and singing about snow while we swelter in the sun. Please invest lightly in those treasures, and sing passionately not about the melting of the snow but about the giving of God. And as you do, take a moment to ponder another act of generosity described by Paul in 2 Corinthians. As with Phil 4, in 2 Cor 8 & 9 Paul was again speaking of an opportunity to be insanely generous. He was actually asking cash strapped Christians to give material wealth away. To illustrate his point, he reminds them of the Gospel .. he says: You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. ( 2 Cor 8:9)

We read the same thing in different words in Phil 2 a few weeks ago: We know it well – too well perhaps. It’s also a song .. sung perhaps by the early church, and quoted by Paul .. A song about Christ, our Christ, who though he was God did not demand and cling to his rights as God; but was born a human being, becoming a slave, dying a criminals death, to be exalted to the highest place, confessed as Lord by every tongue. Jesus, entitled to heaven’s glory, Jesus, born to earth’s shame – for us. That’s Christmas .. And all our Christmases really did come at once .. the very first time.

2005 is a year filled with promise not just as a new year but as a fresh start for the Werribee Church of Christ. It may be no coincidence that it will also be the year of Festival Victoria, when if God so determines a whole generation of future Christian leaders may be born into the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile our income through offerings has been lagging behind, as I think it did in the latter part of last year. .. For all sorts of reasons, this is a good time to take stock before God, to ask him to renew our hearts for him by the conviction of his Spirit, to consider whether he is our highest joy .. and whether it’s true today that the portion of the wealth he has entrusted to us that we return to him reflects our satisfaction in him and his worth to us. .. They may not know it .. but thousands of people in this city need this church to be filled with people who are filled with Christ, and overflowing in generosity for their sakes .. How much are Christ and his Cross worth to you? How much … ? The answer should be on this table this morning, and each week.

Money: If you ever get it , give it .. in honour of the great giver. .. If you do that .. if you give away your earthly wealth for heaven’s eternal and glorious wealth stored up for you in Christ .. if you invest in the Gospel and the eternal destinies of the people of Wyndham .. and learn contentment in God and his purposes and what he allows .. then you’ll be poor enough now to be rich for ever.

Your mind matters

Text: Phil 4:1-9 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 5/12/04

Introduction

And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they’d made. If you’re somewhere within cooee of my age, you’ll recognise those words as a line from a famous song sung by Simon and Garfunkel. The Sound of Silence was written by Paul Simon in 1964; still captures in quite a startling way the pervasive influence of electronic media and entertainment on our lives today. .. Now please note – that was written 40 years ago .. so it’s primarily about TV .. CDs, world wide web, DVDs, computer games weren’t even invented.

The words speak louder still today. Here are a few more lines:

People talking without speaking,

People hearing without listening,

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dare

Disturb the sound of silence.

Those lyrics speak of a world full of silence … between people. Another line in the song says it’s a silence that grows like a cancer .. people disconnected from each other, alone with their dreams … communication lost .. all because eyes, ears, hearts and minds are focussed on the box in the corner – And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they’d made.

1000s of years earlier the writer of Proverbs wrote: “Watch your heart diligently; because it’s the source of your life.” (Pr 4:23) In other words, what you place at the centre of your life, what you dedicate your time to, what you think about, what you take in, what you fill your mind with .. that will determine the person you become. In a sense, the writer was saying “You are what you think.” What you do with your mind will impact who you are.

So my title this morning is “Your mind matters”. In Phil 4:6 Paul urges the Philippian Christians to bring every matter of concern to God in prayer; and then in v7 he says if you do that God’s peace will guard your hearts and your minds. In Scripture “your heart” generally means a kind of composite of who you are in your inner person (emotions, dreams, passions, desires..). “Mind” is clearer and closer to the way we generally use that word. So it’s the way you think and the decisions you make.

Being a mature disciple of Jesus means knowing and pleasing God with both your heart and your mind .. experiencing him in worship and in prayer both with your emotions and with the exercise of your mind .. using your mind and your emotions to know God. Jesus spoke to a woman at a well in a hot Samaritan desert in Jn 4. He told her (Jn 4:23) that true worship is worship “in spirit and in truth”. And very briefly, I understand that to mean worship which is both deeply emotional and based on a commitment to understanding the truths of God’s word. ..

As I talk with Christians here in this congregation and elsewhere, I note that there are many followers of Jesus who do a lot of thinking about God and what he says, but barely know what it is to experience his presence and be touched by his Spirit .. and then there are others who easily seek after the work of the Holy Spirit, who know what it is to experience joy and delight and wonder in the Father’s embrace – but rarely apply their minds to wrestling with the deep truths of the Scriptures. .. Far too rarely do I meet people who know and worship God with full hearts and earnest minds. But that balance must be always a goal of every believer who wants to please God.

That’s a balance the Scriptures consistently hold before us .. and the particular appeal I think Paul is making to us through Phil 4 is that we would pay attention to our minds, exercise our minds to the glory of Christ. So this morning my thoughts are directed to the question of making decisions with our minds towards godliness. Three decisions I think Paul asks us to make: Choose joy .. Choose peace .. Choose health.

Choose joy

Most of us think instinctively that qualities and attitudes like joy and hope simply happen to you as a spin-off from what life dishes out. So if your life is like a ‘Country and Western’ song, and your wife leaves, your truck breaks down and your dog dies .. then it’s just inevitable that you’ll feel miserable and hopeless, and there’ll be nothing you can do about it.

The Bible acknowledges that in the world we live in, a world in rebellion against God and the rule of his Son, there will be times when we will experience pain and sadness and even deep anguish. Read just as one type of example the lives of the prophets – Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea .. at various times these men said “Lord, I’ve had enough ..” But Scripture also says that what you do with your thought life, the way you think, the decisions you make .. these things will affect the state of your heart, and to some extent at least it’s in your power to choose what your mind focusses on .. and by that very choice to determine what goes on inside you.

Now we’ve already seen some examples right here in Philippians of Paul demonstrating exactly that. Can you remember when we read chap 1 a few weeks ago? In 1:12 he says that being in prison has actually served to advance the Gospel – because the whole palace guard who’ve been chained to him in rotation have heard the gospel. That’s Paul doing just what he urges his readers to do in chap 4 – he’s rejoicing in the Lord, in a situation which to all natural appearances provides nothing to rejoice about! ..

And he does it again further on in the same chapter, when he talks about some so-called Christian preachers who’ve come to town, who are preaching Christ with impure motives, hoping to gain personal power at a result. Paul would rather that wasn’t happening; but in 1:18 he says whatever the motives, Christ is being preached – so I rejoice .. and then he adds that he’s got even more to rejoice about because he’s confident of God’s deliverance in the end.

