Browsing articles tagged with " City Church"
Jan 21, 2014

In our culture marriage has become like a jigsaw without the box

What exactly is God’s purpose for marriage?

In Ephesians 5.31-32 we read ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

For many people marriage is a total mystery. Maybe it’s a mystery to you that anyone would want to make the kind of commitment that marriage requires.  Some of us might question why anyone would ever want to give up their freedom it that way.  Maybe it’s a mystery for you that people still think marriage works – you’ve experienced marriages that have been painful or come undone.

When Paul uses the word mystery he doesn’t so much mean something that is beyond our understanding. By mystery he means something that is hidden and must be revealed. The word mystery could equally be translated ‘secret’.  In other words Paul wants us to know the secret of marriage. What could be more important to us not only to know what marriage is but what it is for.

So what is the secret of marriage?

Paul says the secret, v.32, is that marriage is ‘about Christ and the church.’ We can’t understand God’s purpose for our marriages, as believers, unless we look deeply at the relationship between Christ and the church. What on earth does Paul mean?

 I’ve used this illustration at a few weddings recently but I think it captures something of the idea. A 2000 piece jigsaw is hardly a wedding present many people would put on their list. But imagine I gave a couple a 2000 piece puzzle but without the box.  You know that if you can only put them all together they would make a beautiful picture. But what is a puzzle becomes more of a mystery when there is no picture on the box to look at – you just don’t know where to begin.

In our culture marriage has become like a jigsaw without the box. We just don’t know what we’re meant to be making of it. Now think what pressure that puts relationships under, when you are competing to make different things of the puzzle.  Inevitably it leads to stress and conflict.

But the Bible insists that the key to marriage is to understand that the picture on the box is here in the Bible. We know that there is a day still to come when God will have a relationship with his people so perfect, so intimate, so loving that the nearest we come to it on earth, the only way we know how to describe it is a marriage. Christ and the church are made for each other, they will share eternity together in a perfect relationship.

Marriage now is about re-creating in our lives a picture of the marriage that is still to come. The pieces become the picture on the box. Marriage and the gospel inform each other. And we see that idea all of the way through the passage. Five times our passage Paul says to husbands look and learn from Jesus (vv.  23, 24, 25, 29 and 32). He tells us that Christ is the head of the church, that Christ loved the church by giving up his life for her. We learn that he cares for the church by feeding it and sustaining it and that the living Christ is united to his church for all time. And then Paul says six times look at the church and learn, (vv. 23, 24, 25, 27, 29 and 32). Christ is the head of the church; Christ loved the church, he feeds it and sustains it and the living Christ is united to his church.

In our society so many solutions are offered to the challenges of marriage. The state might try to offer tax incentives – appealing to our pockets. Self-help books and agony aunts insist marriage works when we stand up for our rights in a relationship. Paul’s radical message is that husband and wife, by looking to that gospel, learn to give up their rights. The power for Christian marriage comes when wives give up a right to autonomy and independence and husbands give up their right to self-interest by dedicating their lives to the good of their wives.

As we grapple with this passage we find Paul’s key to healthy and happy marriage lies in God, the gospel and his purpose for Christian marriage in the world. Paul will tell us let the gospel inform your marriage and let your marriage glorify the God of the gospel.

Next time ‘why should wives submit to their husbands and what does that look like?’

Jun 28, 2013

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 4, 2013

The hardest lesson of all to learn

I have just begun an evening series at City Church entitled Perfected in Weakness.  The goal of the series is to move us, as a church family, from a position where weakness is seen (or at least thought-of) as something to be ashamed or embarrassed about.  In our church culture weaknesses are often things we hide from others as we give the pretence of being sorted Christians. As a church we need to arrive at a place where we can be open and real about our weaknesses because we recognise that it is precisely in our weaknesses that God is most glorified. As we do so we will be increasingly able to speak to one another in appropriate ways.

Has it ever been easier to claim to be able to live independent, self-sufficient lives? Here’s one example of what that claim looks like: a book by five-time Olympic Gold medallist, Steve Redgrave. It’s not aimed at high-achievers but at people like you and me. It’s called You can win at life! Unlock your potential and go for gold! As you flick through the chapter and section headings you get a sense of its message; identify your dreams, your boundaries can be limitless, and winners are people like you. Through-out the book are encouragements to recognise the huge potential for success within you. The blurb on the back cover of the book reads In you can win at life! Steve reveals the secret of his success and shows how we can ALL learn to achieve our goals, given the right balance of self-motivation, vision and hard graft.

