Context changes everything

If you are the kind of person who likes scripture fridge magnets, then you will almost certainly have seen one with these words ’I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ (Philippians 4:13) What an inspiring verse! Are you facing a challenge? Then this verse promises you Christ’s strength!

But what does Paul mean by ‘I can do all things’? Does it mean that I can decide to launch myself out of my office window aiming to fly down Lynwood Gardens in the ‘strength of the Lord’ and expect to defy the laws of gravity? I doubt anyone reading this would believe that this is an appropriate interpretation of the verse and would restrain me, or even have me sectioned , were I to attempt such a foolhardy feat. Yet is it so different to imagine that this verse guarantees us exam success, strength to carry the shopping, confidence to win the deal at work? Is it a promise that God will show up and help us do anything we want?

This is where context comes in. Someone has said that ‘a text without a context is a con!’ That is certainly true in this case, as would be proved by my cuts and bruises were I to attempt Christ empowered aviation. Fortunately we don’t have to look too far to see Paul’s context here. Read back a couple of verses and you will see he is thanking the Philippians for taking up a collection to help with his physical needs. Even as he is dictating the letter, he realises that his readers might be misled to think that his physical wellbeing was what was important to him, so he qualifies his thanks by reminding them that his contentment was not based upon circumstances. Verse 11: Not that I speak from need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.

How did Paul learn his contentment?  Verse 12 tells us: I know how both to make do with little and I know how to have an abundance. In everything and in all things I have learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to have an abundance and to go without. Time and again Paul faced shortages and plenty, hunger and abundance. Notice how he links these together with the phrase ‘In everything and all things’. Did you spot that the ‘all things’ in verse 12 and 13 both refer to the same thing – Paul’s contentment! He can be contented in all circumstances only because Christ empowers his contentment. Christian contentment is not a stoical, grin and bear tough times because someone somewhere else is worse off than us. Followers of Jesus can be truly contented through good or bad circumstances, whether or not they change because their hope and confidence is in Christ. When we are content to rely on Him, He is truly glorified, because His strength is on display.

This blog post featured in the February 2013 edition of Lifelines

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Money, Money, Money

Have you ever wondered would you do if you inherited a £1 million from some long lost relative or gained it from some other windfall? It does not seem to matter how much money people have, we always seem to want more. Older readers will remember lines from classic songs such as ‘Money, money, money. Must be funny. In a rich man’s world’ or ‘Money makes the world go around’ that express the world’s expectation that having more money will solve their problems. The stark truth however is that money does not make people happy and this sometimes leads people to state that ‘money is the root of all evil’.

Whilst that phrase is found in the Bible it is actually a misquotation! What Paul actually wrote was: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.’ 1 Timothy 6:10 (ESV)

As people who are daring to live by the Word and the Spirit, our goal is to allow the Bible to shape our thinking on every area of our life, including our finances. You may have heard the story of an airplane that was in difficulty and the pilot announced that they were about to crash land. One person called out “Should we do something religious?” only for someone else to reply “Let’s take up an offering!” If we limit our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on money to offerings, then we short-change ourselves.

The issue with money is not whether we are rich or poor, but rather whether we crave it. Paul says that craving for money has led some to wander away from their faith. Biblical teaching about money strikes right at the heart of our faith and our understanding of the gospel. It is not a side issue. Because it is such an important subject, Simon and I will be preaching a series that we are calling ‘Jesus on Money’, starting in the middle of January. As we do this, we will discover that Jesus pulls no punches as he challenges commonly held attitudes. Our prayer is that as we see what Jesus had to say about the subject, our hearts will be changed and instead of us serving money, we will learn to make money serve God’s kingdom.

This blog post featured in the January 2013 edition of Lifelines

God with skin on

There’s a much-used sermon illustration about a little boy who was frightened by a storm one night. Several times he cried out in fear and his mother would come to his room for comfort and to remind him that God was always with him. As she prepared to leave the third time her son grabbed her arm, held tight, and said, “I know Mummy, but I want God with skin-on!”

Each year at Christmas we sing ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, which includes the lines: ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity’ – expressing a profound fact about Jesus’ nature. Although the word incarnate is not found in the Bible, the truth it contains is – God became man! This astonishing revelation is at the heart of the Christmas message and is expressed on many occasions in the New Testament. Take Philippians as an example: ‘(Christ Jesus) though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ Philippians 2:6-7 (ESV)

Why did Jesus who was fully God have to become fully man? There are many overlapping layers to answering that question, but at least in part it was so that we could see God. Jesus said ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ John 14:9 (ESV). Like the little boy in the story, we don’t simply want to know the truth about God being with us, we want to experience him; we want God with skin on. Jesus was exactly that – God with skin on! The more we get to know Jesus, the more we get to know God.

