Friday, May 28, 2021

On a hillside 25) B5 Connecting the dots


Jesus' point hits hard. The man whose impossible debt is forgiven failed to connect the dots. He had been spectacularly forgiven.  In deep deep trouble something that was astoundingly good had happened to him. And yet when he meets this other man who is in his trouble with him it makes no difference to his behaviour. This is a story for people who don’t connect the dots between saying to God: ‘thank you for giving me Jesus, for loving me so much that on the cross he died to give me eternal life for this spectacular good thing that has changed my life….and how I behave with the people I’m with right now – family, friends, neighbours. Everything that they have done wrong against me is so small in comparison.  Jesus is saying: Something really BIG and wonderful has happened to you when you meet me.  God’s thrown out his mercy like you would never believe…so you throw out mercy too.  No longer should we say: Why should I care? Because God cares so much for me.  And that should make you and me the most grateful merciful forgiving people.

Looking back I realize those people I have known in my ministry who did not believe they could ever be forgiven by God are those who most show this. This man was sent to me by a friend because he was in a terrible mess, he poured out a life of ruin and damage to others as well as himself andin tears he said: 'Can God forgive me'?  It didn’t seem possible to him.  And in the miracle of giving his life to Jesus and asking him to be Lord and Saviour he became an unstoppable force of mercy giving.   It challenged us as a church. Because it wasn’t just his personal life that now viewed every need as a challenge.  And it did.  The Cambridge News ran a story trying to track down the taxi driver who had seen a man collapsed on the street, had bundled him in the car and taken him up to A and E.  Sat with him.  After treatment had taken him home.  All out of the goodness of his heart.  Well, of course it was Jack.  And he involved us!  He became passionate about orphanage children in Romania and took pictures of these children. In tears he called us to action. To send out medical supplies and food and so much else……and exhaustingly insisted we show mercy.  Not just one year….but the next year. Thousands of needs cry out but the forgiven heart that knows the goodness of God just pushes on.  Merciful people are truly happy people because they know the forgiveness of the king and they pass it on.

Monday, May 24, 2021

On a hillside 24) B5 Two men

In Matt. 18:21-35 it seems that Peter has been hurt by his brother. He asks Jesus how many times he should forgive him. (Is this his brother Andrew? Because family is where some of the deepest hurts occur). But, of course it could be anyone close. Peter suggests 7 times is enough.  But Jesus answers - not 7 times but 77 times. By definition, you cannot keep count of mercy.  You have to keep going.  The cycle has to be broken because through Jesus all the hurts against God have been forgiven.  Where there is no mercy we have to break the chain with love.  Countless times. Why should I be the one who has to keep showing mercy?  Why should I care?

Two school boys grew up to have completely different lives. One, a born leader and money-maker, an entrepreneur whose inventive mind was always seeming to come up with hugely popular ideas made millions, lived in style.  The other failed at everything he did and lived on the borderline. A really sad story of things not working out well. Obviously, they lived in different worlds but the poor man was so desperate at a particularly needy time that he threw himself on his friend’s mercy and asked for a small loan about 250 pounds.  'I’ll pay it back', he promised.

One day the wealthy man received a brown enveloped marked Private: HMRC Inside were several sheets of paper and he couldn’t believe his eyes. It said that he had been subject to a searching audit and that he now owed 3,243,765 and 3 pence.  In panic he visited the tax inspector and found it was true. He was in deep trouble. Living to the maximum he would have to lose everything to pay the debt and even that wouldn’t cover it. He appealed to a tribunal.  Please please give me a chance to pay off the debt.  Please be patient with me. And to his utter amazement the tribunal had mercy and more than he could ever have expected it cancelled the debt. Social media buzzed.  Tictoc went frantic.

Back home he bumped into the school friend who still hadn’t paid back a penny.  The forgiven man should have been in the best of moods, but he turned, and actually grabbed and shook this poor man.  Dropping to his knees the poor man pleaded Please, please give a chance to pay off the debt. Please be patient with me.  But the other man refused.  It wasn’t long before social media picked this story up…and people were livid.  Victimization they called it. Vicious, cold hearted mean small mindedness.  The story went viral.  The tribunal was reconvened. We canceled your debt because you begged us. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on this man as we had on you.  Your debt is reinstated which meant immediate imprisonment because he had forfeited the freedom he had received.  He would remain there until all of the debt was paid.

That is another way of telling Matt. 18: 21-35.  Oh exaggeration you say. Well, I admit the idea of the tax authority letting you off a big debt does stretch imagination but Jesus deliberately chose figures to stun us. 10,000 talents was millions sterling. The annual taxes of all the province of Palestine only amounted to less than 1000 talents. Herod’s revenue was only 900 talents.  The other debt was a few pounds. The first debt was impossible to pay. Quite impossible. The man may fall on his knees. Be patient with me. Have mercy.  It couldn’t happen. The second debt quite possible to pay but it is rejected.   There's a point Jesus is making!........

