SERMON: The Nature of God (John 1:1-5)
1. Once Upon a Time…
I remember my first introduction to television well. It was the 1950s, and I was sitting at home on the couch (with the measles). And the very first programme that I saw was ‘The Picture Book’ from the BBC series ‘Watch With Mother’. The presenter was a lady, and that week, and every week that followed, when it came to storytime she would introduce the story in exactly the same way: ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’. She’d then pause to allow you to nod or say ‘Yes’. Then she’d continue: ‘Then I’ll begin’.
And that quite innocuous line, for some reason or another, has stayed with me. Indeed, it’s a line that was used in the same manner that fairy stories used to begin with: ‘Once upon a time’. It was designed to settle the listener down, and to prepare them for the matter of what would happen next.
Of course, my watching habits quickly progressed to the other ‘Watch With Mother’ shows like: Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, and (my favourite) The Woodentops. Nevertheless, those words ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’ have stayed with me even up to the present day.
2. In the Beginning…
Now we can all smile—and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers things like that—but in a sense don’t we have words in the bible that do the same thing. The words ‘In the beginning…’.
However when those three words ‘In the beginning…’ were used, they were designed, not to introduce a story for our amusement, or even a fairy story, but were designed to grab people’s attention. To prepare those listening for something serious that was about to follow.
And they were used in the very first book of the bible—to introduce the beginning of God’s creation of the world. And they were used in the New Testament (in the Gospel of John)—to describe a new beginning, and to describe the place of Jesus within it. And they were used deliberately by John, to show that the two stories were very much linked.
B. IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
1. In the Beginning was the Word (1a)
Because the very first thing John does in his Gospel is to equate the two events together.
‘In the beginning was the Word . . .’
In the book of Genesis, God is said to have existed before the creation of the world. And, as John puts it, the ‘Word’ existed before the world was created as well. Indeed John, later, picks up the themes of light and darkness, which God created in the very first day of creation (Genesis 1:3-5). And he relates them to the activity of the ‘Word’ in those first days.
The first point that John makes, then, is that before the world was created, there were at least two distinct personalities that existed—God (the creator, as per the Genesis story), and the ‘Word’ (whom John later names as Jesus). And later if we were to read on in John’s Gospel, he would include a third personality—that of the Holy Spirit.
The point that John makes, then, is that the kind of God that Christians believe in, is the kind of God that transcends this created world. People are not to put their faith in the so-called ‘gods’ who have come into existence since the creation of the world. Or even put their faith in gods they have created themselves. Because a true God is one who is not subordinate to anything in this created universe. And the magnitude of what that means, should be expressed, in every Christian’s life.
2. And the Word was with God (1b)
The second thing that John does in his Gospel is to tie together the relationship of God the creator (in Genesis), with that of the ‘Word’ (in his own Gospel).
‘and the Word was with God.’
Now as far as John was concerned these weren’t two separate gods who did their own thing, and went their own separate ways. No! The Word (Jesus) enjoyed an intimate relationship with the creator God.
The second point that John makes, then, is that in the beginning, before creation even began, there was a close connection between the God (of the Old Testament) and the ‘Word’ of the New (Jesus). Yes, they were two distinctly separate personalities—they weren’t identical. But they were at one with each other.
And, as a consequence, that should be reflected in the kind of God that Christian’s believe in too. Of course, as I said before, John later in his Gospel introduces the third member of the trio—the Holy Spirit. But the truth is that for any Christian to worship God in all his fullness, the recognition of each of the different personalities within the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and their relationship to one another, has to be part of their expression.
3. And the Word was God (1c-2)
The third thing that John does in his Gospel, is to dig a little deeper in the relationship between God and the ‘Word’. Indeed he doesn’t simply suggest that God and the ‘Word’ were equals. On the contrary, John suggests that, in some way, the God of the Old Testament and the ‘Word’ of the new were one.
‘and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.’
John was not just saying that there was something divine about Jesus. He was actually affirming that, in some way, Jesus was God himself.
Now, for all Jews (including John), the idea of their only being one God was something they clung to and defended fiercely. They might have been ground down under the heel by their Roman conquerors, but for the Jews, the Romans were no more than ignorant idolaters, because they believed in many gods. If there was one thing that the Jews knew with unshakeable certainty, it was that there was, and could be, only one God.
As a consequence, the point that John makes is that the kind of God that all Christians should believe in, should reflect the idea that the ‘Word’ (Jesus) was not just a human baby born into the world—in the same way that you and I were. But that Jesus existed in godly form before the creation of the world. And, indeed, in some way was, at least, part of God himself.
Now, that’s not an easy concept for anyone to understand—let alone express in the Christian faith. And the Genesis story doesn’t really help us in this matter either. But then right from the start Genesis assumes that its readers have a good knowledge of the nature of God, and it doesn’t try to explain it at all.
Nevertheless, in these first few verses of John’s Gospel, John gives us an inkling of a description of the nature of God—which, perhaps, could be best described by what in history would become the idea of the Trinity: One God, but three distinct personalities. Something beyond our comprehension. But something, equally, deserving of the need of appropriate expression in our lives.
4. Everything came into being through him (3-5)
And then, having placed the ‘Word’ (Jesus) outside of history, and as part of the Godhead itself, the fourth thing that John does is to describe Jesus’s place in the creation of the world.
‘Everything came into being through him. Indeed, nothing came into being without him. In him was life, and this life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.’
As far as John was concerned everything owes its existence to Jesus. Having said that, John was also very careful to differentiate between the roles of the Father and the Son. The world was not made by Jesus, but it was made through him. Both the Father and Jesus, having their distinctive parts to play.
And the same goes for the creation of life—the most significant element in all creation. As far as John was concerned, all of us, you and me, owe our existence to the Father—and the Son by whom we were created. But John goes a step further. Because Jesus not only brought life (in terms of our physical being), but he, now, brings light too (providing what we need for our eternal well-being as well).
What John is saying, therefore, is that the kind of God that Christians should believe in, is one where the expression of dependence for life and dependence for eternal well-being are acknowledged and appreciated.
God’s creation, as we know it, is not eternal—it has a limited life span. But the light that Jesus brings—is eternal. And it is that which brings us salvation.
In the first five verses of John’s Gospel, then, we have some very powerful imagery. The book of Genesis may well spell out the six days of creation—and in some detail. But the one thing that it doesn’t spell out is the nature of God himself.
Genesis assumes its readers already have that picture. But John’s Gospel makes no such assumption. And so in the first five verses John spells out for his readers: The existence of the Word (Jesus) before creation; the relationship between Jesus and the God of creation; the idea of them being two distinct personalities—whilst at the same time there only being one God; and Jesus’s unique place not only in creation but being the light of the world as well.
In other words, John deals with the very weighty issue of who Jesus really is, and why we need to depend upon him for our eternal salvation.
And as a consequence, an appropriate question for us today would be, ‘How should a Christian respond to the kind of God and the kind of ‘Word’ described by John? What should we do to respond to the images of God that John describes?’
And to answer that question, I’m going to suggest four things:
1. In the Beginning was the Word
And the first thing is that much is often made of us being made in God’s image (whatever that means)—and how mankind is distinct from the rest of creation. But, having said that, the fact is that there are a number of differences between us and God too. Not least of which is that God pre-existed creation, and, by nature, he has a tremendous creative power,
Now in some churches God is held in great reverence and awe. (Or using an Old Testament expression ‘fear’). There is an emphasis on the nature of who he is: his power, his holiness, the things that make him distinct from us, and for all that he stands for.
As a consequence, if our response to God is to be truly appropriate, then it must include reverence and awe. It must include the concept of the ‘holiness’ of God. Because God is not someone to take lightly. And we do so at our own peril.
2. And the Word was with God
But having said that, the second thing is that the Father and Jesus had an intimate relationship. That they were two—but at one. And the fact that man has been created in God’s image, suggests that we need to take into account the more compassionate and caring side of God as well.
Indeed in some churches, Jesus is expressed more as a friend and a colleague, rather than a God to be feared. Someone who walks with people and shares their sorrows and their joys.
And if our response to God is to be truly appropriate, we need that too. Because, if we miss out on the intimate side of God—the companion on the way, the one who wants to come to our rescue—then, we really are denying an essential part of who he is.
3. And the Word was God
But mix these two ideas together and we get a third thing. Because if God and the ‘Word’ are in one sense two distinct personalities (and if we add in the Holy Spirit—three distinct personalities), and yet at the same time, there is only one God, we should quickly come to the idea that somehow we have a balancing act to do. And we need to keep all the different aspects in perspective.
Yes! We need to express reverence and awe. And yes, at the same time, we need to express the intimacy of a personal relationship. (And add in here, the need to exercise the gifts that Holy Spirit brings—as John mentions later in his Gospel). But if we can take all that, and get it into some sort of balance, then we really will be starting to get some way towards making a balanced (and an appropriate) response to God for ourselves.
Because to emphasis one aspect to the detriment of another, means that we’ve got everything out of balance, and have failed to see the whole picture.
4. Everything Came into Being Through Him
And then, the fourth thing is that just as the Word (Jesus) did not create things himself, but the Father created things through him—he used Jesus in his creative work—then we should allow God to use us in his continuing involvement in the world. We need to play our part in the redemption of the world as well.
The instruction that God gave man at creation was: “Be fruitful, multiply in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Govern over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living thing that crawls along the ground.” Genesis 1:28b).
And the words of Jesus to some disciples: “Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17).
Both commands require our involvement and our willing participation in God’s work. As a consequence, our responsibilities are very clear. We are not just to sit back and think about what God has done for us. Our role is to be very active indeed.
Being the people that God created us to be, can be pretty scary. However if we can get our expression of God right—and in balance—then we really have nothing to be frightened of at all.
Now I started off today telling you about an insignificant event in my life. But one that has stayed with me. Those words: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” What we’ve ended up with, though, is with the expression “In the beginning…” And with a few verses of scripture that are anything but insignificant.
Indeed, in five short verses—the first five verses of John’s Gospel—we have opened up for us nothing less than a picture of the nature of God himself. And this is not just some sort of made-up God—one moulded to meet our purposes—this is a God who existed before creation itself.
What we have to do, then, is to consider our response to our creator and redeemer. We also need to consider whether our current response is adequate, or whether it falls short of an appropriate response to John’s picture of just who God really is.
Posted: 13th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Blocking the Light (John 1:6-18)
When we think about light, what do we think about? Do we think of the first day of creation, when God made light (Genesis 1:3-5)? Or do we think of the fourth day of creation when God made the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:14-19). Do we think in terms of a day, which can be either bright or dull? Or do we think in terms of light which can be natural or artificial?
Light can mean many things to many people. And depending upon our moods and circumstances, it can mean many things to us too. After all, we can step into it, and we can hide from it. With artificial light, we can switch it on and switch it off; we can turn it down and we can even extinguish it. We can do lots of things with light.
But one of the things that the Apostle John did was to call Jesus by it. But what did John mean by doing so, and what should it mean for us?
B. JESUS IS THE LIGHT
1. Jesus is the Light (9a)
Well in many ways the Apostle John describes Jesus as the Light, because of the essential nature of light. After all, light is the agent that stimulates the receptors in the brain and make things visible. But John goes further than that, because John describes Jesus as “the true light who gives light to all mankind” (9a).
In other words, for John, Jesus was different to everyone else who had gone before. Yes, there had been other lights. There had people who had revealed elements of the truth; there had been people who had shown glimpses of reality; and there had been people who had revealed some light, only to lead people astray. But only Jesus was (and is) the true light. But more than that, only Jesus was able to illuminate all mankind.
Yes, the Word gave (and gives) light to those who believe, but there is an element in which he has also revealed God’s existence and purposes to the rest of mankind as well. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul describes: “From the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they may be, have been clearly discerned, being perceived through the things he has made, so that the ungodly and unrighteous are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Light then, can mean many things. But for the Apostle John it is a word to describe Jesus, because it works in so many ways. As a consequence the Apostle John could then go on to describe what Jesus did, in terms of, how he came to earth and the nature of the light that he brought—revealing sin and pointing people to a relationship with God.
2. Distractions from the Light (6-8)
Now one of the things I have always found most curious, is that in John’s Gospel we have this prologue which is all of eighteen verses long, which, on the surface at least, seems to want to describe the nature and purpose of God’s son, Jesus. And to me that is as it should be. But when we read it, not even half the way through it, in verses 6 to 8, we have a description not of Jesus, but of John the Baptist.
So from the heights of the first five verses of what could have been a magnificent prologue describing Jesus in his fullness, we are faced with three verses that switch our attention away from Jesus, and on to John the Baptist. We have a distraction, and a distraction of the Apostle John’s making. But why?
Well the answer is, we will probably never know. But the inference is that the Apostle John felt that he needed to deal with a problem. And the problem was that despite Jesus coming to earth, and despite him shining his light in the world, not everyone accepted that Jesus was the Messiah.
Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke we have a story of some followers of John the Baptist, who questioned whether it was John who was the Messiah (Luke 3:15). Luke also records in Acts that a Jew named Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24-26). And later, Paul came across a group of twelve men who only knew John’s teaching (Acts 19:1-7). It’s not surprising, then, to learn that at the time John was writing his Gospel there were still people attached to what they believed was the teaching of the Baptist, and indeed that a movement associated with the Baptist was in the region where this gospel was written.
Of course, yes, the Apostle John could have included his comment about John the Baptist, because he was an old-style prophet who pointed the way to the Messiah. But if that was the case, why didn’t he include some of the other prophets, who also pointed the way? And why did he go to such lengths to describe what John wasn’t—that John wasn’t the light, but only a witness to the light?
The interruption in the flow of describing God’s “Word,” Jesus, then, in what could have been a magnificent prologue, was quite deliberate. And it indicates the purpose of the prologue. Indeed, the prologue was about describing who Jesus was, and then contrasting that with how he was received. And in particular it was about describing the different ways that the Light can be detracted from, covered up and rejected.
3. Rejection of the Light (9b-14)
Which is why, having dealt with “the problem of the followers of John the Baptist,” the Apostle John then continued with the more widespread problem—the more general rejection of the Light of the world.
Jesus may indeed have been the word of God who took on human nature, but that didn’t mean he was received well. Indeed John’s comment is that the response of people in general, was that they wanted nothing to do with him. Even his own people—his fellow Jews—the people who were waiting for the Messiah, and knew the signs to look for, rejected him.
But despite that, and maybe even because of it, the Apostle John was concerned that the good news should not be extinguished from our sight. As a consequence he reiterated that God did indeed become flesh; that Jesus did live among us; and if we open our eyes to him, we can indeed see his glory.
4. A Timely Reminder (15-18)
And so the Apostle John concludes with a reminder of who Jesus was (and is). He comments that Jesus is far superior to John the Baptist; that the new covenant is far superior to the Law of Moses; and only through faith in Jesus can we see God.
In the first five verses of the prologue, then, the Apostle John set the scene. He established Jesus as the Word of God (1) standing with the Father. He described him as the Life (4) referring back to creation, but including the spiritual life even of today. And he described him as the Light (4) revealing all, and showing the way to God. And yet in these verses, 6 to 18, we seem to hit a bump—the bump of reality. Because mixed in what Jesus did, we have described for us people who have gone off track, people who think that they know better, and people who want nothing to do with God’s “Word,” Jesus.
So depending upon whenever we think the Gospel was written—whether in 50 AD, 70 AD or 85 AD, we have a snapshot of the reception that Jesus received in his ministry, and a snapshot of what the church was up against well after the death of Jesus.
Now in a sense, the prologue to John’s Gospel is just like the Nicene Creed that we might still say today. It’s a statement of faith, created because of an underlying problem. It’s just that John makes it far more obvious what that problem was. But then John wanted it to be very clear—people had gone off track, and others had responded to Jesus in a very inappropriate and negative way.
And to me that should ring alarm bells for all of us. Because whilst John’s prologue reminds us that God went to great lengths to come to the rescue of his people, the reality is that people still don’t get it. Furthermore, the inference is that whilst people outside the church might want to block God out or even extinguish the light, people within the church—people who should know better—are at risk of becoming distracted and losing the plot too.
1. Jesus is the Light
And yet, didn’t Jesus come so that we could know God? Didn’t Jesus come to show us the way to God and to save us from the consequences of our sin? Didn’t Jesus come so that we might become children of God? And didn’t Jesus come so that we could receive one blessing after another from our creator?
Well that’s what the Apostle John tells us. And yet what this prologue suggests is that it is so easy to get it wrong.
2. Distractions from the Light
What the Apostle John’s teaching about the followers of John the Baptist indicates, then, is that here will invariably be people who will be distracted away from the Christian faith. There will be people who choose to take a different path, and there will be people who will do so by misunderstanding the teaching of the person that they purport to be following. (Because I’m sure that it wasn’t John the Baptist’s intention to start a new religion all of his own.)
However, even within the church people may get off track. Indeed, they may become so distracted from Jesus’s teaching that they completely lose focus on the Light of the world.
And that certainly happened in New Testament times. And we can thank the Apostle Paul for pointing out one such distraction. Indeed the debate in Corinth was on who was better—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12)—is a good example of where members of the Church can become so focussed on the personalities within it, that they lose sight of the main goal.
Similarly in Thessalonica the church became so distracted by the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11), that the people became lazy—they stopped pulling their weight. So Paul had to encourage them to get back on track, to become focussed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to encourage each other in the faith.
It’s very easy for people to become distracted, to lose focus on the person of Jesus. And if you don’t think that either of these things happens today, then I would suggest that you take a look at many of our struggling churches today. Because many of our churches today suffer from we might call “personality disorder”—people in authority (assumed or given) who are pulling one way or another. There are also many people in our churches who are not using their God-given gifts to build up the church community.
The result? Well there is the visible sign of people dictating what the church can and can’t do. There is in-fighting, division, and personality clashes. There are churches that are going nowhere, except down. But the most serious issue of all, is that Jesus’s light is being blocked and distorted, and in some cases is being made totally unrecognisable.
3. Rejection of the Light
And if that weren’t enough, what the Apostle John’s teaching about the reaction of people in general indicates, is that people are constantly looking for ways to cover up the light, turn it down, and even extinguish it. Of course, it’s a common problem outside the church, particularly where people want to mould God in their own image, if they want anything to do with him at all. But it’s also a problem within the church too.
After all, when confronted about church and the need for salvation, the response of people is often to think only in terms of buildings. When confronted with the idea of the need to be faithful in giving to God, the response is often in terms of fundraising. When confronted with the need to care for the poor, the solution is often seen in terms of administering government handouts. And when confronting the people with the need to loosen up the church to embrace the unchurched, the response invariably is for people to dig their heels in.
Both inside and outside the church there is a tendency to extinguish the Light—to reject the Light of the world. Now in a sense that is quite understandable from those who want to reinvent God or extinguish him completely. But in the church it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately my experience within the church has been that churches invariably respond to spiritual issues with worldly responses. And so the church becomes just as guilty, as the general public, of quenching the Light; of reducing, and even extinguishing the Christian faith in its poor responses to serious spiritual issues.
4. A Timely Reminder
As a consequence we need the reminder of the Apostle John’s conclusion. We need to recall why we are here. And we need to let go of all the distractions, and the things that block, extinguish and shade the Light.
We need to expose the light, not extinguish it. And so we need to dismiss any personality cults, we need to stop looking for worldly solutions to spiritual problems, and we need to pull our weight, and be the people of faith that God intended.
Of course that won’t be easy, because there will be a lot of things we will have to unlearn. But what we need to do is let Jesus be the Light; we need to let God lead us into the future; and we need to be willing to go wherever he should take us. But we need to do that, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us.
But what does that mean in practical terms? Well I was heartened the other day when talking to a lady from a different parish—a three-centred parish—but a parish which faces many of the issues I’ve just described. And her solution? Well it is to sell all three centres and start again.
Now may sound like a drastic solution. But she recognised there were far too many vested interests in the church buildings, furniture, styles of worship etc. that prevented the church from growing. Indeed current practices were simply blocking the Light, with the effect that if nothing was done, in the not too distant future, that all three churches would need to be closed. But more importantly, in order to remove all obstacles stopping the Light shining, she was prepared to let go, even of the things that she held dear.
Yes, of course, her solution is drastic. But sometimes drastic measures are required, particularly when we are faced with the two primary issues raised in John’s prologue. Because, firstly, people do go off at tangents (and often because of strong personalities), and they do distract from the Light. And, secondly, people do try to adjust the Light to make God and the church more palatable. And if our role is to do everything we can to ensure that God’s Light shines as brightly in the world as possible, it may mean that we need to let go of the things that we love, in order for God’s Light to shine.
The Apostle John’s prologue, then, whilst it doesn’t deliver the heights that it could have done, nevertheless balances the idea of who Jesus was (and is) with the sobering reminder of how easy it is to get off track. The Apostle John used Light to describe the Messiah, but mixed in with that he showed how easily people are distracted from it, and how easily they corrupt it, dim it, cover it up, and even try to extinguish it.
John’s challenge, then, is that we should not be the ones to either re-direct or obscure the Light; that we should not be the obstacle responsible for diming it. Indeed, we are the ones who should be taking every step to make sure that the Light shines as brightly as it can. But are we up to the challenge?
Posted: 30th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Nobody With A Mission (John 1:6-8, 19-28)
1. The Importance of Identify
There are a number of ways we can identify people today. We can identify people through their colour, their race, their political beliefs, and their religion. We can identify people by their jobs, by their social standing, by where they live, and by the kind of people with whom they surround themselves. And we can identify people by their social behaviour, by their interaction in society, and even by their criminal record.
Identifying people is important in our society. And being able to identify ourselves is very important too. For example if we want to obtain a driving licence, if we want to get married, if we want to claim some sort of government benefit, or if we want to do one of a number of things, one of the things we have to do is to prove who we are.
However, despite all the fuss we make about identifying others, and despite all the lengths we may go to prove our own identification, none of the things that I’ve mentioned may describe just who people are and what makes them tick.
And one of those people who prove this point is John the Baptist.
2. The Need to Identify John (19)
Now John’s situation was that he brought a lot of attention on himself. He had become a very popular figure. And his preaching was a talking point in many circles. As a consequence, the authorities—particularly the religious authorities—were more than curious to work out who John really was.
Of course, the background to their concern was something related to all new religious movements. For they knew from experience that new religious movements were trouble. They tended to result in disorder and often lead to trouble with the Romans authorities. Problems they would rather do without.
And as a consequence, they couldn’t ignore John, who had attracted such a following. They needed to know more about John—about who he was. And so they sent a delegation to him to find out.
Now they may well have found out in advance that John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They may well have found out his background and where he lived. They may well have found out that he was a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth (although that would have meant very little at the time). But there was something more to John than all of that. John was a puzzle—he didn’t conform. And so they made it their concern to find out what John was all about. And so they sent a delegation to John to ask him, ‘Who are you?’
B. JOHN THE BAPTIST
1. John’s True Identity (20-23)
a). He Wasn’t the Messiah
Now no-one is reported to have asked him directly whether he was the Messiah. But John discerned the drift of their inquiry. Messianic talk was in the air, and so he framed his answer accordingly.
He was not the Messiah. John’s reply was serious. And he vigorously reputed any such idea that he might hold such a lofty position. On the contrary, he claimed, he had a much more subordinate role.
b). He Wasn’t Elijah
Then having eliminated the possibility of him claiming to be the Messiah, the delegation pressed on. They were determined to find out just who John said that he was.
Now it had been foretold by the prophet Malachi, that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, God would send Elijah the prophet. In other words, it was understood that before the Messiah would come, Elijah would come again. So, accordingly when John had made it clear that he was not the Messiah, his interrogators asked him whether he was the prophet Elijah instead. And again John expressed a denial.
Now his denial has puzzled many over the years. Because Jesus himself explicitly asserted that John was ‘the Elijah, who was to come’ (Matthew 11:14). However, evidently, John was not aware of that. And he didn’t see himself in the role of Elijah at all.
c). He Wasn’t the Prophet
John’s denial, however, provoked a third question. If he wasn’t the Messiah, and he wasn’t Elijah, then was he ‘The Prophet?’
Now, the Jews expected all sorts of prophets to appear before the coming of the Messiah—and in particular ‘The Prophet’ that was described in the book of Deuteronomy (18:15-21). It was ‘The Prophet’ who was expected to speak truly God’s words, and it was ‘The Prophet’ who was expected to show the people the way. But John denied that he was ‘The Prophet’ too.
d). He was a Nobody – But a Witness
Now up to this point, all John had done was to give a list of denials. The delegation had come to find out, not just about John’s pedigree, but who he was. But all they had found out, so far, was that he was not the Messiah, that he was not Elijah, and that he was not The Prophet. And with John still preaching, still drawing crowds into the wilderness, and still baptising, the delegation would have been very unhappy with their progress—and with their lack of anything substantial to put in their report.
At the same time, however, John’s answers to their questions had got shorter and shorter, reflecting the fact that he wasn’t happy about the situation either. And he certainly hadn’t appreciated being interrogated about his identification either.
So, instead of asking John, again, whether he was anyone specific, the delegation changed tack. And they asked him, ‘Who are you?’—but this time with the meaning, ‘Just who do you say that you are?’
To which John replied, by quoting the prophet Isaiah (40:3): ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’
In other words, what John was saying about himself was that he was no-one important. He wasn’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or The Prophet, or anyone like that. All he was, was a voice—and a voice with only one thing to say, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ John was a nobody, but a nobody just doing his duty to God. And his duty was to warn people of the coming Messiah—calling them to be ready. And part of that need to be ready, was the need to remove the obstacles that got in the people’s way to a full relationship with God.
As far as John was concerned, he wasn’t anyone special at all. But he was concerned about carrying out his duty to God, despite any risk to his own safety.
2. His Identity Revealed (24-27)
Now, John’s answer would not have pleased the delegation. After all, they, and the people they represented, were the very people who put obstacles in people’s ways. And traditions, laws, class structures, and other barriers were the very things they wanted to maintain. But the delegation was puzzled too. Because in their thinking, ‘If John was a nobody, then why did he baptise? What authority did he have to do such a thing?’
Now, there was nothing new about baptism. Baptism was used in Judaism as a regular rite in the admission of converts from other religions. Baptism was used as a way of removing the ‘spiritual’ pollutants contracted in the Gentile world. And baptism is what was expected that the Messiah, Elijah or ‘The Prophet’ would do. But that hardly explained why John was calling people to be baptised in his own ministry.
Furthermore, all Jews were prepared to accept the view that Gentiles were defiled and needed cleansing. But John was baptising Jews as well. And, to put Jews in the same class as Gentiles, well that was too much. The Jews were God’s people already. So, it was all very perplexing. And consequently some in the delegation wanted to pursue the matter further.
So they changed tack, again: ‘If John was not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet, why did he baptise?’ To which John simply stated, ‘As a means to point people to the Messiah.” And of course, for John, that would have just as much relevance for the Jews as it was to the Gentiles.
As far as John was concerned, baptism with water was not an end in itself. It wouldn’t save or convert anyone. Rather, baptism was used, simply to point people to the Messiah. John’s interest was in the Messiah and in nothing less.
The Messiah would shortly make himself known. But in comparison, John, was a nobody. Indeed, John, would not be worthy to even take on the role of a slave, and loosen the Messiah’s sandals.
And at this point the interrogation of John the Baptist finished. The delegation had come to find out just who John was. But they weren’t interested in his parentage or his family history or anything like that. What they wanted to know was, who John really was and what it was that made him tick. And the only answer they got, was that John thought he was a nobody. But a nobody who was keen to do the will of God.
Others—his disciples and followers and even Jesus (later on)—may have thought he was more than that. But as far as John was concerned, he was no-one special. His only role in life was to point people to the Messiah. And he had to do that despite any personal risk to himself.
1. Who Are We? (1)
When we consider the story of John the Baptist, then. Yes, we have a story of an extraordinary man. But it’s a story of a man who was very humble, and whose only motivation was to point people to Jesus.
But that was John, what about us? If a delegation came to us, and asked us who we are, what would our reply be?
Of course we could describe our background in terms of our family background, where we live, the kind of work that we do or have done. We could talk about our economic and social status. We might be able to say that we are of English descent, or a dinky-di Aussie, or point to other roots. And we might even be able to bring out some identification, with various personal details on it. But when pressed by the delegation to get to the nub of who we are—and what makes us tick—who would we say that we are?
2. Who Was John? (2)
Now when John was asked who he was, firstly all he did was to dismiss the idea that he was anyone important—despite what he did, and despite his very public profile. As far as John was concerned, he was no-one very important at all. And then, having said that, he simply told and demonstrated that all he was someone doing his duty to God.
But is that the same description that we could use to describe ourselves too? Because you know it should be. Because despite the fact that Jesus (later) said some wonderful things about John, he could only do so, because of John’s attitude of humility, and only because of his dedication to his mission.
John the Baptist recognised that as far as the Messiah was concerned, he wasn’t good enough to even take on the role of a slave and loosen one of his thongs. And that says something of the humility that God expects to be the central focus of all of our lives today.
3. Who Are We (2)
Because, in this life there are two ways of looking at things. We can think that we are special and that we deserve respect and honour, we can insist that we deserve special treatment, and we can insist on respect that fits our position in life. Or we can ignore all of that and know our place, with God at the head and us being insignificant in comparison—and with us continuing to get on with doing God’s will anyway.
But even then, some people may think that we have special talents and abilities. Some people may think that we are special. (And it is nice when what we do is recognised). Nevertheless, it is our attitude to life that is important. The recognition of where we fit in, in the scheme of things. That we aren’t any more special than any other person. And that our sole purpose in life is to point others to Jesus.
Because that’s the way all Christian’s should be. We should all follow John’s example.
And if we all lived our lives that way, what a difference it would make to our own lives. And what a difference it would make to the church too.
Now, as I said at the beginning, there are a number of ways we can identify people today. We can identify people through their colour, their race, their religion. We can identify people through the work that they do. We can identify people through their social standing. And we can also identify people through their social behaviour.
And in addition to identifying others, identifying ourselves is also a very important part of our culture. Indeed, we need to identify who we are in regard to a range of goods and services that are available.
Unfortunately, even with all of that, none of those things really tells us who people really are and what makes them tick. And consequently, further investigation is required to work out just who people are and where they fit in.
John the Baptist was an enigma to the religious authorities. They just didn’t understand him at all. But then John was different. He didn’t think highly of himself. Indeed, he considered himself to be a nobody. But he was a nobody who was prepared to do his duty to God and point people to the coming Messiah.
That is who John was. But, what about us?
Because, yes, some people might think we are special. Others might appreciate any special talents and gifts we may have. But as far as we, as individuals, are concerned, all we should be concerned about is being nobodies. But nobodies who are doing their duty to God and pointing people to the Messiah too.
Posted: 20th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: What's in a Name? (John 1:45-51)
Abram was renamed Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Joseph was renamed Zaphenath-Paneah, Hoshea became Joshua, Gideon became known as Jerub-Baal, and God called Solomon Jedidiah. In addition in New Testament times it was quite normal to have more than one name. Indeed Jews in New Testament times would have had a Greek name as well as their Hebrew or Aramaic name; and they would have had Latinised versions of their names too.
So Jesus (which is a Greek) would have been known as Yeshua (in Hebrew); and Paul (a Greek name) was also known as Saul (a Hebrew name). And Peter … well for Peter, it gets even more complicated. Because Peter (a Greek name) was also known as Simeon (Hebrew) or Simon (Greek) and Cephas (also Greek).
It shouldn’t surprise us then that Bartholomew (a Greek name) has also generally been considered to be the Nathanael (a Hebrew name) of John’s Gospel. And the primary reason for that is the connection with Philip, who introduced him to Jesus.
Now you might be wondering what’s all this about names? So what if people had several names. What’s that got to do with us? Well, like it or not even today we have several names. Indeed we are given at least two at our birth. And some of us have acquired quite a few other names since then too.
Monks and nuns, even today, take on a new name when making their vows. And the idea is to distinguish their new life from their old. And as Christians, the early tradition was that when you became a believer, you adopted a new name—a Christian name—a name that was different to name you were given at birth. Again the idea was to distinguish our new life from our old. But the practice is where we get the term “christening” from.
Of course, as you probably realise, something has gone terribly wrong with the idea of “Christian” names and “Christening”—and it probably went wrong in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless the idea of distinguishing our new life, our life of faith, from our old life still stands. After all, we are supposed to move away from the old, and to identify with a very different lifestyle—a lifestyle with God at the centre. We are supposed to live lives distinct and different to the kind of lives that we lived before we believed. And many, not all, of the changes of name in the Bible reflect that fact.
So what’s in a name? Well names can mean nothing, or they can mean everything. And we can thank Bartholomew (‘son of Talmai’), who was also known as Nathanael (‘gift of God’), a native of Cana of Galilee, an Apostle, and close friend of Philip for reminding us of that (Matthew 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:4, 12, 13).
Posted: 23rd August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
1. Misuse of the Bible
Have you ever been told that something written in the Bible has a particular purpose or meaning, only to find out later that that’s not what it’s about at all? Has anyone ever tried to convince you of something—tried desperately to prove their point—and used a passage of scripture to make their case, only for you to discover that they have twisted the whole purpose and meaning of the passage?
Does that sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Because it seems today that some people love the things that they do and engage themselves in the world so much, that they will desperately argue anything, even from the Bible, to prove that they are right.
And one of the things that has been misused, in recent times, is the biblical view of weddings and marriage. And not just from one side of the same-sex marriage debate either—but from both sides.
And that’s sad, because when we read a story like the Wedding at Cana—one of the stories that has been used and abused—it’s clear that it’s not a story of a wedding ceremony. Indeed, it’s not really a story about a wedding at all.
B. THE WEDDING AT CANA
And the first clue that this it is not really a story of a wedding, is that we are told in John 2:1 that that the wedding began on “the third day.” And to understand that reference, we need to go back in John’s Gospel a few days.
Because, in chapter 1 we are told that John the Baptist was quizzed about whether he was the Messiah or not (John 1:19-28). Then, the very next day, we are told that Jesus came to John, and John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” (John 1:29-34).
The day after that, however—day one in Jesus’s ministry—Jesus was baptised by John, and some of John’s disciples came over to Jesus (John 1:35-42). And the day after that—day two—Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his disciples (John 1:43-51).
Day three, then, is a reference to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. At this stage, he hadn’t had a chance to establish himself with his disciples, let alone speak to the public. Is it any wonder, then, that he would expressed reluctance, when approached by his mother to perform a miracle (v4).
Having said that, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus at a wedding.
A wedding feast was a great social occasion. And it was considered a serious offence not to go. So, Jesus, at this very early stage in his ministry, would not have wanted to cause offence. He would not have wanted to put people offside. And he certainly would not have wanted to be the cause of any social embarrassment.
Which is ironic, really. Because what his mother, Mary, effectively asked him to do, was to save someone else from social embarrassment. Because it was a definite no-no to run out of wine.
Now running out of wine might seem a bit of an odd thing to happen—a bit of bad planning. However, wedding celebrations sometimes continued for a whole week, and supplying sufficient wine would certainly have been a drain on the resources of those concerned. So here we have Jesus responding with compassion.
There were some stone jars, which were used for ceremonial washing. And rather large stone jars too. But then they needed to be. Jews became ceremonially defiled by ordinary life, through the normal course of the day. So, with a large crowd, they would have needed large jars, and particularly so if the celebrations were to continue for a week. The jars were also not full, indicating that at this point they were probably some way through the celebration.
So Jesus told the servants to fill them with water. Which they did, and the water turned into wine—indeed, the best wine of the wedding celebration.
And with that, John concludes the story with a comment—the miracle was not so much a miracle, but a “sign,”—a “sign” pointing to Jesus. In other words, for John, it’s not what happened that was important. It’s not where it happened, or what Jesus did. It was to whom the miracle was pointing—that was what was important for John.
The Wedding at Cana, which began on day three of Jesus’s ministry, then, is not a story of a wedding. The wedding was merely the backdrop to something much greater. It was Jesus that John wanted to point his readers to. The wedding just happened to be the location in which the story took place.
C. THE STRUCTURE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
And we can confirm that by examining the structure of John’s Gospel. Because, John’s Gospel—one of the four Gospels—is very different to the other three.
All four gospels were written from different perspectives, as you’d expect. And they each had access to different eye witnesses. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke also borrowed material from a common source—which is why there is so much similarity between the three.
John’s Gospel, however, is very different. Because, yes, John “the disciple whom Jesus loved” included his own personal eye witness account. But he also wrote his Gospel in a very different and structured way. John was not interested in detailing everything that Jesus did from birth to death to resurrection. The sequence of events was not important. Nor was listing everything that Jesus did. What John wanted to do was to simply point people to Jesus.
As a consequence, he structured his whole gospel around seven “signs”—of which the Wedding at Cana is the first. (He also used seven sayings, all beginning “I am”—I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good shepherd, etc.) In regard to the signs, however, what was important to John, was not the signs themselves, but who those signs were pointing to—Jesus.
And if you look at the seven signs—in the order that John presents them—you will notice that there is a something of a progression—from changing water into wine, to healing two individuals—the first who was sick, and the next who was disabled. Jesus then feds five thousand (plus) people. He defies nature by walking on water. He heals a man born blind (something which was believed only the Messiah could do). And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. As the Gospel progresses John’s signs get bigger and bigger and bigger.
Now sadly, this is the sort of perspective that you miss out on, if you only read the Bible in short bursts—which is the modern tendency, even in church. But John structured his whole gospel to make his point. And his point is that everything that Jesus did and said pointed to him being the Messiah.
It’s not the miracles that were important, or even the circumstances in which they were performed—it’s the person who did them. And that is what the Wedding at Cana, and the whole of John’s Gospel is all about.
D. WEDDINGS AND THE CHURCH
So, if John’s whole focus was on pointing people to Jesus, where does that leave us today? And more specifically where does that leave us in the whole wedding and marriage debate? After all, with the recent changes to the Marriage Act, the Anglican Church in Tasmania is now embarking on the debate: “Should the church continue to be involved in marriage ceremonies? And if so, what is the extent to which they should be involved?”
It’s a very controversial topic, particularly as wedding ceremonies are part of the church’s current practice that some people so love. And some would argue that it’s one of the reasons for the need for the church’s continuing existence today.
1. The Wedding at Cana
So much so, that the story of the Wedding at Cana, has been used to argue the case for the continuing role of the church in the conduct of weddings.
Indeed, I have heard the passage used as an example of the importance of wedding ceremonies. I’ve heard it used as an example of the importance of such ceremonies having religious content. And I’ve heard it used to suggest the need for the church’s continuing involvement.
And yet, the story of the Wedding at Cana says none of those things. The story provides no information about any marriage ceremony—only the reception. And there is no indication that there was any overt religious content to the celebration—only that Jesus was present.
The story of the Wedding at Cana, is about pointing people to Jesus, not about defending current church practice.
2. Old Testament Practice
So if the Wedding at Cana, doesn’t really help, what about the references to weddings and marriage in the Bible?
Well if we add in all the other references to weddings and marriages in the Bible, all we can see is what a big hole the church has dug for itself.
After all, in Genesis 2:24 we have a comment on the universal gift of God of marriage. However, there is no comment of any the need for a ceremony of any description.
In Genesis 24:67 we have a description of Isaac bringing Rebekah into his deceased mother’s tent, where he “married” her, without any indication that anyone else was present.
And in Genesis 29:22-23 we are told of a pre-wedding feast. However, reading between the lines it would appear that Laban wanted to get Jacob so drunk, that he couldn’t tell which of two sisters he was taking to bed. As a result, Jacob woke up the next morning only to discover that he had married the wrong sister—Leah not Rachel.
3. New Testament Practice
When we come to the wedding at Cana, then, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised to discover that there had been a development in terms of wedding celebrations—from nothing (in the case of Isaac) into something far more formal—and in the case of Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) into something quite elaborate. But there is no biblical evidence to support any history of any kind of ceremony at all.
It’s like the community had grown to like having a big party to celebrate the occasion. After which, the couple would then go off and marry each other, with no other person being present. No paperwork. No ceremony.
So where did all the pledges, rings, dowries, joining of hands and kissing come from—the things that people love? Well even Ignatius later in the first century only seemed to know about them in the context of becoming engaged. Because he too is remarkably silent in terms of any marriage ceremony.
In the great wedding debate, then—whatever solution the church comes up with—pointing people to Jesus should be our priority. That’s the point of the story of the Wedding at Cana. Whatever our views on weddings and marriage, whether we think the church should be involved in ceremonies or not, our priority should always be, to point people to Jesus.
But how do we do that, in terms of the current wedding debate?
Well some would suggest that we should be involved. Because conducting weddings of people outside of the church provides a perfect opportunity to share the Gospel. And there is great merit in that argument.
However, others would argue that the church has no place in administering a Marriage Act on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. Particularly when it conflicts with the principles behind God’s gift of marriage, and the practice encourages the belief that conducting weddings is a fundamental reason for the church’s existence.
Furthermore, some could also legitimately add, that the Marriage Act conflicts with Christian belief on the grounds of prohibited relationships. It allows relationships that the Bible excludes. And it excludes relationships that the Bible allows. And that was true, even before the same-sex marriage debate.
The current practice of the church, then, sends out some very mixed messages. But then that’s what happens when the church becomes part of a culture that insists on requiring couples to do things that are not required by God, and were not even part of biblical practice.
The church and state, weddings and marriages … As you can see, the whole thing is a mess. It’s a minefield. On the one side there are twenty-first-century expectations—with the pressure to keep doing the things that people love. On the other side, there is the biblical issue of doing things God’s way and, in particular, the need to point people to Jesus.
The recent same-sex marriage debate has opened a can of worms. And one side of the debate is just as guilty of abusing the Bible as the other.
But where does that leave the church, and its involvement in weddings. today?
Because if God gave marriage as a gift to all mankind, and it was unencumbered from the need of any ceremony, where does that leave us? If, in the Bible, the idea of some sort of community celebration grew, but there was still no ceremony—how should we respond? And if, there is a conflict, beyond the same-sex marriage debate, with the list of prohibited relationships—how then do we view our involvement in wedding ceremonies today?
Well, where it leaves us, and where our whole focus should always be, is to do only those things that point people to Jesus. Whatever the situation, that should be the focal point of everything we do.
How, then, do we hold on to the things that we love? The things that we like to do?
Well we can’t. It doesn’t work that way.
Because, if we start from the things that we love, we so easily get off track. Our customs—the things we love—can be a real trap. Instead, we have to start from the perspective of being people pointing others to Jesus. And we have to run with that, and see where God takes us.
The story of the Wedding at Cana is not about a wedding—although many people have used and abused it for that purpose. It’s about a “sign” pointing people to Jesus.
But are all our sign posts clear? Do our beliefs and practices point to Jesus at every turn? Or are we lost in the confusion of church and state, and the things we love, in our practices?
Because, that is what we need to review.
Posted: 16th January 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Nicodemus and the Nicene Creed (John 3:1-17 & The Nicene Creed)
1. Our Experience as a Whole
In life we experience things that are meaningful, and things that are not. There are things that we see and hear which give us purpose, and there are things which are not relevant at all. We hear people making profound statements, and we hear other things which border on the trivial. And we have conversations which are deep and give us lots to think about, and there are those which are superficial—and may simply be an exchange of pleasantries.
Of course in reality we need both—the meaningful, and the meaningless—and all the shades in between. And we have different times, different moods, and different situations where one or other is appropriate.
2. The Church in Particular
And just as that’s true of life in general, so can it be true of the church.
For example in ninety-nine percent of churches there is a set pattern of worship. Some follow a book, and others . . . well after a while you get to know what’s coming next. But regardless, some days the services can be full of meaning, while others… well it doesn’t seem to do anything for you at all.
3. The Nicene Creed
And one of those things, that fits that description, particularly in the more liturgical churches, would have to be the Nicene Creed. A creed that has been recited by many in the context of a Communion service over the centuries.
And yet I wonder how often the words of the Creed are full of meaning—and are relevant to day-to-day life—and how often they seem to be a statement whose true meaning has been lost, and which today seems to have little value.
And with that in mind, I’d like to recall a very meaningful conversation, between a man named Nicodemus and Jesus. Because it’s a conversation that has parallels with aspects of the Nicene Creed. And it can be a reminder to us of how important the words of the Creed are, and how it can be great help even in our lives today.
B. NICODEMUS (1)
Now the thing about Nicodemus was that he was a Pharisee—a ‘teacher of Israel’. And his religious background would have taught him the need to carefully observe God’s laws (and the traditions of the elders). And his upbringing would have taught him, that if he was able to achieve this goal, then he would earn God’s favour, and win salvation.
But Nicodemus had obviously heard something about Jesus. He didn’t believe him to be the Son of God, but he did know that there was something special about him. So he was intrigued enough to go to Jesus at night.
And night time would have been a time when he knew Jesus would more likely be alone, a time that he could be sure of a leisurely and uninterrupted conversation, a time when it was deemed commendable by Rabbis in general to pursue their studies, and a time when he—an official ‘teacher of Israel’—was less likely to be seen consulting the unofficial ‘Teacher of Galilee’.
However, whether he was ready for the conversation he had with Jesus is doubtful. For even though he was ‘a teacher of Israel’, he certainly had difficulty understanding what Jesus was talked about.
C. THREE STATEMENTS BY JESUS
Because, in their discussion, Jesus made three statements about God and salvation. Statements which turned Nicodemus’s beliefs on their head. And these three statements reflect aspects of the Nicene Creed which is said by many on a regular basis.
1. The Father (3)
Because in the opening part of the creed are these words: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. To which Nicodemus no doubt, in theory, would have agreed. However, when Jesus explained something of the depth of what that meant, in terms of a proper relationship with God, he shattered all Nicodemus’s hard felt beliefs.
The words of Jesus to Nicodemus: ‘Unless one is born from above, he will never see the kingdom of God.’
According to Jesus, it was all very well believing in the existence of a creator God, but regarding a relationship with him . . . Well, Nicodemus and the other religious leaders had got it all wrong. According to Jesus, God’s favours weren’t something they could buy. What they needed was to be re-made by the power of God.
The man who would enter the kingdom of God, Jesus said, must be born in a radically new fashion. And that would require an intimate relationship with God. Entry into the kingdom could not be achieved by way of human striving, while keeping God at a safe distance. No! Entry into God’s kingdom could only be achieved by rebirth, which only an intimate relationship with God could affect.
2. The Son (13)
In the second section of the creed we say: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made . . . etc. etc., to which the concept for Nicodemus would have been quite new. For sure, he, with most other Jews, were expecting a Messiah, but perhaps not a Messiah of the magnitude that Jesus suggested.
Because Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘No one has ever ascended into heaven. Only the Son of Man, who has descended from heaven, can do that.’
Now Nicodemus had been brought up in a religious culture that had an emphasis on the need to follow a strict set of rules to earn one’s salvation. So Jesus, for a second time, told Nicodemus that that just wasn’t possible.
And this time, he told Nicodemus, that he, Jesus, was the expected Messiah. But not only that, he was nothing short of God’s son as well. Indeed, Jesus emphasised his own authority, teaching, and actions. He was the Christ. And his heavenly origin marked him off from the rest of mankind.
While people could not get to heaven on their own merit, the ascent into heaven was possible. But only through new birth—which, in some way, only he, Jesus, could affect.
3. The Holy Spirit (5)
And, in the third part of the creed we say: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. To which Nicodemus might well have recognised references to Old Testament prophecy.
However, he expressed his surprise when Jesus said: ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’
Nicodemus’s first reaction to Jesus’s words would probably have been puzzlement. After all, how could you be born twice? It was just not physically possible. His second reaction, however, may have been one of offence. Was Jesus’s reference to water a comment on baptism? And if so, didn’t Jesus know that the Pharisees had refused the baptism of John the Baptist, as well as having rejected Jesus too?
But, despite that, after a few moments the more natural meaning of Jesus’s words would have sunk in. Jesus was talking about the need for anyone born in this world, to submit themselves to spiritual regeneration.
For those who want to belong to God, for Jesus, there was no substitute for spiritual regeneration. No person could make it into God’s kingdom, without having first been completely renewed, born again—or whatever other term we want to use—by the power of the Holy Spirit.
D. NICODEMUS (2)
In one visit then, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, had his whole system of beliefs turned upside down. God wasn’t just someone up above who could be worshipped at a distance. Someone who, if you tried to keep his laws plus all the extra bits that man had added to them, would simply let you in to heaven. No! The relationship with God needed to be much more intimate than that. Getting to heaven required spiritual regeneration. And that was only possible through an intimate relationship with him.
So in that one visit, Nicodemus was introduced to the idea of the need to have an intimate relationship with God. Holding God at a distance was just not a viable option. As a consequence, Jesus challenged him to have a more personal relationship with God. Is it any wonder, then, that he described the three different aspects of God, which in the terms of the creed can be described as: God, The Father, the Almighty; Jesus Christ, the only Son of God; and the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
Now we know that the effect of that discussion on Nicodemus (and probably other events) was quite profound, because Nicodemus gets mention later in the gospel story.
Indeed, sometime later, when the chief priests and Pharisees are plotting to arrest Jesus (Jn 7:50-52), it is Nicodemus who shows great courage in protesting the condemnation of Jesus, who he believed had not been given a fair hearing.
And after the crucifixion, it was Nicodemus, who accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to get permission to take Jesus’s dead body away, so he could be buried. And at the same time he brought a lavish gift of spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus. Indeed, enough spices appropriate for a royal burial (Jn 19:39-40).
But it all began with this one conversation. A conversation in which Jesus turned Nicodemus’s beliefs of their head. And a conversation that has serious links with the later Nicene Creed.
Now, of course, the Nicene Creed is only one of the expressions we use regarding our Trinitarian faith. And it has its origins in the need to counter a heresy in the Christian church, particularly in regard to Jesus’s eternal being.
Nevertheless, the example of the story of that first visit by Nicodemus to Jesus, demonstrates that the concept of the Trinity—as expressed in the Nicene Creed—is not just meaningless or some religious mumbo jumbo. Rather it’s an expression of the living God—the living God who should be very much part and parcel of all of our lives, and on whom our salvation depends.
For Jesus, the Trinity was not just an intellectual theory to be read about and studied. Rather it was a living reality to be experienced in all its fullness. As a consequence, when the Nicene Creed is recited, it should be meaningful. And it should have the effect of challenging us to the kind of God that we believe in too.
1. The Father
As a consequence, when we recite the words about the Father, the Almighty, do we hold on to the belief, like the Pharisees, that God is someone that we can keep at a distance, that, somehow, we can buy him off, and all that matters is that we keep his laws and whatever other rules we can think of to add on? Or is he the kind of Father with whom we wish to pursue an intimate relationship, and that we can depend upon him, not only for our salvation but for our daily needs too?
2. The Son
When we say the words regarding the one Lord, Jesus Christ, is Jesus just an historical figure, who stories have been written about, and stories we like to hear, and apart from that, he really makes no difference in our lives? Or is he our Messiah, our saviour? Is he the true Son of God, whose act of self-sacrifice has made salvation possible, even for us?
3. The Holy Spirit
And when we speak about the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, is he simply a mystery of something that was talked about, even by the prophets of Old Testament times, and even, may be, made an appearance many moons ago at Pentecost but has no relevance to today? Or is he the part of God that lives inside us, encouraging, nurturing, and guiding, and providing us with the guarantee of eternal life with God?
4. The Church, Baptism, Resurrection and Eternal Life
Yes, of course, the words of the creed then go on to talk about the place of the church, baptism, the resurrection of the dead and eternal life. But these only have meaning, provided we engage in an intimate relationship with God first.
In our daily lives, then, there are some things which are meaningful and other things which are not. There are things we see and hear which are relevant, and other things that serve no real purpose at all. And just as that’s true of life in general, so is it true of our church and our faith as well.
But one of the things that should always have meaning, is our belief in the one God, who has revealed himself in three distinct ways.
The Nicene Creed may be a few words on a piece of paper—words that were written to refute a heresy of the past—but they are also a reminder of the nature of the living God.
They are a reminder that God is not distant—that he is not remote—and that true faith requires an intimate relationship with him. They are a reminder that God is to be experienced in all his fullness. And it is this God—this one and only God—on whom our salvation depends.
Posted: 27th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: For God So Loved the World (John 3:16)
1. The Things We Take For Granted
I don’t know about you, but there are certain ‘firsts’, as I was growing up, that have stayed in my memory. Included in these, I quite clearly remember the arrival of the first washing machine, the arrival of the first telephone, the arrival of the first television, and I even remember my mother drawing up in the family’s first car.
Now at the time I thought all these inventions were great—they were a marvel. And (except for the car) everything was new. And the whole neighbourhood seemed to be a-buzz in acquiring each of them.
However, over time, instead of staying the marvellous inventions that they were, each began to become only too familiar—part of the furniture. They became inventions and appliances that you just sort of expected to be there. And as a consequence, whatever marvel was seen in them at their arrival, just faded away, to the extent that they were no longer the luxury items they were at the start. And, instead, became part and parcel of everyday life.
Now, in a sense my experience may reflect life. Because if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll understand that the things that we marvel at, over time, just become ‘ordinary’. Indeed, we change that something has value and end up by just taking it for granted.
And of course that’s not just true about inventions. It is also true about people too—from meeting some for the first time, to getting used to having them around. And the one person in particular who suffers the most because of this, is none other than God himself.
Now one of the most well-known passages of scripture must be John 3:16. I was taught to memorise it at school. It’s a verse which tells of the magnitude of who God is and what he has done. And yet, even I find myself, these days, skipping over its meaning because I’ve heard it all before.
As a consequence, I would like to spend some time putting back the marvel into the passage. To put the awe and wonder back in the verse, which should never have been lost in the first place.
B. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD…
1. For God loved the world so much . . .
The passage begins, ‘For God loved the world so much . . .’
Now when we say God, what do we mean?
Well, what we mean is a being who is all powerful, all knowing, who transcends whatever images that you or I could portray. Indeed, nothing of what we could describe could come anywhere near to describing God in all his glory.
After all, we’re talking about a God whose mere presence was even too much for his people. And as a consequence, God restricted his physical appearance to only a few selected people—to people like Moses, Elijah, and Ezekiel. And even then, for their own protection, they were protected from his real appearance, by only seeing a shadow or vague image of who he really is.
We’re talking about God, the creator. The one who created the universe in all its tiny detail. The one who in six days created light, the sky, the land and seas, vegetation, suns and planets, and living creatures: birds, fish, insects, animals, and mankind itself.
If we look through a telescope, we cannot even begin to see the wonders. And if we look through a microscope, we cannot even begin to appreciate the detail. The magnitude of creation itself, is something that should continually fill us with awe and wonder.
And yet, this God, despite all his magnitude, of which we haven’t even scratched the surface, is also a personal God. He is one who wants to have a direct relationship with his creation. And despite the magnitude of who he is, and the consequent apparent insignificance of who we are, he still wants to spend time with us and be involved in our day to day lives.
So much so, that he has poured out his love on his people. Because this personal loving God, is the one who continues to come to the rescue of his people.
He did with Noah and his family. When everyone else had gone astray, he came to their rescue by pre-warning Noah to build a boat. So that he and his family would not be destroyed with the others by the flood.
He rescued the Israelites, who were languishing in slavery in Egypt. He rescued them by raising up Moses to lead them to the Promised Land. And even once in the Promised Land, as the people continued to go from one mistake to another, it was this same God who provided a series of Judges to help them in their time of need. Judges who would put them back on the right track.
And the list could go on . . .
The God of John 3:16, therefore is: a Holy God, a creator God, a powerful God, and is far beyond any ability of ours to understand. And yet he is also a personal God, and a loving God who is very much concerned about his relationship with his people. To such an extent that even what he did for the people in Old Testament times, was nothing to what he was about to do to demonstrate his love for his creation.
The God of the New Testament—the same God—was going to do something even greater. This time his act of love would be not just be for the benefit of a few—a tribe or a nation—but would be an act of love aimed at all the people of the world. From Jew to Arab, to Chinese, to South American, to Australian, his greatest act of love would cross all boundaries. An act of love that would include every person, even those who are the most unlovable.
2. . . . that he gave his only Son . . .
And what did that act entail? Well, the second part of the verse is ‘. . . that he gave his only Son . . .’
God’s love is not a vague sentimental feeling, or a love that’s here one minute and gone the next. No! God’s love is the greatest of all, and is the kind that is very costly. And as a consequence God gave his only Son.
Now, God gave his Son in two senses.
Firstly, he gave his Son, by sending him into the world—with all the risks that that entailed. He deprived himself of his Son’s presence with him because there was something vitally important that had to be done. Someone had to live a life—with all the tensions that that involved, with all the temptations to turn away from a relationship with God—and come out the other end having faced all the things that we face, but still having lived a perfect life. It should have been one of us that did that, but only his Son was capable.
But, secondly, as a consequence of that, he needed this perfect being to substitute himself for us—to pay the price for our sins, to sacrifice his life and take on the punishment we deserve for all the wrong we do. And, again, only his Son could do that.
This great God—this God in all his magnitude loved us so much, cared that much for us, mere worms in comparison—that we should continue to be amazed about the God that he is
And what about the cost? The cost to him? Well, what greater sacrifice can one possibly make, than to give one’s one and only child. God gave what was most dear to him. He gave us his all. And that reflects the extent of God’s love for us.
3. . . . so that all who believe in him . . .
And the purpose? What was at the heart of God’s extraordinary compassion? Well the third part of the verse, ‘. . . so that all who believe in him may not perish, but have eternal life.’
God was concerned for a continuing relationship with his creation. He not only created the world, but was determined to have a continuing involvement. He knew, left to our own devices, only one scenario was possible—alienation from God, and in the end judgement and eternal punishment. God was therefore desperate for a solution. He wanted to provide an alternative.
The sacrifice of Jesus, therefore, has given his people an alternative which they didn’t have before. They can either perish, that is, spend eternity separated from God, with all that that entails (which would have been the result of God doing nothing). Or now they can opt for eternal life—have a continuing relationship with God now—and spend the rest of eternity with him.
Unfortunately true love is a two-edged sword. If you truly love someone, then you try to do your best for them. Then, if that person accepts that love, then that is good and everyone wins. But if they refuse to accept that love, and turn their backs on you, then there’s very little you can do about it. And God is no different.
As a consequence, God may have sent his son in the world to provide the opportunity for salvation. But that doesn’t mean that everyone will want to be part of his plan. God, to be true to himself, and as loving as he is, is unable to impose himself on anyone who does not wish to be part of his salvation plan.
John 3:16 then is a familiar passage, and one that many people (including me) can repeat by memory. But while at first, it may have been a passage that engendered feelings of wonder and awe, I wonder, today, how often we just read it or hear it and say ‘Yes, I have heard it all before.’
And yet, in that one verse alone we not only have a summary of the Christian gospel, but we also have a dramatic picture of the wonder of who our God really is. His greatness, his holiness, and his creative work, on the one hand, describing the magnitude of who he is. But on the other hand, the God who also cares for his creation, with the care and compassion he has for his people.
To God, we are not little ants or mere microbes that are so insignificant that we don’t matter (although perhaps we should be). We are his people, and the central focus of his whole creation. So much so, that he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to come to our rescue—even the death of his only Son. And that is a rather mind-boggling thought.
So, then, what does the magnitude of this well known verse do for our religious sensibilities? And do we see and experience God in all his greatness—that is, who he is, and what he has done?
For example, do we see God in all his holiness? Do we see him as a powerful being who transcends whatever images we can portray, or even begin to imagine? Do we look at his creation, and marvel at the detail? And I don’t just mean the occasional sunset. But the sheer size and magnitude of what he has made—that we can only glimpse at through either the telescope or the microscope.
On the other hand, have we experienced that personal relationship that can be ours, where even as individuals we can obtain direct access to our creator? Do we know his presence, and do we keep up some sort of dialogue? And have we experienced God’s love? Has he rescued us from situations outside of our control, in situations where our only hope has been divine intervention?
The God of John 3:16, the God of the Bible, and the God of creation, demands a response. So what is our future? And have we taken up God on his very costly gift? Or has all God’s love and activity, as far as we are concerned, been in vain?
In this world we so easily get used to things. Things that once seem special—even modern inventions—we so quickly take for granted. And that’s not just true of inventions, but it’s true of people and relationships too. And perhaps the one person who suffers from this most is God himself.
Now John 3:16 is one of those passages that many will know by heart. You may have learnt it at school, or even Sunday School. And there may be a tendency to say, ‘Yes, I’ve heard that before!’
The challenge today, however, is not just to recall the words, but to remember the depth of what they mean—the enormity of who God is and what he has done.
Strangely we might be the equivalent of microbes in a universe of gigantic size, but we are still important in the eyes of our creator. And that is the real challenge behind the familiar verse of John 3:16.
Posted: 3rd November 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Six Steps to Making a Difference (John 4:5-26)
Whether we watch, listen to, or read the news, there are a number of features which appear to be common to every bulletin and newspaper. There are stories of hatred and prejudice. There are stories of misunderstandings. There are stories of people talking at crossed purposes. There are stories which reflect differences in moral standards. There are stories where people are having difficulty facing reality and trying to disguise it by constantly changing the subject. And there are stories of religious differences and all that that entails.
And whilst it’s easy to think, “What a mess! What has the world come to these days? The problems are just too big. And, as individuals, can we really make a difference,” maybe we should ask the question, “Well . . . what can we do about it?”
And the reason I say that is that although life has always been like all those things I’ve mentioned, Jesus has shown us the difference that one person can make. And I’d like to illustrate that from a story in the bible.
B. A SAMARITAN PERSPECTIVE
And the story I’d like to refer to is the story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a well.
1. Prejudice (5-9)
Because first of all, it’s a story, which has as its basis the problem of hatred and prejudice.
And this was because Jews not only hated Samaritans, but there was no love lost by the Samaritans either. And this bitterness had been continuing between the two groups for over seven hundred years.
In the days of the Assyrian empire, half of the inhabitants of Samaria had been taken captive and deported in large numbers, and in their place were brought other people from around the empire. As a consequence, the Jews believed that the Samaritans were a mixed breed—their blood wasn’t pure. And as a result of the Samaritans mixing with foreigners brought into the land, their version of the Jewish faith had been corrupted too.
And unfortunately, despite Samaritan beliefs becoming more and more orthodox over time, and despite the occasional offer of friendship by the Samaritans, open hostility continued between the two groups. Consequently both Jews and Samaritans tried hard to avoid each other.
Occasionally, however, when a Jew was in a hurry to get from north to south, they took a short cut through Samaria. And that is exactly what Jesus did in this instance. And that was how Jesus’s confrontation with the Samaritan woman began.
And so, at the beginning of the story, when Jesus asked the woman for a drink from the well, her reaction was predictable: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (9a)
2. Misunderstanding (10-12)
But prejudice is not only thing that is underlying this story. This story also has misunderstanding.
The mind of the woman at the well was set on one thing only: getting water from the well. So when Jesus started talking about needing “living water,” all she could think about was how impossible it was for Jesus to draw water out of the well, when the well was about a hundred feet deep and he had nothing with which to draw it out.
As a consequence, the misunderstanding occurred because she really wasn’t listening to what it was that Jesus was saying.
3. Crossed Purposes (13-15)
However, it’s a story about talking at crossed purposes too.
Indeed, the woman, who had to travel a long way from home to get water from the well, longed for the day when the journey to the well would no longer be necessary. She yearned for a day when there was an endless supply of water on tap—water that she no longer had to fetch and carry, particularly from a well so far from home.
As a consequence, that fact coloured what she heard Jesus saying. She didn’t understand that Jesus was talking to her on a spiritual plane at all.
4. Different Moral Standards (16-18)
Furthermore, the fact that she had to travel some distance to get water, tells us that this is also a story of a clash of moral standards.
Now the Jews believed that a person could be divorced twice, three times at most, and the Samaritan’s probably held similar beliefs. However this woman had been married five times, and she was now living with someone who was not her husband at all.
And it is at this point that we get a true inkling of who this woman really is. This wasn’t just any Samaritan woman at the well, this was a woman with a very bad reputation, even amongst her own people. And this explains why she chose to use a well so far away from home, well away from her own local well. It also explains why she was getting water at noon, rather than the more usual sunset.
This woman was not even acceptable to the majority of her own people, her morals were so low. And, therefore, she had chosen the time and the place deliberately to avoid other women of her own town and even of her own race.
5. Changing the Subject (19-24)
And yet the story doesn’t even end there. Because this story is also a story of a woman who had trouble facing up to her own shortcomings. Because rather than face the history of her relationships, she deliberately kept trying to change the subject.
She tried to divert the focus away from herself and onto the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans. She began a debate on the things that divided and had caused so much hatred over the centuries between the Jews and the Samaritans.
6. Religious Differences (25-26)
And that brings us to the fact that this story is also a story about ignorance of beliefs.
Because the Samaritan’s were waiting for the Messiah, just like the Jews. But they had no information about him. Their bibles were different. Indeed, the Samaritans only used the first five books of the bible, which said very little about the Messiah. Whereas the Jews, with the advantage of the Psalms, and the Prophets, had much more detailed descriptions of whom to look for.
So, when we watch, or listen to, or read the news, there are a number of common themes that seem to run through every bulletin or newspaper. Themes of hatred and prejudice, themes of misunderstandings and talking at crossed purposes, themes of people having difficulty facing reality, and themes of religious differences. And yet, in this one story from the life of Jesus, we have a story with the lot. But then the woman at the well, wasn’t just an ordinary Samaritan.
C. FROM JESUS’S PERSPECTIVE
Now, of course, from the perspective of Jesus, he had recently faced a very different encounter. He had been talking with Nicodemus, an eminent representative of Orthodox Judaism—a class who whole-heartedly despised Samaritans. As a consequence, his meeting with a Samaritan could not have been of any greater contrast.
Yet Jesus showed no hatred or prejudice, despite the common practice of other Jews. He had no difficulty in talking to the woman, even though, culturally, women were considered inferior to men. And he didn’t hold back from asking the woman for a drink, even though the mere holding of the jar of water would have made him ceremonially unclean.
Consequently, what we can see in Jesus is a determination to cut through the seven hundred odd years of hatred and prejudice; to cut through all the religious and cultural differences; to cut through all misunderstandings and the woman’s resistance to face reality; and to show the woman that there really was another way.
Yes, she may have been a woman who was despised by her own people and Jews alike. She may even have made many attempts to avoid the issues. But regardless of that, Jesus tried again and again to show that there was another way. And that he wasn’t going to be put off by all the barriers that the Jews had put up, that the Samaritans had put up, and that she was putting up. He cared for her too much for that. So he persisted; he brought her back time and time again, letting her know that there were alternatives to her current existence. He showed her that he cared.
It’s an impressive story. It’s an impressive story of prejudice, misunderstandings, and hatred. But it’s also an impressive story of how Jesus broke down all those barriers. So, when we reflect on our world and the mess it’s in today, it’s also a story we would do well to pay heed.
1. Hatred and Prejudice
Regarding hatred and prejudice . . . Jesus lived amongst other Jews with seven hundred plus years of prejudice up their sleeves. And yet he was having none of it. Consequently, he was able to treat the woman at the well as somebody that he cared for. And that is the challenge for us today too.
Now prejudice can be found all over the place. There’s prejudice with colour, race, sex, culture, religion, and basically everything in life. But like Jesus, we are called on to put all that aside, so that we can tell people about the alternatives in life; to show the depth of our faith in the way we care.
Of course that may go against the grain of the people who live around us. Nevertheless mixing with others—those we may not normally associate ourselves with and, perhaps, don’t even agree with—is an important part of our call.
Regarding misunderstanding . . . Jesus broke through the barriers of misunderstanding. And he did so by persisting with the discussion until she understood. The woman had her mind only on drawing water to drink, but Jesus continued the discussion until it was clear what needing “living water” meant.
Now misunderstandings happen all the time. But they usually happen because someone says or does something and the matter is not followed up. Consequently when misunderstandings occur there is no real attempt to either correct a person’s misunderstanding or to fix up the damage. But that was not a situation that Jesus was prepared to accept. And so he continued the discussion with the aim of correcting those misunderstandings.
Now today there are some really strange ideas about and many of them result from misunderstandings. Consequently to help clarify what is meant, to cut through the misunderstandings, is a very important aspect of our role as believers.
3. Crossed Purposes
Regarding talking at crossed purposes . . . The hidden agenda the woman had at the well was that she was waiting for a time when she wouldn’t have to travel so far to get water. Indeed it so consumed her thinking that it coloured what Jesus was saying. But Jesus was persistent and he retold his message in various different ways until his message finally got through.
Being persistent, then, and finding different ways to uncover the truth, is a vital part of our mission. We need to retell the truth in a variety of ways until it finally gets through.
4. Different Moral Standards
Regarding different moral standards . . . Interestingly, Jesus, didn’t point the finger at the woman at the well. Rather, he got the woman to re-evaluate her own life and left it up to her to make any appropriate changes.
Now, it’s very easy in this world to judge others by their morals. That’s what some people do all the time. But the only way that people are likely to change is if they want to—if they can accept the need to raise their standards themselves. And that’s the principal that Jesus used in this story. And the one that we need to adopt too.
5. Changing the Subject
Regarding changing the subject . . . The woman constantly changed the subject. She tried to avoid the real issues by throwing in anything that would take the focus of herself. So Jesus’s approach was to constantly return her to the subject in hand. Jesus was clear what the real issues were and, consequently, he tried his best not to get waylaid onto something else.
When we face the situation of talking to others about resolving issues, then, it’s amazing how people get uncomfortable and often try to change the topic. It’s like it’s all too hard or all too embarrassing. However, like Jesus, we need to be constantly on our toes and keep steering the conversation back to the issue at hand.
6. Religious Differences
And, regarding differences in religious beliefs . . . Even when the woman and Jesus were talking about the same Jewish religion, Jesus was keen to correct her understanding of the faith and return her to the true way. Now this is probably the most important part of the story, because all that Jesus had said and done hinges on this idea. Because without a true faith, none of the other things are truly possible at all.
Now today there are a variety of understandings of the Christian Faith which are commonly understood even in our own culture. And even amongst people who irregularly and even regularly attend church there are differences amongst their core beliefs. And yet to try to bring peace to the world without including faith in the true gospel . . . Well, we would be just wasting our time. For there can only be real peace when a restored relationship with God is at the heart.
Consequently, like Jesus we would be failing in our duty as believers if we fail to include a challenge of faith. A challenge that should try to correct those misunderstandings too.
Six clues, then, that we can apply to our own world and to our own situations. Now, obviously, not every effort of ours will be successful, not every effort will work. But then Jesus’s approach with the woman at the well was not guaranteed to work either.
However, in Jesus’s case it did work, and it worked spectacularly. Jesus not only made a huge difference to the Samaritan woman, but when she returned to her Samaritan village, it had a flow on effect to many people in that Samaritan village too.
Consequently Jesus’s example should encourage us to believe that, despite all the obstacles, we can make a big difference too.
So whether we watch, listen to, or read the news, there are a number of features which appear to be common to every bulletin and newspaper. There are stories of hatred and prejudice. There are stories of misunderstandings. There are stories of people talking at crossed purposes. There are stories which reflect a difference in moral standards. There are stories where people are having difficulty facing reality and trying to disguise it by constantly changing the subject. And there are stories of religious differences and all that that entails.
Indeed, the same six issues that we saw in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
But Jesus did make a difference in that story. He told her about the Messiah, and he showed her that he cared. The challenge is: It is now our turn to use those principles and to do exactly the same.
Posted: 9th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Levels of Belief (John 4:46-54)
Of course the answer to the dilemma of belief is obvious. People mean different things by the term. That is why there is a great discrepancy between those who say they believe and those who go to church. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop people saying that they believe, no matter on what level they belong.
And an example of that couldn’t be better illustrated than in the story of the man in John’s gospel. Because in it we see a man who seems to have faith—and would probably have said that he was a believer—but as we examine the story, it’s really not like that at all.
Now the story begins with a man whose son was dying on his bed, at home in Capernaum (46). The man was a nobleman of Herod’s court—probably a Jew. And he’d evidently heard that Jesus had used miraculous powers to change water into wine. As a consequence, he was hoping that Jesus would do another miracle—that he would cure his son. So, when the officer heard of Jesus’s arrival in Cana, he immediately went to meet him (47). His need was great, and he pressed Jesus to go with him.
Jesus, on the other hand, was more concerned that people were missing the point of his ministry (48). That they were looking for the miraculous not for faith. So he made a few comments—not just to the man, but to the people around him as well. To which, the nobleman did not defend himself or argue (49), he simply expressed his continuing anxiety for his son.
As a result, Jesus’s reply to the man would probably have come as a shock (50). The man had expressed the need for Jesus to go with him to heal his son. He evidently thought that Jesus needed to be present to perform the cure. But all Jesus did was to tell the man to go home, and that his son had been cured. And perhaps, surprisingly, in what seems like an act of faith, the man did not stand and argue. He didn’t stay and insist that Jesus go with him. He simply took Jesus at his word, turned around and went home.
And then, as the man journeyed home, he met his servants coming to meet him (51-53). He was then told that his son was cured. And when he asked his servants the time his son had got better, it matched exactly the time that Jesus had said that his son would live. And, as a result, we are told that he and his whole household believed.
Now from a superficial level, the official seems to have demonstrated an unwavering faith— solid as a rock—throughout the whole process. He’d heard about the miracle of the water into wine, and so he had come to Jesus hoping that he would perform a miracle for his son. Indeed, when told to go home he didn’t argue, he did exactly as he was told. And, when his son was cured, he and his household, we’re told, believed in Jesus.
But as I say, that’s what it seems at first glance. But is that really what the passage says? And the reason I ask this, is because in the gospel of John the term “believing” is expressed in three different ways. And this puts a whole new perspective on the story.
Because, firstly, John uses the term, in regard to accepting the facts of the situation—believing the events that happen. Secondly, John uses the term in regard to the acceptance of what people say is true. And thirdly, John uses the term in regard to people believing in Jesus—an activity which takes people out of themselves and makes them one with Christ. An activity that requires personal trust and a reliance on Jesus for salvation, and for everyday life.
Consequently, with that in mind, we need to reassess the story, and be open to a completely different view.
Because, in this story we actually have all three stages of belief. Firstly, the man believed in the facts of the things that had occurred. He’d heard that Jesus had changed the water into wine. And he believed it to be true, so he acted on what he’d heard. Secondly, he believed Jesus, when he told him that his son would live. He accepted Jesus’s words, as though they were true. That is why he was able to return home without question. And, thirdly, when his son was healed, as a result of the miracle that had taken place, only then, did he and his whole household believe in Jesus, and become followers for the first time.
Now you can see the difference in the stories. This isn’t a story of a man who is rock solid in his beliefs all the way through. This is a story of a man who was on a steep learning curve, and whose progressed through the three different levels of belief. Because only at the end did he express a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And, with that in mind, let’s go back to our own dilemma, and the problem of people professing the faith in the world today. Because John’s three levels of faith in this story are the same as the three levels that are evident in people today.
Indeed, firstly, there are people who have heard about the historical Jesus, and the facts of his existence. And, maybe in some way, that is reflected in the way that they live their lives. But secondly, there are those who believe what the church has said to be true. But that doesn’t mean they have made the ultimate connection. And then, thirdly, there are those who have put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And to these people, and only to these people, they have been rewarded with the gift of eternal life.
Now living in a world where so many people claim to have belief, may seem very odd at times. Particularly, when it is disconnected from active membership of God’s church. However it should be something of which we should all be aware. After all, how can we help those who claim to have faith, if we don’t understand which level they’re on? And to whom should we share the true faith, if we don’t know their need?
Posted: 30th November 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: I Am… The Bread of Life John (6:35,41-51)
We live in what has become known as the ‘me’ generation. People are now more concerned with exercising their own rights and doing what they think is best for themselves, rather than looking out for the welfare of others. As a consequence we now hear ‘I want this . . .’ ‘I want that . . .’ rather than expressions of concern for the needs of others. We hear ‘I did this . . . ‘ ‘I did that . . .’ ‘And I did it all myself . . .’ rather than giving others a pat on the back for a job well done.
Now, of course not everyone is like that. And not everyone is like that all the time. However, the fact is that we live in a period of time when the emphasis is very much on the individual rather than the community. And it has become so pronounced that it is not a healthy situation to be in at all.
And with that in mind, it’s interesting to note Jesus’s behaviour in the gospel passage today. Because it shows us a period in Jesus’s life where the focus was very much on him—on who he was and what he was doing. And yet, despite that, he still showed a great concern for others—and in a way that marks a difference between attitudes in Jesus’s world and our own.
Having said that, he also made a number of startling statements (seven in all, according to John), in which he deliberately pointed to himself. Seven statements which all began ‘I am . . .’
And I’d like to retell the story to you, but in a different way. Through the eyes of someone who could have been there.
B. AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT
Hello, my name is Zechariah, and I live in a town in Judea, in the first century A.D.
1. Background – A Time of Expectation
Now my story begins during a time of high expectation. As a people, we Jews had lived under the oppression of the Romans for some time. And even though many people had fallen away from the old faith, there was still this belief that God was about to come to our rescue. Of course, that may have been because there had been many people, recently, who had stood up and said they were the promised Messiah. However, as soon as they had come, then they were gone, never to be heard of again.
However, one of the signs that we had learnt from the prophets of old was that when the real Messiah came, he would be accompanied by the provision of bread—an eternal supply. And bread that we understood wouldn’t have to be toiled for. Just like the bread, that history tells us, that Moses gave to our ancestors when they wandered those forty years in the wilderness.
And do you know what? There’s this man called Jesus, who’s recently come on the scene. And what did he do the other day? But he fed five thousand men, plus women and children with no more than five loaves and two small fish.
Well you can imagine the reaction he got. Regardless of what he said, and particularly because of our political situation, the crowd were excited. People were saying, ‘Could this be the real Messiah? Was this the man who would free us from the Roman occupation?’
Is it any wonder, then, that people started to really listen. And do you know what Jesus started to talk about? Bread! That the Father would now give the people the true bread from heaven (32). And that this bread from God would give life to the world (33).
Well you can imagine our excitement. Bread! The very thing that distinguished the true Messiah from those who were false. Not only was there a feeling that we were about to get rid of the Romans, but there was to be a never-ending supply of food as well. Indeed, we wouldn’t have to labour in the fields again, or so we thought.
2. I Am… The Bread of Life (35)
But then, Jesus said something that made us all stop. Because he said, and I quote, ‘I am . . . the bread of life.’ Well, we were with him up to that point. But with that, well that was going just a little too far. Because he started to talk about bread, not in terms of what you and I could pick up and eat, but rather in overtones of our spiritual lives. And let me tell you, many of us didn’t like where he was going.
Indeed, he started talking about providing spiritual nourishment, where he himself was the food. And, what’s more, he continued with overtones of divinity, as though he had a special relationship with God. Which for me, and for many who were around, was going just a little bit too far.
Delusions of grandeur! That’s what it began to sound like. Jesus being the Messiah began to sound just that little bit doubtful. Our rescue from the Romans seemed to be slipping away. And our everlasting food supply . . . Well that was being returned to just a dream. This wasn’t the Messiah! This was just a religious nut on his soapbox. But in Jesus’s case, he was telling us that we needed to change our lives.
But you know, somehow, there was more to it than that. This Jesus, he seemed to be really genuine. When he said ‘I am the bread of life’ it wasn’t by way of a boast, to big note himself as others had done before. This was an appeal, a genuine appeal, for people to change.
3. Opposition (41-42)
However, as you would expect, some people did not appreciate what they heard. They felt threatened. The leaders of the local synagogues—those who felt that they were in charge of all things religious—felt particularly uneasy. They felt they were being targeted by Jesus, and you could see their temperatures rise. How could he challenge their integrity? How could he publicly undermine their positions? And you could see that blood was about to be spilt.
They became angry, and to defend their positions they automatically took up a contrary position to Jesus. How dare this upstart, this nobody, undermine their authority. How dare he claim a special relationship with God? How dare he presume to speak on God’s behalf? That was their job. And you could almost hear their brains ticking over . . . ‘How dare he . . .’ ‘Who was he…?’
And then it clicked—they worked out how to go on the attack. They knew his parents . . . and he was a nobody . . . and they carried on—as people who think they’re important do, when they’re upset. And they made the point, loud and clear, that they didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah at all. Just a local lad who was very much misguided.
4. Jesus’ Response (43-48)
But you know, Jesus was very good. Despite the tirade, despite all the murmurings of the crowd, he didn’t get phased. He didn’t lose his cool. He didn’t over react. Instead, he pointed out that carrying on like they were doing was no way to learn the truth—divine or otherwise.
Then, after having calmed the crowd down, he repeated the things that he had to say. And you must give him full marks for that. He reiterated his special relationship with God (46). And he repeated that people needed to look again at their lives, and turn towards God (through him). There was simply no other way. He was the bread of life on which everyone could depend.
And you know, despite the initial fuss, he did it in such a way (47) that even I began to believe that he wasn’t in this thing for himself. He didn’t expect that everyone would necessarily believe him, but he trusted that God would teach his people (in their hearts) that what he was saying was true.
5. Misunderstanding (49-51)
And of course everything calmed down then, and everything went on quite smoothly. Until . . . Jesus decided to open his mouth regarding what he said were some major misunderstandings regarding our expectations of an eternal supply of food.
Indeed, he said that the original manna was given by God not Moses. He said that the original manna was food for the body and nothing else—it didn’t give eternal life. In contrast, he said the food that he was bringing, would bring life from which there would be no death. And then, he reiterated his claim to have a unique relationship with God. Indeed, he claimed again to be divine, and that any person who accepted him for who he was would (spiritually) live for ever. There was no other way.
6. Jesus in Fear of His Life (7:1)
Now this is the point where I decided it would be safer to disappear. Some of the people who had been riled before, became even angrier with those last few comments. Trouble was on, and I decided to withdraw before the serious stuff began.
Later, however, I heard that Jesus managed to disappear from the scene with his skin intact. He’d upset quite a few people. Many of the authorities, on the strength of what he’d said, wanted him eliminated for good. And the next I heard was that Jesus was spending a lot of time around Galilee, and giving Judea a very wide birth.
And what he did in Galilee is another story, and a story for another time. For I need to get back into the fields, and I need to earn enough to get some bread.
Now that may well have been the perspective of someone who witnessed this event in the life of Jesus. And, in a sense, it shows that nothing has really changed. There might be more emphasis these days on the ‘me’ generation—what I want—as against what’s best for the community. But even in Jesus’s time the attitude of self-importance meant that many people’s vision was limited to maintaining their own self-interest.
Regarding Jesus and the Christian faith, however, even in today’s world nothing has really changed. Because there were three areas in which the people of Jesus’s day had difficulties. Firstly, there were people’s expectations. Secondly, there was the people’s unwillingness to listen to the truth. And, thirdly, there was people’s contentment with their misunderstandings. And those areas are just the same today too.
Before Jesus opened his mouth the people had expectations. They wanted a political Messiah to rid themselves of the Roman invaders. They also wanted an everlasting supply of food.
Now these days the expectations may be different. But many people still have tunnel vision which limits the way they see Jesus. Not least of which is the expectation regarding heaven—and the ability to use one’s own abilities to save oneself. Expectations that people aren’t really that bad—that people can do enough good things to compensate for their mistakes. And expectations that people can earn their own way to eternal life.
1b. I Am… The Bread of Life
However, just as Jesus had to correct the expectations of the past, so too does his statement correct the expectations of the present as well. When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the bread of life, he was claiming that there was no other way to earn salvation. The spiritual food on which salvation depended was the very thing that he brought. And therefore just as faith in him was essential for people’s eternal well-being, then, so is it true today too.
The message hasn’t changed. Salvation cannot be earned or bought, and sin cannot be so easily dismissed. There is only one way to salvation and that is through faith in Jesus Christ.
2a. Unwillingness to Listen to the Truth
When Jesus told the crowds that they were quite wrong—that a person’s eternal well-being depended upon their relationship with the Messiah—the reaction of the crowd was that it was something they really didn’t want to hear. And it was something that riled the religious leaders of the day in particular. They really didn’t want to know the truth of what Jesus had to say.
It should not be surprising then that people don’t want to hear it today, either. If people are convinced they’ve got it right, they’ll find any excuse not to accept that a change in direction is needed. And consequently, we see people denying Jesus by word, deed (or lack of deed), convinced they’ve got it right—people who rigorously defend their stand, as a matter of principle, and people who continue to ignore the eventuality of their coming judgement by God.
2b. Jesus’ Response
As a consequence, Jesus’s, advice to step back, and put emotion aside, and to look at who he is—and salvation—from an objective perspective, seems an eminently sensible idea. Because how can anyone seriously look at any issues, if they are busy being angry or feeling hurt, or feel their pride is on the line?
3a. Contentment with Misunderstanding
However, the fact is that, in the end, some people are happy with their misunderstandings. And they don’t like people to rock the boat. The religious leaders of Jesus’s day, in particular, were comfortable with their position in life, and woe betide anyone who suggested that they’d not only got it wrong, but by implication, that they were leading others astray.
Listening to Jesus is therefore challenging. It always was and it always will be. But then if we embrace it fully, the Christian life is radically different from normal living.
But then not everyone likes his or her cage rattled. Not everyone likes to accept that maybe they are wrong.
3b. Jesus in Fear of His Life
And as a consequence, just as the story ends with Jesus running in fear of his life, so we may find ourselves being persecuted for what we stand for too. Being a Christian is not easy, and anyone who tells you it is, either knows nothing of the Christian faith or is fooling themselves. Being a Christian involves a radical lifestyle, different from the world in which we live. And unfortunately that makes some people very uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable indeed.
So just as Jesus experienced a number of responses from the crowd, from pre-conceived ideas, to not wanting to hear, to misunderstandings—and that was reflected in the lack of belief, the anger, the feeling of being threatened, even the feeling of wanting Jesus dead—so being a Christian is not any easy thing to be.
Having the responsibility of sharing the faith is not straight forward. It wasn’t easy for Jesus, and it isn’t going to be easy for us either.
Now times have changed, and we today we live in the ‘me’ generation. The emphasis is different than what Jesus faced, because today there is much less emphasis on the idea of community, than there was in Jesus’s day. Nevertheless, in Jesus’s day people were still after what they could get out of life for themselves to some degree (as we’ve just seen). However, regarding today’s ‘me’ generation, the emphasis on a person’s wants and desires have become much more pronounced.
And that means it is harder today for people to respond to the message of Jesus than ever before. It is also harder for the faithful to get across the message of salvation.
Despite that, Jesus’s words are still important. And his words in our passage today were, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35). There simply is no other way.
Some people will accept him, but most will reject him.
But today, let’s leave other people aside for a moment and answer the question, ‘What have we done with Jesus? Have we accepted him or do our wants and desires get in the way?’
And if we have accepted him, take heart. The Christian life may not be easy, but we do have a saviour who has been there before. And he will give us the strength to continue to share the gospel to the ‘me’ generation. We just have to be willing.
Posted: 18th November 2021
© Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Jesus, the Living Bread (John 6:51-58)
It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, but from time to time, we are all placed in the position of having the things we say, misunderstood.
For example, it might be what we said was either unclear, or maybe it was just not received as well as we had hoped. With the end result, that our words are taken to mean something completely different to what was intended.
Other times, misunderstandings may occur, because the person we’re speaking to at the time, is in a world of their own. So much so, that what we say is coloured by what’s going on around them, rather than what we actually said.
And other misunderstandings occur because we simply don’t always speak the same language. And this doesn’t mean just foreign languages, but include technical mumbo jumbo, and jargon too.
And there are a couple of personal examples I can think of to do with misunderstandings:
The first, was when I was the Assistant Curate in the Parish of Burnie back in the 1980s. Fresh out of college, with very little in regard to furniture, tools etc, I rang the rector’s wife to see if I could borrow an axe. Well, you can imagine my surprise when she replied, ‘Certainly, it’s just here on the piano stall.’ However, thinking that was an odd place to keep an axe, I wasn’t totally surprised when two hours later she arrived at the door, and presented me with an atlas. Admittedly, a very comprehensive atlas, but certainly not one that was capable of chopping wood.
The second example was a few years later, and had to do with connecting a DVD player. And the conversation in the shop included a number of terms including AV inputs, Audio inputs, and RCA leads. Terms that left me totally bamboozled, and not a little bit frustrated. However we got there in the end, but it did take three trips to the shop, two extra cables, and a lot of misunderstanding.
Being misunderstood then, and misunderstanding others, is something we all face. And it doesn’t matter how careful we are, misunderstandings still occur.
Of course, sometimes the consequences of the misunderstandings are humorous, but other times the consequences can be far more serious.
B. JESUS THE LIVING BREAD
It’s not surprising then, that if we face misunderstandings—with people misunderstanding the things that we do and say—then it shouldn’t surprise us to know that Jesus was not exempt from misunderstandings too. Because that’s exactly what happened to Jesus, in this passage from John’s gospel.
Because Jesus was talking to a group of Jews, and he was talking in terms of their need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But as the group stood around Jesus, they had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. They were confused, and perplexed. It was like he was talking a different language.
And, in one sense, that was surprising, Because one of the things we know about the New Testament period, is that the expressions of eating and drinking were in quite common use amongst the Jews at the time. They were spiritual expressions, and would have been well known to mean the need to take something in internally—the need to internalise the spiritual truths, to accept the religious truths for themselves. So in that sense, for Jesus’s Jewish audience to miss his point, is in one sense quite surprising.
On the other hand, the group that he was talking to, was a group who had just witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. And when Jesus had withdrawn, they had chased after him, and caught up with him on the following day.
This group, then, mindful of the miracle, and even more mindful of their history—and the gift of manna given each day for the Israelites to eat as they wandered in the wilderness—had their mindset well and truly on the need for physical food.
So, even though they should have understood the spiritual term of eating and drinking, their minds were on a much more material plain.
The misunderstanding that occurred, then, wasn’t because Jesus was speaking religious jargon that no one understood. It was because the crowd was living in a different world, and that coloured their understanding of every word that Jesus said.
2. Jesus, the Living Bread (51-53)
Sadly, then, when Jesus talked about himself as the living bread come down from heaven (51a), they had no idea what he was talking about. They certainly didn’t understand him to mean that he had been sent by God, and that he was indeed the promised Messiah that they had been waiting for.
When Jesus talked about the need for them to eat his flesh, they were perplexed. (52b). The people just couldn’t see how Jesus could physically give his flesh. It wasn’t possible. They certainly didn’t understand it in terms of their own common religious understanding—of the need to take him in to themselves, to accepting him as the Messiah, as the one God had promised would be sent for their salvation.
And when Jesus, didn’t retract from his statement, but rather added to it (53)—and he spoke not only about the need to eat his flesh but to drink his blood too—we need to imagine the reaction of the crowd (because it’s not described in the text). But for a group of people who had their minds fixed on a material plain, the whole idea of drinking blood would have been abhorrent. In fact in Jewish law it was forbidden—it was not kosher, if you like. Indeed, they would have been shocked and horrified. As a consequence, in their misunderstanding, they totally missed what Jesus was trying to say, about the need to take him in to their very inner being.
In the whole passage, then, Jesus and the crowd were not talking the same language. Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms— the act of appropriating him in their lives—while the crowd were thinking of their stomachs. Jesus was talking about a one-off spiritual acceptance of him into their lives, while the crowd was thinking of a constant supply of food.
So when Jesus continued on, to talk about the consequences of faith, the crowd had already been left way behind.
4. The Consequences of Participation in Jesus (54-58)
However, ever the optimist, or at least believing that everyone should know what they’re accepting—or in this case, rejecting—Jesus continued, by outlining the consequences of putting their trust in him. And he mentioned five things:
Firstly, he stated that the man who does take him into himself, would be raised up by Jesus on the last day (54). In other words, to those who believe, he gave the promise of being resurrected from the dead.
Secondly, whilst acknowledging that ordinary food had its place and value (55), he promised that only the spiritual food—which he could provide—could meet man’s deepest needs.
Thirdly, Jesus described a fellowship, which was the closest possible relationship with him (56). This wasn’t just a temporary state, but it was one that was permanent.
Fourthly, just as Jesus was sent by the living Father —to do the Father’s will (57)—so Jesus said, the consequences of anyone receiving him, was that they should live for him and should actively participate in God’s mission as well.
And fifthly, Jesus acknowledged that wonderful though manna was, there was no life-giving quality in it (58). Those who had eaten it, he said, had died like any other man. However, the bread, that he provided was totally different. And even though in this world his followers would die physically, yet they would pass through the gateway of death, and live on eternally with him.
Misunderstandings? Can you think of any greater misunderstanding than that between Jesus and the crowd of that day? Jesus was talking about the spiritual life—what was required to have a relationship with himself and God the Father. And the people . . . all they were concerned about was their own material well-being.
But it wasn’t that Jesus was talking a language that they couldn’t understand. No! It’s just the crowd were so preoccupied with the material world—and with things that they could physically do—that the whole concept of a spiritual dimension just passed them by. Sadly, they didn’t understand a word of the vitally important conversation that Jesus was trying to have with them at all.
D. THE LORD’S SUPPER
Now the fact that the concepts of eating and drinking were used as common spiritual motifs in New Testament times to denote taking something into oneself we’ve already noted. And the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’—the words of Jesus—were noted by the apostle John to relate to the one-off acceptance of Jesus by those wishing to be his disciples.
It is perhaps then not surprising that when Jesus was instituting the Lord’s Supper, he used exactly the same spiritual motifs (Luke 22:7-38).
Only this time instead of the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’, he used ‘body’ and ‘blood’. And the difference, this time, was that he used the terms in front of a friendly audience—a group of people who were quite used to Jesus speaking in spiritual terms, i.e. the disciples themselves.
But this time, the command was not for a one-off commitment to him—as it had been to the crowd—but an act Jesus commanded believers to do repeatedly, on a regular basis, in remembrance of him. In remembrance of who he was, what he had done, and (at that time) what he was about to do.
And it is a practice that the church has continued, in more ritualised form, through the ages. However, again, not without its share of misunderstanding. Because before the church was less than a hundred years old, those words, ‘Take eat, this is my body’ and ‘Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood’ were taken by some outside the church to suggest that Christian’s were practicing cannibalism. It was a rumour that was not helped by the fact that non-believers were often physically excluded from the Communion part of services.
Now, we can smile at the tragedy of the misunderstanding of the Jews. We may even be able to sympathise with the Jews whose mindset was so completely on a different track. We may even get confused about the language ourselves—after all, it’s not ours, it belongs to another culture and another time. And we can smile at the misunderstanding regarding Communion in church services. However, for our own sakes, we must make sure that we don’t get caught up in the same mistakes of the past, and misunderstand those vitally important words of Jesus.
Because whereas most people’s response to Jesus and the Bible is still in terms of a physical response—because it’s about the things people do, it’s about the help people provide others, and it’s sometimes even about physical participation in the life of the church. But without first a spiritual response, without taking in Jesus, internally, into one self, we too will have missed the point.
Living good lives, doing good deeds, even regular attendance at church, do not make a Christian. To be a Christian one needs faith. In other words to be a Christian one has to accept Jesus internally into our very being. Living good lives, doing good deeds, and regular attendance at church may be important for believers, but only on the firm foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. Which was the whole point of what Jesus was trying to say.
There are, then, three vitally important questions that we need to ask ourselves.
And the first is: Have we partaken in the one-off eating of the flesh and the blood of Christ? In other words have we accepted Jesus as our lord and saviour, and taken him into ourselves? Is Jesus someone we have accepted internally, or are we stuck on outward physical observances only?
Secondly, if we have accepted Jesus, do we live with the consequences of that faith, day by day? The consequences: That we will be resurrected from the dead; that Jesus can meet our deepest needs; that our relationship with Jesus is not temporary, but permanent; that we need to participate in the mission of Jesus; and that we will inherit eternal life.
And thirdly, as a response to all of that, do we participate, as we should in the Lord’s Supper, in the partaking of his body and blood? Meeting together regularly to share in the memorial of his death and resurrection.
Now we all face misunderstandings. And I’m sure many of you could tell stories of events that you have experienced personally in your lives—some funny, some tragic. However, from the story of Jesus, today, is the lesson: that there is one area in our lives in which we cannot afford there to be a misunderstanding—and that is our relationship with God.
For us, misunderstandings may occur because our words are not clear or are misunderstood. Misunderstandings may occur because we talk at crossed purposes. And misunderstandings may occur because we simply don’t speak the same language. And no matter how hard we try, we will not be exempt from some misunderstanding. However, we need to make sure that our misunderstandings with God, do not have the same tragic consequences as those in our gospel story.
The crowd in the story were fixed on looking at life only from a physical dimension. As a result: they missed Jesus’s spiritual message; they missed out on a true relationship with God; they missed his promise of salvation; and they missed the promise of eternal life.
The warning for us then is clear: we should listen, take in, and live the spiritual life that Jesus spoke of, lest we too miss out on his promises too.
Posted: 24th November 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Tragedy or Opportunity? (John 9:1-41)
I never cease to be amazed at the strange things that people believe, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs. Indeed, even with a book of words inspired by God—that most have easy access to—we can still see and hear some very strange ideas.
The reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly know it all. For no matter how much we know, there will always be more to learn. And to some degree that’s fine, as long as we commit ourselves to learning more and teaching others what we have learnt.
What is strange, however, is the way that even after we have identified a problem that others have committed, we continue to repeat those same mistakes again and again and again.
Of course, sometimes we might give them a little twist. Yet the mistakes that we find in others we easily do ourselves; we realise the mistakes in others, and yet we so easily fall into the same old traps.
We all do it, you and me alike. And to illustrate the kind of thing that I’m referring to, I want to refer to this passage from John.
B. A MAJOR MISUNDERSTANDING
Because immediately the story begins, we are faced with one of the howlers of the bible. For in the very second verse of the passage, the disciples, who had been around Jesus for a while, demonstrated their lack of knowledge, by twisting God’s ways. Indeed, faced with the man born blind, they asked the question—which the majority of Jews would have asked at that time—”Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Yes, as soon as the disciples became aware of the man’s situation, they began to look for the cause. And despite the many options that were available to them, they instantly came up with the conclusion that God was punishing the man for one of two reasons: Either he had sinned whilst he was in his mother’s womb, or that he was being punished for something his parents had done.
Now we can smile at their attitude. We may even be tempted to think ourselves superior to that of the disciples. But how often these days when something goes wrong, do we hear those words: “What have I done to deserve this?” “He was a good man, he didn’t deserve that,” or some other such saying? When something goes wrong, how often do our first instincts blame God for what has gone wrong? How often do we look to God to find out for what we are being punished? And how often do people spend hours, and days, and weeks, and years, and even decades dwelling on the reasons for what went wrong?
Now, of course, the reality is that when things do go wrong, there can be a variety of causes. And we can identify the result of sin as the cause in the majority of cases. And God disciplining us, like a loving father wanting to bring us back to the fold, can be one such cause. But then so can: The consequences of our own actions, the consequences of other people’s actions, the consequences of what the community has done, and the consequences of the way our sinful nature has corrupted the world as a whole. What we suffer can be the result of sins a long time back in the past, even before our own time, as well as being the result of recent mistakes.
But sin is not the only cause. Because we also have the testing of God, as he gives us opportunities to grow and to show our loyalty. Of which, the testing of Abraham in being willing to sacrifice his son and heir is just one example.
In other words when things go wrong, the causes of our problems—which are usually steeped in sin of one description or another—can be many and varied. And therefore God’s direct action should not always be the first to get the blame.
But let’s get back to the disciples’ question for a moment: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Now, as I said, the sad thing about this question is that it picked up the common ideas of the people of the day. It was based on God’s words delivered at the giving of the ten commandments in 1446 BC. “for I the LORD your God, am a jealous God. I will punish the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and the fourth generation…” But unfortunately, it ignored God’s words which followed: “…of those who hate me but show covenant love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5b-6).
In other words, God had said that he wouldn’t tolerate families where the father had no time for God, and the sons, the grandsons, and their sons had no time for God either. It didn’t relate to situations where the father had sinned, and the son hadn’t carried on the sin at all.
And yet despite that, there was a common saying in use eight hundred years later in the days of Ezekiel around 580 BC: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the sons’ teeth are blunted” (Ezekiel 18:2b). AT that time God responded by saying, “You will no longer use this proverb in Israel . . . Look, all life is mine; the father’s life and the son’s life . . . Only the one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:3b-4). And yet, sadly, 600 years still further on, the disciples were still expressing the same woefully incorrect sentiments.
It is not a good idea, then, to instantly blame God for his direct hand in our woes. There can be many and varied causes to the things that we suffer. Yes, at times, it may be good to do some soul searching and self-examination. But we need to be very careful when we are looking around trying to find someone to blame. Indeed, we need to make sure that we don’t fall into the same old trap that we see in others. And we certainly need to make sure that we are certain of our facts before blaming God for our predicament.
C. A SECONDARY MISUNDERSTANDING
However, whilst we can heed the warning evident in the disciples’ understanding of sin and suffering, that is not the only thing this story has to offer.
Because, Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples for their misunderstanding’ He didn’t even correct it. It’s like it wasn’t relevant, and that there were far more important issues to deal with. Instead, he simply told them the actual position of the man: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents. It was in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
Now I’m sure, the disciples would have been stunned, just as many people today may be stunned when they hear this story. After all, how could God deliberately bring or allow a child to come into the world to suffer? And I’ve heard many a people today express those kinds of thoughts.
But, in the context of this story, those sorts of sentiments not only show a misunderstanding of the situation, but they misunderstand God too. Because whilst others, including the disciples would have seen the man’s situation as a tragedy, from God’s (and Jesus’s) point of view it was an opportunity. An opportunity for the man to grow in faith, and an opportunity for the world to see God’s works in action.
Our problem is that God doesn’t see things the way we do… Or perhaps more properly, it’s the other way around . . . We don’t see things the way that God sees them, and perhaps the way that we should see them.
Now the man born blind is not the only time in the Bible where God uses a disability to work his purposes. The apostle Paul had his so-called thorn in the flesh. But the apostle Paul recognised that it served a purpose: “To keep me from exalting myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh—a messenger of Satan—to torment me, to keep me from exalting myself. I called upon the Lord three times to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7b-9). Paul in turn was then able to minister to Timothy who had a weak stomach. The words of Paul to Timothy: “Do not drink water any longer. Instead, take a little wine for your stomach and frequent ailments.” (1 Tim 5:23).
But in each case, whether it was the blind man, Paul, or Timothy, it’s not that God didn’t care about their disability or ailment. It’s just that, for God, there was something far more important that needed to be considered. God loves his creation; he loves his people. But as you know and I know, every one of us is different and responds to different things in different ways.
As a consequence, with our salvation—our eternal life with him—being God’s primary goal, what these examples teach us, is that God is prepared to use every way possible that he thinks and knows that will help us respond to him, and help others respond to him too. And that includes allowing the man in our story to be born blind.
But, most importantly, the story doesn’t end there. Because, in our example, God didn’t just allow the man to be born, and then left him alone for the rest of his life. No! He involved himself in the man’s life. And the rest of the story makes some interesting reading, not least of all because Jesus did a very unusual thing.
The story of the man born blind is a different healing miracle to most. In most healing miracles, the person who required healing, approached Jesus, and not the other way around. So, for example, in the story of the ten lepers, it was the lepers who called out from a distance for help. And in the story of the paralytic, it was his friends who went to the trouble to bring the paralytic near.
But this miracle is different. This time, it was Jesus who took the initiative, not the man. It was Jesus who approached the man first. And in fact this time Jesus didn’t even ask the man if he wanted to be healed. He went ahead and did his part in the miracle anyway.
Now, yes of course, the man being born blind is a tragedy. But then so is Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and Timothy’s weak stomach. But can we see these stories from God’s point of view? Can we get beyond the tragedies and look at them as opportunities? Can we see the lengths that God is prepared to go to, to bring his people into the fold? And, applying that further, in our own lives, can we see beyond our own personal tragedies and see them as opportunities to grow, and opportunities for God?
Thinking like God is a very radical thing. Indeed it can turn our whole world upside down. But every tragedy can be an opportunity. It’s just a matter of how we look at things. Because opportunities to grow are very much part of the way that God thinks.
D. RESPONSES TO ADVERSITY
Now, I don’t want to say a lot about the rest of the story. The important parts of the story are in those first few verses. But having got the major misunderstanding out of the way, and having shown that God did care but had a greater purpose, did it work? Was God right in allowing the man to be born blind? Was the suffering the man went through worthwhile?
Because, yes, Jesus could do certain things. He could demonstrate what it was that he wanted to do. He could spit on the ground, make some mud, and put it on the man’s eyes. (Making it clear to the blind man that he wanted to do something about his physical blindness). And he could tell the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. But the rest was totally out of Jesus’s hands. It was up to the man himself.
After all, the man could have just sat there. He could have decided that staying blind meant he could continue to earn an income begging, because he certainly wouldn’t have had any other skills to earn a living. And no-one would give money to a formerly blind man who could now see. He could even have wiped the mud from his eyes or washed the mud out somewhere different to where he was told.
But none of those alternatives happened. Indeed, the man did exactly what Jesus said. He contributed to his own healing. And consequently we’re told that he received his physical sight. But more than that . . . As the story develops, and as we watch the man take one step after another, he received more than just his physical healing.
The man’s neighbours were all excited and couldn’t believe he was the same man they had known since a baby. And it wasn’t long before the religious leaders heard about him too. And the more he and his parents were quizzed—about whether he had really been blind and who given him his sight—the clearer the man became about what had happened, and who Jesus really was.
So when Jesus finally revealed himself as the Messiah, he was able to say without hesitation, “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he paid him reverence.”
Now I don’t know about you, but at this point any discussion of whether it was fair for God to allow the man to be born blind should be tossed out of the window. The ultimate aim for all of us, is that we should have an active relationship with our God and creator. But how we get there will be different for each and every one of us. And only God knows what we need in order to respond.
As a consequence some of us may feel at times that we have had a tap on the shoulder. Some of us will have visions. Some of us will feel a presence. And some of may have a life changing experience—an opportunity to reassess our whole reason for living. But whatever our experience, it will different for each of us.
But there is one thing that is guaranteed, and that is that the hand of God will be there somewhere. So, if God knows that a certain person needs to born blind, in order to respond, then who are we to argue?
Now is that a tragedy or an opportunity? I guess that depends upon whose eyes you are looking through.
So whether it is the man born blind, the apostle Paul, Timothy, or even ourselves, the important thing is, that no matter what we are going through, and no matter what the cause, God wants us to use those experiences to help us grow.
Now that doesn’t mean that any transformation, from unbeliever to believer (and beyond) will be easy. Even the blind man had to face a very hostile reaction from the Pharisees. But despite that, and maybe because of it, he grew in faith, until he was able to come face to face with Jesus and proclaim his undying faith. And so should we.
And with that the story is brought back full circle. Because what did Jesus say was the point of the man being born blind? So that he could witness to others about the works of God.
When things go wrong, then, do we cry out, “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” Do we dwell on what when wrong because it’s like it’s the only thing that matters? Or do we realise that there are many reasons for the things that we suffer, and God’s direct hand is not always the cause.
Do we see the tragedies of life only as tragedies? Or do we see them as opportunities—opportunities to grow and opportunities for God?
The story of the man born blind is a story of a man who did not mope around when he was given his opportunity. Rather he grabbed his opportunity with both hands. And as a consequence it wasn’t just his eyesight that was restored. Similarly with the apostle Paul. Because he came to accept his thorn in the flesh, he was able to use it as a tool for growth.
And then there’s us . . . Well are our tragedies and ailments, tragedies or opportunities? Do we continue to say, “Why me?” “What have I done to deserve that,” and even blame God for all our misfortunes. Do spend time and energy consumed with the cause? Or do we see our situations through God’s eyes, as opportunities to grow in the love of God?
Tragedies or Opportunities? Two ways of looking at the same situation. Which is the one that we choose?
Posted: 6th February 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Dying to Live (John 12:24-26)
If I were to have a stab at picking out one theme which seems to have pervaded the whole world over the last few years, it would be the morbid subject of death and dying.
As a country we seem to swing from widespread droughts to repeated floods. Indeed, the emphasis is either on everything dying from lack of water—grass, shrubs, trees, crops and with farmers having to go to drastic measures to reduce their livestock they can no longer feed— or on everything dying because of too much water—with the washing away of the topsoil and the ruining of crops.
In addition, on our television news we seem to be constantly bombarded by reminders of our mortality. From the latest fatal accident on the road—and the continuing road toll—to bush fires and the latest murder.
And if all that is not enough, then there is also the talk of the financial problems of the world, the fighting in the world, and the latest news on epidemics and pandemics.
As a consequence, it can seem that we are constantly stuck on the one theme: of bad news of death and destruction.
Which is probably why, today, we should ask ourselves, the question: ‘Where can we turn to for some good news? Where can we turn to for something positive and uplifting?’
Well, I’m going to suggest that we can find it in the bible. However, I’m also going to suggest that if we want good news, then we really can’t separate it from the bad news. Because our worldwide experience of bad news—of death and dying—is a major theme in the bible. In a sense, it reflects life— the life we experience. But there’s a difference between the death and dying we experience daily in our news bulletins, and the death and dying which is very much part of our Christian faith. And we need to pick it.
And I want to illustrate what I mean by referring to this passage from John’s Gospel.
B. DYING AND LIVING
1. The Importance of Dying – Jesus (John 12:24)
Because in John’s gospel we can read some words of Jesus about the necessity of death. And I repeat them: ‘Truly truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will remain a single grain . . .’
So, according to this first part of Jesus’ saying, life is not possible without death. And that is a general truth about life which every farmer can attest. Crops can’t grow unless seeds are buried (or planted) first, and they cease to be the seeds that they were.
However, Jesus continued, ‘But if it dies, it will bear much fruit.’ In other words, there’s a reason why things die—and it doesn’t always have to be doom and gloom.
2. The Importance of Dying – Us (John 12:25)
Similarly, talking specifically about people—and that includes us—Jesus continued, ‘Anyone who loves his life will lose it . . .’
But again, it’s not all doom and gloom either, because he then continued to say ‘. . . and anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’
In other words, Jesus didn’t just speak about the necessity of his own death, so that people could have life, but that death and dying, particularly when it relates to dying to this life so that we can live for the next, should be part and parcel of everyone’s experience.
Just like the seed, then, we too need to die, be buried, drown—or whatever other expression we’d like to use—in order that God’s crop may grow in us. And holding on to this life—refusing to be planted—will only mean that we remain a useless, unproductive seed. And we all know what happens to them.
3. The Importance of Living (John 12:26)
But why all this empathises on death and dying? Well Jesus continued: ‘If anyone wishes to serve me, let him follow. For where I am, my servant will be there also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.’
The outcome of dying is so that we can be servants of Christ. If we don’t die, we cannot follow Jesus. If we don’t die, we cannot be his servants. If we don’t die, we cannot have a personal relationship with him. And if we don’t die, our Father cannot honour us or give us the gift of eternal life.
So, as I said at the beginning, with all the doom and gloom of this world, with all its emphasis on death and dying, if we thought we could escape the theme of death and dying by looking to the bible to get good news—and good news only—then we would be quite wrong. Because one of the major themes in the bible is about death and dying.
However, I did say that the bible was different. And the difference is that whereas in this world we’re used to talking about living, and then dying, in that order—we live our lives, and then hopefully at a good age, we die—in the bible the concepts of living and dying are the other way around. Indeed, we need to die to this world, so that we may live. And that is the good news.
So, what does all this ‘dying so that we can live’ mean? What does it mean for us, in practical terms? Well, it appears to me, that in Christian terms there are three basic things we need to look at. And the order in which they come needs to be strictly adhered to.
1. Dying to Sin –Living for Christ (Justification) (Romans 6:8-10)
And the first relates to the primary issue of faith.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote: ‘So if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ has been raised from the dead, never to die again. Death no longer lords it over him. For the death that he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life that he lives, he lives to God.’
Now that might seem, at first hearing, like a bit of religious gobbledegook, and it probably is. But what Paul was trying to get at was the importance of having a Christian faith.
Those who put their faith and trust in Jesus—those who have decided to put their lives, their future salvation in the hands of God, who believe that what Jesus has done is sufficient for their salvation—these are people who have died, so that they might have life.
In practical terms, Paul saw this, as a one-off event. And some people can pinpoint a date and time to their conversion experience—an event that stands out as the time that they accepted God into their lives. However, for others, the point of their conversion is not that clear.
But regardless, what is important is the realisation that you have decided to put all your past behind you, with all your faults, loves and desires. And you have committed yourself totally to Jesus, for making you eligible for admission into heaven, and to seek a closer, and ongoing, walk with God.
Jesus’s death has ensured salvation, and his resurrection has ensured every believer’s resurrection to eternal life. As a consequence, anyone who dies to themselves, by putting away the old and embracing the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ, can now live as disciples of Christ—and be guaranteed a place in eternity.
2. Dying to Sins. Living for Christ (Sanctification) (Colossians 3:2)
But, having made that initial one-off commitment, is that it?
No! The second point, regarding the need to die so that we can live, relates to everyday life.
And as a consequence of having already accepted Jesus as our saviour, the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Colossae: ‘Focus your minds on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’
Now the need to continue our new walk with God on a daily basis is a very important part of being a believer. To not do so, however, doesn’t make one unsaved (because we are saved through faith), but it does rather reflect on our gratitude, and the seriousness by which we take our faith.
Paul’s argument, therefore, is that a person who has become a Christian has already experienced a radical change of spiritual environment at their conversion. And this should them be reflected in their whole way of life from that day on. A Christian should have new aims in life, away from the usual human ambitions of this world. A Christian should start to see things from a heavenly perspective and should become dominated by the pattern of life seen in the example of Jesus himself. A Christian’s aims should be to grow in holiness, depth of prayer, and become more advanced in the use of their spiritual gifts. And, in the face of the constant battle with temptation, the Christian should resist reverting to past ways and for what many people might consider an ordinary life. The believer should not only try to resist such evil thoughts, but positively set his thoughts on the things of God.
3. Being Prepared to Die for Christ (Philippians 1:21)
And the third point, regarding the need to die so that we can live, is a bit of a paradox. Because it relates to the depth of our Christian commitment.
Words from the Apostle Paul, this time to the church at Philippi: ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’
Paul was in prison, and his future was looking very gloomy. Indeed, he didn’t know how long he had left to live. Yet as far as he was concerned, he was in a win-win situation. If he continued to live, he could continue to tell people about Jesus. However, if he was executed—if he was put to death for the sake of the gospel—then he would be with his beloved Jesus, his saviour.
In other words, Paul had counted up all that was most valuable to him, and he considered that being with Christ was more valuable than anything else in the world. As a consequence, he had nothing to lose— he could not help but to come out in front.
Having died spiritually, so that he could accept Jesus as his Lord and saviour, the kind of dying (or commitment) that Paul was describing, was the all-out, no holds barred, total devotion to God. But with the assurance, that no matter what, in the end, a believer will end up with their saviour.
When we are talking about dying, so that we can live, then, it is very important to consider the lengths we are prepared to go to for the sake of the gospel. Because putting our lives on the line for Jesus—being prepared to die for God—is something that should be part of every believer’s experience.
On the subject of death and dying, therefore, when we are talking about the gospel, we are talking about good news. The Christian faith is not about living, and then dying, but it is about dying, in order that we can live.
And if we do that, if we get that right, we too like Paul will be in a win-win situation—a situation in which we cannot lose. If we continue to live, then we will be free to do God’s work in the world. But, if we physically die, then we know we will be with our Lord and saviour.
And with all the doom and gloom of this world that has to be good news.
So, in our doom and gloom filled world, there is hope. There is something we can very much look forward to.
However, we need to take those three steps in order to have that reason for living—for the joy of hope abounding in our lives.
Those three steps again:
Firstly, we have to die to ourselves, and to our sins, so that we gain life in Jesus Christ. Secondly, as a consequence, we need to die daily, so that we can become more like him. And thirdly, we need to die to ourselves, so that we can have that level of commitment, so that whether we physically die or not we can rest in the knowledge that we are either working for Christ or being with him.
Posted: 3rd December 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Loving One Another (John 13:31-35)
Having to saying goodbye, for many people, is not an easy thing to do. Whether it is us who are moving away, coming to the end of a visit, or coming to the end of life itself, or whether it is someone else, saying farewell and facing up to the fact that we might not see someone for a while, or ever again, can be a very difficult thing to do. As a consequence, as part of a way of coping with such situations, as a society, we have evolved a number of rituals (formal and informal) in order to ease the situation.
For example, when someone dies it is usual to farewell them by conducting a funeral, and we can express our grief and loss as we gather around the coffin. On the other hand, when people are going away for a while, or moving away, words are usually employed as an encouragement to continue the relationship, even at a distance.
Of course, sometimes our words can seem quite silly, like: ‘Be good’, ‘Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do’ or ‘Look after yourself’. But regardless of the quality of the words, the sentiment behind them is clear. And that is that they are an expression (however inadequate) of the care that we have for that person, and that we are truly sad about the separation, no matter for how long.
1. Jesus Bids Farewell (31-33)
Imagine for a moment, then, the situation of Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, in our gospel passage. Jesus and the disciples had gathered together as part of the celebrations leading up to the Passover. All quite innocent enough. Except for the fact that where we meet the story, Judas had just left the room to put into action the plan to betray Jesus.
Now the rest of the disciples knew nothing about what was going on. They certainly didn’t understand what had to happen to Jesus. And they were totally ignorant of Judas’s part in the plan. However immediately that Judas left them, Jesus told the remaining eleven disciples that he was going away and, what’s worse, that none of them could go with him.
To say that the disciples would have been shocked would be a gross understatement of the situation. For sure, Jesus had talked about the Son of Man having to die and that he could be raised three days later. But to be honest all that sort of talk had gone straight over their heads. So, when Jesus talked in terms of leaving them, about going to a place, and about them being unable to go with him, apart from being saddened—in the same way that you or I would when saying goodbye to a good friend—they would have been very confused indeed.
But Jesus reassured them: It was necessary, he had to go. And one day they would understand. And he had to go for three reasons:
Firstly, so that he would be glorified. In other words, he was telling them that he had to do the very thing that he was sent to earth to do—to die, to save others from their sins, so that, as a consequence, others could see and accept God’s salvation work for themselves in the crucifixion and acknowledge Jesus as the saviour of the world.
Secondly, as a result of that, so that God could be glorified in Jesus. In other words, he was telling them that God could then give his seal of approval on Jesus’ crucifixion work, by resurrecting him from the dead, which would reflect the depth of love God had for his creation.
And, thirdly, because the time had come for him to act, and there was a pressing need to do this without delay. Now was the right time, and Jerusalem, at that time, was the right and proper place.
Now without doubt the upper room scene was just as difficult a farewell for Jesus as it was for the disciples. He knew what he had to say was difficult, and he knew what he had to go on and do wasn’t going to be easy either. Because even though his affection for the eleven remaining disciples (plus his other faithful followers) had grown so strong, leaving them behind was something he had to do.
He did, however, have a few hours left. But after that . . . Well, it might be some time before they saw him again.
2. Love One Another (34-35)
Now, having delivered the shocking news: that he was going to go away, and that there was nothing that the disciples could do to stop that, Jesus then proceeded to launch into his farewell speech. A speech intended to hold the disciples in good stead until he should come again.
And at the beginning of that speech, he did what many of us do, and that is he gave the ‘look after yourself talk’. Only with Jesus, as you might expect, there was a little more involved: ‘I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Indeed, that you are to love one another as I have loved you’ (34).
Now, in reality there was nothing new about Jesus’s command to love. Indeed, it was an old idea that dated back to the time of Moses (Leviticus 19:18). What was different about what Jesus was saying, though, was that he expected the disciples not just to care for their neighbours—as the Old Testament commandment was usually taken to mean—but rather, as a small group of followers being left alone who needed all the support and encouragement that they could get, to really care for one another on a much more intimate basis.
For sure they should still love others—neighbours and enemies alike. But, as part of a brotherhood of faith based on Jesus’ life and work, what was new, and what was expected, was a special focus on the need to care for each other on an even higher level than would normally be expected in caring for one’s fellow man.
And ‘love’ as the focus? Well, the kind of love that Jesus wanted was the kind that at the time was rarely mentioned in literature—except in the bible. The kind of love that Jesus described was the kind that was recognised as the highest and noblest form of love that there was. It not only incorporated love as a religious duty towards one’s fellow man, where practical help for those who needed it was very much the order of the day. But more that. Indeed, in this instance, it was love specifically targeted towards one’s fellow believers.
It was imitating God’s love to a brother or sister in Christ. It was recognition that Jesus lived within that other person. And it was the need to treat that other person as though they were Jesus himself.
Now, as far as Jesus was concerned this kind of love wasn’t a fantasy. On the contrary, Jesus himself had set the example. And now, as Jesus was going away and wouldn’t be with his disciples for a while, he wanted to make sure that they stayed together.
Yes, they needed to care for others. Yes, they needed to care for their enemies. But more importantly they were to love one another and to follow in the steps that he had trod.
Jesus’s exhortation, then, was not to ask them to do anything that he hadn’t done himself. Indeed, all he was asking was they imitate his very own behaviour. But this time to each other.
3. Distinguishing Mark (35)
And if they did that . . . Jesus concluded: ‘If you do this, if you have love for one another, all men will know that you are my disciples’ (35).
Not only would the disciples get the human support they needed at this very difficult time. But in addition, there would be no doubt about to whom the disciples belonged. By implication, the rest of the world would then sit up and take notice. And what a magnet that would be, for attracting others to Jesus and the Christian faith.
Saying goodbye to someone, then, might be something that most of us don’t find easy—and in that upper room, it wasn’t something that Jesus found easy either. Indeed, in the words that Jesus spoke, he recognised that. However, in the sadness of the moment he gave his disciples a message—a message which provided some very important instructions indeed.
Now fortunately for us, we don’t have to face the shock of Jesus having to leave us so that he can be crucified and resurrected—like the disciples did. Because that has already happened. And the fact is, we are now waiting for Jesus to come again.
Despite that, however, the words of advice to the disciples—Jesus’s new commandment of how to behave in the period of his absence—are just as important now as they were back in the upper room. They still have very important implications, that we should take note of today:
1. Loving Fellow Believers
And the first of these relates to the question of whether we really do care for our fellow believers or not. And whether we really go out of our way to help and encourage those around us who share the Christian faith.
Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love and care for others as well. But it does raise the issue of how seriously we demonstrate compassion and care for those who are like minded in their acceptance of Jesus as saviour and Lord.
For example, when fellow believers struggle spiritually—or otherwise—are we there to help them through? When fellow believers get into the difficulties of life of any description, are we there to give them support? And do we give our effort, time, energy, possessions, financial support, or whatever it takes in order to build and support our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith?
Because that’s what Jesus did. Yes, Jesus showed compassion for all. But, on top of that, he made a special effort when it came to his devoted disciples. He provided food for their family’s tables (fishing miracles). He healed sick relatives (Peter’s Mother-in-law, Lazarus). And he spent a lot of extra time just with his faithful followers teaching and encouraging them in their faith.
Jesus set an example on how, as believers, we are supposed to live. We are supposed to encourage and build up one another—to do what Jesus commanded his disciples to do. We need to give time, patience, understanding, material support, and a listening ear to our fellow believers. And that is the expectation (not a request) of Jesus for all believers.
And, if we do, then the natural response will be, that not only will the members of his church be cared for. But others will stand up and take notice.
At issue is not only the need to care for one another but is the witness and unity of the church. A church that functions with a group of people united in belief and mission, and who really care for one another, will have the added effect of being attractive to people outside the fold.
Now, that doesn’t mean that within the church there can’t be differences of opinion, and different ideas on how to reach God’s goals. However, what it does mean is that if the members of the church love one another, as they are supposed to, the church will remain strong, united in acknowledging the one and only true God, the one and only Saviour, and the common purpose of the church—to worship God and to tell others about the faith. All expressed through the loving way we care for one another.
And if that happens, any differences that believers have will become insignificant in the scheme of things. And the church will naturally attract others to its doors.
However, without that love, there will be no unity, the church will be torn apart and divided. It will have no common purpose, and its existence will become counter-productive. And what’s worse, with disunity, the members of the church will be guilty of the worst crime that could ever be committed by anyone—and that is turning people away from God. A crime that people will need to answer for come judgement day.
When Jesus embarked on his farewell speech then, is it any wonder that he began with the topic of love?
Love is fundamental to the Christian message. Love is what God showed his creation in sending Jesus. Love is what Jesus demonstrated in this world, particularly through his death. And as a consequence, love is the one thing above all other that the faithful are expected, not requested, to express in their lives.
Indeed, love is the one thing that holds the whole Christian Gospel together. And by application, lack of love, lack of caring, is the one thing that will tear the whole thing apart.
When we consider saying goodbye to our family and friends then, yes, we may find it difficult. But then we should remember how hard it was for Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples too.
Fortunately for us, however, his farewell speech to his disciples had some very sound advice. Indeed, not just advice but a commandment—a commandment for all Christians to love one another.
At the heart of this commandment is everything that God and Jesus stand for. And it’s what we should be standing for too.
The words of Jesus to love then are not a request but a command. And we need to take them very seriously indeed.
Posted: 9th December 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Trust Also in Me (John 14:1)
All of us, at some time or another, have been on the receiving end of bad news. And some might be trying to digest that news right now.
It could be family news, where things are not going well in our family relationships, where members of the family are fighting one another and there seems no end to the situation. It could be health related, where a visit to the doctor has resulted in a less than promising report. It could be the loss of a job, particularly where the prospects of finding another, in the short term, seems very unlikely, and where the prospects for the future seem pretty bleak. Or it could be something that doesn’t affect us directly, but still has that nasty effect of making us very unsettled. For example, news of a natural disaster, or war, or one of a number of other things.
When bad news comes, it can hit really hard. Then what we want is some good news. For someone to tell us it’s all a mistake or, alternatively, someone who can wave a magic wand and resolve the dilemma by making everything OK again. But as you and I know that doesn’t always happen.
Now as Christians we have the advantage of knowing a God who cares. Someone we can pray to and someone with whom we can share our troubles. But what happens when those prayers don’t seem to be answered? What happens when the trauma, the bad news, just doesn’t go away? When the tendency is to feel that God is not listening? Where are we then with our faith?
After all, how many of us are like King David? A man of faith who lived his whole life surrounded by enemies. And although he prayed many times for God to take them away, it never happened. And yet he was still confident in expressing his faith and trust in God to see him through (Psalm 23). And how many of us are like the Apostle Paul? Faced with that thorn in the flesh that so troubled him (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), that he pleaded with God three times for it to be removed. Only to realise that God wasn’t going to remove it, and that he had to face up to the fact that it was something that he had to live with.
No, not all of us are like David or Paul. In fact, many of us may be more likely to identify with the disciples. Because when told by Jesus them some bad news, they basically fell apart and lost everything.
Let me explain.
B. THE DISCIPLES
For in this passage from John’s gospel we are faced with a situation where Jesus had just delivered two bits of bad news to his disciples. News that would have left them very shaken indeed.
The first bit, directed to all of the disciples, was that he was about to leave them, and that where he was going they couldn’t follow.
Now, I want you to imagine a group of men who had left everything for their leader. They’d left their families, their businesses, everything. Jesus was their leader. He was the Messiah that the people had waited for centuries to come. And as a consequence, this group of men had dedicated several years of their lives following Jesus from town to town. But now, he had just told them that he would be betrayed, that we would leave them, and where he was going they couldn’t go with him.
And if that bit of bad news wasn’t traumatic enough, the second bit of news, directed to Peter, was that Peter would shortly deny Jesus three times. And that would not only have traumatised Peter but, as one of the leaders of the twelve, it would have had far-reaching effects on the others too. After all, if Peter, one of the most dedicated of the disciples was about to do that, then what were implications for the behaviour of the rest?
Now, of course, you can imagine their protests of the disciples. Nevertheless, like David and Paul, the trauma of the disciples was not something that Jesus was going to take away. The disciples might have wanted Jesus to say that it was all some sort of silly mistake. But Jesus couldn’t do that—he couldn’t back away from his own crucifixion. So, instead, the traumas were ones that the disciples had to cop on the chin, because they were necessary for the bigger picture.
2. Words of Comfort
It’s not surprising then, that having delivered the bad news and understanding the discomfort that his words had brought. that the very next words of Jesus were words of comfort. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’ (Jn 14:1).
The disciples may not have been able to understand why they had to face the traumas that they did, but they were necessary for the bigger picture. A bigger picture that Jesus went on to explain in terms of the necessity to go, so that he could go and prepare a place in his Father’s house for all believers (10:2-4), so that all of his disciples could enjoy living with the Father in the Father’s house. And the necessity to go, in order that another counsellor could be sent to them—the Holy Spirit (16:5-16). Someone who would teach and guide them in all things.
3. The Response of the Disciples
The end result to all of this, however, was that despite Jesus’s words of comfort, the disciples did not put their trust in Jesus. In less than twenty-four hours, Jesus was betrayed by Judas; Peter denied Jesus three times; and all of the disciples, without exception, abandoned him. And whilst the disciples’ response to the situation was tragic, there can be some comfort for us, that when we slip and fail in our trust of God, that even the greatest of Jesus’s followers had failed him too. And that is despite the fact that they had seen and witnessed many things:
a) Witnesses to Miracles
They’d seen Jesus change water into wine (2:1-11). They’d been witnesses to a healing of a person who was not even in Jesus’s presence—as the Official’s Son was reported to be healed (14:43-54). They’d seen first-hand the healing of the Paralytic at the Pool (5:1-15). They’d been there when Jesus had fed five thousand men with five small loaves and two small fish (6:1-15). They’d seen Jesus walked on water (6:16-25). They’d been there when he’d healed a Man Born Blind (9:1-12). And they had witnessed the stone being removed from Lazarus’s tomb and Lazarus raised from the dead (11:38-44).
b). The Example of Jesus
And they’d been taught by Jesus and shown by example what it was to be people of God. They were there when he cleared the temple from the abuses of money lenders and salesmen (2:12-25). They’d found Jesus showing compassion to a Samaritan woman (4:27-38). Jesus had talked many times about who he was, and what he had come to bring (5:16-47, 7:14-44). They were there when he talked about being the bread of life (6:25-59). They were there when he showed compassion to a woman caught in adultery (8:1-11). They were there when Jesus talked about being the good shepherd (10:1-21). They were firsthand witnesses when Jesus presented himself to the Jews as a king, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (12:12-19). And they were there, and probably very embarrassed, when Jesus took the role of a servant, and washed the dust off their feet (13:1-17).
(And these are just some of the references from John’s Gospel alone).
No Jesus wasn’t a stranger when he told the disciples to trust in him. They had had several years of not only clinging on to every word that he said, and they had witnessed that Jesus wasn’t just another in a line of people who claimed to be the Messiah. He actually was the genuine article. He was who he said he was.
With their background, therefore, the disciples’ betrayal, denial, and abandoning of Jesus is extra puzzling. However, on a certain level their lack of trust is understandable. Because even we sometimes get so wrapped up in our own problems, and even frustrated at the lack of solutions, that we fail to see that God still cares, and it’s just that there is a bigger picture that we don’t always see.
So, when it comes to bad news—and our reaction to it—we may well identify better with the disciples, than we do with people like David and Paul.
Now, of course, the disciples’ failure was short lived. After the resurrection, their faith and trust in Jesus became well known. The church was established, and the Gospel spread. The disciples learnt from their mistakes. They learnt to trust in God, even when things looked bleak.
And so should we. Because when bad news comes, and there doesn’t seem to be a way clear, when we’re feeling low and things are getting on top of us and prayer doesn’t seem to resolve the problem, there are a number of things that we can do that may help.
1. The Scriptures
And the first thing is that we can remind ourselves that not all of our dilemmas will be resolved in our lifetime. Because apart from scriptures that tell us about people like King David and the Apostle Paul, who had to learn to live with their problems, and apart from the fact the disciples also had to learn to face the trauma of the separation from Jesus—and crucifixion—no matter how short a time that might have been, we also have other scriptures scattered throughout the bible which suggest that troubles are part and parcel of life (Christian’s included):
From the prophet Nahum: ‘The LORD is good. He is a refuge in a day of trouble. He knows those who see refuge in him’ (Nahum 1:7). From Paul: ‘Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, and be constant in prayer’ (Romans 12:12). And of course, the words of Jesus himself: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1).
2. Experiences of the Faithful
Secondly, despite that, we can remind ourselves of the experiences of the faithful throughout the ages. We can read and think about the many wonderful things that the people of God experienced in their pilgrimages because of their faith, despite all the negative moments and times. Because despite their traumas, King David, the Apostle Paul and even in the end the disciples learnt to trust in God. Yes, they experienced hard times, but they were still blessed because of their faith.
3. Our Own Experiences
Thirdly, we can add to the experiences of the disciples by adding our own experiences of God. We can think about them, write them down. And when times get tough, we can remind ourselves of the times that God has blessed us too.
4. The Promises of Jesus
And, fourthly, we can think about the promises of Jesus to his disciples: The necessity of his death so that we can have a place to live with God. But more than that, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
At the time for the disciples, it was a future promise—a promise they had to wait until Pentecost to receive. But for us it should be an everyday reality. The Holy Spirit given to guide and direct us, and to show us the way in all things.
And then, with all these things, and with the support of one other, when we get tied up in our own problems—no matter how important they may seem, and they may seem to be very important—we might find it easier to remember that God does care. In fact, he cares more than we can possibly understand or explain. Sometimes there is a reason beyond what we know, and a bigger picture we just cannot see. And what we need to do is to trust in God and stand firm anyway.
Yes, bad news comes to all of us from time to time. Some seem to get more than others, and some seem to manage it better than others. But for some Christians, bad news is a real challenge to their faith.
However, that shouldn’t be. Because if the bible teaches anything, it’s not the quantity or depth of the trauma that is important. (After all, Job would have to have hit the jackpot in that regard—and God considered him a righteous man). No, it’s not the trauma or even the existence of it that is the issue. But it’s what one does with it, that is the thing that matters. And that’s why Jesus spoke those words to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn 14:1).
Behind the troubles of life, there will be things we will not always understand. And at times there will be things which are part of a bigger picture. What we need to learn, therefore, is that some of our troubles may not necessarily go away, and we will not always be in a position to understand why. However, Jesus does offer a helping hand, and all he asks us is to trust.
So today, yes, we have the problem of bad news, but we also have a solution. The solution may not be the answer we are looking for—because we would probably prefer that the bad news is resolved. However, even in the disciples’ case, the bad news was for a reason (even if they didn’t understand it at the time).
The question is, though, is God’s solution one we can accept? Is Jesus’s hand, one we can reach out and touch? Or do prefer to try to resolve our own traumas and dilemmas? Jesus offers us a solution. But is it one we are prepared to take?
Posted: 17th December 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Another Counsellor (John 14:16)
These days we seem to have become a nation of Do-It-Yourself-ers. Or that’s what the TV tries to tell us. If something breaks, we try to fix it:
If there’s a problem with the car, we become mechanics. If we have a minor electrical fault or the sink is blocked, we become electricians or plumbers. If our clothes need darning or repair, we become dressmakers. If there’s a legal problem, well, more and more these days people are doing their own conveyancing, writing their own wills without the assistance of a solicitor, and representing themselves in court. And with health …? Well think of the number of alternatives there are these days without having to consult a doctor.
Of course, some people like to steer clear of all that sort of thing and are happy to call in the experts. But many, particularly when faced with a call out charge of $50 or more, before anything is actually done, prefer to have a go themselves. And for those inexperienced and facing a completely new task for the first time, there is always a manual to follow or a range of advice that is available.
Of course, in many instances Do-It-Yourself is fine, and a lot of satisfaction can be obtained in completing something you have done yourself. (And if all else fails you can always call in a professional.) But what if the issue involved is not of a material nature, but spiritual? How much, then, should we be dependent upon our own abilities? How much should we depend on the advice of others? And how much should we rely on simply reading the manual?
B. BACKGROUND TO THE GOSPEL
Now this would have been an issue that the disciples had to face. Because, if Jesus was going to go away, and where he was going they couldn’t follow, what would they do?
This was a group who had given up everything—their homes, their livelihood, their families, and even their lifestyles—several years before. They’d dedicated themselves to follow Jesus. They’d witnessed many miracles. They’d seen his compassion, and the way he cared for others. He’d taught them about God. And he’d sent them out to minister to others. With all that they’d gone through, then, to be told that he was about to leave would have been devastating.
As a consequence, their first reaction would have been unbelief. But that was probably followed by the questions: “What was to happen next? What would they do?” “Did this mean their source of spiritual advice was gone, and that they were now on their own?” “Did they need to become Do-It-Yourself Christians?”
They weren’t confident. They really didn’t understand what was going on. So, who could they turn to for help in spiritual matters? After all, the religious leaders of the day were worse than useless. So, who could they call on for professional help?
C. “ANOTHER COUNSELLOR”
It’s not difficult to imagine the disciples floundering. And perhaps that’s why Jesus’s response to the situation was to immediately assure them that just because he was going, didn’t mean he was going to leave them alone. Indeed, he began to describe “another counsellor” who was to be sent to them, to help them in spiritual matters. Someone who would be very much like himself.
But there would be differences, and some conditions.
1. The “Counsellor” Announced
Firstly, the counsellor would only be sent to them on condition that Jesus went away (16:7). The departure of Jesus may have seemed to the disciples a disastrous bit of news, however Jesus told them it was to be for their benefit.
The coming death of Jesus was critical. It was part of God’s plan to bring about salvation for mankind. Only if Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, could men receive the Spirit in all its fullness. The work of the Spirit in the believer was a consequence of the saving work of Jesus, and not something separate from it. Jesus had to die, in order for the Spirit to be given.
Secondly, the counsellor would be sent in the name of Jesus (14:26). The Spirit was regarded as being connected in the most intimate way with both the Father and the Son. He was to be sent by the Father, but in the name of the Son. And his mission derived from both. Indeed, the Spirit’s role would be to continue the work of Christ, here on earth.
And thirdly, the counsellor would not only be with them continually, but, in some way, dwell within them (14:16f). Unlike Jesus’s bodily presence, which had to be withdrawn from them, this new state of affairs would be permanent. The Spirit, once given, would not be withdrawn.
For a group of people who had become so dependent upon Jesus, the promise of more expert help—a replacement—must have been reassuring. But then, they were not used to being Do-It-Yourself Christians. It was totally foreign to them.
2. The Role of the “Counsellor”
So they would also have taken heart in the role that Jesus told them that the counsellor was supposed to play:
Firstly, the counsellor was to bear witness to Jesus (15:26). Just as Jesus proclaimed the necessity of the Messiah to die in order that sins could be forgiven, so the Spirit’s role was to testify to the truth of what Jesus proclaimed. In essence this was the continuation of Jesus’s work in the world.
Secondly, the counsellor was to work in unbelievers. Namely, to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement (16:8). To convince people that they do not meet God’s high standards and that they fail to keep God’s commandments. In this role he was to act like a prosecutor at a trial, trying to convince people that they are out of touch with God and their created purpose, and that they need to acknowledge the truth about sin, righteousness and judgement.
Thirdly, the counsellor’s role was to be more than just a prosecutor. He would also have the role of being an advocate. Someone who would act as counsel and defend believers in the heavenly court. But he was not to be just a legal representative. He was to be a friend at court, performing functions that would not be required in any earthly court. He was to be a legal helper, and a friend who would do whatever was necessary to forward their best interests.
And, fourthly, the counsellor’s role would be to be a teacher, and to remind them of all that Jesus had said (14:26). Jesus acknowledged that the disciples had not grasped the significance of a good deal of what he had taught them, and it was likely that they would let slip some of the things they didn’t understand. The counsellor’s role, therefore, was to fill in the gaps. It was not to teach them something different to what Jesus had taught. On the contrary his role was to recall Jesus’s teaching.
So, just as the disciples’ world was falling apart, after Jesus had told them he was leaving them and when it began to look as though they were spiritually on their own, Jesus talked in some depth about “another Counsellor”. Someone who would be sent to replace him. But effectively someone in whom they could depend upon for their spiritual needs.
Now that’s quite a promise that Jesus made to his disciples. And even though in the next twenty-four hours the disciples betrayed him, denied him and ran away, after the resurrection, at Pentecost, the disciples were witnesses to the fact that Jesus did keep his promise, and, indeed, they received this “another counsellor” for themselves. And as history goes, what a difference it made to the disciples and to the early church.
The disciples weren’t left to their own devises. They didn’t have to depend on themselves for spiritual guidance and growth. They didn’t have to rely on other spiritual people, or even rely on a manual. They were given the Holy Spirit to lead and guide them, and to depend upon.
But that was the disciples, and that was the early church. But what about us today? In our Do-It-Yourself world, where there is a tendency to go off and do our own thing, this should be an important issue for us to consider too.
1. Dependence on the Holy Spirit
Because, first of all, it’s not just the disciples who were in need of spiritual support, we need it too. We need someone to stand up as a witness of the things that Jesus said and did. And that’s probably more important now than it was to the disciples back then. After all, we weren’t there. They were.
We still need someone to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgement. The disciples were unable to save themselves, and neither are we. We still need someone who will be our advocate, speaking on our behalf to God. We need a friend to argue our case. And we need someone we can rely on to teach us what Jesus said, and to help us understand the implications for ourselves.
So, yes, we still need that spiritual support.
2. Not an Optional Extra
Secondly, with the natural reaction to go our own way and to live independent lives, we need to accept that we cannot come close to God using our own strength and abilities. If the bible teaches us anything, it teaches that we cannot do this in our strength.
Yes, we can use our initiative, we can call on the advice of others and we can read the manual, but calling on the Holy Spirit to help us is not an optional extra. It is something we need to do and do continually.
And, if there are obstacles that block our way, we need to ask for help to put those obstacles aside.
3. The Cost of Discipleship
And, thirdly, the cost.
Well in one sense, any Do-It-Yourself-er should be happy. The counsellor is free. The Holy Spirit costs nothing. It’s what God gives us when we become a Christian.
But, having said that, we also need to recognise that the counsellor can be very costly. Particularly, as he begins to convince us of our weaknesses and failings, and as we are called on to change our habits, our way of life, our priorities, and our whole way of looking at things. The very nature of the Spirit’s role in our lives means that we will change, as bit-by-bit we become more Christ-like.
So, yes, we might be a nation of Do-It-Yourself-ers, fixing cars, being electricians and plumbers, being dressmakers, doing all our own legal work, and even playing with our health. But if there is one thing the bible teaches, is that we cannot Do-It-Yourself in terms of our spiritual lives. We cannot save ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we say that we can.
We need a counsellor. We need someone to tell us about Jesus. We need someone to convict us of our mistakes. We need someone who will plead our case. And we need someone to teach us all the things that are necessary for a healthy relationship with God. And God has provided that person, to be with us and to dwell in us.
So today, how much do we make use of our counsellor? How much do we listen to his advice? How seriously do we take his prodding? And how much do we resist? The Holy Spirit may make us uncomfortable from time to time, but he’s not an optional extra. And we’re only fooling ourselves if we say he is.
Posted 22nd February 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Living Fruitful Lives (John 15:1-8)
The issue of change is one which receives much debate.
But then, there are probably things we’d like to change, such as, to make things more attractive or to make rules fairer. There are things that we don’t want to change, because they provided a measure of support and are the basis of things on which we rely. And there are the things, which seem to do nothing else but change, and it seems to be change for the sake of it.
Of course, one of the problems with change is that each of us has different things we’d like to change, and each of us has things we want to stay the same. Furthermore, each of us copes differently with change. Some might be more resistant, while others embrace it more easily.
But against all those things is, that whether we like it or not, change is part and parcel of the world in which we live and, to some extent, is something we need to learn to accept. And just as that is true for the world, so it is true for the Christian church as well.
Because in this passage from John’s gospel, Jesus talked about him being the vine and us being the branches. And in doing so he raised the subject of change—things that shouldn’t change and things that should.
B. I AM THE VINE
1. The Symbol of the Vine
Now, in New Testament times, the vineyard played an essential role in the life of the community. And in addition to the obvious—the production of wine, which I might add was nowhere near as alcoholic as it is today—grapes played an important part in the diet of the day.
Indeed, they supplied iron and other essential minerals, and a portion of the harvest was preserved in raisin cakes, which was a welcome food for the hungry, being full of energising sugars. Furthermore, raisins were easily carried, and, because of their practical uses, they made very acceptable gifts.
But as well as the practical value of the vine, the vine was also seen as a symbol of prosperity and peace. It was used as a symbol of God’s chosen people. They were the vine that had been chosen and planted in a particular choice land. They had been given all the attention necessary for the production of outstanding fruit. However, as history had shown they had only yielded wild grapes.
So, when Jesus made the statement that he was the ‘true’ vine, what he was effectively indicating was that yes, to some extent some things shouldn’t change. The idea of the vine, being essential for the spiritual diet was just as important as it had always been. However, regarding the need for the people of God to be productive, then there was, indeed, a great need for change.
2. The Things That Shouldn’t Change (1)
And the things that shouldn’t change, Jesus said, were the personnel and the roles they had to play.
a). Jesus – The Vine
Jesus said that, whereas God’s people of the past had considered themselves to be the vine, he was the ‘true’ vine. The people of the past had been unreliable and not very fruitful. However, he was the one who could be relied upon, the solid rock on whom people could depend. And he would remain consistent and faithful to his calling.
b). The Father – The Vine Dresser
Furthermore, the Father’s role was that of the vinedresser—the one who would keep the branches of the vine in order. Trimming the branches where necessary and removing the limbs that were totally unproductive.
c). Believers – The Branches
On the other hand, the church—the people of God—was simply the branches attached to the vine. The church had an organic relationship with the vine and was dependent upon Jesus for its very existence and survival. But, as a consequence, the church was not to get beyond itself, and should not try to usurp the place of Jesus.
