As we start a New Year (2021), we tend to reflect on what has gone before (and 2020 was such an unusual year, this may take longer than normal!) as well as look ahead, making plans and resolutions. The end of one year and the beginning of another – actually nothing more than an exercise in dating – still holds significance for many people, even though for different cultures this happens at different points in time.
One of the things people tend to do in January is to make plans for the coming year. It is true, however, that ‘many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.’ (Prov 19:21) One of the things we must constantly do is allow God to search our hearts and to direct our paths (see Prov 3:5-6), for if 2020 taught us anything, it was that plans can change in a moment and we are definitely not in control of our lives and of life itself in the way we often like to pretend we are.
Paul, when giving his testimony before hostile crowds in Jerusalem (Acts 21:37-22:21), spoke of how God intervened in his life, giving him an encounter with the risen Jesus which he had never expected or anticipated. That encounter changed him completely, for until that point, he had been zealous for God, but his zeal had led him to persecute followers of Jesus and thus Jesus Himself. Being a Jew himself, it seems logical that God would use him to reach other Jews with the Gospel, but in fact, God called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, Acts 22:21). Paul found this surprising (see Acts 22:19-20), but he faithfully followed this call and so many of the churches in the Gentile world were founded as a result of his obedience.
Paul’s life as an apostle was far from comfortable (see 2 Cor 11:23-29). His commissioning by God and his deep sense of calling (which he would later tell the Romans was irrevocable, Rom 11:29) were the hallmarks of how he lived. We too can live comfortable lives – or we can choose to hear God’s commission and live for something greater than our own pleasures and comfort. As we start 2021, may our ears hear once again that ‘Great Commission’ to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ (Matt 28:19-20) This needs to be the hallmark which defines all we do and how we live.
What happens when you make assumptions? ‘Assume makes an ass of U and Me’, the saying goes, and this can be so true. In Acts 21 and 22, we see the dangers that are inherent in assumptions. The Jewish crowd assumed, without taking the trouble to check, that Paul had brought Trophimus into the inner court of the temple (Acts 21:29); Claudius Lysias assumed that Paul was an Egyptian terrorist (Acts 22:38), described by Josephus as ‘an Egyptian false prophet’ who, about three years previously, had assembled 30,000 men, led them to the Mount of Olives, and promised that, when the walls of Jerusalem fell flat at his command, they would be able to break into the city and overpower the Romans. The procurator Felix and his troops intervened, and these fanatical nationalist assassins were killed, captured or scattered. (Josephus, ‘Antiquities’, XX, 8.6; Wars, II 13, 5, quoted in John Stott’s commentary on Acts, P 347). This assumption was shattered when Paul spoke to him in educated Greek; he had to revise his opinions.
We often make assumptions based on appearances or preconceived ideas. This can work in different ways, assuming someone who is well dressed and articulate to be a person of substance or that someone who looks dishevelled and speaks with an accent to be less educated, or judging people according to their apparent wealth (or lack of it.) James speaks against this kind of prejudice in his letter (James 2:1-13), and there are enough stories of people dying in apparent poverty being revealed later to have vast fortunes to remind us that appearances can indeed be deceptive. God had to remind Samuel the prophet that His ways go beyond the surface appearance: ‘When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”’ (1 Sam 16:6-7)
Paul was not who the Roman commander had thought he was. So often, people are not who we think they are; we fail to see God’s image in them and judge by the world’s standards. Jesus Himself said, ‘Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.’ (John 7:24) Let’s do our best to avoid assumptions, check facts and be prepared to get to know people and situations before we wade in with our conclusions!
In the latter part of the book of Acts, Paul has to defend himself from accusations of sedition and rebellion before a variety of people (crowds, Felix, Festus, Agrippa) and as a result we hear the story of his conversion at least three times. The Greek word for defence (apologia) is where the word ‘apologetics’ comes from. This has nothing to do with apologising (saying sorry), but means ‘reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.’ We find it in several places:
“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence.” (Acts 22:1)
(to Felix) ‘When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defence.”’ (Acts 24:10)
(to Festus) ‘Then Paul made his defence.’ (Acts 25:8)
(to Agrippa) ‘So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence.’ (Acts 26:1)
Apologetics is a vital part of faith, for our faith is not simply ‘pie-in-the-sky’, but is based on the historical fact of Jesus’s birth, life, death and resurrection and all believers should strive to be able to ‘give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’ (1 Pet 3:15) This is not as terrifying as it may sound, for Jesus taught that ‘when you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12) God is able to help us, through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s defence was mainly to bear witness to his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus; we too are called to bear witness to what God has done in our lives. Whether people believe us or not is beyond the scope of our responsibility; what God wants from us is our honest testimony and we can be assured that the reality of our faith will stand the scrutiny of any probing or questioning because it is based on the solid foundation of God’s word.
Acts 22:1-21 is Paul’s testimony to the crowds in Jerusalem and we see once again how conversion gives us a clear ‘before and after’ story. Paul’s life before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus was exemplary from a Jewish point of view. His Jewish credentials were second to none, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, brought up in Jerusalem, a student of Gamaliel, an eminent Jewish teacher at the time, a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ as he puts it in Philippians 3:5. His zeal for God could not be faulted, as he arrested both men and women who followed ‘the Way’ and threw them into prison. (Acts 22:3-5) Yet everything changed when he met with Jesus and was chosen by ‘the God of our ancestors’ (i.e. the God of the Jews) to know His will, to see the Righteous One and to be His witness. (Acts 22:14-15)
The truth of the gospel is that Jesus changes us. Paul outlines the changes in Ephesians 2:1-9, talking of how we used to be dead in transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath, but have now been brought near to God through His mercy, love and grace. The gospel is not a story of our effort or trying to be good to earn God’s favour; it is the story of God’s redemption and how He has done everything required to change us and bring us into relationship with Himself.
We may feel our conversion story is not as dramatic as Paul’s; a friend of mine, brought up in a Christian family, used to say wryly, ‘Mine was no road to Damascus story.’ She often felt that her testimony was less impressive than Paul’s or than the testimony of people who had done many visibly wrong things before encountering Christ. But all of us have a testimony if we have met with God, and all of us who are born again have been changed in the way Ephesians 2:1-9 describes. We are not what we used to be, and although all of us are still works in progress and are not yet what we will be in glory, we can give thanks that God has met with us, changed us and is continuing to transform us into the image of His Son. (2 Cor 3:17-18)
Ps 112 is a wonderful psalm which speaks into our current situation where we feel uncertain, afraid and anxious because of the constant barrage of bad news we face each day. It starts with praise (‘Hallelujah’) and as Ps 89:15 reminds us, we are blessed when we learn to acclaim God, when we learn the ‘passwords of praise.’
“To acclaim” means ‘to praise enthusiastically and publicly.’ Praising God simply means declaring out-loud the truths we know of Him. It means aligning ourselves with God says about Himself, truths such as He is good, loving, faithful and just. Praising God is important because it leads us to focus on Him rather than on our feelings or circumstances.
We are blessed when we choose to obey God’s commands (when we ‘cherish and relish’ these as Ps 112:1 says). God’s commands, John tells us, are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). They’re not severe, heavy, cruel or pointless. They are there to guide us, lead us into freedom and into everlasting life. This blessing has a ripple effect, because it spills over to our children and to their children (Ps 112:2-3).
God is looking for people who are gracious and compassionate and righteous, who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. He is looking for people who will live in this dark, sin-filled world as Jesus did. That’s what He means when He calls us to be the light of the world: ‘let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ (Matt 5:14-16)The psalm gives great promises to those who will obey God in how they live, that light rather than darkness will dawn.As we learn to seek God first and seek His kingdom above everything else, God promises that ‘all these things’ – the material things of life – ‘will be given to you.’ (Matt 6:33) Learn to be generous and you will see in your own life the generosity of God.
The psalm goes on to give us even greater promises to those who are made righteous by God:
‘6 Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
they will be remembered forever.
7 They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.’ (Ps 112:6-7)
In these difficult times it can seem impossible to live without fear of bad news and to have steadfast hearts, but although trouble will still inevitably come at some point in our lives (see John 16:33), we can live without fear because we know that God is working for our good in all things. (Rom 8:28) We have to view our lives from the perspective of eternity (see 1 Cor 4:17, Rom 8:18) and see that we do not have to fear the things others fear (Is 8:12). Our God is victorious (see Ps 112:9-10, Rev 19:6, Rev 21:3-5) and we are on the winning side! Therefore, we can live without gnawing anxiety, paralysing fear and sickening dread. God’s transforming power (2 Cor 3:17-18) is able to change us and from that place of inner renewal, we will be equipped to go forth into a world that desperately needs to hear something other than bad news, a world that desperately needs to know that there is a Saviour who has overcome the world.
Tonight we celebrated ‘Plough Sunday’, looking at the world of work through the eyes of our congregation. Work is God’s idea. In itself, it’s not sinful; we were created to work: ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.’ (Gen 2:15) Work is where we spend the majority of our waking time as adults; if you’re working full-time (37 hours or more), you will spend about a quarter of your time every week on work alone.
Our work matters to God, and He has given us all skills and talents which can often be expressed through our work.In the Bible, we read about many people in the workplace: Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, David, Moses, Ezra and the ‘wife of noble character’ in Proverbs 31, to name a few. We read about shepherds, administrators, cupbearers to foreign kings, priests, architects, carpenters, business managers and so on. My personal favourites are Bezalel and Oholiab, creative artists filled with God’s Spirit whose metalwork and gemmology were used by God to enhance the Tabernacle, turning it from a place of functionality to a place of beauty. Throughout the Bible, we see work as something which is a gift from God and a way we can serve God and other people.
We learned about previous employment (Joan used to be a cleaner and Dave used to read gas meters, hence the meter key.)
We learned about the world of technicians, civil engineers and Garry’s work in the Robotics department at the University of Sheffield:
Garry even brought in a kilobot to show us!
Julie’s work in preaching and teaching from God’s word was represented by a sword (see Eph 6:17, Heb 4:12):
Work is not limited to paid employment, even though for most of us between the ages of 16 and our late sixties, that takes up most of our time. Volunteering (working without pay) can be a useful form of work for many people. Janet volunteered with Barnsley Superstars during the first lockdown, a group which made over 10,000 face coverings for people in our area to use.
She has also been involved with packing gifts bags for the Dearne Churches Together events: