What follows is a short video reflection produced during the 2020 Coronavirus Lockdown for St Andrew’s Methodist Church and Southwater Community Church, both in Horsham, West Sussex.
Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
How are you coping?
These are very strange times we’re living in.
I’m sure that we all have our own particular reasons for finding life difficult at the moment.
Maybe we’re finding it tough not being able to meet up with friends, family, loved ones.
Maybe we’re finding life dull and monotonous.
Perhaps we have very real health worries and concerns.
Perhaps we’re worried about our finances, or our jobs.
Maybe we’re missing church – the fellowship of our fellow believers, the experience of worshipping together, of celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. Perhaps we’re missing the teaching.
I thought today we could think a little about what precisely church is, and how we might strive to continue being church in these difficult times.
I’d like to take a look at the early church.
The reading is from Acts 2:42-47, which says:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
What picture do we get of the early church from this passage, and how might we emulate this, even in lockdown?
It’s clear that the early church was a learning church. We read that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” They listened intently to all that the apostles had to say about Jesus. They hung on their every word.
We might not be able to physically go to church, but we can still devote ourselves to the teaching of the apostles. We have this readily available to us in the New Testament. Perhaps we can spend some of the time available to us now reading our Bibles, and learning all that we can about Jesus?
It’s clear that the early church was a loving church. Not only were the early believers devoted to the teaching, they were also devoted to the fellowship – to the community of believers. They shared their lives together. They ate together. They worshipped together. They supported those in need. They were generous to each other.
We might be physically separated from our fellow believers, but this doesn’t stop us loving each other. We can meet together using modern technologies like Zoom, Skype and Facebook. We can phone each other. We can reach out to those who need help, support those in need. Our buildings may be closed but our fellowship doesn’t have to stop. Indeed, it’s possible it might grow even stronger!
It’s clear that the early church was a worshipping church. They met regularly to share the Lord’s Supper together and to pray together. They met at the temple and they met in each other’s homes. They praised God together.
We might not be able to worship together at church, we might not be able to invite people to our homes to worship, but be can still worship together through Zoom meetings or Skype calls. I attended our church prayer meeting this week over Zoom, and there were over 120 people in attendance, far more than would usually attend our monthly prayer meetings.
We can still worship God together, and by thinking creatively and embracing modern technologies, we can potentially worship with our brothers and sisters more regularly. Perhaps we could even aspire to meet together to worship every day, just as the early Christians did.
It’s clear that the early church was an evangelistic church. Jesus added to their number every day. Jesus saved people every day.
Just because we’re trapped in our own homes does not mean that we cannot embrace this aspect of church life. Many of our friends have time on their hands. Many are looking for meaning. Many, precisely because they can’t lead their normal lives, are seeking to understand what life is really all about.
There are so many brilliant resources available online. Spring Harvest have offered up some brilliant resources. The Alpha Course is available online. So is Christianity Explored. So is the Marriage Course. Just this week I’ve seen a brilliant resource called The Word One to One to help us introduce our friends to Jesus by working through John’s Gospel together.
We might be in lock down. We might be stuck at home. But we can still be church together.
We can still learn.
We can still love.
We can still worship.
We can still evangelise.
So let’s rise to the challenge and be church, but differently.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
What follows is the text of a sermon that I was due to preach at Southwater Community Church, West Sussex, on March 22nd 2020. Since all churches in the UK were closed as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic, this didn’t happen. I instead recorded this at my home. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
What a week.
What a month.
What a year.
It’s only March and yet 2020 already seems to have found its place in the history books.
A few weeks ago I thought that place would be by virtue of Brexit.
But then along came Coronavirus. COVID-19.
Now we live in fear.
Fear of contracting the virus.
Fear of being ill.
Fear of dying.
Fear of not finding food to eat.
Fear of losing our jobs.
Fear of losing our homes.
Fear of losing loved ones.
It all looks rather bleak, really doesn’t it?
Coronavirus has undeniably impacted on just about every aspect of our lives.
Many of us are working from home.
Schools are closed.
Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, leisure centres, gyms, all closed.
No food in the supermarkets.
No meeting up with friends.
It’s only natural to be worried. To be concerned. To be upset.
But you know what, these issues are only temporary.
It hurts right now.
It might last a while.
But it’s only temporary.
As Christians, of course, we place our hope in a bright future, an eternal future with God in heaven.
And, as Christians, we have a God who cares for us right now. In the midst of all our difficulties.
We can place our faith and put our trust into a Shepherd God – a God who loves us, who provides for us, and who guides and protects us.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, we’ll be reflecting on Psalm 23, and considering how this ancient poem might speak to us today, in the midst of this awful crisis.
If you have access to a Bible or a Bible app, it would be helpful to have Psalm 23 open in front of you.
As we begin, though, let us pray:
Loving Heavenly Father. Thank you for your word. Thank you for the Psalms, that still resonate with us so vividly all these thousands of years later. We thank you in particular for Psalm 23, and the image it provides, of a Shepherd God. We ask that you would be with us now as we study and reflect on these words together. And as David wrote in Psalm 19, may these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
In Jesus’ name.
It started off with loo roll, didn’t it? I suppose it was a couple of weeks ago now. People started panic buying loo roll, for no discernible reason.
What started off with loo roll soon became a bigger issue though.
The supermarkets ran out of paracetamol.
Then they ran out of pasta.
Then tinned food.
Then frozen food.
Then on Wednesday, having worked late, I went to Waitrose to pick up something for my supper, and the shelves were bare.
I crossed the road to Sainsbury’s, and the picture was the same.
Last weekend I made a trip to Tesco in Burgess Hill. The shelves were pretty much empty. And I saw people literally crying in the aisles.
What are we doing?
How can people be so selfish?
I guess it’s borne out of a genuine fear that people won’t be able to feed themselves, or their families.
I guess the situation arises because people are terrified.
So they take matters into their own hands, and buy up what they can, when they can.
Psalm 23 suggests that we do not need to put our trust in supermarket supply chains, or rationing, or the good sense of our fellow shoppers.
Psalm 23 suggests that we would be much better placing our trust in God.
We should place our trust in God because as Christians, we have a God who provides for all our needs. We do not need to panic. We do not need to be anxious.
David begins this Psalm by declaring, The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
David was, of course, a shepherd himself. He knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. David’s sheep were completely dependent on him to provide him with all that they needed to survive.
Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.
David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. God provides his people with all we need.
David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.