So when in chapter 4, Paul says “Rejoice, and keep doing it, and I really mean it” – he has already practised what he’s preaching. The common element in all of Paul’s own rejoicing and his appeal to his readers to rejoice as well .. is the work of the Gospel. Please have a look at 4:3. 4:4 is where he says “Rejoice!” That follows straight after 4:3 where he gives recognition to a number of people who have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel. .. Note that: the labour has been tough .. but it’s about the Gospel .. so rejoice!

So why should we at the WCoC at the end of 2004 rejoice? .. Answer: Even though we are struggling (struggling with the slow pace of finding a permanent pastor .. struggling with some long-established ministries needing to close) .. the Gospel is being preached. .. People in our church and other churches are enjoying opportunities to be equipped to bring the Gospel to others through Festival Victoria. Rejoice! .. People are being drawn to Christ through coffee ‘n chat (for example), and through the witness and ministry of individual people in our church (I know that because I’ve seen it and heard it). Why rejoice? – Because the Gospel is being preached. How can you rejoice? Answer: By doing what Paul does, and keeping your mind focussed on the work of the Gospel. If you focus your thoughts on the struggles, you’ll moan. If you think about the way the Gospel is changing lives around you, you’ll rejoice. How do you keep on rejoicing? By making sure that the work of the Gospel keeps centre stage in the life of the church.

You can choose joy.

Choose peace

And you can also choose peace. As joy is a consequence of setting your mind on the Gospel, so peace is a consequence of deciding to trust your concerns to God instead of worrying about them yourself.

In v7, Paul points to the possibility of an unnatural peace, a peace that doesn’t make logical sense (surpasses all understanding). And if you have that peace, it will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. He’s using a military metaphor. Your emotions and your thought patterns are an object of Satan’s attack. If he can have his way with what you think about and how you feel, then he hopes to cripple you in your service of God. He will attack you. But if God’s peace is at work in your life, then it will stand guard over your thoughts and your feelings, and protect them.

How then do you have that peace? The previous verse has the answer: v6 – You exercise your mind, by making a decision about what you’ll do with matters that concern you. Your life is not an empty void. Paul knows that. He has a personal testimony which he describes for example in 2 Cor 11,12 as made up f frequent floggings, shipwrecks, imprisonments just to name a few. If you are warm and vertical (which is how I once heard someone describe being alive), and especially if you are serving Christ, then you will have matters to concern you. But Paul’s saying when it all boils down, you have just two choices for dealing with them. .. You can worry about them, or you can talk to God about them. .. And if you do that, then God’s extraordinary peace will protect you inwardly. Peace will be a consequence of your decision to seek God instead of worrying.

Not long ago, I was spending many long hours wondering what we would live on when my ministry here at Werribee ends. Would I have another ministry to take up? God spoke to me clearly through the testimony of a ministry colleague about trusting God to provide, even if I couldn’t imagine where that provision would come from. I was shamed, because I’ve counselled others about trusting God, I’ve preached about trusting God, I even have personal testimonies from the past of seeing God provide in amazing ways .. but it doesn’t get any easier to hand your life’s circumstances over to God. Worrying is far more natural. .. But again, I said yes to God’s invitation to trust him yet again. And in one sense nothing has changed – I still don’t know where God’s future provision will come from. But there was a lightness in my inner spirit I can hardly describe, when I yet again handed my concerns to him and yielded to his purpose.

If my consistent experience is any indication, then Paul is right. Worrying is easy. But you can choose peace.

Choose health

And – you can choose health. What I mean by that is that you can make choices about where you focus your mind, which can make you spiritually healthy.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Let me come back to where I started this morning. What you fill your mind with, what you take in, determines the person you become. I think this single sentence of Paul’s speaks of the things we place at the centre of our lives. What we place at the centre will fill our minds, in ways we’re barely even conscious of. And one activity which has become utterly central to our lives in the past generation or two is the talking box, as I described at the start. And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they’d made.

Here’s a question to ponder: Could you lock your television away in the hall cupboard for a month, and not have severe withdrawal symptoms? Consider a few figures:

• 98 per cent of homes in western nations have a TV,

• and the average person watches 3-4 hours of television per day, more if we include videos and computer games.

• By the age of twenty-one, we have spent the equivalent of three full years of our lives in front of the talking box, and watched an estimated 40,000 screen murders.

The average family home with primary age kids and one parent home with the kids has the television on almost the whole day. If that’s not your stage of life now, think back .. it probably was not so long ago. A typical viewing pattern looks like this:

7.00am morning cartoons

11.00am news and current affairs program

12.00pm midday soaps or movie

3.00pm kids’ after-school programs

6.00pm home from work, slump in front of evening news

7.00pm family eats dinner in front of TV

8.30pm kids put themselves to bed because the parents are watching evening TV dramas

That is a lot of television watching. Imagine spending four hours a day on any other activity: four hours every day at the pub, or at the supermarket, or at the gym. We would instantly recognise that we were doing that activity to excess, that we had an obsession with it. But not so with our TV viewing. The screen is like a magnet. It has the ability to govern our lifestyle. And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they’d made.

A woman said to a psychiatrist: “Doctor, doctor, my husband thinks he’s a television. What can I do?” The psychiatrist replied: “Make an appointment for me to see him tomorrow at four o’clock”. She recoils, “What – and miss my favourite program?!” Even funnier if not so true! One teenager was asked how she’d like to miss 40-hrs TV instead of 40-hr Famine. A firm ‘No’ was the reply. She would rather go without food than miss her favourite programs.

Remember Pr 4:23: you become what you think… So what quality of people are we turning ourselves into? What goes in? What values are shaping the way we view ourselves, other people, God and the world? Ultimately, the issue with TV is not merely how many hours we watch, but whether we submit to its authority by uncritically allowing it to tell us and our kids what’s true and right in the world.

Consider a quote by Kim Hawtrey: “Summed up, the gospel according to television and movies is this: that you are what you own; that getting the best of the other guy is the only game in town; that image matters more than character; that uncommitted sex is normal and acceptable; that lying is sometimes necessary (just don’t get caught); that the most important person in the world is you; and that God is not necessary to a fulfilled life”. And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they’d made.

Paul said “Watch your thought life. Make sure that what you allow to fill your mind has about it the character of God, and exalts him, and seeks his glory and his pleasure.” In another place Paul spoke of “taking every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). A true disciple is a disciple on the inside. God cares as much for what you think and who you are as what you do. What you allow to occupy your thought life will impact who you are.

Conclusion

Determine today what you will do with your mind to the glory of God. Choose to find joy in the work and the effect of the Gospel. Choose to find peace by praying instead of worrying. Ps 119:15 I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. Read your bible more, and watch the TV less. Choose to feed your mind with what will produce the likeness and the mind and the pleasure of God.

