How do you do church?

Today I was all set to write more on the Ten Commandments – yet I felt it was necessary to highlight the importance of church. It is Sunday after all!

We have all been forced to reassess how we do church since the outbreak of COVID-19. In the UK, the Church of England very quickly closed its buildings and many other major and minor denominations followed suit. Aside from this, government guidelines prohibited any large groups meeting together and so, church as we knew it was no longer possible.

Many have turned to live streaming and platforms like YouTube to record content and share it with their congregation. Has your church done something similar? Other churches have struggled to acclimatise to the newer technologies. They may only be able to record audio and others only able to use social media like Facebook to reach its people. Either way, it is a huge ministry challenge. It presents a number of opportunities also though.

For us as church members, we have something of a responsibility here. If you have skills which can help, then it is a great time to start sharing them. For example, you may have experience running social media pages or even with audio/visual techniques. Many ministers are not up on the latest technologies so may appreciate your help in putting online services together.

Even if you have no such skills, then you still have a responsibility as a member of the church. It takes a lot of time to prepare services, and even more so when recording them and having to edit and stitch them together. The least we can do is to sit down and watch them!

If your family is like mine, and consists of some younger members, then you may find it difficult to gather around the TV on a Sunday morning. We may think it easier than getting everyone up and dressed and settled into a pew by 10am, and in some ways it is. But on the other hand, keeping children interested in a live stream service for any length of time has its own challenges. In my experience, they find it all too easy to wander off or get distracted by nearby toys.

One risk of online church is that members no longer see the need to actually meet together. If your church offers an online option, then it can become a temptation to just watch from home or catch up at a later, more convenient time. I am referring to times when we are not all locked down! One church I read about somehow managed to put a geographical limit on their live streaming. If you lived within three miles of the church building, then you could not access the live stream. The implication is that if you are close enough, then there really is no excuse for not actually going to church. I hope they put in some kind of access points for those not physically able to go along.

That’s a risk for all of us to bear in mind. Hopefully the lockdown will soon end and our church buildings will be open for ministry once again. When that happens, I pray there is not a diminished congregation for those choosing to stay away and access content online.

Many committed members are not even considering this. For them, the idea of coming back to church is an exciting one. These members miss one another and cannot wait until they can fellowship in person once again.

Something which is both a risk and an opportunity is the fact that while at home, we are not restricted to any one single church. If many churches are now live streaming, then anyone can flip the channel as it were and tune in to another church’s service.

Perhaps you are someone who doesn’t normally attend church. This time offers you a great opportunity to see what church is about without actually setting foot in the door. We should not underestimate how difficult it can be for some to walk into a church for the first time. It can be very intimidating. At least YouTube or your platform of choice offers a window into the church world. We, as churches, need to be aware of this and consider how we can reach out to those “just looking.”

Whether now or normally, there is no one way to “do” church. There are many ways of expressing worship and meeting as a church family.

There are two important things to remember however:

  1. We must never dilute the message of the Gospel, no matter our style of church
  2. We must make sure that our expression of church really is church.

Taking each in turn, firstly we must not water down the message of Christ. There are different packages but the gift inside must never change. The Gospel is very clear, and we must not fail in presenting it. If our preferred flavour of church does not include the message about Jesus, then it is not really church at all.

The second point is not all that dissimilar to the first really. In fact, it may be the same point restated.

Many churches have experimented with cafe church, messy church or what some call bridging events designed to encourage those outside of the church to move toward the church.

There is nothing wrong with any of these models in and of themselves, but equally we must make sure these events are drawing people closer to Christ. If an event does not point us to Jesus, does not teach us more about God’s Word or does not lead us to worship together, then we have to ask what its purpose is.

So, how will you do church today? I hope this time of Coronavirus lockdown reminds us all how important church is, and encourages us all to want to flock back to fellowship as soon as we can.

Who’s calling the shots?

It is Maundy Thursday, and the day we remember the Last Supper. On this night, Jesus has His last meal with His friends before He is arrested and crucified.