David returns to this theme in the second half of verse five, when he says, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”
David understood that God is nor a miserly provider, but the most generous of benefactors.
At the time David was writing, it was common for a host to anoint a distinguished guest’s head with oil on arrival at their home. David knew that, despite his lowly position, each day of his life he is treated by God as an honoured guest, his head anointed personally by his Lord.
David follows this up by saying that the cup his Lord gives him is overflowing. Here’s an image of the abundant generosity of God. God holds nothing back from his people, but graciously provides us with all that we need – and more. His goodness literally overflows.
David is clear that God’s generous provision is something that never leaves him. In verse 6 of Psalm 23 he says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
David understands that God bestows good things on him all day, every day. Not a day goes by when God does not provide for David in abundance. Similarly, David understands that he is never separated from God’s mercy.
If we understand that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all day, every day, then we do not need to worry about whether we will be able to buy pasta, or paracetamol, or loo roll. Because if we place our trust in God, if we make him the shepherd of our lives, then we will lack nothing.
We will get through this global crisis.
We just need to place our trust in God.
We need to become the sheep to his shepherd.
We should similarly rejoice that God’s goodness and love are always with us. We should be thankful to him for the bountiful provision that he lavishes upon us. Rather than worrying about what we haven’t got, we should give thanks for all that we do have, and share generously.
Why not take the opportunity for a few minutes each day to think about all the good things that God has given you? If we consciously adopt a more thankful attitude then the world will seem a much more pleasant place. Reflecting on our gratitude to God will help us to place our current troubles into context, and life will feel much more positive.
What’s more, our gratitude, particularly in these difficult times, will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as a powerful witness to all whom we encounter, that we place our trust not in the supply lines of fickle supermarkets, but in God, our shepherd, the creator of the universe.
David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust God to provide for us in abundance?
Can we join David and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”
Claire and I got married nearly ten years ago. It’s astonishing how fast the last decade has gone! It’s our wedding anniversary this summer. To celebrate we have booked for the two of us to return to the hotel where we spent our honeymoon. It’s called Hotel Verbano, and it’s situated on a tiny island in Lake Maggiore in Italy. It’s a really idyllic location, and we have been looking forward to a few nights away for months.
Now, of course, our trip away looks incredibly unlikely.
Maybe we’ll be able to spend our eleventh wedding anniversary on the island instead.
We’ll have to look elsewhere for our rest this summer. Somewhere closer to home.
If things continue as they are, I think we’ll need a rest by the summer. With Coronavirus having such an impact on the whole world, on our entire lives, I think we’ll all need rest and relaxation before too much longer.
Of course, if we wish to find perfect rest, we should look not to holidays, which can be snatched away from us at a moment’s notice, or to trips to the theatre, which can be closed down without warning, or even trips to coffee shops with friends, which can be cruelly snatched away before you can even get your order out.
True rest, as David knows, is to be found through a relationship with God.
In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of true peace. He says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his flock that he needed to ensure that he gave his sheep time to rest. Without sufficient rest, David knew his sheep would become stressed and distressed, which could have a serious impact on their health, and the health of the wider flock.
David understood that his shepherd, the Lord, looked out for him in a similar way, ensuring that he found sufficient time to rest and recover from the busyness of his own life.
If like David we make God the shepherd of our lives, if we dedicate our lives to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that God will show us peace.
The rest that David knew he received from God was not limited to just physical and mental rest. David trusted that God would provide him with spiritual rest that refreshes his soul, as he wrote in verse three. This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.
If we want to find true peace, then that can be found only in one place – through a relationship with God. True peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour,
Jesus promised this kind of rest to his followers when he said, “come to me, all 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.” This is recorded in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel.
It’s interesting the wording that David uses in verse 2. He doesn’t say that God occasionally suggests that he might like to take a break, or even that God tells him to take a break. No, he says that God makes him lie down in green pastures. David implies that God is active in making him take a break. Perhaps there are times when God intervenes in our lives in order to make us stop.
What if this is one of those moments?
We’ve found our diaries cleared, our plans thwarted, and our lives refocused on our own homes.
Perhaps this is God making us lie down in green pastures.
Perhaps this is God giving us time to slow down, to pause, to reflect.
Perhaps this is God giving us time to spend time with our families, to develop our relationships.
Perhaps this is God giving us time to study his word, to pray, to deepen our relationship with him.
I’m not for one moment saying that God has sent the Coronavirus. I’m not saying that God is responsible for this situation. But we don’t have to look too far in the Bible, or even in our own lives, to see that God works through bad situations to accomplish good.
Paul writes in Romans 8, “we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Perhaps instead of dwelling on the obvious and significant unpleasantness of this global pandemic, we can look for the good lurking within it.
I felt really quite low yesterday morning, but then I went to the woods with my two children, and we ran around in the sun, chased each other, played hide and seek, and had a really lovely time. Over the next few weeks, and possibly months, there might be many other opportunities like this, as we find ourselves, as a result of circumstances, spending much more time together.
What a blessing!
What a joy!
It’s at times of crisis that we particularly need to place our faith and our confidence in God. Perhaps in the coming days, weeks and months, as we find ourselves wrestling with stressful, difficult and uncertain situations, we need more than ever to ensure that we find time just to stop. To lie down in those metaphorical green pastures. To pause beside those quiet waters. To be quiet. And to allow God to refresh our souls.
David trusted that God would refresh his soul, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and to refresh our souls, and say, “the Lord is our shepherd?”
When I left the school where I work on Friday afternoon, it felt very strange. We should be at school next week, but for obvious reasons, we will be Remote Teaching, so I packed away my classroom as if for the Easter holiday. Saying farewell to friends and colleagues was quite emotional. You see I have no idea when I will be returning to school. Actually, I’ve applied for another job, so I don’t even know if I will return to my current school at all. At the same time, with the cloud of Coronavirus, sickness, and potentially even death hanging over us all, I couldn’t be sure that my colleagues would be safe, would be well, would be okay.
I got quite emotional actually.
Ultimately, of course, we have to trust in God. We have to put our lives into his hands, and allow him to guide us.
None of us knows what is before us. Now more than ever.
None of us knows what the future holds. Now more than ever.
But God does.
And David understood this.
David sings, “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
David believed that God would guide him through his life, showing him the direction that he should take.
If we allow God into our lives, he will guide us along the right paths too, guide us through our lives.
But how do we know what the right paths are? How do we know where he is guiding us?
The key to understand this verse comes right at the end of verse three. David says that God guides him along the right paths – for his name’s sake.
