Today, ( as I wrote to a dear friend a short while ago, and perhaps fittingly so, as it was to her that the first e mail was sent from Singapore many years ago, and which conversation then blossomed out under God's inspiration to become an Internet Ministry) I had the theological equivalent of the famous scientist who cried our " Eureka", when he made an important discovery.
And it's not that I was reading or was being taught about the fact that the essence - and there is no plan B - of the Christian faith resides in the fact that " it is when I am weak then ( In Christ) I am strong", but rather a complete understanding and acceptance of this truth and its inevitable consequences and joys. All of this took place because I was invited to preach a sermon at my church this morning, and the Lord led me to place a focus on words from the Epistle for the day, 2 Corinthians 5, and in particular the fact that all Christians are called to be " Ambassadors for Christ". A message which is shared below and contextualized in the on going high levels of violence in my country as exemplified by one very distressing case this week and the introspection attendant on the fact that our country is celebrating its 50th year of Independence. But more importantly a reflection that arrives at the position that it is only when we Christians learn to accept our weakness in serving Christ as ambassadors, that we will gain the power to effect any significant change in our nation, and especially to stem the flow of blood on our streets.
Before I send out the sermon I am constrained to point out that a few nights ago, the Lord led me to read about a " war in heaven", and which war resulted in Satan and his " angels" being thrown out of heaven to earth, " and being enraged at the woman ( whose son he tried to kill, and both of whom, mother and son were protected by the Lord) went off to make war against the rest of her offspring - those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus". Revelations 12. Interestingly the same chapter makes the point that this Satan is one who " leads the whole world astray". And so initially thought that the important revelation, and it is critical that we understand it, was the fact that Satan is always " making war against Christians". But as was led, in a strange manner, to read a commentary on 2. Cor, which had been on my bookshelf for years, and reflected on the following two excepts, the whole thing became clear.
" Paul's focus on visions, revelations and the miraculous suggests that at issue was what constituted an appropriate witness to the gospel. A mistaken emphasis on the miraculous by these so-called super-apostles resulted in a misconstrual of Jesus as a wonderworker rather than a suffering servant, and a misrepresentation of the Spirit as a miracle empowerer rather than a guarantor of the gospel message. In doing so they put forward a " different gospel".........
CHRISTIAN SUFFERING AND DIVINE POWER
That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. ( 12: 10)
The central them of of 2 Corinthians is divine power in weakness. It is a theme that the church in the West has tended to shrug off as appropriate only for Christians living under oppressive political regimes. health, wealth and prosperity is a message often presented in the media and preached from the pulpit in the West. Not so with Paul. He defines the role of the gospel preacher in terms of the trials and hardships through which god's power is seen and appropriated. It is the same for the church, which Paul says, must suffer " the same suffering we suffer" before it can experience the same comfort" we experience. This is in contrast to his opponents in Corinth, who presented themselves as power evangelists and polished speakers, emphasizing an outward show of the Spirit in revelations, ecstatic experiences and the working of miracles.
Every chapter echoes this theme. The point of Christian hardship is so that " we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead".(1:9) Thanksgiving is given to God because he triumphs our evangelistic failures.......
For Paul is it when he is " weak" that he is " strong". ( 12:10) Like many nowadays, the Corinthians did not want to hear this message. But to preach anything else, Paul says, is to preach " a different gospel"(11:4)......there are no alternative models. This is because there is no alternative for Christ, whose sufferings " flow over into our lives" ( 1: 5). As Ralph Martin put is, "Jesus' death is rightly seen not as a mere fact of history but as the hallmark of all that characterized his historical person and saving significance". It was the hallmark of Jesus. And so it is to be the hallmark of every Christian believer.....end of quote
The point here is that Christianity is something taught to us by the Apostles, the first witnesses for Christ, and not something we work out in our own head. Therefore if we come to believe something other than what Paul and Peter and others taught, then like the Jehovah's Witnesses, we become " something else", but certainly not Christians. And so there is no alternative model to "Christ and him crucified". This " leading astray" of our people is exactly what Revelations chapter 12 was warning about. And therefore any modern day church that professes otherwise, or is manifestly exhibiting " a different gospel, no matter how successful it may seems to be to the secular mind, it has no power to transform any society. A fact that we must bear in mind as we pray for and yearn for change in places like Syria, Eqypt, Palestine, Pakistan, India, the increasingly secular continents of Europe, North America and Australia, and my country wracked by violence of the worst kind, despite the presence of so many " Christian" churches. In fact all places where Christians struggle to preach the gospel.
