Please don’t give up chocolate!

Have you given any thought as to how you could make the most of Lent?  Are you planning on giving up something this year?  If so the interesting question to me is not what, but why?  What benefit do you hope to derive from it?

There are all sorts of good reasons that people have for giving up the traditional unhealthy luxuries – chocolate, alcohol and so on – but are you doing it for the best reason?  Lent is traditionally a time when some people choose to fast, because it’s a time that remembers Jesus’ time of fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), but what really is the point of fasting?

The easiest way to describe the point of fasting is that we fast in order to feast.  We fast from earthly treasures in order to feast on our treasure in heaven.

In Matthew 6 Jesus’ teaching on fasting (vv. 16-18) is immediately followed by him saying

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (vv. 19-21)

The point seems to be that when our lives are rammed full of treasures on earth, the earth is where our hearts will be, and we’ll be oblivious to a far greater treasure in heaven.  The point of fasting is to clear our some of the earthly treasures, that get in the way, so that we might better appreciate our heavenly treasure, which is nothing less than Jesus Christ himself.  We fast in order to feast on Christ.

So a question to consider is whether what you’re thinking of giving up is actually going to help you appreciate Jesus more.  Personally I’ve never found that avoiding chocolate or the like much changes how I think about him, and therefore I’d question its value.

Where I’ve found fasting really helpful is when it doesn’t just deprive me of some trivial luxury but it actually frees up time in my day that I can spend in God’s word and in prayer.  It’s interesting that the majority of occasions when the Bible talks about fasting it goes hand in hand with prayer – so often it speaks not just of fasting but of ‘prayer and fasting’.  Fasting should enable us to pray more.

There have been times when we as a staff team at St. Mary’s have agreed to forgo lunch on a particular day (or a particular day of the week for a number of weeks) and to spend the time when we would have been eating praying together instead.  But of course it doesn’t have to be food – it could be anything that regularly takes up your time.  A favourite TV program? Facebook? Paul even advocated couples fasting from sex on occasion (1 Corinthians 7:5).  The idea is that it will clear out space in our overcrowded lives for our relationship with Jesus to grow.

I am a bit of a Modern Family addict, and I was thrilled to be given the box set of seasons 1-5 for Christmas.  My Lent is going to mean me not watching it, and using the time that frees up to follow a series of Lent readings devised by a friend of mine.

The point of fasting is not to make us miss out on things we like, but rather to stop us missing out on something even more precious.  If you’re going to give something up this year will you be fasting in such a way as to help you feast on Jesus?

Why quiet times actually really matter…

As someone who believes that grace is at the very heart of the Gospel I’ve always tried to be careful to avoid saying things that people could interpret as a call to legalistic observance of religious duties.  That has particularly been the case when I’ve talked about things like reading the Bible, praying, and going to church regularly.  I do not believe for one moment that those are things that can earn our way into God’s ‘good books’ or our place in heaven, and I would always caution people to avoid doing such things out of a sense of obligation or duty.  Our justification is achieved by faith and not by works.

As I’ve been pondering John 15:1-17, though, I’ve started to wonder whether my carefulness to avoid preaching law rather than grace might have made me downplay just how important things like quiet times and corporate worship are.  I have wanted people to be clear that they need not fear divine retribution for missing quiet times or church, but I wonder whether in so doing I’ve given the impression that these things are ideals that none of us actually achieve and that we really don’t need to be too concerned about our failure.  John 15 shows that they really are essential and that we must take them very seriously indeed.

In this passage Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and its branches to describe the relationship between Jesus and us.  There are two types of branches: those that bear fruit and those that don’t.

The branches that do not bear fruit are taken away (v.2), because they have withered, and are gathered up, thrown into the fire, and burned (v.6).  Fire and burning are images that are often used by Jesus to depict the final judgment.  Jesus’ message is clear: someone’s failure to bear fruit is evidence that they are not in fact a genuine Christian and so will face God’s wrath in the final judgment.

Whilst the fate of branches that do not bear fruit is dreadful God’s treatment of those that do is truly wonderful.  They are branches that have been made clean by Jesus’ word (v.3) and are pruned (v.2).  Pruning is a process whereby some interests and activities are removed so as to leave the branch more fruitful, and although that pruning may at the time be painful it leads to greater fruitfulness (v.2, 5), which proves the genuineness of that person’s faith, and in so doing brings both glory to the Father (v.8) and the fullness of joy to that person (v.11).  Branches that do not bear fruit are destined for fire and those that do are destined for the Father’s glory and their own joy.

But what does it mean to bear fruit?  There are a few possibilities as to what Jesus meant, none of which need to be exclusive.  One is what he meant in Matthew 13:8, where it seems to be an advancement of God’s work and kingdom in the world; another is the sort of changed character that Galatians 5:22-23 talks about.

What determines whether a branch will bear fruit or not is simply a question of whether or not that branch ‘abides in the vine.’  A branch that does not abide in the vine cannot bear fruit (v. 4); in fact it cannot achieve anything of any significance (v. 5).  A branch that does abide in the vine, though, will bear much fruit (v. 5).  The difference, then, between our fruitfulness, or lack of it, and therefore whether we will face joy or judgment, is simply a matter of whether or not we abide in Jesus.

The important question for us, then, is what does it mean to abide in Jesus?  How do we abide in him?  There are three glimpses of an answer in the passage.

Firstly, abiding in Jesus involves having his words abiding in us (v. 7).  Abiding in Jesus includes listening to what Jesus has said, dwelling on it, and keeping it as part of us.  For a 21st Century believer this most certainly includes reading and meditating on the Bible.

Secondly, abiding in Jesus involves asking things of him (v.7): “ask whatever you wish”.  For a 21st Century believer this means prayer.

