I imagine you know quite a few people who do not believe in God. How do you answer them? Where do you begin? The first thing I want to say is that when you encounter someone who doubts the existence of God realize that it is not your responsibility to convince them or win the argument. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Since God is not visible to the human eye, there can be no direct physical proof of him. However, God has provided ample evidence of his existence and character both in the created world and in the unique nature of human beings. Above all he has given a perfect and sufficient revelation of himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Besides these evidences, there is the witness of the Bible and the prophecies God placed in it which have come true. Finally there is the testimony of the Church. Today one quarter of the world’s population claim to follow Jesus Christ. Ironically, the Church is growing fastest where the persecution and opposition is the most intense. Let make some observations before we look at Psalm 19 our reading for today. First observation: Because of our fallen nature it is natural for people to doubt the existence of God.Continue reading
A presentation on Christian martyrdom given at the Gulf Cultural Club, London. Watch the video here
“The early church’s theology of martyrdom was born not in synods or councils, but in sunlit, blood—drenched coliseums and catacombs, dark and still as death. The word martyr means “witness” and is used as such throughout the New Testament. However, as the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, the distinctions between witnessing and suffering became blurred and finally nonexistent.” (William Bixler)Continue reading
I woke up the other day and couldn’t see properly. I could see a blurred object like a large hair moving around in one eye. When I looked in the mirror there was nothing on my eye, but I could still see something moving around. That was when my curiosity turned to mild panic. Was I losing my eyesight? Was it cancer?
I phoned the medical helpline 111 and was referred to the local Accident and Emergency Eye Hospital. A nice person triaged me over the phone and made an appointment for me to visit the next day. I was seen quickly by an eye specialist who did numerous tests, one of which is not for the faint hearted. It involved smearing my eye with aesthetic jelly and then placing an instrument on the pupil to explore the inside of my eye. Her diagnosis was that I have a vitrous detachment or ‘floater’.
Do you realise the very first person to see the risen Lord Jesus, the first person to respond to him and the first person to tell the good news to others, was not one of the Apostles, but Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
From these we learn that Mary Magdalene became a friend and follower of Jesus after he cast out seven demons from her. She was present during Jesus’ trial (Matthew 27:45). She was there at the Crucifixion (John 19:25).She watched Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (Luke 23:56).
And on Easter Sunday she and some other women were the first to discover the stone had been rolled away (John 20:1), first to meet the risen Lord Jesus (John 20:15-16) first to tell the disbelieving disciples the good news (John 20:18).
Surprisingly, it was also Mary and some other women who supported Jesus financially from their income. This tells us something about the value Jesus placed on women. Jesus recruited and traveled with both men and women followers. That was unheard of. When we think of the disciples we tend to imagine the 12 male Apostles, but Jesus drew around him both men and women, into one extended family of sisters and brothers. In this Jesus was very radical. It was the custom that women would only travel with their families. In the Easter story, the Apostle John gives us the fullest account of Mary’s role. As we read John 20 together I want to make three observations about Mary: About her heart, about her mind and about her will.
- The Devotion of Mary (John 20:1-2)
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-2)
While the disciples were sleeping, Mary was not only awake but working. It was still dark when she went to the tomb. After the disciples had found the tomb empty and went home, it was Mary who stayed behind. She was the first and the last at the tomb of Jesus. That’s devotion. She stood by Jesus through the most difficult of times and her devotion persisted even in his death. Remember that when Mary went to the tomb, she did not expect to meet Jesus.
She expected to find a dead body that needed to be prepared for burial. She acted out of devotion even to his memory. What does the word ‘devotion’ mean to you? Is that a word you would use to describe your faith? Are we willing to serve without being asked? When no one is looking? When its inconvenient? When we don’t feel like it? Can we serve when our prayers go unanswered? When our hopes have been dashed? When we don’t have all the answers? Do we serve our sisters and brothers ultimately out of devotion to Jesus? Mary was devoted. The Devotion of Mary.
The Emotion of Mary (John 20:10-15)
“Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? “Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” (John 20:10-15)
Look at verse 10. You might think there is nothing remarkable in those words. But stop and think for a moment what they have just witnessed. The tomb is empty.
The grave clothes which a few days before were wrapped with spices around the body of the Lord Jesus are now lying exactly where they had laid His body. And we read that the men… ‘went home.’ ‘They went home.’ Maybe they thought ‘what else can we do?’ Now look at what Mary does – John tells us (20:11), she remains at the tomb weeping.
Her grief at the loss of her Lord is compounded now by the loss of His body. This was the last place she had seen His broken, dead body and she will not move from it. The loss of His body is the final indignity. Even her grief has been violated and she weeps. The emotional turmoil of the last days overwhelms her and she breaks down and weeps at the sight of the empty tomb. Yet despite her grief (20:12) she plucks up the courage to look into the tomb for herself and what a sight she is met with. He had died between two thieves. Now two angels sit where his head and feet should be. Between them are the empty grave clothes declaring His resurrection. In verse 13 we read that they ask her a simple question: “Woman, why are you crying?” From the angel’s perspective, tears of grief on this Easter morning were totally inappropriate. But for Mary they are the only way to express her grief. Through tear stained cheeks and grief strained voice she replies: “They have taken my Lord.” Whoever ‘they’ are, they are now her enemies because they have taken ‘her Lord’ from her. There is a simple lesson here. Anything that takes you from the presence of the Lord Jesus, is your enemy. “I don’t know where to find Him.” Do you know where to find him? Mary didn’t, but Jesus knew exactly where to find her. Mary immediately became aware of someone behind her and turning round thinks its the gardener. Jesus asks her the very same question as the angels, “Why are you crying?” and adds a second, “Who are you looking for?” She is courteous, even in her grief.
She asks where they have taken His body so that she may get it back. How ironic she asks the very person who is responsible for the tomb being empty. “I am the resurrection” said Jesus, and he is. How often we too can find life in the midst of what we thought was death – because Jesus is there. It is often only when we express our deepest pain and emotion, that we truly encounter Jesus. Mary was there alone because she chose to be.
She was there because her heart was broken. The devotion of Mary and the emotion of Mary.
3. The Submission of Mary (John 20:16-18)
“Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:16-18)
Jesus utters just one word – ‘Mary’ and instantly, her eyes are opened to who it is who stands before. In John 10, Jesus promised, the good Shepherd calls “his own sheep by name and leads them out… His sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:3-4). Jesus simply calls her by name ‘Mary’ and her shattered soul is transformed.
Her broken world is put together again. It was her own name spoken by Jesus which opened her eyes to the truth of the resurrection. When Jesus calls His sheep He always calls us by name. The call from Jesus is always personal.
Mary falls at His feet and clings on to him. She will not let go. She will not lose him again. Then comes the gentlest of rebukes. Jesus tells her not to cling on to Him because He has not yet ascended to the Father.
He wants to teach her and us that He will no longer be known by sight or by touch but by faith. After his dramatic ascension to heaven there will be no more earthly appearances until He returns. Just as he promised at the Last Supper. Mary is to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive, and she obeys. The devotion of Mary. The emotion of Mary. The submission of Mary. So what can we learn from Mary Magdalene today?
We can learn to be more devoted to follow Jesus
Before Jesus delivered her, she knew the terror of evil and darkness. She valued most highly the glorious deliverance found in Christ alone. Consequently, she gave freely of her time and liberally of her money to serve Jesus. They are always in proportion. The greater the realization of sin, the greater the sense of gratitude. She appreciated her freedom because she knew what slavery felt like. As Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:43). Maybe the first lesson we learn from Mary is to be more grateful for what Jesus has done for us personally by his death and resurrection. We may have praised him today but have we thanked him? How will we express it? Demonstrate it? Gratefulness and devotion go together. We can learn to be more devoted in following Jesus.
We can express more of our emotions in loving Jesus
When grief and pain in life comes, as it will, we could be less stoic and more honest and open about it. More vulnerable. More expressive. Mary Magdalene cried at the tomb. She was overwhelmed by the thought that His body had been stolen. Standing outside the empty tomb, with arms full of spices and a broken heart, she utters the truest words amid tears ‘we don’t know where they have taken Him.’ She didn’t know where He was, but He knew exactly where she was. She had come to the last place she had left Him – the tomb. She returned to the last place she was with him. She remained there, even when everyone else left. And Jesus rewarded her. He calls her by name – “Mary.” Perhaps you can relate to Mary Magdalene? Maybe your heart is breaking and you can identify with those words ‘I don’t know where Jesus is.” Then express it. Don’t hide or suppress it. Maybe this morning you really don’t know where Jesus is. Maybe you have come not even sure why you are here. But you know you had to come because something in your soul said this is where you will find Jesus. Let me assure you – He is here and he is calling your name. How will you know he is calling your name? –
because in your heart there will be a restlessness. In your heart and in your head there will be a battle going on – a battle for you soul and for your eternal destiny. Your heart is restless because you know everything you have heard today, or on previous Sundays applies to you – it is like there is no one else in this church but you and Jesus. He is calling you by name. But to follow him you must first let go of the past and turn away from everything you know to be wrong. We can learn to be more devoted to follow Jesus. We can express more emotion in loving Jesus.
- We can freely submit our wills to serve Jesus
Mary fell at His feet in humble adoration – and you must do the same. Either voluntarily of your own free will, or on the day the Lord Jesus returns, against your will. For one day the Bible says we will all kneel. Better to do it today because you want to, than tomorrow because you have to.
Jesus told Mary to go and tell the disciples that He had risen from the dead. In joyful submission – she went and told them. She submitted. I think there is the profound lesson here for us. We say we have met with the risen Christ.
We say He has freed us from sin and death. Well, who would know? Whom have we told? Perhaps it is time to rededicate our hearts, minds and wills to the risen Lord Jesus afresh, and begin to do as he says? To tell others what He has done for us. That is all he asks. Three lessons we have learnt from Mary Magdalene. Her devotion to Jesus. Her emotion for Jesus. Her submission to Jesus. Mary loved the Lord our God with all her heart, with all her mind and with all her strength. The Scriptures may not tell us much about Mary. But from these few verses we see what membership means, what a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ looks like. How about you? Easter Day is traditionally the day when believers renew their baptismal vows. I invite you to renew your commitment to Jesus and to serve his Church family here in Fawley in the year ahead.
I invite you to renew your baptismal vows me silently, if the affirmations reflect your heart’s desire today.
A sermon preached at Fawley Parish Church, Winchester Diocese
Easter Sunday 1st April 2018
Good news is infectious isn’t it? You can’t stop talking about it. It just comes out. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t need training in how to communicate good news. The more immediate, personal and life changing, the more likely we are to want to share it. Its the same with Jesus. That is why on this, Good Friday, I would like us to spend a few moments contemplating Psalm 22, contemplate the cross of Christ. If people know one passage of the Bible, it is most likely Psalm 23. And yet I believe Psalm 22 is the most precious of all the Psalms, for it reveals the passion of God which made possible the promises of God contained in Psalm 23. No one can read Psalm 22 without being vividly confronted with the Crucifixion.
Did you watch the crime drama Maigret recently on TV? They were adapted from the novels by Georges Simenon and portrayed the French detective Jules Maigret. What made the new series stand out from previous ones, however, was the main character. The role of Mairget was played by Rowan Atkinson. I think Rowan portrayed Maigret very well indeed, but I kept expecting him to turn to the camera, open his eyes wide and grin like Mr Bean. That is the challenge for an actor portraying a serious role when he is associated with a very funny one. Rowan is in fact a very good hypocrite.
Around Easter time, a few years ago, I found myself in Bethlehem. I planned to spend the day with a Christian family in a village called Beit Jala near Bethlehem. Their land had just been confiscated. Their beautiful old olive trees are being bulldozed to make way for the 8 metre high Separation Wall. It was going to come within 3 metres from their front door and not only cut off all day light, but cut their whole village in half. The Hafrada or apartheid wall (that is what it means in Hebrew) has been ruled illegal by the highest court in the world, the International Court of Justice. But few are doing anything about it. So we did. But we never got to see the family that day.
As we walked down the hill towards their property we came face to face with a line of soldiers with guns and tear gas and sound bombs. And they were not about to let anyone through. They tried to scare us off by lobbying few sound bombs at us. And they succeeded in scaring us, temporarily. But we carried on walking toward them until we came face to face with these young soldiers. We assured them that we were unarmed and had peaceful intentions. We were not there to hurt them. We disagreed with what their government is doing. We wanted to see our friends on the other side of the road – please. They said no and after an hour or so we went home. I came back the next day with a friend and we managed to see the family and take these pictures.
I am still working through the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience. What do you do when you see people made homeless, widowed, orphaned? When you witness deep injustice, theft, exploitation? When you see a State abuse its power? And Christians justify this theft of land in the name of God? What would you have done? More importantly what would Jesus have done? I can tell you what he would not have done. Would he have picked up stones and thrown them at the soldiers? Would he have taken up a gun and forced his way through? No, of course not. But would he have ignored the suffering? Would he have walked by on the other side? I don’t think so. What was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan? If you are not sure, you need to watch our film With God on our Side.
On a recent flight I read an article in the airline magazine about a rather unique watch called a Tikker. It doesn’t just tell you the time – it tells you how long you have left to live. The author of the article, Ben Hamersley writes, “Do you have any idea how long you have left, well, actually? In total? To live? I do. It’s counting down on my wrist as I type this. I have, according to my watch, 44 years, ten months, five days, six hours, ten minutes to go. Even less by the time you read this, of course, and the information is coming to me every time I glance at my wrist. I’m wearing a Tikker watch, calibrated against my date of birth, nationality and other pertinent things, and displaying a forever depleting time left to my, actuarially predicted, statistically average, time of death. The brainchild of Fredrik Colting – a Swedish former gravedigger…” Fredrik obviously had plenty of time on his hands. We all do, and one of the things I love to do on a flight is watch the map of the world going by and the timer ticking down to the arrival time. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have one for our life journey? Fredrik hits the nail in the coffin by observing,
The Book of Isaiah, written around 700 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, is quoted more times in the New Testament than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Why is that? 754 of Isaiah’s 1292 verses are predicting the future. That means 59% of Isaiah is prophecy. Isaiah contains 11 direct prophecies concerning Jesus and it is cited or alluded to in at least 50 NT passages. Why? Lets find out. Isaiah 53 is so explicit in predicting what happened to the Lord Jesus it doesn’t need much by way of explanation. Indeed it became so obvious that Isaiah was referring to Jesus after he was crucified and rose again from the dead, that, as the Church separated from the Synagogue, Isaiah 53 was no longer read as part of the Jewish lectionary. There are five paragraphs, each of three verses, and it begins in chapter 52:13.
The Predicted Saviour: The Servant’s Role (52:13-15)
The Rejected Saviour: The Servant’s Life (53:1-3)
The Representative Saviour: The Servant’s Suffering (53:4-6)
The Crucified Saviour: The Servant’s Death (53:7-9)
The Glorious Saviour: The Servant’s Resurrection (53:10-12)
The Predicted Saviour: The Servant’s Role
“See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness—so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.” (Isaiah 52:13-15)
I have a problem with suffering. I am sure you do also. A couple of years ago I experienced some of the worst pain in my life and I ended up in hospital. I knew the medical reasons why I was suffering but that didn’t make it any easier. If God wasn’t going to answer my prayer and take the pain away, I wanted to die. When the pain had gone I changed my mind. We struggle to keep their faith when confronted with pain or illness or death.
The problem of suffering is therefore a question we have something in common with our friends. The answer to our question should therefore help them as much as ourselves. For some it is an intellectual and theoretical question about the existence of God and problem of evil. For others it is a present and personal experience. The answer we give will greatly depend on the context. Our culture finds the issue of suffering a huge problem. The presence of pain and evil in the world leads many to question the existence of God. David Hume, the philosopher put it like this:
“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (David Hulme)
Here is how C.S. Lewis framed the dilemma,
‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain in its simplest form.’ (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)