Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Lord Our Righteousness

Continuing the Christmas theme, here's a talk I just gave at our church prayer meeting. It's based on Jeremiah 23v1-8. The audio will hopefully appear here in due course.

"The LORD Our Righteousness"

I was told to do “something adventy” – I hope this counts. It mentions shepherds and a king – in fact, there are three kings, so I think we’ll be OK...

I finally bought my advent calendar on Tuesday. I know it’s a bit late, but it’s magnetic and reusable so I can get it out again next year. And I got it for half-price because no-one buys advent calendars on 15th December! It’s always really cute how the students I work with love their advent calendars – usually their Mums send them through the post, as if they suddenly lose the ability to work out what day it is, even though they’ve managed for the past 3 months. But why? What’s the big deal?

It’s all about anticipation, isn’t it? We’re counting down to the big day, getting more and more excited as we get nearer. It’s a bit weird, because in one way we’re pretending to wait for something which has already happened. But as we do that we’re putting ourselves in the shoes of generations of God’s people who had to wait. People like Jeremiah.

Only Jeremiah was waiting a bit longer – he was around 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Of course people had been waiting even longer than that, ever since the fall God’s people have been waiting for the one God would send to sort it all out. But in this passage, Jeremiah is pointing forward to events 600 years later (or there abouts). That’s about 220,000 advent calendar windows, if anyone’s interested…

The situation is pretty grim at this point, and things are looking bleak. Jeremiah is preaching to the kingdom of Judah. The previous chapters describe a succession of awful kings who’ve led the people away from God and into idolatry and sin. The kingdom of Israel to the north has already been wiped off the map by the Assyrians. And it’s just a few years before Jerusalem is levelled, the temple is destroyed, and most of God’s people end up living in foreign countries. Some of them have already been carried off into exile, and now the enemy are closing in on Jerusalem waiting to finish the job.

At the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, he brings messages of warning from God. Turn back to God, or take the consequences. But now those warnings have given way to declarations of the inevitable destruction and exile that awaits Jerusalem. The situation is grim, and things look bleak.

But in the middle of the bleakness, there are glimmers of hope like this one here. It’s a pattern that’s repeated again and again in Scripture, isn’t it? Against the dark background of human rebellion and righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shine through. And that’s exactly what happens in Jeremiah 23 - there’s certain judgement, but there’s grace too, grace which is equally certain…

Let’s look quickly at the shepherds, then we’ll look at the King…

The Shepherds (v1-4)
What does a shepherd do? There aren’t many of them in Reading, but it’s the responsibility of a shepherd to look after the sheep in his care. So it’s a great image to represent those God has put in charge of his people – kings, but also all of the leaders and officials under him, who have been delegated authority and responsibility from God. Only these shepherds are rubbish. They’re “destroying and scattering” the sheep they’re supposed to be looking after. They’re doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing. It’s their sinful behaviour and their disregard for God which is bringing disaster on God’s people. It’s their fault that they’re about to be exiled, “scattered and driven away” (v2). And so God is going to do two things to sort it out:

First he’s going to punish – he’s going to punish these rulers for neglecting the care of God’s people, and for the evil they’ve done instead. He doesn’t elaborate on the punishment waiting for them, but given the woe’s God has dished out on the evil kings before this, it’s not going to be nice.

Then he’s going to provide. God himself is going to step in. In sharp contrast to the bad shepherds, God is going to gather his people. The exile isn’t going to last forever. God brought the exile on them (in v3 he says, “I have driven them”), and God himself is going to bring it to an end. He’ll rescue them himself. But can you see that he’ll do way more than that? They’ll be back in their pasture, where they’re supposed to be. They’ll be fruitful and increase in number. God will place good shepherds over them and they’ll be safe, secure and whole (v4).

That’s quite a promise, given the situation they’re in, and the exile they’re facing. But through the other side, God is promising a future they can probably barely even imagine at the moment. Peace and security and fruitfulness. Even though God’s judgement is certain, so is his grace and mercy and faithfulness.

The King (v5-6)

Well, if that promise was astonishing, what about this?
"The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David [a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness. (v5-6_

Every time we read about a King in the Bible, it should make us long for a better king. Even king David, the greatest King the Jews had ever seen, was a sinful failure. But here, in Jeremiah, it’s almost too much. King after king has been terrible. And even Josiah, who not long before this tried to bring his people back to God, even he failed to make any lasting impact. This is a people in desperate need of a better king.

God does better than that. He promises them the King, a King of Kings. Look at what he says about this King…

He’ll “raise up to David a righteous Branch.” This King is going to be from David’s line. God’s promise to David, that one of his sons will always be on the throne, will come true. On King David’s dying, decaying family tree, there’s one branch where there are still signs of life. And one day it will blossom into the greatest King God’s people have ever seen.

This King will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. God’s people haven’t seen a King like that for a while. Where all of their other kings have failed, this King won’t. And when he comes, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. He’ll be their rescuer and their protector – it’s this king who will bring about the happy, peaceful life in verses 3 and 4.

But the real shock is in verse 6, where we find out his name. “This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” This King will be God! And he will be their righteousness. God himself will be their righteousness. He will make his people righteous when he comes to be their King.

You’ve probably worked out who this King is now. But put yourself in their place. They had to wait 600 years to find out…

Keep a finger in Jeremiah 23, but flick to Luke 2v8-14.

Good news of great joy! In the town of David - where all of David’s descendents are staying at the moment, remember. A baby has been born on a branch of David’s family tree. And he will be a saviour. He is Christ, the Lord. He’s God’s chosen, long-promised King!

When God brought his people out of exile in Babylon, it was the very start of these promises coming true. But he’d barely even started. When God became one of us in the person of the Lord Jesus, he really showed what he meant. And it was bigger and better than anything Jeremiah and his fellow Jews could have imagined! King Jesus makes it possible for us to be forgiven, and for us to be reconciled to God. He brings an end to our exile from the presence of God, because HE has become “our righteousness” (see 1 Cor 1v30).

And how do we respond to a King like this? Surely the only right response is worship? Loving, joyful worship. There’s nothing else we can do. He’s done everything to restore His people, we’ve done nothing. In that first Christmas, just like in Jeremiah’s day, against the backdrop of righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shines bright and clear. Only this time it’s not the promise – it’s the delivery. (Literally).

Turn back to Jeremiah 23 and just look at the last couple of verses, v7-8. When God delivers his people from exile, He says, it will redefine his relationship with his people. Until this point, when God’s people wanted to remember the faithfulness of their God, they looked back to the exodus from Egypt. “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt.” They knew they believed in a real, living God, because they could look back on a real event in their history, the exodus from Egypt, which confirmed God’s power and his faithfulness. But, when he rescues them from exile in Babylon, all that will change. Instead they’ll say, “As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.” This will be the new benchmark of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy to his people.

I’ve never heard anyone say that. And why would we? “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It’s great that we can look back at God’s faithfulness to his people through the centuries – their history is ours too. But in Jesus, the LORD our righteousness, we have the ultimate demonstration of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy. God’s promises through Jeremiah started to come true when His people returned from exile, but that was nothing compared to the way these promises are coming true in Jesus.

I said “coming true” on purpose, because we’re still waiting for God to finish fulfilling these promises, aren’t we? Can we look around at the world and really think that this has all happened? There’s more to come.

Through Jesus, through his death on the cross, our sin is paid for and our freedom is bought. But we’re waiting for the day when he’ll come back, when everything will be made new and the exile really will be over. When that day comes, we won’t say “as surely as the Lord lives” to remind us that God is real and good. It’ll be ridiculous. We won’t need to remind each other at all because he’ll be right there in front of us for the rest of eternity! …But, for now, we’re waiting. Pointing each other and pointing other people to Jesus, the Lord our righteousness, until he comes back.

I’m sure we’ll be praying for this in a minute anyway, but let’s be praying that this Christmas people will meet “the Lord, their Righteousness.” Their ONLY righteousness, and their only hope – they aren’t going to find it anywhere else. But let’s remember what we’re inviting them into. We’re inviting them to wait for our King to come back and reign wisely and justly and rightly forever! That’s brilliant, isn’t it? It’s good news of great joy! How can we not share that?!

And when advent is over and Christmas comes, what will you do? Will you stop waiting until 1st December next year? Or will you live praising God for his faithfulness and grace and mercy in sending the Lord Jesus? And will you live as though the future is true, and Jesus will come back, finishing what he started?

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Promised Rescuer Arrives - Isaiah 9v1-7

Although, in every practical way, I'm trying to ignore the approach of Christmas, it has pretty much arrived in studentland. So here's a talk I gave at Surrey CU last night on Isaiah 9...

I guess we’re all thinking about Christmas at the moment. I was watching “The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” on 4Music this morning. Toby Anstis came and turned on Reading’s Christmas lights last week. Carol Service next week. For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about Christmas. But then what?

