The Authentic Gospel

December 29, 2008

Galatians chapter 1



Let me tell you about a little church I once heard about.  It’s called Ichabod Hall and they don’t have much to do with the other churches in their area.  They had a visitor once, a middle-aged lady just back from the mission field, who was a stranger in town, and who thought she’d receive a welcome because there was a sign above the door, faded but still legible, stating that all were welcome.


A couple came in behind her, but didn’t speak, and as there was no one at the door to greet her she found a hymn book and sat in the back row.  The service was the kind she was used to, though when the offering bag was passed round it wasn’t handed to her.  She thought they were just being polite.


She knew all the hymns they sang.  She had her own Bible and she followed the reading and sermon closely.  The word preached was a faithful gospel message, the kind she had often heard, and fully agreed with.  Indeed, as a missionary it was similar to the kind of message she often shared, though it would be fair to say that her style was more gentle, less hectoring. 


At the end of the service, folk mulled around and one woman gave her a smile, but the only person to approach her was the preacher.  He introduced himself, let her do the same, and then asked what she thought of the sermon.  She told him that as a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ she appreciated the faithful preaching of God’s word.


The preacher looked at her suspiciously.  “But how can you call yourself a Christian?” he asked.  She was taken aback.  She wanted to know what he meant.  So he told her what he meant.


For a start her head was uncovered, and the Bible says that women should cover their heads in church.  She was wearing jeans, and jeans are trousers, and trousers are men’s clothes, and the Bible says women shouldn’t wear men’s clothes.  Her hair was short, and women should have long hair. 


There was more.  He noticed that she was using one of those modern translations of the Bible.  The Authorized Version is the only accurate translation.  Her version twisted God’s word.  And last but not least the folk who came in behind her saw her come off a bus.  Christians should keep the Sabbath holy and shouldn’t buy anything on a Sunday.  She had a bought a bus ticket and therefore had broken one of the Ten Commandments. 


How could she call herself a Christian? 


The woman was flabbergasted, but decided to make her excuses and leave.  It wasn’t worth the argument.  However, she did resist the temptation to inform the man that she’d been at the pictures the night before. 



In recent weeks we’ve been thinking through the reality of spiritual warfare, looking at the individual pieces of armour which make up what the Apostle Paul calls the full armour of God.  We’ve considered the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness.  Last week it was the footwear.  In v.15 Paul says Christians are to stand firm with: your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.


The gospel, the gospel of peace, helps us to stand; it gives us a grip, a firmness when assaulted by Satan.  Because of the gospel, the Christian is at peace with God.


What I want to do this evening is to expand on something I merely touched upon last week, namely, the content of the true gospel as opposed to a false gospel.  And I’m going to do so using what Paul says in Gal.1.


I think on this final Sunday of the year it’s worth reminding ourselves of the basics of our faith.  And how wonderful it would be if God in his grace would convince someone for the first time of the truth of what they hearing—how wonderful to finish the year right with God.



In some ways Paul’s letter to the Galatians has one theme and one theme only—the gospel, the authentic gospel. It was written to counter a group within the early church whom modern scholars call the Judaising Christians.  They were Jews who had become Christians but who believed that to be a real Christian you also had to be a Jew.  They believed that Jesus was the Messiah; but this didn’t mean giving up the Old Testament law.  So when non-Jews, the Gentiles, became Christians they were expected to convert to Judaism.  And first and foremost that meant being circumcised if you were a man.


Their belief is summed up in Acts 15:1:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.


You can see, then, that what they were teaching struck at the very heart of the faith; they were saying nothing less than that your salvation depended upon keeping the law of Moses.


Nowadays, nobody is suggesting that to be saved you have to be circumcised.  But from what we heard going on at Ichabod Hall we must be aware that there is a kind of legalistic thinking still at large in the church.  The thinking that Christianity is a religion of dos and don’ts is still present in the modern church; still present even here in Kirkmuirhill.


At its most basic, this is the kind of thinking that tells us there are certain things we can do for ourselves that will make us a Christian. 


Some churches teach that if you haven’t been confirmed by a bishop then you haven’t received the Holy Spirit and therefore you are not a real Christian.  Others identify the presence of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  If you don’t speak in tongues then you don’t have the Holy Spirit and therefore you are not a Christian. 


Two extremes; yet bound together in their denial that the gospel is a gospel of grace; that we are saved not by anything we have done or by anything done to us by anyone else.  We are saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, no more, no less. 

This is the gospel Paul proclaimed, the gospel I proclaim, the gospel proclaimed by every faithful minister of God’s Word. 


For the rest of our time we’re going to examine the content of the true gospel and contrast it with the false gospel.



As I said last week, the word “gospel” simply means “good news”.  What, then, what is the content of the authentic gospel?  What is the good news?  We find it clearly stated in the opening verses of Galatians 1. 


Look at what Paul says in v.1.  He refers to: Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. 


