Finding life

Preached on: Sunday 2nd June 2024
The sermon text is available as subtitles in the Youtube video (the accuracy of which is not guaranteed). A transcript of the sermon can be made available on request. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 24-06-02 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Ecclesiastes 4:1-16
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Life is not found in me, me, me
– Life is found together
– The dream needs a better King

Who’s counting?

Preached on: Sunday 16th October 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 sermon.
Bible references: Numbers 1:1-4, 17-19, 45-50 & Matthew 28:16-20
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Gathering
– Giving
– Groups

If like me you’re a fan of tennis and, in particular, Andy Murray, you’ll understand why I say that as long as he is winning it’s a joy to watch but as soon as the score is not going his way well, I don’t know about you, but I often have to leave the room. I can’t bear the tension.

In any sport from football or rugby to ice hockey, cricket to tennis, if you don’t count the goals, the tries, the runs or the points, you don’t know who’s winning.

Well, what about the church? How can you tell who’s winning in the church?

I can remember when every Church of Scotland had to count the number of people attending communion at least once annually and send it into Presbytery who in turn sent it in to 121 and that exercise was supposed to be a good way of keeping count of how many people attend a church regularly. So, someone who is in church every Sunday for example but happened to miss the twice or thrice yearly communion because they were away on holiday or they were unwell, well, they were counted as a non-attender whereas someone could roll up once a year just to keep their name on the congregational role and be counted as regularly attending. What a piece of nonsense! Thankfully, those days are gone.

We need to be wise when it comes to counting numbers in church. Obsessing over numbers as a so-called measure of success can cause wrongful pride. Which church do you go to? Oh, I go to !!!!!!!! church. Oh, how many people go on a Sunday? Um, just a few. Oh well, I go to Brightons Church and every Sunday there’s at least 200 in church.

I/we wish. Well, sometimes anyway!

Rural congregations, for example, have no opportunity whatsoever to gather in that kind of number of people. But we can go too far in the opposite direction, if we dismiss keeping numbers, keeping track of numbers all together.

Interestingly, in his book Anatomy of a Revived Church, consultant Tom Rayner discovered, completely unexpectedly, and I might add, that revitalized congregations were counting. They were keeping track of their numbers.

So, continuing the series based on this book that Scott began two Sundays back, and I’m doing what I’m told Scott, if you’re watching this morning, we come to Who’s Counting?, that’s the title of my sermon, Who’s Counting?, and we begin firstly with Gathering.

Now, just in case anyone is thinking this isn’t very biblical can I remind you of our first reading from the Old Testament that Margo read to us. Numbers is called Numbers, in English it’s not known as that, in the Hebrew but it’s known as Numbers in the English translations because it takes its title from the first few verses. As Margo read to us, we heard that, instructed by The Lord, Moses was told ‘You and Aaron are to number by their divisions, all the men in Israel 20 years old or more who are able to serve in the army.’ and that was in verse 3.

Now, let me give you a little bit of background to Numbers because it’s one of those books that well, if we’re honest, we don’t read that much you know with the people who decide ‘Right, I’m going to read the Bible from the very beginning.’ Genesis, Exodus and then they get to Leviticus and yeah, the struggle and of course Numbers comes next so maybe skip over it but it’s actually quite an interesting book. It came at a pivotal point in the history of God’s people. Having been rescued from Egyptian slavery, the people of God arrived at Mount Sinai. God had provided for their spiritual and their physical needs. He’d given them the Covenant Law by which to live and a Tent of Meeting in which to worship and also a system of sacrifice to ensure forgiveness of sins. So, in Numbers, the people of God, the Israelites, are finally ready to make the journey to Canaan, the Promised Land.

Now, counting the number of men suitable for army service was part of that preparation. To set off along the way they would learn some valuable lessons about holy living, the importance of good leadership, the dangers of temptation and perhaps, most importantly, that God is gracious and keeps His promises.

Now isn’t that bang up to date for the 21st century? The kind of things that we need to know as individual followers of Jesus but also as a church community and congregation and family.

Our aim, of course, is not to enter into the land of Canaan but, as Jesus commanded us in our second reading, our aim is this ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them everything I have commanded you.’ That’s Matthew 28 verse 19 as Margo read. That is our aim.

Just for a moment, to go back to the people of Israel, in order to ensure that they could defend themselves Moses counted the Israelite men who could fight should that be needed and, as we know, the journey to the promised land did not go rather smoothly but rather lonely, rather long, longer than this sermon is going to be, 40 years exact and well, a lot of problems on the way. But, in order to work out if what we are doing in church is actually reaching people outwith the church, we actually also need to count numbers.

Now, one group of church leaders, sensing that things in their congregation were declining, called this consultant who wrote the book to ask for help, and he analyzed their Sunday worship attendance over the past 10 years. In the words of one elder the results were breathtakingly shocking.

Now, to their credit the leaders of that congregation didn’t panic nor did they stick their heads in the sand and refuse to change, you know that well-oft used phrase in the Church of Scotland ‘Well, if it sees me oot, it’ll day fine!’ Well, actually, it won’t. They didn’t panic, they didn’t refuse to change, instead they decided to take seriously their mission to their community and they began to prayerfully plan. Their focus changed. In other words, from being inward to being outward.

