Sermon Archive 2022

Going in reverse from the end of the year!

Sunday 25th December - Advent 5 - Christmas Day 2022 - Martin Mowat

 

Readings: Luke 1: 26 - 38, Matthew 1: 18 - 2: 2

 

Over the last few weeks, and at our Carol Service in particular, we’ve read various prophecies about the coming Messiah, and accounts of the events surrounding his arrival.


We’ve thought about some of the people involved in this amazing saga, particularly Mary and Joseph, and there are many others we could have mentioned, like Zechariah, Simeon and Hanna.

 

It’s interesting that only Matthew and Luke’s gospels record Jesus’ birth. Luke’s account is the best known and we heard it last week.  We heard Matthew’s this morning, such as it is.

 

Mark talks about John the Baptist and then jumps straight to Jesus’ baptism, his announcing that the kingdom of God had come, and the calling of his twelve disciples.

 

John on the other hand started off with a complicated, though important statement about the “Word” becoming “flesh”, and then he launches into the ministry of John the Baptist.

 

Fascinatingly though, it was John who made one of the most fundamental statements about the Christmas event. Before we get to that let’s pray …


If I asked you what your BEST childhood Christmas memory is, what would you tell me?

 

If I asked you what Christmas represents for you, spiritually speaking, what would you tell me?

 

And if I asked you which Bible verse or passage about Christmas is the most special to you, spiritually speaking, what would you tell me?   There are so many it would probably be difficult to choose, so don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to.

 

I mentioned just now that John, although he didn’t tell us about shepherds, wise men, angels, or stables, he did say something particularly profound about Christmas.  I wonder if you can guess what I’m about to say.  Probably. It’s not too difficult.


If I tell you that it was during a conversation with a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, called Nicodemus, then you’ll almost certainly know what I’m talking about.


In actual fact John mentions Nicodemus three times in his gospel.  The first time was when he visited Jesus, under cover of darkness, to discuss Jesus' teachings. (John 3:1–21).

The second time was when he reminded his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law required that a person be heard before being judged (John 7:50–51).

Finally, John recorded Nicodemus appearing after the Crucifixion of Jesus to provide the customary embalming spices, and assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:39–42).

Quite why Nicodemus went to Jesus at night isn’t clear.  Was he going secretly for his own personal information, not wanting his colleagues to know, or was he going on behalf of the whole Sanhedrin, but not wanting the people to know.

Either way, the conversation that night must have had a significant effect on him if he was later to have helped prepare the body of Jesus for burial.  What was it that  Jesus told Nicodemus?

“God so loved the world,” he said “that Christmas happened.”  Well, something like that anyway.  What he actually said was “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

God’s love, what a fabulous subject to talk about on Christmas day.

 

John says something else about God’s love.  He tells us that when Jesus was teaching his disciples that for branches to be fruitful, they have to stay attached to the vine, he said “Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

 

Jesus’ life, John effectively tells us, was a love sandwich.  The two slices of bread being his birth and his death, and the filling being love

 

Some of us, if we’re particularly hungry eat sandwiches just for the bread.  Most of us, though, eat sandwiches for the filling rather than for the bread, jam, honey, cheese, ham, or maybe even a combination of fillings. 

 

I’m particularly fond of cucumber sandwiches, though strangely I’m not particularly fond of cucumber on its own.  There’s something about the combination of bread and cucumber that changes the taste of both ingredients.

 

Love, God’s love, the love that Psalm 89 calls his “unfailing love” is made even more potent, may I suggest, in the context of this love sandwich.  It’s because of Jesus’ birth, and it’s because of his death, that God’s love is the single most powerful force in existence.

 

So, “Why Christmas?” Answer: “God’s love.”

 

Charlotte and I rarely watch television channels that have advertisements.  If we do, we try to record the programme ahead of time and then we can skip the ads.  We are adept at pressing the buttons on the remote for just the right length of time.


One day recently, however, we did watch one “live” and had to plough patiently through the advertisements.  One of them, Christmas related but I can’t remember exactly what it was for, ended with the statement “now that’s believable”. The clear inference was that the Christmas story isn’t believable, and that it is therefore untrue.

 

I suppose that we shouldn’t be so defensive. It’s not surprising, really, that people find the Christmas story twee and unbelievable.  I mean, just think about it!  It would be easy to disbelieve it.

 

But I suspect that it’s not because it’s twee or difficult to believe that people don’t believe it, it’s because it’s not convenient.  Putting aside time for religious activities isn’t convenient.  Believing differently from one’s friends and neighbours isn’t convenient, …, accepting God’s authority isn’t convenient, and accepting God’s love is just too challenging to be even contemplated.

 

Let’s go back to the sandwich, even if sandwiches might seem to be a strange thing to talk about on Christmas Day. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 “Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

 

This is the verdict:” Jesus went on to say “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

 

That, right there, is what Christmas is ultimately all about, believable or not, convenient or not, it’s about the love in the sandwich, God’s love for you and for me.

Sunday 18th December, 2022 - Martin Mowat

Carol Service

Welcome.  It’s really good to see you all today, which is, co-incidentally the 4th Sunday in Advent. 


Let’s pray. 

Lord Jesus Christ, we are just so grateful for this opportunity to gather and to think anew about your incarnation, through the songs that we are about to sing, and the readings we are about to hear.

 

You came as a humble baby for our sake, and for our salvation.  You became like us, so that we could become like you. You humbled yourself and made yourself small, so that we might be made mighty. You took on the form of a servant, so that you might confer upon us a royal and divine nature. You, who are beyond our understanding, have made yourself understandable to us in Jesus Christ.

 

You came to bring us hope, joy, peace and love. Truly there are no gifts so great and wonderful as these. Thank you.

 

Help us, we pray, to better understand these mysteries today. Amen.

 

 

Traditionally, during the Advent weeks that lead us up to Christmas, we talk not just about the Christmas story, but about different aspects of the Christmas message, things like hope, faith love, joy and peace.  Today, it’s particularly appropriate that our subject is “peace”.

 

Peace, what a precious commodity.

 

Peace, sadly lacking on the world stage at the moment, with wars, civil wars, armed rebel conflicts, drug wars, insurgencies and also with massive tension in places like Korea, Hong Kong , Ethiopia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and others.  


Peace, rare, too, in big business where the rich mistakenly think that they can get greater productivity by keeping their workers in a constant state of agitation and uncertainty.

 

Peace, fragile in families where family members attention is being pulled away from the centre by television, the internet, social networks, peer pressure, and commerce.

 

Peace, delicate, even in the church …

 

I could go on.

 

This book, the Bible, talks a lot about peace, mentioning it some 250 times.  It even talks about someone that it calls “the Prince of Peace” and records that one of the things he said, not long before he was put to death, was this.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I don’t give to you as the world gives, so don’t let your hearts be troubled and don’t be afraid.”

 

While on the one hand peace might be difficult to find, and even more difficult to keep, on the other trouble and fear are all too common today. Fear of viruses and ill-health, fear of getting old, fear of unemployment, fear of food shortages, fear of rising prices and souring energy costs, fear of climate change, fear of the unknown, fear of so many different things.

 

But at Christmas we celebrate the birth of a baby who has changed the course of history, and who can replace our fear with his peace.  Let’s rephrase the verse that I just read from John’s gospel, chapter 14, verse 27. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid, because I am going to give you peace instead of your fear, peace the like of which the world cannot begin to give.

A few verses earlier, in verse 6 of the same chapter, we find some of the most quoted verses in the whole Bible, where that same Prince of Peace said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

When questioned by Philip about what he meant Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

This poor Bethlehem baby, who came unto the world in such a humble way, was none other than God himself, and he came to give you, to give me, to give anyone who will respond to his invitation, peace, personal inner peace.

 

And when Jesus the Messiah comes back, as he most surely will, it will be to bring universal peace. It will be the ultimate reconciliation of God and man, when he has promised that we shall see him, as he is. That’s 1 John 3:2, and in Revelation chapter 21 the same author says something similar.

 

Our next carol, in its last verse, also talks about peace and about good-will, so let’s stand to sing “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”.

 

Father God, we thank You and praise You today for the miracle of Your Son's birth. Thank You for bringing great JOY to the whole world! Thank You for giving us the assurance that because You came to us in the form of a human, we who believe in Jesus can know, with absolute certainty, that we'll spend eternity with You.

Although we have many reasons to rejoice today, Lord, we also know that December 25th can be “not-so-merry” for a whole host of reasons. We pray for those who are experiencing loss: relational, financial, spiritual or physical. We pray for those who are coping with loving a prodigal, and for our friends and family members whose hearts are far from You. We pray for those dealing with hunger, cold, unemployment, addiction, chronic sickness and unending pain. Thank You, Lord, that You are The Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace, even in the midst of our “not-so-merry” circumstances.

Finally, Lord, we ask You to grant us peace, peace in our homes, peace in our churches, and peace in our hearts. When the world all around us spins out-of-control, help us to stay focused on You, both in this Christmas season and always.

Thank You, Father God, for loving the world enough to send us the greatest possible gift, Your Son.

Show us your unfailing love, Lord, and grant us your salvation. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Sunday 11th December, 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Isaiah 61: 1 - 3 & Luke 2: 8 - 20.

When they saw the star, the three wise men “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” Matthew tells us, and when they got to the stable and saw the child they fell down and worshiped him.

 

When the shepherds saw the baby, they were so joyful and excited that “they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Is there a difference, do you think, between joy and happiness? Or are they just the same thing?   

I don’t think that they are the same. Happiness, I suggest, has to do with what’s going on around us, it’s largely dependent on our circumstances, but joy is something that happens deep inside our spirits and souls, and has nothing at all to do with our circumstances.

Joy is so much more than just happiness. According to the dictionary it can have elements of pleasure, delight, jubilation, triumph, exultation, rejoicing, gladness, glee, exhilaration, euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, radiance, enjoyment, gratification, and joie de vivre.

 

But none of those words talk about contentment, and I think that that’s an important element.

I know that not everyone in this chapel this morning feels joyful, for one reason or another, but there is good reason to be joyful even when we’re not happy.

In that beautiful passage that Charlotte read for us just now, Isaiah talks about the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, prisoners in darkness, those who mourn, and those who grieve.  He’s saying that they’re unhappy, but not that they are joyless.

Here are some things for which I, personally, am more than just glad or happy, more than just grateful :-

For creation and the natural world … …

Technology … …

Art and creativity … …

That God working his purpose out … …

Prophecy fulfilled … …

Love in all its forms … …

Family and the process … …

Church, also a family … …

Men and women of God … …

Integrity … …

God’s call … …

Jesus and a second chance … …

Eternity … …

I’m sure that you will have things to add to my list.

The Bible is full of examples of individuals who had joy, even when their circumstances were pretty bad.

Jacob, for example, demonstrated joy in his 14 year pursuit of his beloved wife Rachel.

Joseph, demonstrated joy when he forgave his brothers for plotting to kill him and for selling him into slavery.  Do not be afraid, he told them, am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20). That’s joy.

Ruth, demonstrated joy when, after her husband had died, instead of going back to her family to find another one, she chose to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth said,Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God (Ruth 1: 16).

God in His great wisdom and love honored these women: Ruth with a second husband and a child, and Naomi with a grandson who was the grandfather of King David!

Paul, whose circumstances throughout his ministry were some of the worst any man has ever had to endure. Yet it was from prison that he wrote the “Book of Joy,” Philippians.

For I am confident of this very thing, he said, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus… For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, untied in spirit, intent on one purpose… Do all things without grumbling or disputing… Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord… forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus… Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!

Those people’s joy stemmed from a deep awareness that whatever their circumstances were, they are orchestrated by God for their ultimate good.

As Christians, especially at Christmas, but throughout the year, Jesus is the source of our joy. 

The wise men only knew so much about who Jesus was and why he came and yet, the Bible says, they were filled with great joy. We, on the other hand, know so much more, we know that Jesus is the ultimate promise fulfilled, we know that Jesus is God’s greatest gift, we know that through him we have the hope of heaven and the promise of peace as we go through life here on earth. What better reason to be filled with joy? When life gets hard and we feel joy slipping away, we can refocus on Jesus and be filled again.

Going back to the gospel, that Philip read, Luke said that “when the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

No wonder that the shepherds were joyful.  They had every reason to. God was fulfilling his promises, as he always does, but right before their eyes.

But I want to underline verse 17 When the angels had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

This, my friends, is the role of the church today. Even if Christianity is the biggest world religion with 2,4 billion believers representing over 30% of the world’s population, that still leaves over two thirds of the world in darkness.

So let’s spread a little joy this Christmas.

Sunday 4th December, 2022 - Martin Mowat

Intro to Advent.

 

Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent. Advent is part of the Christian calendar, not just to remind us that it’s time to remember where we put away the Christmas decorations last January, or that we should write our cards and plan our menus, but a time to reflect on the amazing fact that God sent his only son, the long-awaited Messiah, not just to the Jewish nation, but to the world living in darkness.  We talked about that last week.


Jesus, a babe in a manger, was actually a light to show lost people the way to God’s kingdom. As he said of himself “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” His great friend John said of him “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind, a light that shines in the darkness, a light that the darkness has not overcome.(John 1:4-5)

 

But at the same time, Advent is also a time to remember that Jesus has promised to come back, to bring an end to suffering and to make all things new.

 

The Advent wreath is a symbol of this season, with a candle lit on each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas, and then one on Christmas Day. It’s like an aide memoire with each candle representing something different:

·         The first candle that we lit last week symbolizes hope and is called the "Prophet’s Candle"

·         The second candle, that Sandra is going to light for us now, represents faith and is called "Bethlehem’s Candle" because, as we’ll hear this morning, Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

 

Readings.  Micah 5: 2 - 5 & Isaiah 9: 6 - 7, Hebrews 11: 1 - 12

 

Hope is an increasingly rare commodity in a world that is working hard to destroy itself.  Hope is vital for every individual, be they rich or poor, be they powerful or impotent, be they honest or dishonest, be they diligent or idle, be they just or unjust, be they young or old, be they believers or non-believers. And hope is an integral part of the Christmas message for a world that prefers consumerism to Christianity.

 

Hope is what we talked about last week.  Today we’re going to think about faith, and what was going on in Nazareth and Bethlehem in the run up to an event which changed the world for ever, that changed the world in a way that no other event has changed it before or since.

 

Let’s pray …

 

As we’ve just heard, faith, our subject for today, and hope, our subject for last Sunday, are inextricably linked, at least according to the writer of the book of Hebrews who said “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”.

 

We also heard from the prophet Micah a few moments ago.  He was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea and he prophesied during the momentous years surrounding the tragic fall of Israel to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC, an event that he himself had also predicted.

 

Micah’s prophecies about the birth of Jesus Christ was one of the most significant of in all of the Old Testament. He predicted that the Messiah:

So put yourself in the shoes of Micah’s listeners.  During this period, Israel in the north was imploding from the effects of evil and unfaithful leadership, as we’ve heard on our study of Elijah, and Judah, in the south, was on a roller-coaster ride—ascending to spiritual and physical heights under some of it’s kings, only to fall into the doldrums under the next.

 

If it were me, I would hope, REALLY hope that Micah was right. And what they would have been hoping for was what the epistle to the Hebrews just called “assurance about what they did not yet see”.

 

Hebrews chapter 11 is called, not the “hall of fame”, but the “hall of faith”.

 

We heard about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob.


But the chapter goes on to talk about Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, about others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. I’m reading from Hebrews again now.  Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—  the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

That could be a sermon in itself but there are two young people who aren’t in that list, and I wonder whether they should be. Sue sent me a YouTube link the other day to a song written and performed by Marcia Boland that I’d like to read to you.

 

She was probably just 14, barely more than just a child herself, when the words fell upon her ears.  “You will give birth to a son, he will be the Holy One”.

 

How could she begin to comprehend?

 

Fear must have held her frozen in that place as she was told that she’d been chosen for such a task this great. And tears must have filled her innocent young eyes as she realized the pain that this would bring.

 

Would she be cast away? And what would Joseph say? He had waited for so long to find a wife and build a home. Now, suddenly, the dream had disappeared.

 

She would give birth to a son? He would be the Holy One? Even now, the message sounds absurd.