Now sometimes it’s true that the church does tend to forget where it is in the chain. And it’s very easy to get carried away with our programmes, or whatever we have planned, and forget just who it is who is supposed to be in charge.
It’s good to be reminded, therefore, of Jesus’s statement regarding the vine and the players within it. Because it provides a solid basis for the practice of our faith—a framework that can be relied upon, which does not change. And therefore, can provide great comfort and strength in our relationship with God, in our spiritual journey.
3. The Things That Should Change (2-5)
So, we can be assured of our unchanging place in our relationship with God. But Jesus’s comments about the vine also talked about the need for change. And the things that he said should change are regarding our ability to produce fruit. According to Jesus, the Christian faith is dynamic, not static, and no-one can rest, even on the basis that they have been a Christian for many years. For there is always the need to continue to produce fruit for the vine.
a). The Father – Pruning (2)
Now, this is where the part of the Father is decisive. Because the Father’s role is to watch over the vine and take action, like that of the vinedresser, to secure fruitfulness. It is the Father’s role to discard the fruitless branches, and to trim even those who are fruitful so they can bear even more fruit.
Now, the emphasis, here, is on the need for believers to bear fruit, and pruning is essential to ensure good fruit. Left to itself the vine would produce a great deal of unproductive fruit. So, to obtain maximum fruitfulness, extensive pruning is essential.
The suggestion here then is that not only will a lack of fruitfulness be pruned away. But natural energies and inclinations to run riot will not be tolerated either. The action of the Father is, consequently, to cleanse his people so that they will live fruitful lives.
b). Believers – Abiding In Jesus (3-4)
Now, it must be said, that the words of Jesus were not aimed at his disciples as words of criticism. They were not a reprimand for what they had failed to do. His intention was not one of reproach. Rather, it was one of encouragement, pointing to the way that they could continue to progress spiritually.
As a consequence, the emphasis in this passage is not on the pruning, but on the continuing need for a closer walk with Jesus. According to Jesus, a disciple must live in him in order to remain fruitful. No branch can bear fruit in isolation. A believer must have that vital connection with the vine. Because without giving themselves totally to Christ, fruitfulness is just not possible.
c). Jesus – Abiding In Us (5)
And just as they must live in Jesus, so Jesus must live in them. There is a mutual relationship, which is a condition of fruitfulness. And in isolation from Christ, no spiritual achievement is possible.
In the Christian walk, then, There are things that shouldn’t change: the personnel and their roles. And there are things that should change: and that is our constant need to become more like Christ, and to reflect that in the things that we say and do.
4. Resistance to Change (6)
And for any who would stubbornly refuse that life changing dynamic relationship with God . . . Well, the image is the same as what happens to any useless branches on a vine. They will wither away, and then be removed from the vine, and burnt, leaving plenty of room for everyone else.
Some strong words, then, from Jesus regarding the nature of our relationship with God.
There are some things that shouldn’t change. And in respect to our place on the vine: Jesus is the vine, the Father is the vinedresser, and his church is the branches. A situation which should give us a solid basis for the practice of our faith.
And the things that should change—is the need to do the things that are expected of us. We are to be truly fruitful members of his flock.
6. Practical Application – Two of The Fruits (7-8)
And if we are fruitful . . . bearing in mind that Jesus’s message was intended to be taken positively, and not critically? Well, Jesus concludes his teaching by outlining two distinctive outcomes:
a). Prayer (7)
Firstly, our relationship with Jesus will be that we will grow in harmony with him, and that our prayer life will reflect the wishes and desires of God himself. As a consequence, we will pray for the things of concern to God, and our prayers will be answered.
b). Glorifying God (8)
And secondly, our faith, and our actions will bring glory to God, in terms of the work that he’s given us to do in bearing much fruit, and in the fact that we will be living examples of what it means to be the people of God, for everyone to see.
Discipleship, then, cannot stay the same. On the contrary, discipleship should be a growing and developing way of life that is open to constant change. But not change for the sake of change. But change, so that we can become more in tune with God and, as a consequence, more fruitful in his service.
Being fruitful, or becoming more fruitful, then, is the call to all Christians—and not just as individuals, but the church as a whole. And it’s an important part of Christian living which we cannot afford to ignore.
So, then, how do we, as individuals and as a church, continue to grow and bear fruit to the glory of God?
1. Acknowledging Our Place
Well, the first thing we should do is to acknowledge where we are in the context of Jesus’s teaching. And to do that, we must remember that: Jesus is the vine, the Father is the vinedresser, and we are the branches. And we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.
The most common mistake among those who claim to be church people, I believe, is to believe that this is our church and that we are the ones who say what does and doesn’t happen in it, when it happens, and the way that things are conducted.
In reality, however, this isn’t our church, it’s only a building with which we have been entrusted. And it can’t be our church, because the church belongs to God not us. And therefore, what happens in this building should be what God wants, not necessarily what we would wish.
So, the first thing we need to do, is to keep that unchanging order in its place.
2. Abiding in Christ
The second thing is to remember what it means to have a proper relationship with Jesus Christ. And to do that we need to make sure that we have given ourselves over to him totally. We need to acknowledge that he lives in us, and we need to accept that our relationship is mutual. So, we should stifle the work of the Holy Spirit that is within us.
The process of becoming more like Jesus is a very important aspect of the Christian faith. After all, how can we be the people of God, if we stick to our old sinful ways? How do we stop being the sinful people that we are, if we’ve nothing to put in its place? And how do we know what we need to do, without the support, encouragement, and the example of our Saviour himself?
Building a relationship with Jesus then is a vital aspect of our walk with God. Because without it, the only place we can lead other people is astray. We cannot lead others to what we don’t know ourselves. So, getting to know God through talking to him, through reading the bible and through sharing with other believers, are essential parts of any believer’s life.
3. Being Fruitful
And, if we get the first two right, Then and only then, thirdly, are we in a situation, that we can be fruitful. Because being fruitful isn’t just a matter of running around doing things and being active for activity’s sake. After all, all that usually means is unproductive activity. No! Being fruitful is about doing the things that God wants us to do, and in the manner he wishes us to do it.
In this world, then, there may be some things we’d like to change, and there may be some things we’d like to stay the same. And in the church the same might be true.
However, in regard to the church, some things are supposed to stay the same—the personnel and the roles they need to play. But in regard to being fruitful members of the church, some things are just not meant to stay the same at all.
The Christian walk is supposed to be dynamic not static, based on the foundation of knowing our place within the scheme of things, and based on an intimate relationship with our Lord Jesus.
These words of Jesus were intended to be words of encouragement, not criticism. But, even so, the warning regarding being rotten or wild grapes is something we need to heed.
Posted: 30th December 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Problem of Loneliness (John 15:1-17)
One of the problems in life, today, is loneliness. And for people who are living on their own, who don’t see anyone else for days at a time, that’s quite understandable. Of course, some people live on their own by choice, but others . . . Well seeing and meeting others is just not part of their normal routine.
But then you don’t have to be alone to be lonely. Indeed, many people can feel lonely even in a crowded room, with people milling around them, and surrounded by people who want to care.
Loneliness, an inner emptiness, which is often accompanied by sadness, discouragement, sense of isolation, anxiety, and an intense desire to be wanted or needed by someone, can be a real problem. Yet it’s not a modern phenomenon.
Indeed, in the Old Testament, Jacob, Moses, Job, Nehemiah, Elijah, and Jeremiah all suffered from loneliness. And even in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul called out from prison for company and support. Consequently if you have ever felt lonely, you’re in good company, for some of the greats of the bible have also felt the depths of loneliness.
And while even the bible acknowledges the problem of loneliness, it does tend to take a much more positive view. Indeed, from a base of loneliness, it takes us on a journey for the need of communion with God. And for Christians, the emphasis is on the need to love, help, encourage, forgive, and care for one another.
Now perhaps, you can see where this is leading . . . Because there’s one character that I didn’t include in my list of lonely people from the bible. And perhaps I should have because it is Jesus himself. Indeed, Jesus typifies someone who can be surrounded by people but can still be terribly lonely.
Imagine! Jesus was walking on the road to Jerusalem, one last time, knowing what was in store at the end of the road. And as he walked along, telling his disciples what he was about to go through, were the disciples listening? Were they consoling him? Were they sticking with him every inch of the way? No! It’s like they were off in a world of their own. They hardly heard a word that Jesus was speaking. And, as a consequence, we get this image of Jesus, surrounded by people, but as lonely as can be.
But Jesus was determined not to let his loneliness get the better of him. He also knew that his disciples would go through the same thing. So, forgetting about himself, he used the opportunity to teach his disciples something of what true friendship meant.
He Jesus reminded them that he was their friend. And if he hadn’t shown them enough up to that point, he spelt it out all over again: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (9). He said. “There is no greater love than this: That someone should lay down his life for his friends” (13). He then continued, “I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master is doing. But I call you friends, because everything I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (15).
Now what Jesus was describing was friendship. But not just any friendship—not the kind that could be picked up or dropped whenever it suited. No, this was a friendship based on commitment—commitment to his friends. But commitment based on the same principles, and at same level, as God the father was committed to him.
But in return for his friendship, he expected something in return. And his expectation was that the disciples would offer the same level of friendship and commitment to him, as well as to one another.
Jesus’s words: “Remain in my love. You will remain in my love if you observe my commandments, just as I have observed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (9-10). “This is my commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you” (12). “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (14). “This is my command to you: Love each other” (17).
Jesus’s words leave no room for loneliness. On the contrary what he expects is a life full of activity and meaning.
The solution to the problem of loneliness, then, is a growing relationship with God and a growing relationship with each other. We need them both. Miss one of them out and it doesn’t work. Because being committed to God, without fellowship with each other, is a recipe for loneliness. And so too is a commitment to others, but where God is ignored.
Posted: 28th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Three Responses to the Resurrection (John 20:1-9; Revelation 3:14-22)
I always think that Easter is an odd time. And I say that because of the different ways that people observe it. For some, it makes no difference to them whatsoever. Except, of course, that the shops being closed on Good Friday is a nuisance. But apart from that nothing is different. For others, it’s a time for a break; an opportunity to get away from the normal routine. And for some, perhaps only a small minority, it’s the religious significance that is most important. Because it’s an opportunity to celebrate the most important festival in the Christian Calendar.
The celebration of Easter, then, provokes a variety of responses. As a consequence, what I’d like to do, is to present three scenarios based on possible responses to the resurrection and see exactly where they lead.
B. SCENARIO 1: IT NEVER HAPPENED
1. It Never Happened
And the first scenario is: That the resurrection never happened.
Now, obviously, even at the time of the event this would have been the most popular theory. After all, Mary Magdalene herself had gone to the tomb to embalm a dead body, and the rest of the disciples believed that everything they had worked towards was over. Indeed, after Jesus’s death on Good Friday, no-one believed that Jesus would rise from the dead, least of all the disciples. And what’s more, the authorities weren’t concerned about a resurrected saviour either. All they were concerned about, was someone stealing the dead body and starting the myth that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
Consequently, as far as the followers of Jesus were concerned, after the crucifixion, yes, they had been around a great man and a great man of God come to that. But on Good Friday all their hopes and dreams—everything that they had lived for—had come to a crashing halt. And quite frankly they didn’t know what to do next, except to hide from the authorities in fear that they might be executed too.
If Jesus had never been resurrected, then, the group of disciples would eventually have scattered. When all the fuss had died down, and it was safe for them to do so, they would have returned home to their original occupations. They would then, presumably, have begun their search for purpose in life all over again. There would have been no group of followers left risking their lives for a lie. There would have been no hope. And the church would never have been formed.
And, of course, that would mean for us, today, that no one would be sitting in church.
Because, firstly, the hope that the disciples had believed in, would never have been passed down. We would not have been told of the opportunity of a restored relationship with God, and the concept of eternal life with God would, therefore, be just a dream. Secondly, there would be no church because the people of God would not exist. As a result, thirdly, there would be no church buildings for us to sit in, historical or modern. And, fourthly, many of the organisations that we treasure today would never have come into existence.
So, apart from the lack of a spiritual message of hope, it would mean that we would be living a very dark world indeed.
Because if the church had never existed, schools and hospitals today would probably be very different. The Red Cross would not have been founded; St John’s Ambulance would not have come into existence; and the Flying Doctor Service would never have been created. Because although those organisations are no longer run by the church, they began their life amongst the communities of believers.
Furthermore, there would be no organisations like World Vision, the City Mission, or any other missionary organisations. And as a high proportion of the caring compassionate work done in Australia and abroad is done by Christians, much of the work of caring would probably not be being done either.
3. Current State of Affairs
Consequently, if Jesus had never been resurrected from the dead, not only would the hope of a restored relationship with God been lost, but the chances are that this would be a bleak and dismal world indeed, if we hadn’t destroyed it already.
And yet the strange thing is that most people today carry on life as though they couldn’t care if Jesus had risen from the dead or not. And the result of this we can see all around us. Because despite the influence of Christians over the years, sharing the message of hope and trying to make this world a better place, there are still plenty of people who are only in it for themselves. And consequently they do a very good job of trying to destroy this world for everyone but themselves.
The disciples’ hopes may have been dashed temporarily. But a world that believes that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead or simply doesn’t care whether he did or not, is a very dark world indeed.
C. IT DID HAPPEN – BUT WE’VE GOT DISTRACTED
1. It Did Happen
The second scenario that I’d like to present is: That the resurrection did happen, that people have taken it seriously, but after a while have got caught up with other distractions.
Now this is a scenario that has actually happened, and it first happened within the first fifty years of the resurrection of Jesus. Because after Jesus was resurrected and the church was established, there was whole flurry of activity, and much of it spurred on by the members of the church who were being persecuted. Because despite persecution, the church’s members went out and told others about Jesus. And in doing so they taught the idea of regularly meeting together to worship, teach, encourage, and care for one another.
But then, bit by bit, the first flush of enthusiasm died down, and unfortunately other distractions crept in. And the apostle John, amongst others, recorded some of the distractions for us: People stopped caring; their enthusiasm for Christ and the people around them waned (Revelation 2:4). People were tempted with false teaching; people wanted to adjust the Christian faith to suit themselves (Revelation 2:9). Some people’s ethics became pretty twisted and sexual immorality became a real issue (Revelation 2: 14, 20). And many were accused of being half hearted in their beliefs (Revelation 3:2), just sitting around and doing nothing to promote the faith.
Now the reality is that this scenario—of believing that the resurrection did happen but falling away to other distractions—effectively denies the resurrection just as effectively as if it had never been accepted in the first place. Yes, there may be pockets of genuine believers who are faithful, but generally it leaves a faith that is dead, and a church that is dying. And God’s assessment of that kind of faith—that kind of church—is suitably recorded by the Apostle John. “I know your deeds. I know that you are neither hot nor cold, and I wish you were one or the other. So because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16).
3. Current State of Affairs
Now, sadly, into this scenario we could well fit the church, as it is generally represented in western society today. Because, yes, there are pockets of people and pockets of congregations that are alive. But generally as we look around, we can see people and churches who may have been enthusiastic to start with but, over time, have been distracted and lost their first love.
We can see that the message of the gospel has been changed, and what it means to be a Christian has been reinterpreted from the need to have faith to one where only doing good works need to be done (without the need for regular worship or faith). And the idea of good works, in terms of being like Christ in the world, has changed too. Because the emphasis has moved away from caring for the poor and the outcasts, to things like cleaning and fundraising.
Furthermore, we can see that the urgency of participating and sharing in the gospel has been lost. And that is reflected in the lack of regular worship and the lack of sharing of the faith. Where the emphasis is more on faith being a private matter, and where regular interaction with others is an option extra.
And further, we can see that the need to care for one-another has been lost too. And that shows in the lack of meeting together to encourage, build up, and to care for one another.
The end result of this kind of scenario—that the resurrection did happen but the people have given in to other distractions—is that many churches are featured by their small congregations. And often the practice is that the church is more of a club than a worshipping community. As a result, there is very little spiritual aspect to the life of such churches at all.
Now today’s church in the west may not be persecuted like the early church. But we have become comfortable, too comfortable. And consequently the western church as a whole has had the tendency to lose the plot.
After the resurrection, the disciples’ hopes were soon restored. And they, enthusiastically, went out of their way to share the faith. However, in no-time the corruption of the faith set in.
Consequently, we need to heed the warning. Because if God’s assessment of the corrupted church is of disaster, and that he would spit them out of his mouth, then that is a warning that we need to pay special attention to, today, as well.
D. IT HAPPENED – AND IT STILL MATTERS
1. It Happened – and it Still Matters
Now, of course, the third scenario is: That Jesus was resurrected from the dead and it still matters.
When the disciples realised that Jesus had risen from the dead, something special happened. Despite their Jewish background, the realisation of what the resurrection meant changed their lives. Apart from having confidence in God that his promises were true, the disciples re-evaluated every aspect of their lives. And they saw, not how their faith fitted into their lives, but how their lives fitted in to their faith.
Consequently, very quickly many of the traditions that they had previously held in the highest esteem got tossed out of the window. They changed their corporate worship day from the Sabbath to the Sunday. For the sake of gentile believers, they scrapped most of the food rules. Rules about working on the Sabbath and rules about circumcision got dropped. And the traditional festivals they previously celebrated got canned as being no longer relevant. The Apostles (including Paul) came to realise that there was only one thing that mattered, and that was worshipping and being obedient to God.
There may have been all sorts of ways that the faith was practised in the past, there may have been all kinds of things which people had found helpful, but if they ceased to be helpful—as they were to an rapidly expanding church—then they were effectively obstacles to faith.
In other words the implications of accepting the resurrection and living a resurrected faith, is to be constantly listening to God. Indeed, we need to be open to God’s ways of doing things, not necessarily the ways we have come to love.
3. Current State of Affairs
So, if we want to be a people and a church, today, that is true to the resurrection, then the only thing that matters is to worship God and to follow his instructions. It’s not about how we’ve done things in the past or how we like things done. It’s a matter of what God wants of us and what he wants us to do.
And what God has consistently wanted us to do, is to have faith in him and not to rely on ourselves. It is to worship him and not to be distracted with other things. It is to obey him and not to put restrictions on our willingness to be involved. And it is to care for one another and not to abandon those who need our support and care. And all of these, without the unnecessary baggage that often comes along.
The challenge today, then, is not only to acknowledge that the resurrection did happen, but to conduct ourselves in a way that is true to the faith, whilst making it relevant for the people of today.
Three possible scenarios to the resurrection, then. The first was based on the attitude that Jesus died and that was it, end of story, the resurrection never happened. And we can see that many people live in the world today on this basis. The second was the idea that the resurrection did happen, people did believe but then they became distracted. And this is the scenario that plagues the life of the western church today. And the third scenario is that the resurrection did happen and that it still matters.
Now only the third scenario spells out where the church should be today. But it is a position that many people, even if they accept it in theory find it very difficult to accept. And yet it is the only one which ensures that the faith continues and that the good news will continue to be spread. It is also the only way that will guarantee the existence of the church into the future.
So today, we are faced with the question, “What do we believe happened that first Easter Day?” Was Jesus resurrected or not? And if we do believe, or have believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, where do we stand in the faith right now?
Posted: 22nd May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Something Missing? (John 20:1-18)
Have you ever had that feeling that there is something missing?
Of course, it could have been something that absent or out of place. Like a child looking for a missing tooth, or looking around a room and feeling that there was something missing or misplaced. Alternatively, it could relate to a sense of loss. For example, when someone dear has gone—moved away or passed on—or when something special that we’ve held on to has been lost forever. Or maybe it could have been that feeling of emptiness—a feeling of being spiritually or otherwise unfulfilled—when our life just wasn’t enough, and where there was a void that needed to be filled—and we just didn’t know with what.
Feeling that something is missing is a common enough experience. And that feeling can relate to many things. And in each case we may know that there is a gap that needs to be filled, but we may not always know quite with what or how to fill the void.
Of course, some of the simple things in life are easy to resolve. After all, with children, new teeth do grow, and for adults, dentures can fill the gap. As for the furniture . . . well, we can rearrange the furniture or find something else to fit in.
But regarding the loss of someone or that special thing that we hold dear, that’s not quite so easy to fix. Nevertheless, we can learn to move on. Yes, we may want to honour the past and keep our memories intact, but we can still learn to move on and start afresh.
Having said that, those feelings of being unfilled, looking for purpose in life, and looking for something to fill the emptiness . . . Well, that’s the hardest thing of all, and that will require the most effort on our behalf.
As a consequence, none of us are exempt from the feeling that something is missing. It affects us all from time to time. And, perhaps, that sense of loss and being unfulfilled, can be no better described than through the reaction of Jesus’s followers to crucifixion.
B. MARY MAGDALENE
1. Mary’s Problem
And the reason I say that, is because on the very first Easter day, early in the morning, one of Jesus followers, Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb of Jesus to embalm his dead body. However, as she approached the tomb, she saw the stone that had sealed the tomb had been rolled away. And you can imagine how Mary must have felt:
Because first of all, she didn’t need to look inside the tomb to know that there was something wrong—that the body of Jesus was missing. She’d gone expecting the body to be there, and no matter what Jesus had said before hand, no matter what warning he had given while he’d been alive about being raised from the dead, an empty tomb, for Mary, simply meant there was trouble. As a consequence, in Mary’s mind, even before she got to the tomb, she had concluded that not only was the body missing, but, more than that, that the body had been stolen—and that was far worse.
However, secondly, more than just the dead body being missing, it also meant that the person that she had loved had not only died (which was grounds enough for her mourning), but she wouldn’t be able to pay her last respects to him either.
Now for Mary, this would have given her a real sense of loss. Because all that she had lived for since she had been rescued by Jesus, would have been represented in that tomb. And yet, as she went towards the tomb that morning and saw that the stone had been rolled away . . . Well, what that meant, was that not only was the body missing from the tomb, but she was now no longer able to say goodbye.
And, thirdly, because all of her hopes had been in Jesus, the empty tomb would have been a reminder of her great sense of emptiness—the spiritual vacuum that she felt inside. Her hopes and dreams had become dashed, she no longer knew where she was going, and that meant that she needed to start her soul searching all over again.
Now when we have a sense of something being missing, we don’t usually feel the sense of loss in those three aspects all at that same time: a feeling of something being missing, a sense of loss, and a feeling of being unfulfilled. But Mary did. Because all of those things (combined) are what Mary faced at the tomb as she saw that the stone had been rolled away.
3. Mary’s Solution
Mary, at the tomb, then, must have been a tragic sight. Except for the fact that for Mary, her sense of loss didn’t last long. Her immediate reaction was to rush and find Peter and John. But after they had come and gone, it was she who was the first to come face to face with the resurrected Jesus.
And at that moment all of a sudden, the body that she had been looking for was found. It wasn’t quite as she expected to see it—mistaking Jesus for the gardener—but the body wasn’t missing, and it hadn’t been stolen either. However, it had changed from the body of a crucified man to a resurrected Saviour. Jesus had been resurrected and even had the marks to show what had been done to him.
And that meant that Mary no longer needed to mourn for him. Her friend had been restored. Yes, he had died, and the memory of that event would never go away. But Jesus had been returned to her. Yes, of course, as time went on, Mary had to come to accept that she would see less of him, that his physical presence on Earth was only temporary. But her loved friend and Saviour had come back from death. And in a spiritual sense he would never leave her again.
And because of that, her soul-searching emptiness not only vanished but became fulfilled. Her hopes and dreams and purpose for living were restored. And the faith that she had had in Jesus prior to the crucifixion was vindicated.
In the moment of coming face to face with Jesus in the garden, those feelings of something being missing, that sense of loss, and the feeling of being unfulfilled—all three—were instantly resolved.
4. Why It Happened
But then, isn’t that as it should be? Because after all isn’t, and wasn’t, Jesus the master of all things lost?
Because regarding things missing, Jesus told a number of stories telling about the lengths that some people will go to, to find things that have gone missing. And the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin are just two examples. And Jesus went on to likening the lengths that people will go to, to the lengths that God goes to, to restore the relationship between himself and his people and to get people into heaven.
Regarding a sense of loss, Jesus knew the tragedy of mourning a loved one. He even assured his disciples that after he had gone, not only that in some spiritual way would he still be with them, but that he would send another Comforter to be with them as well.
And regarding a sense of emptiness and needing purpose, well this was the principal reason that he had come. And Jesus pointed the way using a number of ideas, just so that people would not mistake his message. And ‘I am the way’ and ‘I am the bread of life’ are just two of the ideas used, indicating that there is only one way to be fulfilled—and that is with a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.
And so, for all of these things, he gave up his own life. He sacrificed it, so that what he said and what he promised could be made possible. He took on our sin and enabled God to deal with it, because he knew there was no other way.
There were no short cuts to what Jesus had to do then. And that was why Mary Magdalene (and others) felt as though they were going through the ringer. Well, for a short time at least—from the Thursday night of the arrest until the resurrection appearances on the Sunday morning.
Having those feelings of something missing, then, is precisely what Jesus’s death and resurrection are all about. God knows what we go through when we feel as though something is missing. He knows want it means to feel a sense of loss. But he doesn’t want us to be empty and unfulfilled. He wants us to have a meaningful relationship with him. He wants to give us hope and life.
So, today, do you have that feeling that there is something missing in your life? Because Mary is not the only one who has experienced something missing. It’s not even something that the disciples went through either. But it’s something that all of us go through too.
1. Things Missing
Jesus talked about looking for the things that are missing life, And sheep and coins were only two examples that he used.
So, when we see things are missing, does that encourage us to recall the even greater effort that God puts in to find us when we are lost? Or is it all a matter of ‘so what?’, because we don’t want to be found and, as a consequence, we don’t really want to find the missing body of Jesus at all.
2. A Sense of Loss
Jesus knew about the grief that a sense of loss brings when someone or something that one holds dear is no longer around. That’s why he prepared his disciples for his own loss, before he faced the sentence of death.
So, is there something that we are grieving for too? And is the missing body at the tomb something we are grieving for, or is it a matter of wanting to be left alone, and consequently not wanting the help that he wants to give?
3. A Feeling of Emptiness
And Jesus talked about the need to be fulfilled—and even offered the solution to the feeling of emptiness inside. Indeed, he offered the only true solution—and that is faith in God through Jesus Christ.
So, is there something we need to fill the emptiness inside? And is the missing body in the tomb a solution to our spiritual vacuum too?
When we feel empty inside, then. Does that encourage us to recall the purpose behind the death and resurrection of Jesus, or are we content to continue our lives feeling that void, being unwilling to accept God’s solution at all?
There are times when we all have feelings of something being missing. And those feelings can range over a number of things and at times can be quite intense.
However, is Jesus’s solution one with which we are prepared to engage ourselves? Or are we more willing to muddle along on our own, being lost, and just feeling that something is missing?
Now Easter is a funny time. People get excited about having time off, public holidays, seeing family and friends, etc. And there’s this thing about buns and fish and chocolate too. And while some of those things might be good, and while some of those things can help fill the gaps in our lives on a temporary basis, none of them can even approach what Jesus has to offer to the sense of loss and lack of purpose that we may feel inside.
Jesus died that we might feel fulfilled, that we might have eternal life, and that our relationship with God might be restored to what it should be. That was his goal, and he certainly didn’t want us to live with something missing.
So, when we think about Jesus’s death and resurrection, do we still have something missing inside? Or have we grasped, in full, what his death and resurrection are really all about?
Posted: 7th January 2022
© 2022, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Who Are You Looking For? (John 20:1-18)
One of the features of life is that we are constantly looking for things and searching for people. In our younger years, as we grow, we need to look for bigger clothes and seek out new friends, And an appropriate education is something that is usually sought. As we mature, our goals change. We begin to look for purpose and meaning in life. In addition, we may seek an occupation, and a companion, or a partner too. When we want to acquire things, an appropriate financial institution (someone who will give us a loan) may be the order of the day. When we move into a new area, there are shops, medical services, and new friends that we need to seek. And as we age, and our circumstances and needs change, so does our searching change direction too.
One of the features of life, then, is that we are constantly looking for things, and options, and people, and purpose, and any number of other things.
However, as we all know, our searching doesn’t always mean that we are looking for things that are new. We may also be looking for older things and the things that we have lost too. And the experts tell us, that we spend a lot of time searching for the things that we’ve lost, misplaced, or put somewhere safe. Indeed, they tell us that over an average lifetime, we can spend the equivalent of several years looking for the things we have lost.
And that means that, over a lifetime, we all spend a lot of time looking for people, purpose, and any number of other things to meet our various wants, needs, and desires. And, as a consequence, I’m going to ask the question, ‘Do we always look for the right things? And do we always look for the right people in our lives too?’
B. WHO JESUS’ FOLLOWERS WERE LOOKING FOR
1. Mary Magdalene (1-2)
For example, on the first Easter Day, Mary Magdalene went to a tomb—a tomb where the dead body of Jesus had been laid. And what she expected to find there, Luke tells us, was the dead body of Jesus which she intended to prepare with spices, as was the normal Jewish custom (Luke 24:1).
As a consequence, what Mary was expecting, was to arrive at a tomb which was sealed, with a stone rolled across the entrance. And presumably, with the idea that she would get help, or had prearranged help, to roll the stone away so that she could go in and anoint the dead body.
Unfortunately for Mary, as the story goes, as she got within eyesight of the tomb, she realised that there was something wrong. The stone wasn’t blocking the entrance. Indeed, it had already been moved. And, fearing the worst, fearing that the body had already been removed, she ran to the tomb only to have her worst fears confirmed.
Now, quite understandably, for someone so convinced that there was only a dead body to be found, Mary ran off. She went immediately to Peter and John, and she was totally distraught and probably shaking like a leaf. And she told the two, ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb. We do not know where they have put him’ (John 20:2b).
Now, of course, we can smile at Mary Magdalene. After all, we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. However, the fact is that even after being forewarned by Jesus that he would rise from the dead, Mary still neither understood nor accepted what he had said.
2. Peter and John (3-9)
Of course, as soon as Mary had told Peter and John that the body had been stolen, Peter and John raced off to the tomb as well. John arrived first but didn’t enter. Instead, he looked in from the outside. But Peter quickly caught up and charged straight into the tomb—and only then did John follow him in. And what did they find there? Well, their worst fears were realised. The tomb was empty, the body was gone and, again, the assumption was that the body must have been stolen. Peter and John were looking for the dead body too.
Despite the fact they’d been with Jesus longer than Mary Magdalene, and they would have heard Jesus talk on a number of occasions about the fact that he would rise from the dead on the third day . . . Despite all that, Peter and John didn’t consider any other option apart from the fact that the body had been stolen.
That is, until they saw the strips of linen and the burial cloth lying there in the tomb. And only then, we’re told, that John alone started to get an inkling of the possibility of another interpretation to the empty tomb.
3. Mary Magdalene (2) (10-18)
Sadly, however, Mary Magdalene, who had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and had seen everything that they had seen, was distraught. All she could do was to stand there and cry.
Indeed, we may well imagine that, knowing how distraught she was, Peter and John may have suggested that she go with them. After all, standing outside the tomb, with the authorities maintaining a close eye on proceedings, was not a good idea. So, perhaps they should all have gone somewhere out of the public eye.
But Mary was so distraught that she just couldn’t leave the tomb. Maybe she believed that if she stayed around there was a greater chance to find out who had taken the body and where it had been taken. So, Peter and John went off. And Mary stayed, standing by the tomb, crying her heart out.
Once alone, though, she popped her head back into the tomb (I guess, to assure herself that all this wasn’t just a bad dream). And when she did, she suddenly saw two angels sitting there.
Now they didn’t appear to be ordinary men, and they couldn’t have got passed her and got into the tomb without her knowing. And that meant that the only way they could have got into the tomb was by supernatural means. But, despite that, Mary still didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. She’d had her mind set on seeing a dead body, so in her mind nothing else was possible.
But hearing a voice behind her, calling to her and asking why she was crying, she turned around. And despite being faced with the risen Jesus, who she would have known only too well, she didn’t recognise him at all. And ironically, thinking he was the gardener, asked him the one question that was on her mind, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him away’ (John 20:15b). Mary still didn’t believe; she was still only looking for a dead body.
Now, as I said at the beginning, we all spend much time in our lives searching—searching for purpose, people, and things. And in this story, we see Mary, Peter, and John doing exactly that.
With Mary, Peter, and John, however, their journey with Jesus had begun as three people who were looking for the answers to life. They had looked for reasons for hope—reason to exist and their place within the whole scheme of things. And just as they thought that they had found that in Jesus, Jesus had been taken away from them. And, as far as they were concerned, that meant all their hopes had been dashed.
Sadly, what they failed to realise was they were on the right track. But they’d just got it wrong regarding the empty tomb. And as a consequence, neither Mary, Peter, nor John in those early hours, were looking for a risen Lord. All they expected was a dead body. And that coloured everything that they did.
Now, in one sense what happened on that first Easter Day is quite understandable. After all, being told to expect the resurrection after three days—and actually experiencing it—would have been two totally different things. Yes, they had seen Jesus resurrect Lazarus from the dead. But Lazarus had not died in the way Jesus had died. And as a consequence, Jesus’s death and resurrection was not like anything they’d previously experienced at all.
But fortunately for them, over the next few minutes, hours, and days, they came face to face with the risen Jesus. They then began to accept the necessity of Jesus’s death, and they began to accept the reality and meaning of his resurrection too. Both his death and resurrection then went on to colour their lives in everything that they said, did, and believed. And as a consequence, their search for meaning and purpose in life was fulfilled.
Now, fortunately for us today, we are not faced with the mystery of the empty tomb. We have the benefit of knowing the whole story. And that includes all the proofs of the resurrection, which at this point in our story, Mary, Peter, and John did not know. Regardless of that though, there are people who do not accept Jesus was either crucified or resurrected even now.
The question for us today then is, ‘In our search for purpose, and meaning in life, what have we, as individuals, done with the death of Jesus?’
1. A Story Book Character
For example, if we read the story of Jesus, and leave out both his death and resurrection and simply get engaged in the things that he said and did, we are left with either a figure from history, or simply a nice story to read. In it, we may see someone who expressed good ideals—and maybe some we would find useful to adopt—but the story would have no more meaning than that.
And if that’s the way we see the story, then unlike Mary, Peter, and John we won’t be serious about looking for true meaning and purpose in life. Because without the death and resurrection of Jesus, we won’t possibly find it.
2. Someone Who Died – And That’s It
Alternatively, if we read the story of the death of Jesus and find ourselves faced with the empty tomb, and we get stuck there, never quite believing in the resurrection and, consequently, we identify fully with Mary, Peter, and John’s expectation of seeing a dead body. and have difficulty in progressing the story any further . . . Then if that’s the case, we’ve still missed the most important part of the story. Because, without the resurrection, without God’s stamp of approval on the reasons for the crucifixion, Jesus would have sacrificed himself for nothing. And as a consequence, it won’t help us much regarding our quest for purpose or meaning of life either.
3. Or Someone Who Is Very Much Living Today
On the other hand, if we read the story, and if we accept that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, and that his death had a purpose, and that purpose was so that all will rise from the dead—those who believe, to eternal life with God. And those who don’t believe, to eternal destruction. And if we have trusted Jesus totally to see us through. Then, if we do that, we will indeed have found life, and purpose, and hope. And all because of the belief in Jesus having been risen from the dead.
In other words, depending upon what our response is to the story of Jesus, depends on how it reflects in our lives.
If Jesus was an important figure of history—but only a story book character—then we may be influenced by the way Jesus lived his life, and we might show concern for helping others, and we might go through the motions of religious observance, but that is about as far as it will go.
If we believe in a story of a good man who died, and that’s it . . . Well, all we end up with is nothing. Jesus died without purpose, so there’s a limit to what we can learn for him. And it certainly shouldn’t, necessarily, make any noticeable difference to our lives.
However, if we are truly serious about the story—and particularly regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus—then we will have found purpose to life and something to live for. And as a consequence, that should result in nothing less than a life dedicated to God, where our relationship to God, and being obedient to God, is our number one priory. And as a consequence of that, a life dedicated to spending time with God’s people, learning, encouraging, and building each other up. A life dedicated to joining in together in the worship of God. And, in addition to that, a life dedicated to sharing with others what we believe and what we have received for ourselves.
Each of the choices radically different from the other, and each a result of the different responses to Jesus’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Now, as I said at the outset, one of the features of life is that people are constantly searching for things—and searching for people too. It’s part and parcel of being who we are.
Of course, some of the things that we search for can be relatively insignificant, while other things can be quite profound. Some of the things that we search for are things that are new, and other things are things we have lost.
What the story of the resurrection tells us though is that even though our intentions may be good, sometimes we can lose track of what it is that we are searching for.
Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John were three people who should have known better. They’d spent a lot of time with Jesus and heard much of what he had to say, including being forewarned about his death and resurrection. And yet regarding the empty tomb, they still only searched for a dead body.
Of course, all that is history now. And, while their unbelief was quickly corrected, we have the benefit of knowing the whole story.
The question for us for us today, then, is, ‘Have we worked out the purpose and meaning of life? Are we still searching for it, or have we got it right?’
When we read, hear, or see the story of the empty tomb what do we believe?
That it is a nice story to read but we prefer to concentrate on the life of Jesus—a story where we’ve decided that we can take certain things, things that may make us a better person in life but without making too much of a commitment.
That Jesus died but that was it and, as a consequence, it has no real bearing on our lives?
Or did Jesus really rise from the dead with all that that implies?
Which version of Jesus have we found? Which one fits us best?
Posted: 18th January 2022
© 2022, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Doubting Thomas (John 20:19-31)
If you ever watch any of the current affair programmes, is it any wonder that we have become a nation of sceptics? With so many people trying to line their own pockets, at other people’s expense, is it any wonder that we have learned, or needed to learn, to be just that little bit sceptical?
Of course, those who try to scam people would be a minority. Nevertheless, even with a small number of rogues and crooks it pays to be careful. Indeed, we need to be on our toes, because some who seem to be the most innocent of people, have been caught trying to get every they can from each of their victims.
And sadly, that’s not just true of people who are trying to sell things that are either useless, overpriced, or don’t exist. It’s also true of those who sell religion too. After all, it doesn’t seem that long ago, that one TV evangelist after another was caught lining their own pockets, rather than using the donations sent them for the purposes for which they were sent.
With all this going around, then, and with the explosion of scams on the internet, is it any wonder, that we have become a nation of sceptics? And if we have, isn’t it comforting to note that one of Jesus’s disciples, Thomas, is noted for being a sceptic too.
B. ‘DOUBTING THOMAS’
1. Thomas’s Background
Now we really don’t know much about Thomas, as a person. We don’t even know if Thomas was his real name. After all, he was called Thomas or Didymus, but both of those names simply mean ‘twin’. But a twin to whom? We don’t even know that. What we do know, however, is that Thomas was consistently listed in the second group of three disciples. And that may mean that while not in the most inner circle of disciples, he still had a very special bond with his Lord. Indeed, he knew him so intimately, that when news arrived that Lazarus was dying, it was Thomas who suggested that they go to Lazarus’s rescue. And that is despite the fact that the Jews were out to stone Jesus.
Thomas understood much about Jesus. And he knew that Jesus would be willing to put his life on the line for his friend (John 11:16). Despite that, however, just like the other disciples, Thomas’s understanding of Jesus was not always as it should have been. Because in Jesus’s final week, when Jesus was talking doom and gloom, it was Thomas who openly confessed he didn’t know what Jesus was talking about. And it was Thomas who admitted he really had no idea what Jesus was about to do either (John 14:5).
2. Background to the Story
And this, of course, brings us to the events of Easter Day. Because on Easter Day Jesus made at least four resurrection appearances. He appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb (Jn 20:10-18); he appeared to two disciples together, as they walked on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35); he appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34); and then, finally, he appeared to ten disciples at once in a locked room (Jn 20:19-23). And the one person who was missing at all those resurrection appearances was Thomas.
Now there’s a common thread to the early resurrection appearances. According to Mark, after Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus, she went and told the disciples what she had seen. But even they refused to believe them (Mark 16:9-11). And when the two men on the road arrived at their destination and told the other disciples they had seen Jesus, they didn’t believe them either (Mark 16:12-13).
Indeed, it seems that, at first, any talk of a resurrection appearance of Jesus was not accepted. All such stories were resisted as idle talk. In each case, those who had not seen Jesus for themselves refused point blank to accept them. And that rather puts into context the post-resurrection story of Thomas—the one notable person who had been absent from all the resurrection appearances to date.
3. The Response of Thomas – The Theory (25)
So, after Jesus’s initial resurrection appearances and when all the other disciples had told Thomas they had seen Jesus, we, perhaps, should not be surprised at his reaction.
His unbelief was exactly the same as the unbelief of all of the others to the news of Jesus’s resurrection. He was unwilling to accept the testimony of others. He needed to see Jesus for himself. And, perhaps, because of his closeness to Jesus and his inability to have understood the path that Jesus had taken, maybe, just maybe, his scepticism was coloured with shock from the tragedy of the crucifixion itself.
Any talk of resurrection was just too much to believe. And therefore, the disciples’ statement to him that they had seen Jesus, was a statement that he just couldn’t accept. As a consequence, his demands to see the risen Jesus with the marks of the nails, and on the condition that he could place his hands in the crucifixion marks on Jesus’s body, is very understandable.
And more so, because it was now a week after the first resurrection appearance, and he had still not seen the risen Lord. Proof positive, for him at least, that he had every reason to be sceptical.
4. The Response of Thomas – The Practice (26-28)
However, all this was to change. One week after the resurrection and the disciples, again, having gathered together in a locked room—but this time with Thomas in attendance—Jesus came among them, gave the disciples his usual greeting, and then turned his attention to Thomas.
Now, you can almost feel a pregnant pause at this point. What was Jesus going to say? Well, one might have expected some words of chastisement or words of reproach for Thomas’s unbelief. But they didn’t come. Instead, Jesus presented himself to Thomas and invited him to carry out his tests—to place his finger in the scars of his hands and his hand on his side. And he urged Thomas, with the evidence that was before him, to cease to be an unbeliever and believe.
Now no doubt Thomas’s reaction to all this, probably surprised himself. Thomas was not the sceptic that he thought he was at all. And at the sight of Jesus alone all his doubts vanished; his need for his tests quickly faded away. Jesus’s presence and Jesus’s words were enough. And so, Thomas gave utterance to his newfound faith ‘My Lord and my God’.
‘My God’. Nobody had ever described Jesus in that way before. This was indeed a leap from scepticism to full-on faith. Thomas, in a moment, had not only acknowledged that Jesus had indeed been resurrected from the dead, but he had seen what that resurrection implied. Mere men do not rise from the dead in this fashion. And they certainly don’t continually visit their former colleagues. To Thomas this could mean only one thing—that Jesus truly was the Son of God.
5. Jesus’s Response to Thomas (29)
And Jesus’s response to Thomas? Not with harsh words, but with a word of approval. However, he did go on to commend those in the future who would believe without the benefit of a personal resurrection appearance.
Now it seems to me that poor old Thomas often gets bad press. He’s known as ‘Doubting Thomas’, like he’s been picked out as the only one who had done something terribly wrong. And that, maybe, he is a lesser person because of his unbelief. And yet, Thomas’s disbelief was no different to the unbelief any of the other disciples before they too had seen the resurrected Jesus for themselves.
But more than just believe, Thomas in his expression of faith, showed that he suddenly understood what it was all about. He understood that his newfound faith was not complete in itself, but only the start of something new. He realised what was required was a deep commitment and a willingness to serve. And he discovered that the one person he was to serve, Jesus, was far more interested in what Thomas needed to have and practice—faith—than in chastising or giving reproof for his unbelief.
And those three aspects put a rather different perspective on the story of Thomas than is often ascribed. As a consequence, it is a story that has much to teach us.
1. A Healthy Dose of Scepticism
Because first of all, an element of scepticism is a normal part of living.
The reality was that there was nothing unusual about Thomas being a doubter. After all, Thomas had shown the exact same scepticism which all the other disciples had shown. For sure, by the time it came to his turn, the body of evidence that Jesus had indeed been resurrected from the dead had become substantial—with the evidence of the empty tomb and the number of eyewitnesses. But time wise, it was still only a week since the first resurrection appearance.
So, if the disciples, and Thomas in particular, were sceptical and needed to experience the proof of the resurrection for themselves, doesn’t that suggest that there is something very normal about having doubts and wanting more evidence and even wanting to experience things for ourselves. Because in life, we are told and taught many things. Some things are true, some have elements of truth, and other things have no truth in them whatsoever. And somehow in all of this, as individuals we have to try to separate fact from fiction.
From the perspective of everyday living, then, an element of scepticism can be a healthy thing. It certainly can mean that we don’t get taken in so easily. And, I suggest, an element of scepticism and doubt should be something that we bring to our faith too.
And the reason I say that, is because the Apostle Paul, knowing the problems that the church at Thessalonica were having, encouraged them to ‘Test everything’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and not just mindlessly accept everything they were taught. Indeed, the Apostle Paul encouraged his readers to be at least a little sceptical and weigh up the evidence of what they were taught for themselves.
2. Jesus Meets Our Needs
Secondly, no matter what our doubts, no matter how sceptical we may be, the story of Thomas demonstrates beyond doubt that we have a saviour who cares.
When Jesus confronted Thomas, he didn’t slang off at him. He didn’t tell him to pull up his socks for not believing. Jesus’s response was simply to show Thomas what he needed in order for him to have faith. And do you know, I think that that is the most remarkable aspect of the whole story?
If Jesus was upset about Thomas’s lack of belief—after all they’d been through together—he didn’t show it. For Jesus there was a greater priority. And so, he gave Thomas the means to be a man of faith. And that’s exactly what he became.
And I believe that Jesus gives us all the means to be men and women of faith. It’s just a matter of how we respond to it. And that says something about the nature and character of our God.
3. Salvation and Beyond
And, thirdly, when our doubts have been resolved, we need to remember that that is only the start of the process.
Thomas’s reaction to being confronted by the risen Christ was that all of his doubts were swept away. And it could have ended there, scepticism resolved. Except for the fact that Thomas then went on and responded to Jesus, calling out ‘My Lord and my God!’ To Thomas, Jesus’s resurrection not only proved he was his Lord who had risen from the dead, but that this was the start of a new and ongoing relationship which required further trust and obedience.
This story teaches us, then, that the point of faith is only the start of the Christian journey. It is a journey that requires us to pursue an ongoing relationship with our God—a relationship in which we continue to learn more about God and about ourselves; a relationship that, as time goes by, grows deeper and deeper; a journey by which we are to rely on God for our daily needs, where we acknowledge God’s presence, leading, and guidance in our lives; and a journey which involves exercising the gifts and talents that God gives us, as we carry out the responsibilities that our new found faith brings.
Sceptics, we all need to be sceptics to some degree regarding the things of this world. And that is understandable. The inability of people to perform to our hopes and expectations is one thing, but our experience of people who are only too willing to fleece us for every cent we have is another. In a sense, being a sceptic is a necessary part of life.
But being a sceptic, being able to question things regarding our faith, should be part of our experience too. We shouldn’t just blindly follow, where other people tell us we should tread.
So, in the case of Thomas, perhaps his unbelief in those first seven days after the resurrection was understandable. However, having been confronted with the risen Lord, he not only accepted the risen Lord as his Saviour, but in those five words ‘My Lord and my God’ he accepted him in his ongoing life too.
And my hope, and my prayer, is that we can all accept the risen Lord as our Saviour. And that we can then go on to claim Jesus as our Lord and our God in our daily lives too.
Posted: 1st February 2022
© 2022, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Pointing the Way (John)
First sign: Turning water into wine (2:1-11)
Second sign: Healing the official’s son (4:46-54)
Third sign: The healing of a lame man (5:1-18)
Fourth sign: Feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15)
Fifth sign: Jesus walks on water (6:16-21)
Sixth sign: The healing of a man born blind (9:1-41)
Seventh sign: The raising of Lazarus (11:1-57)
For the apostle John, the miracles were great, but more important was that they pointed to the miracle worker—to Jesus himself. As a consequence John’s emphasis is not on the miracles themselves, but on the one who performed them. And as I thought about that, I wondered whether we do the same.
After all, there are times when we all might pray for a miracle of one kind or another. But when our prayers are answered, do we get so engrossed in the miracle that we miss the sign pointing to the Messiah? Because that is the trap that the people of Jesus’s day fell into. As a consequence they wanted miracle, after miracle, after miracle.
It’s very important then to recognise that miracles are signposts pointing to Jesus. And we need to be alert to all the opportunities given to us to have an encounter with the Messiah.
Posted: 11th October 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis