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Dec 19, 2013
neil

Carols at City Church – the text of my talk

On Sunday evening 370 people packed The Blue Coat School Chapel in Edgbaston for our annual Carols by Candlelight. The text for my address is given below.

Three wealthy sons each gave their elderly mother a Christmas present. The first son gave her a new house. The second gave a new car. But, the third said to his brothers, “you know mum can’t see very well these days.  So I’ve spent £20,000 on a most  gifted parrot money can buy and I’ve had him trained to recite all her favourite poetry. He’s amazing.”
After Christmas the old lady wrote “thank you” letters. To the first son she wrote: “Thank you so much for the house. Sadly it is rather too large. I much prefer my small flat.” To the second she wrote: “Thank you so much for the car. Sadly my failing eyesight means I can no longer drive.” But to the third she wrote as follows: “Dear Donald, thank you that at least You have the good sense to know exactly what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious.”

Well Christmas is that time for giving and receiving gifts and I for one love doing both although I’m not so hot on the shopping bit. We don’t always get what we want though do we. Apparently last year 366,000 people already had an unwanted present listed on eBay by the end of Christmas night. And greater numbers than ever rather than watching Christmas day TV are  scanning the internet for the presents they didn’t get – at knock down prices – before the day is over.

Of course the reason we give gifts at all at Christmas time is because we remember the gift that God has given to the world. If you could ask God for one thing this Christmas I wonder what it would be? An England win in the ashes? An x-factor voice? The football skills of Lionel Messi or perhaps a body the size of Kate Moss?

The idea that God could, if he really wanted to, do a lot to improve our lives is an attractive one. So what is it that God given you?

1. God’s gift to the world that first Christmas was the gift of himself.

The angel said to Joseph that the son born to Mary would be called Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’. Now, why would God, in all of his wisdom, give us Jesus for Christmas? What made him the best gift we could receive?

To help us think about that I want to draw our attention to our final reading this evening from the beginning of John’s gospel.

And there in v.9 we read ‘the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’ John describes Jesus as a light to give us light for life. God’s one gift helps us make the most of all of the other gifts. Many people will wake up this Christmas day and will have Steve Jobs to thank for their present. Thanks to him we have iphones and ipads and all of the rest but even Jobs in all of his brilliance cannot give us what we really want.  In his battle for life he said ‘No one wants to die and yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.’

Another brilliant man, Leo Tolstoy, gave great pleasure to the world through his books. But he remained frustrated by his own lack of answers. He famously asked — Is there meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me? Is there anyone who can give our lives the meaning and purpose that no amount of socks, perfume, or even chocolate can fill.

God’s gift to you this Christmas is the true light that gives light to every one of us. In v.3 we read ‘through him all things were made;  without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men’. Jesus the author of life is the key to life. As God he is our guide to life. He’s our satnav, he’s the help desk. He’s the technical support, the on-hand expert because the light of the world brings light to our lives. Once we know that God is there and we know the future that he offers it gives direction, meaning, purpose to all of the details of our lives.

Jesus really is the ultimate gift because there is nothing like him.  v.18 No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

The wonder of Christmas

The real wonder of Christmas is that it tells me not just that there is a God but that he is interested in me. Some of us ask does God care about this world, could God ever be interested in me.  Perhaps those are questions that sit at the back of your mind this evening. But when God came into our world.  He chose to live life just like you and me. He didn’t arrive on Air Force One with a cavalcade of stretch limos.  No God chose to be born in a stable because no one offered him a bed for the night. He grew up in a small town, doing an ordinary job and all to tell us what kind of God he really is. One of us.

And Jesus when he grew to be a man made his mission clear. To seek and save the lost. Jesus came into the world because he came looking for you and me. The true light came to give light to every man. To show you the way back to God. To give you a life and a purpose that lasts into eternity.

Well if the wonder of Christmas is that God would do all of that for me then the scandal of Christmas is that when he came we didn’t exactly make him welcome.

The scandal of Christmas

Even at Christmas time not everyone is welcome at least not all of the time. There will be falling’s out this Christmas. One survey suggested that a fifth of rows this Christmas will be over what to watch on TV. 14 percent of arguments will be over doing the washing up. 11 percent will be about an old family issue; and ten percent about what presents to open. Top of the list? Board games prompt more arguments than even TV – 24 percent.

John tells us, v.10, that when Jesus came into our world,  ‘though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ When we read through the life of Jesus we see that when God came into our world we did not exactly make him welcome. It wasn’t just a few innkeepers who could not find room for Jesus at Christmas. It seems that the whole world was ready to exclude him from their celebrations.

