In this season of Coronavirus we’re getting a crash course in our immune system. What is dangerous about COVID-19 is it’s novel–it is a totally new virus.
Your immune system doesn’t have an answer to it, with the flu, it has some idea but with COVID-19, it takes one look, shrugs it’s shoulders and says: ‘never seen this before’, ‘I don’t know where to start’ And so we pray for a vaccine! to teach our immune systems how to fight against it.
The immune systems are funny things. Mine decided about 14 years ago to fight the wrong things. Living in Thailand at the time, I developed allergies to good things like wheat, soy and peanuts. Perfectly good foods like bread and Pad Thai, delicious things that should be doing my body good! My immune system is busy fighting a friend.
This chapter of John is similar, it is full of people fighting a friend. God sends His Son into the world to do us good, to bring life eternal and humanity has an immune reaction to Him. Again and again!
Jew, Gentile, followers, foes. It is not a pretty picture of us humans. We fight a friend, it is so dumb, no stronger than that. So wrong and so evil. I want us to focus in on the passage that was read for us, that we might see this Friend for who He is:
Jesus is completely in control of the events here. He doesn’t dodge arrest one bit. Verse 1.
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. (NIV)
Left where? Left the city of Jerusalem. The Last Supper in the upper room was done a few chapters back. The betrayer was dismissed and went out. Then Jesus stole a few precious hours with his disciples somewhere else, hidden in the city, teaching them, praying with them, ending in those beautiful prayers for us that Ray taught us about last week. But now, He very deliberately heads back to known territory. To the garden that we know from the other Gospels as the Garden of Gethsemane, a private orchard that had been opened for their use, but a place that, verse 2 tells us, was well known to His betrayer:
Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. (NIV)
Jesus chooses the ground for His arrest. There is no evasion here.
Last week there was a big drug bust outside our house. A car was clearly trying to evade the police by turning into a quiet street. Their crime was pretty serious judging by the bags of white powder lined up on the roof of the car, and that 6 Police cars attended! They were cuffed and taken away by force!
In verse 4 Jesus walks out to meet the Jewish temple guards and Roman soldiers that are there to back them up. He just walks out to a heavily armed enemy.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” (NIV)
He is totally on the front foot! And in control, purposeful, deliberate. And why is He that? Jesus is going into bat for us.
Jesus is not only determined but, He is God! Verses 4.
“Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. (NIV)
and then comes some of the most stunning words in verse 5.
…“I am he,” Jesus said (NIV)
That is a perfectly ok translation, but there is a more literal and more likely translation: “I AM” and again in verse 6
“When Jesus said, “I AM,” they drew back and fell to the ground.” (NIV)
I’m imagining the Jewish temple guards are at the front of the pack here because they’re the ones wanting the arrest. But two tiny words “I AM” have such power over them. They were Jews, and “I AM” are words that only God speaks! Remember Moses, way back in time? God spoke to Moses at the burning bush about leading Israel out of Egypt and slavery. And Moses replied: ‘God, what do I say if the Israelites ask your Name, what shall I tell them?’ God's answer is in Exodus 3:14
God said to Moses “I AM who I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (NIV)
Imagine you have to describe yourself to someone you have never met before, you’re on a speed date, you have 30 seconds to impress! What you would say? God doesn’t need 30seconds, He simply says “I AM”.I AM reality, I AM from eternity to eternity. This is like the opening line of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God’. He is the great ‘I AM’ Beyond definition, transcending description and they drew back and fell to the ground. Just like in John 8:58-59
Jesus said: “before Abraham was born, I AM!” At this, they (the Jews) picked up stones to stone him. (NIV)
They thought it blasphemy, making Himself out to be God and therefore deserving death! John 18 describes the dumbest and darkest mistake in all history. People, convinced they were doing the right thing, arresting God. It is hard to find anything to compare.
This is sort of like crash tackling Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, patting her down, slapping her around, handcuffing her and throwing her in the back of a police car. But the Queen may be royal, but she is not divine. Arresting God! This is as evil as evil comes.
In Acts chapter 3:15 Peter would say to the Jews
“You killed the author of life” (NIV)
1 Corinthians 2:8 says the rulers of this age
“crucified the Lord of glory.” (NIV)
And it is not just a ‘them’ problem, it is a ‘we’ problem. Do you think you would have done better if you were there? Just as we all would have been Adam or Eve in the first garden of tears, so we must see ourselves in this garden. Even Jesus’ most loyal friend Peter denied him that night!
The band U2 said it well:
I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide
How could love possibly conquer that sin? It can, because Jesus was determined to suffer and save us. When Peter leaps forward with a sword to protect him (trying to be like a secret service agent protecting the president!), in verse 11 Jesus waves him off:
“Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (NIV)
The wheels must turn. The other Gospels record His earlier prayer: “not my will, but Yours be done” For those of you who love Lord of the Rings, this is Frodo walking to Mt Doom to win salvation for Middle Earth. Steely determination.
Finally, the Roman soldiers are sick of the temple guards delaying. They surge forward it seems, arrest Jesus and lead Him away, minus any of the disciples, they remain free, fulfilling Jesus’ words in verse 9,
…“I have not lost one of those you gave me.” (NIV)
He is still very much in control. Verse 14 marks the end of this section and finishes with the accidentally prophetic words of the Jewish high priest,
…it would be good if one man died for the people (NIV)
Jesus was determined to go through with this to conquer the great divide. He knew it would be very good if one man died for the people. For the Jews, the Romans, the Peters of this world, and for YOU. He was so determined to save you. You, comfortable on your lounge, sitting on your back veranda, at the kitchen table. For you.
That cup he spoke of drinking, that is the cup of God’s anger (God’s wrath) spoken of in Scripture. Israel had to drink the cup of God’s anger when they sinned, they had to drink down judgment through war. But here is God drinking it Himself, for Israel, for us. It is picture language for what Jesus would shortly do on the cross. Taking our sin upon Himself, dying to take the penalty (the anger) due for it. Rising again to show us the cup was fully drained, anger fully spent, salvation fully available to you and me.
it would be good if one man died for the people
What an incredible Saviour we have! A plain old man could not have pulled that off, but Jesus, the I AM, the God-man nailed it.
I wonder if you’ve ever watched the TV show Ambulance Australia or Paramedics? They are a really good watch. One thing that stands out is what our Ambos have to put up with sometimes, yet how well they deal with it. You get see an Ice addict – and they just don’t want any help. Or someone having a really bad psychotic episode and they are a terrible danger to themselves. Someone has called 000, the Ambos turn up, but they fight them off as a danger! Fighting a friend.
Humanity has that immune reaction to God. In our madness we are busy fighting a friend.
In these chapters we’re arresting God! But here is Jesus: Deliberate, Divine and Determined to conquer the great divide.
Imagine the day when a nurse is standing by your side with a needle of COVID-19 vaccine in hand. That is our prayer isn’t it. I hate needles but I’m going to like that one. Jesus is the vaccine to the worst virus there is–sin and the destruction it brings.
Wouldn’t it be appalling to refuse Him? The temple guards were confronted with the “I AM” and fell back, then got up and continued with their evil. They refused the vaccine.
Every knee will bow to Jesus, (the Bible says) every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.
I pray you would do that willingly now. To stop the fight! To do that unwillingly after you die is unthinkable… to drink the cup of God’s anger yourself!
This is a passage about arresting God – but my prayer is for God to capture your heart today.
What kind of purpose is really worth living for? A purpose can focus us in such a helpful way.
Look at Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzgibbons. We know what he wakes up each day to do. Day in, day out, deploying firefighters, troops and other resources to the fire fronts. No doubt rejoicing in this rain! Because he has barely slept for months, as the bushfires have got bigger and uglier. He said he has spent more time with the Premier than with his own wife. And you why he has such purpose? In the year 2000 his own father died in a tragic firefighting accident when a back burn in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park went horribly wrong. You can see how that would motivate you; Focus you! How he understands people’s fears, and the pain of a funeral. One firefighter said “We’d follow him anywhere, because he knows where he is going.”
But what is your purpose in life? What do get up in the morning for? I think we can often find purpose for a time. To get through the next big thing, bushfires, sickness, that deadline, a project, exams. But then what? What is the overarching purpose of my life? The big picture? Does my life really make a difference?
I’m not sure if you’re someone who thinks about this at all? It might be that for much of life we just put our heads down and try to get through. Just surviving day to day, making it to the next pay, trying to keep a smile on our face. Some of us have thought hard about it, we migrated across the world to a better life here! So we’re going to be really keen to make sure that was worth it. That our kids get a good education and succeed here. In fact maybe that’s it? Maybe life is all about family – doing the best for your kids? But lots of us are single or if we do have kids they grow up and move away. Then what?
Many live for the big trip or retirement like that’ll be heaven on earth. I watched a close friend of the family prepare for retirement. It was the big goal, he and his wife worked and worked, saved and saved, bought the caravan, they were all ready to go and then his health failed and he was dead within months.
And there is the big problem with our goals. They are not big enough! They don’t last, misfortune and death come along and they’re gone. We wake up in the middle of the night with our heart aching for some bigger purpose!
God’s answer is that we ARE built for purpose. We’re built to make a difference, to be a Commissioner Shane Fitzgibbons in our particular space in life, to know exactly what we’re waking up for tomorrow morning.
But here is the crucial bit, our purpose has to fit in with God’s purpose! You can’t work at cross-purposes with your Maker!
So let’s listen to Him. We’ll do this in two steps. We’ll look at
1. God’s purpose. For Himself and for our universe!
2. Our purpose. Because if it doesn’t match up with God’s purpose, we’re in trouble.
So let’s start with God. God’s purpose is very simple really, to fix up everything through Jesus for our good and for His glory. Let me show you that from Ephesians 1:9-10
And He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (NIV)
See that, blink and you’d miss it, but this is one of the clearest statements in the Bible of God’s purpose for our universe, our world, your life. A time is coming when God will bring unity to all things, reorder them and fix them up. And the mystery is revealed to us right now. We have the secret plans, we know what God is up to - to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth.
There is disorder in the heavenly places right now. Satan fights against God, fallen angels await judgment for their crimes. There has been cosmic rebellion but God is overthrowing the enemy, bringing unity once more. That’s very good news! There is disorder on earth right now. We can see it with our own eyes. Nations can’t stop fighting, industry can’t stop exploiting, we can’t trust our leaders. We’ll soon overpopulate our planet, and overcook it. There is crime, injustice, inequality, greed, corruption and violence. There is unemployment, family breakdown, suicide, sickness, disease and death. And worst of all, we’ve put God offside.