I saw a post on Facebook the other day posing a question about this night, and particularly about the devil’s and Judas’ roles. If the devil entered Judas Iscariot, as it says in Luke 22:3, then why did the devil lead him to betray Christ and send Him to the cross – His ultimate victory?

I suggest that the devil is a murderer, and without fully understanding the plan of God, was simply trying to kill Jesus before He could fulfil His role. Essentially, I think the devil unwittingly played into God’s hands. God’s will and purpose is always fulfilled.

My post today is not really about that issue however, but does pose a related question – who was calling the shots that night? Who was really in charge of the events that took place?

From Matthew’s Gospel, we read:

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’

22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?’

23 Jesus replied, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.’

25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?’

Jesus answered, ‘You have said so.’

Matthew 26:20-25 (NIVUK)

Jesus’ last meal with His disciples would have been quite an interesting experience. Most of them probably would not have realised that this was the last time they would spend time with Him before the cross. But Jesus of course knew.

The events of the Last Supper were significant in a number of ways. Not least was the instigation of the Lord’s Supper, or what we call Holy Communion. It is an important sacrament, and one we should take seriously, but we must not also lose sight of its original simplicity. Jesus broke bread and shared wine with His closest friends. The bread and wine represented His body and blood, and encourages us to remember Him and His sacrifice for us.

The account above tells us how Jesus broke not just bread that night, but bad news indeed! The disciples were shocked to learn that one of them would betray Him. But who?

Jesus, in front of them all, shines the spotlight on to Judas. “Surely not I, Lord?” he says, knowing full well it is him. “Yes, you!” says Jesus. There is nothing to indicate that Jesus did this privately or in a whispered corner. I think He pronounced this in front of them all.

What could Judas do now? Every eye was likely resting on him, accusing, wondering, and confused. What would you do in his shoes? Run? That’s exactly what he did. Clearly he had not planned this, and had not suspected his betrayal would be exposed in front of them all. He had to run for it, and immediately put his plan into action.

It is not always easy to grasp the timings of events in the Bible, but it seems that Judas would have run straight to the Pharisees and report to them where Jesus would go after dinner. There, in the garden, they would find him.

Jesus instigated this. Jesus forced Judas’ hand. They would not have wanted to arrest Jesus on a festival day – at Passover. They knew that to hold His trials overnight, as they did would be totally illegal. They had not yet had time to prepare the false witnesses who would later contradict one another in the kangaroo court.

The point is this. God is in charge. He was in charge that night, and He is in charge now. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection were all part of God’s plan right from the very beginning.

God is not evil, but He will use evil to fulfil His plans and purposes. The devil wanted to destroy Jesus, and he used the evil heart of Judas to try it. Perhaps as Jesus was nailed to the cross, the devil may have thought he had won. But death could not hold the Lord!

This night, as you remember Jesus, imagine yourself as a fly n the wall at the Last Supper. What must Jesus have been feeling? If you were one of His disciples, would you have known what was coming?

We have the luxury of hindsight. We sometimes look down on the disciples for not seeing what we do, and yet had we been there, I’m not sure we would have fared much better than they.

However you commemorate this night, remember that Jesus did it for you. You may not be able to share in Communion with your church (if they are closed due to COVID) but you can still take time to reflect and remember.

Worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – because He’s the One who’s really in charge.

Stones that shout for joy

Today is Palm Sunday, and the day where we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. It is called Palm Sunday because of the crowds who lay palm branches and their own coats on the ground for Jesus to ride on as He entered the city. Think of this as a sort of “red carpet!”

In the village where we live, a usual Palm Sunday would see a group from the church walking from the town hall through to the church – led by a locally sourced donkey! It is quite a sight to be seen, and the children love it.

This year, due to the COVID-19 situation, this won’t be going ahead. Instead, many churches around the country and the world will celebrate online via live streaming. I hope, if nothing else, this reminds us how fortunate we are to be able to meet in person.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is recorded in Luke’s Gospel.

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” say, “The Lord needs it.”’