Fear must have held him frozen in that place as Mary told him that she’d been chosen. His heart began to break and tears must have filled his disenchanted eyes as he realized the pain that this would bring.

It hurt to walk away, but what would people say?

But then an angel came to Joseph, and said, “Do not be afraid. These things Mary has told you, she heard from me. I know it will be hard, but you are not alone, for God has called you both, she cannot do it on her own.”

Peace must have fallen on that quiet place, as Joseph told her he would hold her, and gently kissed her face. And tears must have fallen from, now, such hope filled eyes, as they realised the joy this child would bring.

The Saviour of the world, born the King of Kings.

That’s such a beautiful song, thank you Sue.  Here is the link https://youtu.be/bZOMtVBPTzE

I’m struck not only by their faith but by their courage. 

Back to Micah for a minute; “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, (Ephrathah, btw, means fruitful) But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

 

Today we lit the Bethlehem candle. Bethlehem was called “the city of David” because it is where he was born and where he was anointed to be king of Israel. It’s also where Jacob’s beautiful and much-loved wife, Rachel died and was buried. Because Joseph was in the tribe of Judah, and Mary too for that matter, they had to make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census.  It sounds like a crazy system to us, but it must have been the only way that they could count people and know who was who.

 

The amazing thing is, though, that God knew, 700 years earlier, that that census would happen and that this brave young couple would have to go there at that particular moment.

 

Then, some 70 years after Micah, the “weeping prophet” Jeremiah also prophesied:

14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

15 “‘In those days and at that time

    I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;

    he will do what is just and right in the land.

16 In those days Judah will be saved

    and Jerusalem will live in safety.

This is the name by which it will be called:

    The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

 

So to conclude, the Biola Advent Project on Tuesday spoke about “wonder”. 

 

Isaiah described the Messiah as being the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 

We talk about the “wonder” of Christmas almost as if it’s something in a fairy story.  But the definition of wonder is a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar. “To wonder” has the sense of “to awe at something extra-ordinary, something unique, something of incomparable value”.  Lets “wonder” this Christmas.  

Sunday 27th November 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings - 2 Kings 2: 1 - 11, Isaiah 9: 2 - 7

 

Last time Elijah had dealt, in no uncertain terms, with Ahab and Jezebel, after they had tried to purloin their neighbour’s vineyard.  Ahab relented, you remember, and the grizzly end that Elijah had prophesied for him was delayed, but ultimately both Ahab and Jezebel did succumb to what Elijah had prophesied for them.

 

The next character to cross Elijah’s path is Ahab’s son Ahaziah, who, unbelievably, despite all that he must have witnessed, carried on with his parent’s misdemeanors.  Mt guess is that he’s been very much under his mother’s influence. Anyway, one day, we don’t know why, he crashed through a lattice window, and fell two or three stories to the ground, probably sustaining several compound fractures and serious internal injuries.

 

Fearing that he was going to die, and painfully, Ahaziah sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub in neighbouring Ekron.  But his messengers were intercepted by Elijah, who’d been tipped the wink by God, and he sent them straight back to Ahaziah with this question, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are consulting foreign gods?  ….”

 

Annoyed, and desperate, Ahaziah sent a troop of soldiers to arrest Elijah but he just called down fire that burned them up.  So Ahaziah sent more soldiers and they got frazzled too, so he sent a third group of soldiers. This would be unbelievable, but sadly we know only too well that dictatorial leaders can be very obstinate, and careless about the lives of the people they manage.  We see that today in many contexts. One thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

 

Happily for this third group, Elijah spared their lives and agreed to go with them to visit Ahaziah, and to ask him the question himself, face to face.  Because of his audacity in ignoring all that God had done for the Israelites since he delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and in consulting pagan gods, Elijah told him "You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!", and he did, having reigned a mere 2 years.

 

Elijah’s next challenge is to deal with Jehoram, king of Judah.  Elijah, of course, was primarily a prophet to the northern kingdom, Israel, but now he writes to the king of the smaller southern kingdom, to reprimand him for leading Judah and the people of Jerusalem into idolatry just Ahab had, and also for murdering his own brothers. In his letter he prophesied Jehoram’s demise, which was that he would be very ill with a lingering disease of the bowels, until the disease caused his bowels to come out.  The Bible can be very graphic sometimes.

 

After that happy tale, it’s Elijah’s turn to depart this world, but he didn’t die, God caught him up in a whirlwind and we heard about that a few minutes ago.  It’s an amazing story and it’s a pity that we don’t have time for it now.  We will, however, I hope, have a chance to pick it up when we have a look at Elisha and his prophetic ministry.

 

BUT, before we move on, what can we learn from Elijah that is relevant to us?

 

The apostle James, in his epistle, said that "Elijah was a man just like us".

 

He was a great man of God, of course he was. He did courageous and powerful exploits for God, and we might think that we’re not spiritual enough to do the sort of things he did. But at other times he was weak, he was paranoid, he was fearful, he felt impotent, and he could be grumpy. Does that sound like anyone you know?

 

We can certainly identify with Elijah's weaknesses but we must also see that he is an example to us that God can call ordinary men and women, of ANY age, with all the weaknesses and failures that you and I experience, and use them to do great things for him, even extra-ordinary things!

 

Last week we talked about “passion’, and Elijah’s passion was to show God's people that Yahweh was alive and that he loved them in spite of their sins. His vision was that they would turn away from the worthless pagan gods, and say once again, "Yahweh, he is God! "

 

Elijah was a prophet.  Regardless of the personal cost, he delivered God’s messages to his people.  Isaiah was another such prophet, but at a different moment in history, with a different audience, and with a different message.

 

Elijah was alive from about 900 to 850 BC.  Isaiah was about 100 or so years later, and unlike Elijah, whose ministry was in the northern kingdom, Isaiah’s was to Judah, in the south. 

 

Isaiah clearly prophesied not only that God would send a Messiah, but many of the details as to how it would come about.  He wasn’t the only one, though. Hosea, Jeremiah, Micah, Samuel, and Zechariah, did so too, although to a lesser degree.  There are also prophetic references to the Messiah in several psalms, and a book called the Wisdom of Solomon which is part of the Catholic canon.

 

The verses that we heard in our second reading, from the book of Isaiah, words that we’ve probably heard dozens of times, words that tell us that Christmas is coming, talk about the people walking in darkness.

 

Of course it’s not talking about physical darkness but spiritual darkness.  We too live in a land of deep spiritual darkness.  France thinks of itself as a Catholic country but the reality is that while 45% of French people claim to be Christians - most of them Catholics, church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world, with surveys showing that only about 5% of the total population, i.e. less than 10% of those who are nominally Catholic, attend church even on a semi regular basis.

 

This a nation of whom 95% of its population are what Isaiah would call walking in darkness.  But let’s not be too self-righteous, the ex-pat community is no better.


But Isaiah talked about a great light that has dawned.

 

For to us a child (Jesus) is born, to us a son (God’s son) is given, and the government (of God’s kingdom) will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 

As I said in our midweek prayer email, the news is filled with war and violence, multiple nations are in economic crisis, and our planet is being polluted uncontrollably.

 

But God is a God of peace in the midst of the storm, both our personal storms and our communal storms. As we bring before Him our concerns and worries He will help us to learn how to rest in His presence and cast our burdens on Him.

 

During his sermon on the mount, Jesus famously said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

 

Back to Isaiah “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end” he continues. “He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

 

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this!

 

Hope is like a light shining in a dark place.

 

Israel was in a dark place. For long years it waited eagerly for the coming of their Messiah, and eventually he did come.  France is in a dark place.  The world is in a dark place.  You may be in a dark place, but we’re not waiting any more.  Jesus is already here.

 

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

 

Let’s pray.

Sunday 20th November 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings : Matthew 5: 1 - 12, Acts 9: 10 - 19

 

Believe it or not, this is the 12th in our series about the Early Church. Last time we looked at the account of Philip evangelizing to the Ethiopian dignitary.  At the end we saw how Philip, having baptized his new-found friend, was whisked off, miraculously, and found himself in Azotos. I can’t imagine what that would have been like for him.


Meanwhile, we said that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples”, spearheading a vicious campaign to stamp out this new ‘Jesus Sect’ that preached that Jesus was in fact the long-promised Messiah, and that was rapidly gaining ground in the synagogues of Palestine and Syria.

 

On one particular day, while pursuing his quest, Paul was on his way to Damascus, some 320 kilometers from Jerusalem, a journey that took up to two weeks. He had with him a retinue of traveling companions that may well have included some temple guards to effect the arrest of the prisoners. 

 

He was almost at his destination when "suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' 

Interestingly the voice didn’t say “why are you persecuting my church, but why are you persecuting me?”.  Just put that thought on one side for a moment, we’ll come back to it in a few minutes.

 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' 

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. 

'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' he replied.  'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.' 

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.  Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.  For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything." (Acts 9:3-9)

We’ve just heard the account of how poor Ananias had to go and pray for him to have his sight restored.  Jesus had told Paul that he would be “told what he must do” but sadly Luke doesn’t recount that for us.

 

But more important than that was what was happening historically, because a bit like Moses and the burning bush, this conversation would stop Paul in his tracks and turn him around 180°.  Paul was to become arguably the most important teacher in the New Testament, other than Jesus himself. It has been calculated that Paul wrote approximately 28% of the words in the New Testament, words that have guided, inspired, and encouraged the church for ever since.

 

Interestingly that church has become what Lectio 365 described recently as “the largest, most-diverse community on earth, an ancient, global, revolutionary movement conspiring ‘to proclaim good news to the poor … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives … to comfort all who mourn.’ (Isaiah 61:1-2) 

 

WHY?  That’s the question I found myself confronted with.

 

Why did Paul turn in the opposite direction and change from being the early church’s greatest enemy to being one of its greatest leaders, if not its single greatest leader?

 

Similarly one might ask why did Noah build a ship in the middle of the desert?

Why did Abraham put his only son, miraculously born to him and his wife Sarah when they were in their nineties, on an alter?

Why did Moses leave Pharaoh’s palace where he was being treated as a prince because he had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, to become a simple shepherd?

Why did Hannah give her God-given child Samuel into Eli’s care and service?

Why did Elisha become one of the most venerated prophets in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

Why did Mother Theresa, David Watson (who died tragicly at the age of only 51), and John Wimber (who died 25 years ago), to name but 3 out of millions, give their lives 100% to God’s service.

 

Ananias is a Hebrew name meaning "Yahweh is gracious." The form commonly used in the Old Testament is "Hananiah." Ananias seems to have been a Jewish native of Damascus, since he speaks of having heard reports of the persecution in Jerusalem, rather than of being an eyewitness of it (Acts 9:13-14). He doesn't seem to be a leader, but rather is identified as a regular "disciple" who is part of the newly formed Christian community in Damascus. He was just an ordinary Christian, just like you and me. So why did he take his life in his own hands and go to pray for Paul?

 

And today, why do monks and nuns shut themselves away in monasteries and convents?

 

And why do successful businessmen give up their careers to become church leaders?

 

And why do …?  The list is endless.

 

Perhaps because they have had a personal encounter with God, God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit, and because that personal encounter triggers a personal relationship.

 

That’s why Jesus didn’t say to Paul “why are you persecuting my church, but why are you persecuting me?”

 

It’s not about church, it’s about a kingdom, and its king.

 

In the example of Ananias, Acts 9:17 told us this morning that “The Lord Jesus himself appeared to Ananias in a vision and called him by name. He responded, "Here I am, Lord,"

 

In the event, and quite naturally, Ananias was fearful and reluctant. We smile at Ananias resistance, but how often do we resist what God is saying to us?  What is God saying to you, to me, to us as a group of his followers here in Mirepoix?

 

But there’s something else that makes people do what they do – Passion.

-         Why do soldiers put their lives at risk? 

-         Why do nurses toil day and night putting themselves in contact with germs and viruses?

-         Why do artists spend hours creating beautiful things?

-         Why do some church leader preach powerful sermons?

 

If you Google the word ‘Passion’ you are told that it is “a strong and barely controllable emotion” and it motivates us to do things that we wouldn’t otherwise do.

We have an expression “You can do it if you’re passionate enough”.

People do quite amazing things when their passionate, sometimes becoming almost unstoppable.

We have what we call “crimes of passion” that are seen to be almost excusable in a perverse sort of way.  Do you think that Vladimir Putin’s systematic destruction of Ukraine regardless of the cost in lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure will eventually go down as a “crime of passion”? I hope not.

 

As for Paul, his passion had changed.  He’d been passionate about defending Judaism from what he saw as the threat of this sect called “The way”, but now he had become passionate about the world hearing the gospel message, and people experiencing for themselves the kingdom of God.


There are 3 ‘P’s.  We’ve already had ‘P’ for “Personal encounter” and Personal relationship, and ‘P’ for “Passion”.  The 3rd ‘P’ is for “Priorities”. 

 

God gave us free will, the right and ability to make choices, to decide on what is most important to us, what our priorities are.

 

I am not here today to tell you what your passions should be, or what your priorities should be, but last week we finished our service with hymn n° 857 


We sang “I, the Lord of sea and sky, 

I have heard My people cry. 

All who dwell in dark and sin 

My hand will save. 

I who made the stars of night, 

I will make their darkness bright. 

Who will bear My light to them? 

Whom shall I send?

 

And then we sang “Here I am, Lord. 

   Is it I, Lord? 

   I have heard You calling in the night. 

   I will go, Lord, 

   if You lead me. 

   I will hold Your people in my heart.”  

 

One final thought from Paul’s own pen.  He told the Ephesians that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  That’s the NIV.  The King James is a bit more emphatic talking about “good works, which God hath before ordained in order that we should walk in them”.  The Message version is more emphatic still saying “the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing”.

 

We’re going to leave Acts there for the moment, because next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, so between now and Christmas, that’s going to be our focus.

Sunday 13th November - Martin Mowat

Elijah 4 - 1 Kings 21: 1 - 7 ; 1 Kings 21: 17 - 26

 

Just for our visitors this morning, traditionally this church used only to meet twice a month, but now we meet every Sunday.  On these additional weeks our service format is slightly more relaxed, and we follow a different series of sermons.  We’re currently studying the life and ministry of the prophet Elijah and so 5 weeks ago, we heard about how Elijah challenged King Ahab and some 950 pagan prophets on Mont Carmel, and how he built an alter and called down fire from heaven. After supervising the slaughter of the prophets, he then prayed in the rain that God had promised.

 

Then 3 weeks ago Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, whose principal aim in life was to establish the worship of the Canaanite god Baal and his consort Asherah, was unsurprisingly furious when she heard what had happened and declared that she would have Elijah killed within 24 hours, but he ran for his life, ending up depressed and good for nothing under the sparse shade of a White Broom tree, 600 kms south on another mountain, Mount Horeb.  Now what?

 

Let’s pray first ….

 

Down there on Mount Horeb God gave Elijah time to recuperate and restore his confidence, and he spoke to him in "the sound of a gentle whisper" or "a still small voice". We heard all about that last time too.  "Go back the way you came,  and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.  Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha … to succeed you as prophet." (1 Kings 19:15-16)  

 

Interestingly it wasn’t Elijah who anointed either Hazael or Jehu, but Elisha, and later on, but he did go north to find Elisha and anoint him as his successor, albeit in rather grumpy fashion. Perhaps this was because doing so put him back in Jezebel’s reach. 

 

The next chapter of 1 Kings, chapter 20, tells us how God enabled Ahab, despite all his misdemeanors, to resist two attacks by the Syrian army, one against his capital city of Samaria, the other against a city on the eastern side of the sea of Galilee, called Aphek.  Elijah himself wasn’t involved in either of these incidents, though other Israelite prophets were. So we’re not going to go into any detail about them but there are two significant things, from our point of view, that we need to note.  One is that by helping Ahab against very considerable military odds, God is again and again trying to convince Ahab, and the Israelites, that he is more powerful than all their “foreign gods”. The other is that because Ahab didn’t kill the Syrian king as he had been told to do, but rather made a treaty with him in order to feather he own nest. This arrangement completely backfired on Ahab who eventually had to go to war against this king, Ben-Haddad, at a place called Ramoth-Gillead, and that was where he met his end.  But that was later.

