The 4 Gospels part 1 – Why go through the gospels?

Why go through the Gospels? There’s a simple answer to that: Because we are disciples of Jesus too, and he can now teach us through the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John what we are disciples for.

The four gospels were written for disciples, so that disciples of Jesus in any age can follow Jesus and learn from him. We can’t literally follow Jesus on the dusty roads of 1st century Judea, of course, nor can we hear Jesus speaking to us directly – and nor are we Jews living in Galilee in the first century either – but we’ve got the story of how and why Jesus chose disciples in the first place, written down by those who were with him at the time. All disciples in any century, therefore, have a ‘textbook’ to work from to help us clue in to what we are disciples for.

But why did Jesus have disciples in the first place? Well, imagine being Peter and his brother Andrew out in their boat as usual to catch fish one day, and along comes Jesus in Mark 1:17 and from the shore he yells out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Or as The Message phrases it, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.”

And not far down the same beach James and his brother John are out in their fishing boat too, mending their nets, and “Right off, Jesus made the same offer (to them as well),” verse 20, and “Immediately, they left their father Zebedee, the boat and the hired hands, and followed.”

Now imagine if Mark had never written this down. We wouldn’t have this picture of Jesus deliberately aiming for this beach, knowing these four men would be there, and calling out to them to come with him because he was going to make something of them they had never envisioned. They thought their lives would be lived out as catchers of fish, going through the same old motions every day of paddling out in their boats, chucking out their nets, hauling in their catch, and selling it at market. But Jesus turns up, and everything changes, because he wants them fishing for people, not fish.

And who is all this meant for? Well, if it’s just an interesting story about how Jesus called his original disciples and it has no purpose other than that, why did Mark bother writing it down and why should we bother reading it? But when you realize that the gospels were written for all Jesus’ disciples in any age, and it’s totally meant for us right now because we’re Jesus’ disciples too, then what might be tucked away in this story for us, as well?

The first thing that struck me was that nothing would have changed in the lives of Peter, Andrew, James and John if Jesus had not come down to the beach that day and called out to them. It’s one of the first things we learn in the gospels, that becoming a disciple is all Jesus’ doing. He chooses us. But that’s what discipleship meant in a 1st century context. It was a highly selective process. You didn’t choose to become a disciple, you were chosen, a point Jesus confirmed in John 15:16 in the choosing of his own disciples, when he said, “You didn’t choose me, remember, I chose you.”

If I’m saying, therefore, that I am a disciple of Christ, I am also saying that Christ chose me, because that’s how it was done in the gospels. Jesus already had his sights on Peter, Andrew, James and John when he headed down to the beach that day. It was all part of a plan – a plan that had actually been hatched a long, long time before that day too, because when speaking of his disciples to his Father in John 17:6, Jesus said, “They were yours in the first place; you gave them to me.” So the Father and Jesus were both involved in who would become disciples. It was the Father’s choice originally, but Jesus was totally tuned to which men the Father had in mind, a point we see later in Luke 6:12-13 when Jesus prayed all night to his Father in the choosing of twelve apostles.

Tucked away in this story of Jesus calling out to four fishermen to follow him, therefore, is the astounding realization that the Father and Jesus specifically chose them. This was no random process. It was in their plan all along that Jesus would have a group of disciples following him, and that both the Father and Jesus would have a very personal hand in who those disciples would be.

And notice the timing too. It was on that day that Jesus took a stroll down to the beach to call out to those men to follow him. Jesus had probably watched them fishing on other days, but this day was the day. This was the time to get these men called and on the way to being disciples. It was all according to plan, not only for Jesus to have disciples on the first place, but also who those disciples would be, and when they would be called to follow him.

And there was no hesitation on the part of the disciples either. Jesus called out to them to follow him, and in Mark 1:18, “They didn’t ask questions. They dropped their nets and followed.” The same thing happened when Jesus called to James and John. When Jesus knew the time had come, “Without delay he called them,” verse 20, “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”

Something goes click in a disciple’s head when the day planned for his calling arrives. One minute these four men were happily fishing away, probably not thinking much of anything beyond the immediate need, and then they hear Jesus’ voice from the beach. But they’d been chosen, so that was it; their minds automatically responded, which is enormously encouraging to know, because that’s how it is with disciples. We respond to our Master’s voice when it’s time for us to be called. We can’t help it. It isn’t something we initiate or that we contribute to. It doesn’t require us ‘coming to Jesus’ or ‘giving our hearts to Jesus’. When the time comes for our discipleship to begin, it’s like the day Jesus walked down to the beach to call out to those four fishermen: Something miraculous happens in our heads, and life as we’ve known it changes forever.

And from that point on Jesus does in our lives what his Father designed disciples for. When Jesus called out to Peter, Andrew, James and John, it was the beginning of a process, which Jesus describes in Mark 1:17 as “making a new kind of fisherman out of you.” He’s going to teach them how to fish for people. Jesus does not say, “Come follow me, so you can have a wonderful, personal, intimate relationship with me,” nor does he say, “Come follow me, so you can have all sorts of spiritual manifestations and spiritual experiences to make you feel all warm and fuzzy with God.” A personal relationship with Jesus would exist, oh yes, and they would also experience the Spirit’s power in remarkable ways (oh yes again), but never for some selfish, personal reason. Jesus calls men and women to be his disciples to train them to become excellent and highly effective net catchers of people. It is an entirely unselfish calling.

And the means by which Jesus makes his disciples into effective net catchers of people is rather simple: “Come with me,” Jesus says, “and follow me,” which in the Greek means, “Walk with me and assist me.” It meant join him in what he was doing. Do it with him. They would learn on the job as they did it together. Jesus isn’t the teacher up front with his disciples all sitting in a neat row scribbling notes. He wants them actively involved in everything he’s doing. They’re more like apprentices than students.

And what are Jesus’ disciples to be actively involved in? In the same thing HE was actively involved in when he took over from John the Baptist after John was “put in prison” in Mark 1:14. Jesus immediately “went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” And the good news contained a two-part message: First of all, it was “Time’s up,” verse 15, “God’s Kingdom is here,” but followed immediately by, “So, people, it’s time for some radical changes in your lives, and some serious belief in how great (and revolutionary) this news is.”

We have to add the word “revolutionary,” because what Jesus was saying was utterly radical at that point in time. It meant throwing everything in your life to the wind and throwing in your lot totally with God instead, because, like a massive alien spaceship approaching Earth, God was on the way to the Earth to set up his Kingdom. So get ready for it by dumping all loyalties to other kingdoms, and joining the revolution.

It was great news, because it meant the Kingdom of Heaven would now be a force to be reckoned with on the Earth, directly challenging the kingdoms of the world under the devil’s rule, exactly as Daniel and other prophets had predicted. This was the amazing time the Jews had so desperately been hoping for – for at least four centuries – and now Jesus was saying it had arrived. The juggernaut was on the move, so believe it and jump on board.

That was the message, and Jesus immediately started recruiting disciples to assist him in getting it across to people. But why choose four ordinary fishermen? What could they do? Well, we see how brilliant Jesus’ choice was, because the sight of fishermen chucking in their jobs to follow him was a perfect illustration of what Jesus was saying about dumping loyalties to all other kingdoms now that God’s Kingdom had arrived.

This comes clear when you realize that all fishermen were basically working for King Herod. Peter, Andrew, James and John, along with all the other fishermen hauling fish out of the Sea of Galilee, couldn’t just throw their nets out any old time they pleased and get all the income from the sale of their fish. It didn’t work like that at all, not while King Herod was in charge, because Herod viewed the Sea of Galilee as his own private pond.

In Herod’s mind he had every right to act like the Caesar in Rome, who claimed every bit of fishable water, ocean and lake, belonged to him, and so did all the fish that came out of those waters too.

To quote from one book I read, Herod “developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar’s claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them; at every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus’ disciples, were caught in his conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping.” It was all highly regulated in Herod’s favour, because there was a huge demand in the Empire for Galilean fish, and lots of money to be made.

When Jesus called to four fishermen, therefore, to dump everything and follow him, it was a direct slap in the face to Herod. It tied in directly with Jesus’ preaching about God’s Kingdom arriving and jumping on that bandwagon instead, and chucking all loyalties to other kingdoms to the wind. It was the first open hint of what Jesus had come for, and it was political.

On one side of this brewing political storm was Herod, picturing the kingdoms of this world and their rulers, who think everything on this planet belongs to them. As far as Herod was concerned he owned the Sea of Galilee, he owned every fish and clam that came out of it – and he owned the fishermen who fished it. So imagine what life was like for a 1st century fisherman like Peter or Andrew: Your life and livelihood totally depended on the catching and selling of fish, so under Herod’s rule you were stuck. You had to go along with his ridiculous regulations and charges, or else. You were in the system, and you couldn’t escape it. To resist it was financial suicide.

But here were four ordinary fishermen who simply turned their backs on that entire system and walked away from it. And they did it without a moment’s hesitation or thought about themselves and how on earth they were going to survive financially by following Jesus.

It was probably the greatest snub to the pride and power of pagan kingdoms since Daniel and his friends refused to bow down before Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. But that was the power and purpose of Jesus’ call to those fishermen. It flipped a switch in their heads that enabled them to follow him and not Herod, to illustrate exactly what Jesus meant when he cried out, “The time has come. God’s Kingdom is here, so repent – make a choice which kingdom you’re part of – because the great news is, the clash of kingdoms has begun.” And here were these four men jumping off their boats as wonderful proof of it.

I doubt they had any inkling at the time that jumping off their boats to follow Jesus was clear proof that what Jesus was saying was true, that the revolution had begun, and the age of absolute pagan rule was over. I also doubt they had any idea that the moment they stepped off their boats in response to Jesus’ call Jesus was already fulfilling his promise to make them into a very different kind of fisherman, capable of netting people.

But what did Jesus mean in the first place when he said he would make them into fishers of men? Well, the whole context here is about assisting Jesus in his political revolution, of establishing God’s kingdom on the earth right in the middle of a powerful pagan kingdom with a king like Herod, who ruled every part of people’s lives and demanded absolute obedience. What Jesus meant by “fishers of men,” therefore, was netting people to join the revolution and assist him in establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth. And by jumping off their boats to join Jesus, they became the revolution’s first recruits, who in turn would then be made into effective recruiters of other people for the revolution by Jesus.

When those four men stepped off their boats, therefore, it was the day the revolution began, and the netting of people to join it began in earnest. It’s interesting, then, that the first thing Jesus did after recruiting Peter, Andrew, James and John, was to head off to Capernaum together, “and when the Sabbath came,” Mark 1:21, “Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.” Jesus wasn’t hanging around; he went straight to the best recruiting spot available, the synagogue, and did a wow of a speech that “amazed” people (verse 22).