The right paths through our lives are those that bring glory to the name of God.
When we put our trust in God as our shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. Our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, since these are what Jesus described as the greatest commandments.
If we factor these commandments into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, them God will provide us with the direction that we so desperately seek.
In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings into straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.
Of course, sometimes these paths will take us into places where we would rather not be. David knows that the path that he follows through life will take him into dark places. He says in verse four, “even though I walk through the darkest valley.”
For David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life journey will take dark turns. He does not say “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.
I don’t know about you, but to me the present situation seems pretty dark. When I look around me, when I read the news, when I watch television and listen to the radio, the world at present seems in a pretty dark valley.
We are in a time of great uncertainty. Nothing seems secure anymore. The very foundations of our lives feel as if they are shaking beneath our feet. We’re clinging on to any semblance of normality, any source of comfort we can find, to avoid being thrown over.
But we must not fear.
We should not fear.
Because God is with us.
He is guiding us.
And he will protect us.
He will guide us with his staff. Like a good shepherd, he will prod us in the right direction. If we listen for his voice, he will not allow us to take the wrong turning.
He will protect us from the enemy. He is equipped with a rod to protect us against anything that the enemy might throw at us.
And he will comfort us.
When we find ourselves facing danger or uncertainty, he will comfort us with the reassurance that his right paths have a destination.
That destination is eternal life.
David put his life on the line for his sheep. He battled wild animals to keep them safe.
In Jesus we have a perfect shepherd, who not only put his life on the line for us, but gave his life up for us.
He went to the cross and took on himself the punishment that should have been ours.
But death could not hold him, and three days later, he rose from the grave, and later ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of his father.
One day he will return again, and he will lead all those who love him on the final part of our journey, to eternal life with him in God’s new creation.
And that’s what we must hold onto when the going gets tough. When life gets so difficult that we cannot see the way forward.
One day all the difficulties we face now, the sickness, the viruses, and death itself will disappear, having been beaten once and for all by our shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.
David knew that God would guide and protect him, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we trust that Jesus will guide and protect us and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”
Psalm 23 may just be six short verses, but it is an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I hope that David’s words have inspired you to consider the extent to which you know that leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in your own lives.
I hope that having seen how the Shepherd God provides for us, restores us, and protects and guides us, you have been challenged to become more sheep-like in your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, more than ever before, we could really benefit from trusting in God’s provision, restoration, protection and guidance.
So as everyone around you loses their heads, keep yours.
Put your trust in Jesus.
Hold onto him.
He’s got you.
And he will lead you through this current, momentary crisis.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, Thank you for the words of David in Psalm 23. Thank you that in Jesus we have a good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for us. Thank you, father, that you provide for us so generously. Help us to place our trust in your provision. Thank you that you refresh our souls. Help us to find rest in you. And thank you that you guide and protect us. Help us to follow you. And as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, help us to find opportunities to show your love and generosity to those around us. Help us to find the blessings within the difficulties. And ultimately, we pray, Heavenly Father, that you will lead us through our present difficulties, through this dark valley, and into the green pastures and quiet waters that lie beyond. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:1-28
What follows is the text of a sermon preached at All Saints’ Lindfield, West Sussex, on March 8th 2020. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
It’s Sunday morning. The sun has yet to rise. Two women are walking in the garden. They are shocked and terrified when an earthquake shakes the ground. They approach the tomb of their friend, the man whom they had called Lord. As they get nearer they see a man. He seems to be shining in the early morning darkness. The women are terrified, but can’t help approaching. They watch as the man, whom they are convinced must be an angel, rolls back the stone sealing the tomb of their Lord, and, having rolled it away, sits upon it. The angel speaks to them. “Do not be afraid!” he says. “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”
The women are stunned. Can this be true? Can their Lord, their friend, have risen from the dead? Overcome by emotion they run to tell Jesus’ disciples what they have seen. As they run, they meet Jesus himself, who tells them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
This is the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel.
But can it be true?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
This is what we’ll be considering this morning.
Was Jesus raised from the dead?
Does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?
What are the consequences of Jesus being raised from the dead?
Firstly, then, was Jesus raised from the dead?
Paul begins chapter fifteen of his first letter to the Corinthians by reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them. He tells them that they received this gospel, and they have stood firm, holding onto all that he has taught them. It is by this gospel that they are saved, he reminds them, if they hold firmly to the word that he has preached to them.
This gospel, this news, that he has taught them is of fundamental importance, since it has the power to save people. People need to be saved. And the news that Paul passed on to the Corinthians means that they can be saved.
What does this gospel save people from?
We can see this in verse three – Christ died for our sins.
Since the time of Adam, all people have sinned. All have fallen short of God’s expectations. Humanity has turned its back on God. We have opted to go our way, not God’s way. To live our lives as we want, not as God would like. We have put ourselves first, and neglected God.
As a consequence of this, we can expect to be judged by God, and found wanting.
We find ourselves in a desperately hopeless position.
But this Gospel that Paul has been sharing means that we can be saved. We can be saved because Christ died for our sins.
He was buried.
But then, on the third day, he was raised according to the scriptures.
Where’s the evidence, though?
How can the Corinthians be expected to hold firmly to his teaching, to take a stand, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, without evidence?
Paul understands this and provides them with three reasons why they can trust that the resurrection happened.
Firstly, Jesus was raised on the third day – in accordance with the scriptures. That is, in fulfilment of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of references to resurrection. Let’s just pick up a few now.
In Isaiah 53 we read about how the suffering servant will suffer, die, and then see the light of life.
In Psalm 16, David prophesies that God would not abandon his faithful one to the realm of the dead or let his body see decay.
Psalm 22:22-31 speaks of life after death.
The resurrection is foreshadowed in Jonah 1:17 where we read that Jonah was “in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jesus himself referenced Jonah when he said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” That’s Matthew 12:40.
So the Old Testament scriptures provide evidence through prophecy that Jesus was raised from the dead. As Paul stated, Jesus was “raised on the third day according to the scriptures.”
Secondly, the Corinthians can trust that the resurrection happened because there were plenty of witnesses to this fact.
We read in verses 5 to 8 that Jesus appeared to Cephas, or Peter, and then to the twelve apostles. After that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time – most of whom, Paul says, are still living. Then he appeared to James and to all the apostles.
Paul is keen to point out that this is not a story that he has concocted. This is verifiable truth; there were dozens, hundreds, even, of witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, who could testify that yes, Jesus died, yes, he was buried, and yes, he rose from the dead. If anyone in Corinth was unsure about the truth of the resurrection, who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead, all they needed to do was find one of these people. Jump in a boat and head for Galilee. It shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who witnessed Jesus alive and well after seeing him dead on the cross.
Jesus’ resurrection, then, it not a myth. The gospel is not a story. It is rooted in verifiable truth.
Thirdly, the Corinthians could trust that Jesus was raised from the dead because Jesus appeared to Paul personally. Paul is a direct eye witness. If the Corinthians don’t want to accept it from anyone else, then they should accept it from Paul, who was well known to them, who was the one who told them the Gospel in the first place.
Three reasons, then, why the Corinthians could trust that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Three reasons why we can trust that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Paul, then wants to leave his readers in absolutely no doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?
After all, there are plenty of people who profess to be Christian, yet dispute the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scarcely a year goes by when a senior figure in the Church doesn’t hit the headlines for supposedly denying that the bodily resurrection of Christ took place.
This was evidently the case within the Corinthian Church as well, which is why Paul asks in verse 12, “if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection for the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”
Paul outlines several consequences of Jesus not being raised from the dead in verses 12 to 19.
Firstly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, Paul and the apostles have misrepresented God. They are false teachers, since they have been testifying that God raised Christ, which, if there is no resurrection, is not true. This means that Paul and all of the apostles have invented false stories and misled God’s people. As such, they could expect to experience the full wrath of God.
Secondly, if there is no resurrection, then the faith of the Corinthians has been in vain. Indeed, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain. Our faith is futile. And, most significantly, we are still in our sins.
Christ has not defeated death.
He has not redeemed our sin.
We will still face the full wrath of God when we die.
Thirdly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, all those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. All those faithful Christians who have followed Jesus over the centuries, have perished. All our Christian friends and family who have died have perished. That’s it. They’re dead and that’s that.
Fourthly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then we are of all people most to be pitied. If we place our hope in Jesus in this life only, then we are fools, because there is no hope. We too are doomed to an eternal death, with no hope of an eternal life. We might as well, as Paul puts it later in verse 32, join in with everyone who says, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” We would be better living as if we only live once.
Well of course it is important then, that Christ was raised from the dead. If he has not been raised from the dead, then we are all fools, fools with no hope for the future.
What a bleak prospect that is!
But Paul doesn’t entertain that bleak prospect of no resurrection for long. He hits us in verse 20 with a bold statement – “but in fact Christ HAS been raised from the dead!”
Paul is unequivocal in this. There is no doubt in his mind at all, because of all the evidence he has already presented us with. Christ HAS been raised from the dead! And it matters that Christ HAS been raised from the dead!
So what are the consequences of Jesus being raised from the dead?
The consequences are truly profound.
The first consequence we can glean from Paul here is that Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
I spend quite a lot of my summer in the north Essex countryside. Next to us there’s an old Second World War mine depot, where explosives were built, tested and stored during the war. What went on there was so secret that to this day no-one really knows the truth. What we do know, though, is that blackberries grow there very well now.
My family love blackberrying. Claire, my wife, takes great delight in finding and devouring the first blackberry of summer. As she eats it, she knows that this is a significant moment because in due course there will be hundreds, thousands, millions of other blackberries all over the mine depot.
It would be rather odd if that first blackberry was the one and only blackberry. If it was the only blackberry not just in north Essex, but across the country.
We would rejoice that that one blackberry had grown so near to us, and that we’d been able to witness it with our own eyes.
But it would feel a little hollow if we weren’t anticipating the growth of many more for our summer puddings, for our crumbles, and for our jam.
So when, in verse 20, Paul describes Jesus as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, it is clear that he expects Jesus to be the first of many, many millions of people to be raised.
Those who know and love Jesus will be raised. Just as we can sure that Jesus was raised, we can be sure that we, too, will be raised.
Here we see Paul recounting God’s plan for the world. We see in the verses from verse 21 onwards the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, as Paul draws up a direct contrast between Adam and Jesus.
Death came through a man. Adam disobeyed God. He ignored his commandment. Adam sinned. The wages of sin are death. Because of Adam’s sin, death entered creation. As a result of Adam we all die. Death makes its presence felt all around us. We are all edging towards death. It is an inevitability.
Death doesn’t have to be the end, though, because just as death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
All those who are in Christ will be made alive.
All those who belong to Jesus will be made alive.
Just as a harvest follows the first fruits of summer, so too a rich harvest will follow the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus isn’t the only one who will be raised to life.
And that is amazing news. The greatest news ever!
Paul suggests that there is a prescribed order to this resurrection.
As Paul has already established, Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead.
When Jesus returns, all those who belong to Christ will be raised, those who knew Jesus, who loved Jesus, and who sought to follow him in their lives – they will be raised.
Finally, at the end, Jesus will destroy every rule and every authority and every power, and deliver the kingdom to God the Father. Jesus will reign and all his enemies will be put under his feet. At that point, the last enemy will finally be destroyed – death itself.
Death was never a part of God’s plan. It was introduced as a consequence of human sin. Jesus defeated death when he died on the cross and rose again. And when he returns, he will defeat it once and for all, enabling all those who love him to be raised to life.
So can we say with confidence that on the third day Jesus rose again? Paul firmly believes that we can. He shows us that we can be confident that Christ rose. Scripture proclaims this. The prophets proclaimed this. The apostles proclaimed this. The hundreds of witnesses proclaimed this.
The consequences of Christ’s resurrection are truly profound. As Paul reminded us, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Gospel. Indeed, he went further than that. The death and resurrection of Jesus ARE the gospel. It is the gospel by which we are saved.
That is of first importance.
Whilst many would say that the cross is the most fundamental element of the Christian gospel, the truth is that without the resurrection, the gospel is lacking.
By rising from the dead, Jesus was able to demonstrate that he has defeated death.
By rising from the dead and appearing to the apostles and to the 500, we have evidence that Jesus defeated death.
By rising from the dead and ascending to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is able to return to earth to destroy all dominion, authority and power, and to hand over the kingdom to his Father.
By rising from the dead and placing all his enemies under his feet, Jesus is able to destroy the last enemy, death, to ensure that all those who place their trust in him will also be raised from the dead, the full harvest that follows the firstfruits of resurrection.
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, we are fools to be pitied beyond all others.
But Christ indeed has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
And that is the greatest news the world has ever known.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 29th September 2019 at Southwater Community Church, West Sussex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
How convinced are you by the gospel?
Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?
Do you read it regularly?
Does it shape your life?
Has it changed who you are?
Are you convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died on the cross and rose again three days later? Are you convinced that after your earthly death you will go to be with Jesus and his Father in his new creation?
Are you convinced enough by this for it actually to change your life?
That’s what I’d like us to reflect on this morning.
How convinced are we by the Gospel?
We’ll be looking at Luke 16:19-31, so if you have a Bible with you, do have that open in front of you.
It’s quite a memorable passage that we find ourselves considering this morning. The imagery it presents us with is particularly powerful. An unnamed rich man who finds himself in torment after his death. Lazarus, a poor man who suffered much during his life, with Abraham after his death.
Before we get into the passage too much, it’s perhaps worth looking at the context. If you have a Bible, flip back to verse 1 of chapter 16. Here we see that in this chapter, Jesus is teaching his disciples. He begins the chapter by teaching his disciples a parable about handling money. This leads into his famous statement in verse 13, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
It is at this point that we see that the Pharisees are also present. We read in verse 14 that, “the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” In verse 15 Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
This verse in particular will help us to unpack today’s reading.
What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
God knows our hearts.
The parable that follows, the focus of our reading today, is, then, a lesson for the Pharisees. Those who love money, who are devoted to it, who seek to justify themselves in the eyes of others.
I suspect, actually, that we might be more like the Pharisees that we would like to admit.
This passage, therefore, provides a vital lesson for us too.
Our first point then, where are our hearts?
Let’s consider the rich man in the parable. Where is his heart? What is it that he values most?
Let’s look at how he lived his life.
He seems to have had it all. Pots of cash, amazing clothes, and the very best food. He even lived in a house that was large enough to have a gateway – a gateway that provided him with security and privacy, that enabled him to enjoy his comfortable lifestyle away from the hoi polloi. He seemed to have it all.
The man in this parable was clearly self-centred. His life was focused on getting the very best for himself. He had no time for anyone else. His hard earned cash was precisely that – his hard earned cash – so why should he even contemplate sharing what he had with anyone else?
Verse 19 sums up this man – dressed in fine linen, feasting sumptuously everyday. He received many good things during his lifetime.
And this is where his heart is set. This is what he values most. His lifestyle – rich, comfortable and secure.
But verse 20 introduces the second significant character – a poor man named Lazarus, a beggar who spent his time at the gate of the rich man. His body covered in sores, he was too weak even to attempt to stop the local dogs from coming and licking his body. He lived his life in a perpetual state of hunger. All he longed for was a few crumbs from the table of the rich man.
Lazarus was well-known to the rich man. We see in verse 24 that the rich man knew his name.
The rich man had been so focused on himself that he had singularly failed during Lazarus’ lifetime to do anything at all to help him. He had watched Lazarus, a poor, ill, hungry man at his gate, day after day, and yet had not shown him a single ounce of compassion. He showed him no mercy, no pity.
When these two men died, however, there was a complete reversal of their fortunes.
When the rich man died, he was buried and found himself in what the parable describes as Hades. Verse 23 tells us that the rich man was being tormented. In verse 24 the rich man announces that he is in agony, in the midst of flames.
In contrast, Lazarus, when he died, verse 22 tells us, was “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
The rich man cannot believe the reversal that has occurred.
It is now he who is asking for mercy. In verse 24, the rich man calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”
He had shown no mercy to Lazarus during his life, but now asks for mercy himself.
But Abraham does not offer the rich man much hope. He tells him, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”
The consequences of his earthly life finally become evident to the rich man. His heart had been in entirely the wrong place. He was selfish when he should have been selfless. He kept his wealth for himself, when he should have generously supported those less fortunate than himself.
And now it was too late.
Now he was the one begging for pity, for mercy, whilst Lazarus had a much more comfortable existence.
This was a direct challenge to the Pharisees, who, as we saw in verse 14, loved money.
But God knew their hearts.
I wonder which of these characters we identify with the most?
Do we identify with Lazarus, who endured poverty and hardship during his lifetime, to whom no mercy was shown, but who ultimately found himself with Abraham and a merciful Father after his death?
Or do we identify with the rich man, trusting in our own good fortune, living, certainly on a global scale, a well off existence, failing to show mercy to those less fortunate than ourselves, and doomed to eternal torment after our death?
Perhaps we could put it another way.
Where is our heart?
God knows our hearts, but where are they focused?
Are they focused on ourselves, on looking after number one, of making sure that before anything else we’re alright? Are we self-centred?
Or are our hearts focused on others, on showing mercy to those less fortunate than ourselves, of loving our neighbours? Are we self-less in all that we do?
Jesus makes it clear that the way to his father is by putting others before ourselves.
Jesus makes it clear that we need to show mercy if we wish to be shown mercy.
The challenge is great, but so too is the reward.
The rich man in this parable learnt the hard way. Let us hope that that’s not the case for us. Let’s hope that, unlike the rich man in this story, we don’t leave it too late to use all that we have selflessly.
Where is your heart?
What is it that you value most?
So to our second point. Do we listen to God’s word?
There is much more to this story than simply stewardship of resources. We are called to be self-less, but being self-less alone does not open the gates of God’s kingdom to us. Lazarus was not rewarded after his death simply because he was poor during his lifetime. There’s much more to the story than this.
It’s worth looking carefully at what Jesus tells us of the background of the rich man in this parable.
Do you notice how the rich man addresses Abraham when he first encounters him? In verse 23, he sees Abraham, with Lazarus at his side. He clearly recognises him. This is reinforced when, in verse 24, he calls him, “Father Abraham.” The fact that this man recognises Abraham, and, what’s more, calls him Father, suggests that this is clearly a man with a solid Jewish background, who identified as one of the sons of Abraham, or, in other words, a Jew.
This is emphasised in verse 29, when Abraham replies to the man’s request to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham says to him, “they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”
Presumably, this also applies to the rich man in the parable. Presumably he had Moses and the prophets during his lifetime too.
Moses and the prophets refers to the scriptures of the Old Testament, the scriptures studied and followed by all good Jews. The Law and the Prophets, as they are often referred, provided Jewish people with a complete guide of how to honour God. They lay down who God is, and what he wants from his people. The rich man, as a Jew, would have studied these scriptures, at the very least in childhood, and probably into adulthood. Maybe he continued to study them until the day he died.