 

Moving on then, another year or so in time, to chapter 21, parts of which have Jill and Roy have read to us this morning, Elijah comes back onto the scene.

 

Although the focus of our study is on Elijah, Ahab does figure hugely in Elijah's story and in this part of it we get a chance to look at Ahab as an individual, and learn a few valuable lessons.

In the two accounts we missed in chapter 20, we would have seen that deep down Ahab was at least a nominal believer in God and that he recognised the authority of his prophets. Maybe his close encounter, on Mount Carmel, with the God who sent down fire so hot that not only burnt the animal on the alter, but the stone alter too, and who had deprived his land of both rain and dew for 3 ½ years, had taught him a lesson.

But as we heard when we started this series, “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him”, and even today we heard that There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife.  He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel.

So here we have him, sitting in his summer palace in Jezreel, which isn’t his capital city, but it’s where his wife lives, looking out over the rich field of oats, barley and wheat that covered the valley floor, much of which he and/or his wife probably owned personally, when he spots a little parcel of land, further up the hill, somewhere close to the palace, planted with vines. He thinks to himself that would make a fabulous walled garden, with a swimming pool, sun loungers, a jacuzzi, a drinks bar, some beautiful trees, you name it.   A perfect addition to his love nest.

“I NEED it”, he thought to himself.

Before we get too self-righteous, let’s ask ourselves a personal question.  How much money is enough? We always want a bit more. More income, more pension, a better car, a bigger house or garden, more foreign holidays, the list is endless.

And so did Ahab. So he goes to Naboth with a perfectly honorable and legitimate proposal, but Naboth is a native of Jezreel, farming land that his family had farmed from time immemorial.  To Naboth, selling it would have been a betrayal of both his family and of his God, who had allotted it to his clan under Joshua, centuries before. The Torah ruled that land should be kept within one's tribe and family (Numbers 36:9).

So it’s not at all surprising that Naboth declined. Politely but firmly, « No Way Ho-say ».

And Ahab, like the spoiled brat that he was, went into a major sulk, as we heard. Because Naboth had said “The LORD forbid” Ahab once again found himself up against God. He became sullen, angry and resentful.  He wasn’t eating, and he was depressed.

Jezebel to the rescue !  But she doesn’t seem particularly sympathetic, did she? "Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I'll get you this vineyard for you."

In other words she asked him “Are you, or are you not the king in Israel? What kind of king are you? Just man up!” But remember that she has a different understanding of property law. She came from a different culture that viewed the king as an absolute monarch with complete control over the land in his domain, to do with as he wished. Israel's view, on the other hand, was that Yahweh owned all the land, not the king (Leviticus 25:23).

And, so, in the few verses between our two readings today, she spitefully engineers Naboth’s death by persuading two witnesses to twist what he’d said, and getting him stoned.

Ahab meanwhile buries his conscience and let’s her get on with it.

This is a bit of an aside, but you may have heard that there has been a new scandal in the Catholic church in France.  Another 11 bishops have either been found guilty of child sex abuse, or of covering it up. While this is totally reprehensible, I agree, one does wonder whether it would have been treated differently by the press if it had been 11 bus drivers, traffic wardens, or even police officers.  But that’s not my point, my point is that acquiescing to and covering up crime is as heinous as the crime itself, and that is effectively what Ahab did. 

“Now go and get your vineyard”, Jezebel says, and with a smile back on his face, off he goes.

BUT, as he is in the very process who should suddenly appear, but the one man on the whole planet that he least wanted to see. I bet that he uttered a few colourful expletives, if only under his breath, but what the Bible reports him as saying is simply 'So you have found me, my enemy!'

And well he might because he and Jezebel have just broken three of the Ten Commandments: murder, false witness, and coveting (or forcibly appropriating) their neighbour’s property.

Elijah gives him an absolute broadside. "You have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, you ... have caused Israel to sin, and you have behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols." “Because of your unethical, immoral and evil activity you will die a violent death, your dynasty will come to an abrupt end, and Jezebel too will die in violence and shame.”

Ahab’s conduct was reprehensible, and he wasn’t allowed to get away with it.  “Good” you might say.

But have you, have I, ever sold ourselves to do evil by doing things that we knew perfectly well we shouldn’t do, or caused others to sin because they have followed our bad example, or gone after idols by putting other things and people before God? 

But now there’s a slight twist to the story, "When Ahab heard Elijah’s words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 'Have you noticed how Ahab has humble himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.'" (1 Kings 21:28--29)

What we’ve seen so far in this series is that God, in his infinite love, tries again and again to save Ahab from his wicked ways, and that he honours repentance when it comes.

The justice that Yahweh decreed for Ahab, Jezebel, and his descendants does come to pass in due course, but we’re going to leave Ahab there and pick up Elijah’s story with Ahab’s son Ahaziah next time.

Sunday 6th November - Martin Mowat

Readings: Isaiah 53: 1 - 9 & Acts 8: 26 - 40

 

Believe it or not it’s been 5 weeks since we last worked on our study of the early church in the book of Acts, partly because we took a break for our Harvest Festival, and we also had our Songs of Praise last Sunday.

 

We’re also making quite slow progress, so we need to get back to work, and what better way to do so than with this beautiful account of Philip converting and baptising the Ethiopian eunuch.

 

Philip, you’ll remember, was one of the seven men who were selected by the apostles and the Jerusalem congregation to oversee the administration of the church, including such things as the daily distribution of food to the widows, especially the Greek-speaking widows who were being left out.

 

This was at a point in time when Paul, and others, had started persecuting those who were following what was still at that time called “The Way”. So these early believers were scattering in fear of what might happen to them and some had gone to Samaria which was a sneaky way to get away from the Jewish leaders. Philip was one of those, and he was apparently a talented evangelist who, “when the crowds heard him and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.

 

As we’ve just heard, out of the blue, he gets a word from God, “Go south to the desert road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” No explanation, just “Go south …”

 

We were talking about God speaking to us a couple of weeks ago in our Elijah series and the fact that, if we're listening, God will sometimes give us directions on where to go and what to do.

 

So Philip goes.  No ifs, no buts, no why?s, he just goes, despite the fact that his ministry in Samaria was so fruitful.  Going south, though, probably wasn’t a totally unwelcome idea because it would take him further away from the persecution. But I don’t think he did it out of self-preservation, but because he wanted to obey what he knew God was asking him to do.

 

As he goes, he finds himself being overtaken this big chauffeur driven chariot adorned with the royal crest of the queen of ancient Ethiopia, also known at that time as ‘Cush’, and he noticed that the well-dressed man in the back seat was reading what would have been a rare and expensive book.

 

This was an important and powerful man, and the fact that he was a eunuch was apparently fairly normal for officers serving queens in those times. I suppose it was the price he had to pay for being a court official, and getting a smart chariot for a company car. 

 

He must have had a certain amount of freedom, perhaps he was on his annual holidays, so he’d decided to go north to Jerusalem, perhaps not for the first time, to visit the Temple and find out more about the Jewish faith.

 

Or had he heard talk about Christianity, I wonder?

 

Either way, even in a comfortable chariot this journey would have been no mean undertaking.  It’s about 2500 kms, all the way up through Egypt, then getting a ferry across the Red Sea, before travelling up the east coast of the Arabian Gulf and into Israel. And then another 2500 kms to get home again.

 

However, I digress.  What’s significant is that as Philip is given the confidence to approach this dignitary and speak to him. He’s reading aloud. I don’t know whether that was the custom, or because it helped him concentrate, or because he was trying to understand its significance. Either way the passage was what Tess just read to us from Isaiah 53, and that gave Philip the opportunity to explain to the man that Jesus is the one that the prophet was speaking about, and how Jesus' death on the cross was a sacrifice to atone for his sins.  

 

As a side note, it is interesting that Isaiah 53 is such a strong testimony about Jesus that for a time it was removed from the list of Scriptures to be read in synagogues because too many Jews came to Christ when hearing it, and that of course is what happened here to this Ethiopian.

 

The passage told him that Jesus “was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities, that the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and that by his wounds we are healed.”  Philip helped him understand that, whether he liked it or not, he was, like each one of us in this chapel this morning, a sinner destined for eternal separation from God, but that Jesus had substitutionally taken the punishment that he deserved.

 

Let’s not gloss over this because it’s fundamental to the Christian faith. 

 

We all know the story of Adam and Eve, and although some might argue about whether Adam and Eve were historical or fictional characters, you can’t argue about what the writer of Genesis (Moses probably) was trying to teach us, and that is that God, and the human-kind that he created, originally had a very close, personal, and special relationship. 


As an integral part of that relationship, God INTENTIONALLY gave man free will.  He did not want us to be robots, but people who could choose for themselves between right and wrong, between good and bad, between allowing God to lead us or just doing our own thing, between staying in that relationship or walking away from it.

 

Adam and Eve, mankind in other words, chose to do its own thing, to walk away, and that is why the world is in the state that it’s in. 

 

So what? So, because you and I are part of mankind, we also like to make our own decisions, and our self-centeredness causes us, even in the tiniest ways, to cheat, to steal, to lie, and so on.  This is what the Bible calls sin, and sin effectively separates us from a perfect God, who has other plans for us.  How? Because it breaks the relationship.

 

But strangely, that doesn’t cause God to love us any the less.  He doesn’t want to walk away too. In fact, he loves each of us SOOOO much, that even if we were the ONLY person in the whole world to have gone astray, in the way that I just described, he would do whatever it takes to redeem us, to restore the relationship.

 

But for any relationship to work, ‘it takes two to tango’.  We have to make a personal decision to admit that we have a sinful nature, and that we sin. Then we have to accept his love, his forgiveness, to come back into relationship and decide to allow him to run the show from here on in.

 

When we do that he wraps his loving arms around us and welcomes us back.  No recrimination or punishment for what we’ve done or haven’t done, instead it’s a clean slate, and a new beginning.


“Whatever it takes to redeem us” was for Jesus to take our sin to the cross.  Nothing less would do the trick.  It sounds extreme, and it was, but it was what God had always planned, and that was Isaiah’s message, the one that our friend just happened to be reading as his chariot overtook a random pedestrian, which just happened to be Philip, who had just happened to have been told to walk down that road by God himself.

 

The critical thing that I want us to understand this morning is that this is something intensely personal.  It’s not about whether your parents always went to church, or about your denomination.  It’s not about whether you went to Sunday School, or took the Catechism.  It’s not about how regularly you go to church now, it’s about YOU accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.

 

On hearing Philip explain all this, the Ethiopian must have accepted the salvation that was being offered to him. Philip must then have started to talk to him about baptism, which is a public declaration of your accepting new life in Jesus.  You go down into the water, as a picture of dying to self and to sin, and you come up out of it a new person, “born again” the Bible calls it.

 

Tempted as I am to get into a detailed discussion about the difference between infant and adult baptism, I’m going to resist it.  Suffice it to say that it is appropriate for new believers to be baptised soon after conversion, so long as they understand and genuinely believe the basics of the gospel.  Did you notice that Philip said to the man, when he asked to be baptized, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and how the eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”?

 

The moment that the Ethiopian came out of the water Philip was whisked away, and as far as we know the two never met again.  Presumably, the Ethiopian treasurer returned to his home and it would be nice to think that he became a great witness for Christ in the palace, but sadly we're not told that part of the story. All we know is that “he went on his way rejoicing”, and rightly so.


Philip found himself at Azotos, which today is Israel’s sixth largest city and it’s largest port.  In Old Testament times it was called Ashdod, and is mentioned no less than 20 times.  It was, for example the place to which, having captured the Ark of the Covenant, the Philistines took it and placed it in the temple of their god Dagon. The next morning Dagon was found prostrate before the Ark; on being restored to his place, he was on the following morning again found prostrate and broken. The people of Ashdod were smitten with boils and a plague of mice, but again, I digress.


In Azotos, Philip didn’t miss a beat but continued to evangelize, working his way back northwards up the coast until he reached Caesarea, a port city with a strong Roman presence. There he seems to have stayed because that’s where we see him much later, hosting Paul at the conclusion of Paul's Third Missionary Journey.

 

Talking of Paul, as we move on now into chapter 9, we hear that while Philip was doing that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples”, spearheading a vicious campaign to stamp out this new ‘Jesus Sect’ that preached that Jesus was in fact the long-promised Messiah, and that was rapidly gaining ground in the synagogues of Palestine and Syria.

 

So on that note, we’re going to end.  Next week we’ll be enjoying the next in our remarkable series on Elijah, and in two weeks’ time we’ll pick up where we left off today. 

Sunday 23rd October 2022 - Martin Mowat

Elijah 3.    Readings 1 Kings 19: 1 - 9a & 9b - 18

Text in blue is quoted directly from 1 Kings 18 and 19 - NIV

 

To be honest I really don’t know why he did it.  We heard two weeks ago that after Elijah’s servant had reported seeing “a cloud as small as a man’s hand … rising from the sea, … the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.  The power of the Lord came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

 

But why?  You’d have thought that Jezreel, where Ahab and Jezebel lived, was the very last place on earth that Elijah would have wanted to go, and it probably was.

 

As we’ve just read, when Jezebel heard what had happened on Mount Carmel, or more specifically in the Kishon valley just beneath it, she was livid.  She just saw red.  Her one purpose in life was to install idol worship throughout her husband’s kingdom, but that wretched Elijah had just slaughtered hundreds of her prophets.  There had been 400 prophets of Baal and 450 prophets of Ashera on the mountain but the account is a bit ambiguous as to whether it was just the 400 prophets of Baal, or whether it was all 950 of them. Either way it was not only a very significant setback, and a slap in the face, but also it was VERY humiliating, especially, as it was, on the back of this whole embarrassing drought business, in which her gods were proving incapable of providing rain.

 

As for Elijah, he was exhausted, dead beat.  He’d climbed the 546 metres to the top of mount Carmel, gone through all the stress of the spiritual contest with all those prophets, built an alter out of heavy stones, climbed back down the mountain and supervised the slaughter of the prophets, then more stress as he met again with Ahab who might have ordered his execution at any moment. He’d then climbed the mountain a second time to pray for the rain to come, sent his servant seven times to look seaward for clouds, dispatched a follow-up message to Ahab as he watched the sky go black and felt the wind grow strong, and then he’d run, not walked, not jogged, RUN 17 MILES. Excuse the expression but he was just knackered.  He was almost certainly hungry and thirsty too, but we don’t know those details.

 

And then, as soon as she hears the news, Jezebel issues her death threat.  Well, more than a threat actually.  As far as she was concerned, Elijah was history.

 

So, he and his servant gathered themselves together, and forced their aching muscles to take them further south. 

 

Elijah was not a happy bunny.  Things were not going as he had expected, he needed time out.  So, after walking into the sun for 180 kms, which would have taken them several days, he left his servant in Beersheba in Judah and then just continued walking.  After another 24 hours he could go no further, so he found a tree, sat under it and told God that he wanted to die.  The tree, incidentally, was probably a large, beautiful, white-flowered desert shrub called "White Broom" that is common in that part of the world. It grows to about 12 feet but its leaves are sparse and offer little shade, but it was all that there was to protect him from the harsh desert sun. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.” Was he depressed, or was he depressed?

 

Has anything like that ever happened to you? Have you been in a place where life just didn’t seem to have a purpose anymore?  But at the same time, you knew that you shouldn’t be feeling that way, and so now you felt guilty too, and that just made matters worse.

 

I’m not an expert, by any means, when it comes to different sorts of depression.  I suspect, however, that in Elijah’s case it wasn’t a clinical depression that needed medical and psychological help, but simply a depression that was brought on by being in a state of total exhaustion.  When this happens, we need rest. 

 

In one commentary, I read “God knows that we are only human.  His spirit lives in us, yes, but we can only be as effective as our physical bodies will allow. … This natural reality explains, at least in part, why a rock solid, fire-hardened Elijah would run in fear for his life at the mere sound of Jezebel’s message. … When discouragement sets in, most people tend towards one of two relational extremes. They either pad their despair with unhealthy or excessive amounts of people, or they become an island, peeling off by themselves and isolating further.  Elijah, feeling as though he’d been abandoned by everyone anyway, chose to separate himself, even from his sole companion.”

 

What Elijah did was both good and bad.  He needed a break, but being totally alone he was laying himself open to enemy attack. 


But God had not abandoned him. “All at once, we are told, an angel touched him” and gave him warm fresh bread and water.  In the middle of nowhere.  Doesn’t that just give you goose bumps?

 

Over the next couple of days God gave Elijah the time and the rest he so badly needed, and sent his angel to provide for his needs. 

 

This must have given him all the encouragement that he needed because as soon as he’d regathered his strength, he was on the move again, destination - Mount Horeb, way down in Saudi Arabia.  Mount Horeb is generally considered to be the same as Mount Saini. It’s also referred to as “The mountain of God” and is where Moses met God in the burning bush, and where he later received the 10 commandments. 

 

God wanted to speak to Elijah, but it’s strange that he should drag him all the way down there to do it. 40 days and 40 nights the Bible tells us that it took him to get there.  In biblical language that just means a very long time, it’s the number of days it rained and flooded the earth, the number of days Noah was in the ark, the number of days it took the 12 spies to spy out the land of Canaan, and the number of days that Goliath challenged the Israelites before he was killed by David, just for example.

 

But it was, after all, nearly 600 kilometres, and as the average night time temperature is 27°C, and daytime temperatures often rise to 43°C, getting there was quite a feat.

 

And now another surprise.  God, who APPEARS TO HAVE guided Elijah to Mount Horeb asks him the question “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

 

But actually, as we saw in our second reading, he wasn’t accusing Elijah of being in the wrong place, he was just giving him a chance to pour out all his frustration.  This is something we need to do in such situations. But having done so we shouldn’t hold on to it, and keep pouring it out at every opportunity.  We have to “let go and let God”.  Let HIM deal with our hurts and our problems, and let HIM lead us forward, which is what he did for Elijah who then had to go back the way he had come, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When he got there, he had to anoint two kings and also to anoint Elisha to succeed him.  We'll look at these assignments next time.

 

But before we finish let’s just go back one step.  In verse 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

This remind me of the time when God showed himself to Moses, but Moses wasn’t allowed to see his face, only his back, but that’s another story.

“A gentle whisper” is the NIV’s translation. The English Standard version says "The sound of a low whisper”, the King James, "A still small voice", the New American Standard Bible "A sound of gentle blowing" and the New Revised Standard version even says "A sound of sheer silence".

In another commentary it said that while any of these could be correct, "the sound of a gentle whisper" or "a still small voice" are probably the most helpful.

It goes on to say that God's voice is not always quiet, although it often is. Sometimes it booms like the sound of many waters, thunder, and loud trumpets (we find this in both Hebrews 12:19 and Revelation 1:10; 4:1.) God's voice is not always gentle. Sometimes it comes to bring a strong rebuke (Acts 26:14). God's voice is not always even a voice or sound. Sometimes it is an impression, or a nudge, a dream or vision.

But that’s not what’s important here.  What’s important is to know that God speaking to people is not confined to biblical times.  It happens just as much today, and it can happen TO US.

 

Still from this commentary, “sometimes, unless we're trained to recognize God's voice, we might mistake it for a passing thought. Sometimes God would like to talk to us, but too often we’re just not listening. Or there is so much noise in our life and so little quiet that God's gentle voice gets lost in the clutter. 

God is fully capable of getting our attention if he needs to. But he would rather that we listen to him of our own volition. 

It is quite possible that you've heard God's voice already but didn't recognize it as such. It doesn't have to be loud or spectacular to be God.

 

Personally, I have only heard God speak to me audibly once. 

 

I have however, on a number of occasions, experienced the nudging that our commentator is talking about.  Once it was to sell a house that Charlotte and I had put a lot of effort into renovating. We had no logical reason to sell it and we certainly did NOT want to.  We did, however, and soon afterwards our business went down due to an unprecedented five-fold rent increase, and we were able to clear all our debts and move on.  God was one step ahead of us.


On other occasions, when making difficult decisions, I have felt more at ease about one option and less about others, but for no particular reason.  This has frequently proved to be God’s reassurance.  Could that be described, I wonder, as “the sound of sheer silence”?

 

None of that puts me in the Elijah category, by the way.

 

Back to the commentary - God's voice can provide comfort when we are anxious. Elijah was fearful and exhausted, depressed and hopeless. God comforts him by giving him new work to do -- a new assignment. Jesus had comforted and restored Peter in a similar way -- with a mild rebuke -- by asking him three times to care for his sheep, restoring him to his former ministry (John 21:15-17).

So, in conclusion, what’s going on in Elijah's life and ministry now? His confidence has faltered and God is gently restoring him by showing that he loves him.

He asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah" (vss. 9, 13), and then listens patiently to Elijah's self-pity without rebuke.

Then he reveals himself in his gentle voice. When God cares enough to talk to us personally, we know that he loves us.

Finally, he gently tells Elijah, "go back the way you came...." (vs. 15a). It's sometimes hard to go back after we have done embarrassing things, but it is an important part of our healing and restoration.

Elijah now has new directions and assignments (vss. 15-17) that we’ll look at next time.

Sunday 16th October - Harvest Sunday

 

Readings Matthew 13:1-9 & 18-23

 

The Bible, as you know, is a collection of 66 books.  They were all written in pre-industrial days and addressed, by and large, to people who depended more or less directly on agriculture, and therefore on harvests.  Bible Gateway tells me that the word harvest appears no less than 111 times in the Bible, 85 times in the Old Testament, and 26 in the New.

 

It’s hardly surprising then that even Jesus used a lot of agricultural and horticultural language and illustrations in his sermons and parables.  He talked about sheep and sheep-folds, shepherds and gardeners, gates, vines, sheaves of corn, thorns, weeds, …….  And of course, he also talked about harvests.  Matthew chapter 13, from which our two readings came, but the whole chapter I’m talking about, is a classic example.  Let’s pray …


As you probably all know, I was brought up on a farm, so I have a natural sympathy for the farming community.  One of the things that makes farmers different from salaried people, and from most other self-employed people, is the way that they earn their income.

 

Farmers don’t get a weekly or monthly pay-cheque, they have to wait until they harvest whatever crops they grow to know what they’re annual income is. 

 

A good harvest means security, at least for 12 months.  A poor harvest means tucking in your belt and hoping for better next year.

 

When one is salaried, though, one has the impression that it’s your own efforts that produce your income and allow you a certain lifestyle.  When you’re a farmer you’re much more aware that that, although you have to work hard, and long hours, it’s God’s provision. 

 

But in reality, we ALL depend on God’s provision, whatever our profession.

 

Harvest is a popular topic for hymn writers too.  Our first hymn “We plough the fields and scatter” made this point very forcibly.  It was written, incidentally, by a German poet in 1782, set to music in 1800, translated into English in 1861 and has become one of the most performed of hymns in the United Kingdom. It even appeared in a shortened form in the musical Godspell.

Last week, we were reminded that in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses was about to die, he warned the Israelites Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.”


And we saw that when the ten northern tribes under Ahab and Jezebel went completely astray spiritually, and gave themselves to worshiping Baal and Ashera, God did just exactly that, so that there was neither rain nor dew for three and a half years. That means that they lost FOUR harvests, and that in a country where morning dews, and autumn and spring rains were almost 100% dependable.

So, for those in Biblical times, the harvest, the gathering of things planted, a natural time of reaping in joy what has been sown and produced during the year, was the most important event, and I would go so far as to say that whether we’re aware of it or not, it is for all of us today too.

In addition to the literal use of the word referring to the harvest of crops, the Bible uses the same term when referring to the rescuing of lost souls, and also of the resurrection of believers from the earth, which is a logical extension of the same thing.

This brings us to our two readings today.

If you’re any sort of a gardener, and I know that many of you are, you’ll know all about different soil conditions, the danger from birds, animals like moles, from slugs and snails, insects and diseases. You know all about weeds, brambles, goose grass, and especially about weather conditions.

The parable is fairly self-explanatory, but the fact that Jesus took the trouble to explain this particular parable to the crowds that had gathered to listen to his teaching, rather than one of the others that he told them that day, gives us an idea of its importance.

Let’s just look at it for a moment. He’s talking about what can happen “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom”. 

When anyone doesn’t understand it, he said, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.

When anyone hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

When anyone hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, it makes it unfruitful. 

When anyone hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

 

What’s the emphasis ?

 

The emphasis is “the kingdom”. How are people going to hear about the kingdom today? From us.

 

If we don’t plant anything in our gardens and our fields the weeds, pests and drought are irrelevant.  If we don’t plant the seed of the gospel message in people’s hearts; the evil one coming, persecution coming, the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choking and making it unfruitful are irrelevant too.

 

So let’s be thankful for the agricultural harvest, but, although it isn’t original and although it sounds rather corny, let’s remember too that the church is God’s combine harvester and the person driving it is “the Lord of the Harvest”, a term used by Jesus himself and reported by both Matthew and Luke. 

 

And that is one of the reasons WHY we now have services every Sunday.  For those who used to go to church years ago but who have gone astray over the years, and for those who have never heard the gospel or experienced church, but are looking for one to try, our doors must be open WIDE.

Sunday 9th October, 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings :   1 Kings 18: 1-15 , 1 Kings 18: 16-46

Text in blue is quoted directly from 1 Kings 18 - NIV

 

Elijah has been hiding from King Ahab for three and a half years, lodging with a widow in a small Mediterranean village called Zarephath, situated between the infamous ports of Tyre and Sidon, perhaps about 40kms south of where Beirut is today.  Interestingly this area was controlled by Jezabel’s father, and Jezebel was viciously seeking out and killing any of Yahweh’s prophets that she could find. So Zarephath can’t have been a very comfortable place for Elijah to be. It was enemy territory.

 

Ahab and Jezebel were sponsoring a desperate struggle for the religious dominance of Baal worship in Israel.


Due to the area’s geographic location rain and dew were normally pretty dependable. You’ve probably heard the Bible talk about the "autumn and spring rains."  So it had no irrigation systems because generally it didn’t need any. 

 

But the drought that Elijah had pronounced had come with a vengeance and was causing a famine that was resulting in both widespread suffering and religious embarrassment for this royal couple, because their gods were supposed to be in control of the weather. 

 

As I said, we’ll be looking at what happened on Mount Carmel today. Quite a bit of my message today will consist of quoting directly from 1 Kings 18.

 

Elijah reminds me a bit of Moses who, you remember, was an intelligent man doing the job of a shepherd, until God met with him in a burning bush and called him to lead his people.

 

We can imagine him dressed in rough, simple clothes, with well-tanned skin, leathery hands and a full beard.  He was described in 2 Kings 1:8 as having "a garment of hair and ... a leather belt around his waist", not dissimilar to John the Baptist, described in Matthew 3:4 as also having "clothes made of camel's hair, and a leather belt around his waist".  He was a simple man who didn’t play with clever forms of speech, but who didn’t mince his words either.

 

At his meeting with Ahab, Elijah had declared a total drought -- no rain, no dew even. This spelled total devastation to this agricultural society that depended upon rain, for its crops.  So it’s hardly surprising that Ahab was so upset, and why, once the drought started to bite, he’d put out a search warrant for Elijah’s arrest.

Then one day, in the third year after that initial encounter, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.”  So Elijah left the relative safety and comfort of Zarephath and headed off, without complaint, towards the king's palace.

Trevor read us this part of the story.  Obadiah was Ahab’s palace administrator.  He was an amazing character and “a devout believer in the Lord”. Interestingly his name means "servant" or "worshipper of Yahweh".  To be able to hide and feed 100 prophets gives us some indication of his wealth and importance, but it tells us that he was a man of amazing faith and courage in the face of the mortal danger that this degree of civil disobedience was putting him in.

Anyway, while walking north on a mission to find grass to keep Ahab’s horses and mules alive, quite by chance he bumped into Elijah who was walking south towards Samaria.  This was probably the very last person he expected to meet, or even wanted to meet.  I love the conversation that they had “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’” “What have I done wrong, … You tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here,’ and if you don’t turn up, he will kill me!”

But Obadiah did go and tell Ahab, and Ahab went to meet Elijah, which is interesting because it was supposed to have been the other way around. Ahab was desperate to see the famine lifted. It’s also interesting that Elijah seems to have been quite prepared to appear before Ahab because it might have been tantamount to suicide, but he did it anyway.

 When he saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”

It’s not me that has made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands (notably the first two of the 10 commandments, You shall have no other God's before me.” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.”) and you have followed the Baals.  Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

Mount Carmel is south of Zarephath, on the coast overlooking the sea, just south of Haifa, and was then a traditional ‘high place’ for religious activities.

Then Elijah said to the people, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.  Was that out of embarrassment at their wavering and indecisiveness? Or was it because they knew that this was going to be the ultimate showdown between two gods, both of whom claimed to control the weather? They were literally starving, but they were probably frightened, too.

Either way; Elijah then states the rules for the contest.

“I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left,” he says, or at least the only one brave enough to show his face, “but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” Notice Elijah’s use of the singular, he’s confident that only one God is going to answer.

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” Silent a few moments ago, the people are now in agreement.  Everyone likes to watch a good contest. These, incidentally, are the people that Elijah wants to lead back to God.

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy (more accurately the word meant, "relieving himself"), or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice (about 3 pm). But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” Perhaps the people were getting bored and had started to wander off, but They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down.

Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.”  With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed (that’s about three gallons or about 15 litres).  He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” This in itself was no mean feat.  There was a severe drought, remember?  They might even have had to go down the mountain to fetch it.

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time.  The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. (verse 38)

This was not just ordinary fire, but fire so hot and so intense that even the rocks exploded and the soil was scorched. The sacrifice, the wood, and the alter itself had utterly disappeared. God had truly answered with fire, and no-one could have been in any doubt.

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” Ahab wouldn’t have been able to hear it, but Elijah could. So Ahab went off to eat and drink, he probably had a tent nearby, but Elijah’s job was not quite finished, he climbed back up to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. This is the posture of humiliation and of humble prayer, where Elijah is beseeching God to bring the rain whose sound he has heard. James recalls this prayer.

"Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops." (James 5:17--18)

“Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.

“There is nothing there,” he said.

Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”

The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”

So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”

Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the Lord came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab 17 miles all the way to Ahab’s summer palace in Jezreel.  No mean feat !

There are many lessons that we can learn from this amazing chapter, but here are just a few.

1. Devout men and women like Elijah and Obadiah are willing to do radical and dangerous things to carry out God's will and protect God's people  -- a powerful example to us!

2. It is not possible to faithfully serve two gods.  By worshiping Baal, the Israelites had effectively rejected God as their source of provision. Interestingly, when God was giving the law to the Hebrew people in the book of Deuteronomy, he said “Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.”

Mixing two or more religions, is not possible while still remaining a faithful Christian. Following the Lord is an exclusive relationship.

3. This follows on. Elijah rebuilding the altar of Yahweh on Mount Carmel reminds us of the need to rebuild whatever in our life has broken down and kept us from a true relationship with, and commitment to, the Lord.

4.     The killing of the prophets of Baal reminds us of Jesus’ victory on the cross and his defeat of Satan. I touched on this last week, we live in a physical world but also in a spiritual one, and we must be constantly on our guard.

5.     Elijah the prophet heard the sound of heavy rain and prepared for it, even before it is visible. We live a life of faith in following what God leads us in, even if we don't yet see the fulfillment of his promises. As Paul said to the Corinthians "We walk by faith, not by sight".

Sunday 2nd October 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Genesis 12: 1 - 7 & Acts 8: 4 - 13

 

If you were with us two week ago for the latest episode in our series about the early church, you’ll know that we witnessed the demise of poor Stephen, stoned to death at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders.  So we’ve got as far as the beginning of chapter 8, with the arrival on the scene of Saul or Tarsus.

 

Today we’re going to see the beginnings of the persecution of the church and we’ll hear about some of the exploits of another of those first Jerusalem deacons, Philip.

 

Opposition and persecution.  Wow, that’s a word we hear and read often enough these days, isn’t it?  But let’s not get distracted by current affairs, as important to us as they may be.  The point that I want us to focus on this morning is that suddenly everything had changed for the early church.

 

As we have been hearing, things had been doing nicely, people were becoming believers at a healthy rate, even quite a few priests; people were sharing their possessions, miracles were happening, the needy were being cared for, some kind of leadership structure was beginning to evolve, Jesus would be back soon, or so they thought, … and then BANG!  

 

This nasty character from Tarsus, about 600 miles north by road, Saul as he was called then, Paul as he would later become, was putting a spanner in the works.

 

Stephen had upset the Sanhedrin, good and proper, and one of the things they did was to license Saul, and certainly others like him, to “go from house to house, to drag off both men and women, and put them in prison”.  This was new and it was violent. 

 

Panic! - Run! - Escape! - Get out of here! - Quick!

 

Suddenly Jewish believers are fleeing Jerusalem and going to surrounding Judea and even to Samaria to escape this sudden wave of intense persecution.  Samaria was surprising.  Do you remember? Jews didn’t like Samaritans, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

 

What, exactly, were the Christians so afraid of?

 

It’s helpful to know that while it’s common in the 21st century to see a prison term as a punishment for crime, this wasn't the case in Israel at that time. Prison was not a punishment as such, but just a place to hold people pre-trial.

 

Jewish jurisprudence was administered by the Sanhedrins, there was the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem with 71 members that we’ve already heard about, and then local ones each composed of 12 elders. They judged the cases and disciplined the people. Typical punishments might be:

1. Fines of various kinds.

2. Scourging. The Romans allowed the Jews 40 lashes less one, lest they might kill the prisoner. 

3. Expulsion from the synagogue and Jewish community.

4. Stoning, which was reserved for the most extreme cases such as blasphemy, so it was seldom practiced, except perhaps as some kind of mob violence that we saw in the case of Stephen. The Romans forbade the Jews capital punishment but when someone was stones, it was impossible to know who had thrown the stone that caused death.

So Saul's persecution consisted of imprisoning Christians and getting them tried by these local mini-Sanhedrin’s and getting them punished as severely as possible.

 

In his testimony before King Herod Agrippa in Caesarea, much, much later, he said.

" I ... was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.  Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them." (Acts 26:9-11)

We can look at things like this and just say to ourselves that it’s what happened.  Or we can see it for what it was, the work of the Devil himself.  It’s not a very popular thing to talk about these days, I know, but we should. Satan really thought that when Jesus was pinned to the cross, he’d got it made, until the resurrection. He wasn’t ready for that, now the church was growing and he was trying to stop it.

 

Sometimes opposition, persecution, and hardship can be good things, it hardens us, prepares us, …

 

Moving on, then, we mentioned Samaria earlier, and I said that it might seem surprising that the Christians were fleeing there.  Let’s remind ourselves of a bit of history.

 

During the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, some of the Israelites rebelled and the nation became two separate kingdoms. In the north the Kingdom of Israel comprised 10 tribes and their capital city was Samaria. In the south the Kingdom of Judah comprised of the other 2 tribes whose capital was Jerusalem.  Some 200 years later these 10 northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians, never to return.  The Assyrians in turn sent people that they had exiled elsewhere to live in northern Israel.  Effectively it was a population swop, and that was the way that the Assyrians displaced and dominated the peoples that they had defeated.  These new “Samaritans” mixed with the few remaining Hebrews and picked up the Jewish religion, but mixing it somewhat with their own.

 

This is why, at the time of the early church, the Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be spiritually inferior, and why contact with them was avoided as much as humanly possible, particularly by the Jewish leaders. So, if you’re wanting to get away from them, Samaria might have been quite a cunning place to go.

That was where Philip went, either to the capital city of Samaria itself, or perhaps to Sychar, which was formerly Shechem and is mentioned at least 50 times in the Old Testament, It was, for example the place where God had promised the land of Israel to Abraham. Vaughan just read us that story.

Either way, as we heard, “when the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.  So there was great joy in that city.”  Even people like Simon the Sorcerer believed and were baptized.

 

We shouldn’t skip over what was happening. Luke mentions three kinds of kinds of miracle here:

Exorcism. Evil spirits are being cast out, and making quite a show of it "with shrieks," as these demonic spirits struggle unsuccessfully to resist the power of Jesus' name.

Paralytics healed. Once they were lying in the house all day, too weak to get up, or with muscles that had atrophied from strokes. Now, suddenly, amazingly, they are whole!

Cripples restored. Many had bones that hadn't been properly set when broken, or pulled ligaments that forced a constant limp. Now they can walk, run, and dance for joy.

 

The point is that all these were very visible signs that point to the Kingdom of God, and to the resurrected Messiah Jesus, in whose name the miracles were being done. The result was "great joy in that city."

 

In Jerusalem, powerful healings had brought rage from the leaders and plots to kill, but In Samaria, they were bringing open joy in God's goodness, and faith in Jesus.  The difference? Open, hungry hearts.

 

Something else was happening, you’ll notice, and it was the exact opposite of what Saul of Tarsus wanted to achieve.  The good news of the gospel was spreading further and faster. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" and we’ll hear, a couple of chapters further on, that this “good news” will go to places like Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.

 

Geographically, this is fascinating, because do you remember what Jesus told his disciples just before he ascended into heaven? "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). This is, in a way, what was happening, but not exactly and precisely.

 

If we read on from where Sandra left off we discover that “when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John there.  When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

 

We’ll probably look at this next time.

 

As for Philip he’s about to head south to Gaza, and he’ll meet an Ethiopian on the way.  We’ll pick up that story next time too.

Sunday 25th September, 2022 - Martin Mowat

Introduction to the start of a new series of sermons.

Readings. 1 Kings 16:29-33. 1 Kings 17:1-11. 

You were probably surprised to hear readings from 1 Kings, and not from Acts, and the reason is that we’re now going to follow the Acts series on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month, and I have a new series about Elijah on the other Sundays. 

Ahab!  You may be asking yourself where you’ve heard his name before.

Ahab was a nasty piece of work.  As we heard in the reading, he “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.”  And if that wasn’t enough, he married an equally nasty piece of work, a woman called Jezebel.

 

They both worshiped a God called Baal who was a fertility god, which is to say a god or goddess associated with fertility, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and crops.  He was probably also a weather god, with particular power over lightning, wind, rain, as well as crop fertility which is associated. Dry summers were explained as Baal's time in the underworld and his return in autumn was said to cause the rains which revived the land.

Elijah, poor fellow, had the misfortune to be called by God to challenge Ahab and Jezebel, and show them the errors of their ways, a message which they were not about to receive kindly.  But we’ll come back to all that in a bit.

A little bit of history first to put everything in context. Ahab was the tenth king of Israel, so Saul, then David, then Solomon, then Rehaboam.  Under Rehaboam the nation split in half, with Abijah as king of the southern part, Judah, and Jeroboam as king of the northern part, Israel.  Jeroboam was succeeded by Nedab, then Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and then our notorious friend Ahab.

As I said, and as we just heard, the Bible presents Ahab as a wicked king, particularly for condoning Jezebel's influence on religious policies. He reigned for 22 years before being mortally wounded by an unaimed arrow in a battle against the Arameans.

The Bible tells us that dogs licked his blood, according to the prophecy of Elijah. But the Greek Old Testament apparently adds that pigs also licked his blood, symbolically making him unclean to the Israelites, who abstained from pork. Ahab was succeeded by his sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram.

Jezebel's death, however, was far more dramatic than Ahab's. It is recorded in 2 Kings 9, where Jehu, 3 kings later, had her servants throw her out of a window. Dogs then ate her body, leaving nothing but her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands. This had also been prophesied by Elijah.

But let’s move back to Elijah.  Who was he? Where did he come from? And why are we talking about him?

He is perhaps most famous for not dying, but being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind instead. If you’re into trivia his name is mentioned 76 times in the OT and 29 times in the New.  That does rather put him on the map, biblically speaking.

Tishbe, in Gillead, where he came from, is now in the western part of modern-day Jordan. Whether he was born there we don’t know, in fact we know nothing about him at all until he appears in 1 Kings 17, which David read earlier.  His name in Hebrew, apparently, means "My God is Yahweh".  You’d have to behave properly with a name like that, wouldn’t you?

 

So I don’t imagine him sidling up to Ahab, giving him a friendly nudge, and whispering, “Pssst, just thought you should know, there’s going to be a bit of a drought soon. Maybe you should do what Joseph did.”

 

In fact, what he actually said was “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”  This was a direct challenge. Think about it.

 

He is effectively saying that the reason that there’s going to be a drought is that Baal, the god who brings rain, remember, has either gone on an extended holiday, or he’s getting too old, or that he’s disappeared, or that something else will prevent him from bringing the autumn rains that I mentioned earlier.

 

In other words, “your god is dead on his feet, but my God is Yahweh which means ‘He who makes that which has been made’ or who ‘brings into existence whatever exists’, so when it comes to the upcoming weather, MY authority is going to be stronger than YOURS, or that of your god.”  We’ll see how this pans out another time.

 

Not a great way to make friends though! Is it any wonder that the next thing that God said to him was “Leave here, turn eastward and go hide in a ravine” which is what he does.

 

Now Elijah is literally between a rock and a hard place, but amazingly, wonderfully, graciously, God gets the ravens to feed him twice a day, and he has water to drink from the brook in the bottom of his ravine.

 

But the drought did what drought’s do and predictably, the brook dried up. 

 

So God told Elijah to get up and go to a place called Zarephath.  I don’t know how far that was, but whatever the distance I guess that it was a long, hot, lonely walk. There he found the widow, just as God had promised, and he asked her for food and water, which she was barely in a situation to give.  But it’s an interesting story and you can read the whole thing for yourselves if you want to, in 1 Kings 17, vv 7-24.  Very simply she doesn’t have any bread, and she’s just about to use her last bit of flour and oil to make one last loaf for her and her young son, before they give up and die of starvation.

 

But he says to her, “OK, do that, but first make a loaf for me.  Then he makes her a promise. “Your jar of flour will not be used up and your jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.”  The promise was kept but there’s a strange twist to the story, because the poor woman’s son, the only person she has in the world, and the key to her survival, gets ill and dies.

 

Again Elijah says something similar to his request to make bread for him first.  “Give me your son”, he says, and then he takes him off upstairs and asks God to bring him back to life. When he reappears carrying the boy in his arms, alive again she exclaims “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

 

It would be a very charming little story if it were not so full of personal stress and emotion.  Can you imagine how that poor woman felt? But there are lots of lessons in it for us, and that’s why we are looking at it today.

 

1.     Miracles make converts, and “miracles do happen”.   We must never be afraid to ask God for them.

2.     You have to give to receive.  You have to sow to reap.

3.     God is bigger than our problems

4.     God is a God of promise

5.     God is a God of his word, he is faithful.

 

So that should give you plenty to think about between now and when we pick up the story again in two week’s time. Meanwhile let’s pray.

Sunday 18th September 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings – Psalm 105: 1-9 & 42-45.   Acts 7: 54-60

 

Last week we saw that because the early church was growing so quickly, it was experiencing some organizational problems, and that as a result the 12 apostles appointed 7 qualified, godly men as “deacons” to take a lot of the more mundane work off their shoulders, leaving them free to concentrate on prayer, personal bible study, preaching and teaching. 

 

It seems that the star of the team was a man called Stephen, who Luke described as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; a man full of God’s grace and power” and as someone who “performed great wonders and signs among the people”.

 

We saw how some false witnesses spitefully accused Stephen of blasphemy but we had to leave the story just as it was hotting up, because we wanted to give time to praying for the Royal Family.  So let’s take up the story again, from where we left off, but before we do that, let’s pray …

 

Father, I thank You that millions of people will learn from the Bible today. As we come around your word now, please speak powerfully to convict, to comfort, and to conform our minds to Yours.  Holy Spirit, revive us today through your Word, we pray. In Jesus name, Amen.

 

Stephen was an effective preacher and healer in Jerusalem, especially among the Greek-speaking population, but these false witnesses had claimed that Stephen “never stopped speaking against the temple, and against the law.” They insisted that they had “heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the customs that Moses had handed down to them.”

 

Of course, that was not exactly what Stephen had said, they had twisted his words, but the charge was very serious and so Stephen found himself before the members of the Sanhedrin who were probably bemoaning the fact that a large number of priests were becoming Christians too.

 

For anyone else this would have been a pretty scary experience because this was the supreme legal court made up of no less than 71 Jewish elders, but Stephen seemed to have been unperturbed, his face, apparently, looking like "that of an angel".

 

Anyway, they asked Stephen the obvious question, “Are these charges true?”.  But he didn’t even bother answer the question, which could imply that the accusation simply wasn’t credible, even to the Sanhedrin, I don’t know.

 

What he did do, however, was to give them a history lesson about Abraham, Joseph and Moses, also mentioning Isaac, Jacob and his brothers, David and Solomon, some of the most key figures in their national ancestry, and showing how, despite the fact that the Israelites had repeatedly turned away from God, he had remained faithful to his promise, all the way though to Jesus.

It followed a similar pattern to Psalm 105 that xxx read for us earlier. Stephen made reference to text from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and Amos. “The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” he said, and then quoting from Isaiah he said. “As the prophet says:

“Heaven is my throne,

    and the earth is my footstool.

What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord.

    Or where will my resting place be?

Has not my hand made all these things?”

I’m guessing that by that time he was on a roll, and getting quiet hot under the collar.  As far as he was concerned the members of the Sanhedrin were sly, double-minded, political creatures, who had some time ago sealed Jesus death warrant. 

 

They deserved a good telling off, and he was going to be the one to give it to them. Whether knowingly or not, it is difficult to say, Stephen now sealed his own death warrant.

 

You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him —  you who have received the law that was given through angels, but have not obeyed it.”

 

Can you just imagine ?

 

“Stiff-necked” of course means “stubborn”. God had often called his rebellious people “stiff-necked”.  For example, in the book of Isaiah God said  "For I knew how stubborn you were; the sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze." (Isaiah 48:4)

 

That must have really got their backs up, but there was more to come.

 

Circumcision was a sign of obedience to God's covenant. Circumcision of the heart was a figurative way of talking about a soft and tender heart towards God. Circumcision of the ears would mean an openness to God's voice and his Word. Stephen was saying that although they had been circumcised outwardly, they were not so inwardly. Many times the prophets had accused the Israelites of having uncircumcised hearts, and now here was Stephen, accusing them, the most high ranking of the Jewish priesthood, of having “uncircumcised hearts and ears”.  They did not have soft and tender heart towards God, they weren’t open to his leading.

 

And not content with that, he says that they are even “resisting the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps "to resist" is too mild a translation. The Greek word means "to run against, to be adverse, to oppose, to strive against."

 

As we consider these accusations, let’s take a moment to think of our own hearts. How often are we stubborn, hard, rebellious, not wanting to listen to God’s correction or to his leading. How much grace God must have to love us, to redeem us, and tenderly put up with us as he trains us to be his disciples!

 

But even now Stephen isn't finished with his indictment. You are not only like your fathers, he is says, you're worse than they were!

" Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him -- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." (Acts 7:52-53)

Well, you know what happened next because xxx read us the graphic account.  I don’t know whether Luke witnessed it first hand, but the way it’s written seems to me almost as if it’s etched indelibly into his memory.  Either that or it was such a horrific and momentous event in the life of the church that those who were present had described it to him in all its gory detail.

 

You can just imagine those self-righteous Jewish leaders ”gnashing their teeth” at him.  “But Stephen”, we’re told, “full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

 

THAT was just the final straw. They dragged him outside the city where they wouldn’t be seen by the Roman authorities, and stoned him so that no one person could take the blame for his murder.  How cowardly can you get?

 

Stoning, or lapidation, has been a form of punishment for grave misdeeds since ancient times. It still happens today in places like Iran for misdemeanors such as adultery.  It is brutal and messy, and usually fatal.

 

Stephen must have known that they weren’t going to stop until he was dead, and he prayed simply, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  . Then he fell on his knees and cried out, echoing Jesus words on the cross “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this,” the text says, “he fell asleep.”

 

What an amazing man, what a martyr !  

 

But is that it? Do we just say “Wow, what a guy?”  Or do we look at Stephen in the same way as we looked at the Queen last week and see someone who literally gave away their life to do what Christ required of them.  And do we ask ourselves what Christ requires of US?

 

Most of us are retired.  We’ve worked hard all our lives and now’s the time to take life easy.  YES.  BUT.