[I acknowledge my debt to Kim Hawtrey in his book “The True and Living God” pp49-56, from which I have quoted or rephrased.]

Make your life count

Text: Phil 3:1-9 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 21/11/04

Introduction

About 10 days ago I read something disturbing, which I shared in my message last week. To remind you of it again, or to inform you if you weren’t here, Michael Hart has recently published a revised edition of his original 1978 book “The One Hundred”, which he describes as his ranking of the 100 most influential people in history. Describing himself as neither a Muslim nor a Christian, he makes an observation that Muhammad has more influence over the lives of Muslims than Jesus has over the lives of Christians. Michael Hart is an observer of people, and that’s how it looks to him.

As I said, I read a reflection on those thoughts of Michael Hart the week before last .. but it has continued to exercise my mind this past week as well. While I was reflecting on it earlier this week, another quote came flooding back to my mind which I first read many years ago. In 1879 in England, a notorious criminal named Charles Peace was being led to the gallows to be hanged for murder. A Christian minister walked beside him, speaking to him about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, about the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life available to him if he would trust in the Cross of Christ.

The story goes that Peace turned angrily on the man speaking to him and said, “If I believed what you say you believe, I would crawl across England over broken glass on my hands and knees to tell people it was true!” .. Michael Hart & Charles Peace: Two very different kinds of people in two very different circumstances, a century apart. .. But offering a chillingly similar outsider’s observation of people like us, of the church, of those who confess Christ. And today there are thousands who would willingly sacrifice their lives for the destruction of people who will not follow Muhammad .. and there are too few who would sacrifice comfort to bring Christ’s forgiveness and eternal life to anyone who will trust Him.

We can receive words like that as just another reason to feel condemned, miserable and guilty. Or we can receive them as opportunities to consider how much Christ and his Gospel are truly worth to us. The latter I hope is how we’ll respond in our hearts this morning to a passage in which Paul shares what’s really quite a personal part of his own story. The reason I describe it that way is that it’s an admission by a zealous man that most of the years of his life had been ultimately a failure from the perspective of God .. he had devoted years of the prime of his life to something he believed was a treasure .. only to learn that it was worthless. If I came to see the past 20+ years of my life in those terms, I’d be keeping it to myself.

So this is a very transparent reflection by Paul, and it stands as an invitation to us to look at our own lives in the same honest way.

As I spent this past week preparing to feed your spirits with this portion of God’s word, it dawned on me that there’s more here that I’d like so much to share with you than there’s really time to do. So I’m going to be focussing basically on 3:1-9. But I encourage you to meditate on the whole passage through to verse 14 or perhaps even 16 in your own time; and we might even get to taste a bit of it at least tonight at the bible forum, if you’re able to come then.

These honest words of Paul which we read today speak to us of how to have a life that counts in eternal terms. I think they give us three warnings: Don’t confuse religion with relationship; Don’t expect heaven’s joy without the Cross; Don’t settle for less than the Gospel offers. Three warnings, but I’m going to hone in on just one of them, which I think is the main one for Paul.

Don’t confuse religion with relationship

That thought I think is what occupied most of what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote this chapter. .. You have to read between the lines sometimes in Paul’s letters, and this is one such case. In vv2f he’s using some strong metaphors which he obviously expected his readers at Philippi to recognise straight away, but at first glance it might not add up too well for 21st century Aussie reader. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh–.

Circumcision was and still is today a mark of initiation of a male into the Covenant of God with the nation of Israel, centred on God’s special calling of Abraham to be the Father of the nation, and reinforced when God made a later covenant through Moses’ leadership, when God gave the Law. So, to the Jews of Paul’s time as today, you can’t be in fellowship with God unless all the males of your family are circumcised.

But into that system of religious Law stepped Jesus the Son of God, offering eternal reconciliation with God through his Cross to Jews and non-Jews alike. And then as the church formed by Jesus Christ is taking shape, God calls a righteous, Law-loving Jew named Paul to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. And Paul builds churches across the Gentile world, preaching a Gospel which offers relationship with God solely through faith/trust in the blood of Christ – apart from circumcision or works of the Law.

.. And so there’s a clash of “Gospels”. As you read the middle chapters of Acts and quite a few of Paul’s letters, there’s a frequent debate within the early church about what’s needed for salvation in Christ. It’s that debate that lies behind what Paul says in the verses I read a moment ago – Phil 3:2f. There are some within the church at Philippi, as elsewhere, who are insisting that you can’t be in covenant fellowship with God without being circumcised. .. To that, Paul says (v2) “Watch out for those who mutilate the flesh – those who believe and insist that salvation rests on taking a knife to your foreskin. Trust the blood of Christ, and you need no other salvation.” And then he adds, “The real circumcision isn’t about satisfying religious requirements, or making your best efforts .. it’s all about trusting in Christ.”

Why does Paul think that’s such a big deal? Would it really matter if someone trusted in Jesus and got circumcised as well? .. The answer to that question would depend on the reason for being circumcised. What Paul’s talking about here, if you read v3 again, is where your confidence for salvation lies. He says the kind of ‘circumcision’ (using ‘circumcision’ as a metaphor) that counts is the state of mind and heart that rests with utter confidence in the blood of Christ, and nothing else. In other words, if you think you need to add some religious duty or performance or qualification to your faith in Jesus, then Jesus is not your Saviour and you haven’t grasped the full freedom of the Gospel. If you’re confident in the flesh (that means in human performance of some kind) .. then you are not confident in Christ. .. In the shadow of eternity, this is life or death! That’s why it matters. Paul cares about the salvation of the church

It’s out of that deep pastoral concern that Paul goes on in the next 4 verses (4-7) to drive home his point about confidence in the flesh versus confidence in Christ. He says “If religious performance could save, I’d be first cab off the rank! .. Look at my religious pedigree:

• 5 circumcised on the eighth day – that’s the right day to be circumcised, the Law says so – well that’s me, on the inside track from start

• a member of the people of Israel – and not just any old Israelite either – an Israelite, to be precise,

• of the tribe of Benjamin – now admittedly that’s not quite as impressive as the royal tribe of Judah which King David came from, but heck it’s the next best thing. The first king Saul (the one before David) came from that tribe, and Benjamin was the only tribe apart from Judah itself to remain faithful to David and his successors when all the others betrayed him. That’s a bit like saying “I don’t live in Toorak, but Malvern’s pretty good.” or “I can’t afford a Porsche, but a Commodore with alloy wheels sure beats a Daihatsu.” .. But can you see what he’s doing .. he’s acting out the thinking of those who believe you have to earn God’s favour by having the religious edge.

• Well he goes on: a Hebrew born of Hebrews – I’m no half-caste, not one of those Greek speakers who’ve jumped through a few ceremonial hoops so they can claim to be Jews, but they’re really not. No, I’m the real deal!

