I am the Bread of Life: Finding Eternal Satisfaction

24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:24-35

Window of St Joseph's Catholic Church, Central City, Kentucky.

Window of St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Central City, Kentucky, by Nheyob and sourced from Wikimedia.

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 5th August 2018 at Manningtree Methodist Church, Essex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

Where do you seek fulfilment?

Where do you find satisfaction?

Difficult questions for a Sunday morning, but definitely questions worth considering.

You can learn a great deal about a person when you know the answer to these questions.

You see, I believe that the source of our satisfaction defines us, it shapes the pattern of our lives.

Some might draw satisfaction from their job. It’s usually easy to spot these people because all they ever talk about is work.

Some draw satisfaction from their home. These are the people who, when you visit their home, everything is pristine. Nothing is out of place, and you might think you’ve walked into one of those show homes that builders furnish to show off properties on their new development.

Others might draw their satisfaction from food. These people are often marked out by a slightly rotund shape. They might have piles of Mary Berry and Delia Smith cookbooks scattered around their home, plus an enviable collection of pots and pans.

I suppose if someone was to study me closely, they might think that I derive satisfaction from gadgets. I’m usually carrying the latest iPhone, plus an Apple Watch, and can bore for England about the latest in technology.

What might someone think is the source of your satisfaction? If they studied you, would they be able to pinpoint the one thing that satisfies you?

I wonder if someone studied any of us here today if they would deduce that we derive our satisfaction from a relationship with Jesus Christ?

I wonder if we, ourselves, think that we derive satisfaction from knowing Jesus, from having a relationship with him?

This is what I’d like us to think about this morning as we study God’s word together.

It might be helpful if you have John 6:24-35 open in front of you as we continue.

I’m going to try to cover three interconnected points this morning. These are refocusing our desires, what must we do, and Jesus, our eternal satisfaction.

Let’s get straight on with our first point, then, refocusing our desires.

I teach in a posh London prep school. The school has many pupils from the wealthiest end of our society. The road outside the school at picking up time is full of Teslas, expensive customised Range Rovers, Bentleys and Ferraris. Many of my pupils will, even as we speak, be holidaying in multi-million pound foreign homes, or relaxing in the most exclusive resorts around the world.

And you know what? Good for them, I say.

The people who send their children to my school have worked incredibly hard through school, through university and through their professional lives to earn the money that pays for their expensive lifestyles.

What does concern me, though, is that for some people, this quest for more and more money, for flashier cars, for more homes, for the best holidays money can buy, becomes the whole focus of their existence. This quest for more and better stuff becomes their primary desire. They invest in big houses and fancy cars because they think that this is where they will find satisfaction. And it is this pursuit of bigger and better stuff, whatever the cost, that shapes the pattern of their lives and defines them. I guess you could define them as brazen materialists.

In our reading from John’s Gospel today we encounter Jesus soon after he has fed 5,000 people with just five small barley loaves and two small fish. Well, 5,000 men anyway, as we see in John 6:10. The real number was probably several times larger, since women and children were not included in this number.

This same crowd, we see in verses 24 and 25 of this morning’s reading, were trying to find Jesus. They were a little confused to find Jesus in Capernaum, since, whilst the disciples had been seen getting into a boat, Jesus had opted for the slightly less traditional method of crossing the lake, or at least the first three or four miles of it, on foot.

Jesus is quick to reprimand his audience, who are probably Jewish, and more than likely being addressed by Jesus in the synagogue. They have been looking for him, he tells them in verse 26, because he provided them with a free meal. They ate the loaves and the fish by the lake, and ate until they were satisfied.

Their earthly needs have been satisfied by Jesus and they are happy. They have found satisfaction in having their physical hunger satiated.

They are following Jesus because they see him as a provider of free food and hope that he will continue to be their meal ticket. They think that he will continue to satisfy their physical needs.

At a simplistic level, if we are looking to define this crowd based on the source of their satisfaction, you could say that they like to have full bellies at no cost. Perhaps not unreasonable, but they have lost sight of who Jesus is as a consequence of their desire for him to give them food.

The crowd have completely misunderstood the reason for Jesus being present amongst them.

As the Biblical commentator William Barclay puts it, “it is as if Jesus said, ‘you cannot think of your souls for thinking about your stomachs’.”

Jesus doesn’t tell his audience that they are wrong to hunger for food. He knows that this is a perfectly reasonable desire. He doesn’t rebuke them for looking for satisfaction in earthly terms, but he does want them to think carefully about their life priorities.

You see, when we focus solely on earthly satisfaction, we lose sight of our spiritual identity.

In verse 27 Jesus tells the assembled throng, and through them, he tells us too, that we should not work for food that spoils, for food that will satisfy our hunger briefly but leave us wanting in due course. He tells us that we should work instead for food that endures to eternal life.

Sometimes if I work late, I pop into McDonald’s for a quick burger before getting the train back to our home in Sussex. Now, whilst I might buy the biggest, juiciest burger that McDonald’s has to offer, by the time I get home, I’m hungry again. I don’t know why, but McDonald’s food never seems to satisfy my hunger for more than an hour.

And that’s a good metaphor for the point that Jesus is trying to make.

Whatever we find ourselves craving, be it food, cars, homes, gadgets, a relationship, children, once we have them our craving continues. These things might temporarily satisfy us, but we’ll soon hunger for something else.

The Buddhists call this craving Tanha. They believe that Tanha, craving, is responsible for all the suffering in the world. It stands to reason, therefore, in their belief at least, that if only we could eliminate all craving from the world, then all suffering will end.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But I happen to believe that they’re wrong. I don’t see how it is possible to end craving. Show me a person who doesn’t crave, who doesn’t have desires of any kind, and I’ll show you a dead person.

Jesus’ approach is rather different. He doesn’t tell us to end our craving, to stop having desires, to stop looking for things that provide us with satisfaction. He knows that this is a fundamental part of being a human. Instead, he tells us that we need to focus our craving appropriately. We need to focus our craving, our quest for satisfaction and fulfilment in him.

Instead of trying to find satisfaction in earthly things that spoil, we should seek satisfaction in food that does not spoil, in food that endures to eternal life.

The source of this food is Jesus, as he makes clear in verse 27.

Jesus withholds nothing from us, and will gladly give us this eternal food if we just ask him to. He is able to grant us this food because he is the one whom God has placed his seal of approval.

There’s nothing wrong with drawing satisfaction from earthly things, whether that be food, cars, jobs or houses. We must ensure though that these things do not become our primary source of satisfaction. If they do, then we ultimately remain unsatisfied, unfulfilled. We won’t be able to shake off that feeling of emptiness.

If we only find real satisfaction in the food that Jesus will give us, we should refocus our desires on him. We must turn to him and make him our primary source of satisfaction.

On to our second point then. What must we do?

It’s great that Jesus will provide us with food that endures to eternal life, but how should we respond?

Funnily enough, this is exactly what the crowd asks Jesus in verse 28, “what must we do to do the works God requires?”

How can we work for food that endures, for satisfaction not just in the here and now, but eternally?

The crowd presumably expect a list of rules and regulations akin to the Ten Commandments revealed to Moses.