When we remember that a life that began in a manager ended on a cross we are reminded what a very easy thing it is to  refuse and reject God. Many of us have simply got comfortable living life without him. How many of us even if we think that God might just be there have no plans of making room for him in our lives this Christmas time?

The gift of Christmas

God’s gift has come into the world – yet even as many refuse him, look with me at v.12, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’ Jesus comes to give us the greatest gift of all – a relationship with God.  More than that, a whole new status – you and I can leave here this evening as children of the living God.

If you’re looking for a last minute present there is a website called highlandtitles.com. It offers you – for the small sum of just £30 – the chance to become a Lord or Lady of an area of one square foot in the highlands of Scotland. A real plot of land, a certificate for the wall and the right to call yourself a lord or lady. Tempted? Well maybe. But we all know it’s a complete nonsense of course.

But God’s offer is not nonsense. For to become a child of God changes everything.

A little later in John’s gospel we read these words, perhaps the most famous in all of the Bible ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Jesus, through his death on the cross would pay for our sin and for all who do receive him he reconciles to God. That is the Christmas gift that is on offer to you this evening.

Conclusion

Kerry Packer was the richest man in Australia. He died a few years ago but one newspaper obituary recorded  an extraordinary episode of his life. One evening Packer was out with friends and came to a pub looking for a meal. The landlord turned him away saying ‘.I’m sorry he said we’re not still serving food.’

Undeterred, Packer walked across the town square to the other pub but this time the landlord was pleased to welcome him and provided a meal for his party.  When they had finished eating the bill duly arrived for £140. Packer got out his pen and wrote a cheque for £10,140. Explaining what he had done he said to the landlord. £140 is for the bill. £10,000 that’s your tip. The only condition is that before you cash the cheque you show it to the landlord across the road.

The mistake the first landlord made was not simply that he had turned someone away but it was much more who he chose to turn away – the richest man in his country.  John urges us not to make the same mistake this evening. This Christmas time Jesus says – will you receive me? If you will I will give not £10000 but the right to become a child of God. Wouldn’t it be an even greater tragedy to turn away not the richest man in the land but the one who offers eternal life.

What might it mean for you to receive him this Christmas?

Joshua Dubois was a man working for Barack Obama when he was Governor of Illinois and campaigning for the Whitehouse. Dubois was just an aide working for the Obama team.  They’d never met each other but Dubois wondered whether in the midst of everything that was going on in Obama’s life whether anyone was really thinking about his soul.

So he sent Obama an e-mail with a Bible verse. He didn’t expect a response but he got one almost immediately . Obama replied ‘That is exactly what I needed’ and then said ‘would you do that every day.’ And that is what Joshua Dubois has done for the past 6 years. I wonder whether you think someone pointing you towards Jesus in a busy and stressful life might just do you good too?

Why not take this booklet and read it. Why not join us at City Church this Sunday or on Christmas day. Then in the new year there is a chance to join us on a course called identity.

And if you think it might just do you good I’d be happy to send you one e-mail a week.  With just a Bible verse, a thought.  My commitment to you is that apart from adding you to that e-mail list I won’t contact you unless you ask me to. And of course you can stop receiving them at any time. If you’d like that simply drop an e-mail to the city church office and you’ll receive that first one just in time for Christmas.

As we turn to our closing carol may I take this opportunity to wish every one of you a very merry and blessed Christmas.

 

Nov 26, 2013
neil

What we have to learn from the ‘next generation’ of church leaders

Here’s a summary of Brad Lomenick’s take on the next generation of leaders in the church and his reasons for optimism.

  1. Passion for God
  2. Willing to work together
  3. Don’t care who gets the credit
  4. Generosity and sharing are the new currencies
  5. They understand the holistic responsibility of influence
  6. Authenticity wins
  7. Not willing to wait
  8. See social justice as the norm
  9. Seeking wisdom and mentors
  10. A change the world mentality
Many of these same values are shaping our 2020birmingham network.  A partnership of now 10 congregations committed to working together in church planting across Birmingham works because rivalry and self-interest are giving way to gospel-hearted collaboration. There is much to give thanks for and many reasons to be encouraged about the future of the church in the next generation.
What’s of greatest encouragement is that these values seem to be instinctive to our younger leaders and result in an energy and vitality that isn’t  manufactured.

(HT: Matt Perman)

Sep 27, 2013
neil

Up to the job? Church-planting and gospel confidence

When it comes to gospel ministry, and particularly a pioneering, church-planting, ministry, Paul asks the kind of question that everyone is thinking; who is equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 2:16).  It’s the perfect question for any new congregation starting out together. We know that Paul preached the gospel with great boldness and confidence, a confidence that seems to motivate him, enable him and sustain him. And his second letter to the Corinthians is a letter all about the right and wrong kinds of confidence in ministry. Consider how often the word ‘confident’ or ‘confidence’ occurs. Ten times in the book as a whole e.g. 5:6, we are always confident and 5:8, we are confident.

Where does confidence for church planting come from?

In our culture – we talk of a self-confidence. Here’s Tracey Emin in her own words: I’m not your average woman, and I’m not going to live your average woman’s lifestyle. I set up the rules for me. I set up the perimeters. I have nobody telling me what to do. Former world champion boxer Chris Eubank exuded a self-confidence when he famously said: I have no vices. I am a hero. Go and look it up in the dictionary and you will find a picture of me.

I don’t doubt that in a group starting a church there are some very capable people. Gifted, skilled, equipped, trained, motivated but the danger will be a reliable on our own abilities, a self-confidence that breeds a self-reliance.  A wrong confidence.

For the Apostle Paul confidence is found elsewhere.  Paul answers his own question (2:16) in 3:4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God.

In this post I want to reflect a little on what a gospel-confidence is and then in my next post what a gospel confidence looks like in the life and ministry of a new church.

1) Gospel confidence

There are only two fuels you can put in the engine to fuel ministry, ourselves and our own talents and abilities or Christ and his gospel that saves. I’m sure you noticed how, for Paul, confidence is through Christ and before God.  A better translation there is ‘toward God’.  In other words Paul looks to God for his confidence rather than in himself for his confidence. So here’s the principle in planting; our confidence is entirely God-given. It comes from the gospel.

What does a gospel confidence look like? It’s recognising that our competence in ministry is entirely God-given. Paul says, 3:5, Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from GOD.

Gospel ministry is beyond our resources or abilities. No wonder Paul asks,  2:16, who is equal to such a task. You and I cannot open the eyes of the blind. We cannot give life to the dead.  Our confidence can’t therefore be located in is not in our website, or our music, or our small groups, or our community, even our coffee – it comes from the fact that the life-giving Spirit works through the gospel to bring life and salvation and godliness.

When we recognise that our confidence comes through Christ and from God it is wonderfully liberating because our confidence isn’t affected by our performance, results, circumstance or situation! Andy Murray has just crashed out of the US Open in the quarter-finals in a pretty humiliating straight sets defeat. And no doubt His confidence will have taken a big knock. David Moyes hasn’t had the best start at Man Utd and it can’t be easy replicating the results of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ask any celebrity and they will tell you of how self-confidence comes and goes, we are up and down people. As gospel servants, our confidence is strong because our confidence comes from God.

That’s great news this morning whether we are naturally over-confident or under-confident people.

Who is equal to such a task? Well the answer is there in v.6, God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. Paul knows that new covenant ministry is a life-giving ministry. A ministry in which God seeks to bless and we ought to expect to see people saved.  The Old Covenant, as Paul goes on to explain in verses 7-18, could not bring life because it was an external covenant of obedience to the law. It was a ministry of death, not because the covenant was not good but because of the spiritual incapacity of the people. But Jesus fulfilled it for us in his life, and he bore our penalty for our failure to keep it in his death and so released us from it. The ministry of the Old Testament prophets was a hard one – who would want to plant a congregation in OT Israel or be a Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah? But the ministry of the New Covenant is a glorious one because through it the Spirit is able to bring new life and to turn rebellious hearts back to him.

It is God, and no other, who qualified Paul and equipped him to become a minister of the new covenant, he claimed nothing for himself.  So too for any of us given the privilege and opportunity to be gospel ministers. Gospel confidence is a humble confidence and that, as we’ll see in the next post, is all we need to, in the words of William Carey, attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.

Aug 22, 2013
neil

GK Chesterton on how we travel the world to avoid life not discover it

If we love to read some authors because they confirm our opinions we learn to appreciate others because they change them.  A good writer might just change our minds. GK Chesterton (1874-1936) was such a man.  A brilliant mind and a prolific writer I discovered that he wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer.

Over the summer I’ve been reading his book Heretics . One of the reasons he was so good at getting  around my defences was through his appeal to paradox. He works to show you how they very thing you seek is not found in the way you seek it. In fact, he warns, seek it in the wrong place and you lose it altogether.