• as to the law, a Pharisee – if you wanted to be really sure you knew the Law inside out, so you’d know when you were pleasing God and when you weren’t, just ask a Pharisee. They were the lawyers! Well, as a matter of fact, I’m one of them.

• And 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church – how much more loyal to Israel can you get? I didn’t just talk about those pedlars of a rival faith – I got out and fixed them!

• And to top it all off: as to righteousness under the law, blameless. .. I was one of those scholars who knew the Law so well, who kept it so meticulously, that I missed nothing in doing what would satisfy God and earn his favour.”

Paul, to use a touch of Aussie lingo, was a true-blue Jew. He had it all. .. But then as he reflects from v7 onwards, he gazed into the eyes of Christ the Son of God .. and glancing back at the framed certificates on the wall in the study .. he realised it was all worthless, utterly worthless, by comparison. .. In fact that’s putting it politely (and this is family viewing time after all, so a bit of decorum please, Paul.) But in v8b he says “I now regard everything that I once prized and trusted in as ‘rubbish’ (NRSV) .. just to have Christ.” But a more direct translation of that word I have as rubbish would be ‘dung’ – and there’s another word I wouldn’t use .. but Paul did. .. That’s how worthless religion had become to a man who found himself standing unashamed before God .. through Christ, and Christ alone.

Jesus himself told a parable (Mtt 13:45f) about a man who was a pearl merchant, who finally one day found one pearl which was of such unmatchable value, that he went and sold everything else he owned just so that pearl could become his. And Jesus said that’s what it’s like, when you find the Kingdom of Heaven. And Paul said, “When I found Christ, I took all my earthly religious achievement and flushed it down the toilet, just for the joy of standing before God in Him.”

I ask you to consider right now, where today is your trust for eternity? Is it really in Christ, and Christ alone? .. Or is there a track that plays over in your mind, perhaps embedded so deeply in your subconscious that you didn’t know it was there? A track that says: “I need to do more .. I’m not prayerful enough to merit the Father’s love .. I need to work harder, longer .. I need to do more for other people.”

You cannot have both Christ’s righteousness and your own. If you rely on you to find the Father’s embrace, give that reliance up today .. and find Christ as he really is. .. Don’t confuse religion with relationship.

Conclusion

If you’re one of those who attended the first Christian Life & Witness Course a week and a half ago, you’d have received as part of your kit a little booklet called “My Heart – Christ’s Home”. Don’t imagine for one moment that the Christian growth teaching in the Christian Life & Witness Course has nothing to offer to people with theological degrees and years in pastoral leadership. Quite a bit of what’s been covered in the two weeks so far has pulled me up short in regard to the quality of my love for Jesus and his word and people around me. I was particularly moved by that little booklet, even though it’s not the first time I’ve read it or something similar to it. Anyone who thinks they have no need of the blowtorch such words apply to the heart should reflect deeply on Paul’s confession to the Philippian believers about the radical realignment required in his own life.

“My Heart – Christ’s Home” uses the rooms of a house as a metaphor for the process of handing over each part of our hearts and our lives to the Lordship of Christ our guest. As my mind was exercised this past week on Phil 3, my eyes passed across one particular section of this booklet. Let me read it to you now:

Next we went into the dining room, the room of appetites and desires. Now this was a large room, a most important place to me. I spent a lot of time and hard work trying to satisfy all my wants.

I told him, “This is a favourite room. I’m sure you will be pleased with what we serve here.”

He seated himself at the table and inquired, “What is on the menu for dinner tonight?”

“Well,” I said, “my favorite dishes: money, academic degrees, stocks, with newspaper articles of fame and fortune as side dishes.” These were the things I liked, thoroughly secular fare. There was nothing so very bad in any of them, but it was not really the kind of food which would feed the soul and satisfy true spiritual hunger.

When the plates were placed before my new friend, he said nothing. However, I observed that he did not eat. I asked, somewhat disturbed, “Saviour, don’t you like this food? What is the trouble?”

He answered, “I have food to eat you do not know of. My food is to do the will of him that sent me.” He looked at me again and said, “If you want food that really satisfies you, do the will of your heavenly Father. Put his pleasure before your own. Stop striving for your own desires, your own ambitions, your own satisfactions. Seek to please him. That food will really satisfy you. Try a bit of it!”

And there about the table he gave me a taste of doing God’s will. What flavour! There is no food like it in all the world. It alone satisfies. At the end everything else leaves you hungry.

………..

One day a true blue Jew held up his exemplary life of religious achievement and satisfaction before the light of the splendour of Christ, and discovered it was all worthless and counted for nothing, by the values of the Kingdom of God displayed in his Son. Why have your life count for everything according to what this passing world of ours says is precious .. only for it all to melt away on the Day of Christ, displaying nothing of eternal worth. Whatever else you do, go after more of Christ and his satisfaction, beside which nothing and no one is precious.

Make your life count.

Living through death

Text: Phil 2:1-11. Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 14/11/04

Introduction

An overseas visitor, unfamiliar with the workings of cricket, asked his host to explain the purpose of the game. The host described it like this:

“You have two sides, one out in the field and one in.

Each man that’s in the side that’s in, goes out, and when he’s out, he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out.

When they are all out the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in out.

Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

When both sides have been in and out including the not-outs, that’s the end of the game.”

If that account were given to you as an outsider, not only would you be unlikely to sign up for a team .. you probably wouldn’t even stick around to watch! You’d be left with no cause to expect that the game of cricket could make any positive contribution to your life, or have anything to do with reality! .. If what you see or hear doesn’t persuade you that a certain pursuit or way of life or belief system or allegiance has the impact or the vitality that’s claimed of it .. you’ll be unlikely to give it serious consideration. Hold that thought, while I share with you something I read during the week which mightily challenged and disturbed me.

I read about a book by Michael Hart, entitled, The one hundred: a ranking of the 100 most influential people in history. Hart describes himself as neither a Muslim nor a Christian. Now listen to his top three – in order of influence: Muhammad, Isaac Newton (the father of modern Science) and Jesus of Nazareth. .. Why is Muhammad 1st and Jesus only 3rd? This is Michael Hart’s answer – and it’s scary: From my observation, Muhammad has more influence over the lives of Muslims than Jesus has over the lives of Christians. .. Now, if that doesn’t unsettle you .. it certainly should. Remember my observation from earlier: If what you hear or observe in other people doesn’t persuade you of the real impact of what they profess to believe, you’ll probably not give their claims a second thought. If it be true that Jesus has less commanding influence on his own followers than does Muhammad .. then why should our friends, our neighbours and our community leaders take Jesus seriously? Who wants another self-help program of questionable outcomes?