But Jesus surprises his audience. He doesn’t provide them with ethical codes or laws that can be ignored, circumvented or broken. Instead he tells them that the work of God is simply to believe in the one he has sent.

“The work of God is this,” Jesus says in verse 29. “To believe in the one he sent.”

What does it mean to believe in the one who God sent?

Believing in Jesus means believing his claims, trusting that he was sent by God, that he is the Son of God, that he died to pay the price for the sins of the world, that he rose again three days later, that he dwells at the right hand of God the Father, and has opened the way to eternal life for all those who believe.

Believing in Jesus is not simply about giving lip service to him. Genuine belief in Jesus is transformational.

If we believe in the one who God sent, our lives will be transformed, because our desires, our appetites will be redirected. Our priorities in life will not be about short term resolutions to our temporary appetites, but will take on an eternal perspective.

If we are to progress beyond empty statements of Jesus’ identity, if we are genuinely to believe in him we need to know him. We need to meet him in his word, the Bible. We need to spend time in prayer, listening to him and sharing our concerns with him. We need to understand his character, his priorities and strive to emulate him as closely as we are able.

Jesus was concerned about the lost, the sick, the outcasts. Jesus brought light into the darkness of the world. He brought love where there was hatred.

It seems to me that we live in a period in history where sometimes it feels like darkness and hatred might prevail. I’m sure that every successive generation feels this. But I am increasingly concerned at the self-centredness of the western world. Whether it’s the narcissism of social media, or whether it’s countries putting up borders, literal or metaphorical, to keep anyone “other” out, it feels like loving one another, the second of Christ’s great commandments, often seems to be side-lined.

Believing in Jesus should spur us on to want to stand out in the world as agents of life, of love, of light. If we share Christ’s priorities, we too will share his concern for the lost, the sick and the outcasts. We too will want to support the weak, the frail, the sick. We will want to look after the widows and orphans.

Ultimately we will want to show the world what we have discovered, that there is another way to live, a more enduring source of satisfaction; hope of an eternal life with Christ himself.

Of course, believing is hard. Many will find the idea of believing in something that they cannot see to be intolerably difficult, impossible, or even a nonsense.

Verse 30 shows that the crowd listening to Jesus struggled with this notion.

“Give us proof!” they demand. “If you are the one sent by God, give us sign! If you give us a sign we’ll believe!”

Funnily enough, these people had just been given a sign. They had just witnessed Jesus feed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five small barley loaves and two small fish. I don’t know about you, but I think I would regard that as a sign!

“Just one more sign, then we’ll believe,” they implore.

I wonder how many of us fall into this trap? I wonder how many of us lose out on the life that God would have us live because we are simply looking for more evidence of Christ’s identity.

More evidence please, God, then we’ll trust in you, then we’ll follow you.

How easy it would be to miss our calling, simply because we wanted more evidence.

There comes a point, though, where having weighed up the evidence, we must take a step of faith.

Take a step of faith to trust that Jesus is the one sent by God.

Take a step of faith to follow Jesus.

Take a step of faith to live the life that God has set out for us.

Sooner or later it will be too late.

Our earthly lives our finite, measured, if we’re lucky, in years. Yet the eternal existence we’re promised by definition lasts forever.

What a shame it would be if we missed the boat.

What must we do? We must believe in the one who God has sent.

Our third point then – the Bread of Life.

We must believe in the one God has sent because he is the Bread of Life who provides eternal satisfaction.

We’ve seen in verse 30 that the crowd asked Jesus for a sign so that they might see and believe him. In verse 31 they spoke of their ancestors who were given manna in the wilderness. We read about this in our reading from Exodus. Stuck out in the desert, God had given them bread to eat. They wanted Jesus to make bread come down from heaven so that they might believe.

He answers them by saying that it is God who gives true bread from heaven, bread that gives life to the world.

This seems like an appealing prospect to the crowd, who demand that Jesus always gives them this bread.

Jesus responds with one of the great I AM declarations, that mirrors the declaration that God himself gave to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM WHO I AM.”

“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus told them in verse 35. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Here, then, is the source of genuine satisfaction. Whilst the fulfilment of our earthly desires will only be temporary, Jesus provides eternal satisfaction. Only by turning to Christ and believing in him will we find true satisfaction.

When looking at verse 32 and verse 35 together, we see that Jesus comes from heaven. He has been given to us by his Father. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s redemptive plan for the world, the one whom the Jewish people had been waiting for, the one who the Old Testament points towards. Here is God himself, the word become flesh, dwelling amongst his created people, giving those who believe in his name the right to become children of God, as John stated at the beginning of his gospel.

Jesus, the bread of God, the bread that comes down from heaven, gives life to the world, Jesus says in verse 34.

Ever since the fall, humanity have dwelt in sin and death. Through our disobedience, as a consequence of turning from God, death has been a part of our human experience. A significant part too.

We’ve all experienced death through the death of loved ones we were close to.

We’ve all experienced the grief that accompanies the passing of someone that we loved. This is the reality of human existence.

Jesus, though, comes to bring life. He brings the hope that, if we turn to him, if we accept him as our saviour, earthly death is not the end, but the beginning. Just as Jesus rose from the dead to dwell with his father in heaven, the same will be true for us too. We too will be raised to life after death.

What’s more, Jesus affirms that this offer of life isn’t restricted. He gives life to the world, he says in verse 33. His offer of forgiveness, of eternal life, isn’t limited to those of a certain lineage, or nationality, or caste, or creed, or status.

He gives life to the world. His offer of forgiveness is open to all.

Anyone can turn Christ and be forgiven.

Anyone who calls on the name of Christ can find eternal satisfaction dwelling with Christ in God’s new creation.

This is reiterated in verse 35 when Jesus says that “whoever” comes to him will never go hungry, that “whoever” believes in him will never be thirsty. Whoever you are, Christ offers eternal satisfaction, eternal fulfilment.

Jesus brings satisfaction in ways that nothing else can. If we come to him we will never go hungry, he says. If we come to him we will never be thirsty.

So the question is, where will we seek fulfilment?

Where will we find our satisfaction?

Will we look to the world to address our cravings?

Or will we turn to Christ, the Bread of Life, who offers eternal fulfilment and satisfaction?

If the source of our satisfaction defines us, if it shapes the pattern of our lives, will we allow ourselves to be shaped by the Bread of Life, by Jesus?

Let’s all strive to refocus our desires and cultivate a genuine, life changing believe in Jesus, trusting that he is the Bread of Life.

If we draw our satisfaction from a relationship with Christ then we will have found a source of satisfaction that doesn’t spoil, but endures to eternal life.

The Lord is My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
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.

Psalm 23

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 16th July 2017 at All Saints’ Church, Lindfield, West Sussex.

What is the link between Clint Eastwood, George W Bush and Eminem? They’ve all referenced Psalm 23 in their work – in a film, in a speech and in a song respectively. These aren’t the only well-known figures who have quoted from Psalm 23. Coolio, Tupac and Kanye West have all included words from this Psalm in their songs, as have Fall Out Boy, Jay-Z, Hollywood Undead, Megadeth, Marilyn Manson, U2, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Duke Ellington amongst many others. It’s been set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Schubert, Ralph Vaughn Williams to name just a few. The Psalm was read in the film Titanic and at Whitney Houston’s memorial service.