I guess we’re all thinking about Christmas at the moment. I was watching “The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” on 4Music this morning. Toby Anstis came and turned on Reading’s Christmas lights last week. Carol Service next week. For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about Christmas. But then what?

Every year, at about 7pm on Christmas Day, my Dad always says, “Well, that’s that for another year.” As kids we always used to get really upset because we wanted Christmas to go on forever. These days I race my Dad to see if I can say it before him. But is that how we should think about Christmas? Is it just for December, or should the truth we celebrate at Christmas last a bit longer than that?

I think it should. Jesus didn’t stay a baby forever – he did grow up. But the message of Christmas – the incarnation, God being made man and born as a human baby – is absolutely vital to who Jesus is and to what Christians believe about him.

We're going to see that as we look at the passage we just read. It was written by a guy called Isaiah, about 2700 years ago (700 years before the New Testament starts). Isaiah was a prophet, a messenger from God, and he's speaking to Ahaz, King of Judah. Isaiah has some pretty scary warnings for Ahaz. But in amongst them is this passage we're looking at.

The first thing to see in this passage is the Promise of Rescue (v2-5).

Look at the last verse of chapter 8. “Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (8v22). It's the tail end of what God has to say about the consequences of turning away from him.

At this point, Judah is under attack from Israel and Syria, who themselves have Assyria breathing down their neck. The kings of Israel and Syria want to force Judah to side with them against Assyria by putting their own king on Ahaz's throne.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Ahaz makes things worse in the way he responds to the threat. The smart response would have been to turn to God and trust him. The whole of their history has shown that things go well when they honour God, and badly when they don't. But, instead, Ahaz decides to take matters into his own hands. In chapters 7 and 8 of Isaiah, we read what the consequences are, for Israel and Syria, and for Judah.

So things are looking pretty grim for Judah. It’s a desperate situation made worse by an arrogant king. What they need is something to give them hope. What they need is to be rescued.

Chapter 9 begins on a note of hope. Against the dark background of chapter 8, a light comes on. “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (v1) – the darkness isn't permanent. Imagine what a ray of hope that must have been for anyone hearing or reading this. Verse 2 carries on the theme of darkness and light.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (v2)
(Don't be confused – remember he's talking about the future. Isaiah has no difficulty talking about these future things as if they have happened – if God has promised them, it's the same thing.)

Isaiah explains to us the effects of the rescue before he tells us how it will happen. God promises:
JOY: “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder” (v3).
The picture of joy is a powerful one. Imagine you've been slogging away all year, and then you're finally able to bring in the food you've worked so hard for. Or you've been fighting a war and you're finally able to divide the plunder that's been won in battle. That's the kind of joy he's talking about.

The reason for their joy is even more astonishing than the fact that they are joyful. They have FREEDOM (v4) and PEACE (v5). In the middle of all the difficulty and strife they're facing, and after God has warned them of invasions and attacks to come, freedom and peace were too much to even hope for. But that's exactly what is promised. The instruments of oppression – the yoke, the bar, the rod – will all be destroyed. They'll be free. And soldiers will be able to burn their uniforms. They won't need them any more - they'll be more use as fuel for the fire.

The darkness won't go on forever. God has a rescue plan sorted out. Darkness will turn to light. Their fear will turn to joy. Their oppression will turn to freedom. War will turn to peace.

But how?

God doesn't just promise a rescue here – he also gives them the Promise of a Rescuer to bring it about.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (v6-7)

I don't know about you, but that passage always reminds me of one of the classic pieces of Christmas music.

[Play clip of “When a Child is Born”]

That was, “When a Child is Born” by Johnny Mathis (sorry if you were expecting Handel’s Messiah). I wouldn't normally encourage you to learn your theology from Christmas pop songs, but this one has quite a lot going for it (more than some Christmas carols – Good King Who?!). Especially the bit he repeats over and over, “this comes to pass when a child is born.” That's exactly what Isaiah goes on to say. These incredible things, this incredible rescue. This comes to pass when a child is born.

This isn't the first time Isaiah's brought this up. Back in chapter 7 he mentioned a child called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us, and he would be a sign for everyone of God at work. But here he puts flesh on the bones and explains just who this child will be.

One thing we learn is that He'll be royalty. Do you see the names he's given in verse 6. One of them is Prince of Peace. “The Government will be on his shoulders” (v6). “He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom” (v7). Of the Increase of his government... there will be no end.”

But he will also be God.
Look again at the names the boy is given in verse 6. We've looked at Prince of Peace. But He's also called Mighty God. Some people try to play that down - “actually, it only means great hero.” But that's not the most obvious way of reading it. In chapter 10 of the same book, Isaiah uses the same phrase, Mighty God, to talk about God. Isaiah is saying quite simply that this boy will be God. The other names back it up - He's called Wonderful Counsellor (another phrase which Isaiah uses to talk about God).

And He's called Everlasting Father. That's a strange thing to say about a boy who hasn't even been born yet, isn't it? But it's a striking picture. This boy will be someone who will care for the people. But they won't have to grow up and learn to manage without him. He will be an Everlasting Father – he will always be there.

So Isaiah explains that the boy will be Royalty, and the he will be God. And he will be the one to bring joy and peace and freedom. Just look at what his rule will be like.

At this point, it seems as if the king, and the kingdom, is finished. Isaiah has been warning of an invasion, and he's facing attacks from all sides. It seems like too much to hope for. But the line of kings will continue, and when this child is born, he'll be king forever. And he'll be a good king, a great king, better than any they've ever had before. He'll establish the kingdom and up hold it “with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (v7). “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

So that's Isaiah's promise. Things look dismal. But there is hope. God's people will be rescued. They'll rejoice in their peace and freedom. And it will all happen when a child is born. A child who will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” A child who will be King, and who will be God, and who will bring the rescue that God has promised, ushering in a new era.

It all sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn't it. Who is this child, and what on earth does it have to do with us, 2000 years later and 6000 miles away?

Well, that brings me to my third point... The Rescuer Arrives

Turn with me to Luke chapter 2, verses 10-14 (you might want to keep a finger in Isaiah 9 too).

“But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah (or Christ), the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.'” (Luke 2v10-14)

Recognise anything familiar? The angel brings good news of great joy. Great joy because a baby has been born in the town of King David. Not just any baby, but a Saviour! The news of the birth prompts a choir of angels to sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

This is God's promise, through Isaiah, being fulfilled. Look in verse 11 - the angel calls him the Messiah, the Lord. He was the one the Jewish people were waiting for. They waited 700 years for the Christ. And here, with the birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, the Christ arrives.

At first glance, it looks like there must have been some kind of mistake. The baby is lying in a feeding trough, and the birth is announced to shepherds, who dangled from the lowest rung of society. If God were to come into the world, surely that isn't how it would happen?!
And you probably know what happens later. This boy grew up, and ended up living like a tramp. Then he allowed himself to be captured, beaten, abused and executed. If God were to come into the world, surely that isn't how it would happen?

The reason is that Jesus isn't the king they were expecting, but he IS the fulfillment of Isaiah's promise. He IS the rescuer promised by God. He DOES bring the rescue God promised. But the implications are infinitely wider, the scale is massively bigger than it first appears...

The promise was for more than just Ahaz and his people. It was for more than even the Jewish race. Look again at verse 10 of Luke chapter 2. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The promise is thrown open wide to anyone who will trust in Christ.

Through Isaiah, God promised peace. Christ brings peace, but not the kind of peace they were expecting. Ahaz and his people were guilty of rejecting God, but so are we. We've all turned our backs on him and ignored him. And that makes us his enemies. It's a strong way of putting it, but those are the terms the Bible uses.

We live in a world which is ravaged by war and hostility, and we can look around and think that what the kind of peace the world most needs is an end to war. But the kind of peace the world really needs is peace with God. All the war and unrest in the world is nothing compared to being at war with the one who made and sustains the universe.

Christ came into the world as our rescuer to make that peace possible. He died to pay for our rejection of God, and to put things right. Christ died, and now we can be forgiven by God. Instead of hostility, there can be peace between us. Once our relationship with God is sorted out, we're in the right position to start sorting our differences. Otherwise it's as much use as giving paracetamol to someone who needs a heart bypass – it might look hopeful, but ultimately it is useless.

Through Isaiah, God also promised freedom. Christ brings freedom, but, again, a different kind of freedom. Christ offers freedom from sin and death.

Ahaz would have been interested in freedom from his enemies. Although Judah held out for a few more years, it was eventually conquered and was ruled over by one empire after another. So the kind of freedom they were looking for was no doubt very real. And, again, as we look around our world we see many who desperately need freedom, whether it is from actual captivity, or from oppression or poverty.