As we sit under the word of God this morning, I’d like us to reflect together on the question of whether the quality of our corporate life as a congregation of Christ, would be sufficient to refute Michael Hart’s claim.

Specifically today, the Scripture we read castes a spotlight on the quality of our relationships as a gathering of God’s people. .. If the Gospel of God, with it’s invitation to the Son of God, has truly captured your heart and changed your view of the world – then that will be evidenced in the kind of community you create with the other believers around you. It will produce life change – not mind change only. And in the NT, relationships are one of the basic aspects of our lives where that change should be evident. If it isn’t evident, then Paul seems to say here in Philippians 2 – and in Ephesians, Colossians & 1 Corinthians at least .. If it isn’t evident in our inter-relationships that the Gospel has radically changed our lives, .. then our preaching of the Gospel will not be credible. .. And it ought not to surprise us, if the world is slow to believe.

What Paul is saying in the opening verses of Phil 2, is simply a continuation of his appeal in the last part of chap 1. (Do remember always, there’s nothing inspired about the chapter and verse divisions in scripture – they were all added later. They’re a convenience for us, but nothing more.) Last week we listened to Paul’s plea in Phil 1 for the Gospel to change our praying, thinking and living – with the climax at v27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ . Then he says that means standing firm, one in spirit, with the same determination, labouring side-by-side for the faith of the Gospel. ..

Well now in the first couple of lines of chap 2 he says: If Christ really is all to you .. if his love really has become your life’s foundation .. if you honestly do count it a joy to be incorporated into a community built by Christ’s Holy Spirit .. then prove that it’s all real, that it’s not some pie in the sky or empty rhetoric – but that you do cherish the fellowship of believers, and would defend it with your life. As Gene Peterson puts it in his ‘Message’ translation: “Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. 3 Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. 4 Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

Paul then goes on to, in effect, sing about the impact of the Gospel on the life of the church. What I mean is that vv6-11 (or 5-11) you’ll generally find printed in most bibles in a verse format. That’s because most bible scholars believe it’s some kind of hymn. It may not have been Paul’s own words; he may be quoting a hymn that was known to his readers. The hymn reads as a reflection on how the glory by which Christ is worshipped was the outcome of his submission to the Father’s will in going to the Cross for the world’s sin. Paul says: Give me real cause for joy. Don’t just sing about it – live it in your walk with one another. And so he sets it in the context of relationships.

Our life together is to be shaped by the thinking, the purpose, the motivation, the life pattern of the one we call Lord. Paul’s talking about what should be the first indication that the Gospel has taken root in our hearts. It all comes down to this:

• The church is the community of those who each view themselves as no more and no less than unworthy recipients of the highest service of the Son of God;

• they recognise eachother as recipients of the same service;

• they regard one another as people to be served after Christ;

• and they look to God alone as the ground and source of reward.

… They have in them the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, as Paul puts it. .. Which is not so very different from John’s account. John described Jesus who took up a towel to serve his own, who by his death loved his own to the end, and who in John’s vision of the glory of heaven in Rev 5 is worthy of all honour and all praise just because he was slain, and by the service of his blood has purchased for God men and women from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Paul called the church to that perspective in their lives with one another, because it was a pattern that deeply exercised his own mind in reflecting on his own life. The reason I think that is that if you look at the last few verses of chap 3, you can almost hear Paul thinking out loud about about his own life measured against the blueprint of Christ’s life in chap 2. Have a look at 3:17-21 Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. He then says there are some who don’t live like that, and whose interests are merely earthly .. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform [NIV: our lowly bodies] that [they] may be conformed to [his glorious body].

What Paul’s reflecting on there in chap 3 is the practical application of what he’s singing about in chap 2. If you set all your hopes of satisfaction on what you can get on earth, that will play out in mistreating people for your ends. But if you have the same mind that was in Christ, and wait for heaven’s rewards, that will play out in serving people for their ends.

Conclusion

Paul says all of that starts in the church. If it doesn’t happen here, it won’t matter what happens out there. The time to live out the Gospel is now; the place to start is here. With the mind of Christ, with minds and hearts full of the Gospel of Christ, there’s simply no room for sectional interests .. no space for barrow-pushing .. no place for the mental lists we like to keep (the people we’ll talk to or associate with, and the ones we won’t). There’s no room for any of that kind of relationship behaviour in a community formed by the Gospel of the One who served without limit.

In the next few weeks and months, God willing, people who rarely give Christ or his church a second thought may well appear within these walls to check us out. They’ll come perhaps because it’s Christmas, and it seems a good idea to do something religious, or come to church to keep Grandma happy .. Others may come, especially after next March, but perhaps before .. because by the faithful prayers of Christians and the passionate preaching of Christ through Festival Victoria, they have been given cause to consider the claim that Christ provides meaning and purpose and eternal hope and earthly joy and an open trusting community to belong to. And they’ll come to see whether it’s true. And may our actions speak as loudly as our words – of Christ and his service.

All for the Gospel

Text: Philippians 1. Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 7/11/04

Introduction

Last week I discovered the missing ingredient in my love life. Guys – you might want to pay close attention. The Saturday before last, I took my car to the carwash. While waiting in the queue, I noted that every wash bay was in use by a male aged between 20 and 35, with a sparkling Commodore or similar trophy. Two of the four were also accompanied by a woman, who stood watching the skilled operation of the high-pressure hose. Both women had blonde hair, which may be significant; but one of them had her own car, parked just behind. Not a particle of dust was anywhere to be seen on the vehicle, but it was obviously going to be washed anyway. I mentioned this spectacle to my wife later. She suggested that the guy would probably take his turn watching, while the girl did the work. But being the romantic that I am, I’m certain that in truth that latter-day Romeo stood ready to woo his damsel with the graceful application of a foaming brush.

I’m sure it’s as clear to you as it is to me, friends … The carwash is the place to be for Aussie romance in 2004. So guys, if the spark’s gone out in your relationship, you know what to do .. take her to the carwash. My wife hasn’t shown much enthusiasm thus far; but it’s early days, and I intend to persevere.

If you take your beloved to the carwash, you’ll demonstrate to her powerfully who it is who commands supreme earthly worth in your life – your car. ..

If you watch a person closely, or listen to them, you often pick up what it is that they really care about .. where their true passions lie. If you pick up Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi .. read it through once .. read it again .. (which is what we’ll be doing together these Sunday mornings between now and Christmas) you start to hear this: There’s only thing in life that actually matters – the Gospel.