The book is a summary of the message of the age – and all too often the message in our churches. The power is there within you. It’s like  north sea oil the only real challenge is how to get it out. And that is what makes what God wants to teach us through the apostle Paul so radical. For he writes:

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Cor. 11:30, NIV)) and I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor. 12:9, NIV)

For Paul the secret to life is that there are no strong people (to borrow from the title of Jeff Lucas’s new book). The reality is that the world is not divided between the strong and the weak but divided between those who know they are weak and those who don’t. It is only in learning that we are weak that we are ready to begin to look outside of ourselves and to the God of all grace for help.

Paul writes of the painful lesson that was so hard to learn; that is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2Co 12:10, NIV).  Steve Redgrave just might be able to motivate you to run a sub-4 hour marathon, he might just persuade you to start your own business but what he hides from you in his book is that most important lesson of all – there are no strong people. Despite the boastful words of every candidate on the apprentice it is our own mortality that serves as the reminder that whatever our strengths might be we are wearing out and our lives are running out. In the book of Common Prayer we read ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. I wonder whether that is something we are ready to accept?

We may have some strengths (our gifts and abilities given by God) but we are all weak people who have some strengths. So when God allows us to experience our weakness, whether that might come through physical, mental, or spiritual incapacity, it is a severe mercy.  God is teaching you that you cannot make it alone. We all need to know that our lives are in his hands. That our future is found not in depending on our strength but on his strength at work in us. 

The tension we experience in our Christian lives is that our weaknesses are the things we most want God to take away and yet our weaknesses are the things God finds most useful in growing us up in our faith.  You and I want God to take away are the things he most wants to use. Paul did not enjoy his suffering but he learned that For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:10, NIV).

It is a lesson we really need to learn because we think weakness is wrong and yet Jesus says weakness isn’t wrong – weakness is the way to eternal life. Weakness is the path that Jesus walked. He was crucified in weakness (2 Cor. 13:4, NIV). Weakness is where we learn that you and I need God – we don’t just need to know about God, we don’t just need to believe in God, we need to depend upon God – because only through Christ can he take us through death to eternal life.

Are we ready not just to serve Christ but depend on his strength because our own resources are not enough.

Paul Tripp writes in Broken-down House:
When you stand back and consider, you are confronted with how little is actually under your control. When you stop and look, you are faced with your smallness, your weakness, and your limits. But don’t get discouraged and don’t panic; reality is a healthy place to be. Think about it. Only when I humbly embrace my weakness, humbly admit my limits,and humbly recognise how small I actually am,can I begin to reach out for the help of the loving, powerful, and gracious Redeemer who is the true source of my strength, wisdom, and hope. Only then can I begin to function as an instrument in his powerful hands, rather than being in his way because, in forgetting who I am and who he is, I have been trying to do his job. He concludes, you do not have to fear your limits. They were designed by the God.

We were made to live not just God-honouring lives, but God-dependent lives. The problem is that even after God saves us, even then, we don’t naturally turn to him. As Christians we simply get on with our own life.  So Paul boasts of weakness because they are they very place where we learn that the power for the Christian life comes from Christ and weakness is where that truth is most often discovered.

In our weakness we realise, maybe for the first time, that we need to depend on the God of all grace and depend on him as never before.

Dec 19, 2012

What if Jesus had never been born? Getting to the heart of Christmas

On Sunday evening City Church held its, now annual tradition, of Carols by Candlelight courtesy of The Blue Coat School in Birmingham. Beautiful music in a beautiful setting. Below is the text of my talk.

One particularly naughty young boy was worried that he might not get what he was hoping for at Christmas so as he sat at his desk writing a Christmas list to Jesus. He began, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy the whole year, so I want a new…’ but then crumples it up into a ball and throws it away. Beginning with a new piece of paper he starts again, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy for most of the year, so I want a new…’ No good he thinks and throws it away. But then he has an inspired idea. He runs downstairs and removes the statue of Mary from the nativity set, puts it in the wardrobe, and locks the door. He takes another piece of paper and writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus. If you ever want to see your mother again…’

Well how are the Christmas preparations going this year? Some of you are looking pretty relaxed the trees up, cards have been sent, the presents bought and wrapped. Some of you are not looking quite so confident, maybe still have a little bit of work to do? Well I’m glad that whatever your situation you’ve made some time to sing carols tonight.

Can I start asking what, in particular, does Christmas mean to you?