Clearly there’s something about this Psalm that resonates through the ages and with people of all faiths or of no faith. It’s certainly one of the best-known texts in the Bible.

But how well do we really know this Psalm? There’s a danger with well-known texts that, precisely because we know them so well we cease to reflect on the words and the meaning behind them.

This evening I would like to share three points relating to the Psalm. I’ve picked out three reasons why, like David, we might like to declare that the Lord God is our shepherd. These reasons are:

  • Firstly, when we make God the shepherd of our lives, he provides for us;
  • Secondly, God restores us;
  • Thirdly, God guides and protects us.

On to our first point, then, God provides for us.

I’m no fan of shopping. I tried to avoid it as much as I can. Sometimes I feel inspired, however, and brave the shops. Within minutes of arriving however, I feel like I lose the will to live, and end up retreating into Costa for a caramel latte. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love online shopping. Even here I’ve been let down a couple of times recently. I ordered some goggles recently from Wiggle with next day delivery, and it took them an age to turn up. Similarly, I ordered some T-shirts from Fat Face, also with next day delivery, and they eventually arrived several days later. First world problems, I know, but I did find the experience infuriating.

Luckily, David knew that he had a much more reliable source than Wiggle or Fat Face to provide him with all his needs. In Psalm 23 he makes it clear that he trusts God completely to provide him with all his needs.

He declares right at the outset that the Lord is his shepherd. He has made a personal decision to allow God take on the role of a shepherd in his life, whilst he adopted the role of a sheep, making himself entirely dependent on God. He had complete trust that God would provide him with all that he needs, declaring, “I shall not want.”

As the shepherd of his father’s flock, David knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.
David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.

Living in a materialistic society it is not easy for us to echo David’s words and proclaim “I shall not want.” We are surrounded by so much stuff, and see other people with so many things, that there is always something that we want.

There is, however, a crucial difference between what we need and what we want. We might want a better car, a bigger house and a more exotic holiday, but do we really need these things? Of course we don’t. But God provides for us according to our needs, not according to our greed.

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 understands that God is not a miserly provider, but the most generous benefactor.

It was common at this time 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 have every reason to be thankful. 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. Our gratitude will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as an amazing witness.

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?”

On to our second point, God restores us.

I’ve just had a lovely week. The school where I teach has the builders in and so we were forced to finish early for the summer holidays. Consequently I’ve spent the last week on the beach with my wife, Claire, and children, Daniel and Lily. We’ve had a lovely time, and I feel well rested. A good rest was exactly what I needed after an incredibly busy and stressful term at school.

I have no doubt that I’m not the only one here who often finds life just too fast paced. Many of us have lifestyles that are often very busy. Whether we spend our day preparing for exams, looking after our families, or working every hour under the sun, it sometimes feels like we simply do not have the time to rest.

In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of peace. David says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his father’s 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 “restores his soul,” as he wrote in verse 3. 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 rest-less 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.

If we wish to join David in declaring that the Lord is our shepherd, perhaps we should reflect on this element of the Psalm. Perhaps we should consciously find opportunities to take rest in order that we might better understand the peace of God. Ultimately we have to trust in God’s goodness as our shepherd, not in our own strength.

David trusted that God would restore him and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and restore our souls, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”
Let’s move on to our third point, which is, that God guides and protects us.

I’m a big fan of Sat-Navs. I’m just about old enough to remember big, old fashioned road atlases. When I first learnt to drive, if I was going on a long journey I used to consult the road atlas in advance, and then write out road numbers and junction numbers on Post-It notes to fix to the dashboard of my car. Sat-Navs have certainly made life much easier. They can sometimes go wrong, though. When I was on a driving holiday in Arizona with my friend Clive we had two Sat-Navs running just to ensure we didn’t get lost. But somehow we still ended up completely stranded in the middle of a desert. We drove past those rather creepy swinging signs you sometimes see used to illustrate impending disaster in films. We passed road signs that had been shot to pieces. Then we eventually got our big four by four stuck firmly into deep sand. It turned out that both of our Sat-Navs were pretty useless!

David certainly knew a great deal about deserts, and I’m sure he must have got lost once or twice. He knew that in God he had a reliable guide, however. He states in verse 3, “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

This final part of the verse, “for his name’s sake,” is very important. David understood that the right paths through the journey of his life were those that bring glory to God.

We can learn a great deal from David here. Sometimes, all we want in life is direction. It can be a real struggle at times to know which way we should head in life, particularly when we reflect on potentially life changing decisions. Where should we live? Who should we marry? Which job should we take?

If 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 into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, then 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 4, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

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.

In our busy, stressful world, it is almost inevitable that at some point in our lives we will all feel as if we have been thrust into our own dark valley. The particular valley we find ourselves in might be caused by something entirely different, but the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

David experienced this darkness himself on many occasions. You only need to flick through the book of psalms to see that David often experienced severe low points in his life.

Even Jesus experienced darkness in his life. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. He experienced loss, when Lazarus, a close friend, died. And of course, he experienced real darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when confronted by the enormity of his circumstances, and particularly on the cross when he died a humiliating and painful death.
David knew, though, that even at the low points of his life, God would be with him still. He trusted in God, as we see in verse four of psalm 23, when he says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

If we trust God as our shepherd, we need never fear anything that life might throw at us, because he will never abandon us. He remains with us at all times, whether we find ourselves in a period of great joy, a period of great sadness, or a low period of depression. Just as a shepherd would never abandon or turn his back on his sheep, our faithful God will never leave us.

Of course, it is precisely when we hit those dark periods of life that we might feel utterly abandoned; by our friends, by our families, even by God. Yet David is absolutely clear that God is always with him. Scripture is clear that God will never abandon us. We might need the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help us to see this, but God will never abandon us, he doesn’t ever abandon us, he is always with us. God has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

God is also fully equipped to protect and guide us. The shepherd in the Psalm has a rod which he uses to deal with any threats that the sheep might encounter. He also has a staff which he uses to gently prod and guide his flock in the right direction.

If we make Jesus the shepherd of our lives, then we too can draw great comfort from his presence as our protector and guide.

As a shepherd, David knew that there might be times when leading his sheep when he would be forced to put his life on the line to protect his flock. Whilst looking after his father’s sheep, David had to fight off lions and bears.

Jesus declared that he was the good shepherd. Just as a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for those who follow him. He said, as recorded in John 10, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus did exactly that. He loved his flock so much that he paid the ultimate price, and gave himself up for us. To save us from death, he gave his life. The gospel writer put this much better than I could when he said, in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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 I have found it to be an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I have hardly been able to scratch the surface of its depth this evening. I hope, however, 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.

Just Love: The Love Revolution.

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’

32 ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Mark 12:28-34

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 7:21

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on December 16th 2012 at London Road Methodist Church in Horsham, West Sussex.

Martin Luther King Junior. Considered by many to have been a revolutionary, he fought against injustice in the United States using nonviolent methods. Martin Luther King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination. His life was tragically cut short in 1968 when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39.

