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A man lived near a river. After a terrible storm, the waters rose and an announcement came over the radio urging locals to leave the area before their homes were flooded. Being very religious, the man ignored the radio, saying to himself, “I don’t need to leave. I’ll pray, and God will save me.” The water rose higher and the man had to move to the upstairs of his house. Someone came along in a boat and called for him to get in so they could evacuate. “No thanks,” the man said, “God will save me.” Still the water rose, and it got so high that the man had to get on to his roof. A helicopter looking for the remaining survivors spotted him and flew over to rescue him. Still waiting for God to do something miraculous, but confident that He would, the man refused again: “No thanks, God will save me.” The helicopter flew off to find other survivors who were more open to being rescued. The water kept rising, and eventually the man drowned. When the man got to heaven, he asked God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?”

“What do you mean?” God replied, exasperated, “I sent a radio warning, a boat, and a helicopter!”

That’s not a true story, but it makes a point. When we find ourselves in trouble and have important decisions to make, it’s right that we ask God for help and look for guidance from Him about what to do. But we can so often want Him to do something big and obvious that we miss the ordinary-looking ways in which He is actually speaking and working.

Ruth is a book that is surprisingly ordinary. Slotted between the Old Testament history books, it doesn’t feature any kings or battles or epic story arcs. It’s about a normal family, from a normal town, ‘doing’ normal life. There is nothing special about Ruth and her family that would warrant having a book being written about them, especially because Ruth was a foreigner.

The book of Ruth may be about normal people, but it shows us an extraordinary God who faithfully works His sovereign power to look after His people. Most of it isn’t obvious, and is seen through the pretty normal-looking actions of human beings rather than in a spectacular miracle. In Ruth God doesn’t speak directly even once, but we can still see that He is at work behind the scenes.

So let’s have a look. At the start of Ruth, we see a family in crisis. A family with choices to make. And we’ll see three options: the sensible choice, the wise choice, and the bitter choice.

  

The Sensible Choice: Elimelech & Orpah

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Ruth 1:1-5

Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons lived in Bethlehem in the time of the Judges. An ordinary family in an ordinary place, they didn’t get caught up in the battles we read of in Judges, but they did get caught up in a famine. There was no food, and Elimelech had a choice.

The sensible option would be to move to where there was food – if there isn’t food where you are, why not move somewhere else?

Besides this famine, during the time of the Judges Israel was in political turmoil. They would stray away from God, so God allowed their neighbours to rule over them and oppress them. Then they would cry out to God to rescue them, and God would send a judge to defeat their oppressors and lead them. But the peace didn’t last. After the judge died, it was only a matter of time before God’s people strayed again and the whole cycle repeated.

In the face of such uncertainty, it would have made sense for Elimelech to move to somewhere more stable, where his family could live in peace as well as have enough to eat.

The other option would be to stay in Bethlehem and ride out the famine. But how long would the famine last?

At the time, the country had no king, so “everyone did as seemed best in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). To Elimelech, that looked like moving away.

Reading between the lines in the first few verses of this chapter, we see that Elimelech hadn’t even consulted God on what he should do. He relied on his own intelligence instead.

And his intelligence led him to Moab. Moab bordered Israel on the far side of the Dead Sea and had been their enemy for years. If you read Numbers 22-25 you’ll see that while Israel was passing through Moab to get to the Promised Land their king hired Balaam to curse them, and when that failed they sent their women to seduce Israel to worship their own gods. Even in the times of the Judges, Moab was Israel’s enemy. In Judges 3 we read about how Moab conquered parts of Israel and oppressed them for 18 years.

Elimelech chose to leave the Promised Land for a land owned by his people’s enemies and dominated by their gods.

In moving to Moab he might have been making a sensible choice, but he was turning away from God and the promises He had made to look after His people in the land that He had given them.

In v3-5 we see the results of his decision. Elimelech and his family ended up staying in Moab. Elimelech died, yet his family stayed there for another decade and his sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.

After those 10 years both sons died too, leaving their mother and childless wives without anybody to provide for them.

Elimelech had made the sensible choice, without consulting God, and it had led his family into disaster.

His wife, Naomi, now had her own choice to make. She had heard that God had brought the famine in Israel to an end, so decided to go home. Initially Ruth and Orpah went with her, but Naomi knew that as childless Moabite widows they wouldn’t get a warm welcome in Israel. So she tried to persuade them to make the sensible choice and go back to their families.

…“Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”

Ruth 1:11-13

Naomi couldn’t provide them with husbands because she was too old to re-marry and have more children, and even if she gave birth that day she couldn’t expect them to wait until the boys were old enough to marry! It would make far more sense for them to go back to their own land, to their own families, and to their own gods.

Although Orpah had already promised to go back with Naomi, after hearing Naomi’s reasoning she thought better of it and went home. She made the sensible choice.

But Ruth made the wise choice, even though it cost her everything.

 

The Wise Choice: Ruth

Instead of following Orpah home, Ruth clung to Naomi and begged her to not send her away:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Ruth 1:16-17

Ruth loved Naomi far more than she cared about her own future, and decided to go with her even though it meant giving up everything she knew and moving to a foreign country.

And she wouldn’t be well-received in that country, either. Because Moab attacked Israel on their way to the Promised Land, Moabites had been banned from joining in with Israel’s corporate worship [Deuteronomy 23:3-6]. Because of her country’s history, Ruth couldn’t expect the people of Bethlehem to look kindly on her. She was an outsider. And she was a childless widow – not only did she bear the shame of having never had children, she also had nobody to provide for her or Naomi.

Yet Ruth made the deliberate choice to not just travel with Naomi, but live with her in Bethlehem. She would give up her nationality as a Moabite and choose to join God’s people instead. She would turn away from the gods of her home and live with Israel’s God as her God. Not only that, but she would live like this until the end of her days and even have her body buried with Naomi’s.

In the face of her own life falling apart, and in the face of an impossible situation for Naomi, Ruth decided to commit herself to Naomi, her people, and ultimately to God.

At a human level, this makes no sense. But God’s wisdom isn’t the same as human intelligence. As Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” True wisdom isn’t about being clever or being good at solving problems. True wisdom starts with having a relationship with God. It’s about knowing God, and therefore knowing what the right thing to do is in God’s eyes, and then doing it. And sometimes the right, godly, faith-filled decision doesn’t make sense at a human level.

The passage doesn’t spell out for us where Ruth was at spiritually when she left Moab. But she knew enough about God to trust that He would accept her even though there was nothing about her that would make her acceptable. She knew God enough to trust that He would provide for them both. She knew Him enough to make the wise choice.

And in God’s sovereignty, He does great things with the choices we make if we make choices that are wise and faithful to Him. Over the next few weeks we’ll see what brilliant things God did with the choice Ruth made to commit herself to Him, His people, and Naomi.

Speaking of Naomi, how did she respond to Ruth’s amazing commitment to her?

And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

Ruth 1:18

With silence. Naomi had already chosen to be bitter.

 

The Bitter Choice: Naomi

…when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

Ruth 1:19b-21

Naomi had lost everything in Moab. She had no sons to provide for her, and not even any grandchildren. And now she was too old to re-marry and try to have children again to carry on the family name. She returned to Bethlehem, as she described it, empty-handed and bitter.

She was so bitter that she told others to not call her by her name, which means ‘pleasant’, but Mara, which means ‘bitter’. In her eyes, why call her ‘pleasant’ when God had taken everything from her? When God had taken away her husband and sons?

Naomi could see that God was in control of what had happened and she believed that it was God punishing her for going to Moab. Yet that didn’t make Naomi repent. God had forced her to return to His land and His people, but she hadn’t chosen to return to Him. Instead, she wallowed in her bitterness. She hadn’t abandoned faith in God – when she was talking to Ruth and Orpah in v8-9 she prayed that God would be kind to them and provide for them. But she believed that God hated her, and she allowed the grief that she rightly felt in brutal circumstances to curdle into a bitterness which meant she could not see beyond the horizon of her own pain.

Can you see how she didn’t even acknowledge Ruth when she was talking to the women in verses 20-21? She was ignoring that fact that God had not left her empty-handed. He had given her Ruth to go back to Bethlehem with her and be her companion and friend for life! And as hard as it is to see what God is doing in all of this, the start of the barley harvest at the end of the chapter hints that God was about to make everything change. But Naomi was too wrapped up in self-pity to see God’s grace to her, trust in His love, and look to Him for deliverance.

The hardship and pain that Naomi and her family went through are part of life. You don’t have to live long in this world to experience it.

So when it happens, what is our choice?

 

Our Choice

When you are in trouble, what do you do?

Do you have a tendency to be like Elimelech, and rely solely on your own brainpower to work the problem and find a way through the situation?

Can you identify with Naomi, and in a crisis end up focussing so much on your own pain and trouble that you can’t see beyond it? I’m not trying to belittle grief or say that sadness has no place in our lives. We live in a broken world, and painful things happen, really agonisingly brutal things, and it’s right to grieve when they do. It’s right to feel sad over things that are wrong. But it isn’t right to get swallowed up in bitterness and be too proud to trust that God hasn’t abandoned us, even though we can’t see His hand in what’s going on.

Or are you like me, and are a bit of both? When things go wrong, I all-too-quickly try to find my own way through the problem; and I have a tendency to get too wrapped up in the hurt or sadness I feel.

Far better than relying on our own intelligence or becoming self-absorbed is to trust in God’s wisdom and commit ourselves to Him, like Ruth. And we have a far better reason to trust God than she did!

Let’s look at Romans 8:28

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…

Romans 8:28a

How can we be sure of this? Skip down to halfway through verse 31 with me:

…If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Romans 8:31b-32

We don’t only have God’s promises to go on, we have Jesus. We were in a crisis – we used to be trapped in sin, too dirty and broken to be loved by God, and completely unable to get ourselves out of it. In fact, sin so blinds and corrupts us to the core that there’s no way that we can get ourselves out by our own intelligence.

But God saw us in our crisis and chose to commit Himself to us. His Son Jesus became like us in every way. Where we lived, He lived. Our weakness was His weakness, our struggles His struggles, our pain His pain. And He died just like we die. But He died carrying our sin so that it could be buried forever, and He was raised to life again so that we could share His life that lasts forever.