In John chapter 4, after meeting the woman at the well, Jesus told his disciples “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. ”  My friends, we are not too old to reap!

 

I heard yesterday evening of someone who commented that Jesus wasn’t a real historical person.  …….. I was astonished and it reminded me how much there is still to be done.

 

So going back to Jerusalem, there, guarding the coats of the Jewish elders murder a man more saintly than any of them, and thoroughly approving of what he was witnessing, was a young man from Tarsus, then called Saul.

 

If we take a sneak peek at the first few verses of chapter 8 we read that on the day Stephen was stoned a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.  But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison." (Acts 8:1-3)

We’ll look at that next week, and we’ll also meet another of those seven deacons, a fantastic Christian called Philip.

Sunday 11th September - Martin Mowat

Reading: Acts 6: 1 - 7

 

The early church is growing apace, as we have seen in the last few messages, but at the same time it was experiencing some growing pains.  In Acts chapter 6 we see that there were at least TWO troubling issues.

 

The first was that the apostles were overloaded with work, so much so that things started to go awry, notably with the distribution of food to those in need.  The second was that two groups were starting to emerge, and they didn’t always see eye to eye.  One was the Hebrew converts, and the other was the Greek speaking converts. Today we’re going to have a look at what was going on, and what the consequences were.

 

Problems in the early church!  Tut-tut!  We like to think that the early church was perfect, a shining example for us to follow even today. 

 

An example to follow, yes.  Perfect, apparently not quite.

 

I’ve already described the two issues that we heard about in Rod’s reading from Acts 6.

 

We have a tendency, don’t we, to think that the pastor, the vicar, the church president, whatever title your denomination gives their church leaders, that that person should just get stuck in, and “get it done”, in Boris’s parlance.  That’s what he’s paid to do, after all !

 

But here we had a situation where not ONE but ALL TWELVE leaders were inundated with supervising everything that was going on, so much so that they had to take a step back, and say both to themselves and to the church “It’s just not right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”

 

Priorities.  We are all old enough to understand how important it is to get our priorities right.  For the apostles, prayer, personal bible study, preaching and teaching were what they knew they should concentrate on.  Feeding those in need was hugely important too, they knew that, and they weren’t denigrating it, but it could be delegated.

 

But why 7 deacons? Why not 5, or 10? Did they somehow work out that they were 35% understaffed, or was it just that there were only 7 suitable guys?  Do you know, it may actually have been the latter?  When Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus quite a few years later he said that:

1. A deacon should be self-controlled in speech, appetites, and actions  “dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.”

2. A deacon should be sound in the faith.

3. A deacon should be tested,  by which he meant that they should have a proven track record of faithful service before being appointed.

4. And if married, a deacon should be faithful to his spouse.  He should manage his children and his household well. 

The basic message was that deacons are to be Christians whose morals, integrity, trustworthiness, self-control, and soundness in the faith show that they can be trusted to faithfully care for the church’s physical needs and to serve as an example of faithful service to others.

Later the church would have elders, for whom the qualifications were even more stringent, but that’s not where we’re going today.

I would just like to say, though, that in this church although we don’t have deacons who are called “deacons”, we do have seven ladies who carry out the role of deacon, the wonderful, faithful, diligent, members of the COG, the Church Organizing Group. They are elected by those who attend the church, and when being elected, the qualities we have just talked about should be what we look for. We should recognise, and respect them because they do a huge amount behind the scenes, particularly our church secretary.  Organising, setting up, clearing away, dealing with our finances, etc. etc.  They deserve our encouragement. 

Anyway, before I digress too far, who were these seven guys, and what do we know about them?

They were Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas.

Apart from Stephen, we don’t know a lot about any of them, except that whatever the qualifications were that the apostles set, these men qualified.  Their names give us a clue because all seven names are Greek, which suggests that their bearers were unlikely to have been Palestinian Jews.

All had, however, been born Jews except Nicholas who was from Antioch and was a proselyte to Judaism. Apart from that we know is that Philip became a powerful evangelist (Acts 8:4-40; 21:8-9) and that Stephen was described by Mark as ““full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people”.

Stephen is an important character because he was clearly sold out for Jesus and for his church and even “performed great wonders and signs”.  Jesus did miracles, we know that.  We’ve been hearing over the last few weeks that some if not all of the apostles did them too. But now we’re seeing deacons, ordinary people like you and I, do miracles.

So powerful was Stephen’s ministry, in fact, that, a bit like Peter and John, it got him into trouble with the Jewish authorities. 

What happened was that some members of the Synagogue of Freedmen, so called perhaps because it was composed of people who had been enslaved by the Romans following Pompey's siege of Jerusalem in 63 BC, and later “freed”, they argued with Stephen on certain matters.  But Luke tells us that they were unable to stand up against his wisdom, so they went to the Jewish authorities and accused him of blasphemy against Moses.  A very serious accusation indeed, so, like Peter and John before him, he found himself in front of the infamous Sanhedrin. 

 

I’m guessing that the Sanhedrin weren’t unhappy about this opportunity to take Stephen to task because they wanted to put a stop to these “great wonders and miraculous signs”.  This Jesus movement was getting out of hand.

 

They were false witnesses.  They claimed that “this fellow never stops speaking against this holy place, meaning the temple, and against the law.  For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

 

They were, of course, twisting Stephen’s words, but meanwhile something quite unusual, something quite unprecedented, something rather worrying was happening. As the members of the Sanhedrin looked at Stephen, “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel”.

 

The false witnesses did Stephen a favour, in that it gave him the opportunity to give those Jewish leaders a powerful scripture lesson, but in so doing he effectively wrote his own death warrant.

 

Riveting though the story is, we’re going to leave Stephen there until next week because when we’ve sung our next hymn we’re going to move into a time of prayer for the Royal Family, most importantly for His Majesty King Charles III, who has vowed to follow his mother’s example and serve his subjects “with loyalty, respect and love”. 

Sunday 4th September 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings: 1 John 1: 1 - 4. 1 John 1: 5 - 2: 1 - 2

In our study of Acts we’ve talked quite a lot about the activities of Peter and John, but somehow Peter seems to have been the star of the show. John is certainly present, but doesn’t seem to have more than a supportive role, and hasn’t so far been reported as saying anything.

This may have been simply a difference in character, Peter being more extrovert, John, like me, more introvert. It may also have been partly due to Peter trying to redeem himself, after having denied Jesus on the Eve of his crucifiction just a few weeks earlier.


It may also have been due to their rather different experiences during the three years that they were following Jesus physically and being mentored by him. John has been identified as being “the disciple whom Jesus loved” implying that his relationship with Jesus was somehow different.


But John wasn’t a silent person by any means. He did, after all write a gospel, at least three epistles, AND the book of Revelation.


His gospel was very different from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke shared much of the same material but John included lots of information that the other three didn’t, and had a very different objective. He didn’t want so much to give an historical record, as to prove, without doubt, that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.


I recently read an article on a few verses from his first epistle that I would like to share with you at this point in our series about the early church, partly to give us a bit of a break, but also to help us remember something very fundamental. Let’s pray …


As I just said, John wrote three epistles.  The first is just 5 short chapters, the second and third each only one.  The second was addressed to “the lady chosen by God and to her children” and scholars think that this was either a metaphor for the church, or because Jesus had entrusted him with caring for his mother, that it was written to her.  The third epistle was to his very good friend Gaius.


But I want us to concentrate on the first, which he addressed to “my little children".  When he penned these words John was an old, old man, perhaps in his eighties. He was serving as Bishop of Ephesus, a VERY strategic location, and he was planting and ministering to churches throughout Asia Minor.

 

So 10 times in one relatively short epistle he speaks to his readers as either his “little children" or his “dear children”,  a term of affection and love to his flock from an old warhorse in the service of Christ.

 

To be perfectly honest, if you read this epistle straight through, as I have a couple of times this week, it does seem rather a repetitive ramble from an old man with a few bees in his bonnet.  But be that as it may (no pun intended) his bees were very valid for the early church, and they are no less valid today.

 

Pam and Trevor have just read to us the first chapter, which contains a most discouraging reminder of our sinfulness and of our blindness to it.

 

Trevor’s reading, however, finished with the first two verses of chapter 2, which the article described as one of the most powerful and encouraging statements of God's love and commitment to us found anywhere in the Bible.”

 

My dear children,” says John, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." 

 

We’ll, come back to that in just a few minutes, but first let’s have a look at some of the things that John was so concerned about.


He talks repeatedly about the incarnation of the Word of Life.  The very first verse of this epistle says it all really. That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. It echoes, in a way, the first five verses of his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 

For John, if Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh, God “incarnate”, the promised messiah, then the whole thing would have been a waste of time.  But John had been experiencing this personally, first hand, for probably half a century.  There wasn’t a shadow of doubt in his mind, there couldn’t have been. To deny this incarnation, he said, is very dangerous indeed. He describes the people who know this as those who walk in the light, and about those who don’t as those who walk in darkness.

 

He also talks a lot about love, God’s love for his creation, and our love, not only of God, not only of his creation, but for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, saying in no uncertain terms that those who hate their fellow believers are not of God. Unity in the church is a very important subject.

 

And then he finishes by talking about our faith in the Son of God.

 

So let’s go back to John’s punchline. My dear children,” he said, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense -- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." 

 

Co-incidentally, our midweek prayer email quoted David’s psalm when Abimelek had chased him out of Jerusalem.  Verse 22 saysThe Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.”  He’s effectively saying the same thing.


Even if it’s not impossible to live a day without sinning, temptation and sin lie close at hand and we all have to deal with our failure in this area from time to time, me included.  We overuse phrases like "I'm only human." or “I'm no saint, but...." or “That’s the way God made me,  so…” to excuse ourselves.


But John is certainly not trying to give us a way to minimize the gravity of sin. Sin is serious because, while it doesn’t make God love us any less, it separates us from him.  It makes it more difficult for us to pray, and be in communion with him.  Our fellowship with him is impaired, even broken sometimes.  And that’s sooooo sad

But all is not lost, because according to John “we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense”. An “advocate” he calls him, like a lawyer who defends our case in court. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” we’re told.  The Greek word used here for to atone means "to gain or regain the favor of, appease, conciliate," that is, to placate, pacify, avert the anger of the deity. As the NIV footnote puts it, "He is the one who turns aside God's wrath....".  Put very simply, to “atone” is to make us “at one” with God.

And then finally he says “and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world."  This is something that we need to be very clear about. At first glance it looks as if the whole world, believers or not, sinners or not, everyone gets to go to heaven.  But no, that’s not what John is saying.

 

Yes, Jesus died for the sins of all human beings. Nevertheless, unless people put their faith in Christ, this atoning death doesn't do them a bit of good. Reformed theologians used to say, Christ's death is "sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect."

 

Who are the elect? Those who have called on Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, for their eternal salvation, and who have put the faith in him as their Lord, subjecting their lives to his authority.


For those, amazingly, the Advocate arguing our case before the Father, is the Atoning Sacrifice himself, they are one and the same person, the Lamb of God who took our sin upon himself and bore it away.


"Yes, they've done all these terrible things," the Lamb will tell the Father on the day of judgement, "but I died for their sins and bore them so that they don't have to bear the guilt any longer."


So what are we going to do with this?  Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

 

Let’s pray.

 

Lord Jesus, you told us to ask the Father to send out workers into the harvest. Please ignite in us a renewed passion and urgency for the gospel. May we share the way of salvation clearly, so that many might see and believe, and put their trust in you.  Holy Spirit, come to us once more as you came to that first prayer room in Jerusalem, that we might have new courage to share the gospel with others, that many might encounter the resurrected Saviour, Jesus Christ. 

Amen

Sunday 28th August - Martin Mowat.

Readings: Psalm 110.  Acts 4: 32 - 37

 

In Acts 4 we were told that the church consisted of 5 000 men, and rising.  So let’s be conservative and say that only half of them had wives who believed too, so 7 500 Christians, in a city whose population was between only 20 000 and 35 000, depending on the religious festivals going on at the time.  So that’s between a fifth and a third of the population.  That’s all very well as a simple statistic, but can you imagine what effect that was having on life in Jerusalem. And just to add to the craziness of it all, people are beginning to flock in from the neighbouring towns and villages to see what’s going on, bringing the sick and disabled in the hope of their getting healed.  This is huge.

 

Today we’re going to hear about Annanias and Saphira, and about yet another run in between the apostles and the Jewish leaders.

 

In the passage that Pam just read to us we’re reminded how those early Christians, as they would later be called, shared their possessions in order to care for those in need.  It could be that because they thought that Jesus was coming back quite soon, their possessions had become less relevant, but whether or not that was the case I’m sure that because of the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives they had a genuine care for those less fortunate.

 

Do you know that something like 35% of the world population, I think it is, live on less than 2$ a day, while half of the world's net wealth belongs to the top 1%.  Financial inequality is at an all time high.  While millions are starving, the rich are taking rocket rides into space.  But let’s not be too complacent.  If we talk about the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, relatively speaking we are among the ‘haves’.

 

As we just heard, a levite Cypriot called Barnabas, who was also among the ‘haves’, sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.  Then a couple called Ananias and Saphira followed suit, but unlike Barnabas, they decided to keep some of the money back for themselves, which they were perfectly entitled to do. 


The problem was that for some reason that we’re not told, they decided to make out that the money they gave so generously was actually 100% of the proceeds, which was a lie, and that turned out to be a ‘biiiig mistake’ (as Barbara Streisand said in Funny Girl) because it cost both of them their lives.  You know the story, I’m sure.

 

There’s discussion as to whether it was because of unbelief, or arrogance, or something else. There’s also discussion about whether they were lying to the apostles, to the church, or to God, or all three.  Whatever it was there was a positive outcome to the episode because it resulted in a greater respect for all three. We read in verse 11 of chapter 5 that “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

 

But there’s also an important lesson for the church today, and it’s the needfor integrity.  Telling lies is commonplace today.  It’s accepted and expected at almost every level, even in corporate and national leadership.  But it’s just a symptom of a disease that is as deadly as Ananias and Saphira discovered it to be.

 

Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, it’s the state of being whole and undivided, it’s having a firm adherence to a code of moral and ethical values, it’s being incorruptible.

 

In Genesis chapter 20, when God gave his people the set of moral principles that we call the 10 commandments, there was thunder and lightning, and a trumpet sounding, and the mountain was smoking.  When the people saw it they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”  And that was just receiving the law, before they had even had a chance to break any of it.

 

Have we lost something somewhere?  Where is our holy fear these days?

 

My friends, there HAS to be integrity in the church.  We HAVE to be squeaky clean.  And that means being honest both with each-other, and with others, as well as with the God who sees everything.

 

Look around us.  There’s a world out there that doesn’t believe in God.  They’ve heard about him but they just don’t believe, and whose fault is that?  It’s not God’s fault, it’s OUR fault, because when people look at the church what they see is not pretty, and it’s NOT a reflection of God’s image.

 

The Greek word for church is “eklesia”.  It means “called out ones”.   We are called “OUT” of a world whose values are so flabby, we are called to be different, we are called to be holy, and that means that we are called to be people of integrity.

 

OK, enough said, let’s move on.

 

We saw last week that they prayed for boldness and miracles.  And now in chapter 5 we see that miracles are what they got, so much so that “the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.”

 

Oh what an ugly and destructive thing that is too, but I’m not going there, you’ll be glad to hear. 

 

Because of all the miracles, the poor apostles got locked up for the night while the Sanhedrin had a pow-wow.  We don’t know how many apostles there were on that occasion.  Was it just Peter and John again, or were some of the others there too?  But it didn’t matter, because they weren’t there very long, an angel appeared and let them out, locking the doors again behind them.  Don’t you just LOVE it?  Doesn’t God have a wonderful sense of humour?

 

And then guess what? Peter has the temerity to have another go at them.  Here’s what he said in a nutshell.

-         You condemned Jesus and had the Romans hang him on a tree, but Israel's God, "the God of our fathers", your God, has acted.

-         He has exalted Jesus to the place of honor and he quotes from the psalm that Trevor read to us, psalm 110, “The Lord says to my Lord:  Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."

-         He is Israel's Savior from sin. We, and YOU, are all eyewitnesses to these things, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with all these miracles, is an additional testimony.