So, by engaging with where people’s actual needs were, showing that they cared, sharing God’s love slowly, new people started to come and they kept track of church attendance because they reckoned that if what they were doing was working then it would increase and, in fact, in that congregation it did, So, Gathering is my first point.

My second point is Giving. Financial giving can make more people more nervous than any other subject in church life especially if that congregation is behind budget and it can also make more people more apathetic if that congregation is doing well. Now, I don’t know if Brightons still has a Deacons Court. Have you still got? You do, well, in Larbert East we had a Deacons Court as well, but we changed over to the new constitution a couple of years before I retired in preparation for what was coming but a number of years ago a lovely godly church member left quite a large legacy to the church. It was actually a quarter of a million pounds and that’s, I can say that because it’s out in the public domain. When the Deacons Court learned about this, I saw the pound signs appear in their eyes and I told them, I’m usually quite a gentle person, but on this occasion, I was less than gentle, and I said to them ‘I can see what you’re thinking so, if you think that money is going to be used to pretty up the church building, or if you think you’re going to invest it in something like the lottery then you’ll be looking for a new minister.’ Well, to their credit, they realized what I was saying. That money was invested with the Church of Scotland and is used to finance 80 percent through its interest, 80 percent of the salary of the part-time family worker in the church. Parish Outreach worker. So, money can be a blessing if it’s used in a godly way.

I know of other congregations, I was ministering one who received a legacy and the congregational board in that church sat back and folded their arms, whereas the other congregation with which it was linked wasn’t so, wasn’t so fortunate in one sense and they worked hard and they were the ones who increased their financial giving and saw life in the church. You see, congregational giving is an indicator of leading trends of the spiritual state of the congregation and, interestingly, in this book, Rainer discovered that people often stop giving before they stop coming to church altogether. So, if someone is struggling for whatever reason and stops giving it is a pastoral matter not just a financial one.

So, before we rub our hands together and start counting the offering, here are three simple principles to note that come from the book, and they’re biblical as well, and I share them with you in the hope that your Deacons Court will take them on board and prayerfully consider them. It may be that you’re already doing them so forgive me if I’m doing repeat, saying something that you’re already doing.

But the first is a systematic approach to first-time givers works wonders. People need to know that they are appreciated. That’s actually a Biblical principle, to show someone, you know, to thank them, to be kind to them.

Secondly, tie money to mission. Using an offering to showcase how givers are supporting God’s work is the surest way of making sure that it continues to be supported.

And thirdly, thank generous givers because it appears that some people don’t even know if anyone in their congregation cares that they are supporting their congregations. Now, I’m not saying that about Brightons. That is just a general principle that has been discovered in the study of the anatomy of revitalized churches.

So, that leads us thirdly to Groups, I hope you notice the alliteration Gathering, Giving, Groups, specially done for you. Seven out of ten revitalized churches also tracked attendance at groups associated with their congregations.

Now, take, for example, James had been a minister at a certain church for 12 years, it was in decline before he was called to be the minister but that decline continued gradually in his time too, so the church decided to get serious about Jesus’ command in Matthew 28. and to make some more disciples. They track Church attendance but also Church groups. It enabled them to see where the greater spiritual fruit was growing in terms of the groups connected with the congregation and they also discovered, incidentally, that those who had stayed with the church through its decline were all part, every single one of them, was part of an existing group within the church. So, they learned from this that pouring resources into groups that were working was the way ahead instead of wasting energy and time on those groups that weren’t, and the growth in that congregation was slow but steady. The trend reversed and it went up. Everybody in the congregation didn’t have to do everything or go to everything. Remember our passage in Numbers where the Levites the members of the tribe of Levi, the Levites, weren’t counted as fighting men because their job was to take care of the worship side and the tent of The Lord’s presence. In other words, people should use their God-given gifts where they are most suited. Not forced into doing that which isn’t their gifting. So, if you aren’t good with children, resist all pressure to go and teach children. If you aren’t good at finance like me, get your wife to do it and make sure you’ve got people in the congregation who know what they’re doing. We don’t have to do everything. We don’t have to go to every group but there’s all always something where we can become more involved and use our gifts and that way, the church family grows.

So, who’s counting? It’s a proven fact that revived churches are. They are counting people who are gathering for worship and incidentally, remember to include those who are worshiping online because there are still people who, after the pandemic, are worried about coming back to church and there are people who are two and a half years older and a wee bit more frail but they can still watch online and, if you’re watching today, you are part of the worshiping community of Brightons Church just as much as everyone sitting in the pew.

So, growing churches are counting people who are gathering for worship. They’re also counting how people are giving financially and of their time and talents, and also the groups in which people are involved.

This is not about counting for counting’s sake. Nor this about counting so we can boast about our increased church attendance. This is about counting for accountability. We are all accountable to The Lord, for how we are serving Him in our church congregations.

Now, Rainer did not expect to find this aspect of counting amongst churches that were revitalized but, when he did and thought about it, it made sense because, if what a church is doing for example in worship is still seeing decline then it isn’t working. Hard questions need to be asked and that isn’t just about the minister, in case anybody thinks that I’ll blame Scott.

