Have you ever read the Bible from cover to cover? Many people who try it start off enthusiastically until they reach the second half of Exodus where the exciting story shifts into a detailed list of rules and regulations. They find it hard to keep going and they struggle to see the point of it all. If they persevere they are often glad that they did, but the Psalmist's enthusiasm for the Law still seems strange.
The Old Testament, as Christians call it, starts so well with God creating human beings in a wonderful earth. But it soon goes wrong. Twelve chapters in God makes a wonderful promise to Abraham that all nations of the earth will be blessed through his family. But this family seem unable to be that blessing, no more than any other family would be able.
So God sends Moses, the great Law-giver, and a Law which tells these people how to live. But they can't and don't keep it. That's the story of the Old Testament: a book in which hope never dies but reality keeps striking.
Paul, who wrote Galatians, was once an enthusiast for the Law. He saw it as the word of God and the thing that marked out the people of God. It's provisions like circumcision, food laws and Sabbath keeping, mattered to him. Then he saw Jesus, and the Law paled into insignificance. Paul's hero became Abraham, not the Law-giver but the man who believed God and who was declared to be righteous. Paul announced that God's promise to Abraham was being fulfilled, in those who believed in Jesus.
So why are there two testaments? To put the question more precisely: why this story that lasts hundreds of years about a law and a group of people who couldn't keep it? Paul's answer, in part, us that the people of God needed a childhood. And as children they needed a list of rules because they weren't yet ready to live in a grown up sort of way. When Jesus came the emphasis went back to faith, through which people could learn what the Law really pointed to.
More on Sunday .....
A GCSE student told me that the Bible was an old book, which had been copied and translated many times. No way could we be sure that what we have is the original.
Well, the version you have in front of you is a translation from three ancient languages. But most modern translations are not translations of translations, they go back to the earliest manuscripts we possess and they have only been translated once. When we compare translations we find that there a few serious differences between them. But, yes, if you are really serious about learning the Bible it would help to learn the original languages. I'm a fan of that.
This week we start to look at Paul's letter to the Galatians. Most people who study these things think it is genuinely the work of the Apostle Paul, the first century missionary.
Paul has a lot to say but first he spends a lot of time arguing that he does have the right to say it. He talks about the way God called him and the way his gospel agrees with the gospel of those who met Jesus after the resurrection.
We've just looked at Peter's second letter. We saw that he knew the Lord and he claimed he wasn't making up stories. He also said that Paul was preaching the same message. Peter and Paul are keen to say that they are on the same side.
So we need to take Peter and Paul seriously, if I may use the jargon word, as apostles of Jesus.
Next week Paul will really get going, but this week we are introduced to a lot of his themes: the resurrection and the new age it launches, God's one family, grace, peace, God our Father and of course the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
This letter has a lot to say to us. Let's start it with the conviction that it is worth reading.
We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth.
The Bible doesn't say that heaven is our final destination. It looks forward to the day when the whole creation will be made new. This will be the Day of the Lord, the day when our prayers for the kingdom to come are finally answered.
We are looking forward to that day. Everything we have glimpsed in Jesus will become fully real. To use Peter's words, righteousness will finally have a home.
And when will this happen? We don't know. Peter tells us that with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, so we have only waited slightly under two days so far. It could be a long time yet. Or maybe not, because the Lord will come like a thief, and thieves tend to come when you are not expecting them.
So, in the light of this, what sort of people ought we to be? Peter says that we ought to live holy and godly lives. These are the lives he has already written about: lives of faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and above all love. This the way we look forward to the Lord's Day. On that day everything else will melt in the heat and everything that is of God will rise into eternity.
This is our faith. Let's not fall away from our secure position.
Looking for an upbeat, encouraging Bible text today?
Sorry, everyone, 2 Peter 2 is about false teachers who make up stories so they can get their own way.
Peter's second letter starts with an upbeat message, but it also tells us that we must be real about church. There are dangers. Big ones. We can't ignore them.
There are people who make up their own stories, rather than lead us to the Bible.
There are greedy people who exploit the church.
There are people who will abuse those who are vulnerable.
Jesus and Paul gave similar warnings.
So what can we do? Well, our safeguarding policies are there for a reason. Please do make sure you are aware of them. And please do look at the drafts complaints policy we'll be brininging to the church next months. And please do look at the church accounts when you get them.
And please try to get to know your Bible. The people of Berea were praised because they opened their Bible and checked what they were being told. We need people like that.
More on Sunday ... for a service that with lots of praise and joy, but also what I hope will be a healthy dose of reality.
I know that some will dispute what I'm about to write, but here goes ..
Last time we were told to make every effort to build on our faith. This time Peter, who is shortly going to die, says he is going to make every effort. His task now is to make sure that those who follow him will always remember what he taught.
He wants us to know that he didn't make it up. He really knew Jesus. He really saw him in glory on a mountain top. He heard the voice saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
A generation later there was a man called Papias, who tells us that Mark's gospel was written by Peter's interpreter from the things that Peter remembered about Jesus. The point is the same: he didn't make it up.
