God’s care for his people

Does God care for you?  How do you experience that care?  When are you tempted to forget it and what’s the result of that? Take a minute to answer those questions, don’t rush past them.

We have a funny attitude to work, self-care, and failure.  Not funny ‘ha ha!’ but funny distorted.  It’s like we’re in a fun fair hall of mirrors, for some of us the distortion warps us and makes us lazy, or fearful and not want to do or risk anything.  For others of us it stretches everything and makes us want to work harder and harder, burning ourselves out.  There are lots of reasons for that but ultimately for us as Christians it can be traced back to the wrong way we think about God.  It’s as if we view God via a funhouse mirror.  Our theology is faulty, it’s warped by our performance management, DIY, and expressive individualism culture.  

And it surfaces in the way we serve in church.  Some of us are so fearful of getting something wrong, so scared of the imperfect, so anti-failure that we daren’t try because we look at God in the distorted mirror of the perfectionist.  Others of us are burdened, and when something goes wrong just redouble our efforts, trying harder and harder, working longer and longer, telling ourselves its better to burn out than have anything left, because we view God in the mirror of slave driver.

We saw in the last post that Elijah is passionate about God, his people and the gospel – God’s great plan to redeem the universe.  And that passion is a good thing.  But it’s led Elijah to be discouraged and despairing because Israel haven’t turned despite a miraculous intervention.  How do you think God feels about that?  How do you expect God to react to Elijah’s brutally honest prayer?  How would you react to a friend who felt like that?

We left Elijah asleep under a broom bush (5-8)and an angel wakes him and what does he say? “Get up and eat.”  There’s not normally a lot to eat in the wilderness but, there by his head is (6)some bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water.  Then what does Elijah do?  He “lay down again”.  And notice the angel doesn’t treat him like a lazy teen and start banging and clanking around moaning about ‘prophets these days!’  No the angel lets him sleep.

Then a second time the angel wakes him again and provides food and water for him.  It’s vital we get this.  What does God do for Elijah?  He provides for his physical needs.  Spiritual labour exacts a physical toll and we are embodied beings.  The angel doesn’t tell Elijah to ‘Man Up!’ or hurry up.  He doesn’t tell him he hasn’t got time to eat or drink or sleep because God has big things for him to do.  No twice the angel provides food and water and lets him rest. God knows how we are made, he made us to eat, sleep and drink.  That’s not an accident, it’s not a result of the fall.  It’s part of the good God’s good design.  It’s a way we’re unlike him, that we show our creaturely-ness, our dependence on him.

And notice something else about the provision.  What’s on the menu?  Bread and water.  OK it’s not a Michelin Star meal, although I wonder if angel bread would be a showstopper on Bake Off in bread week.  But there’s huge significance in this.  In ch 17 when Elijah is fed by ravens he’s fed bread and drinks water from the brook.  When the brook dries up God sends him to Zarephath where God says he has a widow ready to supply his needs.  When he gets there he asks her for what?  “a little water in a jar…. And a piece of bread.”

Do you see the significance of what God provides for him here?  There’s theology on the menu.  God is feeding both his body and his soul with this food.  Elijah don’t you remember how I provided for you last time you were on the run?  Have you forgotten I care about your physical needs?  Won’t you trust me?

God’s provision and protection in the past should be a constant reminder for our present and future.  God cares.  And God cares for our physical needs.  Every single meal you eat is a direct answer to the prayer for provision that we often forget to make.  Every meal is a sign of God’s care and blessing for you and your family, whether it’s cheese or beans on toast or a 24oz steak with all the trimmings.  And times of eating and sleeping aren’t distractions or necessary evils, our society is sinfully wrong in its attitude to them.  They are gifts of a good God to us, so we’re renewed in our faith and trust in him and put it into action. 

I don’t know about you but I need that reminder.  When something goes wrong, or just not as well as it could have gone, or I’m discouraged, my sinful tendency is to work longer, sleep less, do more, eat on the go.  To do meals as pit stops and rest as necessary inconvenience after I’ve tried everything to stave it off.  But God has made me finite.  He’s set my limitations and it is ungodly, it is sinful to try to live outside of those limitations.  It’s a rebellion that forgets, or deliberately denies God’s nature, wisdom, character and his care, and our nature as not-God.

