Church at Home – 9th August 2020 – 1 Peter 2:11-12

We continue in our journey through 1 Peter this morning. This was circular letter that the apostle Peter wrote to be passed around to the congregations of the church in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, all places in the Roman province called Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey.

There are two big themes in this letter. Peter introduces these themes in the opening verses, and these are the themes of identity and persecution. Peter has been telling these Christians who they are. They’re God’s elect exiles, according to the very first verse of the letter. He tells them in the next verse that they “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood”. Peter goes on to write about the living hope that they have because of Jesus and his resurrection. He reminds them of the inheritance they have: eternal life, something this world cannot take away from them.

This is all about identity. Christians have been made into something new by God. We are different. In the verses preceding today’s text – I preached on them last week – Peter shows us that we are a temple and priests. We are a temple, a dwelling place for God himself. God makes himself present in this world through us who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and working through us. We are priests, we know God and make him known to the world.

This is huge stuff! It’s not that we are some people with an outlook or philosophy or hobby. We have a sacred identity graciously given to us by God. We are different.

Peter’s letter can be seen as a sort of guidebook for foreigners in a hostile world. We are the foreigners. The church is a colony of heaven here in this world. Because of the identity and calling that we have as Christians we will encounter opposition and even persecution from the world. That’s the other big theme: the suffering or the struggle that Christians have in this world as we strive to be loyal to our heavenly identity and calling. Peter was writing to people who were being persecuted by their neighbours. These Christians used to be pagans like them, but now they have changed, and they live differently.

So, this is a letter about Christian identity and the struggles that Christians will face as they live out this identity in this world. Although we are different we have a mission from God to make him known in this world. We can’t isolate ourselves in a Christian bubble. We are foreigners, but we’re not like a closed off isolated community, neither are we like tourists. We are more like ambassadors. Although we are different, we still live in this world with a mission from God to make him known.

Peter urges his readers:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

(1 Peter 2:11-12, NIV)

Part of the struggle that we face as we live in this world is the internal struggle against sinful desires. We are surrounded by temptation to conform to the ways of this world. To hate. To lie. To lust. To be selfish, or greedy, or proud. These things are presented as not only permissible, but normal. The truth is that these desires, however common they might be, are waging war against your souls. We can’t take this lightly. The world pressures us to conform, to be “normal”, to fit in, but the church must remain different. We can’t be this alternative community that we’re called to be if there’s nothing alternative about us. Jesus called his disciples the light of the world and the salt of the earth:

‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

 ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

(Matthew 5:13-16, NIV)

If a light is not any different than the darkness is it really light anymore? Is it any use at all? If salt loses its saltiness, what good is it? If so-called Christians are indistinguishable from non-Christians, then are they truly Christians? If the church is no different from the world then how can it be the church?

Peter says that these Christians are to live such good lives that even their accusers will end up glorifying God (v. 12), echoing what Jesus said in Matthew 5:16. The idea is that the people living in darkness will see our light and come out of the darkness and into the light. We are a missional community and being missional does not always mean standing up and preaching or going door-to-door to talk about Jesus (although it does mean that sometimes). The most powerful evidence that you can give for the truth of what you claim to believe is to live a good and faithful life. To be good even when it costs you – especially when it costs you. Talk is cheap. Let the world see that you believe by living accordingly

To be a Christian is to be different. The church is not of this world. And yet, we are still in this world. That brings with is struggle, but also responsibility. There is a struggle to maintain our distinctiveness in the face of temptation to conform and persecution. Our responsibility is be a holy presence here in this broken world as an act of love for even the people who might hate us. We love them by showing them a different way to live. A good way of life. A life of grace and holiness.

I have my passport here. I’m not going anywhere but this passage got me thinking about what it’s like to be in a foreign country and to be a foreigner. When you go abroad on a trip sometimes, you’ll be asked what the purpose of your stay in that country is. We are here in this world as foreigners. We belong to another world. We belong to heaven. What is the purpose of our trip here? To glorify God with the lives we live. To be like light in the darkness. To be different in good ways.

Let us all hear today Peter’s urging to maintain our distinctiveness, to be the foreigners that God has made us to be. Abstain from sinful desires and, even in the face of persecution, to live such good lives that we glorify God.

Pray

Lord God we pray that you would help us to serve the people of this world by being light and salt, by being faithful to our calling to be different. Help us to abstain from sinful desire and to live good and faithful lives.

We pray for the people of Beirut in the aftermath of that dreadful explosion. We pray for healing for the injured. We pray for comfort for the mourning. We pray for shelter and help for those who are displaced. We pray for the hospitals, help them to manage this disaster. We pray that aid would come to Beirut to help the people there.

We pray for our country as we are currently experiencing a sharp rise in cases of COVID-19. Help us to contain the spread of the virus. Help those who are infected to recover. Be with all those who are grieving the illness or the death of a loved-one. Protect us all Lord and help us to be safe.

We pray for the people in our lives who need help. We take a moment of silence to pray for them now.

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home – 2nd August 2020 – 1 Peter 2:4-10

Please click here to read today’s passage of Scripture.

Lego and toys like that seem to never go out of style. I played with them when I was growing up and now my son plays with them. No matter how technologically advanced things get, no matter how many fancy toys we have, it seems that children will always love to just sit on the floor and build something. They will make buildings, animals, machines. They’ll construct towns or make little imaginative plays for themselves. When Timothy makes something out of his Duplo or Lego bricks, he will hold it up and declare to Sarah and me what it is and enthusiastically show us what it can do, what it’s for. 

Peter says something remarkable about the church again in this passage. This letter opened with Peter telling Christians that they were chosen by God the Father, made holy by God the Holy Spirit, and sprinkled with the atoning, cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, God the Son. We have been made into something new by God. Here in today’s passage we learn more about what we are and what our purpose is. 

We’ve learned that something new has been made of us. In fact, God is making something new of us. Peter says that as we come to “the living Stone” we “are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (v. 5). Verse 9 says “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” You have been called out of darkness and into God’s wonderful light. Verse 10: “you are the people of God” and recipients of his mercy. 

When Peter writes that these Christians are being built into a “spiritual house” he’s referencing the temple. Paul also called the church a temple. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:16: 

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives among you? 

(1 Corinthians 3:16, NIV) 

The two big concepts that sum up what Peter is saying about the church here are temple and priesthood and to fully understand the gravity of what Peter is saying to these people we need to understand what is meant by these two words. I don’t have time this morning to cover this in great depth but, biblically speaking, what is a temple? What is a priest? 

The temple in Jerusalem was a unique building. This place was where heaven and earth intersected. There were purifying rituals, sacrifices, curtains, and barriers to keep sin out and keep this unique place holy so that a holy God could dwell in the midst of sinful humanity here in this broken world. It was where God’s presence touched down here in this world so he could dwell amongst his people in this one place. 

The priests were descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother the first high priest. Again, this was very much about the presence of God. The priests went into the temple to stand before the Lord, to be in his presence and then to go out from the presence of God and pronounce his blessings on the people. 

All of this changed with Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross that was the ultimate sacrifice to atone for the sins of God’s people. Sin would no longer stand between us and God. No need for barriers or sacrifices anymore. When Jesus died the great curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). In Christ there is nothing to separate us from the presence of God.  

At Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven, as Peter and the other disciples were waiting in a room in Jerusalem the Holy Spirit came and filled the house and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. 

What does that all mean? It means there is no longer any need for a special building to be in God’s presence. God is present himself in each Christian. God the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Not a special building somewhere in the world, but in you and me. It means that we are the temple. We are the place where God is present. We are where heaven and earth intersect. 

It means that no matter where you are God is present with you, within you. It means that our church buildings are not “God’s house”, we are God’s house. It means that if we cannot come to the meeting house on Sunday then we still can come into God’s presence wherever we are. 

Christians are the temple of God. We are priests too. We stand in God’s presence and represent God to the world, we pronounce his blessings, we declare the good news. 

Peter supports what he’s written with references to Old Testament prophecy. He quotes Isaiah and Psalm 118. Jesus is the stone that God put in Zion, the stone that this new temple would be built on. He was rejected by the religious authorities, handed over to be crucified. But he is precious to God and to us who believe. 

Jesus is the foundation of our faith. You cannot have Christianity without Christ. That might seem obvious, but it’s very easy for people to get distracted and lose their way. The church is not about buildings, it’s not about tradition, it’s not about community, it’s not living a morally upright life, it’s not about culture. The church is about Jesus Christ, or it is simply not the church. Jesus Christ is our cornerstone, or we are simply not the house of God. Those other things are good, and they have their place, but they are not the cornerstone, they are not what we are built on. 

Jesus causes many people to stumble, they reject him. That was the case back at the time Peter wrote this letter. People could accept religion, but when it comes to following a crucified messiah that was just too much for them. The cross of Christ offended them. It’s still offensive today. People want Jesus the wise man, Jesus the guru, Jesus the teacher. But Jesus the Saviour they reject by trying to save themselves. The cross confronts us with our own sin and need of salvation. It shows us that we were in so much trouble that the Son of God needed to sacrifice himself to atone for our sins. This offends people.  

It comes down to Jesus. Will we accept him for who he is, who he claimed to be? Those who can accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour have been called, as Peter says in verse 9, out of darkness and into the wonderful light of God. We are the people of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, a holy priesthood. Each individual Christian is a little intersection of heaven and earth. 

This passage has no imperatives. It doesn’t tell us to do anything. But what it does do is make it clear what Christians are and what defines us. What is the cornerstone of your faith? How you answer that question will let you know what you are. What do you think of Jesus Christ? Do you accept him as your Lord, your Saviour, your cornerstone? Will you? 