Nelson Mandela. A revolutionary in the battle against apartheid in South Africa. Arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela served 27 years in prison before being released in February 1990. After his release he served as leader of the ANC and took part in the negotiations that led to multi-racial democracy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and to this day is regarded as one of the world’s elder statesmen.

London Road Methodist Church. Known throughout the south of England as a band of revolutionaries, demonstrating love to all they encounter. Fighting injustice wherever they see it. Supporting the most needy in their community and further afield. Reaching out to the vulnerable. Working with the youth. Supporting the work of local schools. Striving wherever they can do to make a difference in their society. Living out their faith 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Aiming to be disciples of Christ 24/7.

Do you recognise this picture of your Church? Do you see yourself as a part of revolutionary group, striding out to radically impact the world we live in?

Because that’s what you are!

All of us who profess to be Christians are revolutionaries, called to make a difference in our world.

Maybe you think that as a Church and personally you’re very good at this. We can never afford to be complacent though. So today, we’re going to go back to basics and look at what Jesus considered to be the central message of the Christian faith, the most important part of following him.

Today, we’re going to be looking at Mark 12:28-34 and 1 John 4:7-21, and you may find it helpful if you have these open in front of you.

What we’re going to be considering today is nothing short of a revolution. A love revolution. We’ll be looking at three key points: loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving ourselves.

Let’s turn, then, to our first point: loving God. That’s the first part of our love revolution. Before we can do anything else, we just need to love God.

At the beginning of this passage, Jesus is asked by a scribe, an expert on the Jewish law, “which commandment is the greatest of all?” Jesus replies with great simplicity that the most important commandment is, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus neatly summarises all of the teaching of the Old Testament into this simple commandment: just love God. That’s it. Just love him.

God doesn’t just demand love from us without offering anything in return. In fact, in our reading from John’s first letter, John reminds us that we love because God first loved us. John also says that God demonstrated his love by sending his son Jesus into the world that we might live through him. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die for our sins. Jesus loves us so much that he willingly went to the cross and died for us all. That, surely, deserves recognition from us.

At this time of year, with Christmas rapidly approaching, we find ourselves thinking of just that. We sang earlier that “Love came down at Christmas,” and this is exactly what happened on that first Christmas day. Love did come down at Christmas. In 1 John 4:8, we read that “God is love.” If Jesus is God, then the baby that we remember at this time of year was the embodiment of love. He is love because he represents the love God has for us in sending him to dwell amongst us. He is love because of the example he sets us, in the way that he taught, the way he healed, the way he preached, and the way he lived his earthly life. He is love because he paid the price for our wrongdoing and opened the way to heaven for us. And he is love because it is through him that we can understand what real love is.

Sometimes at Christmas it can be hard to see beyond the baby in the stable. But when we remember that that baby was God, that that baby is love, it can be a real challenge to us. But if we stop to think, really think, about the implications of that birth, then the only way in which we can respond to all it represents is to love God. To love God because he first loved us.

Of course, loving is not always that easy. If we say we love another person, we place their needs above our own, we do everything within our power to make them happy. We certainly don’t betray them, lie to them, cheat on them or neglect them. We make a conscious effort to put them first in all that we do.

Claire and I got married a couple of years ago. On August 13th 2010 to be precise. Since then, I’ve tried to put Claire first in everything, not because I feel some obligation or requirement to do so, but because I love her with my whole heart. I want to make her happy. That’s just what you do when you love someone. If I’d selfishly neglected Claire, not spent time with her, not done my best to look after her, you’d wonder whether I really loved her.

Often it’s possible to see the bond of love between people, whether it’s the bond between a husband and wife, a bond between two brothers, or the bond between a group of friends. Just by watching, an outsider can tell that there is a real intensity of feeling there. You can tell when people are close by the way they act towards one another, the things they say to each other, even the way they look at each other.

This is how our relationship should be with God. Do we put him first in everything? Is every fibre of our being, our soul, our mind and our strength, dedicated to loving God? Or is loving God something that we only do on a Sunday morning? Is our love for God evident to those around us? Or is our love for God something that we keep hidden?

If we really love God, if we really do make loving him our first priority, then our relationship with him will underpin our entire lives; what we do, what we think, what we say. Every waking minute should be dedicated to displaying our love for God; listening to him, talking to him, and striving to live out his commands in our lives.

How do we do this into practice though?

Well, this brings us on to our second point. Jesus said that the second most important commandment is, “love your neighbour as yourself.”

This week some of the statistics of the 2011 census have been released. To some in the Church, these have been viewed with gloom, since they suggest that the number of people defining themselves as Christians has declined, from 72 per cent of the population in 2001 to 59 per cent in 2011. This has in the minds of some people confirmed what they’ve long suspected; that Christianity is on the decline, that it is becoming increasingly irrelevant in our developed society, and that it is only a matter of time before it dies out.

I happen to take a rather different viewpoint. I believe that there is much to rejoice about in these figures. What the census would suggest to me is that the number of those who have declared themselves nominally to be “Christian,” or “Church of England,” cultural Christians who merely pay lip service to Christianity, is declining rapidly. Once we remove these people from the equation, what we end up with is a faith group who truly talk the talk and walk the walk of the Christian message, people whose lives have truly been changed by the gospel of the risen Christ. This is significant, because it will result in a dramatic transformation in the perception of Christianity. This is an opportunity for those of us who are left, the faithful remnant, to show what true faith in Jesus Christ is – a truly revolutionary force for good in the world.

Today’s world is changing rapidly, and I firmly believe that this message to love our neighbours is going to become more and more significant in the years to come. In the past few decades we have judged success based on economic wealth and prosperity. If you have a large house, a posh car and send your children to good schools, then you have been judged a success. But as we move through this period of economic downturn, I really believe that this is going to have to change. We will need to find other ways of defining success, and that, I believe, will be in how we treat others.

What we need to do, then, is get back to basics, and ensure that we are not just following the first of the commandments that Jesus gives us in today’s gospel reading, to love God, but also the second.

The second commandment that Jesus gives, to love our neighbours, is very closely connected to the first. In John’s letter, John says, “dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” A little later, he continues, “dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Loving our neighbour, then, loving one another, is a direct response to loving God. If we obey that greatest commandment, to love God, it follows that we should love others. We should do so because our fellow humans are loved by God, and if we love God, we should love what he loves. By loving others, we are also demonstrating that we love God. This is an indication that we have been transformed by God. John tells us that “God is love.” He doesn’t say that God loves, or that God is like love, but that God is love. When we love God, strive to follow him, and live our lives focused on him, that love floods into us. It transforms us. It transforms our lives. And it can transform our world.

If the best way to serve God is to follow his commandments, we can demonstrate our love for God by loving those around us: not just our literal neighbours, those who live near us, but also our friends, our family, our work colleagues, people we see in the gym, people we see as we pay for our parking. In short, we show our love for God by loving all those we encounter.

It is by doing this that actually we will make the Christian faith more relevant, not less relevant, to the rest of the world.