But what really amazed the people in that synagogue was the powerful confidence oozing out of Jesus as he spoke (22). He wasn’t like “the teachers of the law,” who spoke only about the Law and how best to keep it in every detail. Jesus talked in much loftier tones, as one who saw a much bigger picture unfolding, who understood the significance of the times they were living in, as though he had an inside track on things.

And isn’t that exactly what we have as Jesus’ disciples today too? We know what’s really going on in this world. Oh, it looks like the world is under the complete control of human rulers and they decide everything – just as it seemed in Judea when King Herod ruled supreme – but we “believe the good news,” as Jesus said in verse 15. We believe God has been actively recruiting and training a steady flow of revolutionaries ever since Jesus arrived, as living proof that HIS Kingdom is here too, because that’s what Jesus got started in the gospels.

The gospels tell us what’s really going on – that first of all, Jesus came to start a revolution; secondly, that he immediately began recruiting people to join him in that revolution; and thirdly, that he set out with his fellow revolutionaries to amaze people with their confidence, authority and power. And all for one purpose and one purpose alone, to prove the Kingdom of God exists on this Earth, by showing what it’s like in direct contrast to the kingdoms of the devil so that more people are caught in the net and join the revolution.

And to further prove that this was now the big picture unfolding in the world, there was immediate opposition from those who were already ruling the world, who didn’t take kindly to their position being threatened. This soon became apparent when an evil spirit interrupted Jesus in Mark 1:23, by yelling out through a man the spirit had gained control over, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

It’s interesting that the evil spirit said ‘us’, which suggests he’s speaking for the whole demonic realm. So this is a face-off between the kingdom of evil and the Kingdom of God, and it’s happening only moments after Jesus has got the revolution rolling. Clearly, then, the evil realm is worried, and understandably so, because they knew the prophecies in the Old Testament that big things would happen when the Messiah arrived, and now, suddenly, here he was. In what sounds like a mix of panic and aggression the evil spirit yells out to Jesus, “I know who you are; you’re the Holy One of God.” The evil spirit realm was obviously in no doubt that in the person of Jesus the Kingdom of God had arrived.

And we see in the evil spirit’s reaction what that meant as far the evil realm was concerned. Their immediate concern was what Jesus intended to do to them: ”What do you want with us?” the spirit cried, because they knew they were in deep trouble. And in asking Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” we see the evil realm actually accepting their lot in life, that with the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the power of God’s Holy One, Jesus could do whatever he liked with them. So when the evil spirit asks, “Have you come to destroy us?” – it is admitting that Jesus can destroy them any time he likes. Is the Holy One of God going to destroy them right away, then, or later?

Can you see what’s happening here? In the evil spirit’s mind it’s already game over. We’re only moments into Jesus’ ministry and the demonic world is already accepting they’ve lost the fight. The revolution that Jesus has only just started with his first four disciples has already been won.

In the great clash of kingdoms begun by Jesus’ arrival, the demons are already saying it’s no contest, because they know who Jesus is. They know exactly what they’re up against in the person of Jesus and they shiver, because they know their time is up and the era of their evil angelic rule is over.

But like a cornered rat the evil spirit comes out fighting, accusing Jesus in front of the whole congregation that the Holy One of God is a heartless killer. Well, Jesus is having none of it and tells the evil spirit to shut up and leave the poor man alone, and to everyone’s amazement (Mark 1:27) the evil spirit does what it’s told, providing living proof in only moments of the revolution starting that the contest between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil was over.

So why, then, did Jesus need disciples? If the revolution was already over, and all Jesus had to do was tell a demon to go and it went, like oil scattering from a drop of soap, then why didn’t Jesus capitalize on his power and shut every demon up and establish the Kingdom of God worldwide right away?

Well, that’s what we’re about to find out, because we’re only in the first chapter of Mark, and there are fifteen chapters to go yet, so what’s tucked away in those other fifteen chapters that disciples of Jesus need to know?

Well again, imagine being Jesus’ disciples and watching what happens next. Jesus has just shown, right off the bat, that he has the power to “give orders to evil spirits and they obey him” (27). The focus at this point, then, is on Jesus’ power and authority, which is exactly what the demonic world wanted. They wanted people associating Jesus with chucking his weight around and establishing his Kingdom by violence and destruction. That’s why the evil spirit yelled out, “Have you come to destroy us?” to sneak it into people’s minds that Jesus was your typical pagan bully obsessed with force and violence to get his way, just like King Herod. It’s like someone yelling out, “Help, help; he’s going to kill me,” which isn’t true, but it gets people to side with him.

Again, Jesus is having none of it and tells the demon to shut up, because that isn’t what the Kingdom of God is all about, as we see in what Jesus does next. He immediately heads off to Peter and Andrew’s home where he finds out Peter’s mother-in-law “was in bed with a fever” (30), and without hesitation “he went to her, took her hand and helped her up” (31). And one has to wonder how many great revolutionary leaders started their revolutions like that, with a humble act of love for a little person with a fever.

But it gave Jesus’ disciples their first clue as to how the revolution would be played out. It wasn’t by gathering an army to strike down the forces of evil. The only show of force Jesus had used so far was to shut the demons up from identifying who he was (34), because he knew what people were like; as soon as they cottoned on that he really was the great Holy One of God ushering in God’s Kingdom they’d be diving for their swords and axes to fight and kill.

But that’s not how the revolution would be played out, because Jesus had already made it clear he was fishing for people, not killing them. And he clearly demonstrated that by immediately healing someone, which worked wonderfully, because that evening the whole town turned up with their sick and demon-possessed. It was like fish jumping into a net to be caught.