And if God gave Jesus for us, if God gave the person who is most precious to Him to live in our mess and die, if He has sacrificed so much for us, how can we doubt that He’ll give us everything else He has promised? How can we doubt that trouble, distress, persecution, famine, danger, violence can never separate us from His love? Because He promises that in all these things He will work for our good.

The relationship with God that we have because of Jesus is how we can grow in wisdom and know the right thing to do in His eyes. So when a crisis hits and there’s a big decision to be made, we should trust God and commit to Him by by making the faith-filled, wise, godly choice.

If you’re wondering what that practically looks like, God hasn’t left us unguided. There are plenty of places in the Bible where He spells out what commitment to Him looks like.

Try reading Proverbs, which has loads of bits of wisdom for everyday life. Or read the letter written by James, which talks a lot about what living out our faith like.

Have a look at Matthew 5-7, where Jesus teaches about applying our commitment to God to real life. At my church we’re in the middle of a series looking at the start of Matthew 5, where Jesus shows us just how much God’s wisdom looks a whole lot different from what we think it should look like in this world. You can listen to the series on our website: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/?wpfc_sermon_series=the-beatitudes-a-world-upside-down

And as you read the Bible, ask God to show you by His Spirit how what you read applies to your situation. God doesn’t make our decisions for us, but He does give us a framework for making those decisions while trusting Him for their outcome. And in your decision-making choose to commit to obeying God faithfully.

If this all sounds alien to you, if you aren’t a Christian and you’re kind of feeling like an outsider right now, please hear that this really is for you as well. All of us sitting here were outsiders once. But we don’t have to prove anything to God for Him to love and accept us. Ruth shows us that no matter how unacceptable you feel you are God will welcome you if you trust Him and commit to Him. It might not make sense to you, but that’s OK. I’m not saying that Christianity is about blind faith, because it isn’t. But sometimes it involves making decisions that don’t make sense on the surface, but do make sense if we have a relationship with God, and making decisions that trust Him for things that we can’t see how He will make them happen.

But when we look back we can see that God has done something great through the choices we made because we know and trust Him. We’ll see that He has fulfilled His promises, sometimes in ways we didn’t expect. Because He is in control of everything and He has the power and commitment to make good on every promise He has ever made.

So why not choose to trust Him now?

When a crisis hits, when there’s a big decision to be made, we shouldn’t rely on our own intelligence to get us through. We shouldn’t be absorbed in bitterness. Instead, we should commit to God, trusting that He will look after us. And who knows what He’ll do through that decision?

 

This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in June 2019. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/ruth-1-sweet-providence-in-a-bitter-world/

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Stories can have different kinds of endings, and everyone seems to have their own favourite type of ending. I like two types of ending. One is the type of ending when the baddie has been defeated, life is restored to goodness, and there’s a big celebration – think about the end of Return of the Jedi when the whole galaxy is having a party because the evil Empire and the Sith have been destroyed… or so we thought until they started making sequels! Or there’s the type of ending that’s clever. Like Inception; it doesn’t tie everything up and present it to you on a plate. Instead, as it finishes it gives just a hint that everything might not be quite as finished as you think, and just after walking out of the cinema you end up going “Wait, what?” Those kinds of endings can be maddening, though. Because just when you think the story is finished and everything’s happy, things might not be quite as resolved as you want them to be.

If you read to the end of the book of Nehemiah, you’ll find that it’s not a satisfying ending. In chapter 12 we see a list of names that might not mean much to us at first glance, but when you look closer you realise that it shows how the line of the priests and Levites working in the temple had been unbroken since the first exiles returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel 90 years before. Fantastic – God was sustaining His contact with His people through the priests! Then we are brought to the climax of Nehemiah’s work: the dedication of the newly-finished walls round Jerusalem. This is the fulfilment of what God had put into Nehemiah’s heart right in chapter one. It’s awesome! Against all odds, against all opposition, Jerusalem was restored.

Nehemiah could have finished his record there, with the big party, with God’s people in God’s city. With the happy ending. But he doesn’t, and we close the book with the bitter taste of disappointment in our mouths. This evening we’re going to look at why that is and what it points to.

Let’s start by looking at Nehemiah’s finished work.

Nehemiah’s finished work

Imagine the scene: You have slogged it out for 52 days, building relentlessly. You’ve endured jeering and threats from people around you who have hated every brick, every stroke of mortar, every inch this wall has risen. You have lived on constant alert, all-too-aware that until Jerusalem is enclosed you could be ambushed at any second.

But now it is finished! You can see all around you the barrier that will keep you safe, the boundary that will keep your people together, the hours and hours of hard labour that you almost didn’t dare to dream could be finished!

And now comes the party! The streets are packed, everyone is dressed for a celebration. Along the walls advances the greatest celebration you have ever seen. All the nation’s priests and leaders encompass the city in their finery, instruments gleaming in the sun.

And the sound! Singing in every direction, a joy so deafening that miles away people pricked up their ears. And as the Book of Moses is read to the people, you can’t help but feel that surely, this is the day we have waited generations for – God’s people restored in the land, as the prophets have promised! Maybe now is the beginning of a new era. Maybe soon God will free us completely from our Persian masters.

Nehemiah has finished his work. He has achieved what he set out to do. The walls are finished. The exiles have returned. He has made sure that the work of the temple will continue – we see in 12:44-47 how men were appointed to make sure the priests and Levites would be provided for so that they could dedicate their whole time to temple work. The legacy of king David and Asaph has been restored, and their songs will echo off the temple’s walls for years to come. And everything that shouldn’t be among God’s people has been pushed out – on hearing the law that Ammonites and Moabites couldn’t be allowed among God’s people because their nations had been constant enemies of Israel (Nehemiah 13:1-3, referring to Deuteronomy 23:3-6), they separated them out.

Before I continue, it’s important that we see that this isn’t God condoning racism or being unwelcoming to people who aren’t like us. We must remember that people from other nations were welcome in God’s people if they genuinely chose to give up their old nationality to worship God and become a part of His people. Even those from Moab and Ammon. Think about Ruth. Ruth was from Moab, yet God brought her to not only become part of His people, but also an ancestor of Jesus!

And we’ve seen glimpses of Jesus throughout Nehemiah. We saw in the list of the people building the wall hints of His willingness to set aside His status and leave the beauty of heaven to immerse Himself in the mess of earth and be crushed to save us from hell. We saw a glimpse of God’s people really displaying who God is, as Jesus came to do perfectly. We see glimpses of Him in Nehemiah’s prayerfulness and drive to stay faithful to what God has commanded. In his wisdom and leadership. And later in chapter 13 we see in him a non-negotiable passion for holiness that echoes Jesus’ relentless cleansing of the temple in John 2.

But Nehemiah is not Jesus. And, like an unreleased sneeze, as we read the end of the book we are bitterly, bitterly disappointed.

Let’s look at the unfinished work.

 

The unfinished work

A condition of Artaxerxes allowing Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem back in chapter 2 was that Nehemiah had to report back to him in person (2:6). So before the walls were finished, Nehemiah obediently returned to Babylon for a while. But while he was away, things started to fall apart.

In 13:4-6 we read of how Eliashib the priest, who was in charge of looking after the store rooms in the temple, was using one of the rooms that should have stored supplies for the temple and priests like some kind of self-storage business. Not only that, but it was for someone else’s excess furniture; and worse, he was lending it out to Tobiah! Tobiah, an Ammonite. Tobiah, who had opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem from day one!

And, to make matters worse, Eliashib had also married off one of his grandsons to the daughter of Sanballat! Sanballat, the Horonite, who conspired with Tobiah in trying to sabotage the wall! (v28)

Not only this, but the well-laid plans to provide for those working in the temple had completely gone to pot – the Levites had disappeared to their villages to feed themselves because they weren’t being given the tithes that God had commanded (v10-14).

And then Nehemiah looks around on a Sabbath day and sees people working and trading when they should be resting. They should be spending time enjoying their relationship with God and each other, but instead they are buying and selling and allowing foreigners into the city to peddle their wares – it’s not that the Sabbath rules applied to foreigners, but foreign traders really should not have found business in Israel on a Sabbath! They are violating their relationship with God to gain wealth.

And, worst of all, in 13:23-27 we see that they have married not just with other nations, but with the very nations that God had forbidden from being added into His people – Ammonites and Moabites. And as he looks around, Nehemiah notices that he can’t hear Judah’s language on their children’s lips. He hears the language of Moab and Ammon and Ashdod. His own people are quickly losing their identity, and if nothing is done they will lose their heritage as God’s people too.

As Nehemiah’s people so quickly turn away from the covenant they swore to keep in chapter 10, in absolute horror he sees history repeating itself:

“What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city?” – Nehemiah 13:17-18

“You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women?… Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” Nehemiah 13:25-27

The new temple, the rebuilt Jerusalem, the hours of work put into re-instituting customs and systems to keep God’s people on track – you could even say the last 150 years of captivity, return, rebuilding and re-commitment have done nothing to solve the problem of why God’s people were exiled in the first place.

No amount of new buildings, new structures, or our new promises can solve the problem of a sinful heart.

And Nehemiah is no exception. He greatly reflects Jesus’ passion for holiness. But when he sees how things are falling apart he absolutely loses it, and his raging and violence leave us feeling uncomfortable.

As we see the unresolved problem of sinful hearts, we start searching for the One who can solve it once and for all.

We long to see God’s promise of changing our hearts fulfilled. We long for Jesus, the perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

 

Jesus, the perfecter of our faith

 Jesus set aside His status and left the beauty of heaven to be crushed for us, to make us clean, to make us perfect and beautiful and holy (Ephesians 5:25-27). He died on the cross to deal with the problem of our sinful hearts. To take the punishment that sin deserves from God so that we could be considered perfect by Him and so that God’s Spirit could make His home in our hearts to work to make us genuinely perfect. To write God’s law and God’s ways – not just in a book for us to read and forget about – but into the very core of our beings. On our hearts. So that we don’t merely make ourselves do what is right, but genuinely want to. So that we really love to act in a way that pleases God.

In the exile, the temple was destroyed by the enemies of God’s people. Jesus was crucified by God’s enemies and rose to life three days later in order to build a new temple. Not made out of stone, but a living temple made out of people who believe in Jesus and who have God’s Holy Spirit living in them to show His glory to the world.

2 Peter 1:3-7 says:

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” 

Because God has promised to save us from punishment for sin and count us as perfect if we trust in Jesus, because He has promised to work in us to make us perfect, because He has promised us to make us become like Him in our character and actions, we should make every effort to work at godliness.

Make every effort. Not just half-heartedly have a go every so often and give up because it’s too difficult, or there’s something far more interesting on the telly, or we can’t see how it will ever happen. Make every effort. Work at it – hard! Push for it with a relentless, take-no-prisoners passion. Keep plugging away at it day after day, even though it might seem endless, because it isn’t just you doing this.

Here’s God’s promise in Jeremiah 31:33-34

“…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (emphasis my own)

Because Jesus died for us on the cross, God forgives our sin. All the sin we have already done, all the sin we will do, and even the sins we may be committing in this moment. He doesn’t just forgive it, but he chooses to never think of it again.

And God doesn’t leave it there. He promises to work in our hearts to make us know Him, to make us follow His ways and genuinely want to be holy. This isn’t our job to do alone – it is His job, but the way God works in us is by empowering us to choose to do what is right. As 2 Peter 1 says, His divine power has given us all we need to live in a godly way. To live out our faith and relationship with God.

And not only this, but God also promises to one day bring us to a perfect home where our sin will be a distant memory. Where we will be made completely new, and, as it says in Revelation 21, “…the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Instead of the restoration of a city here on earth, we are promised an eternal, beautiful city where we live in intimacy with God. Where all the pain and grief that we have suffered, and that we have caused, will be wiped away and forgotten.

Where there will be no unhappy endings. No unsatisfying storylines.

And let this be an encouragement to you on the days where it’s hard to do what right, and it feels pointless to keep trying to follow God.

Because although we can’t see the finished product yet, we can celebrate that Jesus has saved us and is changing our hearts. And because God has promised it, it’s as good as done. Our future in heaven, in God’s unbridled presence as God’s perfect people is as certain as if it were in front of our faces. As true for us now as the feel of solid masonry was real to Nehemiah’s feet as he walked over it that day. If you want to hear more about that, my church went through the book of Revelation in our morning services this past academic year. You can find the recordings on our website here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/series/revelation/

And if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, if you don’t know God, this promise is available to you, too. Are there things you wish could be wiped away? Things you long to make right? Or do you get a creeping sense that maybe you aren’t quite as good a person as you want to believe? I’ve felt those things. Do you too?

The truth is that none of us are as good as we’d like to believe. And that can be hard and scary to come to terms with. But God has made available to all of us a way for everything we’ve done wrong to be dealt with. The things people already know about, and the things we’re scared to admit even to ourselves.

Because of Jesus, I know that even though I have done wrong and I still mess up, God doesn’t look at me with anger. He doesn’t turn away in disgust. He doesn’t see me as rubbish to be thrown out, but His masterpiece to restore. To heal cracks, repair ruin, breathe life into decay until His perfect character is formed in me and I shine with His glory.

And He can do that for you, too. The way to know God is wide open, his promise at your fingertips. All you need to do is ask Him to forgive you and be your God.

The story may not yet be finished, but we know how it ends. And one day, if we trust in Jesus, we will see that ending.

This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in June 2019. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/nehemiah-12-13-rejoicing-in-the-present-protecting-the-future/

This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in March 2019. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/john-41-26-worship/

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.”Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

John 4:1-26 (ESV)

I wonder if you’ve had moments where you’re not quite sure what a word means? If you’ve spent time around young children or with people from other countries you’ve probably had questions from them asking, “What does that mean?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve found there are some words that I kind of know how to use, but if someone asks me what it means, I get stuck. I can use words like ‘astute’, but if you ask me what it means, I can only offer a gawpy open-mouthed stall.

‘Worship’ can be a bit like one of those words. It comes up in the Bible a lot. We hear about it a lot in church, too. You might ask someone where they worship if you want to know what church they go to. If a church has a particularly upbeat band and a passionate congregation, you might hear people describe it as having ‘lively’ worship. And of course we talk about worship leaders, worship bands and worship music. But what does it actually mean?

More importantly, what does ‘worship’ mean in your life? What do you worship? How do you worship?

Worship is far too big for me to cover everything about it here, so I’ll quickly look at what worship is, and then dig deeper into what makes worship a discipline to build in to our lives as well as a spiritual delight to enjoy.

 

So what is worship?

 There are a few different words that are translated into English as ‘worship’ in our Bibles, but what it all boils down to is this: Worship is about what we love and value most of all, and what we do out of that love. Because when we love something or someone above all else, that devotion causes us to submit everything to it, to give things up for it, to do anything for it. If it’s a person, we want to please them and be with them. If it’s a thing, we want to get it. It dictates what we hope for, what we fear, what makes us happy or angry or sad, what we spend our time on, what we spend our money on – everything that we do!

Worship is about our whole being; our inside and our outside; our hearts and hands.

God says this to His people in Deuteronomy 6:5. It starts with the heart: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul” and flows into outward action: “You shall love the LORD your God… with all your might.”

God has always wanted His people’s actions to flow out of their hearts and their relationship with Him. Out of remembering all He’d been to them before, and trusting all He said He’d be for them now and in the future. And the physical centre of their relationship with Him was where He lived among them, where He specially put His presence: First the tabernacle in the desert, and then the temple in Jerusalem. It was the place where relationship between God and His people was made possible. The touchpoint between God and humanity.

If we left it there, it would make sense to think that church is the physical centre of our relationship with God and our worship too, wouldn’t it? After all, don’t we come to church to meet with God?

Let’s fast forward a few hundred years to John 4.

Jesus and the disciples were travelling north through Samaria from Judea to Galilee. Needing a pit-stop in the midday heat, they went to the town of Sychar. Jesus sat by the local well while his disciples went into town to buy food. He met a woman at the well and asked her for a drink.

This got her attention, because, as it says in verse 9, Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans.

Actually, Jews often would actively avoid them – Samaritans were a mixed-race group of Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles after Israel had been taken into exile centuries before. They had their own version of the Old Testament Law and their own temple on Mount Gerizim. Jews considered them to be permanently unclean, and any Jew who touched them would become unclean too. And, on top of that, she was a woman, and Jewish men did not often associate with women in public.

It was not normal for Jesus to even go near her, let alone speak to her!

This led to a big conversation about eternal life, and as it took a personal turn, the woman started to feel uncomfortable. So she tried to change the subject in verse 19: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain [that’s Mount Gerizim] but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” [v19-20] Jesus’ response was, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” [v21 & 23]

This was earth-shattering, because Jesus was saying that the building that was the centre of their spiritual lives was about to become utterly irrelevant.

Now He hadn’t come to change what worship is. In Matthew 22:37 Jesus affirmed that Deuteronomy 6:5 was the greatest commandment. Worship is still about loving God with all our heart, soul and might. But what was about to happen was a radical relocation of their relationship with God.

Because God was about to move house.

You see, there was a problem with the temple. God loved His people, but the problem with God putting His presence in the middle of a bunch of humans is that humans cannot survive direct contact with God.

Because we’re fundamentally sinful. At our core, we want to be in charge instead of God. And God can’t overlook this or pretend it’s not true because it’s an attack on His authority, it breaks relationship with Him, and it makes us hurt other people. And what sin deserves is death.

So God gave His people a way to deal with their sin so that they could have a relationship with Him. This involved an animal dying in their place. But even if you had just killed an animal to pay for your sin, by the time you’d walked out the temple gates you’d probably already sinned again. So for His own people’s protection against the white-hot purity of His holiness, God kept His presence in a building, behind a thick curtain and several walls. Only the high priest could go behind that curtain to be in God’s presence, and he had to follow strict rules to not die: He could only go in once a year; only after making more sacrifices, having a wash, and wearing special clothes; and even then he’d only stay alive if he created a smokescreen of incense between him and God (see Leviticus 16 for the details!).

But when Jesus came, He changed everything. He is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s promised Saviour, as the woman at the well realised in v25. In Jesus God lived among us, as one of us, so that He could die as one of us. Jesus took the punishment of death that our sin deserves on Himself when He died on the cross, and that did far more than any other sacrifice ever could. He made us completely clean by swapping our sinfulness for His perfection.

Which meant that God could finally live not just with His people, but in them.

God’s dwelling place could move from behind a curtain in a building in Jerusalem to the heart of every single person who trusts in Jesus.

Jesus said that “true worshippers worship the Father in spirit and truth,” (v23). You can only truly worship by knowing God, knowing that Jesus died to make relationship with God possible, and by being made spiritually alive through believing that truth and having God’s Holy Spirit come to live in you.

Jesus is now the centre of our relationship with God! Through Him, we can know and be known by God without sin getting in the way. And God has now made our hearts His special dwelling-place on earth.

And because God now lives in everyone who is a Christian, we don’t go to a place to worship God. If you’re a Christian, where you worship God is right here, right now – wherever that is. If you’re a Christian, you are a temple! Not old and crumbling and maybe haunted, but living and lived-in by the Spirit of God Himself.

Christians are now the touchpoint between God and humanity. And as we worship God with our hearts and hands we will put Him on display for the world to see. That’s why in the New Testament we see the language of the temple being used to describe what being a Christian is like. 1 Peter 2 says we’re a holy priesthood being built into a house for God. We are to be the place where God can be found on earth and the people who bring others to Him. In Romans 12 we’re called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, devoting everything we are and do to God in every part of life.

And ultimately all this is leading up to the new creation and the holy city at the end of Revelation. Where the invisible reality of God’s closeness to us now will become a reality that we will see and touch when we see God face-to-face and live in the new Jerusalem.

So enjoy the fact that you are always, always with God. Enjoy the fact that He is not just with you, He’s in you. Enjoy the fact that you can abide in Christ, as we’ve seen in our sermons in the last two weeks; and that you can do it literally anywhere!

