Sunday 19th April

In His Steps – Loving

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21

This week we start a new series for Sunday mornings entitled “In his steps”. This is inspired by a book of the same name by Charles M Sheldon, a Pastor in Kansas USA. This novel was written in 1896 and it explores what would happen in a small town if everyone asked the question “what would Jesus do” before making any decisions. The book is one of the best sellers of all time, has been made into films and started the “WWJD” wrist bands etc still worn today.

We don’t have a manual telling us what Jesus would do in any given situation, it would have been huge, so Jesus came to set an example for us all to follow. In this series we are going to look at a number of characteristics shown by Jesus while he was here on earth. Hopefully we will learn more about him in the process and be able to know more of what he wants for our lives.

This week we will be looking at Loving….

Song: Now unto the King

Lord, thank you that you promise never to leave us and never to forsake us. Help me have wisdom to see clearly that just because I don’t feel Your presence, doesn’t mean you’re not with me always. Help me have peace that comes from knowing the Truth of Your word to me today – you will never leave your children or give up on them. Help me live a life that honours You and points others toward You. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Song: How great is your love

Thank you to Charles Earwicker for the notes this week:

Jesus: the resurrection and the life

“…follow in his steps: loving.”

Reading: John 11:1-44

There’s more to this than meets the eye

Chinese whispers

We’ve all played the game Chinese Whispers and enjoyed the delight in miscommunication: the more misunderstood, the better.

But it happens in real life too, where we speak to others only to find that they understand the words we have used in a different way from us. (e.g. ‘Orange’ in Northern Ireland does not only mean a colour and a fruit!)

This is true in the Bible too. Take, for example, the word ‘love’. What does it mean?

Were The Beatles right to sing, ‘All you need is love’? What kind of love were they thinking about?

To say, as the Apostle John writes, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) is not the same as saying, “Love is God.” Love, he suggests, is to be defined by God, not the other way around.

When someone says, “If God were a loving god, he would not do…(fill in the blanks)” what they mean is, “If I were God I would not do…” They are suggesting they know what love is, and God’s actions are not loving.

But that is about as wrong as you can get.

If “God is love”, as we believe, then every action (say it again, every action) must be loving, for love is not an aspect of the character of God which comes and goes, but an essential description of who he is. It would be impossible for him to act in an unloving way.

No wonder Isaiah wrote of God saying, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Bearing this in mind, let’s look at this passage with the desire to discover what loving actually looks like in a particular context, as Jesus faces an altogether familiar human tragedy: death.

Life and death and love

Hard on his intriguing statement “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10), Jesus faces the death of his close friend, Lazarus.

Will the pressures of the “real” world (whatever that means) squeeze his promise of life in all its fullness, until it is shown to be just wishful thinking, a forlorn hope? Is what Jesus offers robust enough to survive the testings of ‘real’ life?

Far from undermining him, the whole occasion sets the scene for an event that vividly displays what Jesus is talking about. Not for the first time (nor the last) God allows his promises to be thoroughly tested. This is no smoke and mirrors tomfoolery.

Generally considered to be the last of the seven signs John has chosen to prove his point that Jesus genuinely is the Messiah (John 20:31), the events at Bethany are carefully recorded, together with a commentary that makes the readers adjust their glasses.

More than one agenda

In the midst of pain, sorrow and loss, Jesus’ powerful words gather up the fragments of bereavement and offer strong hope: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). For there is more than one agenda running here:

On a human level there has been illness, bereavement, burial and an attempt to pick up the pieces of life. There is nothing unusual in that. There is always a human agenda running through life. But that is not all there is.

God has another agenda. We are to live by faith. And those whose sight is not merely physical but also spiritually enlightened can, through the Spirit, see behind the human, physical, events to a richer reality.

For Mary and Martha the focus of attention, understandably, was death, burial and bereavement. But for Jesus the focus was upon the Father, his glory and what might be achieved through faith in him, (John 11:4). As Jesus will later say, love for him and for the Father is to be expressed in a desire to honour God in willing and generous obedience (John 14:15&23).

In the normal state of things, my focus is upon the problem, and what I can see.

But my focus should be upon Jesus and what is possible through faith in him.

Where is my mindset? Where is my focus in the midst of my pressures?

A good resurrection needs a good death

Waiting…

Alerted to his friend’s sickness, Jesus deliberately waited where he was (“across the Jordan”, John 10:40) until he knew that Lazarus had died (John 11:14).

By the Spirit of God, he certainly could have prevented Lazarus’ death if he had been there (as Martha, Mary and others in the crowd affirm correctly: John 11:21,32&37), but that is not the Father’s strategy in this case. Lazarus and his family are part of a larger picture that is intended to bring glory to God, (John 11:4). Isaiah 43:7 reminds us that this is what we were created for.

and loving

Before we jump to accuse God of callous, thoughtless and unloving actions, of merely using Lazarus and his family as disposable pawns in some monstrous game of chess, John is careful to remind us of the bonds of love, affection and devotion that existed between Jesus and this family.

Mary is the “same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2, cp. John 12:1-3).

Lazarus is “the one you love” (John 11:3).

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).

All that is happening here is happening in the context of God’s amazing love. The challenging words of John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his son…” here find particular expression towards the people next door. People like us.

But no action is the first action Jesus takes. By the end of the chapter all will be well, and misgivings will be forgotten, but up to that point Jesus lays himself open to criticism. It is a good rule of thumb not to convict God of wrong before all the evidence is in.

It is very easy, in countless scenarios that we face day by day, to assume we know what a loving response would look like, and do it almost without thinking.

And it might well be that most of the time we would be right to do so. But clearly, as shown here, there will, from time to time, be occasions when no immediate action would be the correct response. At least, no outward responsive action.

Jesus is used to walking in step with his Father and consulting him about all and every situation.

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19).

“…I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (John 8:28-29).

Perhaps we should make a habit of consulting God in prayer about all and every situation we face, to ensure that we are walking in step with the Spirit at all times.

These don’t need to be lengthy times of pleading, but a simple offering of ourselves in his service to do his will for this person or in that situation, as an expression of our love for God and our desire to see his kingdom come.

For Lazarus to experience resurrection he must first experience death. This is all in the physical realm. Yet there is also a spiritual dimension. If I want to experience this life in all its fullness that Jesus promised, I do so through the resurrection that follows my death.

This is a theme Paul will use repeatedly.

“…we died to sin…
…we were buried with him through baptism into death…
…we have been united with him like this in his death…
…anyone who has died has been freed from sin…
…in the same way, count yourselves dead to sin…” (Romans 6:1-11).

Seeing it all differently

How do you change your mindset? By dying to the old life and living in the new. And this is no pie in the sky when you die, but something we may and we can experience now.

You cannot have a real resurrection if you do not have a real death.

In what ways is the principle of death at work in you, that life might be the result? If life is testing you, pressurising you, squeezing you, look with the eyes of faith to the glory that may come as the resurrection power of Jesus is demonstrated in your life, here and now.

In my natural state I may be a worrier, but as I die to the old life, I may live in the Spirit, in the real life of trust and belief.

Song: Who O Lord

We are not in it on our own

Together with others

The Bible constantly declares that we are not on our own, we belong both to God and to his people. We are “fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

You are not merely a group of individuals who individually seek God and receive from him and go home to live out your lives independently of one another. You are a group of people who desire together to experience the fullness of the life he offers. “This mystery is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).

Together with God

As Jesus prepares to see Lazarus raised from the dead, he calls on the bystanders to be involved and tells them to take away the stone, John 11:39.

Since he is about to give life to a corpse, moving a stone would be child’s play.

When he has raised Lazarus he tells the people to take off the grave clothes so that he is free, John 11:44.

Why does he not do these things himself?

Because, in the economy of God, in most situations we face, there is something we can do, even if we might need to resist the temptation to act precipitously, and wait for God’s instructions.

This was an act of faith that is contrary to how things normally work in the world.

Jesus is engaging the onlookers and asking them to raise their expectation. It is always this way.

Where there is no faith he seeks to plant it; where there is faith he seeks to nurture it. But one way or another, faith is involved because this is about their relationship to Jesus as well as Lazarus’ state of health.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things

There are two things we can do that relate to what God is doing and we must be careful not to confuse the two.

We must not do what God alone can do.
God will not do what he has given us to do.

As in this situation, there may be something we can do before God acts: Remove the stone.

There may also be something we can do after God has acted: Take off the grave clothes.

Perhaps we can apply these in two ways:

  • To those who are not yet in the Kingdom.
  • To those who are already in the Kingdom.

To those outside the kingdom of God

As you pray for your unsaved family and friends, your contacts, work colleagues and neighbours, you may want to pray that God will identify the ‘stones’ that hinder them from responding to his voice. These might include such things as:

  • A painful experience from the past with the church in general or a Christian in particular which colours present perception.
  • A difficult experience which robbed them of hope. Many men lost hope in the devastation and hopelessness of the world wars. They could not relate what they saw and experienced to the concept of a loving God.
  • A feeling of such utter worthlessness that they cannot bring themselves to believe God would have any time for them.

As God identifies such issues, we may have a part to play in removing the ‘stone’; in changing the way they see things.

  • An apology for the hurt they have received from the Church. (Reported responses of local muslims to walkers engaged with The Reconciliation Walk in Turkey expressing sorrow for the tragedy of The Crusades included: “We have been waiting hundreds of years to hear this…” Who knows what spiritual doors were unlocked at that moment?)
  • By your long term welcome, love and support, building up within them a sense of hope in God as your acceptance and encouragement allows them to believe in a good Father who loves and cares for them.

To those within the kingdom of God

As we pray for our fellow believers we may ask God to highlight for them areas where ‘stones’ lay in the way of their progress in Christ.

  • Sins (habitual sins that seem impossible to forego).
  • Fear (of looking foolish, failure, death).
  • Misunderstandings and false teachings (baggage we may bring with us into the Kingdom).
  • Ignorance (you cannot receive the Spirit if you do not know of the Spirit, Acts 19).

Once again, as God identifies these issues, we may have a part to play in removing the ‘stones’ and helping them hear and receive the word of God in all its fullness and the Spirit of God in all his Pentecostal power.

To everyone

Loving means helping.

For both, as God fulfils his purpose in them and resurrection power flows to them and in them:

We must also take off the grave clothes and let them go.

The lockdown arising from Covid-19 is forcing us as Christians to re-imagine Church. We all know that Church is not the building, but, in the absence of real, flesh-and-blood, warm human contact, we are reminded that Fellowship is richer than we might yet have experienced.

Many of us are longing for when we might be able to meet together again. I daresay, it will not be the same as it used to be when we do!

We are together to see one another flourish and grow, casting aside the trappings of spiritual death and embracing the fullness of life which is life indeed.

Churches that take time out and get away together for a weekend often include in their programme some kind of Talent Night on the Saturday, when members dust off old musical instruments, brush up on one-liners, dig out their dancing shoes, refresh their long-remembered monologues, and generally entertain one another.

And the stumbling efforts of that gangly 11-year-old boy with his violin are greeted with whoops and cheers and applause.

The octogenarian who falteringly, and often forgetfully, recites his favourite poem is treated to a response worthy of the Albert Hall.

The shy mother singing a duet with her daughter finds, to her astonishment, rapt silence followed by an explosion of delight in her accomplishment.

And the husband who simply brings his wife to the front and announces her healing from the dreadful disease they had all been praying about, hears celebration that threatens to bring the house down.

This is the church at its best, cheering each other on, enjoying the success of others and celebrating a togetherness born out of a common love for God and one another.

Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35).

The epilogue

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. John 12:9-11.

Because of what (God through the Spirit in) Jesus had done for Lazarus, many people came to see it, and put their faith in Jesus.

There’s nothing like a recent corpse walking around to bring in the people!

(PS Jesus did not do that when he rose from the dead, maybe for that very reason; see Acts 10:40-41).

Song: Who breaks the power

Dear Father in heaven, we thank you that you know us all and that you look deep into our hearts, watching over us in everything we go through, whether easy or difficult. We thank you that we do not stand alone but that you hear the smallest sigh of each of your children. We thank you that darkness must give way to light, distress to joy, and fear to strength and courage. For you lead us through everything; it is what you bring about from your future world, not anything within our sight, that gives us strength and courage and that endures through everything. We thank you from our hearts for your unending gifts, and we are amazed that it was possible for us to receive all this from you. Protect us and keep us childlike, so that we remain in the fellowship that the Lord Jesus has given us, singing praise to him and to the glory and honour of your name. Amen.

Song: At Your Name

Over the next few weeks as we look at following in Jesus’ footsteps we would like you to create your own art work to remind you of what we are studying. Perhaps starting with drawing round your own feet and putting the key verses in each week (use your imagination).

This week’s verse is John 11:5.