"Can I really be completely confident? I doubt sometimes. Life is hard. Sometimes I feel that my faith is hanging by a thread."
This week's "awkward text" is 2 Corinthians 5:6 where Paul seems to express a confidence that is way beyond us. If that is what is required we might be tempted to give up.
Well, here's what I think. It's a bit like listening to an accomplished pianist or watching an elite athlete. I see these people and I know that they got why they are by hard, persistent work. I also know that I could never get quite where they have got, but if I work hard and am careful to avoid injury I might just beat my Parkrun personal best.
Paul got to this place of confidence by going through a series of events that tested his faith to the limit. He found that God was there every time. In the end Paul knew that God is the God who raises the dead and he learned to rely on him. So Paul learned to be confident that the resurrection is real. He learned to live in God's forgiveness. And he learned that he was part of God's new creation that began when God raised Jesus from the dead.
Here's my suggestion: don't focus on Paul's confidence. Focus on the God that Paul believed in. And as Paul said, make it your aim to please him.
"The Bible tells us to be completely humble, gentle and patient, but it's hard when you're mad with someone.'
When I heard that sentence I had to agree. People tell me there is such a thing as godly anger, but if it does exist it is an endangered species. Human anger does not bring about God's purposes, as the Bible says. We see its devastating results every day.
Patience is about being prepared for the long haul. It's about hope that things will not always be as they are now, whilst being realistic about the way things are. It's about working passionately for change whilst accepting that it will take a long time.
The church is a training ground for patience. You see, it is God's plan to fill everything and he wants to fill us so the world can see what he is up to. He wants us to experience the unity that he has with his Son. If we are going to get there we are going to have a lot of patience.
So here's today's challenge: pick something that makes you angry. Ask yourself what you can do to express hope that things will change and what can you do to make sure that you stay patient if this doesn't happen quickly. Be practical. If world hunger makes you feel angry ask what changes you can make to your life. Can you present an example of how things could be different? Can you do this and pray passionately that the kingdom will come? Can you see what you need to do or say next? Can you do this and stay patient?
More on Sunday .....
The Apostle Peter tells us to cast all our anxiety upon God, because he cares for us.
Some of us find this hard to do. We get anxious. We find that we can't just throw this anxiety away. A text that is meant to encourage us becomes an awkward text and it seems to hurt us more than help us.
The first thing I want to say is that mental illness is not a sin. It happens to many of us and could happen to any of us. This text is not there to tell us off when we have mental health issues.
The main thing I want to say is that this text is about more than the thing we call 'anxiety.' I think the older translations get it better when they talk of casting our cares upon God. It means something like, 'cast everything you care about upon God.'
So what are things we care about? Our families? Our jobs? Our finances? Our health? These things matter but they can all distract us from seeking God. This is the idea behind the word that Peter uses. This isn't just about the times we feel anxious. It's about the times we feel excited, the times we feel determined, the times we are working hard and many other times. It's about all the times when the things we care about become more important than God.
These are the times when we need to trust that God cares for us and we need to know that God is bigger than us.
More on Sunday ....
This Sunday we are going to celebrate.
We've been thinking quite deeply the last few weeks. If you don't feel joyful there's a sermon about that on the Talks page of the website. We'll do more of those 'awkward texts' soon,' but this Sunday we are going to celebrate.
We'll start with Psalm 33: Sing joyfully ... praise the Lord ... make music ... play skilfully (we'll try). We'll have fun doing some activities that help us speak out our praise. And we'll sing a new song (well the psalm does tell us to.)
The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him ... he is our help and shield,
May your unfailing love rest upon us O Lord (Psalm 33:18-22, NIV)
Let's see if we can come all ready to praise God.
"How am I meant to be more than a conqueror when I feel like this? "
This Sunday we are going to look at our second awkward text, the one that says we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ. Sometimes we feel that this text is true; other times it seems almost ridiculous. How can frail, sinful people like us be more than conquerors?
Well the first thing to point out is that the Apostle Paul doesn't simply say we are more than conquerors. He lists seven difficult situations, starting with the word 'trouble' and he says that in these things we are more than conquerors.
The Apostle Paul was one of the great missionaries of the early church. He knew what it was to be depressed, he got ill, he was let down by friends, he knew distress, pain and anguish. (It really helps to understand him if you read his letters.) He wasn't some super human who danced his way through life; he experienced life in the same way that we do. He came through all these things battered and bruised.
Being a Christian hurts. Get to know one and you'll understand.
But in all these things, says Paul, we are more than conquerors because nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Paul says it because he has found it to be true.
So this 'more than conqueror' thing isn't about dancing your way through life. It's about staying connected to the love of God when everything else seems to be falling apart.
More on Sunday ....
By the way, the first talk in this series: 'Am I really meant to feel joyful all the time?' is on the Talks page of the website.
"I felt awful in church last week. Everyone was singing happy songs to Jesus and I felt lousy. I'm the only one who didn't feel joyful. I'm a rubbish Christian."
