Week Commencing Sunday 24th May

Week Commencing Sunday 24th May 2020

Dear Friends,

I hope you are keeping well.

I had an email recently from a couple who wrote the following to me and other Christian ministers of their acquaintance:

 ‘During this strange and difficult time of confinement to your homes, consider that the Lord may be giving you a rare opportunity. The ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ does exist and we have observed over the years that it compels many church leaders to use every waking hour in striving to cope with massive workloads. Clearly it is necessary in the present crisis to keep in touch with your Christian communities and offer them as much support and encouragement as possible, but also you can profit from the severe restrictions by taking more time than normal for relaxed personal praying, reading, meditating and reflecting on where God is leading you. Please do not allow the opportunity to pass you by. Written in concern for you, our loved brothers and sisters in Christ.’

This couple writes on a theme that is not only relevant for full time Christian workers, it’s relevant for us all at this time. Although we are largely confined to our homes and restricted in our activities, we have been given a rare opportunity to give more time than usual to that which is of greatest importance, namely to practice the presence of God.

Hymn

 

The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want;
He Makes Me Lie In Pastures Green.
He Leads Me By The Still, Still Waters,
His Goodness Restores My Soul.

He Guides My Ways In Righteousness,
And He Anoints My Head With Oil,
And My Cup, It Overflows With Joy,
I Feast On His Pure Delights.

And Though I Walk The Darkest Path,
I Will Not Fear The Evil One,
For You Are With Me, And Your Rod And Staff
Are The Comfort I Need To Know.

And I Will Trust In You Alone,
And I Will Trust In You Alone,
For Your Endless Mercy Follows Me,
Your Goodness Will Lead Me Home.

Stuart Townend

 

 

Reading. Exodus 24: 12-18.

 

Prayers.

 

Prayer of Confession.

“Lord Jesus Christ, I am sorry for the things I have done wrong in my life. I ask your forgiveness and now turn from everything which I know is wrong. Thank you for dying on the cross for me to set me free from my sins. Please come into my life and fill me with your Holy Spirit and be with me forever. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen”

 

Prayer of Adoration.

O Lord,
How we adore you.
How we marvel at the depth of your love.
How we wonder at the waves of your grace.
How we are astounded by the glorious balance of the earth.
We are in awe of the vastness of the universe.
We are so privileged to be called your children.
We are accepted and forgiven and embraced.
You are almighty, above and beyond everything.
You are victorious. Darkness, sin and death are under your feet.
You are holy, beautiful and full of love.
How we adore you.
Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Lord, there are marvellous things that I do not know, nor can I comprehend.
Lord, things that happen in my life, and things that happen in my friends lives.
Lord, I desire to be thankful, to appreciate everything that comes across my path.
Lord, so often life hurts, I get angry -- upset, I do not understand, yet Lord You ask me to be thankful for everything, and have faith – thank You.
Lord, keep me thankful. You send sunshine and rain on the just and the unjust, You are kind to all.

Lord, You care so much about me, that You chasten in order to build character and godliness in me.
Lord, I thank You for mercy, for the hunger for righteousness, for forgiveness, for purity, for providing for my needs.
Lord, I thank You for prayer, That I can come before You and call You Father.
That I can cast my burdens on You.
Lord, I thank You for my heart, the treasure and light You placed in there -- the Holy Spirit.
Lord, it seems most of the time, what happens is about me.
Lord, I thank you that You gently remind me that the things are not about me, however, my life and what happens is more about You, Your will, and Your Kingdom.
Lord, I thank You, I praise You. Lord, in You do I find strength and courage to go on.
Lord, I thank You for being the author and finisher of my faith – and that in You is hope everlasting.
Lord, I thank You for the precious blood of Christ shed for me.
Thank You Lord God! Amen

 

Prayer of Intercession

We continue to pray for all who are engaged in the care of those who are suffering from COVID-19, and for the families of all bereaved by this virus. We also remember the families of NHS & Care Staff who have died in serving others. We pray for those whose employment has been lost or is threatened by this outbreak. And we pray for those who live on their own. We think of parents and children coping with lockdown. We also pray for teachers at school with children eligible for schooling. We pray for our Government and a God-given wisdom in their decision making

.

We pray Lord you would speak powerfully to our country. We pray for a vaccine and for healing of course, but we also pray you would speak into our hearts and minds, for in our pride we behave as if we are ‘master of our fate and captain of our soul’, but these present circumstances remind us of our frailty and how dependent we are on you. We are reminded of our mortality and that death awaits us all. Then follows the Judgment and we must give account. So have mercy upon us today. Please forgive us our sins, especially our rebellion in looking to remove you and your ways from our national life. So let that day find us trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation. Amen

 

Tim Hobson called me from Morocco last week. He told me that his father Graeme had died. Graeme was at home and he died in peace. He celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year with all his family. Please remember Graeme's sons Jeremy and Tim and daughter Laura and their families in prayer. We give thanks for our friend and brother Dr Graeme Hobson. He loved the Lord Jesus and he now sees the Lord face to face, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” 1Corinthians 2:9

 

Reading. John 15:1-8

 

Hymn

 

Father, I place into Your hands,
The things I cannot do.
Father, I place into Your hands
The times that I've been through.
Father, I place into Your hands
The way that I should go,
For I know I always can trust You.

Father, I place into Your hands
My friends and family.
Father, I place into Your hands
The things that trouble me.
Father, I place into Your hands
The person I would be,
For I know I always can trust You.

Father, we love to see Your face,
We love to hear Your voice.
Father, we love to sing Your praise
And in Your name rejoice.
Father, we love to walk with You
And in Your presence rest,
For we know we always can trust You.

Father, I want to be with You
And do the things You do.
Father, I want to speak the words
That You are speaking too.
Father, I want to love the ones
That You will draw to You,
For I know that I am one with You.

 

Bottom of Form

Sermon. ‘Practising the presence of God’

‘To practice the presence of God the heart must be empty of all else, because God wills to possess the heart alone; and as He cannot possess it alone unless it be empty of all else besides, so He cannot work in it what he would, unless it be left vacant to Him.’ Brother Lawrence.

‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ Blaise Pascal.

In Exodus 24 we are told that Moses went up on a mountain to meet God and a cloud immediately covered the mount ‘For six days the cloud covered the mountain and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses.’(Exodus 24:16). Moses sat and waited willingly for six days before God started to speak to him.

Contrast that with the people of Israel ‘When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us’ (Exodus 32:1). Why did the Israelites fall into idolatry? The reason appears to be boredom! They got tired of waiting.

And that is our temptation too. We are not prepared to wait on God. We are happy instead to be diverted by other things and miss the essential, which is to give God room, time and quiet. Then our hearts turn to ‘idols.’

We tend to fill our lives with noise and busyness that we do not hear God’s voice. Fenelon wrote ‘God does not cease speaking but the noise of the creatures without, and of our passions within, deafens us and stops our hearing. We must silence every creature, we must silence ourselves, to hear in the deep hush of the whole soul, the ineffable voice (of God). We must bend the ear, because it is a gentle and delicate voice, only heard by those who no longer hear anything else.’

A Native American and his friend were in New York, walking near Times Square in Manhattan. It was during the lunch hour and the streets were honking their horns, taxis were squealing around corners, sirens were wailing. The sounds of the city were almost deafening.

Suddenly the Native American said ‘I hear a cricket.’

His friend said ‘What, you must be mad. You could not possibly hear a cricket in all of this noise.’

‘No, I’m sure of it’ the Native American said, ‘I heard a cricket’

‘That’s crazy’ said his friend.

The Native American listened carefully for a moment, and then walked across the street to a big cement planter where some shrubs were growing. He looked into the bushes and sure enough, he found a small cricket. His friend was utterly amazed:

‘That’s incredible,’ said his friend. ‘You must have super-human ears!’

‘No,’ said the Native American. ‘My ears are no different from yours. It all depends on what you’re listening for.’

‘But that can’t be!’ said the friend. ‘I could never hear a cricket in this noise.’

‘Yes, it’s true,’ came the reply. ‘It depends on what is really important to you. Here, let me show you.’

He reached in his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and discreetly dropped them on the pavement. And then, with the noise of the crowded street still blaring in their ears, they noticed every head within twenty feet turn and look to see if the money that tinkled on the pavement was theirs.

‘See what I mean?’ asked the Native American. ‘It all depends on what is important to you.’

 

What is most important to you? What do your ears listen out for? Jesus said ‘For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them…but blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.’ (Matthew 13:15, 16).

 We need quiet to commune with God and find peace. True happiness comes from resting in God, but we are easily diverted.

Pascal reflected that our lust for diversion proves our unhappiness for if we were truly happy ‘We should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.’ While God has given us many gifts for our enjoyment, the danger is to put these before Him, and then idolise them. In this way these diversions become like drugs to us. We crave them but we are left aching and dissatisfied:

I came across this little piece: ‘The TV addict’s version of Psalm 23’:

    The TV is my shepherd, my spiritual life shall want.

    It makes me to sit down and do nothing for the cause of Christ.

    It demandeth my spare time.

    It restoreth my desire for the things of the world.

    It keepeth me from studying the truth of God’s Word.

    It leadeth me in the path of failure to attend God’s house.

    Yea, though I live to be a hundred, I will fear no rental.

    My ‘Telly’ is with me, its sound and vision comfort me.

    It prepareth a programme for me, even in the presence of visitors.

    It’s volume shall be full.

    Surely comedy and commercials shall follow me all the days of my life,

    And I will dwell in spiritual poverty forever

 

Please do not misunderstand. Television is a useful medium in moderation. I personally enjoy watching football on ‘Match of Their Day’ at present, table tennis matches on YouTube and various films. The ability to stream Christian seminars and services on to your TV screen is a great help to many at this time. But it’s the addiction to diversions like television that rob us of quiet with God, communion with Him and indeed our happiness.

 

It’s only in the quiet as we spend time with the Lord that we know His care for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep. Its only in these ways as the real Psalm 23 describes, that we find refreshment and happiness; as the Lord makes us ‘lie down in green pastures’, leads us beside ‘quiet waters’ and ‘restores our soul’ it is as we make time to be with Him that we hear Him guiding us in the paths of righteousness, dispelling our fears, nourishing us even within conflict and generally giving us a right and positive outlook to our lives: so with David at the end of his Psalm and at the end of our time with the Lord we say with him ‘Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ These benefits spring from simply spending time in God’s presence.

 

We should also avoid letting other people’s opinions and agendas keep us from directly hearing from and speaking with the living God. Like ourselves all people are finite and limited. We are ‘from below’ (John 3:31-36). Only Christ, the Son of God is ‘from above’ and reveals God to us. Every Christmas we remember Christ is God Incarnate (Cf John 1:1-14). Of course we listen to what human beings have to say and we weigh up what they say, which is useful according to their field of training and expertise- but none of them must become god to us.

 

There are many who would like to tell you how to live and get you to follow them, but Christ warns against such: ‘I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved’ (John 10:7-9, see also His warning about those who ‘come in their own name’ John 5: 41-44 and John 3:31-36).  No politician, philosopher, novelist, celebrity, social scientist, media mogul, priest, secular or religious teacher can take the place of God in your life. The reason being that only God; the Good Shepherd; your Creator and Saviour really knows all things (He is Omniscient), and knows you personally- indeed ‘every hair of your head’! And truly cares for you since he ‘lays his life down for the sheep.’ We are His sheep, we don’t belong to any other ‘sheep’, ‘goat’ ‘wolf’ ‘thief’ or even the ‘hired hand’

 

At this time when so many through the media speculate and make gloomy ‘worse case scenarios’ etc, I don’t want my spirit, my life to be ruled by the opinions of such. So I don’t need to become absorbed with every news item or headline- particularly when it comes to the coronavirus. I don’t want a newspaper to dictate what I believe, think or practice. I want to hear from God. From His Word. What God is teaching his people. I want my thoughts and actions to be governed by eternal principles, not the latest opinion poll.

 

I want to meet with God.’ Don’t let anything or anyone keep you from that. It is the wonderful privilege that God Himself has brought about for you. At great cost to himself through the cross:

 

Hebrews 10:19-22 ‘Therefore brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience’

These are reassuring verses from Hebrews. They affirm when you turn to the Lord in prayer, He is already there. He receives you when you pray as part of the congregation. He receives you when you are alone in the quiet of your room. Further, we can confidently go straight to Him with our prayers- we need no other mediator. Why? Because Jesus blood shed on the cross for us has cleansed us of our sins, so our sins/ our natural unworthiness are no longer barriers to our being received by God. Indeed we are now received by God the Father as He would receive His only true Son Jesus Christ.

So what does time with God look like?

 

C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity draws a wonderful picture of what it is to practice the presence of God. He uses the doctrine of the Trinity to help us understand (today is Trinity Sunday):

 

‘An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him (Lewis is referring to The Holy Spirit. We will think more about Him next week on Pentecost Sunday). But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God- that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying- the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on- the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers’ (Mere Christianity, book 4)

 

So prayer is not some extra religious duty that you and I perform. We see from the above that Prayer is the means of our developing a relationship with the Living God.

 

Jesus Parable of the Vine (John 15) reinforces relationship. There we see that Christ is the vine and we are the branches. It indicates the most intimate and vital union. The branch draws its very life from the vine. It is intertwined with it and partakes its very nature from the vine. So too we are ‘in Christ.’

 

Notice the Lord calls us to remain in Him and his words remain in us (7). Unless the branches of the vine remain in the vine they die, they only have life flowing through them and are enabled to bear fruit if they remain in the vine. So Prayer-the means of remaining in Him; and Scripture- His words remaining in us are the vital twin conditions for living the Christian life in God’s sight.

 

Prayer (remaining in Him) includes various elements; Confession, Adoration, Thanksgiving and Petition. Petition includes casting our own concern on to the Lord, but also interceding for others. I spent some time on these aspects when we looked at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 4:1-7 (‘Do not be anxious about anything. Pray and find peace.’ Update week commencing Sunday 19th April). So I will not repeat myself here. Although these elements are included in today’s order of service.

 

When it comes to prayer, do you sometimes feel your stammering will not be heard? Am I truly praying in line with God’s will?  I sometimes feel that way. But the following promise in Romans 8 is apt ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God’ (26, 27). The promise here quite simply is that God takes our imperfect prayers (our groans) and even the inability to know how to pray; He takes those feeble verbal attempts of ours, and by His Spirit makes them perfect prayers that He can use within His wider purposes.

What we do need to see is how closely prayer is to be united with the Lord’s words: ‘You remain in me and my words remain in you.’  So we pray; we express our adoration and thanksgiving and so forth, but we also have times where we are silent and listen for God’s voice. How does He speak to us? : ‘my words remain in you’. We hear Him speak to us through His Word: ‘All Scripture is God breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16). Biblical meditation combines prayer and Scripture. It is where we contemplate on a verse or fuller passage from Scripture, and pray that the Lord open our eyes to its meaning and application for our lives. Over the years I have found it helpful to keep note books where verses and prayer have come together to help me, and I would commend that practice to you.

 

Meditation has been compared to that of chewing the cud. Just as that which a cow has eaten is brought up again and again, so we recall a certain Scripture to mind, a past experience where the Lord has enabled us- how His Word helped us then. We reflect further on that word and the Spirit shapes it in our thinking to see how it might apply to the new situation:

 

Psalm 63:6 David says ‘on my bed I remember you. I meditate on you in the watches of the night.’ At the time of writing King David had left his comfortable palace to flee to the wilderness because of a rebellion led by his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15: 13-23). In that Psalm David meditates on the nature of God. He contemplated God’s greatness and is reassured of God’s protective providence and sovereign control, though he is currently in the midst of trial: ‘Because you are my help I sing in the shadow of your wings, my soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me.’ As David continued to meditate on God’s greatness no doubt he ‘chewed the cud’, he thought back to past deliverances from the lion and bear, from Goliath and even from King Saul.

 

While we have been principally thinking of practicing the presence of God for a specific, dedicated time in the day, Ephesians 6: 18 encourages us to ‘pray at all times.’ A maid was asked by a minister what this meant to her. She said ‘Why that’s exactly what I do each day. When I wash, I think of my sins being washed away. When I light the fire, I think of the bright light that I should be for the Lord Jesus. When I wash the dishes, I think of the kind of utensil I should be for the Lord.’ Here is an awareness of the Lord and His ways in all we undertake in our lives.

 

So practising the presence of God includes setting aside time in your relationship with God. To deepen that relationship through prayer and to also hear Him speak to you as you learn more of your Lord and His ways through biblical meditation. Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray, including a mountain (Matthew 14:23). Many find it conducive to go outdoors into God’s Creation and reflect on Nature when they spend time with God. Jesus himself draws spiritual lessons about God’s care and provision from birds and lilies (Matthew 6:26, 28). Music is also a wonderful God given gift and is conducive to express our thanksgiving and adoration of God in prayer.

 

Jesus says to you ‘Come with me by yourself to a quiet place and get some rest’ (Matthew 6:31)

………………………………………………………

 

I want to leave you with the words of a beautiful song that invite us into the presence of God:

 

 

There’s a quiet place where I can go

Far away from the confusion

In this open space my heart can grow

Break away from the illusion

 

And I see you there shining like the sun

You beckon me to come and seek your face

Lord I thank you you’re the only one

Filling up this quiet place

 

There’s a silent stream deep down inside

Flowing from the holy mountain

Mercy washes clean and love sublime

Pouring from the Saviour’s fountain

 

And I see you there shining like the sun

You beckon me to come and seek your face

Lord I thank you you’re the only one

Filling up this quiet place

 

Thank you Jesus, you’re the only one

Filling up this quiet place

 

(This Quiet Place. Tom Howard. From album ‘Danger in loving you’ 1981. On YouTube)

 

 

Blessing. ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all’