There are times however when, like the little boy in the story, we need a hug or a shoulder to cry on, and in that moment another human being communicates the presence of God in a way that goes further than mere statements of truth. In those moments the followers of Jesus also ‘incarnate’ God and show the Father to people. Words are important, but words are not enough. How can you help people ‘see the Father’? How can you also be God with skin on?

This blog post featured in the December 2012 edition of Lifelines

We Will Remember

He was a young man, still in the prime of life, strong, healthy, loved by his family and a wide circle of devoted friends. Although he was not married, as the eldest son, he had taken responsibility for helping his mother raise a family because his own father had died while he was still a teenager. Now he too was dying. As he bled and gasped for breath, he could see right into the eyes of the soldiers who had fatally wounded him. What goes through a dying man’s mind? Worries for his family? Concern for his friends? Thoughts about the purpose and meaning of his own life? Emotions towards the men who were killing him?

With the 11th November Remembrance events coming up soon, perhaps you thought this description was of one of  the fallen  from the 2 World Wars, or perhaps a  soldier who has been killed or maimed in the more recent conflicts in the Gulf and Afghanistan. It is good to remember with gratefulness those who have sacrificed their lives and their limbs for the freedom we enjoy in this country. It is good to offer comfort and support for family and friends who have been left behind. It is good to pray that wars and armed conflicts will cease and that there will be peace amongst all the nations on the earth. You are welcome to join us for our act of remembrance which starts at 10:30am in the Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 11th November, when we will do just that.

In fact when I wrote those opening words, I had in mind Jesus hanging on a cross. Jesus, who looked into the eyes of his executioners and said “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”. Jesus, who spoke to his best friend and his mother saying “Son behold your mother, mother behold your son”. Jesus, who as he breathed his last breath gasped “It is finished”. He said this not out of a sense of resignation, but out of the knowledge that in his death his whole life purpose was accomplished. Only hours before, he had instructed his friends to remember his death as the means by which we can receive forgiveness. This November 11th, as you recall the sacrifices made by British servicemen to preserve our present life, allow your thoughts to go back a further 2 thousand years and remember Christ who died so that you too can enjoy eternal life.

This blog post featured in the November 2012 edition of Hook Focus

Who is the message of the kingdom for?

That might seem a daft question, after all the answer is obvious – everyone! However, do we really believe that? Or do we have categories of people who we feel are beyond the gospel, people who are too hardened to respond to the grace of Christ? People we have given up on? What about people we might feel uncomfortable being with?

In Luke 14:12-24 Jesus told a parable to encourage us to believe that the gospel is for everyone who will hear it. He describes a great banquet, which a man throws for his invited guests. At the last minute the guests start making excuses and fail to turn up. The master is angry to be rejected in this way and sends his servants out into the streets to literally bring everyone they can find, the poor and crippled and blind and lame in to enjoy the feast which has been prepared. If his respectable friends won’t come, then he will fill the banquet with the outcasts of society.

I don’t think Jesus is saying we should give up on friends and family who have responded negatively to our efforts to share the good news of Jesus with them. Rather I think he is encouraging us to widen our circle and reach out to people who we might not naturally reach out to. The gospel is not only for people like us, or for people who like us, or even (dare I say it?) only people we like. The gospel really is for everyone! Will you rise to the challenge and pray for opportunities to share God’s love with anyone who will receive it? Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone for the love of Jesus?

This blog post featured in the November 2012 edition of Lifelines

Sweet dreams are made of this

I recently read that about a third of adults in the US have problems falling or staying asleep that aren’t related to a persistent sleep disorder. According to Professor Emily Martin at New York University “The condition of sleep is profoundly contradictory. It is a precious good … but it is a good like no other, because to obtain it one must seemingly give up the imperative to have it.”

King Solomon wrote in Psalm 127 – “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”  Burning the candle at both ends is clearly not just a 21st century phenomenon! The demands of busy lives, combined with the addictive nature of TV and computer media mean that we rarely have time to slow down and relax. We can easily become trapped in a cycle of early mornings and late nights. When this is combined with worrying about our families, our work, even our church, sleep can seem elusive even though we may feel that we are at the point of utter exhaustion.

Solomon however seems to regard sleep as a blessing that God’s people are able to enjoy simply because they are loved by God. Why? There is a clue in the previous verse – “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” The builder needs to work hard and the watchman needs to stay alert, but both carry out their responsibilities trusting in God’s greater provision for them. Sleep is ultimately a demonstration of faith that God can keep the world turning on its axis while we are out of the loop for a few hours. Is this the key to truly refreshing sleep – to consciously bring God into all our waking activity? If we learn to involve God in the day to day detail of our lives, perhaps we will find it easier to ‘leave him in charge’ when we nod off at night.

