The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

God’s work through disability – John 9

Yesterday I had the privileged opportunity to preach at St. Clements Anglican at Mosman. Preaching at all four services was a test of endurance. I was pretty wasted when I returned home at 11pm after being up at 5:30am. But the effort was worth while. God did amazing things as people were impacted by what was said.
To listen to the sermon, click here for the web page. I’ve provided a transcript below…
From John 9

As Australians, we can be obsessive about a number of things. One of those things is ability. We love to celebrate those who have ability. Doctors, academics, particularly sports people. Think of the amount of money sports people earn. It’s remarkable.

And so we should celebrate ability. We ought to thank God for the abilities that God gives people. But there is a dangerous flipside for people with disabilities. They are often perceived as not worth celebrating. To be minimised. Perhaps even to be avoided. They are also often perceived as not being able to work, or make a contribution. Such thinking can cause much difficulty and hurt for those with disabilities. But when we bring that thinking into the church, it causes even bigger problems. Such thinking affects the whole church community as it faces the very real prospect of missing out on God’s work – which is the touchstone of Ch. 9. What does it mean to be doing God’s work? and who can do God’s work?

In the time of Jesus, God’s work was clearly defined by the religious leaders, and it had severe implications for the disabled. If you were disabled there was a very simple explanation for it. You deserved it. You or your parents had done something to offend God, and God was punishing you with a disability. So you were perceived as rejected by God, and were ostracised by God’s people. Particularly if you were blind you were perceived as incapable of receiving God’s revelation. So you certainly could not do God’s work if you couldn’t receive God’s revelation. Hence we have the disciples’ question in v2 “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?”

Now, before we charge these religious leaders with disability discrimination, we need to understand that these beliefs developed out of a desire for holiness. These were devout honest, men who wanted to remain pure; who wanted to live up to God’s standards in keeping the law. Especially when it came to the Sabbath. For these men, the work of God meant separation from those who they considered condemned by God – erecting barriers between themselves and undesirables.

We may not go to the same religious extremities that the leaders of Jesus’ day. But our response to disability can be just as questionable. Disability can make us feel uncomfortable, and some can find disability very confronting. One reason for this is disability may remind us of our own brokenness. Once reminded, our self perception and self worth are threatened because in our culture, they are so closely tied to what we can do.

I turn 37 this week. For most of my life I’ve been trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I am not disabled. For some reason it hasn’t quite worked. I did this through cycling – I would ride anything up to 250km/week. I’ve learned to drive a car, sail a boat, and cook. I’ve travelled and camped on my own. I’ve done what most sensible able-bodied people wouldn’t do! Mostly because it was fun. But partly because I wanted to disassociate myself from disability, and show I’m just as important, just as valuable as anyone else. For the record, all that effort has failed. My importance and value has nothing to do with what I can do.

Or, another reason may be that we think we need to hide our brokenness to provide a good witness. That for God and his gospel to have any credibility, we need to appear as though God has solved all our problems. That our brokenness is mended. That as Christians, we have our life together, and we’re just cruising through life. Otherwise, if we are still struggling with brokenness, maybe there’s something wrong with our faith, or perhaps God isn’t the real deal. I know an elderly man who, when you ask him how is, he’ll answer “I’m fighting fit”. But probe a little deeper, and you’ll find he’s battling some serious health issues. For some reason, we are reluctant or even embarrassed to expose our brokenness, and can be desperate to hide it.

Often we do not have a place for disability in our Christian thinking. The result is it affects who we engage with and form relationships. We can easily find ourselves erecting barriers between us and who we regard as broken. The reality is, we’re all broken, no matter how much we try to hide it. None of us are self sufficient. All of us need God’s grace. All of us need the support of others. The main difference between many of you and myself is my brokenness is allot harder to hide. Yet, we still find ourselves erecting barriers.

Where the religious leaders and, to a lesser extent, us today see disability as a barrier to doing the work of God, Jesus does not. In response to his disciple’s question, in v3 Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus takes this whole understanding of disability, and turns it on its head. Rather than the person being rejected and condemned by God, Jesus understands that this person is at the forefront of God’s work.

The whole aim of Jesus ministry was reconciliation. Reconciling people to God, and to other people, in his name. It’s not a wishy washy reconciliation where we get rid of anything that might cause conflict, so no one believes anything anymore. It’s reconciliation by Jesus. Ultimately, this was achieved in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this was also being demonstrated in his earthly ministry.

