Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - A simple recipe for prayer (Philemon Pt.1)

(Some brief notes from the message shared last Sunday when we gathered as a church.)

Today, we're going to take a look at the letter to Philemon, written by the apostle Paul.  In particular, we're going to look at an example of Paul's prayers, and learn a simple recipe for prayer.  But first of all, what is the background to the letter to Philemon?

Philemon is a Christian, and from verse 2 we understand his wife was Apphia and his son was Archippus.  He probably was quite wealthy, as his property was large enough for the church to meet in.  The church was based in Colosse - in Paul's letter to the Colossians, the apostle mentions Archippus and Onesimus, Philemon's slave (Colossians 4v9, 17).

Onesimus had run away to Rome, possibly stealing money from Philemon (v18).  It appears that he met Paul (who was in prison in Rome) and became a believer (v10).  Paul then writes a letter to Philemon, preparing him for the return of Onesimus and teaching him how he should now respond to his slave.

We'll be looking at the guidance he gives next week, and also considering why Paul doesn't simply tell Philemon not to have slaves.  This week, we're going to look at the first few verses of the letter, and learn about prayer in the light of Paul's example.

A Simple Recipe for Prayer

1) Take some thanksgiving (v4).

Paul wants the Colossian believers to be "abounding in thanksgiving" (Col.2v7), so it's no surprise that his own prayer begins with thanks to God.  What does he say "thank you" for?

a) Love for the Lord and love for each other.  Paul recognises that our love for God and our love for each other begins with God.  "We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4v19).  The origin of the compassion evident in a Christian community is found in God's work, bringing us into His family.  It is therefore appropriate for us to thank God for this love.

b) Faith in the Lord and faith in each other.  Paul clearly believes God is the one to thank for their faith in Christ.  Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2v8).  Why thank Him for their faith unless He is the provider?  

But Paul also thanks God for their faith in each other.  Love should always be partnered with trust, and it is wonderful when that is visible in a church; when we have faith in each other to provide help when needed; to give wise advice; to take responsibility for our roles. That is certainly something to give thanks for.

2) Add some requests (v6).

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." (Philippians 4v7)  What request does Paul make?  Firstly, he prays for the sharing of their faith.  This not only means with unbelievers, but also with each other.  It was appropriate for them to share their faith through encouragement and the use of their gifts.

The reason for this sharing was so that they would gain "full knowledge", understanding the work of Christ in each other, and seeing it taking place.

Why does Paul pray for this to happen?  "For the sake of Christ!"  Jesus will be glorified as the church matures, and as the lost are convicted of their sins.

3)  Mix these two ingredients together within a loving church family.

Even though Paul is in prison in Rome, he writes as though he is a member of a family in Colosse.  Reports of the love evident there is a blessing to Paul (v7).  This is the context for prayer.  The commitment to pray for each other confirms the authenticity of a church family, and the genuineness of the prayers themselves.

This is the stage that is so easy to overlook!  It's tempting to think that my prayer is the bowl in which the ingredients get mixed together.  But actually, it's the church community that is the bowl!  For example, how can we thank God for the love shared in a church community if we're not really committed to that community?  How can we pray for the sharing of our faith if we're not willing to share our lives?

So the simple recipe for prayer is:

1) Take some thanksgiving
2) Add some requests
3) Mix these together within a loving church family

Monday, 25 April 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - There is a fountain filled with blood

My apologies for not updating the blog since last Monday.  I changed my work schedule last week to ensure we were ready for an inspection, which meant I spent Friday working for the church instead of Tuesday.  The inspection went really well, and this week my routine is back to normal!

Here's a hymn that we enjoy singing together as a church.  It paints a vivid picture of how we are cleansed eternally from our sins by the blood of Jesus.

If you enjoy listening to this version by Norton Hall Band, their EP of hymns is available digitally on Amazon.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - For God so loved the world

Here is a children's song that we sang for the first time together yesterday.  Next week, we'll be singing it again and introducing a round!

Friday, 15 April 2016

Friday to the Father - 15/4/16

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4v6-7

We recently applied to hire a different venue for our Sunday service.  This other venue had several practical benefits when compared to our current meeting place.  However, our application was turned down.  While this was initially surprising and disappointing, we see it as an answer to our prayers and your's, and find a peace that "surpasses all understanding".

We've therefore embraced the challenge of our current meeting place, and last Sunday we changed several things about the structure of the service.  The outcome was very positive, and I was greatly encouraged!  We were also grateful for a large family visiting during their holiday in the local area. 

