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Isaiah is a pretty cool book, and surprisingly relevant for Christmas. We’ve been going through it in our sermon series at St Mary’s this term, and I hadn’t noticed before just how much it’s about Jesus. In a way, that’s quite daft, because the entire Bible points to Jesus (see John 5:39), and we have those famous passages that we bring out at Christmas like Isaiah 9 (…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… etc.). But as we’ve looked at it in church I’ve seen just how much it’s about Jesus. Isaiah contains a lot of warnings about coming destruction because God’s people had turned away from Him, but in it God also says I will take your guilt away and promises them so much good if they would come back to Him. And He keeps on hinting at how He’ll bring this about …to us a child is born… (Isaiah 9:4); Behold, your God… will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:4); Behold my servant… (Isaiah 42:1). And then in chapters 49-53 He goes into a whole lot of detail about the “servant”, who would take upon himself the sin of God’s people, die willingly in their place, and bring restoration once again… Jesus!

Isaiah 35 contains another hint:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”

Isaiah 35:3-4

Your God will come and save you. This was a message for the remnant of Israel, the faithful few people that God kept for Himself while the nation was being judged. They would have seen the destruction of their country, their home, as war advanced and their armies were defeated. Ultimately, they would be taken into exile.

God was speaking to people in a very real political situation. I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to forget that the events in the Bible were real bits of world history, and some of them big and scary like we’re seeing today in Syria and Iraq and Ukraine. At the time Isaiah was writing, the country of Assyria had become a world superpower. It had conquered the mighty Babylonian empire and now had its sights set on Judah. So to try and save their skin, Judah made defensive alliances against the Assyrian empire, and the alliance’s attempt to take on their enemy failed. Assyria advanced, and war was on their doorstep.

It’s easy for us to look at the people in the Bible and wonder how they could be so daft as to not trust God when clearly only a few pages before He’d done something incredible, but I know that I can all too often forget who is really in control of the world, and that can be only about something small like catching the bus! But in Isaiah, and in these verses, God is speaking to a people on the verge of international war. He is giving them warnings of worse things to come, but He is also giving hope to those who will trust in Him – don’t be afraid, your God will come and save you.

We know that ultimately He has done this for us in Jesus. When Christ died, He took upon Himself all the punishment that we deserve for our sin and every offence we have committed against our holy God. And when He rose from the dead three days later He showed that He had defeated death once for all, the Father’s wrath was satisfied, and now we have eternal life in Him. And this is eternal life beyond what happens to us in this world – we are alive in Christ no matter what gets thrown at us! We are safe in Christ no matter what difficulties we have to come, no matter what opposition, no matter what illness or persecution we have to suffer. No matter what family situation, breakdown in relationships with people, fear for the future, whatever makes us anxious. We have encouragement from God’s Word to take heart and stand firm because He will come. That may mean that He saves us from the situation we are in now. But that might also mean that He leaves us in the place where we are. Either way, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So we are safe, no matter what, because we can never be snatched away from our Saviour.

Christmas day is almost upon us, the day when we celebrate that God has come and saved us. He has shown His glory through a baby born in Bethlehem, God made human, who died for the sins of the world. And because of this, we can have such confidence in our God, that we are His children, His beloved people who can never be snatched from Him. Let’s pray this confidence for ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ, that whatever we do we will be encouraged by the fact that God is with us now, and whatever happens He is our Saviour. Let’s praise God that He is far bigger than the world, and makes us more than conquerors in Christ – He hasn’t just defeated death for us, but even makes suffering work for our good. Let’s thank Him that one day He will end all suffering and persecution, and our trust in Him will be shown to be justified. But also, let’s pray that more people would come to know this peace; that people will turn to Christ as their Saviour.

There are many unknowns in life. Some aren’t all that important – for me, it makes no real difference whether or not I keep up with this year’s World Cup. I normally have an “I don’t know and I don’t care” view of football, so whether or not England get kicked out in the semi-finals on penalties yet again doesn’t affect me. But I’ve come to the stage in my Masters degree where unknowns are important. I’m doing my research project, and the point of research is to make unknowns known, to find out new things and ask what works, and why and how things are the way they are (and to spend plenty of time groaning “why-won’t-you-WORK?!?” when the experiment fails yet again).

But besides my research, a much bigger unknown is looming. Beyond the end of the next few months, little is certain; which means that answering the barrage of questions that naturally get asked when one comes to the end of a degree, like “what do you want to do next?”, “have you got a job yet?”, and (unspoken) “why haven’t you sorted your life out?” is a real nightmare! I’m someone that doesn’t get on well with uncertainty, either. I hate not knowing what I’m going to be doing at the weekend, let alone what direction my life is heading in. And with such a big thing like that, uncertainty is really scary. What if I can’t find a job? Or end up in one I hate because I’m desperate? Or can’t afford to live? Or end up moving somewhere else for work that’s far from everything and everyone I know and I’ll be so far away and DIE ALONE!?

