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The Fruit of the Spirit

Sermon given at Eglise Presbyterienne, Kigali, 7th March 2009

Galatians 5:16-25
John 15:1-8

1. Introduction

In the past few weeks the word love has found its way into the theme several times. Which has to be a good thing. This is a church after all and we are Christians; love is what we are supposed to do and there would be something wrong if love didn’t keep appearing in what we talk about.

So this week I am going to expand on the idea of love and take a look at the fruit of the Spirit, because each of the fruit stem from the first fruit of love. Let’s look again at the passage from Galatians 5:22

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

It is no coincidence that love is the first fruit that appears on the list. Of all the qualities that mark a Christian this is the one that permeates everything. This is the fruit from which all the other fruit stem.

Each fruit could be given a sermon on its own, so I am not going to go through each one in depth here. Instead I would like to look at what all the fruit mean to us and how they relate to a Christian life.

Before going on, there is something about this list that is worth noticing: “Against such things there is no law.” Now Paul was referring to Jewish law, but for the same reason we could make the same statement today. Across humanity, across all cultures, across continents and time, these virtues are seen to be good, not something to be outlawed.

Another point to pick up here is Paul’s use of the word ‘fruit’. In fact that wasn’t what he wrote at all. The word he used was karpos, meaning fruit as it is picked. In English, the word ‘fruit’ can be both singular and plural and, as we will see, Paul is using it in both senses here. Yes, each fruit can be seen as an individual characteristic, but in another sense they are each bound to each other as the one fruit that is developed by the Spirit.

2. What are the fruits?

So, what are the fruit of the spirit, or even what is the fruit of the spirit? Well, the easy answer is love, joy, peace, patience … but that really misses the point. These aren’t qualities that Paul is instructing us to adopt and build into our lives. What is important here is to understand that these are qualities developed in us by the Spirit.

In the previous section, Paul talks about the acts of a sinful nature. He lists sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft. The list of fruit that follows is in stark contrast. As humans, we are sinful by nature. Does that mean we are bad people? Well, yes, in a way it does, especially if we allow ourselves to be gratified by the desires of the sinful nature as Paul puts it. There is some deep theology here that goes all the way back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, but the good news is that we are forgiven, through Christ, and that we don’t have to stay that way.

Paul urges us to live by the Spirit so that we can be free of this old life. Paul says

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one other, that you may not do the things that you desire. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

So, walking by the Spirit, (that is the World English Bible translation) or living by the Spirit (as in the Ne International Version) is the focus of what Paul is urging us. The fruit of the Spirit are a consequence of this choice of lifestyle. But let us leave this just now and pick it up again later. Before that it is worth reminding ourselves of what happens when we make this choice.

2.1 Love

So, taking the most important fruit first, what is love? The Greeks had several words with different meanings which all translate into the English word love. The word Paul uses is agape, meaning kindness or benevolence. This isn’t intimate love with someone we are close to but an all-encompassing goodwill that comes from the love God has for us his children. It is a love that is kind (we will come to kindness shortly) and enduring. The passage from 1 Corinthians 13 has been read three or four times in as many weeks but is always worth going back to:

Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Love is an unselfish concern for others. It is putting others before ourselves. How do we know that this one fruit is the root of the others? Well, one clue is the greatest commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.


You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Another clue comes from Paul in his first Corinthian letter.

If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

We can know our Bible verses, we can give to the poor, we can pray; but if any of this is done without love, it counts for nothing. Perhaps this is what we mean when we say ‘God is love’. Love is the bedrock, the foundation of what it means to be a Christian and to follow Jesus.

2.2 Joy

So having laid the foundation, next on the list is joy. We don’t live in a particularly joyful world, do we? It isn’t hard to look around us and see the suffering that comes from hunger or the stress of over-working. Look at the faces of people begging for money on the streets. I don’t see much joy there.

Yet here it is on the list. Wouldn’t it be good to have some joy in our lives? Love your neighbour as yourself. What impact will we have on the world if we meet people with a smile and an enthusiastic handshake that makes them glad to have met us?

2.3 Peace

Peace is something that I have often missed in my life. Some definitions of peace are tranquillity or a sense of inner fulfilment. Again, looking around us peace is something that can be easily broken. This country has been through times where peace has been decidedly absent. Even in recent weeks we are reminded that peace is a very fragile flower.