Do you know, a number of years ago, my wife and I went to a church, I won’t say which church it is, it was in Falkirk Presbytery where I knew, as Presbytery Chaplain, that the minister was struggling and when we arrived at the door there were two elders that were greeting people and I knew who these Elders were because one was a Presbytery Elder and the other was an additional Elder on Presbytery and when they saw us walking towards them this is what they did – they looked us up and down, folded their arms and turned their backs. That’s true. An utter disgrace! No wonder the minister was struggling. And that’s why what’s happening in church is not just the minister, it’s the entire congregation. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to hear you singing this morning. It’s absolutely amazing. I can sense that you’re worshiping The Lord.

So, if what’s happening in worship is not working, it’s everyone’s responsibility, together. It’s about the entire congregation, to seek where God is leading because you see, what really matters, is making disciples of Jesus. It’s what he commanded us to do, and that’s why I’m going to reissue my challenge that I raised with the children earlier. Those people that you’ve thought about that you could invite to church. Please do it. If they say no, then you’ve done your part. Maybe God will work on them. But maybe go back in a wee while and try again and pray for them.

You see, let’s not forget that along with His command to make more disciples, Jesus also said this ‘And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’



Preached on: Sunday 9th October 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 here22-10-09 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
• Unity over Disunity
• Giving over Getting
• Maturity over Immaturity

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 mature us in the ways of Jesus.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Over the summer I bought a second-hand bike because Hope was starting to learn without stabilizers and so I wanted to be able to ride with her and it was some time ago that my bike got stolen when I lived in Edinburgh. And so, I got, I decided to get a road bike because there’s quite a few guys in church and others I think that cycle and this isn’t me, I don’t look that good on a bike, but they’ve been good to get out with me and coax me along and pass on their knowledge and skills and encouragement. And it wasn’t long before I felt that, well you know, the second-hand bike maybe needs to be tweaked here or there or I need this bit of kit or that bit of equipment and, yes, there is some Lycra involved along the way. If you think I look better in Lycra then I’ll give you some other names another time, I wouldn’t name them publicly, he just happens to be playing the drums. Anyway, like most sports, there’s various levels of involvement, isn’t there. There’s that kind of low level, it’s not very serious and you’re just doing it for a bit fun. And then, there’s that kind of mid-level, and that’s probably where I’m at with most things in life probably, I get a wee bit serious and I want this and I want that just to be able to do it fairly well and not look like an idiot. And then, there’s that kind of higher level of competitiveness, of wanting to be maybe the best or just do really seriously and so, I guess, the image on screen is that kind of person and they have found something which has become really important to them and so they’ll adapt so much of life. They’ll maybe give up time, and then maybe invest time in pursuit of this. So, maybe look at their diet and what they should eat or not eat. What they need to detox from to make sure their body is in peak physical condition, so they can be the best of the best, because they’ve found something they really care about and they want to pursue it wholeheartedly.

And, in our passage today, Paul said these words ‘I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.’ I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Last week we touched on the calling we have from Jesus, the calling to follow Him, to make Him known, because He’s called us to be part of His family, part of His people and Paul says this is a high calling worthy of giving your life for, wholeheartedly of wanting to aspire and pursue a life which is worthy of that calling, it’s worth striving for and giving yourself to. And he will then spend the next three chapters of this letter getting into details and specifics, looking at all different facets of individual and corporate life, things that we should avoid, things that we should invest in, things we should pursue, things we should flee from. And we’re just focusing on the first little portion of that for today, because our series, just now, is following some of the chapters in this little book Anatomy of a Revived Church. It’s quite difficult to actually get a copy, you’ll probably need to go online although we’re trying to source some in case you want to pick up a copy and read it for yourselves. Over the next four weeks I’m either going to be on annual leave, moving house or preaching up at Blackbraes and Shieldhill, I think, this month and as part of the pulpit swap so I felt that it wasn’t really fair to give the next chat or a particular chapter to those guest speakers because the next chapter that we’re going to look at today is dealing with toxins. Dealing with toxins, and the author found in his research that a repeating theme of churches that were growing that new degree of flourishing, whereas one time they had maybe been declining, was that they dealt with toxins and particularly, particularly, people who created a toxic environment.

He writes at the end of the chapter ‘If a toxic member is allowed to continue his or her pattern of negativity and disunity, the church will decline. It may die. Dealing with toxic church members is exceedingly difficult but not dealing with them assures decline will continue.’ Now let me put it on record, it’s on recording as well, I don’t think we have any toxic members, as far as I know, however, there are patterns of thought and behavior we can all slip into from time to time which, if we don’t name and then don’t seek to deal with, they have all the potential of undermining our health as a church family and stifling the growth we might see, and certainly not living a life worthy of the calling we’ve received.

The little portion gives us three things to think about from chapter four and in each case we’re going to look at what Paul teaches but then, what’s the negative side of that, what’s the thing we need to detox from if we’re going to live this worthy life. And so, Paul begins by saying ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There’s one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.’ He begins by highlighting our unity, what we have in common, what we share, what binds us together, that we are one body, we are one faith through our one Lord and it’s that that we begin with today. That we have to make every effort to maintain that unity, to pursue it. This is worth pursuing. And so, he encourages us. Are we a people who pursue and maintain unity? Well, I think largely we do get on very well but there can be practices, as I say, that we can slip into which might embody or even nurture this unity and I want to flag this up for us. Two of them in particular.