But the Bible says we're all held captive by something far worse than politics or poverty. Our attitude towards God has left us in a mess. Now our natural state is to be turned away from God, and the consequence is death. There's nothing we can do about it. And it now seems so natural that we think death is the inevitable end to life - but it isn't supposed to be.

When Christ died, he dealt with the problem once and for all. But he dealt with the effects too. He dealt with the evil that grips the world, and it's ultimate conclusion, death. When Christ died, he didn't stay dead. Three days later he came back to life, and he's still alive. Now there is hope. A light has come on in the darkness. Christ brings the ultimate kind of freedom. And how can any of us who know that freedom possibly stand by and allow others to endure oppression and captivity. For Christians, our complete freedom should motivate us to fight for freedom for others.

And, of course, through Isaiah God promised joy. You've probably worked out what I'm going to say - Christ brings joy. But it is so much better than the joy of reaping a harvest or winning a battle. It's more than knowing that there is a chance for peace and that we're freed from sin and death. Through what Christ has done, we can experience the mind-boggling, heart-exploding joy of knowing God our creator! We can know him as we should – as our creator, as our Father. And it's so much better than any joy we might think we've had, because it will never fail or fade. It will last for all eternity!

This peace, this freedom, this joy all begin now if you trust Jesus with your life. But there is more to come. If we trust Christ, then we can look forward to a future where all of these these are complete. A future where every last trace of evil and hate and suffering are removed, and where will experience the joy of spending eternity with God. And then we'll really see what God was promising all those centuries ago.

2700 years ago, God made a promise to his people, through Isaiah and King Ahaz. He reminded them of his rescue plan. He told them they would know joy, and freedom and peace.

It turned out the promise was bigger and better than they probably could have imagined. And the same promise is open to each of us.

How? “This comes to pass when a child is born.” Tell your friends about this. They desperately need to know about it. And in a couple of weeks, don’t pack Christmas away with the Christmas tree and the tinsel. This is good news of great joy, for all the people!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Life Starts Here: TRUTH (...and where to find it)

After a long absence, here's a talk I gave recently at Reading University during Freshers week...

When I knew I had to speak on this subject, I wasn’t sure where to start, but I started thinking about why the truth is so important. It’s actually a fairly tricky question. Why is truth important? Do we need to even bother thinking about what’s true and what isn’t? So I texted the question answering service AQA. Has anyone used it before? Basically you can type in any question, from “what are the symptoms of swine flu?” to “can a boy swim fast than a shark?” So I texted with the question, “why is truth important?” They replied and said, “truth is important because society cannot function properly without it. All relationships rely on trust, and they cannot survive without it.”

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but that really got me thinking…

Our society is based on the idea that truth is important, isn’t it? At nearly every level, truth is really important. We all value trust in our relationships, don’t we? Truth is the basis of trust – we trust people because we know the truth about them, and we trust them to tell us the truth.

Our legal system is based on truth too, isn’t it? I got stopped and searched for drugs recently (which is a long story). I didn’t have any (!), but I was quite pleased that the policeman searching me was interested in the truth! Imagine if he’d ignored the truth and just decided I’d broken the law.

Without the assumption that truth is a good thing, communication wouldn’t just be difficult, it’d be pointless. And knowing the truth helps us to make the right decisions, whether it’s the truth about the mobile phone you’re thinking of buying, or the truth about the person you’re thinking of marrying. In small things or in big things, truth is important.

But what makes something true? Some of you might be philosophy students, and I guess you spend all day thinking about questions like this. I’m not, I trained as a scientist, so I decided to do some serious research… Wikipedia, obviously.
(Maybe slightly ironic that I should consult Wikipedia on the subject of ‘truth’…)

For a statement or an idea to be true, it has to be correspond to the way things really are. It has to fit with the real world. As you’d imagine, there’s a lot more to it, but I guess that makes sense, doesn’t it? So 2+2=4 because if I’ve got 2 things and I add 2 more things I really do have 4 things. You could say it’s true that I’m going bald by looking at the top of my head and you’d see there’s a lot of empty space. But truth isn’t just an abstract thing for the lecture theatre or library. You have to be able to live truth out. There’s a difference between thinking about whether something is true and actually experiencing it to be true. That will happen in the lab, but it happens in every aspect of life too. There’s a difference between knowing what happens if you leave a fork in the microwave and actually doing it…

Universities are all about this kind of truth, aren’t they. Surely the whole point of Universities is to seek answers and to find out truth about the world, whether it’s the truth about literary criticism or yoghurt? You’re here to study (sorry to break that to you) - hopefully you want to find something out about the subject you’re signed up for. Maybe some of you will even become experts in your subjects and make huge breakthroughs in the search for truth. (Some of you, maybe not…)

But University is also about real life, isn’t it? “Life Starts Here.” That will involve some mundane aspects of life. Eventually your clean clothes will run out, and you’ll need to find a washing machine. Eventually your loan cheque will run out (if it’s even arrived yet), and you’ll need to be creative as you stretch your budget. But it’s more than that. While you’re at University, you’ve got a great chance to ask big questions and make big decisions about real life. What’s life all about? Who are you? What’s important? Where are you headed? And University is possibly the best place and the best time in your life to start to answer those questions. So while you’re at University, make sure you find out the truth about life.

As you do that, I want to suggest to you one truth that you need to consider, because if it’s true then it’s the most important truth in the Universe, and it makes a difference to every one of us. This talk has been put on by the Christian Union, and they didn’t just invite me to ramble on about how lovely truth is for half an hour. As a Christian, I believe that the truth really isn’t just abstract ideas and hypotheses. I believe that the truth about real life is centred on a person, and because of that it is important for each one of us personally. The truth is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And he wasn’t shy about that – so much so that he actually claimed to be the truth.

I want to read you a couple of sentences from the Bible, from an account of Jesus’ life written by his friend John. You can go and have a look at it yourself if you want to – the section of the Bible is imaginatively called “John,” and this is from chapter 14.

“Jesus told him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14v6)

Just take a second to let that sink in – that’s pretty shocking to our politically correct ears, isn’t it? He’s claiming to be “the truth.” He’s claiming to be “the way” and “the life” too. But that’s not a way, a truth, and a life. He’s claiming to be the only way, the only truth and the only life. He follows it up with something even less PC (if that’s possible): “No-one can come to the Father except through me.”

That’s pretty exclusive, isn’t it? But let’s dig into what he’s actually claiming…?

Let’s start with His claim to be the truth, as that’s what we’re focussing on. It’s an arrogant-sounding claim, but what does he mean? Is he claiming to be able to have a new and interesting take on life? Is he claiming to be able to give us some special insight?

Well, yes he is, but it’s more than that. He’s claiming to be the truth about God. His follow-up statement about getting to the Father tells us what he’s getting at. But he’s not just claiming to know the truth or to be able to explain it, but to actually be the truth about God. And the reason he can claim that is because he’s God himself.

The whole of what John has to say about Jesus starts with that premise. Right at the beginning, John starts with the assertion that “the Word,” which is John’s nickname for Jesus, came from God, but also that he’s God himself. Jesus is God-made-human. And so when we look at Jesus we’re looking at the God of the whole Universe. Through the descriptions of Jesus in the Bible we can see what God is like, because we can see what Jesus is like.

If that’s true, then Jesus really can claim to be the truth, in a way which no-one else ever could. Lot’s of people claim to know something important about the truth, but anyone else is just offering there own personal take on what’s true. Jesus can claim to be the truth about God, because he personally reveals God to us. And that has all kinds of other knock-on effects for how we think about the world.

But Jesus makes two other claims, which are linked to his claim to be the truth. He claims to be the way. When he says that, he’s claiming to be the way to God. He’s specific about that. He isn’t just pointing the way. He isn’t just suggesting a philosophy to help people understand God better – he is the way to God.

But why do we even need a way to God? You might think, well, I’m doing OK without him thank you very much, so I don’t really need a way to get to God. But the Bible says that the consequences of being separated from God are severe.

We need a way to God because we’ve ruined things with him. We’ve rejected God, and we’re separated from him. Christians believe that God created the universe and everything in it, so he’s the only one in the Universe who deserves to be honoured and worshipped. But we’ve turned our backs on him. It’s the ultimate offence.

Imagine you meet the Queen, and instead of bowing as you should, you spit on her. There’d be outrage! You’d definitely make the papers. But she’s only the Queen. God is infinitely more important, and so the crime is infinitely worse. And it’s that ultimate crime which stands between us and God. It’s just not how the universe is supposed to run, and it’s damaged the whole of creation – we only have to look around at our damaged world to see the fracture lines. But it has serious consequences for each of us too – in committing the ultimate crime of rejecting God, we deserve the ultimate punishment. We deserve death.

