Church at Home Resources – 10th of May, 2020

Thanks for joining me again today. We’re continuing in our new series on Ruth as we look at chapter 2. I’m including the video overview of the Book of Ruth by the Bible Project again, in case you might find it helpful.

You can find the text of Ruth, chapter 2 by clicking on this link.

Here is the video of my sermon, which I have also included in text to help you share it or read along if it’s difficult to hear me in the video.

Read

Welcome back to our series on the book of Ruth. This week we will be reading chapter 2, so without any further delay, let’s read that together.

Many of you know that Sarah and I were blessed to welcome our new baby Anna into the world in March. We’re adjusting to life as a family of four, on top of all the other adjustments that we’ve all had to make during this time of pandemic. We have to parent our two children differently of course. If Anna cries and needs something, we rush to get it for her. Clean nappy, milk, winding. Whatever she needs, right away! It’s different with Timothy. Often, Timothy will ask us for something, and we’ll say, “Okay, you go get it,” or “Yes, after you tidy up your toys,” or, sometimes, “No.” It’s not because we love Timmy any less, not at all! It’s just that Timothy’s nearly four now, so a big focus of our parenting is trying to develop good character in Timothy. We do of course still do a lot for him, because he’s still quite young, but the reason we’ve stopped babying Timothy is because one day he will – God willing – be a man. We want him to be a good man. We want him to be a man who takes responsibility and who is not afraid of work. We don’t want him to be a man of bad character, spoiled and selfish because his parents pampered him all his life. We love him, so we want to develop in him a good character. Personally, I find it hard sometimes. I kind of want to just give him the world. I would quite easily spoil him, but good character is important, so I deny that instinct most of the time.

Character is a big theme in this chapter of Ruth, and it’s also where we get introduced to the final main character: Boaz.

“Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz.”

(Ruth 2:1)

Boaz is introduced to us as “a man of standing”. Now that phrase doesn’t necessarily mean anything in English other than that he was an influential person. A big deal in Bethlehem. However, the phrase can also be translated as “a mighty man of worth”, or “a mighty man of valour”. That could possibly give us a good indication of the kind of man we’re dealing with here, right at the first mention of his name.

Now look at the first words that Boaz himself speaks in this book:

“Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you!’
                ‘The Lord bless you!’ they answered.”

(Ruth 1:4)

The first words out of his mouth are “The Lord be with you,” in an era in Israel’s history that is famous for the people falling again and again back into apostasy and faithlessness this is a faithful man. Boaz is a man of God and that’s evident from even the way he says hello to his workers.

Saying hello to his workers is not what we remember Boaz for, but good character is evident in small and mundane things just as it is in big heroic things.

Boaz spots the new woman in his field and asks about her:

Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, ‘Who does that young woman belong to?’

The overseer replied, ‘She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.” She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.’

(Ruth 2:5-7)

We’ve already seen the remarkable character of Ruth in chapter 1, when she chose to stay with Naomi even though it meant leaving her homeland, and we see here that that wasn’t an anomaly. This is just part of who Ruth is, it’s character. Her act of loyalty and goodness wasn’t just a once off, it’s evident in daily life as Ruth humbly asks if she can glean, and then works hard to do so, only taking a short rest in the shelter out of the sun. Ruth asks if she can glean even though it’s written into God’s law that she’s entitled to do so. God’s law forbade his people from gathering right to the edges of their fields or going through the field a second time to gather anything they had missed. That was to be left for the poor. As a widow with nobody to provide for her, Ruth was entitled to this and yet she has no sense of entitlement, but humbly asks and then works hard to provide what she can for Naomi and herself.

Ruth even took the initiative to provide for her and her mother-in-law. Right at the beginning of the chapter we can see Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law displayed in her initiative:

“And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’
Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter.
So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.

(Ruth 2:2)

She’s taking a risk in going out to glean. She’s an outsider, a foreigner, on her own. She doesn’t know what type of people she’s going to encounter. Thankfully she goes to a field that happens to belong to Boaz.

So, Boaz and Ruth meet:

So Boaz said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.’

At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, ‘Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?’

Boaz replied, ‘I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband – how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’

‘May I continue to find favour in your eyes, my lord,’ she said. ‘You have put me at ease by speaking kindly to your servant – though I do not have the standing of one of your servants.’

(Ruth 2:8-13)

Again, we see the noble character of both Boaz and Ruth.  Boaz instructs her to stay in his field, it keeps her safe and he’ll be sure to look after her. Ruth, still not showing any sign of entitlement, is commended by Boaz for sacrificing so much to take care of Naomi. It’s clear now that people have been talking about Ruth, Boaz has heard all about what she’s done.

Boaz continues to show grace and kindness to Ruth. Ruth continues to work hard to provide for her mother-in-law and herself. The grace and compassion of Boaz meets with the selfless hard work of Ruth. And the result? At the end of the day Ruth not only has leftovers from her lunch thanks to Boaz, she has about an ephah of grain too. That was about 22 litres of grain and would do herself and Naomi for about 2 weeks. It’s a testament to her hard work and Boaz’s kindness.

Now. Wait a minute. I hope you don’t stop watching or reading there. Whether you know it or not, we’re in a dangerous place at this point! It would be very easy to look at this passage and think it’s just about personal character and take it as a lesson in morality. You could leave thinking that the message of this chapter is that you’re to go out there and work hard and make something of yourself, or to be generous with the wealth and power you have. That might do for some motivational talk but I’m not a motivational speaker. If I take you down that road, I wouldn’t be handling the word of God rightly. What you must remember is that the Bible is about God. The Book of Ruth is about seeing God working in and through the lives of ordinary people in the kind of situations that happen in normal life.

You could look at this chapter and think “Wow! Ruth is so dedicated and hardworking!” or “Wow! Boaz is so gracious!” and completely miss God in all this.

So now, let’s see God at work. Ruth didn’t know where she was going that day. She went to a field to gather leftover barley. She just so happened to go to the field of Boaz. Boaz, a faithful man of God during a period of biblical history infamous for the faithlessness of God’s people. Boaz just so happens to be a guardian-redeemer of Elimelech’s people – someone who was able to recover the losses and the dignity of the family of Elimelech and make sure that his family continued on. Of all the fields she could have gone to it was Boaz’s field. God is at work here.

God works in the lives of these people and through them. What is it that makes Boaz so gracious? What is it that makes him humble enough that, despite being a big deal, he takes notice of the new face among the needy that have come to his field? Where does his good character come from? Boaz embodies the teachings of God’s law. His character has been shaped by God’s law. He is reverent. He cares for the widow and the foreigner. Boaz belongs to God and God works in and through him.

What about Ruth? She left everything of her homeland to stay with Naomi, but not just that. Remember from last week. She said, “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16). Boaz heard about all that Ruth had done, leaving her homeland and people and her tireless work in the field to provide for herself and Naomi and he describes it like this:

May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’

(Ruth 2:12)

Taking refuge under the wings of God like a little chick in search of shelter. That’s Ruth. And God is sheltering Ruth who has sought refuge with him. She finds the right field. She finds the right man.

This is our relationship to God, little chicks seeking refuge. We bring nothing. We earn no credit. We can boast of nothing. And God gives us shelter. He rescues. That’s who God is. The Rescuer. The Redeemer. We see that nowhere more clearly than in the cross of Jesus. If you come to Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, you know that there is nothing that you can boast of in terms of your salvation. Your sins are paid for by Jesus on the cross, not by your own good behaviour. You are sheltered in Jesus, covered by his righteousness and faithfulness on our behalf. You’re a little chick who has been given shelter under the wings of God.

But when we come to God we are changed. He changes us to be who we were meant to be, to reflect him, to become godly. Come to God through Jesus and you will receive the Holy Spirit. God himself will set up camp in you and begin changing you from the inside out. You will reflect God as he works in and through you.

The grace, faithfulness, and love of God is reflected here through Ruth and Boaz.

When Ruth returns home, Naomi is shocked at how much food she has:

Her mother-in-law asked her, ‘Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’

(Ruth 2:19)

Ruth tells her about Boaz, still not knowing who he is. And Naomi rejoices. She tastes the sweetness come back into her life.

‘The Lord bless him!’ Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. ‘He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’ She added, ‘That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers.’

(Ruth 2:20)

I love the ambiguity of that phrase: “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” Who is Naomi referring to here, Boaz or God? It could be either. I think it’s intentionally ambiguous and it kind of sums up this chapter and indeed this book. Who is being kind to them? God or Boaz? Yes. Both!

God works in and through normal people. Forget kings, great warriors and miracle workers for a moment. They’re fine but forget about them for a moment. A farmer. A widow. The setting of this great work of God is not a battlefield but a barley-field. People noticing each other and caring about each other. Normal stuff. It happens all the time. And God is powerfully at work in all this “normal stuff”. He is powerfully at work in your life too.

Pray

It’s Christian Aid week this week. Normal fundraising cannot go ahead due to the Coronavirus pandemic, so this year Christian Aid week is moving online. In the video below, Michael from Christian Aid Ireland will lead us in prayer. Please see caweek.ie for more information or to make a donation to Christian Aid Ireland.

Sing

Some videos (including one recorded specially by Christian Aid Ireland) which I hope will help you to sing worship to God today.

Church at Home Resources – 3rd of May, 2020

Thank you for joining me again today. Hopefully you will find the resources below helpful as you worship in your own home. There is a section for each of the three core elements in home worship: reading, praying and singing.

Today we begin a new series on the book of Ruth so before you watch my regular sermon video I thought the following video by The Bible Project might be helpful to you.

Read 

Good news! My sciatica has eased up enough for me to be able to sit up for the duration of a video. Thank you for your prayers, here is the first sermon video in our series on the Book of Ruth:

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the New Testament this year. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I am aware that, for many people, the Old Testament can seem a lot more intimidating. The whole Bible points us to Jesus, but you have to look a bit harder for him in the Old Testament. The Old Testament’s also bigger, and it has some big books in it that can be tough to get through. It’s hard to relate to Leviticus when it’s describing all the laws concerning rituals that we don’t practice anymore and it’s hard to see the relevance for your life when you’re reading through the bits in Exodus that are giving precise instructions on how to build the tabernacle. Even if you’re Bible nerd like me and you love to study the Bible, it can be hard going sometimes. I want to show you that even though it’s older and even though it’s set long, long ago, in a culture very different to ours, the Old Testament is brilliant and relevant, with stories that speak to your life today. It is the word of God, it is living and powerful. 

So, today we begin a new series on the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a brilliant little book. You can read it all in about 20 minutes, it’s just four chapters, so I thought that for four weeks we could go through this book together. And read chapter 1 today. So please read with me, or listen carefully to Ruth, chapter 1. 

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 

Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. 

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. 

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’ 

Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’ 

But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!’ 

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 

‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’ 

But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’ When Naomi realised that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 

So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’ 

‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’ 

So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. 
(Ruth 1:1-22, NIV, Anglicised) 

The story of the Bible is huge. It’s quite literally the biggest story! It begins at “the beginning”, before creation, and it concludes with the renewal of creation and God’s people dwelling with him in joy for eternity (so in a way you could say it tells a story that never ends!). It’s full of huge events. The creation of the stars and planets, the creation of every creature. Angels and demons. Miraculous wonders. The sick healed instantly, the dead raised, seas parted! Wars and famines and floods! The phrase “biblical proportions” is never used to describe something small, or personal, or intimate. But, you know, this is your story too. You, the person listening to (or reading) this. You’re in this story. You’re part of it. 

In all these huge stories of battles and miraculous wonders it can seem like maybe the stuff of normal life isn’t important. Maybe you think you and your day-to-day life isn’t so significant to a God who deals in such biblical proportions. We can struggle to see how this huge story is also our story, the story of ordinary people living normal lives. 

But Christians believe in a God whose greatness does not make him distant. In fact, the opposite is true. God is great enough, and powerful enough to be attentive not only to each one of us and our lives, but to the tiniest details that we can’t even notice. It’s like the author of a book, he can spend as long as he wants thinking all about one character, one iine, one word. One tiny dot of punctuation can receive his focus. The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper famously said, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” There is nothing in your life which does not concern God. There is nothing so small or trivial that God doesn’t care about it. He is big enough to care about the tiniest little things. 

The first verse of Ruth gives us our historical setting. 

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 
(Ruth 1:1, NIV, Anglicised)  

The story of Ruth is set during the same time period as the book of Judges. A time of dark, epic tales of war, and here we have a little story. Here we are given a pastoral story of decency and love among ordinary people.  

What the Book of Judges shows us is the downward spiral of God’s people. The same pattern keeps repeating throughout the book: 

  1. There is peace for a bit while Israel serves God. 
  2. Israel falls into idolatry. 
  3. Israel is invaded and enslaved. 
  4. Israel cries out to God and He raises up a judge to rescue them from their oppressors. 
  5. Israel is delivered, peace is restored, back to step one. 

This keeps happening again and again until the point where you get to the end of the Book of Judges and the people of Israel are living in ways that are utterly sinful. The judges themselves, beyond serving the purpose of freeing the people from oppression, are not good leaders.  

During this time of faithlessness in Israel we have a story of the loyalty of Ruth, a Moabite. An outsider. During a time of great battles and epic adventure we have the story of the decency and kindness of a farmer, the loyalty of an outsider and the struggles and mourning of a widow.  

We meet Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, at their lowest. Naomi and her family moved to Moab to weather out the famine in Israel. Her husband died. Her two sons died. She’s left widowed, away from home with her two daughters-in-law. She encourages her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to go back to their families. They are still young enough to marry and have a life. Orpah leaves, with Naomi’s blessing. She’s perfectly entitled to leave; she has no obligation to stay. But Ruth will not be parted from Naomi. If Naomi is to endure hardship, then Ruth will endure it with her: 

‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’ 

 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’ When Naomi realised that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. 
(Ruth 1:15-18, NIV, Anglicised) 

They return to Bethlehem, where Naomi came from, because she had heard that God had provided food there. Two widows in a small town in a society in which widows don’t really fare too well. Ruth is young enough to remarry and have a family, but she’s chosen to go to Israel where she’s an outsider. She’s from Moab, Israel’s ancient enemy. 

When she returns her old neighbours and friends and relatives remember Naomi, but she is hurting. Even the sound of her own name seems to taunt her. Naomi’s name means pleasant, lovely, sweet – but life has been too hard for her to stay sweet and cheerful. She’s bitter and she sees the irony in this: 

‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’ 
(Ruth 1:20-21, NIV, Anglicised) 

Naomi says God has afflicted her, she tells them to call her Mara, which means bitter. But God hasn’t abandoned Naomi, in fact the answer to her lamentation is found in that daughter-in-law, Ruth, who wouldn’t let go of her. She sticks with Naomi, because she’s found herself tied up with her and with her people and her God and out of faithful love, she won’t let go. Ruth has no obligation to stay with Naomi, but she loves her and is loyal to her. 

Although Naomi sees the hand of God in her suffering, she nevertheless still leans on him for her salvation. She goes to Bethlehem because she still believes in the mercy of God, she still believes that, even though he disciplines his people when they sin against him, he also provides and restores those who turn to him. She heard the God had provided food in Bethlehem and so she goes to receive from God. 

The answer to Naomi’s grief isn’t in some spectacular miraculous sign, but in her daughter-in-law, who won’t leave her side. This story shows us how that can be just as important and powerful. 

Ruth is a curious book. The characters discuss God and react to how they perceive God at work and they show themselves faithful to God and his law, but the “narrator” never tells us that God did something, neither does God speak. This is very much a story of ordinary life. There’s no massive supernatural events, no visitations or visions, just people getting on with life. And that’s what most of us experience too. I’ve never heard a booming voice from heaven. I’ve never (to my knowledge at least) been visited by an angel. I read the Bible, I pray, and I try to live the way God wants me to live and treat people with decency and love.  

God is indeed present in this story, but you must see him moving in the “just-so-happened” circumstances. Much like your own life probably. God is at work. Can you notice him? Ruth and Naomi just so happen to arrive back in time for the barley harvest. We’ll see how that plays out. Ruth just so happens to be a woman of such loyal and noble character that she will selflessly stick with Naomi instead of going back to her people. We’ll see how that plays out too. This is a dark chapter but there are already faint glimmers of light. 

We remember the spectacles, the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of the dead, but God works just as powerfully through love and loyalty. God is at work is at work in ordinary lives. God is even at work and in control in the dark times. Even on the darkest day, when Jesus died this was all part of God’s plan, part of his rescue mission. He was at work and in control rescuing his people as Jesus took our sin so that we could return to God. And if you come to Jesus he will not turn you away. 

This first chapter is a story of bitter and sweet. Naomi has experienced so much sorrow that she can’t even bear to be called her own sweet name anymore, she wants a name more fitting to the bitterness of her life. Ruth’s loyalty is exceptional, it’s remarkable, but in many ways this is still a story of the ordinary, there’s no miraculous signs here, no supernatural events, no seas parted, no angels visiting in this story. Just a woman and her loyalty and love. And we will see just how powerful that is. Through Ruth, God can bring sweetness back into the life of Naomi, and a story that begins with death and sorrow and bitterness will conclude with life and joy and sweetness again. 

Through this story God shows us that he works in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. He shows us that there are no insignificant people and that each of us can be used by him and see him move in our lives. 

Many people spend so long looking for big spectacular miracles or waiting to hear God’s voice booming from the heavens that they fail to see all the ways God is working in and through the people and circumstances in their lives. Take a look at your life. What do you have to be thankful for? Where can you see God’s hand in the ordinary? Where are the glimmers of light in the darkness. Or perhaps you are feeling called to be that glimmer of light for someone else? Give thanks, pray for guidance and put your trust in God who is very much interested and involved in all of our ordinary lives whether we notice him or not. 

Join me next Sunday and we’ll read chapter 2 and see a few more “just-so-happened” circumstances and how God works in the ordinary. 

Pray 

Sovereign Lord, help us to see you in our daily life. Help us to trust that you are in control and help us to depend on you and your provision.  

We thank you for that example of faithful love that we see in Ruth, but Lord, we know that your love for us is the ultimate example. You will never let your people go from your love. We have been purchased by Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross. You loved us even before we loved you. You are working in our lives to redeem us and make us holy. We thank you Lord. 

Lord we pray for all of those who mourn this week. All of the homes that death has come to in the past few days. Be with them Lord, in the darkness and bring them light and comfort. 

We pray for our country as we look to the road out of this strange and anxious time. Protect us, Lord. Give us wisdom and help us to do things right. Give those in positions of leadership and authority wisdom. 

We pray for those who are sick, please heal them. We pray for those who work to care for and treat people, protect them and bless their work. 

We pray all these things in the name of Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. 
Amen. 

Sing

Here are some hymns about the faithfulness of God that I hope will help you to sing at home:

Church at Home Resources – 26th of April, 2020

Read

An audio recording of my sermon. You can play it here, or download it.

It hurts to be apart from someone. It’s sad. Irish people are not strangers to the pain absence. It used to be the case decades ago that, if someone emigrated to America, Canada or Australia for example, their family here would likely never see them again. You’d exchange letters, but that would be it really. Even in this modern age, pre-pandemic, with modern air-travel and the ability to come home for the holidays, people still cry at the airports saying goodbye to their loved-ones. All that anxiety and worry, hoping they’ll be okay and that they’ll be happy. And the quietness of home without their presence.

We’re feeling the absence of family and friends here in the manse. Baby Anna has yet to meet all her grandparents or any of her aunts, uncles and cousins. We wonder how old she’ll be, how big she’ll be, how many milestones will have passed by before we can properly welcome her into the family. All together. The video calls and picture sharing are great, but they’re no substitute for the real presence of loved-ones.

At the last supper, Jesus spoke to his disciples about how he would be leaving soon and they were sad and worried. After that meal he was arrested and then he died horribly and they were devastated. Their hero, their leader and the whole focus of their life for the last three years was gone. But on the third day they were amazed by something completely unexpected. Something that none of them thought would happen. He rose from the dead, not just revived, but resurrected. He defeated death! That meant that all of the things he was saying about himself and the kingdom of God were true, it wasn’t just a dream or wishful thinking.

But now in today’s passage we read about Jesus leaving again. Not even death could take him away from his disciples… but now he’s leaving anyway. And what’s stranger is that the disciples don’t mind. The last two verses in the gospel of Luke (which kind of overlaps with today’s reading from Acts) says that after Jesus ascended, the disciples weren’t sad at all when they returned to Jerusalem without him:

Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
(Luke 24:52-53, NIVUK)

Even though they just got him back — literally back from the dead — they were not sad once he left. They rejoiced!

We normally feel sad when we say goodbye to somebody, but what if their leaving meant that everything was changing for the better? 

This passage is about the ascension of Jesus Christ. I don’t think we make a big enough deal of the ascension of Jesus. What does it mean? What difference does it make? What does it tell us about God and what does it tell us about ourselves? Those are the questions I want to try to answer today. 

As much as they loved him and had built their whole lives around him… even though they had just received him back from the dead, the disciples were not sad when Jesus left them to ascend into heaven, because they knew what it meant. And I want you to know what it means too.

Let me read today’s text, Acts 1:6-12, which is about the ascension of Jesus:

Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.
(Acts 1:6-12, NIVUK)

Jesus had spoken a lot about the kingdom of God. A kingdom where things were set right. A kingdom where the poor, the hungry and those who weep are blessed. A kingdom whose citizens love their enemies, forgive those who have hurt them and give freely of the blessings God has given them. A kingdom with values so different than this violent and greedy world that it appears to be upside-down. It must have looked to them like that movement died along with Jesus on the cross. That the kingdom of this world was just too big and powerful. 

But now Jesus is risen he has proven that his way — the way of the kingdom of God — is the real way of things. It has real power. It is the kingdom that God is building and it will take over the broken ways of this broken world. So the disciples want to know when. Is the kingdom going to come in all its fullness now?

But it’s not their job to know when that will happen. It will happen when the Father has chosen. In the meantime, the role of the followers of Jesus in the building of the kingdom is this:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

(Acts 1:8, NIVUK)

Our lives here in this world are about the kingdom of God and our job right now is to be Jesus’ witnesses. And the power and the ability that we need to do this job comes from the Holy Spirit. Christians are empowered by God the Holy Spirit, to witness to the risen Lord Jesus, God the Son until the kingdom comes in all its fullness at the time chosen by God the Father.

And it’s at that point that Jesus leaves them. He ascends into heaven. This time they weren’t sad because they knew what was happening. Jesus rising from the dead proved that he was who he claimed to be. He is the Messiah, God’s true chosen King. When Jesus leaves them this time he is not leaving them to die, but to ascend to heaven to as the King of all creation. 

When Jesus ascended he was returning to the Father who had sent him. He was returning to reign from heaven as God’s chosen King. He was returning to send the Holy Spirit to the church, so that he would be with them in power wherever they go. So the disciples rejoiced after Jesus ascended because their King is ascending to his throne, has given his people the job of carrying on his work and is sending the Holy Spirit to work in and through them.

Ten days later they would receive the Holy Spirit. From chapter two:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
(Acts 2:1-4, NIVUK)

Just as Jesus said, the Holy Spirit came upon the church and it gave them what they needed to do their job of being Jesus’ witnesses. Jesus said they would start in Jerusalem and so, that day when Jerusalem was full of people speaking different languages, the disciples were given the ability to speak to the crowds: to be Jesus’ witnesses to the people in Jerusalem no matter what language they spoke.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’
(Acts 2:5-11, NIVUK)

The church is doing its job. They’re doing exactly what Jesus said they would do. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,” he said on the day he ascended, and ten days later he church poured onto the streets of Jerusalem in the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking about God’s deeds of power. Telling people that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s chosen King and that he has risen from the dead. The church is doing its job but really it is God working through them: the Holy Spirit is giving them the ability to witness and to speak in different languages so all the crowd could hear the gospel.

What do we learn from this story of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus and of the church filled with the Holy Spirit. How can we have the kind of passion and life that the church did that day. How can we do our jobs as witnesses for Jesus? Because that is our job you know. And it’s still our job. Church isn’t on pause during this lockdown. The mission continues and it’s why the church exists: to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world.

Knowing that Jesus is risen and ascended and that he sits at the right hand of the Father will change how we live our lives. We know that Jesus is King. We know that he is in control and we know that he is coming back one day — so when he comes back will he find a faithful and obedient church doing the job he gave us to do?

Knowing that Jesus is king will change your priorities. When you realise that the King of the universe is the Prince of Peace, a former prisoner, a victim of the violence of this world for our sakes it will change the way you look at the world and the way we treat one another. The King of everything knows what it’s like to be beaten up. The King of everything knows what it’s like to be abandoned. The King of everything knows what it’s like to be tortured and killed. So in this violent world, whose side do you think the True King is on?

Knowing this story changes the way you view the church. Jesus has told us what our job is: to be his witnesses. And he’s told us how we’re going to do that job: in the power of the Holy Spirit.

No longer would the mission of God be focussed on one little area as Jesus worked to tell people about the kingdom, to heal and bless — now God the Holy Spirit works through all who have faith in Jesus to follow him, and that blessing and power and witness can spread all over the world with the followers of Jesus.

Knowing this story will also tells us where the church’s power comes from. The Holy Spirit made it so that these ordinary disciples could talk to all of the different people in the crowd in their own languages. God will help us to do the job he has given us to do. If God has called you to do a job, he’ll give you what you need to do it. Maybe that will be the confidence or the words to speak to someone about Jesus. Maybe that will be the grace and the love that you need to befriend people and show them in a very real way what it is like in the kingdom of God. With friendship and grace. Maybe it will be the courage you will need to speak out against injustice. If God has called you to do something God will give you what you need to do it.

Your options might seem limited at the moment. How can we witness when we can barely interact with others lest we spread infection. It may seem bleak to have church on your own at home, watching a screen, listening to my voice or reading along. But look at it this way, Facebook and Youtube have never had so many sermons on them before. The internet can be a very dark place and now little lights are coming on all over. Share the message. Chat about it. People who were curious about church and too intimidated to walk in the doors of a strange building now only have to click a link to have their introduction to what we believe. 

We don’t have Sunday school now, but if you have kids and suddenly find yourself at home more than you’ve ever been before, this time can be used to discuss faith with them, to practice family worship together. Read God’s word together, pray together, sing together. If you are Christian parents that’s your calling, your job for the King, and as intimidating as it might seem, God will empower you to do it.

We serve the same King as the apostles did and we can serve him in the power of the Holy Spirit, just like they did. Same King. Same power. So today, know who the King is and know what your job in his kingdom is: to live here and now in this world as witnesses of the true King and his Kingdom until the King returns. 

Pray

Lord God, help us to be witnesses for Jesus Christ wherever it is you have placed us, among the family, friends , neighbours and colleagues you have given us. Help us to trust you to provide the power that we need to answer your call, follow Jesus and point others to him. We pray for all of the sermons and services that are now online, may they be a blessing to the church and may many people, who would have otherwise not heard the good news today, hear it. Help us to know that our worship at hope is so important and to know that you will give us the power that we need to do the job that you have called us to do. We pray in the name of Jesus, our King and our Saviour.
Amen.

Today please also remember in your prayers:

  • The bereaved
  • The sick
  • The lonely
  • Those working to keep us supplied with essential supplies
  • Those working in medicine and caring
  • Those working to develop vaccines and treatments
  • Those in leadership

May God be near them in their pain and suffering and strengthen them to meet the challenges that they face.

Sing

Some songs celebrating Christ our King.

Christ Our Glory – Sovereign Grace Music
The King in all his Beauty – Sovereign Grace Music
In Christ Aline – Keith and Kristyn Getty, Alison Krauss

Sing

Dear friends I want to now offer some help and encouragement for the third and final part of home or family worship: singing. Just to recap, family worship comprises of three parts that you can all do at home with your families, or on your own: reading, praying and singing. As I said before, this is something that it has always been very important for us to do, but its importance is highlighted now in the current situation, a bit like hand-washing! You’ll find some help on this website for reading and praying, but now look at singing.  

A Singing People 

God’s people are a singing people. We have been singing praise in response to God and his works since the beginning and we will be singing his praises for eternity. 

When Adam met Eve for the first time, after God had created her from his own rib, he responded with a joyful, lyrical exclamation: 

‘This is now bone of my bones 
    and flesh of my flesh; 
she shall be called “woman”, 
    for she was taken out of man.’ 
(Genesis 2:23, NIVUK) 

When Moses and Israelites escaped from Egypt, crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground and saw Pharoah and his soldiers defeated by God, they responded in song. 

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: 

‘I will sing to the Lord, 
    for he is highly exalted. 
Both horse and driver 
    he has hurled into the sea. 
(Exodus 15:1) 

Their life of slavery was over, the people who sought to kill them have been defeated, they’ve been rescued by the true and living God, and they respond with song. 

The entire book of Psalms is poetic prayer, many of them specifically described as songs in their titles. Many of these psalms were written by King David, who liked to praise God with music. 

In the New Testament we see God’s people continue to sing in response to his works. Luke’s gospel is rich with song as people respond to the coming of the long-awaited Messiah: Mary’s song, the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, Zechariah’s song the Benedictus in Luke 1:67-79, the angels’ song, which has come to be known as Gloria in Excelsis Deo, in Luke 2:13, and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis in Luke 2:29-32. Matthew records that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn together at the end of the last supper (Matthew 26:30). Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, uses poetry (or possibly an early church hymn) to describe the self-giving love of Jesus: 

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 

 who, being in very nature God, 
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 
rather, he made himself nothing 
    by taking the very nature of a servant, 
    being made in human likeness. 
And being found in appearance as a man, 
    he humbled himself 
    by becoming obedient to death – 
        even death on a cross! 

 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
    and gave him the name that is above every name, 
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
    to the glory of God the Father. 
(Philippians 2:5-11, NIVUK) 

When John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos, isolated, separated from the church he loved so dearly, he was visited by the risen Lord Jesus and given a glimpse into heaven. What did he see in heaven? Singing! 

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: 

‘You are worthy to take the scroll 
    and to open its seals, 
because you were slain, 
    and with your blood you purchased for God 
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. 
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, 
    and they will reign on the earth.’ 
(Revelation 5:6-10, NIVUK) 

When God spoke to the prophet Isaiah to describe that day when all things will be made right and new and God’s kingdom will come to earth in all its fullness he poetically describes nature itself rejoicing in song. 

You will go out in joy 
    and be led forth in peace; 
the mountains and hills 
    will burst into song before you, 
and all the trees of the field 
    will clap their hands. 
(Isaiah 55:12, NIVUK)

God’s people and his creation rejoice in song in response to the redemptive work of God. 

We are Called to Sing 

We are not just given examples of singing in the Bible, we are also instructed to sing: 

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 
(Colossians 3:16, NIVUK) 

We can sing praises in response to God and what he has done. We can sing for joy. We can sing in lamentation. So many of the psalms are broken-hearted cries to God. Our singing is not a performance, we do not do it to show off, but to praise God and direct our souls to turn to him.  

I know some of you may feel uncomfortable singing. I write this with love and a pastor’s heart, so please don’t take it the wrong way: unless you have some serious trauma or psychological hang-up, if it is merely self-consciousness preventing you from singing, then the solution here is simply to get over yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about God and God deserves our praises. However, what we find when we dedicate ourselves to praising God is that we are doing what we have been made to do and in that we can find a deep and lasting joy. So don’t deny yourself the joy of worship!

Perhaps you are not a very emotionally expressive person. Welcome to the club! Neither am I! Sometimes I have to remind myself to smile so people don’t think I’m mad at them! Perhaps you don’t really feel moved to sing. I suggest singing anyway, you would be surprised how moved you can be once you get things started. I am not a great singer, but I sing, because it’s not about me, it’s about God. 

If you can sing a football chant or happy birthday to your friends or children, then you can sing to God. And when you do so you are never alone. We join the choir of angels and saints in heaven, praising God.  

There are some great online resources to help you to sing. All you have to do is Google or search on Spotify or YouTube and you can find the lyrics or the music for you to sing any hymn or worship song you like. I try to find appropriate hymns to post up alongside my Sunday sermons, but if there are any that you would particularly like included, please let me know.

Church at Home Resources – 19th of April, 2020

Hello everyone! Here I have presented some more resources for you to celebrate this Lord’s Day and worship at home, with the three core elements of family/household worship: reading Scripture, praying, and singing God’s praise. I am sorry that I don’t have a video for you today. I am currently in too much pain to record a video, but have recorded my sermon as an MP3 for you to play. Please share these resources with others if you can. I always put up the text of my sermons and reflections so that people who can’t play MP3s or videos might still be encouraged and helped by reading.

I hope you have a wonderful time of worship at home. Just remember, you are not alone. When we worship God, we join in with our brothers and sisters in the church all over the world and even with the heavenly choirs who are always praising the Lord.

Love,
John.

Read
Today we begin by reading John 20:19-31

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’

But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’

Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

An audio recording of my sermon. You can play it here, or download it.

Today we’re going to look at Thomas, or “doubting Thomas” as he’s sometimes called, and his journey to faith.

I don’t think Thomas really deserves the nickname he’s been given. Yes, he doubted. Who hasn’t? I don’t think he was an especially sceptical or cynical man. He returned to his group of friends and heard the good news. News that must have sounded too good to be true: “We have seen the Lord!” The same gospel the church proclaims today. We don’t preach that we’ve personally seen the resurrected Jesus in the flesh, but we preach the good news that Christ is risen.

Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples earlier. They were all huddled in the room with the door locked. And Jesus appeared and blessed them, showed them his wounds and commissioned them to go and spread the gospel of forgiveness… and poor Thomas missed it all. So all Thomas has to go on is the message that he’s heard from the others. It’s many hundreds of years later now, but still today we proclaim the same message passed down from the original eye-witnesses. So in a way Thomas is like a person who hears the good news of Easter today — “Christ is risen!” — and he reacted like many do today. Thomas doubted in the same way that many people today doubt. I mean I believe now, but I doubted for a long time. For years! Much longer than a week, like Thomas did! And yet he’s called Doubting Thomas?!

Many people will doubt and dismiss the claims of Christianity, but while Thomas doubted, I don’t believe he was ever dismissive. Thomas stuck around. Even though it was a dangerous time when they had to keep the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders. Thomas admitted what it would take for him to believe and he stuck with the other disciples. He’s still there a week later, seeking, waiting, wrestling with his doubt, hoping to see Jesus for himself. And no doubt hearing the message again and again from his friends the whole time he was there. Thomas showed honesty and courage and a commitment to engage with the extraordinary claims of the gospel. And we call him “Doubting Thomas”, like we’re in any position to scoff!

“We have seen the Lord!” is a bold claim. Jesus is risen. Most Jews believed that God was going to redeem creation one day and that meant a physical resurrection. They believed in and hoped for the resurrection, but they expected it to be in a new age when God set all things right. That resurrection had happened now with Jesus, while the rest of the world continued on as it had done, was something completely unexpected. Jesus rising from the dead would mean that something from the new age of resurrection had broken into this age. People weren’t expecting that.

Peter once said to Jesus “We’ve left everything to follow you!” (Matthew 19:27). So when Jesus was crucified, died and was buried… then what? Left everything to follow him and now he’s dead. These people must have been feeling like their lives were over too.

So maybe the good news just seemed too good to be true. Thomas was no more doubtful than the other disciples. They all thought Jesus was dead too until they met him. Thomas just hasn’t had that experience yet. Thomas, like the women on the way to anoint the dead body of Jesus, was still in the place of mourning. He was still crushed.

Thomas was honest about his disbelief. Even if it meant that he’d be the odd one out amongst his friends he wouldn’t pretend. And Thomas, right at that moment, was different to them. Belief in the risen Christ is essential to the Christian faith. It’s at the heart of our faith. A faith that denies the resurrection is not Christianity.

You might believe that Jesus was a wise teacher or a good example, but if you believe he is not risen then whatever you believe it’s not Christianity. It’s not the good news of Jesus Christ. Thomas is to be commended for his honesty. There are many in Christian circles today — and even in positions of church leadership — who will either claim that the real resurrection of Jesus doesn’t matter, and there are many who will claim to believe in it when they don’t. Give me an honest unbeliever any day over a pretend Christian. That I can respect! Thomas was upfront and honest and he stuck around to wrestle with his doubts.

A week later Thomas received an answer to his wrestling and no doubt his prayers. Jesus entered the room even though the doors were locked. His body is a resurrection body, not just the old body revived but changed now so that the old limitations no longer affect him. He comes bringing the blessing of peace to all there, including Thomas. And it looks as though he may well have come just to give Thomas that experience that he needed to move him from doubt to belief. He shows thomas the exact things he said that he needed:

Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’”
(John 20:27, NIV, Anglicised)

He shows Thomas the wounds and invites him to touch them. I wondered why it was that Thomas thought it was so important to see and touch the wounds of Christ. Perhaps it was because the other disciples got to see them. Thomas goes further, he wants to touch them. He wants to see if this is really the one who died. Not an illusion or a lookalike, but really and truly the one who died and rose again. It’s interesting that we’re reminded in verse 24 that Thomas is also called Didymus, which means “twin”. Perhaps Thomas was used to being mistaken for his twin brother growing up and the thought entered his mind as he heard his friends say “We have seen the Lord!” that it was just someone who looked really like Jesus.

But no this is the real Jesus, the one whose hands were nailed to the cross and whose side was pierced with a spear. And he keeps those scars in his resurrection body. In those scars he shows us that God knows pain, God suffered and he is not ashamed of it. God paid a price to redeem his people and he doesn’t regret it. Seeing the scars brings joy to his disciples and moves Thomas from doubt to faith and to his most beautiful confession:

Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
(John 20:28, NIV, Anglicised)

Thomas believes now and look how he believes! He leaps from doubt to the most beautiful true praise. Jesus is Lord! Jesus is God! My Lord and my God!

And Jesus accepts this worship because he is indeed Lord and God. His response is not to say “Oh no, you’ve gone too far there, Thomas!” He recognises this statement as a sign of Thomas’s true belief. Thomas says “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus responds:

Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’
(John 20:29, NIV, Anglicised)

This is belief, to know the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord and God.

Thomas has come to believe now because he heard the message and had the experience. Jesus says that those who have not seen, like Thomas and the other apostles have, and yet come to believe, are blessed. He’s talking about us. He’s talking about the original readers of John’s gospel who were not eyewitnesses to the resurrection and still came to believe. And modern readers too, like you and me.

And so John goes on to say why this book was written. The eyewitness accounts are there so that you might have the blessing of faith in Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, and have life in his name. This book was written so that you would have that message, so that you would know who Jesus is and believe in him and have life — true life — in his name. You are not second-class to the apostles and the eyewitnesses, you are blessed.

But what about those of us who have heard the message, and like Thomas, we doubted? You might be tempted to wonder why you can’t get a house call from Jesus like Thomas did. But I think that in a way we do have the same two things available to us as Thomas had, although not in quite the same way.

We have the apostolic witness and we have experience. Thomas received that apostolic witness from his friends the apostles. We can read it in the Bible. It’s the same message.

Thomas’s experience was to see for himself the wounds of Christ as he appeared to him and spoke to him. Where is our experience?

I can only speak for myself. The word of God is my authority, but I didn’t always believe it. I had to see for myself how the good news of Jesus Christ was true. I decided I wouldn’t dismiss the Bible as just some old religious book, but would take it seriously. I mean if it is true then that changes everything, so it deserves to be paid attention to, it deserves to be wrestled with. I began to read it for myself and, as I did so, I prayed to a God I didn’t really know and I asked him, if he was there, if he was real, to help me to find him, to show himself to me.

And he did. He showed himself in the people that I encountered who shared their lives with me, who showed me what difference their faith made in their lives. They really lived like it was true. They lived like they were committed to grace because God had shown grace to them. And as I trusted in God and his word I began to live like it was true too. And as I did so I found that it was. I took steps of faith and found God right there, supporting me, growing me, changing me, challenging me to take the next step. I had prayers answered and the word of God coming to life to me, speaking to me, changing me

But you’ll never know the experience if you dismiss the message. Doubt it, okay I kind of expect that, but don’t dismiss it or you’ll miss out on seeing that this isn’t just some story about a wise and kind teacher who lived long ago and preached about love. This is the story of the One who is God, who was in the beginning, through whom all things were made, who came into the world to save us, to die for us. This is the story of the One who died for us and rose again. He is risen indeed and he offers life, true resurrection life, to all who will believe in him. This is the story of God’s redemption breaking into this world in the resurrection of Jesus.

I pray that even if you doubt, you would have the honesty to admit it and the courage to seek after Jesus anyway. That you would wrestle with it, listen to the message, pray for Jesus to show himself to you. If it’s true you can’t just let this pass you by. Thomas knew that and so he stayed with the other disciples in that room in Jerusalem, despite the danger, despite being the odd one out. He stayed and he wrestled and he prayed until he saw for himself that Jesus is risen indeed, and he believed and confessed him as his Lord and God. I pray that those of you who doubt would do the same.

For us who believe, do not forget the importance of our role. We are charged by God with delivering this message and living in such a way so through us people might come to know and experience God for themselves. The Spirit of Christ dwells in you and empowers you to witness to the gospel and manifest God to one another and to the world.

Pray

Lord Jesus, we thank you that you come to meet us where we are. Even when we lock ourselves up out of fear, you can enter into our lives and bring peace. We thank you for the blessing of faith and that we can know and worship you. Fill us now with your Holy Spirit and may he make us bold to share the gospel.

In times of darkness and doubt may we, like Thomas, refuse to give up and keep searching. May we press on and keep wrestling, and like Thomas may we know the reality of our risen Lord and God in our lives.

We pray for all those now who feel fear and those who feel doubt. Come and meet them Lord and turn their fear into joy and their doubt into praise.

Amen.

Sing

Some videos which you might find helpful to sing along to at home as you worship.

Church at Home Resources – 12th of April, 2020 – Easter Sunday

A very strange Easter Sunday since we all have to be at home. I have provided here some resources which I hope will help you to worship at home on your own or with your family. Below I hope you will find something to help you read and reflect on the Bible, something to guide you in your prayers, and something to encourage you to sing God’s praises today. We still have the most amazing reason to celebrate today, so rejoice! Christ is risen!

Love,
Rev. John.

Read

Today I invite you to read and reflect along with me from John 20:1-18. I will be reading it in the video below, but if you would like to read it in advance here is the full passage:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’

‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.
(John 20:1-18, NIV, Anglicised)

Easter Sunday is the biggest celebration in the Christian calendar. This year we must celebrate it at home. This is a dark and uncertain time. We cannot ignore the seriousness of our situation, but we must also not forget our hope. One of the mottos of the reformation, especially dear to Calvinists, was the phrase “Post tenebras lux”. After darkness, light! 

Even now we have reason to celebrate. Because light has dawned. A light that will never go out. Our hope rests on what happened that first Easter Sunday morning. Our entire faith hangs on what happened that morning – if Jesus isn’t risen then none of this matters. But if Jesus is risen, then that changes everything, and we have a hope that nothing in this world can put out.

If Jesus is risen then what he taught about himself is true and his way is the way of true life. If Jesus is risen then something new has happened. New life and new creation has begun to creep into this world.

Let’s read the text of John 20:1-18, together. Stopping to reflect as we go. Verse 1:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
(John 20:1, NIV, Anglicised)

In the dark of the early morning, Mary Magdalene gathered her spices together and went to the tomb to anoint a dead body. Jesus, who she had followed to Jerusalem. Jesus, who had given her peace from her demons. Jesus who had promised so much. Jesus, who she had seen cruelly mocked and murdered in the foulest, most humiliating way the Romans had to kill a man. Jesus, who, for all of his teaching, all of his power, all of his promise, hung on the cross until he died – just like any other man would. Mary went to anoint a corpse, of that she was sure. She had seen his death with her own eyes.

Crucifixion was designed not only to kill a man, but to publicly humiliate him as he died slowly and painfully. Jesus died this death. He died slowly and painfully, naked and exposed to the mocking of the crowds. Mary saw this. 

He was dead. This was the cold, hard truth that Mary was sure of in the dark of the early morning. She gathered her spices to anoint the corpse of her beloved friend and teacher, the man who had changed her life. Her dreams were crushed, her Jesus was dead.

Most Jewish people at the time held to a belief in the resurrection. They believed that there would come a day, at the end of this world, when creation would all be made new and God would raise up all of his people. They believed that the physical things of this world were made by God and therefore mattered, and so that meant a bodily resurrection for God’s people on the last day.

But that day had not yet come. This was the first day of another week and it looked like it was going to be a very hard week. Whatever God might have in store for the future, the here and now looked bleak. Reality appears to move on, unstoppable, uncaring, moving over Jesus and his band of radicals. Whatever might happen on the last day, today was a sad day for Mary. 

There was no expectation in Mary’s mind that Jesus could have been resurrected. That would mean that something of the last day had been brought forward to the present day. Unthinkable. It would mean that the new creation had started to creep into this world. It would mean that heaven and earth were coming together. 

When Mary sees that the heavy stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away, she doesn’t think that Jesus is risen. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they have killed Jesus, now it looks like they have stolen his body! Verses two and three:

So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.
(John 20:2-3 NIV, Anglicised)

Mary’s cry is not a celebration of the resurrection, it’s a cry that Jesus’ body has been stolen, because the thought hadn’t entered her mind that resurrection might be possible.

Christians make a very bold claim: we believe, and have believed and proclaimed since the beginning of our faith, that Christ is risen. Not that he continues on in our hearts in some sentimental way, not that he just “went to heaven”. We believe that something happened, on this first day of the week, that has never happened before. We believe that Christ rose – physically, actually, really – from the dead.

The resurrection was unexpected and unprecedented, but it happened and the church has proclaimed it from the beginning – Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

The resurrection may have been inconceivable to Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter Sunday, but it was not unexpected to Jesus. Jesus knew that he would be crucified and that he would rise again in three days. Jesus even spoke about his death and resurrection. Sometimes he spoke about it in metaphor, but Jesus also spoke very plainly. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 20, it says:

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!’
(Matthew 20:17-19, NIV, Anglicised)

You can’t get much more plain and explicit than that. Jesus knew what would happen, he was prepared for it. But to the disciples, Jesus’ resurrection was so inconceivable that they didn’t think that he could possibly mean that he would be raised from the dead.

But the beloved disciple, John, when he sees the graveclothes lying there in the empty tomb, things begin to dawn on him. Verses 3-10:

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
(John 20:3-10, NIV, Anglicised)

John, the beloved disciple, crouched looking into the tomb and he must have remembered the last time he stood before a tomb. Just days earlier he was in front of the tomb of Lazarus when Jesus raised him from the dead. Lazarus’ resurrection was not the same as Jesus’ resurrection. Lazarus was revived, returned to this present life, where he would again one day die. Lazarus was brought back from death, Jesus went through death and out the other side. When Lazarus was raised he stumbled out of the tomb and Jesus called for those present to unbind him from his linen. This time though, the grave clothes lie where Jesus lay. Grave robbers don’t take time to unwrap the body and leave the linen neatly back in place. The linen lays there as if Jesus had just passed through it.

The text doesn’t say that Peter believed yet, but John has come to believe that Jesus has risen like he said he would. That belief would go on to grow and develop as he met the risen Jesus, learned more about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, and as he understood the predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Old Testament and saw that this was always the plan.

We’re seeing different stages of belief in this text. John has come to believe based on the empty tomb, that Jesus has risen like he said he would. Peter, we’re not too sure about. The passage doesn’t say that Peter came to believe then and there, but it does say that he went home, perhaps he went to think, to let things settle in. What Peter didn’t do is stick around to try to find the body. Mary however, is still convinced that Jesus is dead and that his body has been taken.

Verses 11 to 13:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’

‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’
(John 20:11-13, NIV, Anglicised)

Those “men” hadn’t been there before, or had they? Mary, in her grief, does not seem to realise what’s going on. She doesn’t realise that this is a new and special thing, that what was unthinkable, unprecedented and unexpected has happened. Jesus is risen. The new creation has begun to creep into this world and heaven is touching earth at this place.

There’s someone behind her. Verses 14 to 16:

At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).
(John 20:14-16, NIV, Anglicised)

Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus at first, possibly because she just gave a quick glance and couldn’t make Jesus out through her tears. Seeing Jesus standing there was the last thing she expected. Whatever reason she didn’t recognise him at first, when she heard him call her name, her eyes were opened.

Snapped out of her grief and into belief, Mary was overjoyed and clung to her teacher. But she can’t continue to cling to him, she can’t hold onto the way things used to be. Jesus has given Mary a job – she is now the apostle to the apostles, sent to deliver the good news to them.

Verses 17 and 18:

Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.
(John 20:17-18, NIV, Anglicised)

Pay very careful attention to the message Jesus gives Mary, because in this we can see that everything has changed because of what Jesus has done. Up until this point Jesus has referred to God as “the Father” or “my Father”, but now it is “my Father and your Father” and “my God and your God”. Something amazing has happened.

Jesus is risen and that means everything has changed!

Jesus’ crucifixion has dealt with our sin – the thing that separates people from God. He was punished in our place for our sins. He took the brokenness of his people upon himself and he rose again because God’s love is bigger than our brokenness. 

Whatever you think you have done that stops you from coming to God, the resurrection is proof that the damage has been dealt with, payment has been accepted and the battle to free us has been won. This is proof that God’s love is bigger than your biggest mistakes.

Jesus’ death in our place has repaired our relationship with God. Now to know and believe in Jesus and his sacrifice is to return home to our Father who loves us.

In the first chapter of this gospel, John writes:

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
(John 1:10-13, NIV, Anglicised)

Those who, through faith, follow Jesus have been adopted by God. Jesus refers to the disciples, not just as disciples, or even just as friends, but as “my brothers”. God is not just “the Father” anymore, he is our Father, your Father and my Father.

New life, new relationship, the new creation has broken into the present world. God is doing a new thing. Sin and death are defeated and we have a living Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.

After darkness, light! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! From that first morning on, this message has gone out and the church has proclaimed it ever since.

May you all hear Jesus call you by name and may you, like Mary, proclaim the wonderful news that Christ is risen, in your words and in the life that you live, in the hope that you have. May the resurrection give you the courage to follow Jesus in the most difficult of circumstances, knowing that this world is not all that there is, knowing that even death is not the end. Knowing that the damage has been dealt with, the debt has been paid, the battle has been won and the tomb is empty.

Pray

Loving God, we praise and thank you for our great hope and the reason we celebrate today and every Sunday: Jesus Christ is risen! Thank you, Lord, that because of what Jesus has done we have been brought into fellowship with you. You are our Father in Christ and because of what he has done.

Even in dark times we have this hope, that you Lord are at work redeeming your creation and your people. Death has been defeated!

We pray that you would draw near to and comfort those who are finding these days especially difficult.

For those who are unwell we pray for healing and for strength.

For those who work to treat and care for others please protect them, continue to bless them with great skill and energy for their work.

For those who are working hard at finding new treatments please bless their work and grant them success.

For our leaders, please give them wisdom, courage and compassion.

For the most vulnerable people we pray for your protection.

Lord, help us to hold on to this bright hope that we have in Jesus during these dark days. May we never forget the wonderful truth of the gospel: Christ is risen!

In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

Sing

Here are some Easter songs to help you to worship God this Easter Sunday

Church at Home Resources – 10th of April, 2020 – Good Friday

Read – Matthew 27:27-66

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers round him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. They spat on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means ‘the place of the skull’). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is jesus, the king of the jews.

Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’ In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’

Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’

Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’

‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
(Matthew 27:27-66, NIV, Anglicised)

Good Friday Reflection – God Forsaken

Jesus was nailed to the cross in the morning., “the third hour”, as it was known. 9 o’clock. After three hours of Jesus hanging there the sky went dark. Noon. Right in the middle of the day at noon, the sun refused to shine for three whole hours. At 3 o’clock, after 6 hours of hanging on the cross, Jesus cried out in anguish.

“…‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’… ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” 
(Matthew 27:46)

Six hours nailed to a cross, naked, beaten and scourged, abandoned by his friends. Jesus cries out with a deep anguish of the soul. Jesus, as Calvin wrote, “bore in his soul the tortures of a condemned and ruined man” (Institutes, II:XVI, 10).

God the Son, who has known an eternity of fellowship with the Father, an intimacy we cannot imagine, is now experiencing separation from his beloved Father as he takes our sins upon himself.

Jesus cried in his mother tongue a quote from Psalm 22, the prayer of one seeking justice and rescue in the face of cruel destruction. A cry of dereliction.

And a good question.

“Why have you forsaken me?”

Why had God forsaken him?

The short answer is: for us. Jesus was forsaken for us. But as we reflect on Jesus hanging there, unjustly suffering, weak, hurting, abandoned by his friends we can also see the truth that Jesus is forsaken with us and by us.

Jesus is forsaken with us. Forsaken by us. And to answer his question, an answer Jesus already knew, Jesus is forsaken for us.

Forsaken with us

On the cross we see Jesus forsaken with us. We see that God is not distant from those who suffer. God knows suffering. Our God is the One who was unjustly tried, falsely accused, mocked and beaten though he did no wrong. Betrayed. Abandoned by his closest friends. Rejected by those he came to save. Those feeling the sting of injustice, the ache of dereliction can know that God is not far. God is not just the God of the strong, the successful, the rich and smiling. Our God is the God of the broken, the weak, the betrayed, the abused. The God of those who cry out for justice.

Forsaken by us

We also see ourselves on the other side. Like his apostles, we too have forsaken him. Jesus was abandoned by his friends and we are reminded as we reflect on the cross that it shines back at us showing us all the ways we have abandoned him. Showing us the ugliness of our sin. We turn away from God to pursue our own agendas. So often when the devil, the world or our own desires call us one way and Jesus calls us the other, we choose to walk away from Jesus.

We are reminded to take sin seriously as we are shown the true ugliness of it. On the cross we see all our selfishness, cowardice, greed, lust, hatred, all of our sins. We know that this is why Jesus, the Son of God, died. 

Forsaken for us

Finally, the answer to Jesus’ question, why had God forsaken him? What for? Jesus was forsaken for us.

Jesus took upon himself all of this ugliness. All of our sin. Our greed, lust, hatred, cowardice, selfishness. Every wicked thought, word and deed. The brokenness of our hearts and all of ways we have sinned against each other and God. Jesus, who knew no sin, who loved God and had never turned away from him, took all of this from us and took it on himself. That was our cross and yet God the Son hung there.

And for the first time in eternity God the Son experienced what it is like to be separated from his beloved Father. Sin separates us from God and when Jesus, who had not sinned, took our sin on himself he felt that separation and cried out in pain the words of the psalm “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was experiencing the consequences of our sin.

God himself experiencing separation and forsakenness for us. Such a horror it seems like even nature couldn’t bear to witness it. The earth shook and the sun refused to shine.

And why?

Because of the love of God. John 3:16 tells us:

‘For God 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.

God gave his only Son out of love for the world.

Jesus, God the Son, was born into poverty, because of love. Ministered because of love. Preached and taught because of love. Rebuked the arrogant and hypocritical because of love. Welcomed the outcast because of love. Rode into Jerusalem because of love. Accepted betrayal and arrest because of love. Endured beating and mocking and torture because of love. Hung on a cross because of love. Was separated from his Father because of love.

Because of love, Jesus took our sin, our rebellion and brokenness. He took it on himself and took it to the grave so that we could be free from it. He bore our punishment so that we could be spared.

On this Good Friday take some time to reflect on the cross and on the God who was forsaken with us, by us and for us. Know that Jesus endured this because of love, and in him, and because of what he has done, we can have forgiveness for all our sins and we can know God who loves us more than we can imagine.

Pray

What can we possibly say to God in response to the cross? The cross shows us that God’s love is greater than our sins. It shows us that God would rather undergo the pain of costly forgiveness than justly punish us for our sins. Perhaps you have never really thought about this before, or perhaps it has been a long time since you stopped to reflect on it; we all need to remind ourselves constantly of God’s amazing grace shown to us in the death of Jesus Christ for us. God has offered us forgiveness and fellowship with him, not as something to be earned by our good behaviour, but as a gift. Our role is to accept this gift. Accept God’s forgiveness and the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.

The cross shows us that our sin is so great a problem that Jesus Christ had to die so that we could be forgiven. The cross also shows us that God’s love for us is even greater, because Jesus Christ willingly died so that we could be forgiven.

Pray now to God. Confess that you are a sinner in need of salvation. Then thank him, because that salvation has come to you freely because of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for your sake on the cross.

Sing

It is right to rejoice and sing in response to God’s salvation. You might find this video helpful. First published in 1707, this hymn was originally written by Isaac Watts. The lyrics are written below.

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God.
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

How to Pray

If you want to learn to pray, then you can do no better than listen to what Jesus said about prayer. Thankfully Jesus’ first disciples asked him plainly to teach them to pray and his instruction has been written down for us. It’s there for you to read in God’s word today, because God knows that we need help praying and he wants to help us.

Read Luke 11:1-13:

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’
He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

‘“Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.”’

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
(Luke 11:1-13, NIV, Anglicised)

The Importance of Prayer

Martyn Lloyd Jones, the famous Welsh preacher, one of the giants of the church in the 20th century, said that “prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul.”

Prayer is important! We know prayer is important because Jesus prayed. If Jesus, the Son of God, needed to pray, then we definitely need to pray! Jesus made time and space for prayer. It says in Luke, chapter 5:

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
(Luke 5:15-16, NIV, Anglicised)

Think of the kind of schedule Jesus had during his ministry travelling around. Think of his work. Imagine the things that Jesus would do in a day. Crowds following him everywhere. Disciples, eager to be taught, who had left everything to follow and depend on him. Teaching to be done. Proclaiming the gospel. Driving out evil spirits. Healing people, setting them free from bondage to injury or disease. He looked at all that work, all of that need and still he withdrew from it to pray. Prayer first.

Now I guarantee you, your job is not more important than the ministry of the Son of God. If he had to make time for prayer, then we definitely need to do that. If the Son of God needed prayer, then how much more must I need it!? Jesus never sinned. Never had to confess sin, never had to seek forgiveness for anything he did. I do. Every day! There’s a whole category of prayer that I need that Jesus didn’t!

We need to pray. Don’t just settle for praying when you’re scared about something or when you come to church, build it into your daily life.

God-Centred Prayer

So the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and he does, and we still have that teaching, thank God. And Christians all over the world, throughout the denominations are united in praying the prayer that he taught his disciples to pray.

When Jesus instructed his disciples to pray he gave us a prayer that exalts God and humbles us. Our first request is that God’s name would be made holy. Holy to us, holy in our communities, holy all over the world. We want people to regard God with reverence, awe and worship. 

The requests that we make for ourselves are simple humble requests that remind us of our daily need for simple things and how weak and sinful we are. 

The Lord’s Prayer shows us that good prayer is God-centred prayer. Prayer that exalts God and humbles us. Whatever version of the Lord’s prayer you use — Luke’s or Matthew’s (which has a little more detail), or the liturgical version you most often hear said in church — the focus of this prayer is on God. Hallowed be your name, Father. May your kingdom come. Not me and my name, not my kingdom, not anyone else, but God.

Even when we get to talking about ourselves the requests are simple, humble requests. We don’t pray that we might also be honoured and that our will might also be done. We pray just that we would have enough bread for today, that God would forgive us and protect us so that we can live the kind of life that glorifies him. This is a good prayer because it is a God-centred, God-exalting prayer.

Bad prayer is not God-centred. Bad prayer doesn’t even treat God like God. Bad prayer is the kind of prayer where you start with you and your desires and your will and you decide that you’re going to say the right words, with the right feeling in them, in the right place, and then it’ll work. You’ll get what you want. This is what I call “vending-machine prayer”. We treat God like a vending machine. Walk up, decide what you want, put the right amount in, press the right buttons and get it. And we get angry when it doesn’t work.

This bad kind of prayer people expect to work like magic like some kind of witchcraft. Say the right words, make the right sacrifice, dance the special dance, and you get what you want. But if that is your belief, who are you really trying to put in control? Who is really important if you pray with that sort of prayer? You! You get what you want because you pushed the right buttons, said the right words, went to the right church. That kind of false belief attempts to convince you that you’re in control. 

Compare that to the Lord’s prayer. Father, I am not in control nor do I want to be. May you be honoured, may your will be done. As for me, please give me bread and forgiveness and protection.

The Lord’s Prayer is our model for good prayer.

Persistence

What else does Jesus say about prayer. In verses 5 to 10, Jesus tells a little parable to illustrate the point that we should be persistent in prayer:

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
(Luke 11:5-10, NIV, Anglicised)

It’s a strange parable. So are we supposed to just nag God into submission? Is this saying that God doesn’t really want to help us but he will if he has to in order to get rid of us so he can have some peace?! No! Please don’t take that away from this story.

The point is simply this: ask, seek, knock, be persistent. God is not a reluctant neighbour, the whole rest of the Bible argues against that. God is your Father in Christ. 

This story is told to a people living in a culture where hospitality to guests who have arrived was so so important. If you travelled somewhere in this country you didn’t stay at a B&B, you stayed with your cousin or other relative. If someone came to you you were obliged to host them and feed them and if your neighbour needed help you helped them. Because in these communities you had to look out for one another.