 

They can’t argue with that because they put them in the prison yesterday evening but when they sent for them this morning they hadn’t been there.

 

And now a guy called Gamaliel comes on the scene.  Gamaliel was the grandson of the founder of the more liberal of the two main schools of the Pharisees. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and a "teacher of the law." He was a big-wig and was known for his tolerance, particularly towards divorced women and gentiles. His reputation among Jews is as one of the greatest teachers in the history of Judaism and the apostle Paul trained under him.

 

Quite a guy, and he gives his colleagues some sound advice.  “Let them go”, he says.  “If this is of human origin, it’ll fizzle out of its own accord, but if it really is God, NOTHING any of us can do will stop it.”

 

"His speech persuaded them.” Luke tells us. “They called the apostles in and had them flogged (which sounds rather spiteful). Then they ordered them (yet again) not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go."

 

Their backs are bloody but the apostles are undeterred. "They left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." (Acts 5:41)

After all, Jesus had taught them, in the sermon on the mount

" Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12)

Sunday 21st August - Martin Mowat. Service led by Paul Jobson.

Readings : Psalm 2 & Acts 4:23-31

 

Martin sends his apologies for not being with us again this morning.

 

We’re currently doing a series on the Early Church in the book of Acts, and if you’re a regular and finding it a bit disjointed it may be because you’re missing the episodes on the alternate Sundays, but you can pick those up on the church site. In fact, I’d say that it’s quite important that you do so that we can all move forward together.  Equally, if you’re a visitor and you’d like to read more in the series, that’s where to find them. If you don’t know the address of the site just Google “English Speaking Church Mirepoix” and you’ll find it.

 

We saw last Sunday that life in the early church was hotting up considerably, and that this was bringing them into conflict with the Jewish authorities who had been mandated by the Romans to keep things under control.

 

This hostility and opposition drove the church to its knees in prayer and this is what we’re going to be looking at today.

After their night in jail, and a no-holds-barred verbal battle with the religious powers that be, Peter and John gave a full account of their adventure to the assembled church.

When they heard this”, Luke tells us, “they raised their voices together in prayer to God. 'Sovereign Lord,' they said, 'you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.'" (Acts 4:24)

Notice how the first thing they do is to praise God.  Jesus taught his disciples to do the same thing when he taught them The Lord’s Prayer.  “Pray then like this:” he said to them “'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven …” This BEFORE “Give us today our daily bread” and so on.

 

We know that prayer was one of the things that they “devoted themselves to”.  It was their knee jerk reaction by now.  Before discussing the situation and trying to work out for themselves what to do, they put the situation into God’s hands.  “You made the heavens Lord,” they said, “that was some feat, so here’s a situation that you can fix in a heartbeat.”

 

Notice too that “they raised their voices togetheror with one accord as the King James version puts it.

 

Back in Acts chapter 1 we saw that "They all joined together constantly in prayer." Now in Acts 4:24 we read "They raised their voices together in prayer to God." and just a few verses further on, verse 32, we see that "All the believers were one in heart and mind...."

Unity in the early church is clearly a theme that Luke wants us to take note of!

Satan is constantly trying to divide. Couples, families, churches, governments.  It’s one of his key tactics to weaken the church and he’s a past-master at it.  Even in our own church some of you will remember instances where there has been division and people have left as a result. But it’s not just people leaving that is sad, it’s the affect that it has on the credibility of the message that we are trying to share with our community that’s even sadder. We need to be on our guard, we need to be “of one mind”, “of one accord”, “together”.

Then they quoted that wonderful psalm that we heard earlier, and that starts, (somewhat pertinently for the world today) “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed.”

On that occasion they were referring to what had happened in Jerusalem a few weeks earlier. The scribes and the Pharisees had raged, the Sanhedrin had conspired and plotted, and the gentile Romans had condemned and crucified God's Messiah.

But all to no avail, they say, because it had all been part of God’s eternal plan.  The nations and rulers can rage and threaten, but they can't overcome the will of God. He has the upper hand, he has the victory.

 

The believers continue their prayer in earnest. "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:29-30)

Their boldness had already got them into trouble, yet they prayed for continued boldness! Miracles had got them into trouble, yet they prayed for more miracles.

You can almost feel their faith as they expect God to stretch out his hand and provide the solution.

And then, in verse 31 we read that « After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.”  (Pause.)

 

Can you imagine?  It’s quite likely that they were in the Temple because they needed space for so many people, and it shook, it physically shook.  It was as if God was saying “I will”, and the second half of the verse says “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” He said he would and he did !

 

Just quickly, there’s one more thing that I’d like to talk about. We are frequently coming across the expression “filled with the Holy Spirit” at the moment and although we did touch on it a few weeks ago, perhaps this is an appropriate moment to think about what Luke was talking about.

 

There are basically two schools of thought about what it means. 

 

Very simply, one says that at the moment a person is “saved”, that’s to say they accept that Jesus is the son of God, that he died as a result of their sin, that he gave them new life in him, and accepted his Lordship, his governance of their lives, that that is the point in time when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within him or her.  That’s it, they say, we’re filled, once and for all.

 

The other school of thought says that that is just the beginning.  Yes, it’s a spiritual experience, yes, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, but whether or not we were completely “filled” at that moment, life happens, we leak, and we need to keep asking for more, just as we have seen those early Christians doing in Acts 4 today.  Some also believe that if we are filled to the point of overflowing, as the word “baptized” implies, we might even speak in tongues.  Indeed, this has been, is even, their experience.

 

I hasten to add that this has been something that has caused a lot of division over the years.  Just as the Protestant church parted ways with the Catholic church, so whole denominations have been born and split away, notably the Pentecostal church, the Assemblies of God as they are called.

 

Here in Mirepoix, we call ourselves a “non-denominational” church (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “multi-denominational”) which has to imply that although we come from all sorts of church and denominational backgrounds, we have very different experiences of church, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and that as a result we have different habits, different expectations, and different ways of understanding scripture, different all sorts of things.

 

If we are to “be church” in and for the area of Mirepoix, and that’s what this series of messages is all about, then we MUST “agree to disagree” on some of these matters, however important they may seem to be.

 

The baptism in the Holy Spirit is one, creation and evolution another, exactly when Christ will return is another.  What we say and do and don’t say and do in our services can be another.

 

It is critical that we keep our focus on Jesus, on his love for us, and for the world to which he has called us to witness.

 

Praying together, and praying for one another is part of the key.  It’s what those early Christians did.  Let’s pray together now.

 

Heavenly Father, you created each one of us, and amazingly you created each of us to be different.  Its mind boggling but no two of your creatures are identical. 

 

But while you created is so individually you created us for a common purpose, to represent your kingdom to the world. Show us how to love one another in the way that you love us, so that those around us will see and know that you are God.  Help us, Lord to be “of one mind”, “of one accord”, “together in spirit”.

 

This is something we will never do in our own strength.  We NEED you Lord.

Come, we pray, and do your work in our hearts.  In Jesus precious and strong name, we pray.  Amen.

Sunday 14th August - Martin Mowat. Presented by Jess Jephcott

Readings: Psalm 118, 1-4, 22-29. Acts 4:5-12.

 

Things were really hotting up in the early church.  At first there were just 120 spirit filled believers, but then after Peter preached at Pentecost there were more than 3000.

 

Now, after only a short time there are 5000 men, so perhaps as many as 10 000 people.  It’s strange the way that the Bible sometimes expresses statistics in terms of the number of men.

 

Peter had just preached the second of his amazing sermons, and so we’re going to start this morning by having a look at that. 

 

Let’s pray …

 

The Temple was full of people, many of whom had gone there in the hope that one or more of the apostles would be teaching, but a huge commotion was going on.  Walking, leaping, whooping and praising God with all his might was a beggar who had been crippled from birth.

 

Attracted by the hubbub, people “came running”, Luke tells us, to see what was going on. Staggered, amazed, incredulous, they asked each other how on earth this could have happened.  But Peter is already on his feet and beginning to preach.  Here is a synopsis of what he said.  In many ways it’s quite similar to his Pentecost sermon that we looked at three weeks ago.

1. We didn't heal this man by our own power, God did it, and he did it to glorify his servant Jesus (verses 12-13a).

2. You are responsible for killing God's Holy and Righteous one, the Author of Life he called him, but God raised him from the dead and we are all witnesses to this fact (verses 13b-15).

3. Faith in Jesus' name and power healed this man completely (verse 16).

4. Christ's sufferings were part of God's plan (verses 17-18).

5. Although you acted in ignorance, you must now repent of your sins and be forgiven (verse 19a).

6. The Messiah will now be in heaven but at the right time God will send him back to restore everything (verses 19b-21).

7. Jesus is the prophet whom Moses prophesied would come (verses 22-23).

8. All the prophets foretold the Messiah's coming and you are heirs of this promise. In Jesus the Messiah, God fulfills his promise to Abraham to bless all peoples through his offspring (verses 24-25b). Remember that the audience is predominantly Jewish, so this was a very important part of Peter’s argument.

9. Thus, the Messiah is sent first to you Jews to bless you by turning you from your wicked ways (verse 26).  He doesn’t say as much on this occasion, but by using the word “first”, he infers that the Messiah came also for the gentiles, and that’s something new.

This sermon was good, solid, uncompromising stuff.

 

But all this upheaval was coming to the notice of the Jewish religious leaders, who were not at all happy about it.

 

These men wanted to protect their people from false teaching.  I’m sure that their motives were good in that respect.  But also, nobody likes change and that’s been the history of the church, one denomination starts where the previous one wouldn’t go any further.

 

So they were protecting their traditions, but they were also protecting their control.  Again, in fairness to them, one of the reasons they wanted, needed even, to control the people, was so that they didn’t upset the Romans, and that they would all be left to practice their religion in peace.

 

But there’s no doubt about it, they enjoyed the control too, and isn’t that so often the case in politics.  I don’t believe in making political comments from the pulpit, although I’ve heard of pastors who have been criticized for not doing so, but you don’t have to look very far to see leaders who will go to any lengths to maintain their personal power over others.  Anyway, let’s not get died-tracked.

 

So the Jewish leaders arrested Peter and John, and put them in prison overnight.  What happened the next morning was read to us by Yyyy.  All the top-nobs were there which gives us an inkling as to how important this was to them.  “Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family, the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law.” 

 

It was quite a turnout.   “By what power or what name did you do this?”  That was their main question.  Last week we talked about some of the things that the word “name” signifies.  Among them is the idea of authority, and authority was something very close to their controlling hearts, as we’ve just seen.

 

“How dare you?” was effectively what they were saying.  “Who do you think you are?”

 

This was the first of many such encounters, as we will see.  But Peter wasn’t to be put down. 

 

Filled with the Holy Spirit” we are told in verse 8, he looked them straight in the eyes and said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! ”  It’s important to notice that Peter wasn’t getting big-headed due to the rapid growth of the church, it was God the Holy Spirit who was giving him the boldness he needed in that moment.  He had just spent the night in goal, remember, which can’t have been much fun, and he knew that these big-wigs held enormous power, but he didn’t hesitate for one moment.  He just hit them with it.

It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”

Then he comes in with his right hook.  Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’  He’s quoting scripture at them, spontaneously, from memory. Psalm 118 that XXX read earlier so this was hard for them to refute.


According to Wikipedia, “the cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.”  Jesus himself had quoted this verse when he was telling the parable of tenants to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.

As they’re taking in the significance of that he delivers a blow to the stomach!  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”  This is nothing short of swash-buckling.

The Jewish leaders are between a rock and a hard place now.  Unschooled Galileans are playing them at their own game, challenging them at their own level.  What’s more the fact that the man, crippled for over 40 years, is walking and leaping around in front of everybody is undeniable.  Something’s going on and they can’t put their finger on it, so they don’t know how to control it.  Biiiig dilemma!

So they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. There it is again, “in the name of Jesus”.


 But Peter and John were not to be put down so easily. “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!”, they replied. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  Bam! Point blanc refusal.

 

This is going to have consequences. 

 

Let’s pray.

Lord, we’re inspired by the all-out boldness of Peter and John. Too often we are timid, but that doesn't move your Kingdom forward. Fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit we pray, help us to be bold and obedient and see your Kingdom come. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Sunday 7th August - Martin Mowat

Readings : Psalm 8.  Acts 3:-10

 

Two weeks ago, we saw how, as a result of Peter’s explanation of the strange things that people witnessed when the Holy Spirit descended on the 120 praying believers at Pentecost, and of his powerful call to repentance, no fewer than 3000 people gave their lives to Christ and were baptized.


We finished by reading from Acts chapter 2 that in the days, weeks and months that followed those new believers welcomed the message, they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, they devoted themselves to the fellowship, they devoted themselves to breaking bread together, they devoted themselves to prayer, and they cared for the needy among them. 


Each of those could be a sermon in itself, but today we’re going to move on to chapter 3 and see what happened one day when Peter and John were going up to the temple one afternoon, the story that Philip just read to us.


As we said last time, those early converts to what was then called “The Way” were all, or virtually all, what we might call today Messianic Jews.  The term "Christians" didn't come into use until fifteen years later (Acts 11:26) as we will see in a few weeks. Most religious activities took place in the Temple and in local synagogues, and so it was natural for them to gather in the Temple, as well as in their homes, for prayer and teaching. Jesus had taught there and now the apostles were teaching there too, and the new believers flocked to hear them, they had so much to learn.  Luke tells us that that these new believers were seen "Praising God and having favor with all the people” and that “the Lord added to their number, daily, those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47)


Others would listen in too, curious about this new sect, because the effect of this new movement was now being felt right across the city.

 

The Temple was a truly magnificent building, almost brand new because it had been completely rebuilt by Herod the Great only 40 or 50 years previously.  One can only surmise, therefore, that for the gate Beautiful to have that name, then it must have been quite something. This was actually it’s nick-name, not it’s real name, so scholars and archaeologists are not 100% certain which of the gates within the Temple that it was.  But that’s a bit academic really, the point is that it was somewhere in the courtyards that surrounded the actual temple building, a funnel through which people had to pass to get in, and therefore an excellent place for handicapped people to sit and ask for help. 

 

Begging like that wasn’t necessarily a shameful thing to do.  Without today’s social security systems, everybody had to work if they wanted to eat.  Even if you were crippled and couldn’t work physically, you would be expected to contribute to the family budget, and so your family would carry you to a strategic spot where you would spend your day begging.  In those days, apparently, giving to beggars was considered to be totally natural, even expected of a practicing Jew.

 

In the Temple there were two formal prayer services on normal weekdays, at the time of the morning and evening sacrifices. The main one was the morning sacrifice at 9:00 am, and then there was a somewhat shorter evening sacrifice at about 3:00 pm.

 

So here we have Peter and John.  They’ve had lunch and maybe a siesta, and they’re making their way, along with dozens of others, into the temple to pray and to teach.

 

Imagine that that gate is the one that we come through this morning from the car park into the courtyard here, and it’s perhaps 10:45 on a Sunday morning, and you see a disabled beggar sitting there, looking at you imploringly, begging for money. 

 

Or maybe it’s not Sunday, maybe it’s Wednesday, and it’s not at church, it’s at Lidl or Super-U.  In all honesty, how would you react?  Do you think to yourself, “Oh great, another opportunity for me to give this person 50€?” Or like me, do you slide past, rather embarrassed, trying to avoid making eye contact with them, giving them not a penny?

 

I tell myself that whenever I go out I’m always going to have a 5€ note in my pocket for such occasions, but do I remember to do that?  No.

 

Like me, Peter didn’t have a 5€ note in his pocket either, but unlike me he didn’t regret the fact, and he wasn’t embarrassed. Instead he responded to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and healed the guy.

 

Well, HE didn’t heal the guy, God did. Let’s hear that passage again.

“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet (not struggled to his feet, jumped) and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Let’s take a moment to imagine the scene. The crowd were filled with wonder and amazement, not surprisingly.  But I have absolutely NO DOUBT that Peter and John were too, and the other apostles and believers when they heard about it later.  Could this really have happened? How could it have happened? Would similar things happen in the future?

 

It begs the question, doesn’t it, could such a thing happen today, in 2022, in Mirepoix?

 

The question that I want to concentrate on this morning is “How could it have happened?” and I think that the answer is at least threefold.