But the angel does one more thing.  (7)When he’s rested, fed and watered the angels tells him he has somewhere to be.  Now he’s not ‘hangry’ he has a journey to go on.  So he ate and drank again(8) and journeyed 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, or Sinai as we know it better.  The very mountain where the covenant was made with Israel after the exodus from Egypt.  Where Moses met with God, Elijah will meet with God.  There, Elijah goes into a cave and spends the night – gets another nights rest (Don’t you love the unhurried, patient, caring nature of God, he’s not rushed, he’s not stood rolling his eyes waiting for the tiny finite mortal to get on with it!).

And the next morning God speaks “What are you doing here Elijah?”   It’s an odd question isn’t it?  I wonder how you hear it?  Some suggest it’s a rebuke but it can’t be can it?  God has led him there, fed him to give him the strength to meet him on the mountain of God.  Why would he do that and then rebuke him for being there?  That would make God capricious and unfair and he’s not.

It’s not a rebuke it’s an invitation; Elijah share with me your disappointment and despair.  Tell me how you feel.  God is inviting Elijah to pray.  Elijah pour out your heart to me, tell me how you feel, tell me how you’ve got here, to this point?  That is gracious loving care from God for his prophet.

And Elijah does, he pours out his heart to God (10)“I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”  On the mountain where the covenant was made, with the God who made the covenant with his covenant people, Elijah shares how Israel have broken the covenant.  Some people accuse Elijah of having a pity party, but look at his words, who have Israel sinned against?  They have rejected God’s covenant, torn down God’s altar, and killed God’s prophets.  Elijah isn’t self-focused, he’s passionate about God and his glory and so when Israel reject God it breaks Elijah’s heart. He’s a covenant watchdog and yet Israel keep breaking the covenant, ignoring the warning and the discipline.

If we feel any less when people reject Jesus, or shipwreck their faith, we have professionalised our faith and fail to share God’s passion for his glory and his compassion for the lost.

And what does God do?  God listens.  God graciously, tenderly and lovingly meets with Elijah.  He doesn’t tell him to man up.  He tells him to go to the mouth of the cave and experience a Moses like encounter with God.  And God appears to him not in the hurricane force winds, not in the earthquake or the fire.  Not in any of the spectacular or pyrotechnic but in the gentle whisper.

What is it that Elijah needs?  Elijah needs physical food and rest and God provides it.  And Elijah needs a fresh encounter with God and God meets him and provides.  God’s not done but that’s for the next session for now I want us to see God’s care, to feed and feast on it.  Because I think it’s something we can so easily miss or forget about God.  God doesn’t want his people to serve to the point of burn out either physically or spiritually.

Jesus in his earthly ministry often withdrew from the crowds to recharge and spend time alone with God.  When Paul writes to Timothy ministering in Ephesus in a church that needs all kind of reform and where false teaching and its impact needs confronting he reminds Timothy that he needs to be nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed again and again and again.  As well as exhorting him to drink a little wine for his stomach and his frequent illnesses.

God cares about his people.  He provides for us.  He doesn’t set unrealistic expectations of us.  If we’re going to serve him we need to care for our physical needs, by resting and eating, and we need to care for our spiritual needs – taking time to be with God, to behold Jesus, to pour out our hearts to him in prayer.

I don’t know where you are.  But my hunch is that for some of us the physical tank is running low.  The warning light is blinking showing low fuel on your spiritual tank because you’ve just been busy doing, doing, doing.  Can I ask you to stop requiring of yourself what God does not require of you.  Don’t be like our society that binge rests so it can binge work.  See the God who provides food and rest for Elijah, and meets with him to refresh him so he can continue to serve with his expectations reset and his vision renewed.

Maybe this morning you need to ask God to show you again who he is in all his loving compassionate generosity.  Maybe you need to repent of serving a slave driving deity in the image of our societies management style, rather than the God who in love provides salvation and calls us to rest and to look forward to eternal rest.  Perhaps you need to repent and change your attitude to food and sleep and prayer and time with God.