The Gospel is where it’s at for Paul – no doubt about it. What he’s on about is not the church as such .. it’s the gospel. To be sure he’s addressing his appeal to the church – he writes as he says in 1:1 To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons. .. And a little bit later on he’ll have a quite bit to say about the spiritual health of the church in that part of the world: .. the quality of relationships within the body .. the need to be clear about the truth that the church believes and teaches .. the importance of every member staying focussed on growing more and more like Christ .. the great importance of the church being content in the grace of God. Paul is concerned about the church for sure; he wants a healthy church. But make no mistake about it – Paul’s overarching dream isn’t for the church to look good .. it’s for the Gospel to look good .. it’s for Christ to be attractive. He wants people to love the Gospel and long for Christ.

Paul uses the phrase “the Gospel” 69 times in his 13 New Testament letters (which means it mattered an awful lot to him); 9 of them are in Philippians, which is one of his shortest letters. Of those 9, 6 are in chapter 1. As we all know, people can do amazing things with statistics in all areas of life – and the Bible is no different. But that’s a lot of references to the Gospel in a short space. Nothing matters like the Gospel. Chapter 1 comes to a climax with an impassioned plea: 27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel. .. Let the Gospel change you .. let it change the way you pray .. the way you think .. the way you live.

Let the Gospel change the way you pray

3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy … 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. When Paul prays for this particular community of Christians, he’s overwhelmingly thankful because the Gospel has so captured their hearts, that not only have they believed the message and turned to Christ for themselves – but they have also committed themselves to sharing with him in his Gospel ministry.

v7 implies that they supported him while he was in prison for the Gospel, and while he was engaged in proclaiming Christ. If we read further, chap 4 spells it out: 4:15f – these Philippian Christians sent financial and material support to enable his ministry. So his grounds for thanksgiving is the way their priorities evidence the power of the Gospel to change minds and hearts.

But not only that. The evidence of what the Gospel has done in them fires him up to pray confidently that God will do even more in their lives. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. In v9 he prays fervently that their lives will glorify Christ .. in v6 he says this is why I bother .. this is why I’m confident .. I’m confident in prayer for you because I can see that God has already begun something good in you. God has started something .. but God will not finish what he has started to do in them until he day of Jesus Christ, which is a phrase that means the end time when Christ returns as King and Judge.

What all that means for you and me, is that if you are a person who loves Jesus as your Saviour and Lord today, that can only be because God has begun a work of his grace in you. But it also means that your life as a disciple and mine as well, is a work in progress. God is a very patient artist, who wants to continue the transforming work of the Gospel in you, making you into the likeness of his Son .. and that work won’t finish until the day Christ returns. .. As far as Paul’s concerned, that’s a reason to pray, and not to stop praying until Jesus comes.

If you glance around you here this morning – at the people beside… please be aware that God has started to transform their lives by the Gospel .. but please be aware also that he has much much more to do with them. Don’t let up in praying for them, because God must continue his work in them right up until the day of Jesus Christ.

Why pray for one another like that? Because of the power of the Gospel to change sinners into lovers of the Father through Christ. Let the Gospel change the way you pray.

Let the Gospel change the way you think

Let me read in full vv12-14: 12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.

Paul is in prison, as he writes this. He’s in prison, treated as a criminal, because the civil powers aren’t impressed with his Gospel preaching. But he hasn’t committed a crime. Who’d want to be in prison, especially knowing they were innocent? .. No one, generally .. unless it actually helped your cause, which it doesn’t normally if you’re innocent. But Paul is a man so centred on the Gospel, that he reinterprets his own circumstances from a Gospel perspective. The Gospel changes the way he thinks. And here he actually gives prison the “thumbs up” – because it’s contributed to the spread of the Gospel. In v13 he says that because of his imprisonment, the whole imperial guard has heard about Christ.

Some background here: In a Roman prison at that time the pattern was that a prisoner in Paul’s circumstances would be chained between two guards at all times – one on each arm …. The guards worked in 8-hour shifts round the clock; so each prisoner is chained at different times to a total of 6 guards every 24 hours. .. And Paul is a passionate speaker of the Gospel. Was Paul chained to the guards, or were the guards chained to Paul? Well it depends on how you think, doesn’t it? Whether you think with you at the centre, or with the Gospel at the centre. The entire Roman Imperial guard detachment in Caesarea, which is probably where Paul was in prison at that time, have heard the Gospel through being chained to Paul.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine conducted a funeral of a Dr Ronald Kingston. I don’t know whether Dr Kingston was a Christian. But he was a man with, I think polio, or some similar kind of condition. The doctor who told him the diagnosis, and with it the news that he faced two years unable to walk, was wise enough to add that he would have all that time available to read. Out of that perspective he read and studied with such focus that he came out with a doctoral degree. He reinterpreted his circumstances as an opportunity for something he would otherwise have missed.

In first century Roman-occupied Caesarea, one man named Paul was locked away in prison, cut off from friends, and unable to travel. But with a mind shaped by the Gospel, he rejoiced at unimagined opportunities to bring the Gospel to the ruling power of the day.

You can struggle in frustration at what you cannot do, through lack of health or money or connections or employment .. or you can reinterpret your circumstances in the light of the Gospel, and rejoice that the people who are around you have an opportunity to find salvation in Jesus through your witness. Let the Gospel change the way you think.

Let the Gospel change the way you live

This is one of those passages where we see a little into the personal love of Paul for the people he ministered to. There’s an internal conflict going on for Paul. From verse 20 onwards, he struggles to know whether he’d rather accept death, which he knows is a possibility when his Gospel work is so offensive to Roman and Jewish authorities alike. Death would mean entering into eternal intimate fellowship with Christ, which would be simply glorious beyond speaking. .. Or whether he’d rather stay and continue to minister more of Christ to the church. A passionate love for Christ, and a passionate love for the church .. and in the end at v24 he renews his dedication to serving people for the Gospel’s sake.

That’s what Paul would like to do .. but he doesn’t know whether that’s what will happen. Will he meet face to face with his beloved brothers and sisters at Phillipi again? Or will he not? .. Paul doesn’t know. .. When all the reflections are over, when all the searching questions have been asked and answered – there’s only one thing left for a Gospel-driven servant to say: 27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and [only] hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

.. There it is again – a man for whom nothing in all of life matters – except the Gospel. The Gospel is worth so much that if you profess to believe it .. if you declare that you are Christ’s and he is yours .. then every priority must be subsumed beneath the solemn commission to win others for him. There’ll be no room for power games, secret agendas, petty rivalries, closed ranks, resistance to others in the body. If you’re concerned about your own comfort, you’re not concerned about the Gospel .. and Christ will not be fooled. One in spirit, one in purpose .. for the Gospel’s sake. Anything less is a denial of the Christ you profess.

You can live for your own ends, OR for the cause of Christ and his gospel for the lost. But not both. Let the Gospel change the way you live.