Can we fix it? Hardly, we can see the problem, but how are we going to fix it ourselves? No, we’re stuck, caged and helpless. We’re on a treadmill, our planet spinning around and around under our designer shoes. So we just give up, entertain ourselves, stimulate ourselves, numb ourselves and then wake up tomorrow and do it again
But God has a plan, an answer, to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth and how? How? Through Jesus.
This new unity will happen under ‘under Christ’. He will rule. We saw a taste of that when He walked the earth, He fed the hungry, healed the sick and deliberately died on a cross as an act of sacrifice and love. I can’t wait till His good rule is seen everywhere, every street corner in heaven and earth. And it has started now, through a simple message in verse 13
“you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed…” (NIV)
God’s plan is already in action, He is already extending the rule of Christ, Heart by heart; person by person! Through the message of truth and of salvation. That’s all about Jesus dying on the cross to fix up our corrupt hearts, to bring forgiveness. And rising from the dead to offer us eternal life. It is a message that we are called to accept and believe. And in believing we cross over from disorder – into His new Kingdom. He wants to fix up your life.
So God’s purpose is to fix up everything, through Jesus is for our good. This is not something to fear. The reading started by telling God’s people that we have ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ’ If you have accepted Jesus you lack for nothing you really need. Our reading spelt it out for us.
The key words are
Love - he loved you and said ‘you are mine’, before time began.
Adoption - Into God’s family, with all the inheritance, and privilege and security that goes with that!
Gift - All this blessing comes by God’s kindness, we could never deserve it!
Redemption - Jesus buys our good through His blood shed on the cross.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned. God comes to live in us. As a down payment on a future where we live with Him for all eternity. Can you see how good this is! We have every spiritual blessing there is, in Christ.
Sandy Galea, our Kids Minister, was talking to a little girl last week, she said ‘Sandy, I had a great dream last night, I dreamt that I bought a lottery ticket, even though I’m not allowed, and I won. I won a million dollars. I’m rich!’ Sandy replied ‘Wow, you know that if you love Jesus you’re already rich. You have already won the lottery.’ She looked at Sandy and asked ‘how?’ ‘If you have Jesus then He shares everything with you. You have everything you need for this life and more. And in heaven He shares absolutely everything with you. So you are already a millionaire if you have Jesus!’
Part of the new order that Christ brings in, is that God will get the cred He deserves. Because right now at best, He cops disinterest from so many! When everyone sees His Son on the throne, when we see heaven and earth back in order, we will fall on our faces and give Him glory. We’ll want to! It is like watching your favourite sport, the excitement is in clapping and cheering a good performance, giving glory where due. When that ball goes into the hoop, or is hit for six, when a Red Bull Holden gets in the lead (that’s the one I get excited about at least). And most importantly, when Jesus is seen for who He is. When the whole universe comes under his rule, we’ll give Him glory!
So that is God’s purpose, to fix up everything, through Jesus, for our good, and His glory. That is the master plan. So what to we do then? What is My purpose then?
I have a photo of a beautiful old farm house. A great deal of the love and attention that has been put into the property. A home, outbuildings, fences with land cleared for grazing in this beautiful spot, next to good water in a peaceful valley. That is someone’ life work right there.
That farmhouse doesn't exist anymore. That valley where that property was is now Lake Burragorang, the waters held back by Warragamba Dam. That is our water supply! In the news lately, due to the fires and rate at which the water level is falling. If only those farmers had known the future. It’s sad isn’t it! We can see that water for Sydney is a good plan but imagine watching your life work go under! If only they knew the future plans for their valley, their home.
Can you see we’re in the same danger? Of building our lives with no reference to the Master plan?
But we’ve seen the future! We know the master plan! So surely my life purpose has to fit His or my life work could be swept away!
How do we make sure we’re on the right track? Firstly, we need to be fixed up, through Jesus, for our good, and His glory. That’s step 1.
I want to beg you if you haven’t yet come to Jesus to be saved, come! Let Him bless you, make you His child, redeem you, forgive you, fill you with His Spirit and give you a secure future into eternity! He is about to overhaul the whole Universe. Get with the program! Don’t be swept away by it. How to do that is not hard. His salvation is given not earned. But you need to jump out of the drivers seat of your life and let Him steer! Let Jesus save you, let Him rule you, let Him bless you with His love, He wants you safe with Him when He brings unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
But know this, those resisting Him will be overwhelmed, He won’t let the rebellion go on, just make sure you change teams to God’s side, and are not swept away with the devil and all who resist God. He wants to bless you so richly! To make you a spiritual millionaire. Can I urge you to embrace His love for you.
But first, listen in for a moment as I address those in the room who are already Christians, because this will help you to know what you’d be signing up for. Let me talk to them, what do you spend your time on? Your money on? What do you dream of?
We’ve all got different opportunities and gifts. We’re all going to be different, but here are three questions you could ask yourself to match your life up to God’s purpose:
1. Do I live for the new order?
God is bringing unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ, so you’d want to be doing stuff that lasts into that new order that Christ is bringing.
So think for example about what job you might do, if you’re of working age and if you have the privilege of choice, but we don’t always have that. You’d want one that helps you serve the Lord and do good, so that your life counts into eternity.
For me personally, I wrestled with this when I was at school. I thought about who had helped me grow in my love for Jesus, and there were two groups, teachers who led the Christian group at my State school and pastors who taught and nurtured me. So I decided to do both. Get some life experience as a teacher and then become a pastor.
I wrote this down at the start of year 12 but then ignored this completely and enrolled in another course altogether. Something pretty satisfying and would have been a good money earner. Both of those things are not wrong, but God was stirring my heart to something bigger. He brought me back to my original plans. He challenged me until I changed course and enrolled in teaching like I should have in the first place.
I taught down Campbelltown way for a couple of years and watched God work through that. I got to start a lunch time Christian group, chat to so many students and staff about my Lord. Then I did start to train to become a pastor at a small church back then called MBM.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying other jobs aren’t as good, this is for me personally, given who God made me to be who I am.
A different example. Some of you may know Augustine from our 10.45 service, I was recently chatting to him about his job. He works in a factory situation, doing quality control. He could do other work, but he stays there for two reasons. He has a great team and heaps of time on the job to chat to them. He has got to talk about Jesus and the big questions of life with all of them over the years. He has great work hours. Long shifts, some overnight, but then heaps of days off which gives him time to serve the Lord and serve his family. In his choice of job he is living for the new order under Christ!
How has God gifted you? What can you do with your life that build into the age to come? A Christian has to ask that question, we are living not for ourselves, but for our Saviour and His future for the universe.
2. Do I live to see people saved through Jesus?
If you do then it will turn your priorities upside down! Augustine’s choice of job is a great example. Or it might mean the most important thing you do in your week is the Youth G-team you lead! Because you love those young people, pray for them and are helping them to understand Jesus. And that means knocking back other options for the weekend. Or perhaps it is being more serious this year about attending a G-team or Growth group so you can encourage those in your group?
What else? It might be how you use your annual leave, many of you here give a week to serve at July Holiday Club! Or your time use, some of you work one day a week less, or make time otherwise so that you can teach Scripture, or visit the sick.
Can you see what having Jesus as your life purpose does? It reorders everything.
3. Do I live for God’s glory?
Or is it really all about my own name, my own reputation, my own happiness? Someone shared with me this week that a friend of her Mum walked away from church “Because it was all about Jesus, not her” It seems like she understood perfectly! We live for Him! For His glory! How sad she didn’t see that as a good thing.
One of our brothers here has plenty of reasons why he could have been really upset on Christmas day because he wasn’t able to be with his family. He could have sat at home moping, complaining, you could understand that, but that would be ‘all about me’ really. Feeling sorry for ourselves can be an expression of selfishness too. So what did he do? He made Christmas all about God, he did something for God’s glory. He visited patients and staff in Blacktown hospital on behalf of the Christian chaplaincy department, handing out Chocolates and cheering them up. He got around to 250 people who would have been feeling sorry for themselves! It took 7 hours of his Christmas day!
Do I live for the new order?
Do I live to see people saved through Jesus?
Do I live for God’s glory?
Make your life count into eternity, that’s a life of purpose in tune with God’s ultimate purpose.
Someone said of Philemon, that if it were the only book of the Bible you got to read, it would give you a good snapshot of what Christianity is all about.
The photo of Steve Smith begging for the forgiveness of the Australian people after the ball-tampering incident makes me cringe. I don’t want to be reminded of it. Our cricket captain betrayed us and had to wear the shame of being a cheat. It has not been easy for Australia to forgive. Cricket is, after all, something of a national religion and the shame rubs off on us too. Steve Smith knew that he had to let his bat redeem him and he did, the other week in the Ashes series. I suspect he has won back most Australian hearts. But we made him earn it. We’re slow to welcome back a sinner. There is not much grace here, and I don’t think Cameron Bancroft or Dave Warner have won our hearts back just yet.
You don’t have to be around church for long to notice that Christians are pretty good at betraying trust too. We sin against one another, we offend, we say something we didn’t mean, worse, we say something hurtful we did mean. Before you know it, we are not talking. We become alienated. The relationship is broken. It is not just a Christian thing, it is a human thing. It dates back to Adam and Eve in the Garden, alienating themselves from God and from each other. Making Reconciliation the great human need.
I suspect we all have someone we don’t sit near in church, or that we avoid at family functions. Maybe it’s even someone we’re married to, sleep next to! but really don’t get on with well. No matter how young or old we are, we seem to find someone to whinge about or criticise.
Reconciliation is about a return to right relationships. The letter to Philemon is a Master Class in it.
Philemon is a letter about a runaway slave. Philemon’s slave. But there is a surprise: The slave turns up on Philemon’s doorstep with this letter! And all eyes are on Philemon to see if he would accept this slave back again, for this will be no easy relationship to reconcile. Let me introduce you to the main characters one by one:
His part in this story is to show us risky repentance. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, but did a runner for some reason and left town. The name Onesimus actually means ‘Useful’ – but verse11 says he had become ‘useless’ instead! Now, somehow, he wound up meeting Paul, the Apostle Paul, the writer of this letter. Paul is in jail for his faith in another city. Now, maybe Onesimus sought him out? Or maybe he got arrested and met Paul as a fellow prisoner? Who knows? Philemon 10
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. (NIV)
Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian through him. See verse 12
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. (NIV)
They had become close friends – but Paul knew Onesimus had to fix up his past and return to his owner. And as it turns out Paul knows his owner. He is a Christian, so Onesimus is able to head home with a letter of appeal in his pocket, from Paul himself. But here is the catch. Heading home is super risky for Onesimus.
This was the Roman Empire – and the Romans were obsessed with finding and punishing runaway slaves. Their slave system would collapse if you could get away with escaping. So they would hire professional slave-catchers to hunt down strays to make examples of them. They would whip them, brand them with a hot iron, even kill them. Sometimes a metal collar would be riveted around their neck. This photo of one says: "I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you'll be rewarded."
Now we hate slavery, so we are in Onesimus’ corner here. We think it a no-brainer that Philemon should accept him back. But not so fast! Imagine Philemon chatting to his mates down at the markets. “You did what?” “You didn’t have him branded?” “You didn’t break his bones?” “The other slaves will hear about Philemon! They will rise up! And you will be to blame! We’ll come after you!!”
It was seriously risky for Onesimus to go back. To make it worse, Paul says, verse 18:
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (NIV)
It looks like Onesimus may well have stolen from his master as he left! This is like taking yourself to the Police station and handing yourself in for a crime. You can only expect the full force of the law to come down on you! But Onesimus has not only broken the law, he has wronged someone who is now a fellow Christian. He needs to not only right a wrong, but to mend a relationship. Go back he did.
And if you and I have been gripped by Christ and His gospel. We too should take the risk and right our wrongs, mend our relationships and go back and say ‘I’m sorry’ I remember learning to do this when I was about 19. This may sound like a small incident but it was so hard to swallow my pride and put it right. One of my best teachers in primary school had been Mrs Garrett and she made a big difference in my life. She lived near the school as did her elderly father. A couple of years after I’d left primary school she contacted me and a mate and asked if we could do some paid gardening for her father. We agreed and went to see him. He showed us what needed doing and he paid us in advance, but it was a stinking hot day so he said we should come back another time and do the work. We never went back. Not quite runaway slaves, but just as guilty. Years went by and I was growing as a Christian, and God convicted me of this sin. He wouldn’t leave my conscience alone. I had to right the wrong and I had to restore the relationship with Mrs Garrett. I figured she would still live in the same house so I knocked on the door and I was really nervous. She recognized me straight away and I asked after her father, but he had died. So I gave her back the money he had given my mate and I, and some extra for interest. I apologized and admitted to betraying her trust. In the end it went well, but knocking on that door took years and years to do.
Is there some risky repentance you need to do? Someone at home? Someone at church? Where? Who? And when will you act?
Philemon our second character. He models scandalous reconciliation.
Now, we’re probably already biased against Philemon because he was a slave-owner, right? He has a slave! Can he seriously be a Christian? We’re Australians and we back the little guy, the underdog, so we’re more sympathetic to runaway Onesimus here!
So let me say a couple of quick things about slavery to help us really understand this little letter. Paul and the other New Testament authors were more interested in other things than abolishing slavery. Firstly, they want the gospel of Jesus to go out, that’s the big priority! Changing hearts is more powerful than changing laws. They could go to prison for overthrowing slavery or for preaching Jesus, the one who breaks slavery to sin and hell. For them it was a no-brainer! The New Testament does subtly undermines it anyway, subvert slavery.
For example God teaches the equality of all people: We just saw that in Colossians 3:11
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (NIV)
We’re brothers and sisters now. And 1Cor 7:21 says to gain your freedom if you can:
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. (NIV)
The ingredients to undo slavery are found in the Bible and in time it was Christians who overthrew slavery in various countries. Slave trading is a sin. 1Timothy 1:10 says that. Christian masters are to treat slaves well – we saw that in Colossians the other week. Many slaves did ok. They were cooks and farm managers, teachers and even doctors. They were given a home and food for their family. There were terrible situations, but it was not all bad.
When the early Christians read Philemon, they would see the scandal even if we don’t. Welcoming back a runaway slave without nasty punishments was just not done. This was a big ask. But ask Paul did, hence this letter.
So who is Philemon? In verse 1 he is on Paul’s team. He is his dear friend, and a fellow worker in the gospel. In verse 19 we find out that he also became a Christian through Paul! In verse 2 he hosted a church in his home. Church was at his house! There was no such thing as church buildings back then. Buildings are handy things, but we could live without them.
Verses 5-7 he is a pretty solid Christian, someone who refreshes the hearts of the Lord’s people. He is like a cool drink on a hot day. He not only hosts the church gathering, he probably feeds and encourages them. He is a key dude at church. Like your Growth Group leader or similar!
But in verse 6 Paul prays Philemon would be even more effective. And in verse 17 Paul explains how. He gets to the point and says what he wants from him, “welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.” He calls him to scandalous reconciliation; to accept him back, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” in Christ.
So the big question is… DID HE?
Well, would we have this letter in our Bible if he didn’t? I don’t think so! If Philemon said ‘stuff you Paul, no way!’ and had Onesimus beaten and branded I think the letter would have landed in the fireplace. I reckon he did it!
The guys down the market saying: “That idiot Philemon, not only took back his slave without punishment, but my wife Lucinia told me she saw him standing next to the slave in their Christian cult meeting, singing their hearts out together to their weird God! Madness! Why would he do that?”
I wonder who God will call YOU to accept back?
I’ve seen all of these examples happen.
I don’t think we always do a great job of resolving conflict in churches. My observation is that people get offended, leave and refuse to talk to anybody. I remember a lady chatting to me briefly at the door about a concern she had, it was a quick conversation, one of so many that Sunday. Then before I knew it, I got a flame-mail (a heated email) from her husband. They were fed up with being ignored. I tried to meet with them and others did too, but they refused to talk to anyone, and moved church. Then they had problems there too. I kept bumping into them, and to be honest, I really struggled to welcome them. There was this great big elephant in the room that was stopping us relating properly. We both could have done things better.
If you see trouble brewing with someone, take the initiative. Act quickly. Stay non-defensive. Find a way to hear out their concerns before things get out of hand. By the way, you are not called to welcome in someone who is harmful or abusive, without very clear boundaries in place. Criminal matters need Police help, not a naïve version of forgiveness that lets them back in to continue to offend. That would be unloving.
Praise God I have seen scandalous and beautiful reconciliations happen in church. No other organisation has so many really, really different people under one roof! Young and old. Rich and poor. Eastern and Western cultures. That we do so well is proof of the Holy Spirit we all share!
When it all goes wrong you know what to pray for: Refreshing, loving, scandalous, supernatural reconciliation like Philemon’s.
Paul is the final character. He models Gospel shaped leadership.
Firstly, he approaches Philemon with such gentle persuasion. He was an Apostle, he could have simply pulled rank and ordered Philemon to accept Onesimus back. He doesn’t bark orders, he seeks to win a heart. He appeals on the basis of love not rank, look at verses 8-10
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus (NIV)
Paul prays, he encourages, he says how useful Onesimus is to him (he was helping him somehow in jail) and will be to Philemon. We know Paul can be direct but this is delicate. He uses every bit of care and love he can. It is not ‘obey me, or else!’. This is what the gospel does to leadership.
The other week I did the exact opposite. A couple of welcome team members dropped a message to the group chat that they couldn’t make it at the last minute. I was worried that this put the team leader in a hard spot, with no time to get replacements. It could have been solved by encouraging that leader to have a gentle chat with the group members, reminding them of the vision for why they serve to honour the Lord etc. But no, instead I decided to play my pastor card. I pulled rank, I butted into the chat and left a message that we need to arrange swaps ourselves and not leave it to the team leader to fix. It was way too harsh and it undermined the leader who is doing a great job. So then I had to find the team members and apologise to them. That was not gospel persuasion like Paul does here. It was lazy leadership. Using people instead of winning them.
Paul models gospel-shaped persuasion, but even more impressive is Paul’s mediation here. He uses his position of trust with both men to help them reconcile. He acts as a go between. “Look Philemon, you are both brothers now, so treat him like you’d treat me. Oh and by the way, if he owes you money charge it to me; take this as an IOU. You’ve got my credit card number, I’m good for it.”
He mediates as his own personal cost. Sound familiar? It is as if he has one arm around the slave and the other around the Master, he stretches out his arms to bring them together as the man in the middle. Like our Lord Jesus, one arm around the sinner and the other around His Father. He stretches out his arms (on the cross) to bring us together, the man in the middle, just as 2 Corinthians 5:19 says.
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (NIV)
Philemon is a picture of gospel reconciliation. Of Jesus standing as guarantor for our debt to God. He pays every bit of it, turning aside God’s anger toward us, enabling reconciliation and relationship with our Master in heaven.
And being reconciled to God, we can be reconciled to each other, once slaves now dear brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Have you been humiliated, wronged? Got so angry? Waking in the night rehearsing what you’d like to say to that person if you had the chance? Perhaps you’ve moved church or moved congregations to avoid someone? God would have me ask you today, will you forgive them from the heart? Will you do what you can, from your side at least, to reconcile? Or have you just let the passage of time make you think it is dealt with? Yet, in your heart you know the wound is still festering.
You are called to welcome a repentant sinner back with the same level of welcome Jesus has shown you. Impossible! Yet, not with God!
I went to a wedding once and the younger brother of the groom gave a speech. It was funny, at first, but then the humour went way too far. He had a go at the bride’s looks, he had a go at his brother’s life choices. The room fell silent until the mother called out from her seat ‘that is enough, sit down, stop’ He didn’t stop. That day the bride and groom expected to be the best of their lives, and they were humiliated. With festering wounds in the heart of their family. The kind of wound that sees one side of the family not talking to the other for decades, but they were Christians. A year later the younger brother needed a place to live and the newly married couple invited him to move in. Their brotherhood in Christ enabled the impossible. Refreshing, loving, scandalous, supernatural reconciliation.
A group of guys walked into a cave. Their mindset was pretty chilled and relaxed. This was about having fun and exploring. It was a massive cave. They felt excited. They pushed in for kilometers along the sandy-floored tunnel for hours into the darkness. The cave’s name? It’s famous now: Tham Luang, North Thailand. It was June. The rainy season had not come yet. They didn’t think twice about the possibility of floods.
The leader was not who you think it was. It was not a soccer coach. It was me, with a couple of other men, and a group of youth from our Chiang Rai church. It was 2006. We did not have any high tech equipment—I told you we were chilled out—candles, phone lights, some shared torches. Tham Luang is a spectacularly huge cave and I’ve got to say, we loved every bit of it!
Of course, in June last year a very similar group of youth went further than us into the same cave. And you know the story It took nine days to locate the ‘Wild Boars’ soccer team, and a further eight days to get them all out. It was a rescue that captivated the world. Their plight really haunted me because that could have been us! It was the same cave and the same time of year. I’ve got to say I was pretty traumatized. Their experience changed me. If I were to re-enter Tham Luang, I’d do it will a very different mindset now. I would be definitely less chilled and more vigilant and serious.