The following extracts from his essay On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family is an example of just how powerfully paradox works as a literary device. Subverting our assumptions, we find our views challenged and our minds changed. A whole new way of looking at things not only opens up but begins to become attractive to us.

The argument is simply this: if we really want to live life how do we do it? Chesterton asks where do we really experience life; is it in moving to the big city? Is it in travelling the world? Is life found in seeking after all kinds of new opportunities and experiences? Or might we find that the truth is found in deliberately pursuing just the opposite? Is life actually found in learning to love those who live right alongside us? Might we see more of the world by staying just where we are?

In a culture where we are desperately concerned not to miss out Chesterton argues we miss out when we fail to invest our live in a meaningful  community.

1. Where life is really lived

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

2. Why large societies are about life-avoidance

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.

3. Life is discovered not in seeing places but in loving people

If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals — of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles.

4. What God is trying to teach us through community

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. . . we have to love our neighbour because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

All of Chesterton’s arguments, powerfully and persuasively made I’m sure you’ll agree, serve to challenge our view of church. For example, is church a place to visit or a community to learn from? Do we like our large churches because that way we can avoid people? We can decide who to love and when we don’t want to love others, especially those who differ from us, we can easily ignore them? Is a large church a decision not to grow-up through sharing in the joys and sorrows of our Christian brother and sister?

On holiday on Sunday in a small family church when one couple shared the news that the wife had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer Chesterton’s observations were confirmed in an instant. The news would impact every member of that church family who by virtue of their community life shared  life together, week in and week out.

Aug 2, 2013
neil

The biggest danger to your ministry? Tripp says ‘you are’

Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling is proving to be a highlight of my summer reading.

Here’s a man who knows my heart and understands the unique challenges and dangers of pastoral ministry. The book is written by a man who has failed in ministry,so writes with compassion and care. He has also, through countless conversations with church leaders, ministered the gospel to leaders.

In the introduction he describes Dangerous Calling as a diagnostic book. His aim is to reveal to leaders, often blinded by their sin to their sin, the idols that drive too much of what we do and why we do it. Perhaps the most disturbing sentence of the book is this one: it is right to say that the greatest danger in my life exists inside of me and not outside of me. This is because a pastor’s ministry depends, finally, not on whether he can preach, set out a clear vision for a church or deliver good pastoral care but on what is motivating his ministry. The condition of a pastor’s heart shapes everything.

Through the second half of the book Tripp shows just how devastating it is for a pastor to look for the wrong thing in the wrong place. To want and to seek from ministry what is ours in Christ. When you forget the gospel, you begin to seek from the situations, locations, and relationships of ministry for identity, security, hope, well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Why do ministers fall and fail? Why do so many leave ministry? For most, behind the many presenting reasons, underlying them all, is a failure to apply the gospel to ourselves as well as our congregations.

In the concluding chapter of the book Tripp summarises his ‘big-idea’:

This is the bottom line. This is the great internal war of ministry. You are called to be a public and influential ambassador of a glorious King, but you must resist the desire to be a king. You are called to trumpet God’s glory, but you must never take that glory for yourself. You are called to a position of leadership, influence, and prominence, but in that position you are called to ”humble yourself under the mighty hand of God” (v.6). Perhaps there is nothing more important in ministry than knowing your place. Perhaps all the fear of man, the pride of knowing, the seduction of acclaim, the quest for control, the depression in the face of hardship, the envy of the ministry of others, the bitterness against detractors, and the anxiety of failure are all about the same thing. Each of these struggles is about the temptation to make your ministry about you. From that first dark moment in the garden, this has been the struggle–to make it all about us.

It is so easy to confuse your kingdom with the Lord’s. It is so easy to tell yourself that you are fighting for the gospel when what you’re really fighting for is your place. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re simply trying to be a good leader when what you really want is control. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want to build healthy ministry relationships when what you really want is for people to like you. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re trying to help people understand the details of their theology when what you’re actually working to do is impress them with how much you know. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re fighting for what is right when what is really going in s that you’re threatened by someone’s rising influence. It’s so easy to tell yourself that you just want what is best when what you really want is a comfortable and predictable ministry life. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want God to get glory when really you enjoy ministry celebrity more than you are willing to admit. It is hard to be in a position of ministry prominence and influence and to know your place, It is very tempting in subtle ways to want God’s place. It is vital to realize that the temptation of the garden still lives in the pulpit, the study, the counseling office, and the ministry boardroom.

