Built through His Spirit

Preached on: Sunday 19th June 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here22-06-19 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Matthew 16:13-18
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Jesus will build His church
– We partner with Jesus by the filling and power of the Holy Spirit

So, we’ve been hearing a little bit of what you’ve been doing over the last year. Thank-you so much. And I thought we would share a little bit of what the adults have been learning in the sanctuary because, actually, it weaves together so well that only God could do this. So, I just thought we should incur we should share some of this.

So, about a month ago I was on holiday taking a wee break and Brent was speaking with you and to the adults and he had up here a big sheet. Can you remember what was underneath the sheet? Can anybody remember? What was it? What’s the little building blocks that you use? Lego. Right. That’s right and he was building, getting you to build a temple because he was helping us learn about the story of a particular individual in the Old Testament. Can you remember who the name of that person is it begins with a ‘N’? Tricky name you think. Not, Noah, no. Can any adults remember? Nehemiah. That’s right Nehemiah. And the story of Nehemiah is about a man who God uses to help his, God’s people, rebuild the temple and restore His people’s purposes and what they’re about. But here’s the thing – it actually failed, it actually in the end failed because, although they got the temple rebuilt, and they started putting some things right, they didn’t see God’s kingdom come, and great power and glory and all their hopes and aspirations, it wasn’t fulfilled at that time and but that’s because they kept messing things up and they kept getting distracted and they needed someone to come and save them, to change them, to help them from the inside out, live for God’s purposes. And so, they waited and they waited. Do you like waiting? No. You’re probably waiting for me to finish right? Yeah. Yeah. Well, be glad you’re not having to wait about five, six, seven hundred years. The sermon’s not that long today. You didn’t have to wait that long but they did. God’s people waited that long from the days of Nehemiah until someone came. Who do you think came? Who was it? Who do you think it was? Jesus, exactly Otis. That’s it exactly. It was Jesus and He came doing some incredible amazing things. Things like what the juniors were telling us about. What other Bible stories can you remember? Incredible things that Jesus did? Can remember any other Bible stories that Jesus did incredible things? What incredible things did He do?

He had healed loads of folks or poor people. This woman today, the young girl he raised to life. He did some incredible healing. Did He do anything else? Can you remember any other Bible stories that were really amazing? Anybody want to chip in? Say again. Fed the five thousand, yep. Anybody on this side want to share a story? Say again. Calmed the sea. Exactly. The storm that was raging and He calmed the sea. He did all these things and because of these amazing things that were helping to mend this broken world, as the juniors were telling us in their story, people began to wonder began to think ‘Who is this guy? Who is this guy.? And Jesus knew that they were having these conversations and so He’s walking along with these disciples, they’re going to the next bit and as Isla read from read for us in the story, He turned to them and said ‘Well, who are people saying I am?’ But, you know, then he had another question, a very kind of pointed question and do you remember the question? Do you remember what it was that Isla read for us? He had one more question and it was ‘Who do you say I am? Who do you say I am?’ And Peter, it’s always Peter isn’t. He steps up and he’s like ‘I know. I’ve got the answer.’ Kind of like us with our Bibles it’s like ‘Oh, I know where Joshua is. I know where Esther is.’ But Peter steps up ‘You’re the messiah, the promised one. You’re the son of the living God.’ And I could imagine Jesus having a bit of a smile at that point ‘No Peter, you’ve got it, you’ve got it Peter but you don’t know the whole story yet, but you’ve got it but you only know that because my Father’s helped you.’ And we all need God’s help to understand who Jesus is and so Peter, Jesus then says this to the disciples ‘This is the rock (the knowledge of Jesus of who he is) this is the rock on which I will put together my church. A church so expansive with energy that not even a gate of hell will be able to keep it out.’ Or in the Bibles we have in our pews ‘On this I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’

Jesus is building something, boys and girls. He’s not building a temple, like in Nehemiah’s day, and he’s not even building a building or an institution. He’s building a people. A people who know Him, who follow Him, who trust Him. That’s His people and that’s you and me, and all the people across this world and across all time who’ve trusted in Him as the promised Messiah, as the Son of the living God. And with the adults we’ve been thinking about ‘Oh, how can we partner with Jesus? How can we be more obedient to Jesus? How can we collaborate with Jesus and what He is doing in the world?’

But here’s the really important thing, really important thing. There’s only one person ultimately who can build the church. Who is it? Who is it that can build the church? That’s Jesus. It’s only Jesus that can build the church because ultimately to build the church you need to change hearts and I’ve been preaching for three years and who knows what degree of change is in your hearts but only Jesus can change our hearts. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. I can tell you about Jesus but I can’t make you have a relationship with Jesus. Only Jesus can do that.

And so, we’ve been emphasizing the place of prayer and of asking Jesus to build His church because only Jesus can build the church, and it’s a great thing, it’s actually really good news that it’s Jesus who builds the church because who is this Jesus? He’s the Jesus of the miracles. He’s the Jesus who calms the storms. He’s a Jesus who raises the dead. He’s a Jesus who died on that cross to overcome sin and death and hell and He proved victorious when He was risen from the dead to show He accomplished His goals. This is our Jesus, church. This is our Lord and Savior and so when He says He will build His church, He will fulfill that promise to build a people who trust in Him the rock of our salvation. Who know Him as the Son of the living God

And so, will we be that people? A people who trust? A people who follow? A people who walk with our Lord all the days of our lives, from the youngest, across all the days? I pray that we will be, brothers and sisters. May it be so. Amen.

Place Purpose Presence

Preached on: Sunday 12th June 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-06-12 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Ephesians 2:11-22
Location: Slamannan Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– with Jesus we share in God’s blessings and peace
– with Jesus we are a new and united people
– with Jesus we have place, purpose and presence

Let us come to God in prayer. Let us pray:

Come Holy Spirit and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Holy Spirit and help us know what it means to follow Jesus.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Every Sunday morning, I always check the news before I come out just in case something happens. I mean, I suddenly need a new sermon or need to change something. Thankfully, nothing on the news this morning of that ilk but on the news we’re still headlines about the pandemic, about how Covid is changing and numbers, and bits and pieces, and how it still affects our life.

And the pandemic threw up so many issues for our world and for each of us individually. Whether it be lockdowns and masks, whether it be quarantines or everything else that came with that pandemic. There was so much. And one of the big challenges of the pandemic, clearly, was the very real and tangible isolation that we felt and, the longer it went on, and the greater our fear became, the greater, also, our sense of alienation from one another. And we might know people who are still in that place, they’re still feeling that way, that to come out to church, to come out to shops or things in the community, is still a scary thought, a fearful thing that they hold back from.

Pastor and theologian John Stott said that ‘the breakdown of human relationships is truly a dehumanizing experience for it is then that we become strangers in a world in which we should feel at home.’ We become strangers in a world in which we should feel at home. But it’s not only the pandemic that has made us feel that way or can make us feel that way, there is, of course, much change in the church just now. Numbers are falling, number of ministers are falling, the finances are falling, everything is falling and so, as part of that, we are having to very much consider which churches are going to close and unite, which buildings are going to shut, and that can be uncertainly, it can raise worry and fear for us, and it can make us feel a little bit adrift in that, in between time, and the prospect that it might be our church or our building, our congregation that’s affected, can make us feel that what has been a place of solace and comfort, of respite and sanctuary, is a threat. And so, maybe what felt home is now we’re feeling a little bit like strangers in a world where we should feel at home with that. We don’t yet know what’s happening with the Presbytery Plan. We don’t know what changes are coming so, as we wait, as we face that future, as we face our own futures beyond the church, in the pandemic, what grounds us in these times? What keeps our hope alive? Is there something we can hold to that might even maintain our optimism and motivation?

Paul was writing to a group of churches that were facing their own tough times, probably tougher than we’re facing in our days, and he writes to ground them, he writes to inspire and comfort them and, especially, he wants them to understand what they have gained through Jesus, what it means to be a Christian and part of the church. And so, he says to them ‘Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles, remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world’. He wants them to remember, he wants them to remember what they didn’t have before Jesus. They didn’t share in the covenants of promise. They didn’t share in those great promises God had given to His people of old, of what He was going to do in the world and for the world and have a people of His own. They didn’t know any of that. They didn’t share in any of that. And so, they didn’t, he says they were without hope, they didn’t have hope before Jesus, because they didn’t know God’s plans and promises and they didn’t know His plans and promises because they were without God, they didn’t know God, they didn’t have a true knowledge of God, they didn’t have fellowship with God. All this was true of them before they came to know Jesus.

You know friends, the same is true of us, the same is true of us. It’s not automatic that we share in these things. It is not a right. It’s not owed to us. We are really in the same position before Jesus is known to each of us.

But Paul goes on. He goes on to say ‘But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.’ Through Jesus we are brought near to God, we are reconciled to God and so, now we do share in these things, we share in God’s promises, we share in His plans and so, we do have hope even in the darkest of times, because we truly know God and we enjoy fellowship with Him. And so, with Jesus, we share God’s blessings and have peace with God. But how easy is it to forget all this? I’m not preaching anything you’ve probably not heard a million times in all your days of coming to church, but it’s so easy to forget this, to even devalue it during the pandemic. I’m sure we all learn to revalue things. To revalue a hug and an embrace. To revalue being able to see people face to face rather than just use a phone call or learn the frustration of Zoom or whatever it might be. Or have to keep social distance with people. Of the freedom of being able to sing without a mask again and much more, much more besides. There’ are things we learn to re-value.

And the same is true of our faith. It’s very easy for this good news to become old news and I was just to shrug it off and especially if we have been around church for a long time, if we’ve maybe been a part of the church since we were a babe in arms, is very easy for us to end up undervaluing this. ‘Oh, here’s this young preacher, he’s just saying the same old stuff. I’ve heard this every Sunday!’ But how we end up undervaluing because we need to remember that without Jesus, without a faith in Jesus, this stuff is meaningless. For many, it would simply be empty and church would just go on around us. You may find that you’ve got a place in church but the reason church becomes meaningful really is because you end up knowing Jesus, you have a faith in Jesus and so, with Jesus, we share God’s blessing and His peace and that’s what grounds us, it’s what sustains us and gives us a hope, and I hope you know that hope yourself, for your own self and your days and your struggles and whatever you might be facing.

But Paul says there’s even more to what it means to be a Christian, there’s even more good news that we’ve got to share. And so, he goes on. He says ‘For he (that is Jesus) for Jesus himself is our peace who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.’ His purpose was to create Himself one new humanity out of the two thus making peace. Again, he’s trying to help them remember what was before they had Jesus, that there was this division between people and that was especially true in Paul’s day where there were the Jews and basically everybody else, the Gentiles, there was as he says in verse 11 ‘the circumcision and those uncircumcised’, there was such division, hostility, animosity between these two groups.

I’m sure we all know of groups in our own day where there is such division and animosity but, in the day of Paul, that division carried over into the temple and into religious life as well and even in how the temple was structured. And so, you had three courts within the temple. You had the inner two, which Jews were allowed into, but then you had the outer court, The Court of the Gentiles, but not only were the Gentiles relegated to the outside space, that court was lower down and can you imagine being significantly lowered down and always having to look up and wonder what’s happening up there and you’re excluded and you’re just not allowed in and that being reinforced by literally a wall we read here of a barrier, the dividing wall, and we think he’s just maybe speaking metaphorically but he’s actually being literal, he’s been literal, that there was a barrier there, a one and a half meter high barrier all around those inner two courts to keep the Gentiles out and on that barrier there were signs at regular intervals in both Greek and Latin saying that if you trespassed you were going to die, they would put you to death. Such was the threat they made. Great division, but Paul is saying here in Ephesians that that dividing wall, that barrier, that hostility has been overcome, has been taken down through Jesus because He’s made one new humanity and a united people because on His cross, in His death He is reconciled not only to God but to one another as well.

And so, those past practices have been overcome, they’ve been done away with, they’ve been relegated, they’re no longer relevant to have those different courts and to have that external barrier, It’s not relevant any longer.

So, what about in our day? What about in the church? Is this unity seen or do people see division in the church? And maybe we would point to say ‘Well, in the Upper Braes and the Braes we’re doing quite well. We’ve got joint services like a couple of weeks ago and it was great to be up here in Slamannan and in the Community Centre and have 180 of us all together. And we do Holy Week and we do World Day of Prayer and there’s maybe more besides. But, but, does that outside world look upon us, and as we sang in just one of our hymns there, does it just see division and schism? Does it see a separateness amongst the churches?

And it makes me wonder actually, whether God might be using the decline of the church to bring about something, to bring about a greater unity, because we refuse to do it ourselves. Not that He’s bringing it about but that He’s using it, using it to teach us, using it to refine us, using it to make real what is true spiritually, that we are one people. There is no Slamannan or Brightons or Blackbraes and Shieldhill and Muiravonside really. These are all labels, labels that will not be there in eternity. There is no division in Jesus and so maybe God is using it, using it to improve our witness, to improve the mission of God here because it’s, we get very defensive about our church and my building and our folk and our way of doing things, in our traditions, and we’re all as bad as the next, but maybe God wants to help us see that actually we are new and united people and maybe it’s time to live that out more fully.

Some food for thought over Sunday lunch.

So, with Jesus, we’re sharing God’s blessings and peace, with Jesus we’re made a new and united people, what Paul says, and a few verses he says an awful lot. He says there’s even more good news. He goes on to say ‘Consequently, you’re no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household and in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit.’ And what Paul wants to get across to us is that, with Jesus, we have place, we have purpose, and we have presence. I know I’m throwing a lot at you but I blame Paul, he’s just he manages to condense so much good news into so few verses. So, let me just talk you through this.

We’ve got place because he says that we’re now citizens of the kingdom of God. He says we’re children of God Almighty. he is our Heavenly Father. We’ve got a place, a good place, a place in the kingdom of the Son, the kingdom of light. We’ve got a place in a family that spans the generations, the centuries, the continents, cultures. That’s our place now. That’s our place but we’ve got purpose he says that God is building something. He’s building a people, a people who are made into a temple. That this temple, there’s not a building like this or like down in Brightons, it’s not a temple in one place like in Jerusalem though, His temple is made up of people across all the nations, across all time, a living temple and that we are part of that. We are part of an international eternal group of people. We are part of that, founded on Jesus who’s the cornerstone, who gives it its dimensions and shape and alignment. With Jesus we are part of that building. but we’ve also got presence because he says in verse 22 that ‘you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit.’