And consider how you are loving God with your heart and hands. Is it all the time? Everywhere?

 

What do you really worship?

This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where the delight of worshipping God is also a discipline.

How are we loving God in our inner being? In what we think and feel?

How are we loving God in how we relate to Him? In our actions and obedience to Him?

If you’re a Christian and thinking about these questions makes you realise just how much you don’t worship God, I think it is right to feel sad. It’s right to realise that we do grieve God’s Spirit within us when we dishonour Him by not loving Him as we should. But we also must remember that Jesus’ blood is worth far more than an infinite number of dead animals – He has made us clean for ever. And since worship is about living in relationship with God and believing all that He has promised, it’s actually worship to trust that Jesus has made us clean! It’s worship to respond to that with thankfulness and praise. It’s worship to enjoy God! And it’s worship for that enjoyment to make us want to love God by obeying Him above everything else, including the command to invite more people to know and worship and enjoy Him.

If you’re not a Christian, what is the most important thing in your life?

Is it really worth everything you give to it?

How does it compare to the God you’ve heard about here?

Does it care about what happens to you?

Has it taken the initiative to build a bridge between you?

Will it really satisfy?

Nobody and nothing is like God. Making anything or anyone else the most precious thing in your life will only lead to emptiness, and nobody besides God can truly deal with our emptiness and brokenness. Nobody besides God can make us right with Him. So if you find yourself in church and you aren’t a Christian, you are so welcome. Please talk to us. Please ask us questions. Please come back. Because we’d love you to know God like we do.

So our challenge as Christians is to be living sacrifices, temples with a pulse. Are we putting things in place that help us to be those living sacrifices?

The fact that God lives in His people means that we don’t meet together on a Sunday specifically to meet with God, because we can do that anytime, anywhere. Instead, we meet because we need each other to help us worship God.

Hebrews 10 says that since Jesus has made us right with God,

let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. 

Hebrews 10: 24-25

We need to encourage each other, because we live in a world that is hostile to God and His people. The lies of the devil, the culture around us, and the sin of our own hearts all conspire to drag our living sacrifices off God’s altar and put them on the altar of something else.

We can’t fight this on our own. Everyone has times when they’re struggling. Everyone has times when God feels distant. When His promises look like a pipe dream. When worshipping something else looks so much better, or so much easier, than worshipping God. So we need to remind each other, and be reminded, of who God is and what we know to be true.

And in Colossians 3:16 it says we do this by [Letting] the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” The whole of what we do in church should be geared towards helping us to know God through His Word. To understand His Word and digest it and apply it so that it becomes the breath in our lungs and the blood in our veins.

Now of course we are meeting with God in church. But the point of church, rather than our own devotional time, is that we can know God better with other people than we can on our own. God has given each of us spiritual gifts that He has deliberately placed in us to build each other up (1 Corinthians 12). And in 1 Peter 2 God says that He is building us up to be a spiritual house together. Each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, but we display God more fully together than we ever could by ourselves.

And like that verse in Colossians says, singing together helps us to build each other up in faith. When we sing together, we’re singing to each other as well as to God. We’re training each other in godliness. That’s what teaching and admonishing is.

We are telling each other with our voices that yes, God is great, He is real; and whatever is happening the rest of the week, He is what really matters, and what He says is what’s really true.

So when you go to church on a Sunday, remember that God is not the only person you’re going to meet with. All of us are called to have an active part in our time together, so come to church thinking and praying about how you can encourage your church family. It might be serving on the teams who help to make the service happen, but it might also be something that’s less obvious, like taking the time to listen to how someone’s week has gone after the service and reminding them that God listens and cares, too. It might be sitting next to someone you haven’t sat next to before to show them that they’re welcome here, and they’re not doing life alone. It might mean singing your heart out because you want the brother or sister next to you, or in front of you, or behind you to really get that what we are singing really is true.

Worship is about loving God with all that we are, wherever we are. It’s about knowing Him and living life out of relationship with Him. And as we meet and sing together as a church family, we help each other to grow in godliness and encourage each other in our worship of God together.

And together, we’ll glorify God in a much greater way than we ever could alone.

(This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in November 2018. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/philippians-410-23-joy-in-meeting-the-needs-of-others/)

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Philippians 4:10-23

This comes at the end of a series going through the letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi.

In the rest of the letter Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm as a church together, loving and serving each other. We’ve seen him encourage them to shine for Jesus together with joy, looking forward to the prize of being with Jesus after we die. Paul finishes by encouraging them to not worry, but instead to pray, rejoice and focus on Jesus.

His letter could quite happily end there – after all, Paul has been saying “Finally…” since the beginning of chapter 3! But Paul finishes with thanking the Philippians for supporting him. It’s not just a quick “PS – cheers for the gift, love Paul;” it’s a glimpse into the beautifully warm and dearly-loving relationship that he had with the church in Philippi, and a glimpse into how as a church family together we can give to each other and the mission partners that we support.

In our Bibles this section has been given the very modest title of ‘God’s Provision’. God is a God who provides, it’s true. Yet sometimes we Christians can be tempted to use “God provides” as a kind of stock phrase when someone shares that they’re in need, and we want them to feel better, but we’re not quite sure what to say. I hope and pray that tonight as we look at this together that we’ll see that there is so, so much more to this than a well-meaning cliché. I pray we’ll see that the fact God provides for us has so much more power for our joy and contentment and generosity than we can dream!

Because we can be content in hardship, and joyful in giving. Because God provides.

 

Content In Hardship

So, first, let’s look at how can be content in hardship.

I said above that in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church we get a glimpse into the relationship that he had with them. In this final bit of his letter he thanks the church for the gift they had sent to him with Epaphroditus, and reassures them that he is OK.

How is Paul OK? When he wrote this letter, he was in prison. He was away from home. He had already sent Epaphroditus away to carry this letter back to Philippi, and he was about to send Timothy to see them too. And as we’ve read through Philippians we’ve seen hints that Paul is waiting to hear the verdict on his case, and that verdict might well be execution.

So what is he saying? Is he just saying “I’m fine!” like we do sometimes when we’re not really “fine” but we don’t want to talk about it?

Is he being overly optimistic, saying “yeah, it’s all fine” and not really grasping just how serious his situation is?

Well, no.

Paul has learned a secret. “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (v12b). That’s some secret! That sounds like the kind of secret that’s worth knowing!

Because in that first paragraph Paul talks about being content in every situation – whether he’s hungry or full; whether he’s weak or strong; whether he’s on top of the world, or down in the dumps.

“I have learned the secret.”

Part of that secret is obedience. Looking at verse 11, Paul says “… I have learned that in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Now, he doesn’t say “I know how to be immune to anything that happens to me.” It’s not that Paul has become so super-Christian that he never gets affected by anything, as if he’s achieved some kind of blissful enlightenment. Actually, if we read closely, it sounds more like a decision: “I have learned that I should be content”. For Paul, contentment wasn’t about what he felt. It was about making a choice to obey God.

When God gave His people the 10 Commandments back in Exodus 20, he made the final one “You shall not covet”. Coveting is about yearning for, craving something you don’t have. And it’s wrong because obsessing over things you don’t have means that either you don’t believe the all-loving, all-powerful God wants or even can give you what you need; or you don’t believe that the all-knowing, all-wise God has the right idea about what you need. And this kind of desperate longing can lead to all kinds of other sin like the stealing, lying and murder that God also commanded His people to not do.

So when Paul was in hard circumstances, he could see that the needs he felt could tempt him to covet the things that would satisfy those needs: Food. Security. Money. Rest. Love.

He had a choice: give in to the coveting, or choose to be content.

Choose to say ‘NO’ to those cravings and believe that God would give him what he really needed, when he really needed it.

This wasn’t an easy choice – he had to learn to do it. Learning involves hard work. It takes time and effort. And learning to be content is hard work. It’s hard when you’ve spent the entire night awake and you just need some sleep. It’s hard when you’ve lost your job and you don’t know how you’re going to afford to live. It’s hard when all your well-made plans seem to go up in smoke. It’s not the kind of thing we can do just on willpower.

But we have far, far more than our own willpower. Paul says, “I have learned the secret… I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (v12b, 13)

We can choose to be content because God strengthens us to face everything.

God is the commander of creation, the pinnacle of power, the source of salvation – and He promises to live in His people by the Holy Spirit and empower us to do what is right (Phil 2:12-13). God Himself strengthens us.

And He strengthens us to face everything.

It’s not about having some superhero-like experience where you get divinely zapped and then you have some kind of ULTIMATE POWER which means you can do whatever you set your mind to. It’s something that can look far less impressive, but is far more profound, than that. If we think back through what we’ve already heard in Philippians, we see hints of what this strength is:

It’s the strength to take joy in people hearing about Jesus, however it happens (1:18).

It’s the strength to really believe that “…to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21).

It’s the strength to shine in this dark world by being willing to lay down our lives for each other, doing everything without grumbling because we know our reward is in heaven (2:1-15).

It’s the strength to deeply care for others and take risks in serving God and each other (2:19-30).

It’s the strength to press on to know Jesus, throwing everything else behind you like you’d hurl rubbish into the tip (3:8, 12).

It’s the strength to pray, be thankful and look to Jesus instead of worry (4:5-7).

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to feel our needs or cry out to God about them – back in verse 6 Paul encouraged the Philippians to tell God about every need they had.

But it does mean that we shouldn’t be consumed by the needs that we feel, because if we ask Him to, God will give us the strength to be content in the middle of hardship, instead of snatching at what we think we need.

It’s a big encouragement for the days when we struggle, because we can have peace knowing that God will help us get through it.

But it’s also a big challenge, because it means that we have no excuse to not be content.

Anyone who has lived with me for longer than a couple of weeks knows that being content is not something that comes easily to me. I’m a perfectionist by nature and I find it easy to see the problems with things. And I also fall into the trap of thinking that having a bad day gives me the right to be selfish. So I’m in there with anyone who feels the challenge of realising that no matter how late the neighbours kept me awake last night, no matter how worried I am about work, and no matter how much I want to be left alone, I have no excuse to be selfish and grumpy. Because if I ask Him, God will give me the energy to honour Him throughout the day; He will give me the faith to trust Him when life is difficult; He will give me the grace to serve others when I’d much rather run away and hide.

I can testify to every single one of those things.

I know from experience that if I trust that God will give me the strength I need, I really can do everything that He asks me to do. It’s not because of me, it’s because of God.

Believing that we can do all things through God giving us strength doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask others for help, but it does transform how we should go about asking for help. We’ll look at that a bit more later.

We’ve looked at how we can be content in hardship, and now let’s see how we can be joyful in giving.

 

Joyful in Giving

I’ve already said that part of the reason that Paul is writing to the church in Philippi is because he wants them to know that he’s OK. He knows that they have been deeply concerned for his welfare (v10).

The Philippian church had been funding Paul’s ministry since he had left them about 10 years before. They had supported him when he left the district of Macedonia to continue his ministry in southern Greece – in fact, verse 15 says they were the only church that did. They even helped him out when he was in Thessalonica, which was just down the road from them.

Paul says they “shared [his] trouble.” (v14). Through their love for him and continued relationship with him over a distance, they cared about Paul so much that they felt concern for him even if they weren’t able to practically do anything to help him out, like it says in verse 10.

This wasn’t a mere affiliation between a patron and a beneficiary. It was real relationship; the kind of relationship that sent Epaphroditus all the way to Paul’s prison in Rome to give him what he needed. I looked up on Google how long that would take, and it’s 10 days of non-stop walking now!

The Philippian church clearly loved to love Paul and provide for him when they could. They took great joy in giving to him generously.

And Paul was rejoicing that they did. It wasn’t because of what he could get from them. He makes a real point of saying that he wasn’t looking to squeeze money out of them. It was actually because by giving to him, the Philippians were laying up treasures in heaven for themselves. Verse 17 says, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. Paul knew that by telling the Philippians about his needs and asking them to help, he was giving them the opportunity to sacrificially give as their worship: that what they gave to him could be “…a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (v18b). Their joyful giving was a fruit, a result, of their faith in Jesus. And joyful, generous giving comes from hearts that are content, from hearts that know that God will supply everything they need (v13, 19).

So how do we give to others? Is it a begrudging portion of what’s left over after the bills have been paid, the food has been bought, and the holiday has been booked?

Do we think of it as an obligation to comply with, or an opportunity to worship God?

Who are the Mission Partners or Missionaries that your church supports?

Who do you support personally in their own work of spreading the news about Jesus, whether by praying for them or by giving them money?

In our joyful giving to support those who tell others about Jesus, we shouldn’t only give from our pockets. What comes from our pockets should flow out of our hearts. Look at the bottom of our passage. It talks about the greetings that the Philippian church and the Christians with Paul shared with each other – they love each other, care for each other, and delight in the unity they have in Jesus, even over a distance.

So how do we give to the people we support? Do we genuinely care about them as people? Or have we set up a Standing Order, added them to a prayer list, and then forgotten about them?

How often do we affirm and share the love that we have for each other in Jesus? How much do we do this with those we pray for from a distance?

So as a whole church family, we should truly love our Mission Partners. Our financial giving should come from a place of love. And we should give that love, too. And the generosity of our giving should come from a place of joyfully trusting that God provides for our own needs, too.

If you’re ever a full-time Christian worker in the position of needing to ask others to give towards your ministry, think about how and why you ask for support. Is it because you’re merely looking to satisfy your own needs? Of course, if you need to raise support, it’s right to ask for it. But are you asking selfishly?

Or are you asking because you’re looking for the opportunity for fruit to grow in your brothers and sisters in Christ? For them to worship God and lay up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20) as they give to you?

We’ve seen that we can be content in hardship, and joyful in giving, and I’ll finish by looking at why: Because God provides.

 

Because God Provides

When you think about being content in hardship, and being joyful in giving, you realise that it needs a whole lot of trust in God.

Sometimes trust can be hard – it’s a literal leap of faith! Because when you choose to trust you don’t know for sure that what you’re trusting will happen, will happen; because the nature of trust is that you can’t see what you’re trusting.

But there are ways in which we trust without noticing. I trust that the roof above us has been built and maintained well enough that it isn’t going to collapse on our heads – if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here! When I was a kid and the nurse stabbed me with a needle, I trusted that injection would stop me from getting whatever nasty bug I was being vaccinated against. I trust my employer to pay my salary on time, so when my bank balance is looking low at the end of the month I’m not worried because I know my pay check is about to land in my account.

We trust because we’ve had past experience that what we’re trusting will do what we’re trusting it to do.

In verses 18 and 19 Paul tells the Philippians that “…I am well supplied… And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” God has provided for Paul’s needs through the Philippians, so he knows that God will provide for the Philippians too.

But we have far greater reason to trust God than Paul’s experience.

There is one massive way in which God has already provided for us. For our greatest need.

Our greatest need is to have our sin dealt with so that we can be made right with God. Because the things we do and think and say that are wrong have broken our relationship with God, which bears the punishment of separation from Him and all that is good in hell. But when Jesus died on the cross He took the punishment for our sin instead of us, so that we could be given the ‘not guilty’ verdict that He deserved.

God gave His own Son to die in our place.

In Romans 8:32 it says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

If God gave Jesus, His beloved Son, to die for our sins, anything else is small fry!

If He would give us that much, why wouldn’t He give us everything else that we need?

The cross is proof that God provides. Because we know Jesus died on that cross, because we know He was raised to life again, and because we know that He went to heaven and now speaks to the Father on our behalf (Rom 8:34), we can be confident that God will give us “all things”. All He has promised in heaven, and all that we need now.

The bread and wine that we share together in the Lord’s Supper are a gift because they remind us that Jesus really did die for our sins. And this reminds us that, just as on Good Friday God fulfilled His promise to save us from our sins, God will fulfil every other promise He has ever made!

Including the one to provide for our every need.

Including the one to strengthen us to face everything.

So if you’re a Christian and you’re in the position of needing something and you’ve prayed and prayed for it, and it looks like God isn’t providing for you, remember the cross. Remember that God the Father gave the person most precious to Him for your sake – and He has done that already. Remember that He has the power to provide for you, and He has promised to provide for you what you need. Sometimes it looks like giving us what we ask for. Sometimes it looks like giving us the strength to be content in spite of whatever’s going on. Sometimes it’s both.

If you’re not a Christian, this is what’s on offer for you: right relationship with God, the promise of true contentment in this life, the promise of heaven after you die.

And the kind of contentment that gives means that as a church family we can joyfully give of ourselves to others, and to each other.

It means that we can stand firm as a whole church family in joy and serving together.

This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached back in June. To listen to the recording, go to https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/2-kings-22-josiahs-reformation/

This evening we’re going to be looking at king Josiah. When I was first asked to preach on Josiah, I was really excited. The kings of Judah were a mixed bag of great, godly men and horrible villains, and Josiah is a great example of godliness. He’s one of the kings that make you think, “Yes, here’s a good one!”

Last week Henry preached about king Hezekiah, who was one of the better kings of Judah, but between him and Josiah were two awful ones, Manasseh and Amon. Manasseh filled the nation with idols and was so evil and bloodthirsty that God said that He would wipe Jerusalem out and give the people over to their enemies. Amon was just as bad as Manasseh was. So Josiah is a great relief!

Tonight we’ll see that yes, Josiah was a great king. But we’ll also see that he was a king who couldn’t save his people. But he points to a King who can. The full story is in 2 Kings 22 and 23.

 

Josiah: the king who could not save

Josiah’s story starts fairly quietly. There was some repair work going on at the temple. The workmen needed to be paid, so Josiah ordered Shaphan the secretary to ask Hilkiah the high priest to open the temple coffers and pay the men. But while he was getting the money together, Hilkiah found a book. You can imagine him digging around in the temple store-rooms and stumbling across this big, old, dusty scroll. What is it? Hilkiah passed it on to Shaphan, who read it. And Shaphan read it to the king.

When Josiah heard what the book said, he tore his clothes in alarm and anguish and grief. What on earth was in this book?

This book wasn’t just any book that that you get because it looks nice and leave it on the shelf, or you forget about it and put it away, where it gathers dust. It was the Book of the Law – what we have in our Bibles now as the book of Deuteronomy. It contained all of the covenant that God had made with His people; commands to live by, instructions on how to worship Him, and what would happen if they broke it. It was supposed to be available to every king of God’s people so he could lead them faithfully. But it had been lost or hidden away in the temple, and this is the first time Josiah had read it.

And when it was read to him, his blood ran cold. Because he read things like this:

 “You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you… lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.”

Deuteronomy 6:14-15

“…if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.”

Deuteronomy 8:19

“When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you are not ensnared to follow them… for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”

Deuteronomy 12:29-31

Josiah realised that his kingdom was doing exactly what God had told them not to do.

The nation was full of the idols that the LORD commanded them not to worship. Baal, Asherah, the ‘host of heaven’ and the sun in the temple. Altars on the palace roof. Shrines on hills up and down the country, for the Ashtoreth of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the god of the Moabites, for Milcom the god of the Ammonites. A valley outside Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to Molech!

God explicitly said that if His people worshipped these gods, He would wipe them off the face of the earth. We saw earlier in our series in Kings that God always keeps His word, and Josiah knew this. He knew God is perfectly just, and would keep His promise to avenge the broken covenant.

He knew his kingdom stood on the edge of destruction.

He knew what that would look like, because the northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered and destroyed as God had promised.

But Josiah also knew God well enough to seek Him.

He sent Hilkiah, Shaphan and three others to have an emergency conference with God. Through Huldah the prophetess God said that He would carry out the destruction that Josiah had read about, because the nation had forsaken Him and followed other gods.

His unquenchable wrath, His furious anger, was burning against Judah because they had provoked and provoked Him with their idolatry and evil. He said there would be a point of no return, where they became so evil and had broken the covenant so much that He had to punish them because He is a perfectly just God, and justice had to be satisfied.

He gave them years of chances to not get to that point. He warned them and warned them not to go there.

But they didn’t listen. Manasseh crossed that line. And God couldn’t let it slide.

The end was coming, and there was no escape.

