13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
What’s the most remarkable thing that you have ever witnessed? I would have to think long and hard about this. Perhaps, for me, it was the scenes of every day life I witnessed whilst spending a month in a country in eastern Europe. Perhaps it was the power of the water crashing down the Bridal Veil falls in Niagara Falls, USA. On reflection, though, it would have to be the birth of my two children, both experiences very different and completely remarkable in their own way.
In this reading from Matthew’s Gospel we witness something utterly remarkable, something that would shock even the least-shockable of people. The incredible events we witness occur on the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is drawing quite a crowd as he preaches and baptises those gathered who repent of their sin. It is in this busy scene that we have our first encounter with the adult Jesus – the first time we see him as an adult in the New Testament. First impressions really count, and Jesus certainly makes quite an impression!
At the beginning of Matthew 3 we are introduced to John the Baptist. He is roaming the “wilderness of Judea” (3:1) calling on people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). He evidently drew quite a crowd since Matthew recounts that “people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (3:5). Matthew continues, “confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (3:6).
John explains to those gathered, particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). John called upon those gathered to repent of their sin, and then to be baptised. This was to be a sign of their repentance, their decision to renounce their old lives and to follow God.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the first time we see the adult Jesus is when he appears at the Jordan “to be baptized by John” (3:13). If Jesus is free from sin, if he had no old life to renounce, if he is in fact God, then there is no need for him to be baptised. John is well aware of this, and tries to tell Jesus this, insisting that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. He recognises that his cousin is the Son of God, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11).
Yet Jesus insists that John baptises him, saying, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan, prophesised throughout the Old Testament, to save people from their sin and to reconcile humanity with God. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry. He fulfills all righteousness, in that he enables all people to be justified before God, to be righteous before him.
The words uttered by Jesus here are in fact the very first words we hear from him in the New Testament. It is fitting that straight away we see his dedication to his ministry, his fulfillment of righteousness, his opening of heaven for sinners.
What follows Jesus’ baptism is completely remarkable. As Jesus rose out of the water, the barrier between sinful earth and perfect heaven opened up. Jesus opened the way to God for humanity. He did something that no sacrifice, no sin offering, no priestly action had ever been able to achieve – the gulf that opened up between humans and God when Adam and Eve disobeyed God was bridged, once and for all, by Jesus Christ.
As heaven opened, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he is about to embark. The Holy Spirit “alights” on him, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is a clear visual sign which all present can see for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus has a special role to carry out here on earth. As heaven opened, a voice came from heaven, declaring, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This must have shocked and stunned all those gathered to watch John the Baptist by the Jordan. Just imagine how it must have felt to be standing on the banks of the River Jordan and to hear God’s voice booming from heaven! This is a clear audible sign which all those present can hear for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus is nothing less than the beloved Son of God.
After witnessing this incredible scene, those gathered must surely have known that there was something utterly remarkable about Jesus. They must have witnessed many baptisms already that day, but at no point had heaven been opened up before their very eyes. But as Jesus rose up out of the water this exactly what happened. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit affirmed and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he was now embarking.
It’s only natural as we read through the Gospels to find ourselves pondering – who is this man Jesus? Was he a good teacher? Was he just an eccentric carpenter? Or was he the Son of God, the Messiah, for whom the world had waited for generation after generation? If we are to believe the words of Matthew in his Gospel, we should be in no doubt about the identify of Jesus. Affirmed by both the Holy Spirit and God the Father, there is no doubt at all that Jesus is the Son of God. And if this is true, this is utterly remarkable. It is not the baptism of Jesus that is remarkable; it is the fact that the Son of God came to earth from heaven, that he lived amongst us, that he experienced everything that human life involves, that he identified with us in our sinfulness whilst remaining free of sin himself. Ultimately, of course, he died and rose again so that we might not just hear God from heaven, but be with him when we die. Now that truly is remarkable.
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.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
“‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 28th July 2019 at Manningtree Methodist Church, Essex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
How’s your prayer life? Do you find praying easy? Or maybe like me you know that praying is something that you should do, that you try your utmost to do, but actually find really difficult.
I don’t stand here today as someone who finds prayer easy. Probably like some of you, I find prayer really difficult. I’m fine with reading the Bible; I enjoy getting to grips with scripture. But you know what, I find prayer really hard. Committing to do it regularly is hard enough. Knowing what to say, and how to say it is another thing. I really struggle.