God wants us to trust him, to know him, to enjoy him, to find our rest in him.  To experience his provision and serve him passionate for his glory because we have tasted and seen that he is good all the way down.

Why not pray about that now?

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What does God want from his people?

I wonder how you answer that question? What’s your instinctive first reaction?

What is God like?  How you answered that first question ‘what does God want from his people’ is largely determined by how you answer that question.  How you think of God.  Is God a headmaster or boss setting challenging, or impossible, targets and demanding results?  Or is he happy go lucky, chilled out and more of a people person than a target setter?  How we think of God will determine what we think God wants from his people.  What he expects of you at work, at home and in the community, at church and as a church.

How we think of God and what we think he expects of us are hugely important when it comes to how we serve him and especially how we respond when things don’t go the way we thought they would, or when things just seem slow.  That’s when we can feel like we just need to work harder to produce.  Or we feel like a failure.  Or think of giving up.

I’m sure you’ve seen quiz shows where they stop the action and ask ‘What happens next’?  Sometimes it’s helpful to do that with the Bible.

In 1 Kings 19 God’s people are ruled by evil King Ahab.  They’ve been led to ignore God and worship Baal and other idols.  God disciplines them by withholding rain for three years as he promised he would, but Israel won’t turn back to God.  They won’t recognise the covenant curse, God calling them back through his discipline.  They won’t repent.  And so God, through Elijah calls for a showdown on Mount Carmel.  In one lonely corner stands Elijah Yahweh’s prophet and in the other stand 450 prophets of Baal.  It’s a battle over who is God, who is worthy of worship and loyalty and love and who isn’t.  It’s last God standing, a display to once and for all stop the people wavering and call them to follow one God.

Each builds an altar, each puts wood on the altar, each puts an offering on the altar, but mustn’t light it.  Instead of matches they’re to pray for a divine conflagration and the God who sends fire from heaven is the real God.

You can feel the tension can’t you.  The priests of Baal go first.  They pray, they plead, they shout, they cut themselves, they dance from morning till evening getting more and more agitated and frenzied as Elijah taunts them asking if Baal is busy, or travelling or if he’s dozed off.  But despite all the activity, all the energy nothing happens.  There’s no fire, not even a fizzle, because Baal isn’t God.

Then it’s Elijah’s turn and you wonder if he’s been out in the sun too long.  He calls the people to him and rebuilds God’s altar, digs a large trench around it, sets up the wood, cutting up the bull but then, in an act of seemingly staggering stupidity he has 12 large jars of water poured all over it.  Then finally, at the time of evening sacrifice, he prays to God asking that God would act “so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

And instantly, whoosh, the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil, and all the water in the trench.  And the people fall down and proclaim “The LORD – he is God!  The LORD – he is God!”  Then slaughter the 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah prays and rain falls for the first time in 3 years.

Here’s the question; what happens next?  Or rather what should happen next?  Everything should change shouldn’t it?  Ahab should lead the nation in national repentance, and chapter 19 should be the story of Ahab and Elijah leading God’s people to live in his land enjoying his rule as his people for his glory. Revival should break out, the nations see Israel basking in the joy of being God’s people and chapters 20 following should document the nations turning to God.

But that’s not what happens.  No sooner has the smell of BBQ drifted away with the rain and any hope of revival is washed away too.  (1 Kings 19v1-2) Ahab runs home and tells Jezebel everything Elijah had done.  And how does she react?  She isn’t repentant, she doesn’t weigh the evidence and think ‘Wow! I was wrong Baal isn’t God, Yahweh is the one true God, I’d better repent.’  No, she ignores all the evidence and sets out to kill Elijah as soon as she can.

That’s really helpful for us to see.  Sometimes we’re naïve, we think repentance is the result of logic and argument – if I can just show someone who Jesus is, build a case and prove he’s the Messiah then they’ll repent and come to faith.  That’s what our evangelistic courses are built on and why when we reach the end of them we’re a bit stuck as to what to do next with people who liked the course but haven’t trusted Jesus yet.  And so we look around, send a few WhatsApps for recommended courses, and invite them on another course.  Or perhaps we think it’s about seeing the miraculous, surely that will bring them to repent.