I want us to think now about how to walk into not a cave, but church, so that maybe we’d be a little less chilled and more vigilant and serious about something so important.
It may not seem like the most obvious topic for a sermon. After all, we seemed to all walk into church pretty successfully today! But like entering Tham Luang, your mindset makes all the difference. You need to know what you’re entering and how to approach it. I want us today to see what church is, and I want us to grow in our love for each other on a Sunday.
Let me say first congratulations on walking into church today! For some of you that meant a wrestle with yourself. It is your day off. It would have been so good to bludge around at home. For some of you that meant a wrestle with others who wanted you at a family gathering, a day out, or at work. For some it involved a wrestle with kids, to somehow get them dressed and out the door without WWIII erupting. For some it was a wrestle with nerves: you don’t know much about God yet, or don’t have friends here yet. Or you struggle with anxiety in a crowded place. But you did make it! Well done! Let’s think about how to make the most of it! How should we walk into church?
How to walk into church? Well, you need to get this right first: that we are gathered around God. The passage from Hebrews 10 says to “draw near to God”. That right there is no small thing. Our Creator, holy, perfect in righteousness, invites us to his place. This is like the Queen inviting you to hang out with her at Buckingham Palace, but a billion times a bigger deal. We are invited to approach God, and amazingly, to come with confidence, Hebrews 10 verses 19-20:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body … (NIV)
This is not about coming to church: we’ll get to that. This is about coming to God. Do you see that we can be confident to come to God, not because we’re holy in ourselves, but because of Jesus! Think back to all you heard about Jesus over Easter. Jesus has opened this new and living way to God!
Before Jesus came, God taught his people that drawing near to him was a good thing, but not to be taken lightly. He put his people through spiritual kindergarten, if you like. Kindergarten for them was their temple and animal sacrifices. The temple was God’s way of teaching them that he wanted to be among his people. The priests and sacrifices showed the people that approaching God was no small thing, that sin was so serious that blood must be shed. But really the whole thing was just a big lesson. It was a toy temple, next to God’s heavenly temple.
But God’s people graduated from kindergarten on the first Easter. There would be no more toying around. Jesus’ death provided the blood to atone for sin once and for all. Jesus became our High Priest who entered God’s presence in heaven, pleading his blood for us. Jesus is our new and living way into God’s very presence.
And if God has gone to that much effort to open a way, we should trust him. We should draw near to him through faith, verses 21-22:
And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (NIV)
But the thing is that when you do this and come to God to be washed and cleansed, you’re so excited, because it’s you and God now. It’s hard to notice anything else! But if you look besides you, you will remember that you are not alone. Others have drawn near also. God is gathering not just you to himself but us. We’re a people now. It is not just you and God but us and God.
You accepted the invite to dine with royalty. But when you get there you find that there are so many other guests. We all enjoy this together!
So church is certainly not about a building. It is about a people, about us and God. Church is certainly not about us doing religion to make ourselves fit for God’s presence: no, kindergarten is over. It is about God gathering us to himself through his son.
MBM is no social club. It is no RSL. It is an outpost of heaven on earth where we meet with the God of the universe together and hear his voice through the Bible. So before we say anything about how to walk into church today, we need the right mindset. Church matters! It matters a lot! This is an outpost of heaven on earth where we meet God. And if you know you’re on the outer here, that you haven’t yet drawn near to God, then come! Jesus is the living way for you. The price has been paid. Come and be washed, and cleansed of guilt. Come by faith and then look around and see that you are part of something big: God’s church. And make the best of it!
So let’s now focus on how to be a better church. Let us consider verses 24-25, which tells us to do just that—to stop and think:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (NIV)
Let us consider—stop and think—how to be a more loving and fruitful church. So that is what the rest of this talk is about. It is taking that phrase, “Let us consider” seriously. Let’s work out how to apply this, to think about how to walk into church, that we would walk out of church encouraged and ready for the Day of Christ’s return, and that we might genuinely spur one another on Sunday by Sunday and provoke each other to do better.
So how do you walk into church? First, prioritize. A good day at church can only happen if we make a decision to be here, even months or weeks beforehand. That change of mindset is to see that when we gather together for church we are approaching none other than the living God together. That means church takes priority in your schedule. We’ll need to say ‘no’ to other things on our calendar. We’ll need to “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”.
So, excluding sickness, mental health, and holidays etc, we’ll want to be here. If you want a model of this then look no further than Robert Cooke from the 8am service. He was here every Sunday for over two years and when he finally broke his run, it was to attend a baptism at another church!
If you’re always having beach days or catch ups with friends, plan them for Saturday, or well after church. If your kids are always invited to birthday parties on Sunday, bite the bullet and say ‘no’, or tell them you’ll have to arrive late. It will teach your kids good priorities, and be a strong witness to others that God comes first.
But half the time it is not that we have things on but it’s just hard to get moving. “I’m dog tired it’s warm in bed or in the sun. No-one will notice, and I went last week anyway. I think the Spirit is leading me to hit the snooze button, or stay in front of the TV.” That’s how we get in the habit of not meeting.
Part of the solution to that lethargy is to declutter your weekends. Don’t stay out late Saturday night. Don’t try to please everybody and be everywhere. Stay fresh for the main game. Get up with the alarm. Remember that the fruit of the Spirit includes “faithfulness” and “self-control”. So actually being disciplined is to be Spirit led! Get out of bed. Then pray. Pray for a right heart, for joy in heading to church. And watch the clock. Leave on time so you arrive here early and can be part of the singing at the start of the service! Prioritise.
Secondly, park with love. Ok, this might seem crazy, but when you arrive, park with consideration, with love for those less mobile than yourself, who need the closer car parking spots—the elderly, the new parents, and for our guests. Their first impression of MBM is well before they make it to the front door.
So if you are able-bodied and can walk in a hundred meters then deliberately park far away. Park up on Sherbrooke Street, down Westminster, or park in the school car park. That leaves the church car park for those who may need it more than you. To help with this we have some new flags out today. They mark out the whole inner car park. On your left as you come in is guest parking. On your right is the usual disabled parking, and we are working on increasing those spots. The rest of the inner car park is for seniors and those with newborns in prams.
A while back some older MBM’ers with mobility issues drove in to our car park. There was no spot available. They went round a few times but simply could not park. They had to drive back home again. I was devastated to hear that, and hope the new parking set up stops that from ever happening again.
Pray about where to sit. One of our sisters here wrote down what she does when she walks into this room: “How can I love and serve Jesus and not myself? One way is by asking God in prayer to show me! Almost every Sunday before I sit down I ask Him where I can be used by him to serve others. One Sunday after praying I felt God direct my head to the right towards a lady I’d never met before, so I introduced myself and sat down. She had been struggling with anxiety and said she really needed someone to talk to. We had an incredible conversation and prayer. Directed by God I’ve also been next to people who are worried their sin might prove they’re not Christian, and people who are lonely in such a big church. All have been such important conversations followed by prayer.”
Can you see that how you walk into church is not to be taken lightly? We want you to have the best experience you can, but also the best ministry you can. By the way, that is where our name tags come in, too. When people forget your name they are embarrassed to talk to you. Name tags kick-start conversations. Pick yours up.
Now my ushers asked me to make a special point about where to sit. Please sit well forward and close together. We saw the importance of that in our packed services over Easter. It also allows others to come in behind you, and not have to disturb the service by walking to the front, and it makes the singing better! Now in saying that, there are some exceptions. Our parents of babies need to stay at the back so they can slip out those side doors if bub get unsettled. Some of our elderly, disabled, or anxious people need to sit at the back. That is totally fine. But most of us can sit forward. Let me spur you on to that act of love.
And by the way, please don’t lift the black covers over the seats at the back. Let the ushers peel them back when and if we really need to. There are usually seats further forward.
Coming back to where we started, pray about where to sit. If God shows you someone by themselves, sit with them. You can catch up with your friends later. If you notice a new face, or new family, sit with them. Host them, like a guest in your home.
Maybe today God wants to use you to bless someone brand new to church, or brand new to Jesus? Don’t go forcing yourself on them. If they don’t want to talk much, that’s cool. Some people just want to sit back and listen here, for even a whole year. That’s ok, but at least offer. And if you are fairly new yourself, you can be friendly too. We have lots of new people here, and the people sitting near you might actually be newer than you! Pray about where to sit.
And then participate. Once seated you can encourage those around you, spur them on, by simply participating in the service. Sing, laugh, say “Amen” to the prayers! You’ll lift the hearts of those around you and point them to Jesus. And make the best of chat time.
I received this email from a guest to church last year. They were hugely encouraging about the service, but said: “I think it would be useful for you guys to know that not one person came to us and introduced themselves. The welcomer said “welcome”, but that was it. This seemed strange considering the church advertises as being so welcoming and even had a segment during the service to say “hello” to those around you. Still, no one came to us.
That broke my heart! Some of us here were probably sitting near them that day. Our newcomers are trying to work out if they are wanted here, and those people felt they were not. At chat time, make sure you check around you. Your friends will forgive you if you skip saying hello to them. Lean past them to the row behind and shake the hands of that group you haven’t met. Introduce yourself. We’re not all extroverts but we can all express we’re happy to see someone. Those little things make a real spiritual impact!
Church is not like going to a movie where no-one talks with others and then when the credits roll, they leave their rubbish and bolt for the door. (Unless it is an avengers film where you have to wait till after the credits to see if there is a teaser about the next movie.) No! Church is being gathered together around God, and who says that finishes when the lights come back on? Stay and talk! How else can we encourage each other in our hope for Jesus’ return? We have amazing food and coffee provided. Stick around. Be our guest, and be deliberate about your conversation. How could you be more God focussed? Could you ask how they found the sermon? Or better still, you could be specific, and ask “What did you think of Mark suggesting we pray about where to sit in church? Have you ever done that?” You could also ask if they are a Christian yet and how they became one if they are. You could ask what God has been teaching them lately, or if there is something you could pray for them. Conversation like that really does extend church. It’s a ministry time. Again, don’t push into personal space be sensitive, but be ambitious too! Is there someone by themselves near you at morning tea? Check your peripheral vision. If you notice someone, include them in your group. Introduce them around.
And if you do find yourself with a newcomer to MBM, be a good host. God has entrusted you with their care today. Do the best you can. As the service ends, you could chat again to the family you met at chat time. Could you offer to lead them out to morning tea? Could you grab them their free coffee from the cart? Could you introduce them to the team and I at the ‘New Here’ flag?
