Worthy of the Gospel: Unity and Trust

Preached on: Sunday 17th January 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 21-01-17 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Philippians 1:27-2:4
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Philippians 1:27-2:4
Sunday 17th January 2021
Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

Come Holy Spirit, draw near in this time wherever we may be. Come in power. Come, take the word of God and change our hearts and minds. Come Holy Spirit and make Jesus real to us help us to hear His voice today for we ask this in His name, Amen.

I’ve appreciated the way in which Gordon and Ian have helped us start our new series in Philippians, this very special letter within the New Testament, for they’ve helped us see its relevance for our lives today. We’ve seen how crucial it is to know that we, “you”, are a good work, to remember that God has done – and is doing – something within us and among us, such that we are to pray for one another and live with a perspective shaped by Jesus and the gospel, even in hard times.
Before the Christmas break, I was contacted by the Communications Department for the Church of Scotland because they are doing a series of articles this year about people coming into ministry. The questions they asked made me think about my faith journey and other events, moments that defined, shaped, my life. To help us get into today’s passage, I’ve a question for you to think about at home: what have been the defining moments of your life? Has there even been a defining moment? I’ll give you 30 seconds to think about that at home. (PAUSE)

I wonder what you came up with – feel free to share it in the Live Chat. The man who authored this letter was the apostle Paul and before he became a Christian he persecuted the early church, dragging those early disciples of Jesus to prison and even to death.
But then we know from his story, recorded in the book of Acts, that he had a powerful conversion – an event that radically redefined his life, such that he put his trust in Jesus and gave his life away for the sake of Jesus, the sake of the gospel and the well-being of the church. His coming to faith, his coming into relationship with Jesus, defined Paul’s life because in that process of coming to trust Jesus Paul met with the love and grace of God and as such he sought to live his life in light of that.

Now, not all of us will have had Paul’s experience, but what he received, is what every person who calls themself a “Christian” has received as well: the grace, the love, the welcome and invitation of Jesus; your sin has been forgiven, you no longer stand in condemnation, you will no longer pay the penalty of your sin – you are free,… you are redeemed, you stand in right relationship with God and He adores you. All this and so much more is the inheritance of every person who claims to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. As such, what Paul says in verse 27 applies to one and all of us: ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…’ This verse shapes Paul’s life and his letter, and it is there in his other letters as well: if you claim faith in Jesus, then live in a manner worthy of the love and grace you have received from God.

In our portion today, what does it mean to live in a worthy manner? I want to give us two points to take away and put into practice. Firstly, being ‘worthy of the gospel through unity’.

Paul says, ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then…I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel…Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.’ (1:27; 2:1-2)

Paul’s not calling into question their status as followers of Jesus here – the “if” is more like a “since”: ‘since you have been united with Christ…since you have known His love…since you share in the Spirit’ then be worthy of the gospel, and for any group of Christians, being worthy of the gospel includes a concrete expression of unity.
Now unity is much more than acquiescence, it is more than mere consent or approval, it is more than turning up to church or having the status of a member – unity involves the heart, such that there is an overflow of love, the love of God nonetheless, through us to others, and so it must involve action, it must involve the weaving of our lives together. This unity also involves the mind, not that we have uniformity in all things, but there must still be a shared understanding, a shared understanding of the gospel, such that we are collectively motivated with a deep conviction to be worthy of the gospel, so that our lives together might point to Jesus. In both heart and mind, in word and in deed, Paul longs for these dear followers of Jesus to be worthy of the grace and love they have experienced from God.

What this looks like in concrete actions is spelled out for us by Paul: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ (2:3-4)

When we know the love and grace of God, then our motives change and so our lives change as well: we look beyond ourselves, we look beyond self. So, when Paul speaks of ‘vain conceit’, literally in the Greek this means ‘empty glory’, a chasing after ambitions that are unworthy of anyone who has tasted God’s love and grace.

In some ways, our recently adopted values seek to remind us of this and prompt us to live this out: that we are ‘family’, a community who journey together, and… we seek to share ‘share’, to share our lives and share the good news of God’s love in word and deed. Last Tuesday’s video, about hopes for 2021, gives some ideas of what this could look like, and I’d encourage you to go listen.

Yet even just now, let us each ask ourselves: do we look beyond our own interests to those within our church family? Could it be said that the love of God is seen in and through us? Do we seek to serve others – are you serving in some way within and through this congregation? As one person said on Tuesday evening – it’s easy to sit back, to keep to ourselves, but as Paul says here, we need to intentionally look out for ‘the other’, and demonstrating love in that way will help us move towards a way of life that is increasingly worthy of the gospel, worthy of what we have received from God.
But this is a tall order, is it not? An impossible calling, surely? Well of course, it is; it is beyond our own human ability – the human soul is so broken, fractured, sinful, that more often than not we look out for self than for others, we are more prone to factions and division than unity, and we clamour for status, wealth, comfort, power – the empty glory of such things – much more than the way of self-sacrifice and humility. How can Paul call us to such a way of life? Well, he also says that we are to be worthy of the gospel through trust.

He began by saying: ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you…

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.’ (1:27-30)

Let’s be clear, Paul is not talking about all suffering in these verses. The suffering in mind here is that of persecution, of suffering because of your faith. So, let’s not jump to conclusions. But let us also admit there are many ways that our believing, or in the literal Greek, our ‘trusting’ may bring suffering into our lives. Believing here, is not intellectual assent to some doctrines; to believe, is to entrust ourselves to Jesus, to commit ourselves to Him. Paul is saying, that to be worthy of the gospel also includes trust; trusting in the hard times, trusting through sacrificial choices.
Now, in our society, the degree of persecution we face is minimal whilst many in our world literally face death for their faith. There are 10 Christians a day dying in Nigeria because of persecution against them. Yet even here, there is opposition, that are voices, forces, events that can undermine our trusting in Jesus, they can seek to rob us of our peace and joy. So, as one commentator said, ‘where is it important for you and your church to hold your nerve & remain unafraid in the face of opposition?’

It’s seen when we trust that God’s Word is true, and so that Jesus is alive, that He is Lord and God alone, that He is the way of salvation and the source life in all its fullness. This trusting is seen when we choose to obey God’s Word rather than go our own way. This trusting is put to the test in many ways, yes by persecution, but also in the hardships of life, or when God’s standards call us to live differently to the world’s ways.

Your answer to this question might be quite specific to your circumstances, yet nevertheless, in our day, in our society, one of the greatest fears for most Christians, is the fear of others, of what others might think of us, or how they might respond if we were to share our faith or admit our faith or prioritise our faith. Another kind of fear, that can undermine our trust, is a fear that Jesus seems to ask too much, that we are afraid to give over control of our lives to Him, and allow Him to reign over our choices and our priorities.