Friends, I think it was understanding the role of the Holy Spirit that most profoundly changed my Christian faith in some ways, other than the fact that I needed saving and I needed faith in Jesus, that was number one, number two was the role of the Holy Spirit that in each of our lives God’s Spirit is at work, that in each of us God resides by His spirit and also as Paul teaches here, amongst us, as a people, God is building a dwelling place to dwell by His Spirit to work and be at work in the world through us. We don’t just labor in our own strength, we don’t just have to rely on our own resources, God is really there to help us and work through us just like he did with George and he took that step away and God carried him through and opened doors and made his message receptive. The Spirit was at work and the same is true for each and every one of us, brothers and sisters, we are being built together to be a temple where God’s presence, His Spirit is at work in us individually and amongst us corporately. We’re citizens, we’re children, we’re a holy temple carrying the presence of God and the good news.

Friends, is that, this can’t be taken away, it can’t be lost, it can’t be changed. I think one of the struggles with the pandemic was not only the isolation but that we felt powerless to do anything in the face of it a mini virus that you can’t even see and yet it shuts down the world, and we felt so powerless to change that, to do anything in light of it. It robbed us of so much to be taken for granted we felt powerless to do anything.

But Paul is saying that these things cannot be taken from you. They cannot be lost because they don’t depend on you, they don’t depend on human resources, they depend on Jesus, on His power, His power displayed on the cross. He died to secure that for you and it cannot be taken from you friends. It’s good news that lasts the generations and all the seasons of life and so whatever comes in life, whatever lies in the future, for the British churches, this is us, this is who we are through Jesus. We’re people who share in God’s blessings and peace. We’re people who are united. We are people who have place and purpose and presence. It’s all a gift. It’s all of grace. It can’t be taken or lost whether that’s by death or circumstance, decline or change. This is us. This is what we have in Jesus, who we are in Him, and it is as unchanging as Jesus Himself is.

So, what are you going to do about it? Is this just an old, another rambling sermon and you’re just in one ear and out the other? Are you going to do something about it are you going to go back to your everyday life here in Slamannan and further afield, and are you going to live this out, you’re going to live out your identity with Jesus? And you can live out loud and proud or in a more quiet and confident manner. It’s up to you, but will you live out your identity, will you revel in it, will you rest in it, will you remember what you have through Jesus and allow it to be good news that you share, that grounds you, that gives you hope and motivation, come what may?

I pray it may be so. Amen.

Reshaped

Preached on: Sunday 5th June 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-06-05 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 6:15-16 & 7:73b-8:18
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Restoration is a people living under the Word of God
– Living under the Word of God requires us to respond wholeheartedly
– Living under the Word of God requires us to be reshaped

I don’t think we need to pray anymore after such a beautiful prayer led for us by the Choir. So, let me let me begin.

Recently, I was at the General Assembly and for five days, long days, we heard 30 reports which totaled something like 260 pages plus of writing, not that they read it verbatim, thankfully, but they spoke, in addition to those 250 pages, there were about 400 people in The Assembly Hall which you see pictured here, 200 online and probably the cost, I guess, is somewhere in the region of maybe 120 to 150 thousand pounds.

And so, you might begin to wonder – what did it achieve? Because, you know, your offerings contributed to funding that, a bit of your offering goes into the central funds and some of it is used for that to. So, what did it achieve? What came of it? Or is the church any more on a path towards a good future? Or, as we’re thinking about in Nehemiah, are we on a path to restoration?

I guess that depends on your point of view. For example, there were positives. There was the agreement and ratification of the Declaration of Friendship, the Saint Margaret Declaration between the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Scotland taking a stand against bigotry and saying it has no place and should not be condoned by anyone of faith. There were encouraging reports of the work done by the Scottish Bible Society, by Crossreach, by The Guild and all that they are doing in the name of Jesus and for people locally and internationally. Great reports to hear, great work to affirm and encourage. There were negatives. The church made headlines about some of its decisions in the press and which I would argue is a departure from Scripture. So, as our church on the path to restoration, for me personally, for a number of people who attended, even across the theological spectrum, it didn’t feel like it, I didn’t feel like we were necessarily better off for having spent so much money and gathered for five days and expelled so much hot air.

But, I guess, ultimately, it begs the question – What would restoration look like? What would restoration look like for the church, in the everyday?

Well, we’re nearly at the end of our series in Nehemiah and, halfway through we read these verses, just a moment ago, ‘So the wall was completed in 52 days and when our enemies heard about this all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their confidence because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.’ The wall is complete. The wall is complete and not only that, people are taking notice, they’re taking notice of God’s people and they are realizing that God is alive and active, that He’s not just some old guy in a book, He’s alive and active and the wall is complete. In our day, if people started thinking that about the church and about the Christian faith, we’d maybe think ‘Well, job done. Pat in the back.’ That would be a great accomplishment. If the wider nations, if even our own nation, were taking note of this. But the job is not complete for Nehemiah because they’re only, we are only halfway through the book. There’s still another seven chapters, and don’t worry we’re not going to read them all, because many of the chapters that are coming follow on from what is contained in this chapter, although they deal with different issues. Their themes, their principles apply, follow the lead of this chapter. Chapter eight, there’s still seven more to go and it all goes to show, as we said a few weeks ago, that the rebuilding is not about the building. The wall might be complete, but God’s restoration is not over, it’s not done, the job’s not finished, because the restoration that God is seeking the restoration that is upon Nehemiah’s heart, because of God’s prompting and the restoration that God is enabling is a spiritual restoration, the restoration of their spiritual life and it’s all tied in with God’s word.

And so, we read ‘All the people came together they told Israel, the Teacher of the Law, to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses which the Lord had commanded for Israel. So, on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra, the priest, brought the law before the assembly. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon and all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. The goal of restoration is not the rebuilding of a building, it’s to have a people who live under the Word of God. The goal of restoration is to have a people who live under the Word of God and the people seek this out. They invite Ezra to do it. To speak to them from daybreak till noon. Be glad you’ve only got a 30 minute sermon, if it ends up being there, and they raise Ezra up on a platform so that everyone can hear, the multitude can hear, because it’s so important for them. Why is it so important for them? Are they just being religious?

Well, let’s remember that back in chapter 2 they felt a measure of disgrace, disgrace that the walls had been, were in ruin but that spoke of other spiritual dynamics and that disgrace was being then projected onto God because the nations would hold God in disdain, with lack of honor and they’d had enough, they’d had enough, they wanted to be a people who brought honor and glory to God’s name, rather than disgrace, and to know how to do that, to know the wider life that they had to live to bring honor and glory to God. How to please God they turned to His Word. They turned to His Word. So, as we seek and pray for restoration of our own congregation, to see these pews filled, to see such a number here that we have to cram us unto the balcony, to see our denomination flourish again that we plant churches rather than having to close churches. Is it this kind of restoration that we seek? To be a people, to be a church who live under the Word of God?

I guess it depends on what you think the purpose of the church is, what our focus should be. If it’s just about doing good in the community, maybe not if it’s just about caring for one another. You don’t necessarily need to be a community that lives under the Word of God to do that. Yet, our elders agreed that as a congregation this would be our purpose – To seek to invite encourage and enable people of all ages to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus. And that means a lot more than just knowing the stories about Jesus and thinking He’s a great guy. To follow Jesus is to grow in the character of Jesus. To follow Jesus is to know the ways of Jesus across both the Old and the New Testaments and put that into practice. To follow Jesus is to say that Jesus is worth following, that he’s worth glory, he’s worth our lives.

So, what is it that we are seeking the restoration of? Is it this, to be a people who live under the word of God?

Now, even if we think it’s important to be a people who live under the Word of God it begs the question again – What does that look like? What does it mean? Because we have our own traditions, where we seek to honor the Word of God, don’t we? We bring in the Bible every week during a moment of stillness and we place it on the pulpit and in other churches, as you saw last week with Slamannan, they may be sing a song, other churches are silent, some churches stand. Some churches have a monstrosity of a Bible that’s just big and it’s old and there’s a degree of reverence with that.

But it’s possible that the tradition, the ritual can be become the end in itself, that we have this public display of reverence for God’s Word but it doesn’t mean anything now, because we don’t live it out. So, what does it mean to live under the Word of God, more than just having some public display of reverence on a Sunday morning? What does that look like?

Well, the people of Nehemiah’s day give us some ideas. ‘Ezra opened the book and, as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God and all the people lifted their hands and responded Amen! Amen! Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. All the people had been weeping as they listened to the Words of the Law. Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.’ We see here that to live under the Word of God is to respond to the Word of God, to respond with the whole of our hearts. And so, we see that they raise their hands in worship and praise. If you think I’m crazy doing that then, well, I’ve got Ezra on my side. So, they lift their hands in praise but they also bow down in worship as an act of humility and they say Amen! Amen! And if you don’t know what that word means, it means ‘may it be so’, ‘let it be’ so, ‘I agree’, ‘I want that to be true of my life’, ‘True in this world’, ‘True of us’ depending on what you’re saying ‘Amen’ too. But they also weep and they mourn, a sign of repentance, but then they also go home to celebrate and rejoice together with a feast. The people in Nehemiah’s time, in this passage at least, they respond wholeheartedly to the Word of God. And so, we can have as many rituals as we like, we can have bookcases full of Bibles at home, we can even be reading the Bible every day but, if we are not responding to the Word of God, then we are not living under the Word of God, because James reminds us ‘Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.’

It’s possible to deceive ourselves, to think that because we give due reverence to the Scriptures, to think that because I was there for the sermon and I even listened, I didn’t fall asleep, we can think that we are ticking the box, that we’re listening but, to listen to the Word, is to do the work and I think that’s, in part why, for some in the church, the decision at the General Assembly on that particular Monday was so disheartening because it didn’t feel like we were responding to the Word of God. It felt like we were responding to other things, other pressures, other voices but not to God’s Word. But it’s easy to point fingers at others, to look at the others and point those things out. What about our own lives? What about your life? Where are we deceiving ourselves? Or, to put it more positively, where are we responding to the Word of God? Where are we responding in praise and celebration? Where are we responding with confession and humility? Where are we responding with our own ‘Amen’? So, let me give you a few examples from recent sermons.

At the beginning of Nehemiah there was a call to pray, to pray for our congregation, to pray for our Sunday gathering, to pray for our wider denomination, and it’s been heartening to see a fair number of folk gather at 10:15. Now, I said at the time, there’s no pressure to be there, but if you don’t come please pray in your own time. So, did you pray? Because I haven’t seen all of you here. Did you pray? Did you take that on board? Did you care enough to pray? Or did we just listen but not listen? Because this is not going to change without listening to the Word of God and without prayer. So, we’re going to carry on our 10:15 prayers, we’re going to move it into one of the other rooms and you’re always welcome to join us and you can continue to pray at home, but sometimes we need the structure, we need the accountability to make us stop and pray and I need that as much as anyone. If we didn’t have that 10:15 time just ask Jean Meek the number of times when I have been busy and about and then Jean’s commented ‘We praying?’ I was like ‘Yeah, we’re praying! Great, you’ve reminded me, it’s that time already.’ I need it as much as the next person. So maybe you need it and maybe you should come at 10:15. Or if not, put it in the diary and keep to do something to respond to that. Or let me jump back into our Lent series. Our Lent series where we saw the invitation of Jesus to trust Him, to trust Him because He knows our sorrows and He has come, He has overcome death. Have we taken that to heart? Is it the foundation of our faith in some way? Because hard times come, sadness has come, dark times come, and you might be there just now, and if we don’t take that Word to heart, if we don’t take it deep down, then when those hard times come, we forget those truths and we think that God doesn’t care and He’s not there and He’s just leaving us to our fate or our darkness. But He’s not, He’s not. He’s come to die on a cross, to overcome death that we might have a better future, that we might have the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation where there’ll be no more suffering and no more pain and the old order of things will have gone away.

Did we take that to heart? Did we allow that to go deep down in us and engender a deeper trust in Jesus? Friends, the purpose of restoration is to be a people who respond to the Word of God because that’s in part what it looks like to live under the Word of God. But our passage gives us one more, one more area where what it looks like to live under the Word of God.

We read earlier ‘They found written in the law that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month so the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters.’ To live under the Word of God is to be reshaped or transformed by the Word of God. Imagine, they’ve got these new homes that they’ve just rebuilt and they’re getting all comfy and then they discover they have to make temporary shelters out of branches and live outdoors for seven days. Can you imagine doing that? It’d be a measure of discomfort, frustration. ‘Really? I’ve really got to do this?’ But they do it because to live under the Word of God is to be shaped, reshaped by the Word of God. And so, what they’re celebrating here is the Festival of Tabernacles. It’s written about in the Book of Leviticus and they would make these temporary shelters and by sharing in this festival they would remember a number of things. They would remember that God had guided His people through the desert for 40 years and that He had provided and protected them, that He had been faithful and generous but they’d also remember then that they were indebted to that past action of God and to the present generosity and faithfulness of God that had helped them rebuild Jerusalem now, and they would be saying that they’re still a pilgrim people, they’re still a people on a journey, they’re still not fully at home yet, that there’s more to come and so they trust the Lord, they put their trust in Jesus.

And friends, today as we gather around this table and we take our little cups and we share in the Sacrament of Communion, many of these things are being remembered and celebrated too. We’re remembering the provision and protection of God. That He ‘so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son’. That’s what we remember, that we’re saved, we don’t have to pay the penalty of our sin, because our God is faithful and generous and so we remember that, we remember that we’re indebted to Him, we remember that this isn’t our home, that there’s a better future, a new creation, a new home where we’ll see Jesus’ face to face and we’ll be reunited with all our loved ones who followed Him.