The first is withdrawal. Sometimes something said or done or not done and it causes a degree of hurt, maybe offence, we struggle with it for whatever reason. It might be something that is said by another member, maybe something said or done by me, either in the pulpit, in the service, and changes that we’ve experienced, something I’ll say in private or on email or whoever knows what it might be. But because of that we then disengage, we withdraw, we avoid others, we keep our distance, we don’t talk to them, if we see them in the same room, if they’re going one way, we’ll go the other way and if we happen to be in conversation with them well, we’ll try and get out of that as soon as possible and we certainly won’t ask any questions because we don’t really care enough about them. All those hallmarks of withdrawal are hallmarks of disunity not unity. And so, withdrawal might be a practice where we need to curtail and do something about it.
Another one is echo chambers. If you’re not familiar with the term then all you need to do is listen to the party conferences that are happening because a lot of them are echo chambers, really, where we share our perspective with people who agree with our perspective and we just hear the echo and if we hear the positive things back then we think ‘Oh, that’s a good thing.’ and if we hear negative things back we think ‘Well, we’re onto a winner, we know that that’s a wrong thing and it needs dealing with.’ And that happens a lot at these conferences but it can happen in church as well. We can end up talking to people who just agree with us and because we hear back what we’re saying we think ‘Well, my perspective is right. This may be the only perspective and it’s got to be taken on board and it’s got to be a, something’s got to be done about it, and those that are not doing something about it well, they’re making mistakes and they’re doing things wrong.’ And, before you know it, we just there into this downward spiral of negativity and it’s nurturing disunity. Echo chambers. We need to be careful of them.

So, how do we detox from disunity and pursue unity? Well, Paul gives us some ideas. ‘Be completely humble and gentle. Be patient, bearing with one another and love.’ Be completely humble he says. Have a lowliness of mind, is what that means. Don’t be prideful, don’t think you know all the answers and you know best, be gentle, have a meekness of spirit where you’re ready to admit wrongs and that you don’t have all the answers, don’t be about asserting your rights. This is about strength that’s under control. Be patient or long-suffering. One author, one translator put it to ‘have a wide and big soul.’. To have a wide and big soul. To bear with one another, to put up with one another. We’re people, we’re messy people, we’re gonna rub each other the wrong way sometimes and so, let’s be quick to forgive and ready to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us and to do so in love. And in love in the Bible is not just an emotion, the love of God is an act of the will, a choice and we too should show that kind of love, the love that Jesus has shown, that was sacrificial, that sought the welfare of others, that didn’t wait for them to make up their mind, didn’t wait for you and I to respond before He first showed love. Friends, if we are going to pursue unity over disunity, then let’s give up withdrawal and instead press in. Let’s offer a smile, let’s care, let’s ask questions of those people we’d normally avoid and, if they’ve done something, if I’ve done something, then forgive. And, rather than an echo chamber of negativity, can we have a wide and big soul where we die to self, we give up pride and we seek out people that are different from us, who have a different perspective from us and we listen to them.

One of the things that I’ve sought to do is when I’ve found that someone is struggling with something that I’ve done or doing more often than not, I’ve gone and given them the time to explain why they struggle and that’s hard, really hard sometimes, it gets very personal but it’s worth doing, it’s more often than not we’ve come to an agreement and an understanding of one another but it’s what we need to do, it’s what we need to model because we’re called to unity over disunity because that’s one hallmark of a worthy life, a life a way of life that might lead to greater health as a congregation. And I hope that you will pursue that along with me.

Paul has focused on what we share in common, on what unites us, but he also knows that it can be within unity a healthy diversity and so he goes on to say ‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it to equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up as each part does its work.’ Each of us has been given something by Jesus, something to use to serve others he’s given us grace in the form of spiritual gifts and we have to use those. Whether it’s teaching or leading, whether it’s caring or encouraging, administrating or sharing, we’ve all got something to give, we’ve all got a part to play. All of us. And a life worthy of our calling sees a people who give of themselves to their church family and who give themselves to the purposes of Jesus in and through them. Are we a people who give over getting? Because it’s very easy, in all aspects of life, including church life, to slip into becoming very me-focused, me-focused and when we become very me-focused it can show up in conversations like ‘I want Church to be like this or that’ or that group or that person or that individual is not meeting my needs and that’s not to say that you don’t have needs or that those needs are unimportant, they are important, but when we get into a downward spiral of focusing on our needs, we can end up blaming. We talked about blaming last week, or we can end up complaining, moaning. I have a six-year-old and there are times when I need to say ‘Hope, what are you doing?’ and she knows how to finish that statement ‘I’m moaning.’ Are we really six-year-old Christians? Or do we know another way? Because the people that I look at who are doing less blaming and complaining are those who focus on giving, of giving themselves to others, building them up and serving the purposes of Jesus in their day, in their life. But this me-focus can also be seen in other ways. It can be seen in us saying ‘Well, I’m just too busy to be involved in church.’ And we get too busy maybe through work or kids or grandkids or hobbies but you’ve got a part to play and if you’re too busy to turn up to be involved in some area of church life then actually, you’re depriving the wider family of the gift God has given you, which is not for you, but for others. And so, if you’re too busy to be involved, you’re depriving others, you’re missing out on that worthy life. We can also show that me-focus by just not turning up to church. We can say ‘Well, I’m too busy or I’m just not interested you know, the style of the sermon, the style of the service, it’s changed. I don’t like it anymore. He rabbits on too long.’ Sometimes, yes. But actually, it just displays a focus upon ourselves because you could end up having a conversation like Allison had with Nadia, like so many of us have on a Sunday, and we give that listening ear, we give that reassurance, we’re able to maybe provide a practical help in that moment but, if you’re not there, if you’re not turning up, then that person’s going to miss out. You have a part to play. We each have a part to play and if we’re to detox from getting and pursue giving, well, we need to turn up, we need to play our part, we need to make church and a Sunday service less about us and more about God and His purposes and His people. And I would love for folks to come to me more often than not and say ‘You know, I’ve got this idea and I’m happy to help and let’s pursue this. What do you think?’ I can’t really think of many examples in four years where I’ve said no to such an idea but I can tell you the number of times of people who have come and they’ve just moaned at me. I’m going to respond much better to a solution than to a moan because we’re family and we have to be focused on giving and using what we have and building each other up, than getting, and about church being about me, mine and I, and that might require some tough conversations. Some cutting back. Of seeing church less as a hobby and more is something you belong to. And that could be about re-prioritizing things, even with our kids maybe, with our families, maybe with one another. We’re too busy doing maybe, other stuff and we need to say ‘Well, church is not a hobby, it’s not another thing on the list, it’s something I belong to because I belong to Jesus.’ And, if we want to live a worthy life, if we want to be a healthy congregation, then we must detox from a mindset of getting and pursue a life of giving.

