Prayer and Miracles
God in suffering
Why does God sometimes seem to be silent when we need him most and cry out in pain or despair? Why does God not always intervene to heal in answer to prayer or to prevent any suffering in this life? (talk transcript).
There are no easy answers but relationship with God in Jesus assures us that we can know that God never abandons us despite our pain and utter confusion and despair.
- I spoke on this over two talks at St James Clerkenwell on the prologue and conclusion to the book of Job.
- I have also found a wonderful talk on this by Tim Keller
God is with us when we suffer: sermon on the opening of the book of Job
God will meet us in our suffering if we want him to (speak to him honestly about how we are not feeling, even if we are angry and confused with him: sermon on the end to the book of Job
Video: Tim Keller: how to deal with dark times
Nothing can separate us from God’s love (talk transcript)
Romans 8: 14-38
Life Through the Spirit
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Present Suffering and Future Glory
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, 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.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
More Than Conquerors
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Today, I want to talk about the greatest discovery that we could ever make in our lives. The greatest discovery we make, a discovery that brings true fruit, freedom, and life in all its fullness. It is the discovery that nothing, no limitation, no situation or problem in our lives can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Nothing in our past, no guilt, no regret, no shame. No circumstance in our life. No situation at work or at home that sort of seems intractable or holding us back in some way. No limitation in our life. No disability that we may face.
Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. Paul, at the end of Romans eight, says this,
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present, nor the future, nor any powers, neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
In Romans eight Paul addresses some of the things that I’ve just been mentioning. Some of the things which we might feel are barriers separating us from the life that we long to know. He starts with the guilt and regret. He says that can’t separate us from the love of God in verse one of Romans eight, he says,
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Later on and in Romans eight he looks at the kinds of situations that we could think could separate us from the life that we long to know. Picking it up in verse 35,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it’s written, ‘For your sake, we face death all day long. We’re considered a sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Paul knew that, he’s utterly convinced. No trouble of any kind, no lack or limitation in our lives can separate us from the love of God. He knew that with all his heart, and we can know that with our heart too, with all our hearts.
Making it real in our hearts
I’m talking about this topic today because it’s the Holy Spirit who makes that reality so real to us in our hearts. It’s the Holy Spirit who shows us that the Holy Spirit who came as fire on the day of Pentecost as we heard. I heard it recently in a talk by the Archbishop of Canterbury, about a Saint from the last century called mother Maria. She was a Russian nun who lived with the little community in Paris, in the 1930s, working to serve and defend the poor and the refugees of that city.
And when the Nazis arrived in the 1940s, she continued to serve the Jews in that place. And she was arrested and taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp. And on Good Friday, 1945, she stepped forward voluntarily to go to the gas chamber in the place of another woman, she gave her life. And one of the things that the Archbishop was drawing out of her life was that she was such an unconventional Saint. She had a really kind of bumpy and difficult life.
She had none of the kind of things that you’d expect would make it easy to be a Saint. She was a single mum, she was divorced. She did what she did while bringing up two children in Paris, in very tough circumstances. And apparently she was a very unconventional kind of nun. Her neighbors used to complain about the noise from her rooms because she’d held parties late into the night for anyone who would come and to share in the love of Christ. And people who saw her situation, the things that she faced in her life, tried to persuade her to not be a nun, to take an easier path.
But when she was working out what God was calling her to do with her life, she wrote this, she said, “Either Christianity is fire, or there’s no such thing.” She was utterly convinced that none of the problems or the difficulties in her life could hold her back from living the life that God had for her. Nothing could separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus, because that love is like a fire that burns, it’s the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit came on the disciples at Pentecost, it came like fire, the church was born. And it’s grown in every generation, when men and women like mother Maria, who are aware of problems and limitations in their life say, “You know what? Nothing can separate me from the love of God. Nothing can separate God’s life flowing through me.” What I want to look at, is how that can be our experience, how that can be our conviction too.
The work of the Holy Spirit
All through Romans eight, Paul says that it’s the Holy Spirit that assures us, that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And what I hope that we’ll leave today knowing is that God works by his Spirit in ways that overcome anything that holds life back. And when I say that, I don’t want us to get confused because I think that God works in all sorts of ways, but we know that the Holy Spirit overcomes anything that holds life back. Because as it says in Romans eight chapter 11, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Not even death could hold the life of the Spirit back.
And we need it to see how the Holy Spirit does things in different ways. Sometimes God overcomes the things in our life that seem to sort of hold life back by taking away the barriers, working in miraculous ways. Healings, breakthroughs, deliverance, new beginnings, or signs of the new life that the Holy Spirit brings, the new creation that was begun when Jesus rose from the dead.