It can’t have escaped your attention that the global economy is in the midst of a significant downturn. At the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s recent Autumn Statement, it was stated that the policies of austerity would continue for another five years. The impact of this on our country is going to be enormous. Our society will change markedly. We’re all going to have to work for longer, pay more into our pensions, and consider our outgoings more carefully.

How we define success is also going to change dramatically. Previously our society has seen as successful those with high paying jobs, with big houses, and with fancy cars. As we reconsider how we live our lives, we’ll also reconsider this view of success.

Success in life will come to be seen more in terms of how we treat others, through our relationships rather than our possessions.

The Christian message of love, in these circumstances, will become even more relevant, not less relevant. Those of us who seek to love God and to love our neighbours will be at the vanguard of our new society.

The commandments that Jesus gave us, to love God, to love our neighbours, and to make disciples of all nations.

If the world only followed this commandment, it would be a very different place. There’d be no more bickering or arguing. There’d be no more violence or theft. Everyone would recognise the value and worth of every other person, and wouldn’t try to belittle other people. On a global scale, there’d be no more war. Nations would seek to live peacefully together. There would be no poverty or hunger, because we’d share what we had with those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

This is the revolution. The love revolution.

And all we need to do is love.

Just love.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect people to live this way if they do not know God, our God who is love. But there are two responses to this.

Firstly, we need to ensure that we spread the Gospel far and wide, to make disciples of all nations, as Jesus commanded us to do at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Simply by living out this commandment and seeking to love everyone we come into contact with is a very effective way of making disciples. If we just show love to all those we encounter, if we put the needs of our neighbours before our own, if we show real sacrificial love, people will see something different about us. They’ll want to know why we’re different. They’ll want to know why we love them. And we can point them to Jesus as the answer.

We love them because he loves us.

The second response is to acknowledge that whilst the world cannot be expected to follow this commandment if they do not know Christ, there are enough of us to make a difference in the world. We can act together as the Church of Christ.

There are two billion Christians in the world. Imagine how the world would be transformed if all two billion of us lived according to this commandment?

If we just loved.

The two greatest commandments seem so simple. It seems like there’s nothing to them. But in this short statement Jesus is being truly revolutionary. He is calling us all to be revolutionaries in his love revolution.

Being a revolutionary, though, can be difficult. It’s all well and good to talk of a love revolution here in Church, but what about the other 167 hours of the week? Out there, in our every day lives, it can be very hard to love our neighbours.

How do we love that irritating person in our office? How do we love the person who cuts us up whilst we’re driving? How do we show love to the person in the supermarket who grabs the last bag of Braeburns?

At the most basic level we love them by liking them, by not getting irritated or angry, by seeking to serve them.

Go for a coffee with that irritating guy at work.

Let that driver who is trying to cut us up pull in in front of us.

Offer that last bag of apples to our fellow customer with good grace.

These are all small things, but if we all based our actions on loving our neighbours, if we all sought to demonstrate love in everything we did, the world would be a remarkably different place.

What about bigger issues?

What about the hurt caused by a parent who rejected us?

Or a sibling who has tormented us?

What about the partner who tore our lives apart by not loving us as they should have done?

What about that employer who has made our lives a living hell?

How can we possibly love in these circumstances?

John again has words for us here. We need to “know and rely on the love that God has for us.” We can draw comfort from the fact that God loves us. John goes on that, “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear is to do with punishment.”

We need not fear because ultimately we are going to a better place, a place where Jesus is, where his Father is. And if we strive to love now, all fear will leave us.

If we love unconditionally, as Jesus loves us, there is no fear. Often we hold back our love because we fear rejection and humiliation. But if we just love, without expecting anything in return, then all fear will disappear.

Loving unconditionally can be very hard. That’s how we’re called to love, though. Sometimes we need to make the first move. Even if we’ve been terribly wronged, we need to love. We need to forgive.

Until we forgive, we cannot be free from the anger and the hatred and they will consume us. Anger and hatred will becoming the guiding forces in our lives, not love.

We might need to pick up the phone, or to write a letter, or to arrange to meet up, even if we feel the other person it at fault. But if we don’t make the first move, the situation might never resolve itself. We’re called to love and in order to love we need to face up to relationships that are marred by hatred, by upset and by disappointment.

We need to love, and we need to forgive.

If we’re going to love our neighbours, we need to take action to rectify ill-feeling.

That’s what we’re called to do.

That’s the love revolution. To just love. To just love God. To just love our neighbours.

The third point I think we need to consider is one that is often overlooked. In the command to love others, Jesus says, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There’s a big assumption here; that we love ourselves.

We need to love ourselves before we can love our neighbour, before we can display the unconditional love that Jesus shows to us.

We’ve just seen that John, in his letter, says that, “perfect love casts out fear.” Often our fear prevents us from loving, our fear of rejection or humiliation. We can’t bring ourselves to love because we’re worried about the reaction our love will get. We can’t bring ourselves to love because we can’t see how anyone could possibly love us.

Over the last few years, I have met so many people who not only don’t love themselves, but hate themselves.

They feel inadequate, useless, or worthless.

They hide themselves away.

They tell themselves that they are a burden on those around them, and that no-one could possibly love them.

Sometimes they cut themselves.

Sometimes they even consider taking their own lives.

This is one of the saddest situations in our society today.

Perhaps you feel this way about yourself. I did, until fairly recently. I felt like a burden to others. I couldn’t see how other people could love me.

If you do feel this way, I want to tell you that you’re wrong.

People do love you.

You have impacted on the lives of people far more than you could possibly have imagined.

There are people who love you passionately. You might not know it, but it’s true.

We have value and worth in their eyes, even if we struggle to see that for ourselves.

Look around you. We’re Christian brothers and sisters. We love you. We love each other.

We love because God loves us. And we love you.

Perhaps you’re one of the fortunate ones. Perhaps you don’t struggle with loving yourself.

If you don’t struggle with this, then I will guarantee that at least one of your close friends does. You’d be surprised at how many people do.

The truth is, though, that God loves every single person on this planet. When he created the human race, he saw that his creation was “very good;” everything else he made he thought was simply “good.”

God loves us so much that he sent his son to die for us, so that we could once again be brought into his arms. God doesn’t see us as worthless, or useless, or hateful; he loves us, and that is a remarkable thing.

In conclusion, there is a vital message for us all in this passage.

We just need to love.

We just need to love God.

We just need to love our neighbours.

We just need to love ourselves.

This is the love revolution.

Just love.

That’s what we’re called to do.

Just love.

The Lord is My Shepherd

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.

Psalm 23:1-4

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 29th April 2012 at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church, Horsham.

It was a cold, wet February day. I was having an extremely stressful time at work, and had decided to go for a drive up to Reigate Hill. I was under enormous pressure, and felt a compete failure in all aspects of my life. Everything at work was going wrong. I was working so hard that I had neglected my friends and family. I had become such a negative person that I could not see why anyone would want to spend time with me. I was depressed. I felt utterly alone.

Then a song came onto the CD player in my car. What struck me first was the chorus, the words “oh no, you never let go, through the calm and through the storm, oh no, you never let go, in every high and every low, oh no, you never let me, Lord, you never let go of me.”

Those words brought me to tears.

Suddenly it struck me that I was not alone at all. God was with me. He always had been, and he always with me. I realised that even when I hit the darkest points of my life, as I had at that moment,that God would never leave me.

After I had listened to the chorus over and over again, I replayed the full song and was struck by the first verse, which goes, “even though I walk, through the valley, of the shadow, your perfect love is casting out fear. And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life, I won’t turn back, I know you are near.”

The reassurance that God loved me, and loved me perfectly, even when I felt caught in almost a perfect storm of busyness and isolation, was exactly what I needed to hear at that point in my life.

Having listened to the song a few times, I parked up my car and went for a walk on the North Downs. Whilst walking I pulled out my Bible and turned to Psalm 23. I knew that the first line of the Matt Redman song was taken from this psalm, and I wanted to see what else psalm 23 had to say.

I learnt a lot from Psalm 23 on that day. I would love share some of that with you today.

We’ll spend some time looking at just the first four verses of this famous and well loved Psalm, and consider how Jesus is our shepherd. We’ll consider four points – I lack nothing, he makes me lie down, he guides me along the right paths, and living in the darkest valley.

On to our first point, then, I lack nothing.

David begins this psalm with one of the most famous statements of the Old Testament. He declares, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Just as he was a shepherd for his father’s sheep, and spent his days looking after sheep, he believed that God was his shepherd, who looked after him.

One of the most crucial roles of a shepherd was to look after the material needs of his sheep. His sheep would be totally dependent on him for food and water. Without the shepherd, the sheep would surely die, since they would be unable to find food for themselves.

In David’s mind there was no doubt at all that God fulfilled the same role for all his people. He knew that God looked after him as he looked after his sheep. He trusted God to take care of all of his needs, and, as we see in the very first verse of the psalm, said with confidence, “I lack nothing.” He knows that all he needs will be provided to him by God.

Living in a materialistic society and an affluent country it is very hard to understand this. We are surrounded by so much stuff, and see other people with so many things, that there is generally always something that we want. It can be very hard for us to say, then,as David did, that we lack nothing. There’s always something else that we want.

Within our society, however, there are always people who are wealthier than we are, and have more than we do, or have nicer things than we have. Our neighbours may have a flashier car. Our friends might have a nicer house. Our colleagues might go on nicer holidays. It can be hard for us to look at people who have things that we might like and wonder why they have them and we do not. Can we really join in with David and say, “I lack nothing?”

There is, however, a crucial difference between what we need and what we want. We might want a better car, a bigger house and a more exotic holiday, but do we really need these things? Of course we don’t.

Sometimes our quest for a better lifestyle can actually make our lives more uncomfortable. We work long hours, we try to gain promotions, we neglect our families, we can even abandon God. Perhaps rather than falling into the trap of materialism we should strive to be more like David, trusting in God to provide us with all that we need. A flock of sheep trusts in their shepherd to provide them with food, water, safety and rest, and he gives it to them, because he loves his sheep. Perhaps we need to be more sheep-like, trusting in God to provide for our needs, and finding contentment in what God has already graciously given us, rather than constantly striving for more and more.

David trusted that God would provide all that needs, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to provide our needs and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

On to our second point, he makes me lie down.

In Psalm 23, we get a vision of peace and tranquility. David says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. God, David’s shepherd, looks after him by ensuring that he always has sufficient rest and opportunity to sleep. I wonder how many of us here today would love to find that kind of rest? After a busy week at school, a day of sermon writing, and the rather lousy weather we’ve been having, the idea of laying down in a field on a warm, sunny day, sitting beside a babbling brook is very appealing. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The lifestyles that many of us find ourselves living today are often very busy and very stressful, often through no fault of our own. The demands our employers make on us can often be very great indeed, and, particularly in a time of such economic uncertainty, we often feel that we have no choice but to get our heads down and get on with it.

If we trust in God, though, if we dedicate our lives first and foremost to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that David had that God will show us peace.

David makes it clear that the kind of peace that he finds through God is not limited just to a nice lie down every now and again, though. If we look at verse three, we can see that the peace that David finds in God “refreshes his soul.” 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 rest-less till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd, and in many ways we can see that he is the same God that is described in Psalm 23. It could even be said that he is the fulfilment of this particular psalm. Elsewhere in the Gospels, in Matthew 11 to be precise, Jesus confirms to his followers that he will give them rest. 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.”

If we want to find true peace, real inner peace, then that can be found only in one place – through God. We may try and find peace in many other ways, but true peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour. The warring that we sometimes feel within us, that we cannot explain, can only be pacified by having a relationship with the God that made us, through his son Jesus Christ. If we want to find real peace, the kind of peace that refreshes not just our bodies and minds, but also our souls, then we need to trust in Jesus, and follow him as our good shepherd.

David trusted that God would lead him to peace and 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 refresh our souls, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Let’s move on to our third point, which is, he guides me along the right paths.

Sometimes, all we want in life is direction. As we try to make our way through our lives on our own, it can feel as if we’re meandering around, not really sure of the next step to take, not really certain if we’re heading in the right direction. It can be a real struggle as we consider which direction our lives should lead us in. Where should we live? Who should we marry? Which job should we take?

In Psalm 23, though, David trusts that God will lead him through life. He trusts that the Lord is his shepherd. I wonder if we trust that God is our shepherd? Just as a shepherd leads his sheep in the right direction, David knows that God will lead him along the right paths in his life. David says, in verse three of the psalm, “he guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

This final part of the verse, “for his name’s sake,” is very important. The right paths through the journey of our lives are those that we take for him, to bring glory to God. If we put our trust in God as our shepherd, if we seek to follow Jesus, the good shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. If we want to live the life that God has mapped out for us, we should strive to put him first, and seek to honour him in all that we do. Whether we are teachers, doctors, accountants, florists, bin men, whatever, as Christians our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours. Our whole lives should be focused on honouring God.

If we want direction in life, if we want to feel that the course of our lives is more than meaningless meandering, then we should follow the shepherd God. He will lead us along the right paths, ensuring that our lives have purpose, whilst at the same time ensuring that we bring glory to his name.

Again, we can see Jesus as the same shepherd God that David describes in this verse.

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 onto straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

If we make Jesus our shepherd, if we seek to follow him, then he will guide us along the right paths for God’s glory, but also the very best paths for us, since he leads us directly to heaven.

David trusted that God would guide him along the right paths and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to guide us, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Onto our fourth point, the darkest valley.

I described earlier how I found myself in a very dark valley a couple of years ago, suffering from terrible depression as a consequence of, among many other things, a very stressful time at work. In the busy, stressful world of the twenty first century, it is almost inevitable that at some point in our lives we will all feel as if we have been thrust into our own dark valley. The particular valley we find ourselves in might be caused by something entirely different, but the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

David experienced this darkness himself on many occasions. You only need to flick through the book of psalms to see that David often experienced severe low points in his life. Through all of these periods, however, he trusted in God, as we see in verse four of psalm 23, when he says, “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.”

What strikes me first and foremost about this verse is the opening part; for David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life will seem dark and depressing. 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.