This had implications for the disabled as it was through them along with other broken people that God’s grace would be demonstrated. This is why Jesus says in v4, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” Jesus time on earth was short, and in this blind man, he saw an opportunity to demonstrate God’s grace. This grace would be vividly demonstrated by removing what was thought to be a sign of God’s rejection of him – his blindness. The result was making this man a recipient of God’s revelation, enabling him to display God’s grace in his life, and to believe and testify to Jesus. In this Jesus was redefining the work of God. It was about tearing down barriers that stood between God and people, and between people themselves.

One of the biggest barriers at the time of Jesus was Sabbath. To be a person of God, you needed to observe the Sabbath tradition. But for Jesus, showing mercy and doing the work of reconciliation in his name is more important then tradition, or the way things are done. In this, Jesus changed what it means to do the work of God.

So how did people respond to this new way of doing God’s work? Well, just like people don’t like change now, they didn’t like then. In the text, we have 4 groups of people responding in 5 different ways to the news.

The first group is the neighbours in vv8-13. They haven’t a clue what’s going on. They can’t even decide if it’s the same man, and refer the whole matter to the religious experts. People today can have the same attitude toward disability – ‘it’s too hard, let someone else handle it’.

So it’s onto the second group in vv14-17, the Pharisees, the religious experts. When they hear the man’s testimony, they were divided as to whether this was God’s work. Some doubted pointing to the fact it was the Sabbath and concluded it was impossible for the man’s testimony to be God’s work. Others disregarded the issue of the Sabbath and simply considered what had happened and concluded the man was worth listening too. Yet these people felt the pressure of their peers and changed their view of the man. I’ve seen this before where people value the person with a disability, until someone with a louder opinion comes along, and people change their minds, or remain silent.

The third group are his parents in vv18-23. They readily admit the man is his son, and that he was born blind. But that’s as far as their support goes. They avoid the whole issue of the man’s testimony, otherwise they’ll run the risk of rejection. Instead of supporting their son, they’ll let him sort out his own problems. For his parents, they were more worried about what people might think if they became involved with their disabled son, and acknowledged the work of God that had occurred in his life.

So it was back to the Pharisees for a fourth response in vv24-29. They respond a second time by maintaining the Sabbath barrier. They hold fast to their own traditions, and conclude on one shred of evidence, as sure as this man is born blind, that Jesus is a sinner, and do not listen to the man. The stupidity of their conclusion is brought out by the blind man when in v30 he says, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” This is an emphatic statement. In other words, “You have labelled Jesus a sinner, and you don’t even know where he comes from!” They are rejecting the man’s testimony when they haven’t even done the basic checks! All because of their view of a person born blind.

Four different reactions, yet with one thing in common. Whether it was general confusion, peer pressure, fear of rejection, or maintaining tradition, all four groups were not able to receive God’s work because they refused to accept this man’s testimony due to his status in life and position in the community.

There is a fifth reaction I haven’t mentioned yet, that of the blind man in vv31-33 – receiving the work of God, and becoming part of the work of God. Against the Pharisees with their one shred of evidence, he begins to stack up the evidence for his healing being a work of God. Firstly, God listened to Jesus. Secondly, no one has opened the eyes of a man born blind before. Thirdly, if he Jesus wasn’t from God, he wouldn’t have been able to perform the miracle. The man knows that to understanding his healing as a work of God, he’ll face identity issues, he’s going against religious tradition, he faces the denial of his parents, he faces banishment from the religious community, and yet believes. In believing, this man was able to do the work of God, not by performing miracles, but by testifying that Jesus was sent from God.

You see, this man was able to do the work of God, not by what he could do, but by who he believed – Jesus. When Jesus caught up to him in vv35-38, Jesus revealed himself to the man as the Son of Man – the one who reveals God. In response he worshipped him.

Since involvement in God’s work does not depend on what we can do, we, in the church, can not afford to obsess over ability like those outside the church. If we do, we run a very real risk of erecting barriers between ourselves, and those who we consider less able, and miss out on the work of God in our midst displaying his reconciling grace.

We must recognise that the work of the gospel is reconciliation – reconciliation between God and people, and reconciliation between people. This means removing barriers where ever possible. This doesn’t come natural. Allot of the time it may not be easier. It may involve going against social norms and traditional concerns. It may involve spending more time and effort getting to know someone as it would somebody else. Certainly in my case, it takes more time and effort to listen. But by removing the barriers, we’ll soon discover that all followers of Jesus are involved in God’s work of reconciliation, regardless of ability or disability.

