Category Archives: Grief

Luke 7:1-17 Jesus: Master Restorer

Recently we’ve had three wasps nests at our house. I don’t normally face much physical danger in my job, so wasps nests are an opportunity for me to get out there and face the great danger of these terrifying creatures and protect my family. Of course it’s right to take precautions when you face such great danger: I bought some wasp spray that had a four metre range, so I didn’t have to get too close! I clothed myself appropriately, double layers, jacket, long pants, gloves, shoes, hood and eye protection. In a worst case scenario, I would have to rely on my parkrun training to try and outrun them! Two of the nests weren’t too large, they would have had 10 or so wasps on them, but one of them was the largest I’d ever seen, it had well over 60 wasps, and it was hard to get close to. Eventually I worked out, that there was a small window on our garage with a flyscreen, and by opening that window, I could have an angle which I hoped was just inside the 4 metre range of my wasp spray. Even though I was inside the garage behind the flyscreen, I still clothed myself appropriately in case they found a gap in the garage somewhere and came for me. Despite my precautions, my heart was still pumping as I began my attack from behind the safety of the flyscreen. Thankfully the spray was effective, and the although it took the whole can eventually all 60 of the wasps dropped to the ground, and the next day I was able to go in safely and clean up the bodies and take away the nest.

Many of us are comfortable talking about death when it relates to terrifying creatures in the garden, but much less comfortable talking about our own death. We want to treat death a bit like I treated those wasps and keep as far away from it as possible.

Woody Allen famously said:  I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Richard Branson was asked how he wanted to be remembered, he refused to answer: I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here. Michael Jackson was asked did he want to be buried or cremated, and he also refused to answer: I don’t want to die, I want to live forever. Yet as we know, people as wealthy or famous as Michael Jackson still eventually die, we all do.

Many years go in western cultures people were reluctant to talk about sex but much more open talking about death, in part because death was much more a part of their lives, infant mortality rates were higher, people more often died at home than in external care. Now it’s the opposite, people are more open to talking about sex, but less open to talking about death. The Bible is countercultural in either setting – it doesn’t avoid talking about both. It’s a book about the real world, so death is a common theme. Here is Luke 7 we read of one person who is sick and about to die, then another person who has just died.

It’s good for us to think about death, because : only when you know how to die, can you know how to live (JI Packer). As we look at this passage, let’s just ask two questions: 1. How does Jesus respond to the reality of death? 2. How can we respond to the reality of death?

1.How does Jesus respond to the reality of death?

A: Compassion

One of the most famous songs about death in the last 25 years is Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. He wrote the song after his four year old son, fell from the 53rd floor of a building and died, it’s a song which speaks of his grief and his longing to see his son again. It includes this section:

Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please
Begging please
Beyond the door
There’s peace, I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven
(Eric Clapton – Tears In Heaven Lyrics )

There’s a profound grief in the song, a longing to see his son again. He doesn’t claim to be a Christian, yet he’s using that Biblical language of no more tears in the New Heavens and the new earth. He’s hoping for a time when there will be no more tears, because he knows life now involves many tears.   Why did such a sad song go to number one in the charts soon after it was released, and why has it remained a favourite for so long? In part it’s because so many people can identify with the very real grief of death.

We get a glimpse of such grief here in Luke 7. v12 is a very heart breaking scene, we see a widow, whose husband had previously died, now also having her only son die. As a woman in a society  where men were the property owners and main income earners this widow would face great vulnerability. Yet on top of that is the very real personal grief of now having lost not just one but at least two loved ones. A large crowd from the town is with her, sharing in her grief.

How does Jesus respond to this scene of great grief? Does he care? Is he indifferent? V13 is very clear isn’t it? When he saw her, his heart went out to her (or ESV says when he saw her he had compassion on her). This word carries the idea of a deep emotion, a deep attitude of concern for the widow.

Sometimes in our grief and pain, we can wonder whether God cares about us our situation. We see here that he does care about human grief. Jesus in entering the world, shows us the compassion of God. Jesus cared enough about human grief to do something more permanent about it than just resuscitating this widow’s son.

When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out the words: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) I don’t know what Eric Clapton believes about how you get to the new heavens and the new earth, but he is right that there will be no more tears there. For those who trust in Jesus there will be no more grief because Jesus in his compassion cared  enough to do something about it. He went to the cross, and was forsaken by the Father, so that we can be reconciled to him.

B: Power

Two miracles take place in these verses. In the first Jesus heals someone who is sick and about to die , but in the second he encounters someone who has died. What can Jesus do here? In his compassion, the first person Jesus speaks to is the widow who would have been walking in front of the bier, v13 Jesus says to her: don’t cry. There’s a famous poem often quoted at some funerals which says:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
(Mary Elizabeth Frye).

It’s an attempt to try and deal with grief by saying the person didn’t really die they just now exist in another form, so we shouldn’t cry for them. But there’s two problems with that poem – firstly on how do you know the person is now the wind, snow, sunlight, rain? What basis do you have to say that? Secondly, it doesn’t really do justice to the grief we feel when we lose someone, you can’t just not cry and imagine they are in some other form, it doesn’t work. You miss them, you want to talk to them, and hear from them and your can’t, your grief is real.

Jesus says don’t cry here, not because he thinks it’s wrong to cry, in fact he himself later weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He says don’t cry, because the person is the wind or the rain now, but because Jesus is about to deal with the source of the grief.

Jesus comes next to the bier, which is like an open stretcher with the body on top covered by a shroud. v14 is full of drama, Jesus went up and touches the bier, and the bearers stood still. Numbers 19:11 says “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. Jesus though, doesn’t become unclean, just as elsewhere he doesn’t become unclean when he touches lepers. Instead Jesus makes unclean people clean. We see that in the most powerful way possible as Jesus speaks to the dead man, and says to him, Young man, I say to you, get up.

I’ve taken about 50 funerals in my time as a pastor, and never once has it occurred to me to say to the person in the coffin, I say to you get up. I just don’t have that sort of power. The last couple of weeks I’ve been struggling with a sore ankle, it’s been effecting my parkrunning – I can’t even heal a sore ankle, let alone raise a dead person to life, yet v15 says very clearly that when Jesus spoke to this dead man, the dead man sat up and began to talk.

I’m not sure what he began to say, but it doesn’t really matter, the fact is if he’s sitting up, and he’s talking, he’s not dead anymore, even though he clearly had been certified dead, previously. You may have noticed that phrase there, Jesus gave him back to his mother  it is the same phrase used in 1 Kings 17:23 in an event which occurred 850 years before when the great Old Testament prophet Elijah brought a widow’s son back to life. There are some clear parallels between the two events – in both the only son of a widow dies, and is raised to life. It’s very likely that’s what the people had in mind when they say of Jesus – a great prophet has appeared among us. Some at that time believed prophets had ceased 450 years earlier with Malachi. Yet here many are recognising that Jesus is a prophet, which means brings God’s word, just as the widow recognised Elijah did. Yet Jesus is clearly more than a prophet, and greater than Elijah, Elijah had to stretch himself out three times on the body and call out pleading with God to let the boy’s life return to him, Jesus just speaks directly to the dead man and tells him to get up, and a lifeless body is brought back to life.

This is one of only three people recorded in the Bible that Jesus brought back to life. All three were great miracles, yet eventually all three would have died again. Jesus brought them back to life, but it wasn’t forever, yet it pointed to the day when he himself would rise from the dead, never to die again. Jesus own resurrection, which was testified to by many witnesses, demonstrates his real power over death. Because Jesus has been raised, all who trust in him can be confident that we will be raised.

But did these miracles really happen? In his book, Cold Case Christianity, J Warner Wallace describes the time he turned up to his first murder scene. He said the detective in charge, who was very experienced said to him, go find me this lady’s husband, I’m sure he’s the killer. He said that based on the fact that in his experience, many murders are committed by spouses, and at first the murder scene showed signs of being a spouse murder. It turned out though, this lady was in fact killed by a neighbour, and time was wasted in the investigation because the senior detective was wrong in the assumption or presupposition he had made.

J Warner Wallace says he later realised that he was making the same mistake with the Bible. As a skeptic he was coming to it with his own assumptions, not willing to consider that some of his presuppositions could be wrong. He realised there are many scholars who accept the historical accuracy of Luke in terms of the way it describes Jesus life and teaching, and yet reject the miracles, because they bring an assumption that there is no supernatural, that miracles can’t happen.[1]

He became a Christian in part by being willing to test his own assumptions. Saying there is no miracles is not an argument, it’s just an untested assertion. You can only rule them out, if you rule God out, and again that’s not an argument, it’s just an assumption.

There are good reasons for us to be certain these miracles took place. Luke tells us at the beginning of this gospel that he has access to: handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses … since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account …so  that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke wants us to know the certainty of these events. He wants us to examine our presuppositions or assumptions. These events are life changing. In the face of death, Jesus displays both great compassion, and amazing power.

2. How can we respond to the reality of death?

A: Humble, confident faith in Jesus

Luke has been called the gospel of amazement . On 17 different occasions he uses words to describe the amazement or astonishment of the people to Jesus, but here in v9 we see the only time he speaks of Jesus being amazed. What is Jesus amazed by? Have a look at v9, he’s amazed by the faith of a Roman centurion, a Gentile. He says he hasn’t seen faith like it anywhere in Israel. What so amazes him?

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. (Richard Dawkins) I’m not sure where Dawkins gets that idea from, I don’t know any Christians who think that’s what faith is, it certainly isn’t what Jesus means when he speaks of the faith of this centurion.

The centurion describes himself in v8 as a man under authority. He’s a military man. Here’s a diagram of Roman army ranks around that time, the centurion is in the middle somewhere, he has people under him, and people over him, he has to obey orders, and he gives orders which are obeyed. He’s used to being able to get things done that need to be done. Yet when it comes to his highly valued servant who is about to die, he realises it’s an area in which he has no power. He can’t stop someone from getting sicker, he can’t stop someone from dying.

Often spiritual growth occurs when we are faced with situations beyond our limits, and the centurion in this situation recognises that Jesus has authority which he doesn’t have. He says to Jesus, just say the word and my servant will be healed.

His faith isn’t (as Dawkins claims) evading the need to think, it’s not belief despite the lack of evidence. Jesus miracles have become well-known, he’s either seen or heard enough to make him confident in Jesus power, he has grounds for his trust in Jesus.

Yet notice how humble his faith is. The Romans weren’t known for their love of the Jews. They were the occupying army, politically, he was the one with the power, yet he doesn’t command Jesus to come to him, instead he sends people to ask Jesus saying, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. He trusts Jesus power, sees that he doesn’t deserve it, yet asks depending on his mercy. That’s faith – humble, confident trust in Jesus.

This week a friend of mine went to visit a lady who was dying. He asked her how she was going, she said to him: I’ve got to tell you, I’m actually a little bit excited. She was sad to be dying and leaving family and friends, but she had a humble confidence in Jesus – in his life, death and resurrection, and she was looking forward to going to be with him.

She’d obviously been thinking about death for a while to come to that point. One way this passage has helped me, is it’s made me think more about my own death, and I think it could help us all. Don Carson tells the story of the time his wife was in a prayer meeting where everyone was praying for a member of their church, who was dying. They were all praying that God would heal this person. He says when his wife’s turn, she prayed, Lord we would love it if you would heal this person, but if you choose not to, we pray that you will help them to die well. He said her prayer led to great tension in the meeting because some people saw it as a lack of faith. Later on though, it actually became helpful because the family realised so much effort and attention was being focussed on healing this person, that no thought was being given to helping them think about death, and prepare to die well.