Sometimes just as miraculously, actually, God works by his Spirit through the very limitations that we think would otherwise hold life back. Signs that actually God’s life, as he showed through Jesus Christ comes through the tough things. There is nothing more tough than the cross and Jesus faced that and showed that life came through even that. We need to see that so that we don’t get confused. So that when things in our life remain that seem difficult, we don’t see them as signs that God is not present by his Spirit. But actually we see that God is present by his Spirit in every situation in our lives, bringing his life.
I like the Charlie Brown cartoons, and there’s one in which Lucy says to Charlie Brown, she’s sitting on a deck chair and she says, “Charlie Brown, life is a lot like a cruise ship.”
“You can either set your deck chair up, looking out to the back of the boats, looking at where life has been. Or you can set up your deck chair at the front, looking at where you’re going.” And she says, “Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?” And Charlie Brown, he sighs and he says, “I’m still just trying to unfold my deck chair.” And I identify with Charlie Brown because we can feel like that, can’t we? But I’m beginning to see that if we’ll let him, God will show us that we don’t need to have our deck chair of life all set up and everything perfect for him to come by His Spirit and His life through us. And actually when we discover that it’s the greatest freedom of all, because we can pray with confidence, praying for God to move mountains.
And He sometimes does move mountains, in the physical, more often than we can imagine. But knowing that if somehow God answers the prayer slightly differently to how we wanted him to, that if limitations remain in our life, if things remain that we wouldn’t necessarily choose, that God is still just as powerfully at work in our lives, by his Holy Spirit overcoming anything that can hold life back. And that’s why I wanted us to look at that little bit of Romans eight. Paul describes the work of the Holy Spirit like a new birth. He says that it’s a new birth that creation has been longing for, groaning for. A creation that’s been held back by sin and all the ways in which the fall has marred creation, is waiting for the new life that God brought by his Holy Spirit.
The fruits of a new creation
And he says there in verse 23, that we have the first fruits of that life by the Holy Spirit. That is why when we pray in the power of the Spirit for God’s healing to come in a moment, sometimes God does contract the normal span of healing. And he brings healing, because that is when Jesus returns and the new creation, there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death. And God does that by His Spirit, because by his Holy Spirit now, we have the first fruits of the new creation. There’s something so present, so real about this new creation here and now. And on the day of Pentecost, that was when it all began, that was when the church was born. In our first reading, we heard how the disciples were praying eagerly for the Spirit to come and he came and he came in power.
They all spoke in different tongues so that everybody in Jerusalem could hear about Jesus in their own native language. And then the work began of taking the good news of Jesus out to all the corners of the world. And the signs of that new life began straight away all through the book of Acts. We see healings, we see the unity that comes, the common life as the disciples share together in the life of God. Works of justice, of compassion, a new community living in the power of the Holy Spirit, showing a foretaste of what the new creation is all about. And Paul says that we’ve become a people of hope. Hope is a word that comes all the way through Romans eight. Because we’re a community pointing towards where history is moving. That’s our life.
That’s what we’re about here in Finsbury Park. That’s what I love. That’s why the pastorates are so important because they’re little communities where we live in the power of the Spirit. I’m really excited, because one of the pastorate has devoted this whole term to looking at the ministry of the Spirit. And they’re looking at how we can pray for one another and the power of the Spirit to see the Spirit come more and more in our lives. So I love Soul in the City because it’s a little taste of that life being shared out across our streets and across our estates, across our community.
And we’re seeing healings, transformation of lives, real and living hope, here and now in 2011, just as they were when the day of Pentecost came. And it’s right, that Paul uses the word hope because as well as this life of the Spirit being a present reality, it’s also very much about a future hope. Something more to come.
We were singing, there must be more than this, come Holy Spirit. Because when the Spirit comes, we begin to long for the more that is to come. We’re not fully there yet. As Paul says in verse 23, he says, “Not only so, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we have that taste, groan inwardly as we wait, eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” There is this groaning that still continues in our own life. And as we reach out to those who are groaning in the world, and it’s a groaning that’s of the Spirit. That’s what’s so exciting, it’s not just us going, “Oh my goodness. Why is life like this?” It’s the Holy Spirit who’s coming into our hearts and sharing that groan. It’s God giving us a groaning for the more that is to come.
So that’s why Paul says in verse 26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We don’t know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
He’s saying that even when we’re lost for words, as we look at situations in our own life or in the life of the world. Things that we may say are so intractable, the Spirit comes and prays the prayers that we don’t know what to pray. He prays God’s prayers that God’s Kingdom may come. No situation, no problem is separated from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, that’s the truth. And so the Holy Spirit comes both as a foretaste of heaven, the first fruits, and also a fire that burns in our hearts as we long for the more that is to come.