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March 5, 2012 Posted by | Sermons | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Joy of the Gospel

(Romans 5:1-11)

From chapter 3 of Romans we read how God has revealed a righteousness through faith in Christ Jesus. That those who have faith in Jesus will be justified. But how do we know? Where’s the evidence as to whether or not we’re justified? It’s not like we’re given some certification to show we’ve been justified. How do we know we have peace with God? How do we know we’ve been accepted by him? Particularly when life becomes hard and outright unbearable. Does God really care? Does being a Christian count for anything? Is the gospel what it’s cracked up to be?

Romans 5:1-11 forms the introduction of chapters 5-8 on the question of assurance. Paul’s introduction addresses three issues that appear to be a threat to our justification, before moving on to other aspects of assurance. Three issues that would appear as though we haven’t been accepted by God, and says that these things actually confirm we have been justified, we have been accepted by God. Rather than being the source of doubt and despair, we are to rejoice in them.

The kind of rejoicing Paul is talking about carries with it connotations of boasting. It’s the same kind of boasting that the Jews did in the law – “You who brag about the law…” (Romans 2:23). It is the same expression used by Paul when he tells the Corinthians to boast in the Lord – “Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”” (1 Corinthians 1:31). To rejoice means to tell your friends and to base your hopes on what you’re rejoicing about

 So what are the three things which we are to rejoice about? 1) the hope of the glory of God, 2) our suffering, 3) God himself.

the hope of the glory of God

What is this glory of God? Generally it means the intentions God has for humanity. To live in proper relationship with God and in each other. In New Testament terms, the glory of God refers to the image of Christ – “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The glory of God is also synonymous with salvation. Most of us would know the famous benediction “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude 24). So Paul is talking about the image of Christ that we are gradually being transformed into, and will be completed in the new creation.

Paul mentions that the glory of God is something we fall short of – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23). Previously, the glory of God has been a source of grief. We can’t live up to those glorious expectations that God has intended for us. But now that we have been justified through faith in Christ, that has been reversed. We now rejoice in, and anticipate the day when we will share in the glory of God. How can we do that? Because we have been justified. So rejoice in the glory of God.

•1.     our sufferings

We are to rejoice in our sufferings. By “suffering” I think Paul is talking about those inconveniences we experience every day in a fallen world. It could include persecution for being Christian, but I think we need to understand suffering in the broadest sense. It could mean taking the second best job, general rejection from friends, or not indulging in much desired activities. Paul says we are to rejoice in these sufferings.

Why are we to rejoice in our sufferings? It’s not a popular message today. According to the world, if we find ourselves suffering we go and find someone to sue, or spend a lot of money on things that will distract us from our suffering. Why are we to be different? Paul gives us 3 reasons to rejoice in our sufferings: 1) God uses suffering to make us more like Christ, 2) we enjoy the benefits of a relationship with God now, 3) we have been saved from God’s wrath.

  • I. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ

The fact of the matter is, if you’re breathing it’s a pretty good indication that you will experience suffering. For us as Christians, the question isn’t “how do we avoid suffering?” rather, the question is, how are you, who have been justified through faith, who enjoy peace with God and are rejoicing in his glory, how are you going to respond to suffering?

Suffering will affect us one of two ways. Firstly, suffering can corrupt you. That is, you can respond in such a way that you actually become further removed from what God intends for you. We’re tempted to kick and scream demanding our rights not giving a thought to our own responsibility or consequences, not unlike those in Romans 1:28-32. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” Not to mention how easily we forget the hope of the glory of God.

Or secondly, suffering can refine us to be more like Christ. I read in one book that suffering “…becomes the divinely orchestrated means by which God strengthens … faithful endurance and hope by pouring out his own love and Spirit to sustain or deliver them in their distress”. If we remain mindful of the glorious knowledge that you have “…been justified through faith… have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And … rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2) then the end result can only mean one thing – that you become more and more like the person of Christ, and so strengthens the hope you have of the glory of God.

This is not easy. We want respect, we want recognition, we want acceptance, and when we don’t get it the natural thing to do is demand it. Personally, I find this very challenging. There’s a few people about the place who can testify how much I can kick and scream. But Paul says no. We rejoice in our sufferings. Now this doesn’t mean you become a door mat, and let people walk over you. But it does mean you are to remember that you are justified. You have peace with God. You rejoice in the glory of God. When my bike was stolen nearly 4 years ago, friends of mine, who aren’t Christians, wanted to engage in vigilante activity in revenge.  As much as I would’ve liked that, I said no. Praise be to God, they did what I asked. Did I pursue my legal rights? Yes. Bearing in mind who I was in Christ. Therefore, when you suffer, you are to respond differently.

You are to rejoice, knowing that God has complemented you with another opportunity to grow in the image of Christ, and display his likeness as a witness, as a shameless boasting, of what Christ has done for you.