It’s not a lack of faith to be willing to talk about death, and think about it, it is actually part of true faith. If we’re not willing to, we’re really just like our culture who wants to avoid it, living as though this life is all there is.

One of the most famous lines in the Lord of the Rings is near the end. Sam and Bilbo have been asleep, and Sam wakes up and sees Gandalf there: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? (Sam Gamgee). It’s a great question – is everything sad, going to come untrue? The answer the Bible gives us is, yes. Jesus lived the perfect life, none of us can live, he demonstrated God’s compassion and power, dying the death that we deserve, and rose again showing that for those who trust in him, death is not the end.

Jesus invites us all to come to him, with humble confident trust in his life, death and resurrection. He is able to make our dying day, our best day, and as you begin to understand what it means to die well, then he’s able to help you to live well, as we learn from him.

[1] Wallace, J. Warner (2013-01-01). Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (p. 26).

God’s Sovereign Grace – Genesis 42-45

The Unlikely Rescue SQUAREYou may have seen in the news this week the story of a Canadian cyclist who had her bike stolen. She reported it to police, then the next day her friend saw an online ad for a bike that looked suspiciously like hers. She rang up, pretending to be interested in buying and organised to meet the man in a McDonalds car park. When she saw the bike she recognised by the stickers that it was definitely hers. She asked whether she could ride it around the car park. When the guy said yes, she got on the bike and just rode off, successfully stealing back her own bike.[1]

The police aren’t recommending others follow her method, but the story got worldwide coverage, in part I think because of the sense of justice that’s there. As we come to Genesis 42-45 we might expect a sense of justice as Joseph comes face to face with the brothers who heartlessly sold him into slavery over 20 years before. Yet what strikes you most about this passage is not the justice that comes to the brothers, but the grace that Joseph shows to them. There are things Joseph does in these chapters that appear harsh to the brothers, but overall as we’ll see Joseph’s attitude towards them is gracious.

The grace Joseph shows here is a picture of God’s grace towards all his children. In Jesus, God doesn’t treat us as we deserve, he shows us his grace, even when things may appear harsh to us. William Cowper put it this way, in his famous hymn, God moves in a mysterious way:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace,
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

Even in the midst of terrible circumstances, God is always Sovereign, and gracious towards his children. As we look at these four chapters today, let’s notice three practical ways that God’s sovereign grace helps his people:

1. Hope as we struggle with grief

These four chapters describe two journeys to Egypt. There’s a lot of details, so let’s put up this brief overview to help us. It’s possible to see these two journeys as having 7 simple elements in common.

1st Journey 2nd Journey
1 Jacob sends sons to Egypt 42:1-4 43:1-14
2 Arrival in Egypt 42:5 43:15-25
3 First audience with Joseph 42:6-16 43:26-34
4 Brothers arrested 42:17 44:1-13
5 Second audience with Joseph 42:18-24 44:14-45:15
6 Departure from Egypt 42:25-28 45:16-24
7 Sons report back to Jacob 42:29-38 45:25-28

One obvious point as you look at this structure is that although Jacob goes on neither journey, both begin and end with him speaking. Jacob is the main father figure throughout this whole section of Genesis 37-50. Both journeys start with Jacob sending the brothers to Egypt and both end with his words as they report back to him.

Yet the words Jacob speaks at the end of the two journeys couldn’t be more different. At the end of the first journey he is full of grief when his sons report back, look at what he says in 42:36: You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me! Jacob has been grieving for over 20 years for Joseph, now he feels in total despair. Do you ever feel like that? Everything is against me! There is an element of self-pity here, he’s trying to blame his sons for everything. He doesn’t mention his own favouritism which also had a role, you can see it even as he continues in his grief, look what he says in v38 My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my grey head down to the grave in sorrow. He treats Benjamin as the only son he has left, when he has 10 other sons. There’s favouritism, there’s self-pity, there’s clearly troubled family relationships, but there’s also real grief. For all his imperfections, here is a father who has lost a son that he loves, and he’s struggling with grief.

What a contrast to Jacob’s words at the end of the second journey. Turn over to 45:27-28. It says But when they told him everything Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the carts Joseph had sent to carry him back, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. And Israel said, Im convinced! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die. The first journey ends in despair, sorrow and grief but the second journey ends with hope as this old grieving man is revived, by God’s grace and looks forward to seeing his son again.

For some of you Father’s Day is a great day, you’re thankful for the father you have, for all his failings, imperfections, and his bad dad jokes, he’s loved you and provided you and cared for you, and you’re grateful. Yet for many of us today’s a hard day. Some of you were treated terribly by your father. For some of you, your family is fractured. Some of you are reminded of a family member you’ve lost and the grief is still real. Grief is a reality we will all struggle with.

A friend of mine was at a funeral with a family where the mother had tragically died. The children asked the father where their mother was now. The father was an atheist, he said to the children: Mummy isnt anywhere anymore, she just doesnt exist, thats all there is to it. He was at least being honest about the hopelessness of an atheist worldview. If that view is true, there’s nothing of real value you can say to bring hope in your grief.

Yet if that view is true, why do we grieve so much when we lose someone? Why do we yearn and long to see our loved ones who’ve died? The longing or yearning of grief points us to a reality that is there. Through Jesus that yearning and longing can one day be filled.

A friend of mine is quite young, he’s roughly my age, so he’s very young! Yet sadly this year he lost his wife to cancer. Like the atheist I just mentioned he is left to raise children on his own, but the difference between them in terms of hope couldn’t be greater. My friend and his wife as she was dying both found great hope in Revelation 21, God’s promise of the new heavens and the new earth, where God will wipe away all tears, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying of pain. His grief is real, yet in Jesus his hope is real.  God’s Sovereign Grace gives us hope, as we struggle with grief.