And so, we declare our confidence, our ongoing trust in Jesus too, as we share in this meal. Now, for the Israelites, in their minds eye, that was a timely reminder they’d forgotten about it, they hadn’t celebrated it in that way, there was new things to learn about this festival, it was a timely thing of God and I want to tell you that God has been doing a timely thing I think in giving us this sermon at this time, in light of what the Kirk Session has been discussing about communion too. So, back in March the elders began a conversation around communion, about how communion is served, about who gets to share in communion and if you don’t know our past practice before the pandemic, was that the elders would walk in and sit over here and then, the elders, after the top table was, top table the table was served, we would then serve the elders and then the elders would serve everybody else, and there were probably very practical reasons for that in some ways. It makes it quicker and simpler less messy. But as the elders shared about this, we began to share that we felt maybe at times it could inadvertently communicate things that we don’t want to communicate. It could communicate a measure of superiority, that those in leadership, those who oversee this community of faith, they’re served first. Well, why?

And it’s not to criticize, it’s just to say that that could be portrayed, that could be seen in that symbolism and so we paused the conversation and went away to kind of ruminate a bit more and think about it over. And we came back in May and in that meeting we talked about it more and collectively we decided that we should change our practice, we should change it so that Communion can be served by anybody within the congregation and that the order of it might change as well of who is served first and last and it feels like a rediscovery, feels like a restoration, kind of akin to Nehemiah’s time, that we’re discovering that there’s much more to how we share and that when we share it in different ways we can recover different meanings and symbolism.

So, that’s coming once we’re able to start sharing the elements again and pass them around. Maybe for September but at the same meetings we also talked about the place of children and whether children could share in communion. Now this is not the first time that the Kirk Session of Brightons has had this discussion. Apparently, we had a discussion about it back in the 90s. I wasn’t here for that one so I don’t know all the ins and outs but I’m told the decision was made that children could share in Communion That’s nearly 30 years on – nothing has changed really. I think our elders couldn’t really name any changes that had really resulted from that decision, in that discussion.

So, we are now going to more proactively involve children in sharing Communion but the elders would like me to do some teaching on that, to us as a congregation and then do some follow-up work with the Sunday School leaders, with the Sunday Schools, maybe with families, and to allow that time, we’re working towards December as being the first time that we might more proactively involve our children in Communion, and it will mean that children are in here for Communion not every time, there are different ways of doing this, but at least in December, our kids will be back in the Sanctuary after the sermon to share in Communion. More change is coming, and before you think that this is about being more inclusive or something like this, I am not going to ground any of my arguments in favor of that, on being more inclusive, I am going to ground all my arguments upon the Scriptures and can I tell you I have been loving the reading I’ve been doing recently just to reacquaint myself with some of this. It’s getting me excited about God’s purposes about His heart for children, for families and what we’ve been missing out on as a church and how we disciple our children and how we talk about faith with our children. I’m excited. I’m really looking forward to that teaching series which will come at the end of August beginning, beginning of September. So, it’s all going to be shaped by Scripture and then proactively responding to that.

But, for today, in a few moments, we’re going to be sharing in Communion. We do it responding to the Word of God, the command of Jesus in Scripture, the written Word of God and to the life of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, who came in flesh and died on a cross for you and for me. We remember in that meal. His generosity and faithfulness. We affirm that we are people who seek to follow Jesus by living under the Word of God, responding wholeheartedly and being shaped, reshaped as His people. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Everyone investing in the eternal

Preached on: Sunday 8th May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-05-08 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 2:10-3:5
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Rebuilding is not about the building
– Rebuilding is a whole-community effort
– Rebuilding is costly

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Come Holy Spirit and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Holy Spirit and renew our minds.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Last week I was getting Hope ready for school about half seven or so in the morning, she asked me the question ‘Dad, can I wear nail polish to school today? and I just feel the nerves rise up within me. The worry about what to do in this moment and not because applying nail polish phases me any longer. Two years of a pandemic and especially at the start when you’re trying to figure out how to pass time with a three-year-old, nail polish is a key winner because ‘Well Hope, you need to sit for five or ten minutes to let it dry’ so you know ‘just wait a wee bit longer.’ So, I’m quite adept at applying the old nail polish to Hope’s nails now. No, no the worry was not about applying the nail polish but whether we should because there’s part of me that begins to worry, here’s a five-year-old and is she worried about what people think about her and that her friends are wearing nail polish so she wants to nail polish, and if I say no then what’s that going to do for her self-esteem. And I got in a bit of a tiz and in the end she wasn’t allowed to wear nail polish and apparently, according to her mum, I made the right choice. So, score!

But I hope it’s not the only one of us who finds moments where we’re under the influence of people around us and our culture around us, we all are, whether it’s the culture or the media, whether it’s friends or family, whether it’s maybe practices in the workplace. There are things that influence us. Influence what we should pursue or invest ourselves in, or chase after. But, more often than not, the things that we’re told to pursue just raise anxiety and worry, they create competition and pride or even envy and bitterness, they’re not life-giving. So, what are we investing ourselves in? What do we esteem or chase after?

We’re now into week three of Nehemiah and we chose this book because of its focus on rebuilding. And we’re aware that we’re moving into a different phase with the pandemic and we’re also aware hopefully, sadly, that our denomination is in exponential decline and actually that affects a lot of the denominations. So this week’s focus on rebuilding helps us to think about how we might rebuild our own faith, but how might we might rebuild the community of faith as well. And we’ve seen in Nehemiah’s story the importance of prayer and repentance and it was great to gather with folks this morning at quarter past ten, if you didn’t make it along you missed out, because I just left me so encouraged from that time and I’d encourage you to think about maybe joining over the next four Sundays. We’re going to pray each Sunday from 10:15 to 10:30 up to Pentecost Sunday on the 5th of June. You don’t need to come and pray out loud, you can just listen in, but if that’s not possible for you then there are many other ways to be praying whether it’s at home or in a fellowship group or in a team that you’re maybe part of. Get involved and be praying for our congregation and wider denomination. But this week we move on once more and see the next bit of Nehemiah’s story, of what it says to our situation.

In our passage we saw how Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem. He traveled for four months from Souza to Jerusalem and, understandably, when he arrives, he needs a bit of a rest so, for three days, he rests. He prepares and then he goes and scouts out the city to see what needs doing. But he keeps all of his plans close to his chest probably because of the opposition he knows is out there against God’s people, and that’ll become more of a focus maybe in the next few weeks, but the time comes, eventually, for Nehemiah to make a move, to gather the people and share with them what is upon his heart. And so, he says to them ‘You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ We will no longer be in disgrace – it’s a theme that was there in chapter one but we didn’t dwell on it much due to time constraints, but this theme of disgrace is important for Nehemiah and for God’s people and it should be important for us too because it’s not so much that the people are in disgrace, it’s more about the worry about what that then causes for God’s glory and name, because a diminished Jerusalem with its walls and gates and a mess portrays a diminished God to the people around them. And so, the neighboring peoples would think ‘Well, your God can’t be very powerful, look how we beat you up and tore down your walls. Your God can’t care for you very much because you’re not able to rebuild.’ And so, they’re in disgrace and because they’re in disgrace the name of God is in disgrace. And so, as I’ve got on screen here the rebuilding is not about the builder, the rebuilding is not about the building, it’s about the reputation of God, it’s about God being seen to be worthy of worship, that he is the true God, their focus, a spiritual focus enabled, fulfilled through material means but with a spiritual focus, and it carries on into chapter three.

Chapter three we read at the very start that ‘The high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the sheep gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place.’ Now the order of things in scripture is very important at times and so the fact that Nehemiah begins with the sheep gate is important. At first, it seems like well, that’s just another gate but actually, the Sheep Gate is where the sacrifices were brought in and so they’re saying that’s that was the gate they began with, that was the important gate because God is important, we’re putting God first. And they dedicated it, they gave it over to God, they made it holy and all this because the rebuilding was not about the building, it was about God’s name and glory, about the true worship of God.

So, what about us and every day, as we think about rebuilding things after the pandemic, as we think about rebuilding our denomination in light of its decline? What is the focus for us? Is it about just keeping the building open and keeping the lights on? Is it about getting back to the glory days? If you lived in the height of the church and just wanting that memory to become reality again? Is it about the reputation of the denomination? Is it about feeling successful here that ‘Well hey, we’ve got kids?’ What is it about for you? What is it about? I feel church wouldn’t be a wrong thing to aspire for or a wrong thing to pray for, there might be very good reasons for that and based on Nehemiah chapter 2 one good reason would be that a full church might show that there’s a greater proportion of our community to recognize that God is worthy of praise. That would be a good reason. To see a full church, that would be a good reason to pray, for more people, and for worship not to make us feel good, not to massage our ego, but that God might be glorified and given His due worship. But for that to happen it needs to start in each of our lives. This needs to start in your life and in my life. We need to know that God is worthy of praise in all the seasons of life. We need to know that God is worthy of praise. So, let me ask, has your passion for God diminished of late? Is God less worthy, in your eyes now, of your praise? And I don’t mean happy clappy, be like Scott, hands in the air kind of praise, okay, and passion, you can express your passion however you want to, but is it diminished from what it was? Is God less worthy now in your eyes?

When I was in my mid to late 20s I was in a youth worker job and it came to a very sudden end and it was a very painful experience and left a lot of wounds for me and a job did open up straight away. That was a very a fitting job and actually would bring a lot of benefit in the end but for that first year of my job, that new job, I did not like it. I was in a fellowship group and every two weeks I’d go along and I would just moan about my job. I did not want this job and in that first year what ended up changing was my perspective and part of what changed was recognizing that God was worthy whatever the season of my life, that God was worthy of my praise whatever the season of my life. Now that might not be exuberant happy praise but He is so worthy of my worship and praise whatever the season. Have you come to that point yet? Have you matured in your faith that you’ve learned that lesson? Often it can only be learned the hard way I’m afraid, but if we don’t learn it then in our estimation and our perspective of God, God’s worth ends up going like this and our faith ends up going like this. We need to learn the lesson if we want to mature in our faith, that God is worthy of praise whatever the season.

And so, rebuilding is not about the building, it’s about God’s worth, about His glory, about His reputation. And that’s the first thing to learn from our passage today. Now let Nehemiah lays this concern before the people and he calls the people then to get involved and they respond with ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ and they begin the good work. And then, into chapter three, if you go and read it in detail, you can read list after list after the list of wall and gate and who gets involved, in what bit of work, and I saved you the pain of reading through all of chapter three but you probably – well done to Ian, by the way, for all the names, you did well this morning brother – but if you go into chapter three and you read it in detail you’ll find that not once is Nehemiah mentioned. I’m sure he was involved in some way but he’s not mentioned, and if you look in detail, the people that get involved come from eight different places. They don’t all come from Jerusalem. Some of them come from places as far away as 15 or 20 miles. So, again, they weren’t getting involved because it benefited them, they got involved because the rebuilding was not about the building. And they come from all different walks of life. They are male and female. They are high and low in society. They are different professions, so it’s not just builders and masons and carpenters that get involved, there’s perfumers and everything in there. Basically, all walks of life. It didn’t matter because there was this passion for the glory of God and so they got involved. And it all goes to show that rebuilding is a whole community effort, everyone needs to be involved to make it happen and everyone’s got a part to play. And, of course, that echoes the New Testament where Paul talks about the church as a body and he says ’Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all of its many parts forms one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.’

Now, the image of the body, the church as a body, conveys many things of our need for one another, of our care for one another ,of our value of one another, however, in the context of the passage, it comes straight after a passage about our spiritual gifts, about the things God has given us to use for the common good, and so, we need to remember that part of the lesson from the image of a body is that we have a part to play and that, when we don’t play our part, the body is weakened.

So, let me ask you, where are you serving? Where are you serving within this community of faith? Where are you using your time and your talents to build up the church, to care and to further our purposes within the community, that God might be glorified? A stronger church and a witnessing church that sees people come to faith that glorifies God?

This past week I have the huge privilege of being at a great many meetings, admittedly, but it’s actually a real privilege at times because, for example, on Monday night I was at the Safeguarding Panel meeting which on the surface sounds really boring and tedious and who would want to be on the Safeguarding Panel, although they’re lovely people, so don’t tell that personally. Now the reason it was so encouraging is because well, I know many other Kirk Sessions don’t have Safeguarding Panel meetings because they don’t have children that they’re working with and so they have no need to meet, but we do because we’ve got children amongst us that we’re reaching out to and so it was great to see some names coming forward. But we also have a Pastoral Care system that many other churches would be envious of and, of course, it’s not perfect and we can always improve things, but we have pastoral visitors that keep in touch with people who are housebound and maybe more vulnerable and needing a bit of support and it was great to hear of names on Monday night coming forward to be involved in that as well. That is a great thing. I’ve had emails coming in this week talking about starting the teas and coffees next Sunday so please come along for that because it’s not just a nice thing, it’s a great thing that we have an opportunity to be family because when you’re in your pew how many people do you talk to, just a few that are around you and we get up and we go home and who knows if we see each other the rest of the week but we have that moment after the service to have a talk, have a catch up and to know what we can be praying for one another. So, come along to tea and coffee, give it a shot, especially if maybe you didn’t do it before the pandemic either. And then I know I didn’t manage to make it yesterday because I needed to save some time for the family, but yesterday morning the Up-and-Coming team met for a strategy breakfast – I’m always up for a breakfast – but I’m also up for an Up-and-Coming strategy session and it was great that they’re thinking about how can we invest in our children and young people and particularly they were thinking about intergenerational things and they were thinking about the zero to tens. And there’s people who have had a busy week of work, they’re here in church by the way, or serving through in those halls, and still they gave up a Saturday morning. Incredible people, a privilege to serve with them.

So, what about you? Where are you serving? You know, I need someone to come forward and lead the Communications Team, I need someone to come forward and lead the Discipleship Team, I need someone to oversee the publication of Bright Lights because this is all on me right now, I’m already busy enough. So, there are three jobs but there’s many more. Now, you might be at an aging stage of life where mobility, strength, energy etc is a dynamic, and that comes, but I bet you can pray, I bet you know how to move, work your telephone. I’ll give you a list of people I pray for or a list of people you can call. Every one of us has a job we can do. Every one of us. And if you can’t name a job that you are doing, it’s time to step up, and on your pews today there are these old cards that we have not had out since the start of the pandemic and on the back there’s a list of areas and you could fill this out today and leave it with the door duty team at the front or back and say ‘Well, I don’t know exactly what to do but I’m willing so here’s my details. Here’s what I’m willing to help with.’ Please, please get involved because there are some people who are carrying too much. Because, if we want to rebuild, well every one of us has to be involved, it’s a whole community effort.