Here is the bottom line: wherever you are in ministry, whatever your position is, no matter how many people look up to you, whatever influence your ministry has collected, and no matter how long and successful your ministry has been, your ministry will never be about you because it is about him. God will not abandon his kingdom for yours. He will not offer up his throne to you, He will not give to you the glory that is his due. His kingdom and his glory are the hope of your ministry and the church. And when I forget my place and quest in some way for God’s position, I place my ministry and the church that I have been called to serve in danger.

It is here that I need to be rescued from me.

In your ministry, in the location where God has positioned you, is there evidence that you have forgotten your place, or is your ministry shaped and protected by a daily commitment to “humble yourself under the mighty hand of God”? Would the people who serve with you thing that you are too orientated toward power and control? Would the people you serve assess that you care too much about what people think about you? Would they say that you care too much about attention and influence? Would they see you as being tempted to take too much credit, or would they say that you clearly demonstrate that you know the ministry God has called you to is not about you? Would they conclude that you really do know your place?

Jul 9, 2013
neil

Nothing is wasted

Here’s a short-piece I recorded for Acts29Europe entitled ‘Nothing is wasted’ not even our mistakes.

Jun 28, 2013
neil

Our story: City Church, the first 14 years

The Gospel Partnerships invited me to share some the ways in which God has been at work in and through City Church Birmingham since we began to meet in 1999. The Gospel Partnership site contains a growing set of resources on training, multiplying congregations and evangelism. Well worth returning to the site on a regular basis for input from a whole range of churches.

Jun 26, 2013
neil

The surprising impact of ‘ordinary’ members of a church

We’re preaching through a series at City Church entitled Perfected in weakness. Here’s an extract from the sermon I preached last Sunday entitled the weakness of inadequacy.

Madonna once said:
My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.

Clinical psychologist Oliver James in his best-selling Affluenza puts his finger on just what is at work here:
Constantly comparing your lot with others leads to insecurity. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing, a free-floating anxiety. You will be obsessively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goal posts if you do succeed.

That sense of inadequacy is something we bring with us into church life. Maybe you look around your church and think ‘I’m not as good looking as that person, I’m not as trendy as that person, I’m not as godly, or gifted, or confident as the person sitting next to me.’ And you fear being ordinary at best and what you really fear is being irrelevant.

If ever there was a passage written to help us with the weakness of inadequacy, it is 1 Corinthians 12.

1) God’s design: unity in diversity

If you are a Christian you share with every other Christian the same identity; an identity that has nothing to do with your performance or popularity. We are children of God, united together with other Christians through being united with Christ. Through the same Spirit of Christ we know Jesus Christ – that’s the thrust of Paul’s introduction in v.3. But our unity is expressed in diversity. In verses 4-7 three times Paul talks of ‘same’and yet ‘different’. It’s surely impossible to miss Paul’s point: unity is not uniformity.

What works for a British Lions rugby team, made up as it is of 15 players of all shapes and sizes, and the very thing that makes the sound of an orchestra sublime, is true of the church. The God who loves us the same has given us different abilities and roles. Paul wants us to know that God is a God who loves us and loves diversity: that includes personalities, characters, abilities and gifting.

Paul says that God gives gifts to each one (11), he arranged them . . .just as he wanted them’ (18), God has combined the members (24), God appointed the gifts (28).

It has been said ‘when we freeze water, we make ice cubes – everyone the same. When God freezes water, he makes snowflakes – each one different.’ And David Prior notes that ‘we differ from one another because God wants those differences to be moulded into a special unity which is demonstrably his own doing.’

What follows?
1. If the gifts we have are from God then we should use them
2. If the gifts we have are from God then we should be thankful for them
3. If the gifts are from God we should trust that he knows which gift to give us (even if we would rather he had given us a different gift)
4. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be useful
5. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be used for the building up of the church

David Prior says that every Christian is ‘unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. . . this is the glory of the church as the body of Christ.’ Is this how we think of ourselves and each other?

The problem is that we, like the Corinthians, have a hard time accepting what Paul is saying.

Two tendencies that we’re going to look at in turn. The first is to say ‘but I don’t belong’ and the second is to say ‘but I don’t need you.’ You see, we can’t expect that the church will be healthy unless we have the right attitudes to ourselves and our place; we need to have the right attitudes towards one another. We need to know that we belong together and that God has made me to play an important part.

To help us understand this Paul uses a powerful analogy for our life together and the picture he uses is the human body. There it is in v.12 (NIV), ‘the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.’ And yet for some Christians the weakness of inadequacy is always at work. And we recognise it has a paralysing effect. So, v. 14, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong’ and again in v.16, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong’. The church is full of people who can see all that others have to offer, but very little sense of why they are needed.

Well, what is Paul’s response?

2) ‘I don’t belong’ – Accepting the way God has made me
If we were all the same, v.17, all an eye, or all an ear, we would be useless. God knows what he is doing when we remember, v.18, God has arranged the parts, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. The reason Paul’s analogy works so well is that it’s pretty obvious to us that for a body to function the various parts must be different. The eye can’t do the job of an ear nor the ear the job of an eye. The whole point of a body is that it depends on diversity. It simply must have many different parts to function. And God knows what he needs and what he’s doing in putting you in this body.

Now I don’t know quite how my body works, I just know the various parts do their work and God puts it all together. In one sense it’s a relief to me that I don’t know or need to know. The one thing I do know is that I feel a whole lot better when every part of my body is working as it should. So with the church. Just as I don’t need to know how my body works, so, I don’t need to know quite how God will use every member to play his or her part to build up the body of Christ. I don’t need to know quite how we will make a difference in the body of Christ. We simply trust God to build the body as we each get on with playing our part.

You and I don’t have to try and measure your contribution – we simply have to trust that God wants to work through you. Sometimes we get an insight. Sometimes someone says a particular thank you for something we’ve done, but not often. So don’t require or expect uniformity. That’s not the way God made us. And if God has put us in the body, to play our part, there’s really no place for feeling inferior on account of difference.

But Paul goes further than simply saying we’re all different. He wants us to see that in the way God has designed the body, he turns the standards and expectations of the world on its head. Paul is quite sure that it is precisely those who think they have least to offer who often make the greatest contribution.

Our key verse for that idea is v.22 those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Do you see that in this verse Paul recognises that in a human body there are what he describes as weak organs? He has in mind the internal organs that need protecting; our liver, lungs, heart. You don’t see them, they are fragile, but they are indispensable.

I think v. 22 is a really encouraging verse. What it seems to say is that weakness is something from which we are all to learn. Maybe it is true that you are not as gifted as someone else, or have the same place of honour in the body but God says through this passage ‘be content to be who God made you to be, because God has a purpose for you.’ When it comes to the human body it is the weakest members who have the greatest impact. I can manage without an eye or an ear. If tragedy strikes I can learn to live without the use of my legs or arms. But the liver is essential and the heart is indispensable. In other words the weakest members of the body only seem weak. And so with the church. Those who appear to have little to offer often make the biggest impact, don’t they?

In our own congregation those going through sufferings or struggles of various kinds are often the greatest encouragement. A mother raising a disabled child, a member battling cancer, whatever it may be, there is much to learn from those who seem weak. Quite simply, because God works through weakness. Pablo Martinez writes: ‘God can use us in very different ways from those we might have expected or imagined, even in surprising ways . . . God wants to give meaning to every life, however limited or useless it may appear to human eyes.’

There were those in the church at Corinth who felt they had nothing to learn from weakness. And today there are those who cannot see that Christ is powerfully at work in someone battling same-sex attraction, depression, loneliness, and so they fail to learn, and they fail to be encouraged or inspired, and they fail to give glory to God.

3) ‘I don’t need you’? – Learning from those who are weak
As you go on in life and as you grow up in life so you realise that you have more to learn than just the theology of Wayne Grudem, and that God has given the church teachers in many forms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945 has written arguably the greatest book on Christian community, Life Together. In this he states ‘the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.’

If we only seek out the impressive, the connected, the intelligent, I wonder whether you would ever have sought out Christ? In Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV) we read ‘He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’

When we think of Christ’s origins, raised in a working-class town in the north of the country and when we think of his appearance dressed as he was in ordinary clothes and when we think of his ministry and reputation, rejected by the thinkers and leaders of his time, if we were looking for someone to impress us we might just have missed him.

It is so easy to overlook the presence and power of God in the church – it is found in weak people.

Paul rejoiced in weakness and therefore if we share his joy we too will look to learn from those who are conscious of weakness. Once you realise that one of the primary ways, if not THE primary way of growing up in the Lord is through your weaknesses, then your attitude to the weak begins to change.

The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak – because he sees something he didn’t see before – Christ’s power at work. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he seeks to learn from them. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he longs to be blessed by them.

May 5, 2013
neil

Could your sermon have been written by Nike? Gospel-driven preaching

So far in this series we’ve considered how preaching needs to be both biblical and gospel-centred. A sermon is biblical if the big idea of the passage being preached is the main application of the text. A sermon is gospel-driven if the preacher shows how the big idea of the passage is fulfilled in Christ and points to him as saviour and Lord. We turn now to consider gospel-driven preaching.

What is gospel-driven preaching?

A gospel-driven sermon is one that not merely shows how the passage is fulfilled in the gospel but then builds further to show how the  gospel enables both our justification and sanctification.  The gospel enables the Christian life from beginning to end and thus drives our lives.

Whether or not we have grasped how the gospel enables our obedience of faith will shape the way we preach. Bryan Chapell has said Ultimately, the issue all preachers must confront is what they believe to be the relationship between people’s conduct and God’s acceptance.

How does gospel-driven preaching work?

1. The goal of gospel-driven sermons is to make real to everyone who hears them, both Christian and non-Christian, that they need Jesus more today than yesterday. In particular the Christian increasingly grasps the sense in which he needs to continually trust in Christ and look to him in order to live the life he wants to live.
2. In application, gospel-driven sermons celebrate that the Christian life from beginning to end is a work of grace and a work of God. Our justification is a free gift of God and our sanctification flows from our justification as the spirit-enabled work of God in our lives.

Typically, as we consider Christ, we ask that by his Spirit he might stir up godly-affections, renew our minds and motivate our wills to live for him.  But importantly we give the necessary time and consideration to ask just how the gospel, rightly appropriated, can enable the life of faith.

Reading through Ephesians 4:17 to 6:9 we see, time and again that Paul uses gospel indicatives to drive gospel imperatives. Perhaps the most developed example in this passage is Paul’s instruction to husbands to love their wives. He gives us gospel reasons and incentives to obey: we love our wives because Christ loves the church.  But through-out the section we find micro-examples eg. don’t get drunk on wine but be filled with the Spirit.

5:1-2 summarises the principle when Paul says Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Good preaching won’t just tell you to do it but will i) move you to obedience and ii) show you what that obedience looks like.
3. Gospel-driven sermon must avoid both legalism and moralism
Tim Keller has helped me, more than any other, to realise that the non-Christian listening to your sermon thinks your message, unless you correct him, is one of legalism.  He thinks that religion amounts to ‘obey to be accepted.’  The gospel of justification is the message of free grace. It says ‘because you are accepted, obey!’ Romans 6, Romans 12:1-2, Titus 2:11-14.
The Christian listening to your sermon thinks the message of the gospel is moralism where Christianity amounts to ‘because Jesus has done this for you, you now do this for him.’ Moralistic preaching has terrible consequences for both the individial believer and the church.
The basic problem, is that even Christians do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true. We don’t really believe the gospel deep down. We are living as if we save ourselves. – Tim Keller
4. Gospel-driven application works hard to make the connection between

  • The message of the text as understood by its original hearers
  • How it is fulfilled in Christ
  • How it leads to gospel change in the lives of Christians and non-Christians

5. Gospel sermons recreate what Tim Keller calls the gospel-renewal dynamic.

At the heart of gospel-driven preaching is the fundamental conviction that the Christian life we are called to live is one we cannot live but Christ can live in us.

[Gospel] preaching assures God’s people that their relationship with him is secure by virtue of God’s provision [and] nourishes the faith that becomes the motivation and enablement of true holiness. God’s people serve God out of love for him and with confidence of his provision. – Bryan Chapell.

6. The result of all of this is that gospel sermons preach the gospel to Christians and non-Christians at one and the same time.

As Keller has often said we need to preach the gospel to the Christian because she needs it for sanctification and the non-Christian who needs it for sanctification.

Some questions to ask of our sermon:

• How do I know that I have preached a gospel sermon over against a moralistic one?
• Have I just told people to obey, to ‘just do it’?
• Have they left thinking that the life the gospel calls on them to try harder?
• Is the heart of my application that the Christian life is a life we cannot live, that Jesus has lived for us and now in him we can begin to live.

 

Apr 30, 2013
neil

Making your sermon not just biblical but gospel centered

In the first extract from my seminar notes on ‘Gospel-centred Biblical preaching’ I focused on the need for preaching to be preaching that does not abuse the text of scripture, nor even use the text of Scripture but serve the text of Scripture. Biblical preaching is preaching in which the Bible sets the agenda for the content of the sermon because the big idea of the passage is the main application of the text.

