The “Pillars of Hercules,” which flank the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe were from Roman times associated with the Latin phrase ne plus ultra, meaning “No More Beyond.” Certainly no one dared question the prevailing belief that there was nothing beyond the horizon. That was until 1492 when Christopher Columbus boldly sailed westward and discovered the New World. On his return, Spain celebrated with a new national logo. Coins were struck with two words: plus ultra meaning “More Beyond”. If you have experienced bereavement recently you know that ‘out of sight’ does not mean ‘out of mind’. But is there more beyond? More than simply the act of remembering the past? The Christian hope is that there is a new world beyond our horizon. Our Psalm this evening teaches us to look beyond our limited horizon, beyond what we can see, feel or touch. Psalm 103 inspires us to feel the heart beat of God’s love and realise there is indeed yet ‘more beyond’ our horizon to discover. More of God’s character to understand. More of his purposes to discover.
More of his love to experience. More of his commission to fulfil. More of his justice to proclaim. More of his love to share. More of his glory to praise. Psalm 103 inspired Henry Francis Lyte to write one of the most opopular hymns in the English language “Praise my soul the King of heaven”. No wonder. We have here in Psalm 103 the authentic utterance of a redeemed child of God, who piles up words to express his gratitude to the God of grace. There are three sections to the Psalm.
What is your purpose in life? Do you know? The Bible says, your mission is to prepare for eternity. Because life is a preparation for eternity. You’re going to be doing four things in heaven forever and ever and ever. And God wants you to practice those here on earth. What are they? First is worship, you were planned for God’s pleasure – to know and love God. The second is fellowship, you were formed for God’s family – to learn to love each other. The third is discipleship, you were created to become like Christ. And the fourth is ministry, you were shaped for serving God. Now, once we have got those four down, we come to the fifth purpose, which is the only purpose you can only do on earth. You were made for a mission. In John 17, verse 18, Jesus said this – “In the same way that you gave Me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world.” In John 20:21, Jesus said, “As theFather has sent me, I am sending you.” To do what? Please turn with me to Matthew 18 because we are going to answer three questions. What is our mission? How do we fulfil our mission? And when will we complete our mission?
I wonder if you have seen the film, The Devil Wears Prada? If you have, you won’t forget Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep. She is the editor of New York’s most popular fashion magazine Runway. Ruthless and cynical, she is intimidating and manipulative – the queen of the fashion industry. Andy Sachs played by Anne Hathaway is the rather naïve young graduate fresh from university who wants to be a fashion journalist. A down-to-earth girl she lands the magazine job “a million girls would die for”: junior PA to Miranda Priestly. She is quickly sucked into all the glamour, power and ambition of the fashion world. Andy puts up with the eccentric and humiliating requests of her boss because, she is told, if she lasts a year in the position she will get her pick of other jobs, perhaps even the journalistic position she truly craves. In the middle of the film, there’s a poignant scene where Andy has an argument with her boyfriend, Nate, because her work is consuming all her time. They’re standing outside a restaurant late one night and Nate complains about how she has missed his birthday, how she’s constantly late for all their dates and how he hardly ever sees her any more. She replies, “But Nate, I didn’t have a choice.” He looks at her as if to say, “Of course you’ve got a choice.” And then her mobile phone goes. It’s her boss.
When you find yourself in deep trouble, when the rubber has hit the fan, it really does not matter whose fault it was or what caused it. All you really want is someone to help, someone to understand, someone to get you out of trouble. You see dying people, broken people, hurt people, used and abused people, don’t need theological explanations, or self-help tutorials, they need practical help, not next month, not next week, but today, right now, this very minute.
In Matthew 15 we meet a mother. A desperate mother. A mother with a sick child. Imagine that you’ve carried this baby in your womb for nine long months. You’ve been through the excruciating pain of childbirth. You’ve nursed her, fed her, washed her, changed her. Watched her grow, take her first step, say her first word. You can still remember her first day of school. How pretty she looked in that dress. The first time you let her out of your sight. She’s your little girl.
From the early 19th Century right up to the First World War, the Tsarist Russian government relied heavily on foreign investment principally from Europe and America to fund their industrialisation. In 1913, for example, foreign investors held 49.7% of Russian government debt and owned nearly 100% of all petroleum fields, 90% of mines, 50% of chemicals and 40% of metallurgical industries. This amounted to the largest foreign in the world at the time. France was the major lender to Russia and French investors financed the creation of iron and steel industries and mining operations. In 1914, 80% of the Russian government debt was held in France and 14% in Great Britain… Devastated by losses during the First World War, Bolshevik revolutionaries overthrew the government on October 24, 1917. A year later, the Soviet government repudiated all bonds issued by the Tsarist regime and declared that all debts contracted by the Russian Empire were cancelled.
Finding their bonds now worthless, some people used them as wall paper, others just burnt them or threw them away. Virtually everyone had given up seeing their money again. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Mikail Gobachov came to power and promised to honour any bonds that could be found. Newspaper adverts appeared. People were asked to search their lofts and deposit boxes. Those who had kept faith in the Soviet bonds were finally rewarded.
Romans 9-11 is a little like that. Paul is answering an important question. What about God’s promises to the Jews? Has God gone back on His word? Were they just paper promises? “No,” says Paul, “At the right time God will pay out on his covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and David.” As we read these chapters, we discover God has not forgotten them.
As we observed last week, John Stott, helpfully summarises the message of Romans 9-11 in this way:
Back in 1967, Nelson Bell, the editor of Christianity Today and father-in-Law of Billy Graham, wrote in an editorial for the journal,
“For the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”
Eleven years on, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter, claimed,
“The establishment of the nation of Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and the very essence of its fulfilment.”
45 years on, that seems increasingly hard to defend when Israel is acknowledged by many human rights organisations to be an ethno-nationalist apartheid state. This week, the US/Canadian denomination, the Disciples of Christ, became the latest to adopt a resolution naming Israeli apartheid, acknowledging that “many of the laws, policies and practices of the State of Israel meet the definition of apartheid as defined in international law.”
Do you know the most frequent command in the Bible? Do not be afraid. Why is that do you think? Because from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death, our default position is fear. That is why we fit locks on our doors, bars on our windows, security lights, CCTV, why we buy travel insurance, car insurance, indemnity insurance, home insurance, health insurance, life insurance, warranties, guarantees, virus software, backup hard disks, and in some countries more than others, purchase flack jackets, pepper spray, knives, hand guns, shot guns, and semi-automatic weapons. Fear is our default position.
In our three-part journey though Romans 8, following the Revised Common Lectionary, we have so far discovered three of our freedoms as Christ followers: Freedom from Judgement. Freedom from defeat. Freedom from discouragement. The fourth freedom? Today we are going to explore freedom from fear.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30)
A while back I experienced one of the most restful weeks of my life. We spent a few peaceful days by the shores of Loch Ness. The area is very isolated with slow, windy, single track roads. Not a problem because we saw very few cars. The house used to be hotel and I can see why it ceased trading. It was two miles off the single track B road that runs along the shore between Inverness and Fort Augustus. Nestled by a small loch and surrounded by hills, there was no TV reception and my mobile phone didn’t work either. We saw very few people but lots of sheep and goats. The nearest shops were miles away and going to buy a newspaper or supplies was a treat. It felt very isolated.
Time seemed to slow down. Everything revolved around day light, eating, sleeping, feeding the animals and the weather, and there was a lot of that. I am sure I could have got used to it with more time – it was tempting – but every time I opened my mouth, it was obvious that I wasn’t a local. Rich in history, the road and forts along the geological fault line that created Loch Ness – Fort William, Fort Augustus, Fort Urquhart, Fort Gorge, remind us of the attempts by the English to tame the wild Celts. On the 16th April 1746, the last battle on British soil took place nearby at Culloden Moor.
“What have you achieved? What have you achieved? You lost your chance, me old son. You contributed absolutely nothing to this life. A waste of time you being here at all. No place for you in Westminster Abbey. The best you can expect is a few daffodils in a jam jar, a rough-hewn stone bearing the legend ‘He came and he went’ and in between – nothing! Nobody will even notice you’re not here. After about a year afterwards somebody might say down the pub ‘Where’s old Hancock? I haven’t seen him around lately.’ ‘Oh, he’s dead y’know.’ ‘Oh, is he?’ A right raison d’etre that is. Nobody will ever know I existed. Nothing to leave behind. Nothing to pass on. Nobody to mourn me. That’s the bitterest blow of all.” That is how Tony Hancock ended his last TV monologue appearance in 1964. When he died four years later from an overdose few people realized it wasn’t an act or a script, but how he actually felt.