And in our final portion Paul has one other area of church life to look at. He says in the middle of the, near the end of that chapter, that section, ‘Then we will no longer be infants blown here and there by every wind of teaching. Instead, speaking the truth and love, we will grow to become, in every respect, the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.’ Part of living a worthy life is growing in maturity, as he says. That as we mature in the ways of Jesus, as we grow in our love for one another and for our community, and give ourselves away rather than focus on getting, as we display a unity that is just not possible, should not be possible unless God was in it, then people might take notice. They might say ‘Well, there’s something going on in that church, and they’ve loved me like no one has loved me, and they they’re for each other like no one is for each other, that I’ve seen anywhere else. What’s different about them?’ and then we get to say ‘Well, it’s because of Jesus, because He’s not just an idea and He’s not just a guy in a book. He’s alive and real and He’s part of my life and He’s answering prayers and He’s doing all these incredible things.’ And so, because we mature and show His way of life, then it brings glory to Him who is our Head. Of course, the opposite of maturity is immaturity and there can be practices that belie an immaturity. The verses here particularly focus on speech. Paul says ‘Every wind of teaching’ i.e. the hot air, it’s people who are full of hot air, and not just any old hot air but teaching that draws you away from Jesus, is what he’s talking about here. That kind of hot air and the corrective of that is speaking the truth in love. So, speech is very much at the forefront here, a maturity of speech. So, how does your speech compare? Is it mature or immature? Do you fly off the handle, get angry? Do you criticize and complain? Do you gossip? Do you use vulgar language? Or, are you someone who’s encouraging, who builds others up, who champions others? Are you that kind of person? Are you that? Are you displaying mature speech, Godly speech? You might say ‘Well, you know Scott, I’m speaking the truth in love. Truth is sometimes hard to hear but I just need to get it off my chest and it’ll make, it’ll make church better.’ Well, I’m afraid that’s not what that phrase means. Speaking the truth in love is speaking the truth of Jesus because the verse before it is all about false teaching. So, to speak the truth is to speak the truth of Jesus, His character, His ways, His purposes. That’s what we’re to speak, to speak His word, to say this is who He is and this is the encouragement, just as Alison did to Nadia. She spoke truth, she spoke it in love, she wanted the best for Pre5s, she wanted them to be bold and to make every opportunity and what did it do? It built up, it encouraged, it equipped them and so they were ready and Nadia was ready, to take that opportunity. That’s what it means to speak the truth in love. It’s not about you getting it off of your chest what you’re really bothered about, it’s not about us getting our own way, if only our perspective was shared. That’s not speaking the truth in love. It might be speaking your truth but it’s not speaking the truth, the truth of Jesus. So, once again, what will you choose? Is the calling of Jesus important enough to you that you’ll detox from old patterns and instead pursue a maturity of speech? I hope so friends, I hope so brothers and sisters, because God is not bringing this to our attention to beat us up, to wear us down. I was having my devotions yesterday just using Lectio 365 as I often do and if you don’t use it I encourage you to maybe consider using it, and in there just the perfect day before today to just put it out there for me to take note of it Jesus says in John chapter 15, ‘I am the true vine and my father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You know friends, Brightons has been fruitful that there are so many here on a Sunday when in the Upper Braes some churches are lucky if they get a dozen or 20 people, those churches have no children, no children on a Sunday morning and we have a goodly number who make a nice noise and we’re thankful for them, we have been fruitful but there’s even more fruitfulness to come if we’ll only take on board what God is bringing to our attention and I think that’s why he wants us to have a look at this Anatomy of a Revived Church so that we might be, that we might be even more fruitful. He’s got good in store for us such as our loving good God who we’ve been thankful for today not only for the harvest, not only for testimony but because, through His Word, through the work of His Spirit amongst us, He wants to bring us even into greater days and so I pray that we would be a people who pursue unity over disunity, giving over getting, and maturity over immaturity. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Malachi: Sacrificial generosity

Preached on: Sunday 7th November 2021
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 21-11-07 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Malachi 3:6-12
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s word. Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, come among us please, and reveal to us the heart of our Heavenly Father.
Holy Spirit, come among us and lead us in the ways of Jesus.
Holy Spirit, come, we pray, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

I was just on the news yesterday, I was reading that Greta Thunberg has said already that COP26 is a failure and it makes me wonder ‘I wonder what makes her say that I?’ I wonder maybe, what has been the biggest blocker? So, that maybe hasn’t been the success people might have hoped for. So, why don’t you turn to your neighbor once again and for 30 seconds share what you think has been the biggest blocker towards COP26 maybe the success we hoped for. 30 seconds. Over to you.