But Jezebel shows us that some people just won’t accept God is God and they’ll do anything to crush those who say he is.  And it’s not just that they won’t listen and change they want to silence anyone who teaches the truth.  That’s true for our brothers and sisters in North Korea and India and Nigeria and across so much of the world.  We mustn’t be naïve.  We mustn’t be surprised when people just won’t accept or even look at the evidence for Jesus or react to it aggressively. 

(3)Elijah sees what’s happening and runs for his life, gets to Beersheba and leaves his servant there before going a days journey further into the wilderness.  Sitting under a broom tree and there praying “I’ve had enough, LORD… Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  

Does that shock you?  It should!  God’s prophets aren’t meant to pray like this.  They’re not mean to pray Lord I’m done, take my life.  Don’t rush past this.  Something like this should make us stop and think what on earth is going on here?  How is Elijah who stands so boldly on the mountain now praying like this?

Elijah isn’t despairing because Jezebel wants to kill him.  He’s not afraid of dying or why would he ask God to kill him?  I don’t think he’s having a breakdown, or a depressive episode as some people try to diagnose him with.  Elijah is despairing because after everything that’s happened, after the most spectacular evidence for God Israel could see they haven’t turned back to God.  After Carmel it seems like nothing has changed when he longed for everything to change and surely it should have.  Israel should be God’s people again, revival should have broken out, but Jezebel has just ignored everything and Ahab, and therefore Israel, are going to remain in idolatry.  On the spiritual life support machine Carmel is just a blip when Elijah thought it was the start of a new life, the spiritual defibrillator for God’s people designed to shock them into life.  But it hasn’t happened.

And that matters to Elijah.  He’s passionate for God’s glory and God’s people.  His ministry is encapsulated in his name, what does Elijah mean?  “The Lord is my God”  What was Carmel supposed to show?  It was supposed to show Israel what Elijah knew, what his name meant, that Yahweh is God and there is no other.  It was supposed to change everything and yet it seems to have changed nothing.  Elijah’s success rate is up there with every other prophet and judge and leader – Israel aren’t loving the LORD their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and he’s gutted by that.  His ministry is a failure.

Have you ever felt like that?  You share the gospel with a friend or family member and you think they’re getting it, they begin to respond, but then something or someone holds them back.

Or you’re studying the Bible with someone and they’re making real progress and it’s exciting watching them grow and change as they grasp God’s love to them in Jesus, it’s sheer magnitude and scale.  But then suddenly the shutters come down, they make excuses not to meet, and drift away from church.

Or maybe it’s for you as a church.  Things were going well, you were getting traction in the community, building some good relationships, knocking down barriers to the gospel, seeing interest.  And then COVID struck and you feel like you’re back to square one and you’re so frustrated.

Or maybe it’s your Jezebel.  Maybe you’re facing opposition, conflict, or threat and it looks like it may derail everything.

In every case we can find ourselves feeling frustrated.  ‘But I just wanted them to know God.  I wanted them to see the hope there is in Jesus, I really wanted them to see that he can change the world one life at a time.’  And we find ourselves like Elijah saying “Lord, I’m done, that’s enough.”  We’d never go as far as to say take my life.  In fact we don’t verbalise it at all.  Can I say I think that’s where one of the places we go wrong.  We Brits are emotionally constipated.  Our upper lips can be so stiff it’s as if we’ve had years of botox there and it’s no longer capable of movement.

Elijah’s words reveal his heart.  This is a shockingly honest prayer – this is genuine prayer!  He’s passionate for God’s glory and his people and the gospel.  Do we ever feel like this?  Am I ever that crushed, or am I simply not that passionate?  It may be that you look back on a time you were but every little disappointment, every person that’s rejected Jesus, has left the church, has opposed you, has little by little cut open your heart and left scar tissue so that you daren’t feel that passion any more.  You’ve walled your heart off; dialled down your passion so you don’t feel the pain.