  • II. We enjoy the benefits a relationship with God now.

This growing in the image of Christ leads to a greater conviction of the hope that we have of the glory of God. However, this hope isn’t a vague distant hope. It is a hope that we experience now as Christians, and it is a hope that will not fail us. Why? Because God is the one who has initiated this hope. It is God who pours out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. How do we know that? Because it was the same love that prompted God to send his son to the cross. Ultimately our hope isn’t founded on that moment of jubilation when we first understood the gospel. Our hope isn’t founded on the number of “Christian” things we did this week. Our hope isn’t founded on how vibrant our church is. Our hope is founded on the fact that Christ died for the ungodly. Christ died for the unworthy. Christ died for you. That is why we have a hope that will not disappoint. Because it’s got nothing to do with us. It’s got everything to do with God. God’s love came to us through Christ in our present condition – while we were warring against God. Therefore we ought to have every confidence in the hope of the glory of God on the basis of what God has done in Christ, and not only persevere with our sufferings, but to rejoice in them.

  • III. We have been saved from God’s wrath

Now, when we talk about being saved, we generally mean by that we have been saved from God’s impending judgement. But Paul has another perspective of God’s judgement in mind. Paul also speaks of God’s wrath being revealed from heaven NOW (Romans 1:18). This really struck me. I don’t know about you, but, I tend to think of the wrath of God in terms of fire and brimstone in the end times. And Paul does talk about God’s wrath in the sense of final judgment – “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:5). But there’s also this second sense that God is revealing his wrath now. This is a world under God’s judgment. This is a world that has been condemned by God. This is the reason behind the rampant depravity that Paul lists. God has simply given men over to their desires (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Wicked men do what they do simply because they do not have that basis of a proper relationship with God.

To give an example of how a world under God’s wrath operates, I was reading “A Beautiful Mind” the biography of John Forbes Nash, a mathematician who studied around 1930s – 1940s. In that book, the author talks about how mathematicians tried to reduce human behaviour down to a mathematical equation. Imagine that. You’re behaviour could be determined by adding up some numbers! This is study without God. This is study without the basis of who God is, or who we are.

But we, as Christians have been saved from this. It is part of being justified. We have the revelation of God, and we have a solid basis of how we’re to relate to the world. We know human behaviour can never be reduced to maths because we are made in God’s image, and all the complexities that go with it. For us who are studying, perhaps this is something to bear in mind. It doesn’t mean you can’t trust what non-Christians say. But it does mean you always ask “Does this fit in with what I know about God?” Again, this depravity finds its way into our entertainment. I must confess I’m feeling proud of my self because I have managed to watch 2 episodes of “Swapping Spouses”. For those who don’t know, it’s a TV show involving 2 families, and the two wives of the two families live with the other family for a week.

Now, at one level, this is an interesting social experiment – to see how someone would cope in a different demographic that they’ve haven’t had exposure to. At another level, it’s outright disturbing. Someone has actually thought that meddling with people’s family life would make a good entertainment. Someone actually thought that this would be a good program to promote and make money.

And it’s not just “Swapping Spouses”, but all these reality TV programs where, from what I can see, relationships come a distant second. Where people are perceived as objects to be manipulated to win the game. How can relationships, the very thing we were made for, be reduced to this? How can such behaviour ever be commended, or even tolerated?  Because God has handed humanity over to their own desires as part of his wrath. But God has grabbed us with his might, and brought us back in relationship with himself. We now have a basis for right living, and right relationships.

Therefore, when you suffer, rejoice, because you know you have been saved from God’s wrath.

we are to rejoice in God

Finally we rejoice in God. Rather then coming to us with judgement, God comes to us with reconciliation. We no longer dread God, but we rejoice in him. It’s because of God that we can have this different perspective on suffering. It’s because of God that we have been saved from his wrath. It’s because of God we have been reconciled back to himself through Jesus. If it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t be able to rejoice in our sufferings or our salvation.

How’s your Christian walk going? Is it bubbling over with thanksgiving and joy? Or is it dry and stagnant? Do you doubt your salvation because you suffer? Do you doubt that the gospel has the power to deliver you from God’s impending judgment? REJOICE! Know for certain that if you have faith in Christ, you have been accepted and justified by God. Take pride in the gospel, and boast about it. It is sufficient to deliver you from God’s impending judgment. We have been given a wonderful gospel, a radical gospel that demands a response of joy. Let’s look at the gospel afresh. Let’s examine our lives and the way we interact with the world, and respond to the gospel rejoicing.

October 6, 2007 Posted by | Articles, Bible Exposition, Religious | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment