Monday, 19 May 2014

The Church Today

Times are changing. The part of the world in which we live has seen huge changes since the Second World War and society today is almost totally different than it was even twenty years ago. As the Church seeks to reach out to this world it should be having regular conversations about how it needs to adapt to the environment it finds itself in. The following video is about one set of churches that have done that and responded accordingly. Its called The SOMA Family of Churches and you can check their website here.

Of course you must allow for cultural differences between Wales and the USA but that doesn't mean there is nothing to learn from them. Here is a brief introduction:

The Church Today (part 2)

The Church Today

Monday, 12 May 2014

What is God like?

Last Sunday I preached the following sermon which probably was too long for a baptism service. However I enjoyed writing it and believe that it says something God wanted said. So here it is again - in written form - so that if anyone wants to read it and were there on Sunday, they can.

What is God like?

What is God like? That was what  an eight year old called Danny Dutton was asked to write about for his homework. In an essay entitled “Explain God.” (A huge question for an eight year old). Here is part of his essay:

One of God's main jobs is making people. He makes them to replace the ones that die so there will be enough people to take care of things on earth.

He doesn't make grown-ups, just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make. That way, He doesn't have to take up His valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that to mothers and fathers.

God's second most important job is listening to prayers. An awful lot of this goes on, since some people, like preachers and things, pray at times besides bedtime. God doesn't have time to listen to the radio or TV because of this. Because He hears everything, there must be a terrible lot of noise in His ears, unless He has thought of a way to turn it off. God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere which keeps Him pretty busy. So you shouldn't go wasting His time by going over your mum and dad's head asking for something they said you couldn't have.

Atheists are people who don't believe in God. I don't think there are any where I live.  At least there aren't any who come to our church.

Jesus is God's Son. He used to do all the hard work like walking on water and performing miracles and trying to teach the people who didn't want to learn about God. They finally got tired of Him preaching to them and they crucified Him. But He was good and kind like His Father and He told His Father that they didn't know what they were doing and to forgive them and God said OK.

His Dad (God) appreciated everything that He had done and all His hard work on earth so He told Him He didn't have to go out on the road anymore, He could stay in heaven. So He did. And now He helps His Dad out by listening to prayers and seeing things which are important for God to take care of and which ones He can take care of Himself without having to bother God. Like a secretary only more important. You can pray anytime you want and they are sure to hear you because they got it worked out so one of them is on duty all the times……

Now that’s not a bad attempt at explaining what God is like. It’s written from a child’s point of view but it's clear that Danny has remembered some of what he learnt in Sunday School. And he has obviously read a little bit of the Bible, because it’s there we get our knowledge of what God is like.

The most famous description is the one before you in Psalm 23 where the writer explains that God is like a shepherd caring for his sheep.

But before we look at this picture we need to ask an important question. Who are the sheep? You could say—as some do—that it’s everyone. But that’s not true. Listen what Jesus says in John chapter 10:1-14.

First, Jesus says that the sheep are “those who hear the voice of the shepherd” (verse 3). They hear because they are listening. Not everyone listens to God. Not everyone is interested in him or think that it’s important enough to stop what they are doing to try and hear Him. The many churches that are empty today are evidence of that.

Second, Jesus says that “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (verse 3b).  God’s sheep are people who listen to him and obey him, and do what he tells them. They follow him. He leads them. If he says 'do this' they do it. If he says 'go there', they go. They know him and he knows them, by name.

Third, “the sheep follow him” says Jesus, “because they know his voice” (verse 4). In other words they know the difference between God’s voice and the voices of others, including their own. So if they claim that it’s okay to kill someone, or to steal or be dishonest, they clearly don’t know God’s voice. His voice tells us “you shall not kill”. And “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” His voice also says “you shall not steal” or “give false testimony” etc.

So the sheep that belong to the shepherd, God, are those who hear him, and are willing to be led by him and know the difference between his voice and the voices of others or their own.

But what about God? What is he like? Here then is the picture of God being like shepherd who leads his flock:

“The Lord is my Shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.”

First, God the shepherd provides for his sheep. When the writer says that with God we will “lack nothing” he immediately gives an example: it is something to eat: “green pastures” , and something to drink “still waters.”

If you could ask any sheep what sort of grass he would prefer he would
always answer “fresh green grass”. That is why they get into trouble so
often because they will wander all over the place to find it, ignoring busy roads and cliff edges. And “still waters” means waters that are still or gently flowing not rushing. It’s the shepherd’s role to lead his sheep to find these sources of refreshment so that the sheep can eat and drink and be satisfied.

For us, human sheep, food and drink are important but MORE important are spiritual food and drink. Food and water that will satisfy our souls. In the Bible spiritual food is the Word of God which we find in the Bible. Jesus once said that “mankind shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” by which he was referring to the Bible.

Now to many who tried to read the Bible its an old, outdated book written long ago in another culture. But that’s because of one simple fact. They are not led in their reading by God the shepherd. Notice the Psalm says of God “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me….”  Without God the Bible will make no sense. It is God that makes it come alive.

What about the water? Water in the Bible is a symbol for the Holy Spirit. In John’s gospel chapter 7:38-39 Jesus says:

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this Jesus meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”

The shepherd—God—provides his sheep with food for the soul, by helping us read and understand the Bible, and by giving us the Holy Spirit who is like water refreshing our spiritual life from within. As he says in the first part of the next verse “He shall refresh my soul” and it is Word and Spirit that does this.

Second the Psalm talks about the shepherd guiding his sheep.

“He shall refresh my soul and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me.”

What is the best way to live this life? What is the right way and what is the wrong way? The right way is the way that pleases God. The wrong way is to live the opposite of what God wants. If we do that life will become miserable and meaningless. But if God is our shepherd he will guide us in “the paths of righteousness”. The right paths that God the shepherd knows.

Sheep as we have said are notorious for getting lost. But so are people. Today we are being told that there are lots of paths in life to choose from, lots of ways to live, lots of lifestyles to follow. So many people follow the kind of philosophy Ernest Hemmingway said that he followed. When asked how did he know right from wrong he said: “Right is what makes me feel good, Wrong is what makes me feel bad.”  More and more people think that way today.

But what if stealing makes you feel good, or inflicting pain on others? Is that what makes internet trolls and bullies feel good?

What is the right way to live? So many choices. God the shepherd says “be my sheep and I will show you MY path through life. It’s the right path.  And when you pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” I will be right there, beside you, to see you through. God’s “rod and staff” - one for beating off the enemy and the other to rescue us when we fall—they will “comfort” and reassure us, says the psalmist. In fact when we come to the end of our earthly journey we will be able to celebrate together our triumph over life’s difficulties and dangers with a meal.

“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”

Finally, to have God as our shepherd, is to know what it is to live life to the full. It is like having your head “anointed with oil” and a “cup full” of wine placed into your hand.

“you have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full.”

To be anointed is to be chosen. Kings and priests were chosen by God and they were anointed with oil as a sign of that. So to belong to God, as one of his sheep, is to know you are special to him. You are “the Special One” not just Joseph Mourinho.

And to know that is to know joy. In Psalm 104:15 we are told that these two things go together—oil and wine:

“wine to gladden the human heart, (and) oil to make the face shine”.  

It is, to quote the psalm, to know for sure that God’s “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life", and at the end of our days, to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” 

It is to have the assurance that as God’s sheep who follow him, no matter what, that we will spend eternity with him forever.

So what is God like? He is like a shepherd who provides food and drink to refresh and restore our souls, who guides, who brings us joy and fulfilment in life, who wants us to know how precious he is to us and we are to him. To bring us eventually at the end, to live with him forever. What a great God he is. What a great God he is. Amen.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

What do Christians believe?

What do Christians believe? It's not enough to say they believe in the Bible or they believe in God and Jesus, you have to nail it down a little further and ask what do you believe about the Bible etc.

A number of different ways of presenting the faith of the Christian have been formulated over the years from the ancient creeds - whether the Apostles', Nicene or Athanasian creeds - to various confessions put together by various denominations like the 39 Articles of Religion (Anglican) or the Catechism (Roman Catholic Church).

Actually one of my favourites is the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church which can be accessed in a more modern English version here.

Take the opening Chapter on the Scriptures:

1. Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, to such an extent that men are without excuse, yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary for salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at various times and in diverse ways, to reveal himself and to declare his will to his church; and afterward—for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh and the malice of Satan and of the world—to commit this revelation wholly to writing. Therefore the Holy Scripture is most necessary, God's former ways of revealing his will to his people having ceased.

Here the confession tells us that although you can argue for the existence of some kind of a creator by looking at the order and beauty of the world in which we live, they do not contain sufficient means of knowing him personally. Which is why the Bible is God's chief means of doing this.

Great stuff and beautifully explained. We need to read and study such statements of faith as they help us grow in our understanding of God and, more importantly, help us grasp how wonderful he is and worthy of worship.

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...