But notice something in this passage.  God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his words.  God lets Elijah lay down under a bush and fall asleep.  There is no dramatic intervention.  Could it be that Elijah’s passion for God is right?

We have to realise if we’re to be sustained in gospel ministry: God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his discouragement.  He doesn’t rebuke him for his passion for God’s glory and his people and the gospel,  In fact we’ll see God ministers to him in it.  God longs for his people to share his passion for his glory, his people and the gospel of Jesus Christ his Son.

Jesus knew how Elijah felt.  How often does he minister and people miss the point, he preaches and they stop at ‘Wow’.  He stills the storm and people are afraid.  He feeds thousands and they come back to him for more food treating him like a wilderness walk through.  He gives all the evidence he is the Messiah fulfilling prophecy after prophecy after prophecy and they reject him.  Matt 23v37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you will kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  

I don’t know how you feel.  Are you bursting with joy and passion for God?  Or are you like a half full balloon, or a deflated balloon?  Maybe you feel like you’re a failure.  Or that church is hard.  Or you’re mourning a loss.  I’d love you to speak to God about it right now.  To tell God how you feel and why.  Let me let you into a secret – God already knows, and he’s not angry, he promises he’ll collect your tears in a bottle.  And Jesus right now is seated at the Father’s side and he aches with sympathy for you, he knows what that feels like, that longing frustrated, that passion unfulfilled.  Will you stop right now and speak to God about it?  Or even better ask someone to pray with, or for, you.

We also need to recalibrate.  What does God require of you?  It’s not success.  It’s sharing his a passion for God’s glory, his people and his gospel.  Will we pray for that?  Pray that God gives us his heart for his glory, his Son and his people?

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5 words to pray for your church

Do you know what to pray for your church? We pray lots of things don’t we, some good biblically grounded prayers, others a bit more vacuous. We’ve just finished a series in 1 Timothy and I was really struck by the 5 words he closes the letter with, it’s not a throw away line, it’s not a nice sounding ending. It’s his prayer for them; “Grace be with you all.”

The more I’ve thought about it the more I think that simple prayer encapsulates the letter he has written to Timothy. It’s a prayer not just for the abstract idea of grace to be with them but for Jesus who is grace embodied to be increasingly in their midst. It is a prayer for the culture of the church to become one where grace is with and active and transforming them all. It’s a prayer for Timothy’s teaching to be grace all the way through. It’s a prayer for grace in the way he exhorts the various groups within the church. It’s a prayer for grace to nourish Timothy as he feeds on God’s word and on healthy teaching so he can keep on sharing that with the church and feeing them on it even as he combats the false teaching.

It’s a prayer for grace to transform the relationships within the church between those currently at war. It’s a prayer for the church culture to become one where grace is both the melodic line and the first reaction. It’s a prayer for grace to be the thing the world of Ephesus looks at the church and sees in the way it treats one another and the outsider.

I think that’s a prayer we can echo; “Grace be with you all.”

Looking for character yet seduced by charisma

We all know that the Bible emphasizes the need for leaders to exhibit character. Yes, elders are to be able to teach but the rest of the list of criteria found in Timothy and Titus are about their godly character. If you read the letter of 1 Timothy from Paul to one of his young pastoral proteges, or ministry mentees, so much of it is taken up with the absolutely need for Timothy to be godly. The churches greatest need is not for greater giftedness of its leaders but for greater godliness in its leaders.

And yet, despite knowing that, despite hearing sermons on it, despite reading books on leadership that stress it, we’re so easily seduced by the siren song of the age and seek giftedness. Our society prizes the quick and the impressive looking and we’re lulled into wanting the same thing. Maybe that explains so many of the leadership crises that we have seen in recent years. Quite simply those leaders who fall, or wander off, do not have the character, the godliness that a leader needs to face the pressures and temptations that come with leadership. Or churches don’t set up structures to grow those leaders in godliness as they grow in gifting.

So how do we find the leaders we need? How do we find men of character and godliness. It’s no surprise that we look to God’s word to find the answer:

  1. The leader needs to desire to lead (1 Tim 3v1), he has to want to do it, longing to serve Jesus and the church for his glory
  2. He must be examined over a long period of time. All of the character traits in Timothy and Titus aren’t seen over a few visiting Sunday’s, or even a weeks mission or someone joining you for your church weekend away. Later on in chapter 4 Paul tells Timothy not to appoint leaders too quickly (4v22) because while some sins are blatant and obvious immediately others surface later, or trail behind them. Do we give enough time for those sins to bob to the surface?
  3. Look at his home life. Where are we at our most consistent? At home. We can’t keep up the act all the time so home is where the reality of our character is seen, so it is a vital indicator of whether someone has the character to lead. If that’s where he or she is at their worst, then that’s who he or she really is. Again this takes time to become visible.
  4. Look at his devotional life. Honestly examine it, ask questions about it. Godliness is a matter of training, it’s about rhythms and routines. It’s about a commitment day in day out. It’s about a humble life of steady dependence on God displayed in a hunger to hear his word and a seeking after his wisdom and tasting again and again his goodness and grace. And you can’t minister to others out of an empty heart. A cracked cistern doesn’t hold water and so has nothing to often those thirsty for the water of life.

Those things can’t be seen quickly, you don’t see them in a reference, they aren’t a given when someone leaves bible college. They are the results of long term discipleship. And they have nothing to do with giftedness. And yet we are so easily bewitched and dazzled by a TED talk style delivery, or by a confidence that is actually a small glimmer of arrogance or pridefulness.

And the thing that has struck me in Timothy is that character and godliness aren’t something you either have or don’t. They are developed, the result of training, effort and ingrained habits repeated over and over and over that are a result of an awareness of our need of the nearness and grace and wisdom of Father, Son and Spirit. They can be lost, subsumed by ministry tasks or pride or sin. As churches we need to seek character not be seduced by charisma. And we also need think carefully about how we help those in leadership positions grow in their character, pursuing godliness over the long term if we want them to minister healthily for the long term.

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What if there is no balance?

Yesterday we were looking at 1 Timothy 6 and Paul’s teaching about spotting false teachers, teaching the truth, and a godly view of money. It’s a challenging passage and as usual now I’ve preached it I’d love to have another go. It was a middle aged sermon carrying a bit too much flab around the middle. But it has provoked some interesting discussion in the hours since.

Someone suggested that what Paul was saying was that we need a balance in how we think of money and stuff. So it’s not evil to have stuff, we’re free to enjoy our stuff and have nice things but there is a balance to be struck between that and living for stuff, in enjoying it and letting it become too important. Let me say some of that is true, but just because bits of it are true it doesn’t make the whole thing true. I think this is reflective of the way many of us think of the Christian life, it’s about having a balance – not too much and not too little. It’s goldilocks theology – not too soft, not too hard but just right, not to hot, not too cold but just right. But that just isn’t biblical.

Paul is being far more radical in 1 Timothy 6 he’s not advocating a balance. “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” He’s saying a balance isn’t good enough, it’s not godly. Disciples are called to something far more radical than balance, we are called to “godliness with contentment”. It’s not about not being too extravagant or too stingy but just right. It’s about finding all we need in Christ and until we do that we won’t have a right attitude to our stuff. It’s about knowing we bring nothing in and take nothing out of this world of our possessions, it’s radically about being content in having food and covering – just the basics. It’s about pursuing Christ and becoming more like him whom we behold because we know we could never be loved or fulfilled or find peace in anything like we can in him and so we trust him for everything – that sounds radical not balanced doesn’t it?

What if the way we so often try to reason discipleship down to balance is really us arguing ourselves into compromise when what Jesus calls us to is something far more radical? Yes that radical may look different for different people, but it won’t be balanced. Read a gospel and we see Jesus that is beautiful, amazing, powerful, majestic, authoritative, but he doesn’t call the disciples to a life of balance but of denying yourself, carrying your cross and following him. We needed a radical salvation, a mind blowing rescue from a judgment and slavery we could do nothing about, and we are freed, redeemed, adopted, resurrected, born again, not to live a life of balance but of radically spirit empowered living where everything is transformed because we have Jesus as our greatest treasure.