This blog post featured in the October 2012 edition of Lifelines

A Summer of Sport

If you are a sport lover, then this summer has plenty to excite you: International Cricket, Euro 2012, Wimbledon, the London 2012 Olympics and much more. There is surely an event for everyone and no doubt plenty of controversy to be debated on TV and in the pub! There will be winners and losers, medallists and also-rans. Each of them will have trained hard, often for many years with this summer in mind. They have considered the effort worthwhile in the hope that they will win gold. Yet even for those who achieve their ambitions, there will be another championship with new challengers and new winners; their moment of glory will fade over the years to a private memory.

Being a Roman citizen, Paul was familiar with the ancient Olympic Games and its cousin, the Isthmian Games in Corinth. It would have been with these latter games in mind that he wrote to the Corinthians: You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win.  All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25 The Message) Paul understood that being a follower of Jesus is hard and requires stamina and determination to keep going. His motivation for persevering was the assurance that he would win an eternal reward from God. There are plenty of worthwhile goals that we can have during our lives, yet ultimately these are all temporary. There is only one goal that has real permanence and that is to live a life devoted to Christ in order to win the crown of eternal life that he offers.

I hope that you will enjoy the summer of sport. As you watch the trophies being held aloft and the medals being presented on the podium, take a moment to pause and reflect. Will you, like Paul, receive a winner’s prize when you stand before God or will everything that you have given your life to fade away and become simply a pale memory in the hearts of those you leave behind?

This blog post featured in the July / August 2012 edition of Hook Focus

What is Church?

If you were asked to define church, I wonder what you would come up with as an answer? For many people, a church is a building, often with stained glass windows, a steeple and bells. Of course this is true in the same sense that a building with classrooms is called a school. However just as school without children is quiet and lifeless, so a church without people is like a museum or a shrine, it may be atmospheric and spiritual in some other worldly way but it lacks life. Of course simply filling a building with people doesn’t make it a school or a church, however lively they may be. It is only when those people are united with a common purpose that they become a living community that grows and develops organically around their shared values.

Churches have many things in common with schools and other community organisations, but what sets them apart is that the people who belong to the church are united in Christ. Not merely knowing who Christ is, but having an ongoing dynamic experience of Christ in their lives. On Sunday mornings we are looking at the book of Ephesians where Paul shows us how true church consists of people who are gripped by the lavish grace and wisdom of God. We don’t deserve favour like this and are powerless without God taking the initiative on our behalf. Although this grace operates in our lives individually, the outworking of it is that we become a community knit together in love.

At the end of chapter 2 Paul writes: ‘In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.’ Ephesians 2:22 (ESV) An evidence that the Spirit is truly working in the life of a believer is that they will increasingly sense that they belong to a local church. Our commitment and loyalty to Christ is expressed by our commitment and loyalty to each other. Here at Life Church we welcome everyone to our meetings at whatever stage they have reached in their journey with Christ. Once someone has been with us for a while however it is good to demonstrate commitment by becoming a church member. If you would like to find out more about this, then have a word with either Simon or me and we would be happy to explain further.

This blog post featured in the June 2012 edition of Lifelines

Dear Abdullah – by Robert Scott

DearAbdullah Over the last ten years or so, the Muslim world has increasingly had an impact upon our society and our political systems. Much of what we understand about Islam comes to us through the media, often influenced by suspicion and even hostility. In ‘Dear Abdullah’ Robert Scott encourages us to dialogue with Muslims and to find points of commonality to open up ways to share the love of Jesus with them. Utterly convinced of the uniqueness of Christ this book is written lovingly and respectfully to Muslims and Christians alike to help them understand that Jesus alone is the way to truly know God.
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Scandalous – by Don Carson

Scandalous The cross is one of the most recognizable images worldwide. Worn as jewellery, even by those with no faith at all, and forming the basis of art and decoration in church buildings, the cross is remarkable because an instrument of tortuous execution has become a symbol of religious importance. The cross itself is no more than a couple of blood stained rough timbers but what it represents: the death and resurrection of Jesus is quite literally the crux of history itself. The message of the cross reaches out to us across 2,000 years and is as significant today as it was that first Easter.

In ‘Scandalous’ Don Carson applies his remarkable skill as a theologian and a pastor to help us look through the eyes of five eyewitnesses to these events, and help us understand the cosmic significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is a readable book that is accessible yet powerful in unfolding the eternal mystery of God’s love for people like you and me.
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