The man Jesus is the Christ, the promised One of God, and he is alive, raised from the dead by God the Father.  Paul begins by asserting that Jesus is alive because in a moment he is going make certain claims about the death of Jesus.  All that he says about our Lord’s death would be pointless if Jesus remained dead.  It would hardly be good news. 


Now, in v.4, Paul refers to the Lord’s death, saying that he gave himself.  The Lord Jesus voluntarily gave himself over to the Jewish and Roman authorities knowing what they would do to him.  If the Lord had been an unwitting victim of power and greed and political expediency, how would that be good news?  It would be awful; it would mean the Christian faith had been built on a tragedy. 


Furthermore, he gave himself for a reason, for our sins.  The Lord didn’t die because of his own sins.  He wasn’t a criminal like the two men crucified to his left and right.  He wasn’t someone whose sins had found him out, who was being punished by God.  If the Lord Jesus had died to make atonement for his own sins, how would that be good news?  That would mean he was a sinner just like you and me.  What right would he have to die for our sins?


The result of his death is that we are rescued from the present evil age.  The good news is that Christ’s death actually achieved something.  Those of us who believe in him are rescued from the judgement that is going to befall this present age.  God will judge and punish the godlessness of humanity.


The values, the standards, the ambitions of this self-obsessed world are dragging us down, and unless we are rescued we are destined to go under.  The only hope for the world is to cling to the cross of Christ. 


The amazing thing about all this is that it was according to the will of our God and Father.  The Lord Jesus was fulfilling the law and the prophets.  What he taught and what he did were anticipated by the Old Testament.  He was obeying his Father’s will. 


Last, and perhaps most importantly, the authentic gospel message is a message of grace and peace.  Listen to Paul’s prayer for the Galatians:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 


All that God has done for us in Christ, providing a means whereby our sins might be forgiven so that we might be freed from the judgement to come, is his gift to us.  It is all of grace.  It’s not something we can work for, it’s not something we merit.  It’s not something that requires us to observe particular rituals and ceremonies.  It’s God’s gift. 


And that’s why it brings us peace.  Any so-called gospel that requires us to behave in certain a manner, to observe certain rules, to perform certain rituals, even to believe certain doctrines, isn’t really good news. 


Only the assurance that there is nothing we can do to obtain our salvation, that Christ has done it all, and that God graciously chooses to forgive our sins, can give us that full and perfect peace.  What a relief to know that my salvation is not in my hands.  What a relief to know that salvation is all of God.



A false gospel teaches the complete opposite.  In vv.6&7 Paul calls it a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. 


In Galatia it had thrown the Christians into confusion.  Paul says these preachers were trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.


How was it a perversion of the gospel of Christ?  Well, if being saved from your sin depended on being circumcised, on obeying the Old Testament laws, following the sacrificial system, and observing the rules about which foods were kosher and which were not, then clearly salvation is not of grace.  It’s not a gift; it’s a reward.  A reward for good behaviour; a reward ticking all the right boxes. 


There’s a very revealing statement in Acts 15 when this very issue was being debated at the council in Jerusalem.  In v.10 Peter says:

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?


Trying to keep the Law of God, with all the additions the Jews had tagged on to it, was in fact a burden; it was like a millstone round their necks.  It wasn’t good news, it was bad news. 


And so is any teaching which insists in adding something to simple faith in the Lord Jesus as our Saviour.  That’s the common denominator of all false gospels.  They are not gospels, because they are not good news. 


How do you know when you’ve been good enough? 

How do you know when you’ve given enough?

How do you know when you’ve worked hard enough? 

How do you know when you’ve sacrificed enough?


False gospels can never bring us peace.  They can never bring us assurance of salvation.  That’s why Paul says in v.6 that he is so astonished.  He can’t believe that the Galatians would swap the gospel of grace and peace for a threadbare, second-hand, non-gospel that relegates the death of Christ and promotes my own ability to save myself. 



How do we explain this?  Why are there false gospels still at large in the church today?  We see it in cults like the Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormons.  But we see similar thinking in main-line churches too.


I think the answer lies in the very source of the gospel.  You see the gospel, the authentic gospel which Paul and the apostles preached has its source in God himself; whereas a false gospel originates with men.  The true gospel glorifies God; while false gospels glorify the men and women who promote them. 


Paul is adamant in v.12:

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.


Paul claims that the gospel he preached was received by him directly from the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Christian faith is a revealed faith.  It depends on revelation from God.  The truth about God, about what he is like, and what he is doing in the world is not something we can work our for ourselves.


Paul insists that the gospel he preached was not something he had invented, or something he had been taught by other men.  Sure, he got some of the facts about the life of Jesus from people like Barnabas.  He even says to the Corinthians that he had passed on to them what had been passed on to him about the Lord’s Supper.  But this is not what he is speaking about.


What he is speaking about is the revelation of the truth about who the Lord Jesus really was, what the Lord’s teaching meant, what the Lord’s death achieved, how the Lord’s life and death were central to God’s plan, and that this all had been anticipated in the Old Testament.


Friends, nothing has changed.  We can only comprehend the wonderful truth of the gospel if the Lord reveals it to us.  Why is it that two people can hear the same message about the love and grace of God, hear the preacher invite them to accept Christ as Lord, and one of them will laugh and declare that he’s never heard such nonsense in his life; while the other will bow the knee and plead with God to pardon him?


Why is it that one becomes a Christian while the other remains a mocker? 


Is it because Christians tend to be above average intelligence?  Or below average intelligence?

Is it about class?  Are Christians by and large restricted to one particular social class?

Or genetics?  Is a tendency towards religion something we inherit from our parents?


You just can’t say any of these things.  Humanly speaking there is nothing that distinguishes those who become Christians from anyone else.  The answer always comes back to God himself.  He reveals the truth about himself to those whom he will. 


That’s why Paul says in v.6 that he is astonished that the Galatians are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of God. 


They were not deserting a philosophy, they were not deserting the church, they were not even deserting Paul himself.  By turning to a false gospel they were in fact deserting the one who called them to himself, the source of the truth gospel, the Living God himself. 

You see, a false gospel is one which likes to give each person a role in their salvation.  The idea that we can contribute nothing to our salvation riles us, it knocks our pride.  We like to to think that we can at least do something that will ensure the forgiveness of our sins.


So on the one hand there are those who would teach that you can contribute to your salvation by observing certain rites and rituals.  For some these are associated with the sacraments of the church.  For others, it might be something private, like, reading a chapter of the Bible every day or saying your prayers before going to sleep at night.  Whatever it is, going through the mechanics is enough; it makes us feel safe. 


There are others who aim to be good enough.  They think that the more voluntary work they do the more God will be pleased with them.  Well I remember the woman who did voluntary work with the senior citizens in her village.  “I don’t need to go to church,” she told me, “ I help out with the old folk.  Surely that’s enough.” 


A false gospel is one which allows us to imagine that salvation is something we achieve.  It massages our pride.  No wonder Paul says in v.10:

Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were trying to please men I would not be a servant of Christ.


Brothers and sisters, beware of preachers who want to please men.  Beware of preachers who say the kind of things you want to hear, the kind of things that leave you feeling rather pleased with yourself.


Beware of ministers who make the gospel some kind of intellectual pursuit, something that if you only think very hard about it you’ll get it in the end.  They make their congregations feel very smart and very deep.


Beware of ministers who talk at length about their spiritual experiences, about their miracles, about their gifts, and who tell you that you too can be like them if only you follow this or that formula.  They make their congregations feel very spiritual and very proud.


Beware of preachers who tell you that God is waiting for your response.  God is in heaven just desperate for you to make his day by becoming a Christian; that God weeps because you will not raise your hand or get out of your seat and come to the front.  As if God is some kind of wall-flower waiting to be asked for a dance.  And you feel that by becoming a Christian you have done God a favour. 


Oh there are so many ways in which ministers and preachers can become men pleasers rather than God pleasers.  Paul says in v.8:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you let him be eternally condemned.


Paul, how can you be so intolerant; how can you use such intemperate language?  Don’t you know that we are all entitled to our own opinion?  Surely as long as we are sincere, we are not to be condemned?


No, no, no says Paul.  The stakes are too high.  The very salvation of your soul is at stake.  This is no time for polite discussion.  This is no time to beg to differ. 

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you let him be eternally condemned.


It doesn’t matter who the preacher is.  It doesn’t matter how distinguished they are; or how popular they are; how many people are flocking to their church; or are tuning into the God Channel to hear them.  What matters is the content of their message?  That’s what we judge them on.  Not how fiery or passionate they are.  Not how scholarly or learned. 


It’s a great warning to me that Paul’s condemnation is for the preachers of the false gospel, not the Galatians themselves.  He still addresses them as fellow Christians, he still wishes them grace and peace from God our Father.  The Galatians are young in the faith and impressionable.  It’s the preachers and teachers of God’s word who bear the responsibility. 



As we draw to a conclusion, let’s not leave tonight without examining our hearts and opening ourselves to God, and confessing any idea or notion we might have harboured in our hearts that there is something we are doing that will win our place in heaven.


We must come to God with empty hands.  Hands that are full of our own merits are too full to receive his grace. 


Let’s confess any smugness, any arrogance, any feeling of superiority at being Christians, as if we ourselves had managed to work out the mysteries of grace all by ourselves. 


Let’s be on the look out for any desire to hear what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear, and be on our guard against any resentment of a convicting and uncomfortable word for the Lord. 


Let us ensure that the gospel we are relying on is the authentic gospel, the Biblical gospel.  This is the gospel that saves; the gospel that enables us to stand, not just against Satan in this life; but to stand before the judgement seat of God, to stand and not be ashamed. 






What’s in a name?

December 28, 2008

Matthew 1:18-25 with Ps.130



Joseph was gutted.  Wouldn’t you be if you’d just found out that your fiancée was pregnant, and you knew you weren’t the father?  He had had his suspicions – refusing to see him before noon, sudden cravings, emotionally all over the place.  None of that was like Mary.  But now there was no doubt.  There was a bump.  Joseph didn’t know what to think.  He hated her, but he still loved her.  He wanted to kill her, and he wanted to protect her.


Being engaged in first century Palestine was a much more binding relationship than it is nowadays.  There was a ceremony where the couple were pledged to each other.  They were as good as married, except the girl remained with her parents for another year or so.  The only way to break an engagement was to get a divorce.  For a girl to get pregnant by another man while engaged was counted as adultery.  Technically, she could be stoned to death – but that didn’t tend to happen any more. 


What was he to do?  What was Joseph to do?  If he went ahead a married her that was tantamount to admitting he was the father.  People would accuse him of not being able to keep his trousers up.  Could he bring himself to raise another man’s child as his own?


Alternatively, he could divorce her publicly.  Expose her to shame and ridicule.  Her family would shun her.  No man would ever marry a slut like that.  She’d probably end up a prostitute. 


Matthew says in v.19 that Joseph was a righteous man.  That means he played straight.  He lived by the rules.  His reputation was important to him.  It is because he was a righteous man that he could not marry Mary.  To marry her would be to pretend nothing happened.  It would be saying that he didn’t care what she did.  His decision to divorce her quietly, rather than publicly, was out of respect.


An observation before we go any further: One of the great losses to our modern society is the loss of shame, the loss of the sense of shame.  For the last 30 or 40 years we have been taught that feelings of shame and guilt are bad for us.  We are told that they are negative feelings that actually harm us.  There used to be shame attached to being a drunkard, shame in not providing for your family, shame in a child being born out of wedlock. 


Perhaps in the past society was too censorious, too judgmental, too unforgiving.  But I wonder if we have gone too far the other way.  Now we do everything we can to avoid making anyone feel that we disapprove of what they’ve done.


It seems to me that Joseph’s approach demonstrates how disapproval of sin can be linked to compassion.  We are allowed to say that we regard what someone has done is wrong, is sinful, and at the same time help them in a quiet, loving way.  We don’t have to be censorious and judgmental.  But nor do we have give our blessing to every breach of morality and decency. 


Joseph planned to do the right thing – to divorce Mary, but to do so quietly and thus avoid disgracing her in public.



Matthew is one of the two Gospel writers who tell us about the birth of the Lord Jesus.  Luke is the other.  Both of them have their own way of leading up to the story.  Luke begins with the angelic announcements, first to old Zecheriah, the priest, then to the girl Mary. 


Matthew takes a different approach.  He presents us with Joseph’s family tree, to show that Jesus wasn’t born into any old family.  He was born into a particular family, one which could trace its ancestry back to king David and to Abraham himself.  Jesus had to be born into this family because God had promised that the Messiah, the Christ, would be a descendant of King David, a Son of David. 



Having placed the birth of the Lord Jesus in context, Matthew wants to do two things. 

First of all he wants to speak about the “how” of the birth.

Secondly, he wants us to appreciate the “who” of the birth. 

We’ll take these two in turn – the how and the who.   


The “how”

Matthew starts by telling us something about how the Lord’s birth came about.  You see, Joseph was wrong.  Understandably wrong, but wrong nonetheless.  And so are we wrong if we think that Joseph or any other man was the father of Jesus.


Matthew says in v.18: This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.


This does two things.  First of all, it alerts us as to what the next paragraph is all about.  It’s about how the Lord’s birth came about.  You may think I’m pointing out the obvious.  But I do so because this is a passage which is full of interesting distractions.  I’ve already indulged myself in one – the place of shame in society.  From this passage we could discuss angels, and dreams.  We could talk about the use of Old Testament texts in the New Testament, and about prophecy and how it is fulfilled. 


At the top of the list of honourable distractions is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant before she and Joseph were married.  He specifically says that even when they were married they didn’t have sex until after Jesus was born.  Matthew quotes Isa.7:14 about the virgin will be with child.  This passage, along with Luke 1:26-38, is where we get our teaching that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus in her womb.  


But we will have missed the point completely if we think that the Virgin Birth (or more accurately the Virginal Conception) is what Matthew wants us to focus on.  Matthew tells us what he wants us to focus on, which is how the birth of Jesus came about.  That’s the first thing v.18 alerts us to.


The second thing v.18 alerts us to is that there must have been something rather unusual about how the birth of Jesus came about.  After all, if you are walking along  Carlisle Road, and you meet a mum pushing a pram, you don’t ask her: And how did the birth come about?  You might ask her about the birth – how long was she in labour, was easy/difficult.  You might ask about the baby’s health – is it feeding, does it sleep? 


What you don’t say is, And how did you get pregnant?  How did this baby come to be born?  We assume it was in the normal fashion.  (I suppose nowadays it could be by IVF – but it’s still not a question we’d ask.)


People in ancient times knew next to nothing about human embryology.  But they weren’t stupid.  They knew that it takes two to tango!  But Matthew is saying, That’s not what happened with Jesus.  There was something unusual about the way Jesus was born.  Joseph, to all appearances his father, wasn’t his father at all. 


So, how did Jesus come to be born?  Matthew tells us:

His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together [ie. before they’d had sex] she was found to be with child [pregnant] through the Holy Spirit.


Now, there’s what was unusual.  Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.  That’s what’s important.  So important, in fact, that in case we missed it the first time, Matthew repeats the point in v.20.  The angel in the dream says to Joseph:

do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.


Throughout the Bible there are stories of unusual births.  They tend to concern childless couples who are told by an angel to prepare for the patter of tiny feet.  Think of Abraham and Sarah.  The angelic visitors announce that by this time next year Sarah would have a son.  Think of the old priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, struck dumb for doubting the word of the Lord.


These unusual, unexpected births brought into the world someone special: Isaac, the child of promise; John, the one who proclaimed the coming of the Lord.


The birth of the Son of God had to be even more unusual, even more supernatural than these others.  Only Jesus is said to have been conceived by the Holy Spirit. 


There’s no doubt that the Bible presents Mary to us as a virgin.  She herself responds to the angel Gabriel’s announcement by asking: How will this be since I am a virgin? 


The doctrine of the virgin birth has long been held up for ridicule by the church’s enemies.  Today even within the church the very idea is considered nonsense.  We’re told it’s a legend.  We’re told that it’s a myth.  We’re even told that Matthew never meant us to read this story as literal history.  It’s just a clever way, a literally device, for saying that Jesus is special.


It all boils down to your worldview.  Do you refuse to believe in miracles, in a God of the supernatural?  Then of course the virgin birth is absurd to you.  But if you believe it is possible for the Living God to enter this world, and if you believe that his presence among us would halt disease in its tracks, indeed, reverse the process of death; then it cannot be difficult to believe he was born of a virgin, just as the Bible says. 


But without taking anything away from Mary herself, without in any way wishing to relegate the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, Mary and her virginity are of secondary importance.  This passage is not about Mary.


It’s about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit.  This is how the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came about.  It tells us that God acted, God took the initiative, God intervened in human affairs. 


That’s the “how” of Christ’s birth.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit; and therefore he is no ordinary man. 


The “who”

The next thing Matthew wants us to appreciate is the “who” of the birth.  He has described how Mary got pregnant – through the Holy Spirit.  Just who did she carry in her womb?  Matthew’s answer is explosive.  So mind-boggling, so impossible to believe is the answer that again he repeats himself to make sure we understand what he is saying. 


In the first place, the angel tells Joseph (v.21) that Mary will give birth to a son:

you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. 


In the second place, Matthew himself makes the connection with Isa.7:14 (v.23):

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means, God with us. 


Both names – Jesus and Immanuel – point to one thing and one thing only – that the one to be born is none other than the True and Living God. 


In v.20 Joseph is given very specific instructions on what to name the child. He’s to give him the name Jesus. 


Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua.  So, when Mary was calling Jesus in for his tea she would actually have shouted “Joshua, your tea’s ready!”  Joshua means “Jehovah saves”. 


There are a couple of famous Joshuas in the Old Testament.  One was Moses’ successor, who led the Hebrew people into the Promised Land.  The other was the High Priest who joined the Jews who returned to Jerusalem after the Exile in Babylon. 


Their names were a profession of faith in the Lord, that he was their saviour.  But the Lord Jesus isn’t called Jesus as an act of faith in the God who saves.  The Lord Jesus is called Jesus because he is the God who saves:

you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.


The angel is echoing the words of Ps.130:7&8:

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.  He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.


Throughout the Old Testament, God is referred to as Israel’s Saviour.  He saves them from their enemies in battle; he saves them from starvation in times of famine; he saves them from death in times of peril. 


Although from time to time reference is made to human saviours, men like Gideon, who lead the people to victory and freedom, it is the Lord who is always seen as the ultimate Saviour, the only true Saviour:

For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.  (Isa.43:3)

I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no saviour.  (Isa.43:11)

But I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.  You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Saviour except me.  (Hos.13:4)


By naming this child “Jesus”, and by linking his name to what he will do (save his people from their sins) we are being told that the one to be born of Mary is none other than the God who is the only Saviour. 


When the angel appears to the startled shepherds out on the hillside, who does he say has been born in the town of David?  (Lk.2:11) A Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord. 


How does Jesus himself define his purpose for coming into the world?  Luke 19:10:

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.


Of all the titles and descriptions of God which weave their way through the Old Testament – Rock, Shield, Shepherd, Tower – it is this one – Saviour – which is chosen for the Son of God to bear.  This is the name that defines him and his mission.


For humanity, in all its need, in all its desperate condition, needed then and still needs, more than anything else, a Saviour.  We need someone to save us.  To rescue us.  Not merely from the boredom and futility of life; not merely from the consequences of the damage we’ve inflicted upon our environment; not just from our inability to get on with each other – but from the root cause of all these calamities – our sin. 


It is sin, our sin, which drives a wedge between nation and nation, neighbour and neighbour;

it is sin, our sin, which encourages us to abuse our planet and its resources and imagine that we need put nothing back;

it is sin, our sin, which whispers sweet nothings into our ears, telling us that all is well, that nothing is wrong, when in fact everything is wrong. 


When God the Father decided to send his Son into the world, he didn’t send him as a king or a general or an economist or a philosopher.  He sent him as a Saviour.  The world doesn’t need any more kings or generals or economists or philosophers.  But boy oh boy, how we need a Saviour. 


How we need someone to save us from the mess we’re in. 

How we need someone to stretch out a long, strong arm and pull us out of the waters before we drown. 


Later in his Gospel, at 8:23-27, Matthew tells us the story of how Jesus and the disciples got caught in a storm out in the middle of the lake.  Experienced sailors as they were, the disciples were sure all was lost.  In desperation they cry out:

Lord save us!  We’re going to drown.  (v.25)


A Christian is someone who has recognized that spiritually speaking all is lost.  A Christian has had a keen sense of his or her own helplessness in the face of the hostile forces of sin.  We know that our sin is killing us, dragging us down, away from God.

A Christian is someone who has cried out: Lord save me. 


Matthew tells us that Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves, so that immediately, on his word of command, the storm ceased and all became calm.  That’s a picture of what it is to know Jesus as our Saviour.  The power of sin is quelled in our lives, it no longer has the power to destroy us. We feel that we have been brought safely to dry land, and given another chance to live. 


Jesus lives up to his name.  Ultimately, of course, by going to the cross.  Paul reminds his friend Titus (2:13,14) that as Christians we are awaiting: the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. 



Let me finish by asking you a question: Are you saved?  A clichéd question, I know; yet it needs to be asked. 

Have you been saved from your sins? 

Have you reached out in faith, and grabbed hold of the life-line which is Christ Jesus himself? 

Are you even aware that you need to be rescued? 


If, by his grace, God has alerted you to the perilous state of your soul; if looking at the state you are in you know that what you need is not a new job, not a new house, not a new husband or wife – but  a Saviour, then today you have the opportunity to accept Christ as your Saviour.  No one else can be your Saviour.  You certainly can’t be your own saviour. 


Oh that each one of here today could sing like Mary herself:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.  (Lk.1:46,47)









The perfect pencil

December 27, 2008

Yesterday I surprised my family by saying we were going shopping today.  The kids had been given a lot of money (their preferred choice of gift) and I knew that we’d get no rest until they were able to spend it.  So I announced that we’d be leaving at 10am Saturday.  Any later and there would be no parking space.  So, two children haven’t seen noon since last Monday (except on Christmas Day itself) leapt out of bed and were ready for action by the appointed hour.  Even Kim, who toyed with staying in bed, was persuaded to rise.  


Shopping is not my idea of fun.  The secret to hassle free shopping is to know what you want.  Walking around aimlessly, hoping that something will catch your eye, is no good.  You have to have a list.  And a list we did have.


First, Jordan and Amy.  They wanted phones.  They have a phone each already, but all they do is facilitate communication, either spoken or text.  What J&A wanted was all-singing, all-dancing phones.  We told them that since what they had already was quite sufficient in emergencies (the only reason for having a mobile in my opinion) they’d have to buy the superior kind themselves.  So that’s what they did.  As soon as we entered The Carphone Warehouse Jordan spied exactly what he wanted.  I went through the motions of questioning the sales assistant about it, but to be honest he might as well have been speaking Japanese.  Maybe he was.  He looked at me as if I were an idiot.  My second experience of this in a week.  The guy at Curries had exactly the same expression when I asked him about digital TVs.  


After the phones there was the customary half hour loitering outside Game while Jordan weighed up the relative merits of Playstation games.  As usual quantity triumphed over quality. 


By now it was time for lunch.  The Willow Tea Room.  Civilisation in the midst of anarchy.  The Willow experience is very much geared towards the female of the species.  The food is nice enough.  Where they really score is timing.  They make you wait.  One wonders if they are baking the bread, growing the vegetables, catching the fish while we wait.  But this is what the girls appreciate.  It gives them time to talk.  


While we were waiting I nipped down to Whittards of Chelsea to enquire about coffee and a café tier.    Whittards is the latest high street name to announce trading difficulties.  I asked for a single cup café tier and was quoted £22.  I’m afraid I blurted out what you’ve just thought: No wonder you’re going bust.  The whole shop stopped and everyone stared at me.  I had mentioned the unmentionable and I am thoroughly ashamed.  But I did get what I wanted at John Lewis’ for £10!  


After lunch, shopping deluxe.  Top of my list was a quality pencil.  All my best creative writing is done by pencil not pen.  The ephemeral nature of graphite allows me a freedom of thought that indelible ink does not.  We choose pencil over pen because we expect what we write to be changed, improved.  Ink is so unforgiving.


So I went to Princes Square (pretty as ever but with strong undercurrents of panic) to The Pen Shop.  I was given eight different models of pencils to try, and let me tell you what a pleasure that was.  I finally settled on one that was not too thin (sore on the finger), not too fat (awkward to hold), not too light (not conducive to theological reflection), and not too heavy (might as well be a pen).  The perfect pencil, as shown below. 


Other purchases were made; all on the list, nothing superfluous, and we were back home for 4pm.  My impression is that there are far more stores ready to go under.  Top of my list would be Tie Rack.  I don’t see how they can compete with the large department stores.  It’s obvious that certain shops are aimed at customers with money to burn.  Those days are over.  They are trying to sell what nobody wants.


An interesting study would be to compare shops with churches.  Why do some flourish while others flounder?  





I got wot I wanted

December 26, 2008

See full size imageI got what I wanted for Christmas, namely, after-shave.  I haven’t worn after-shave for years.  The last lot was Body Shop stuff which didn’t agree with my skin.  Organic usually has that effect on me.  So I just left it and relied on Imperial Leather to mask any unpleasantness.  But recently I’ve felt a certain lack.  So the man who needs nothing asked for after-shave.  It’s Davidoff, as advertised by Ewen McGregor.  I assume it’s pronounced as if it’s Russian.  It’s not like Victoria Beckham: David! Off!   I left Kim to choose it.  Afterall, she’s the one who has to smell me the most.  And I do like it.  It’s sophisticated; it’s me. 

Gal.6v.6 says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.”  The folks of Kirkmuirhill have done just that.  I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of folks to the family and me this Christmas.  Thank you so much.

Is that it?

December 24, 2008

Before I post this evening’s Christmas Eve sermon, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who took part in the  service – to those who read the lessons, to Julian for playing the organ, to Andrew for singing, and to those who provided the mountain of goodies for us to enjoy afterwards. 

I regard the Christmas Eve service as a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel.  At least half of the people in church this evening are not regular attenders.  There were visitors from Atlanta, Cambridge and elsewhere.   It was also good to see family members returning to the parental nest for the holidays. 

Here’s the sermon.  It’s based on Mt.2 and the story of the Wise Men. 



Christmas morning in 100,000s of homes all over Scotland. 

It’s 4am and a small voice pierces the darkness—is it time yet, can we get up yet?

In reply a muffled voice mutters, No, go back to sleep.


5am and the same small voice calls out again—is it time yet, can we get up yet?

This time the reply is more emphatic—No, go back to sleep.


6am and the small voice has become a chorus—is it time yet, can we get up yet?

The adults surrender.  All right, let’s get up.


The lights go on, revealing presents everywhere—under the Christmas tree, covering the sofa, scattered over the floors.  The children attack them like a swarm of locusts, ripping the paper off with no consideration for the concept of recycling, making instant judgements about the value of each present.  A pecking order soon emerges.  Boring jumpers and pjs are discarded while I-phones, Nintendos, and X-boxes are kept close at hand. 


It isn’t long before a mountain of wrapping paper, boxes and plastic bags are piled high.  So much so that you can hardly see the presents. 


And that’s it; presents given and received, opened, appreciated (perhaps).  That’s it for another year.


Except that there’s the Christmas dinner to look forward to.  The turkey, the roast tatties (smeared in goose fat), the chipolatas, the ham; or if you are vegetarian, the nut casserole.  Followed by trifle, Christmas cake, mince pies and, secretly so you don’t have to share, chocolate from the Thornton’s Special Collection.


And that’s it—all over for another year.  We’ll not eat another meal like that, with so many round the table, till next Christmas.  (Thank goodness groans dad.)


Except, of course, that you’ve the rest of the holidays to look forward to.  The movies, a pantomime, the Carnival, the new year parties, late nights and long lies. 


Until 5th January makes its unwelcome appearance and it’s back to work, to school.  The Christmas holidays are well and truly over.


Have you ever had the feeling that you are missing something, particularly after Christmas time?  You would think that after a fortnight of presents and parties and time with the family we’d be starting a new year feeling fulfilled, well satisfied.  After all, isn’t that what life is all about—on the one hand getting stuff, and on the other hand being with friends and family.


But many of us are left with the feeling that we are missing something—maybe we’ve left something buried under the mound of wrapping paper; maybe we’ve thrown it out with the turkey carcass. 


Perhaps that’s why as well as being the happiest time of year Christmas is also the saddest.  According to the charity The Samaritans Christmas is their busiest time of year.  More marriages, more relationships break-up at Christmas.  In fact, a survey among lawyers has found that 8th January is their peak day for inquiries about divorce.  For many people it all seems so hollow, so empty, so meaningless. 


For so many people there’s a great big “Is that it?” scrawled across Christmas time.  I wonder if you are one of those people.


Earlier we read the story of the wise men, the Magi as they were called.  They turn up in Jerusalem looking for the new born king of the Jews.  Unfortunately, they were looking in the wrong place.  You’d think it was the right place. 

            Jerusalem—capital city of the Jews

            palace—where kings live. 


It was only reasonable to think that the new born king of the Jews would be in a palace in Jerusalem.  But he wasn’t. 


Several hundred years before Jesus was born a prophet called Micah had predicted that out-of –the way Bethlehem would be the birth place of the Messiah, the ultimate king. 

But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah out of you will come for me one who will rule over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. 


The answer to the wise men’s search was in Bethlehem not in Jerusalem.  Once the wise men knew that they set off to Bethlehem and that’s where the found the new born king of the Jews. 


It seems to me that these wise men were like so many people in the world today—like many of us here tonight.


We know what we want out of life—we have a goal, an ambition.  A good job, a life-partner to love and to love you, a comfortable home, a family to raise in that home.  Some of us have very specific ambitions, you have your sights fixed on a very particular target.  There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s good, it’s important. 


But if we think that once we’ve achieved all these goals we are going to be happy, then I’m afraid many of us are in for a big disappointment.  This Christmas, all over Britain, and America, all over the world in fact, people who were living out their dream have been awakened, rudely awakened.  Because of the credit crunch they’ve lost their job, their savings, their homes.  Ordinary folk like the staff at Woolworths; and millionaires too.  


This Christmas, people who thought they were loved and cherished are finding out that it was all a lie—like an unwanted present, they’ve been exchanged for someone else. 


People are discovering that nothing is secure. 


If it is peace and security you want; if it’s happiness that will last, then the Bible’s message is that we’ve all been looking in the wrong place.  The meaning of life isn’t found at the bottom of a pile of wrapping paper; still less through the bottom of empty bottle.


The meaning of life is found in the Bethlehem manger.

The Lord Jesus Christ—he is what life is all about.


That’s a big claim to make.  How can I say that? 

I could give you several answers, but I’m only going to give you one. 

Jesus said that he was the meaning of life; he said he was what life was all about. 


He said: I am the bread of life meaning that just as bread or food is essential for life, so he is essential for life.

He said, I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in will live, even though he dies.  In other words, if you believe in Jesus death isn’t death for you.


He said, I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. 

Meaning, you must know Jesus if you want to know God.


He said, I have come that they may life and have it to the full.


That’s what he said.  Ok, anybody could say these things; I could say them.

Here’s the difference—with Jesus it works.  With Jesus it’s actually true. 


When the wise men found Jesus they bowed down and worshipped him.  And since that day everyone who has done the same, everyone who has made Jesus the centre of their lives, has received a peace, a joy, a love that nothing can take away, not even the credit crunch.


When it’s all over—when you’ve spent all your money, when the batteries have run dry, when you can’t eat another morsel—will you be left wondering, Is that it?  Is there nothing more than that?


When you’re loved ones lower you into the grave and throw earth upon your coffin, will they be saying to themselves, Is that it?  Is there nothing more now? 


Listen—in the months and weeks before a baby is born everyone is excited, especially the mother and father.  As the due date approaches they start buying baby clothes, a pram, and maybe decorate a bed-room in anticipation of the baby’s arrival.  When the great day does eventually come, and the baby is born, they don’t stare at the baby and say, Is that it?  The birth of the baby isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.


That’s how Christians regard Christmas.  When Christmas Day is over, and we tumble into bed, for us, it’s not all over for another year.  For us, it’s the beginning of another year of a living for our Jesus. 


If you are beginning to suspect that there must be something more, let me invite you to do what Christians all over the world have done—take the Lord Jesus at his word.  Believe that he is who he said he is; that he is the king, not just of the Jews, but king of us all.





Christmas Eve blues

December 24, 2008

It’s Christmas Eve and I am full of the cold.  I had my suspicions on Monday night, and during the day Tuesday I started feeling achy.  As you know, it’s my busy time of year, so I can’t really stop.  I’ve got a funeral to conduct this afternoon, and then there’s the Christmas Eve service (fortunately not a Watchnight—I wouldn’t make it), and the Christmas Day family service tomorrow.  I should say I’m more or less all prepared for these.  But holidays or no holidays, Sunday is coming, and I’ve got to get ready.


Anyway, I went to bed early last night and that’s done me some good.  I couldn’t sleep, but I read and listened to the radio.  The Puritans teach us to treat any illness as an intimation of our mortality.  Illness reminds us that we are mortal and that something better awaits us beyond death.  It loosens our ties with this world.  I tried thinking along those lines.  But it was hard, lying in a comfortable bed, in a warm room, cradling a mug of hot ginger tea.  I tried to imagine myself in a prison cell with only a blanket for warmth.  


So the best I could do was thank God that even when full of the cold I am better off than so many others in the world.  

It doesn’t get much better than this.