We live in a world of conflict where east rubs against west and terrorism has become a global threat. There has probably never been a period in history, certainly recent history, where there has not been war in some part of the world or other. Yet it is easy to become part of this world and to learn to live with this absence of peace. We get used to it.

And here it is as the third item on Paul’s little list. If we walk in the Spirit as he urges us, peace can be  ours despite all that is going on around us.

2.4 Patience

Next we come to patience, sometimes translated as long-suffering. Now I shouldn’t really be talking about this. Patience is not something that radiates particularly  from my character, and I know whose fault that is.

A custom I have learnt here in Rwanda is the paper queue of cheques along the counter at the bank. When I began to get impatient one day, wondering why after twenty minutes I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to being served, I noticed that people were coming up to the counter and putting their cheques at the front of the queue. The locals were very amused when I started moving these cheques to the back of the line.

Impatience doesn’t do us any good. When we are impatient, we don’t think clearly, we rush and make mistakes; we forget things and end up places without remembering the reason for going there. Impatience causes frustration, and where there is frustration, there probably isn’t much room for God in what we are doing.

2.5 Kindness

If there is a lot of impatience in our lives, there is unlikely to be a lot of kindness, the next fruit. Being kind to others takes an effort, and usually involves time. Being kind means turning our attention away from whatever urgency is screaming at us, and giving that attention to someone else.

And that is a real effort, certainly for me. It is very easy to go through each day with nothing in our mind but the immediate, the urgent, the top priority. I know some people that live each minute of their lives dealing with each new thing the world with all its serendipity throws at them. That’s not to say they aren’t kind people underneath, but it is a big effort for them to let that kindness out.

Kindness is thinking and doing for others, and to repeat Paul’s teaching about the necessity for love, if kindness isn’t shown with love, then it counts for nothing.

2.6 Goodness

Now we are on to goodness as a fruit. This one is a little harder to put a finger on than the fruit we have met so far. Goodness is one of those things that everybody can recognise, but maybe can’t quite describe.

Goodness, I think, is more than just doing what is right. Besides, in a world where God’s word isn’t always read, who is to say what right is? I think it is more than being just being kind or joyful or patient.

Paul says of the fruit that there is no law against them. There is just something about goodness that is recognised by anybody, anywhere as being virtuous. The humanists in the world might refer to a spirit of humanity. In Africa there is a word ‘ubuntu’ which captures the nature of goodness nicely to my mind. Bishop Desmond Tutu said it nicely. He put it this way:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

For us, goodness or ubuntu, however you think of it, comes from God. It is a fruit the Spirit will grow in us.

2.7 Faithfulness

The next fruit is another that will only come to us from the Spirit – faithfulness. The Old Testament Jews weren’t particularly faithful to God. The various kings in Judah and Israel either walked in God’s ways, obeying his laws or not, as was more often the case, particularly in Israel.

If there is one aspect of God’s character after love that could be pointed to, it might be his faithfulness. For all our failings, for all that the human race has turned its back on God, he hasn’t turned his back on us.

People who are faithful don’t let you down when the going gets tough. They don’t walk away because we have done or said something to upset them. People who are always there and are still there after years aren’t as common as we might hope. This is possibly one of the key features of a successful marriage, again after love. No marriage is without its trouble and difficult times. The ones that last, and funnily get stronger in the lasting, are the ones with faithfulness.

2.8 Gentleness

Moving on to gentleness, we can look to Jesus as being the best example of how we should live our lives if this fruit is growing in us. Yes, Jesus could be tough when he wanted. He wasn’t being gentle when he overturned the tables in the temple, or when he called the Sadducees and the Pharisees a brood of vipers.

But time and time again, he dealt with people in gentleness. When the adulteress was about to be stoned, Jesus was gentle when he said that he didn’t condemn her, but serious when he told her to go away and sin no more.

Gentleness isn’t weakness or being mild-mannered. Gentleness takes strength and self-control, because often it is at times when gentleness is most needed that we lose that control. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to face the troubles of each day and deal with people in a way that Jesus would approve without resorting to anger and aggression?

2.9 Self-control

And self-control brings us to the last of the fruit, but possibly the one that enables all the others. Earlier we read Paul’s urging that we should live by the Spirit and not gratify the desired of the sinful nature. It takes self-control to do this.