We have also decided to change the time of the Sunday meeting, moving it from the afternoon to the morning, beginning this Sunday.

Praise God for His faithfulness, and for the wisdom He is able to provide.

Please pray that God will continue to provide for the practical needs of the church.  Pray also that God will help and heal those who are currently unwell.

Thank you for your continued prayers.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow! 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - When your heart is shaken, let faith be your pacemaker (Isaiah 7)

(Here are some notes from the message shared last Sunday when we gathered as a church.)

"If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all." (Isaiah 7v9)

Today, our attention will be on Isaiah chapter 7.  As we approach this Old Testament passage, let's remember an important principle - the whole of the Bible is about Jesus Christ!  Jesus establishes this principle after his resurrection (e.g. Luke 24v25-27).  The book of Isaiah, therefore, should point us to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

What is happening in the book of Isaiah?  Recently, we've looked at the book of Haggai, which deals with the return of God's people to their land after their exile.  Isaiah covers the period of time before the exile (first half of Isaiah) and during the exile (second half of Isaiah).

Israel had originally consisted of 12 tribes, which then formed one kingdom.  However, the kingdom split - 10 tribes formed a northern kingdom(called Israel or Ephraim), and 2 tribes formed a southern kingdom (Judah).  It's in Judah that we find the prophet Isaiah.

Judah is a little kingdom surrounded by big players - nations like Syria, Israel and Assyria.  These bigger nations either want to squash Judah or absorb it.  So what are the people of Judah to do?  What is the king of Judah to do?

Isaiah is commissioned by the Lord to take His message to the king and the people.  The message of the book of Isaiah is simple: "Trust in the Lord."  How is that message presented to King Ahaz and the people of Judah in Isaiah 7?

1) Fear can shake your heart (v1-6).  What was King Ahaz like?  We read about him in 2 Chronicles:

"He did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord, like his father David had done, but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel.  He even made metal images for the Baals (false gods), and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering..." (2 Chron. 28v1-3)

Ahaz illustrates a recurring problem for Judah - sometimes they would have a good king (like David), but he would eventually die, and often be replaced by a bad king (like Ahaz) who did not follow the Lord.  King Ahaz is now under pressure from Syria and Israel (v1).  They want to replace Ahaz with a puppet king (v6) who would join them to fight against Assyria.  When the king and the people hear this message, their hearts are shaken!

Isaiah's first comment is simply, "Don't do anything silly!" (v4)  The troubles are temporary - the smoke from these nations is the smoke of a fire that is dying (v5).  As an illustration, think of a barbeque in the summer.  There always comes a point when the barbeque is still hot, but the heat is dying, and you can't cook on it anymore.  So it was with Syria and Israel - they were like dying barbeques!

These fears were temporary - but temporary fears can still shake your heart, and make you doubt the Lord's will for your life.  

For example, your manager may ask you to do something unethical at work, and you fear taking a stand, knowing the potential implications for your career.  

Or you're struggling with money, and you fear losing the lifestyle you're accustomed to; but you know of a loophole to avoid paying taxes.  It's not right, but it's not illegal either.

Or you're single, and as a believer, you have always felt you shouldn't enter into an intimate relationship with an unbeliever.  But you're starting to think, if you ignored that standard, it would be so much easier to be with someone, even if it's not really what the Lord wants for you.

Your heart shakes, and you start to think: "Maybe if I went my way rather than the Lord's way..."  It looks better in the short term but, as we'll soon see in this passage, short term rewards can end up being very costly in the long term.

So what do you do when your heart is shaking?

2)  Let faith be your pacemaker (v7-16).  Isaiah tells Ahaz he can trust the Lord to protect His people.  Human leaders cannot overthrow God's plans (v7).  Soon, Israel would be defeated and divided up (v8).  We read in 2 Kings 16 + 17 of both Syria and Israel being defeated by Assyria.

But Isaiah finishes with a warning (v9) - "If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all."

In other words, trust in the Lord when your heart is shaken, and you will stand firm.  Sometimes, when a person has an irregular heart rhythm, they'll be given a pacemaker, a piece of technology to keep their heartbeat steady.  The lesson of Isaiah 7 is to let faith in God be your pacemaker.  When your heart is shaken, exercise your faith in Him - this will keep your heart steady.