Uncertainty is something that worry loves to latch on to because it means that, at least for a time, circumstances are out of our control. I know that when I get desperate, I can’t stand things being out of my control because it means I have to rely on something or someone other than myself, and because they aren’t me, they’re an unknown. And as worry grows, my perspective shrinks and I end up imploding in a dark little ball of stress.

But Jesus said “Do not worry.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Why shouldn’t I worry? Don’t I have every right to be concerned about my life?

“… do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (v25)

Well, yes. But how am I going to earn? I need money. If I don’t have money, I don’t have a roof over my head and I’ll go hungry.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?… And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” (v26-30)

God sustains the world. We have an ecosystem where every species has something to feed on. Granted, living things die of hunger or lack of other resources, and nothing on this world lives for ever. But the point isn’t about God not letting things die. The universe is still here, and it still works. When God created, and when He sustains creation now, there isn’t a gap where he missed something out like forgetting to make things edible or accidentally missing an important thing out of physics like a dodgy line in computer code so that the moon will randomly explode tomorrow or something like that (to you physicists out there, I’m so sorry if I got that wrong. I’m a microbiologist, physics is all a bit weird to me). The point is that God has created the world, with its complexity and beauty, and He has ensured that living things can live. And not just live, flourish. So if our Father can feed animals and make even grass beautiful, won’t He care for you, whom He cares about far more? Won’t He care for you, whom Jesus shed His blood for? For you, whom He has promised to be with and protect and keep safe until the day you see Him face to face?

Worry takes all of this and says “I’m not so sure that’s true.” Because worry is us trying to be in control, rather than trusting God to be in control. At the moment, it’s very easy for me to worry because it does seem like my life has to be in my control. In a sense, it is and will be: God loves me too much to hand me everything on a silver plate. He doesn’t promise that a job will fall into my lap, He doesn’t promise that life will be without hardship. As His child, He loves me too much to take away such opportunity to learn and grow to be more like Jesus, however hard the road is. Yet when nothing’s moving forward and my future is uncertain day after day I still doubt whether things will actually work out for my good in the end. Has God forgotten me?

God’s people Israel went through a lot in the Old Testament. They started out as an ethnic minority group in Egypt, made into slaves. They were rescued by God and brought to a new land. When they were established in the land, they had enemies to contend with at their borders. But the worst of it was that they turned away from the God who has rescued them and given them everything, and because of that God allowed them to be conquered and sent into exile in a foreign country. They were far from home, living among people who spoke a different language, who had different customs, and worshipped other gods. The symbols of their connection with God like the temple in Jerusalem had been removed from them. Where was God? Was He back in Israel? Had He abandoned them? Had He forgotten them?

To these people, God spoke prophetically through Isaiah:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

Why do you complain, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no-one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint

– Isaiah 40:26-31

Look at the stars – who made them? Who makes sure they are all there? Who knows them by name? Who is it that created the earth, who has limitless power and understanding and strength? Isn’t it the Lord, your God? Your God? Don’t you know that He gives strength and power to the weak and tired? Don’t you think He would remember you, His people? Don’t you think He will give you all you need?

Don’t I believe that God will provide what I need? Don’t I believe that I can apply for jobs, and trust God for the outcome, and He will work for my good – wherever I end up?

To this worry has no answer, because it has no place in us who are God’s. We have a heavenly Father who loves us and never forgets us. We have no need to worry, because our God is the God who sustains the world and commands history to achieve His purposes.

I’m lacking creativity to write a catchy title for this one. But reading “Epaphras” so many times brings to mind how my friend says it. Epaphras was a friend of the apostle Paul, and you’ll read more about him in my talk. Blondie was writing and giving sermons on Colossians when I was, but instead of saying “Ee-paf-ras” like most normal people, she, in her soft-but-still-northern Yorkshire accent would go “Eeeeeh-paf-ras”, as in “Eeh-by-gum-paf-ras”. We both did a lot of Colossians, and every time I just couldn’t get over the “Eeeh-by-gum”. Sorry Blondie. At least I didn’t tell you while you were doing it.

I’m not gonna lie – this is one of my earliest sermons so it’s probably not my best. But no matter how badly wrapped the message may be, the truth of the Bible is the same. So please try to see past my clunky writing as we dive in…

Bungee jumping is ridiculous. To me, the idea of flinging yourself off a high ledge with nothing but a piece of rope to stop you becoming human porridge on the floor is insane. So much trust goes into that rope, and stories like the one last week don’t fill me with confidence about the sport. I remember last year there was a news story where a woman’s bungee cord failed whilst she was jumping over a crocodile-infested river. Thankfully, she managed to swim out of the river and was ok. But when something as important as the bungee rope fails, the jumper is in serious trouble, to put it mildly.