Saturday, May 22, 2021

On a hillside 23) B5 Mercy love


I need to catch up with an earlier Beatitude: Happy are the merciful for they will be shown mercy. Because mercy is a sure sign that God is at work. Mercy is another great Bible word. God word. Psalm 136 has the refrain over and over again (26 times). His mercy endures for ever. The NIV translates it love. It’s a boundlessly wonderful word of unconditionally outgoing love.  Practical, mercy love.  And it’s wide ranging. 

It’s mercy love to people in need. It’s Good Samaritan mercy. The Good Samaritan story is reckoned to be the best known story Jesus told.  Everybody who hears it wants to believe that if they saw someone in need by the roadside they would stop, take pity, and offer help. But the truth is that it is too easy to make excuses. I mentioned Stan earlier. Someone I got to know with a matter of fact approach to life even when he was dying of cancer. 'No big deal' he said to me.  His view of giving to charity was equally blunt. 'I never give money away.  People on the street only waste it on booze, drugs. You know those big charities…I don’t trust any of them. How can you be sure that anything you give will not be swallowed up in their own expenses?  Why should I with my hard earned cash and my own family needs to meet be bothered?  And there’s so much need, too many causes. Why should I bother.  Why should I care?' And that big question WHY is even sharper when we see. 

Mercy love also applies to people who hurt us.  There won’t be anyone reading this who hasn’t been hurt by what someone else has done or said. It is very easy to be hurt by other people. Sometimes the hurts are so deep we feel they have ruined everything. Hurts begin young. Children can be hurt by parents, and parents by children. Employers, employees, friends, marriage partners, pastors,  It comes with the territory of living in a world where there is so much hurt. And shamefully we know that we can hurt others, sometimes unintentionally, and often we had no idea how deep the wound would go.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

On a hillside 22) B6 The best part


The heart is where Jesus does his primary work.  Instead of a negative outflow there is a gloriously POSITIVE outcome.  The tragedy of the Pharisees is that they were face to face with the one person through whom there can be inward birth, heart renewal.  All the hopes of David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel about new hearts are met in Jesus. Through him alone, on the Cross, can we be forgiven, cleansed and a new a right spirit put within us. Only when Jesus lives within me can I begin to taste his purity for he says: Whoever believes in me, streams of life-giving water will pour out form his heart.  Jesus said this about the Spirit (John 7:38).  The Christian revolution begins inside and works outwardly. 

I love contemporary stories of God at work, but there are also great stories in Christian history, one of which is Augustine’s. In his confessions he tells us how he was in the garden wracked with sin. With immense sorrow he cried out for forgiveness: 'How long O Lord will you be angry with me?' And from next door the voice of a child chanted: 'Take up and read. Take up and read  Take up and read'.  He wondered what kind of play this was. It seemed so odd. Then he realized it might be God and he took the Bible opened it and read where his eyes fell: 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus and make no provisions for the flesh. No further would I read; nor needed I; For instantly, at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away'.  Later he was to write: To my God a heart of flame, to my fellow man a heart of love, to myself a heart of steel.

Jesus by his spirit works in our hearts outwardly.  The inner me drives the outer me. The two belong together.  If I am serious about God in my thoughts and emotions then it will show.  And that’s what makes me uncomfortable when I remember in the past how serious my outward behaviour was. I don't think the commitments like marking Sunday as God’s special day or total abstention were hypocritical though they could lead to judgementalism. But looking back I think it sometimes majored on minor things.  Why was total abstinence such a big deal?  Why was wearing a tie to church important?!.  John Stott once accused evangelicals of micro-ethics, of being bothered about small issues when the world was in need of mission, social action, and justice. Of course it was a different culture back then. We are more relaxed about everything today.  But if my heart is a flame to God I know it should show outwardly. I don’t ever want to appear casual about God.  What God means inside should show on the outside.  That’s why this is a tough beatitude.  Blessed are the pure in heart means a seriousness of commitment to God inside that shows on the outside.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

On a hillside 21) B6 Beware hypocrisy


They hadn’t got a clue how Jesus would respond. They’d have never have criticized him so openly. And we see Jesus as rarely we see him: With what tone of voice he quotes at them their revered prophet. Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain.  Hypocrites. Self-righteous hypocrites. And he goes further. He charges them with avoiding caring for parents -a key commandment - by a loophole called 'Corban' which designates money to God and avoids helping parents.  Focusing on the outward can get it so wrong. 

Their outward seriousness about God has completely missed the inner self.  That’s what makes it hypocrital!.  They showed an outward cleanliness without clean hearts. His judgment is that their hearts are far from God. Jesus summons the crowd and says: Listen to me What matters is the INSIDE.  He's so emphatic. Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him.  Rather it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.   

I guess the Pharisees shuffle off, rebuked and angry.  Jesus goes into a house where his  disciples show they don’t really understand him.  Are you so dull?  They’ve been brought up in a world of strong religious rules. Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean. For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach and then out of his body. But what comes out of a man is what makes him unclean.   I’M TALKING ABOUT THE HEART.  Of course the Bible uses the word heart not in the biological sense but as the deep inner self – the centre of our emotions, drives, choices. We like to think that human choice takes place logically in our minds, but the truth is that choices emerge from deep longings over which we have far less control than we would with.  The heart is the HQ of my personality.  And Jesus says: The heart is where God starts and continues his work. That’s why David pleads: Create in me a pure heart. It’s the inside that counts, The heart can be far from God. 

From the heart come powerful negatives as well as positives.  Here Jesus mentions the negativesFor from within, out of men’s hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside.   (Mark 7 20-23).  Notice how the list includes arrogance and stupidity....majoring on issues of no importance.  

As a young person I remember being told an odd story about the camel’s nose in the tent.  I wonder if this story was ever told you.  You are comfortable warm in your tent when the camel puts its nose under the flap.  But it’s not taking up much space and a little bit of camel is all right. You hardly notice that its head is inside and more and more of its neck. It’s gradual and there’s still room and a leg, another leg, and then the HUMP . To your horror its right in the tent and you can’t move.  It's taken over. 

But we must come to the positives which matter most.


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

On a hillside 20) B6 A misfiring gotcha.

What tragedy and embarrassment.  Make no mistake they knew Scripture. David’s plea: Create in me a pure heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me Ps 51:10. Isaiah: These people honour me with their lips but their heart is far from me. Isa. 29.  But tragically they do not accept Jesus. And part of the problem was they thought he was too casual about God.  And in this visit their opinion is confirmed. Right in front of their eyes, the disciples eat food with ‘unclean’ hands.  It doesn’t mean they hadn’t washed them, but they hadn’t done it properly for God. which involved first letting water run one way, and then the other, with a kneading of one hand over the other.  May be old Peter has just dipped his hands in water and rubbed them on his cloak. And it tells us in brackets washing extends to cups, pitchers and kettles.  To say nothing of foods to abstain from, people like Samaritans to avoid, and Sabbath laws to be obeyed.  

And this is the embarrassing bit.  They are so sure they have got it right about what pleases God that they criticize Jesus;. Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean hands?’  It’s a gotcha moment. They have caught out Jesus.  Here are religious people who self-righteously, and smugly, see what these disciples are doing wrong.  But in fact it’s a gotcha the other way round! They hadn’t got a clue how Jesus would respond. or they would have never have opened the subject up.

And we see Jesus as rarely we see him: Jesus quotes at them their revered prophet. Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain.  Hypocrites. Self-righteous hypocrites. And he goes further. He charges them with avoiding caring for parents which is a key commandment they slide out of by this loophole which enabled children to avoid helping parents.  

Their outward seriousness about God has completely missed the inner self.  That’s what makes it so hypocrital.  They put all this emphasis on outward cleanliness without clean hearts. His judgment is that their hearts are far from God. Jesus summons the crowd and says: Listen to me What matters is the INSIDE.   Jesus is emphatic. Nothing outside a person can make them unclean by going into them.  Rather it is what comes out of a person that makes them unclean.   

 But his disciples don't understand....

Sunday, May 2, 2021

On a Hillside 19) B6 Outward seriousness

 It's been pointed out how unhelpfully jumbled up my Beatitude posts are.  This is mostly because the sequence was broken into by choosing two for preaching around Easter.  To tidy things up I have given each posting so far a code: B1, B2 etc.  Today, I am preaching on B6 Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God..

The worship leader began the service this morning by declaring what a demanding beatitude this is.  How serious it is to speak about 'seeing' God.  The opening song underlined its gravity: Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus. We know such 'seeing' is of different quality. As a similar song based on Eph. 1:18 puts it: Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord.  It is a deeper heart engagement with God.

Many Scriptures could accompany this beatitude but I chose the story of the Pharisees coming to Jesus in Mark 7:1-23.  No one can doubt that the Pharisees were serious about God.  Every detail daily living mattered in pleasing God and much of it involved OUTWARD SERIOUSNESS.  That's how the story begins.  I gave a brief personal case study of being brought up in a loving Baptist family where outward seriousness also mattered.  For example, Sunday was God's special day on which no work was to be done. Even when my A levels began the next day!  Honour God and he will honour you, my Dad said (rather like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire refusing to run on Sunday!)  Not that there was much spare time with worship services in the morning and evening, Sunday School in the afternoon (attended through my teens) and the Youth Fellowship after the evening service.  And what commitment was expected. As a church member I was given a series of cards with my name on them to put into the Communion plate to show my attendance. Oh, there was so much else too.  There was to be no Casual Christianity only Committed Christianity!   Now, I want to return to this experience when we have looked further into the Scripture story.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were in some respects good people.  They are honoured in the story of Judaism because their witness held fast during turbulent times. They believed in prayer, in synagogue worship (which they greatly developed) and in contemporizing the law.  Unlike the Sadducees they believed the Torah should be interpreted through generations by the tradition of the elders. They truly wanted to be serious with God in every little part of life.  This encounter with Jesus, however, is both embarrassing and tragic.