Self-control is not giving in to the temptations of life. We live in a world where many people are driven by the need to find instant gratification. The quick fix, learning theological metaphysics in five easy steps, getting rid of our problems now not later. This all stems from a short-termism which stops people looking ahead and investing in a better future rather than being slaves to immediate want. There are another three sermons if anybody wants on modern-day consumerism and spending to satisfy immediate wants.

Self-control isn’t just about not flying off the handle in rage when something upsets us. It comes from being able to look ahead; to see the bigger picture and realise that the immediate problem isn’t such a big deal in the context of everything else. As Christians we have the promise of eternity. With that to look forward to, people putting their cheques into the front of the queue at the bank should hardly bear thinking about.

3. Staying on the vine

So there they are. The nine fruit that Paul tells us are what we will experience if we walk in the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list the biggest thing I experience is a sense of inadequacy.

It is easy to think of the fruits as being some kind of check-list for Christians. Like Boy Scout badges, characteristics that we must collect and build into our natures so that we become better people or more like Christ.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If we read Paul carefully, nowhere does he say that we must strive to acquire these fruit. The only instruction he gives us is to walk in the Spirit. The fruit are the consequence of how we live our lives; something that the Spirit cultivates in us, not something we grow by our own efforts.

And this is one of the points in the Bible where we have to understand what we have read but then take another step to realise the implications. In our faith, we have to recognise that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch and smell. The Kingdom, and with it the influence of the Spirit transcends the physical boundaries of the world that we live in. It exists now, has always existed and exists into the future. There is more to this world than we can experience with our five senses.

I would not like to give the impression that I believe in the supernatural. But if we take the literal meaning of that word – above nature – and read Paul’s message, we can see that there are other forces at work here on planet earth. I don’t mind people knowing that I believe the Spirit will work in me and everyone here. And that certainly isn’t natural, at least not in the sense of coming from nature.

So if our own effort – trying harder, praying longer, reading more of the Bible – isn’t going to grow the fruit of the Spirit, how does this happen? What do we have to do to ‘walk in the Spirit’ as Paul puts it?

Look at John 15:5

I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

The answer is, hang on to the vine! Jesus is the source of the goodness, kindness, patience and all the other things that flow through us. But that can’t be the whole answer, or at least it doesn’t help us understand how we apply this to the reality, the busyness, that is our daily lives. What exactly might ‘hanging on to the vine’ mean? What has to happen so that the Spirit can do its work?

4. Letting it happen

An obvious answer is prayer. We should all spend some of our time in prayer. And just like the fruit of the Spirit aren’t like Boy Scout badges to be collected, prayer isn’t about giving God a daily list of wishes. Prayer should be about asking to be changed in ways that we have not yet imagined. Yes, we are told that God will answer our prayers and our wishes, but how much more could there be to our lives if we were to ask God to use us in his way, for his purposes?

I think that another answer has something to do with how we see the world. Certainly we can try to remember to be patient, and put reminders in our diaries to do kind things for others. These are surely not wrong, but will come more naturally and feel less contrived if the Spirit has led us to those things in the first place. So when we come across someone in need, and that isn’t difficult in this country, has God just given you an opportunity to help? Perhaps it is just coincidence, but that doesn’t stop you helping anyway and thanking the Lord for being able to.

Another hint might be that, whenever we come across something of beauty, to recognise that it comes from God. The colours on a bird, a lingering sunset, a new birth. These are all from Him, and part of the world he created. Take time to appreciate, and most importantly, recognise and give praise for the world that God has given us.

Even inspired works of art. The Cistine Chapel might be one example. Other examples that have inspired me are the Gothic cathedrals In Europe. These are magnificent pieces of architecture seven and eight hundred years old. They are built out of carved stone and demonstrate the sheer artistry of masons that had no more than basic tools to work with. The effort of thousands of people took many years to construct these wonderful buildings which could only have been accomplished out of a love for God.

The beautiful things around us are easy to spot. But sometimes God acts in our lives in subtle and less obvious ways. John Ortberg, who is an author I have mentioned before, gives an example from a children’s book called Where’s Wally? For those that haven’t met Wally, he is a character with a red stripy jumper and red stripy bobble hat. On each page in the book, which is filled with red stripy things, Wally is hiding somewhere. Wonderful fun for children of all ages trying to find Wally.

