Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What Jesus said about...........Prayer and fasting

Exeter Temple Message notes: Sunday 8th March 2015
Bible Reading: Matthew 6:5-18
 The public expression of prayer was dominant in Jesus day to the point where people often prayed by proxy rather than personally. Limiting prayer to a public act raised the danger of it becoming an empty show.
So Jesus warned, Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”  (v 5)
A hypocrite referred originally to an actor who changed roles by changing masks. Prayer must not be an act or a show.  
V 9-13 reveal the content of prayer. The other verses cover the context in which we pray.
1. Solitude
 “But when you pray go into your room close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” v 6
Our true spiritual condition is reflected in what I do when nobody is looking. 
 “Jesus is not saying that prayer should never be a public or corporate act but he is saying that the engine room of prayer, the wellsprings of spirituality lie in the private relationship with God. Think of a deeply rooted tree. There is growth above ground level but the life is drawn from the roots.”  Gerard Kelly
Solitude was a vital and frequent part of Jesus’ spiritual discipline.
Look up:
Mark 1:35
Luke 6:12
Matthew 14:13
Luke 5:16
Matthew 17:1-9
Solitude is often avoided because it is associated with loneliness and the  fear that if we withdraw from constant visibility we will be forgotten.
Introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. 
Both need solitude. The introvert needs to understand that solitude is a discipline that is about seeking God rather an about personal introspection. The extrovert needs the reassurance that they can gain what they need from God himself rather than through what they see or hear, from the people around them.
Solitude can help to cure us of the addictive need for constant company to give reassurance that we are loved, wanted and accepted. This puts people in the place of God. It is God who supplies all our needs according to his riches in glory.
There is a fear of being alone with God because we don’t like our own company. On our own with God, the masks are obsolete and he might insist that we take our defences down.    
If we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone but neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. Alone or in company we can always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.  However most of us still need to develop a heart and mind that can find God in the midst of the crowd. We need to train ourselves in solitude.  A sprinter can ignore the shouts of the crowd and concentrate on the finishing line, but he has developed that skill by practising instant reaction to the starter gun, in the early mornings before the crowds get up.
2. Silence
 “And when you pray do not keep on babbling like the pagans for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”  (v7)
We use words to defend ourselves in some situations, especially those that attack our reputation or our faith. If we are silent, who will be in control? One reason we feel we can hardly remain silent or have time in solitude is that we feel helpless and out of control.
 “Silence is abstaining from sound in order to open our spiritual ears and listen more closely to the voice of God”   Keith Drury
Silence helps us gain appreciation for the worth and importance of words. Silence is not to be shunned as empty space, but to be befriended as fertile ground for intimacy with God and to hear his words. The world’s words are often louder but are not of as much worth.
God often speaks in whispers. See I Kings 19:11- t12
Read Ecclesiastes 5:1-2

3. Sacrifice
The particular sacrifice Jesus was talking about was fasting.
Jesus addresses abuses and the wrong motives attached to prayer and fasting but never suggests that they should be abandoned because we don’t always get them right.
Jesus himself went on a 40 day fast and Paul went on a 3 day fast after his Damascus road experience.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees about their attitude to fasting but he actually endorsed the practice for his disciples when he said to them, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites.” Fasting was a normal part of Christian life for centuries. It is only in modern times that we have neglected it.  Part of the reason for that is that the modern western church has become so focussed on the intellectual and upon the verbal that we have often failed to bring our physical and material lives under the umbrella of our faith life. 
 “The constant propaganda fed us today convinces us that if we do not have three large meals each day, with several snacks in between we are on the verge of starvation. This coupled with the fact that it is a positive virtue to satisfy every human appetite, has made fasting seem obsolete.”
Richard Foster
Most of us in the western evangelical church need to discover fasting as a tool through which we can get close to God and grow in our faith.
Whilst it is recognised that we don’t just have to fast from food but other things like the internet or TV or watching sport fasting in Jesus day did mean abstinence from food and that has been its primary meaning for centuries.  This is because of all the human appetites the appetite for food is central.  You only discover how central it is when you first attempt to fast.
There are physical benefits to fasting and practical ones. The SA has utilised fasting is to annually ask Salvationists to give up something and then give the money that they have saved through their denial to support the Army’s work.
However if you want a spiritual benefit fasting must begin with the focus on God. The very first statement Jesus made about fasting was about the motives that some people had for practising it.  If our fasting is not to God we have failed.  “Le
Let our fasting be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on him. Let our intention herein be this and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” John Wesley
Fasting in the Bible is always accompanied by fervent prayer. There is no spiritual value in hunger alone.  Dieting is not fasting!
When we fast with a desire to know God and  our spiritual senses are heightened. Fasting makes us dependent and most of us hate to feel dependant!
Fasting involves self-denial. We deny the physical appetites of our body for a time, to humble ourselves before God who has all the answers for our lives. Fasting is a sign that seeking God is more important to us than the daily routine of finding food for ourselves. We have a passion for God that supersedes everything else. Fasting will often reveal the things that control us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things but in fasting, these things surface.   
Solitude requires we strip away pretence, superficiality, the need to be seen, attention seeking, the stimulation of human company. 
Silence requires we are stripped of our words and our noise.
Sacrifice in this context, strips away our self-indulgences our addiction to food and to things.
But Jesus will not have it that practising spiritual disciplines in the right way is joyless.  
When you fast do not look sombre as the hypocrites do for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”  v16                             
In fact there is reward. Jesus says it twice, “Your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  (v6&v18)
 Jesus would agree that we don’t pray and fast in order to get an OBE or a golden globe but what he is saying is that prayer and fasting done in the right way has to have a positive outcome or it is futile. The reward is the company of the divine presence and that is more than enough for anyone.  

God bless

What Jesus said about.......Loving our enemies

Exeter Temple Message Notes: 1st March 2015
Bible Reading:  Matthew 5:38-48
 In this text Jesus asks us to have a sort out not of our attitudes towards enemies and those who give us a hard time. 
Dallas Willard says that the OT passages referred to relate not to institutional or social evils but how to respond to loss and injury to either yourself or your family.
Jesus tells us what we should lose and what we should gain, what we should give up and what we should take in. 
1. Get rid of……….
a) Revenge
We are told in the Bible to be "peacemakers" but does that mean we are to surrender to evil? 
We are told to "love our enemies," but we are also told "oppose them" when they are wrong & when they oppose the things of God.
This can be confusing but we can be clear that what we don’t need is retaliation or revenge.
 “You have heard that it was said, Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you do not resist an evil person.” (v38-39)
The phrase “eye for an eye” is mostly seen in the modern age as being about vindictiveness but when it was introduced into the Old Testament it was originally a merciful provision to put a stop indiscriminate massacres and blood feuds. Before this law if one member of a tribe was injured by a member of another tribe all members of the offended tribe would take vengeance on all members of the offending tribe.  What started out as something small got bigger and bigger as each tribe increased the punishments on the other.
This law was introduced so that there was an exact correspondence and compensation for the wrong done and a line could be put under the matter instead of it going on and on for years.  We still work on this principle in law today.

however by the time of Jesus the law designed to prevent the escalation of violence was being used to justify personal vendettas - the very thing the law was designed to prevent. In fact many were taking the law into their own hands.
Jesus pointed out that personal revenge is not the way to deal with injury.
Jesus’ way was better. When God's love flows through us we pour out grace and forgiveness which changes the human heart and this releases both the victim and the perpetrator.

b) The demand for your rights
In our relationships with others, often what passes for love is little more than a neat business transaction. People are kind to us, so we repay them with equal consideration. When they treat us unjustly, we consider our negative response as being what they asked for. Everything is so balanced and fair but it can also all be a bit calculating. 
Christian love never settles for only what’s reasonable. It insists on giving mercy as well as justice.  It insists not only on giving but on giving generously. 
There are times when people get very defensive about protecting themselves from any infringement of their rights. They are fearful of anyone putting one over on them and it makes them aggressive. 
Jesus is saying, "Don't be always thinking of your liberty to do as you like, but be always thinking of your duty and your privilege to be of service to others”.
We must think of the needs of others even when our pride is at stake, when our rights are abused, when our plans are frustrated and our time is wasted and when there is no hope of compensation.

2. Take up active love
Jesus never simply talked about what we must not do and what we need to get rid of in our lives. He was much more positive than that.
Jesus does not just require a lack of hatred but the presence of love and compassion. The focus is not really on what we refrain from doing but on what we are prepared to do. The accent is not on restraint but on active love.
a) Response
We can do the minimum required and not a stroke more and in such a way that we make it clear we hate the whole thing. The other way is to do what we are asked and possibly more with determination, courtesy, and far better than anyone expects us to - even when the demand for help is discourteous, unreasonable and tyrannical.
Jesus gives examples from his culture of willingly going an extra mile or giving two items of clothing and not just the one that has been requested.
This does not always mean saying yes to everything that is asked of us.  There are times when if we go the extra mile with one person we might harm another e.g a doctor on the way to an emergency.  It may be harmful for another person to always be given into. Our criteria for the way we respond to demands is the others persons good not our convenience. 
Our effort for others should be the same whoever it is we are doing it for, enemy or friend.
Jesus doesn't tell us to love our friends. He doesn't have to, because we love our friends, anyway.
In other words, Jesus is saying, "There should be no limit on your love. You are to love everybody, even your enemies."
b) Initiative
Avoiding getting our own back and not doing another person wrong is not the same thing as actively setting out to improve their situation. We are not called just "not doing them any harm" but to doing them good.
Again we need to be careful that we are guided by the Spirit in this.
Jesus tells us to do that in three ways.

i) Through our words. 
"Bless them that curse you."  (Luke 6:28)
We are to reply to insults with compliments. We are to love people through our words.
ii) Through our deeds 
 “Do good to those who hate you.”  (Luke 6:27)
iii)  Through our prayers
 “Pray for those who persecute you.”  (Matthew 5:44)3. How is it possible?
The biggest mistake people make about this passage. It is that we can do this what Jesus is advocating by trying really hard.
We can’t.  We will always fail.
And this is more than a bit of a disaster because at first glance it looks like Jesus is saying that our status as children of God depends upon our performance in this area.
 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven.” (v 44)
We could take this to mean that you must first become a person who loves his enemies as a way of earning your place as a child of God.
 “If you take the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, all the commandments assume—they presuppose—that a profound conversion has happened—a new birth—before our righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We do not earn or merit our sonship or our entrance into heaven. We receive it as a free gift and gracious promise, and then we live in a way that shows where our treasure is and who our Father is.
(John Piper)
Later in his sermon Jesus talks about how fruit is produced, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
What Jesus is saying is that you cannot produce the fruit of love in order to become a good tree. You have to become a good tree in order to produce the fruit of love. Becoming a child of God and being transformed on the inside—becoming a good tree—precedes and enables love, not vice versa.
Loving our enemies is the outcome of the inward transformation our self-centred nature to having a God-centred. And what is God’s nature?  God is love.
How can we love our enemies?   God pours his love into our hearts.  If we want to love our enemies, don’t start by trying to work up human feelings, start by handing over your empty heart to be filled with the love of God and then let it leak out. And hope does not disappoint us because god has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:5)

God bless

What Jesus said about......Keeping Promises

Exeter Temple Message notes 22nd February 2015
Bible ReadingMatthew 5:33-37

1.  Purpose   v 33
Jesus starts off by reminding his listeners of something that they already knew.  Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…..”
“When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself by a pledge he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” (Numbers 30:2)
 In Jesus’ day the Jewish people had established an informal system of oath taking. If you swore by God you were bound to it but if you wanted to wriggle out of a promise you could swear on someone or something else. So for instance if you swore on your mother’s grave but she wasn’t actually in it yet you could plead that your promise was invalid. 
 Such things continue today whereby it is possible to keep the law but be ethically wrong.  Pay day lenders act within the law but many people have been deceived by the innocent looking ads which make it look as if they are doing you a favour. Companies make the headlines because although may not have broken any law they appear to have been avoiding their moral obligation to pay taxes to the countries in which they trade.
Jesus goes back to the purpose of the law - the promotion of honesty and integrity in all things.  Jesus strips everything back to one thing. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  (v37)
 All the clever playing about with words doesn’t make a broken promise any less serious. What really matters is what kind of person are you if you want make gains at their expense whilst fooling others into thinking you are law abiding and righteous? 
 Some Christians have taken these verses as meaning that we must not, under any circumstances make vows. So they refuse to take an oath in a court of law, in a marriage ceremony, or in any other situation.
 Yet oaths and vows show up remarkably often in both the Old and New Testament, In fact in the OT God’s people are specifically commanded by God to swear their oaths in his name.
In Matthew 26:63-64 Jesus does not refuse to be put under oath in his trial before the Sanhedrin and makes a statement under oath and under oath agrees that he is the Christ. 
 In 2 Corinthians 1:18 Paul repeatedly invokes God as his witness to emphasize the solemnity and the truthfulness of the things he is declaring,
It is helpful at times to make public vows and pledges. It means we are more likely to be clear and intentional in our actions rather than just drift along. When we nail our colours to the mast as it were, by making a promise, we are be clear about what we stand for and what we believe in.  And if others witness our promise, then they can hold us to account for our actions.
 But what Jesus is saying is that we shouldn’t need to be forced into being faithful to the promises we have made or cajoled into being honest because we are scared of breaking the rules.  We don’t need legal restraints to be truthful. We should be honest and faithful anyway. 

2. Profanity
We can all do things thoughtlessly at times. In this passage Jesus warns against extending that thoughtlessness to the way we use God’s name. We utter profanities not just by using bad language but whenever we use God’s name lightly.
 In the Old Testament, when you swore by someone, you were invoking that person first of all as a corroborating witness to attest to your word. You were invoking the name of someone whose witness is reliable and trustworthy to testify to the trustworthiness of your own words.
You could also call on someone as a judge against you if your words were found to be untrue. However it became all too easy to use swear by someone’s name or even their life over the most trivial of things.
It still happens today as people say without thinking, “Well I’ll be damned!  or I swear by my  mother’s life.
 When people want to add emphasis to how strongly they feel about someone, or something one of the ways they find to do it is to call on the name of God to back what they are saying.  They are involving God in their opinion, their argument, their excitement, their response to a surprise or shock by the use of His name.
 The dishonour comes when in actual fact they have not in reality given God a second thought.  To lift up God’s name in vain is to use it in an empty, frivolous and insincere way. 
Jesus showed us that we can quite easily say all the accepted things but still get our use of the Lord’s name wrong.
 “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly I never knew you.”  Matthew 7: 21-23

 “The worst kind of verbal profanity is lip service.” (Anon)

We are not just to honour God without talk but with our walk. Taking the Lord’s name in vain also has with it the idea of bearing God’s name.
Remember that when Israel joined into the covenant they became God’s people.  God has a new people who now bear His name.
In Acts 11:26 we find that the disciples were first called Christians at a place called Antioch.  The term Christian means “Christ-ones” or little Christ’s. As Christians we carry around the name of Christ wherever we go. The reason the disciples were called Christians at Antioch is because they lived like Christ, they were different. It was an honour and a responsibility and certainly not something which was taken lightly.
None of us is flawless in living our faith but we must be careful to live out what we profess to believe in.  If the God we claim we believe in is merciful then we must be merciful. If the God we claim to believe in gave himself  sacrificially then we must also give of ourselves even if it is costly. If the God we believe in is love then we must be a loving person.

3. Pressure
One of the golden rules of parenting is to keep your word.  There is nothing more disappointing for a child that when a parent says yes to a child and then fails to deliver.  It is so damaging to a child when a parent declares that there will be consequences for misbehaviour but never follows up with action.  Equally, a child also learns that a parents word cannot be trusted if the child knows that if they nag long enough or make enough fuss a no comes a yes eventually.
Our word needs to hold, even under pressure. To be a person of integrity means that you are willing to go against the crowd if the crowd is wrong. It means being willing to stand alone, if necessary, for what is right. It means peer-pressure is no pressure for you.
Jesus faced the gut-wrenching choice of keeping a costly promise. 
God had been promising for thousands of years to send a Messiah, His Son to save the world through His death and resurrection. But when the moment of truth came in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus felt the weight keeping this promise.
In fact, He asked His Father, Please let this cup pass from me.
Jesus knows what it is like to face the weight of a promise.
But in that moment of truth, when He realized there was no other way, Jesus became the ultimate promise-keeper.

We need to make sure that we have more than a fa├žade of faith.  It is the growth of character, and a spiritual life that supports who we are that counts.  

God bless