But we know from Nehemiah’s time that there were people who didn’t get involved both within the community and outwith the community and that brought challenges, it brought setbacks and disappointments I’m sure, but it was also costly and it goes to show that rebuilding is costly.

The first instance I want to flag up for us is with the nobles of Tekoa who ‘would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.’ Now, when we read that, we think ‘Oh, here’s a bunch of snobs who just can’t be bothered. They just want to put up their feet and kick back.’ and that’s how it reads at first but, what we need to understand, is that the Hebrew for shoulders here refers to the back of the neck and it carries with it the imagery where an oxen would refuse to yield to the yoke that was placed across it to enable it to do its job and so, what’s actually happening here is not that the nobles are lazy but the nobles are prideful and they will not yield to the leadership of Nehemiah and the group of people around him, they are refusing to yield to leadership and so the rebuilding comes with a cost. Sometimes we need to give up our pride and sometimes we need to re-engage. And I wonder if that’s an issue for you. I don’t think it’ll be an issue for a lot of us but it might be an issue for some of us, because maybe you’ve chosen to disengage from church because of leadership, it could be my leadership, it could be the leadership of the elders or a leadership of someone within one of the teams, and because of something, you’ve decided to kind of reject them and step back and disengage. And maybe you’ve done it because you’ve genuinely felt hurt, I can understand that, but can I help you follow the logic of your choice through. First Corinthians says you are gifted to benefit the community and bring glory to God then, by you choosing to disengage, you are robbing God of glory and robbing this community of benefit and that’s challenging, and so I’d encourage you to think about getting re-involved, not to massage my ego or make me feel better, not to say that what has been done is okay but so as to say that God is worth it, God is worth it, that you’ll get involved again and you’ll serve and you’ll use your gifts and it will be costly I’m sure. I’ve had to do it in my life. Maybe it’s time for you to do it in your life. But there was also another cost for some people and more broadly for the people. Earlier on, in Nehemiah 2, we read that Samballat, Tobiah and Geshem heard about the rebuilding work and they began to mock and ridicule the people saying, what is it you’re doing, because it just seemed crazy to them. Here’s a bunch of people, there is a mess, there is no way that this is going to happen. It just seemed foolish and so they mocked and ridiculed the people. Imagine what the people would have been feeling. I’m sure they must have felt a degree of embarrassment, we all do, and if they’d allowed that embarrassment to take hold the work would have stopped. There was a cost to their rebuilding. They had to sacrifice their embarrassment. And I wonder if that’s an issue for any of us? Maybe we’re not willing to own up to being a Christian or that we go to church. Maybe we feel too embarrassed to share our faith or even to say to someone ‘I’ll pray about that for you.’ It’s a bit of a bold step and it can feel embarrassing but if you never say it, that person is never going to know that there’s a God they could turn to. Or maybe it’s embarrassment of getting involved in church, you might think ‘Well, I can never do that, I’m not able to do that.’ But there can be a false modesty, brothers and sisters, that holds us back because God is able to work through you, you just have to be willing to step out in faith. So, where might you need to sacrifice your embarrassment for God’s glory?

Now, what helped Nehemiah and the people overcome and pay these costs? Well, it might not seem obvious at first, but hopefully you can follow my logic, because in response to the critics, Nehemiah said ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We, as servants, will start rebuilding but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.’ And that’s a true statement. These opponents did not share in the kingdom of God because they didn’t have faith in God. That’s true, but the converse is also true, Nehemiah and the Israelites did share in the kingdom of God because they had faith in God and because they shared in that kingdom they were willing to sacrifice for that kingdom. They were seeing that that is where they were called to invest despite the cost, despite the embarrassment, they were willing to invest in that. And it makes me think of what Jesus said he said ‘Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moths and vermin do not destroy. And why do you worry about clothes’ (or Hope, why do you worry about nail polish, I can understand why she does, we’ll get on to those other lessons) ‘see how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness through faith in Jesus.’ We share in the kingdom of God and we’re called to invest in that kingdom to give it our focus to give our attention and time and talents and money and through all to then invest in what is eternal, what carries eternal worth, rather than what is fleeting. And so, I wonder can we be that people? Can we be a people where everyone, everyone is investing in the eternal,, the eternal kingdom of God? And when we do that, we show that God is worthy of our praise and when we do that, we show that everyone has to be involved and that we’re willing to pay the cost. That’s my prayer for us this morning as we think about these chapters of Nehemiah. So let us take a moment to pray. Let us pray.

Father, You will have been speaking to us in some way, maybe through the sermon, maybe through a prayer or a hymn or part of the reading that’s been unexplored. Lord, whatever it may be, take it deep and bring forth a fruit a harvest from that seed that would be to Your glory. Lord, if there’s been something that’s challenging, give us grace to receive it and to respond. Lord, if we’ve needed a word of comfort may we know Your presence with us to uphold us and strengthen us in this season. May we know that you are a worthy, God, of our praise and love, and may we keep following You in the highs and in the lows. Oh Lord, lead us forward as a congregation and blow away the chaff from our time together and from the sermon, and just take deep what is of You, the furtherance of Your purposes in Your kingdom, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Prayer before action

Preached on: Sunday 1st May 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-05-01 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 1:4&11; 2:1-9
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• Prayer changes things
• Prayer prepares things
• Prayer is the first thing

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Come Holy Spirit, come among us and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Spirit and equip and envision us for the purposes of God.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I recently had some leave at the beginning of April and so the family went down to our home, our house in East Ayrshire where I think I told you last year there was some building work on going. I didn’t really get much of a rest because I had 30 hours or so in the garden to do and it wasn’t light work. I probably dug up a couple of ton of stone and rubble and other junk as part of my time there. In fact, there were some boulders that were so large I had to cantilever them out of the ground. I couldn’t physically lift them and all this because we’re hoping that this month we will get our lawn finally sewn. But there’s always preparatory work to be done isn’t there, and the preparatory work is the hardest work and it’s essential work because without that getting done there’s no way that people could come along and rake over the ground and then sow the seed. There’s no way it could be done so the preparatory work had to be done but it is often the hardest and the heaviest work.

Last week we began our new series in Nehemiah and there we began with thinking about the situation of the church both locally and nationally and that, if we want a better church, a better future, then we need to engage with that preparatory work, the deeper preparatory work of the heart, which is often the hardest work. And so, last week in our first week, we thought about repentance preceding restoration and we all know probably that repentance takes time, it’s not just a one-off moment where you say sorry and move on, that true repentance takes time to work through as we change the direction of our lives. And so, although we move on today, please don’t forget about last week. If there were things that struck you there, if there’s things that you were driven to talk with God about, keep talking with Him, keep in that place of prayer.

But today we move on and yet we move on to another preparatory step we might see. Before things will change there’s something else required and it seems almost too obvious to mention but it is the place of prayer that we see in the example and story of Nehemiah. He prays. He prays for God’s help and intervention but he not only prays for confession, he prays to receive God’s help. And so, we read a little bit of the prayer from chapter one ‘Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revealing your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’ So Nehemiah asked for God’s intervention and God’s help and it goes to show, as we were saying to the children with the little ornament, prayer changes things and we see that in chapter two that by verse six and then verse eight the king is responding positively to this request from Nehemiah and I think there’s a danger for us that we almost just skip over that. We think ‘Of course that’s going to happen you know, Nehemiah is a cup bearer, of course he’s going to trust the cup bearer, so he’ll automatically just say ‘Yes’ to that.’ But we think that because we don’t know the backstory maybe there is a backstory that 12 years prior to Nehemiah had been Ezra and that’s just the book before, so if you ever want to read it just a couple pages back, and Ezra had been sent. He was a priest and he’d been used of God to bring a people, part of the people, back from exile but some opposition arose against Ezra and the people, and they wrote to the king about the situation and to try and change the king’s mind and the king replied this way ‘The letter you sent has been read and translated in my presence. I issued an order and the search was made. It was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition.’ This is not good. ‘Now issue an order to these men to stop work so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow to the detriment of the royal interests.’ And so, what comes of Nehemiah, of Artaxerxes’ letter. As soon as a copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them, by force, to stop it. Stopped because of King Artaxerxes being persuaded. And so, Nehemiah’s not praying a little prayer here, he’s not just asking for a wee favor, this is a change of royal policy that he’s asking for. This is a big deal. Can you imagine trying to walk into Downing Street and persuade Boris Johnson to change his mind? Probably not. King Artaxerxes was Boris Johnson on steroids! That’s hard to imagine admittedly, but you know what I mean. Imagine doing that. That’s what he’s asking. This is an audacious request but prayer changes things, because Nehemiah prayed the future of thousands of Jews, the future of Israel, maybe even our future was changed because if Nehemiah hadn’t prayed there wouldn’t be his story to inspire us, to challenge us, to encourage us.

And likewise, I came across a recent story and a book I’ve begun to read. It’s a new book by Pete Greig called How to hear God, and in his very first chapter he recounts a story of a young lady called Azrin and it’s an incredible story that sparked because she prays and I’d like to read it to you. I’d like to read it in its entirety because it’s just such a good story so please sit back and just soak this up because it inspired me and I hope it inspires you.

Pete Greig writes:
I’ll never forget the testimony of a young woman called Azrin who first shared her story with me one evening over dinner. Azrin grew up in northern Iran where six of her cousins were killed by the ruling Ayatollah’s forces with whom the Kurdish Iranians are at war. Her earliest memories therefore, are of playing in the cemetery where her mother would go to mourn then, at the age of just 16, Azrin was arrested, accused of crimes she had not committed and forced to sign a declaration of guilt. She said ‘I had done nothing wrong and still they held me guilty’ and I detected a flicker of fire in her eyes. ‘These people had killed my cousins and now they were accusing me of crimes I had not committed so I decided I might as well go and do the things they had forced me to confess. I would travel to the mountains of Iran and join the Kurdish militia. Up to this point Pete Greig writes, Azrin had always dutifully attended the mosque to pray but she said Allah had never responded. As communists, the Kurdish militia denied God’s existence and Azrin began to wonder if they were right. ‘Either God was going to speak to me’ she said with a flash of that same fire ‘or I was doing or I would have nothing to do with him. I gave God an ultimatum.’ she grinned ‘I told him he had seven nights to speak to me or I would be permanently upset with him. On the seventh night, just before bed, Azrin reminded God of his looming deadline. ‘Either you appear to me tonight’ she said ‘or that’s it. I will live the rest of my life as if you don’t exist.’ And that night she had a dream. She dreamed that she was in a vast reception room full of many people feeling very alone until she recognized a man in front of her leaning against the wall. It was Hazrat Isa, Jesus, the holy highly honored one, highly honored in the Koran, as a prophet but not as the son of God. ‘He was standing so close I could feel his breath.’ she said.All around him there was a brilliant light. Nervously, Azrin addressed Jesus. She told him she was here to talk to God. He looked straight back at me and said the strangest thing ‘Talk.’ ‘No’ I protested ‘you don’t understand. I need to talk to God.’ Again Jesus looked at me and said ‘Talk.’ Then very slowly he repeated the most astounding phrase ‘I am God.’ he said ‘I am God. I am God’. Azrin’s face seemed to be shining with the memory. She whispered ‘As I heard this, all doubt drained away from my tired heart. We talked and talked and talked. I just poured my heart out to him, to God in Jesus, and for the first time in my life I experienced God speaking back into my life. When Azrin awoke from her dream she hurried to share the news with the local Mullah but he told her angrily that Jesus could not be God. Next, she told her family but they just laughed at her. And then, one day, as she was sitting in a park far from home, a total stranger gave Azrin a New Testament in the Persian language. It was the first Bible she had ever seen. The stranger also invited her to church where she was amazed to hear the preacher say ‘God is love.’ Reading her new Bible in the park afterwards Azrin finally found the words that made sense of her dream. Jesus said in John chapter 14 ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.’ No wonder he’d invited her to talk. Right there and then, sitting in that park, Azrin acknowledged Jesus Christ as the Son of God and, as she did so, she experienced an unfamiliar sense of hope flooding into her body, displacing the many years of despair. Azrin shared this story with me quietly and calmly but I just kept shaking my head in amazement and forgetting to eat. A couple of times I wanted to scream ‘Hallelujah!’

‘So, what did you do’ I asked ‘after you became a follower of Jesus?’ ‘Oh’ she laughed ‘I never joined the Kurdish militia. I didn’t want to kill people anymore, I wanted to bring life so I trained to plant churches instead.’ ‘Of course’ I said encouragingly ‘and how’s that going?’ ‘Well, I’ve planted five churches so far.’ she replied casually. ‘Isn’t that a bit dangerous?’ I asked instead, I’m already feeling a complete coward. Azrin fixed me with a steady gaze ‘Pastor Pete’ she said ‘I was willing to die fighting to kill for the Kurdish militia, don’t you think it’s much better to die fighting for Jesus?’

Wow!

Prayer changes things and sometimes when you pray you have no idea what you’re opening up yourself up to.

Prayer changes things, and it changed her life yet, we need to remember that prayer is not like treating God as a genie in a bottle. He’s not a slot machine or a spell that we’re trying to say the right words to get them working. That’s not how prayer works and we do need to acknowledge also that prayer goes unanswered. Indeed, Nehemiah knows a little of that experience too. It’s not obvious because we use the original words of the months, but chapter one begins in the month of Kislev which is late November/early December. Chapter two begins in the month of Nissan which is March/April time. So, he prayed for four months. I wonder if he ever thought his prayer was going to go unanswered? Change wasn’t instantaneous for him either and so not all changes we pray for occur and if that resonates with you and if you feel God is silent then maybe you should pick up Pete Greig’s other book which is titled God on mute, God on mute. Nevertheless, it was William Temple who said ‘When I pray coincidences happen and when I don’t they don’t.’ And the apostle James writes saying ‘You don’t do not have because you do not ask God.’ But he also cautions that ‘When you ask you do not receive because you asked with wrong motives.’ Sometimes we don’t have because we don’t ask and sometimes, we don’t receive when we do ask because we’re asking with the wrong motives. Nehemiah did ask and he asked with the right motives. His focus was on God’s kingdom, God’s glory, God’s purposes, and he prayed in line with God’s promises as well, His promise to restore His people.

And so, when thinking about our situation and our prayers for the church, if change is going to come it can’t be just by restructuring, there needs to be that deeper work. We need to repent, but we need to pray, we need to pray with right motives and we need to pray in line with God’s promises. Like Matthew 16 would be a great promise to cling to where Jesus says ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.’ If we want the future of our church to be better than its present, then we must pray, because prayer changes things.

Now we might wonder ‘Well, how does prayer change things?’ And there’s many possible answers to that, but the story of Nehemiah shows one way that prayer changes things and, in particular, prayer changes Nehemiah, prayer prepares Nehemiah and so he writes of his own account ‘I took the wine and gave it to the king I not been sad in his presence before so the king asked me why does your face look so sad when you’re not ill this can be nothing but sadness of heart. I was very much afraid’.

So, Nehemiah’s experiencing this fear as he embarks on trying to change the king’s mind and there’s some debate about why he might be fearful. He might be fearful of punishment because there’s some literature that would suggest that being sad in the king’s presence could get you killed. But also, maybe he’s fearful because he realizes that this is the moment, this is his moment to share with the king, to persuade the king to go with a different plan, to change his policy. He realizes this is the moment when the lives of thousands hang in the balance. I’m pretty sure I’d be a little bit fearful too. And yet, Nehemiah is able to overcome his fear because he spent four months in prayer and even draws on prayer amid communication with the king, in verse four. It keeps him going, it strengthens him, it gives him boldness. And how can I say that it gives a boldness? What gives me that clue, that idea well? Back in chapter one he prayed this ‘Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’ This man, this man, who with the click of his fingers, could have him killed, this man who everyone else was in fear of, this man who had ultimate power.

But, to Nehemiah, he’s nothing compared to God, God who is the God of heaven, the Lord Almighty who parted the Red Sea, who defeated Pharaoh, the great and awesome God. That’s his God and, in light of that God, Artaxerxes is just ‘this man’. In the place of prayer, he was equipped to have boldness to ask for his request, to overcome his fear. I wonder, is part of our purpose, as part of living out our faith, is fear holding us back? Fear of saying ‘I’m a Christian’, fear of saying ‘I go to church’, fear of sharing our faith, fear of playing our part ‘I couldn’t do that. I’m not like that person.’ Whatever it might be, is fear holding us back? Maybe it’s in the place of prayer that we are prepared to overcome our fear as we come face to face with God.

But Nehemiah is prepared in other ways as well. In the middle of our chapter 2 there’s a cluster of verses that show he’s prepared in a number of ways and i’ll I’ll just run through them very quickly:
he said ‘I answered the king. If it pleases the king, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it. I may have a letters to the governors and a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park.’

Now, again, we just skip over this, but we need to realize something’s going on here, we need to realize that first of all he says ‘send me’ and we think ‘Sure, of course he’s going to pray that or say that but, maybe at the start of the four months he was praying for Ezra ‘Lord, Ezra is already there, would you just open the door for Ezra’ because, you know, if you and I are praying for situations, don’t we just pray for the people who are local, never think to pray that we’d have a part in answering that prayer, and so he probably did the same, but over that time he comes to realize ‘Actually, maybe I should play a part here, maybe I’ve got something to give. Maybe I’ve got influence and skills that can be utilized, so send me’ becomes part of the plan.

But then, he also formulates a plan about how to speak to the king. Notice what he says. He begins by saying about his ancestors, where they are buried and that’s a clever move because the Persians had a great respect for the dead, a great respect for the dead and the living we might say and so he begins there rather than digging up old stuff about the history and about Gods and religions and anything like that, he begins with what the king can understand. That’s a wise move. But also notice that he figures out he needs letters to the governors to keep himself safe. He knows the person who oversees the wood so I need to go and speak to that person. So he’s formulating a plan here as if as he prays over those four months, he’s led to formulate a plan, he’s given wisdom and all this culminates in him in verse 8 saying ‘because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.’ God’s grace was upon him.

Now, let’s remember from our teaching series last year, that grace equips us, grace changes us, grace sustains us. All that he received, as he recognized that he had a part to play and there was a plan to formulate and he needed God’s grace to keep him persevering and being able to say to the king ‘This is my plan and please honor it.’ So again, thinking about our future, if our future is going to be more fruitful, if we’re going to see that the empty, vast empty spaces in this church filled once again, we need to be praying so that we are prepared, so that we overcome our fear, so that we receive wisdom about how to go forward, so that we receive grace that we might play our part and be equipped and sustained to keep playing our part. Because, why else Jesus does say in Matthew 16 that he will build his church? In Matthew 18 he also says ‘Go’ and Matthew 28 he says ‘Go and make disciples of all the nations’ He says to you and me and there’s a tension there. He says ‘I will build my church’ but ‘you go make disciples’. So Jesus has no plan B. It’s you and me. He’s not just gonna click His fingers. it’s through you and me that He will fulfill His purposes and He will extend His kingdom and He will build His church. So, we need to be praying.

And that leads us to our final point, the most crucial point of all, about everything we learn about prayer in chapters one and two, and it’s this: prayer is the first thing, prayer is the first thing. Notice that in chapter one he quickly gets into sharing his prayer which is really a summary prayer because, as we said, he’s been praying for four months so this is not the only prayer he prayed but this sums up the flavor of what he was praying but his prayer comes before his reputation, his title, prayer was the first thing to Nehemiah, is it the first thing in our lives. Is it the first thing in the church? Because, I think, we prioritize action. For a number of reasons, it is easier maybe or we may be like to be seen as busy, we like to be seen as doing something. And let me just give you an example of this. How many plaques around church do you see that are because someone was a prayerful person? How many statues, how many buildings are named after someone who was faithful in prayer? Whereas, more often than not, they’re named after someone who was busy.

So, prayer is the first thing for Nehemiah, before reputation or title, prayer came before action. It’s very obvious. Chapter one, he prays, chapter two is when he finally gets down to some action. Are we similar or not? And in some ways we’re not similar I think because we hear sermons about prayer but no one’s come alongside us to teach us how to pray. We’ve not been discipled in that and all I can say is the best way to learn to pray, is to pray, and to be around people who pray, which is why I love going to the Thursday evening time of prayer because I listen to other people’s prayers and I learn from them and that’s how I learned to pray. You know, I never learned to pray just by someone giving me a chance in church or listening to Sunday prayers. The most influential time of that influenced me and how to pray and have confidence to pray myself was when I was at the Christian Union and they said ‘Oh, we’ve got a prayer meeting at halfway Wednesday morning, do you want to come along?’ In my naivety I said ‘Yes’ and I went and as I kept going, I grew in boldness to pray.

Does prayer come before action for us? and in prayer before restoration. Chapter one prayer and the rest of the story unfolds from there, the story of restoration. So, if we want to see a different future, then prayer needs to be the first thing for us as well.

So, how are we going to do that, church? How are we going to do that? You can do it individually, of course. You can maybe set some time aside for that and to be praying for us as a congregation, for us as a denomination. You could do it in your Fellowship Groups. Many of you are in a Fellowship Group and you probably pray for needs locally and in your own life but, could you create some space to pray for the church locally, nationally. If you’re in a team, I know that many of our teams when they gather, they begin with prayer and they end with prayer and that’s good but, could we create a wee bit space in the agenda to pray for the church – and, just to give the elders a heads-up, you can guess what we’ll be doing at the start of our time together of Kirk Session very soon, we’ll be praying.

But I don’t know if you’re aware every Sunday morning, prior to the service, a few people gather for prayer. It was something that was started well before my time, I have no idea who started off, I’m sure someone can tell me. Numbers have dropped a little over time but there’s still some faithful people gathering for prayer each Sunday and so I want to call you to join that time of prayer, to join us at quarter past nine to quarter to quarter past 10 to half past 10 for prayer, to pray for the service, to pray for us as a church, to pray for our wider life as a denomination, and I’d ask please that any and everyone in the building drops all tools, prayer before action, so band, choir, tech, door duty, Sunday School, teas and coffees, whoever it would be, with down tools and if that cuts into your prep time could you come a wee bit earlier. I know that’s cheeky to ask, but it’s just for four weeks. I should have said that for four weeks and you can keep coming of course but for four weeks can we try and make that space between now and Pentecost Sunday on the 5th of June which is when we next share Communion, could we make that space, can we make that commitment and gather for prayer. Because, if you look at the testimony of the church over 2000 years, when these people gather for prayer, change happens and, who knows what that might lead to this great and awesome God, this living Jesus, who breaks into people’s lives and astounds them with His love. Who knows what He’ll do next if we will be a people who pray. So let’s take a moment to pray just now, let us pray:

Lord, very simply, what is of me, just blow it away and help us forget it, but what is of You, take it deep so that our lives change. Help us to be doers of your word rather than just listeners, which is so easy to do. Shape us and change us for Your purposes, for Your glory. And so, we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen

Introduction to the Nehemiah teaching series

Preached on: Sunday 24th April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this introduction.
Bible references: Nehemiah
Location: Brightons Parish Church

In a moment we’re going to hear our Bible reading and it’s a new teaching series that we enter into. When I met with a few others to think about what we might teach upon across this year we were mindful that, as a nation, we are moving into, hopefully, a new season and a new dynamic with the pandemic where, maybe, in some ways, church life would begin to rebuild again and restart in different ways. We’re also conscious that as a denomination, we are having to rebuild too, that we are having to enter a time of pruning back because of how things are within the denomination, and so, again, we’re building and rebuilding and as such, it made sense to turn to that quintessential book about rebuilding, the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament.

In the book of Nehemiah, we find Nehemiah in exile because he is part of the Jewish people was taken into exile and many years later, he’s now in a position of influence and authority, and the people were taken there because they had disobeyed the Lord and He had disciplined them and there’s been two stages of return already so far. Under two other leaders, one of whom was Ezra and we have the book of Ezra just before Nehemiah, but now we meet Nehemiah who’s on the cusp of another return and another stage of the rebuilding work and we might get into bits and pieces of other dynamics of the history but that’s just to help situate you as we come to the reading today.

I encourage you not only to watch and read it on screen with us, but we have the Bibles out on the pews now as well and so I encourage you to get open up one if you don’t have an app or something with you. You’ll find on your newssheet that at the top of the newssheet every week is the Bible reading that we’re going to have and the page number so you can even be prepared for it. So follow along, keep it open during the sermon, make sure I’m not preaching heresy or something really rebellious and you can make sure that what I’m saying is from the Word of God.

Discipline Repentance Restoration

Preached on: Sunday 24th April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-04-24 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Nehemiah 1:1-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– God disciplines His people to mature us
– God is ready to restore us
– Repentance precedes restoration

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Holy Spirit, we pray that You would come among us and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Holy Spirit and lead us as a body of people into fuller and truer life.
Come dear Holy Spirit, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I was getting to share at the Deacon’s Court on Tuesday evening that a good proportion of my working week just now is given over to the future of the church, in particular, to something called Mission Planning and you’re going to probably hear more of that in the months to come because, as a denomination, we are undertaking a work of mission planning across the whole of the nation. Every presbytery is to come up with a plan of how the church would be shaped in the months and years to come. It will affect every congregation and every Kirk Session, and our presbytery has already been engaged upon this matter more recently, although the work has been going on for some time before as well, and we’re having to do this and we’re having to shape a plan because we need to face up to some facts that there is anticipated a 40% reduction of ministers and so we need to shape ourselves around that reality, and the reality that we have too many buildings. And so, we need to cut close to one-third of buildings across our nation and that’s just an average, so some places it will be more than that. In light of the theme around Nehemiah of rebuilding we might say that mission planning is addressing some of our structural issues, to help hopefully restore the church so that we might be more focused on mission rather than buildings and maintenance. But yet, within the resources available to us however, if we think that simply restructuring ourselves will lead to a better future then we’re deluding ourselves, because there needs to be a deeper, more personal work of God in our hearts, in our lives, if the church is to have a better future. And that goes contrary to our natural tendencies as people. We would much rather have a quick fix and we’d much rather have an external fix that was quickly done and didn’t require that deeper work of the heart. But, as we’ve been singing and thinking about today, our God is the Good Shepherd and so, thankfully, He doesn’t work as we would like Him to work. He knows our truest and deepest needs. And so our passage in Nehemiah today begins very personally with deep issues of the heart before anything else is addressed and so, yes, there might be some more challenging words today and there’s part of me that hesitates to do that because I feel like that is often how I’m seen or portrayed as ‘here’s another challenge, time to switch off the button and tune Scott out’ but I encourage you, please, to open yourself to what God might say this morning because He does desire to bring us into fuller and truer life both individually and corporately.
We read earlier the writing of Nehemiah ‘While I was in the citadel of Souza, Han and I one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile and also about Jerusalem.’

Nehemiah is an exile. Still, he is part of the Jewish people still in Babylon. He hasn’t been able to return as yet and we read earlier as well in verse 8 that part of the reason that they are scattered among the nations was because of unfaithfulness. They’re not in exile for any other reason and so, we have to admit and become aware of that. The Lord disciplines His people when they are disobedient and that was part of the Old Testament covenant that there was both blessing and curse. And so, when they obeyed, there was God’s favor and provision, and when they dissipate God would discipline. And so, we find them now in exile and often I think our view of any talk about discipline is shaped by misconceptions. We think of discipline as simply being hauled before the head teacher, and I can remember that experience myself from younger days, or we might think of it as appearing before a judge and we get really nervous about such an idea. But the scriptures don’t speak of God’s discipline in those terms. God’s discipline is as a father to a son, as a loving parent doing something out of no other motive than love itself, to refine, to mature, to change the heart. So, let us bear that in mind as we delve in here.

I suspect when Nehemiah is asking for this report I wonder if he’s hoping, anticipating for good news. To hear that the restoration that God began under the previous two leaders has maybe led to the people and that the city being rebuilt, that it’s on track, maybe it’s even near completion. I wonder if he’s hoping for that kind of news. But then, in verse 3 we read that the people are in great trouble and disgrace and the gates of Jerusalem are still torn down and burned. He realizes that there’s still more restoration to come and that speaks to him of God’s ongoing discipline. There has been, in His mercy and grace, phases of restoration but there’s still more to g. We might need to delve into some of that maybe next week as well, that the people have, for one reason or another, put off the work and so there’s still an ongoing discipline, there’s still that discipline of the heart and of His people.

All this talk of discipline might make you wonder ‘Well, does God still discipline today? Do we live under a system of blessing and curse as Christians?’ Well, as we were thinking about last weekend, we have our hope and trust in Jesus and because of His perfect life, because of His death on the cross, which was sinless and perfect, undeserved, then we live under a different means of relationship with God. We have a different covenant called the New Covenant and so, because of that the righteousness, the right relationship that Jesus had with Father God, we are brought into that. We share in that and so we don’t relate to God as Christians based on how good or bad we are, it’s not how good or bad that ends your status with God, it’s Jesus and His righteousness. As we sung about in our first two hymns, as the choir reminded us in Blessed Assurance, that is our assurance of who we are in Jesus. So, we don’t live under that old system of blessing and curse. That is done away with. Nevertheless, the New Testament still speaks about discipline and so in Hebrews chapter 12 we read that ‘God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.’ No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful later on, however it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

God still disciplines for our good. We’re told that we might grow in the likeness of Jesus, that we might grow in holiness, that we might share in His righteousness, as right living before God and with one another, and then walk in peace, walk in greater wholeness, has shalom.

Now, our next question might then be – Well, how does God discipline if he does discipline us? The passage tells us how does He discipline and the scriptures speak of a number of ways. But I want to draw on one for this morning because I’m particularly concerned and mindful of how God would discipline a group of people, a denomination even, and so I’ve been reflecting on Romans chapter one which I’m not going to detail but, in Romans chapter one, God speaks of disciplining the nations and in that discipline He basically just leaves the nations to their own devices, He allows their choices to lead to consequences and so, when a body of people potentially need brought in line with His ways and with His commands, I do wonder if He adopts a similar approach to discipline. He allows our choices to lead to consequences. He keeps speaking to us through His word, through faithful preaching but, if we will not listen, then maybe the Lord leaves us to our own devices. And so, as we think about our denomination, so, we think about the church in our day, could it be that our lack of impact, our lack of fruitfulness, and it’s lovely that as a church we are a bit fuller than the average church, where I am interim moderator there’s 20 to 25 people most Sundays. I’m part of the Mission Planning Team and there’s churches that have 10 or less gathering week by week and most have no children, not just one or two, no children among them, could it be that our decline, could it be that the lack of people called into ministry, could it be that the closing of buildings, is because we’ve not listened, that we are experiencing a measure of discipline, allowing our choices to lead to consequences? Choices like having wrong priorities or focusing on the building spending, so much on it, rather than on mission. Wrong priorities, like be more seeking our comfort above being uncomfortable enough for mission, such that we share our faith or we sacrifice time for mission. Could it be the dilution of the gospel or God’s word? Could it be a lukewarm passion for mission and discipleship? We make choices every day, as David was reminding us in our prayer, every day and do our choices align with God’s priorities?

And so, where does that then lead us, when we don’t? And does He allow that to ripple down and lead to consequences? Because, maybe that’s the only way to get our attention as a body of people locally and nationally. But let’s remember, He does it for our good. He does. It’s interesting, I have yet to find a scripture I think that says that God says ‘I’m disappointed with you.’ I don’t think He ever uses that language. He might say ‘You’ve gone wayward.’ He might say ‘You’ve sinned.’ I’ve sinned but He never says ‘I’m disappointed.’ He never ridicules. He never tears us down. He does discipline for good, to mature. And any talk about discipline is always hard, it’s probably hard to hear it, believe me it’s hard to share it.

I was not looking forward to this at nine o’clock. I’d come back in from doing some early preparation I said to Gill ‘I’m really nervous for this morning’. But discipline is not the whole story, because Nehemiah goes on he says ‘Then I said, Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses saying but if you return to me and obey my commands then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my name.’

God does discipline but He yearns, He longs, He promises to restore us and we have hope in that again, as was echoed in many places already in our service, God stands ready, waiting to restore us and just in case you think this is an Old Testament idea and oh, we should just ignore it, it’s also echoed in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation where Jesus sends seven letters to seven New Testament churches, in particular to the church of Laodicea, Jesus says this ‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline, so be earnest and repent. Here I am, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, says the lord, and opens the door. I will come in and eat with that person and they with me.’ Jesus is ready to restore us, He’s ready to come in and have fellowship with us and change things around. The language here is an echo of Psalm 23 which we just sung about in The King of love my Shepherd is’ that banquet feast before us. He’s ready to bring us in, to bring new life, to restore, to bring us into bounty and a harvest, and just a great feast, as that’s on the other side of discipline. And so, we should not fear discipline, we should not turn away from it or shy away, we should not just put on the blinkers and let it go in one ear and out the other, because God’s discipline is not about, listen to me please, God’s discipline is not about inducing guilt. I know that’s hard to get your head around because that’s often how we feel but God’s discipline is not about inducing guilt. There may be conviction but it’s so that it leads to life.

When we feel guilt, that’s the enemy speaking, because the enemy wants you to feel guilty so that you turn from God, so that you feel gloomy, so that there’s self-pity. The Lord brings conviction to bring you to life and there’s many examples we could turn to both inside the Bible and outside the Bible, but I’m going to stick with an inside the Bible example.

And so, we have the apostle Paul and he’s used of God to challenge the churches left right and center when they stray and particularly the church in Corinth, who just seem to get it wrong in so many different ways. And so, he writes multiple letters to them and his first letter is really hard-hitting and he addresses a number of issues but he follows it up, he hasn’t managed to visit them, but he follows them up because he hears how they’ve responded to that first letter and so he says this, but he’s been exercising God’s discipline, and he says this ‘I know I distressed you greatly with my letter although I felt awful at the time I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you but only for a while, now I’m glad not that you were upset but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss. The stress that drives us to God does that, it turns us around, it gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain but those who let the stress drive them away from God are full of regrets, they end up on a deathbed of regrets and now isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God. You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart and that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter.’ I wonder, can we try and see discipline, God’s challenge in that way? To welcome it, to engage with it? That on the other side of it is His life? Because He stands ready to restore us. He stands ready if we will but respond to Him.

And so, we can change our structure as much as we want, we could even plant churches, but, if the heart is not there, if the priorities are not right, it doesn’t make a jot of difference, we need to be changed from the inside out, we need to be purified and matured and, if we will but, heed the Lord as he says here, He’s ready to restore us, to come in, as He said in Revelation and bring that life, to bring that life. So, if we’re ready to respond, how do we respond? what does that response look like?

Well, Nehemiah’s passage teaches us that there’s probably multiple stages of responding but it begins this way. ‘Then I said, Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself, have committed against you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.’ As Nehemiah realizes that God’s discipline continues, he responds in prayer. As Corinthians said, he’s driven closer to God, he’s driven into that place with God, to seek the Lord. But how does he begin his prayer? He begins with confession, with turning up to God and in that place of humility, recognizing that he is but a man, a human being. He comes before this incredible God, He begins with confession because repentance precedes restoration and repentance is not just about saying ‘Sorry’. True repentance is when our hearts are so deeply changed and we are grieved by the waywardness, that we change our lives, that we’re ready to change our lives however that might need to be done. And, although Nehemiah doesn’t pray specifics here, as we’ll see next week, this prayer is really a summary prayer of prayers he prays over a great vast number of days. So, it’s unlikely he’s going to include specifics here but I think he would get specific in his prayers and so I want to get specific with us this morning.

If our future is to be different, if we are to see the gaps around us filled, for to see that balcony as full as the downstairs, how might our future be restored? What might we need to repent of? What might we need to admit up to God and ask for His help on? And again, as I say, I want to get personal. I don’t want to just talk about the wider denomination. Let’s talk about us here.

And so, very briefly I want to touch on our purpose and two of our four values because our purpose says ‘We seek to invite, encourage and enable people of all ages to follow Jesus Christ.’ To do that requires all of us to be involved within the church and within the community because, inherent in this is that, everybody’s got a part to play, everybody’s got a part to play. Are you playing your part within here? There’s too many people who are carrying too much of the load. How could you play your part? Now there can be times of life, whatever age range, you’re at younger or older and in the middle, there can be times of life when things are particularly busy or particularly limited but, even in that, there is still space to pray. Are you praying? So, are you playing your part within the church and outside? How can we possibly invite others to follow Jesus if we’re not some way building bridges in the community and maybe sharing our faith gently? I’m not saying you have to stand on a soapbox and preach to people but do you ever invite someone to something at church, ever? We had a quiz last night, that’s an easy building, bridge building thing with someone in the community – ‘Oh, we’re doing this fundraising quiz, do you want to come along?’ Did you take that opportunity?

So, is there something there we need to change in us and repent of? Maybe it’s fear that holds us back. Maybe we need to repent of our fear. That we have a greater fear of our neighbors than we have of a holy fear of God.

We also have a value that says ‘We aspire to be a family of all sorts of people journeying in community’ and Jesus says that the outside world will know that we are His disciples by the love we have for one another. Is that supernatural kind of love seen among us?

For example, do we always think the best of one another or do we assume that we know the motivations behind someone’s actions? Do we ever and always give the benefit of the doubt to one another? And, you know, if you put together the New Testament teaching about how Christians should behave both individually and corporately, you could summarize it as ‘we should be unoffendable’. We should be unoffendable. Do you ever get offended by something in church, by someone’s actions, by me?

You should be unoffendable, if you’re putting into practice New Testament teaching. Is that seen?

Or, what is the wider community hearing?’ Oh, they’re having another argument about x, y or z or someone was moaning about a, b or c again.’ Is there something that we need to repent of there?

And then our meet value ‘Meeting with God in a personal and life-changing way.’ It’s not about meeting together, that’s our family value, it’s not about having meetings for the for church. Not really sure where that value fits in. So, maybe it needs fewer meeting. But this is meeting with God because, let’s be honest folks, the community out there doesn’t give a jot about church, doesn’t need more community, it’s got its networks, it’s got its friendships, it’s got stuff to do, it doesn’t need more community, and it’s busy enough with work, with the cost-of-living crisis, with Netflix, with gems, with sports clubs, with clubs that kids are in. It doesn’t need more stuff to do and fill its week. So, why would they ever come in?

There might be multiple reasons that we could give them and answers to that question but one answer could be, if you can see what God is doing in your life, if you can say what God is speaking to you about, how he’s refining you, how he’s given you hope, what your faith means to you, how following Him is an adventure, and this is what it’s done in your life, then, then, maybe, you might help someone see that, actually, there is a God, there’s too much coincidence around these stories that individuals can share and, maybe, there’s something to pursue there, and, okay, I might not go to church but I’ll maybe go to this group or that thing first. But maybe they will come to church. Can you, have you limited your expectations of God, have you put God in a box, have you put up boundaries to keep God at a distance, have you maybe just become a bit lackadaisical in your relationship with God? ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered reading the Bible. I can’t be bothered praying.’

Whatever it might be, what is it that’s holding you back from meeting with God in a personal and life-changing way, such that you have testimony to share with people out there?

I can’t answer it for you but I can ask the challenging questions.

And all this, if you want another Bible story to hang all this on, think about the prodigal father. I know we are probably quite familiar with that story. The younger son he says ‘Father I wish you were dead to me because I want the inheritance that I’m due, now. I just, I want to be cut off from you and I just want to go my own way.’ Sounds a bit like our denomination at times, sounds a bit like how we can be in our own lives. And, you know, the father allows him to go. It’s a form of discipline because his choices lead to consequences and he gets himself into poverty. At the end of the story the son does return and as he expressed the horizon the father runs to him and he envelops him and he wraps his arms around him. And doesn’t that show us that God is ready to restore His people? He’s ready. His waiting is long but the bit in the middle of the story is just as important in fact, the restoration might not necessarily come without the middle where the son realizes it’s time to change and he doesn’t just say sorry, he comes back, he turns around, he lives differently. He gets to say sorry but he doesn’t get on to say the other things that are maybe more rooted in self-pity or a false humility, because the father loves him and restores him and brings him into new life. We often use that parable just to talk about coming to faith but maybe there’s a deeper meaning there also for us all, faith that the Father stands ready to restore if we were to but repent. So, let us take a moment to pray before we close our service. Let us pray:

So in the stillness,

where do you feel a measure of conviction, a measure of calling, a measure of fresh realization about Father God?

And, in the stillness, why don’t you speak to God about that and admit that to Him?

Our God and Heavenly Father, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with us, with me. Let your ear be attentive to our prayer this morning, to the confession we bring, that there are things that need to change in our individual lives and in us corporately.

We recognize, that just by admitting it, it doesn’t change instantly, that there’s a journey here, a process that we need to begin upon, but it begins with repentance, Father, begins with admitting the truth and asking for Your help.

Whatever it might be that you’ve put your finger upon this morning, don’t let us be overcome with guilt. That’s not of You. But let the conviction go deep that might change our hearts, that we might realize You do only out of love and to lead us into life and maturity, that we might further Your purposes and be Your people upon the earth and from us Your light might go forth into our wider community.

Hear our prayer for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jesus is risen!

Preached on: Sunday 17th April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-04-17 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: John 20:1-2 & 11-18
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– The resurrection proves Jesus has secured the new earth and heavens
– Jesus doesn’t deny the hard realities of this world (vis-a-vis ‘naive triumphalism’)
– Jesus is with us because He is alive (vis-a-vis ‘gloomy dualism’)

So, boys and girls, hopefully you had your listening ears on there because I’ll have a couple of questions for you in a moment. But, have you had a good Easter break? Have you all had a good Easter break? Ready to go back to school and nursery, yeah? Probably the parents and grandparents are more eager for that than you are. But here is a question I have for you this morning. It’s about, now what’s going on here, I’m not quite sure. There we go. The question is: What has changed in the last two weeks in your life in the last two weeks? What has changed in your life? It might be something you can think of that is a big thing, a small thing. It could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. And this is not just for the children, this is for everybody to think about. In the last two weeks, what has changed in your life? See what you can come up with, I’ll give you 30 seconds to have a chat with the person next to you, and see what you can come up with. What has changed in the last two weeks?

Thank-you.

So, hopefully you came up with some interesting things. Anybody want to shout out or share? Anybody down the front anything what to share? What’s changed in the last few weeks two weeks?

Shout out.

Three new chickens! Whoa exciting! Someone else? Anybody over this side? Upstairs or downstairs? Something you want to share? What about anybody in the middle? Could be a young person, could be an adult, that you want to share something, anything. What – you’re three! Oh, exciting. Did you have a good time celebrating? Did you get some birthday cake? Oh nice! What about over here ain’t nobody, Daniel Emily?

What? New drawers, okay, just making sure I heard you right there and Emily? Your room’s tidy. Hey good job, good job!

Well these are some really, I didn’t expect most of these answers but these are really great answers. Things that you notice, things that changed. But, you know, in your life there are things that have changed that you clearly didn’t think about because you didn’t name them this morning. So, for example, do you know that your hair has grown on average 5.6 millimeters? I know, you can’t tell it from my hair but I shave it every week. Okay now, or your fingernails? Your fingernails on average have grown 1.2 millimeters in the last two weeks and you probably didn’t even notice because you’ve been nibbling away at them. Or what about our planet? We know that our planet is spinning round and it also goes in an orbit. In the last two weeks alone, you have spun 204,000 miles in the last two weeks alone. As part of our orbit you have moved 22 million miles and you didn’t even notice. Like, oh, that’s nothing! These incredible things are happening and we don’t even, we’re not even aware of them, and the same was true that first Easter and our story, boys and girls, there were four people. There was the two angels but there was also two main characters. Who were our two main characters? Anybody want to stick our hand, can you remember two main characters other than the angels?

Emily – Mary. Did you see Mary? Yeah. And who is the other one? Shout out together – Jesus, Jesus. So, that was the first Easter and so we tell the story that Jesus died on the cross after being in the garden where he was praying and then where did they put His body – in the tomb, that’s right and so Mary goes to the tomb but she’s really upset because what does she find has happened? What’s happened on Easter Sunday?

Did it disappear? The body was gone, the stone was rolled away, yeah, it’s been moved. Now, why would she be upset about that? Why would she be upset at that? Hope, hand up please, okay, someone else, you’ve answered a couple of questions. Anybody else willing to brave any answers? Up the top at all? No, okay, we’ll go back here then. Why would she be upset? Shout it out,

She couldn’t see Jesus’s body. His body had disappeared. She thought someone’s taken it. And Jesus mattered so much to Mary that she was just aghast at this and so she runs off to tell the disciples, ‘Someone’s taking the body of Jesus’ and then she comes back to the tomb and she’s standing there at the tomb just looking and she sees these two angels. She doesn’t know it’s two angels but then she hears someone ask a question and she turns around and someone is there. Who is there with her now? Who’s there with her? Can you remember that part of the story? Who was there? Lydia – Jesus that’s right. Now, did she realize it was Jesus at the start? Did she realize it was Jesus at the start? No, she didn’t. We don’t really know why. Maybe she was just so tearful she couldn’t see passing tears. Maybe she didn’t turn around enough or maybe something had changed about Jesus. Maybe something had changed about how He looked and how He was but He says Mary and she turns and she realizes it’s Jesus. Jesus is alive, and she wants to just rush to him and give him a big hug like you would your best friend or your mum or your dad or grandparent. She hadn’t seen him in a long time, she just wants to give him a hug. But, does Jesus allow her to get close and just give that big hug? Does she? Is she allowed to do it? Not really, because He goes on to say this to her ‘Do not hold on to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.’ It’s a really weird thing to say and probably not what you expected me to focus on from our reading, but there’s something really important for us here in this, I think. Because, what do we celebrate on Easter Sunday? What are we celebrating today? What do you think we’re celebrating? Anybody want to shout out?

Jesus is alive, we’re celebrating Jesus is alive. But, when you look out at the world, is the world perfect? The bad things happen. Do you think all the promises that God made in the Bible, are they all fulfilled yet? Do we see heaven on earth as Jesus taught us to pray for? Not really. Our world is a bit of a mess. Sometimes it can feel like things are getting worse and life can sometimes feel pretty hard and worrying and scary. And so, we can be tempted to react in one two ways. We can kind of have one reaction that says ‘Wow, Jesus is alive!’ and just ignore the world out there, or we can have another reaction that says ‘You know, the world out there is a mess so Jesus can’t be alive, it must just be a made-up story.’ And there’s one writer that I was reading just this past week, NT Wright that said we can either be in this side which is just ‘naive triumphalism’ but ignores the world, or we can be tempted to be on another side ‘gloomy dualism, where we think ‘Well, God doesn’t care, it can’t be real. If He is there, He’s just not involved or caring at all.’ Here’s the thing, neither side is right and neither side does Jesus fit into because He said ‘Do not hold on to me I have not yet gone to my heavenly Father.’ Jesus has died on the cross and when He died on the cross, He said ‘It is finished.’ What he had set out he accomplished, something changed, even though we were not aware of it and so He was risen from the dead to prove that. But there’s more to come, there’s more to come because His passion secured a future day, a future world that will be made perfect and whole and everything will be made new. It’s a change we’re not even aware of, just like we’re not aware of our world moving, there’s a change being made because Jesus on the cross died to defeat sin and death and all the powers of evil and one day His kingdom will be all that there is and that is our hope and that is our joy and that is proven by Jesus rising from the dead.

Now, when he rose, boys and girls, on that Easter, first Easter morning and met with Mary, she was quite sad but when she realized that Jesus was alive what do you think she started to feel? What do you think she maybe felt then? Anybody willing? What do you think she was feeling? She wasn’t sad anymore. What do you think? She was happy, joyful, She was because she now knew that Jesus was alive. He was there. He was present. And we might be here today feeling life is hard, we might be feeling and thinking that the world’s just a mess, that holding on in faith is just too hard, or seems crazy, but we can know that Jesus is alive, we can, Easter doesn’t deny the hard realities of life for the world but it reminds us that Jesus is alive, a future day has been secured and you can have that relationship with Jesus, beginning even now. You can hear His voice. You can journey with Jesus. And, maybe this Easter invitation is for you, to invite Him afresh into your life, to grow in faith, or pursue faith for the first time. And so, maybe this Wednesday evening, think about coming along to Alpha or if you can’t make the first week, then come to the second, we can catch you up. Come along to Alpha, explore the faith, ask hard questions. Or maybe get involved in a group in church or read a book, or read a bit more of your Bible – but grow in faith, invite Jesus afresh that together we might say with Mary ‘I have seen the Lord. He’s alive, He’s in my life.’ And then, we too can share in the Easter joy. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Trust in Jesus

Preached on: Sunday 3rd April 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-04-03 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: John 11:1-45
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Jesus is moved by our sorrows
– Jesus is able to overcome death
– Jesus invites us to trust Him

Please do be seated.

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word:

Come Holy Spirit and soften our hearts to the word of God.
Come Holy Spirit and deepen our trust as we hear the voice of our Father through His word
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past week but in the past week we’ve had the Oscars and it got a little bit more attention than normal because Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage, live to the world, and he did so, Will Smith did so because Chris Rock had made a joke at his wife’s expense. His wife has alopecia and she has chosen to shave her head which is quite a big thing for a black woman, probably for really anyone and there’s been lots of reaction. There’s been the negative side of saying he should never have resorted to violence to respond to this issue, and there are those on the positive side who say ‘Well, good for him, he stood up for his wife and did so very publicly.’ Whatever our reaction might be to it, clearly Will Smith was moved into action. I wonder what his motives were. It’s clearly he was deeply troubled. Was it love? Was it anger? Was it anger and injustice he felt? His wife experienced that here as she and she is suffering in some form and for whatever reason she’s made the end of a joke, he might feel that there’s gender inequality here, maybe there was an injustice he was standing up against. I wonder also though, if there’s an unspoken motivation, that fear may have motivated him. I don’t even know if Will Smith would be aware of it, because there’s part of me wonders whether he responded to human vulnerability, his wife’s vulnerability at her illness. It’s not life-threatening maybe, but still it speaks of her vulnerability, he speaks of all our vulnerabilities and often, when we feel vulnerable, we react and we can react in fear. And the greatest fear that we all share is the fear of death and that can move us to action, sometimes unhealthy actions. And so, as we turn our passage, to turn to our passage today, is it this that moves Jesus in the face of death, in the face of human vulnerability? Is it fear that moves Jesus?

We’re journeying, just now, towards Easter, two weeks away, and we’ve been journeying through the gospel of John, looking at different passages where John helps us to see some of the purpose of the passion. And so, we looked in John chapter 3 where God so loved the world that he gave his son to save us, to bring us into God’s family, through new birth. And in chapter 4 we saw that God is seeking true worshipers, worshipers who will worship in the Spirit and in truth. And in last week, in John 9 and 10 that Jesus came to give life in all its fullness. And for all these reasons, Jesus went through His passion, He went through suffering for us.

Today’s passage gives us another facet and, in view of how John structures his writing, I think he wants to help us see that this is the greatest part, the greatest insight into the purpose of Jesus, and I can say that with some degree of confidence because, along the way, John will highlight for us the word sign that there are signs that are pointing towards Jesus, but he’ll also use ‘I am’ statements having Jesus says ‘I am’ and he’ll complete that sentence pointing to His divinity. And so, this passage is spoken of as the seventh and final sign before the cross and Jesus uses an ‘I am’ statement in it.

Seven is a very special number in the Bible it speaks of completeness and so it points to this sign being of the greatest importance to all the others and revealing who Jesus is and what He came to achieve. So, what does this event reveal of the purpose of the passion? In the face of death, what moves Jesus?

Well, we read earlier ‘When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come along with her, also weeping, he was deeply moved in Spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.’ What moves Jesus? Our sorrow, our sorrow at death, our inability, our vulnerability against this greatest of foes. In reaction to Mary’s weeping, He weeps, He feels our pain, He shares our sorrow, he has lived our experience and shared in this human experience. Across all of history, in every human life, He is moved by our sorrow. But notice also that He’s troubled and, in fact, the phrase ‘deeply moved’ is repeated again in verse 38 and in some ways it’s an unfortunate translation, ‘deeply moved.’ Because the Greek phrase that lies behind that, when you look at it in every other usage, speaks of human anger, even outrage and fury. So, Jesus is moved here to anger, not against Mary, but rather towards death. Jesus is moved by our sorrow and His reaction is to weep and to be angry.

Pastor and writer John Stott had this to say about this ‘[What he saw] enraged Jesus because it brought home the evil of death, its unnaturalness, it’s ‘violent tyranny’. In Mary’s grief He sees and feels the misery of the whole race and burns with rage against the oppressor of humanity. It is death that is the subject of His wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom He had come into the world to destroy.

Friends, in our passage today we see the compassion of Jesus, a compassion that is more than mere pity, and His empathy is more than just there to console us, and surely He does consume us, surely we read of our God as one who draws near to the brokenhearted and weeps with those who weep. But His compassion is a true compassion, it moves Him to action here, and in His passion, it moves Him to confront death on our behalf.

So friends, do you see the heart of Jesus for you, for us? Our God is not uncaring. Our God is not unmoving. He is not akin to any false notion that would say God feels nothing towards us, nor is He willing to be involved in the brokenness of our world. That is not a true picture of our God because God enters in through Jesus to the human experience and to the heartbreaking realities of life. He’s there in our sorrow. He knows the pain that tears our soul and, what is more, He’s moved to intervene. He steps into history as a human being to experience it with us, to confront it with us, and for us, to defeat death itself. This is part of His purpose, part of the purpose of His passion.

Yet, some of us, as we reread that passage today, the question will come to mind of ‘Well, why did He delay?’ He knows God. If God is so caring, if He’s so loving, why did He delay there? Why does He delay in other ways? And I don’t have answers to all the other questions, and maybe the situations in your life, but for here at least there’s something to be said. We read earlier ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days and then he said to his disciples ‘Let us go back to Judea.’’ Why, if He loves them, why delay? Why wait?

Well, there’s three things that we need to understand here. Firstly, at this time in history, in this particular location, people were buried on the day they died. People were buried on the day they died. Secondly, as regards timing, we know from verse 17 that Jesus, when He arrives, finds Lazarus to have been in the tomb for four days, so, Jesus isn’t very far away, probably takes Him about a day to travel there and, assuming it takes the messengers a day to find Jesus and reach Him, then this means Lazarus died as soon as the messengers leave or very soon after, so it wouldn’t have mattered when Jesus left, Lazarus would have been dead and buried in the tomb. Day to travel, day to travel back, two days from the point of Lazarus death but still we might wonder ‘Why delay?’ And here’s the third thing you need to know, there was a Jewish belief, at the time, not held by Jews any longer, not held by Christians, but a Jewish belief at the time that held the soul of a dead person remained in the vicinity of the body for three days, hoping to re-enter it, but once decomposition set in, the soul departed. As I say not something that we subscribe to, not something that Jews subscribe to nowadays, but held at the time. And so, Jesus delays for our reason, He delays to prove beyond doubt something about who He is, that this wasn’t just an accidental resuscitation or something, that Jesus didn’t arrive just at the right time and ‘Well, you know these things happen.’ No, he leaves it four days to prove beyond doubt that who He is and what His power can do so as to strengthen the trust His disciples have in Him. And so, when He arrives he says to Martha ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Now Martha has been taught well, she’s been taught from the scriptures that there will be a resurrection at the last end and she knows this, she believes that, she trusts this and so she believes she will see her brother one day. But Jesus has a more immediate plan in mind and He wants to deepen her understanding of Him and of what He can do and so, he says ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.’

‘Do you believe this?’ Now, let’s note that Jesus doesn’t simply say that he can provide resurrection and life, that would be impressive in itself, no, he says that life eternal life is in Him, that the escape from the finality of death is available from Him by being in relationship with Him. That’s how we share in this life and then this hope and He says very similarly later on in John 17 saying ‘Now this is eternal life that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ Eternal life is not a ticket, it’s not a little thing you just put in your back pocket for when the day arrives, it’s not even a force or some kind of power or gift, eternal life is all tied up in relationship with Jesus and knowing Him and sharing in Him by believing in Him.

And, to prove His claim, to prove His identity and power, Jesus raises Lazarus. He calls to Lazarus in a loud voice, we hear a voice of true and raw authority, the voice we might say that at the beginning of time said ‘Let there be light’ for He is the light of the world and in His light there is life.