As we fly through our daily life it is easy to forget that Jesus is there all the time. When we are waiting in the queue at the bank and the person in front is paying in deposit after deposit, just remember to ask for a little patience. We might meet someone only briefly, but could make a difference in their lives just by asking why they have been sent to us just at that time.

‘Hanging on to the vine’ I think, is a recognition that Jesus is with us all day every day, wherever we go and whoever we meet. Like a faithful friend, always there. If we walked around with someone at our side, somebody that we could see and touch, we wouldn’t ignore them. We would talk to them. We would ask them questions.

So when set out in the car, let’s remember that Jesus is in there with us and drive as he might want us to. When we go to the busy supermarket, just take time to think that he is there helping us push the trolley. Before we go into a meeting at work that we might not be looking forward to, take Jesus into the meeting with you and remember some self-control.

If can hang on to the vine, we will surely begin to recognise in ourselves a more loving, peaceful and joyful nature.



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Christians and the Church

Sermon given to l’Eglise Presbyterienne du Rwanda on 7th February 2010

Let me ask you a question. Is there anybody here who has ever had doubts about their faith? Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask anyone to stand up and make a confession. I doubt there is anyone here who hasn’t at sometime wondered if all they heard in church was right.

Now here is my confession. Ever since I first came to faith nine years ago there has been a niggle at the back of my mind that has never really gone away until recently. At the time when I decided to become a Christian we were worshipping with baptists. All I heard in that church sounded sensible. The people there were welcoming, loving Christians and it was one couple in particular that helped me to make that step over the line and ask Jesus into my life. The discomfort that I pushed to the back of my mind like a problem I didn’t really want to deal with was that, well, the Baptists weren’t the only church in town. They weren’t the only church in Scotland, never mind our small town of Dunfermline. There were other churches, and it wasn’t very obvious that they spent much time talking to each other. Now at that time I didn’t really know much about church history but I had a fair idea that Catholics weren’t the same as Protestants and that there were people in America calling themselves Christians who had some pretty funny ideas, particularly about creation.

As time went on my wife and I were baptised and recieved instruction about what the Baptists believed that was different to other denominations. Again, it all sounded sensible and like a young child I accepted all of this as without questioning too much. Then after a few years I came to realise that things were actually a lot worse than I had thought and every now and again this niggle kept raising its head like an itch that needed scratched.

Let me try to explain this difficulty that I was wresting with. Until the sixteenth century, there was only one church in Europe, and that was the church of Rome. Then came the Reformation and a whole new way of doing church. In fact, as this new Protestantism as it came to be known developed, there appeared a whole spectrum of ways of doing church. Christians later left Europe and spread across America spawning even more new churches and beliefs about what worship meant. In more recent times, Protestantism has spread to Africa, the far east and South America. Across the world we now have Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Pentecostalists and lots more.

The difficulty that I had was that for all that these churches take their teaching and traditions from the same Bible, there are some alarming differences between them. Should infants be baptised for instance? I have seen ministers get very agitated about this one. Should women have leadership roles in the church? That doesn’t seem to be a problem here at the EPR, but in some other places this has caused bitter division. Should we read the Bible literally or figuratively, and was the world created in six days of twenty-four hours? There is hardly unity among all Christians about this one.

Now, and so that I am not misunderstood, pointing out these differences isn’t meant as a criticism of other churches. But as Christians, and I mean each of us as individual followers of Christ, as Christians I think we should be able to recognise these differences and understand where we stand in the body of Christ. Because if each of us simply follows the doctrine and teaching of the church they happen to attend then what does that say about how we all relate to Christ?

So, what is it that all of us have in common regardless of which church we attend, or which continent we worship in?

I think this matters because, if we are sincere in our faith, we should be asking ourselves what our relationship with Jesus looks like. What is my part? What is expected of me? Now, I don’t believe that it was Christ’s intention to have different kinds of followers. I’m not sure that there is anything in scripture to suggest that two individuals from different church traditions should have different relationships with Jesus. Look at 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.

We are not clones, created as identical copies of each other. We are created as individuals, but what we all have in common is the same Holy Spirit.