The completion of the victory that Jesus won on the cross, and in his resurrection. I’ve been reading a book by someone called Francis Chan, who is a pastor in America. And he’s written a book about the Holy Spirit. And in that book, he says he was once asked, “Who’s the most Spirit filled person that you’ve ever met?” And he replied that without a doubt, it was Joni Eareckson Tada. You may have heard of her, she was injured in 1967 in a diving accident and was left quadriplegic, she has no feeling or use of her body beneath her shoulders. And in hospital as she lay there. And this was beginning to sink in what had happened. She just wanted to end her life, that’s all that she wanted, she says that. The thought of spending the rest of her life dependent upon others for almost everything left her shattered. But through the love of friends who came and prayed for her, she surrendered her life to God.
She said, “Okay, God. I don’t know why I’m in this situation, but this is my life. I give it to you.” And the Holy Spirit filled her life and has used her in the most amazing way over the last 37 years. The Holy Spirit has poured a life through her. Her charity, which is called Joni and Friends has helped thousands around the world with disabilities. She set up a program called Wheels for the World, which makes sure that people in countries where there are not enough wheelchairs get a wheelchair.
She’s an amazing artist, she paints by holding a brush in her teeth. And she’s a gifted speaker going around, building up the church. But Francis Chan says this, “It’s not because of these accomplishments that I consider her the most Spirit filled person I know. It’s to do with the fact that you can’t spend 10 minutes with Joni before she breaks out into song, quotes scripture, or shares a touching and timely word of encouragement. I’ve never seen the fruit of the Spirit more obviously displayed in a person’s life as when I’m with Joni. I can’t seem to have a conversation with Joni without shedding tears. Her life at every level gives evidence of the Spirit’s work in and through her.”
And I feel so challenged as I hear that. Because I know how easily I let the problems of my life become like kind of barriers where I say, “Lord, unless you can take this away, I don’t really think I can know the fullness of life that you call me to.” And I saw an interview with her on YouTube, and she says that there are many struggles. She isn’t simply just kind of reconciled her disability. She wakes up many days, wishing she didn’t have to have someone come in and wash her and do everything for her. But she says that when she feels like that, she asks God for strength and he comes by his Spirit and he gives her that strength. And her life to me is a testimony of that truth, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
That’s his promise. And the Holy Spirit comes to bring life in every way and in every situation. God moves in miraculous ways by His Spirit, so much more than I think we often realise. He’s a living God and new creation has begun. And the only mistake we can ever make when we pray is not to pray too big a prayer. We can’t make a mistake in praying for more miracles, more amazing things. The only mistake we can ever make in our lives is thinking that the love and the life of God are somehow at the other side of a particular situation or problem or limitation in our life, they’re not. The apostle Paul saw God move in every way, both in the miraculous ways. And sometimes when he talks about a thorn in his own flesh, and he says so many times, he said, “Lord, take it away.”
But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” And when he realised that, he had true freedom. Because he could say, “I could boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, because Christ’s power may rest on me.” And he came to know, and that’s really what I want to just leave with you today. He came to know the win-win of the Christian life. When we pray for the Holy Spirit to come, we cannot lose, because God will do, if we trust him, if we surrender our life to him, God will do the most amazing things. And all we have to do is to trust that in whichever way God works, and I know it’s totally human. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t want God to take away the tough things, but it’s totally trusting in God, and as I say, it’s a tragedy when the church stops praying for miracles, because God is at work miraculously by His Spirit.
But what is equally a tragedy is if we think that God is only at work that way, and that if somehow God leaves us with a particular situation to deal with, we let ourselves be cut off from the amazing reality that God can work through any limitation, any situation in our lives. Mother Maria I mentioned earlier knew that, Joni knew that, we can each know that in our lives. And then we become people who see miracles in all kinds of ways. That is what the Holy Spirit came to do, to assure us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. Paul says there in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose.”
You each have been called according to God’s purpose. Nothing in your life can separate you from the love of God. He can work in everything to the good. And our job, I think at Pentecost is to say, “Come Holy Spirit.” And just to utterly trust him that he comes. When we say, “Come Holy Spirit.” He comes and he only brings life. He brings it in his way, in his timing and in utter love. And it’s the answer to every fear so we’re not left thinking that God is only with us if certain situations happen that we’re looking for. Paul says, “You did not receive a Spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you receive the Spirit of sonship. And by him, we cry ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children.”
Faith in the storm (talk transcript)
Jesus Walks on the Water
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
Jesus comes to us in the storm
We are never out of Jesus’ sight or reach even when it feels like we are. At the at beginning of this passage Jesus is totally involved in the disciples situation even when he seems far off, out of sight, and they feels alone in their situation:
Jesus “went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.” (V.22-25)
Jesus is praying. He sees their situation. He comes to them in the midst of their struggle. Jesus hasn’t changed. We read in Hebrews that the risen and ascended Jesus “lives to intercede for us”. He (the Son of God) is praying for us. That’s an amazing truth. He sees our situations even when we cannot see him or feel his presence, and he is right with us by his Holy Spirit. He comes to us in the storm.