However, it’s not enough to be biblical (in that sense).  Every sermon needs to be biblical in that it is Christ or gospel-centred. In this post we ask how Jesus is the answer to every question a sermon raises, the fulfilment of every hope put forth and therefore the centre of every text.

1. Every text is there to teach us about Jesus

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27 NIV)

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom 15:4 NIV)

The Bible is not Christ-centered because it is generally about Jesus. It is Christ-centered because the Bible’s primary purpose, from beginning to end, is to point us toward the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation and sanctification of sinners.Darrin Patrick

2. Every text teaches us of our need for a Saviour

We also need to show in our preaching that, from beginning to end, the Bible teaches us about our need not just for Jesus as an example to follow but for Jesus as a saviour.

A sermon without Christ as its beginning, middle, and end is a mistake in conception and a crime in execution. However grand the language it will be merely much-ado-about-nothing if Christ be not there. And I mean by Christ not merely his example and the ethical precepts of his teaching, but his atoning blood, his wondrous satisfaction made for human sin, and the grand doctrine of ‘believe and live. – C.H. Spurgeon

What does this all look like?

There are a growing number of good books and resources showing how to find Christ and I particularly commend Preaching the whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graham Goldsworthy.

Tim Keller has said 

Once you know that all the lines of all the stories and all the climaxes of the inter-canonical
themes converge on Christ, you simply can’t not see that every text is about Jesus. For example:
+ Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is now imputed
to us (1 Cor. 15).
+ Jesus is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out for our acquittal,
not our condemnation (Heb. 12:24).
+ Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answered the call of God to leave all that was comfortable and
familiar out of obedience to God.
+ Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was in the
end sacrificed for us all. God said to Abraham, “now I know you love me, because you did not withhold
your son, your only son whom you love, from me.” Now we can say to God, “now I know that you love me,
because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.”
+ Jesus is true and better Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved. Now we,
like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.
+ Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who sat at the right hand of the king, and used his power to forgive
and save those who betrayed and sold him.
+ Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord, who mediates
a new covenant (Heb. 3).
+ Jesus is the true and better Job —the innocent sufferer who then intercedes for his foolish friends (Job 42).
+ Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory against Goliath was imputed to his people, even though
they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.
+ Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but a heavenly one, and
who didn’t just risk his life but gave it—to save his people.
+ Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so the rest of the ship could be brought
in.

I’ve also been helped to see that when it comes to a specific narrative the ‘hero’ functions in that story in 1 of 3 roles.

• a type of Christ – see Keller’s examples above

• a type of believer trusting in Christ – that could be Abraham being justified by faith Gen. 15, Rom. 4 or David confessing his sin in the psalms eg. Psalms 32, 51.

• a type of unbeliever needing to trust in Christ – for example Abraham in Egypt, Gen. 12.

Let’s take one passage as an example of how New Testament authors quite clearly find Christ in Old Testament narrative – Exodus 2:11-25.

In this passage Moses strikes dead the Egyptian beating one of his own people. How should we find Christ here? When I preached this passage recently I called it God’s rescuer renounces his royal throne to rescue his brother(s). Two very important New Testament texts help us with this passage; Heb 11:24-26 and Acts 7:23-25. In them we find Moses commended for his actions.

Hebrews reminds us that Moses gave up a kingdom to rescue a people because he knew he would inherit a better kingdom

Acts reminds us that the one God raised up to rescue his people rejected him as their rescuer.

So in my sermon I argued that

Jesus is the greater Moses because he saw the suffering of his people and decided to get involved in our world. He is the greater Moses because didn’t forsake a human throne to come to the aid of his brothers he left his throne in heaven to save us. He is the greater Moses because he chose to suffer with his people not just in experiencing loss of status and reputation but choosing to suffer to the extent that he gave his life to death on a cross He is the true Moses because he delivers his people not just from slavery to Pharaoh but from sin and death itself through his own resurrection. Jesus is the true and better Moses because he too was prepared by God to deliver his people through suffering…

3. Every sermon must centre on Jesus

Biblical preaching is gospel-centred preaching. It shows us Christ as our only hope but does so not by

a. assuming the gospel (but not stating it). So in the sermon we learn about faith and life through David, Joshua, etc. but Christ is not mentioned.

b. bolting on the gospel in a way that eases our conscience but is not from the text. We hear valuable gospel truths but cannot relate them to the passage preached.

Instead it shows us Christ as saviour and Lord from a careful application of the passage demonstrating how it always pointed us to Christ.

In the next post we will look at what it means for preaching to be not just gospel-centred but gospel-driven.

 

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