It’s encouraging to find the disciples in a similar position to the one in which I find myself. At the beginning of this passage, Jesus is praying, and his disciples ask him to teach them to pray. No doubt they had witnessed Jesus praying on many occasions and wanted to be able to follow his example. Perhaps they’d seen how prayer at the end of a long, busy, stressful day reinvigorated Jesus and wanted the same for themselves.
So what does Jesus teach them?
Today I plan to focus just on verses 2 to 5, which is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer – a slightly abridged version compared to the one that we usually recite, but the Lord’s Prayer nevertheless. I’d like to look at three points when considering this prayer:
One – to whom do we pray?
Two – we pray for God’s glory.
Three – we pray that God will meet our needs.
So to our first point – to whom do we pray?
Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as Father.
This is something that we often take for granted, and indeed, we may often begin our own prayers with ‘Father’.
But just think about that for a minute. This is truly astonishing. Jesus tells us to address God as our father. The word he uses is Abba, which is how a small child might address their father, closer to daddy than any other name.
We have an almighty God, who created the earth and the heavens, king of kings and lord of lords, and yet we have the privilege of calling him father.
What a privilege that is.
One of Jesus’ disciples, John, who no doubt was present when Jesus was teaching his disciples how to pray, later wrote, “see what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” That’s John’s first letter, chapter three, verse one.
That, of course, is the same relationship that Jesus has with God – they are father and child. And we too are children of God.
With this in mind, there should of course be implications for how we pray.
When we pray, we should do so as a child speaks to their father. We shouldn’t be concerned about using the right language, or saying the right words. We should simply share what is on our minds, tell him what we are thinking about, tell him what is on our hearts.
Perhaps sometimes, maybe in group situations, we feel nervous about praying out loud, because everyone else just seems so eloquent. Well eloquence counts for naught.
If you have the gift of eloquence, good for you, but that is not what God wants. God wants to know what is on your heart.
My son, Daniel, is starting primary school in September. This year he has been attending a brilliant pre-school in our village. The pre-school uses a great little phone app called Tapestry. Each day they put a couple of photos of Daniel onto the app with some explanation of what Daniel has done on that particular day. Each evening when I get home from work, I ask Daniel, what did you do today? His stock answer is, “look on Tapestry.” Of course, I had already looked on the app. I already knew what Daniel had done that day, but as his Father, I wanted him to tell me himself, to tell me what he had done, what he had learnt, how it had made him feel.
The same is true for God. God is omniscient. He knows what we’ve done, he knows what is on our hearts, but as a loving Father, he wants us to approach him and talk to him in our own language, as his children, and to make conversation with him.
William Mason, the poet, clergyman and divine, once wrote, “prayers move God, not as an orator moves his hearers, but as the cry of a beloved child moves an affectionate father.”
I can tell you, I don’t think I find anything more gut wrenching than hearing the cry of one or other of my children. If Mason is right, and I see no reason why he wouldn’t be, then every time we pray to God, he is profoundly moved. What a truly remarkable thought.
So it is that Jesus tells us to call God Father when we pray.
So our second point – we pray for God’s glory.
Father, Jesus tells us to pray, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come.
There are, of course, two versions of the Lord’s Prayer commonly in use in this country, the traditional version, which is heavy on thous and thines, and the modern version, which uses yous, and updates trespasses for sins. What I find a little strange about the modern version is how it updates, “hallowed be thy name,” to “hallowed be Your name.”
Maybe it’s just me, but it strikes me that the difficult word in the traditional version of this prayer is not “thy” but hallowed.
What on earth does this mean?
I wonder how many people recite this prayer on a regular basis, but simply have no idea what the word hallowed actually means? It means to be set apart as sacred, consecrated or holy.
So when we pray, “hallowed be your name,” we are affirming that God’s name is holy.
When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, he says to God, “suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” In reply God said, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.”
This name is regarded as so holy that it is not generally used. Indeed, throughout the English Old Testament, the name is shown as the word Lord all in capitals. The literal name of God is holy.
But it goes far beyond that. In Biblical terms, as elsewhere, the word name is often used to refer to a person’s reputation. That’s what Jesus is getting at here; it’s not just God’s name that is holy. God is holy. God therefore is to be set apart as sacred, consecrated or holy, because that’s exactly what he is. And we almost create a loop at this point because, since God is sacred, consecrated or holy, it makes sense that his name should be too.
So when we pray hallowed be your name, we’re not just affirming that God’s name is holy, we’re affirming that God himself is holy. But we’re not just making an affirmation. We’re praying that we would hallow God’s name, that we would treat him with the reverence that he deserves. He may be our father, we may be encouraged to approach him as a child approaches their father, but we must also be aware that we must hallow God and his name. We must be respectful of him. We must speak with reverence of him to each other and to our friends, and ensure that we respect his holiness.
We also pray that God is regarded as holy in the wider world. We’re told that there will come a time when at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. That’s Philippians 2:10. But at present we live at a time when God’s name is ridiculed every day. People take his name in vain. People mock him. People refer to him as “the man upstairs.” Or, the one that really gets my goat, people call him “the sky fairy.” Could there me a more derogatory name, a less-hallowed name, than the sky fairy?
Of course, why would people who deny the existence of God hallow his name? Well this feeds into the next statement in the Lord’s Prayer, your kingdom come.
When we pray this, we’re asking for God’s rule to spread across the globe. We’re praying that people will come to know him, to trust him and to accept Jesus as the lord of their lives. We’re praying that people would come to hallow God’s name.
Ultimately God’s kingdom will come when Jesus returns to rule over the earth, to make it new again, to launch a time when there will be no sickness or death.
But throughout the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that God’s kingdom is already here, and we have a part to play in building it. It is up to us to live lives that honour and glorify Christ, and that point others towards him. It is up to us not just to sit in church on a Sunday and listen to the gospel, but to take that gospel message out into our communities, to tell our friends and neighbours that there is a God who loves them.
So when we pray to God your kingdom come, we’re praying not just the Jesus will return, but that God’s kingdom will increase and grow in the here and now, in our own towns, around the country, and across the globe.
And as is often the case, we may well be the answer to our own prayer. We have a significant role to play in furthering that kingdom.
On to our third point – we pray that God will meet our needs.
In verses three and four of this short passage, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for three areas of their personal need. He tells them to pray that God will give them each day their daily bread, that he will forgive their sins, and that he will not lead them into temptation. Since these are the three specific areas of our lives that Jesus tells us to pray, they must all be important.
Firstly, then, give us each day our daily bread.
Our prayer here is that we trust completely in God to supply us with all that we need to survive. It can be difficult for us to grasp this as a concept. Most people are paid monthly, some weekly. When we need food we visit our local supermarket. In the UK we have such an advanced distribution system that if there is ever a shortage of one particular foodstuff, it can generally be sourced fairly quickly from elsewhere.
The disciples, though, would have been used to living hand to mouth. Many were fishermen, and if they had a day with no catch, they would have found life difficult. If a week went by with few fish being caught, life would have been extremely difficult.
Jesus told his disciples though, and through them, us, to trust that God will meet our needs day to day. We should place our trust in him to provide us with all that we need to live.
Of course, by asking God each day to meet our days on that particular day, we are able to develop a stronger relationship with God our Heavenly Father. That process of coming before him each day, asking that he will meet our needs on that particular day, means that every day we will find ourselves in conversation with him. By doing so, God also meets our spiritual needs.
Building a relationship with God should be something that we do day by day. Jesus tells us to ask God to provide our daily bread each day. There’s no spiritual equivalent of a deep freeze in which we can stash a week, a month or even a year’s supply of bread. It’s not possible to stockpile in our relationship with God.
I used to have a really close relationship with my Gran. I wouldn’t say that I saw her every day, but I did see her very often. I also had a great aunt, who I’m sure was just as lovely as my gran. We used to visit her once or twice a year. I didn’t really look forward to these visits; I didn’t really know my great aunt, and struggled to make conversation with her.
If our relationship with God is like my relationship with my great aunt, then prayer will be difficult. We won’t really know him and will struggle to speak to him.
If our relationship with God is more like the relationship I had with my gran, though, it prayer be significantly easier, because we have worked to build a relationship in which we know each other.
That easier relationship comes through spending time with each other though.
That’s why Jesus encourages us to meet with God day by day to ask him to meet our needs each day.
The second need that Jesus encourages us to pray for is our need for forgiveness. He tells us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”
We must place our trust in God to meet not just our physical needs, but also our spiritual needs.
We are all sinners. We are all lost. Each and every day we do things that dishonour God, that displease him, that damage our relationship with him. Left to our own devices we are totally lost in sinfulness. There is nothing that we can do for ourselves to change this situation. Many think that provided they live a good life, they will be rewarded by a place in heaven. Many believe themselves to be fundamentally good people, and ask how God could possibly choose to punish them.
But of course, these people have a distorted view of the Christian gospel. We can’t earn our salvation by doing good deeds. We can’t earn our salvation by going to church, whether that’s just at Christmas and Easter, or every single Sunday.
There is only one way of being sure of our salvation, and that is by placing our trust in Jesus Christ, acknowledging that he died for our sins and rose to eternal life.
Jesus shows us through this prayer that it is good to acknowledge our sinfulness, and to place ourselves before God each day and ask for his forgiveness.
In our reading from the Old Testament, Psalm 32, we saw what happened to David when he failed to acknowledge his sins. He says that when he kept silent about his sin, his bones wasted away, his strength was sapped. But when he acknowledged his sin to God, when he didn’t attempt to hide his wrongdoing, he felt his burden lifted.
I wonder if there’s sin in your life which you have tried to keep hidden? I wonder if there’s some wrongdoing which you have failed to bring before the Lord? Do you feel that burden resting heavy on your soul, sapping your strength?
Take it to the Lord. Do not hide from him. Be open about your sin and ask him for forgiveness. You will no doubt feel your burden lifted, just as David felt his lifted.
There’s a second element to this section of the prayer, though. Jesus tells us to pray, “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”
In order to understand God’s forgiveness, we have to also forgive those who have wronged us.
It sounds so easy when we blithely recite the Lord’s Prayer. But for many, this is far from easy. I’m sure that most of us have felt incredibly wronged at one point or other in our lives. Maybe we’ve been the victims of crime, or impacted by criminal activity. Maybe we feel as if we’ve been deeply betrayed by those whom we loved, who we felt close to.
It can be incredibly hard to forgive in circumstances when we have felt deeply wronged.
But we are to forgive people who have wronged us, no matter how hard it is.
If we fail to forgive, resentment can fester inside us, resentment that fails to honour God, and can place a burden between us and him.
Forgiveness doesn’t come easy to us. But neither does it come easy to God.
God has watched generation upon generation of people turn their backs on him, reject him, and disobey him. He could have allowed resentment to build up within himself, turning his back on us. But he didn’t. Throughout history he has desperately wanted humanity to turn back to him. In order to make this possible, he sent his son, Jesus, to take our punishment and die in our place. He watched as his one beloved son was nailed to the cross, subjected to extreme torture, and a painful death, precisely to ensure that we might be forgiven.
Our forgiveness came at great cost. Maybe our forgiveness of others comes at a great cost to us too. But we are called to forgive.
Perhaps doing so gives us a better understanding of our forgiveness by God.
I am certain that by forgiving others, we also act as conduits for God’s love. By forgiving we are playing a part in bringing about God’s kingdom.
If there’s someone you have been struggling to forgive, why not endeavour to forgive them in the week ahead, maybe to have a conversation with them.
Don’t allow resentment to fester in your soul, but forgive, just as God has forgiven us.
What about that final petition? Lead us not into temptation.
When we pray this we’re asking for God to keep us on the straight and narrow, to keep us on the path that he has ordained for our lives. Temptation will inevitably come. It is all around us. Indeed, even Jesus himself was tempted in the desert. But we pray that God will strengthen us so that we will follow Jesus’ example, and not succumb to temptation. We are dependent on him to guide us through our lives, to keep us from straying, and we pray that he will equip us to lead the life that will bring maximum glory to his name, that will bring his kingdom about right here, and right now.
Jesus gives us a powerful example of how to pray in these few verses. We should pray to God as our father, speaking to him as a child speaks to their dad. Our first priority should be to proclaim God’s holiness, and to pray that his rule will impact the world. And we should make ourselves dependent on him, trusting in him to meet our daily needs, to meet our spiritual needs, and to support us as we strive to live the life he has marked out for us.
Why not try in the days and weeks ahead to work on your prayer life, to see prayer not as a religious duty but as an essential part of a loving relationship?
31 When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 19th May 2019 at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, West Sussex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
Who is Jesus?
How do we respond to Jesus?
Two significant questions.
Of course, the answer someone gives to the second question, how do we respond to Jesus, is very much determined by the answer to the first, who is Jesus?
If Jesus was nothing more than a first century rabble rouser, then no response is needed. We can consign him to the margins of history.
If Jesus was a good moral teacher, we might reflect on his teaching, before then deciding to ignore him anyway. After all, how can the moral teachings of a first century carpenter have any relevance for us today?
But what if Jesus was something more than these things? What if he was the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah? How do we respond to Jesus if this is the case?
This is what I’d like us to consider this morning.
There are three points I’d like us to consider.
Firstly, who is Jesus?
Secondly, what should our response be to Jesus?
And thirdly, what is the true mark of a follower of Jesus?
We’ll be considering John 13:31-35 today, so if you have a Bible, you may find it useful to have it open in front of you at John 13:31-35.
Firstly, then, who is Jesus?
Before we get too far into this, it’s probably a good idea to think about the context of this particular passage. The disciples are gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover Festival. This is where Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper. Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. This is a real moment of intimacy between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is seen to be playing the role of servant king, humbling himself before those who thought that it was they who should be serving him.
As the chapter progresses, we see the actions of two disciples in particular. First of all we see Judas decide to betray Jesus. Jesus suddenly announces to his disciples, “very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples were completely shocked. John, urged on by Peter, asked Jesus, “who is it?” Jesus replied that it was the one to whom he would give a piece of bread, before passing the bread to Judas. At the moment Judas took the bread, John tells us that “Satan entered into him,” signifying no doubt the moment that Judas allowed himself to make the decision to betray Jesus to the authorities.
We also see Jesus predict Peter’s denial. He says to Peter, “very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”
So there’s a great deal going on in this chapter!
As we begin our passage in verse 31, Jesus makes some rather cryptic statements. He begins by saying, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.” “Son of Man” is in fact Jesus’ most common title for himself, using it on 81 occasions in the Gospels. It is never used by anyone else in the Gospels. In the Old Testament book of Daniel, the Son of Man is shown as a heavenly figure who in the end times is entrusted by God with authority. Jesus used this as a messianic title. He was the one sent by God from heaven to earth, and who has all authority to judge humanity when the end of the world comes.
It is at this point that something truly remarkable happens. Jesus is glorified! His full glory is laid bare for all to see. It is at this moment that Jesus’ true identify becomes evident.
What does this mean, though? What does Jesus mean that he is glorified? Jesus is glorified because it is revealed who he is. He is God! When he is glorified, God himself is glorified in him.
Jesus points the way to his father and shows the disciples God himself. And since Jesus glorifies God, God in return glorifies Jesus. We see that incredible bond resulting from the Father and the Son being one, with the Spirit. Jesus is indivisible from his Father because they are one God. Jesus chooses to serve his Father on earth and because he carries out his Father’s will perfectly, God gives him glory. Jesus, precisely because he is so attuned to his Father, glorifies God.
This is Jesus at his most remarkable, the servant king who washed the feet of his disciples, revealed as God himself, and now about to die on the cross for the whole of humanity.
This might not sound particularly glorious but it is. It is because of the context here. Jesus knows what is going to happen. Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. He could have stopped Judas, but he did not do so. He does not stop Judas because dying on the cross is the path that his father has marked out for him.
Jesus allows this to happen to him. Yet he is not the tragic innocent party, the sad victim of betrayal. He is totally in control. He is the triumphant, glorious victim of betrayal. Judas may just be concerned about the money he is going to receive for delivering his master to the authorities, yet he is doing the work of the father. He is doing the work of Christ, bringing him to the cross where he would die for the souls of billions.
Why is he doing this? It’s fine to say that Jesus is allowing this to happen, but why?
He’s doing it because 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:16-17.
This, then, is the glorification of Jesus. This is the glorification of God. This is beginning of the end, the fulfilment of God’s plan to bring salvation to humanity. The glorification of Jesus is at its brightest at the darkest moment of human history, when Jesus hangs from the cross. But in that moment, Jesus defeats sin. He defeats the devil. He defeats death itself. So that anyone who believes in him, and trusts that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, can have eternal life in heaven.
But that eternal life begins in the here and now. It doesn’t suddenly kick in when we die and are raised with Christ. Eternal life is all about a new perspective on life and the world.
And that brings us to our second point. What should our response be to the glorification of Jesus? If Jesus is God himself, how should we respond?
Having revealed himself to be God, Jesus tells his disciples in verse 34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Here’s our answer, then. If Jesus is God, we should follow this new command. Since Jesus loves us, we should love one another.
But why does Jesus describe this as a new command? There’s nothing new about this is there? Surely loving one another has been at the heart of God’s calling since the beginning of time itself. So why is this a new command?
The answer here is the level of expectation that is associated with it. Jesus is not commanding his followers merely to have a warm, fuzzy feeling towards other Christians. He tells his followers that we are to love, as he loved us.
I mentioned that at the beginning of this chapter Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. This seems to be a real reversal of position, an upending of expectation. Surely Jesus’ disciples should be washing his feet? He was their master, after all. He was the one they were following. Surely they were the ones who should be acting in subservience to him?
Yet it’s Jesus who washes their feet.
This is the mark of the servant king. Here we see Jesus humbly taking on the role of servant to his disciples, when he is the king. Not just an earthly king either, but the king of heaven, the Son of God!
That’s the kind of love that we should be demonstrating to one another. We should be humbling ourselves before each other, placing others before ourselves, and serving whatever the cost.
We should act sacrificially. That’s the mark of Christian love. Giving that we actually feel. Giving that actually has an impact on our own lives.
What do you think the mark of that is? The usual answers to this focus on our money. You know the lines. We should give more cash to the church. We should give more to charity. We should spend less on ourselves and give our money to worthy charities.
And yes, of course, it goes without saying that those are admirable things to do. We should most definitely be doing all of those things.
But perhaps over and above financial giving, we should think about our time. Perhaps that’s where we can give truly sacrificially, because perhaps that’s where we’re actually most selfish. Many, most of us probably, work long hours. Perhaps we have long commutes too. Our time is precious and we have so little of it. Of course we want to spend the little time that we have left over doing the things that we want to do. Maybe that’s going for a run or for a swim. Maybe it’s taking in a film at the cinema. Perhaps its playing with our children, or going for dinner with our partners, or meeting friends for a drink. Maybe it’s just vegging in front of the television at the end of a long, demanding and stressful day.
Would it make a difference to God’s kingdom, to the Church, to our lives, if we sought out new ways to serve, to give up our time? That might be seeking to get involved with the running of the Church, by joining the church council. It might be offering our services to play an instrument, or to sing, or to train to preach, or to arrange the flowers, or to sweep the floors, or to clean the loos. It could be committing to attending church prayer meetings. Maybe we have a brilliant idea for an outreach project that “someone” should take on. What if that someone was you?
One of my friends who is a pastor in a church in Oxford was once given a piece of advice by an older pastor. He was told that after church, when you’ve got a coffee in your hand, you’ll often find yourself in the position when you see a group of people whose conversation you know you will enjoy, and a person, perhaps on their own, who you know is going to bore you, or annoy you. Don’t take the easy option. Go and chat to the person on their own. Walk towards the pain, he says. Walk towards the pain.
Perhaps that’s something we could try. When we find ourselves in a gathering, don’t just gravitate to your friends, but head for the person who might otherwise feel lonely, isolated, or rejected. Walk towards the pain.
That’s what Jesus would do.
And that’s what this command is all about. Sacrificial giving. Love one another as Jesus loves us.
Of course, Jesus took this to the greatest extreme. At the time he was speaking the disciples might have thought that the pinnacle of Jesus’ sacrificial loving was washing the feet of his disciples. But we know, with hindsight, that that was relatively trivial compared to his greatest act of sacrificial love. That greatest act of love for us was to willingly go to the cross, to suffer an agonising death so that you and I might be reunited with God, so that our sin might be forgiven, and so that we might have eternal life.
That’s real love.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That’s what Jesus says in John chapter fifteen, verse thirteen.
Maybe we might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, and die for someone we love.
That’s probably not too likely, however.
But our life on earth is finite. The clock is ticking. And by giving our time away to love our fellow Christians, perhaps in a sense we are laying down our lives for each other and for our ultimate friend, Jesus himself.
That, then, is what our response should be to Jesus. We should love one another. Sacrificially. In a way that impacts our own lives as much as it impacts the lives of those whom we love.
That would make us truly distinctive. And that brings us on to our third point, what is the mark of a disciple?
Jesus says in verse 35, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This, then, is the mark of a disciple. Loving each other. This is the mark of a follower of Jesus. Loving one another.
Not only are we called to love one another sacrificially. The love that we have for each other should be evident to all. It is this love that is the mark of a disciple. This is the distinctive of the Christian faith.
Jesus loved us enough to die for us. We should love each other in the same way. We should love in the same way that Jesus loved us.
If we are genuine followers of Christ, the overarching impression that a visitor should get from visiting our churches is that they are places of love. Anyone who attends one of your services here at St Andrew’s, or one of your activities during the week, should leave this building think, “my goodness, St Andrew’s church really is a place of love.”
I wonder if that is the impression that people have of this place?
How do you think you measure up to this mark of a disciple?
When you come here, do you feel loved?
Come to that, do you feel that you love?
Do you go out of your way to love everyone in your church family?
The context of this passage shows just how difficult this can be at times. As we’ve seen, Jesus knows that Judas, one of his twelve disciples, his closest friends, his most loyal followers, has just left the room in order to betray him to the authorities. Jesus has just predicted that one of his very best friends, Peter, is about to deny that he even knows him. All whilst facing up to the prospect that in just a few hours he will be nailed to a cross.
I know that when I’m at my most stressed, I am at my least loving. When there’s just too much going on, I can be quite short with people, rather grumpy, and generally not very nice. Just ask my wife about that! But if I’m to follow Jesus’ example, even when I’m feeling really put upon, my attitude should still be one of love.
If Jesus could love even whilst facing up to his future at the Last Supper, then surely I should be able to love when I’m tired and stressed.
Jesus’ ultimate act of love was dying on the cross. He died out of love for you, and for me, and for all of humanity who would turn to him. And even at his bleakest moment, whilst hanging from the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And that’s how we should be known. By our completely outrageous love for one another. Even at our darkest times. Even when we feel stressed. Even when we feel wronged.
That’s not to say, of course, that we will always agree with one another. Disagreements are only natural.
But anyone who encounters us, as individuals, and as a church, should know that we are Jesus’ disciples, precisely because of the love we have for one another.
That, I firmly believe, is the greatest witness, the best form of evangelism that there is. Loving each other.
People will know that Christianity is real precisely because of the witness that we give. They will know that there is a living Messiah who gave everything for them precisely because of the love that we display. Because there is simply no other explanation for the outrageous love that we will share if we are truly followers of Christ.
As someone far wiser than I once said, the mark of faithfulness is not doctrinal belief, but Christ-like love.
That love cannot be faked. It’s possible to come along to church on a Sunday but not truly be a disciple of Christ. It’s perfectly possible to serve on a church committee, or to lead prayers, but not truly be a Christian.
But it is not possible to counterfeit the love that comes from being a true disciple of Christ. That’s the true Christian distinctive that marks as out as followers of Jesus.
People should look at us as Christians and be completely gobsmacked by the way we support each other, look out for one another, love one another, that they are left desperately wanting what we have. And what do we have? We have love.
That’s the mark of a disciple; that we love in such a way that everyone knows that we are followers of Christ.
So where does this all leave us?
We’ve seen that in the midst of darkness, as Judas left his table to betray him, as one of his closest friends, Peter, was about to deny even knowing him, the true glory of Jesus is seen. In his darkest moments, Jesus is glorified by God, pointing the way to his father as his father points to him and shows the world, here is God made flesh, here is God dwelling amongst us.
How do we respond to this?
The only way there could conceivably be. To follow Jesus’ command, to love one another as he has loved us. We should love each other sacrificially.
And this is the mark of a disciple. Our love should be evident to everyone. People will know us as Jesus’ disciples because of our outrageous love.
If there is no love, then we are not true followers of Jesus. How could we be if, after the love he has shown us, we do not follow his command to love as he loves us.
So how effectively are we following this command? Do your friends, your colleagues identify you as a disciple of Christ because of your love?
Does St Andrew’s stand out as a beacon of love to Horsham and beyond?
Do all those who come into this building feel loved?
Do we feel loved by this community?
Do we love each other?
Let’s aim to follow this command in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. To love one another, as Jesus loves us.