But have a look at God’s message to Josiah in 22:18-20: “Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.”

Josiah believed that God was merciful as well as just, so turned to Him in his distress. God heard his cry and responded with mercy. He postponed the nations’ destruction for Josiah’s sake.

God never lies, and God always keeps His promises. The promises about judgement and wrath as well as the promises about blessing. He could not break His word by ignoring what His people had done. His wrath would fall on them. But God isn’t cruel. He showed mercy to Josiah by postponing His wrath so that Josiah wouldn’t have to live through the horrors that were to come. All because Josiah’s heart was penitent. Because he grieved over how he and the nation had broken their covenant relationship with God.

And we see more of Josiah’s heart towards God in what he did next.

If I told you that you were going to die this time next week, how would you use your last days on earth? Would you quit work? Would you go to see your family? Would you throw caution to the wind and do everything you had ever wanted to do, because you might as well, right? What does it matter?

Although it was certain that his nation’s days were numbered, Josiah didn’t do any of that. If you read on into chapter 23, you’ll see that he obeyed God. He led the whole nation in repentance, starting with himself. At the beginning of chapter 23 we see that he gathered the whole country together to read the Book of the Law to them and re-commit to the covenant that they had broken. He was the first to make a public commitment to walk after God and keep God’s commands with all his heart and soul.

He then ruthlessly destroyed all the idols he could find; burning, pulverising or desecrating them so that nobody could use them again.

He got rid of all his father’s mediums and necromancers, and all of the self-appointed priests of other gods; and ordered that the Passover, the festival of God’s saving relationship with His people, would be celebrated like never before.

This scale of repentance was so unprecedented in history that the Bible calls Josiah unique out of all the kings of Israel and Judah. Chapter 23:25 says that “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might…” Not Solomon. Or Hezekiah. Or even David, who God called “a man after his own heart”! (1 Samuel 13:14)

This sounds like it should have been the kingdom’s ‘happily ever after’. Surely now God would say that He wouldn’t destroy the kingdom after all, like how we saw last week that He healed Hezekiah after He said he would die? Surely now things would be ok?

Well, no. Verses 26 and 27 say, “Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the LORD said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.’”

You see, for all of his godliness, Josiah couldn’t quench God’s wrath. God is perfect. He would keep His word about the judgement coming on Judah, and nothing would stop Him from doing it. It was only a matter of time.

Josiah couldn’t change the people’s hearts, either – his heart turned to God, but he couldn’t turn the heart of the nation. After him, all the kings of Judah did evil, including his sons.

There’s an important thing to remember here: our leaders cannot save us. Because what matters is your own personal response to God, not the faith of your friends or your family or your pastor.

No human can save us from the wrath of God. Ever.

So what hope do we have?

Unbeatable hope.

Because nobody can save us from the wrath of God… except God Himself. As much as Josiah was a human king who couldn’t save, Jesus is God, and He is the King who saves His people.

 

Jesus, the King who saves

Jesus is the King who saves. He’s the King who quenches God’s wrath, and the King who changes our hearts.

We’re in a similar situation to Josiah. In Romans 1 the Bible says that “…the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (v18) It says that humans should be able to see enough about who God is in the world around us to worship Him, but instead we refuse to worship Him and worship other things instead.

So God is revealing His wrath. Against us.

For Josiah and his people, God’s wrath looked like having a foreign nation conquer them, destroy their home, and take them far away as slaves.

For everyone, God’s wrath ultimately comes after death. All of us, after we’ve died, will come before God and He will judge whether we have done right or wrong. And those found guilty of unrighteousness will be condemned to eternal, horrific pain and destruction. The Bible calls it hell.

Not many of us would naturally think of ourselves as being bad enough to deserve that. It’s horrible! But righteousness is about living in a way that’s completely perfect, living in God’s way.

Have you ever not had God as the most important person in your life?

Has something else ever been more important to you than doing what He says?

Have you ever talked about God as if He doesn’t matter?

Have you ever not taken a day off each week to spend resting and enjoying God?

Have you ever yelled, “I hate you!” at your parents? Or thought it? Or thought it about someone else?

Have you ever craved something that someone else has and wanted it for yourself? Or taken something that isn’t yours? Or daydreamed about taking something that’s not yours to have?

Have you ever not quite told the truth?

God says all of these things are unrighteousness. Another word for it is sin. By doing any of them we are exposing that we suppress the truth that God exists. We declare that don’t want God to be here. We declare that we want God dead so that we can be god instead and obey our own rules. So even if you’ve only done one of these things, you’ve shown that you want God dead. And it counts as deserving His wrath.

We all stand on the brink of destruction.

But we don’t have to be here. Because our God, who is perfectly holy and can’t stand injustice, is the very God who jumps at the chance to forgive.

One of the things that Josiah did was to get the people to keep the Passover like never before. Passover was a celebration of how God rescued His people out of slavery in Egypt. He did it by making His wrath for sin fall on the whole country, killing every firstborn child. But His people were protected by killing a lamb and putting its blood on the doors of their houses, to show that something else had died instead of them.

Later on we’re going to be sharing Communion together. When Jesus first taught His disciples to share Communion He wasn’t just celebrating Passover, He was totally transforming it. Because the Passover, and Communion, were all pointing to His far greater rescue.

They were pointing to how Jesus quenches God’s wrath.

When Jesus died, the full fury of God’s wrath that was hanging over our heads for every unrighteous thing that we have done fell on Him instead. The unquenchable fire was quenched by the blood of Jesus as it ran down the cross. He swapped His righteousness for our sin and, like that Passover lamb, He was killed for our sin in our place.

He did it so that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved from God’s wrath. From destruction.

If you have Jesus as your Saviour, every time you mess up, even now, His blood on the cross says, ‘that has already been paid for.’

If you’re here and you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, please hear this: All of us have God’s wrath hanging over us – me, you, and everyone else here. I know it’s not nice to hear, but I’d be lying to you if I pretended it wasn’t true. But please, please also hear this: you don’t have to be in danger. Come to Jesus – you’ll find that He is far more kind, more loving, more understanding than you could ever dream. And He is the only one who can save you from destruction. Because He is the only one who has taken God’s wrath in our place.

In chapter 22:19, God tells Josiah that because his heart was penitent, He wouldn’t have to face His wrath. The Hebrew word that’s translated as “penitent” here could also be translated as “tender.” Josiah’s heart was soft towards God.

When God spoke, he listened.

When God spoke, he responded.

And that’s all that God asks of us. To respond when He speaks. So please listen to what God is saying here.

Listen to His warning.

Listen to His promise to rescue you.

And respond by asking Him to save you.

God showed Josiah mercy when he repented, and He’ll do the same for you, too. All you need to do is say to Him, “I’m sinful. I’m sorry. Please save me.” And God will stop you from every having to see hell.

If you’re here and you are a Christian, remember what Jesus has saved you from. Be humbled by the lengths God has gone to save you. That Jesus died to make you right with Him.

Fear His awesome holiness that meant that cost.

Know that because Jesus has made you righteous, you are precious and perfect in God’s sight, even though you still get stuff wrong now.

As you eat the bread and drink the wine when we share Communion together, remember that Jesus’ body was broken, His blood ran down that cross, for you. And it shields you from God’s wrath and makes you clean.

But also don’t keep the news to yourself!

When he found the book of the Law, Josiah gathered all the people to hear it. We aren’t kings with that kind of power now, but we can still take what opportunities we can to share what we’ve found. The reason that as a church we are praying for 100 people to become Christians in the next few years is because we want to see God saving more and more people from His wrath. The reason that we’ve said that we want to equip the church family to proclaim the Gospel is because we long to see God use us to bring more people to saving faith in Jesus.

It’s not something we can just sit on our hands about and wait for someone else to do! It won’t look the same for everyone, but we all have a part to play in sharing the news that Jesus saves us from God’s wrath.

We’ve seen that Josiah couldn’t save his people, but that Jesus does. And Jesus saves us from God’s wrath by absorbing it for us and making us righteous. And then He starts an inner revolution to change us.

 

Jesus, the King who changes our hearts.

Josiah had no power to change the hearts of his people, but that’s exactly what Jesus does for those who come to Him. Ephesians 5:25-27 says that Jesus gave Himself up for us to make us clean and present us to Himself in splendour, without any kind of imperfection, that we might be holy. If you want a long word for it, that’s called sanctification.

We are born with hearts that are against God and turn away from Him. Jesus died to give us the status of being righteous, and to work in us to change us into people who actually deserve to be called righteous.

It’s something that we need to work hard at ourselves. When Josiah realised just how bad the nation’s sin was, he literally smashed up their temptations. And we need to do the same. We need to have the same soft-heartedness that asks God for forgiveness, and the same resolve to destroy the idols in our hearts.

What tempts you away from God?

What idols are in your bedroom? On your dining table? At your desk?

What gods do you worship on your smartphone? With your credit card? In your diary?

What do you think and feel that you believe is more true than what God says?

Get rid of them! We must repent of all these! Because they are what turn us away from God.

Sin is not a pet to be tamed, it’s a monster that wants you dead. It drags you away from God so that you stop believing in Him and fall under His wrath. As theologian John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” And this is what God by His Spirit wants to do in you. He wants to kill your sin. But He wants to do it with you.

Keep fighting. Remember, it’s not wrong to be tempted. But it is wrong to give in.

Sin inflamed the wrath that Jesus died to quench, so why would we go back to it?

Sin is what God promises to give us the power to fight, so why would we play into temptation’s hands?

Keep fighting. Keep working hard not just at killing sin, but growing in godliness. Join the revolution of God in your heart!

You aren’t alone. As a church family we’re committed to building each other up so that we’re growing in faith and godliness. So let’s be honest with each other about our struggles. Let’s help each other bear the burdens of the temptations we have to fight. Let’s fight with and for each other, praying for each other, being accountable to each other. Let’s be spiritual comrades in arms together.

 

Josiah was a king who loved God like no other. But he couldn’t save his people.

Jesus is a King like no other. And He’s the only King who can save us. He quenched God’s wrath when He died on the cross, and He changes our hearts to make us people who truly worship God and delight Him.

So come to Jesus. Come to the God of peace who will save you and make you completely perfect. Come to the God who will make your whole being blameless and holy and without blemish.

God is calling us. He is faithful, and He will surely do it (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

 

A couple of things that heavily influenced me while I was writing this were:

(This is an adapted transcript from a sermon I preached at my church back in August. You can listen to the real thing here.)

 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Revelation 3:14-22 (ESV)

In the letters from Jesus to seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation, we can see that these churches faced a spectrum of challenges that every church faces today, whether it’s having to endure persecution from people outside the church, resisting false teaching from within, or dealing with problems in our own hearts.

If you aren’t a Christian, you might well be wondering how looking at the Bible could ever apply to you and what the point of even reading this is in the first place. But keep reading – see how God talks to His people, but also keep an eye out for how this might be relevant for you.

Let’s turn to this final letter that Jesus sends, addressed to the church in Laodicea.

In Romans 11:22 we’re called to “consider the kindness and the severity of God” and we’ll see that here. We’ll see the severity of Jesus towards a church that’s indifferent towards Him, and His immense kindness and generosity to that same church if she would turn to Him again.

 

The Severity Of Jesus

In the other letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus had something to commend them for. To Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Philadelphia He said, “You are enduring persecution and clinging to Me.” He commended Thyatira’s servant-heartedness and faithfulness. He even had something good to say to Sardis, who were spiritually dying but still had sparks of life and goodness to encourage.

But unlike His other letters, Jesus has nothing good to say about Laodicea. To them He says “I will spit you out of My mouth!” [v16].

Why?

A quick skim of the letter shows this is because Jesus sees them as lukewarm wretches; poor, blind and naked. To fully understand what He means, we need to understand the Laodicean church’s situation.

Laodicea was a wealthy city in the south east of modern-day Turkey. It was a big commercial and banking centre, with a large textiles industry famous for its wool and tunics. Its wealth made it a city of arts, science and literature. It was a leading centre of medicine, and was renowned for its healing eye ointment. Think about somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge today – beautiful, prosperous, and famous for its academia.

The city of Laodicea wasn’t just rich, it was absolutely loaded. In fact, the people of Laodicea were so well off that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake and the Emperor offered to help them rebuild, they said, “No thanks, we’ve got this”!

And it looks like the church in Laodicea had a similar attitude. In v17 Jesus tells them “… you say, I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing…” and why wouldn’t they? They lived in a wealthy and prosperous city. And do you notice – this letter doesn’t talk about persecution? On the surface, they were doing well.

But Jesus had a bombshell to drop on them: “You, are poor, blind and naked. You think you have everything, but you have nothing.”

The great irony of Laodicea’s situation is that they are the exact opposite of what they think they are. And they can’t see it! It’s their blindness to their spiritual situation that makes them think they don’t need anything.

And this complacency disgusts Jesus.

He says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Hot and cold water are good in different ways, and the Laodicean church would have known this well. Hot water from the springs in Hierapolis a few kilometres to the north would have been good for bathing in. Cold water from the springs at Colossae just down the road would have been beautifully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

But Laodicea didn’t have its own water supply, so it had to be piped in by aqueduct. And by the time that the water got to the city, it was lukewarm. It wasn’t refreshing like the cool water at Colossae or useful like the hot springs at Hierapolis. And it was full of stuff that made it taste absolutely gross. So gross that the Romans said it was only fit for slaves!

That’s why Jesus says, “I will spit you out of My mouth!” He’s saying that they were as foul and unusable to Him as their tepid water was to them. Their smugness and self-satisfaction made them indifferent to Him, and it makes Him sick.

It sickens Jesus that the church He has died and risen for has a relationship towards Him that could be described as: Meh.

Jesus isn’t being needy and whiney. He starts the letter by describing Himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” [v14b]. He is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness and truthfulness. He sees things as they really are, and He doesn’t lie about it.

And Jesus will not pull His punches when it comes to challenging this complacent church. If they stay like this, He will reject them.

Because what can He do with a church that doesn’t love Him? That doesn’t listen to Him?

He is being so severe because this is so important. Jesus wants a Church that loves Him with all her heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37), because true worship and obedience to Him only comes from loving Him above all else.

If we find ourselves in a similar situation to the church in Laodicea – if we have plenty, if we are in a comfortable place and are enjoying life going well – we need to ask: are we as healthy on the inside as we look on the outside?

I’m not saying that good things like health and wealth are bad in themselves – after all, God provides good things for us to enjoy. But we can’t assume that doing well for ourselves on the surface means that our hearts are in the right place.

In fact, it can blind us to how we really are spiritually.

Think about it: when do we pray the most? It’s when we need something, isn’t it?

If I think I really need something, like a good night’s sleep after a week of insomnia, or a holiday I’ve been desperately looking forward to, or for the bus to really not be late today, God hears about it from me a lot.

But He rarely hears anything from me about the roof over my head, the wages I’m paid, or anything else I take for granted. But nothing has changed – I still need Him to provide those things, even though I’ve forgotten that.

You see, if we don’t feel how much we need God, we can forget that we need Him.

We can forget that He provides everything for us.

We can forget that in and of ourselves we are wretches with hearts prone to wander into sin.

We can forget that it’s by God’s grace and Jesus’ blood alone that we are saved from hell.

So, like the church in Laodicea, we’ll think “I don’t need anything” and our hearts will cool towards Him.

Our attitude towards the Saviour who provides for us, cares for us, who died to save us, will go from passionate worship to: Meh.

How do we stop that?

Jesus tells Laodicea, and us, the answer.

 

The Kindness Of Jesus

We’ve seen that Jesus has warned the church in Laodicea that if they don’t change He will reject them. But Jesus hasn’t given up on this tepid church. We’ve seen His severity. And now we’ll see His kindness.

You see, the Laodicean church’s indifference to Jesus may have made Him want to throw up, but He hasn’t abandoned them yet.

If you look at the beginning of Revelation 2, you’ll see a picture of Himself that Jesus gives in His letter to the church in Ephesus. He held the stars and walked among the lampstands that represent the churches He is writing to. Jesus still holds the church in Laodicea in His hand, and He is still with her.

He says in verse 19, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” He is brutally honest in telling the church in Laodicea how it is because He loves them. Because He wants them to turn away from their complacency and love Him again.

And He gives this blind, naked church the remedy to her disease and poverty: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” (v18)

But how can a spiritually poor, blind and naked church do this?

The answer comes in verse 20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

They need to stop shutting Jesus out and invite Him in.

And when Jesus is invited in, He will eat with them. When the Bible was written, sharing a meal was all about intimacy. You wouldn’t invite just anyone round for dinner; eating together was about close friendship.

Jesus is using this as a picture of what knowing Him should be like. It’s not having Him safely on the outside and only talking to Him when we need something, and even then only through the letterbox of the closed door of our hearts. No, it’s welcoming Him in to the very core of our being and inviting Him to stay there, to live in the closest relationship that it is possible to have.

And Jesus doesn’t only offer close relationship with Himself. Each of the letters to the churches in Revelation finishes with a promise to “the one who conquers”, to those who endure in faith to the end. The promise He gives in this letter is this: “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (v21)

This is huge! If we persevere in faith, we will sit on the throne of Jesus, who sits on the throne of the God the Father. We will one day share in Jesus’ rule over the whole universe!

This is God’s incredible grace, that the Lord Jesus would see a wretched people and call them to come to Him for riches. Riches that they can’t afford, but that He has already bought for them on the cross. Not the ‘health, wealth and happiness’ of the prosperity gospel, but the faith, purity and clarity of sight that Jesus has bought for us through His blood.

On the cross He paid the price to give us His righteousness to cover our shameful sin.

And faith in His sacrifice for us is worth far more than gold, because it is by faith alone that we have a right relationship with God.

And as part of having a living relationship with God, He sends His Spirit to live within us to help us see clearly.

So how do we buy this from Jesus? By being zealous and repenting like He told the church in Laodicea to do. By deliberately turning away from thinking we’re fine, and throwing ourselves on Him for everything.

If you’re a Christian here today, can you see what’s at stake?

Listen to the warning Jesus gives! Ask Him to show you the real state of your heart, not just where you think you’re at. And if you find you’re cold towards Him and you’ve shut Him out, then pray and ask Jesus to come in to your heart again – not just the threshold, but the kitchen and bedroom and even the downstairs toilet!

Because He wants your heart. He wants you to be spiritually rich and clothed and able to see through your faith and relationship with Him.

And when we turn away from being complacent, when we realise our blindness and self-satisfaction and ask Jesus to make us burn with passion for Him again, He promises to do just that!

So pray, ask to know Him more, to love Him more. And as He shows you how things really are, don’t stop talking to Him about how you need Him to change you.

Ask God to give you a greater yearning to know Him better. That you’ll look forward to hearing Him speak to you every day as you read your Bible.

That you will read your Bible!

This is the most precious book on earth! It is a record of God’s dealings with His people and what He has spoken to us. He has ensured that it would be written down for us to read. And thousands of others throughout history. God has given us the Bible so that we will know Him, and so we will know how to live in the best way possible.

So read it, every day, and ask that through reading it God will give you a greater desire for, delight in, and dependence on Him above anything else.

Ask God to give you a greater passion for Him that spills out into obedience to His command to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and to love those who without hearing the Gospel will suffer God’s righteous judgment when they die.

If you’re reading this and don’t believe in Jesus, then can you see what’s at stake for you? Our God is not an idea. He’s a person. He cares about the way Christians live – not just the things you see them do, but in how they think and feel about Him. He cares about the way you live, too.

Jesus isn’t blind to our imperfections, although we might be. He knows what we’re really like, everything we regret and everything we hide. But time and time again He gives us the chance to choose what is right. That’s what repentance is – turning from doing what is wrong and going in the opposite direction.

This might sound terrifying. But God isn’t waiting for you to give Him the opportunity to attack you. He’s waiting for you to ask Him to forgive you so He can give you treasure beyond anything in this life, and heal your brokenness, and cover your shame.

The Laodicean church’s indifference towards Jesus disgusted Him, and we need to realise that if we’re lukewarm towards Him, or even don’t care about Him, the danger of rejection is real for us, too.

But Jesus gives us time to change, and if we repent, there is so much that He offers us.

Forgiveness for sin, every wrong that we’ve done.

Being accepted by God.

The right to become a child of God. To be loved by Him. To be protected by Him. To never be separated from Him.

Transformation from broken sinfulness to beautiful holiness.

An heir of God’s perfect kingdom.

That He will make everything work together for your benefit.

That when you die you will leave behind all pain and tears and live with God forever in a perfect world, and He will be more real to you than anything else you’ve known on earth.

Wouldn’t you want to be loved by God like that? You can! Jesus says that if anyone hears His call to repent of a lukewarm heart towards Him and lets Him in, He will.

So let’s remember the kindness and severity of God. How seriously He takes our relationship with Him – so seriously that He will reject us if we don’t truly love Him. But oh, how kind He is to us, that He promises so much to those who will let Him in.

When was the last time you went ‘Wow’? Was it the last time you went on holiday to a somewhere beautiful? Was it listening to your favourite music? Was it seeing something you haven’t seen before?

Now, we don’t all go ‘wow!’ at the same things. Someone can be completely obsessed about their latest gadget or favourite TV programme and it means nothing to me. But some things are just impressive. Like the fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on our planet. Or that although it’s only about 5cm long, a single Golden poison frog has enough poison to kill 10 people. Or that the human brain has enough memory to hold three million hours of TV! But the best impressive things are ones that you can linger over. Things you can enjoy. Like an incredible explosion of colour as the sun sets in a clear sky. Or your favourite meal shared with your closest friends.

This is an edited transcript of a sermon I recently gave on Genesis 1:1-2:3, the story of God creating the universe. In it, I hope you’ll see something that should make us all go wow. But first, here’s a bit of context.

Genesis is an introduction to the first five books of the Bible, which some people call the Pentateuch. These books were all written by Moses, when God was leading the people of Israel from Egypt, through the desert, to the promised land. During that time wandering in the desert, the people of Israel had no home. They were surrounded by other nations who worshipped other gods. Imagine what that felt like. Imagine all the questions that would be going round their heads: How could they know that their God is the true God? How could they know who they were?

Israel wandered around the desert for 40 years, long enough for one generation to die and another to grow up and take their place. How would they answer their children’s questions:

Daddy, why are we in the desert?

Mummy, why does God live in a tent?

Those people over there worship the sun and moon, why don’t we?

When are we going to stop moving?

Will we ever have a home?

In Genesis, God uses the stories of history to answer these questions. It tells the stories of how God created the universe. Why the world is in the broken state it’s in today. It then zooms in on the story of God’s relationship with His chosen people, finishing with how Israel ended up in Egypt in the first place. It’s a book of origins and generations, showing God’s people who they are and who God is.

We are on a journey to a promised home, just like the Israelites were, and we need to learn the same lessons that God’s people learned back then. We need to learn who we are. We need to learn who God is. So we are turning to the beginning of their story and the beginning of our story. The story of God’s relationship with His people over the generations.

But first…

The best place to start any story is at its beginning, but before we dive into Genesis 1 I want to acknowledge that the creation story found here can be a point of friction for us. Our belief in a Creator God has brought us under fire and ridicule from our culture. It laughs at the idea of an all-creating God as being unscientific, misguided, or just plain stupid.

How to interpret the creation story can be a point of friction between Christians, too. There has been plenty of debate over exactly what it means in terms of how long God took to make everything, and people who are Christians, people who know and love God, have different views. These views fit broadly between the two extremes of believing God created the universe in literally seven days, or over the course of billions of years.

This is a bigger issue for another time, but whatever you think, we must prioritise believing what God actually tells us in the Bible over what we think it says, or what the rest of the world tells us, because God’s Word is truth – not our ideas, and not other people’s opinions.

And to see what God is telling us in Genesis 1, we need to see its purpose. It wasn’t written to explain the details of how God created. Its focus is on the fact that God created everything.

God created… by the power of His word

And firstly, God created by the power of His Word.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1

These are probably some of the most familiar words from the Bible, yet these 10 words are one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever seen! We are used to the world existing – of course we are. It’s been there for as long as we remember! From before we were born! But we can be so used to it being there that we forget how big a thing it is that the world is here in the first place.

Genesis says that in the beginning, the earth was formless, void, and dark. There was nothing. When we think of nothing, we often think of empty space, but really most bit of what we’d think of as being empty space are full of heat, and light, and air. In the beginning there was absolute nothingness – no substance, no light, and no order. Not just empty space, but no space to be empty!

But then we read that the Spirit of God hovered over the formless emptiness… something is about to happen.

And something does: God speaks. And the universe comes into being.

Time and time again in this chapter we read “God said… and it was so” or “God said… so God created” Have you ever stopped to think about what this means? Think about it – who can create out of nothing? I can’t make anything out of nothing – at the very least I need my body to physically put stuff together! But God spoke the universe into existence.

He said “Let there be light”, and there was light.

God said “Let there be an expanse separate from water”, and the heavens – the sky and space – were drawn apart from everything else.

God said “Let water and land separate”, and there were seas and continents.

He said “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” and the earth became lush and green.

God said “Let there be lights in the heavens to separate the day from the night” and the heart of the Sun started to burn.

He said “Let the water swarm” and “let birds fly” and “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” and we have billions of species that still fascinate us today.

He said “Let us make man…” and Adam took his first breath.

We should be utterly awestruck by God’s power.

The universe exists because God told it to exist. God is so powerful that just by telling something to exist, He doesn’t only create the outline of a thing, but all of the details of how it works and lives and moves.

With a word, God brought you into existence – every cell in your body in its place, every way that you think and feel written into your heart, every ability you have assigned and given to you. With a word! I can sing quite loudly but I can’t bring anything into existence with my voice!

Only God has that kind of power.

Isn’t that just awesome?

If God is powerful enough to command everything to exist and keep it existing with that same command, who are we compared to Him?

Who are we to make our own rules and decide for ourselves the way the world should be?

Who are we to tell Him how to behave?

Instead of trying to pretend that we are masters of our own universe, shouldn’t we be bowing to the One who has given us bodies and breath?

We should be awestruck by how God has shown His power in making the universe, and give ourselves to Him as people that He has created and rightly rules over.

God created… with purpose and order

God doesn’t just create with power. He creates with purpose and order.

We see it in how Genesis describes God creating the universe. He has six working days and makes a different thing in each. And each day has an evening and a morning – at the end of every day God stops working, and at the beginning of the next day He starts working on the next thing to be created.

He creates with purpose and in order. Each day builds on the last. God starts by separating light and darkness, the heavens and the water and the land. He then fills them. He fills space with stars, the Sun and the Moon. He gives them the job of measuring time. He then fills the earth with things that are more and more complicated. Plants sprout from the new ground. Animals soar and swim and scuttle. And finally, God creates humans. He makes us in His image, to reflect Him more than any other part of creation. And that means He made us to know Him. To have a relationship with Him.

When God has finished creating, He rests. God sits back and enjoys His creation.

Because God has created the universe to enjoy it!

God created… to enjoy

As our passage says, God creates everything, and the sixth day ends. Then it says:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.”  – Genesis 2:1-2

God rests. But what does this mean? Isaiah 40 says that God is the everlasting God who doesn’t get tired. So is God just not bothering to do anything any more? We know that isn’t true – God is constantly at work in the whole Bible and through history. So He can’t be sitting around, doing nothing for the rest of time because He’s finished His work and left the universe far behind on His desk at the office. What is He doing?

Look at Genesis 1:31:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good…” – Genesis 1:31a

The last thing God does before He rests is to look at all He has made and declare it to be “very good”. God sits back, not to have a snooze, but to take pleasure in His finished work. To enjoy it. To spend time enjoying it.

God delighted in His creation! God was happy with it. We can think of God being stern and serious and maybe a bit scary, but God is a joyful God. He takes pleasure in what He has made. And He intends for us to enjoy the universe too. God has commanded us to work as He worked, with six days of labour and one of special rest, as it says in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. This isn’t just giving us a working week, it’s giving us rest, too.

As God’s people today, we should have one day a week where we stop our work. Where we leave the office behind. Where we leave the coursework on the shelf. Where all the chores, and the life admin, and anything else that distracts us gets put on hold. So that we can enjoy the universe God has made. But far more import than that, so we enjoy what God made us for – relationship with Him. So make time to enjoy God and enjoy His creation. Make time to enjoy Him as part of God’s people together – that’s what church is for.

I’m not saying that the world is perfect now. I know it isn’t. There are parts of it that are hard and confusing and painful. But God made the universe to be good. And although creation has been corrupted by our sin, it still hasn’t lost that goodness. It can still be enjoyed, and we can still delight in the smell of flowers, the roar of the sea, a fantastic lunch when you’re absolutely starving.

Creation hasn’t just kept its goodness now. One day it will be made completely new again. In Colossians 1 it says that on the cross Jesus reconciled everything to Himself. He dealt with our sin, that had broken our relationship with God.  Jesus made a way for creation to be made new, and for us to be made new to live in that creation. To live in a world that is better than what we see now because it won’t be twisted by evil any more. A world that will be everything that God has made it to be. Where we will truly enjoy God and the universe at its best without anything getting in the way. But the only way we will get there is if we believe in God and trust in Jesus as our Saviour.

In God’s Word today we have seen that God created everything. He created by the power of His word. He created with purpose and order. And He created the universe for Him to enjoy, and for us to enjoy it with Him, because creation is good and we are made to know God. And if you trust God and believe in Jesus, you can look forward to this universe being made perfect again in the future.

So the next time you see something that makes you go ‘Wow!’ remember how it got there in the first place.

Remember that God spoke it into being.

Remember that God made it to be good and that you can enjoy it.

Remember that if this world feels painful and confusing, it will one day be made perfect, and if you’re a Christian you will enjoy it forever.

But most of all, remember that you are made to enjoy creation with God, in relationship with Him. So if you don’t know God, why not choose today to believe in Him? To become what you were made for?

 

If you want to listen to the audio recording, it can be found on the St Mary’s website.

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