As this passage unfolds we see how faith works. It has three dimensions as we will see. Each dimension of faith is a way that God frees us from that desperate feeling of being trapped by our weakness and fears.
Faith is a choice
First of all, faith is simply a decision. A choice that we can make at any time however late in the day or situation it feels.
“When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. Immediately Jesus said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”” (V.26-27).
What Jesus is saying is that the disciples don’t have to work up faith, but rather simply take courage. Why? Because of who Jesus is and that He is with them. It takes courage because it is always a choice. We can always look at circumstances or ourselves instead of Jesus.
Believing in, looking to Jesus, is actually the essence of the life for which we were made. John concludes his Gospel: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ. The son of God. And that by believing, you may have life in his name”.
Crucially, our choosing faith is not a decision based on our circumstances, but on the nature of God. His love and His sovereignty. When Jesus comes to the disciples on the lake, their circumstances haven’t changed yet. The storm is still raging, they are still stuck in the boat paddling just to stay still. But with Jesus’ presence everything is different. It makes possible the decision of faith. “Take courage, it is I”.
This matters because if we can discover that we can make this decision for faith in Jesus no matter what we are facing, it means that we can know the peace and freedom from fear that God wants for each one of us.
Freedom through faith
A man called Nick was born without arms or legs. When I first saw him I was so upset for him. I thought he was so brave to keep going and to smile. But as he spoke I realised that he was the most purpose-filled, joyful, and free person that I had ever seen. He is living proof that we can take Jesus at his word: “Take courage, it is I”. He said something that really stuck with me:
“The devil doesn’t care that he has my arms and legs. He cares if he can have my joy.”
The devil can’t have Nick’s joy because Nick decided as a teenager to trust Jesus that his life was not a tragic one but a gift as much as any life. That is why he is so free. He has discovered the reality of choosing life not feeling it is dependent on circumstances. But rather a decision. We may still be on that journey towards this kind of freedom and joy. I know I am. But when I see it so genuinely and authentically in a man like Nick I know how real it is. Even though we cannot see him like the disciples could, he is no less with us by his spirit, to help us make that choice to trust him completely.
Faith is a decision.
Now, there is a vital distinction that we need to see if we are not to misunderstand. When I say that faith is simply a decision that we can make no matter what our circumstances are, I am not saying this should involve us in some sort of unreal denial of our situations and feelings.
Some of the greatest statements of faith in the Bible come in the context of pain and confession.
In total suffering Job says: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”.
In utter confusion Habakkuk says: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine… still I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”
These statements of faith are not based on circumstances but a decision, a choice to trust in God no matter what. But this is nothing to do with denial, pushing down emotions, or pretense.
Job and Habakkuk, like David in the Psalms are brutally real with God about their situations. Through this gritty honesty and resolute faith they discover a freedom to know that God is faithful and hope is real. Job says in the midst of everything that has gone wrong in his life: “Oh that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed on lead, engraved in rock forever. I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth … I myself will see him with my own eyes.”
The second dimension of faith is that it is an action
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (V.28-29).
John Oakley’s well-known book on this event in the Gospels is entitled “If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat.” It is true. We only truly know for ourselves the power of faith in Jesus to change us and change the world when we commit our lives to the truth of Jesus’ word and presence with us by the Holy Spirit.
We can decide that a chair can take our weight, but until we sit on it we will never truly know if our faith is true. We might be willing to commit our whole weight to a chair (after all, the worst that can happen is that we get a bruised bottom!) But many of us struggle to totally and utterly commit the weight of our lives – all our unspoken dreams and hidden fears – to God. I don’t mean in the passive way that gives ‘living by faith’ a bad name. I’m talking about the active belief and trust in God through which others and ourselves are transformed by God.
About twenty years ago I met a woman called Sarah Thaine who was working with AIDS orphans in India. The work she was doing was so hard and she got ill in the process at one point. But she kept ‘getting out of the boat’. She said something in a talk that touched me so deeply and resonated with me:
“The Jesus of my journey will never say to me: ‘you were too reckless, you confided in me too much, you trusted beyond reasonable limits, you hoped too much of me. You should have only played with my word ‘have confidence in me’ rather than foolishly acting it out … No, the Christ of my life would never say that”.
As with faith as a decision, we must not misunderstand faith as an action. Taking a promise of God and acting upon it should not be confused with bravado. Notice how Peter says ‘Lord if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water’, and Jesus says ‘come’. Peter’s action which may have seemed foolish to others in the boat was in fact courageous faith. The defining point was that he was acting with Jesus, faith is about a relationship.