But how had he been changed by what he read? How had the scripture shaped his life, and moulded his character and personality? It appears that they hadn’t at all. If the prophets and the law had shaped his life then he wouldn’t have been so self-centred. He wouldn’t have neglected his moral duty to look after the poor. He wouldn’t have ignored Lazarus day, after day, after day.
This man knew the scriptures, but he chose not to be obey them.
He claimed a relationship with Abraham, calling him father, but it is a hollow relationship based on head knowledge of scripture, without the transformative presence of God in his life. His heart was hardened to God’s will for his life.
He may well have known all the answers, but he failed to live the teachings of scripture out in his own life.
In that respect, he was very much like the hypocritical Pharisees.
This is in direct contrast to Lazarus, who by virtue of his experience after his death must have followed the teachings of Moses and the prophets much more diligently than the rich man did. Lazarus’ focus was on serving God, not money. He was less interested in justifying himself in the eyes of others, and more interested in focusing his heart on God.
Lazarus clearly lived the teachings of scripture out in his own life.
I wonder if in our own lives we more closely resemble the rich man or Lazarus?
Are we like the rich man? Do we know scripture, do we read the gospels, the epistles, the law and the prophets and nod along in agreement? Do we claim a relationship with the father of our faith, Jesus Christ, without backing that relationship up with actual substance?
Or are we more like Lazarus, trying our hardest to faithfully study the word of God and to live it out in our lives day by day?
Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. But of course, listening must lead to action. Listening must lead to transformation.
Paul developed this point in his letter to Timothy, which we read together this morning. He writes in chapter 6 verse 9 that “those who get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” And here, in Luke’s gospel we see exactly that. The rich man fell into temptation. He fell into a trap that ultimately led to his destruction. Whilst Lazarus enjoys being in Abraham’s presence, the rich man finds himself in a pit of flames.
Paul urged Timothy in verse 17 to tell those who are rich not to put their hope in wealth, but instead to put their hope in God. He continues in verse 18 to tell Timothy to command the rich to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. This, he says in verse 19, will mean that they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
If only the rich man had been generous and willing to share. If only he had looked out for Lazarus. Perhaps his destiny would have been rather different. For him, though, the understanding that his faith was hollow came too late.
Jesus was warning the Pharisees here. Sort your lives out, he was telling them. You claim to know the scriptures, you claim to follow the Laws and the Prophets, but you have hearts of stone. You are self-centered, he was suggesting to them. Your focus is on making money, not serving God. Sort your lives out before it’s too late.
And that’s the message for us too. If we are living like the Pharisees, if we love money more than God, we need to sort our lives out. If we leave it too late, we’ll find ourselves in the same position as the rich man.
But it’s not too late. We can work hard to ensure that the focus of our lives is a focus that pleases God. We can learn from this rich man’s mistakes. We have the Bible, Old Testament and New. We have the words of Jesus. Do we listen to them? Do we allow the word of God to transform our lives, to direct our thoughts and our actions?
It’s not too late.
It’s not too late to listen to words of scripture.
It’s not too late to allow God to transform our lives.
Do we listen to scripture? Let’s try to do that more and more each and every day.
To our third point. Are we convinced by the Gospel?
It’s funny how after his death, the rich man suddenly began to show compassion. The first time he shows an interest in anyone other than himself is in verse 27, when he says to Abraham, “I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
Abraham, as we’ve already seen, tells him, “they have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
Whilst Abraham believes that scripture is all that is necessary to understand how to live, the rich man believes that more is necessary. He says, in verse 30, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
He finally recognises that the key to salvation is repentance. But he does not believe that the Bible provides them with enough motivation to repent.
He does believe, though, that if his brothers witnessed a miracle, specifically someone returning from the dead, then they would repent.
Abraham makes it clear, though, that there’s sufficient in the Word of God to reveal the truth of the Gospel, to reveal God, to reveal how humans should live in response to him.
Yet as the Word of God had not transformed the rich man’s own life, he is sure that it hasn’t transformed the lives of his five brothers.
“No,” comes his response. No, that’s not enough. They haven’t been convinced by scripture.
If only they had one more sign, perhaps then they would believe. Just one big sign. Something that definitively proved that God exists.
If only someone from the dead could go back to them, perhaps then they would repent.
The rich man believes that Lazarus returning from the dead to his brothers would be sufficient sign for them to bow the knee before God and repent.
I wonder how many of us have heard this before.
If only God could give me a sign, then I’d believe.
If only there was firm evidence, then I’d believe.
If only God performed a miracle, then I’d believe.
Maybe we were in a similar position before we repented and accepted Jesus as our saviour. Maybe we were holding out for a sign.
But what does Abraham say in response to the rich man?
In verse 31 he says, “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
He tells them that scripture is sufficient. If it is not, then nothing that happens will convince them of the Gospel. There is nothing that will change their minds, because their minds are too closed.
You’d think, though, that if someone rose from the dead, then that might convince them.
But just a short while after Jesus told this story, he did exactly that. He was crucified. He died. He was buried in a tomb.
But then, three very long days later, he rose from the dead! He appeared in the garden to Mary Magdalene, and then to Mary mother of James, Salome, and Joanna, then to Peter, then to two disciples, then to the rest of the disciples with the exception of Thomas, then to all of the disciples, then to the disciples on another couple of occasions, then, as Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15, to over five hundred people at once, then to James, then to the disciples again, then to Paul.
Someone literally did raise from the dead, Jesus himself!
And hundreds of people witnessed this!
And yet Abraham is right. If people’s hearts are hard, then they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
If scripture isn’t enough to convince someone, then neither will the resurrection of Christ.
Remember who Jesus was talking to here. He was talking to the Pharisees, who, despite their religiosity had singularly failed to be transformed by the words of God in the Bible. Their hearts were hard. They were selfish and looked out only for themselves. They loved money. And I suspect that, as Abraham predicted, they were not convinced of the need for repentance even after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So what does this all mean for us today?
There’s lots for us to think about.
Where is my heart today? Am I self-centred or self-less? Do I show mercy to those in need of mercy, just as one day I too will be in need of mercy when I face Jesus on the day of my judgement?
What about scripture? Am I convinced by the power of God’s word? Do I place my trust in what I read? Do I read and reflect on it? Do I allow it to change my life? Do I allow it to flow from my heart to my mind, transforming me in the process, making me more Christ-like?
What about the resurrection? Do I believe that Jesus Christ died on Good Friday, then rose again three days later on Easter Sunday? Do I place my trust in him?
And that brings us back to the question that I posed at the beginning.
How convinced are you by the Gospel?
Does it shape your life, mould your character, define your personality?
Are you able to say, as Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile?”
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions,34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 18th August 2019 at Manningtree Methodist Church, Essex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
You may find this hard to believe when you look at me, but this year it is twenty years since I took up running. I had never really enjoyed physical activity at school – with the possible exception of swimming and sailing. My least favourite activity was the annual cross country. My spine shivers at the thought of our annual sessions at Priory Park in Reigate. When I started at the University of Essex in 1999, though, I realised that I had to do some kind of physical activity, otherwise my body would suffer the consequences. So it was that I took up running, and actually discovered that I quite enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started running races purely for pleasure, however. I ran a couple of 10ks, and then decided that the time had come for a real challenge, and I signed up to run the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London. It was certainly a challenge! I completed the course in 2 hours and 7 minutes, a time I was very happy with. The mix of emotions as I crossed the line was complex to say the least! I was exhausted and worn out, but I felt so thrilled at the accomplishment. Throw in the thousands of spectators who thronged around the finish line, spurring us on, and it’s not surprising that I felt tears falling down my face!
In today’s passage from the letter to the Hebrews, the writer talks about the Christian life as a race. Each of us, the writer suggests, has our own unique Christian journey, the culmination of which is our future resurrection and life in God’s new creation. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, that we complete this particular race!
I want to look particularly at the first three verses of chapter twelve of Hebrews this morning, so do have your Bibles open there, should you have one. I will consider three points. Firstly, what do we need to throw off to run this race? Secondly, how should we run this race, and thirdly, where should we set our gaze as we run?
Firstly, then, what should we throw off to run the race? Verse 1 tells us that we should “throw off everything that hinders.”
When preparing for a race, an athlete thinks carefully about the clothing that they should wear. In the ancient world, of course, athletes generally competed naked, which is not something that is generally recommended in races today! Modern athletes do think carefully about what they wear, however, opting for light weight shorts, and t-shirts or vest tops. In short, clothes that do not impede movement.
Having said this, every year in the London Marathon there’s a person who opts to race in an old diving suit, or a suit of armour or something similar, but this is not to be recommended! Outlandish costumes greatly hinder the runner’s progress in the race. Such competitors generally come last, if they even complete the course.
The writer of Hebrews thinks along these lines when he says that we need to “throw off everything that hinders.” It is crucial that we complete this particular race. The Christian life is not like a Saturday afternoon fun run. It’s deadly serious. It’s quite literally a matter of life or death. If we complete this particular race we gain our salvation, and spend eternity in God’s new creation. If we fail to make it, though, we face a rather bleaker prospect.
We don’t want to run this particular race in a suit of armour. We don’t want anything hindering our ability to complete this race. It is crucial, therefore, that we throw off everything that hinders us, anything that could make it tricky for us to reach the finish line.
So what could hinder us in our Christian life? A focus on accumulation of money, or belongings, or stuff. Friends who are not helpful as we strive to live a life that honours Christ. Careers that are so utterly consuming that we have no time to study the Bible or spend time in prayer. Hobbies that are incompatible with our core beliefs. Anything that might prevent us from finishing the Christian life, and pull us off the course that God has marked out for us.
If we find ourselves encumbered by of these hindrances, we should throw them off. We should discard them. We should cease and desist. None of these things are important. What is of prime importance is our ability to finish the race marked out for us.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews continues in chapter twelve verse one by telling Christians that they should throw off “the sin that so easily entangles.”
I remember when I was younger there was a craze for obstacle courses. This was before such things got more grown up and more extreme, before the creation of events like Tough Mudder. One of the trickiest obstacles was always something that I think was called a cargo net, a large mesh laid across the ground. I was never really sure whether to go over or under the net, but sensed that going around it probably was not allowed! Going over it always struck me as the easiest option. That was until I got some way across when the net almost seemed to grab my ankles, and I would get completely tangled up and end up falling flat on my face.
This is the imagery that springs to mind when I think of sin that entangles. Sin doesn’t look like it has the power to end our race, but it does. Sin can grab us and slow us down. Sin can lure us off course. Sin can infiltrate our minds and lead us to question our faith. At its worst, sin can completely ensnare us, causing us to fall out of the race that is the Christian life, preventing us from completing the race that God has marked out for us.
The key, then, is to strive to avoid sin at all costs. It might seem like just a bit of fun. What’s the harm of this one little sin, we might think. A little deviation from God’s plan for our lives might seem inconsequential, especially viewed over a lifetime of adherence to Christ’s teaching, but sin has the potential to ensnare us, to drag us away from Jesus, and to prevent us from gaining our salvation. If we are to maximise our chances of completing the race, therefore, we are urged to throw off any sin that has the potential to entangle us.
Secondly, then, how should we run the race that God has predetermined for us?
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it succinctly in 12:1 – we should run the race with perseverance.
When I began training for my first half marathon, I was quite shocked at how great the difference is between running a 10k race and a half marathon. Every time I clocked over an hour and a half of running, I found myself thinking, gosh, 13 and a half miles really is a long way! That’s why a carefully planned training regime was so important. If I just went out and hoped for the best, then I would clearly fail. I needed to build up my endurance. I needed to persevere.
That’s true for the Christian life too. The race marked out for us is long. It lasts the whole of our lifetime. We’re not participating in a short, sharp sprint, but a lengthy ultra marathon, with any luck stretching over many decades. It’s important that we remain on track during the whole of that life time. We need to build up our endurance. We need to persevere.
Of course, there will be times when staying on track comes easily. There are times in our life when our race might take us through periods of great joy and great happiness, times when we feel close to Christ and richly blessed. At times like these it is relatively straightforward to run the race marked out for us.
There will inevitably be times, however, when we won’t feel so blessed, when life takes us through dark canyons of despair. Times when work gets tricky, or family life becomes hard. Times when we lose those nearest and dearest to us. Times when we begin to question whether a God of love could really exist at all, so unloving does the world seem.
Even in these periods, though, we need to keep going. We need to persevere. This is when we need to keep slogging our way through life, trying our hardest to remain on track, doing our utmost to stay rooted in our relationship with Christ.
Jesus, of course, found there were times when real perseverance was necessary just to keep going. He experienced despair himself. He knows what it means to live through the darkness. He knows that it takes perseverance to stay rooted in our faith. 12:2 reminds us that Jesus endured the cross. Verse three reminds us that Jesus endured great opposition from sinners. He knows exactly the endurance that is required to make it to the end of this race.