Conclusion

We face a real choice here at Werribee Church of Christ at the moment. We can seek to advance the cause of this church for the pleasure and security of the eighty who are here .. or we can choose to give priority to the Gospel for the honour of Christ and for love of the 98000 people of Wyndham who right now face eternity apart from the God who formed them for himself.

That’s always a choice for any Christian congregation, at any time. But can I say, I believe it’s a question of particular weight for this fellowship of believers, and especially at this time. The elders and I have been studying the written reflections we received at the history evening a couple of months ago. One thing that’s clear is that many of us love being here because of the trusting, caring relationships we enjoy. We value the fellowship of other believers whom we love and who love us. Another thing that’s also clear is that when we look at ourselves honestly, we’re ready to admit that we haven’t done well at introducing people to Jesus. We’ve made some starts over the years – we’ve built some bridges into the community .. but we haven’t capitalised well on those bridges, and we haven’t built a lot of new ones in recent years.

Strong internal relationships, weak external connections .. that’s a combination that means we may have a disease that a guy called Eddie Gibbs calls “fellowship-itis” – so caught up in one another, that we neglect the lost for whom Christ gave his life. In before out; Paul would say we must reverse that order, if we’re to merit the name ‘church’ according to Scripture. Let me repeat: We can seek to advance the cause of this church for the pleasure and security of the eighty who are here .. or we can choose to give priority to the 98000 who aren’t.

I suggested before that that’s a question that faces us at this time in particular. Why do I say that? Because we’re in uncertain times, insecure times; we’re without a permanent pastoral leader, and so we’re not sure where things are heading. That’s normal. But have you noticed what commentators have been saying about our own recent Federal election and the US election as well? .. In uncertain times, people back the status quo. Regardless of your political views, that’s pretty much what’s happened on both sides of the Pacific, hasn’t it? Translate that to a church in uncertain times .. and we’ll cling to what we’ve already got .. we’ll be even less likely to reach beyond ourselves .. we’ll go for fellowship ahead of evangelism every time. .. And if we do that we’ll fall short of the Gospel which the Lord has entrusted to us.

With that real risk in mind, please give thoughtful attention to another video clip about Festival Victoria 2005: [DVD Festival Vic. – church promo clip] “Only one chance” .. did you note those closing words? .. “let’s give it our best.” And can I urge you to take that counsel seriously, in honour of Christ. Get involved in the Festival .. it’s not too late to decide to attend the Christian Life & Witness Classes if you weren’t planning to .. to participate in Operation Andrew, praying consistently and earnestly for people you know who need Jesus .. be sure to read the Festival Victoria newsletters when they appear (there’s a new one for you to take today) .. pray and plan towards coming to one or more gatherings at the Festival next March, bringing someone with you.

It will be surprising if an opportunity like this particular one comes to our city again for another 15 years. There’ll continue to be any number of other creative ways open to us to share Christ with our community .. but perhaps very few with quite the potential to put the Gospel on the front page of the life of the whole church in Melbourne – which according to Paul is where it should be always. There’ll also continue to be any number of opportunities to put fellowship with the people we know ahead of reaching the ones we don’t. .. We will be faced with a choice between two priorities .. and guess what, one will be a lot easier than the other. May it be that when we look back on this period between now and March 2005, we’ll be able to say “We put the Gospel first.”

A renovator’s dream

Text: Gen 12:1-9 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 17/10/04

Introduction
The back page of CHOICE magazine each month is titled “The hard word”. It displays some of the interesting attempts advertisers or manufacturers or retailers have made to convince people to buy their product. Let me share just a few examples.

• One pack of crackers for eating dips is branded in big stylised script “Pride of France”, emblazoned against the tricolour pattern of the French flag. The label on the back says “Product of Holland”.

• Somewhere there’s a shop called “Manchester Road Fish & Chip Shop”. The bold sign in the window reads “Open every day” .. the small print beneath – “closed Tuesday”.

• Closer to home: In June this year, Tasman Meats placed an ad for Scotch Fillets at an exceptionally low price per kilo. The timeframe was a tad confusing. It read: “Sunday only special, effective 20th to 26th June”.

The real estate industry does it even better. “Renovator’s dream” is a phrase we’ve become very familiar with in these days of the property boom. As far as I can tell, it generally means if you put your foot on the front verandah, the house will fall down, but at least you won’t pay much to put it back up. If you were a terrestrial traveller out on a Sunday afternoon spaceflight, and you cruised past a planet, with a sign poking out of it’s north pole saying “Renovator’s dream”, would you bother staying for the auction? I wouldn’t.

Yet that’s just the kind of sign that could have been poking out of the ground on planet earth at the end of Genesis 11: “A renovator’s dream”. But like the “renovator’s dreams” we read about in the Star .. who’d want it? Who would want to invest anything of significance in a rundown planet like that? .. Sure it was grand when it was built – perfect in fact. But we’ve just read the case history, haven’t we, over these past weeks – all eleven chapters of it from the start of Genesis. And it’s not pretty; certainly doesn’t inspire investor confidence. .. Perfect structure, soundly held together in perfect harmony by a network of perfect relationships. But that was before the careless agents allowed the rising damp to eat the floorboards .. and next thing it was in the frame as well, and the rats were in the roof. They didn’t listen to the owner-builder’s flood warnings, and the big wet nearly destroyed the place.

It looked better for a while after the settlement with Rainbow Insurance. .. But then came the upper storey extension project – the grand vision .. We saw what happened to that last week: the contract disintegrated, all talking stopped, and the whole crew went walkabout. Now who would invest in that? .. Probably no one ..

God’s big plan
Except that the rest of the Bible really is the story of a renovator with a dream. God is the great renovator, whose dream is to restore the world and all its inhabitants to the beauty that once was the outcome of his creative word .. when he spoke, and said “Let there be light .. vegetation .. creatures .. man in our image.” And it was so – and God stood back and looked – and said “very good”.

God could have scrubbed the whole thing after the Tower of Babel incident in chap 11. He’d have had every right, as the owner of it all. He’d already demonstrated by a flood how intolerable sin is to his pure character. He could have wiped the entire creation completely, and started something fresh.

But there’s a problem with that course of action. It’s hinted all the way through the Bible .. but you need to get to near the end of the NT before it’s spelled out in black and white. John reflected on the great act of God in Christ. And in chapter 1 of his first letter, he says it’s the shed blood of Jesus God’s son that cleanses us from all sin, and so makes it possible for sinners to walk with God once more. Then in chapter 3 he exclaims, “Look what love the Father has lavished on us, that we could be called his children.” But in the next chapter, he goes still deeper, right to the heart .. Love isn’t only what God has given to us – it’s who he is, it’s his character. And he must act in love, because to do anything else would be a denial of himself. “God is love.”