I love how Jesus teaching on faith as an action emphasises that it’s not about grand heroics (Sarah didn’t feel remotely heroic, even though she was a hero to me). It’s about simply doing what you can, and usually in your neighbourhood, when you see situations and people that touch your heart:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The third dimension of faith is like the anchor to the other two. Faith is a decision. It is an action. But it is both those things because it is ultimately a gift.
Faith is a gift.
(It is rather like floating.)
The danger in speaking of faith as a decision and action is that we screw ourselves up trying to think harder, try harder. When the decision and action Jesus is looking for is much more about resting in his presence with us. Discovering that in his presence, faith is his gift to us.
Have you ever tried floating in the water at the swimming pool or in the sea? Floating is not so much about trying harder as letting go. We float by breathing deeply and lying back and resting in the water. If you keep putting your head up to see what’s coming it is hard to float. It’s a good metaphor for life.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about God’s unconditional love. It matters so much. Not because what we do with our lives doesn’t matter. But because we don’t discover the joy and life Jesus brings by thinking harder, getting all intense or trying harder as if everything depends on us.
Please don’t misunderstand me, the life Jesus calls us to is anything but passive. But it is still one where ultimately we can rest, even in our busiest and most desperate moments like the disciples in the storm, in the presence of God – his sovereignty, love and grace. It’s like floating. Our freedom is involved. It is a very intentional thing. But it is as we stop thrashing around that we start to float.
We need faith to have the courage to face our doubts and fears , which are our natural response when we feel overwhelmed.
“But when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”. Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (V.30-33).
‘You of little faith… why did you doubt?’ Those words sound harsh but they are words of real love love and affection for Peter – aimed to point him towards Jesus and away from himself and his fears wrought by his inability to change his situation on his own.
John writes “Perfect love cast out fear”. God’s love – his perfect love – helps us to learn to float. We see this as Peter is overwhelmed by fear. Peter sank the moment he looked away from Jesus and focused on the storm. Peter can’t walk on water without Jesus. No one can. He cannot just decide to jump out of the boat in his own strength. And that is why the point about relationships is so important.
Faith is a simple decision we make, no matter what. But we don’t make it alone. Jesus says ‘Take courage. It is I’.
Faith is an action. There is always a risk involved. There will always be someone or a voice in our head saying ‘stay in the boat’. That voice might be wisdom or fear. The only way we know is by asking Jesus and listening to his stirring in our hearts. We never step out in faith alone. Jesus says ‘come’.
Jesus never abandons us. Ultimately, no matter what, Jesus was not going to let Peter sink. This moment was one of many where Jesus is holding Peter up. The night before Jesus was executed, he said to Simon Peter that he would be there for him even when Peter would deny he knew him in fear. “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for you. Simon that your faith may not fail and when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers”.
Floating is not a passive thing. It is very much an intentional action. A commitment to put all our weight our action in God’s arms of love. One of my favourite scriptures, which we often read at funerals, is this one:
“The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms”.
It is as much a verse for life as death. It is about faith as floating. I have been in that place so often in my life, where I have been struggling to make the decision for faith, to step forward in life courageously, and had to fall back on this dimension of faith as a gift – like floating. I am very much in that place again with the MND taking away my ability to speak and move. Discovering that Jesus reaches out to me when I cry out in fear and doubt.
But I am challenged afresh by those words of Jesus, ‘you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ The third dimension of faith – faith as a gift – is the bottom line, the point of last resort. But it is also the foundation for faith as a simple courageous decision to live our lives actively in faith. Life is really on hold until we choose to believe and not doubt and take courage from Jesus’ presence. At the end of the day, we discover life in all its fullness as we know the freedom that comes from faith in all three dimensions.
Faith is a decision. One we can make no matter what, and know a joy and peace that transcend circumstances.
Faith is an action. Jesus calls us to an adventure You can’t depend, confide, trust in him too much.
Faith is like floating. This decision, this action of faith are not the result of trying harder. It’s the simple intentional decision and daily living out of faith. It may seem like a mustard seed to us, but faith has the power to change us and to change the world. I love this Song by Matt Redman which speaks of the reality.
Here is the song by Matt Redman
Here is a video of Nick showing how real this is.
Expectancy (talk transcript)
John 4: 4-26
Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman
Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
What God can make possible
In this passage Jesus meets with a woman in a very ordinary situation for her. Just she’s going about her day, trying to get water, which she needs. But by the end of the encounter her life is never the same again.
I want to talk tonight about our perspective on what God can do, expectancy about what God can make possible. That’s sort of the word tonight that I want to focus in on, expectancy.
What does that mean for us? What does it mean for us to be expectant in our lives of what God can do because it’s expectancy that kind of ignites our faith.