Page Break 

Pray 

Lord God help us to come to you, to be in your presence. Help us during these times of separation and isolation, to still work together as the church, the temple of God, no matter where we are. Help us to pray for one another, to look out for one another, to encourage one another. Help us to be priests, to declare your blessings to the world. Help us to declare your praises. 

We pray for the ongoing work in this country and around the world to fight against the spread of COVID-19 and to fight against the virus itself. 

We pray for the church that you would help us to remain faithful In difficult times. Help us to know you are near and to see the light at the end of this darkness. 

We pray for struggling businesses and for all who are anxious as this country faces into another recession. 

We pray for the people that we know who are undergoing struggle or hardship now. We pray that you would give them hope, comfort and strength. We pray that we as your people might be able to minister to them in some way. 

We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. 

Amen. 

Sing

Church at Home – 26th July 2020 – 1 Peter 2:1-3

Hello everyone, thanks for joining me again. Let’s continue through our series on 1 Peter. Today we’re looking at just three verses: 1 Peter 2:1-3, but it’s important that we take some time to just focus on what these three verses have to say.

We encounter that key word ‘therefore’ again at the beginning of this passage. It connects up what has already been said with what is about to be said. So far in this letter Peter has told these Christians what hey are. They are not what the world says they are. They are not what their own fears and doubts say they are. They have an identity that has been given to them by God. They have been chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ the Son. This is the solid foundation of their reality. They are who and what God has made them to be. They have the hope that God himself has given them. Jesus is alive. He is risen. He lives and reigns and that means that his sacrificial death on the cross to atone for the sins of his people worked. Jesus is who he claimed to be and we can trust all that he has told us. This is the truth of their reality. A living hope no matter how dark things may seem. A treasure than no persecution or earthly hardship can take away from them, not even death.

Then last week we had our first ‘therefore’ in chapter one verse 13. Therefore, because of the God-given identity that they have and the God-given living hope that they have, they must be who they are. They are holy so they must live holy lives. They have a living hope, so they must not dwell in their hardships, but be hopeful. The must be who they are. A God-given identity and a God-given hope, that’s their new reality and they must live in that reality and not in the empty ways of this world. Because they have been changed.

So now, in this second ‘therefore’ we see how this must be played out in the lives of each individual believer. What should we do because of this new identity, hope and calling? What should I do?

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
(1 Peter 2:1-3, NIV)

There are things that we must stop, and there are things that we must do. Not in order to be saved, but because we have been saved. Not in order to achieve a new identity, not to make something of ourselves, but because God has given us a new identity, he has made something of us. Not so that we can attain a new hope, but because we have a living hope. And these are the ways that this new identity and hope shows itself in us. If we truly are chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, cleansed by the blood of the Son, we will be different. We will stop doing some things. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m not saying that it will happen over night or that there won’t be ups and downs in this journey. Don’t be surprised if there are seasons in your life when you just keep stumbling and falling into sin, but someone who has been changed by God will, over time, exhibit the fruit of that transformation in their lives.

We must rid ourselves of malice, wickedness, ill will. This has no place in a Christian’s heart and if you want to live the Christian life then it must go. You must rid yourself of it. Root it out like an invasive weed whenever you spot it sprouting in you.

We must do the same for deceit. If we are to grow and help each other to grow, then we must be real with each other. We must be honest. Not trying to trick, fool, or manipulate anyone. Hypocrisy is a form of deceit. The word ‘hypocrite’ means play-actor. It originally referred to actors in ancient Greece who would put on different masks as they performed different roles.

Are you wearing a mask? Pretending to be something you’re not? Now I’m not talking about people who sometimes feel like impostors because they are failing to live up to expectations, because things have not been ideal. A hypocrite is not someone who tries and fails, or feels like a failure sometimes, that’s just a normal person. A hypocrite is someone who’s not even trying, they’re just acting because they want others to treat them a certain way. Just wearing the mask. Pretending to be pious or loving when they don’t really care.

We must get be continually ridding ourselves of envy or jealousy. We must not let our desires cause us to resent one another. Envy or jealousy is a type or rivalry and it has no place in the family of God. We must get rid of slander. It’s the product of rivalry and hatred and it’s the fuel for more rivalry and hatred. We can get stuck in a downward spiral of rivalry, animosity, speaking ill of others and then the hatred grows and grows and there is no community, there is no love.

Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. These are things we need to put off, weeds we need to pull up and throw away. They have no place in the life of the church or the individual Christian. So, what then do we need to take up? If those things were weeds that we need to get rid of, what are the flowers we need to cultivate?

The worldly tendency here is to think that we have some great work to do to reform our character. We have our work cut out for us, time to roll up our sleeves, knuckle down, and work hard to become better people. But what does Peter say?

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
(1 Peter 1:2-3, NIV)

The illustration Peter gives us is not some image of industriousness. It’s not the self-made man that we are to imitate, but the newborn baby. I’ve got one at home and let me tell you if she has one passion in life right now, one thing that she will absolutely let you know that she loves and needs and wants, it is milk.

What’s the milk in this analogy? Peter says, “now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (v. 3). These people heard the gospel and in doing so they had a taste of the goodness of God. What they are called to do now – what we are all called to do – to grow is to crave God himself with the intensity of a hungry newborn baby looking for a feed.

Growth as a Christian is found not in the taking up of many different activities, not even good works or religious practices, but hungering after God and pursuing with all your intensity God himself. These other things will fall into place, don’t let them be the main thing you crave. Crave God himself. He gives the growth. Let God himself be your passion. Draw near to God and enjoy his goodness as he makes you grow.

How do you work up a craving for God? We can forget how good something is and we lose our craving for it. We can tell something’s not right, but we don’t know what exactly. We need to be reminded of that good thing that we miss and how good it is. Peter says that these Christians have already tasted that the Lord is good. He’s reminding them of that taste that they had. He’s reminding them of the gospel that was preached to them. If you are not craving God, but you know things aren’t right. You’re not growing. You’ve lost your desire for God. Remind yourself of that taste of God’s goodness you’ve already had, maybe long ago. Remind yourself of the gospel.

Though we were sinners, Christ died for us, to redeem us. We have been chosen by the Father. We have been made holy by the Spirit. We have been cleansed of all our sins by the blood of the Son. We have been given a living hope because Christ who died rose again and lives and reigns forever. Our saviour and our Lord. God’s goodness and love is that great. Though I am a sinner, I have been made a son and heir of God Almighty and nothing in this world can take that away.

Pray

Lord God today we want to pray especially for the weary. This year has been a bad year for many people. It has been a year of suffering. A year of illness. A year of mourning. A year of fear and anxiety. A year of loneliness and separation from loved ones. A year of financial hardship and uncertainty. This is a year when we long to return to the simple joys of being amongst other people. Still the hard times seem to continue. We get tired of waiting to return to what we miss. We wonder when these strange days will end and we can breath again. Help us all to hope. Help us to believe that after darkness comes light, after weeping comes rejoicing.

Help us all to continue to show love and compassion to one another. Help us to be careful, for the sake of one another. Help us to remain hopeful. Lord, send your comfort, your strength, and your rescue.

In Jesus’ name we pray.

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home – 19th of July 2020 – 1 Peter 1:13-25

Good morning! Thanks for joining me again today as we continue through 1 Peter. This morning we’re hearing from 1 Peter 1:13-25. Let’s read it together now.

Please click here to read 1 Peter 1:13-25.

Verse 13 begins with “Therefore”. Whenever you come across that word ‘therefore’ in the Bible – or really in any piece of literature that you’re trying to understand, but it’s especially important in the Bible – let that word stand out to you. Don’t just breeze past it. Don’t skim it. Take notice of it. What is that word doing? It’s taking the things that have already been said and showing us the consequences

So, what has already been said? Remember when we started this letter. We looked at just the opening two verses and those two verses said something huge. Peter showed these Christians who they are. He reminded them that they are have been chosen by the Father, they have been made holy – set apart – by the work of God the Holy Spirit and atoned for by the blood of Jesus Christ. That’s who they are. Their neighbours might abuse them, slander them, ridicule them, but this is the truth of their identity. They might be feeling like failures and misfits and like they don’t really matter, but this is who they truly are. Chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, cleansed by the Son. That’s the truth of who they are, and us too. You need to know who you are.

So that’s how Peter opens this letter: by telling them who they are. Not what they should do, or what they should be, but who and what they are already. Then Peter tells them about the hope that they have. He’s not talking about the hope that they should have, or the hope that they should aspire to, but the hope that they have. Last week’s sermon covered this. Verses 3 to 12. Peter tells them that they have a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A living hope because Jesus is alive. They have an inheritance, Peter says, that can never perish. No matter what this world throws at them they have this hope because of what God has done.

None of this relies on them being good enough or having the right attitudes. Christians are what they are because of what God has done. Christians have the hope that they have because of what God has already done.

Therefore, because of this God-given identity that they have, because of this God-given hope that they have, here is how they should respond:

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.

(1 Peter 1:13, NIV)

What Peter’s talking about here is the mental discipline of not dwelling in your present hardships in but looking forward to the grace of God that is surely coming. Yes, be aware of your hardships, don’t ignore them or dismiss them. Pray about them, grieve over them, lament, but don’t dwell in them. Remember that these things are not the end of your story. You’ve already been shown the end of your story. It is grace and glory. It’s the glorious completion of God’s work in us. We can’t forget how this story ends.

Peter tells them in the following verses to put away their old, evil ways and live out their new life, being holy like God their Father is holy. They are to live in “reverent fear”, it says in verse 17, not terrified, but having a deep respect and awe for the holy God who they call Father, knowing that he judges fairly and has set them free at a great price – the blood of Christ.

Peter emphasises that the faith and hope these people have for their salvation isn’t in anything fallible but in God Himself, it was God who raised Christ from the dead and it is God who has redeemed them through his suffering. The hope they have is rock solid and cannot be done away with no matter what they may suffer.