Christmas is a few drinks too many – well that’s the answer for some

Christmas is for the kids – lots of us would echo that

Christmas is about the traditions we remember fondly from our own childhood

Christmas is a time to reconnect with the family we struggle to see at any other time of year

Christmas is cancelled or is that wishful thinking for some of you or at least delayed.  For some, Christmas can be one of the toughest times of the year.

Well I hope this evening has helped to encourage you that despite all the work we all have to put in,  Christmas really is worth celebrating.  I wonder whether you’ve seen the Christmas classic film It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart? The American Film Institute ranked it as the most inspirational film of all time and I guess that’s why it’s still shown in America every Christmas day even though it was made in 1946!

The story is about a man called George who thinks that his life has not amounted to anything much and on a snowy Christmas eve is considering ending it all by jumping from a bridge into the icy waters below. But God sends an angel called Clarence, dressed as a man, to rescue him. Clarence’s job is to change George’s mind and what he does is show George Bailey how different the world would have looked if he had never been born.  In a world without George Bailey so may lives would have taken a turn for the worse if a man like him had not been there for them.

After he shows him a world in which George Bailey had never existed Clarence the angel concludes; Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? 

George is a man transformed at looking at his life in a new perspective and the film ends well. A life lived that brings so much blessing to others IS a wonderful life. He is the richest man in the world!

No doubt there are many people that have played a part in your life who in big ways or small you are grateful for this Christmas time every human life in some sense is a life that makes a difference. In a carol service we’re thinking about one life in particular – the life of Jesus.

What If Jesus had never been born? Would it really make any difference? The 2011 census results show that 25% of people in England and Wales claim to be of no religion. One recent survey found that 51% of people agreed with the statement that ‘The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas”

I suppose that means if you ask them what difference the life of Jesus makes, their answer would be none. I guess it is possible to celebrate Christmas without Jesus. To get me in the mood for Christmas I thought I’d try listening to a CD recommended in the paper called Christmas with my friends by Nils Landgren. The first track I listened to was a Swedish setting of O little town of Bethlehem, but weirdly the second is Imagine by John Lennon. What a curious choice of song for a Christmas album as you sing along at Christmas imagine there’s no heaven! Why not celebrate Christmas by imagining that the world would be a better place if Jesus had never been born?!

But there again I suppose it is an extraordinary thing that we should even be in this building at all this evening, remembering the life of a man who lived so long ago. After all his story should be a footnote of history; born in an obscure village, a child was born of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village where He worked as a carpenter until He was thirty. Then for three years He became an itinerant preacher.

This man never went to college or university. He never wrote a book. He never held a public office. He never had a family nor owned a home. He never put His foot inside a big city nor travelled even 200 miles from His birthplace. And He never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness, throngs of people followed Him

And yet in Communist China, the Economist magazine estimates, he is worshipped by more people than there are members of the state Communist Party. Somewhere between 70-100 million people in China will celebrate his birth this Christmas.

Someone has written This one Man’s life has furnished the theme for more songs, books, poems and paintings than any other person or event in history. Thousands of colleges, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions have been founded in honour of this One who gave His life for us.

All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the governments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned have not changed the course of history as much as this One Solitary Life.

HG Wells, author of War of the Worlds famously said;

I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history. Christ is the most unique person of history. No man can write a history of the human race without giving first and foremost place to the penniless teacher of Nazareth.

We celebrate at Christmas one life like no other. One life that was always designed to make the most radical difference. This is how Matthew records the birth of Jesus;

an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

The birth of Jesus is the beginning of a wonderful life that makes all the difference in the world. Let me tell you two reasons why I’m glad that Jesus was born and why I’m ready to celebrate his birth this Christmas.

1.  Jesus is God with us

Lots of my friends aren’t sure whether to believe in a God and they’re not sure why this God rather than another God. The birth of Jesus brings to an end our debates and speculation about God. We don’t need to argue over God and big bang or look for clues in the fabric of the universe.  God is no figment of our imagination for God has entered our world, become one of us.

And not only does that bring clarity in a world of confusion but it brings comfort in a world of pain. That God should become one of us brings God home.  When I read in the papers or witness on the news all the sadness and pain that surrounds the tragic events of Newtown Connecticut I want to know that there really is right and wrong, that love does triumphs over evil, that there is someone finally in control, that justice will be done. Richard Dawkins tells me that these desires of my hearts are mere delusions. He tells me I need to wake up to reality that I live in a cruel indifferent universe that it has no design or purpose that there is no such thing as good or evil, right or wrong.

But Christmas cuts across the darkness of Dawkins worldview for it supremely offers me a reason for hope. A reason to say God is not only there but he is for us and with us because God became one of us. He walked my path, he knew my pain. He experienced what it was to suffer injustice, intolerance, hatred and overcame it all for us.