Here is another email I got from a guest to MBM: “The few times we have visited we have been amazingly welcomed. On Sunday three different people approached us and had a chat. We are so positive about our experience and look forward to further opportunities to visit and take our friends to your ‘Explaining Christianity’ course. That’s more like it! Good work MBM!
Let me make a brief comment about ‘Belonging’: Because church is about people, we want everyone to belong. In a large church like ours it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Belonging is a smaller safer space to help prevent that. A large church in Melbourne wondered why people left their church. So they contacted and surveyed them. And they found that around 90% of those leaving their church had not been in any small group: no growth group, no serving team. For a while they enjoyed the great services, but then they simply got bored. They didn’t know anybody, so they drifted off. In a larger church a decision to just come Sundays is often a decision to leave: sure, not straight away, but eventually you’ll get sick of being anonymous. ‘Belonging’ is the way to fix that. You’ll connect. You’ll catch the vision. You’ll be offered some next steps, like a Growth Group or a team to join. The next ‘Belonging’ starts tomorrow night, 7–9pm, very relaxed and with a meal together here in the Garden Room. The next one is a couple of months away, so join us tomorrow. Come out to the ‘New Here’ flag and sign up.
In conclusion, do you realise what you walked into today? Imagine being a fireman or woman in Paris the day when Notre Dame burned, but you stayed at home because you felt tired that day. You had a slight headache, so you dozed the day away, only to wake up and hear the news. You missed the job of your life! You missed what you were trained for. You slumbered through all the action.
Church is where heaven kisses the earth. Let us not give up meeting together. Let’s be ready for action! Almost every week at MBM someone is saved. How we walk in to church either helps or hinders God’s work among us. For some of you it might be that God is nudging you to take that first step from walking into church ‘to get’ to walking in to church ‘to give’. For others, church is such a routine now that you always talk to the same people. God may be nudging you to check your peripheral vision and see who he has sat down near you. We all have a part to play. And there is a real enjoyment and purpose in that! Church is not a spectator sport. It’s a team sport. You’re place is on the field of play.
Let’s make that mindset change. Take church more seriously, a little less chill a little more vigilance. Let’s walk into church in a way that makes others walk out transformed.
As her cancer got worse, she got less interested in her own church of many years, and more engaged with this other church. Her husband didn’t mind at first because they gave her attention and hope: the hope of healing. Her health was spiralling downwards month by month. The other church took her on as their special project. Their pastor received a prophecy that she would be healed: they just needed more faith. She was urged to believe in earnest that God would heal her. Of course she wanted to do that. There were many prayer meetings, but before long they had to move to her bedside in hospital.
With no progress this pastor urged her to stop talking to her old church friends, for they were undermining her faith that she would be healed. The ‘other’ church members kept an almost 24 hour a day vigil by her bed. Her own husband and kids barely got any time with her now.
But after all that she died.
Undeterred the pastor and some others kept praying for a resurrection. They prayed all night. The next day they asked to pray around her body in the morgue. They prayed all day till finally they slunk back home again.
At the funeral the ‘other church’ members looked defeated and sad. The pastor was upbeat, thanking God for the miracle of extra weeks and months.
I watched all this unfold. I was so angry. Her son was so angry he threw in his faith in God. I wish I could tell you this is not a true story, but it is.
Can God heal sickness today? Of course he can. Should we pray for healing? Yes, certainly. But let’s get our expectations about healing right!
Healing is one of the coolest things Jesus did on earth, as He brought a little slice of heaven to earth. The apostles had some share in this ministry. But when you turn to the letters of the New Testament, which show what the normal Christian life looks like for us, we get a surprise: there’s relative silence about healing. It is only mentioned in two places, here and another, and the other is just a simple mention in 1 Corinthians 12 that ‘gifts of healings’ exist. So James chapter 5 is key. We need a close look.
What is James 5 promising? And more broadly what is he teaching us about life here on earth in these last days?
If you have just dropped into MBM today, I hope you can notice this about us, that we work hard to understand what the Bible says, because there is truth and freedom in hearing what God has to say to us. It’s worth the effort.
When I used to rock climb, every climb had what’s called a ‘crux’: the hardest bit. If you could crack the crux of the climb the rest was often easy. The crux of James chapter 5 is one particular repeated word that we need to understand. From verses 14 and 15:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (NIV)
Notice the word ‘will’. There is complete and 100% certainty. Healing is guaranteed by the infallible word of God. God says ‘will’ be healed.
But imagine that you are sick, gravely sick. You must call the elders—the church leaders—to you, but you can’t get to them. You’re stuck in bed so they come and pray over you. They anoint you with a little olive oil. There is nothing magic about that. But is a clear sign to you that they are taking your situation seriously, and dedicating your need to God, they pray in faith. There was a time like this a couple of years back when you were healed, but not this time. You are not healed. You’re still sick, and you are left confused by the promise in James 5:15, and his words ‘will make the sick person well’.
But this is not just about our stories. We know from the Bible itself that healing doesn’t always occur. The apostle Paul, a man especially gifted in healing, prays three times for some sickness or trouble to leave him. He called it a ‘thorn in my flesh’, but it didn’t go away. Another time Paul admits his visit to the town of Galatia was because of sickness:
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you (Galatians 4:13 NIV)
In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul mentions that ‘I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.’ He left his sick friend behind and journeyed on without him. They no doubt prayed for Trophimus but healing didn’t come.
So what do we do with the promise that prayer ‘will make the sick person well’? This doesn’t seem to fit with our experience or with Scripture.
Let’s look at five solutions people suggest to solve this dilemma.
First, some say to the one who is not healed, ‘Your faith wasn’t strong enough for you to be healed.’ This is, at first glance, a fair enough comment, since verse 15 says that ‘the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well’. But hang on, think about the phrase ‘your faith’ in this response. Who was doing the praying here in the situation James is describing and encouraging? It was not the sick person. It was the elders of the church. It is only their faith that could ever be questioned. We must never say to a sick person, ‘Have more faith and you’ll be healed!’ That’s just cruel. And if it was a problem with the elders’ faith, what happened to the apostle Paul those times when healing didn’t happen? Surely you don’t get a more faithful elder than the apostle himself? To pray ‘in faith’ is about who you pray to, that your trust is in our powerful Lord. It is not about some certain intensity or technique of praying, that could become a kind of self-trust. It is putting faith in our prayer methods. No: the power of the prayer is not in the pray-er but in the God we pray to.
Second, some say, ‘James is not talking about physical illness at all’. Some have thought that the sickness here is not physical, but a spiritual illness: discouragement, disbelief, backsliding. But the word ‘sick’ used here plainly means physical sickness. You can’t get around that. If it were a spiritual problem then you wouldn’t anoint with oil but just preach the gospel.
Third, some think that James forgot to say, ‘if it is God’s will’.’ In last week’s passage we saw James use the language, ‘If it is the Lord’s will’. Maybe he wants us to remember that here? We know that answers to prayers depend on God’s decision. But why be so definite that healing ‘will’ happen? You can’t get around that.
Fourth, some think that healing is only for the time of the apostles, not for today. But the thing is that James is giving instructions to normal churches here with normal elderships and who don’t have apostles. James could have told us if this wasn’t for us, but he doesn’t.
Fifth, some take the approach, ‘Let’s just fake it!’ ‘Hallelujah! He was healed, trust me, look at my smile, my very white teeth, and while you’re at it could you help me pay off my private jet’. This is the TV healer, who only ‘heals’ people with sore backs and headaches. They will have God to answer to on the last day, and I wouldn’t like to be in his or her shoes.
This passage is not about special healing services. This is about ordinary church leaders going to a bedside. This is very private and unspectacular.
So what do we do with the promise that prayer ‘will make the sick person well’? Often when there is confusion about a Bible passage, we should take a step back and see if we are misunderstanding it altogether. What is the context here?
James is a letter about dealing with sin in the church. James has hammered us again and again on one sin or another these past weeks. The last sentence of verse 15 is also about sin: ‘if he has sinned, he will be forgiven’. Verse 16 is about confessing sins to each other. And the confession, it says, brings healing! Verses 17-18 talk about the prayer ministry of the old prophet Elijah to a sinful Israel and her king, where God used Elijah’s prayers to stop the rain for over three years to discipline them for sin. And then God used Elijah’s prayers to reverse this judgment and bring healing rain. And verses 19-20 are a final appeal to help turn sinners from the error of their ways.
Could it be that James is not talking about just any old sickness here, but about that sickness which is caused by sin, where God disciplines his people? Back in verse 9 we read:
Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
In verse 12, there is a warning about honesty.
All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
If God has brought the sickness as judgment and discipline to wake up his church, to call sinners to repentance, then this is no ordinary sickness. This is a sickness where you should call the elders, verse 15:
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If [it’s true that..] they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
James is wrapping up his letter in a pastoral kind of way. He might have been aware of illness among his readers, and suspects a spiritual cause. His last word, then, is a word of self-examination, confession, and healing prayer. James doesn’t just want to hammer them with things to change. He wants to see them restored.
Someone might say, ‘Hold on a bit, Mark! What are you saying? I’m not sure that my loving God would ever do that! This doesn’t feel right!”
Alright, think of it this way: since Adam and Eve fell into sin in Genesis 3, there has been discipline for sin. That discipline takes the form of death, toil, and pain. God’s intention is to wake us up. Every day that we see death, toil, and pain, we are reminded, ‘My sin kills. I need Jesus!’ And it gets more specific in the New Testament, Hebrews 12 says, ‘The Lord disciplines the one he loves […] God disciplines us for our good that we might share in his holiness.’ (Hebrews 12:6,10 NIV)
This is God’s tough love! And there is a very specific example in the church of Corinth. The Corinthians had a bit of an issue with the Lord’s supper. Some were bingeing on wine and getting drunk: they obviously used bigger cups and stronger stuff than we do at MBM! While others in their church were going hungry, abusing communion big time!
Paul rebukes them, and says in 1 Corinthians 11:
Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:28-32 NIV)
How do you sober up a bunch of believers getting sloshed at church? God brought sickness and death among them. That is better than being condemned with the world! This is to wake them up and bring repentance. This is our God. He loves us enough to discipline us.
Think of a child in a playground. They decide to run off. If the parent doesn’t stop them and discipline them, then they could run onto the road and get cleaned up by a bus. A loving parent stops and disciplines their child. Your God loves you enough to stop and discipline you. Sickness can be that loving discipline. There is such a thing as sickness caused by sin.
Now, let’s get something straight: not all sickness is like this. Most sickness is just the general consequences of that Genesis chapter 3 fall of mankind, and it strikes us in a more or less ‘random’ way. ‘Random’ is not the right word, but what I mean is that we have no explanation as to why some suffer and others don’t. That is just what life is like in a fallen world. So Job suffered but he was innocent. The man born blind in John chapter 9 suffered, but Jesus says it was not his fault: “neither this man nor his parents sinned”.
Hear me clearly: not all sickness is a result of specific sin, but it can be. And if we get sick, we should examine our hearts and ask if that is the case. This is not God slamming us, being cruel: “O, someone upstairs has got it in for you”. No, this is loving discipline for our good. I reckon this has happened to me, but let me share someone else’s story. A guy called Carl Laney writes:
Well do I remember one night when I woke up with a severe pain in my lower abdomen. As I lay in bed, the pain increased. Finally, I rose and began walking around in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. Was it something I had eaten? Was I having an attack of appendicitis? Was this the beginning of a stroke?
On the verge of panic, I asked the Lord to take care of me and to restore me to well-being. As I was praying, I realized there was an area of my life in which things were not right […] it seemed God was bringing this issue to my attention through my pain. I confessed it […], asked forgiveness, and appropriated the cleansing of the cross (1 John 1:9).
As I concluded my prayer the pain began to ease. Within ten seconds it was completely gone. I have never experienced that pain again.
Coincidence? Some would argue that it was, but I believe that attack was by divine design. I had been disciplined.’
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (NIV)
Why such certainty? Because if God has brought sickness to discipline a sinner, then prayer is the only cure for it, and it will work 100% of the time. So if you find yourself seriously ill, here is what to do: You use all medical treatments available to you. They are good gifts that God gives us. You dial ‘000’, go to the doctor, take medicine, have the operation, go to the counsellor, rest up. But, also, you need to examine your heart. Has God given you this time in bed to show you something? Is there a sin that the Lord is wanting you to deal seriously with?
If something comes to mind, then prayer may be the only remedy! The author whose story I just shared prayed about it himself. That is ok. Paul did that about the thorn in his flesh too. But we’re a body of Christ, not just individuals. So why not do this together as James says.
Call in your Growth Group leaders or some staff. We’ll come to your sickbed. We can even anoint you with oil. Ray mentioned he has done this for someone just the other month. We’ll have a time of confession of sins, we’ll pray in faith, trusting God’s promise here. And if sin is the cause, you can expect full and complete healing. And you can be reassured by your healing that your sins are completely forgiven through Jesus. That is a very specific application for any of us in sickness. We now know what to do.
But as we come to the end of James let’s step back and see what he wants for us?
He wants us to avoid sin in the first place, that God would not need to discipline us. Sin does us no good. I was reminded of that the other week watching the movie ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It is a movie about the life of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the 70s British rock band ‘Queen’. I’ve always loved their music, but it didn’t enjoy the movie. I was just sickened by Freddie’s lostness. He wanted to break free, but it robbed him or joy and of life. Sin doesn’t deliver on its promise.
So, as we wrap up, notice two tools for us to put off sin and enjoy righteousness. They are two ‘p’s’: patience and prayer.
First, we are called to be patient in these last days. Being a Christian in this world is hard. James’ readers were tempted to grumble, despair, and to wander from Jesus. So James says to them ‘be patient’ and don’t give up, verse 8:
You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (NIV)
These last days will not go on forever. There is relief on the horizon. Jesus is full of compassion and mercy. He will return and fix this mess. So hang in there!
I wonder if one of the reasons we might over-focus on things like healing is that we have an impatience with the bitter realities of life in these last days. Death, toil, and pain make life so hard and is the reality we face. But a day is coming when Jesus will fully restore of bodies with 100% healing and no death, sickness, and no end. The call is to be patient until then, even through suffering.
And secondly, another tool to make it through these last days is to be prayerful, verse 16:
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (NIV)
This is not just the prayers of some super-Christian you could never match. We’ve all been declared righteous through our Saviour Jesus! And the comparison with Elijah reminds us that he was a human as weak as us, and yet look how God used his prayers! Your prayers are powerful and effective!
Prayer in this passage can be by yourself, or with leaders, confessing sins with each other. It is not how you do it, but that you do it. Just pray! Seek God’s empowerment for this hard life. Make prayer your reflex reaction. Just do it without thinking. Are you dealing with impatience? Pray. Trouble? Pray. Happiness? Praise. Sickness? Pray. Sin? Pray. And watch God come through!
Just last month one of our staff, Lynette Cain, found out that she had a kidney stone. There it was, clear as day on her scans. She was in a lot of pain and needed an operation. A brother prayed for her, that the kidney stone would simply disappear, and God came through! The next scan was completely clear and no stone. Healing came through a simple prayer. It is powerful and effective. You have a fierce weapon for life this side of Jesus’ return. Get it out, sharpen it up, use it, and pray!
War brings out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best of humanity War is horrific and sad, but people can rise to the challenge and show great courage under fire.
That’s why so many of our movies are set in times of war. We’re captured by heroic war stories. Take a recent movie like ‘Dunkirk’. It tells the true story of ordinary Brits sailing their own private boats across the English Channel to the beach at Dunkirk to evacuate trapped soldiers. Many boats, completely unarmed, sailed into a war zone. 850 private boats were used. And they helped rescue a third of a million British and French troops. It’s an example of people rising to the challenge!
Our fantasy movies are also set in war zones: think of Star Wars obviously, the Hunger games, Lord of the Rings, and the endless list of Marvel films. Filmmakers do this because in a war zone, the characters can step up. We see resolve, courage, and wisdom. Even the footy finals advertising uses the language of a battle.
We’re relaxed and feel safe. But I want to spoil that and say to you that we are living in a war zone. We’re going to need every inch of our resolve, courage, and wisdom—with God’s help—to make it through.
We’ve made it to the last scene of the book of Daniel the Prophet. It is a scene of war. In chapter 10 verse 1 we read about a revelation given to Daniel. It was a true message and concerned a great war. It was one heck of a war. There were angels and demons, ages and empires, conquest and rebellion, violence and seduction, abominations that cause desolation, death and resurrection.
It is a picture of the world we live in. How can we make it through? And who are the heroes that will shine in the darkness?
Chapters 10 to 12 is one exciting vision. It was a vision that Jesus clearly had read, quoted, and lived out. Daniel chapter 10 covers the war in the heavens. Chapter 11 covers the war on earth that continued for four centuries after Daniel. The last part of chapter 11 and into chapter 12 takes us all the way to the end of history. This vision has a clear message for us. It tells us how to live with wisdom in a war zone.
It is 537 BC. God reveals something of the future to Daniel, and it is not pretty. Daniel’s response, just like we’ve seen again and again, is to humble himself and pray for understanding, and God responded to his prayer big time, verses 2 to 6:
At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over. […] I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. (NIV)
How would you like this answer to prayer? Daniel has seen dreams and visions before, but he is not seen anything like this! An angel turns up, and the encounter is devastating and overwhelming. Daniel needs angelic CPR to stand him up and receive the message. We’ll get to the vision in a second, but first notice this glimpse of an unseen spiritual war, verses 12 to 13:
Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.” (NIV)
Daniel received the revelation mentioned in verse 1 about a great war. He then mourned and fasted three weeks for understanding. And now we find out why the answer was so long coming. The angel was resisted by the prince of the Persian Kingdom for those three weeks. The angel had to stay where he was until the angel Michael arrived to replace him, and so only then could he come to Daniel.
What does it mean to say that this mighty angel was “resisted by the prince of Persia’? We’ve seen powerful earthly kingdoms in the book of Daniel—Babylon and Persia—but now we find that behind these kingdoms lurk powerful demons, princes in the spiritual realms. Look at verse 20:
So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come […]” (NIV)
The angel of the LORD will return to fight the Persian demon. Then later, the fight will move to the prince of Greece, when they rise to be the next superpower. There are good guys too: Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, is one of them. And we met Gabriel in Daniel chapters 8 and 9. There is an unseen war going on. And we need to know about it. We need to know we live in a war zone. Life is not about just about long weekends, and footy games, and the day to day. We live in a cosmic battle zone, where God is opposed, and where angels fight for your future. (Does this feel weird to you? It does, doesn’t it?) But the very fact that we don’t think much about demons indicates that the angels are still doing their job, protecting us.
Every now and again we get a glimpse of what is going on in the spiritual realm, just as Daniel did here. When we were missionaries in Thailand, I worked with Pastor Rittidet. He was from the Hmong Tribe. One time he went to visit his older sister’s family in her Hmong village. While there, they were eating in the kitchen, when the local spirit doctor, the witch doctor, dropped by. He came regularly to speak with the spirits in the house and bring protection. Rittidet’s sister would pay him to do that. So the witch doctor tried to contact the spirits in the house. But perplexed, he came into the kitchen and asked who Riddidet and his wife were. He said that for some reason he couldn’t contact the spirits like normal. When told that they were Christians, he left saying that he would come back later. The power of God in Rittidet and his wife was greater than the spirits!
What are we to make of this spiritual battle? Do we fear? Do we fight? Do we forget it? Let me give you a lightening summary of the Bible’s teaching on demons and spiritual forces. Here are five points.
First, God made them. The principalities and powers, including the devil their ruler, were made by Jesus for Jesus, just like everything else in all creation. Jesus is actually their boss, though they resist that (Col 1:16; Rom 8:38-39).
Second, they then fell. Jesus said that Satan used to have a place in heaven. At some time, way back, Satan and some angels with him fell, setting themselves up in rebellion against God. Here in Daniel chapter 10, we see what this opposition to God looks like, as they try to use earthly kingdoms like Persia and Greece to crush God’s people.
Third, Christ has beaten them all: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). We see Jesus defeating Satan through his death and resurrection. So Colossians 2:15 says “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Fourth, they are angry and hostile: think of Al Qaeda. It’s basically defeated, Osama Bin Laden is long since dead, but the remaining terrorists will kill at any opportunity. They are defeated but still dangerous. Similarly, the devil still prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). The lion may have had his teeth ripped out by Jesus’ death, but he still roars and looks for easy prey. He will bother us at any opportunity. Our struggle as Christians “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:10). So as Ephesians 6:11 says, “Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (NIV)
Fifth, they will be overthrown soon. Although demons continue to make war on the saints, their time will soon be up. In Revelation chapter 20, we see Satan thrown into the lake of fire once and for all.