I admit that both the introduction tonight and the sermon below might be a bit lengthy for some, but please persevere as we are all on a
" Mission" for the Lord in one way or another.
Like her mother, most of us were hoping against all hope during the past week, that Michelle Coudray, the daughter of the Mayor of San Fernando in T&T, would have been found alive. And that the dental records supplied by her family who came to help with the investigations, would prove that the burn out body found in the canefields in Western Jamaica belonged to somebody else. But that was not to be. So once again a nation was plunged into despair and anguish, and in this case a deep sense of embarrassment, as the death of female citizen of a neighboring Caribbean country at the hands of one of us, carried with it a particularly acute sense of shame and disgrace. In this context one may ask with some justification... How can a country really fully celebrate, with joy and pride, our jubilee year of existence as a sovereign nation, when so many of our citizens continue to exhibit such barbaric behaviour? And the fact that it is happening all over the world is of no comfort to us. The reality is that for far too long we have failed to stem the hemorrhage of blood on our streets and in our homes. And the stain of the blood of those who have been murdered is a deep blot on the collective conscience of the nation as we celebrate Jamaica 50. Perhaps then the words of the prophet Hosea who lived some 700 years before the birth of Christ are not out of place in this modern age: " Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Hosea 4: 2-3 In the midst this anguish about the murder rate and other matters in our country - pensioners trying to cope in harsh economic times, people trying to cope with life altering if not life threatening illnesses, frustrated young bright graduates trying to find a job, a growing tide of immorality and indiscipline coupled with declining membership in our churches which if not careful could well become irrelevant in this new Jamaica - the Word of God from the Epistle poses some serious challenges. " We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though Christ were making his appeal through us". 2 Cor. 5: 20. So what really does it mean to be Christ's ambassador in this troubled world? Praise God that as we read the scriptures for today, especially the Epistle, we are confronted time and time again by the fact that like Jamaica 50, we are on a mission. Listen to the words of St. Paul again as we extend the reading of 2 Cor 5 and begin at verse 11. " Since then we know what it is to fear God, we try to persuade men." " if we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised again." Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come". " All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. So we are on a mission because:
1. We fear God
2. Christ's love compels us
3.Christ died for all
4.In Christ we are made new
5.In Christ God has reconciled the world to himself and given us the task to announce it
A few days ago, before receiving the invitation to share the word today, I was very struck by a reflection written by Oswald Chambers, the author of "My Utmost for His Highest". A publication which is second only to the Bible in its popularity. An abbreviated version of which reads as follows:
When we are born again of the Spirit, the note of our testimony is what God has done for us, and rightly so; but the Baptism of the Holy Ghost obliterates that forever. God will never answer our prayer to be Baptized by the Holy Ghost for any other reason than to be a witness for Jesus. " Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you and ye shall be witnesses unto Me"; you will be instead of Me, you will take everything that happens, praise or blame, persecution or commendation. .....Understanding how difficult this might sound, Chambers then goes to assert that ... No one can stand that....in the sense that no human being can fully represent Christ... unless he is constrained by the majesty of the personal power of Jesus.