Even Jesus experienced darkness in his life. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. He experienced loss, when Lazarus, a close friend, died. And of course, he experienced real darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when confronted by the enormity of his circumstances, and particularly on the cross when he died a humiliating and painful death.

David knew, though, that even at the low points of his life, even when darkness seemed to be encroaching on him from every angle, God would be with him still. He knew that he did not need to fear life in the darkest valley, because God remained with him at all times. He was comforted by the presence of God and comforted by his rod and staff.

As a shepherd, David knew the risks involved with his job. He knew that there would be times when he had to lead his sheep through dark valleys in order to get to the verdant green pastures beyond. He also knew full well that there may well be a time when it was necessary to put himself in grave danger, or even sacrifice his own life to protect his sheep. It seems crazy to us today that a shepherd might be willing to do this, but that was one of the requirements of the job.

Jesus declared that he was the good shepherd, as we saw this morning in our gospel reading. Just as a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep if necessary, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for his flock – those who follow him. He said, in verses fourteen and fifteen of John ten, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus did exactly that. He loved his flock so much that he paid the ultimate price, and gave himself up for us. In order to save us from death, he gave his life. The gospel writer put this much better than I could when he said, in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

David said in Psalm 23 that he fears no evil for God is with him. Jesus is not only with us, but he paid the ultimate price and died to protect us from evil, and to ensure that we have a bright future ahead of us in heaven when we die.

David feared no evil, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we are able not to fear evil and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Despite being written around three thousand years ago, Psalm 23 is an incredibly rich treasure of encouragement for Christians living in the twenty first century. We’ve considered today how in many ways, Jesus, as the good shepherd, is the embodiment of the God shepherd that David describes. Through Jesus we lack nothing, we can have real peace our lives, we can have guidance, and we need not fear evil. A shepherd must be willing to lay down his life to protect his flock, and in Jesus we have a shepherd who did exactly that to save us from eternal death.

David proclaimed with confidence, the Lord is my Shepherd.  Will we accept Jesus as our provider, our peace giver, our guidance and our protector? Will we accept Jesus us our saviour, and worship him accordingly?

Can we, as David did, declare, the Lord is OUR shepherd?

Listen to this sermon:

Cleansing the Temple: Pure Worship

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

John 2:13-22

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 11th March 2012 at St. Martin’s Church, Dorking (Methodist Congregation).

This morning we’ll be looking at the idea of purity of worship, but before we begin, I want to ask you a quick question.

Have you ever flown with Ryanair?

Having travelled with them several times in the past, I have to say that I would only fly with them again if there really was no other choice.  I find the seats very uncomfortable.  It irritates me that they have scrimped so much on their aircraft that there is no storage on the back of the seat in front.  I can’t stand the way they promote their lottery scratch cards.  What irritates me the most, though, is their pricing strategy.  It seems designed to catch people out and grab as much money from them as possible.  Yesterday I checked the cost of flights from London to Rome.  Ryanair’s headline figure was £25.99, but when I clicked through, the total cost came to a staggering £203.09.  Even at that high price, there is still the possibility that customers may have to pay additional fees.  Should a passenger turn up at the gate with hand luggage that is deemed too big, from this summer they will face a massive £100 fee to check the bag into the flight.  Ryanair’s staff actually get a 50 pence bonus for each bag that they make customers check in.  To me, the whole set up seems designed to fleece their customers for as much money as they possibly can.

This picture of an organisation trying to fleece people for all they can by embracing rather questionable tactics is not dissimilar to the Temple as visited by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.  Just like Ryanair, the Temple had developed strategies that seemed intended to catch people unaware and to rip people off.  Unlike Ryanair, which is, after all, a commercial operation, the Temple was intended to be the House of God, the place where Jews and non-Jews alike could come to worship in the presence of God.

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus was angry.  Here he was, in his Father’s house, and it was being treated as nothing more than a money-making venture for the authorities.

So, to our first point.  The first issue I believe we see raised from our Gospel reading today is the idea of purity of corporate worship – the worship of God with other people.  That, after all, was the focus of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that’s why we’re here today – to worship God with other people.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of the Jewish faith, the beating, pulsating heart of Jewish life.  It was more than a mere place of worship, however; Jewish people believed that it was the dwelling place of God amongst his people.

At the time of year we read about in our Gospel today, the Temple would have been a particularly busy, crowded place with Jewish people from far and wide in attendance to celebrate the festival of the Passover. This was a commemoration of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, a particularly important date in the Jewish calendar. The festival of Passover saw Jewish people from far and wide make a pilgrimage to the Temple.  It was this busy, bustling Temple that Jesus arrived at in John chapter two.

John records vividly what happened when Jesus arrived in the Temple. Jesus, a man we normally think of as a calm, quiet, placid character, was greatly angered by what he saw, and was not afraid to let his anger show.

Why, though, was Jesus so angry?

As soon as Jesus entered the Temple, he was confronted by people selling cattle, sheep and doves.  These were the animals which, under Jewish law, were required for sacrifices.  At Passover in particular, they would be needed in large number.  It might seem perfectly natural for the Temple to have these animals on hand, ready to purchase.  Some people, after all, would have travelled a considerable distance to make their sacrifices.  It would have been a rather arduous task to bring their sacrificial animals with them, so surely the Temple was offering a useful service.

Sadly, the stalls which Jesus saw in the Temple were not there to provide a service for the pilgrims, but to fleece them of as much money as possible. What angered Jesus was the way in which those selling sacrificial animals, the Temple authorities, were ripping off ordinary worshippers.  Animals for sacrifices cost up to ten times as much if they were purchased inside the Temple, compared with prices outside.

What was to prevent a worshipper buying an animal for sacrifice outside the Temple gates, in the bustling markets of Jerusalem?

Animals for sacrifice had to be pure, blameless and spotless.  All animals that were brought to the Temple had to be checked by an inspector, for which a fee was payable.  Unsurprisingly, a large number of the animals that were brought to the Temple were failed, requiring pilgrims to purchase new animals, which had been pre-approved, from the stalls within the Temple.

The Temple authorities had a similar racquet going on with coinage.  Every Jew over the age of nineteen was required to pay a Temple tax of half a shekel, equivalent to about two days’ wages.  This had to be paid in either Galileaen shekels or in sanctuary shekels, since ordinary coins were deemed to be unclean.  The money changers in the Temple were there to provide a service, changing coinage into a form considered clean.  The problem was that the money changers charged exorbitant fees for their services.  A straightforward change of a non-clean half shekel to a clean coin would require a fee.  If change was needed, another fee would apply.  Suddenly, just like an airline’s credit card fees, paying the Temple tax could become very expensive.

Jesus was not just angry about what was happening inside the Temple.  He was also angry about where it was happening.

The Temple complex consisted of a number of different areas, from the Holy of Holies in the centre, then the sanctuary, and then the Court of the Gentiles.  This was the section of the Temple to which non-Jewish people could come to meet with God.  And it was this section in which Jesus had discovered the animal sellers and money changers.  Not only were the Temple authorities ripping people off, but they were preventing people who wanted to worship God from doing so.