That’s pretty bleak, so far. But Jesus did something surprising to change all that – he died. Just a few pages later, he’s killed. He’s abused and beaten, and then nailed to a wooden cross where he suffocates to death. But in dying, he paid for the offense we caused and opened up the way to God. The barrier that had separated us from God was removed, and the way is open.

Jesus can claim to be the way, because it’s through him, and through what he’s done, that we can get to God. And it’s why he can add the claim that “No-one comes to the Father, except through me.” If his claim is true, then this is arrogant – it’s a simple statement of fact. We’ve got no chance of coming to God unless our offence is dealt with by Jesus.

And Jesus claimed to be the life. He’s an expert on life and death, because he’s been there. We’ve already heard that he died. But so what? Lots of people have. Why should we believe that his death was any more special than anyone else’s?

In a few pages, Jesus is killed, by Roman experts in execution – he was properly dead for three days. But a couple of pages after that, he comes back to life. Death isn’t the end of the story. If it was, we could just go home and forget all about it. But the resurrection of Jesus forces us to take his claims seriously. It also has really important consequences for us. Death wasn’t the end for him, and so it doesn’t have to be the end for us either. Life Starts Here.

This is something else Jesus said about himself, from a little bit earlier on in the same book:

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3v16)

When Jesus talks about life and death, we should listen to him, because he’s been there. And linked into his claim to be the life is the offer of life to anyone who will believe in him.

If these claims Jesus makes about himself are true, then they change everything, and we can’t ignore them. If there’s even a possibility that he’s right, then you need to consider it - it’s too important to ignore. I believe it’s true – that’s why I spend my time telling people about him. The Christian Union believes it’s true – that’s why they put on events like this, to help you to explore the claims of Jesus for yourself. But this is more than just finding out that something is factually accurate. This is about what real life is all about. If Jesus’ claims about himself are true, then they change everything. And they affect you, personally.

In one way, the decision quite simple. Jesus won’t just fit nice and comfortably with other suggestions about how we can be close to God. He won’t just sit on the shelf as an option alongside a load of others. His claims are either true or not. And if they are true, then you can’t ignore them. I haven’t told you nearly enough for you to make the decision, but there are loads of ways to find out more about the claims of Jesus. One great one is to sign up to the Glad You Asked course the CU is running – it’s a great opportunity to think about some of these big questions, and also some of the questions Jesus asks of us (which is only fair).

One of the best ways to find out more is the take one of these Free booklets. It’s another account of Jesus’ life from the Bible, this time written by a guy called Mark. Take one of these, read it and really engage with the evidence for who Jesus is and the claims that he made about himself. If you have questions about it, or things you want to say about it, then talk to the Christian Union – they should be delighted to talk to you.

This is something you need to get to the bottom of, and as I said earlier, University is probably the best place in the world, and the best time in your life to do it. Life really does start here, and it’s a great place to find truth. But I’d also say that this is an even better place to find the truth, and Life Starts Here.

Friday, 22 May 2009

A Timely Reminder

On Sunday morning, I'm due to preach at Memorial Community Church, Plaistow. I'll be co-leading a UCCF Summer Team in July which will be working alongside the church, and on Sunday Abi and I will be introducing ourselves and the project (expect more blogging about that when I come back). It's a while since I've preached to a church, and I'm really looking forward to it (although my sermon is quite a long way from prepared).

So this was a really timely reminder. John Piper has probably done most to shape my thinking over the short time I've been preaching. His book The Supremacy of God in Preaching literally changed the way I think about the task forever. If you've never heard John describe what he means by preaching, then you should listen to this. And this sentence stuck out in particular, a really timely reminder as I stand before MCC on Sunday and dare to preach God's Word for them:

I standing vigilantly on the precipice of eternity speaking to people who this week could go over the edge whether they are ready to or not. I will be called to account for what I said there.

That's what I mean by preaching.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Eurovison is back!

It's nearly 3pm on Sunday afternoon, and I'm still buzzing from last night's Eurovision! I've always been a huge Eurovision fan, particularly since I've started getting to know people from some of the countries involved. It has to be said, the last few years have been a bit disappointing - the dodgy voting went from being amusing to annoying to insulting. In fact, the British entries followed a very similar pattern... But this year, I was left with the distinct feeling that Eurovision is back!

Last night wasn't about politics for once. Sure, the Balkans were all nice to each other, and Russia's neighbours were friendly in their voting. But last night was definitely about the music. Apparently we have Sir Terry to thank for inspiring a rule change, but either way it restored a bit of credibility to proceedings, and a bit of excitement to the voting.

OK, so we didn't win. But compared to last year's heart-breaking 14 point bottom spot, it felt like a win. Jade did us proud, and it was great to see national treasure Lord Andrew on stage (even though I had to explain who he was to some french guy). It didn't really matter, because europop was the real winner! I loved Norway's entry, and it rightly deserved to win (imho)!

I love Eurovision. I love that we're able to get 42 countries together for a night and have fun together. I love that I could watch the whole thing with a loud of random Europeans in Mojo's. And I love that for one night we can all celebrate cheesypop in such a Eurotastic way!

In case you missed it, here are my personal top 3...

Number 3: Germany

Number 2: United Kingdom (obv)

And number 1, the rightful winner, NORWAY!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Think Fresh 09 - Audio Now Available!

Think Fresh 09 was a training day for CU leaders in the South East to help them prepare for Freshers Week this September. We had a really good day getting practical tips for Freshers week, hearing from God's Word and worshipping Him together.

The three main talks were recorded, and are now available online:

Go To The Top
- Colossians 1v15-23, given by Dave Anthony
Doing a Great Freshers Week - by Michael Ots
Live Your Lives in Him - Colossians 2v6-15, given by me

Our aim was to be as prepared as we can be for Freshers week, but also to love Jesus more as we think about sharing the good news about him on our campuses. We hope these talks will help you to do that!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

"Live Your Lives in Him"

Here's the text of a talk on Colossians 2v6-15, which I gave today out our Think Fresh training day. There are quite a few references to a talk Dave Anthony gave in the morning, but if you read Colossians 1v15-23, you should be able to follow it.
(I'm taking a slight risk putting the talk on here - last time I mentioned circumcision it generated more discussion than I expected...)
We recorded the three main sessions, so hopefully the audio will follow at some point. [Update: Now they are!]

Earlier Dave explained that great passage from chapter 1 of Colossians. We got an awesome view of who Jesus is, and what he’s done. We saw that Jesus is Lord over all creation for all eternity. But we also saw that He’s the saviour of creation to. He made peace between us and God, taking away our sin and dealing with the offense we caused Him, so that we can be reconciled and welcomed back into God’s family. It’s mind-blowing stuff!

As he moves on in his letter to the Colossians, Paul takes things on from there. He takes the amazing, world-transforming, heart-stirring truth about Jesus and tells the Colossians that that will change everything about how they live. It’s even more important because of those false teachers we were hearing about earlier.

Back in chapter 1v9-12, Paul told the Colossians how he prays for them – just flick back and skim your eyes over it. He prays that knowing God better would lead them to live the right kind of life. And he says that will show itself in three things – growth, strength and joyful thanks, if they really grasping the good news about Jesus. Which is why he then goes straight into the passage we looked at earlier, which is all about Jesus.

The first couple of verses are like a plug socket, where he connects the truths we heard about earlier directly into the lives of the Colossians. Just like in his prayer, he makes the connection between who Jesus is and who they are. And he spends the rest of the letter unfolding the implications of that.

So that’s what we’re going to do now. We’re going to take the good news about Jesus which we heard earlier, and which we’ve been talking about all day, and hopefully try to really take hold of it so that it changes us. Don’t we want to be gripped by who Jesus is, so that it changes us? And don’t we want to be sharing the gospel in Freshers week, not because Motsy told us to, but because we’re gripped by the truth of the gospel in a real way? We want to know this truth, in our heads and in our hearts too…

Let me sketch you a map of where we’re going. Paul makes a very simple point –Live Your Lives in Him. We’ve already heard why that makes sense, but here Paul explains what he means by it, and he warns them about the alternative. Then he gives three MASSIVE reasons why they should stick with Jesus. So, if you like headings, there you go. The first big one is Live your lives in him, then three reasons why (I’ll tell you what they are when we get there).

Live Your Lives in Him (v6-8)

“Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him,” Paul says. He’s doing two things in that sentence. “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord,” means everything we saw in chapter 1. So he’s scooping up all those amazing truths about who Jesus is, and then he says, “continue to live your lives in him.” Keep going the same way. Remember the way you started off, the things you believed? Well live your lives in the same way. There isn’t one set of things which gets you in and another which keeps you going. They’re one and the same.

Do you ever get a bit bored when you have an evangelistic talk at CU? Do you think “I’ve heard this. Yeah, the cross is great, but this is a bit simple for me. It’s lovely that the non-Christians can hear it, but I’ve moved beyond the basics”? Do you ever think like that?

If you do, then listen to what Paul is saying because you’re in danger. The truth which you accept when you become a Christian is what you need to hold onto as you live as a Christian.

We can slip into thinking that the gospel is just for non-Christians. It’s what you have to accept to get you in, but you need something more sophisticated once you’re in. The truth is that the gospel isn’t just the door you have to walk through to get in – it should shape everything about how you live your life once you’re inside. It’s the foundations you stand on. It’s the roof over your head. It’s what the walls are made out of. It’s the windows you look through. It’s the food in your fridge and the bed you sleep on. Get the idea? Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.

But what does that look like? What does it mean to live your life in Jesus? It turns out it’s the three things he prayed for earlier - growth, strength and joyful thanks. This is what a life lived in the light of the good news about Jesus will look like…

1) Be “rooted and built up in him…” – the roots of a plant are basically its life-support system (I’ve got an allotment, so I know about these things). It’s how a plant gets the water and other stuff it needs to survive. In the same way, we need to be connected to Jesus if we’ve going to continue living in him. And (to mix the metaphor slightly, but it’s what Paul says so you can’t argue) it’s only in Jesus that we can be built up together, like bricks in a wall. Without him, the whole project will be a disaster.

2) Be “strengthened in the faith as you were taught” – this is what will happen if we’re rooted and built up in Jesus – we’ll be strengthened or established in our faith. “As you were taught is crucial for the Colossians here. Don’t listen to the other lot – hold on to the truth you got from us.

3) Be “overflowing with thankfulness” – it’s impossible to continue living in Jesus, to receive the benefits and blessings of being one of his people, and not be grateful. If you’re not grateful for what Jesus has done for you, then be worried. All the grace we’ve been shown should surely make us overflow with gratitude?!

The Alternative
There’s an obvious alternative to living your life in Jesus, isn’t there. The alternative is to live your life in something else. Try to find something else to make the centre of your life. And that’s what Paul warns against in verse 8.

The Colossians had other ideas to choose from. We heard this morning about the false teachers who were trying to lead the Colossians astray. We don’t really know exactly what they were teaching. But, from what Paul says here, there are 2 things we can be sure of: It was “hollow and deceptive”, and it wasn’t about Jesus. It was BAD NEWS.

The truth is, anything we try to base our lives on which isn’t Jesus is a “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world.”

It’s kind of like an Easter egg – you know the huge ones in massive boxes? When I was young and na├»ve, I always expected to break them open and for loads of sweets and chocolates to fall out. But they were always hollow and deceptive – just a thin chocolate shell and a couple of Kit Kats. On the outside it looks great, but when you crack it open, there’s nothing there. That’s how Paul sees these other choices the Colossians had (sort of). Hollow and deceptive. And the reason they’re hollow is because they aren’t based on Jesus – they’re based on human attempts to be clever and ‘elemental spiritual forces’ trying to deceive us. Instead of the Lord and Saviour of the entire Universe we saw in chapter 1, they’re based on imposters. So ‘hollow and deceptive’ is all they can ever be.

But it’s not just the Colossians who had other choices. Think about your friends or family who aren’t Christians - their lives are based on hollow and deceptive philosophies. Maybe it’s the philosophy which says, “be successful, make lots of money and live a comfortable life surrounded by cool stuff.” Or maybe the attitude which says, “you’re nothing if you’re a nobody. Be famous.” Maybe your friends are committed to the idea that no-one can say what’s true or false or right or wrong, and it’s unthinkable to claim to know one way or another. Or perhaps it’s just the idea that life has no meaning, so just make sure you have fun while you’re here. I’m sure you can think of a hundred more…

And if we take our eyes off Jesus, we’ll start to see their appeal too. After all, we want to fit into the culture around us, don’t we? So we pile stuff up. We make sure everyone knows how great we are. We get involved in relationships which aren’t honouring to God. And of course we make sure we’re not offending people by claiming to have any answers. Before you know it, you’ve been taken captive.

“Don’t do it!” Paul says. Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in Him!

3 Reasons to Stick with Jesus…
So Paul’s been explaining that we need to stick with Jesus and continue living our lives in him, and we need to beware of these hollow and deceptive philosophies which could lead us astray. To help make his point and, I think, to help the Colossians to actually do this, he reminds them of three reasons to stick with Jesus. Three realities that come with knowing Jesus. Here they are:

1) The fullness we have in Christ
2) The new life we have in Christ
3) The freedom we have in Christ

The fullness we have in Christ
We heard this this morning, didn’t we? “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (1v19). There’s a deliberate link here. This is the Jesus we’ve received as Lord. “In Christ, all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” Paul doesn’t say exactly what he means by fullness. But you can imagine it being what the false teachers were offering. “Follow us and you’ll have fullness.” I’m sure you know the kinds of things, because people say the same now. “7 steps to fullness.” “Worship like this and you’ll experience fullness.” “If you have this experience, you’ll experience fullness.” Always something new to experience, some new level to reach.

Think about your non-Christian friends again – where are they trying to find fullness? Exam success? Their prowess on the football field? Is it drink or drugs or sex? Maybe in a relationship, expecting someone else to make them full? Now think about yourself – where are you trying to find fullness? Is it in the same place?

We’re full in Christ! We don’t need to look somewhere else for fullness, because we already have it if we’re in Christ. He’s the one in whom all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form. The God who created the entire universe, including you, making himself known to us and making peace with us by his blood. And we can have a real, personal relationship with him - a relationship which brings us new-life and freedom (which we’ll think about in a second). Where else are we going to go?! Anyone else you could go to, any other authorities or powers, are all subject to him. As Dave said earlier – we’ve gone straight to the top!

And this is what we’re calling our friends into when we tell them about Jesus and invite them to follow him. Sometimes we can think that the invitation doesn’t really match up with what we have to back it up. We can think it’s like inviting our friends round for dinner and serving boring gruel. But the gospel is the 18 course banquet – it’s fullness! We’re calling them from black and white into full colour!

Where else are you going to go? Continue to live your life in him.

The new life we have in Christ

The next reality Paul moves on to is the new life we have in Christ. And it can only come from being united with Christ.

“In him you were also circumcised with circumcision not performed by human hands.” I’m a bit nervous, because I got into trouble last time I mentioned circumcision in a talk – long story. I’m guessing you know what it is... For Jewish men, circumcision was a mark of being a member of God’s people. But now things have changed (praise the Lord) – we undergo a different kind of circumcision performed on them – this one wasn’t done by human hands. And instead of removing a piece of skin, Jesus removes our sinful nature. But the cost of the operation was huge…

If we’ve trusted Jesus, as the Colossians had, then we died with him. Or, rather, our old, sinful self died with him, and baptism symbolises that. The good news is that we were raised with Christ too! But we’re raised to live a new kind of life, a different kind of life. His death becomes ours, and his new life becomes ours too. It’s a new life which will go on into eternity, but it starts now, as soon as you’re a Christian. So, if you’re a Christian, you’re old, sinful self is dead and buried, and you’re living this new life.

Is this how you think of your life as a Christian? Do you feel like you’re living a new life, or is it just more of the same? Does the fact you’ve been buried and raised with Jesus have any effect on your life?

This new life means we have new choices. We might still feel the influence of our sinful nature lingering around, but ultimately it’s dead. So we don’t just have to what it says - we can choose to live God’s way instead. Romans 8 is all about this: “You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you” (v9). Later on in chapter 3, Paul talks more about this – what it looks like to put off the sinful nature, and what to replace it with. He says it’s like taking off old, tatty clothes, and putting on new ones. They can choose to put on things like “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” But we can only take off our old clothes because Jesus has undone the buttons. Or, to go back to circumcision, he’s cut it off...

So if you’re a Christian, you have this new life. Are you living as though you do? Or are you clinging on to your minging old clothes? Are you clinging to attitudes or habits or maybe even relationships which are comfortable, but which don’t really fit with the new life we have in Christ? Do you do things or say things to fit in with other people at point where your new life in Christ should really be making you stand out? Or will the only thing which marks you out in Freshers week be a CU hoody?

This is never going to come from man-made philosophies. Jesus is the only one who can bring us this new life. So continue to live your life in him.

The freedom we have in Christ
I think the last two build up to this one. The third reality which should keep us living our lives in Jesus is the freedom we have in him.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.” We were cut off from God and as powerless to change things as dead bodies are. But in the middle of that hopeless, sorry mess, God reached in and made us alive with Christ.
Here’s the crux of what he means by that: “He forgave us all our sins.” Jesus death paid for our rejection of God completely. And it happened in two ways, which you can see in those last couple of verses…

First, he cancelled the “the charge of our legal indebtedness” or “the record of debt” which stood against us and condemned us. His death legally took care of our sin. Imagine your sin written down. In big capital letters: ENEMY OF GOD. That would be enough. But, underneath, every rebellious, sinful act or word or thought you’ve ever had. That’s the written charge which stood against you.