32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’

34 They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’

‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’

40 ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’

Luke 19:28-40 (NIVUK)

As mentioned above, our church are not able to meet this Palm Sunday. Our family had agreed to lead the prayers that day, so made a little video instead. My daughters danced in the background, waving homemade palm branches while I talked a little about Jesus’ entry into the city.

I pointed out that if we are ever in danger of missing an important point from the Gospels, then often the Pharisees come to our aid. In the video at least, I’m not sure I fully explained why – so will try to do a better job here!

As Jesus enters the city, the crowds begin to praise Him. They cut branches from the trees and lay out their jackets for Him to ride over. Verse 38 records the words they began to shout: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is a direct quote from Psalm 118.

When the crowds do this, the Pharisees immediately stand to attention and tell Jesus to rebuke His disciples. Why? Because they knew, as well as Jesus did, that Psalm 118 and these words in particular are Messianic. They know that the crowds are acknowledging Jesus as the King who was to come.

The Pharisees do not want anyone to recognise this. They don’t believe it themselves, and essentially consider it blasphemy. They are saying, “Jesus! These people are proclaiming you as the Messiah! Stop them!”

How does Jesus respond? By telling them that if the people refused to cry out, then the very stones themselves would begin to praise.

Palm Sunday is the fulfilment of a very specific prophecy from the Old Testament book of Daniel. In that, the angel Gabriel declares the exact day in which the Messiah would be presented to Jerusalem as King, and that day was this Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into the city. You can hear more about this in my message – Prophecy and Palm Branches which I will put at the bottom of this post. You can hear more of my talks in the Audio section.

While I was in Jerusalem a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to walk the road that Jesus went down that first Palm Sunday. As we walked, I picked up a small stone from the ground which I have kept as a keepsake. Of course the stone itself was not there the day Jesus was, although that would have been nice, but it is a little reminder to me. If I do not praise God, then maybe that little stone might cry out.

When you are next out, doing your daily exercise, or the next time you take a turn around the garden, why don’t you also pick up a stone. You can put it somewhere that you’ll see it, and every time you do, take a moment to praise and thank God for His Son. Otherwise that stone might shout for joy instead of you!

Jesus rode that donkey into Jerusalem knowing full well where it would lead. Less than a week later, He would be nailed to a wooden cross and bearing the punishment for us all. That crowd which praised Him on the way in, would soon change their tune and shout “Crucify him!”

Remember why Jesus did it. It was for you and for me. I see Palm Sunday as the peak at the top of a roller-coaster – that moment where all seems to freeze before it races downwards the other side. Jesus is being rightly praised, but would soon plummet into the shame of a sinner’s death – undeserved. He did it for you.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ this Holy week.


Palm Branches and Prophecy


 

Who can you pray for?

Confess your offenses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective.

James 5:16 (WEB)

Are you tired of hearing about the corona virus yet? It has been quite a while since the headlines mentioned anything other than the global pandemic! Sorry to mention it again here!

In these difficult times, there is a lot of practical things we can do as the Body of Christ to support each other. If you have elderly or vulnerable family members or neighbours, you might be able to shop for them to save them having to go out.

Our family, led by my wonderful wife, is setting about sending Easter cards or cards of encouragement to all the members of our church (the ones we have contact information for that is).

As you might have noticed, I have been trying to post on the blog every day. I am hoping that even in the difficult days ahead, many will read the blog and ideally be encouraged or uplifted in some way.

What practical things are you doing? What things could you do to bless those around you at this time?

You might be in a situation where doing something practical is just not possible right now. Not all of us can. There is one thing you can do however, and it will make a tremendous difference. You can pray.

Sometimes we think of prayer as a last resort. We do all the practical stuff, and then turn to prayer when we run out of ideas. This really shouldn’t be the way we think. Prayer is our first and foremost response in every situation.

Who can you pray for today? I hope it won’t take you long to think of someone.

my family has a jam jar full of lolly sticks. On each stick, we write the name of a friend or family member. When we sit down to pray, we draw out a stick and then pray for the person named. It is a great way of remembering to pray for different people.