Well, I’m gonna jump in there again. Obviously, you could probably talk about this for hours so feel free again get a cuppa after the service or chat outside, at least it’s not raining today, you can have a blether there if you wish or you can let me know on the way out the door what you came up with but a straw poll –  anyone blame the politicians? Yeah, some politicians there, and there are probably many other reasons you might give but politicians is probably going to be one of the top ones. It’s easy to blame them especially when we see all the shenanigans in the news this last week with politicians but I wonder if what holds politicians back is fear, fear of what voters will think, that if we go too far, too fast, voters will show their disapproval by ousting the current government from government and so, you can’t go too far too fast in case it risks the taxpayer and their vote and costs the taxpayer too much. Because, if we’re honest, even on the individual level, we can often be profit before people, we can be self before collective survival, and when it comes to money, when it comes to the money in our pocket and the balance in our bank, and the stuff in our lives, we get very possessive.

And, you know, the same was true in Malachi’s day. Earlier in the book of Malachi God challenged, through the prophet, the quality of the people’s giving but now He comes to challenge the quantity of their giving. He said earlier “Return to me and I will return to you. But you ask “How are we to return?” The people don’t even know, they’ve wandered away from God “Will a mere mortal rob God?” the Lord says “Yet you rob me but you ask ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse, your whole nation because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” And maybe we’re wondering ‘Well, what’s the issue here God? Are you a money-grabbing God? Are you just a killjoy? Are you wanting just to stifle the people and deprive them of good things? What’s going on here?’ And maybe that confirms your perspective of church, as you hear of us asking for you to give money towards the Guild projects are you maybe thinking ‘Well, the church is always after money, and look there God is, all of us after money.’ So, why is God calling His people to give? Why? What’s going on underneath the surface?

Well, first of all, we might be thinking also ‘What is the tithe?’ And so, just in case you don’t know, the tithe was the first 10 percent of the produce, the crops, the income that individuals had and they would give that first 10 percent, to give that first 10 percent away, give it to the workings of the temple, to serve God’s purposes, and give it to care for the poor and needy in the community and, actually, if you add up the tithes and offerings both the regular and the occasional, it’s estimated that potentially the people gave away 25 percent of their income, and that’s quite, quite a startling amount isn’t it! And yet, the people have this attitude that while I’m not going to give the whole time I’m just going to give a bit of it and maybe they’re thinking ‘Well, it’s my stuff, it’s my money, I should get to determine what I do with it.’ and or maybe they’re thinking ‘Well, I don’t have enough God, I don’t have enough and You know once I have enough I’ll give a wee bit more, so just give us a break!’ They are holding back some of their tithes and God thinks that’s a problem. Clearly, He thinks they’re robbing Him somehow. So, what’s that about? How can God be claiming they are robbing Him when it’s their stuff?

Well, the problem is, the scriptures teach that it’s not their stuff. In the Psalms we read ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ Their stuff is actually God’s. Everything that we have is the Lord’s, it belongs to Him the scriptures teach and so, we are not in the position of ownership, we are in the position of stewardship, what we have in our lives is given in sacred trust from God to steward, not own. We are called to be stewards but maybe you can resonate with the people, maybe you can resonate with that the feelings that they have because how often would we much rather God talked about anything else or asked anything else of us. Come to church – I’m right there with you God. Come to church two three times a day – no problem. Read your bible and pray for an hour – now that might be a struggle at times – but sure, okay, I’ll take that on board for a little while at least. Ask me to serve, ask me to do anything else, but talk to me about my money, that’s off-limits God, I’d rather You didn’t. And I know this is difficult to hear because, actually, in comparison to a lot of places, you are a very generous congregation, very generous, and you’re giving today in the shoe boxes and The Guild and things, but there are helpful points when we need to hear from God’s word, a message about giving, to take stock, to evaluate what is our practice, How are we living? What’s our relationship to our money? Do we see ourselves as stewards or have we fallen into that false understanding of ownership?

Now, maybe you’re wondering also ‘Well, is Scott saying we should tithe?’ I won’t ask a straw poll on that one, if you think we should or if you think I’m thinking that, because, actually there is no New Testament teaching about tithing. No New Testament teaching, it’s all in the Old Testament, and so maybe you’re thinking ‘Well we’re safe, we don’t need to tithe, we’re good!’ and then I would share the counter argument that well, tithing was there before the law was given so, it wasn’t just part of the Old Testament covenant and that many Christians over the centuries and years and many faithful and some of the most godly Christians have tithed. But let’s, for a second instead, turn to the New Testament and see the example of the early church who (not that one either) who, they are recorded as ‘They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.’ The church, when it was at the peak, we might say, of its health and understanding of the ways of Jesus, they were generous, sacrificially generous and probably gave much more than a simple tithe. They weren’t Christians who said ‘What is the minimum I can give? What’s enough to keep God happy?’ They were Christians who were sacrificially generous, who responded to the marvelous grace they had received through Jesus dying on the cross for them, with such generosity that astounded people and this carried on over the centuries. You can look up in various articles and commentaries about Aristides of Athens says ‘If the brethren have among them a man in need and they  have not abundant resources, they fast for a day or two so as to provide the needy man with the necessary food.’ Or later in 190 AD Lucian, who was not a Christian by the way, commented ‘The earnestness with which people of this religion help one another and their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end.’