But Ahaz doesn't do this.  Instead, he turns to Assyria for help (see 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles for more about Ahaz).  He trusts in a pagan nation and instigates more pagan worship in Judah. When Isaiah returns again (v10), Ahaz isn't really interested in what the Lord has to say, and feigns humility to avoid hearing more (v12).  Isaiah responds with a message of judgment.

Firstly, there is the image of a virgin and son.  In the immediate context, this simply provides a timescale for the defeat of Syria and Israel.  In the time it takes for a baby to mature into a young adult, both nations will be destroyed.

But we also see a greater significance to this image.  Matthew quotes this passage in his gospel (Matt.1v22-23).  He recognises the virgin birth of Jesus the Immanuel ("God with us") as a prophesied sign of the defeat of the enemy of God's people.

So today, Jesus is the one we build our lives upon.  Old Testament kings were unreliable - bad kings would fail, and good kings would die.  They would either let you down or leave you.  But in Jesus Christ, God provides a king who never lets you down and never leaves you.  Jesus is the king that never fails and always lives.  When our hearts are shaken, we can have confidence in the Lord who perseveres for us in heaven.

So let faith be your pacemaker.  You can trust Christ when your heart is shaken.  You can trust his plan for your life.  You can trust him with your obedience.  You can trust him when you refuse to do something unethical at work; when you say "no" to that unhelpful relationship; when you ignore the loophole that would provide temporary riches.  You can trust Jesus Christ as your Saviour and as your Lord.

3)  There is judgment for those who do not trust the Lord (v17-25).  Short term rewards can be very costly in the long term.  What did that mean for Judah?

a) Humiliation.  God says he will use Assyria as a "hired razor" to shave Judah from head to toe (v20).  This image of a "full body wax" is meant to cause embarrassment.  It implies nakedness and humiliation.

b) Thorns.  As the Lord whistles for Assyria to bring about His judgment (v18), the land becomes unusable - instead of grapes, there'll be thorns (v23-25).  "Milk and honey" were once images of a bountiful land.  But soon, it will be all the people have, because nothing will grow (v21-22).

If you don't trust the Lord, all that is left for you is judgment for your sins.  For Judah, that meant humiliation and thorns.  But God has provided a saviour to rescue you from judgment by taking your place.

Before his arrest, Jesus agonises in prayer because his heart is shaken by your greatest fear - the judgment of a holy God.  As he suffers and dies on the cross, he faces the judgment you deserve.  He endures the humiliation and he wears the thorns that were meant for you!  

Why does he do that?  Because he loves you so much!  And if he loves you that much, you can be absolutely certain that his plan for your life is always for your good, and will ultimately lead you to give him praise and thanks.  You can trust him as your Saviour and as your Lord.  You can trust him in your obscurity; you can trust him in your poverty; you can trust him in your loneliness.

He has demonstrated his love and faithfulness.  He will never leave you and he will never let you down.  You can trust his plans are for your good and for his glory.

In conclusion, fears can shake your heart, so let faith be your pacemaker.  Trust the rescuer God provides to keep your heart steady!  Put your hope in the never-failing, always-living King, Jesus Christ!  Trust him as your Saviour and as your Lord!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - Grace to Grace

If love endured that ancient cross,
How precious is my Saviour's blood!
The beauty of heaven
Wrapped in my shame

The glory of Jesus shines more brightly when we try to understand how far he descended to save us.  We are humbled because we feel dwarfed by his glory, yet at the same time we are lifted up because the love revealed by his sacrifice is equally beyond comprehension.

We know that we cannot demand or earn this love that never lets us go.  We can only receive and then live in it by God's grace - a mercy that unceasingly provides all that we need to be His people and live in His love. 

Here is a song produced by Hillsong that draws our attention to the glory of Christ revealed at the cross, and encourages us to respond to God's grace with praise.   

(Click on the subtitle symbol to get the lyric to appear on screen.)

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - Where did the body of Jesus go?

(Here are some notes based loosely on the message shared when we gathered as a church last Sunday.)

Where did Jesus go?

That's a question that has been asked since the New Testament church first sprang up.  The Bible is an anthology of books, written by different authors over many centuries.  In the New Testament, we have the gospels (focusing on the life of Jesus) written about 30-60 years after Jesus died.  We also have letters written to New Testament churches, written at the same time or a bit before the gospels.  A claim that is repeated in all of them is that Jesus rose from the dead.

He didn't simply come back from the dead - he went to life beyond death!  It is claimed that, as the Son of God, he beat death, and if you trust your life to him, he will also beat death for you, and give you eternal life.

But a lot of people today don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  They believe that while he was probably a good person, he was definitely an ordinary person - and ordinary people don't rise from the dead!  They believe that some of what is written about Jesus in the Bible is true - the "non-miraculous" bits - but other parts of the Bible (especially the miraculous bits, like his resurrection) were made up after his death. 

So today, we're going to think about some of the suggestions people make about where the body of Jesus went. And while we're going to use the New Testament as evidence (it was, after all, written within a few decades of the events), we're only going to refer to the passages that would be included in the "non-miraculous" bits.

Why do this?  Because I think many people assume that if they only believe the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, it will lead them to a non-miraculous conclusion about where the body of Jesus went.  Today, we're going to test that assumption!

Theory One:  Jesus was a fairly tale.  Some suggest you'll never find the body of Jesus because Jesus never existed.  All of it is a fairy tale made up a few centuries after the events.  Not many people believe this today because of the weight of historical evidence, but we'll still see what the New Testament has to say about it.

So how do you know someone is real?  How do you work out if someone existed?

You might check their family tree.  That's how many people today find out who their real family is.  It's also one of the non-miraculous ways the New Testament backs up its claim that Jesus is a real person.

"The book of the genealogy (family tree) of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of... (this continues for 16 verses)...the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ." (Matthew 1v1-16)

How else do you check if someone is real?  You could ask people if they ever met the individual - e.g. did they see him?  Did they hear him speak?  Was their community affected by the life of the individual?  Luke openly takes this approach when writing his gospel.  Having referred to the eyewitnesses, he then writes:

"It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you... so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught." (Luke 1 v3-4)

So Jesus had a family tree, and was seen by lots of people.  If you only believe the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, then the theory that Jesus was a fairy tale is simply unbelievable.

Theory Two:  Jesus was a real person who stayed dead in a tomb, and stories about his resurrection were made up centuries later.

When did the Christian church start to claim that Jesus had risen?  Was his body still in the tomb for everyone to see?  Let's consider some verses from the New Testament:

"Peter said: 'God raised up this Jesus, and of that we all are witnesses." (Acts 2v32).

This was part of the apostle Peter's first sermon, soon after the death of Jesus.  He claims to be a witness of the risen Jesus.  The clear implication is that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb for people to go and see.  

"Then Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have now died." (1 Corinthians 15v6)

The apostle Paul, when writing to the church in Corinth, makes it clear that Jesus rose from the dead, and many of the people who saw this were still alive.  It wasn't something made up several centuries later - it was claimed immediately, when people could still visit the tomb, see if the body was still there, and discredit the claim.  The only sensible explanation for how the church immediately began to grow by the thousands is that the claim was credible.

If you only believe the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament (such as the claims attributed to the apostles) then the theory that the body of Jesus stayed in the tomb is simply unbelievable.

Theory Three:  Jesus didn't die on the cross.  In the tomb, he revived, and over a couple of days regained his strength, and then escaped the tomb without being caught by the guards that were posted there.

Could Jesus have revived naturally and escaped the tomb without being caught by the guards?  What non-miraculous evidence does the New Testament offer?

First, we see a physically weak Jesus as he approaches his crucifixion.  "As they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus." (Luke 23v26).  Although Jesus had started to carry his own cross, someone else had to take the burden because he was so weak after the beating he'd received as part of his punishment.

It was the custom of Roman guards to check a person was dead before taking them down from a cross.  If someone wasn't dead, they would break the person's legs to speed up their death: "When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water." (John 19v33-34).

Having suffered so much punishment, then been stabbed in the side, could Jesus have revived and found the strength to move the stone that was rolled in front of his tomb?  How big was the stone?  We're given an impression by the women who went to the tomb to carry out customary post-mortem rituals: 'And they were saying to one another: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" ' (Mark 16v3).

The stone was too heavy for a group of women to move by themselves.  It isn't plausible that an ordinary man, weakened by a beating, hanged on a cross, appearing dead, stabbed with a spear, wrapped completely in linen cloth (Luke 23v53), then left without food or water for 2 days could revive, break free of the cloth wrapping his body, then move a huge rock and sprint away so that the guards could not catch him.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, the theory that Jesus revived and escaped the tomb is simply unbelievable.

Theory Four:  The disciples bribed the guards and took the dead body of Jesus.  They then claimed Jesus had risen from the dead, though no one saw him alive.

Were the disciples wealthy enough to bribe the guards? What non-miraculous evidence do we have?  One of the disciples, Peter, sums up the situation for all of the disciples:

"Peter began to say to Jesus, "See, we have left everything and followed you." (Mark 10v28).

The disciples were not rich.  They had left their livelihoods to follow Jesus.  Even if they once were wealthy, we know what people with money did once they began following Jesus - they gave it away! Luke 19v1-10 is a non-miraculous example of this.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, the theory that the disciples were wealthy enough to bribe the guards is simply unbelievable.

Theory Five:  The disciples stole the dead body of Jesus.  The disciples somehow stole the body without being caught by the guards, then claimed Jesus had risen from the dead, though no one saw him alive.

Could the disciples have stolen the body of Jesus without being noticed by the guards?  Firstly, were they that organised?  The non-miraculous evidence suggests otherwise.   After the death of Jesus, they were in disarray.  They thought he was dead, and their hopes had been crushed (e.g. Luke 24v11, 20-21).  But also consider how the tomb was sealed:

"(The chief priests) went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard." (Matthew 27v66).  

A huge stone was rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb, then sealed in place with hot wax that cooled and hardened.  To open the tomb in a non-miraculous way, you'd firstly have to crack the seal.  Then you would have to move the huge stone before being able to get into the tomb.  This wasn't something that could be done silently.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, then the theory that the disciples could stealthily get into the tomb and steal the body of Jesus without being noticed by the guards is simply unbelievable.

Theory Six:  The disciples drank protein shakes.  The disciples raided the tomb, overpowering the guards and stealing the body of Jesus.  They then claimed he had risen from the dead, though no one saw him alive.

Were the disciples capable of overpowering trained guards in order to steal the body of Jesus?  We get a glimpse of their non-miraculous fighting skills in the gospel of John, when a group of guards and servants come to arrest Jesus:

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear." (John 18v10)

When the guards come to arrest Jesus, Peter is just about capable of injuring the one guy who was probably unarmed!  The disciples were ordinary people, not trained fighters.  They weren't able to fight Roman guards, which would explain why they were never arrested for doing so.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, the theory that the disciples got organised and overpowered some trained Roman guards is simply unbelievable.

So where does that leave us?

When someone reads the Bible, they may be tempted to first decide who Jesus was, and then pass judgment on the evidence.  They decide he was an ordinary man, and then they accept or dismiss parts of the Bible based on whether or not it confirms that Jesus was ordinary man.  But if you only accept the non-miraculous bits, it doesn't lead to a non-miraculous answer to the question, "What happened to the body of Jesus?"  Instead, you're left with no answer at all.

But if you look at all the evidence first, before deciding who Jesus was, then the claim of Jesus and of the New Testament church - that he was the Son of God - becomes credible.  In the light of that revelation, the resurrection of Jesus makes sense.  It makes sense that the creator of life would be the defeater of death; that the one who moved planets could move a rock; that the one who created light could leave guards in the dark.

But how is this significant?

Firstly, if Jesus is the Son of God, then God exists.  It's a no-brainer, really, but if you want to see evidence for God, start with the evidence for Jesus.

Secondly, if Jesus overcame death, his words have more authority than anyone else's.  We don't give Jesus authority when we call him "Lord"; we recognise the authority he already has.  He is the only one who has the right to demand: "Death, where is your sting?  Grave, where is your victory?"  He is therefore able to speak words of hope that are more secure than anything we fear.

Finally, if you trust your life to Jesus, one day he will raise you up.  He overcame death for all of his people.  On the day he returns, all those who trust him as Lord and Saviour will rise to be with him in glory, forever.  

Monday, 4 April 2016

Monday to the Father - 4/4/16

Jesus said: "This then is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven...' " (Matthew 6v9)

Usually I post prayer requests and thanksgiving on a Friday but, having missed last Friday, I still wanted to share a prayer request with you for tomorrow.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, we're currently looking at another venue for our Sunday gatherings.  

The committee that will decide whether or not to accept our booking request is meeting tomorrow, so please pray that the Lord will overrule in this matter.  We trust our Father God, and only want to walk in His will.

Thank you for your continued prayers for the church in Welshpool.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Just Another Melodic Monday - O Church, Arise

Do you ever lend something to a friend, only to forget which friend you lent it to?  I do that a lot!  But last week, I finally discovered which friend I had lent "The Ultimate Keith and Kristyn Getty Songbook" to!  

To celebrate the return of this useful CD-Rom resource, here is a song from that collection which encourages us to face the future with the strength that God provides, knowing "the outcome is secure, and Christ will have the prize for which he died."