The second reason reason I’m ready to celebrate Christmas this year is that

2. Jesus is God for us

In coming into our world Jesus showed me the lengths that God is willing to go to put things right. You see there is a second reason I am glad that Jesus was born and that is because it shows that not only is God with us but God is for us. The angel said to Joseph

you are to give him the name Jesus,because he will save his people from their sins

Jesus’ life is a wonderful life, full of compassion, concern, he welcomed the stranger, he embraced the poor, he cared for the sick, he provide for the needy, he welcomed in the outsider, the excluded, the marginalised. And he also came for you and for me.

Jesus’ life was a wonderful life because he lived it for you and he gave it up for you when in his death he offered his life as a sacrifice for your sins and mine.

Christmas is a time when we find that the past so often hangs over us and overshadows our joy. We remember our mistakes, relive our regrets, dwell on our misfortunes, hide our shame and guilt and at a time of peace and good will it can be a reminder that when we are supposed to be at peace with others we are not even at peace with ourselves.  When we see the consequences of sin in our lives like that we get just a glimpse of how a holy and perfect God sees us.

But Jesus says to us this Christmas time ‘I’m here to take that off you.’ The wonderful life was a life lived for you and for me. And his life has been impacting lives for 2000 years.

What are you looking for this Christmas? I hope that it is more than ever this Christmas not new socks, or a few days off work, but a fresh start and a new life. At the beginning of John’s gospel we find these words;

He was in the world, and 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. Yet 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.

The wonderful life that Jesus lived for you is a life he now offers you.  A life that knows no end and no end of joy. We sang in our earlier carol ‘O little town’ the following words..

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

51% of people in that earlier service thought that Jesus would make no difference to their Christmas my hope and my prayer is that he might make all the difference to your Christmas this year. Have a happy and blessed Christmas time.

Nov 19, 2012

Treating your children the way God treats you – a look at grace based parenting

On Saturday at City Church we gave some time to thinking about how the gospel shapes our approach to parenting.  Not just when and how we read the Bible with our kids but to what extent a theology of grace shapes the culture of our homes and our approach to every aspect of raising kids.

What is grace-based parenting?

Tim Kimmel in his excellent and very practical book Grace Based Parenting calls on us as Christians to  ‘Treat our children the way God treats us’.

Grace-based parenting means parenting in a way that is consistent with the grace of God revealed in the gospel but more than that it means raising our kids as an overflow of our personal grasp and delight in grace. The goal of such parenting is to do all we can to reflect the character of the God of all grace to our children. As we parent this way we give them the best possible context for understanding and responding to the God of grace as revealed in the gospel.

Why do we need to consider grace-based parenting?

Unless we deliberately pursue a grace-based approach we will slip into a performance-driven, rules-based model. Legalistic parenting is our default method of parenting because self-justification is our default mode of living.

As Kimmel observes – Our parenting is the result of our theology. How we view God determines how we parent our children.

  • If we spend our lives trying to keep the rules to make ourselves acceptable to God we will communicate to our children that their lives are about trying to keep the rules to make themselves acceptable to us.
  • If we need to prove ourselves to God by our performance in order to be accepted by him our children will feel the need to prove themselves to us by their performance in order to be accepted by us and by extension God.

If your life is a performance in order to gain approval then your children will view their lives as a performance to gain your approval.

How do you spot legalistic-parenting?

Kimmel argues Legalistic parents spend most of their time trying to make sure their family does everything right. They assume that what God demands of them should be their primary business.

Legalistic parents  love their kids and very much want the best for them but living up to mum and dad’s standards to feel secure in their love turns childhood experience into one of duty and not joy. It is one of conditional love rather than the unconditional and undeserved love that is grace.

Kids with legalistic parents leave home feeling guilty and one of the overwhelming attitudes that runs through the home is ‘fear’.  Fear of failure, fear of being a disappointment to our parents, etc.

Where does rule-based parenting lead?

Let’s look at two passages in scripture in which the Apostle Paul warns Christian parents against it.

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:4 NIV) lit. word exasperate means ‘make angry’. Two commentaries draw out the meaning here;

Effectively, the apostle is ruling out ‘excessively severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and to all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensibilities.’ – Andrew Lincoln

Behind this curbing of a father’s authority is the clear recognition that children, while they are expected to obey their parents in the Lord, are persons in their own right who are not to be manipulated, exploited, or crushedPeter T. O’Brien

Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. (Col 3:21 NIV)

Embitter ‘signifies to ‘irritate’ either by nagging at them or by deriding their efforts. Fathers are to obey the injunction so that their children do not become discouraged or think that it is useless trying to please them within the common life of the home. – Peter T. O’Brien


If we are to treat our children as God treats us then we will need to parent with the gospel and from the gospel that we might make the gospel attractive to them.