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus was angry.  The Temple, a place of worship, had been utterly desecrated.  The noise and bustle prevented people from meeting with God.  Worship was pretty much closed off to all non-Jews by the market atmosphere in the Court of the Gentiles. The Temple authorities were ripping people off, trying to fleece them for as much cash as they could.  And this was happening in his Father’s house, the dwelling place of God and the focus of Jewish worship.

Jesus was aroused to such great anger by what he saw that he made a whip out of cords and drive the animal sellers out of the Temple, before overturning the tables of the money changers, sending their coins flying.

Jesus was absolutely furious, because the Temple was no longer a place of genuine worship. It had become a place marked out by corruption, dishonesty and hypocrisy. It had become the centre of an empty, formal religion. It was a place where those who ran it were not concerned for the souls of those whom they encountered, or genuinely serving God, but were out for what they could get. It was a place where many of the worshippers, having been brought up to know a corrupt Temple, worshipped out of a sense of duty and obligation rather than because they genuinely wanted to know God.

The corporate worship of the Jewish people had been utterly destroyed by the ungodliness of the authorities.

I wonder what Jesus would make of our places of worship today if he visited?  How would our corporate worship stand up in the face of a visit from Christ? I wonder if Jesus would be happy with the way we conduct our worship, or if he would be enraged by what he saw?

Jesus demands a purity from our corporate worship, and a genuine focus on God.  He wants our church authorities, our leaders and preachers, to be genuine people of God who feel called to lead God’s people in worship and to preach the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  I wonder how our churches would stand up to Jesus’ scrutiny?

Jesus expects a clear focus on God from all those who serve in our churches, to ensure that every aspect of our corporate identity is directed towards worshipping God.  He expects those who lead our music, or sing in the choir, or make the tea and coffee, or edit the church newspaper to be clear that the tasks they are undertaking are directed towards worshipping God.  He wants all of us, every single person in the church, to be inspired by a genuine desire to live out the Gospel and to serve Jesus Christ in all that they do.

I wonder what Jesus would make of our church buildings? Have they become like the Temple in Jerusalem, closed centres of commerce, or are they open, welcoming and friendly to all people.  Jesus expects our churches to facilitate our worship, not to distract from it.  Is there anything that we need to change in our church building to ensure that the main focus of our church is the worship of God?

What about newcomers and visitors to our congregation? Is there anything in what we do or what we say that prevents them from knowing God? Jesus expects our our services to be clear and straightforward, not burdened with complex language and strange music that makes it difficult for visitors to understand what we’re doing.

What would Jesus think if he visited our churches today? Would he be pleased with what he saw or would he be angry? Would he see genuine worship or a place too concerned with empty ritual? Would he feel forced to take up a whip to cleanse and purify our churches, or would he sit amongst us and worship his father with us?

The second point I want to consider today is concerned with personal worship – worship which is made very important indeed by Jesus’ words in our Gospel passage today.

In the second part of our reading today, Jesus totally turns the whole concept of the Temple on its head.  The Jewish people in the Temple had clearly been deeply disturbed by what they had seen. Their response to seeing Jesus’ anger is to demand a sign from him to prove that he has the authority to clear the Temple.  Jesus knew, though, that faith does not come from signs, and so he does not give them the sign that they demand.  Instead, he them rather cryptically, saying, “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

His audience clearly think this statement is ridiculous.  They tell him that it took forty-six years to build the Temple, and he is claiming, it seems, to be able to rebuild it in three days.  They know that there is absolutely no way Jesus could do as he claims!

As is so often the case, however, they misunderstood what Jesus was saying. As John makes clear in his account, Jesus was referring not to the stone building he was standing in, but to his own body.  His statement foreshadows his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection.  He knew, right from the start of his ministry, that his ultimate calling was to die, that the next three years would lead him to the cross.

Jesus’ statement is more profound than anyone at the time could have understood. Indeed, John comments in verse 22 that it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that they fully understood the significance of this statement.

Jesus’ claim to be able to raise the temple in three days, which John understood to mean his body, is significant because it turns the whole concept of worshipping God on its head.  As a consequence of Jesus, the Temple became totally irrelevant; God no longer dwelt in the Temple. John makes this clear right at the start of his Gospel, when he states the the Word, which is God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  Jesus is the new Temple, the new focus for the worship of God.

Jesus statement that the Temple would be destroyed but that he would raise it again in three days is a direct reference to his own death and resurrection.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Temple was destroyed.  When Jesus rose from the dead, the Temple was raised.

We see in the Gospel accounts that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the Temple, which separated the Holy of Holies from the sanctuary and prevented people from approaching God was ripped in two.  When Jesus died, the barrier between man and God was removed.  At a stroke, the Temple in Jerusalem, and all that happened there, became utterly irrelevant.

As Jesus predicted in our Gospel reading today, however, three days after his death on the cross, he rose from the dead, having defeated sin and death, a triumph of good over evil.

With Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem is irrelevant.

Thanks to Jesus we do not need to go to a building to worship God.

We no longer need to sacrifice birds and animals to God.

As a consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can approach God directly.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the irrelevance of the Temple as a centre for worship is made even clearer.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ.  If the Church is the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is the new Temple, then we, the Church, are the new Temple.  God no longer resides in a building, but in all of us.  We don’t need to go to a building to worship God, because he, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us.  Instead, if we chose to worship God, we should do so with the temples that are our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our souls.  Worship, in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is something that we should do with every fibre of our being.  Our whole lives should be offered to God as a spiritual act of worship.  As Paul famously states in Romans chapter 12, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.”

As the Temple should have been focused entirely on worshipping God, so now should the temples of our bodies.

This is personal worship taken to an entirely new level.

I wonder what implications Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem has for the new Temple of our lives?  If the Temple is now not a building but our bodies, our hearts and our souls, I wonder how we ensure that we are right before God?

Perhaps as well as looking at our church buildings and our services, we also need to look at ourselves, and ensure that we do not taint our worship of Christ.

Perhaps we need to look at our own motivation.

The Temple authorities in Jerusalem were more concerned about what they could get out of their position rather than facilitating real worship.  I wonder what our motivation for worshipping God is?  Is our worship hollow and empty, merely going through the motions? Or is our worship based on a genuine, deep felt, life changing passion for Jesus?

Why are we here today?  Is it out of a genuine desire for worshipping God, for learning about Christ, and for sharing fellowship with one another?  Or are we here out of a sense of duty to someone else?  Do we come to worship with reluctance?  Or maybe we’re here because our friends are here, and it’s a nice thing to do, to come and chat with out friends once a week?

Are we like the Jews who responded to Jesus’ clearing of the Temple, demanding signs and miracles?  Or are we passionate about hearing his word?  Do we listen to God, diligently reading his word in the scriptures, and listening to him in prayer?

I wonder if we keep the Temples of our bodies, our hearts, our souls and minds clear of detritus that prevents our worship, or that taints our worship?  Do we live for Christ, seeking to serve and honour him in all that we do?  Or is there something that prevents us from truly worshipping Jesus?

Do we need Jesus to come into our hearts and minds, and to clear away all the stuff that prevents us from genuinely worshipping him?

Listen to this sermon: