The Baptism of Christ

Today in the Christian calendar we celebrate The Baptism of Christ, here depicted in the wonderful painting by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London.

You can read the story in the Bible here: Luke 3:15-22

I’m reading Dave Grohl‘s book The Storyteller that Naomi bought me for Christmas. In it, he describes when his eight-year-old daughter Harper asked him to teach her to play the drums. His response was one of fatherly pride and humility, the latter because he was self-taught and didn’t have a clue where to start.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are told that God was well pleased with his Son. By implication, God is pleased with us when we walk and live in the footsteps of Jesus. May we live like that in the coming days, not judging people but coming alongside them and loving them with the parental love of God.

Piero was the first artist to write a treatise on perspective – that is, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Here, he has painted objects in proportion, so that they appear as we see them in real life. This emphasises the depth of the landscape, but also the harmony of the figures and natural features within it. Christ stands in a shallow, winding stream as John the Baptist pours a small bowl of water over his head. Three angels in colourful robes witness the event. At this very moment, the voice of God was heard – ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:16) – and the Holy Ghost, shown here as a dove flying over Christ’s head and towards us, descended upon him. This painting was made for the small chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in the Camaldolese abbey of Piero’s hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro. Source

Temptation 2 (Lent 3)

This devotional post follows on from last Sunday’s post. You might like to read it before continuing this post, it can be found by clicking here. Although I use a photo of food again, temptations are much deeper than just craving chocolate.

Bible Readings: Mark 1:9-13 and Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, but spiritually it might better be considered a time to feast. A time to feed our souls by reflecting on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter.

Jesus resisted temptation with exactly the same resources that are available to us: namely the Word of God, prayer, self-discipline, obedience and faith. This comes as a great encouragement to us.

This wilderness experience of Jesus has much to teach us, more than might be immediately apparent, especially as the account can only have come to us from Jesus himself. He clearly wanted us to know about it.

The first thing we learn is that it’s not a sin to be tempted. Temptation isn’t the same thing as sin. If Jesus was tempted, it follows that we’re not immune. So the moment the inappropriate thought comes into our head we have a choice to accept or reject it, to act on it or dismiss it. Jesus was at his weakest, the time when temptations often come, yet he was prepared.

Temptations often come to us when we are at our weakest, and they can sometimes take us by surprise. As Christians, temptations are bound to come, we should expect them and be prepared for them.

And the nearer we are to God, the closer our walk with him, the more likely we are to be tempted. C. S. Lewis wrote: There is a silly idea about that good people don’t know what temptation means.

The second thing to learn is that temptation often comes after a spiritual high point. This was the case with Jesus. He’d just been baptised in the River Jordan, been owned by a voice from heaven, and experienced perfect communion with his heavenly Father.

After being especially aware of God’s presence in our lives is often the time when we are thrown into a wilderness experience: when doubts, fears and temptations can come flooding in. What was true for Jesus is true for us.

The third thing to learn is that it’s not the Spirit who tempts. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, but it wasn’t the Spirit who tempted. God may allow us to be tempted, but he never tempts. The fact that Jesus was tempted alerts us to the fact that it can serve a useful purpose.

Someone has said that our character is not usually developed by drifting along in the calm waters of tranquillity.

Speaking of trials and temptations, Peter writes: These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

Our trials and temptations are God’s opportunities. Opportunities to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus. The dove that made him gentle also made him strong.

In conclusion, Jesus was tempted to turn from the way of the cross, but he was victorious for us. His Kingdom was established and his mission fulfilled. This is perfectly expressed in Song 74 of the Salvation Army Songbook, based on Philippians 2:5-11 that I’ve written about recently.

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him
King of Glory now;
’Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation
Sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces,
All the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations,
Stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders
In their great array.

Humbled for a season,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious
When from death he passed.

Bore it up triumphant
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true;
Crown him as your captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

See also: The Essence of Lent

Finding Peace in Five Verses

Just a simple (yet hopefully profound) Sunday devotional today. It’s based on five Bible verses shared in a recent newsletter from Our Daily Bread Ministries.

The newsletter reminds us that we live in anxious and uncertain times (not that we need reminding) and that peace can seem like a rare commodity. God’s peace is something completely different and reliable though.

It’s suggested that when we need to experience his peace, we dedicate some time to meditate and reflect on these five verses. I would also add that you might like to consider them in context, as this is always important in our reading of God’s word. So, why not find a quiet place, and immerse yourself in these verses?

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:8
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. 
Isaiah 26:3
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 14:27
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:15

Prayer: Peace to you from God who is our Father. Peace from Jesus Christ who is our peace. Peace from the Holy Spirit who gives us life. The peace of the triune God be always with you. Amen.

You might also find this post helpful: Be still, and know (Will J Brand)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

You can read Chapter 4 by clicking here.

In this final chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul makes a closing appeal for steadfastness and unity: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Having spoken generally in Chapter 2 about humbly having the mind of Christ, he pleads specifically with Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled after an argument.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3

This is followed by one of my favourite Bible passages, one I often use in pastoral ministry: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

Paul goes on: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:8-9

These verses always make me smile when I read them, because Paul comes across as a little boastful about his Christian life. Clearly, this isn’t the case, especially because he’s been writing about humility and only boasting in the Lord in this very letter. It does remind us, though, that we have to be careful how we come across to others – arrogant, judgemental, and ‘holier than thou’ Christians do not serve Jesus well, they turn people off God.

In verses 11-13 Paul shows he’s learnt some important life lessons, that we should take on board: […] I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In his final greetings, Paul thanks the Christians for their gifts. He speaks of them as a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. He reminds them God will meet all their needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, we are reminded that we can make a gift of our lives to God and others, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

Chapter 3 (click on the link to read) is about joy in believing and having no confidence in rituals for salvation or living the Christian life. Rituals are important in our worship, but they point to something else. They are symbols of deeper truths, and can be very powerful, but it’s the spiritual experience they represent that’s vitally important.

The ritual that Paul refers to is circumcision, because Christianity is rooted in Judaism. He’s countering the argument of those who suggested that Gentile Christians needed to submit to the Old Testament Jewish laws to obtain salvation.

He powerfully reminds his readers that our salvation is based on the work of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Put no confidence in the flesh he says. It’s not the ritual that’s important, it’s the experience in the heart that matters.

He goes on to point out that, because of his background in Judaism, he has more reason that most to boast in the ritual – but he counts it as loss for what he has gained.

I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Having said that though, he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t fully achieved it yet, he presses on. There’s no place for arrogance in the Christian experience. We humbly accept our nature as imperfect Christians striving towards a goal – in God’s strength, not ours. He’s effectively echoing his own words in Chapter 2 about the humility of Jesus.

I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, here’s a helpful prayer and reflection based on this chapter, I encourage you to spend some quiet time going through it.

The good news therefore is this:
In Jesus Christ we are accepted,
we are loved, we are forgiven.
Thanks be to God!

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

21/06/20 Isaiah 46

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Isaiah 46 contains two sharply contrasting pictures; the first is of people carrying their god, the second one is of God carrying his people.

Isaiah can’t help smiling when he sees the shallow religion of the nations around Israel, what a miserable thing it must be to have a god who is a burden, who has to be carried from place to place. So he draws a humorous picture of a glittering god that looks great, but needs half a dozen men to carry it, a useless burden that weighs them down.

The second picture is of God our Heavenly Father, who carries his people from before birth, through life and past death into eternity.

Read: Isaiah 40:28-31

These two pictures represent two types of religion. On the one hand, one that has to be carried, that’s a burden, that’s a duty, that weighs us down and wears us out. On the other hand, one that worships a God who upholds with his powerful arms, one that carries us, lifts us, lightens our spirits and fills us with peace and joy.

I know which religion I prefer! Unfortunately, there are some Christians who choose the heavy, burdensome religion. Is it any wonder people reject it?

The disciples who met the Risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road recognised him when he broke bread. Their spirits were lifted: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Luke 24:32

Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth wrote:

Come, blessed Jesus, come;
Break bread again for me;
Lord open Thou my eyes that I
Thy living self may see.
Then joy shall fill my heart,
My strength be all renewed
To witness of Thy death and life,
By Thine own power endued.

As we open ourselves up to God our Heavenly Father, and as we come humbly into his presence, he lifts us up and fills us with his nature.

Let’s not be content with a religion of strain and struggle, fear and duty, heavy hearts and clouded faces, when we can have a faith that carries our burdens, lightens our spirits and fills us with love, joy and peace.