But God has taken it and nailed it to the cross. But not just yours – mine, and Nay’s, and Dave’s and Motsy’s and every Christian who has ever or will ever put their trust in Jesus. And as Jesus died, he paid the price we should have paid. He made peace with God, and the charge was cancelled. It was completely dealt with, and so the written record of our wrongs has been taken away. There’s no more legal case to be brought against us. We’re completely free, but only through Jesus’ death.

And there’s a second way Jesus dealt with sin. As he died, he disarmed the powers and authorities. He took the weapons out of the hands of the devil. Because our sin is dealt with, the devil can’t hold it over us. While our debt was unpaid, he could wave it in our face. God can’t love you, you’re not worth it. Someone like you doesn’t need God, you’re better off without him. But Jesus has disarmed the devil and all his helpers, so he can’t do it any more.

Do you feel guilty?

Guilt can paralyse Christians. We all mess up, we all fail, and we all fall short. And those mistakes can make us feel useless – useless to God and useless to other people. The enthusiasm and the edge me might have had fizzles away, and if we aren’t careful we just fade into being mediocre.

But we shouldn’t ever get to that point, because it’s not real. If you feel guilty, if this is you, then know that you have nothing to feel guilty about. Yeah, we have things to be sorry about, and we should never make light of sin. But it was all nailed to the cross and paid for by Jesus.
Don’t let guilt paralyse you and take you out of the running. When Satan tempts you to despair about your sin, remember Jesus and remember that he’s waving an empty gun in your face. He’s been disarmed!

We’re free! Because of Jesus we’re legally free, and we’re free from the taunts of the powers and authorities who would hold this over us. But it’s only because of Jesus! Despite what the world might say, you won’t find this freedom anywhere else. So continue living your life in him.

So there are three reasons, three realities which should keep us living our lives in him. In Christ we have fullness, we have new life and we have freedom. But it all goes back to who Jesus is, and what he’s done. He is the only one who can make these things a reality for us, and so going anywhere is ridiculous. And so “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue living your lives in him!”

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Matthew 4v12-23

This is a long post, but here's the text of the talk I gave at RUCU on Thursday. The passage was Matthew 4v12-23, part of a series looking at the encounters Jesus has with different people...

OK, we’re looking at this passage from Matthew 4. It’s part of a series this term looking at some of the encounters Jesus has with people, and how he interacts with them. Here, we’ve got the beginning of Jesus ministry – this is where he goes public with his message.

We’ve got two soundbites from Jesus. I have mixed feelings about soundbites. Apparently we live in a “soundbite generation” – we like to have news or politics or philosophy or whatever boiled down to a sentence or two. I bet you can think of loads off the top of your head. “I have a dream.” “We don’t do God.” “To boldly go where no-one has gone before.”

Soundbites don’t usually go well for me. As many of you know, I have a talent for saying things which get quoted badly. Apparently Surrey CU are compiling a list of incriminating quotes to give to Nay (my boss) if I step out of line…

But here we’ve got two great soundbites which capture some really important aspects of why Jesus came and what he had to say. There’s a general one, and then one to his followers.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”
We’re going to look at this passage in two chunks around each of these soundbites. If you like headings, the first section is “Repent,” the second is “Follow.”

Soundbite #1: REPENT

At the start of this passage we’re told that John the Baptist is in prison, and Jesus takes this as his cue to begin his public teaching ministry. But the first thing he does is move house!

Some of you will think this is a really boring details. Personally I developed a bit of an obsession with property programmes like “To Buy or Not to Buy” over the Easter holidays. But either way, this is one of the most important changes of address of all time!

If you look back over chapter 2, this isn’t the first time Jesus has moved house. Every time he does it’s significant, because it fulfils a promise God made about him. Now Jesus moves house to Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

This move fulfils another of God’s promises, and this one is MASSIVE! Matthew quotes a chunk of Isaiah chapter 9 (it’s a traditional Christmas passage). This is a huge promise through Isaiah, written 700 years earlier, that God would send someone who would bring joy, freedom and peace. That someone would be Wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. God himself stepping in to sort things out. And Matthew is declaring Jesus to be the great light – the Messiah has come! The wonderful counsellor is here. The wait is over, God’s promised one has arrived! It’s massive.

Jesus begins to preach. We’re given an overview of his message here. Not the whole thing – like I said, it’s a soundbite. (The next bit of preaching we get covers 3 chapters). But this is a summary; it’s the essential heartbeat of Jesus’ message.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Again, if we’d read Matthew from the beginning, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve heard this. Look at 3v2 - John was preaching the same thing. So is there any difference?
We need to look again at these Old Testament bits Matthew adds.
He called John, “one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
But when he talks about Jesus, he says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

John the Baptist was the messenger, the one sent ahead. He was saying repent and get ready because someone is coming – the wait is almost over.
But Jesus was the one they were waiting for! He is the light that has dawned.
So he’s saying: ‘Repent because I’m here, no more waiting, the kingdom of heaven is here!’

OK, now I think we need to tease out what repent actually means. It’s not a word we use very often, even amongst Christians. So what does it mean?

The way the Bible uses it, repent means turn back to God. So John the Baptist was calling people to turn back to God because God was about to do what he’d been promising all along.
Now Jesus is calling people to turn back to God, because God’s doing it.

So that’s what it means, but what does it look like? How does it work out in real life.
I think it’s really important that we see there are two parts to repentance, and both parts are critical.

Let me explain what I mean. To do that, we’re going to have to depart slightly from Matthew, but we’ll end up back here…

To understand properly how we turn back to God, we need to think a bit about how we’ve turned away from God. We need to think about the situation we’re in to begin with. Look with me at Jeremiah 2v13 (keep a finger in Matthew 4 though, because we’re coming back).

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

God’s people had turned away from Him. But as if that wasn’t bad enough, they turned to other things to fill the gap. It was like ignoring a stream of fresh, life-giving water which never runs out, in favour of a leaky hole in the ground which never holds enough water. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

It should be the easiest game of “Would You Rather” ever! But throughout the Bible, that’s what people do. People who’d known God’s goodness to them in real, undeniable ways. But at every opportunity, they turned away from him and put their trust in other things instead. Sometimes it was idols made of wood or metal. Sometimes they ran off to the governments of other countries and trusted them for help (which they never did). Time and again, God’s people turned away from him and turned towards idols – they worshipped and trusted other stuff.

It’s easy to think they were stupid for worshipping lumps of wood. But think about how your own life compares. You don’t have to think for very long to realise that this is exactly what we do too.

We’re designed to worship; we’re designed to worship God, the God who made everything and sustains everything, including us. When we reject and ignore God, we don’t just worship nothing. We do what we’re designed to do - we worship. We put something else in God’s place.

And this applies to people who aren’t Christians, but even worse it applies to people who are, people who should know better. We say God is number 1, but we so easily push him out of the way and put other things in his place.

They may well be things which are good on their own. But they will always be rubbish compared to him, and they will never satisfy us. They will always be like a leaky hole in the ground. The thing with a leaky cistern is that you go to it to be refreshed and to have your thirst quenched, but when you get there you just find dust. So you have to fill it with water before you can drink – you end up slaving away to fill it up. And that’s what happens with these stupid things we put in God’s place – we end up slaves to them.

There’s an easy way to found out what your God-replacement might be. What is it which makes your life worth living? Or what couldn’t you possibly live without? If I could take it away, life wouldn’t be worth living. It could be all kinds of things. Success. Money. Sex. Friends. Possessions. Anything which becomes more important than God.

So there are two parts to our rejection of God, our sin. Turning away from God but also the things we put in his place. So there have to be two parts to repentance, because it has to tackle both of these. It’s turning away from the things we’ve been worshipping, and turning to God.

If we just turn to God, then it’s impossible to worship God fully because we’re still giving other stuff top spot in our hearts. And God won’t just sit happily next to your boyfriend or your iPhone or your degree certificate. We need to stop worshipping ridiculous God-replacements.
But if we just concentrate on just turning away from stuff, then repentance becomes just a list of stuff you can’t do – who would want to do that? Repentance is about turning to the awesome God who made us and loves us!
We need both.

This is the heart of Jesus’ message for the world. “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near. The wait is over, the gates are wide open, so come on in. But leave your idols at the door!”

There’s one really obvious application from this. There’s one really obvious way we need to put this to work in our lives. Here it is:
“Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Do as he says!

Maybe you need to repent for the first time, if you’re here and you aren’t a Christian, or you aren’t sure. You need to turn around. You need to turn around from your life without God, worshipping other things that will never satisfy you, and turn back to the God who made you, and who loves you.