There are many things that we trust, to varying degrees. We trust the floor beneath our feet to hold us up, we trust our alarm clocks to wake us up in the morning; we rely on our friends and family and trust in their love. We also trust that what we are taught at school and university, and by our parents, is true. There are certain things that we trust which are fundamental to us, and like a failed bungee cord it’s terrifying when it seems like they aren’t true. What are the most important things we trust in? And how can we be confident that they are trustworthy?

I’m going to be talking on Colossians 1:1-8, and I hope that as we explore this passage we will see that we can be confident that the most important thing that we trust in, the Gospel, is true. Let’s have a read of the passage:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints – the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow-servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

–  Colossians 1:1-8

As we can see from the first two verses, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Colosse. Colosse was a small city in the Lycus Valley area of what is now Turkey. It was about 120 miles southwest of Ephesus. The church in Colosse began during a period of evangelism linked with Paul’s ministry in Ephesus in 52-55AD, and which is recorded in Acts 19. It was started by a man called Epaphras, who was from Colosse himself, and brought the Gospel back home as Paul’s associate/representative. Paul is writing to the Colossians probably in 60/61AD, during his time in Rome. Epaphras had visited Paul in Rome and told him about the churches in the Lycus valley such as Ephesus and Colosse. He must have mentioned the recent introduction of a false teaching at Colosse which could undermine the Gospel and prove dangerous for the Church. What we will see from the rest of Colossians is that this false teaching basically said that you had to obey certain rules to gain what they called “true knowledge”. To correct this, Paul wrote to the young Colossian church.

His greeting in verses 1-3 is fairly normal for the time; stating the author, the recipient, and a greeting. Paul states his credentials as an apostle (literally meaning “someone sent”) of Jesus, as he does in his other letters. He also mentions Timothy, probably because he was with him at the time. He then addresses the Christians at Colosse as being “holy and faithful brothers in Christ” (v3). He is affirming their faith throughout this first section, encouraging them that they can be confident in the Gospel they know.

After his greeting, Paul goes on to mention his thanks to God for the Colossians. He says that “we always thank God… when we pray for you” (v3). If you notice, he says “when we pray for you.” This implies frequent prayer for the Colossian church – even though he hasn’t met them. When he does pray for them, he thanks God for their faith in Jesus and the love they have for “all the saints” (v4). I’ll come back to this later; but if you notice, both the Colossians’ faith and love for their Christian family come from “the hope that is stored up… in heaven” (v5). This hope is the hope of salvation and right standing with God that they have in Jesus. This is something the Colossians can be confident in, because it is stored up for them in heaven, as Paul says in verse 5. It is kept safe where it cannot be touched by any that would seek to destroy it or take it away. And this is the same hope that we have! We believe that we are saved through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, and here we see that the inheritance that we will enjoy is safe.

Paul mentions that the Colossians had heard about this hope through the preaching of the Gospel. You see, the problem is not that they haven’t heard the Gospel properly – Paul describes Epaphras as a “faithful minister of Christ” in verse 7, so he would have given them a faithful and true account of how Jesus had saved them – no, the problem is that some dodgy new teaching had crept into the Colossian church. This teaching could have confused them and caused them to doubt whether they were saved at all, because it was saying that you needed more than just faith to receive all the blessings we have in Christ. But Paul is stating here that the Colossians already know the truth, because they have been taught it by Epaphras, and that they can be confident in it. Why? Because the Gospel was spreading around the known world, as Paul says in verse 6, bearing fruit and growing. And it was doing this in their church as well. This is something alive, something growing. Something that is obviously Spirit-empowered as shown by its progress, against all odds at times. Paul is saying, “look, you know this already and it is true.” He is showing them that they are saved, because of what can be seen in them. He is beginning to suggest that the truth which they have already been taught is worth trusting in, and Paul will pick up on this thread throughout the rest of the letter.

So, Paul has described how the Colossians can be confident in what they have been taught already about Jesus and their hope of salvation. And we know that this had a visible effect: Epaphras told Paul about the Colossians’ faith and love, which resulted from their hope. It makes sense that faith follows on from hope – we believe in this hope that we have. But I wonder whether we consider our love for fellow-Christians to come from the hope that we have? I know that I hadn’t really thought about it before studying this passage. Yet the hope stored up for us in heaven, the fact that by trusting in Jesus we are given right standing with God and become His children, should spark a love in us for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as well as, faith. We know that we are saved by grace, and we know the imperfect condition of our own hearts. God’s Holy Spirit lives in us, and He empowers us to love others; especially the eclectic bunch of other imperfect people that we now call our spiritual family! And since this love and faith “spring” from our hope, they are a sign that we are saved by God.

We have seen that Paul confirmed that the Colossians could be confident in the Gospel, and that their faith and love came from their hope. He confirms that he can see that they are saved, in preparation for his rebuff of false teaching in the rest of his letter. So, we can be confident in our trust of the same Gospel that we believe in. And we can encourage one another, if, or maybe when, we struggle with assurance – we can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ, reminding them of the things we have seen in them that show their faith.

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