So this is how you caught people and recruited them. It’s quite simple; the focus isn’t on power it’s on people. And to net people you love them. And you love them by wanting to see them healed from whatever evil has done to them. You don’t condemn them or judge them for being stupid. Instead, you make it obvious, like Jesus did, that you care. And this is the kind of disciple Jesus is making us into so we become effective and skillful recruiters for the revolution he began. People get to see the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God being played out in our lives and our circumstances, and they are hooked. They may not know they are hooked but they are, as they pick up on the beauty of unselfishness and begin to live it in their own lives. In other words, they pick up from watching us what Jesus’ disciples picked up from watching him, and that’s how the revolution of God’s Kingdom grows.

That’s why we read the gospels, so that we pick up from Jesus exactly what those original disciples picked up from him. We see through their eyes what Jesus was really all about. He was all about revolution and driving back the forces of darkness with power and authority, oh yes, BUT, take note, it was never by the methods used by the kingdoms of the world. His only weapon was love, but look at the revolution it created: People flocked to Jesus without a weapon in sight.

I have to accept, then, that as Jesus moulds me into his disciple people will be hooked on the beautiful, unselfish ways of the Kingdom of God. Wherever I go I’m part of the revolution Jesus began, revealing the radical difference in God’s Kingdom so that people are caught up in it. Jesus chose us as his disciples for one very simple and totally unselfish purpose: We are nets designed to catch people, so the revolution that Jesus began grows through us too.

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What God admires most of all

It’s quite obvious in our culture what qualities we admire most. “Our granddaughter is as sharp as a whip, there’s no fooling her,” a proud grandparent says, making it very clear that brainpower and talent are the qualities most to be admired. Or if the child is a boy it’s his spirited “never give up” attitude, his fierce independence, and even his stubbornness that are looked upon as signs of strength. The children most admired are those with beauty and brains, looks and personality, self-confidence and self-assuredness, inner strength and toughness, and a feisty “I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

How interesting, then, that none of those qualities are mentioned as traits that God admired in Abraham. And yet Abraham was the man God chose to be “our father” (Romans 4:1, 16). It was through Abraham that God got the ball rolling as far as the gospel, the lineage of Christ, the existence of Israel, the promise of a new age coming in which all nations will be blessed, and the possibility of our inclusion in those promises right now. All through Abraham.

Those are quite the credentials for one man. You’d think, therefore, that God would be looking for a man like King David, for instance, a man after God’s own heart. And what about Noah, “blameless among the people of his time” (Genesis 7:9), an amazing compliment knowing what Noah was up against. Or what about Job, about whom God said, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). But God didn’t choose David, Noah or Job, and none of their qualities did he seek in Abraham either. And yet Abraham was the first person in history to be called God’s “Friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

Imagine being called God’s Friend. But it didn’t take much on Abraham’s part. All he did was have the simple faith of a child who believes his Dad has the power to do anything (Romans 4:20-21). That’s what Abraham had, a child’s trust. So when God told Abraham to do something he did it. He didn’t question God like Job did, or mutter at God like David did in Psalms. Abraham simply believed God was good to his word, and that was it.

“Understand, then,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:7, “that those who believe are children of Abraham.” Those who share the childlike trust of Abraham also share in all that God promised him. God didn’t complicate things. He made it easy:  “Consider Abraham,” verse 6, because what God admires most in his children is their childlike trust in him.

But how do we get faith in the first place?

So many verses talk about us having belief and faith. For example: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” John 3:36; Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” Galatians 3:6, and in Romans 4:3, “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Faith is hugely important, then, but in all these verses it sounds like the faith we need has to come from us, and it’s OUR belief that saves us. Or that we have to believe before justification, eternal life and righteousness kick in for us personally.

But if that’s true, then we’re saying faith is a work we must perform from within ourselves. So is that possible? Can we produce the faith we need? Is it something we can do?

No it isn’t, says Paul, and he uses his own life as an example. He never became a Christian because of his faith. Instead, as he himself admits, “I acted in ignorance and unbelief,” 1 Timothy 1:13. No faith, just dumb. So how did he end up with faith, then? Verse 14: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, ALONG WITH the faith and love that are IN CHRIST JESUS.” Where did his faith come from? From Christ.

So Paul wasn’t about to preach that it’s our faith that saves us. And he didn’t, either. Instead, in Ephesians 2:1, he laid out the facts for us: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” and in verses 2 and 3 we were puppets of the devil, controlled entirely by our sinful desires and thoughts. We were completely incapable of faith, in other words. But, verse 5, it was IN our state of total ignorance, unbelief and incapability of trusting God, that “GOD who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions.” And why did he do that? Because “it is by grace you have been saved.”

Ah but, isn’t it through faith in his grace that we’re saved? Oh yes, and Paul admits that too in verse 8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” so faith is still required, isn’t it? Yes. But where does this faith come from? “Not from yourselves,” Paul continues in verse 8, “IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD.” God gives us the faith to believe in his grace, because we would never have believed in it ourselves.

Like Paul we are given faith, so that we get the point that salvation is ALL God’s doing, because even the faith that enables us to believe is a gift too.

“You’ve restored my faith in God”

In one of my favourite TV detective series, a lady who’s been badly hurt by men in the past is deeply impressed by the genuine kindness and respect shown to her by the Detective Chief Inspector. After watching him in action she begins to realize there really are men out there who have huge regard for women and would never do anything to exploit or hurt them. It was an eye-opener for her. She could no longer justify her hatred of men.