Thirdly, abiding in Jesus involves obedience to his commandments (v.10) which is not a dull drudgery but actually leads to a profound experience of God’s love.  The commandments that Jesus gave are many and varied but his words in v. 10 surely include the commandment that he gives in v. 12, to love one another as he has loved us.  Part of abiding in Jesus, therefore, is fellowship with other believers, and for a 21st Century believer that must surely include regular involvement with a church family.

Abiding in Jesus, therefore, includes reading and meditating on the Bible, prayer, and involvement with a church family, or to put it even more simply, quiet times and corporate worship.

The connection between doing these things and bearing fruit could not be clearer in this passage.  Not doing them will inevitably lead to fruitlessness, because it is impossible to bear fruit without abiding in Jesus (vv.4-5).  Doing them, however, will lead to great fruitfulness; someone who abides in Jesus won’t just bear some fruit but will bear much fruit (v. 5).

The ridiculous thing in the lives of so many of us is that it is our desire to bear fruit that stops us abiding in Jesus.  Our thinking is so often that we have too many things to do, many of which are very noble and worthy, and so we cannot afford to spend time ‘abiding in Jesus’.  We have things to do so we cannot abide.  That is the exact reverse of what Jesus says: unless we abide we will not be able to do those things.  Unless we abide we can do nothing.  If we do abide we will achieve a very great deal, or bear much fruit.

This is the logic of faith.  Faith says ‘it is worth spending a good portion of the very limited time available to me having a quiet time, because if I do that not only will it bring glory to the Father (v. 8) and joy to me (v. 11) but it will also enable me to achieve much more in the remaining time than I would have been able to had I spent the whole time doing the things that I need to do.’  In worldly logic that makes no sense, because it is self-evident that the more time we have available the more we will get done.  But worldly logic does not acknowledge our weakness or know an all-powerful God who will keep his promise that we will bear more fruit through abiding in him than we possibly could apart from him.

The other thing that stops us abiding in Jesus is that we think it is going to be boring and devoid of pleasure.  We think we will enjoy it more if we spend our time doing something other than having a quiet time.  Again such thinking is the opposite of what Jesus said: it is through abiding in him that we experience his love (v. 10) and that our joy will be full (v. 11).

The consequences of not abiding in Christ are almost too dreadful to consider.  Not abiding leads to not bearing fruit which serves as evidence that our faith is not genuine and therefore leads to the fire of v. 2.  Whilst I still would not want someone to fear divine retribution for skipping their quiet times from time to time I would want them to be aware of just how important abiding in Jesus actually is.  It is not something that we can neglect lightly.

Conversely, though, if we all committed ourselves to making our private quiet times and our corporate worship an absolute priority there are four outcomes that Jesus promises here:

  1. We will be more fruitful (vv. 2, 5): we will achieve more and greater things for his kingdom.
  2. The Father will be glorified by the evidence of the genuineness of our discipleship (v. 8)
  3. We will enjoy greater intimacy with Jesus (v. 10)
  4. Our joy will be full (v. 11)

Our individual lives and our church would be transformed.

In saying what I have just said have I preached law rather than grace?  Have I replaced God’s merciful treatment of us with duties that we must perform?  Certainly Jesus’ words emphasise God’s mercy and grace.  He speaks of guilty sinners being washed clean by his word (v. 3), and the word translated as ‘prunes’ in v. 2 (kathairo) has at its root the word for clean in v. 3 (katharos), so even the language of pruning is related to God’s work of making us clean.  The passage does not imply we make ourselves clean or worthy through our quiet times or by going to church, but makes it very clear that that is the work of the Father, the vine dresser.  But that does not stop Jesus saying that there is a choice of judgment or joy and which we receive is determined by whether or not we abide in him by having his words abide in us, asking things of him, and obeying his commandments, including the commandment to love other believers.

Why Money Is Not The Root Of All Evil

It has been very interesting to see how Jesus has been adopted by the protestors outside St Paul’s Cathedral, who have clearly assumed that he is an anti-capitalist who would automatically endorse their views. There is much that we read in the gospels that clearly shows Jesus was profoundly opposed to the exploitation of the poor and that he cared deeply about justice, and it’s not only in the gospels that we see God’s attitude to poverty.

But does it follow from this that poverty is always a more godly state than wealth? I fear that a very profound and challenging message of Jesus has been turned into a rather shallow and simplistic message that it is better to be poor than rich and that God is inevitably more pleased with the poor than the wealthy. But is that really the case?

Jesus was obviously concerned with people’s physical condition, which is why we see him healing the sick and feeding hungry crowds, but actually his concern for people’s physical condition always seems to have been secondary, with his concern for their spiritual condition being rather more important. When he met a paralysed man who had been lowered through the roof he firstly addressed that man’s spiritual needs by forgiving his sins. He then went on to heal him, but his reason for doing so, he tells us, was to prove his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12). Similarly when he fed the hungry crowds he did so not just to satisfy their hunger but in order to show them their real need, which was not bread but himself, the ‘bread’ that leads to eternal life (John 6).

The Bible is often misquoted as saying ‘money is the root of all evil’, but actually that’s not what it says at all. What it says is “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10). The comparison is not between rich and poor, but between those who love money and those who don’t. It’s not only the rich who might love money – the poor can long for it just as much, or perhaps even more so. The real issue in the Bible is not whether or not we have money, it’s whether or not we love the money that we may or may not have more than we love God.

It’s not just the capitalists that Jesus would point his finger at, but actually he calls everyone to evaluate our attitude towards money, and if we love it more than him, if we trust it or any of our other material things for our security or comfort instead of trusting him for those things, then he calls us, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, to repent and to see him as our greatest treasure and our only hope.