It’s expectancy that makes us pray big prayers, life changing prayers.
The kind of question that I want to ask tonight is, “What is our expectancy of what God can do in our lives.” The things that we’re kind of thinking about in our lives right now. What’s our expectancy for what God is going to do? Perhaps personally, perhaps the out in the community.
Faith built on expectancy
Do we expect to be surprised by God? Do we expect him to surprise us?
Every time I do the Alpha Course, I find that by the end of it I’m utterly surprised at what God can do. I don’t know why I have never learned the lesson, really. I always begin the course thinking, “I wonder what God will do.” And by the end I’m thinking, “Wow, it’s amazing what you can do.”
I just heard this week, and I wish… I need to get her permission to tell the story, but there was someone on the course last term who’s in China. She’s in China now. But the stuff that God’s been doing in her life, I didn’t have a frame of reference for and I’m just so excited. When she comes back, I’m hoping that she might just tell us a little bit. But I’m so challenged, “What is my expectancy about what God can do?” Perhaps part of the issue with expectancy is that we feel it’s a bit presumptuous, perhaps, to expect too much of God. That we think it’s presumptuous when I talk about expectancy.
It’s like, “Well, should you say ‘I expect this of you, God.’?” I’m not saying that God kind of owes us something, that we expect of God in a way that he owes us something. I’m talking about the expectancy that’s about what our faith is built upon.
About a sense in which, I believe, God, you’re going to do things. I’m not going to presume on how you’re going to do it, or what time you’re going to do it, but I’m expectant that you will do something when we pray, when we speak to you.
It’s about how we live practically, as Christians. When we pray about stuff, do we pray and then kind of just get on with doing stuff in our own strength just in case God doesn’t kind of answer the prayers?
It’s the kind of belt and braces approach. “I’ll pray, but then I’ll just carry on as if…” Or do we pray and then have an expectancy to see what God’s going to do?
God meets us in our day to day
I think Jesus meets this woman in a place where she’s not really expecting that much from her life other than the same old, but he wants to meet her there.
He meets her in an ordinary situation, getting water to drink. God doesn’t sort of disdain the mundane. He loves meeting us in the mundane, in the day-to-day. He doesn’t want to take us away from the mundane, he actually wants to turn the everyday into places of His presence. Places where we find Him.
He has these kind of conversations with people in their ordinary day lives. We see Jesus doing it all of the time, and he turns an ordinary situation into a place of encounter where people are not the same afterwards. This conversation begins in which Jesus challenges the lady’s whole frame of reference all the way through. Not to humble her, but rather to lift her up, to restore her sense of expectancy about what God can do.
We see her ask her for a drink, and she says, “Why would you ask me for a drink? Why would you even associate with me?”
She’s talking about the whole issue between Samaritans and Jews, but as so often in John’s Gospel there’s two levels to it. Really, it’s all about our relationship with God. If there’s anyone here tonight, hopefully there isn’t, but if there’s anyone here tonight who kind of thinks that of God, “Why would you associate with me?” This is the word for you tonight, that he wants to. That he wants to meet with us. He does.
There’s no one that he doesn’t want to be with, hang out with. Jesus surprises her, because having asked her for a drink, he then says something kind of strange. John’s Gospel is like this all the time, you think you’re talking about one thing, then it sort of moves on.
He says to her, “Will you…” having asked her for a drink, he says this, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Her reply to him is just beautifully honest, and it’s the center of why Jesus wants to talk to her, and it’s the center of what I want to talk about tonight.
She says this, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with.” Or as the common English translation puts it, which I really like, “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”
In other words, “I hear what you’re saying, Jesus, and I want to accept it, but I just don’t get it. I don’t get how you’re going to resolve this situation.”
So what does that mean for us in our lives? Perhaps we’re looking for a job, perhaps we’re praying, we have faith that God can help to get us a job, but sometimes we can’t see how He is going to do it. We can’t see where this job’s going to come from. We cannot see how God is going to fix this situation. It’s a bit like her saying, “You don’t have a bucket.”
Perhaps we’re waiting for the right relationship, or perhaps we’re waiting for a breakthrough in some area of life where we’re held back by something and we feel like this woman. “But how, Jesus? How are you going to solve this?” Or perhaps it’s something a bit wider, we’re looking at the world. We’re looking at what’s going on in Japan, and we’re saying, “God, I want to pray about this, but how are you going to solve this situation?” Or perhaps it’s something in our community, we see a family in crisis. We see a child without family, and we see the pain and we say, “God, how are you going to solve this?” These are the kind of issues that to me hang under this question.