Toward the end of the program she writes him a letter in which she says in effect, “You’ve restored my faith in men.” It’s very touching, because the actions of this one man had begun a healing process in her mind that hopefully will free her to love a man in the future.

And isn’t that our great wish in preaching the gospel, that people tell us, “You’ve restored my faith in God,” because they discover in the gospel that God is exactly what they hoped him to be, that he truly is merciful and kind, and nothing like the God they grew up with, who threatens people with hell and watches our every move in readiness for Judgment Day. To free a person of such awful images of God is what the gospel is for, so that people come to know God as he really is, and it frees them up to love him.

That’s because the gospel is GOOD news about God. It’s not the typical view that religion has of him, that he’s only pleased by perfect behaviour and endless boring rituals, or by building impressive places of worship at great cost to the worshippers. When Paul met people who believed in gods like that in Acts 17, he told them a story. He told them that when God made people and placed them on the planet where he wanted them, that was all they needed to have a relationship with him, verses 26-27. He doesn’t need us to build temples and religions to find him, verses 24-25, because he’s already built it right into our own heads to seek him, reach out for him and find him, verse 27. It’s part of our very make-up to live and move and have our being in him, because we’re his children, and deep down we know it, verse 28.

But how does that become real to people? By the relentless preaching of God’s enormous kindness and high regard for us humans in the gospel. It starts a healing process in people’s minds, that hopefully, one day, frees up every human being to say with feeling, “You’ve restored my faith in God.”

I can’t believe in God because…

The last time someone said to me, “I can’t believe in God because,” it sounded plausible. Her Dad had died in his 20’s, and she never got to know him. Why had God let him die so young, she asked? Why hadn’t God intervened and helped him?

Just a brief look into her Dad’s history, though, revealed a host of problems that weren’t God’s fault. Her Dad grew up in a broken family, where bad choices were made by his parents. It was their actions, not God’s, that created the boy’s desperate need for an accepting group of friends, a need so great he’d do anything to keep them, which unfortunately included drugs in a big way. Eventually he became a drug dealer, but not a very good one because there were nasty people hunting for him who wanted him dead. It was probably one of them who killed him.

So what did God do so wrong in any of these circumstances that justifies not believing in him? How was he to blame for all those crying needs created in a young man’s head by the bad choices of others? Should God have prevented all those people in his life from making bad choices?

But people don’t want God poking around and intervening in their lives, so what’s God supposed to do now? Should he do nothing and get the blame, or intervene on demand to avoid getting the blame, or quietly manipulate circumstances to make everything work out perfectly like a Disney movie?

If you were God what would you do to get people to believe in you, when anything that goes wrong in their lives they’ll blame you for it? Would you take the blame anyway? But what good would that do? Because even if you do take the blame people will still complain that you didn’t stop things going wrong in the first place.

Taking a leaf out of God’s book, what HE did was this: First of all, he “made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us,” 2 Corinthians 5:21, so, yes, he did take all the blame on himself. But, secondly, by “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man” to “condemn sin,” Romans 8:3, he also gave us the chance to stop things going wrong from now on.

That’s God’s way of helping people believe in him. He takes the blame for things that weren’t his fault, and he deals with what caused all our problems in the first place. We’re now in a position to make right choices. So why wouldn’t a person believe in a God like that?

“I believe; help my unbelief”

The boy was in a terrible state. He was “possessed by a spirit that robbed him of speech,” Mark 9:17, and “Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground (and into water and fire to kill him, verse 22). He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid” (verse 18). If I was that boy’s Dad I’d be heart-broken watching my boy being played with like that by a vicious demonic spirit.

But Dad knew about this phenomenal Rabbi who actually drove demonic spirits out of people and the people fully recovered. The Rabbi’s disciples had the same power too (Mark 6:13), so when a group of Jesus’ disciples arrived in their village, Dad took his son and joined the crowd that gathered to meet them. But when he asked the disciples to heal his son, they couldn’t do it.

But why couldn’t they? Up to this point Jesus and his disciples had never failed anyone who’d asked for healing. This man, then, had every right to believe his son would be healed, and he did believe too – until, that is, the healing didn’t happen.

That’s when the Dad’s mood changed. He was quick to tell Jesus that his disciples hadn’t healed his son, and his tone became doubtful and desperate in verse 22: “Please, please help us – IF you can,” he says to Jesus. Well, of course Jesus could help them, and Jesus quickly reminded the boy’s Dad of that in verse 23, that “Everything is possible for him who believes.”

Believes what, though? Believes what God sent Jesus to the Jews for, to deliver them, forgive them, heal them and restore them. Believes that Jesus really was the Messiah predicted in their Scriptures who would come to save them. Believes that everything the Jews had been hoping for and dreaming of through all the years of their misery under pagan rulers was now possible. Their Messiah had arrived. Therefore, everything was now possible – the salvation of their nation, the forgiveness of their sins, their chance to repent and be the nation God had called them to be. And what more proof did they need that Jesus was that Messiah than all the healingx and driving out demons he and his disciples were doing?

At which point the Dad’s desperation switches from wanting his boy healed to wanting his belief healed. He went about it the right way too, by asking Jesus directly for help with “my unbelief” (verse 24), because as Jesus said in verse 29, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” To really cotton on to what God sent Jesus for needs direct help from Jesus himself.

Abide with me

One has to wonder how on earth a Christian hymn – AND a hymn about death and dying, what’s more – is sung at soccer (and rugby) Cup finals in Britain. And why has it been sung at Cup finals ever since 1927 too? But that’s when it began, when 91,206 fans filled Wembley Stadium in 1927, including Winston Churchill and King George V, along with another 15,000 fans gathered in the city centre of one of the teams playing in the final, and because it was the first ever radio broadcast of a Cup final, Abide with me was also heard by millions of people all across Britain as well.

It was chosen originally because it was King George V’s favourite hymn, but it still begs the question: “Why sing it at a soccer match?” And who got the idea that singing a hymn, of all things, was appropriate for a sporting event, and why has it been a popular tradition ever since?

Whatever the reason, it’s had an amazing effect on people through the years. As one person said, when singing Abide with me at a Cup final, “I lost it completely during those famous words, but I sang lustily through the tears, an arm round each of my sons, and surely my late father joining in from on high. Only a game (eh)? Yeah, right….” And he voices what so many people have felt, that something deeply moving happens when singing Abide with me with thousands of other people.

The only major resistance to the hymn at Cup finals has come from people who don’t like a lone singer with a microphone singing Abide with me FOR them. They’d much rather have the whole crowd singing it together to a band playing the music. In other words, what people want to hear and feel is the great swell of human voices echoing round a stadium all singing Abide with me together, and belting it out as loud as they can without embarrassment. This is what people want; but again, one has to ask WHY.

Perhaps it’s the story of the man who wrote it, an Anglican vicar, Henry Francis Lyte, who died from tuberculosis only ten weeks after completing the hymn in 1847. He composed a rather dull tune for it, but when the words of the hymn were published 14 years later in the book Hymns Ancient and Modern, one of the most popular books of hymns ever written, the editor of the book, William H. Monk, whose three-year-old daughter had just died, composed the tune we now sing, called Eventide. According to Monk’s widow, it had been “a time of great sorrow” for the two of them when their daughter died. In her own words she recorded the moment: “Hand in hand we were silently watching the glory of the setting sun (our daily habit) until the golden hue had faded… Then he took paper and (in just 10 minutes) he pencilled the tune which has gone all over the world.”

So a dying man wrote the words, and a man who’d just lost his little daughter wrote the music. Even the phrase “Abide with me” came from a dying man, a close friend of Henry Lyte, who kept muttering it over and over again as he was dying. But isn’t it what we’re all hoping when death and terrible events occur, that there really is a God who abides with us to give us some sort of hope when faced with death and our helplessness? It’s not surprising, then, that the hymn was often sung in the trenches during World War 1 – when death could come at any second – or that it was the choice of hymn played at Ground Zero by a Salvation Army band after the attack on the Twin Towers 10 days earlier.

Perhaps “Abide with US”, therefore, would be a better title for the hymn, because it’s so often sung or played in a group setting. And amazingly, it’s not only sung at funerals, it’s also sung at weddings, including the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth ll on November 20, 1947 – the very same month and day that Henry Lyte died 100 years earlier. But there’s something about this hymn and its admission of human frailty that makes us want to sing it together at special events, because right down deep we recognize we’re all in the same boat.

The man who led the choir at the Cup final in 2015 echoed this very thought when he said: “Just look at the words. ‘Help of the helpless, O abide with me’. Everyone has got a story of negativity, we all face fears and a bit of darkness in our lives. We all need a sense of light at the end of a long tunnel, and I think it’s great – 90,000 people celebrating coming together. It’s no longer about your individual voice, but many voices singing together.”

But it’s also WHAT they’re singing that brings people together, like the words “When other helpers fail and comforts flee,” because in this life who hasn’t experienced helpers failing, when people you thought you could trust and depend on let you down? And who hasn’t experienced comforts fleeing, when life suddenly takes a nasty turn just when everything was running smoothly?

The same thing happened to Henry Lyte too, because at one point his preaching was so popular he had to build a bigger church, and everything was humming along very nicely, but then another Christian group infiltrated his parish and started stealing his members away. And that hurt because, as one of those members admitted, “We were deeply attached to him (but) some Plymouth Brethren persuaded ten of us to join them. We went in a body to Mr Lyte and told him we must leave his church. We never entered his church again. But when Abide with Me was printed and each of us was given a copy, we realized more keenly than anyone else the meaning of the words ‘when other helpers fail’.”

And how many church members and pastors in any church have experienced that same grief of fellow church members they’ve been friends with for years simply packing up their bags and leaving the congregation forever, bringing not only their friendship to an end but also their support?

But how many people in that crowd of 90,000 at Wembley stadium have gone through exactly the same grief, of people they loved deserting them, of husbands and wives taking off with other people, of parents divorcing, or best friends choosing other people to be best friends with instead?

No wonder Abide with me hangs on. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It does hang on, because you realize when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people singing Abide with me that we’re all in the same boat. We’ve all gone through grief and sorrow, and all of us have felt estranged and alone, as if we’re the only person on the planet with unsolvable problems and no one understands. But here’s a hymn that DOES understand, written by a man who clearly knew what helplessness feels like.

It beautifully strips away all the stuff that separates us, like colour of skin, financial status, religious affiliation, our different personalities and intelligence levels, and the image we have of ourselves, because the person belting out the hymn beside you is singing it for the same reason you are: He’s got troubles too. And for one brief moment you realize that no one lives a charmed life. In this life we all have troubles, and Abide with me would never have survived as a hymn if we didn’t. But it can seem at times like everyone else has it all put together, and it’s other people who have everything going for them – not us.

And again, Henry Lyte was a perfect example of that, because as a person and a Christian he seemed to have it all going for him. He was a striking man in his appearance, and he was charismatic, charming, very funny, well loved and extremely popular. He was also an award-winning poet and a scholar with a huge library of theology and old English poetry, described as “one of the most extensive and valuable in the West of England.” He was an expert flute player, he spoke Latin, Greek and French, and he also became an expert on wild flowers.

And along with all those talents and interests he was also a wonderful pastor to his parish of fishermen, often visiting them on board their ships, supplying every boat with a Bible, and compiling songs and a manual of devotions for the sailors’ use at sea. And he often got up at 6:00 am to pray for two or more hours before breakfast. So here was a man and a Christian you’d probably feel quite intimidated by in his presence.

But this was the same man who wrote Abide with me, which could only come from someone who’d experienced the other side of life with its endless setbacks, heartaches and disappointments. And he had his share of them all right. As a child he was very close to his God-loving mother, but his father whisked him away from her and stuck him in a boarding school and immediately abandoned the family, and soon after that Henry’s mother died. At the age of only nine Henry Lyte found himself alone and with no family left to support him.

And I wonder how many other people in that huge crowd singing Abide with me at Wembley stadium have similar stories to tell, of their families breaking up, of parents dying early from cancer, of children born with birth defects, of accidents ruining their future, of alcoholic fathers draining the family’s finances, and on and on it goes, the list of human woes and shattered dreams that have left millions of children and adults feeling utterly abandoned and alone.

But read the book of Psalms and isn’t a large chunk of it too about a man who had nothing but troubles? And David was a man chosen by God as well, but look what he wrote in Psalm 6 (The Message):

“Please God, no more yelling, no more trips to the woodshed. Treat me nice for a change; I’m starved for affection. Can’t you see I’m black and blue, beat up badly in bones and soul? God, how long will it take for you to let up? If you love me at all get me out of here. I’m no good to you dead am I? I’m tired of all this – so tired. My bed has been floating forty days and nights on the flood of my tears. My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears. The sockets of my eyes are black holes; nearly blind, I squint and grope.”

Imagine singing those words in a hymn at church on Sunday to a nice little tune, “I’m all black and blue, my eye sockets are sunken holes, and if really loved me, God, as you say you do, then why are letting all this nonsense happen to me, when any minute it could kill me and what would be the purpose of that, eh?”

Not the most popular choice of hymn for most songleaders, I imagine, but David sang every word of it and composed the music – and it became a hymn sung by Jews through the centuries that was probably sung by Jesus when he was here as well. And now here we are, thousands of years later, finding ourselves with a similar song, Abide with me, written by another man who felt like death with very similar emotions expressed, and it too has become a hymn, and an extremely popular one.

One has to wonder why, though, because how many professional sounding choirs, all decked out in their robes and singing in perfect harmony, would choose to sing Psalm 6 and the exact words of King David that I just read out? But crowds of 90,000 people, who have little to no singing experience, many of whom probably can’t hold a tune, who have never worn a choir gown, would not darken the door of a church, and who see no relevance in any of the churches’ rituals, grand buildings, stained glass windows and pipe organs, have been belting out Abide with me for nearly 90 years.

That’s the people’s choice, a hymn all humans can sing together that openly and refreshingly admits our frailty and helplessness in the face of life’s endless setbacks, heartaches and disappointments. The people’s choice, the ordinary every day people who struggle to get through life and make a living, willingly sing a hymn in public that admits we humans aren’t handling things at all well, and we need help. And as a minister seeking relevance in my Christianity, my sermons, and what I’m in the Church for, I find that fascinating.

It tells me that the relevance of my existence as a Christian isn’t just closeting myself away in a building somewhere singing familiar hymns and going through the motions of opening and closing prayers, studying the Bible or preaching a sermon to the converted. That has its place, yes, just like the Temple of old was the place where you could honour God, sing hymns, hear sermons, pray your heart out to him and feel his presence, along with your fellow Israelites. But the Israelites were also told that their Temple was open to strangers and foreigners, who had exactly the same longings and needs the Israelites had, who also needed to know that God was real and he was abiding with them as well.

The Israelites needed to keep in mind, therefore, that their Temple wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone, and could they hear the cries of the foreigner too? And likewise, for us now, sitting in our little Temple here on Sundays, do we hear the cries of the people all around this building with the same troubles and the same longings we have, who have no place to go to express what they feel, no people they can comfortably admit their needs to, and no hope of a real Helper who can sort out the confusion and fears in their heads.

But here WE are in their community offering all those things. And isn’t that what we’re here as a Church for, to provide a venue, just like Wembley Stadium, where people aren’t afraid to admit their frailty and their helplessness in public, and where people are very comfortable talking about what’s troubling them, and where people really believe a Helper exists who is intimately involved in every detail of their lives, who forgives, who comforts, who lifts people out of impossible misery and confusion, and provides hope and energy for another day.

And just like foreigners of old discovered in the Israelite Temple that God was real and he cared for them too, think of the reaction in people today who discover there’s actually a place in their own community where ordinary people like themselves can pray and sing their hearts out to a God they come to realize is real, he’s listening, and he responds.

In other words, we’re just like the Temple of old, when foreigners in Israel and strangers travelling through could enter into a building where songs were constantly being sung and prayers offered to God with real expectation that he was there in person, listening to every word, and answering every need. The Temple was the place where you could cry out to God “Abide with me,” and he would answer in some way that “Of course I abide with you, because that’s what I created you and this Temple for, to come and dwell with you, to live with you, make myself real to you, and make my home with you.”

The Temple, in other words, was the one place on earth where you could feel utterly comfortable with God, because it was obvious in the very existence of the Temple as God’s dwelling place on Earth that he is utterly comfortable with us.

And now here’s the Church today, operating for much the same purpose, of providing a place and a group of people where it’s taken for granted that God abides with us, that when darkness is deepening, helpers are failing, comforts are fleeing, earth’s joys are growing dim and the world is falling apart, he’s always there, abiding with us every passing hour, foiling the tempter’s power, steadying and guiding us when the world and people and our own worries are too much for us to handle.

And here’s a place and a people who dare to sing a hymn that stares death in the face and they treat it like a toothless dragon coughing puffs of smoke not fire: “Where is death’s sting?” they sing, “Where, grave, thy victory?” Come on death; answer that one. Oh, you hold the cards, death, when it comes to watching me age and my strength and energy weaken, and the illnesses form inside my head and body that will eventually kill me, and I am powerless to resist them, but “I triumph still,” because here I am, death, still chugging along with hope and optimism despite the crumbling wreck I see in the mirror every day, because I know God is with me in life, death, and forever.

And I imagine there are many people in Wembley Stadium who wonder how they are actually standing there still upright after the year they’ve just had. But they know why, and they get the chance to sing why; it’s because God abides with us, blowing air under tattered wings to keep us aloft, like bumble bees at the end of the summer still gathering nectar even though they’re exhausted and the tips of their wings are shredded and frail. “I triumph still,” a person sings through the tears, and so do thousands of others with them who’ve experienced God’s strength in the most intimate and personal ways.

And Henry Lyte would have joined them, because he wrote the words “I triumph still” from personal experience. For years he’d suffered so badly from asthma, bronchitis and coughing spasms that he wasn’t hired in one church, and every year he had to spend months away from his church and his family in a sunnier climate to recover, but all during that time his friends said he remained “buoyant, cheerful and keenly interested” in what was happening in the world. Debilitating though his illnesses were his mind was alive and he was full of optimism.

Then at only 54 years old he was so ill with tuberculosis he knew he was going to die any minute, but he announced to his family he was going to preach one last sermon to his congregation anyway. They urged him not to, but as he’d often said in the past, “It’s better to wear out than to rust out,” so despite the danger to himself he went ahead and preached, totally unafraid of what might happen, and though exhausted by the effort he made it through.

The date was September 4, 1847. That evening he gave a finished version of Abide with me to a close friend, and ten weeks later Henry died.

One thing stood out in both the hymn and his sermon. In his sermon he said: “I stand here among you today, as alive from the dead…(to) induce you to prepare for that solemn hour which must come to all, by a timely acquaintance with the death of Christ.”

That timely acquaintance with the death of Christ had come to Henry back in 1818, when he witnessed the death of a fellow clergyman, whose attitude to death profoundly influenced him. In Henry’s own words: “He (his friend) died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and (he would) be accepted for all that he had incurred.”

Now the last verse of Abide with me: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Put those two together and we see what sustained Henry through all his troubles. It wasn’t his strength of character or his optimistic personality, it was knowing the cross took care of every wretched thought and action he’d done in the past, and in the cross that Christ willingly suffered as a human in life and death too, and that one day, because of Christ’s death on the cross, his own tattered body, like Christ’s tattered body, would be raised into something beautiful. And it’s all those things that thousands of fans are expressing, with or without realizing it, when they sing Abide with me together.

The Cup final in Wembley Stadium, therefore, has become “a timely acquaintance with the death of Christ” for many, many people over the years. It has kept Christ’s death at front and centre in people’s minds, whether they like it or not, so even if they can’t wait for Abide with me to be over so they can get on with the football game, it is guaranteed that one day, sooner or later, something will happen – either in their own lives or in another terrible tragedy happening to other people – that will shake them to their roots and they will look for a Helper to get them through, and that’s when the words of Abide with me may suddenly come to mind.

And the same goes for people in this community who aren’t the least bit interested in God or on in us meeting here as a Church, but any moment something might happen that drives them into seeking a Helper, and that’s when they remember there was a little church meeting in their community that made itself known as a place of welcome and help to anyone interested.

And when they come, what they find is a little House of prayer, just like the Temple of old, where prayers are being offered, not only for one’s own needs but for the needs of friends, family and outsiders too, in the real belief that God is real, he’s listening, and he answers every one.

But will people ever do that? Aren’t their minds so closed that they would never come to a church? But if that’s true, then why for the last 89 years has Abide with me been sung at Cup finals? If people want nothing to do with God, then why don’t they have the hymn banned? But instead of it being banned it thrives, and we know why; it’s because Christ’s death ripped the veil down the middle in the Temple, opening the floodgates to God. And startling though it was, people tentatively stepped through the veil, just like people tentatively step into a church today when they’re in need, and find to their delight a place where people aren’t embarrassed to sing a hymn like Abide with me that happily and readily admits our human frailty in this life.

And there’s nothing like singing it together to remind ourselves that we all share the same needs and longings, as we see in this next video where it’s interesting to see just how many soccer fanatics are singing along with Abide with me, and they know the words. What makes them sing? Well, we know, don’t we? They sing it for the same reasons we sing it, because the words express perfectly our hope of a real God who abides with us every second of every day.