So if this happened to you, you absolutely would go knocking on your neighbour’s door in the middle of the night. And you’d keep asking as long as you needed, because to not look after your guest was such a shameful thing. You’d keep asking and asking and asking. And if you’d do that to a reluctant, sleepy, unwilling neighbour, why would you not do it with God. God does not sleep. God is not too busy for you. God always has what you need. God wants you to come to him and ask!

So persevere! Keep asking. You don’t know why things are taking longer, but it’s definitely not because God wants you to go away. God may be telling you to wait. But if you’re sure what you are asking for is good, if it is in accordance with God’s will, then keep asking. That builds faith, because every time you come and ask you are reaffirming your trust in God and your belief that he can help you.

The Good Father

Jesus also encourages his disciples to trust God:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
(Luke 11:11-13, NIV, Anglicised)

Jesus says: “If you then, though you are evil…”. I didn’t always appreciate him, but I  have a great dad. I’m a father myself now and I try to be the best dad I can be. But the best dad in the world is still a sinner, and compared to God they pale in comparison. God is better than our most loving, most wonderful earthly fathers. So we can trust God. Trust that he loves us and will take care of us. Trust that when we ask for a fish he will not give us  a snake. 

There will be times when we will pray and it will sure feel like we got a snake or a scorpion.

“Please, please don’t let it be cancer.” And it’s cancer.

“Please, Father, heal them.” And they die.

And that feels like the worst bite or sting. It feels like venom in your veins when all you wanted was something good. But what Jesus is saying is, no, this, even this, isn’t a snake. This isn’t a scorpion. Even if it feels like it now. God is a good Father and he doesn’t give his children poison. 

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who  have been called according to his purpose.”
(Romans 8:28, NIV, Anglicised)

We are his children, and whatever he sends our way will ultimately be for our good. Although we can’t always see it, God is working for our good, because he is our Father.

No matter how much it hurts, remember that God is good. We don’t know why every horrible thing happens, but God knows. We must trust that he is a good Father, better even than our best, and one day we will rejoice.

Prayer is important, good prayer is God-centered, persistent and trusting. Those are the principles of good prayer, but we must do it. Christians should pray, you cannot live the Christian life without it. You cannot grow in your relationship with God if you do not speak to him. Birds fly, fish swim, Christians pray. It is essential to the life of a disciple of Christ.

So take some time and pray. You can pray short little prayers or spend an hour in prayer with Bible reading and meditation. Pray God-focused prayers with humility, perseverance and trust in the love of God and his power.

Again, I am more than happy to help anyone who needs it in this area.

Church at Home Resources – 5th of April, 2020 – Palm Sunday

While we must stay apart during this pandemic we are still the church and we can still worship. We can still have special times of worship at home with reading, prayer and song. Today I have provided some additional videos and crafts that I hope will help you to worship from home.

Read

Today, Palm Sunday, we will be reading about Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in John 12:12-19.

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
‘Hosanna!’
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written:
15 ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.’
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’

(John 12:12-19, NIV, Anglicised, 2011)

Children’s Crafts

To help children engage with this story you might enjoy creating their own paper palm leaves to celebrate our King Jesus. Click here for instructions and a template. For younger children, this simpler template might be easier.

Reflection

This is Palm Sunday when we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being hailed by the people. It’s also the start of the week when Christians around the world focus on the passion of Jesus’ Christ, his suffering for our sake. Things are coming to a head. This is the peak of Jesus’ popularity and the peak of the opposition to him. This is the week when he will be hailed as king and crucified as a criminal.  

The movement following Jesus has grown, and crowds of people are flocking to him. They’ve heard his teaching with authority. They’ve seen his signs and wonders. He has even raised a man from the dead, his friend Lazarus. 

Meanwhile, his enemies, the chief priests and pharisees have increased their opposition to Jesus and decided that he must be done away with. They are plotting and looking for an opportunity to kill him. 

Jesus enters Jerusalem at festival time, in the days leading up to Passover, when pilgrims are gathering in the city. There’s a great sense of religious zeal as well as cultural and national pride. This land might be occupied by the pagan invaders from Rome, but it is still Jerusalem, the city of the temple of the living God, and we are still God’s people. 

And here he comes! This one they have heard so much about! He healed people, he taught with authority and great wisdom, he’s worked signs and wonders, he’s even raised a man from the dead. God must surely be with him! Could he be the Messiah, God’s chosen king that his people have waited so long for? They grab palm branches and go out to greet him and celebrate his arrival. Suddenly this is like a parade! 

But why palm branches? Palm branches would have been common and readily available to wave to greet Him and throw down on the road to cover it. But there’s more to it than that. 

About 200 years earlier Jerusalem was freed from pagan foreign invaders – not the Roman Empire that time, but the Seleucid Empire. A Jewish man named Judah Maccabee defeated the invaders, liberated Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to the Lord.  

When Judah rode into Jerusalem in triumph his followers welcomed him by waving palm branches. The palm branch was a national emblem of the Jewish state and even appeared on coins. The palm branch stood for the nation of Israel, free from oppressors and invaders and independent once again. 

So, you can see the expectations that many of the people would have had. Maybe this is the one who will liberate us from the Romans, lead his people in battle against these pagan invaders and restore the glory of Israel. 

But Jesus isn’t riding into Jerusalem on a warhorse. He isn’t leading an army. He’s not riding in to take his place on a throne and wear a golden crown. Jesus rides on a humble donkey. He leads his disciples, ordinary folk called to be peacemakers and to love their enemies. He rides in knowing that this week he will be raised up, not on a throne, but on the cross. He will not wear a golden crown, but a crown of thorns forced on him by his torturers. Jesus knows that all this is in store for him and he willingly approaches. He knows that in a few days he will be betrayed and abandoned, arrested, beaten and killed and yet he rides on, closer and closer to the cross. Because that’s why he came. He came to save us by taking our punishment and dying in our place. 

As the crowds waved their palm branches and celebrated the true king they shouted  
‘Hosanna!’ 
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’  
‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’ 
(v. 13) 

What does “hosanna” mean? Hosanah comes from two words in Hebrew meaning “save now!” or “please save!”. It’s an urgent cry for help, and it comes from Psalm 118. Verse 25 of Psalm 118 goes like this:  “O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success.”

That cry for help is immediately followed by God’s answer to that cry. Verse 26 says:  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you.”

You see there the other reference to this psalm in the crowd’s cheering. The urgent cry for help is immediately answered by God so this has turned from a cry for help into a cry of celebration to rejoice over the help that God has sent. 

How does a cry for salvation become a celebration? Because they people are so confident in the faithfulness of God. God will save his people. He will not abandon them. God is faithful and he loves you with a love that will not let you go. 

Many in that crowd that hailed Jesus as king and waved palm branches and shouted “hosanna” were surely disappointed when in a few days’ time they saw this king hanging on a Roman cross. It must have looked like failure. But the greater surprise is this: it was no failure at all. This was the victory of good over evil. This was the God’s chosen faithful king being faithful even to death. This was salvation, not just from some earthly powers but from the powers of darkness that have kept humanity enslaved for every generation since the beginning.  

Jesus has saved us by taking our place. We cry hosanna in celebration that our King, the king unlike any other, the true King has indeed saved us. If we put our trust in Jesus Christ, our debt is paid, our sins are forgiven and we are raised, along with him, to new life. Life to the fullest. Life that will never end. 

Shout your praises today – your hosannas – to the God who saves. Remember today and all days that our faithful King is indeed triumphant. He has the power to save, so call on him. 

Pray

Faithful God, we pray in these strange and anxious times for help. Help us to have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and his victory over the darkness. Help us to trust not in our own performance or strength, but in Jesus and his sacrifice.

Protect us Lord and continue to help and provide for us, so that soon we will be together rejoicing again.

We pray today for those who grieve. May they be comforted by the knowledge, that you God do not stand apart from suffering. You are the God who draws close. You are the God who knows suffering. You are the God who comes to rescue us from the darkness.

We cry “hosanna” to you, knowing that you answer prayer. You are our Saviour God.

In Jesus’s name we pray.

Amen

Please remember that today, Palm Sunday, 5th of April, between 3 and 4 p.m., there will be a special hour of prayer throughout churches in Ireland. Click here for more information and for a guide for prayer.

Sing

I encourage you to sing your worship at home. You may find these videos useful to sing along to.

Benediction

The grace today is said by our lovely sister Christine. I encourage you to send in your own video.

Knowing the Biggest Story

Key to properly understanding all of the little stories of the Bible is seeing how they fit into the big overarching story of the Bible.

The Biggest Story: The Animated Short Film is a great way for kids (and grown-ups) to get to know the story of the Bible. It’s free to stream until the 12th of April and I think it could really benefit you and your family as you read the Bible at home.

Click here to watch The Biggest Story:The Animated Short Film.