These two fears are probably two of the greatest ways we experience a measure of suffering for following Jesus and yet to be worthy of the gospel, we are called to trust – to trust for the first time and then to keep on trusting, to keep on following Jesus and His way, yielding to His call upon our lives, individually and collectively. And when we do that, when we yield, trust, orientate our lives around Jesus, He then gives us His Spirit individually, and as a community, to help us live in unity and for His glory.

This trusting happens at the beginning of our faith journey, but it’s also a daily part of following Jesus. Every day is a new opportunity, a new invitation, to keep trusting Jesus; every Sunday, every message, every time you read your Bible, is another opportunity to trust, by responding to what God is saying in His Word.

So, in light of that, I want to give you an opportunity to respond today. I want to invite you to respond in trust to Jesus, at home, right now. In a moment, I’m going to pray, and there will be a couple of different prayers.

First, I want to give an opportunity for you to trust Jesus for the first time and begin following Him by asking for His forgiveness and yielding to His way in your life.

Secondly, I’ll give space for each of us to respond to this message, the call to live lives worthy of the gospel in unity and at personal cost for the sake of Jesus.

Lastly, there will be space to pray a prayer of trust in the midst of trials, of suffering and hard times. So, let us pray.

So, for those that want to invite Jesus into their lives, today, this morning I invite you maybe even just to put out your hands in invitation to Jesus. You don’t have to but I find it helpful to embody my prayers and then repeat with me these words of a prayer. Speak them out yourselves, at home, right now if you can.

Lord Jesus Christ I am sorry for the things I’ve done wrong in my life. I take a few moments now to name this before You, to confess my sin, what I’ve done wrong.
Please forgive me Lord. I choose now to turn from everything that I know is wrong. Thank You that You died on the cross for me so that I could be forgiven and set free. Thank You that You offer me forgiveness and You promise to help change my life, to put it on a different path by the gift of Your Spirit living in me, and so I now receive that gift. Please come into my life by Your Holy Spirit to be with me forever.
Thank You Lord Jesus

To those of us who claim the title Christian, who claimed to follow Jesus, what has been the prompt this morning from the Lord? What has been the challenge?
Is He calling you to give your life away for Him in a new way or to renew that.
Is He maybe bringing someone to mind that you have to show the love of God. So come Holy Spirit. Speak to our hearts. I’m not going to give you words to pray this time just just speak to the Lord in quiet or out loud. Speak to Him about what is upon your heart, what you’ve been challenged by, how you’re going to respond, how you want to live worthy of the Gospel.

Admit your incapacity to do this yourself and invite the Holy Spirit to come and fill you in this time. Come Holy Spirit, fill us to overflowing, fill us with the love of God, fill us with power, fill us with power to walk in Your ways, to choose Your ways over ours. Come Holy Spirit.

And for those of us in the midst of trials of really hard times let me pray for you.

Lord I pray for these precious ones. I pray, Lord, that they would know You close. I pray that they would know that You’ll never leave them, nor forsake them. I pray that they know that You know the depth of their pain and their anguish, that You know what it’s like to suffer and, yes, there will be the questions and there will be deep anger sometimes Lord, and You’re ready to receive them. And there might not be answers this side of heaven but Lord may they know that You weep with them. May they know that You care and may You help them Lord to keep trusting keep trusting You this day in the next day and the next day, be their light in their darkness, be their light for the path ahead. Lord and help us to wrap the love of God around them in real tangible ways even amidst limitations. Lord, may we overflow with love for these dear precious ones. Lord may we be like Paul who, from a distance, sought to encourage and strengthen. May we see the ways that we can do that Lord for them, that they would know that they’re not alone in this journey, that You’re with them, we are with them. Oh Lord, help them trust You

Help them to keep trusting You Lord hear all our prayers this morning before we ask it in Jesus name, Amen

Advent: welcome and re-storied

Preached on: Sunday 6th December 2020
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 20-12-06 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Matthew 1:6b-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Matthew 1:6b-11
Sunday 6th December 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Message
Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be true and pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I wonder what Christmas films you’re looking forward to watching in the coming weeks? Do you have a family tradition of watching a particular film each year? Maybe it’s ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Elf’, ‘Meet me in St Louis’ or even ‘The Muppets Christmas Carol’ – there’s so many to choose from! Why don’t you put up your favourite in the Live Chat.

In each of these there is a story of fortunes overcome, struggles faced, and battles won. Often the stories we go back to, are those that are stories of change, of freedom, of redemption and a new life, a new future secured.

Last week, we began a new sermon series that will see us through to the end of December, focusing on the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, which began with these words: ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…’ (v1) We dug in to some of the names and titles here: Messiah, David and Abraham. We saw that Jesus was the fulfilment of promises made long ago by God and that the initial people listed by Matthew show the welcome of God to one and all, that no one is written off. In those opening verses, we saw more of the identity of Jesus…
as the promised Messiah but also the identity we are to have: followers of Jesus, who are welcomed into the family of God and sent out to invite others to share in this good news as well.

Today we move on to the next portion of the genealogy and as you look over that list – as you take a wide-angle view of who you find there – what do you see? I see story after story filled with dysfunction. In the family line of Jesus there are a lot of skeletons in the cupboard!

Many of the individuals listed here were wicked kings of Israel and Judah, and even going back to last week’s portion of the genealogy, we find broken people there as well: Jacob who was a deceiver and thief; Judah who sold his brother into slavery; David who was an adulterer… and murderer; Tamar who engaged in incest; Rahab who was a prostitute. Time and time again, the individuals listed here are not the folks you would expect to have in the family line of the Messiah; the people here – both this week and last – are flawed, weak-willed, selfish individuals with some seriously shady stories. A real bunch of misfits.

So, what are we to make of this list? What are we meant to see about the family line of Jesus? Well, first off, I think it shows, once again, the welcome of God, but this time amidst all of our brokenness. Because not only does the family line of Jesus have a back story, we each have a story as well. In each of our lives, there is brokenness, there is imperfection, and still God calls us home to Himself and He is ready to welcome us.
One author, Brennan Manning, wrote: ‘The heart of Jesus [which is the heart of God] loves us as we are and not as we should be, beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity. He loves us…without caution, regret, boundary, limit or breaking point.’

This is the love of God for you and for me. This is the welcome of God extended to you and to me. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God loves you and is ready to welcome you home into His family. Just look at the list of individuals in the family line of Jesus – and yet
God chooses, Jesus chooses, to be born into that particular family line. God knew what was coming, none of their stories took Him by surprise, and yet He still chose to identify with them, to become part of that family line.
Friends, as another author put it: ‘the grace of God is…lavish, excessive, outrageous and scandalous. God’s grace is ridiculously inclusive. Apparently God doesn’t care who He loves. He is not very careful about the people He calls His friends or the people He calls [family]…the grace of God is indiscriminate, foolish, impractical, unrealistic, crazy and naïve.’

