St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 18th November 2012
It seems to me there are an awful lot of people out there who spend most of their time trying to get us to part with our money. You get a text – it’s a message telling you to reply urgently to some story about an insurance claim. The phone rings – and you hear a voice at the other end hoping to sell you cheap electricity. There’s a knock at the door – it’s a double glazing salesman with some wonderful special offer you really shouldn’t refuse. Even the privacy of your own home is, it seems, no defence against someone, somewhere trying to persuade you of the truth of their claims, and earn some commission for themselves.
What about when you come to church? Surely not, you may say, but you mention the word “evangelist” to the man on the street, and what do they think of? Someone in a shiny suit and with a fixed whitened smile promising all kinds of miracles if only, of course, you make some donation to his organisation. If that’s ever been your experience of organised religion, then I can only say I am profoundly sorry.
Jesus didn’t come to found a money-making organisation. The stories we heard earlier about the lost sheep and the lost coin remind us that His mission was, and is, to seek for the lost and the broken, because He sees value in each and every one of us. He doesn’t judge us on how much we earn, or what kind of job we have, or the area where we live. He has one simple message for everyone, whether you are an investment banker with a large property portfolio, or a farm labourer sleeping rough – to turn to Him, to believe in Him, to accept Him as number one in your life.
And when you make that decision to turn to Jesus, then no matter who you are, or what you have done, He welcomes you with open arms. Indeed Jesus tells us, there is rejoicing in heaven. Because every time someone makes a step of faith towards Jesus, the angels party. And that’s as true for the tax collector and for the sinner, as for the teachers of the law and the religious experts. We have a God who is just waiting for that time when we say, “Yes”, to Him and accept that astonishing good news He has given us about His Son Jesus Christ who died and rose again for us.
So what happens when we make this step of faith? Some people would try and persuade you that you will become wealthier, or happier, or God will perform some wonderful miracle in your life. Of course it is perfectly within God’s gift to do any of those things. But Jesus never promised these things would happen as soon as we believe in Him. Indeed sometimes our life will get tougher. I still remember what it was like being the odd one out at school and, then later on, in the workplace because I was a Christian. It’s not for nothing that Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow Him.
So what are the benefits of following Jesus? This is where I want to turn to our reading from Romans, because there the apostle Paul talks about three wonderful things God gives us when we turn to Jesus – peace, hope and love. Now at first glance they sound slightly woolly ideas, perhaps difficult to pin down. You can’t go into a shop and ask for an ounce of peace, or take out a loan for some decent love. But once you begin to look into what Paul is talking about, you begin to see they are most wonderful qualities any of us can ever enjoy. We all need peace. We all need hope. We all need love. And Jesus promises that when we follow Him, these are what He will give us.
Let’s think first of all about peace. We all know how important peace is. Last Sunday in Devonport Park some 500 of us gathered on Remembrance Sunday, to pay our respects, to hold silence, and to commit ourselves to a better future. It was a profoundly moving occasion which reminded me just how many people are living with the effects of conflicts, past and present, and looking for peace. Not only peace in the world, but also peace on the inside, in hearts and souls and minds.
How does believing and trusting in Jesus help in this quest for peace? Paul gives us the answer – that if we come humbly in faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And this really is so important. So much conflict, so much tension and stress, comes about because folk do not have this kind of peace. They may be struggling with the memory of some wrong they have committed which they believe can never be forgiven. They may be living with the results of some decision in the past they cannot undo. They may have been told they are not worth very much, and so are constantly striving for acceptance.
Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. In other words, don’t struggle with your sin any longer, give it to me and I will deal with it. Discover through me a loving Heavenly Father who accepts you just as you are. Know that you are infinitely valuable in His sight.
That’s the good news Jesus offers you today. And unlike the offer a slick salesman might make you, this one does not end in a few days’ time, or come with all kinds of strings attached. Jesus’ offer of peace is permanent, a lasting sense that no matter what we face, no matter what situation we go through, He is always there with us. Yes, we may still go through hard times. Yes, we may still experience all kinds of struggles. But we will discover that God never gives up on us. Through our faith in Jesus we have become His child, and He will never let us go.
This is why faith in Jesus also gives us hope. Now I realise that in these straitened times many people cannot see beyond the next loan payment, or are worried what will happen when all the stuff in the freezer is gone. We live in an age of great uncertainty, where work is no longer certain, benefits are being cut, and public spending is being squeezed. If – to use a horrible phrase you often hear on the news – there was ever a “feelgood factor”, it seems to have disappeared long ago. We can certainly no longer take for granted that our standard of living will keep improving.
So how does faith in Jesus Christ give us hope? It’s all very well for Paul to go on and say: we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God but how do these wonderful words relate to our everyday existence? Well, to begin with, Jesus assures us of a future beyond this often bewildering and confused world. There is more to life than working, paying the bills, and saving up for your pension. When you turn to Jesus, you realise that this life is in fact only a rehearsal for a much better existence when all who believe in Him will end up partying with the angels, and are found safe and secure with the Heavenly Father forever. That is the hope Jesus has given by rising from the dead and defeating even the power of death itself.
At this point some Christians then make the mistake of saying that because we have this hope, the things of this world don’t really matter. But that’s to completely undermine the good news Jesus came to bring. Because each person matters deeply to God, because each person has value in His sight, our hope should lead us to care for one another in the way Jesus cares for us. Believing and trusting in Him isn’t just a matter of having a right relationship with our Heavenly Father. It’s also about having a right relationship with our fellow believers, and the wider world. And there is no greater evidence of a true faith than action to help the poor, the needy and the destitute. That’s what God wants us to do as a church, precisely because we are called to be a community of hope.
Of course, we need to know that we hope we have in Jesus is real and genuine. It’s all very well for Paul to say in verse 3: Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.But, if we’re honest, sometimes it can be hard to cling on to that hope when we meet real suffering. Yes, we can believe God is using the situation to change us and make us more Christlike. Yet I know myself how difficult it can sometimes be to look forward and hold on to the glorious future Jesus promises to those who trust in Him.
And if that’s where you are at this morning, then I want you to take heart from Paul’s next words in verse 5: 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. This peace and this hope I’ve been talking about so far are not things we have to desperately believe are true, regardless of our circumstances or our feelings. They are wonderful gifts given by a God who promises to come live with us and in us the moment we put our trust in Jesus. And that part of God living in us is called the Holy Spirit. It is the real, personal presence of God which turns our faith from simply words or ideas into genuine, direct experience.
So when in a little while I ask you, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” I’m not asking you to answer a difficult theological problem. I’m asking you if you have experienced that presence of God living in you, giving you peace and hope.
If you have, then you’ll begin to understand what Paul is talking about when he talks about love. Now I realise that love is a concept that many people find difficult. Maybe they’ve grown up never really knowing about love. Maybe others have done all kinds of horrible things to them in the name of love. Maybe they have found how rare is real, genuine love. If that is the case for you, then be assured – the love of God is nothing like that. The love the Holy Spirit brings into your life never seeks to exploit. It does not change with the passing of the seasons. As Paul says elsewhere in a famous passage in 1 Cor 13: It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
And we know this because we have the evidence of the cross before us. Jesus didn’t just talk about the love of God, He showed it in real, practical action by dying in our place for our sins upon the cross. He took the punishment we deserved. He suffered the consequence of all the wrong things we have done wrong, by allowing Himself to be cut off for a brief while from His Heavenly Father. He allowed evil to do its very worst to Him by robbing Him for three days of His life. And with what end in mind? That, if we believe in Jesus, we can find that our sins are forgiven, that we need no longer fear separation from God, that evil and even death itself no longer has a grip on us.
It’s little wonder that as Paul considered what Jesus had done on the cross he wrote these words in verse 8: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Think for a moment just how much Jesus must love you to have died for you, to have taken your sin and your wrongdoing upon His shoulders, to have opened up the path to eternal life for you.
When we turn to Jesus, we discover real peace, real hope, real love. But don’t just take my word for it. The Christian faith does not rest upon clever sales techniques or slick marketing. It rests upon the solid, historical evidence that 2000 years ago a man called Jesus was crucified and rose again three days later.
And because the Christian faith rests on solid, historical evidence this is why we can and why we should trust Jesus. Jesus is fully trustworthy. That at least is my testimony, and the testimony of countless Christians across the centuries. So this morning, let me ask, are you going to miss out on all that Jesus offers, or are you willing to make this step of faith? Will you allow yourself to be found by Jesus and give the angels the excuse for another party? That’s the decision that you need to make. Let’s all spend a moment being quiet, and then I shall pray…