So what do we do with this knowledge? Know this: that there will be demons at work in our city right now. They are busy with schemes—as Ephesians 6 puts it—schemes to stop the good news of Jesus’ power and salvation going out, schemes to move sport and birthday parties on Sundays to keep you away from here, schemes to turn public opinion against us through universities or the media, schemes to normalise any view of sex other than God’s, to persecute Jesus’ people or to make us so comfortable that that we don’t care about eternal life.
So what should we do? Imaginative people over the years have said that we should battle these so called ‘territorial spirits’ using special prayer techniques. But Ephesians 6 tells us what to do, and it is actually very simple. We’re told to put on the armour of God. And the simplest summary I can give of that is to stick with Jesus, and just hold the ground that Jesus has won for you. Keep your Bible open, keep praying, be godly, keep the faith. We resist the devil by holding tight to Jesus who defeated him. What Daniel chapter 10 shows us is that the battle is real. And as we move to Daniel chapter 11, we see that the battle plays out on earth too, in very human earthly wars.
Daniel chapter 11 is one of the most detailed prophecies in the Bible. It is stunning in its accuracy. And that would have been a huge comfort for God’s people as they walked through the centuries from Daniel to Jesus, ticking off one prophecy fulfilled after another. Delve into the detail here and you’ll find Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, and treaties and battles between the Syrians in the North and the Egyptians in the South. Smart people have matched up the kings and times and places. It is that accurate. What was awesome for Israel was that they knew that their God is in control. They were a tiny nation caught like a ping-pong ball between world powers. But not only do they have mighty angels protecting them as we saw, but they have a God who controls the rise and fall of kings with totally predictability. He has the upper hand in history.
What was especially important for Israel was the warning of a particular terrible king who would pour out his hatred on Israel, verse 28:
The king of the North will return to his own country with great wealth, but his heart will be set against the holy covenant. He will take action against it and then return to his own country. (NIV)
This is the infamous Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Epiphanes means ‘god manifest’, and he thought he was God. Antiochus is a long name, so lets nickname him king ‘Anti’. In 169 BC, king Anti plundered the Jewish temple and massacred many Jews, verse 31:
His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. (NIV)
He forced the Jews to stop practicing their religion, and set up an altar to Zeus on top of the Jewish temple altar. It was an abomination! What God was doing here in giving this prophecy to Daniel was preparing his people for this horrendous time ahead, so that they could remain faithful in this earthly war zone, even when it reached the altar of their own temple. There will be war on earth, and there will be warlords like this guy. Forewarned is forearmed. But what does this mean for us you say?
Daniel chapter 11:36 till the end of the book answers that question. We are warned there will be lots of King ‘Antis’—warlords that the New Testament will call ‘Anti-Christs’. And this is what they’ll be like, verses 36 to 41:
The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, for what has been determined must take place. […] He will invade many countries and sweep through them like a flood. He will also invade the Beautiful Land. […] Yet he will come to his end, and no one will help him. (NIV)
This is Herod, Stalin, Hitler, and Chairman Mao. We’re told that there will be many antichrists, leading up till a final evil antichrist. But note that each will find their end. Such figures will be awful, but their days are determined and limited by God.
I love trucks. Big trucks have speed limiters. The trucks can go at 100kph but no more. If you drive behind them you see their brake lights flashing when they reach that speed. Forty tonne of truck can be dangerous at any speed but the speed limiter means they can’t do 130kph and wipe out a family in their car on holidays. Please know that whatever evil king or queen or president comes to power in our world, their days are limited. God will put their brakes on. He is in charge.
We saw it with king Nebuchadnezzar earlier in Daniel. He was sent out to eat grass like an ox. God puts the brakes on evil rulers, no matter who they think they are. The battle is real. We live in a war zone, and behind earthly warlords and their armies stand demonic powers.
So we need wisdom in a war zone. And Daniel chapter 12 gives it in spades.
Firstly, we are told that the distress is only for a time. War and abominations will test us to the very limit, a refining fire showing who is true to the Lord. But God will step in at the right time. Jesus will return. In the book of Daniel, symbolic numbers are used to show that God has set a limited time for this war to play out. This painful world will not go on as is forever. There will be an end of days, when God no longer simply limits the speed of the truck, but brings it to a complete halt.
Secondly, salvation and judgment are coming. Let me read you some of Jesus’ favourite Old Testament verses, from Daniel chapter 12 verses 1 to 2:
There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (NIV)
Jesus quotes just about every word here. They spell out what his life on earth was all about. He came to win the war, and deliver us. His death was the distress to solve your distress. His resurrection life can put your name in the book of life. His exaltation as the Son of Man to God’s right hand makes him your judge. A day is coming when all those who have died will rise to one of two destinies, either everlasting life with Jesus, or everlasting contempt and shame with Satan.
When we say ashes to ashes and dust to dust at a funeral, we are not committing someone to their final resting place. It is as if we are committing them to sleep. The word ‘cemetery’ actually means ‘sleeping place’, which is spot on! The meaning comes from this verse! All, everybody, will ‘awake’ in renewed bodies, and rise to stand before the judge.
How can you survive? You can survive only with Jesus. He is our war hero. He smashed the enemy’s defenses. He disarmed the warlord and can safely usher you into glory. So let me ask you, When we talk of angels and demons and the battle for good and evil, whose side do you think you are on? I think we all immediately assume we’re on God’s side. But we don’t start life that way! Since Adam and Eve, everyone is born an enemy of God. The nature of sin is that we have the spirit of the anti-Christ in us. We want to be like God. “I’ll do what feels right for me, I’m my own person, I don’t need no one to tell me what to do.” If that is still you, then you need to take action! It is time to wave the white flag, get out of your trenches, and come over to him. Jesus welcomes all who come to him for pardon. He loves you and wants you back. Pray to him today, wave the white flag, and come home.
Daniel’s wisdom for us is, first, that the distress is only for a time. Second, salvation and judgment are coming. Then third, in verse 3, we are to shine!
Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (NIV)
Have you ever been to the outback and looked up at the night sky? The blacker the sky the brighter the stars. You can see the whole Milky Way, the planets, and every shooting star. And you feel so little. The darkness of a war zone is our opportunity to shine.
Who do you know who shines like that? Who do you want to be like?
Well, we’ve all got to know Daniel this term! He shines. He is wise, and God used his integrity, prayerfulness, faith, and loyalty to change the hearts of kings. God used him to be the light of God in the darkness of Babylon, to lead many to righteousness. Will you pray with me that you too would shine, that we would shine together as a church? MBM is not a club. It is not a place to come to on a quiet weekend when not much is happening. We are an army, on the march through the darkness of Western Sydney. We are armed with the light of the gospel of Jesus, our commander, who said, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. We are soldiers of righteousness with a message of righteousness through Jesus.
You live in a war zone, but Jesus is our war hero, so that we can shine.
So wouldn’t you want to turn up regularly to training here on Sundays? Wouldn’t you want to pray daily for our mission? Wouldn’t you want to walk in Daniel’s footsteps and lead many to righteousness? For we know our future is to shine like stars with Jesus into eternity.
Let’s pray for that.
What do you live for? You may have seen the movie, ‘The Martian’. If not, just think of your ultimate ‘left behind’ nightmare. This is not like when you were a kid and your mum accidentally left you at the shops. This is getting accidentally left on another planet! Matt Damon plays an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars. He is unsure whether he will survive, and at a key moment, he radios this message though to his fellow astronauts:
So, um, Commander Lewis, I need you to do something for me. If I die, I need you to check on my parents. It won’t be easy talking to a couple about their dead son. Please tell them I love what I do. And I’m really good at it. And I’m dying for something big and beautiful. And greater than me. Tell them I said I can live with that.
He can handle dying for the cause that he lived for—space travel in his case. But we often hear a version of that on ‘real life’ news. A footballer dies on the field, and they interview his mate saying, “At least he died doing what he loved”. Or a sailor dies at sea and the comments flood social media, “She died doing what she loved”.
My question for you is, “What is your big passion in life?” What would you be doing if someone said of you that you died doing what you loved? What do you live for? What would you die for?
We’ve seen passion and ambition on display all week at the Commonwealth games. Kurtis Marschall’s victory in the pole vault was just brilliant! It took him years of dedication to reach that gold medal standard.
But what do you live for? You might have big goals, but for most of us, our life goals are simpler. "I want to do well at school. I want a half decent job. I want to find love. I want my kids to have a better go at life than me. I want financial freedom. I want to travel." Or maybe it’s just, “Whatever, I just want lunch.”
What do you live for? In John 4, Jesus’ disciples get an insight into his passion. They are literally at the ‘I want lunch’ level, trying to get Jesus to eat, when Jesus, ever the teacher, turns the conversation and says in verse 34:
My food … is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (NIV)
That was what sustains Jesus. Who cares about a sandwich when you have a kingdom to establish! Jesus lived to do God’s will and finish God’s work. We know that Jesus also died to do God’s will and finish God’s work saying, “Not my will but yours be done”, and then crying out from the cross about his work that “It is finished!” And Jesus urges his disciples to join in his single-minded passion and to live for the same goal. And He would also plead with us to do just the same! Just like them, we need to deepen our faith in the Messiah Jesus until serving him is the number one goal we live for.
But Jesus knows that our hearts drive our actions. So there are four pictures here about deepening our heart-faith, that we might live more fully for his goals. There are four models here for us moving to a deeper faith.
This first model is for his disciples. We saw last week that Jesus and his followers took a short cut through the country of Samaria. In the heat of the day, they stopped off at Jacob’s well to rest. The boys went into town to do a Maccas run or whatever they did back then, but Jesus stayed behind by himself and got into an amazing conversation with a Samaritan woman. He offered her living water for her spiritual thirst, and the conversation ended with him very openly declaring that he is the Messiah that she and her people had been waiting for. She was stunned by what she hears. She no longer cared about collecting water. She headed off to town to spread the news, verses 29-30:
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him. (NIV)
Meanwhile, scene two happened at the well, because Jesus had then been joined by his disciples. They had come back from town with lunch. It would take a while for the Samaritan crowd to return, so Jesus had a moment for a lunch break, verse 31:
“Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” (NIV)
Now the disciples were still clutching take away and thinking that Jesus must be hungry, but Jesus was teasing them, to bring out the lesson that they would never forget, verse 34:
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (NIV)
Jesus was saying, “My food, my bread and butter, what I love doing, is my Father’s will and my Father’s work. I’m on a mission here!”