True faith is attractive, it draws others to Christ. May we never turn antone away because our religion is joyless, judgemental and narrow. See: 1 John 5:3-4

Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day because of the heavy loads they put on the people. See: Matthew 23:1-4

How refreshing, then, are the words of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

May that be real in our lives, and may we share it with those around us, as we recognise the true nature of God our Heavenly Father.

14/06/20 Quiet Times

silhouette of man sitting on grass field at daytime

Bible Reading: Philippians 4:4-9

Isaiah 30:15 reminds us that, in quietness and confidence shall be your strength. That’s been my experience of faith during both good and bad times, and is my continuing experience now. The quiet times before God are so important for our spiritual health as Christians, and for our confidence and strength in ministry and service. Something we are all called to exercise.

Over the years I’ve a found a variety of resources that have helpfully enriched my prayer life, but the pure simplicity of coming before God in prayer after reading his word has so much to commend it. It’s helpful at the beginning of the day, but it can be flexible. I’ve also found that a written list is invaluable, so I remember all the people and situations I need to pray for.

Sometimes music has helped me, sometimes it’s been the beauty of God’s creation (especially at the top of mountains in South Wales), and at other times it’s been a quiet space in the midst of the rush and bustle of life (an example of this being the chapel of a hospital). So next time you’re in a hospital, maybe visiting someone or there for an appointment, find the chapel and spend a few moments of quietness and say some appropriate prayers.

Sometimes, when life has been hard, prayer has been difficult for me (I’m only human after all). At these times I’ve found a holding cross very useful. These can be bought from good Christian bookshops, along with a booklet of advice and prayers. When you can’t pray, you can hold the cross and simply allow your feelings and emotions to become a prayer to God, our heavenly Father.

We also come to God in prayer to listen, to open our hearts to his Holy Spirit and to allow him to make us the people he wants us to be. I find prayers in the Celtic tradition helpful in this respect, and I finish these thoughts with one of them:

Awaken me to your presence,
Alert me to your love,
Affirm me in your peace.
Open to me your way,
Reveal to me your joy,
Enfold me in your light,
For my heart is ready,
Lord, my heart is ready.

David Adam (from The Open Gate)

31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

spark

Greetings on Pentecost Sunday. This would have been my last Sunday leading public worship before my retirement on Wednesday 1 July 2020. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Next month I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home before retiring and moving away from Wallsend.

It’s a matter of personal regret that I’ve not been able to lead Wallsend Corps in worship over these last few months, have a public farewell, or hand over leadership in the usual way. My sincere hope and prayer is that Wallsend Corps will be able to move forward into a new future under the leadership of Cadet (soon to be Lieutenant) Luke Cozens. I’m currently preparing handover information and I’m in contact with Luke to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in unique circumstances, ones I believe can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Here’s a short video message from our Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gillian Cotterill introducing a Pentecost Sunday worship meeting, click here for more details. You can find an outline of it by clicking here.

Here’s my Bible message for Pentecost Sunday, the Bible readings are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 which can be read by clicking on the links.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962 they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, literally, to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make again and again. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and common understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down; or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength; building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

ascension_by_eddiecalz-d678cy0

Greetings on this sixth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost next Sunday. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Leader Commissioner Gillian Cotterill. Please note that I’m preparing to retire on Wednesday 1 July 2020 and during June I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home.

I imagine not many reading this today will remember the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was the year before I was born, but I do remember my parents talking about it and seeing souvenir books and magazines from the time around the house.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, and today is the Sunday between it and Pentecost next Sunday.

The Ascension is not easy for us to understand with our 21st Century mindset, but I think it helps if we see it as Christ’s Coronation. Two Bible readings can also help us, the first one is the story of the Ascension itself (Luke 24:44-53) and the other is an early Christian hymn found in one of Paul’s Letters (Philippians 2:5-11). Click on the links to read these passages.

The Ascension is a mystery, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve used abstract art to depict it rather than a traditional image (click on it or here for the source). Having said that, there had to be a point at which the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end, when his earthly ministry finished and the ministry of the Holy Spirit could begin.

The disciples were told to wait for what was promised, I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

I guess they were impatient, as we often are, but they didn’t have to wait long. Before leaving them they were prepared for the task ahead, and the power came at Pentecost.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Their minds were opened to fully understand the scriptures, and given the power to accomplish their work after ten days. They were just ordinary people empowered for God, and we can be like them in the same power of the Spirit. Pentecost is a week away but, unlike the disciples, the power can be ours now. Power to live like Christ and boldness to share his message of love and salvation, new life for all.

03/05/20 Candidates Sunday

2020-04-30_211243

Candidates Sunday is an opportunity for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to be provided with the space and the opportunity to listen and respond to God’s call on their life right here, right now. Let’s get involved by praying, considering and celebrating spiritual leadership in The Salvation Army. Under the theme of ‘Be Alert’, this year’s Candidates Sunday is a strong call to pay attention to all that God is doing and understand what our response must be. Today’s online worship is based on this theme and uses resources provided here. Major John Ager.

Song: God grant to me a vision new (SATB 53/God’s Soldier)
(Denise Brine and Harry Read)

1. God grant to me a vision new
Of what you’re wanting me to do;
New understanding of the way
You plan for me from day to day.
Lord, by your Spirit help me see
The way of fruitful ministry,
Exciting possibilities,
God-given opportunities.

We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory;
We’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown;
We’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story;
We’re going to turn the world upside down.

2. Lord, I would know your life in mine,
Your resurrection power divine;
Your Spirit’s strong life-giving breath
Ending the grasping hold of death.
I claim your Spirit’s strength and grace
To meet the future face to face,
New lease of life when all seemed dead,
New strength to face the days ahead.

3. The future glows more brightly now,
I hear again God’s gracious vow –
‘I know the plans I have for you,
Plans that will prosper, not harm you’.
New purpose and direction planned,
Supported by God’s guiding hand,
His hopeful future spurs me on,
To greater victories to be won!

Bible Message: Look up! Look in! Look out!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Colossians 3:1-2 (The Message)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV)

Focus: What are you looking at? As followers of Jesus Christ, it’s all too easy for our focus to be looking down, bogged down in the things of this earth, or perhaps distracted by what this world tells us we should have or achieve. What could happen if we changed our perspective, if our focus was no longer to look down but to ‘be alert and look up to what is going on around Christ’? How could our lives and the lives of those around us be transformed if we began to see things from his perspective?

Introduction: ‘Look up!’ When things or situations look up, we usually understand this to mean that they increase in quality or value; if there’s a person we look up to, this is someone we have respect for. Looking up means a change in how we view things or people and usually involves an improvement of some kind or a positive response.

There was once a young tourist who found herself fortunate enough to be exploring Manhattan in New York. After a long day of sightseeing, the traveller had the Empire State Building as the last place on her list to visit. Her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone, trying to make sense of the map and looking for the little blue dot which would tell her that she had reached her destination, but to no avail. She was hopelessly lost. In true tourist fashion, the woman hailed a yellow New York cab and, with a slight hint of desperation in her voice, wearily pleaded with the taxi driver to take her to the Empire State Building. The taxi driver looked somewhat confused at this, so the woman frustratedly repeated the request. ‘Please can you take me to the Empire State Building!’ Calmly and with a smile on his face, the taxi driver pointed upwards. ‘You were here all along!’ he laughed. ‘You just needed to look up.’

In his letter to the Colossians, the church in Colossae, Paul is reminding the people there not to lose their focus or be distracted by the things around them, but to keep their focus on Jesus Christ and the things around him.

Look up! This idea of looking up and changing our perspective is a frequent message throughout the Bible.

  • In times of trouble or difficulty, the Psalmist reminds us, I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121
  • When miraculously feeding the five thousand, Jesus keeps his focus on the Father. Mark 6:41 says, Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves.

On each occasion, in times of blessing and challenge, the direction is upwards, towards God.

  • Paul reminds the Colossians to do the same. They are being distracted by the demands of those around them, the teaching of other religions and ‘earthly things’ (3:2). Or as The Message describes it, ‘Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.’
  • In the Old Testament, as described in Genesis 15:5, God made his covenant with Abram, saying, Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be.
  • We look up and our focus is on God, our perspective is no longer restricted to the earthly things that distract us and we recognise that we are part of a much bigger picture. Not only does our perspective change when we look up to him, but our purpose does too. Going back to our lost tourist, if only she had looked up she would have seen the landmarks that would have given her a sense of location and direction. When we look up, look up to God, we find our purpose and direction.
  • If you have ever sung in a choir or played an instrument in a musical group, you’ll know how easy it is to be absorbed by the printed music in front of you, focusing on your own part. However, if you want to know the tempo and volume you should be playing or singing, then you must lift your eyes to the conductor.
  • Music is transformed when we are playing together, led by the conductor. Our corps, centres and communities can be transformed when, together, we look up to follow God’s direction.