2. Transformation as we struggle with guilt

Throughout these chapters you see the brothers showing signs of the guilt they feel about what they had done to Joseph over 20 years before. Look what they say to each other in 42:21 Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; thats why this distress has come on us. They are struggling with guilt, over 20 years later they can still remember his distress as he pleaded with them, it’s still etched into their minds. They’re so plagued with guilt that they see everything bad that happens to them now as God’s punishment .  They start to blame each other, look at v22 Reuben replied, Didnt I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldnt listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood. Reuben tries to blame the others, yet though he may have planned to save him, he was just as much in on the 20 year cover up as the rest of them were.

Their feeling of guilt leads to fear. Look at 45:3 where Joseph finally reveals himself.  Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph! Is my father still living? But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. These brothers are full of fear and guilt, because of what they had done.

Christian counsellor, Ed Welch says in his estimation around 85% of the population feels guilty right now.[2] Across our planet, people try a whole variety of ways to deal with our feelings of guilt. Millions dip in sacred rivers, or go on pilgrimages, or do penance, or visit various counsellors, or resort to various substances to try to escape the feelings of guilt.

Of course there are different types of guilt. There is false guilt, feeling guilty about things we don’t need to, because of the wrong expectations or pressures others place on us, or we wrongly place on ourselves. Yet there is also real guilt, like that the brothers feel here, because we have done wrong, we have acted selfishly, harmed others and sinned against God. In God’s grace there is hope for our real guilt.

Notice how by God’s grace, the brothers in this chapter are not only forgiven by Joseph, but also slowly transformed. Joseph tests his brothers throughout these chapters to see if there’s any change. The tests all lead to this final test where he puts his silver cup into Benjamin’s sack then brings his brothers back and tells them they can all go free, except for Benjamin. It’s as though he’s testing them to see whether they’ll leave Benjamin in slavery to save themselves, just like they abandoned Joseph to slavery many years before.

Judah responds on behalf of the brothers, notice two remarkable things, about what he does. First look at 44:16 What can we say to my lord? Judah replied. What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants guilt. This the exact opposite of what we’ve sen previously, there’s no hiding or deceiving or blaming others, there’s an acknowledgement of guilt. Secondly he offers himself in the place of his brother Benjamin, 44:33, Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lords slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. We read those words and we think, is this the same Judah? The Judah, who back in 37 was the ringleader in selling Joseph to slavery, the Judah who in chapter 38 left his father’s family, and treated so terribly his daughter-in-law Tamar. Now this selfish Judah is selflessly offering himself in place of his younger brother. Judah is showing here, signs of repentance, of wanting to live God’s way instead of his ways, he’s honouring here the commitment he’d made to his father to personally guarantee Benjamin’s safety.

It’s clear that God in his grace, is slowly transforming these brothers. They aren’t perfect, there are still issues, yet God has used the testings and the hardships that he’s brought them through to bring about real transformation.

In selflessly offering himself as a substitute here, Judah unknowingly pointed forward to his descendent Jesus, the ultimate substitute. Unlike Judah, Jesus had no guilt, yet offered himself to take the place of all who would trust in him. Just as God in his grace slowly transformed these selfish brothers, so God in his grace can transform us as we bring our guilt to Jesus.

3. Power as we struggle to forgive

As you know one of the great things about serving with Rog, is that when we tease him, he laughs louder than all of us. He’s very happy to laugh at himself, which is good because it gives us plenty of things to laugh about it in the office. BikeOfficeOne of the things we like to tease Rog about is the time he rode his bike to the office. I took a picture of it. If you know Rog, you’ll know he doesn’t really place much value on exercise, but if you would have gone into the office any day over a two-week period last year, you would have seen Roger’s bike there in the hallway, and could have thought, wow our senior pastor rides his bike to work every day. But things aren’t always what they seem. The reality is that others from the office occasionally ride their bikes, and one day Rog joined in and rode his bike. Of course it is mostly downhill from Morpeth manor to East Maitland, so it’s not exactly that hard a ride, but it obviously took its toll because that afternoon he said, I don’t think I’ll ride back today, could someone give me a lift home? Each day after that we were waiting for the day when Rog would ride his bike home, but he never did and the bike just remained there in the office, finally after two weeks of his bike being in the office, one day he drove his LandCruiser to work, and that afternoon, loaded his bike in and drove home, we’ve never seen it since.

Things aren’t always what they appear . We see that here across these four chapters. Joseph who’s risen to great power in Egypt, appears to his brothers, who don’t yet recognise him to be quite harsh, he accuses them of being spies, he locks them up, he demands they bring Benjamin back, he appears harsh,  and yet things aren’t what they appear, we see things here, that the brothers don’t see, look at 42v24 Joseph turned away from them and began to weep. A number of times Joseph goes away in private to weep. His tears show that behind Joseph’s harsh exterior is a man with a deep affection for his family. As we look more closely we see that Joseph is treating his brothers across the chapters with grace and forgiveness. They’d left him to starve in a pit, but he gives them a huge feast in his home and twice gives them food to take home, so they don’t starve. They’d made money by selling him into slavery for silver, he doesn’t try to make any silver from them, instead he gives them back all their silver each time they come to buy food. They’d left him in slavery separating him from his father, Joseph has the power to do the same to them, but he twice sends them home in freedom to their father.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to be so gracious towards people who had so mistreated you, it can be even harder to take when it comes from people close to you like your own family. How is Joseph, able to be so gracious and forgiving towards his brothers? Turn to chapter 45 and look at v4-5, Joseph has finally revealed himself to his brothers, and at the moment where you think he could get stuck into them, he shows his concern for them: Look what he says, v4-5 Then Joseph said to his brothers, Come close to me. When they had done so, he said, I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.

Notice it’s Joseph’s view of God that is enabling him to be so gracious to his brothers. Some people view humans as doing what they want and God as a kind of bystander letting things happen and helpless to do anything about it, other people have an opposite view which sees humans as just puppets who can’t be held responsible because they are just being manipulated by God, but notice the Bible’s view is more sophisticated than either of those.

Joseph doesn’t say to them – don’t worry it’s not your fault, you can’t be held responsible, he says – v4 you sold me into slavery, they are responsible for their own actions, yet at the same time he says, v5 God sent me here. He says it again in v7-8 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.  

Notice two things about God that are motivating Joseph here: God’s Sovereignty: Humans are responsible for their own actions, but God is so powerful, so Sovereign, that even humans making wrong choices can’t stop him working out his purposes. Secondly God’s grace – God sent me here he says to preserve for you a remnant, to save your lives. His brothers have acted terribly, yet God in his grace is saving them. Joseph is gracious to his brothers because he trusts in a God who is Sovereign and gracious.

When Steve Saint was 5 years old, he was anxiously waiting for his dad, a pilot to return from a trip he’d gone on with four other missionaries. He can remember looking waiting for the speck of the plane to appear in the sky as it always had previously, but it never came. His father, Nate Saint, was killed along with four other men by the Waodoni tribe, or Aucas they had tried to make contact with to share the gospel of Jesus.

It was difficult for Steve growing up without his father, yet he also says he had a front row seat to see some of the good God has done through that tragedy including the conversion of the man who killed his father. He says: I have personally paid a high price for what happened on Palm Beach. But…If I could go back now and rewrite the script, I would not change a single scene. I have come to understand that life is too complex and much too short to let amateurs direct the story. I would rather let the Master Storyteller do the writing.[3]

It would be easy you’d think for him to be bitter and angry towards those who killed his father, but instead he shows them forgiveness and love, because he sees God’s Sovereignty and his grace, his hand at work in all of this.

When Peter is preaching to the Jews in Jerusalem about Jesus, he says: This man was handed over to you by Gods deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. (Acts 2:23) He’s giving us the same view as Joseph – humans are responsible – you put him to death he says, yet God was still working through it, according to his deliberate plan and foreknowledge.  It’s there in the cross that we see God’s Sovereignty and his grace most clearly displayed.

What are you struggling with today? Are you struggling with grief, come to Jesus, come to the cross, there we find Jesus, going through grief, being separated from his Father, so that our grief will one day end. Are you struggling with guilt? Come to the cross, where you hear Jesus saying, it is finished. In Jesus there is nothing more that needs to be done for your sin to be completely forgiven. Ask God to grow your trust in what Jesus has done for you. Are you struggling to forgive? Come to the cross, see there God’s Sovereignty, his grace, his forgiveness offered to you, and find there the power to forgive those who have wronged you.

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 1 September 2013. Audio here


[3] Steve Saint, End of the Spear, 59-60

God is with us – Genesis 39

11 x 8.5_Flyer.inddMartin Luther, the famous reformer, had a huge impact on world history, as he fought for important truths like the authority of the Bible, and the importance of faith in Jesus. Yet like all of us, he faced his own struggles. One time after experiencing a significant setback in his work, he became withdrawn and moody. He seemed so depressed that no words of counsel would penetrate his darkness. He would retreat to his study, only coming out to get meals, and ignoring his family.

After this had gone on for several days, he was helped by his wife, Katherine who showed both her wisdom, and a sense of humour. She came into his study dressed in black from head to toe. Luther looked at her and said, “Are you going to a funeral?”

 “No,” Katie replied, “but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in mourning.” [1] God promises his people he will be with us. God is with his people. Yet like Luther, we can often live and act as though God is dead, or against us, or not there at all.

The idea that God is with his people is clearly the big theme of Genesis 39. You can see v2 says the Lord was with Joseph, that’s repeated it in v3, the Lord was with him. That double repetition which begins the chapter, also ends it: v21, the Lord was with him, v23 the Lord was with Joseph. Joseph’s circumstances go up and down, but what does not change is that God was with him.

Stephen uses this exact phrase when he looks back on Joseph’s life: they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him (Acts 7:9). What does the idea of God being with us mean for modern people? What practical difference does it make if God is with us? Let’s ask that question and notice 4 things as we consider Genesis 39:

1. God’s presence in our loneliness

Earlier:  The LORD appeared to Isaac and said…Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. (Genesis 26:2-3).

That night the LORD appeared to [Isaac] and said, I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; (Genesis 26:24). Later God appears to Jacob in a dream and says: I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go…(Genesis 28:15).

God’s invisible, he is Spirit, yet can be spiritually present with his people, watching over them, protecting them, directing what happens to them.  He’d promised to be with Isaac and Jacob in Canaan, but now Joseph, is a long way from the promised land, in Egypt, 100s of kilometres away. Many in that time believed in localised gods who would be with you in a certain geographical area, but here we see that the same God who promised to be with Isaac and Jacob in Canaan is now with Joseph in Egypt. God is not restricted to a region, he is able to be present with his people wherever they are.

It would be easy for Joseph to feel alone here, so far from home, so far from the father who loved him, no one who speaks his language here, no one follows his god, yet God was with him.

Loneliness is something all of us can face. In 1973 Rog was preschool age, Steve was a little older. I was, of course much younger!  In that year Billy Joel wrote Piano Man. It has a cheerful sounding chorus: sing us a song, you’re the piano man, sing us a song tonight, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling alright. Yet in between that bright chorus are these sad, aching verses where he talks about the loneliness of the people who have come to the piano bar, ‘to forget about life for a while’.

There’s Paul who’s a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife,
He’s talking to Davy, who’s still in the navy and probably will be for life.
The waitress is practicing politics, as the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.

The song cries out with the loneliness of modern life. As modern people we can be very busy and have lots of things yet still often feel lonely. You can be lonely at any life stage: you can be lonely as a child or as a teenager, it’s so easy to feel left out of a group for some reason, but you can even feel lonely in the group. You can feel lonely if you’re single, but you can feel just as lonely in a marriage, you can feel lonely and isolated as a parent, or you can feel lonely and isolated as you age, you can have hundreds of Facebook friends or Instagram followers, yet still feel lonely.

It’s very practical to know that God is with us. Paul describes being a Christian: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20). He has this real sense of Jesus love for him, and Jesus presence with him, Jesus lives in him.

One of my earliest memories of the time that I first became a Christian, first put my trust in Jesus, was a realisation that Jesus was now with me, that I could talk to him anytime, whether I was in a room full of people, or on my own. Sometimes you may feel very aware of Jesus being with you, other times even though you may not feel anything, it’s good for us to remind ourselves, that if our trust is in Jesus, God is with us, Jesus comes to live in us through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus promises us that as we carry out his mission of making disciples: God has said, surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20). Others may leave you, or let you down, but in Jesus God will never leave you, he will always be with you. Knowing that God is with us, frees us to love and serve others. We see that in Joseph, he’s not dwelling on loneliness, he’s getting living for God…

2. Integrity in our ordinary

At both ends of this chapter Joseph finds himself in terrible circumstances – he’s a slave in a foreign land, then a prisoner. In both situations it would be easy to become bitter, resentful, full of self-pity. Instead in both we find Joseph getting on, working, living a life of integrity, serving in the place God has put him. V4 Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. Joseph was about 17 when he was sold into slavery, and he was 30 when he later began to work for Pharaoh. Given that he spent at least 2 years in prison it seems Joseph was a slave to Potiphar for about 10 or 11 years. He would have had to start at the bottom, learn the language, learn the customs, yet clearly he demonstrates to Potiphar integrity and hard work. It’s similar in prison: V22 the warder put Joseph in charge of all those held in prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. Instead of bitterness and self-pity we see Joseph being recognised for his integrity and diligence.

Don Carson says this chapter demonstrates that sometimes God chooses to bless us and make us people of integrity in the midst of abominable circumstances, rather than change our circumstances. (Carson)[2]

Maybe you find yourself currently in awful circumstances, or just ordinary circumstances – perhaps you’re in a job you’re not enjoying, perhaps you’re out of work, perhaps you’re struggling with parenting, with your marriage, with illness or grief. Through Jesus, God is with us in all those situations. God can strengthen us and help us to be people of integrity, faithfully living for him where he has us.

3. Power in our temptations

Dave and Ryan were two men who had a lot in common. Both wept as they spoke to their pastor. Both were family men, both had a wife, and children, both had jobs, yet both stood to lose their families because they’d become enslaved to internet pornography. Both in tears said they were desperate to save their marriages.

Today some years later, only one of them has changed. One of them is reconciled to his wife and restored to a happy, porn-free life with his family. The other is divorced, separated from his kids, and tragically has even spent time in gaol because of how far he continued to go. Both of them shed tears when they met with their pastor because they’re wives were wanting to kick them out. For one those tears were tears of genuine repentance, they knew they had sinned against God, knew they needed God’s forgiveness and help to change, the other had tears of sorrow for being caught, and sorrow for the mess their life was in, but no real repentance.

When Joseph is faced with temptation here, you can see that he’s concerned not just about what a mess this might make of his life, but how much it would offend God – v9 how could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?

In his book, Finally Free, Heath Lambert tells the story of these two men. He says battling the temptation those men faced involves acting on three areas, which I think apply to many temptations i) Your desire, ii) Your time iii) Your access/ availability.  You could say Joseph takes steps in each area:

a) Your desire – notice that when Potiphar’s wife asks Joseph in v7 to come to bed with her, he calls this temptation for what it is, he doesn’t see it as merely a bit of harmless fun, a misdemeanour or even an affair – he calls it: v9 a wicked thing, a sin against God. Whatever short-term pleasure or attraction there might be in this temptation, it would only lead to pain, for him and others, but most of all he knew it was against God and his good ways. If God is with us, we can face temptation as he changes our desires, as more and more we learn to love and treasure him above whatever we are tempted by, and learn to hate the things he hates as we see the harm they will cause and the dishonour they bring to his name.

b) Your time –this temptation Joseph faces wasn’t just one-off, v10 says she spoke to him day after day. Some temptations that you might say no to initially, can wear you down over a period of time. It seems that one way Joseph counters that is by keeping himself busy with what he should be doing. He was in charge of the house, his master was away it would be easy for him to just slack off, but notice v11 says he went in to the house to attend to his duties. In the face of temptation, he keeps himself busy doing his duties. He doesn’t get lazy, or dwell on the temptation, or dwell on the sort of self-pity that might make him think he deserves a bit of pleasure after all he’s been through, he keeps himself productive.

c) Your access  – v10 says he refused to go to bed with her, or even to be with her. He doesn’t allow himself to be in a situation where he might be tempted further. When she tries to force herself on him, v12 he runs out of the house, rather than give in.

Whatever your temptation, whether it’s an adulterous relationship like here, a fantasy like pornography, or some other temptation, there are three practical areas God can help us all to work on: your desire, your time, and your access to that temptation.

There is no struggle for purity so intense that Jesus grace cannot win the battle. There is no consequence so steep that Jesus power cannot carry you through. Jesus grace to change you is stronger than [your temptations] power to destroy you. (Heath Lambert)

It would be easy to read this chapter, and think: Isn’t Joseph a great example? We need to be more like Joseph. The point of the passage is that Joseph is a great example because God is with him. Genesis 39 is about God more than it is about Joseph. That same God can be with us in Jesus.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13) 

4. Hope in our hardships

Joseph’s circumstances in this chapter seem to go from bad to worse. In chapter 37 his brothers ganged up on him, threw him into a pit, sold him to some Midianites or Ishmaelties who sold him to Potiphar, in Egypt. Then despite ten or so years of faithful service to potipar, he doesn’t get long service leave,  he gets thrown into gaol when he’s falsely accused.

In some ways this chapter is a great little snapshot of what life is often like for God’s people: sometimes things seem to be going well, other times we experience great hardship. Yet in all of these, God promises to be with his people.

Adoniram Judson was the first missionary to Burma. Baptists love him, because he was sent as a missionary by a church who baptised infants, but when he and his fellow missionaries got on the boat for their 6 month voyage, they just studied the Bible for the whole time, and by the time they got off at the other end they were convinced that the Bible shows baptism is only for believers. Baptists say, this shows that if it’s just you and your Bible without being influenced by all the errors of church history, you’ll always end up a Baptist!  But when he got to Burma, he struggled for years, seeing very little fruit in his early years, he suffered some great personal hardships, yet in the midst of huge difficulties, he had this great saying: The future is as bright as the promises of God (Adoniram Judson). Joseph alone in Egypt, he suffered unjustly, yet he had the promises of God, the promises we saw earlier given to Isaac and Jacob.

Earlier this year, one of Gloria’s cousins – Deb and her husband Darwin, sadly lost their young daughter Lizzie. She wrote some thoughts on her tumblr blog soon afterwards while she was away: As Im typing this, I am sitting in a beautiful hotel room, overlooking a busy harbour…the view outside is stunning – blue skies, dotted with white fluffy clouds, and a modern Asian landscape.  To get here, I sat in one of the best planes in the world, on one of the best seats money can buy.  I would trade everything that I have now, just to cuddle my Lizzie again…But the reality is this is our life now.  Theres no escape from reality. Darwin and I are grieving together… Lizzie was our third baby.  In 2008, after a year of trying I had a miscarriage at 12 weeks.  In 2010, after 2 years of trying, our baby John Dylan died at 19 weeks and 6 days, in utero.  On 4 July 2013 we lost our dear Lizzie, 19 months and 21 days.  This is our life now of double grief.[3]

It’s heartbreaking to hear of such grief. Even though we know suffering and grief are part of the Christian life, they are so hard when they come. Yet we have hope, because of God’s promises. On the same blog, she writes:  The alternative to trusting in Gods promises is utter darkness, bleak…My only hope is to trust in Jesus, to believe in the God that saves, our eternal God.  The God who always acts in love and never makes mistakes. (Deb Agahari)[4] God’s promises and his presence, bring hope in the midst of real suffering.

Genesis 39 is the third chapter in Genesis 37-50 which we are looking at this term. You could say there are two key markers at the two ends of this section. At one end in chapter 37 we have Joseph’s dream which tells of his family one day all bowing down to him. The dream shows us that right from the beginning God’s in control, he knows what his plan is for Joseph, none of the things that happen in this section catch God by surprise. That’s reinforced at the other end of the section, as Joseph looking back on all that has happened says to his brothers: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20). The ESV says: you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. The wording is very clear. God intended it for good, he meant it for good, it’s not that something happens here that God isn’t expecting, and he’s able to still use it or turn it for good, it says right from the beginning, God intended or meant to achieve good out of this. He was always in control.

When Potiphar’s wife wrongly accuses Joseph, she’s acting perhaps out of spite or revenge or bitterness, she intends evil, but God intends it for good. God always knew Joseph was going to suffer for his integrity, God knew he was going to suffer unjustly and end up in gaol. God is so big, that even intended evil, can be used for ultimate good.

If you’re a Christian and you’re suffering, your suffering hasn’t caught God by surprise, he knew about it, and he always intended this for your ultimate good. We can’t always see or know all the good he’s doing when we suffer, but we can know that in all things he is working to make us more like Jesus.

That’s who Joseph ultimately points us to. God was with Joseph, but Jesus is God, he was given the name Immanuel – God with us.

Like Joseph, Jesus left the homeland of a Father who loved him, but unlike Joseph, Jesus went willingly. Like Joseph, Jesus was subject to temptation and did not yield, even though Jesus’  temptation was even more extensive. Like Joseph Jesus was unjustly accused, but suffered far worse, going not just to gaol, but to the cross.

It’s in seeing that Christ suffered for us, that we most clearly see that God is with us. As Paul contemplates the cross he says: What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).

In Jesus we can be confident that God is with us, God is for us. When we’re suffering, we may ask  why? Then we remember that the central symbol of Christianity has always been the cross. The cross shows us suffering is part of what it means to follow Jesus, the cross shows us that Christ suffered for us, the cross shows us that suffering for God’s people will one day end. The cross shows us God is with us.

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 18 August 2013. Audio here

Grief, Singleness, and Infertility on Mothers Day

The post below from the The Gospel Coalition blog is written by Wendy Alsup:

Mother’s Day is a tricky holiday. Like any holiday, it is sweet for some  and bitter for others.   For some, it’s both.  I remember feeling on  the outside looking in on  Mother’s Day, first as a single woman and  then after I miscarried our  first.  Our church had an entrance near the  nursery called the Family  Entrance.  Could I use it?  Were we a  family?  I finally just used it  regardless, almost as an act of  defiance.  Now as the mother of a 4- and 6-year-old, I can deeply  appreciate someone setting aside parking near an  entrance that kept me  from having to walk my toddlers across a busy  intersection.  But at the  time I was dealing with emotions that weren’t  swayed by practical  realities.  I just wanted to be a mom.  And that  sign at the church  entrance reminded me I wasn’t.

It is an age-old conundrum in humanity in general and Christianity in   particular.  How do you honor someone who has something good that you   want too?  How do you applaud the sacrifices of one without minimizing   the suffering of the other?  I don’t know exactly, but I do think there   is an overarching principle that is helpful.

Motherhood is not the greatest good for the Christian woman.  Whether   you are a mom or not, don’t get caught up in sentimentalism that sets it   up as some saintly role.  The greatest good is being conformed to the   image of Christ.  Now, motherhood is certainly one of God’s primary   tools in his arsenal for this purpose for women.  But it is not the end   itself.  Being a mom doesn’t make you saintly.  Believe me.  Being a  mom  exposes all the ways you are a sinner, not a saint.  Not being a  mom  and wanting to be one does too.  We may long to get pregnant,  looking at  motherhood from afar.  God sanctifies us through that  longing.  We may  lose a pregnancy or a child, and mourn the loss of our  motherhood.  God  conforms us to Christ through that as well.  We may  have a brood of  children of various ages, and heaven knows God roots  sin out of our  hearts that way.  It’s all about THE greatest good,  being conformed to  the image of Christ—reclaiming the image of God  that he created us to  bear through gospel grace.  And God uses both the  presence and the  absence of children in the lives of his daughters as a  primary tool of  conforming us to Christ.

Single woman watching your biological clock tick away, I encourage you  to look today at your longings through the lens of the gospel.   You  don’t have to deny your longing or talk yourself into a happy  attitude  for all the good things you can do without kids.  It’s OK to  mourn the  loss.  God said children are a blessing.  But after the fall,  we do not  all get to experience that blessing.  The gospel makes up the  difference.  While you are disappointed in deep ways and  that  disappointment is real, you will one day sit with Jesus in heaven   profoundly content with his work in you through this disappointment.   In  heaven, you will have no longing for something you missed.  You will   not be disappointed.  May confidence in that hope sustain you.

Married woman experiencing infertility, I encourage you with similar   words.  People can be callous with their words, especially in the   church.  But believe in confidence that God in this very moment loves   you with a deep love.  You may feel estranged from him, knowing that he   has the power to give you that sweet infant that he has given so many   around you.  It seems like he is dangling a desire in front of you,   teasing you with it.  But understand that unfulfilled desire is a tool he uses to give you even better things—things of himself that you   cannot know in easy ways.  Believe in confidence that this time of   waiting is not just a holding pattern with no discernible value, but it   too is a blessing, albeit in disguise, as it increases your strength to   run and not grow weary and to walk and not to faint.  Wait on the  Lord,  dear sister, in confidence.

And mom who fails her children regularly (because that’s everyone else),   preach the gospel to yourself this day.  If you have any grasp on your   reality, you are likely painfully aware of every failure you’ve made   with your children.  And maybe you are fatigued by the fears of future   failure as well.  It’s okay that your children expose your own sin.  In fact, it’s the mom who doesn’t seem daily aware of her   failures that most concerns me.  Christ has made the way for you to be   at peace.  If you sinned against your kids, ask their forgiveness.  If   you are kicking yourself for your failures, preach God’s grace to   yourself.  Don’t learn to live with your sin—don’t embrace it with the   attitude “that’s just how I am.”  But don’t deny it either.  Be honest   about it.  You sinned.  You confess.  God forgives.  You get up and  walk  forward in confidence.  It’s called gospel grace, and THAT is the   legacy to leave your children.

Wendy Alsup is a wife and mom who loves math and theology. She is the author of Practical Theology for Women and By His Wounds You Are Healed. Wendy blogs at Practical Theology for Women.

Grief, Suffering and Hope

The Bible is very realistic about grief and suffering. It gives us hope through a God who promises to be with his people in suffering, can use it for our good, and has himself endured the suffering of the cross, so that suffering for all who trust in him will one day come to an end. Bible passages which have helped God’s people during suffering include Psalms such as 22, 23, 55, and 73,  Isaiah 40 & 53, John 14-16, Romans 8, Hebrews 12, 1 Peter and Revelation. In the short video below, Zac Smith shares some of the good things he’s learned in his battle with cancer:

 

In this video made later, Zac’s widow Mandy shares the hope she has in the midst of her real grief:

Related resources: 
Grief Diary 1—Death Ends a 52 year Marriage
Grief Diary 2—Godly Paths Lead to Blessing  
Grief Diary 3 – Lessons of a life seen from 34000 feet
 
Related Posts:
Grief, hope, forgiveness
Is your church a safe place for sad or grieving people?

Fearful of the process of dying

Christian Counsellor Alasdair Groves responds to a question from a person dying of cancer who is fearful of the dying process:

 

In the clip he refers to his father’s blog which can be found here

Related Resources:

Online Article: Facing Death with Hope: Living for What Lasts (David Powlison)

Booklet: On My Way To Heaven (Mark Ashton describes his own experience of imminent death from inoperable cancer)

Is your church a safe place for sad or grieving people?

Grief is a common part of our life experience. It is worth thinking about how we can help each other as we go through grief. In a recent interview Nancy Guthrie, author of  Hearing Jesus speak into your sorrow  answered some questions related to helping churches be safe places for people to grieve. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

Why did you initially become interested in making churches a safe place for sad people?

Because I’ve been a sad person, and I know what it is to look to my church for companionship, practical help, prayer support, and theological clarity in the midst of overwhelming and perplexing sorrow. I remember attending a church choir retreat three months after burying my daughter and saying to the group, “I’m not sinking into depression. I haven’t lost my faith. I’m just sad, and I need you to let me be sad.” The truth is, most of us are uncomfortable with sadness, as individuals and as churches. We want to fix people and help them to feel better, and we are far less patient than God is with the process he uses to bring healing.

But making a church a safe place for sad people is about much more than providing personal and practical support. A social club can do that. The gospel is what provides the solid truth that grieving people need to inform their feelings and undergird their hope. For a church to be a safe place for sad people does not merely mean that we offer comfort and acceptance. Sometimes it means that we gently but boldly challenge misbeliefs or misunderstandings of Scripture…A church that is a safe place for sad people will lovingly present the Scriptures as authoritative and sufficient, providing all we need to entrust our loved ones to God.

What’s the most helpful thing we can do for a fellow church member struggling through grief?

Grieving people have four primary needs that the church has a key role in addressing:

  1. They have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering that needs to be respected.
  2. They have significant questions that need to be addressed in light of Scripture.
  3. They have broken relationships that need to be healed and normalized.
  4. They have a deep desire to discover some meaning and purpose in their loss.

While we make room for people to be sad, we want to walk with people in expectation that God will indeed do a work of healing in their lives so that they do not stay stuck in their sadness, but emerge from it strengthened in their confidence in God, deepened in their understanding of the Scriptures, and equipped to serve others.

What are some common errors we make when trying to help someone going through a difficult time?

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