In the OT there are places where the language of passionate love describes God’s heart devotion to his people Israel. The love of a man for his wife, or a father for his child. The Book of the prophet Hosea brings both of those together. Hosea is built around a powerful metaphor/ parable of a tortured husband devoted to his unfaithful wife – God is the husband, Israel is the wife. At one point, speaking through the character of the aggrieved husband which was Hosea’s own experience, the Lord says to Israel, “Even though your unfaithfulness deserves shame and abandonment, ‘How can I give you up!?’ I can’t .. my compassion won’t let me.” (Hos 11:8)

Just a few verses before that, the Lord uses the other metaphor of an aching father with a rebellious child: 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the more they went from me. Have you heard parents say that? .. said it yourself about your own kids? .. That’s the pain in God’s heart over the people he calls his own.

There it is in Hosea .. and there it is in 1 Jn (to name just two examples from many throughout scripture): that tension between God’s grief and utter intolerance of the rebellion that works out in every level of human affairs .. and the love he cannot surrender for the people he formed for fellowship with himself. .. And the resolution to that .. is the Gospel – the grace of God, the Father’s lavish but undeserved kindness, in sending his own Son to die the death we deserved, so we could go free and walk with God as objects of his delight and love.

If you’re a Christian, that I trust is the grace you know and treasure. But where does that gospel grace begin? .. Where does God begin to save the world by grace? .. It starts in Gen 12, when in v1 the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. The great renovator has begun to act out his dream to restore the planet. .. And can you believe it – he’s going to do it through people! God has committed himself to the human race, despite people’s desperate frailty. That’s grace. .. Wouldn’t you feel like grabbing God by the coattails and saying “Lord, we’ve just had 9 chapters of people wrecking the planet; and you’re going to use people to fix it!?” Why?! …

A month ago, when we were reading about Noah, I referred to something Paul wrote in 2 Cor 4. To repeat: “He said God has blessed this desperate world with a treasure of grace, a gospel that saves restores and reconciles. .. But it comes through frail, failing human messengers like us (“jars of clay”). And he says God has chosen to convey the gospel treasure in that way, so that people will recognise that God himself is the only one with the power to save their lives and heal the world.”

Now – why has God chosen to begin his massive restoration project of putting the world back together, using a person? .. So that from the very start it will be quite clear that God is the one who’s really saving the world. It has to be God’s work, because we’ve already seen the mess people make of the planet when left to themselves. So the role of Abram and his descendants is simply to be a beacon to draw the attention of lost people to the one who’s calling them to fellowship with himself.

And from about verse 27 of chapter 11 right through to the end of chapter 12, almost every line contains another reason to trust God to save the planet. And for the remainder of our time, I’d like to look more closely at just some of them:

• From 11:27 we’re introduced to the family of Terah, and we note that one of his sons was called Abram. By inference, v28 lets us know that this family lived in a Chaldean town or region called Ur. In other words they were foreigners. The ancient Israelites knew Chaldea as the region “beyond the river” (Euphrates).
Centuries later Joshua was leader of Israel, and on one occasion (Josh 24:14f) he challenged the nation to determine who would be their God. And he said “Your ancestors lived beyond the river .. and they served other gods.” .. That’s Abram. In other words, when the Lord called Abram at the start of Gen 12, Abram was in another country worshipping pagan gods. His heart wasn’t turned towards the Lord .. he was just another worshipper of idols like everyone else. .. And the Lord called him to be the Father of Israel, the nation through whom God would restore the world to himself.

Who’s going to save the world? Certainly not Abram .. it has to be God.

• 11:29 we’re introduced to Abram’s wife Sarai; in v30 we learn that Sarai can’t have children. .. 4 verses later (12:2) the Lord mentions a great nation that’s somehow going to spring from Abram, and 12:7 says his descendants are going to be given the land of Canaan .. What descendants!? Abram’s wife is infertile .. It doesn’t matter how many early nights they have – there’ll be no nation .. unless God intervenes. (Which he does, with the birth of Isaac in chap 21.)

Who does the world’s restoration depend on? .. Not Abram and Sarai .. it’s a work of God.

• 12:1 The Lord calls Abram to go .. where? to the land that I will show you. So in v4 he sets out .. And can you imagine the conversations with the neighbours? “Abram, where are you going?” “Dunno.” .. This is a picture of a man who’s utterly helpless in the hands of God.

Who’s in control of Israel’s and the world’s destiny? .. Not Abram – he doesn’t even have a map! .. He’s not in control .. God is.

• Well they headed on their journey; and in v5 they arrived in the region of Canaan, still with no idea where the destination was. We know they knew about Canaan, because 11:31 tells us that was where they were thinking of going a long time before. But anyway in 12:7 the Lord says “This is it, Abram; this is the land your descendants are going to receive.” .. But there’s a problem, isn’t there. Verse 6 spells it out: At that time the Canaanites were in the land. You can’t take possession of a land that’s already inhabited – the locals might object. Abram doesn’t have the power to take possession of the land where all God’s plans are meant to come about.

Who’s show is this? Who’s going to make it happen? .. From start to finish, there’s only one who can bring it about. .. The world’s salvation belongs to God.

• And so all that Abram can do is build an altar to the Lord in v7 and again in v8 – and call on the Lord. There’ll be no land .. no descendants .. no blessing to every nation .. unless the Lord reveals himself and brings it about.

Conclusion
God is committed to people. He is committed to restoring people to himself, to one another, and to restoring the creation to the order and beauty he at intended at the first. He is a renovator with a dream.

God is committed to using people to achieve his purposes. He has made that abundantly clear, in that his first act after the human race has succeeded in destroying every one of the relationships that held the universe in balance .. after all that God’s first act is to call a man, and declare that he will be the channel of God’s blessing to every family on earth.

God is committed to saving people .. and he is committed to using humans as his instruments. And if he can use Abram .. he can use me .. and he can use you .. and he can use the community of the WCoC. In the end, as Scripture shows us over and over, it’s not the stature or the wisdom of the man that counts .. it’s the wonder of what God intends to achieve through them to save the world.

… If Gen 1-11 speaks only one thing into your life, let it be that only God himself can fix the world. Don’t rest your ultimate faith or trust or hope on yourself, or your church tradition, or your present pastor, or the elders, or the next minister, or the person who discipled you, or your parents, or your wife, or your husband .. And don’t confuse any of these with God. That is to say, if you regard any human person or system or tradition as utterly indispensable to your security and joy and future hope .. then they have become your God, and the object of your worship.

Yet nevertheless .. frail and fickle and flawed and unreliable and self-seeking though humans being are, God has chosen to do nothing in his renovating dream to save the planet .. without using people for his grand purposes. And he starts with a man in spiritual darkness, named Abram. And he asks of you only what he asked of Abram .. he asks simply “Will you go?”