Do we walk in that way, in that legacy or are we bare minimum Christians?

So, as you think about what you give to The Guild today, as you maybe go home and mull over this message, maybe take some time to look at your giving. Think ‘Am I relating to my stuff as a steward or an owner? Am I a bare minimum Christian or am I a Christian of sacrificial generosity?’ Because God calls His people to be stewards and to give generously.

But He calls them also to give, for another reason. We know from our passage this morning that the Lord says they’re under a curse because they’re robbing Him. Now, if that sounds strange to you, if that sounds like a spell to you, then please go back to an earlier sermon where I talked about the discipline of God, just a week or two ago, because this isn’t a spell, this is God disciplining the nation because they have wandered from Him, the whole nation is wandering from Him and so, the whole nation is being disciplined by God and, most likely, is that they are experiencing drought a drought to wake up the nation to its senses. But God doesn’t want to be that parent that disciplines His child forever. Have you been maybe a volunteer in a group or maybe a parent or an aunt, an uncle, a grandad, whatever it may be, and you have a child that just keeps pushing the buttons and you don’t want to be that parent that just has to keep being firm and hard and disciplining? You don’t want to be in that place, you want to get to that place where they heed what you’re doing so that you can just bless them, enjoy them, and it moves into that different season, in that different way of life. God doesn’t want to stay in that place of discipline. He wants to call them back and to bless them and we know that because of what He says next. He says ‘Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. Then all the nations will call you blessed for yours will be a delightful land.’

In the verses, the words here, ‘throw open the floodgates of heaven’ God’s simply meaning rain, not anything miraculous other than rain. That is what they need, that is what’s being held back and God’s discipline to them and He says if they will come back He wants to bless them, He wants to open the floodgates and they will, He will do so with such blessings, such generosity that it will become known in the nations around them of how good God has been to them. And so, so we when we look at these verses we start to think ‘Well, if that was the case for them, if they were if they give and they’re going to get this material blessing, do these verses apply to us as well, Scott.’ because maybe you’ve heard on the radio or maybe you’ve read in a book or maybe you’ve seen online teaching that says if you give your 10 percent hen God will financially bless you, if you give to God then you can expect financial blessing and provision as well. Is that true teaching? Is that true teaching? Well again, as I’ve said through Malachi, the context is key in every passage, really the context is key and I came across this really helpful quote to remind us of the wider context of the scriptures. Peter Adams says ‘Poverty and riches have a variety of meanings in the Old Testament. Poverty might be a sign of the righteous person being persecuted or of a righteous person having their trust in God tested. Similarly, riches were not always a sign of obedience, rich people were often opposed to God and oppressed others.’ Context is important and to basically make a theology simply based on Malachi is to ignore the rest of the scriptures, the rest of the experience of New Testament believers, who are very faithful to God and yet are so poor. Even the early church and we often forget that many of the natural or physical parts of the Old Testament covenant, which the covenant, which the people operated under, it pointed forward to a spiritual reality in the new covenant, So for example, there was the curtain in the temple and it reminded the people of the division between God and humanity, that curtain that would be taken away through Jesus and that wide open invitation to anyone to come close to God through faith in Him, but the curtain wasn’t the thing, the curtain was just a symbol, a reminder. Or we could take the sacrifices, the sacrifices reminding us that we do need forgiveness, that we have a problem with sin and that it had to there, had to be a greater, more perfect sacrifice because the sacrifice of animals cannot clear the conscience. And so, Jesus comes as that perfect sacrifice.

Or take the land, as we’re talking about the land in these verses, the land was that place of God’s kingdom and it was the place of home for the people, a place of security and blessing but, in the new covenant, the kingdom of God is wherever God reigns in a person’s life and so, it is in your life, in my life and the home that the land was is now in the New Testament, the new heaven and the new earth that will come when Jesus returns, the physical and material, the natural, in the Old Testament was pointing towards the spiritual in the New Testament, under Jesus. And the same is true in this passage. I don’t think we should interpret it as ‘if you give 10 percent then you will get material blessing.’

For example, let’s turn to the New Testament where Jesus is engaging with the rich young ruler. Remember that story. A young man comes to Jesus and he knows something’s missing in his life and he doesn’t have assurance of eternal life and so, he says to Jesus ‘What else must I do?’ and Jesus says to him ‘Go and sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.’ There’s no promise here of, give it all away and God will give you all back, there’s this promise of treasure in heaven, but when we read these verses there’s also the issue that we often think of heaven sort of as we did it with the children this morning, having been up there and that heaven is only future, that heaven is only we’re storing up riches in the future, but we know that Jesus often talked about the kingdom of heaven, that the kingdom of heaven is breaking in, so that there is this present, immediate aspect to the kingdom of heaven as well. So, this young man is invited to know treasure and heaven treasure in the kingdom of heaven now, not just future, there is that future time but there is also a present time and, for that rich young man it might have looked like greater freedom that he wasn’t tied to his wealth, it might look like greater contentment or peace or joy, but also, as he gave, he would bring aspects of the kingdom into the lives of other people, he would bring hope and joy for them, he would bring compassion and justice for them, he would lift people out of poverty that they might have life.