I also wonder, friends, I wonder what’s in your story– I wonder what you are facing just now, or what you have faced in the past – and whether it has sown a seed of doubt about whether God would ever welcome you home, whether God would ever delight in you and value you? I wonder if there are skeletons in your cupboard, which maybe you keep hidden from others, and maybe even try to keep hidden from God?…
Well you don’t need to, and you don’t need to doubt – because we see in Jesus the welcome of God and His love of broken people, like you and me.

Friends, this advent season, do you know the welcome of God? Do you know His grace? All of us are broken, all of us are flawed, just like the individuals in the family line of Jesus – all of us are undeserving, we’re all on the same level – and yet we are all welcomed home as well. (P)

Nevertheless, the grace of God is not only there to welcome us, but to save us, to redeem us, to restore, even re-story our lives. You see, the people in the family line of Jesus were broken people – like you and me – but they were broken people because of sin, because of a deep darkness and sickness that is in each of us…
Jesus came, not only to reveal the welcome and grace of God, but to do something about our underlying condition. In fact, it’s so key to the identity of Jesus that it’s part of His name. Matthew began by saying:
‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah …’ (v1)

To us, a name is little more than just a word, but in the culture of the time a name carried meaning, and ‘Jesus’ meant ‘the Lord saves’ and as we’ll see in a few weeks’ time the angel also said to Joseph: ‘[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Mt. 1:21)

God not only wants to welcome us, He wants to save us, He wants to restore and re-story our lives, in fact He wishes to do this for the whole of creation…
When Matthew says, ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus…’ the original Greek literally reads: ‘This is the book of the genesis of Jesus…’ and that would have made the Jewish readers of Matthew’s time think about the start of the Old Testament, where God began another ‘genesis’, the genesis of creation itself. Matthew is trying to tell us that the coming of Jesus is a new beginning, a new creation, a new genesis and that this is for all the nations, for all broken, sinful people. This coming Messiah came to save, to restore, to re-story our lives and the whole of creation. The Apostle Paul would one day say, ‘…if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Cor. 5:17)

Friends, Father God accepts you as you are – back story and all – but now as part of His family, part of the family…

line of Jesus, He wants to re-story your life, weaving a future – your future story – into the great and cosmic story of what He was up to at Christmas: that Jesus, the Messiah, had come to bring about a new creation, starting with the broken people of this world.

Friends, your past, your back story, doesn’t need to define who you are or your identity or your value or your future – because Jesus came to save, to restore, to restory your life and mine. I will never tire of retelling my story, of how God broke into my life at the time when the darkness of my soul had gone too far. And in that moment, I met with the grace and welcome of God – He welcomed me as I was, but since then, He has re-storied my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in all the world.
Maybe you’re wondering: how can I know the welcome and grace of God? How can I let God re-story my life and save me? Well, later in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus began teaching about the kingdom of God, He said this:
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
(Matthew 4:17)

Repent. That’s how we let Jesus re-story our lives. It’s more than simply saying sorry. To repent, is to have your thinking changed about Jesus that it affects the core of who you are and how you live your life. When you repent truly, you make the choice to follow Jesus – His teaching, His ways, His example – you seek to follow Him first and before all. Now, you won’t get it perfect, because none of us are, we’re still broken. But if there is genuine repentance, then there should also be a desire in us…
to allow Jesus to shape and lead our lives.

Friends, if we want saved, if we want our lives restored and re-storied, such that we know the welcome and grace of God, then it always begins with humbling ourselves – repenting – and calling out to Him for help. If we do that, then God always responds, He always welcomes home anyone – no matter their story – God welcomes home such a person to be part of His family.

Brothers and sisters, every season of Advent is a time to remember the greatest of stories – not captured often by Hollywood – and yet, in this story, the story of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, we find a story of struggles faced, and battles won, a story of change, of freedom, of redemption and new life. Because…
in the story of Jesus, in His family line, we see the grace of God extended to broken humanity and the invitation for us all to find ourselves in His family, becoming a new creation and so having our futures re-storied.

I pray that each of us, whether for the first time, or the hundredth time, may we all repent and come into the life that can only be found in Jesus. May it be so. Amen.

Justice: God has a plan of hope

Preached on: Sunday 8th November 2020
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 20-11-08-Message-PPT-slides-multi-page.
Bible references: Isaiah 25:1-12
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Isaiah 25:1-12
Sunday 8th November 2020
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be true and pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

What did you feel when you woke up on Wednesday morning and saw that the US election was still rumbling on and hadn’t been decided? What did you feel when it seemed a legal battle might ensue? What have you been feeling as the events of this year have developed, improved, worsened and continue to change and roll on? What did you feel when you heard of terrorism in France, racism in America, or conflicts around the world?

I wonder, in the face of any – and all – of these events, did you feel any hope? Has your level of hope begun to wane as 2020 plays itself out, particularly if you’ve faced a difficult year personally?

Ancient Israel was no stranger to difficulty and was only too familiar with losing people in war, as they suffered from invasion and defeat time and time again. I wonder, what did they feel? What was their level of hope? We may be two and a half thousand years on from Isaiah’s time, but we still live in a world full of oppression, arrogance, hatred, conflict, death and mourning. So, the message from Isaiah is just as relevant and powerful for us as it was in his day.

Isaiah came with good news for the Lord’s people, good news that God has a plan. He said:
‘Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago.’ (v1)

God has a plan, a plan for wonderful things, deeds beyond mere human ability, and this echoes that promise made in chapter 9 of a king who would be ‘Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God’ (Isa. 9:7).

Yet, this plan will not simply be for ancient Israel, because from a heart of overflowing love and grace God says through Isaiah that:
‘On this mountain [He] will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples…’ (v6)

All peoples! Everyone is invited to the feast. Everyone is invited to share in the good and abundant provision of God. So, what will this include? Isaiah goes on:
‘On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.’ (v7-8)

God’s plan, the plan He invites everyone to share in, is a promise to utterly destroy death itself. God holds out hope to all the nations so that they can share in that day, when it comes, when He will pass from one individual to the next and wipe away each tear.