Paul says: ' I am constrained by the love of Christ, held as in a fever, gripped as by a disease, that is why I act as I do; you may call me mad or sober, I do not care; I am after only one thing - to persuade men of the judgment seat of Christ and of the love of God...... end of quote
The fact that the reflection by Chambers was inspired by 2. Cor 5:14 means that long before I was invited to speak today, the Lord was preparing this message for His people at STAPC. So the question to myself and other ambassadors of Christ at St Andrew Parish Church this morning is , " are we fully constrained by Christ's love....do we find ourselves held as if in a fever....are we gripped as if by a disease to witnesses unto Christ...to accept everything that comes with being an ambassador......praise or blame, persecution or or commendation?
And as we struggle to answer that question , it should be noted that perhaps an even more important question is... are we convinced that we have received the power from on High to represent Christ in our homes, in our communities, in our nation and in our world, especially when we face resistance, obstacles and downright persecution. Or are we guilty of what the songwriter graphically describes as ...languid prayers and dim faith.
I don't know about you, but as for me and my house, we are guilty, weak and helpless, in fact desperately helpless in the face of this challenge to us this morning. As who can faithfully and honestly join with St Paul and declare that....You may call me mad, or sober, I don't care; I am only after one thing - to persuade men of the judgment seat of Christ and of the love of God.
My friends we may well be convinced of the need to proclaim the gospel, but if truth be told, we have certainly failed in being faithful in carrying out the will of God on this issue of fully representing His Son.
So herein lies the dilemma for all Christians in Jamaica, all ambassadors of Christ, as we celebrate our 50th year of Independence. We know the challenges facing family life in our country. We can all recite the fact that over 80% of children in Jamaica are born out of wedlock. We know that many Jamaican fathers are irresponsible and do not contribute sufficiently their children's financial, developmental, emotional and spiritual needs. All too often, also we hear the angry response " sperm donor " when a girl child is asked about her father. Increasingly and sadly also we have witnessed the decline in the numbers of mothers who, for one reason or another, are unable to provide the kind of nurturing care a child needs, and an increase in those who are incapable because of their own immaturity. Further, we know that, as ambassadors of Christ, our failure to make a more significant contribution to this perhaps the most important of all the issues facing our country...a healthy family life...., is part of the reason why Jamaica is now such a violent country, as children who are not wanted and cared for by the parents, when they are young, quite often, become wanted by the police when they become adults.
Again, we know the challenges facing the educational system. We know how many children are leaving school functionally, if not absolutely illiterate, and unfit for the job market. We know how this one single fact...functional illiteracy... has contributed to our low levels of production and productivity and how together with other factors have served to produce anemic levels of economic growth over many years thus contributing to the unholy combination of an enormous burden of debt and high levels of poverty now bedeviling the nation and exercising the minds of many of our leaders. And despite our admitted historical success in this area of national life, the failure of the ambassadors of Christ to continue to maintain and significantly improve the quality of education offered to our people, is part of the reason why Jamaica is now such a violent society, as people who cannot reason and think often lack self control and are more prone to violent behaviour.
Finally we know how the growth of secularism, multi-culturalism, materialism, immorality and corruption at all levels, have together, perhaps permanently, altered the social fabric and seared the collective conscience of our nation. We know how this unholy alliance has served to lead our people, wittingly or unwittingly to disobedience , if not open rebellion against the God of Sam Sharpe, George William Gordon and Marcus Mosiah Garvey - all of which National Heroes were practicing and devout ambassadors of Christ. And sadly in the light of this rebellion against the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, we are all aware of the gods, the proverbial golden calves to whom our people have turned and are worshiping. Some of whom, if you follow the cartoonists and the news carefully, are in prison both here and abroad, and singing a new song. Some of which gods have songs which surface at the most inopportune of times whenever our cell phones ring. Others of whom enter our homes by cable or by satellite gaining our undivided attention via the single most important item in the home of any 21st century person. While others gods whose meetings on a Sunday morning, or Thursday night during the silly season, attract huge crowds which far exceed the faithful who turn out to worship the Living God on a Sunday or a Bible study in the week. And again, it is in part, the failure of the ambassadors of Christ, in the face of such perfidy and apostasy and sheer madness....yes madness as how can people turn from the Eternal God to mere humans...who are but dust and to dust they shall return.....no wonder the prophet Jeremiah was amazed that :
these people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
" Jeremiah 2: 13 NIV
....failure of the ambassadors of Christ, in part, to boldly proclaim the gospel by word and by deed, why in many homes and communities in Jamaica the church is either quite irrelevant or ineffective why our country has become such a violent society. As unredeemed persons can and will continue to carry our acts of violence. So what are we, the ambassadors of Christ called to do in the face of these challenges? Again, it is not a question which the Lord has left hanging over our heads as just a couple of nights ago at the end of our Fellowship group's weekly Bible study, and prior to receiving an invitation to preach today, our group engaged in a long discussion on whether or not to truly love Jesus, one had to be desperate or just have a yearning for the Lord. Desperate in the sense of feeling completely helpless in the face of one's sinfulness and inability rid oneself of the " many many sins about which the songwriter penned these wonderful lines
..... All the way to Calvary he went for me, he went for me,
All the way to Calvary he went for me and now he sets me free.
Although I have so many, many sins
Jesus washed all away and pardoned me.
Although I have so many , many sins
Jesus washed all away and pardoned me.
In the Name of Jesus, in the Name of Jesus
we shall have the victory ...in the Name of Jesus
. That very night as I went home, thinking about the discussion, and prepared for bed and spent time with the Lord asking for mercy and protection from evil......without delay the Lord led me to the following passage, which I then sent around to the group as an e mail.
" The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." John 12:24 NIV
And early the next morning before the break of day, in a manner to which I have grown accustomed the Lord woke me up with this verse on my mind, so I went and read it:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Phil. 3:7-11 NIV
Later on in my early morning devotions the Lord continued to reveal His answer to this question of whether or not we should be desperate as he led me to another meditation from Oswald Chambers and I quote:
THE ABSOLUTENESS OF IMMORALITY AND HOLINESS ( REV. 21: 7-8) OSWALD CHAMBERS Immorality and holiness are absolute, you cannot get behind them......................... When our Lord talks about the radical evil of the human heart ( e.g. Mark 7:21-22), it is a revelation we know nothing of ; it comes from the shores of our lives in immorality and holiness........... Immorality has its seat in every one of us, not in some of us. If a man is not holy, he is immoral, no matter how good he may seem. Immorality is at the basis of of the whole thing; if it does not show itself outwardly, it will show itself before God. The New Testament teaches that no man or women is safe apart from Jesus Christ because there is treachery on the inside." Out of the heart of men, proceed....." The majority of us are grossly ignorant about the possibilities of evil in the human heart. Never trust your common sense when the statements of Jesus contradict it, and when you preach see that you base your preaching on the revelation of Jesus Christ and not on the sweet innocence of human nature. When you hear a man cry out, like the publican of old, " God be merciful to me a sinner", you have the problem of the whole universe.
That man has reached the realization of himself at last, he knows that he is a guilty, immoral type of man and needs saving. Never take anyone to be good, and above all never take yourself to be good. Natural goodness will always break, will always disappoint, why? Because the Bible tells us that " the heart is deceitful above all things. and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Never trust anything in yourself that God has not placed there through the regeneration of Our Lord Jesus Christ; and never trust anything saving that in anyone else. end of quote.
The reality is my friends that unless we come to fully apprehend our own helplessness as immoral people in front of a holy God; our helplessness in the face of Satan who though conquered by the angel Michael in a war in heaven, has fallen to the earth and has been allowed to make war against those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus; ( Rev. 12) and our own helplessness in the face of the beguiling and subtle temptations of this world, we will not desperately seek to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection. We will not be prepared to join in the fellowship of his sufferings We will not hate our life in this world. And if you recall the story of Dives and the rich man, we will listen neither to Moses and the Prophets of the Old Testament, nor will we be convinced if someone rises from the dead.
My friends the great paradox of the Christian faith which this world has never comprehended and never will, and sadly some in the church still do not get it, is that it is when we Christians are weak and helpless that we are strong. That is why the German Karl Barth, one of the great theologians in our time, and one of the most prolific writers, wrote that the following six words say much more and much better things than all the heaps of paper with which I have surrounded myself. What revelation then from God could move this man whose writings have influenced so much of Christian thought in modern times to write such profound words?
I know that all of you know the answer to that question but again I remind you as I remind myself of a profound observation that Oswald Chambers makes: Be careful of knowing what you do not practice.
so yes my friends that revelation is none other than St.Paul's declaration in 2 Cor. 8......My grace is sufficient for you...and which revelation is followed by an equally profound truth.....for my power is made perfect in weakness".
Herein lies the essence of the Good News of the Gospel and which good news alone can empower the ambassadors of Christ to be on mission unto Him, and not just for Him, in this land of our birth during Jamaica 50 and beyond. For in the same way that Christ emptied himself of all but love, and made Himself nothing, and became obedient even to death on a cross according to God's will and purpose, and God therefore raised Him up to the highest place, so that at the sound of His name every knee shall bow......in the same way we who are prepared die to self in Christ, will be raised up to a new life in Him. And that's why St Paul could assert with confidence that : " If any man is in Christ the old has gone and the new has come".
So my friends in Christ Jesus, if we are to have any power to make any continued impact on this nation, any power to have a continued impact on family life, any power to have a continued impact on the educational system, any power to have a continued impact on poverty reduction, then the old sinful natural self, so prone to anxiety and doubt, so prone to disobedience and pride, so prone to living by facts and by sight rather than by grace and by faith, so unwilling to sacrifice the time to be present in church and at Bible study, but so willing to spend time watching Euro 12 football, the Sunshine girls, The Miami Heat, Usain Bolt, Nadal or the Williams sisters.... if we are to answer the call to be Christ's ambassadors in a dying world, this old self must die. And this death of the old self is message which we must proclaim to the entire Jamaica as we celebrate Jamaica 50 and beyond. As we go on a mission to reclaim our country.
And such a death to self begins with the fear of God, and so like we try to persuade men because Christ's love compels us. In this respect then I can the God of Abraham crying out to his people in the book of Deuteronomy " O that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and obey all my commands all the time so that it may go well with they and their children forever." Deut 5:29 The New Testament equivalent of which I believe would be Christ saying to His disciples in John's Gospel: Let not thy heart be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. John 14:1 Therefore my friends we must once again recapture the Spirit of Moses, Gideon and Deborah, Mary and Joshua and trust in God when He calls as we remember the words of St Paul to the Philippian church...I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. .....
This belief in the power of Christ is very different from one modern leader's campaign slogan " Yes we can", or that of another leader closer home, who embraced " People Power". For as Herod was to find out many years ago, and so too our political leaders if they are discerning should realize as they face tremendous challenges, both up north and in this land of wood and water, that
"unless the Lord builds the house
its leaders labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchmen watch in vain.
In the sense that lasting power in this world comes only from God. And the power that comes from God on High, is given only when we believe in the great Act of Atonement wrought on the Cross of Calvary by Jesus our Lord and Saviour. And that power among men is only fully realized when we recognize our helplessness as did the Psalmist, and repent of our sins and cry out to God in and through Jesus Christ. And God who is a merciful God will indeed send his Word and save us. I pray God then, that as we the ambassadors of Christ, called to witness unto Christ in this land, where violence is so pervasive, where immorality is so rampant, where many people fear neither man nor God, and where unfortunately many Christians have taken their eyes off the cross as they seek to make a difference, and thus have no power to fight evil, we may like St Paul, for Christ's sake, delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when we are weak then in Christ Jesus, we are strong, as His grace is sufficient for us here at St. Andrews, for Jamaica and indeed for the entire human race Amen.