The kingdom is not just future, it is now, which is why what we heard in The Guild projects is so incredible and so just encouraging and inspiring, because they are investing now, and through their actions now we are seeing the kingdom break in and change people’s lives.

And so, there is this call of God, for people to give so as to change the world around them. In Malachi’s day, if they gave, the world would change, their world would change and that God would bring rain but, in New Testament and in our lives, by our giving, we change the world around us. Let me give you another quote from history – there was the Emperor Julian, Roman Emperor Julian and he was actually an opponent to Christianity. He didn’t like Christians, he persecuted them and in light of the generosity of the church he said ‘I would be shameful when the impious Galileans’, that is Christians, ‘feed our own people along with their own, that ours should be seen to lack the help we owe them’ and then he went on to order the creation of hospices. The generosity of God’s people sparked the conscience of their opponent to them bring about good for a wider society. And again, if we look at the example of the New Testament church in the book of Acts just after that same verse that I quoted earlier ‘They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ Yes, they taught the scriptures, Yes, they worship God. Yes, they met in fellowship but part of their life was sacrificial generosity and all of it combined to see the Lord adding to their number daily. The world changed in part because of their giving.

But maybe you’re wondering ‘Well, is God just again after our money? Is God just wanting us to obey? Is God just wanting us to be faithful stewards?’ because maybe that, maybe that just doesn’t speak to your heart, maybe it just sounds like here’s more of a list of things to do and obey.

And actually, there’s a third reason that God causes people to give and it’s at the very beginning of our chapter where in verses 6 and 7 the Lord said ‘I the lord do not change. Return to me and I will return to you.’ Return to me return to me return to me, in other words, repent, change your ways, come back to me. The Lord’s heart is for His people. He longs for them. He loves them. As we looked at in the very first verses of Malachi, He has this unending love for them, a love that is faithful and constant and true, this love that is generous and forgiving, this love that, Yes disciplines them for good, but He longs to bless them and lead them into life and all its fullness. This is the love of God and it hasn’t changed. He says this love has not changed, His heart is for them and He longs for them to respond in kind. He longs for them to love Him as He loves them because He’s constantly working to restore, maintain and deepen this relationship with His people.

And the same is true in the life of Jesus. You know, just before Jesus said what He did to the rich young ruler the text says ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him.’ What was in that look? What did it communicate? What did it anticipate?

I suspect that Jesus anticipates this young guy is going to say ‘No, it’s too much.’ because Jesus knows where this young man’s heart is and yet, in love, He still speaks the truth and in love He still gives that invitation knowing it will be rejected, but calling Him, yearning for Him to break free of that love of money, that love of wealth, and return to his Lord to, return to knowing Jesus, following Jesus, walking with Jesus. That is the heart of God here and in Malachi. It’s the heart of God that is for you brothers and sisters and for me, for our hearts to be the Lord’s, to be given to the Lord. That is God’s desire and the yearning that is there within Him. It’s the crux of the issue throughout Malachi really, that are we are people who will give our hearts to the Lord because He has given Himself to us.

Are we truly His people to the depths of our being? Do we love the Lord to the very core of who we are? Because to the very core of God, He loves you, His heart is for you and He longs for your heart to be for Him and that will be seen in every area of your life, where you could be spending your money because as the other verse on the screen before said ’Where your treasure is, there is your heart’ and what you spend your money on will show you where your treasure is as well.

So, let’s take the example of global warming and of the climate crisis that we have in COP 26. It’s actually more costly to live a more ecological life. Have you noticed that? Have you tried to swap away from plastics? It’s not easy and it’s no cheap. But are you willing to pay the price, are you willing to pay the price of that change to be a steward not only of your money but of this creation that God has entrusted to us? Is your heart enough for the Lord that you care for what He cares for?

Or the giving of our church. What we do is in the name of the Lord and for the Lord and it can’t happen without resource. Is your heart enough for the Lord that you invest in His purposes that you give generously to The Guild projects or to the Shoebox Appeal or whatever? It may be are you a Christian who’s a bare minimum Christian. ‘Oh God, this is the spare change I’ve got in my pocket this week? or do you take a more disciplined, ordered, proactive approach because God has you? Give your devotion to God rather than to your finances and to your wealth and so you set up a standing order and you give regularly rather than just what have I got this week.

The crux of the issue is that God calls His people to give because He wants our hearts to be right with Him and in relation to their stuff because when His people give, and give rightly, and have a right relationship to their money, then they’re not possessed by their possessions and they overflow with generosity. When they return to the Lord with all their hearts, we see our role as stewards and our possessions as gifts to share. When we love the Lord to the depths of our being, we will be a people who faithfully give and, through our giving, change the world that little bit. I pray it may be so. Amen.

We close our service as we sing together our final hymn ‘I want to walk with Jesus Christ’ This call, this yearning to be faithful followers of Jesus, to walk in His footsteps, to receive His teaching, to obey His ways. And so we close our service with our final hymn.