It is at the bleakest times in our lives when we would do well to remember that as we run our race, we are surrounded by “such a great cloud of witnesses,” as verse 1 says. Those who have gone before us are all cheering us on in our Christian life, urging us to make it through to the finish line. The writer reminds us of some of these people in chapter eleven. People like the Egyptians who made it across the Red Sea. People like those who marched around the walls of Jericho, to see them fall after seven days. People like Rahab, like Gideon, like Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.
The writer expounds on some of the harsh realities faced by our forebears. He singles out those who were tortured, who faced jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment, stoning, being sawn in two, death by the sword, who were destitute, persecuted and mistreated.
These people persevered through to the end of the race marked out for them, and are amongst that great crowd of believers cheering us on the reach the end of our race.
What’s more, it may well be that it was their suffering that enabled them to reach the finish line of the race at all. In Romans 5, Paul says that “we also glory in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope.” Perseverance comes as a direct result of suffering, according to Paul. Therefore when we find ourselves finding our race tough, that’s when we should knuckle down, push through, and persevere. If we persevere, we will develop character, and if we develop character, then we will have hope in the future life that God has planned for us.
Our forebears persevered through their suffering because they had faith in God – faith based on what they knew of his character and his promises. They lived before the fulfilment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11:39 says that “none of them received what had been promised.” He continues, “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
We are in a much more fortunate position. We can persevere through our suffering because we live on a post-resurrection world. We know of Jesus, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection. We have seen that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, and therefore we can have real hope in our future, in the conclusion of the race marked out for us.
We should persevere in the race marked out for us because of the hope we have in our future resurrection. We should persevere through both good times and bad times trusting in Jesus, and seeking to follow him.
This links into the third and final element of this passage that I would like us to consider this morning, that is verse 2, where the writer urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Every night, before Daniel and Lily, my children, go to sleep, either Claire or I read them a story. This is a tradition that we took on from our parents. I remember my mum reading me pretty much everything that Roald Dahl wrote, as well as the complete Chronicles of Narnia series. I also vividly remember my mum reading me the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember being fascinated by the stories of Wilder and her family as they crossed America, part of a wave of settlers colonising the United States of America. She was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word – namely, a person who was amongst the first to explore or settle a new country or area.
And this is what we have in Jesus. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith because he was the one who brought it about. He was the one who defeated death. He was the one who first entered the kingdom of heaven. He acts as pioneer because it is he who is not just among the first, but the very first human to settle God’s new country, his new creation. If we have faith in him, we will join him in God’s new creation. Before we can settle there, however, we need a pioneer to go before us. And that is Jesus.
Without a pioneer to go before us, without a pioneer to establish our right to settle in God’s heavenly kingdom, there would be no way for us to enjoy eternal life. Without Jesus’ pioneering work, we simply would not be able to access heaven. It is only because of Jesus that we can enjoy this immense privilege.
Jesus is able to act as our pioneer precisely because he lived the life of a man here amongst us. If he had remained in heaven with his Father, then God’s wrath against us as sinners would be left unsatisfied, the punishment for our sin unborne, and consequently we would have faced the full weight of God’s anger at the time of our judgement. Only as a consequence of the earthly life of Jesus can we be free of our sin.
This is why we should fix our eyes on Jesus. He is our pioneer, preparing our place in heaven in advance for us.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews also calls Jesus the perfecter of faith in verse two. He lived a perfect life, and as a consequence was able to perfect our inadequate faith by taking the punishment that was ours on the cross. He was the very first person to run this face in its entirety, from its beginning at birth to its completion with his ascension into heaven. Jesus endured the cross during his race. But he scorned its shame, we’re told. The prospect of being with his father in heaven, the prospect of enabling us to have access to God’s heavenly kingdom, meant that the humiliation he faced on the cross paled into insignificance. The future hope he has far outweighed the suffering that he confronted in his earthly life.
This is why we should fix our eyes on Jesus. He is the perfecter of our faith, taking the punishment that should have been ours on the cross.
Jesus bore our punishment with anticipation of joy ahead of him. That joy would see Jesus take his rightful position, seated at the right hand of the throne of God. The fact that he is seated, and not standing, shows that Jesus’ work has been completed. He has done all that was required him. He has run the race that God the father had marked out for him, persevering against every adversity, and as a result pioneered the way to eternal life for all those who follow him.
If we are to complete our race, the writer to the Hebrews tells us in verse three that we should, “consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
If we fix our eyes on Jesus, if we consider his perseverance through his suffering, then we will be equipped to persevere in the race that God has marked out for us.
What does this mean in practice, though? What does it mean, to fix our eyes on Jesus?
I would suggest that it means we strive to make him the focal point of our attention. He should never be far from our thoughts, from our plans, from our actions. We should follow the examples that he laid down for us, striving to emulate his pattern for living. We should take to heart his teaching and be guided by all that he has taught us. And we should accept his death and resurrection, trusting that, since he has pioneered the way to God’s eternal kingdom for us to follow, we too will experience the joy of resurrection.
If we fix our eyes on Jesus and his pioneering work, then we will not grow weary in our Christian life, we will not lose heart. If we place him at the heart of our lives, and strive to follow him, then we will be spurred on to follow the race set out for us. We will know that we have “joy set before us,” which will leave any earthly concerns to pale into insignificance. Whatever suffering, whatever we have to endure for our faith is a mere triviality compared to the prospect of our future glory. We should endure all that the world throws at us, persevering in our faith, looking to the joy that awaits us after death.
There’s a lot to challenge us in this passage from Hebrews. The imagery of running a race marked out for us by God is a useful way of thinking of our personal journey of faith. Just like any race, there will be moments where we will feel on top of the world, when we will feel happy with our progress, and thrilled by the experience. But there will also be points when we feel exhausted, worn out, and unable to go on.
It is of the greatest importance, though, that we complete this race. The prize on offer here is not just a medal, but a place in God’s new creation, an eternity with Jesus.
So what must we do to ensure that we run this race to its conclusion?
We need to throw off everything that hinders us in the race – anything that is incompatible with Christian living, and we need to throw off the sin that enmeshes and entangles.
We also need to run the race with perseverance, remembering that there is a great crowd of believers watching us and cheering us on.
We must also ensure that we fix our eyes on Jesus, remembering that he is our pioneer. We should strive to emulate Jesus, follow his teaching, and accept him as our personal saviour.
If we bear all of this in mind, then we will be in an excellent position to complete our race. And what a prize will be waiting for us at the end.