Don’t be afraid to ask for prayer at this time either. There are prayer warriors out there just looking for someone to cover in prayer. Why not be the “squeaky wheel?”

As well as the people you know, please also pray for your government and leaders. They need God’s wisdom and guidance right now to make right decisions and to time them well.

I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks be made for all men: 2 for kings and all who are in high places, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.

1 Timothy 2:1-2 (WEB)

Please also pray for your church leaders. Many places of worship have been closed and this presents something of a unique challenge for ministers and pastors alike.

Those working in the medical field will also very much need our prayers right now. In the UK, our health service was stretched prior to the pressures of the corona virus, and so they need our support now more than ever .

I could go on, but there is an unending list of people and situations we can pray for. Prayer is powerful, and we in the family of God can make a huge difference.

Pray without ceasing.

1 Thessalonians 5:17 (WEB)

Where do you stand?

31 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. 36 I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’

40 “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[c] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

45 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46 (WEB)

I know this is a long passage to start this post with, but I wanted you to be able to read the whole thing and let its challenging words sink in. 

Where do you stand? On the left, or on the right? And I don’t mean politically…

When the news about the corona virus first broke in the early part of this year, I’ll admit to being a little flippant about it. I never imagined it would impact the lives of us all in such ways. 

Reading the news and various social media feeds, I see a rather bleak picture and many individuals who are very scared right now. I thank God that this virus is no worse than it is, but certainly appreciate the heavy impact it will have on many families – particularly those who are vulnerable or elderly. 

It makes you think, doesn’t it? Some doctors are urging we discuss and prepare for the fact that this virus may take the lives of those we love. Are we ready for that? 

I mentioned in my post the other day – Coronavirus – that some had claimed this virus was a sign of the End Times. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, the Bible teaches that one day Jesus will return for His people. There are many diverse views about exactly how this will happen, but essentially all Christians agree HE will return sooner or later. There are certain signs which precede His coming and perhaps this virus is one of them. You can do your own study on that. 

Either way though, the Corona virus gives us pause. It is an opportunity to face the big questions in life. What happens when we die? Are we prepared for the return of the Lord Jesus? Where can we turn when it feels like the world is falling apart? 

Do you have adequate answers to these questions? 

The passage above from Matthew’s Gospel is often called the parable of the sheep and the goats. It depicts the end of time when we will all stand before Jesus’ throne and He will judge us. This is known as the Great White Throne judgement. I’m not entirely sure it is right to call this a parable, as it may not be an illustration at all, but precisely how it will be. 

There is much we could say about this passage. One of the scarier elements is that those who thought they were doing well, were not, and those who did no think they were doing so well, were commended. 

So, where do you stand? Are you a sheep or a goat? It is a question we must all ask ourselves, and answer honestly. Ignoring the question is not an option. We must not wait until we get there to find out, as it will then be too late. 

How can you be sure? How can you know whether you will be counted among the sheep or the goats? The passage itself suggests it is not about what we do, as those who did “spiritual” things were counted as goats. 

The answer does not lie in the activities we participated in, nor in our own “good works.” Our best works are going to look rather shabby when we stand before the Throne of God. 

There is only one way to heaven, and His Name is Jesus Christ. The difference between the sheep and the goats is that the sheep put their lives in the hands of the Good Shepherd. The goats went their own way. 

If you want to find out more about the way to heaven, then check out my post – One Way. 

For the vast majority of people, this Coronavirus will not take their life – praise God. But the questions posed above are still important. None of us can beat the clock, and every one of us will – sadly – die one day. Even if we are the generation to see the return of Jesus Christ, then we sill need to be prepared. Are you? 

So what will it be? Are you a sheep or a goat?

Mother’s Day

As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you.
You will be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 66:13 (WEB)

Here in the UK, today is Mother’s Day or sometimes called Mothering Sunday.

It might be a rather unusual one this year due to the continuing impact of the Corona Virus. We might usually go and visit our mothers, or have them round for Sunday lunch, but we have all been advised not to gather in small or large numbers right now. It is a real shame but of course an understandable necessity.