It is a grand plan and a grand promise, but not a wishful promise – it is a promise guaranteed and verified as truly available to each of us, because that promised King came, it was Jesus and Jesus truly rose from the dead, confirming His claim:
‘‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” (John 11:25) Friends, we have such a hope, offered to us by God Himself, but how do we share in that hope? How do we take up the invitation of God? Isaiah says:
‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’ (v9)

Those who trust, and continue to trust, in the Lord will share in this promise, will share in this hope. Yet, on the other hand, if we, like Moab, that country which bordered ancient Israel, if we are like them and with pride keep our distance, then we will not share that hope and not share that promise. For it’s not enough to belong to a group who stand on the threshold of God’s kingdom, or to have known some who crossed over into it. So, it’s not enough to watch this service today, or simply come to church, or have your name down as member – it’s not enough! You could do all that and more besides and still be on the threshold, you could still be holding back and not trusting the Lord, not trusting His promise and plan.

Friends, is your trust in the Lord? Is your trust in His promise? If your hope is low, if it’s beginning to wane, then renew your trust in the Lord. Come to Him afresh, confess where you’ve put your hope in other things, and talk with Him about how you want to put your trust in Him and His promises alone.

Isaiah came with good news, good news that would have inspired hope. But might it also have inspired bewilderment? For Isaiah also said:
‘…strong peoples will honour [the Lord]; cities of ruthless nations will revere [Him].’ (v3)

Isaiah is saying that the very people who have invaded and defeated Israel, these same people will be invited to the feast, to this glorious hope. Can you imagine what the people might have felt? Is it any wonder that they might have felt bewilderment? How could God do such a thing? How could He forgive? How is it enough that they simply repented? Where is justice?

Isaiah, will respond to such questions, but not for many chapters. So, let us instead turn to the New Testament, where read:
‘God offered [Jesus], so that by his blood he should become the means by which people’s sins are forgiven through their faith [their trust] in him. God did this in order to demonstrate that he is righteous. In the past he was patient and overlooked people’s sins; but in the present time he deals with their sins, in order to demonstrate his righteousness. In this way God shows that he himself is righteous and that he puts right everyone who believes in Jesus.’ (Romans 3:25-26)

God doesn’t overlook sin – not yours, not mine, nor the tyrant or the oppressor – every one will be judged, there will be justice. But anyone who puts their trust in the death of Jesus will be forgiven, and they will be invited to the banquet, where together they can rejoice in the love and grace of God, and there be unity.

You may wonder, if this is possible. You may wonder, if this is just fanciful nonsense. So, let me play you an old recording, wherein Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian, who was captured and sent to a concentration camp by the Nazi’s, shares a little of her story.
(PLAY VIDEO)

In Jesus Christ, we have hope that God has a plan, including to conquer death itself, and in this same Jesus Christ, we see that there will be justice, but there will also be mercy, if we will but trust in Jesus. Friends, I pray that you will know the scandalous forgiveness and grace of God, such that you have hope for the storms of life, and love for the least, the last and the lost, no matter who they be, or what they may have done. May it be so.
Amen.

Advent: hesed love

Preached on: Sunday 15th December 2019

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 19-12-15-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Luke 1: 57-79
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 1: 57-79
Sunday 15th December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Over the first two weeks of Advent we’ve taken the time to dig into the early chapters of the Christmas story as we find it in Luke, with a focus on Zechariah and Elizabeth, then Mary and Joseph, and we’ve seen within the story the invitation God issued to them and to us. In both those divine encounters, the invitation from God came privately and it came via the angel Gabriel.

But in our reading today, this final portion of the Christmas story before the birth of Jesus, we read that
‘Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied’ (Luke
1:67), and the song that follows…
is the first recorded prophecy, given by God via human messenger, for 400 years. The last prophet in the Old Testament was a man called Malachi, and then the next words of prophecy don’t come until John is born. That’s 400 years of silence, 400 years of wondering: where are you God? Are you there? Do you still care?

Silence is a hard reality. I came across some words from a former colleague of mine this week, she posted them online: “Silence is unnerving. Believe me, I’ve been there. How do we wait? What do we say? When will this vortex of deafening quiet END?! Perplexed and frustrated, angry and irritated, we could easily shake our fists at this silent [God]. We itch to be doing something, to be making progress, to in some way be climbing our way out of this darkness.”
(Hannah Montgomery, 11th December 2019, http://24-7scotland.com/silence-is-not-absence)

Silence is a hard reality, and God’s people had lived with it for 400 years. I wonder if any of us feel like God is silent in our lives just now, and if so, I wonder how that makes you feel? Hannah continues her story:

“This time last year it was a cold, grey day and I sat across from my [counsellor], grappling with my understanding of God. Winter was hard for me last year, and I wanted answers. Wise, insightful, and extremely patient…she looked me in the face and gently admonished me. ‘Do not confuse silence with absence. He is still here.’ That sentence has reverberated around my brain for the last year. Silence and absence, two very different things…
Not inevitable bedfellows after all, but two distinct entities, in which God occupies the former and not the latter.”

‘Do not confuse silence with absence. He is still here.’ It is a truth that God was going to prove very powerfully in the Christmas story and in our reading today, for today we receive another invitation from God, an invitation to be real about our doubts and questions, and in the midst of our wrestling to know the God of the Christmas story and how knowing this God can change our lives. So, who is this God? If He be silent, but not absent, what is He like?

As you read our passage today the dominant theme is of God’s faithfulness, particularly in Zechariah’s powerful song. It begins with these words: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.’ (v68) So, this God who is silent but present, who is faithful, He is the Lord, the God of Israel.
This means that He is not just any god, nor a god of our making or choosing – He is the Lord, the God of Israel.

That can be difficult to hear in our culture today, because we like choice, we like to have a choice and for other people to have a choice. But the contention of Scripture, the claim of Christmas, is that the God of all, reveals Himself in the wonder of Christmas, in that particular story.

So, if we want to find God amid the silence, then it’s to the Lord, the God of Israel, the God as revealed in Old and New Testaments that we must turn. To turn elsewhere, to look in other places for the God who feels silent but is still present, well those other places are not the way to find Him, for He is the Lord, the God of Israel, and it is to His Word that we must turn.

Zechariah’s prophecy reveals that this God, the Lord, the God of Israel, has ‘come to His people’ – He is not a distant God, He is not uncaring, but He is, as we reed in other portions of the Christmas story, He is Immanuel, God with us, God beside us, God so close that He is nearer than the air we breathe.

And this God has come to redeem His people. Now, redeem and redemption are not words we use in everyday conversation, but they are tied in to what God promised, to what God promised of the Messiah, that coming King who would set the world aright. Of this coming King, this Messiah, the prophet Isaiah foretold:
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me…to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…’ (Isa. 61:1)

These very themes are picked up by Zechariah, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, again prophesies that someone will come who will bring freedom, rescue and light for those who are held captive and live in darkness. What this captivity and darkness entail is described later in Zechariah’s song, in verses 77-79 where we see that this setting free, this salvation, comes about by dealing with our greatest problems, problems that we cannot solve on our own: the problem of sin (v77), the problem of darkness – in ourselves and in our world – (v79), and the problem of death.

So, the claim of the Christmas story is that someone will come who will bring forgiveness of sin, who will bring light to darkness, who will bring freedom from death – all because God is faithful, He has not forgotten us,…
He comes close. He may seem silent but He is not absent – He sees us as we truly are and He knows the great need we have of His intervention.

For who of us here, does not feel or know the effects of sin, and of darkness, and of death? Loved ones lost, broken relationships, circumstances that are beyond imagination, and a darkness within each of us that we struggle over daily. Friends, we all need redemption, and in faithfulness God draws close, ready to offer the very thing we cannot achieve for ourselves: redemption, forgiveness, freedom, light, hope.

He offers this to you and I today, He offers this because He is also the God of ‘mercy’. In Zechariah’s prophecy, the Lord acts in ‘mercy’ both in verse 72 and 78, so mercy is the motivation behind God’s faithfulness. Now, the mercy of God is so much more than the tepid dictionary definition, it is so much more than pity or even compassion.

Because in the Old Testament, the word frequently used for ‘mercy’ is ‘hesed’ – and hesed speaks of the loyal, gracious, steadfast love of God. It is a love of more than just words, but of action. It is a love that keeps on loving even in the face of unfaithfulness.

And so, God comes, He comes in faithfulness, in hesed love and He does so ‘to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham’ (Lk. 1:72-73). These words of Zechariah remind us that God acts at Christmas to fulfil promises made to Abraham maybe 2000 years

before the coming of Jesus. What was it that God said to Abraham? Well over the summer we read in Genesis 12 these words:
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.’” (Gen. 12:1-3)

Two thousand years have passed since these words were first said, but God does not forget one promise that He makes, and so God comes, in the Christmas story, motivated by His tender mercy, His hesed love; God comes close, bringing redemption, bringing freedom, forgiveness and light to His people who wait amidst the darkness and silence. And amidst the darkness and the silence and the darkness, light now begins to dawn that very first Advent, for God comes to fulfil promises of blessing for the whole world.

This blessing is described by Zechariah as being guided ‘into the path of peace’ (Lk. 1:79). The word ‘peace’ here is not merely freedom from trouble, or a quiet life; it is rather all that makes for a person’s highest good, it is every kind of strengthening and encouraging and provision that we might need. But it is described as a path, a journey, a process, which begins with forgiveness, and with light in our darkness, but which will one day lead us out of the shadow of death,…
and into all the fullness of the kingdom of God, the God who is faithful, who is faithful in hesed love, who brings redemption, who draws close, who speaks into the silence, into our doubts and our questions, through the Christmas story.

Friends, where do you need to know this God? Where do you need to know His faithfulness this Christmas time? Where do you need Him to draw close in hesed love? Where do you need His forgiveness, His light, His hope, His peace? The claim of the Christmas story is that this is who God is, and He issues His invitation to show you His faithfulness, His hesed love, His nearness once more, maybe especially in the times when we seems silent, because He though He may be silent, He is not absent.

Now, we’ve focused predominantly so far on Zechariah’s song of praise, but prior to that there is the incident where John is born and named. It is the kind of incident that happens again and again in the early chapters of Luke – God will show His faithfulness and then we see the people’s response. God comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth, He comes to Mary, and each faces a choice of how to respond to the faithfulness of God.

Two weeks ago, we saw the difference in response between Zechariah and Elizabeth, and this week we reach the birth of John, and the question is now, how will this couple respond this time to the faithfulness of God?

Well thankfully, Zechariah learns his lesson, he has grown in humility, he has grown in faith, and so when the time comes to name the child, the wider family assume the child should be named after Zechariah, for that was the custom, to name after a parent, grandparent or relative.

As we might expect of her, Elizabeth speaks up – ‘No! He is to be called John.’ Likely, Zechariah has communicated this to Elizabeth using a writing tablet of clay or some form.

Understandably then, the wider family are uncertain about this decision, for it breaks with custom, and so they ask Zechariah. But he confirms the decision, he is faithful to God, and his tongue is set free once more, leading us into that song we’ve just thought about.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had received the faithfulness of God, and they respond with faithfulness to Him. It would have been a costly response – breaking with tradition,
disappointing people, appearing odd, maybe overly religious or even arrogant. But they understood that they were part of a bigger story now, that they had been called into the story of God’s faithfulness to this world, and that as such, they were to show faithfulness to Him above all else.

There are times when God seems silent and then there are times when it seems God is tapping us on the shoulder and inviting us into one thing after another. So, where might God be inviting you this Christmas to show faithfulness to Him? If we call ourselves Christian, if we call ourselves members of this congregation, then part of claiming that status is claiming that we are actually part of God’s story today, part of God’s faithfulness to this world today, and as such we are then all invited to respond – individually and collectively…
So, where might God be inviting you, inviting us, to show faithfulness to Him this Christmas?

Based on our passage, I’ve noted down a few questions that came to mind for me so as to prompt some reflection upon this:
• Firstly, Elizabeth said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ Zechariah and Elizabeth broke with tradition to be faithful to God. (Lk. 1:61) What traditions, customs, tastes, family expectations are we holding onto that God is inviting us to let go of? Part of God’s redemption is to give us the right priorities and to show faithfulness to Him through adopting these.
• Secondly, Zechariah’s song speaks of God enabling us ‘to serve Him without fear…’ (Lk. 1:74) Where do we fear people’s reactions? Maybe in sharing our faith,
maybe in inviting someone to church, or even how people will react to an idea or a change or a request we make. Part of God’s redemption is to set us free from fear, but to set us free to serve Him, because part of God’s redemption is also to invite us into His story, to play our part, to give of ourselves in bringing blessing to this world. So, where is God inviting you to faithfully serve Him without fear?
• Lastly, Zechariah’s song speaks of God enabling us ‘to serve Him…in holiness and righteousness’. (Lk. 1:75) Where are we compromising the standards God has set for us? What habits, temptations, patterns of sin are we being invited to lay down in faithfulness to God? Part of God’s redemption is setting us free from these so that we might faithfully walk in His ways and know the better things He has for us.

Friends, I realise I’ve thrown a lot of questions at you this morning, but it’s questions that jump off the page for me, questions for you and for me to engage with. If it helps, get a copy of today’s sermon, ask for a copy of it on CD, or download it off the website. But please, friends, engage with the questions that arise from this passage because once again, God issues His invitation this Christmas. In the times of silence, God issues an invitation to know His faithfulness, His hesed love, His nearness once more, that you might know His forgiveness, His light, His hope, His peace.