 

FIRSTLY, in chapter 2 we were told that “all of them were filled with the spirit”.  In chapter 4 we will see that when Peter and John are seized by the priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 

 

So it is perfectly reasonable to assume that at this particular moment, sandwiched, as it was, between those two events, Peter was “filled with the Spirit”, and it was this that emboldened and empowered him to step out in faith and allow God to work through him.

 

SECONDLY, as I have just said, this was something Peter did “in faith”. He knew that miracles happen. He had probably done it before when Jesus had sent the apostles out in twos, in Mark 6, do you remember, where it says that they drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

 

Faith is taking God at his word, believing, and obeying, but again, that’s a whole other subject.

 

THIRDLY, as perhaps you noticed in our reading, and as Peter explained to the Jewish leaders, he did it In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth”.  This is an expression we hear time, and time again in the New Testament

 

So, what’s in a name? I seem to remember talking about this before but I don’t remember in what context, during our series on Jesus’ ministry without doubt. But the idea of taking action "in the name" of someone has quite a history in the Old Testament too.

 

A name is firstly an identifier. "Martin", for example, is what identifies me and distinguishes me from anyone else.

 

Secondly it has to do with one’s renown. Your name refers to your reputation. We see it, for example, in the expression "to make a name for oneself." If I say “Queen Victoria”, “Winston Churchill”, or “William Wilberforce” you start to think of all the things that they did and achieved.

 

Thirdly it has to do with your person, who you really are, what you stand for, the principles that are important to you and which determine how you conduct yourself.  I only have to say “Liz Truss” or “Rishi Sunak” and you will understand what I mean. 

 

Lastly, and most importantly for us, it’s the idea of a person’s authority, and the power invested in them. We had a classic example just a moment ago when the Jewish leaders asked Peter and John 'By what power or what name did you do this?' (Acts 4:7) 

 

I mentioned the Old Testament. There was the occasion, just for example, in the book of Deuteronomy when God said to the Israelites “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account."

 

Even in today’s language we’ve all heard the expression “in the name of the law”, and most of us are not too young to remember The Supremes singing the song “Stop, in the name of love, before you break my heart.”

 

So the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, then, infers the full authority of God, the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and his power and ability to do miracles, then and now, to heal, to deliver, to change hearts, to change lives,  and this is why we usually end our prayers by saying “in the name of Jesus, Amen”.

 

So, going back to our story, Peter was not getting above his station, he simply did, in all humility, but nevertheless in faith and obedience, that which he feels prompted by the Holy Spirit to do.

 

This man had been crippled from birth.  Seven days a week he sat patiently asking for support from his fellow Jews. What happened to him that day was the very last thing in the world that he would have expected.  It was more than he would ever have dared hope for, and so it’s no wonder he was “walking and jumping, and praising God”, hanging onto Peter and John for support. Can you imagine how he would have felt?

 

And the crowd?  Of course, everybody recognised him.  They had seen him hundreds, even thousands of times on their way to sacrifice and pray.  They knew his family, probably, knew that he really had been crippled from birth, he hadn’t just been faking it and skiving.

 

And Peter, just as he had done a few days earlier, seized the opportunity and started preaching, then and there.  “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?

 

But we don’t have time for that today, we’ll have to wait until next week. 

Sunday 24th July - Martin Mowat

WHAT IS CHURCH 3 – 24/07/22

 

Readings :  Isaiah 44:1-6 and Joel 2:28-32

The sound of a violent wind, what appeared to be tongues of fire. All 120 or so people who’d been praying together in an upstairs room “filled with the Holy Spirit", in a way that was observable, apparent to everybody there and prophetic praise in dozens of different languages as simple Galilean disciples were enabled and empowered to speak out "the mighty things of God" in languages they had never learned, at school or anywhere else. 

These were the four ways that God chose to manifest himself that day, and it’s not surprising that the amazed onlookers asked themselves and each other what on earth was going on.  This was quite literally without precedent. Some of them even suggested that the disciples might be drunk, I mean, what other logical explanation could there have been?

We like logical, don’t we.  If it’s logical and orderly we can handle it, can’t we?  But this was neither logical nor orderly.

“Fellow Jews, these men are not drunk, as you suppose” said Peter, “it's only nine in the morning! Let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.”

Peter understood exactly, this had been prophesied ages before.  Sue and Brian just read a couple of those prophecies for us, and we talked about that last week.

We didn’t, however, read anything from Acts 2 this week, but you can do that at home if you’d like to.

Peter makes a series of important points in his epic sermon.  Bear in mind that he’s speaking to a crowd of Jews from all over the place.

1. Jesus of Nazareth had been accredited to them by God by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among them through him, as they themselves knew."  Yes, miracles could be counterfeited, but the real thing is a powerful evidence of God's power at work, and they knew it.


2. It was them, the Jews, whether directly or indirectly, who had handed Jesus over and put him to death by nailing him to the cross, so for that THEY were guilty.


3. This had been God’s plan from the beginning


4. But God raised him from the dead, and they knew that too.  Clearly it had been impossible for death to keep its hold on him and they were all witnesses to the fact.


5. Jesus had now been exalted to the right hand of God, to rule and reign for eternity.

"Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this,” said Peter, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”  In other words, they were guilty, Jesus had the upper hand, and they’d better look out, or else.


When they heard this, Luke records, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:36-37)

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off -- for all whom the Lord our God will call.

That is Acts 2:38-39, and it’s one of the most important verses in the Book of Acts, so I’ve included it on the service sheet and I’d like us to look at it point by point.

 

1. Repent.

This was the first thing they had to do. “Repent” literally means to "change one's mind." Here it has the sense of feeling remorse combined with a willingness to go a new direction. Our word "convert" carries a similar idea, "to turn around, to transform." I’m reminded of the Lloyd Weber musical Starlight Express, when the big bully diesel engine gets converted to steam. Peter was challenging them to make a faith decision to change how they thought, how they led their lives, and to go in a new direction.


2. Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

I don’t know that this is really the time and place to get into a detailed discussion about baptism, although it is a subject that is fairly close to my heart.  One of the most notable characteristics of our church is that we come from very diverse denominational backgrounds, and will have been taught differently as a result. 

 

Some will have been baptized as babies, some as adults, some, like Charlotte and I, maybe both as babies and as adults, some of us perhaps not at all.

 

Let’s just confine ourselves to what Peter was telling them to do on this particular occasion which was that immediately following their decision to change direction, and to follow Christ, that’s to say having acknowledged their sinful nature and having received God’s gift of forgiveness, they were to be baptised by total immersion, as a sign of being washed clean and as a declaration to the world of what had happened to them.

 

This is what some might call “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”.

 

Just as a side note, they were to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ”, and we’ll look at what that particular phrase signifies inn two weeks time.


3. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit is the next thing that Peter says.

 

One of the key concepts here is to see the Holy Spirit as a gift, not something we earn by our own efforts and again, our decision to repent and give one's life to Christ is a prerequisite.

 

We are saved by God's grace, because God's Son bore the penalty of our sins on the cross. Repentance is our part; new birth by the Holy Spirit is God's part. We receive the gift by faith, but he bestows that gift and we receive it solely because of his unilateral favour to us.

 

As I said last time, it is this gift of the Holy Spirit that enables and empowers us to live differently, and to fulfil our ministries.

 

Finally, Peter made the important point, and this was something that was completely new, that this was a gift that was for both Jews and Gentiles, "for all whom the Lord our God will call”.

 

And the result, as you know, was that no fewer than 3000 people were baptized.  That must have taken most of the day.

Within a couple of generations these repentant, saved and spirit filled Christians had taken the good news of the gospel to most of the known world.

There were other things that began to happen in this new Spirit filled existence which Luke describes for us like this.  They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the result of their living this way was that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

What did they do?

·        They welcomed the message,

·        they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching,

·        they devoted themselves to the fellowship,

·        they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread together,

·        they devoted themselves to prayer,

·        and they cared for the needy among them. 

These were the signature marks of the early church and they caused it to grow naturally and quickly.  Were they, I wonder, some of the things that Jesus had spoken to them about during those 6 weeks before his ascension? Did they come easily or did they have to work at them? Were they part of a magic formula? Are they vital parts of healthy church life in the 21st century? Are they cross-cultural?


These are some of the questions we’ll be thinking about in the coming weeks.

Sunday 17th July - Martin Mowat


What is Church 2


Readings: Acts 2:1-13, Acts 2:14-21


Last week we began to look at what happened in the days following Jesus resurrection.  We’re thinking about “church”, and now that we’ve finished the sub-series on Psalm 23, we’re moving into more serious territory as we look at the early church in the book of Acts to see what we can learn that might help us today in Mirepoix, as we seek to represent Jesus to our community.


If you weren’t here last week, and if you haven’t read the message on the church site, may I please encourage you to do so.  It’s important that we move through this together.

Let’s pray …

Last week I left us with something to think about.  There were some six and a half weeks between Jesus resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven. During that time, and on multiple occasions he appeared to groups of disciples both in Jerusalem (Luke 24 ; John 20:19-28) and in Galilee (John 21). Paul records, in 1 Corinthians 15, vv 5-7, that "He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, …. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles."


So, if he appeared to those people, he would also have talked to them, but what about?


In the book of Deuteronomy, we can read all the things that Moses said to his people before he left them, and there was a lot of it.  In the same way, I’m sure that Jesus would have had a lot to say to his disciples, on all sorts of topics. But unlike in Moses’ case, nothing has been recorded for us.


We get a clue in Acts 1:3a “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God."

If you think about it, EVERYTHING had changed for the disciples.


They now had a completely different view of who Jesus really was.  By choosing to die in the most dramatic and public way possible, and then coming back to life exactly as and when he said he would, he had proved beyond a shadow of doubt that he really was the Messiah, he was the fulfillment of all the prophecies, he was invincible, he was the Son of God, and he was back.


The Pharisees and Sadducees were no longer a significant threat. Nor were the beastly occupying Romans, they had tried their worst, and failed, because he was still alive.

Can you imagine, though, all their questions ? 


I think that Jesus would have talked to them particularly about the future, their future, yes, but even more about the church’s future.  And I think that it’s what he said to them that fired them up, and provided the material for their powerful, spirit-filled sermons.


On one occasion, (Acts 1:4-5) while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: 'Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'"

This recalls the command he had given the disciples in the last few paragraphs of Luke's Gospel.  "I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:49)

So what was the first thing that happened ? NOTHING, because they did as they were told and WAITED.

At the same time, they prayed together.  In fact, there were about 120 people doing just that when the Holy Spirit came.

They were expecting it, certainly, but when it came, it was SUDDEN, and violent.


It is SO significant that this is the first event in life of the church.  It was, quite literally, the spring board that triggered the whole thing, and that, if for no other reason, is why we need to understand it.

1. At least 3 Old Testament prophets, Joel, Isaiah and Ezekiel had foretold it.

2. Jesus had told them to expect it, and to wait for it, as we’ve just seen

3. The very last thing Jesus did was to explain to them that when it came they would “receive power to be his witnesses”. They would be, he said, “clothed with power from on high”.

Jerusalem was full of people joyfully celebrating the Feast of Weeks which marks the end of the grain harvest, and which Jewish males were expected to attend if at all possible.  This was why, for example, Paul was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, and it’s why, on this particular day, there were so many people there, and from so many different language groups.


FOUR things happened, almost simultaneously.  All were quite unique

·        The sound of a violent wind, but no actual wind, just the sound of it, powerful, violent, forceful.

·        What appeared to be tongues of fire. It wasn't real fire, but it was a compelling, convincing vision that they all had simultaneously, of individual flames that came to rest upon each person.

·        "All of them” we are told in Acts 2:4 “were filled with the Holy Spirit", so it must have been evident to everybody. The Greek word for "filled" means "to cause to be completely full." Hence the use of the word “baptised”, which means immersed, overwhelmed, filled, saturated, swimming in it …

·        The was prophetic praise in dozens of different languages, from the mouths of unschooled disciples, that could be understood by all these foreigners.  Enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in tongues and continued for some time, until a crowd gathered -- according to God's plan. And what the crowd heard was people speaking "the mighty things of God" in their own languages. 


These were phenomena that they had never seen, or even heard about before.  Some of the onlookers jumped to the conclusion that the disciples must be drunk and this gave Peter an opportunity to stand up, refute the allegation, and preach.  His message was so convincing, so powerful, so compelling that 3000 people gave their lives to Christ and asked to be baptised as a public declaration of their newfound faith. The church was born, and it was God’s Holy Spirit that was the key factor. 


We’re going to talk about Peter’s message in more detail next week, but I want to close today by acknowledging that different denominations have different interpretations of what actually happened that day and different views on whether these things still happen today.


The more traditional view is that this was a once only event, never to be repeated.  Others, however, believe that this was just a first, that it is only normal for Christians to be “baptized in the spirit” and to speak in tongues, subsequent to and apart from their salvation and their baptism in water.


Whichever school of thought you belong to, it’s important not to miss the point which is that Jesus is building his church.  We are his living stones. We are his hands and feet, we are called to love each other and to love the usnsaved.  To love the lovable and the unlovable, to minister to their needs, to share with them the gospel, to live righteously, and much much more.


Jesus knew, because he created us and because he was one of us, that on a human level, and in a fallen world, none of that is possible.  He knew that we would need something to embolden us, something to empower us.  He knew that if we were to have love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control, if we were to live in unity, we would need help.


 He knew, too, that the church would need apostles, prophets, teachers, those with gifts of healing, of helping, and of guidance.  These are things that don’t come naturally, they are what we call the gifts of the spirit.


He knew that ordinary Christians like you and me would need POWER and BOLDNESS, and that’s the role of the Holy Spirit in the church today.


I once heard David Watson describe the Holy Spirit as being like putting a hand in a glove.  I think it’s like putting a battery in an electric drill. You could use it without the battery to tighten a screw, but it would be awkward, and you wouldn’t be able to get it very tight.  With the battery, however, it’s a whole different ball game.


The 120 people who received that anointing on the day of Pentecost knew something life changing had happened, and, immediately started to talk about it, even if it seemed to come out as gobbledygoop.  The thousands of people who were in Jerusalem for the fête witnessed it, heard it, and marveled at it.  Luke made a careful note of it and described it graphically for us.


In the same way that my electric drill is designed to be used with its battery, and the more charged the battery, the better it works, so the church is designed to be filled with charged up spirit filled Christians.


And on a more personal level too, I believe that our Christian walk is more fulfilling, more effective, if we will allow the Holy Spirit to empower us, charge us up, propel us in our ministry as the hands and feet of Jesus, the living stones in his church.

Jeremy mentioned the Holy Spirit frequently in his sermons, but in some churches it, or really I should say HE, is barely mentioned.  Surely this is un-natural.  The Holy Spirit is not someone to be frightened of, he is a part of the trinity and he’s not going to hurt us, he’s not going to take control and make us do things we don’t want to do, quite the reverse.


As we move forward we’re going to see, again, and again, and again, how he helped those early Christians face and overcome the challenges that they would encounter.  The same is true today, even here in Mirepoix.

Sunday 10th July 2022 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Matthew 16: 13-20   Acts 1: 1-5 and v9

 

What is church for you?  I’ll give you a moment to think about that.  I’m not going to, but if I asked you to define church in one sentence what would you say?  ….


·        For some it’s a more or less beautiful pile of brick or stone

·        For others it’s a weekly or periodic event

·        Still others might define it as a place for fellowship with like-minded people, other Christians especially

·        Perhaps for you it’s place to say one’s prayers, feel God’s closeness, …

·        For some people it’s not so much a place but more of a community

·        Or it’s an opportunity for mutual encouragement and support, both physically and in prayer

·        It could even be an evangelizing machine, something that exists for those who aren’t in it yet (ex. The preacher at the bus-stop)

 

It would be interesting to ask God that same question, and compare his answer with ours, wouldn’t it?

 

Well, he has given us that answer, very fully, and it’s here, in his word.  But it’s not just in one sentence, so that’s what this series of messages is all about.


So what did we discover about church as we worked our way through Psalm 23?

·        That it’s because Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” that church is possible

·        That church embodies a relationship with God that is both personal and corporate

·        That the Lord is entirely benevolent

·        That salvation is a key element (we’ll develop this as we move forward)