Then Peter encourages them to love one another. Christians must love one another. Christians are born again to a new life through faith in Christ, having heard the gospel, the imperishable word of God. We are united by the word of God and the saving blood of Christ into one family with God Almighty as our Father. This family is united by something stronger and more permanent than anything on earth. People say blood is thicker than water, but when you’re united by God then that is an even stronger bond. The church is a family, one that works together to love each other and help each other to grow in their walk with God. 

Do you feel that way about your church? If not, then why not? We are a family, if something is wrong maybe you can help fix it, get involved, love, share, grow and help others to grow.

You have been given new life, the thing with life is that you have to live it. Embrace your new identity in Christ – ‘you’ singular, as a child of God; and ‘you’ plural, as a family brought together by Christ’s blood shed for you.

Maybe you’re wondering something. The opening of this letter is all about what a wonderful thing God has done. We have this new identity because of what God has done. We have this living hope because of what God has done. And now Peter is telling us the things that we must do. He’s telling us to set our hope and to be holy. Why tell people who have been made holy, to be holy? Why tell those who have a living hope to be hopeful?

I want you to imagine a prison. Someone walks into this prison, a visitor. He speaks to the prisoners about how they should get out more, enjoy the fresh air. He talks to them about travelling and how they should see the world and broaden their minds. He challenges them to spend more time with their families.

That would be cruel wouldn’t it? He’s telling them to do something that they cannot do. They’re either going to react with hatred for him for his cruelty, or they’re going to feel guilty about not being able to do these good things that he’s telling them they should do, or they’ll spend their lives trying and failing again and again at living up to this impossible standard.

People think that the Bible is like that. They think it’s a book of rules, Do this. Don’t do that. Impossibly high standards that provoke guilt or hatred. And they would be right if the Bible was just instructions, but it’s not.

The Bible gives us the indicatives before it gives us the imperatives. It tells us who and what we are before it tells us how we ought to live.

What Peter is doing here is encouraging his reader to be who they are. Be who you are. Be who God has already made you to be.

Imagine a prison again. Only it’s no longer a working prison. There’s no guards, no gates, no locks, no doors, no bars. It’s completely open and you can just walk out. But people are still there acting as if they’re locked up, sitting in their cells with the doors wide open. What Peter is doing here is like someone going into that prison and telling those people, “You are free! So, be free!”

“You are holy! So, be holy!”

“You have a living hope! So be hopeful!”

You have been set free from futile and evil ways that only lead to death. You’ve been freed by the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you. So be free! Free from the chains of sin! Free from futile ways. So be free!

That’s what this is about: be who you are. Be who God has made you to be.

Pray

Lord God, we thank you that we can worship you today, whether that’s at home or in a meeting house. We pray that you would keep us safe as we continue to weather the storm of this virus.

We pray today for those who mourn the loss of loved ones. We pray for those who are sick We pray for those who are taking care of others. Lord, bring your peace, your comfort, and your healing.

We pray for those who are stressed out and filled with anxiety. We pray for those who are depressed and feeling isolated. Lord God would you lift them up and hold them. Give them strength to push on towards better days.

We pray for those trying to keep their businesses afloat during these difficult times and those who fear losing their jobs. Help them. Help us to keep going.

We pray also for help and strength for those for whom life was already hard before any of this began and now find it unbearable.

We pray that things would improve soon. We pray for the death of this virus. We pray for vaccines and treatments and new ways of doing things that will stamp this disease out in our community.

We pray all this in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home – 12th of July 2020 – 1 Peter 1:3-12

Read

Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

Good morning everyone, thank you for joining me again. As you know, we’ve temporarily asked that people only attend services in the meeting house where they are a member of the congregation. Even with this restriction in place we still can’t fit everyone in. So, I am continuing to put these messages and some other resources online.

Last week we began this series on 1 Peter and covered just the first two verses. But these verses are important. Peter in just those two verses, reminded the people he was writing to – a selection of churches scattered around what is now modern-day Turkey – who they are and what a remarkable thing has already happened to them to make them Christians. They were chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Sprit, cleansed by the blood of Jesus, the Son, to live lives of obedience to God. If a person is a Christian, it’s not just one of those things, it’s not ordinary, it is the result of the extraordinary work of all three persons of the Holy Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Today, we’ll be continuing in the first chapter and looking at verses three to 12. In these verses Peter reminds these Christians that because of this extraordinary thing God has done, and is doing in them, they have new life.  

Let’s read 1 Peter 1:3-12 now.

In verse three Peter talks about the new birth that God the Father has given Christians. A fresh start and a new identity. Imagine starting again with God, your old sins, your regrets and mistakes washed away, a new identity given to you, all is forgiven. You can start over, but not just to repeat the same mistakes again, you are born again and empowered by God’s Spirit to live out your new identity, to become what you were always destined to be. Not only does God call you to be a new person, he makes you a new person, a person who knows the joy of walking with their God, of experiencing life as it was meant to be. 

Christians have a real, living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is for us the proof of what God is doing in us and what he will bring to completion, he will make all things new, giving them real life, setting things right. Proof that death is not the end, that God has a better plan. 

The hope that Christians have is not in some ideology or philosophy that someone came up with long ago. It is a hope which comes, as Peter writes at the end of verse 3, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” 

Our hope is grounded in in a real historical event that happened in this world. When the Apostles like Peter went out to spread the Good News about Jesus, they preached about something that had just happened. People didn’t like what they were saying. They persecuted them, but they wouldn’t shut up, they beat them, but they wouldn’t shut up, they killed them, but the message carried on and spread around the world. Christ died to rescue sinners and he is risen, he is alive

Nothing can tarnish this new hope or inheritance Christians have as a result of their faith in Christ, nothing can take away their identity as children of God, nothing can take away this blessing, it is kept safe for them in heaven. Even if those who persecute the church should do their worst and kill them they cannot destroy their inheritance and in the end the Christians will be brought fourth again in glory when God makes all things new. This amazing gift from God came for free from a God who didn’t owe us anything but punishment for our sins. And that’s why Peter begins verse 3 with praise: 

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  

(1 Peter 1:3a, NIV) 

This gift is all from God’s mercy and grace, we didn’t earn it and we don’t have to pay for it, we couldn’t ever earn it or afford it anyway. If you are a Christian, rejoice in the hope that God has given you, be encouraged that it is safe and that your hope is not in something vague but in a real event that happened and that you follow a living Saviour. If you are not a Christian the invitation is there, to know God, to trust in what Jesus did and follow him, to be set free by the amazing love of God to be born again as the person you were always meant to be, to know true life, true love, true hope, true peace, true joy… even in the midst of trials 

These Christians are suffering for their faith. Peter compares these trials to gold being tested in a furnace. When Christians go through trials, when we suffer even lightly because of our faith – because we want to honour God and live this new life – that faith grows. Your faith is proven true and becomes stronger and purer when you cling to it in the face of trials. Gold is refined in a furnace, you don’t get stronger or fitter by lying on the couch all day, and it is just like that with faith. Your faith grows in the hard times. Nobody was ever pampered into being strong. Even gold will perish but your faith secures for you an eternal salvation and results in praise and glory and honour for God and for you. 
 
These people know what is truly important – knowing God and the salvation Christ has won for them – they have been liberated from the slavery of sin and the punishment of death and they know that nobody can take that blessing away from them. Therefore, they rejoice even though they are grieved by various trials. Peter calls their joy “inexpressible and glorious” in verse 8 – this is a righteous joy; they are celebrating what is truly worth celebrating. These Christians have their priorities right when it comes to hope and joy. 

What is your hope and joy in? Our priorities can often get shuffled around by all the distractions of this world, so we should all ask ourselves “Do I have my priorities right?” Are you miserable and stressed out about lesser things while forgetting the things that are most important? 

This is a short letter but Peter paints some very vivid pictures for us in the next few verses (verses 10 to 12). Peter writes of the Old Testament prophets who prophesied about the coming Messiah, his suffering and the glory that would follow. These prophets spoke of the grace that was to come to these people saved by the Messiah. These prophets were so captivated by what had been revealed to them about this work of God that they longed and searched intently to find out the details. Christians can look back at the cross and see more details than the prophets knew, they can tell more of the wonderful story of what God has done, a story that involves us personally. 

Even angels, Peter says in verse 12, long to look into these things. Think about that for a moment. Angels long to see what God has done and is doing in you. Angels can see and behold God, his beauty unhidden, they worship him constantly, and yet what has happened and is happening and will happen to you, because of Jesus, has captured their attention so much! The word translated “long” here, used to described the angel’s longing to look into salvation, that word means “desire” and it is even sometimes translated “lust”, although the word in itself has neither good nor bad connotations. Picture that, angels craning their necks desiring to see the details of salvation, longing to see what God is doing with Christians, with you. This is because our gracious and merciful God is glorified by what he is doing in us. The transformation that takes place in a Christian is glorifying to God. It’s an understatement to say that this is a big deal! 

All who know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour have been given new life, a new relationship with God as their Father and a new and sure hope. That’s what we need in times of suffering: not just wishful thinking, but a sure hope. Something solid. In Christ we have that solid ground. An unshakable refuge in uncertain times. 

Jesus said it himself. John 10:27-30 

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” 

(John 10:27-30, NIV) 

No matter what happens you are Christ’s. He lives and reigns and because of what Jesus has done you have new life and an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. If you belong to Christ, then nothing in this world can take you out of his hand. 

This was true of Peter, it was true of the Christians that he was writing to as they endured their trials, and it is true for us today. 

Pray

Lord as we are separated from each other today, some at home and some sitting far apart in a church building, we pray for a spiritual unity and a great sense of our fellowship with one another in Christ. We thank you that no matter where we are, we can worship you. We can read your word. We can pray to you, and we know that you are always with us.

Help us all to be as careful as we can be out of love for one another. Protect us from infection and keep us in good health. We pray for those who are especially vulnerable that you would relive their anxiety with the knowledge of your love and faithfulness to them

We pray for those working to fight against COVID-19 in hospitals and care homes and labs all over the country and the world. Protect them and bless their work. We pray for protection for those who are made vulnerable by their jobs.

We pray for an end to this pandemic, for powerful treatments, vaccinations and wisdom to reduce the spread and effectiveness of the Coronavirus.

We pray that in times of stress and uncertainty, people would seek assurance in you.

In Jesus’ name we pray.

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home – 5th of July 2020 – 1 Peter 1:1-2

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Good morning everyone! Thank you for joining me for another Sunday morning of Church at Home! Today I want to begin a new series on the letter 1 Peter. We’ll only be covering the first two verses of this letter today, but they are a very important two verses, as I hope you’ll see.

Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

Today I want us to take a look at the overlooked. The things that don’t get much attention. When we think of New Testament letters and their impact we deservedly think of Paul’s letters. They are fascinating, brilliant. They explain so much of what Christ has accomplished for his people and what we are in this world. But as we focus on Paul and his letters, we can neglect the other letter writers of the New Testament. Peter often becomes overshadowed by Paul and we forget what a treasure Peter’s letters are too. 

When we think of the New Testament letters, we can also overlook an important part of those letters. The beginning. The opening verses of the letters usually follow some standard format and so we can often skim over them, taking them as any old “dear sir or madam”. But great thought was put into these verses, and more importantly, they are the word of God. So, I want today to look at just the two verses at the beginning of 1 Peter. 

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, 

To God’s elect, exiles, scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: 

Grace and peace be yours in abundance. 

(1 Peter 1:1-2, NIV)

Here one of the first church leaders, Peter one of the original twelve apostles, who had learned at the Master’s feet, who had been among Jesus’ very closest companions and friends even among the apostles, writes this circular letter to be passed around to a selection of churches in what is modern-day Turkey. Peter writes to encourage these Christians in the face of persecution and suffering, reminding them what a blessing they have and what a wonderful thing God is doing. These are a people who are feeling the cost of discipleship. They are exiles in this world. They are scattered about in a hostile land. Peter writes to remind them who they and who they belong to. 

This is a people out of step with the world they are living in. They are a not like the rest of the people where they live. The live in a world of false gods and idols. Although the early Christians were said to out-live, out-love and out-laugh their non-Christian neighbours there was friction. The Christians did not join in with the pagan festivals around them, they did not have idols, they did not make sacrifices, they did not visit the pagan shrines, they did not get drunk. So, the Christians were persecuted for their faith and the ways that that faith made a difference in their lives. 

And here they are. Scattered and different. That makes them feel isolated. Isolation can be a terrible thing. It’s gets wearisome. We’ve experienced a different kind of isolation these past few months because of COVID-19. We’ve had to isolate from each other. We’ve had to keep our distance. Even now, look at us. Some of us sitting far apart in a church building. No handshakes. No hugs. No huddling up for a chat. I can’t come down and interact with the children. Some of us at home waiting to return. Isolation is hard. Theirs was a different kind of isolation, but the feelings of stress and loneliness and “Why am I doing this anyway? Can’t things just be normal!” must have crept into their thoughts too. 

Aside from the pandemic, modern-day Christians still feel the same isolation that was around in the early church. Maybe not to such a great extent. We have the freedom to worship openly. We have a history in this place. But still, following Jesus will make you different and being different all the time, being the odd one out, can make things extremely hard and very lonely. There is a pressure to conform. To just get on with being normal and stop being awkward. 

Peter writes this letter to tell them what exactly it is that makes them different and what that means for their lives. He writes to give them courage and hope during their isolation and the persecution they experience. 

Peter calls them “God’s elect”. They were chosen by God. That’s what makes them different. 

Peter goes into greater detail: they are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. This isn’t an accident. The Father knows what he’s doing, and he chose them. They have not been overlooked or forgotten. They were chosen by the Father long ago and everything is going according to his plan. 

They were chosen through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God is who gives Christians life and makes us different. He transforms us. He makes us holy. He sets us apart. They are feeling the cost of being different, but Peter reminds them that this difference in them is the work of God. 

They were sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. Cleansed and purified by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Their sins atoned for.  

These people aren’t just a bunch of lonely sufferers, a collection of misfits and outsiders, picked on and bullied. These people are God’s elect, his chosen people,  and if they are different now it is because God has chosen them and made them different.  

Peter shows how the whole Trinity has been involved in making them into the new people they have become and are becoming. They were chosen according to foreknowledge of the Father, they are sanctified by the work of the Spirit and brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, cleansed and purified by the sprinkling of his blood, by his sacrifice. 

Knowing who and what you are is important. We’ve all heard of the story of the ugly duckling, right? He doesn’t look like his friends. He’s different. They call him ugly. They bully him. And it makes this poor little guy very sad. You know the end of the story. He grows up and discovers that he was never a duckling at all. He’s a swan. Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if he knew that when he was little? When the ducklings picked on the way he looked he could have just gone “Well, yeah of course I look different from you, I’m a swan and you’re ducks. I’m not supposed to look like you.” I think that would have made him feel a lot better about being different. 

Peter is telling these Christians why they are different. They’re not ugly ducklings. They’re not ducklings at all. Christians are chosen by God and made different by God. When the world makes you feel like the odd one out, and it will if you are committed to following Jesus, then know that you are supposed to be different. That’s the work of God in you. 

Do you ever feel like a misfit because of your faith? Do you ever feel lonely or laughed at? Are you tempted sometimes to downplay your identity as a follower of Christ to fit in with those who don’t know him and don’t follow him? Well if you know Jesus and belong to him you have no need to be ashamed or worry, God has made you his with his whole heart! All three persons of the Trinity were involved in bringing you to faith in Christ. You’ve been chosen by the Father, through the Spirit, for the Son. 

The church is not an ugly duckling. We are not just misfits. We are God’s chosen people.  

Pray 

O Lord, our heavenly Father we thank you for making us yours. We thank you that your church is free to meet again in congregations around the country today. We pray that your people would be careful to abide by the current restrictions out of love for one another. We pray that you would protect your people who gather together to worship you. We pray for the day when we will no longer need the restrictions that have been put in place.  

We pray against COVID-19. We pray for powerful new treatments. We pray for vaccines. We pray for the death of this virus. We pray for those who are sick. Please heal them. We pray for those who mourn. Please comfort them. We pray for those who work to care for others. Give them strength, compassion and skill. 

We pray for our new government, that they would be wise and just and govern the people of this country well. As the country still battles this pandemic and faces towards another recession, we pray for your help, especially for those who are most vulnerable. 

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name. 

Amen. 

Sing

Church at Home – 28th of June 2020 – Psalm 73

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Thank you for joining me again this morning. Today we’ll turn to Psalm 73, a psalm of wrestling and doubt, but also hope and devotion.

Please click here to read Psalm 73.

Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

This morning we’re wrestling with doubt. That’s what this psalm is about. Specifically, it’s about the psalmist’s struggles through doubt caused by the injustice he sees around him and how that appears to contradict everything he believes about God. Doubt is a normal part of the Christian faith and, if we use it well, it can lead us to even stronger faith.

Every so often I’ll have a conversation with an atheist or agnostic and they will raise the issue of how anyone can believe in a good God when there is so much injustice and suffering in the world. I think the assumption that some people make is that, to be a Christian, you must just not think about all that stuff. As if I’ve never thought about the problem of suffering and injustice, or else I just close my eyes to it to live in a fantasy world where everything is nice.

I’d argue that the opposite is true: that a committed Christian is far more likely to think about the problem of injustice and how we can see it right in front of our faces or on the news, while at the same time believing that God is good and just and that he is in control over everything. The Christian is far more likely to wrestle with this than the unbeliever. Loving God and having a relationship with him doesn’t mean that you never wrestle with doubt.

We argue with people who are close to us more often than we argue with total strangers. And that’s because of our close relationship, not despite it. In the same way, my relationship with God makes me more likely to wrestle with him over things and more likely to have thought about the times when life seems to contradict the things I believe. I believe in God’s goodness. I believe that God is sovereign — that he is in control over all things. So when I see terrible injustice, the things I see seem to contradict the things I believe about a good and just God being in control. So, I wrestle with this. I wrestle with God. This is the stuff I think about on a regular basis, because of my faith, not despite it. The believer is far more likely to wrestle with God than the unbeliever.

One of the things I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t shy away from these difficult issues. It is the story of God reaching out to his people and how his people have reacted to this in very human ways. The psalms are full of this humanity. In this psalm we read the words of someone who wrestled with doubt.

Doubt isn’t something we need to be ashamed of. It’s not a sin. It’s not the mark of a fake Christian. Remember that these psalms are there to help the people of God worship him together. So if the word of God contains a psalm all about wrestling with doubt then doubt is a part of our faith.

The psalmist lays out his belief and the doubts he has when he looks around him and reality seemed to be telling a different story:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

(Psalm 73:1-3, NIV)

Our faith doesn’t hide or shy away from this kind of thinking, it doesn’t try and shield us from it. The Bible makes us think about these issues. We are encouraged to wrestle with God. God’s people were even called “Israel”, meaning “he wrestles with God”, reminding them of the time their ancestor Jacob, or Israel as he became known, actually wrestled with God, clinging on to him to receive a blessing from him. We’re supposed to engage with our doubts and bring them to God. We know he can handle it and we know he’s worth wrestling with. When you wrestle with God you will be changed. We’re not meant to live in a fantasy world of wishful thinking, but to wrestle with the tension of the truth of our faith in the justice, sovereignty and goodness of God and the reality that we live in a broken, fallen world.

You look at the injustice of the world and you might think “Well where is it then? Where is God’s goodness to those who are pure in heart?” It seems the other way around. Those with impure, wicked hearts are prospering while they trample on the weak.

The poor are valued less than the ability of the rich and powerful to make a profit so they can get even richer. Services are cut to the neediest to give tax breaks to the rich. The poor are disenfranchised, ignored, dismissed. And the result is that the poor, the sick, the vulnerable die.

People just like you and me have to bury their children, they have to run for their lives as their homes fall to ruin from the bombs dropped on their towns at the orders of people who live at ease and dress in fine suits. The rich and powerful devour the poor and vulnerable. And this is nothing new.

The author looked out at his world where those who hate God seem to be living a great life. They are rich and prosperous. They’re healthy and free from pain and trouble. They are proud, arrogant, and unashamedly violent. They are malicious and oppressive. They are bullies and it looks like they’re getting away with it.

Because of their success they’re praised by the people and they dare God to act, all the while getting richer and richer:

Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.                
They say, ‘How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?’           
This is what the wicked are like –
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

(Psalm 73:10-12, NIV)

In the face of this injustice, the psalmist’s creed seems like a taunt or like sarcasm:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart

(Psalm 73:1, NIV)

And yet, even faced with the injustice of this world, I believe this. I believe in the goodness and justice of God with all my heart. I believe that he cares much more than I do about the poor and the vulnerable. This psalm is a journey through its author’s own doubt to an even stronger treasuring of God who is good and just.

When the author’s doubting reaches its worst, he has a choice to make. He had begun to wonder what the point of it all was — in his life of trusting and obeying God (vv. 13 and 14):

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

(Psalm 73:13-14, NIV)

Why bother being good? The wicked seem to be doing great and instead of a reward for his goodness he suffers while it looks as if the wicked, the greedy, the violent are rewarded for their wickedness.

But he stops here. He gets to this point in his complaints and then considers the effect it will have on others if he continues to complain publicly. He still knows deep down that there is truth in his belief that God is good, and he doesn’t want to have a negative impact on the faith of other people.

Since he has decided not to vent publicly any longer, what is he to do? He could keep it to himself and try to bear this burden alone, try to get to the bottom of what’s troubling him. Try to figure out by himself how to resolve this tension — How can there be a good God and so much injustice in the world? But that won’t do. This is an age-old question, something that people have been trying to figure out for millennia. It’s too much for the psalmist to resolve by himself. He says in verse 16:

When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply

(Psalm 73:16, NIV)

The psalmist didn’t get through his doubt by fixating on the injustice and complaining. Nor was he able to resolve things by himself. He got through his doubt by taking it to God. Verse 17:

till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.

(Psalm 73:17, NIV)

This tension between the injustice that the psalmist sees around him and his belief in the goodness of God can’t be resolved or understood on a merely academic level. You won’t get an answer that will satisfy you. Because God is not just another subject to be studied. The psalmist couldn’t get through his doubts until he sought God himself, instead of treating God like a mere subject to be speculated about.

If you have doubts and you want to get through those doubts then seek God himself, not just answers, not philosophy or theology. Those are fine fields of study, but you will not be satisfied until you seek God in the midst of your doubts.

There’s a part in the children’s book “The Magician’s Nephew”, part of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The main character, a young boy named Digory, has met Aslan the lion (who in these books is another incarnation of Jesus) and is telling Aslan about how his mother is dying and he’s begging him to heal her. And then he looks up at Aslan.

“Up till then, he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now in his despair, he looked up at his face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared to Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was, himself”

When we take our doubts and bring them to God to wrestle with him and talk to him about what’s causing those doubts. When we bring our pain at the injustice of the world to God, we will find that he cares a lot more about these things than we do. That he mourns with us. That injustice angers him.

We will find a God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. We will find a God who weeps with the mourners, who suffered alongside us, who calls us to trust in him and follow him. We will find a God who willingly submitted to the violence and wickedness of this world to put an end to it. Jesus died on the cross to save us from our own wickedness. We will find a God who will make all things new one day as he wipes away every tear from our eyes.

When the psalmist sought God, he begun to be able to see things from God’s perspective, from an eternal perspective.

Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.

(Psalm 73:18-20, NIV)

From an eternal perspective, the most prosperous, long, and healthy life here on earth is over in a moment. The wicked may have an easy life for a while but that time will come to an end for us all. The wicked may enjoy life for now, but the afterlife holds no joy for them.

Contrast this with the psalmist, who has put his faith in God. Who treasures God.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will take me into glory.

(Psalm 73:23-24, NIV)

The psalmist may suffer for a time, but if God is his greatest treasure now in this life he will continue to go on with God and be received with honour that awaits all the faithful in heaven.

I don’t have a ready answer to all the questions you may have about the problem of evil and the doubts that may be causing in you. But what I do know is that God cares about this. What I do know is that we are very small, and sometimes we can’t see over the problem of evil and injustice. But I know that God is good, and things are different from his perspective, from the perspective of eternity.

The psalmist leaves this period of doubting with an even stronger faith because he sought God, not merely answers, but God himself.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

(Psalm 73:25-28, NIV)

He treasures God more than anything else in this world and he knows that God is with him forever.

I can’t give you an answer for every doubt you have. Maybe it’s a doubt that will lead you even closer to God and I believe it will if you take that doubt and wrestle with God over it. Seek God.

Pray

Father God, we look to you for assurance of your love and your justice in troubled times. When life feels cruel and unfair, we turn to you. We ask not that you remove us from this world but that you help us to stay close to you during our time here. Fill us with your Spirit and help us to be light in the darkness. Fill us with hope. Fill us with compassion and grace. May your church be an oasis of peace and grace in a troubled world. Help us to shine light into the darkness.

We pray for Yemen, and especially its children, trapped by war, suffering and dying from malnutrition and illness. It is no natural disaster, no unavoidable catastrophe that perpetuates the suffering of these children, but the greed and violence of human beings. Please bring peace and stability to this country. Please help aid to get to those who need it.

We pray against COVID19. Please help those who are working to develop treatments and vaccines. Please help people to be mindful of their neighbours and abide by guidelines designed to protect the vulnerable. Please heal the sick. Please help those who are treating and caring for others. Please bring your comfort to those who mourn.

We seek you in the midst of all of life’s pain and uncertainty. Help us to know your great love.

In Jesus’ name we pray.

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home Resources – 21st of June 2020 – Jonah 4

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Thanks for joining me again this week. This is the final instalment of our series on Jonah since we’re looking at the final chapter of the book: Jonah 4. I hope you find the video, prayer and suggested songs helpful.

Rev. John.

Please click here to read Jonah, chapter 4.

Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

Last week we read of how Jonah finally obeyed God’s call. He went into the city of Nineveh and preached. Jonah’s preaching led to the whole city repenting and God did not punish them.

What a miracle! The whole city repents, even the cows! Preachers dream of getting a response like this. Of making such an impact on people. An entire city responded to God’s message and all Jonah did was utter the short warning that God gave him to say:

‘Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.’

(Jonah 3:4b, NIV)

Just eight words in our English translation. Just five words in Hebrew. I strive and study and stay up way too late to write my sermons. I read over sentences asking myself if this is this the right thing to say. Is this faithful to God’s word? 

Jonah just mopes into Nineveh and says five words and he gets the kind of reaction that I can only dream of. God is glorified in this — a whole city, a great city, turning from its sin. The power of God’s word! What a display of mercy. Think about how God will be glorified in the lives of all these people who have turned from their sin. But Jonah… Jonah is angry.

Other prophets in the Bible did not have it so easy. Poor Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” begged and pleaded for people to listen to him for years and he was persecuted for his efforts and for warning the people of God’s coming judgement. And this was in Jerusalem, the holy city! Jonah walks into a huge pagan city and says five words and it’s comical how effective it is! This is a complete success, something that should be a prophet’s dream come true. But again, in this strange story we’re confronted with the unexpected. Jonah is so angry and bitter that he says he wants to die. He sulks!

The grace and mercy that God showed to Nineveh offends Jonah. As we’ve been going through this book you may have noticed signs of Jonah’s pride. He really doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, a huge pagan city. When he gets swallowed by the fish, he still manages to have a little dig at the pagans while patting himself on the back for being one of the people who know how to worship God properly. He manages to do this while in the belly of a fish… after trying to flee from God. Well here in chapter four Jonah’s religious pride is on full show.

God’s mercy displeases and even angers him, and we find out here that this is the reason Jonah ran away from his call in the first place. Jonah didn’t run away because the job was too hard or scary, but because he knew that God is merciful, and he didn’t want the Ninevites to have the blessing of that mercy. He knew that God is merciful, the whole history of his people is full of stories of God’s mercy and faithfulness to them when they didn’t deserve it. What Jonah’s attitude now tells us is that he believed that he and his people were somehow worthy of God’s grace and mercy, while the Ninevites were not. It was okay for him to be blessed by God, but not the Ninevites, not the pagans.

Pride finds a way. We are desperate creatures looking for security. Looking for some way to feel safe, to feel like we have value and we’re worth something. Sometimes to make ourselves feel good we’ll pick someone else or some other group of people and just try to feel better than them.

Deep down Jonah knows that he and his people never earned or deserved God’s blessing — it’s grace, it’s mercy. But it is a hard thing to really accept grace because it means forgetting about yourself and we really don’t like doing that. The only way we’re ever going to find the security we need is in completely surrendering to the grace of God. Accepting it with empty hands, forgetting about any notion of paying for it or deserving it.