I am not sure if the current situation will help or hinder this Mother’s Day. How can it “help” you might ask? All I am thinking is that as we mostly not able to visit our mothers today, will we make a special effort to call or video chat with them. Facing these tough times may make us realise the important things in life, and surely family is high up that list.

The verse above from Isaiah compares God to a comforting mother. Most of Scripture pictures God as Father, but there are verses which suggest the tenderness only a mother can bring. For instance, we discuss Psalm 91 yesterday where God was compared to a mother hen drawing her chicks under the protection of her wings.

I don’t know what kind of relationship you have or had with your mother. Perhaps it was wonderful, or perhaps not. Either way, she played a part in your life to a greater or lesser degree. Take time today to thank God, and if possible, her as well.

Also, take some time to reflect on your “spiritual” mothers and grandmothers. When I think back over my life in the church, I remember certain women of God who made a special impression on me. Their care, wisdom, grace and love have taught me much over the years. Perhaps there are those in your own life who fit this bill. It would not be inappropriate to let them know what they mean to you today.

To all of the mothers, grandmothers, female carers, whether natural, spiritual, adoptive or otherwise – may I wish you a very happy Mother’s Day! I pray God will bless you and you will be shown how much you mean to those around you this day.

Chosen To Be Holy

Ephesians #3

“even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,”

Ephesians 1:4-5 (ESV)

A while ago I was forced to reassess something extremely important in the Christian faith. I had to face the challenge of the sovereignty of God. And these verses played no small part in that journey.

I once believed that although God was supreme, He did not control every single little action in the universe. I believed that our response to Him was somehow our choice – an act of our free will. The more I think about that, the more ludicrous it sounds.

The Bible teaches that God chose us, and not the other way around. As hard as that may be to get our heads around sometimes, it must be true. The alternative goes something like this, and I hope you agree it makes little sense. When I was a sinner, and had nothing to do with God whatsoever; while I was far off and living (and enjoying) my sin and sinfulness, somehow… some way… I decided to turn from that sin and come to God…

That cannot be correct.

Instead, while I was in that sin and quite happy there, God reached down and saved me from and in spite of myself. He essentially saved me against my will because no sinner willingly wants God in their lives. I had no will to escape the sin that I was in. Nor did I have the power to do so. The truth is that God chose me and He chose you as well.

These verses clearly tell us that God chose us and He did so before the foundation of the world. He chose us before creation. He chose us before we did or thought or said anything. That means that his choice had absolutely nothing to do with us. He chose us because it was His sovereign will to do so.

When we hear this truth, we often ask the question: “If He chose us, then why not choose someone else?” That is to say, if the choice is His, what about the ones who reject Him? This is a difficult question, and when we realise that God chooses some and not others, we feel it is somehow unfair. I’ve said it before, but fairness is not what we want from God, rather we want grace and mercy.

It is a miracle He chose any of us at all.

Why did He choose us? To be holy and blameless before Him.

I’ve always believed that God saved us for our own sake, and of course He does, but i’m no longer convinced it is His primary reason for doing so. Rather, I am starting to think God saved us not for us, but primarily so that He would have a spotless bride to present to His Son.

God predestined us for adoption, as the verses above say, and put simply, that means that God decided in advance to bring us into His family forever. Adoption is such a wonderful picture because legal adoptions cannot be undone, and also entitle the adoptee to everything that a natural child would have access to. Adopted children are as equal as natural ones, and the word “sons” here is important because the son (in that culture) had a greater claim than a daughter.

The point is that this adoption does not make us somehow second-class children. We are not somehow lesser children to God because we are adopted, rather instead the text makes clear that we are welcomed and celebrated in God’s family.

God specially selected you to be His very own, and He has brought you into His adopted family. I hope, like me, that makes you feel very special indeed. Even if the entire world rejects you, you can be assured that God will never reject or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

Rejoice in God’s love for you today, and know that this love will never change. You are His adopted child!