But He also issues an invitation to respond in faithfulness to His faithfulness. Because the Christmas story truly reveals that God is not absent, He is still there, He is still here. For God is Immanuel, God with us. He is faithful… He is full of hesed love for you and for me, such that He sent His Son, to be born as a babe and to die on a cross. May we know this God this Advent season and respond to Him in faithfulness.

May it be so, let us pray.

Advent: invitation to life

Preached on:
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 19-12-08-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Luke 1:26-47
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Luke 1:26-47
Sunday 8th December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Of all the seasons in our year, Christmas-time is probably the one that has the most traditions, is it not? More than Easter, more than birthdays and anniversaries, we all have expectations of how Christmas will go, we have set ideas of what should happen and when. You may have set ideas about who should go downstairs first to see if the presents have arrived, or when the presents should be opened, or what should be worn on the day. Then there’s the issue of when you will eat Christmas dinner – if you’re willing to participate, let’s do a quick straw poll by a show of hands: whose families eat between noon to 2pm; then 2pm to 4pm, then anyone around 4pm or later?
In my family, when to eat has been an issue in previous years because normally it would be about 2pm, but a few years ago, my middle sister asked for a later time because of seemingly important reasons like visiting the in-laws and wanting her kids to be awake for the meal. My youngest sister and I just about had a heart-attack over the idea of moving Christmas dinner back to three o’clock, so we eventually compromised on 2.30pm, and I had to change my set ideas on how Christmas should be, because sometimes our set ideas need to change.

Our reading today from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to many of us: the angel Gabriel brings a message from God to Mary about the upcoming birth of Jesus. Even this early into Advent, I’ve told the story a number of times – so it’s easy to gloss over the dynamics of this event…
and to reduce it to something nice and familiar. But in all honesty, this isn’t a nice comfortable story, it is really quite unsettling, because Mary and Joseph are engaged – they have their plan, their set ideas, for how life will work out: I wonder if they were buzzing with excitement at being engaged, and if Joseph was busy building the house that they would live in together, and was Mary discussing with her friends what the wedding day would be like and what it would be like being married to Joseph and whether children might come along one day.

And then suddenly, out of the blue, they are asked to change their set ideas for how life will go. Gabriel arrives with a message that God wants to involve Mary and Joseph in His plans and purposes for the whole world. But the message from God is a challenging invitation…
– Mary is asked to carry a baby that will be called the Son of God, a baby that will be given the throne of David by the Lord God, and this baby will reign over a kingdom that will be eternal and all encompassing. This message from God is a really big ask – this message is going to thoroughly upend Mary and Joseph’s plans for their future.

What’s more, this invitation from God is going to result in Mary and Joseph facing scandal and humiliation, probably for the rest of their lives, because everyone will know that Mary was pregnant before the wedding day, and everyone will know she became pregnant after being away from Joseph for 3 months – that’s going to raise a lot of questions about the identity of the father. Their set ideas for life will be forever replaced if they accept this invitation from God.
So, this story is no nice, comfortable story. Sure, we let the kids think that, but in reality, it is both gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring. In the midst of a cosmic story about how God will set the world aright through the coming of His Son, the promised Messiah, we find a very moving invitation. And like I was saying last week, on every page of Scripture, we are invited to consider how the cosmic story of what God is up to in the world brings us an invitation for today as well.

So, let me ask you this: as we count down the weeks to Christmas and so approach the end of another year, what has God been saying to you these past months? The Christmas story clearly shows that God is the living, everpresent God, and as such He is frequently inviting us into His plans and purposes – He might have spoken to you during a church service, or a conversation with a friend, or something you read or experienced in recent months – but be assured, God has been speaking to you. And if we have been attentive, then we might have heard some of what He has been whispering to our hearts. So, what has God been speaking to you about? What has been His message to You this past year?

Or what about us as a congregation? Amidst the change, amidst the uncertainty of the future, what has God been saying to us collectively? Where has been the encouragement, where has been the challenge? What has God by His Spirit been impressing upon us as a congregation?

Now, I realise I’m putting you on the spot with that question, but I’m not looking for an answer…
by the time you reach the door, which might be a relief to you. But maybe in these final weeks of the year, as we go about our set ideas for Christmas, as we ponder the Christmas message afresh, a message that brought encouragement, challenge, and an invitation, maybe we can take some time in these final weeks and reflect upon what God’s invitation to us has been.

Now, if you have something you’d like to share on that, particularly for us as a congregation, then please speak with me, or speak with one of our team conveners. We interviewed them a few weeks’ back for Guild Sunday and any one of us would be happy to hear you out.

Now as we ponder God’s invitation to us, and find Him challenging the set ideas for our individual and collective lives, then we’ll likely be faced with a choice akin to Mary’s, so how did Mary respond?

She said: ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38) In other passages we see how Joseph reacts and the end product is similar: in both Mary and Joseph, we see an openness to the invitation of God, and a trust in His plans and power. They both evidence an open trust in God, an open trust in the invitation of God to be part of His plans and purposes for the world. This could show an open trust, such that they are willing to put aside their set ideas for life and embrace a new life from God.

And once again, we are invited to consider how the divine story affectsour story. God has been speaking to you this year, He has been whispering a particular message to you, and the question is – will we take up God’s invitation to a life we never anticipated? In this moment of choice, how will we respond? Will we be like Mary, with an open trust in God, in His plans and power?

Now as I outlined earlier, this is not simply a nice invitation from God, saying: “oh, would you like a baby?” Because Mary saying “yes” to God’s invitation would mean saying “yes” to ridicule and contempt for being pregnant whilst unmarried in a small town, a town probably as full of gossips as anywhere else. And Mary would have known this at the time of God’s invitation, yet she still said, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” It is surely one of the most courageous statements ever said…

to sign up to something that will bring heartache, even suffering. Her openness to pay such a price, to even lose some happiness, to lose something she valued; there’s part of me that can never get my head around that, to say “yes” to that particular invitation, is so very inspiring.

In comparison to that, are the things that God is asking of us, quite so hard? In light of Mary’s example, an example that would foreshadow her Son’s example, though His was of a magnitude much greater, but in light of Mary’s example, can we really still keep making excuses? Or will we embrace God’s invitation, no matter how it might change our set ideas for our lives?

I could give you any number of examples from my own life, either from over the years or from this past year… when I have made the wrong choice, when I was not prepared to pay the cost, but which now, looking back, I so wish that I had: that nudge from God to make sure that I prioritised time with Him, because when I didn’t I grew weary, hope dimmed, perspective blurred; or there’s that challenge from God, quite frequently, on how I parent or how I treat my wife, and the need then to apologise, to seek His wisdom, and commit to a different way of life all because I keep ignoring Him. Or there’s the invitation to speak about by faith to someone, and too often the times even I turn it down, and then the opportunity never arises again.

Friends, as I’ve said, God has been speaking to you. He communicates through His Word, through His people, by His Spirit and in the midst of the circumstances of life. If we have been attentive,…
we might have heard His invitation, but now the question is, what will we do with it – how will we respond? Will it be like Mary, with an open trust in the plans, the power and the love of God?

One final observation about Mary’s story. After Mary trusts God’s invitation, it leads her on to sing her own song, and it begins with these words: “My soul glorifies the
Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1: 46-47)

Some time has passed since that initial visit from the angel, and Mary has had time to dwell upon and maybe experience the effect of her trusting response in God’s invitation. Yet it feels like there’s a change in the dynamics now. Before, in the encounter with the angel,
Mary’s response was quite muted,…
not necessarily grudging, for there was an open trust, but maybe a little uncertainty because of all that’s going to happen.

Yet now, when Mary is with Elizabeth, and after some time has passed, there is a different tone, a different feel, to Mary – the trust is still clearly there, she still trusts in the goodness and purposes of God, but now, now, we see in her a joy that spills over into song, a song that will be written about and which will inspire music and drama in generations to come. God brought the invitation – Mary responded with open trust – and in time, joy came and an impact on future generations as well.

Friends, individually and corporately, God has brought
His invitation to us this year…
It could be a costly invitation, maybe not to the extent of Mary’s, but nonetheless still costly to us. And, as I’ve said, we then have a choice of how to respond – will we too respond with open trust? For if we are willing to trust, and only if we trust, then the joy and the impact that was Mary’s, can be ours as well.

Now, God doesn’t promise an easy life, He doesn’t promise that if we respond with open trust that the invitation won’t be costly or leave us with unanswered questions; after all, Mary was to go on and experience some degree of difficulty and hardship herself, even before Jesus went to the Cross; she still lost a husband, she still worried what her grown-up Son was doing; though the angel called her blessed she knew hardship.
But she also knew joy – and one day that joy…
would forever remain with her, as she placed her trust in the plans of God, in the very Person of God who was her Son, that babe who was also her Messiah and Saviour; she would place her trust in Him and in His invitation, and in Him she found a joy that could never be taken from her.

Friends, God issues His invitation – His invitation to a life you could never dream nor imagine, both individually and corporately. He is speaking, has spoken, and if we are to share in the joy of Mary, then we too must respond with open trust, we must make room for this Christ-child, just as Mary had to make room for Him in her life as well.

And let’s take a moment to think about that impact Mary had on future generations. Many of us would like to see our congregation and young people come to own the
Christian faith for themselves; we hope to have…
an impact upon them as well, just like Mary. But in today’s culture, we can’t simply talk at them or point to words on a page, because they simply do not care. Yet, when these words from Scripture are combined with your personal story of how it has made a difference, well then they might listen and heed what is shared.

Now, I don’t know all your stories much yet, but when on placement, it was so sad that few people could share their experience of what their faith had done in their life; they could tell me that they came to share for X number of years and what jobs they had done, but too few could share how their relationship with God had shaped their character, and what they had seen God do in their lives individually or collectively. Why was that? Why did they have so little testimony to share? Was it because of a lack of trust and response to God?

If we want to impact the next generation, then we must have testimony to share, stories of what God has done in and through us. And if we can’t share anything, then maybe it’s time to start asking why, and we might need to begin with this question: have you accepted Jesus as Your Saviour and Lord? Have you made room for Him in Your life?

I asked a question several times at the start of my time here, but I’ll keep asking it, just in case today is the day it finally sinks in for someone: Have you responded to Him with open trust? Have you accepted Him? Have you made room for Him to come into Your life?
Since coming here, I’ve heard of a few stories from folks in our congregation who were attending church for decades and were even members, but who had never actually responded to this question. So, how can we tell if we have accepted Jesus?

Well as Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Can you truly say that of Jesus? Is Jesus real to you? Is He so real to you, and the relationship He offers you, is this so real that in the depth of your being your soul glories in God and rejoices in Him?

Can we say like Mary, ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled’? Is our heart for the Lord’s Kingdom and the Lord’s priorities, for the Lord’s will and word to be fulfilled?…
Because if your attitude to Jesus is a little bit ambivalent; if His will is not what you aspire to live out; if the core of your identity is something other than as a child of God, then maybe you still have some room to give over to Jesus?

This Christmas time, Jesus stands in our midst and He issues His invitation to come into our lives. He doesn’t promise an easily life; in fact, accepting His invitation may well lead to a more difficult life. But we’ll never know the joy of the Lord, or the impact upon generations that Mary made, if we keep Jesus at arms’ length and fail to make room for Him in every area of our individual and corporate lives. Friends, my hope, is that we will respond like Mary, allowing our set ideas for our lives to fall away if need be, and with an open trust, take up God’s invitation to a life, to a joy, to an impact, we could never have imagined. May it be so. Let us pray.

The Father: compassionate and running

Preached on: Sunday 19th May 2019
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: Luke 15:11-20 and Romans 5:6-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 15:11-20 and Romans 5:6-11
Sunday 19th May 2019
Brightons Parish Church
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

We are now part way through our sermon series on Luke chapter 15, and we have been slowing down to really explore what these three parables of Jesus reveal to us of our heavenly Father.

We’ve seen that Father God loves with a seeking and prodigal love, that we are so precious to God that He seeks us out like a lost coin or sheep, and then in the example of the father and his lost son, we see a God who is extravagantly patient and recklessly generous in love.
We’ve also asked whether it is possible to hold onto belief in such a good God in light of the brokenness of our world.

To get us into this week’s focus, I wonder if you would turn to your neighbour, and try to come up with a working definition for compassion. I’ll give you one minute. Go!
(PAUSE)

Compassion has been defined as suffering with someone in their pain and distress. It means to come alongside someone in their suffering and to feel what they feel. It means far more than just pity – it is empathetic love. It involves the engagement of both the heart and the hand
– the heart in sharing in another’s pain,…
the hand in reaching out to help. Compassion, in short, is about participation, not detachment. It is about actions more than words. It is about ‘suffering love.’

It can be hard to picture compassion sometimes but when we see it, it is so very powerful. During the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, British athlete Derek Redmond ran in the 400 metres semi-final, which was the fulfilment of a dream for him. But 100 metres into the race he fell on the track, having torn a hamstring. Here is a video of what happened – look out for the moment of compassion.
(PLAY VIDEO)

What was unknown to most folks at the time, was that the man who helped Derek reach the finish line was his dad, Jim…
His father, seeing his son’s distress, came alongside him – Jim refused to let guards deter him, he even pushed one over, because he was driven by compassion, by suffering love, to help his child finish that race.

We read today these words: ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.’ (v20) The father saw the younger son and was filled with compassion for him.

This father had watched his precious child rebel and go off the rails, shaming the father and disappearing off into the sunset, with no intention of ever returning. But every day the father had been looking. Whenever a merchant came into the village, the father would ask,…
‘Have you seen him? Have you seen my son? Have you seen him on your travels, especially in the far country?’

And every time he would see that blank stare, that look which signalled ‘no’. Every day the father lived with the gossip and the rumour-mongering in the village. Every night the father stayed awake and no one ever saw the tears that streamed down his face as he relived the agonising day of his son’s departure. No one saw the heaving of his shoulders as he gave way to quiet grief.

Yet, every day he patiently waited, he kept up hope, sitting on the flat roof of his house, looking towards the horizon. Then, one day, he caught sight of a familiar outline. He rubbed his eyes, blinked several time, and peered again. Could it be? Is it he?
At first the father feels shock, then momentary hesitation, but finally, certainty sets in, as he becomes sure it is his precious child, and with gut-wrenching emotion filling his entire being, the father can’t help himself anymore and he runs towards his son.

When we read that one little verse, we almost skip over it – we might be tempted to think, “well of course he did that, that’s obvious, who wouldn’t run to their child?”

But we need to remember the cultural dynamics at the time when this parable was told. As a general rule, distinguished Middle Eastern patriarchs did not run. There was a proverb around at the time: ‘A man’s manner of walking tells you what he is.’ Children might run; women might run; young men might run…
But not the father of the family, the dignified pillar of the community, the owner of the great estate. He would not pick up his robes and bare his legs like some boy. It was shameful and dishonourable for a man over 30 to be seen running in public, because quite literally you would be revealing your undergarments. No man who held honour highly enough would ever do that.

But this father does. He runs to his son – his feet move in response to his heart, to the deep well of compassion in the bowels of his very being; his love for his child is so deep that he will overcome all embarrassment and social conventions to reach his child.

So, what does Jesus hope to reveal of our heavenly Father in this parable? Well, we are clearly meant to see that our heavenly Father is filled with compassion towards us.

A few weeks ago, we saw that we each are like the younger son, we each have told God that He is as good as dead to us, that we want no part of Him, even though we want all the good stuff He has given us. We considered the agony that God would feel in response to such a rejection, a rejection, which if we suffered it, would result in a temper tantrum and the end of the relationship.

But Jesus is revealing something else entirely – Father God feels such compassion for us that He will pay a price to be reconciled to us. And that very price is summed up for us by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5:8)

While we were still far off rebels, telling God to drop dead, He literally did – He laid down His life to make it possible for us to be forgiven. At the very moment when we were furthest away, the Father took the initiative. Even though we have sinned by rejecting Him, the Father decided to act. The justice of God said that human beings must experience the consequences of their rejection of God, and so experience separation from Him eternally. But the love of God said that this could not be the end of the story. So, out of this tension in the heart of God, the Father acted in history – He showed His great compassion for us by sending His one and only Son to die the death that we deserved…

Our heavenly Father, is a God who runs to rescue us, He is truly the God who saves, for at the Cross we see God’s love come running towards us, with outstretched arms, defusing the power of guilt and shame in any son or daughter who will return home.

If you feel far away from God, then remember the Father whom Jesus reveals in this parable – the Father who is waiting for you to come home. God’s heart is not filled with anger and hatred towards you, He loves you with a suffering love, with such compassion that He died in the person of His Son to bring you home, He is for you and His arms are opened wide. I asked a few weeks ago, friends, but just in case anyone was not here to hear it, I’ll ask it again – do you need to come home to God?

To be a Christian, is to come home to God – where God becomes the centre of your life, such that you build your life upon Him and He shapes your choices, your values, your priorities – that’s when you know you live for God, that’s when you know you’ve come home. That’s true repentance.

And God is lovingly waiting for us, my friends – if you haven’t returned to God, will you come home to God? If you’re unsure how to begin that journey home, then come speak with me after the service, and you can come home to God today.

But for those of us who have returned home, then there is the call of God upon our lives to grow up in the family likeness and take up the family business: we are to grow in the compassion of God and take up the reconciling work of God.
I know that you are a socially compassionate church – I have seen and felt it personally. I have seen you give of your time and of your money and of your love to help folks in desperate need and real sadness and brokenness. I am not speaking into these aspects of our congregational life, for there you do reflect the love of God.

But Jesus did not tell this parable to challenge us to be more loving in practical ways – that’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. No, Jesus told this parable in the context of helping His listeners understand the Father’s desire to be reconciled to us. In this instance, to reflect the compassion of God, is to take up the family business and help people come back into relationship with God, to come back home to God; that’s what Jesus was about here, that’s how the compassion of God was being displayed.
So, let me ask you, brothers and sisters in Christ: will we get out of the stands and get alongside others to help them finish the race? Like Derek Redmond’s father, will we get out of the comfort of the pew, or our homes, or our church groups, and will we break with convention, expectation, or even political correctness so as to come alongside others in compassion with the Good News of Jesus Christ? Will we wave off embarrassment, excuses of age or ability, or the apathy within our hearts and get out into our parish with the Good News of these very parables?

I realise it’s not easy; I am not a natural evangelist either.
Every time I stand up here and ask you to come home to God, I don’t do it well and every fibre of my being cringes.
But I know I’ve to do it because I know God wants as many as possible to come home to Him.

So, today I want to share with you in these closing moments, two initiatives to help us grow and show the compassion of God in this particular way.

The first is the prayer initiative you will have found in your news sheet. (READ SHEET) (WATCH VIDEO)

So, that’s the first initiative. As it happens, the time for Thy Kingdom Come, comes right before we are seeking to have our weekend of invitation here at Brightons Church on Sunday 9th June…

The idea with this initiative is for us to invite someone to church that weekend. To help with this, we’ve produced a simple invitation that will go out with the next copy of the Bright Lights magazine. The elders’ hope is that those who don’t regularly attend might be encouraged to come back. But also, that those of us who do come regularly, might take the invitation and use it to invite someone else along on the 9th June. This might be a neighbour, family member, colleague at work.

I realise that this is a big step for a lot of us – it’s a big step for me. So, that’s why we are coupling it with prayer – because we will never invite someone without deep compassion and conviction, and really, that only comes about as the Holy Spirit works in us and we talk with God in prayer about our fears, our hopes, our need for help.
So, please consider joining in prayer and using your invitation to share the compassion of our heavenly Father with those who are in your life, and invite them to not only to come to church, but to come home to God.