Friends, Jesus comes into our day, into your brokenness, to stand with us and for us against death, and offer us life. As one commentator said he offers us the ‘indestructible life of the resurrection the very life of the deathless God Himself. This is our God, this is our Jesus, and to know Him, to share in Him, to believe in Him is to have this hope. Not that we don’t grieve. Jesus doesn’t tell Martha and Mary not to grieve but that we grieve with hope and for this Jesus came, for this Jesus went through His passion, for this He has moved to action that we might share in His life and have hope. He makes this move towards us and our world. So, how will we respond to Him? How will we move in response to His movement to us? Because, in the passage He asks of Martha ‘Do you believe this?’ Do you believe this. Now, belief here in the Greek is not, I know this in my head or yeah, you know, fake idea and then you just get on with life, to believe in a biblical sense is to believe in such a way that it makes a difference to your life, that your actions change, that your outlook changes, it’s not just mental agreement to an idea.

So, what about us, what about you, do you believe this?

Maybe you’re unsure or maybe you’re not even ready to say that you believe it, and so, I wonder whether you should consider signing up for Alpha. We have an Alpha Course starting in just a couple of weeks’ time and Alpha is a great way of either refreshing your knowledge of the Christian faith, if you’ve maybe been coming to church for a long time, it’s a great way to be refreshed in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, or, if you’re not a Christian at all, to explore the Christian faith, to ask difficult questions, the team are ready for them, they might not have the answers but they’re ready for them. Come along, sign up to Alpha, explore and seek Jesus, make a move towards Him and He will make a move towards you, and details are in the news sheet of how you can sign up for that.

But what about those of us who are sure of this? We say we believe this or we’re at least a little more sure of this we might say? I wonder, do we believe this enough to share it this Easter, or will we let fear divert us? Earlier in the passage we read that little middle portion between verses 8 to 16 where Jesus talks about light and darkness and about stumbling and not stumbling and it seems quite an odd little bit, but Jesus is responding to the disciples’ fear. They’re scared that what’s going to happen. People are already trying to stone Jesus. ‘If we do this Jesus. are they going to stone you?
Are they going to stone us?’ And so, they get fearful and they’re going to be diverted from what Jesus says. They should do but Jesus will not let them divert Him. He warns them against overestimating the danger because He is with them, the light of the world is with them, and so He will not let them stumble, He will guard them and so they must obey the Father, they must go to Lazarus so that God will be glorified, and faith might be strengthened,

So, what about us, friends? Will we allow fear to divert us this Easter time? Or will we put our belief into practice? Will we share the good news, knowing who it is that stands with us, as we make that invitation? Knowing who it is that’s in us by His Spirit? We have the light of the world, the God of all life, with us. And so, maybe take the Easter cards, this is last year’s one, take the Easter cards that were sent to you and hand them out, they were posted to every member this past week, you got one for yourself you got one to give away. Give it away. Invite someone along. Or the Easter Fun Day and if you’ve misplaced it or given it away already, there’s more at the front and rear door. Take one away, invite someone along, come with them so as to encourage them there and build that relationship and share something of the good news of Easter this year. Or if you’re on social media, don’t just like the church posts, share the church posts because that’s how it gets out towards your friends and your contacts on social media. Help us get the word out that there’s something good to believe in our God who’s come into this world to stand with us in our sorrow and to defeat death on our behalf.

So, do you believe this? Maybe you need to investigate it a bit more. Maybe you need to share it a bit more. But, may we all see in the passion, this God who stands with us, this God who defeated death for us, this God who bids us come, trust Him afresh. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Fullness of life

Preached on: Sunday 27th Mar h 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-03-27 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: John 9:1-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• asking our questions
• trusting Jesus
• journeying towards life to the full

Well boys and girls, it is so good to have you, our uniformed organizations, with us this morning and great to mark these high achievements of the Queen’s Badge awards but, also on Friday night, we had a great night with the Boys Brigade Company marking so many other achievements and awards and it was lovely to be a part of that and see that. I know that, in the week coming, there’s the Anchor Boys final evening, there’s also the Girls Brigade coming together on Wednesday night, and I’m sure those will be full of special moments too.

But beyond helping you develop and achieve and recognizing that hard work, another point part of Boys Brigade and Girls Brigade is having a little fun and I think we should give Billy one last chance to have a little fun don’t you. I think we should maybe give him a chance because after this well, the fun level’s just going to dive off a cliff, Billy. So, should we get them up front to give us a wee hand? How about a wee game? Right Billy, come on up.
I thought I’d avoided this.
You must have known something like this. So, Billy the plan is that we’re going to have a little game. Have you ever played the game 20 guesses or 20 questions? Okay, so I have picked a character and it could be a real-life character or a make-believe character, it could be male or female and you have to ask us 20 questions and the answers are yes or no, that we can give you. Now, I’m going to show us all the picture of it, in a moment. Mister Rankine will close his eyes so he’s no peeking. You’ve got your glasses off.
I could put my glasses on and I wouldn’t see.
Don’t.
Don’t say it okay, don’t even whisper it, because I’m sure he’s got really good hearing and despite him getting slightly on in years you know, but he’ll be grand, so I will show you and then you can help me answer the questions so he’s got his eyes closed.
Okay right so 20 questions.
I can open my eyes again.
So yes or no, yes or no answers, is all we can give him.
Is it a male?
Is it male? 1 oh it’s not me that’s good! That’s not my question. Is it a real life character?
Is it real life?
No not real life.
It’s a cartoon character. Is it a Disney cartoon character.
Yes.
So female Disney cartoon character.
You’re doing well.
Can I get my daughter to come down and help me?
No! We won’t use that as a question.
Right is it a recent Disney cartoon.
No.
Okay. So, I’ve got a reasonable chance.
I’ve tried to play it in your favor.
Okay, dear me, I really could do with Eilidh’s head. Let me see, is it’s a real, it’s a human. What is it? Right, so is it an animal, a female animal character?
No, not an animal.
Quick, that was a good question coming up. Is it a cartoon that’s still on the go just now? No. 10. No, well you can watch it but it’s not going to go.
Okay, so that’s a bit more senior Netflix or something, yeah,
It’s not a human. So, it’s an animal, didn’t say tha,t is that an animal, no, no. Right and you said it wasn’t it said – my memory is going here as well. Did you say was it a female, human, cartoon character.
No, human’s a bit of a broad term, I’d say, I’m not quite sure it’s human.
Is it a ship?
No.
That wouldn’t help me much anyway, I’m really, Im really struggling here.
Got dust dust.
Would it be a fairy type character.
Yes.
Would it be based on a very old book. That should not go out after midnight.
I don’t know okay, you must be thinking another guy.
No Cinderella?
No.
Okay, no Cinderella. No, I was banking on it being Cinderella there folks.
I obviously was at Boys Brigade too much when you were watching Disney characters. Mark, can you help.
There’s a famous boy in it and he can fly.
Ah right, okay. So, there was a there’s a ship involved in this? There is character, yeah, I’m just gonna, I’m gonna take this right now. So there’s a kind of Peter Pan type character involved here.
You’re getting very close.
And I can’t really remember the name.
Begins with a T.
Ah yes indeed, yeah, we’ll get there the second part of it would ring possibly?
Yes it would ring our bell maybe yeah.
Yeah. So, that would be Tinkerbell!
Good job! Right, you can say you’re safe. Yes, Tinkerbell. Well done, we got you there eventually. So, good, good sport, good sport.

So part of your time is about learning and development and recognizing that part of it is about fun but there’s another part to Girls and Boys Brigade, and that is also learning about Jesus. And in some ways that’s the most important part and that’s what we hope to pass on and to share with you and what we aim to do as a church family as well.

In our story today Jesus did something amazing. What did he do? Can anybody remember? What did he do? Anybody from the front? Okay. No, what did he do in our story today? What did he do in our story today? Can anybody remember from the Explorers or the Anchor Boys? Yeah, what did he do today? We can hear from the back then.

Yeah, He made the man see again. And what did He, what did He do? What did He use to him to make him see? Can you remember? What did He do? What did He do? Daniel? He put him right in his eyes, He got some mud and used some saliva like ‘Jesus. come on, what are you doing? That’s just we’ve been yucky!’ But Jesus was doing some odd things He was doing some amazing things and people were beginning to go ‘Who is this guy? What is he about? Is he just a teacher? Is he a more than that, is he a prophet? Is he even more than a prophet?’ And so, people were guessing and guessing and guessing and they probably were doing an even worse job than Mister Rankine. Now, some people got it right. Who got it right in our story today? Who got it right in the story? The blind man didn’t he. He managed to guess it eventually who it was and so eventually he bowed down in worship of Jesus. So, who did the blind man think that Jesus was? What would be another name that we might use? God, that’s right. God had come in a human body and His name was Jesus. This is what he eventually understood and so though he had been blind at the start, he was the first to see with the eyes of his heart, to see the truth about Jesus, and part of our church family, part of the Girls and Boys Brigade is to help you ask your questions, to help us ask our questions about Jesus so that we can come to trust Him and worship Him for ourselves.

But, did you notice in the story the man had to do something to show his trust. What did he need to do? Jesus made that little mud pack and put it on his eyes. What did he have to do next? Can anybody remember? What did he do next? What did he do? Lauren – he had to go and wash it off, that’s right. He had to go and wash it. It was an act of trust. Now, that man was born blind. Explorers and Anchor Boys, can you think what would he have seen for the first time? What would he have seen for the first time that would be so amazing? What do you think? Yeah, that. What he would have seen? The water. He’d never seen water before. What else would he see, what else even beyond that little pool, what other things would he see that would be so amazing? What do you think he might have seen? Some fish, and he’d never seen fish before. What else he might have seen not just at that moment but going back as he went back home? What would he have seen? What do you think? His food, his home, his family, his friends. He’d never seen any of that. What are the things that you think you look at and are so amazing? What other things do you think are so amazing? Right at the back. Yeah, yeah definitely. He would have seen the fish. He would have seen like the sun, like we’re on a sunny day, never had seen the sun before. So, Jesus has given this man not only his sight but given this man life, new life, amazing life and in the very next chapter of the Bible he goes on to say ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’ That’s why Jesus came, part of why He came, part of His purpose, to give us life to the full. We’ll never experience all of it in this life but He came that we might have life, we might be on a journey towards fullness of life, it’s part of the reason He died on the cross, and part of the reason He rose again, so that we could have life to the full and it all begins by trusting Jesus, by choosing to trust Jesus in our everyday lives, trusting what He says in the Bible, putting that into practice, trusting what He says about Himself in the Bible, that He’s the light of the world, He’s the good shepherd and He is with us every day.

Boys and Girls, I hope this past year in Boys and Girls Brigade, that you have asked your questions and if you’ve got questions about Jesus then make sure you ask your officers, make it really tricky for them, I know they love the questions and if you’ve got questions in church then come ask your questions as well, ask your questions, that you can grow and trust and so that we remember, as we journey towards Easter, that part of the reason Jesus came was to bring us into fullness of life. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Now on your way in did you get a little candle? And if you’re in the pews for our uniformed organizations there were some put at the end of the pew. So, if you can pass them along. Don’t switch it on yet and Richard, we can skip on to the prayer bit, so maybe a second slide. So, there’s a little black switch on the bottom that’s how you switch it on, but don’t use it yet, Okay, and what we’re going to do is that we are going to pray together using this candle, okay. We’re going to pray three short simple prayers so let’s put off the light just now, okay, but during the prayer I’m going to invite you to switch it on, okay, as a sign of asking for God’s light to come in to the world in different situations.
So can you try and think of someone, nice and quiet, think of someone who maybe needs help just now. Maybe they’re sad, maybe they’re unwell, maybe they’re angry with something, maybe they’re scared, maybe someone at school, might be someone in the church family, maybe someone in your family. Can you quietly think of someone. Maybe close your eyes just to help you think and to know that we’re going to pray.
Okay. So, let’s pray together:

Heavenly Father, we’re thinking of someone that we want to pray for, someone that we want Your light to come into their life and so we switch on our candle as a sign of that prayer. Please, our God, shine Your light into their life to bring hope, to bring life, to bring your peace. May fear and anger or despair or sadness go. May they know that You are near and you are the light of the world Lord Jesus. Amen.

Okay, let’s switch it off again, switch it off again. Okay, I want you to think of something in the big wide world, maybe a situation that you know about, maybe someone who needs some help in the big wide world. So, not someone at school or in your family, something in the big wide world where you want God’s light to come. Okay, can you try it in the quiet, just think of someone or something.

Okay, let’s close our eyes again and let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we’re all thinking of something that needs Your light to come into it. It might be the war in Ukraine. It might be a situation in the news we’ve heard about today. And so, we switch on our candles as a sign of asking for Your light to come into that situation, to bring truth, to light, to bring Your wisdom to bear, to lead forward on a path of righteousness and peace. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

All right, switch off. One last prayer. Today is Mother’s Day in case you forgot, but we’re not just thinking about mums, we’re thinking about people who have had a positive impact in our lives. It might be your officers. It might be your mum. It might be a granny or an aunt. So, it could be someone who’s has helped you, who’s a good role model to you, someone that’s really been a good influence in your life. Can you think of someone. Someone that you’re thankful for. Yeah, right, let’s close our eyes and pray one more time:

Our God, we want to thank You for this person who’s been a part of our life. They might not be with us anymore or they might be, and we thank you for their influence in our lives, We thank You for how they brought Your light into our lives. Maybe they shared something of You, maybe they shared something of Your image because they’re made in Your image, something of Your light. And so, we put this candle on one last time to remember the light that’s shown in them, Your light shining into our lives. We thank You for them and we ask that what they passed on to us, that You would help us to live out in our day-to-day lives. We want to thank You for all the officers and staff of the Girls and Boys Brigades. Thank-you for all they give and the light that they shine to the generations here in Brightons, in the wider Braes area. We ask your blessing upon them and upon each of our children and young people who are part of the Brigades. We ask that Your light would go with them across these summer months and they would come back in September full of stories and of joy, are full of having grown again and ready for a new session to begin. Guard them and keep them we pray. For we ask it all in Jesus’ name. Amen.

You can switch it off and you can take this home. Maybe at home at night time you might want to say a little prayer and just switch on that candle as a sign that you are asking for God’s light to be in your life. It’s an act of trust. Faith is all an act of trust, of holding onto God and asking for His light and life to be in our lives.