The problem was that the disciples were not. They were in tourist mode, checking out the tabbouleh and hommus that the Samaritans were selling. They were not caring about the Samaritans—after all, they were just those half-cast cousins who split off from Israel and Israel’s God centuries ago. They had just been to the Samaritan markets and they would have met a stack of Samaritans, but they hadn’t brought any out with them to meet Jesus. Jesus, by contrast, had met one woman, and soon afterwards he had the whole town coming out to see him. He wanted his disciples to get with the program.
Jesus wanted his disciples to move from preoccupation to passion for the mission of God! They were thinking that if they tagged along with Jesus, he would do the teaching. It was sowing time and the harvest would come later. There was no hurry. But Jesus said to them, “Hurry”, verse 35:
I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. (NIV)
Literally, Jesus said to them, “Lift up your eyes and look at the fields.” Because if they had lifted up their eyes and squinted into the midday haze, they would have seen a crop of Samaritans walking towards them with the woman. The harvest was now. Lunch can wait. It was time for the reaper to draw a wage, that is, it was time for the disciples to get on with their job.
The disciples hadn’t sown the gospel among the Samaritans, but the Old Testament prophets had been sowing for centuries. And Jesus had just been sowing—so Jesus and his disciples were about to reap a harvest of souls over the next two days, just as verse 37, “One sows and another reaps”.
What is that goal you are living for again? School, job, love, kids, financial freedom, travel? But Jesus says to you and me, “that goal is not big enough!” The harvest for eternal life is now.
As a church we’ve set goals for reaching Sydney’s west—1000 new disciples of Christ in a ten year period. In God’s kindness, we’re over a quarter of the way there! But don’t get complacent. Even if we reach our goal, it is still a small harvest compared to the two million people who live out here. There is an urgency about this task, for the harvest is now, and the west is ripe for harvest. Greater Western Sydney is growing fast, already home to 9% of Australia’s population. It has the third largest economy in Australia, with an airport coming and a whole lot more. It is the epicenter of migration to Australia, a rich mission field on our doorstep!
Will you devote yourself to prayer for a great movement of God here? Will you pray that God would sweep up hundreds of churches and thousands of Christians to be on mission. And will you be a harvester yourself? Will you make this harvest your life goal, devoting not just your prayers, but you time and resources, your energy and maybe your career? Will you give whatever it takes? May God revive Sydney’s west!
There was a professor at a North American Bible college. He took his class of 1940 on a visit to England. They visited the house where John Wesley used to live. Wesley was a man God used to bring thousands to salvation. Beside Wesley’s bed were two worn impressions in the floor, where it was said that John Wesley knelt for hours in prayer for his country’s spiritual renewal. As the students were getting on the bus, the professor noticed that one student was missing. Going back upstairs he found a student kneeling in the kneeholes, praying with his face on the bed, “O Lord, do it again! Do it again!” The professor placed a hand on the student's shoulder and said gently, “Come on Billy, we must be going.” And Billy Graham stood up and got on the bus.
78 years later one of Billy Graham’s final public messages was this, “I’ve been praying that we might have a spiritual awakening. I think that becomes possible only as individuals surrender their lives afresh and anew to Christ.”
Is your food to do the will and work of your Father in heaven? Will you surrender your life afresh to Christ for that task?
Model 2: To Move From Second-Hand Faith To Personal Faith
But in John 4 there is more going on than that. A second model of deepening faith is that of the Samaritans, and it is to move from second hand to personal faith, verses 39 to 42:
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (NIV)
You might call this the Samaritan revival—“many” believed. And it happened because they checked Jesus out for themselves, listened to his words, and made up their own minds that he is the saviour of the world. They moved from second hand, hearsay faith—just curiosity really—to genuine, personal faith, that Jesus was their saviour too!
And maybe this is you today. You’ve made it to church perhaps because of curiosity. Maybe a friend invited you? But Jesus would want you to take the next step—to check him out for yourself, to read or listen to his word, and to maintain the curiosity until the day you can say that your faith is real, personal, and yours.
Or maybe this is you because you grew up in church. Perhaps for you it has always been about your parent’s faith. We say it often enough, that God doesn’t have grandkids, only children. You can’t call yourself a Christian just because your parents are Christians. So you need to get curious and listen hard to Jesus until the day you can say that your faith is real, personal, and yours. Jesus is the saviour of the world. Is he your saviour?
Our third model of faith is that of the Galileans. We don’t meet them in detail, but there is a clear faith-lesson Jesus had for them. The Galileans needed to move from a faith based on signs to a faith based on Jesus’ words. In verse 43, Jesus finally made it back to Galilee, but there was a problem, because verse 44 says:
(Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.)
We’ve been warned by John the Gospel writer that there was something questionable about the Galilean’s response to Jesus. Our radar is up to see what that is. The Galileans welcomed Jesus in verse 45, but John adds that they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover festival, for they had also been there. That was the problem. We know from John chapter 2 that the sign-based faith of the people down in Jerusalem was dodgy. In chapter 2 verse 24, Jesus said that he “would not entrust himself to them” for he knew what was in their hearts. Jesus knows that their faith was shallow, it was faith for entertainment. It was a bit like us watching a magician on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. We just want to be surprised. So Jesus said to them in verse 48:
“Unless you people see signs and wonders […] you will never believe.” (NIV)
Notice Jesus’ tone. He was not saying that sign-based faith is good. He was frustrated. He wanted people to be like the Samaritans he had just been with and believe his words. He wanted them to lose their obsession with signs, and grow mature in their faith, to focus on the giver of signs and his life-giving words.
Are you fascinated by the miraculous? Do you love watching so-called ‘miracle’ TV? Do you think that church is only real if the unexplained happens? Beware!
Signs are funny things. They can produce faith, and so John includes Jesus’ signs in his Gospel. But the nature of a sign is that it points to something. Our faith is not to be in the sign, but in the saviour to which the sign points. That’s the faith that Jesus wants—a solid faith in him.
How can we know what faith in Jesus looks like? Well there is one last model of deepening faith here, that of the royal official.
Jesus had went back to Cana, where Jesus had turned water into wine. I’m not sure if there was any of his wine left there, but Jesus didn’t have much time to relax anyway. He was hit with a request.
A powerful man, a royal official, had rushed over 30 kilometers from Capernaum to Cana to see Jesus. He had started with a crisis faith—a “Help me Jesus”—but ended up with a confident and contagious faith.
He arrived exhausted, throwing himself at Jesus, and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death. He might have been wealthy and dignified, but that all goes out the window when you have a sick kid. Just go and look into the eyes of parents in Accident and Emergency at Mount Druitt hospital. Verses 49 to 50:
The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.” (NIV)
Now here is the amazing bit: the man took Jesus at his word and departed. That is remarkable! Jesus had rebuked the Galilean crowd for needing signs and wonders to believe. But this man listened to that rebuke. He simply took Jesus at his word and went home! He heard and believed. And because he believed, he didn’t even seem to rush home, verse 51 to 52:
While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.” (NIV)
Notice the word, “yesterday”. The royal official had stayed the night somewhere! He was so confident that he took his time to travel home. His crisis faith became confident faith, and then confirmed faith, when he heard that the healing had taken place exactly when Jesus had spoken to him. Verse 53:
Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed. (NIV)
The royal official moved from crisis faith to confident faith, from confident faith to confirmed faith, and then to contagious faith, which spread to his whole household. We saw this when his servants shared his amazement, and then his belief in Jesus. And then his wife, and the son himself, and whoever else was a member of his household. They all believed. Again this is a model of deepening faith that you and I can follow.
Perhaps you first came to church because you needed help with an addiction. You needed friendship, or you came to learn English. That is great, but it is time for you to take the next step. You need to move from crisis-help to your own genuine faith in Jesus as your saviour. Perhaps you first prayed to God a prayer of desperation, “O Lord, save my marriage, help my sick mum”. But today is the day when you need to take the next step and trust Jesus, to take Jesus at His word for your salvation to eternal life. Jesus died and rose from the dead to forgive you, and to put you right with God. Have you accepted that gift? Have you moved from crisis faith to a genuine saving faith?
Let’s wrap up. The big question we started with is, “What are you living for, really living for? What step do you need to take to deepen your faith and truly live for Jesus? Which model of deepening faith is for you?
First, is it that you need to make God’s will and work your food, and live wholeheartedly for His mission? Second, is it that you need to move from a second hand faith to your own personal faith? Third, do you need to move from signs-based fascination to a confident trust in God’s word? Or fourth, does yours need to be a move from crisis faith to real saving faith, like that of the royal official?
I think in my own life I’ve had to make all those steps over time. They were all part of my maturity.
At age 11, as a church kid, I made a choice to become a Christian kid. I owned my own faith. I prayed to accept Jesus as my king and saviour. It wasn’t long before my newfound faith was tested. I found myself in different crises, calling out to God. I had to learn to trust God whether or not he answered me the way I wanted.
In my teens, I went through a phase of fascination with miracles. Part of me just wanted to experience God better, but I think I also wanted to rest my faith on what I could see. I had to learn to rest on the great sign of the resurrection of Jesus, that miracle given once for all of us.
Then in my late teens, I had to learn to live for God’s will and not my own. I was a proud young man who wanted to make my mark on the world. But I recall a challenge at church one night to hand over my ambitions to God, to really hand them over and use my life and opportunities to serve the Lord, even if that meant changing my future plans and career, or being embarrassed to tell friends what I planned to do with my life. Because that was the real issue—my pride and wanting to succeed in the world’s eyes. I handed it all over to God.
Where are you at today?
I could have chosen any of our missionaries really, but I love the example of the Borg family. The Borgs have five kids. Gina and Mark were successful entertainers. Mark made a living out of being an Elvis tribute artist. Life was good. Why change anything? But their food was to do the will of their Father in heaven and to do His work. So they upped and moved their family to Malta a few months ago, to share the gospel in the land where Mark grew up. Their food is to do the Father’s will.
What about you? What do you need to say to God? Let’s pray for deeper faith.
We pray and beg that you would bring spiritual revival to western Sydney, that you would stir thousands and tens of thousands to bow the knee to Jesus as Lord. Only you can change hearts. But Lord, start with our hearts we pray.
If our need is to move from curiosity or second hand faith to genuine faith in Jesus as our Lord and saviour, then accept us now Lord, assure our hearts that you hear our prayer, and help us to grow up in our faith and thrive here as part of your church family.
If we need to take a step deeper in our trust in Jesus, then may you grow our appreciation of your love for each of us. Help us to keep putting off sin and resting safely in our saviour’s grace.
If today we need to get with the program, and hand over our ambitions to God, to exchange selfish goals for the Father’s will for us, then hear our prayer. We lay our lives at your feet, Lord. Take us, use us, make your mission our food.
In Jesus name, Amen.