You’re not perfect. You don’t have to be. God loves you. You fail at things sometimes. Despite that, God loves you. You’re not as smart as you’d like to be. God loves you. You’re not as pretty as you’d like to be. God loves you. Or perhaps you really are highly successful, smart and oh so pretty. God loves you, but not because of any of those things. You’re not better than anyone else. God loves you; you don’t need to be.

Jonah’s having a hard time wrestling with the grace of God because he sees that it means he’s no better than these pagans. It means he’s no more deserving of all the ways God has blessed him. None of his religious practices have made him any more deserving of God’s love. 

Have you received God’s grace for the gift that it is? Or are you still trying to be good enough? Or pretend that the things in your life that you’re proud of somehow make you good enough?

Jonah wishes to die. Or at least he says he does. But God doesn’t kill him. Instead what we see in response to Jonah’s tantrum is another display of God’s amazing grace and mercy. 

What we saw happen to Nineveh was a spectacular display of mercy when a whole city was overwhelmed by the spirit of repentance so that they were not destroyed for all their sins. A spectacular display of God’s mercy. What we see after that, in God’s interactions with Jonah, is something also miraculous, but a quieter, more intimate, more personal display of God’s mercy as he reasons with Jonah. God stoops down and puts on a little show just for Jonah to draw Jonah away from his pride and hatred and awaken compassion in him.

Think of how God could have responded to Jonah. “Who are you to question me and my mercy!? You are angry with what I, God Almighty, have done?! Who do you think you are little man!?” Jonah the runaway prophet is angry that God is merciful, while at the same time having just been shown amazing mercy himself and while relying on that very same mercy for every breath in his lungs.

God doesn’t rebuke Jonah. God questions him:

But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

(Jonah 4:4, NIV)

God wants Jonah to come out of his anger and think. He is stooping down to meet Jonah where he is to draw him away from his hatred. Marvel at the patience of God dealing with this rebellious prophet sulking in response to God’s amazing mercy!

The question goes unanswered at first. Has Jonah ignored God and stomped off in a huff? Who does he think he is? He goes out of the city to watch and see if God will change his mind. As if his little tantrum would make God second-guess his mercy. Jonah must have a high opinion of himself.

So, God pursues Jonah. He’s after Jonah’s heart. And so, as we’ve seen before in this amazing little book, God who is in control of all things, pulls some more strings. In verses 6 to 8 we see God appoint a plant to grow and shelter Jonah. This makes Jonah incredibly happy. God then appoints a worm to eat away at the bush, then the hot wind and the sun make it wither away and Jonah is off sulking again. This incident with the bush and the worm is all just so God could show Jonah something. God made Jonah care about something. God awoke Jonah’s compassion. Over a plant!

God is trying to get through to Jonah to make a point. This time when God asks the question again Jonah answers.

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’
‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

(Jonah 4:9, NIV)

Jonah is sulking again and this time it’s about something which was destroyed — his little plant that kept the sun off his head. This is all part of God’s plan, pulling strings to use this plant and the worm to make a point to Jonah:

But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’

(Jonah 4:10-11, NIV)

You care so much about this bush which you had nothing to do with and which came and went and you object to me caring about this great city?

God is saying to Jonah that he cares about Nineveh. God knows exactly how many people live there. God knows them all by name. He has given them life. For every moment of every one of their lives, God has been there. He knit them together in the wombs of their mothers. He was there when they took their first steps and spoke their first words. Why shouldn’t God care about them when Jonah cares about a plant that sprung up overnight and which he did nothing to make grow? 

Nineveh matters to God. People matter to God. Animals matter to God. If God is sovereign — and we’ve been shown time and time again in this short story that God is indeed sovereign — then he gives life to all people everywhere. Every breath you’ve ever taken has been a gift to you from God. He has been there every moment of your existence. You matter to God. Your friends and neighbours matter to God and whether they know it or not, God has been there all along in their life.

Perhaps you do not know God. Could he be pulling the strings in your life to direct you so that you ended up hearing this message that you matter to God and that he is calling you to himself?

Our story of Jonah ends there, We’re not told what Jonah said in response. God just lets that question hang in the air like the final note of a piece of music. It sticks with you. Because Jonah doesn’t respond you’re left thinking about the question. It becomes a question directed towards you because Jonah’s not there to give his response. This is a short story, but it sucks you in and it makes this issue of mercy very personal. If God cares so much and shows mercy to those who hate and rebel against him, why should we be angry when he blesses our enemies. In fact, shouldn’t we be merciful. Shouldn’t we bless our enemies?

But perhaps underneath all the pride and all the ways that Jonah forgot that he too was depending so much on God’s mercy, perhaps underneath all that there was something good that led to his anger. And maybe you’ve been thinking of this too. I’ve been going on and on about grace and mercy and I make no apologies for that, but what about justice?

I mean this was a great city full of idol worshippers, full of sinners who turned their back on the living God. This people forgot about their creator and worshipped created things instead. What about justice, what about God’s honour? And I’ve been talking about loving our enemies, but what about all the hurt that our enemies have caused us? What about the people that have hurt you?

How do we worship a God who we believe is good and holy and pure, who cares about right and wrong — justice and injustice — while at the same time believing in his amazing grace and mercy, bigger than we can imagine?

God does care about justice and injustice; they matter to him. Sin matters to God. It can’t simply be waved aside. Sin matters to God because people matter to God. He cares about all the ways we hurt one another. Our Creator cares when his creations turn their back on him.

God has shown us how these two things — justice and grace — are held together. And we see that in Jesus, in the cross. Sin must be atoned for and it was atoned for. To atone for the sins of human beings a human being suffered not just rejection, not just hatred, not just torture and death, but separation from God. The debt was paid. The justice of God was satisfied when Jesus Christ stood in our place and paid our debt. And grace — that man who died was also God himself. Justice and grace meet at the cross, each perfectly fulfilled. God can show mercy and grace to those who have put their faith in the sacrifice of Jesus because the demands of justice have been satisfied. That grace is for you if you put your faith in Jesus. This is how grace and mercy meet — in the cross of Jesus Christ we see a righteous God who hates evil, but who is also a gracious and loving God who blesses his enemies. Put your faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done and peace with this righteous and gracious God is yours.

I am glad that God is merciful to his enemies because if he wasn’t, I would have no hope and neither would you. And reflecting on the cross and on God’s lingering question to Jonah shows us the kind of attitude we should have. We should love our enemies because God loved his. While Jesus was being killed, he prayed for the forgiveness of the people doing this to him. Who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to show mercy to? That’s what this short story is about. Although most people immediately think of the fish, that’s not the point. The point is mercy. God’s grace and mercy which is bigger than you can imagine. As we gladly receive that grace and mercy for ourselves, we must be careful not to let pride keep us from a kind of religious stinginess that makes us callous or cruel to those who are not like us. We’re no better, no more deserving. It’s a gift. A gift that we can share.

Pray

Lord we praise you for your mercy and grace to us in Jesus Christ. We look at the cross and see the greatness of our sin, we see that you are a just God. But as great as our sins are, the cross shows us that your love is greater. Help us to receive your amazing grace as a gift. Help us to know that we are not saved by our own virtue, but only by the righteousness of Christ who died in our place.

As we receive your grace may it make us humble. Protect us from falling into pride. Keep us from looking down on others. May we be a gracious and merciful people.

We pray for our country. We thank you that the number of new cases of COVID19 are lower, and we pray that they continue to go down. We pray for those who mourn the loss of loved ones to this disease. Please comfort them. We pray for healing for the sick. We pray for all those working to fight against this disease and its impact on our society, whether in hospitals, care homes, labs, factories or shops.

We pray for those who have suffered loss during this time and because of restrictions have not been able to mourn in the usual ways that we find helpful here. Draw near to them and comfort them.

As businesses reopen please help us to be careful. Help us to care about our neighbours and communities.

As churches prepare to reopen please help the leaders to implement all the necessary steps to create a safe place for people to gather for worship. Help us to be wise as we draw up our plans.

We pray in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Sing

Church at Home Resources – 14th of June 2020 – Jonah 3

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Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

Thanks for joining me again today. We’re going to be looking at Jonah, chapter 3 today. Jonah, God’s runaway, rebellious prophet has survived. He’s been vomited out by the giant fish onto dry land. A second chance.

Let’s read chapter 3 together: Click here to read Jonah, chapter 3.

Everybody thinks that Jonah’s about a big fish, but that’s not it at all. Jonah is about a God who is so merciful, it shocks us if we ever truly catch a glimpse of it. God shows his mercy to Jonah first. We see that by the fact that Jonah is alive. Not only did he survive being caught in a fierce storm, he survived being thrown overboard into the sea. Not only that, he survived for three days inside a giant fish. Jonah who disobeyed and rebelled against God was alive because God showed mercy to him.

But more than that, God’s mercy is shown in that he recommissioned Jonah:

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’

(Jonah 3:1-2)

This second call begins with exactly the same words as the first call back at the beginning of chapter one. This really is a second chance for Jonah, a fresh start. Jonah ran away from his calling and God brought him back and now he begins again.

God has not given up on Jonah. That’s a message of hope for all of us rebels, all of us failures, all of us who have run off and done what we know is wrong. God is merciful, God is gracious, more gracious than we dare imagine and if we come back to him we find him — our Father — greeting us with open arms.

Jonah recommitted himself to the worship of the Lord, and as I explained last week — he did so with an incomplete grasp of God’s grace, with still some pride about his religion, and without any mention of going to Nineveh. But still that imperfect repentance was accepted. And that’s good news for all of us who worry whether we’ve repented correctly. Have we said the right words? Have we beat ourselves up enough? Do we feel sorry enough? No. You don’t. But we are not saved by our tears, but by the blood of Christ shed for us unworthy sinners on the cross. If you think of this as a thing which you must get right, you won’t. We cannot atone for our sins. We just don’t have enough credit to pay that debt. Jesus does, and he has paid it for us. Because of Jesus we have a Father who scans the horizon waiting for us to come home so he can embrace us. We have a Father ready to forgive.