No, that's not a quote from me. But I've heard it often enough. This feeling that as followers of Jesus we ought to be joyful and if we are not we are second-rate Christians.
Last year i asked our leadership team to tell me about their awkward Bible texts, the ones that sometimes made them feel worse rather than better. We are going to look at some of them over the next few weeks, starting with texts that tell us to be joyful.
The problem is that when we feel bad, texts like these can make us feel worse. They add a pinch of guilt to our lack of joy.
So here goes ... when the Apostle Paul tells us to do anything, he doesn't expect us to be perfect straight away. He sees our growth as a long term project. Joy is something we work towards, not a gift from God that we unwrap on the first day that we believe. Joy is linked to hope and hope is the outcome of a long process that starts with suffering and perseverance. A process in which the Holy Spirit is deeply involved.
More on Sunday ...
Injured sports stars have to take a break. So do injured soldiers, office workers who are sick, and anyone who has been knocked out of action for a while. There's nothing wrong with this; it just happens sometimes.
So if I start this year with a call to stand firm, please don't think I'm asking you to be a superhero who bounces to their feet no matter what hits them. It doesn't work that way.
But I am asking you to remember that there is a spiritual battle going on and you are part of it. There is a devil and he schemes against us. Sometimes he seems to be quite accomplished at this. Did I say 'sometimes'? Maybe I should have said 'often.'
The Bible (Ephesians 6) tells us to stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around our waist. By 'truth' it means first of all the truth of the gospel. Jesus is alive and we belong to him. His resurrection power is at work in us. We are God's workmanship, created in the Messiah Jesus to do good works. Standing firm isn't first of all about doing anything. It's about, well, standing. It's about making a decision to believe the truth of the gospel.
So let's speak the truth in love to each other. The truth of the gospel. So we can stand firm in it.
The Christmas story tells us about a God who comes to us, not in dazzling light but in a cattle trough. Sure, the angels do their pyrotechnics, but they are only there to point to the real sign, some strips of cloth and a manger.
We often find it hard to get our heads around God. The Christmas story makes it both easier and more difficult. Easier because it is a sign that says ‘look here’. Harder because what we see is not what we expected to see or what we want to see.
People ask me why God doesn't show himself more openly. We human beings seem to want blazing lights that show us everything. But on that first Christmas Day the blazing light wasn't shining over Bethlehem. It shone over the hills . It helped the shepherds but it was a sign about a sign, not the sign itself.
Sorry if that last sentence confused you. But the real sign is the strips of cloth and the manger. God doesn't come to us in blazing light. He comes and lies down in a dark, cattle trough. Try and get your head around that this Christmas. It changes everything.
A little quiz for you today. Who said this?
‘God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’
Got it yet? I’ll give you a clue. You probably didn’t hear it in a nativity play, but you should have.
The answer is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Mary also spoke about God scattering the proud and bringing down rulers from their throne.
To Mary the birth of Jesus starts a revolution. Mary lived in an oppressed country. She was ruled by the (as she saw it) arrogant, bullying Roman Empire and their evil puppet King Herod. It was time to change and she was going to have the baby who would solve the problem.
As I write this our country is in a political storm. The ‘meaningful’ vote in parliament has been put off. Who knows where our country will be when Article 50 is scheduled to expire in March?
Yet for many there are more important things than Brexit. People do not have enough food. They are homeless. They are ill, physically, or mentally or spiritually. They are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Surely it is time for God to act and fill the hungry with good things once more.
Mary never thought that Jesus would do this be waving a magic wand. He would achieve it by being a different sort of king. The promise to Abraham, that God would bless the world through his family, would at last be fulfilled. When we come under his rule great things happen. The hungry are fed. The homeless are housed. People who seemed insignificant are honoured.
God has done great things. Honour his king this Christmas.
Mary hurried to visit her older relative.
She had just heard two pieces of news. The first was that she was going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit (I know, it sounds daft, but that was Mary’s first reaction too.) The second was that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was already pregnant.
No wonder that Mary rushed to Elizabeth. She was running to the proof that the angel had spoken the truth. And perhaps to the one person who could truly understand her.
There were no phones or social media in those days. Maybe the only way to check out Elizabeth’s pregnancy was to go and visit. I imagine how the scene might have been. Would Elizabeth’s pregnancy be obvious? Would Mary have to ask and risk looking foolish? Or would Elizabeth blurt it out: ‘You’ll never believe this, but … .” What would Mary expect as she arrived at Elizabeth’s house?
I guess she was not expecting Elizabeth to shout, an ecstatic shout about Mary and the baby she was going to conceive. I mean, how crazy can this story get? The scene is excitement to the max. Even the baby in Elizabeth’s womb is leaping for joy. Elizabeth knows that the baby to be born to Mary is her Lord. The gospel writer puts this down to the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who is going to come upon Mary so that she can conceive.
And the thing that excited Elizabeth the most? Mary’s faith. Nothing is impossible for God, but Mary’s faith matters too. As does yours. And mine.