Peter also wants us to know that the scriptures aren't the product of cleverly invented stories; they were inspired by God. As we will see in chapter four, this includes the letters written by the Apostle Paul.
And my job as a pastor is to keep reminding you of these things. Jesus lived. Jesus died. Jesus rose again. His kingdom is coming. not a cleverly invented story but the greatest truth of all.
We are a community of faith. We welcome anyone who wants to explore what faith in Jesus looks like. Faith is basic to who we are; we believe in Jesus who died for our sins and who rose again. Through his resurrection we escape the decay that is in the world.*
Peter tells us to add seven things to our faith. He tells us that God's power has given us everything we need to live a godly life. So it is our job to put our faith into practice. The ultimate goal is love, a life lived as Jesus lived.
Peter says that God has called us by his glory and goodness. He calls us into that glory and goodness too.
Don't forget that you are escaping the decay of the world. Be productive. Be effective. God's power has given us everything we need. There's lots of work to do.
More on Sunday …
* We really do mean that. Christ rose from the dead and so will we.
Ever get angry? We all do.
I feel for Nehemiah. He gave so much to the people of God. He was a great man of faith, prayer courage and skill. He was passionate for God’s people. He had achieved so much. God had achieved so much through him.
Yet here we meet him at the end of his book, angry and disappointed and desperately trying to stop his work from falling apart. I guess we ought to be grateful that the Bible tells it as it is, rather than as we’d like it to be. I admire Nehemiah’s zeal but here I cannot defend his behaviour.
God’s people are meant to be different. It’s easy to let that slip away, or to be different in a wrong sort of way. Nehemiah has clear ideas about how they should be different. He wants worship to be at the heart of the community. Didn’t the people promise not to neglect the house of God? How did it slip away when Nehemiah’s back was turned?
There are dangers in trying to be different and they should not be understated. This last chapter of Nehemiah, the ending we didn’t want, can, I hope, provoke us to think about the distinctiveness of the church. In what ways should we be distinctive? How do we stay distinctive?
More on Sunday …..
A couple of weeks ago we saw the people being moved to tears. They were listening to God's word and they knew how far they had fallen short. But it wasn't the time for confession; it was the time for celebration. Time to stop crying.
But the time has now come for the people to have a serious look at themselves. It is time to admit that the bad state of God's people is down to the behaviour of God's people, both now and in the past.
Sometimes churches need to review where they are. Perhaps these chapters can help us to do this well.
1. Start with praise. 'Stand up and praise the Lord, who is from everlasting to everlasting.' Remember God's sheer greatness.
2. Retell the great story of the Bible. God's covenants with Abraham, David and above all Jesus. Remember God's patience with his people and all he has done to sustain the covenant.
3. Recognise the ways that we have failed to live up to the covenant, both in the past and now.
4. Be real about our current position. There is good news (the wall is rebuilt) but things are still not right. The people are still slaves. (I love 9:32, where the people call on God not to let the hardship seem trivial in his eyes. Whatever state we are in God is watching, and our condition can touch his heart.)
5. Make some commitments, preferably as a group. "We will not neglect the house of God."
All this strikes me as a lot of work and perhaps several church meetings. But it could be very worthwhile.
When we pray 'forgive us our sins' (or debts, or trespasses, or whatever version of the Lord's prayer we use) we are praying for the whole of the church.
I'm not just praying that God will forgive my sins; that's a tiny part of it. You are not just praying that God will forgive your personal sins. We are asking God to forgive all the failings of his church, no matter what they may be.
When we pray the Lord's Prayer we pray that God's kingdom will come, a kingdom that will sweep away all injustice and evil. When we pray the Lord's Prayer we take our stand as his light for the world. If we are honest we will come humbly, knowing that we his church have fallen short of all God wants us to be.
So we pray that God will forgive us our sins, and keep working in us so that we can do the job he has called us to. We pray believing in the kingdom and the role of God's church in it.
This Sunday we will be looking at the Lord's Prayer …. the way Jesus taught us to pray.
Festivals matter. Every day is a good day to praise the Lord, but sometimes we need an all-out celebration.
In Nehemiah 8 the people hear God's word and it reduces them to tears. They realise how far they have fallen short. But the preacher is far from happy with this. This is a holy day. It's a day to rejoice in the things God has done, not a day to be sad. So the priests move among the people and get them to calm down. Then the celebration begins.
I've heard people say they weren't good enough for church. Or that God could not forgive them their sins. Nonsense. Our faith doesn't start with what we've done; it starts with the things God has done. Sure we need to confess our sins, but first we need to celebrate the amazing story that the Bible tells and claim our place within it
That's why the celebration had so much Bible reading. The Bible reading wasn't the boring bit before the celebration; it was a central part of the celebration, making clear what the people were celebrating.
More on Sunday …..