Jonah found mercy and heard God calling him again when he was perhaps still soaked and stinking of whatever fish vomit smells like? The so-called prodigal son in Jesus’ parable returned and found his father embracing him and rejoicing over him, while he was barefoot and in rags perhaps still stinking of the pigs he tended.

God’s mercy is not earned. God’s love doesn’t wait for you to get everything right. Stop beating yourself up. Repent, come back to God and know that when you do you come back to the arms of your Father who missed you.

God had a purpose for Jonah, he had a job for him to do. Jonah had a role to play in God’s mission and if God can use a rebellious, foolish, half-drowned, fish-vomit-stinking man like Jonah, he can use you.

One of the remarkable things about Jonah is that, although this book is grouped among the prophets, the content of Jonah’s message plays such a minor role in the book. We’re given one line. Jonah walked into this huge city and said:

 ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’

(Jonah 3:4b, NIV)

That’s all we’re told and that may well have been all that was said. And yet everyone repents. Everyone responds to this message in the best possible way they could. Even the animals fast!

Jonah didn’t skilfully craft a clever message. Jonah didn’t do market research to work out how best to reach the Ninevites. Jonah proclaimed the message God gave him. And that is where the power came from — this was God’s message and God’s word is powerful. It doesn’t matter how well-crafted your argument is, or how charming you are, if it’s not what God wants you to say then it’s just hot air and nobody will be saved. It doesn’t matter how hard you can work, how clever or strong you are — if God has called you to do something your role is faithful obedience. God works the miracles. Not you.

The great English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was preparing to preach to a crowd of 23,654 people at The Crystal Palace in London. He wrote about something that happened a day or two beforehand:

“In 1857, a day or two before preaching at the Crystal Palace, I went to decide where the platform should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God. Years after, he told this story to one who visited him on his death-bed.”

That workman didn’t need to hear anything more than the powerful word of God: “Behold the Lamb, of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” That’s from John’s Gospel, chapter 1, verse 29. A few words, that’s all. But God’s words!

And that’s what happened in Nineveh. Everyone immediately responded in the best possible way to a very simple message, because it was God’s message. It was a miracle! But that’s also what happens every time someone comes to a real saving faith in Jesus Christ. It takes a miracle. It takes divine intervention to turn rebels and wretches into the children of God. The power comes from God himself. God works in people’s hearts to change them. God gave us his word and as it says in Isaiah 55:

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    it will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10-11, NIV)

God’s word is living and powerful. Which is why we read it. It’s why those who preach and teach God’s word should do so with fear and work hard to be faithful and accurate messengers.

What this incident in Nineveh tells us is that the power for God’s mission comes from God himself. One Israelite man walking into the middle of a huge pagan city and proclaiming a one-line warning against it led to the whole city repenting. The power for that didn’t come from Jonah and why should we expect it to? Although this book is called “Jonah” he’s clearly not the hero of this story. God is.

So then when we, the church, engage in gospel ministry, be that through missionary work, family devotions, bible studies, preaching, outreach, or patiently and gently giving a reason for the hope you have to your friend who asks you; let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the power comes from us. That’s humbling, but it’s also empowering. 

If you know that the power doesn’t come from you it keeps you from thinking too much of yourself. It prevents you from becoming proud, because you know that if there is ever any real growth, ever any real spiritual awakening in someone, ever any life-changing, life-giving encounter with God, then it may have come through you, but it certainly didn’t come from you. So, we stay humble and we take care to ensure that it is God’s message we’re delivering, and not our own fancy ideas.

But, if you know that God Almighty can work through you with the power to bring people from spiritual death to new life in Christ, through your humble witness people can encounter God, then that will make you bold to proclaim the gospel. So what if you’re not the most persuasive speaker? So what if you’re not a big, magnetic personality. So what if you’re not an expert biblical scholar? It doesn’t matter! The power comes from God!

One of my favourite quotes about mission comes from a Methodist pastor and evangelist who served God in the 20th century, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), D.T. Niles. He said:

“Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

The message of Christianity is the good news that, although we cannot and do not save ourselves, God himself saves us. As Jonah himself said at the end of his prayer from inside the fish: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9b, NIV)

Salvation is of the Lord. Not of me. Or you. Which is why it’s so important we immerse ourselves in God’s word. It’s so important we know God ourselves if we want others to get to know him through us.

We want people to know how great this God is who sent Jesus to rescue us, to take our place and suffer our punishment. We want people to know his unimaginably great grace and mercy.

Jonah is a book of mercy. God had mercy on Jonah his rebellious prophet and he had mercy on Nineveh in sending them Jonah to bring about change in the city and in forgiving them. Throughout this whole story we see God pulling the strings. God is the power behind what happens. God sent Jonah. God sent the storm when Jonah ran away. God sent the fish to catch Jonah. God sent Jonah again and gave him a message full of power that would bring the Ninevites to repentance. God has been in control all along. God’s mission is motivated and powered by God.

So whether you are called to go to the other side of the world, or to go into work, or to sit with your kids and talk to them about God, your mission to be a witness for Jesus comes from God and is empowered by God.

Before the risen Lord Jesus ascended to heaven he commissioned his followers, and this commission still applies to us today

Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

(Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)

During these pandemic times it’s difficult for us to imagine going to the nations, but we don’t have to. There is plenty of gospel work to be done right here. In our towns and even in our own homes. But as we go about our mission let’s all remember its motivation. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and therefore we are to make disciples, teaching people about him. The power for the church’s mission comes from God and for that reason we can be confident of miracles happening and lives changing. We can humbly, yet boldly, do what God has called us to do.

Pray

Lord, we pray that today would be a day of rest. Help us to rest from the trials of the week. Help us to rest from worry. Help us to rest from fear. Help us to rest from the striving to be good enough. Help us to rest in your goodness and in your power, in your mercy and in your grace. We can rest because you never sleep. We can rest because you are a good Father who takes care of us.

We pray for peace in this world. We pray that soon we would all be able to rest from this fight against Coronavirus. We pray that a great blow might be struck against it. We pray for powerful treatments and vaccines to come soon. We pray for those who are working so tirelessly in this fight, may they have a chance to rest soon. We pray for healing for those who are sick. We pray for comfort for those who mourn. We pray for rest for those who hunger and thirst for justice, may they be filled as your peace and justice rush into areas of corruption, grief and abuse. May this world be a kinder place, a more just place, a more peaceful place. May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

As churches prepare to resume meeting in congregations soon, we pray for protection and wisdom. Help us to be careful, to spot potential danger and to prepare well. Protect all who come.

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sing

Church at Home Resources – 7th of June, 2020 – Jonah 2

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[Click here to read today’s Scripture: Jonah 1:17-2:10]

Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

The story of Jonah is full of unexpected things. We’ve already encountered a prophet who runs away from God and pagan sailors who turn and worship God and here we have another twist. If someone is thrown overboard at sea, during a violent storm, what we expect to happen is that they will drown. But we read last week that when Jonah was thrown overboard, the sea grew calm, and then in verse 17 we have this great twist: 

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights 

(Jonah 1:17, NIV) 

Not only does Jonah not drown, he gets swallowed by a huge fish. He’s there for three days and three nights, alive in this fish, and while he’s there he prays this psalm, which is almost the entirety of chapter two. 

These things just don’t happen, do they? This is what you might call “unrealistic”. But the key thing in that verse, with its dramatic twist, is the beginning of the verse: 

“Now the Lord provided…” 

(Jonah 1:17a, NIV) 

This is a huge theme in Jonah – The sovereignty of God. God is in absolute control here. Later we’ll see even more remarkable things in this book and what’s behind all these very strange events is the total sovereignty of God. Don’t miss the sovereignty of God in this story by focussing on the giant fish. 

I said last week that this is not a story about a giant fish. It’s not. The fish is only mentioned in three verses (Jonah 1:17, 2:1, 2:10) and the author just writes about the fish in a very matter-of-fact style. There’s no physical description of the fish other than that it was huge. The author doesn’t dwell on it, because, although it was a huge fish, in terms of this story, it’s not a big deal. 

That said, I should probably still talk about this for a bit, because modern readers do get hung up on this. What are we to do with this story that involves such an unusual event? Ask any marine biologist and they will tell you that there is no species of fish that can swallow a grown man and then keep that man alive inside it for three days and three nights. Do we interpret this story as complete fantasy? Did this actually happen? 

You could say that this just didn’t happen because things like that don’t happen. However, then you have a problem with any miracle in the Bible. If you think that you can’t believe that this happened because it’s so unusual, what do you do with Jesus’ healings, what do you do with the feeding of the five thousand? What do you do with the gospel, which tells us that the Son of God was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, he lived a righteous life, performed great signs and wonders, died on the cross for our salvation and literally, really, physically rose from the dead and ascended into heaven? You can believe or disbelieve what you want, that’s your right, but I need to tell you that if you can’t accept that then you are not a Christian. At least not yet. If you can’t accept the miraculous then you can’t accept the gospel and if you can’t accept the gospel then, whatever it is you believe, it is outside of historical orthodox Christianity and you are not a Christian. 

Now, you could look at this big fish and decide that you don’t believe it happened like that for another reason. You could say that this story of Jonah is a satirical story and not every part of it is meant to be taken literally. The story mocks the pride of the prophet who begrudges others the mercy of God while simultaneously being thankful for that mercy when it comes to him. The story, through satire, confronts us with our own pride and the way we begrudge others the mercy and grace of God. It functions kind of like modern-day political cartoons, which have imagery in them that we’re not meant to take seriously, but nevertheless the cartoonist strives to communicate something real and true in an imaginative and powerful way. That kind of interpretation would still permit you to take other passages of the Bible, including miracles, and still believe in them because they belong to a different literary genre. I can respect that as a Christian interpretation. We need to interpret different types of literature differently. I don’t read comics the same way I read newspapers. 