Certainly Jesus did not treat all of his disciples in the same way and he made no pretence at equality. In Mark 10:35-45 James and John ask Jesus that they may sit on his left and right hand in eternity. Jesus replies that this is not his gift to grant. Those special places are already reserved for others. He then says to all his disciples:

You know that they who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So we should serve humbly, but the point here is that the same rules apply to all. None of us have any special privileges.

Something else that should cause us to look at our relationship with Christ is the fact that the churches have changed their beliefs as they have evolved. At one time, using musical instruments for worship was forbidden. There are some traditions that adhere to this today. The concept of mission and evangelism has changed. It hasn’t always been considered part of the church’s role to go out and evangelise. For a long time it was understood that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 applied only to the Apostles that Jesus gave the instruction to. So are we wrong to use instruments? Is it wrong to evangelise? Does the Great Commission apply to us here?

Now before going on I should say that I think it is a good thing that we should ask questions. It is part of our learning, our growing in Christ. How can we know what God is saying to us as children of his if we don’t ask questions?

So, churches have evolved and changed their beliefs over time, but I don’t think that Jesus intended for the essential nature of our relationship with him to evolve and change. Yes, we will grow in our understanding of who he is and we will grow closer to him as the Holy Spirit changes us. But it is us that is changing, not the Holy Spirit or the hopes and expectations that Jesus has for us. Others may disagree with me here, but I find it a sobering thought that my relationship with Christ should be no different from that of someone living in the early days of the church, or of someone living at the time when he returns.

What then is the answer here? What is it we are looking for? If different churches believe different things, where does that put each of us? What does it mean to us here and to the Pentecostalists worshipping up the road that we are all the same in Christ? If we could ask Jesus the question, what is the picture he has in his mind of one of his followers? Incidentally, I once heard from a preacher in Edinburgh that we should bring our Bibles to church to make sure that he was telling the truth. And he was right. Don’t just take my word for it, because I don’t have all the answers. Look at your Bible and make sense of it yourself.

And this is maybe the first clue to what it is we are looking for. We shouldn’t come to church on a Sunday just to hear a piece of teaching without thinking about it. It was good to see someone a couple of weeks ago taking notes. I have been in some churches where the pews on a Sunday look like a school classroom with jotters and notebooks being scribbled in through the sermon. I think a lot of us here are comfortable with a more formal approach to a Sunday service and I am probably one of them. We are used to sitting respectfully during a sermon and listening. I used to take notes during the sermon but fell out of the habit. So here is my resolution: that I will get back into the habit. So if you see me sitting there next week scribbling away, I’m not working on my diary because I’m bored with the message!

The point is that we should come to church with a learning attitude. And if churches have their differences, this is the first bond that all Christians have in common. We have a duty to question, to ask, to be curious. Don’t just accept what the preacher says. Go home and look it up. If you don’t agree with him, why not? What is a particular passage saying to you that the preacher interpreted differently? Now, this might sound like a recipe for disaster. Where is our faith if the Bible means different things to different people? But here is the magic bit: Just as we have faith in Christ and his promise of salvation; just as we have faith that he is alive today; so also can we have faith that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us, whoever we are, whichever church we go to, in the same way. Let us all read our Bibles with a mind open to the Spirit, and let’s see where the differences are. My faith is that they will be very few and when we do come across them it will be because of our openness to the Spirit, not what the Spirit is saying to different people.

And this leads us on to a second trait that unites all Christians. Church, any church, isn’t something that is done to us like a shop where religion is dispensed. We shouldn’t come here with an expectation that the minister is going to do all the work while we just sit there passively. Church is a place where we all come in fellowship to worship together. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ, and those that aren’t there yet have something to look forward to. But we also have a corporate relationship with him and it is called church. Each of us should come bringing something of themselves as a contribution to the service. For some this will be singing in the choir. For others it will be giving a reading. Some will welcome visitors and make sure there are enough hymn books on the seats. Whether it is being part of a prayer in the seats or leading the service from the front, we all have a part to play. Church is something we do with each other. It is worship, it is fellowship.