But you might be thinking, ‘how can God possibly accept me after I’ve ignored him.’ And you should. It means you’ve realised how serious the situation is – we’ve destroyed our relationship with God by ignoring him. The great news is Jesus has made it possible. Jesus didn’t just come bringing a message and dishing out demands. He can say this because he also brought the means for it to happen. He died to pay for our rejection of God, and for our detestable worship of stupid things. And so when we turn back to God, he will accept us with open arms, because Jesus has paid for the offence we’ve caused him. So turn around.

But as I said earlier, this is not just for people who aren’t Christians. Repentance isn’t just a one-off, once in a lifetime thing. It’s amazing how we can turn over our lives to God, but then so easily turn back to worshipping stupid replacement gods. Believe me, I know.
So repentance has to be an ongoing thing. We need to be constantly turning away from stupid imitations and back to God. And the great news is that there is always more grace. There is always more forgiveness, because of what Jesus has done. So repent.

And, of course, if what we’ve seen is true – that the kingdom of heaven has come near, that Jesus is the one God sent to sort everything out, if we have turned away from the God who made us, and if Jesus has made it possible to turn back, then we need to tell other people. We can’t keep this to ourselves!

But remember we’re calling people to repent because the kingdom of God has come near. An eternity with the almighty creator of the universe, who made us and loves us, is on offer. So yes, we call people to turn from their old ways, but it’s because we’re calling them to a new way which is infinitely better. Make sure you get the balance right!

Second soundbite: FOLLOW ME
Cut to Jesus out for a stroll by the lake. He meets a couple of fishermen, Andrew and Simon, about their business. Verse 19 records one sentence of their conversation: “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.” Again, I’m pretty sure this isn’t his entire sales pitch, but it’s the gist of what he said. And they immediately accept. They don’t say, ‘OK, just let me finish this.’ They drop the nets and go with him. Later on he meets two more, James and John. He makes the same offer and he gets the same response – they leave their dad with the boat, and off they go.

Jesus calls these guys to follow him - to go where he goes, to do what he does. But, in particular, he promises them that they’ll still be fishing. Only this time, they won’t be fishing for fish, they’ll be fishing for people. A lot about the process will be the same – they’ll go out to where the people are, and bring them in. Only this time they won’t be trapping people in a net and hauling them in. They’ll be proclaiming Jesus’ message about the kingdom of heaven being open and drawing them in. Instead of a trap, it’s a rescue!

In the last section we heard a summary of Jesus’ message to the world – Repent. Here, we’ve got Jesus’ call to those who would follow him – it’s a bit more personal, and a bit more specific. But the two commands, ‘repent’ and ‘follow me’ are linked (we’ll see how in a second).

On the face of it, this seems really simple. But what I want to do, just to finish, is to open up this one sentence a bit. And I want us to see three things about what it meant for these fishermen to follow Jesus, and what it will mean for us to follow Jesus. So here they are:

1) The call to follow Jesus is for everyone.

Jesus is putting together his crack team of followers who are going to go with him on his critical mission, calling people to repentance. Imagine you were putting this group together – who’d be in your J-Team? Surely you’d have the top people you could find. You’d have a few really clever people on their. Maybe some academics, or a few entrepreneurs. Maybe you’d want a few politicians or some celebrities as crowd pullers.

But that isn’t the logic Jesus used. These fishermen were ordinary blokes, they had ordinary jobs. They weren’t rich, they weren’t powerful, they weren’t well educated. And the rest of the group who join later aren’t much different – collaborators, doubters, rebels, even a traitor.

But this little group of followers is a mixed bag because the kingdom of heaven is a mixed bag. The call to follow Jesus is for everyone. But that isn’t because there are no standards. This is for everyone because it doesn’t depend on anything you or I have done. I said earlier that Jesus makes it possible for us to turn back to God, by paying for the offense we’ve caused Him. Because it’s about him, and not about you, then it doesn’t matter who you are, or what you’ve done. It doesn’t depend on your status or your upbringing. It doesn’t depend on your wealth, or your exam results. It depends totally on Jesus, who died to bring us back to God. So the call to follow Jesus is open to everyone, including you, right now.

2) The call to follow Jesus is a call to sacrifice.

When Jesus calls these guys to follow him, they leave their nets behind and go. But these guys weren’t out fishing for fun. This was their livelihood – it kept a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Following Jesus may well involve giving stuff up. Maybe it will involve putting off buying that new TV or car because Jesus wants you to follow him in how you use your money? Maybe it will mean breaking off a relationship which you know isn’t honouring to God, because following Jesus is more important? Maybe it will mean passing up a well paid job to serve God, maybe overseas?

Jesus calls us to follow him – to do what he does and go where he goes. And what did he do, where did he go? He went to the cross, to his death. He gave up not just his comfort, but his life for those who’ll trust him.

This won’t be an easy ride. It wasn’t for his original followers, and it won’t be for us. But they dropped their nets because they realised it was worth it – and they barely knew him at this point. Any sacrifice we have to make pales into insignificance compared to what he’s done for us. It’s completely worth it.

3) The call to follow Jesus is a call to speak for Jesus.

Jesus wasn’t just calling the fishermen to follow him so they could keep the kingdom of heaven to themselves and have a cosy life. He called them so they would call others. It was part of the deal right from the start – follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people. That was the whole point of them following him around – they got to know him and understand him and his message, so they could go out and preach it – while he was around, but also long after he returned to heaven.

The fact we’re sitting here in HUMSS JCR is part of the fruit of that. Someone told someone who told someone over and over for two thousand years, and now here we are.

And that’s what the CU is here for. The CU is a group of people who’ve responded to the “follow me” bit, and now we’re being sent out to fish for people. So this has another fairly simple outworking, and it’s the point I want to leave you with. Tell people! Tell people that the light has dawned. Tell people that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Tell them that they need to turn around and go back to the God who loves them. And, most importantly, tell them about the one who made it all possible. TELL THEM ABOUT JESUS!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Audio Coming Out of My Ears

The recordings of not one but two quality conferences are now available online:

The Gospel Coalition 09
(Top recommendation: Tim Keller on confronting idols.)

New Word Alive 09
(Top recommendation: Dan Strange on confronting idols. With rom-coms.)

One is free, one is not. Both are still excellent value though. This should keep me in stuff to listen to for about the next decade...

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Books I Like: The Jesus Storybook Bible

Here's a book I'm loving at the moment. OK, so it's probably never going to appear on the UCCF study programme, but Tim Keller did recommend it as a book for preachers at a conference a couple of years ago.

It's called the Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (emphasis more on Storybook and less on Bible). Sally Lloyd-Jones has taken lots of well known stories from the Bible, and a few lesser-known ones, and has written them in a child-friendly, colourful way. And some great illustrations make it really engaging. But she doesn't just retell the stories - in each story, right from the beginning of creation, she points to Jesus. Again and again, she shows how Jesus is at the heart of God's story from beginning to end. It's a heartwarming book, and I'm loving it. It's a refreshing way to look again at some familiar parts of the Bible, with the challenge of looking for Jesus in everything that happens. I love it and heartily recommend it, no matter how old you are!

Friday, 17 April 2009

New Word Alive Highlights

I've been meaning to write this for about a fortnight [edit - more like 3 weeks now], but thanks to one of the less-desirable souvenirs I brought back from Pwllheli (ie the worst cold I've ever had in my life), I haven't really felt up to blogging until now. But Word Alive was quality, so I thought I ought to mention my highlights. Lots of other people, like my friend Peter and my new (facebook) friend Krish, have aleady given their thoughts. Here are my highlights, in no particular order:

Dan Strange on Engaging with Culture I loved the way Dr Strange helped us to really see what is going on in the culture around us, and the idols people worship. I also felt affirmed in my love of pop culture! These seminars were also the source of one of my most hilarious moments at NWA - explaining "romantic comedy" to the couple sitting behind us...
"Oh, I see. So, like some of Ibsen's plays?"

Vaughan Roberts on 1 Corinthians 1-7
He was just brilliant, explaining some complicated bits clearly and warmly. The last two were the best, and his explanation of 1 Corinthians 7 was probably the best I've ever heard. I've definitely got lots to think about, and to put into practise, from these talks...

Chillaxing with the studes
It was great to spend time with some of my students, and some I'd never met before. Whether it was impromptu theological discussions late at night, or hanging on the beach, it was fun to be with them.

April Fools Shennanigans
I hate April Fools Day slightly more than I hate Comic Relief. And I'm not very good at it. Surrey CU well and truly made a fool of me by tricking me into believing someone was giving out free Vimto by the main marquee. It's a long story why they chose Vimto, but I stupidly asked them whether it was still of fizzy. Well done Surrey. I'm not sure whether Reading respect me too much, or if they just didn't think of it...