The Holy Bible does contain irony and humour. So maybe that fish is there to get a laugh out of us. Jonah tries everything that he can think of to run away from God and his mission and just when he thinks he’ll finally be relieved of his duties by dying he gets caught by a fish. Very often when you get people to laugh you also get them to listen. 

Finally, there’s another way of interpreting this. The fish was real. Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish and kept there for three days and three nights, because that is what God Almighty brought about. Remember the key part of verse 17? 

“Now the Lord provided…” 

(Jonah 1:17a, NIV) 

This is the work of God. Is it impossible for God Almighty to do this? No! This is not a normal fish. It’s unusual. It’s unique! But so what? God can bring about whatever he wants. Now, that doesn’t deny the literary genius of this story or any of the humour or irony of this story. God has a sense of humour and not only can he inspire humorous satires of proud prophets, he can bring about real events that are, in their recounting, humorous. I mean, I know I’ve embarrassed myself before in real life and, reflecting on those embarrassing moments, I’ve thought to myself, maybe God is trying to tell me something here. Haven’t you? God doesn’t need to fabricate a story to deflate the pride of Jonah, he is powerful enough to create real life-changing events that can do that. 

If you’re interested, that’s my interpretation. Yes, it’s a very strange event. It’s unique. But so what? There are stranger things in the Bible than that… like the resurrection for example. I still think this is a satire, but it’s a real-life satire written by the Author of life. 

This fish was sent by God to bring Jonah back to the mission and Jonah stayed in the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights. At this point in the story the genre changes to a psalm. A poetic prayer. Jonah’s psalm gives us an insight into his beliefs, his heart. We have this kind of thing in modern media too. You’ve maybe seen a play where one character breaks off, the spotlight focusses on them and they deliver a soliloquy, a monologue that lets you know what’s going on inside them. We also see this in musicals. Something will happen and the characters break into song and the point is to share the characters’ feelings with you. 

From the belly of the fish Jonah prays to God. From this prayer we get a glimpse into Jonah’s heart. It’s a very religious heart. It’s a heart thankful to God for rescuing him and he commits to sacrificing to God. But don’t think that just because this is a very religious heart that it means it’s a very good heart. Religion can be a very bad thing. Religion can keep us from loving God and from loving our neighbour, which is what God actually wants. In this prayer we see Jonah’s religion, there are good things, but also bad things. We see some of Jonah’s contempt for the pagans and some of his pride. So, Jonah grasps God’s grace and mercy, but just like us, it’s mingled with the sense that somehow, we deserve it more than ‘them’, whoever they might be. 

Jonah’s psalm is beautiful in the truth that it expresses. It’s a prayer of thankfulness and faith and hope in the Sovereign Lord and his salvation. Jonah recounts how he was drowning and attributes his salvation – rescue by fish – to God.  

The engulfing waters threatened me, 
    the deep surrounded me; 
    seaweed was wrapped around my head. 
To the roots of the mountains I sank down; 
    the earth beneath barred me in for ever. 
But you, Lord my God, 
    brought my life up from the pit. 

(Jonah 2:5-6, NIV) 

The final verse of Jonah’s prayer sums his gratitude: 

But I, with shouts of grateful praise, 
    will sacrifice to you. 
What I have vowed I will make good. 
    I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’ 

(Jonah 2:9, NIV) 

That last phrase contains the key theme of this chapter and indeed the whole book of Jonah: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” It’s a beautiful truth and Jonah is enjoying one of the facets of that truth – His salvation comes from the Lord – while at the same time he has refused to bring that wonderful truth to the people of Nineveh. Jonah would rather run away. Jonah would rather die, than share this good news with the pagan people of Nineveh. This is like someone celebrating the amazing food that they’re eating, while at the same time not wanting someone else to eat that same food. 

You see Jonah’s very “local” idea of God in the heavy emphasis on God being in the temple. Look at verse 4:  

I said, “I have been banished 
from your sight; 
yet I will look again 
    towards your holy temple.” 

Also, notice the irony here of the runaway prophet saying “I have been banished”. 

And verse 7: 

‘When my life was ebbing away, 
    I remembered you, Lord, 
and my prayer rose to you, 
    to your holy temple. 

Jonah has just learned that he can’t run away from God’s presence even on the sea. He told the pagan sailors “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” But still in his mind God is the God in the temple. Now yes, the temple in Jerusalem was a huge deal. A unique and truly holy place where God, in his mercy dwelt, in the midst of his people, but God is bigger than the temple. God called him to go to Nineveh. God cares about the people of Nineveh. He made them. He sustained them every day of their lives.  

Notice the things that aren’t said in this prayer. There is no mention of repentance. Jonah never says sorry for running away from God and refusing to be his prophet to the people of Nineveh. 

During this prayer Jonah also can’t resist having a dig at the pagans. You’d think it would be hard to be proud while squashed up in the belly of a fish, but pride finds a way. 

‘Those who cling to worthless idols 
    turn away from God’s love for them. 
But I, with shouts of grateful praise, 
    will sacrifice to you. 
What I have vowed I will make good. 
    I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’ 

(Jonah 2:8-9, NIV) 

Jonah commits to making sacrifices to God, probably in the temple, but he says nothing about going to Nineveh and actually doing what he knows God wants him to do. God has explicitly told him to go to Nineveh. 

Jonah still has a local God and a partial grasp of God’s grace and mercy, but what this story teaches us is that God is bigger than we can imagine, and his grace and mercy are bigger than we can imagine. If we have been blessed to know God’s grace, then why should we begrudge anyone from experiencing the same thing.  

That’s why Christians pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and it’s why Jesus warned his disciples that if they don’t forgive, they will not be forgiven. Why should God forgive you and not them? Are you better than them? If you think you are then you don’t know what grace is — it’s the undeserved, unearned love of God. Jonah forgot that. 

This is a beautiful prayer full of things that are good and true and yet this beautiful expression of religion is being used to avoid God. There’s not just a giant fish here, there’s an ‘elephant in the room’. We know it’s there. God knows it’s there. Jonah knows it’s there, but he’s not saying anything about it. Jonah says all this beautiful truth and yet manages to sidestep repentance and never addresses the mission he has been given from God. He says all this poetry and yet never just says “I’m sorry for not going to Nineveh, I know it’s what you want me to do. I will go and I will preach to the people there.” 

After a week when the world saw police forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators, including clergy, so that Donald Trump could stand in front of a church he does not attend and pose with a Bible he evidently does not read, it is clear that religious things can be used as props while we go on avoiding God. Racial injustice, the dehumanisation of black people, police brutality and corruption need to be addressed and waving around a Bible for a photoshoot won’t please God or help anyone. 

Here is God’s response, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, to a people who put on a religious show instead of addressing injustice: 

When you spread out your hands in prayer, 
    I hide my eyes from you; 
even when you offer many prayers, 
    I am not listening. 

Your hands are full of blood! 

Wash and make yourselves clean. 
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight; 
    stop doing wrong. 
Learn to do right; seek justice. 
    Defend the oppressed. 
Take up the cause of the fatherless; 
    plead the case of the widow. 

(Isaiah 1:15-17, NIV) 

And what is God’s response to Jonah’s prayer. His very religious prayer that lacks any love for the people of Nineveh or confession of his sins. There might be a clue in the final verse: 

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. 

(Jonah 2:10, NIV) 

Religion without love is nauseating to say the least! 

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because the people there are not like his people. They are his enemies. And why should they have a chance to repent and turn to the Lord, his Lord? But as Jonah said, “Salvation comes from the Lord”. God saves. Not our nationality, or race, or good behaviour, but God. We are not saved by being the right kind of person from the right kind of place with the right kind of upbringing, we are saved by receiving the mercy and grace of God. We don’t get to take credit for it, no more than Jonah can take credit for surviving at sea. 

Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

(Romans 5:6-8, NIV) 

Talk about miraculous, unexpected things! God the Son died for his people! Not because we were righteous or good or beautiful, but while we were still sinners. Ungodly. This is God’s love and mercy. Not only did he set aside his glory and descend to be down here with us, he suffered on the cross for us, he died for us. The only correct response to such grace is to grasp it eagerly, thankfully, with both hands. To trust in the mercy and grace of God. And if we do that how can we ever begrudge anyone that same grace and mercy? 

Salvation comes from the Lord. That means we don’t get to take credit. It means we can’t look down on anyone. If we truly grasp the grace of God we will be gracious to others. We will want to share with others, not just some hollow religion, some rules of behaviour, some theories of the divine, but love. Our love and God’s love. 

Pray

Lord, we pray for ourselves, that as we rejoice in your great love for us we would be loving to others. We pray for our world, for justice and peace. We pray that more and more people would hear the good news of Jesus Christ and and turn to you. We pray for leaders all over the world to lead with love and justice and to desire peace. We pray for justice for the oppressed and marginalised.

We pray for your continued help in the fight against the Coronavirus. Bless those who mourn with your comfort. Bless those who are fighting against this virus in their own bodies. Heal them, Lord. Bless those who are fighting on behalf of others as the work to care for and treat them. Bless those who fight in labs to find effective treatments and vaccines. As we continue to ease restrictions here help us to remain watchful, careful and considerate of those who are especially vulnerable.

Lord we pray for those who have been impacted by restrictions. Those who are out of work. Those who are already struggling with something else and now are feeling very alone. Those for whom home is not a safe place. Lord God, be near to them and help them.

Today Lord, may we practice our religion in love.

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sing