Future posts:

What happens when we parent our children out of grace?

The three-fold definition of grace: parenting to produce love, significance and hope

Six marks of a grace-filled house


Jun 15, 2012

Getting some reality into our religion…Jesus and adultery

In today’s Spectator Magazine the author Martin Amis is quoted as saying ‘years and years ago, someone defined pornography as hatred of significance in sex. That’s what pornography does.’ Below is the third part of my sermon from last Sunday evening on the 7th commandment ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ In this extract we consider how through lust we all break this command.

C: How we all break the 7th commandment

We saw last Sunday in Jesus’ sermon on the mount that God is as concerned with how we think as much as how we act.  You shouldn’t measure obedience to God’s word by what you do or don’t do but by what we would like to do or not do.

We saw that ‘You shall not murder’ is not an excuse to hate because hate is really murder in the heart. So in that second reading we had this evening (Matthew 5:27-30) we saw that ‘You shall not commit adultery’ speaks to our hearts that are full of lust. And that really matters because Jesus won’t allow us to divide the room this evening into two categories of people; the sexually pure and the impure. No, for the reality is that when it is the attitude of our hearts that are held to account surely we are all sexual failures.

Kevin DeYoung writes: The 7th commandment doesn’t just forbid adultery and pornography. It forbids every action, look, conversation, thought, or desire that incites lust and uncleanness.

To lust is to look at a person in a way that leads to sexual arousal and so again we find God’s purpose in the commandment to reveal to us that we are all adulterers in the heart.

1. Be radical

Jesus warns us what a serious sin lust is when he says ‘ If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’

Jesus wants you to know that there is a difference between being sorry and being repentant.

Being sorry means regretting sin, being repentant means running from sin. Joseph when seduced into bed by Potiphar’s wife ran for his life. He fled the house. A friend of mine I met with to read the bible each week left his job because of a growing attachment to someone at work.

Maybe we would run from an inappropriate relationship but the bigger challenge for some of us is that we naturally have a pretty forgiving attitude to inward sins, we’re just much less concerned about the sins of the heart not least because no-one else knows about them.

The pastor who looks at pornography then preaches on purity is a dangerous person.

Not only do we sometimes simply forgive ourselves for our sin but  we even use the gospel as an excuse to sin. We say well God has already forgiven me so I can sin anyway. Well it is true that the gospel does forgive sin but it is a dangerous thing to turn a truth into a half-truth because as Jim Packer has said ‘a half-truth, masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.’

The same gospel that forgives our sin also teaches us (Titus says) to say ‘no’ to ungodliness so if there is no fight for purity in our hearts is there evidence of grace in our lives?

So are you ready to take urgent and radical action in battling sexual  temptation in our lives. That might mean not having a TV license or having accountability software on our computers or changing gym membership or even job. It would certainly mean stopping sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend.

If you are here this evening as a non-Christian I want you to know how totally amazing is the grace of God through his Son’s death on the cross he has dealt with our sin whatever our sexual sins, however we have lived, no-one is too far from God.  Grace is always amazing but it is never cheap.

The sign that God is at work is real repentance.

2. Be honest

We do need each other in the battle.  Married couples we need to help one another think through how to keep investing in our marriages.  To help us in the battle with sexual sin we should seek support and we should make ourselves accountable. DeYoung comments ‘No one fights a war by himself, and no one will get victory over sexual sin on his own.’

3. Be real

About your own vulnerability. Recognise that if a man like King David, a man after God’s own heart, could fall into scandalous sin then why not me or you?

I don’t know why guys wouldn’t want to put some kind of software on their computers to take away temptation. Maybe you need to honestly face up to the fact that you are not ready for a relationship because you know that you could not control yourself physically and would only damage the person you were dating. Maybe you need to recognise that you are flirting in a dangerous way with a housemate.

Being real means recognising that you and I are weak and that the sexual impulse is very strong. And being real means recognising that sexual temptation sometimes comes from an unexpected direction at a time when we least expect it and in a way we’ve not  gone looking for it.

King David’s adultery with Bathsheba began with David simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was at home when he should have been with his army he was on the roof of his palace when he stumbled across beautiful Bathsheba bathing on the top of a near-by building. The results of a man with time on his hands was scandal.

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