A different way of doing things
I went to a service this week where this reading was read, and it was something in the way it was read that just blew me away. There’s kind of incomprehension when she says, “You have nothing to draw with.” I found myself thinking, “How often are my prayers a bit like that?” That I kind of pray to God about things, but I limit God to what I can get my head around in terms of what he can do.
But Jesus’ words to her are striking there. He’s basically saying, “I don’t need a bucket. You’re talking about buckets, you’re talking about the depth of the well. I don’t need a bucket. The water that I’m talking about comes from a spring, not a well.”
I think it’s so easy to limit God to working in ways that we can understand. Our expectancy can be so easily conditioned by what we think God can do, perhaps based on what we’ve seen God do in the past, or perhaps just what we can imagine. What we can kind of get our heads around.
We can be praying for God to help, we can be praying for God to do stuff that only God can do, so we’re praying in the right way, but we kind of give God a bucket in those prayers when we kind of say, “And this is my prayer, God, and this is how I think you’re going to answer that prayer. This is how I think you’re going to solve it.” God sort of, I think, sometimes comes to us and says, “Don’t limit my resources. I have a different way of doing things.”
It’s a good question to ask ourselves, I think, sometimes, “How much do I pray with my prayers kind of limited to what I know and what I think God can do?” For this woman, that’s the situation. Life’s left her with little anticipation about what God can do in her life.
My sense, as I read this, is that she doesn’t have a great deal of expectancy that much is going to come from this conversation. She’s just going through the motions of it. Jesus says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who asks you for a drink.”
He doesn’t criticise her lack of faith, rather He is saying, “If you knew what God can do, and if you knew who I am, this whole conversation would be a lot different.” He starts with her perspective about what God is like, and about what God can do. He wants to restore her expectancy, because then her faith will come alive.
It reminded me of that prayer that Paul prays for the Ephesians, he says, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, that you may have power to grasp, power to know, power to get your head around, together with all of the saints, how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ. And to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
He ends by saying, “To him, who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.” God is able to do more than we can even put into words, or even imagine in our minds. Paul’s prayer is for them to grasp that. He says that they’ll grasp that, not as they kind of expand their minds, but as they kind of experience God’s love. That’s why he says, “How wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ.” God can restore and bring life to situations in ways that exceed what we could ask or imagine. That is what Jesus is wanting this woman to understand, totally identifying with her where she’s at.
Nothing is impossible for God
In 1965 an Englishman was born in Kenya. His life began in tragedy, at the age of two he was abused. He grew up basically battling fear and anxiety, but he had one good thing going on. Next door to him in Kenya lived a missionary couple called Michael and Margaret, and they prayed for him. Later on in his life he was sent to boarding school in this country, but at the age of 17 he was raped, and in his early 20s he was diagnosed HIV positive.
Somehow he managed to build his life and he became a company director, he became successful in what he was doing. He had a stable relationship and he had a nice home but at the age of 40, in a moment of madness, he spent the night with a male prostitute and he lost everything, his relationship, his home, his job.
Two years ago he went on a course, a Christian course, called The Recovery Course. It’s run by a man called Nigel, it’s run for people struggling with addictions. Nigel said that, “When this man arrived he looked like a dead man walking.” That’s how he described him. He was so broken that Nigel, at the end of the first night, rang up a couple that he knows in the North of England who are in their 80s. He says they’re the most faithful prayers and intercessors he knows. He says, “This man’s come on the course, I won’t tell you his name, but I just want you to pray for him. I want you to pray that he’s healed, that he’s set free, and that he comes to have faith in Jesus Christ.” So they started praying. About six weeks later, Nigel took the man on an Alpha Holy Spirit Day. He said that, “This man was filled with the Holy Spirit in the most amazing way.”
Nigel says this, he said, “He had the most intense filling of the Spirit, accompanied by wails of anguish and pain that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. He was set free from his addictions and he has a passion for Jesus as fervent as you could find.”
Recently he went to hospital for a checkup and the doctors couldn’t find any symptoms of the HIV virus that he’s had for over 30 years, they’re totally gone. A few weeks ago Nigel discovered that the 80 year old couple in the North of England who he’d ask to pray for them, a couple called Michael and Margaret, are the missionary couple that lived next door to this little boy as he grew up in Kenya.
Nigel writes this, he said, “How did that happen? A couple pray for a small boy in a different country and continent 45 years ago, and then through a chance meeting with myself, running a little course for 12 people on an estate in London, end up participating in a glorious resurrection after a period of several decades in which that small boy has traveled to the very gates of Hell.”
Keep going. Every prayer you pray counts. What a great and utterly mysterious God we have. The woman said, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep.” And Jesus says, “I don’t need a bucket. The living water that I want to give you is a spring that wells up in your heart so that you will never thirst again.” I don’t think we’ll ever understand why some things take so long to resolve, why good people suffer real pain at times. But nothing is impossible for God.
Allowing expectancy to rise
That story, and this encounter with Jesus has reminded me this week that God wants our expectancy to rise to what he can do, to not limit him to what we think is possible to kind of the way that we think the world works, and the way we think things are possible, and the way we think God might answer our prayers.
This woman meets Jesus and it’s clear that she’s in all kinds of emotional pain. She’s had five husbands, and in that culture that doesn’t mean to say, probably, that she’s been moving from husband to husband, it probably means that either those five husbands have died or divorced her. So she’s in a lot of pain. That hurt comes out in her words when she’s saying, “Where can you get this living water?” She goes on to say, in quite a sarcastic way, “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it himself?” She is sort of saying, “Who do you think you are?” But Jesus isn’t put off by that.
As we discover, he knows exactly what’s going on in her life, and he just wants her to have a renewed hope in what he can do. He wants to meet her in the ordinary situation of her life and give her a whole new perspective, that life isn’t about just this meaningless kind of trekking backwards and forwards to the well for water, it’s about finding living water in the midst of the ordinary.
So he says to the woman, “Go call your husband.” And this conversation unfolds where she says, “I don’t have a husband.” And he says, “No, I know what’s going on.” And she doesn’t really want to have the conversation, so she tries to divert it to wider issues about which mountain we worship on.
Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t worry, I have all that in hand to one day… it doesn’t matter which mountain we worship on because we worship in spirit and truth. But it’s like, “Let’s come back to why I’ve come. I’ve come to make you have life in all its fullness.” That’s the conversation he wants to have with her. Not to make her feel bad about the way life’s gone, or anything like that, he wants to have a conversation that really matters. That’s about, for her, it’s about this relationship pain that she’s had. That’s why Jesus came. He came to deal with that on the cross. He didn’t come to kind of skirt around the issues, so it might seem like he’s being direct, but I think he does that for each one of us.
Into the wilderness
What does it mean? I was thinking, in terms of bringing this home, what does it mean for us to have a renewed expectancy? I think sometimes it means by first being prepared to let God challenge us about some stuff like Jesus does. To find that God can actually meet us in the stuff where we perhaps think, “I’d rather really not go there. I’d rather find God meeting me somewhere else.”
A good friend of mine who went through a really tough time a few years ago said this to me, “God sometimes leads us down paths we do not want to go to get us to places we never want to leave. God sometimes leads us down paths we don’t want to go to get us to places we never want to leave.” Tim was speaking, I recommend it, if you can get the download this morning if you weren’t there about Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. He made an interesting point, he said, “It says in all of the Gospels that the spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness.”
God takes us into places. I don’t want to make the wilderness a kind of glamorous thing, it’s just that Jesus can meet us, God can do a work in us wherever we are, so don’t be afraid if God takes you to places where you don’t really want to go, because probably, it’s so that he can show you that he can meet you anywhere, that he can deal with anything, if we are prepared to follow his lead.
I come back to this point to finish about expectancy. Expectancy makes us able to find purpose and satisfaction in every season of life. This woman was deeply unsatisfied. She ends with life looking a whole lot different. Expectancy, I want to say, based on what I’ve said tonight and from this passage is built upon these three things that I think we see of what Jesus does in this passage.
Firstly, that God is totally involved in our lives. Jesus comes to the woman totally identifying with her first. Secondly, he’s totally able. Jesus has resources that are not limited by our frame of reference. He doesn’t need a bucket, is the point. Thirdly, how totally for us he is.
The passage ends where we see, that’s why I say it’s not really about faith because we see that the woman has faith. She says at the end, verse 25, “I know that Messiah is coming.” Jesus sees that there is a faith beneath the pain in her life and he says to her, “I, who speak to you, am he.” He’s always interested in that personal encounter. “I, who speak to you, am he.” It’s like, “I’ve come to speak with you, in your situation, in your time.” And perhaps Lent is a great opportunity for us to say, “God, I want to seek that encounter.” As Tim was saying this morning, “A good time to just say I’m going to find a little point to pause each day and say, ‘God, I really want to meet with you. I want my expectancy to rise for what you can do in my life.'” We’ll see that our lives are transformed.
Later on in John: 4 we read of how she’s not only got renewed faith, but she’s leading other people to Jesus. That’s what happens when God transforms our life. That’s my encouragement from the word tonight. To not let our expectancy dip even in situations where we can’t quite see how God’s going to solve a situation.
He doesn’t need us to be able to imagine, or even find the words for how he’s going to do it. He says, “God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.” His resources are not dependent upon our understanding. He just invites us to let him meet us in the places where we find ourselves. Even if they’re uncomfortable places as they were for this woman.
God has only one motive and that’s love, and only one goal, which is freedom to know him as well as he knows us.