A third thing that all Christians should have in common I think is their attitude to Christ. A minister I know at home said once that Jesus to him was like a friend. Yes, we should be respectful but most of all I think Jesus wants us to know him as someone we can grow close to; someone we can trust; and most of all someone we can put our faith in. It is very easy to look on our faith as something else to do on our list of jobs for today. “I must read my Bible”. “I must go to church”. I know I have let myself fall into this before now. But there is no obligation. We don’t have to read our Bible. We don’t even have to come to Church if we don’t want to. Let’s not fall into the same legalistic mentality that the Jews had. Following a strict prayer regime in itself isn’t going to make us grow in Christ. But reading our Bible should hold out the prospect of a new understanding; a brightening of our day; or an answer to something that has been troubling us. We have spoken about church already. It shouldn’t be an obligation. Church should be somewhere we go with just ourselves and go away with something more.

In Mark 10:15, Jesus says

Most assuredly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.

We need to remember that although Jesus is a friend, he isn’t a pal; a buddy. We need to have humility and be open to the teaching of the Spirit. Yes, sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes we will hear what we want to hear rather than what the Spirit is saying to us. I don’t think these things will be held against us if we are sincere in our learning and growing in the same way as a child learns and grows.

Above all, Christians wherever they are in the world recognise this thing called love. Turn to 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

It is easy, well perhaps not so easy, to read the Bible and do what it says. We can devote our days and our weeks to doing nothing wrong. We can make a list of good things to do for other people and spend our spare time visiting the sick and helping our neighbours. Of course we will fail. But even if some weeks we managed to tick off everything on the list will that make us better Christians? Sadly, and frustratingly, the answer is no, it won’t. Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t do good deeds. Of course we should; but these on their own aren’t enough.

This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to struggle with, and maybe haven’t found an answer to yet. Being a good Christian; growing in Christ; running Paul’s race of 1 Corinthians 9:24 can’t be achieved by methodical and ritual application. Focus and determination are both laudable qualities, but an essential part of our Christian life is recognising our own human failings and recognising that God doesn’t think any the less of us for that. He loves us precisely because we are fallible humans and it is only through him that we can be turned from what we are into what he wants us to be. Paul in Philippians 1:3-6 says

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.

Growing closer to Christ isn’t about trying harder. In fact perversely, it is probably about trying less hard. The trick is to let the Spirit do the work; and it can’t do that if we are trying to run our own race.

So for all that the churches we go to might have different ideas about what particular passages of the Bible mean, or how we should worship, or whether the world was created in 144 hours. That doesn’t mean that we as individuals shouldn’t look for our own answers. On the contrary, it is probably the best reason we have for looking for our own answers. Nor does it excuse us from giving ourselves to Christ’s kingdom with the love and compassion for others that Jesus taught us. And especially, it doesn’t excuse us from coming to whichever church we attend in a spirit of family and love. Amen.

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The Christmas Present

Sermon given at l’Eglise Presbyterienne du Rwanda on 25th December 2009

My wife and I have been in Rwanda for four months now and we are still finding this a strange place, especially now that we have come to Christmas and the temperature outside is in the thirties. At home, our friends are walking through white snow and freezing temperatures as they celebrate Christmas. Which is a reminder to us that the birth of Jesus is being celebrated today all over the world. On this same day, millions, perhaps billions of people are all celebrating the same thing.

Unfortunately, what many of these people are celebrating isn’t exactly the same thing as we are celebrating here in this church today. Especially in the west, Christmas has been transformed into a commercial mega-festival, where Santa Clause rather than Jesus is the centre of attention. But for all the commercialism across the planet, we will see that Christ is more than just international. He is eternal, which is something more than Santa Clause will ever be. But why celebrate Jesus birth at all? Why today anyway? and just what is it that we are celebrating?

That might sound like a simple question but there is perhaps more to the answer than most of us spend time thinking about. For me, Christmas is a time for thinking. Talk to my wife and she will tell you I spend a lot of time in quiet corners thinking – especially at Christmas. This is a time for reflecting on the year that has past and the year that is to come. It is a time for thinking about what we have done, the places we have been, the people we have met. And Christ has a place in all of those thoughts.

So why today, the 25th December? I doubt anybody knows, but there is a tradition in Europe that it is a celebration of the winter solstice, the time of the year where in that part of the world, the days start getting longer again and we can start to look forward to the warmth of spring. In this part of the world it must be hard to appreciate how bleak and dismal the middle of winter becomes. There is probably more of a grain of truth in this idea and if Jesus is not about renewal and something to look forward to then I don’t know what is. But while that might be one reason for remembering Jesus there must surely be more to it than that.

And what are we celebrating? The birth of a special child? Well, yes but this doesn’t really explain it all either. There was something more than special about this child and I’m going to suggest to you that this special child isn’t just the reason why we celebrate Christmas and give each other gifts. He is the gift. More to the point, he is your gift. He wasn’t only born for mankind but he was born for you. Now, that ought to be a reason for celebration.

One of the most inspiring aspects of God’s love for me is that we as individuals have been part of his plan since the very beginning, and so we have no reason to think we will not be part of his plans for ever more. Look at 2 Timothy 1:8-9

8 Therefore don’t be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner; but endure hardship for the gospel according to the power of God,
9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal,

Paul’s letter to Titus tells us the same thing:

1 Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s chosen ones, and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness,
2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who can’t lie, promised before eternal times;

So Christmas should be a time of thanks, a time of reflection, and a time of renewing our relationship with Christ. Especially, it is a time for reflecting on what he did and is doing today, for us.

So one night in 4bc, we don’t know which night, this special child was born. And that surely understates the greatness that he brought to earth. This after all was the child that the Jews had been waiting for for centuries. The passage from Isaiah 9:6 is poetry itself:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Remember that this was written 700 years before Christ’s birth. One aspect of the Bible that separates it from other books is the span of history. Even in 700bc it was foretold that God himself would come to earth. “Wonderful”, “Counsellor”, “Everlasting Father”, “Prince of Peace”. These aren’t the titles given to just any special child. This was arguably the single most significant event in history either before or since. The Christmas story told by Luke 1:32 brings this out:

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.

So this child that we are celebrating was destined for great things. In fact he was destined for greater things than any ordinary man could possibly accomplish. Only this child could achieve what he came to us to do. If we notice nothing else about the Nativity story we should notice that Christ, when he was born to Mary, a human child born to a human mother, was God. We will never really understand why we celebrate Christmas if we don’t grasp this. That child was God. He is God now, today.

Being God, Christ doesn’t just appear in the Bible at the beginning of the New Testament like some actor waiting patiently for his time on stage. John 1:1 tells us he was on the stage since the opening scene:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Perhaps the Jewish audience hadn’t recognised him there at the beginning, but he was there nevertheless.

And look at Revelation 21:6 –

It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes, I will give him these things. I will be his God, and he will be my son.

He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end to take us to eternity.

So this child, born to Mary was more than just a bit special. He has been with us since time began, even before time itself began, and he will be with us for evermore. It isn’t even true to say he will be with us until the end. Eternity means there will be no end.

And isn’t the birth of someone who brought with him the promise of eternity worth celebrating?  As we give gifts to each other at Christmas isn’t his the greatest gift that someone could possibly give?

But I suspect that we don’t always appreciate the gift for what it is. When I was young we had an aunt that lived on an island off the north of Scotland. As children we had never met her but every Christmas she would send us a present, and every year it was the same present – a pair of socks. The women do a lot of knitting in Shetland. She was kind. She had never met us and assumed that we would really appreciate a pair of socks. Now, if you lived on a wind-swept island in the North Atlantic, especially at this time of year, you would appreciate a pair of socks. But as young children we could only get so excited about socks.

Perhaps it is them same with the gift of eternity. Perhaps we don’t really appreciate what it is that we have been given. So, what is this eternity? In John 14:6, Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Christ himself is eternal and so this gift is something supernatural. It isn’t something we can create here for ourselves on earth. Supernatural – the word literally means ‘above nature’ is hard enough for us to grasp. We need to take that leap of faith that lets us believe that there is more to the world than what we can see and hear and touch. If physicists can believe in quantum particles that change their state when an entangled particle in another laboratory changes, why can’t we believe in Jesus’ promise of eternity?

A second thing about eternity that we should notice is that it comes to us through the word of Christ. In John 6:68 Peter says to Jesus, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. We have already mentioned John 1:1. Jesus was the word. He taught his disciples, and that includes us by the way, to go out and teach his word. So the gift of eternity is given through the word.

And when we hear the gospel, God draws people to Christ. In John 6:44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the father who sent me draws him.” But John 3:20 describes how by nature we hate the light of life.

For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn’t come to the light, lest his works would be exposed.

Our natural tendency is to enjoy the worldly things about us and perhaps we don’t always recognise Christ for who he is.

Many people acknowledge Jesus. They might accept that he is God even. But God’s drawing us leads us to start understanding the true nature of who Jesus is. I think this is what we mean when we talk about ‘our path with God’ and ‘growing as a Christian’. People who come to Christ don’t overnight become endowed with endless spiritual wisdom and a deep insight into the nature of God’s kingdom. But what starts from that point of acceptance is a growth in understanding of the unfathomable grace, beauty and love that is Jesus Christ.

Simply by comprehending, and through the little insights that we have as we go through life, we take another step along that path. The celebration of Christ’s birth should help us to do that as we take some quiet time to think about the season.

Although coming to faith is only the start of a journey, what we do receive at that point of acceptance is this gift of eternal life. Jesus said In John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches”. We receive life as the branches of the vine are fed from the trunk. The promise isn’t something that we have to earn over time through good behaviour and long service. It is a gift, made to us only because it is God’s wish to give.

And just like the presents we receive today, eternal life is given to us now. It isn’t something that we have to wait for. It isn’t a promise of things to come. It is ours today. In John 5:24 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life” (not “will have” but “has” — now!) We don’t have to wait till our bodies die.

Notice that in accepting this gift we are entering into a personal relationship with God, both as Father and Son. And how special a gift is that? Christmas might come just once a year, but Jesus doesn’t come to our door once every twelve months like Santa Clause. He is there all the time for us. In fact, he HAS been there for all time, for us. He wants to develop and grow that relationship with us. It isn’t just for today but for all time.

Above all, if we are to appreciate this gift we have been given we need to see it as something spiritual. But knowing God and receiving eternal life isn’t some spiritual inoculation against death. It is a relationship that is as alive and real as our relationships with any of our neighbours.

And just as with our neighbours, we don’t really get to know them until we make the effort. Saying hello to them once a year or when we pass them in the street doesn’t really let us understand who they are. But once we get past that stage of just saying hello, the relationship becomes more meaningful and more valuable. Its no different with Christ. The more we talk with him and read what he taught us, the more we come to know him.

So it isn’t strange that we should celebrate Christ’s birth by giving gifts to each other. Christ himself was a gift and what he brought for us is a gift that we can enjoy every Christmas and all the days in between. Eternity isn’t a child’s toy that gets broken before the new year. Like it says on the tin, it is eternal.

If we are to appreciate the special nature of the gift we have been given, if we are to make that commitment, we need to go a step further and understand that Christ didn’t come to earth to deliver some communal gift that all of mankind can share in. Yes, Christ came to save mankind but he does that through making his gift to each of us as individuals. Luke 12:7 says “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.” God knows us better than we know ourselves. This is why he is able to judge us by what is in our heart. Jesus knows us intimately. There are no secrets. Some people find this uncomfortable. But if we make the effort to develop the relationship, and all relationships need effort, and all relationships need two to make that effort, then we will understand that God is a gracious God. He is forgiving. He is kind. He wants to know us. Can we find anything in Jesus’ nature and teaching to tell us otherwise? I doubt it. People that have put their confidence in who Jesus is have no reason to feel uncomfortable about him knowing what is in their hearts.

So, is Christmas starting to sound a little bit more special and worth celebrating? The gift-wrapped presents are all very nice, but we have for ourselves something far more valuable and long-lasting. A friend, not just for Christmas, or even for life, but for eternity itself.

So this Christmas, take some time to think and reflect. These are always useful things to do anyway. We all need to take stock of our lives every now and again and the Christmas holidays are a good opportunity. One thought that you might mull over is this: “If my life is going anywhere without Jesus in it, then where am I going to end up? But if Jesus is indeed part of my life, then where I end up is going to be somewhere exciting.” My wife and I were brought to Rwanda which is exciting for us. Maybe you don’t think so. Perhaps the Lord might have it mind to take you to Scotland with it’s snow and freezing temperatures. You might not think that very exciting either. Talk to Jesus this Christmas and have a chat with him about where you and he might go together in 2010. And thank him for his Christmas gift.

Noel Nziza

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