Look in! With the focus rightfully placed on God, looking up to him for our purpose and direction, we can see things from his perspective and allow ourselves to be continually transformed by him.

  • The Message version of Colossians 3: 1-2 uses phrases like living this new resurrection life with Christ and pursue the things over which Christ presides.
  • The NIV translation says, Set your heart on things above, and the word for ‘set your heart’ literally translates as ‘seek’.
  • There is an active intentionality within the life of the believer when we try to see God’s perspective on things. We don’t simply look up as passive observers; we actively search for Christ and allow him to have lordship over our lives.
  • Every aspect of who we are, every thought, aspiration and action, should be governed by Jesus Christ.
  • We sing the words:
    Over every thought, over every word,
    May my life reflect the beauty of my Lord,
    Cause you mean more to me than any earthly thing,
    So won’t you reign in me again.
    Brenton Brown 1998 Vineyard Songs (UK/Eire)
  • That’s the message of Colossians 3: 1-2: we seek the things above, the things of God and consequently live life with a different purpose and direction. But when we look up to the things of God, this demands that we look in towards ourselves and see those areas of our lives which need to come under his reign.
  • This is the life of holiness, the journey of Christlikeness. The Message describes this beautifully in verses 3-4 of Colossians chapter 3: Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life, even though invisible to spectators, is with Christ in God. He is your life.
  • Looking up helps us to look in.

Look out! Paul’s desire was not for the Colossian people to stop there. Living under the reign of God helps us to look up to the things of God, and look in to our new life with him.

  • Paul then tells the church in Colossae to consider what the practical outworking of this might look like. Colossians 3 gives lots of wise advice about how to live and how to behave as people focused on the things of God.
  • Verse 17 encourages us to Let every detail in your lives, words, actions, whatever, be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.
  • If we live here and now with a heavenly perspective, we will no longer place importance on the things that the world places importance on.
  • Christians will view everything against a backdrop of eternity and no longer live as if this world was all that mattered. (William Barclay)
  • So when we look outwards, what do we see? The amazing thing about lifting our gaze upwards is that it immediately widens the view.
  • Changing our viewpoint to God’s viewpoint does not mean that we take ourselves out of the world or cease to be a part of it. In fact, the very opposite is true. Colossians 3:12-25 tells us how we should work out family, relationships, community, work, all from God’s perspective.

Conclusion: So what are you looking at? On this Candidates Sunday, what is God’s perspective on your life?

  • Maybe you are distracted by the things of this world, the challenges of life or the ambitions and achievements that dazzle. It is so easy to lose our way when we have our heads down and focus on the immediate.
  • But Paul warns us, If you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. (Colossians 3: 1 The Message)
  • Jesus calls us to look up! To look to him and find our purpose and direction, to see things from his perspective.
  • Seeing with God’s perspective, we can then look in at our own lives and see where God needs to rule. Which aspects of our lives, our thoughts, dreams and achievements, are seen through our human eyes and what might these look like through God’s lens?
  • Once we find our purpose and direction, once we see those areas of our lives which need to be in Christ, we can look out and see how to live this new life on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Then we can begin to be alert to what is going on around Christ, that’s where the action is. (Colossians 3:2 The Message)

Response:
‘Where are you now
When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are you now
When I can’t figure it out?
I hear you say,
“Look up, child.”’
(Look Up, Child by Lauren Daigle)

Responsive Benediction
Leader: Look at your hands.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the touch and usefulness.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at your feet.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the direction and example.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look into your heart.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See the love and determination.
All: We shall use it to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at the cross.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See God’s Son, the Saviour.
All: We shall follow him in God’s work.
Leader: Look at your world.
All: God made it for a purpose,
Leader: See where God calls you to serve him.
All: We shall go out and do God’s work.
Leader: May the God who loves you endlessly lead you from belief into action.
All: Amen.

See also: 17/05/20 Sunday Questions