Question Time with Don Carson
I love this guy. Suffering from jetlag and having just spoken on the main stage, Don sat and answered questions on all kinds of topics. Personal favourites included predicting the outcome of a fight between certain evangelical heavyweights, and his recommendation of the TNIV Bible, which I've just started using.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

New Word Alive - Part 1

My contribution to the inevitable flurry of blog posts about this year's excellent New Word Alive conference will hopefully follow tomorrow. But until then, check out these quality videos made by some friends of mine... Not only are they brilliantly made, but they really helped to get us thinking as we looked at the Bible each evening.

And check out the unofficial "Making Of" video on JG's facebook page (you might need to add him as a friend first I guess...).

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Chill Out

Although I haven’t done the maths, these are probably my second and third most-used words at the moment.* As I support students in Christian Unions, I seem to say it a lot. But occasionally people misunderstand what I mean, to the extent that I might be getting a reputation as a liberal, or lazy, or both. So here’s what I mean.

This isn’t about just telling students to calm down a bit, although they sometimes need to. Think about what people usually mean when they say "chill out." They usually mean stop caring, abandon your responsibilities and think about yourself more. But that’s not how Christians should chill out (which is probably why I’ve been misunderstood before now).

No, this is about the gospel. It’s about the awesome, liberating truth that Jesus died in our place so we can be reconciled to the God we rejected. We rebelled against a God who is worthy of infinite glory and honour, and so we’ve committed the ultimate crime. And the ultimate crime deserves the ultimate punishment. So there is nothing we could possibly do to save ourselves. But the brilliant news is, God loves us so much that he has sorted it out. His own Son, the Lord Jesus, willingly dies in our place and took the punishment we deserve. We don’t have to do anything, because there’s nothing we can do! And now we can have a restored relationship with the God we rejected, we’re adopted into his family, and it’s a relationship we can enjoy for eternity.

When I tell a Christian to chill out, I’m saying take everything that means – our changed status, our changed relationship, our changed future – and live your life in the light of it. If we really grasp how the gospel changes reality for us, it will turn things upside down. And it will give us room to chill out.

So “chill out” doesn’t mean it’s OK to be lazy. But it means there’s nothing we can do to earn our forgiveness or work our way into God’s good books. So we don’t have to slave away as God’s servants; we can joyfully serve him as sons and daughters.

“Chill out” doesn’t mean stop reading the Bible or praying. But it means that, through God’s grace in Jesus, we can have a restored relationship with the God who made us. So reading God’s word and speaking to God should be an exciting, joyful prospect, not a chore.

“Chill out” doesn’t mean forget about doctrine. But it means that there is space for differences of opinion. There is room to be generous as we work through the issues that diverse brings up, because we have a solid truth to stand firm on as we do it.

“Chill out” doesn’t mean don’t bother with holiness. But it means that we are made holy and blameless through the death of Jesus on the cross – we need to trust in his obedience, not ours. And when we slip up, we can go back to him for forgiveness. There is always more grace.

“Chill out” doesn’t mean don’t bother with evangelism. But it means that salvation is a gracious gift from God. We can’t save ourselves, and we can’t save anyone else. So as we do our part in sharing the gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, we can trust God to do his part in rescuing people.

Got it yet? Basically, “chill out” doesn’t mean stop being so Christian. It means be more of one – make it all about Jesus and hold on to the gospel. He said himself, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” So you can chill out.

*NB: #1 is hopefully grace.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

I ♥ Surrey too...

Apparently I blog disproportionately more about RUCU than I do about Surrey CU. So I thought I'd add this slightly gratuitous post about them to keep them sweet.

I spent yesterday with the committee, talking about their aims for the coming year. Sadly that meant I had to miss Saturday Kitchen, but I think it was worth it. It was exciting to hear them think in a Christ-centred, gospel-focussed way about what they currently do and what they can change. And it was a real joy to see their desire to be united in the gospel.

There were some amusing moments. I'm still shoecked at the amount of delight a bag of Kinder eggs can generate. And I think I proved myself a force to be reckoned with in the banter stakes... Basically, I love these guys!*

[* For the record, I love my other CUs too, obv.]

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Never Let the Gospel Get Smaller!

I guess it's a bit cheeky nicking entire blog posts, but I LOVE this from John Piper. I think out of everything I've learned from the guy, this emphasis is probably the one which has affected me most, and it's one I try to get across to students whenever I can. Anyway, it's brilliant. Print it out and stick in on your fridge!

Here is a simple exhortation that I have been trying to implement in our family:

Seek to see and feel the gospel as bigger as years go by rather than smaller.

Our temptation is to think that the gospel is for beginners and then we go on to greater things. But the real challenge is to see the gospel as the greatest thing—and getting greater all the time.

The Gospel gets bigger when, in your heart,

* grace gets bigger;
* Christ gets greater;
* his death gets more wonderful;
* his resurrection gets more astonishing;
* the work of the Spirit gets mightier;
* the power of the gospel gets more pervasive;
* its global extent gets wider;
* your own sin gets uglier;
* the devil gets more evil;
* the gospel's roots in eternity go deeper;
* its connections with everything in the Bible and in the world get stronger;
* and the magnitude of its celebration in eternity gets louder.

So keep this in mind: Never let the gospel get smaller in your heart.

Pray that it won’t. Read solid books on it. Sing about it. Tell someone about it who is ignorant or unsure about it.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel.... For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Lost Month

OK, so the blog has been on something of a hiatus for the past month. Basically, it's been crazy. Missions, training weekends, more missions... So much has happened that I can't write it all down. But it's been quality, so I thought I'd give you some highlights:

RUCU Events Week (a.k.a. Marquee, Mark and the Funky Bunch!)
You heard about day one. Things carried on pretty well for the week. We had lots of people to lunch bars each day, and we refined the soup-making method so that by Friday, it was quite nice. And we had some really good evening events too (like the curry night, pictured left, where Will interviews Olympic silver medallist and Christian Debbie Flood!) And, most importantly, lots of people got to hear about Jesus during the week! One person decided to follow Jesus during the week, and lots more are looking at Mark's gospel to find out more.

RUCU Small Group Leaders' Training Weekend
I had a great weekend with the small group leaders from RUCU at their weekend away. It was a real privilege to be able to kick of the weekend with a reminder of just how great the good news of Jesus is, and the riches of his grace. And I loved spending time helping them think through how to prepare Bible studies. My aim was to get them excited about being able to study the Bible, and to aim to get their small groups excited too.

Highlight:The Amazing Magical Bible Colouring Book Trick and waking up the chaps with some choice S Club classics. And some pretty spectacular banter too. I love these guys.

Surrey CU FREE Week
Within hours of returning from the weekend away, it was off to Surrey for their FREE week. I have to admit, my expectations were blown out of the water on this one! I arrived at the lunchbar to find a packed out lecture theatre, with about 30 non-Christians present. Attendance stayed at 70-80 all week, and at one lunchbar there were nearly 50 non-Christians there! Al MacInnes did a great job of presenting the gospel clearly at each event, and lots of people came back each day. On the Tuesday I took part in the Grill-a-Christian - not the funnest Tuesday I ever had, but it definitely forced me to rely on God's grace! Lots of people heard the gospel message during the week, and lots of people are studying Mark with friends or going along to Alpha! The whole week was a real challenge to my attitude, and it was also a LOT of fun.

Highlight: Introducing Hot Vimto to Surrey CU, and Wednesday's epic lunch!

South East New Leaders Weekend
This is probably my favourite weekend of the year so far! How could it not be? We basically got together a whole load of CU leaders from the wonderful South East region, mixed in our lovely UCCF team and other invited friends, had some great teaching from Michael and Rosemary Green, and had lots of fun too. I led seminars on being an administrator (possibly one of the coolest spiritual gifts if you ask me, or any of the people in my seminar!) and on being Motivated by Grace - good times!
Highlight: Also, Midnight Badminton accompanied by a soundtrack of showtunes and Disney songs...

'Favourite' Quote (courtesy of Becky): You remind me of humour... Humour Simpson.

Eastbourne Mission Week
And I spent 3 days last week down in Eastbourne helping with their mission week. One highlight was the 5-a-side football tournament, where 50 lads sat and listened to the testimonies of two guys in CU. Another was Pirate Adventure Golf with Ben and Nick. Technically, Nick won, but the hole-in-one I scored meant I won the moral victory!
On the Friday night I spoke on the cross from Mark 15. I'd prepared a pretty full-on talk, thinking it would be in a room in the Union. In the end, it was moved to the bar (the bar lady didn't look too pleased when I started describing crucifixion in detail...). One guy looked uncomfortable all the way through, but I kept going. I thought he was desperate to leave, but after the talk he chatted to two of his friends in the CU, and then went for a walk to think about it all. So if praying's your thing, then do be praying for him, and for the copies of Mark's gospel that were given out.

So, that was the month that was. To be honest, I still can't quite believe I have this job!