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Sermon: Jacob – Wrestling with God (E100 #004)

Genesis 32:1-32

Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.

3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my master Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’ ”

6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”

9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ ”

13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”

17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’ ”

19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

 

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

 

 

Today we turn our attention to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and the son of Isaac.

Jacob had two meetings with God – one at Bethel where he had a vision of the ladder. In Gen 28:11 we see that when Jacob arrived at Bethel the sun set … this might well have been a simple observation of the time of day but it might also have a poignant significance, as we shall see.

The other meeting that Jacob had with God was at Peniel, where he wrestled with God until daybreak. As he left Peniel, we read in Gen 32:31 that “the sun rose above him.” Again this might simply tell us the time of day or it might tell of an incredible restoration that took place in Jacob’s life.

 

The word “Jacob” means grabber or deceiver and you will remember from the biblical accounts of his life that Jacob was indeed a grabber. He was the second born of twins and at his birth he came out grabbing his brother Esau’s heel. He was, by nature, also a bargainer, he bargained with Esau for the birthright – gaining it for a bowl of stew, he bargained with Laban for his wife Rachel, he even bargained with God at Bethel. He was also a deceiver. He deceived his blind father by covering his arms and neck with goatskin in order to receive the blessing that actually belonged to his older brother.

Jacob, before his encounter with God at Peniel, was not a nice man. He was pretty much like anyone of us before God entered into our lives bringing us new birth into eternal life, and leading us on a new journey through this world.

 

At Bethel, the sun sets on Jacob’s life. He is on the run from his brother Esau who had threatened to kill him because he had stolen the birthright and blessing that legitimately belonged to him.

Even though the sun is metaphorically setting on his life Jacob has this wonderful dream in which God reveals to him the great and glorious purpose that he has for him. “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go … I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

But Jacob is not interested in spiritual blessings – only in God’s protection against his enemies – primarily his brother Esau.

He bargains with God … “Just protect me from danger, give me food and clothes and I’ll be happy – then I’ll acknowledge you and give you a tenth of all that I have.”

In his spiritual darkness Jacob seeks only material help.

He could have the vastness of God’s purpose for his life but he was satisfied with toys.

 

Why is it that we always seem so much more interested in physical things than God’s gifts?

And its not just possessions; its also our status, our pride, our prospects.

What are your priorities? What do you think about most? Where does most of your money go? How do you spend your time?

 

God had to wait 20 years before Jacob was prepared to take his mind away from the things of the world and set it on the things above.

We saw a similar thing with Abraham, where in his hurry to have God’s promise he frustrated God’s purpose. We also, like them, often frustrate God’s glorious purpose for our lives because of the narrowness of our vision – when we like Abraham and Jacob, get taken up with things lesser than God’s highest.

 

In order to fulfil His promises to Jacob, God had to discipline him: severely … and this filled the next 20 years of his life.

In Abraham, God was absent for 13 years so that Abraham’s self-dependence was emptied … God waited for Abraham to become impotent.

For Jacob, God put him alongside another shrewd schemer – Laban.He tricks Jacob into marrying Leah when he thought he marrying Rachel. After having committed to another 7 years of work he eventually gets to marry Rachel only to find that she is barren.

Next he uses all the tricks of the trade – sophisticated selective breeding techniques – to get the best of Laban’s flocks and herds, and as Laban’s sons see how Jacob’s scheming has robbed them of their inheritance they plot to kill him. And as he had to run from his brother, now he has to run from his cousins.

 

But as he heads back to Canaan he finds himself hemmed in – Laban is chasing him from the rear and Esau is coming from the front. He makes a peace covenant with Laban at Mizpah promising that they will not enter again into each others territory. But now he faces 20 years of built-up wrath in his brother and he seeks to appease it with trickery and bribes.

 

Have you ever tried to bargain with God?

In your life’s struggles, have you made promises to God about how you will behave or what you will do if God would only come to your assistance. And when He has, have you?

 

Jacob sends abundant gifts in waves ahead of him and divides his possessions into groups so that Esau might perhaps turn away appeased without taking everything from Jacob, he even sends his wives and children ahead of him. Jacob waits on the other side of the river; Jacob is looking after No 1!

 

But that night he wrestled with God. We learn four things from that night that Jacob spent with God.

First he was alone. We need to spend time alone with God that He might speak into our soul.

Second he was broken by God. For twenty years God had struggled gently with Jacob, but that night God struck his hip so that his thigh was dislocated. The thigh is the strongest part of the body and it was that part that God struck. God will often strike us in the strong-points of our life because these are the dependencies that keep us from total yielding to God.

Peter thought that his strong point was his courage. God caused him to lie to protect himself against a servant girl. He thought that he was a good fisherman and so twice he fishes all night but catches nothing – until Jesus points the way. Sometimes God will take our wealth or our talents until our dependence is properly centered on Him.

Third we see that Jacob was finally desperate for God. “I will not let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.” In Hosea 12:4 we read that Jacob wept and begged with God for a blessing that night at Peniel. This was the point that God had been working towards throughout Jacob’s life. What a different man he was to 20 years earlier. Now he had nothing – he was alone and broken, now God could bless him.

God didn’t bless him because he was defeated. Instead God says to him – You have prevailed, and so you will have power with God and with men. Because you did not give up, because you held on … I will bless you in terms of your relationship with me. You will call upon me and I will hear you.

 

Finally, we see that God blessed Jacob at Peniel because at last he was honest. When he went to his father to steal his brother’s blessing he said that his name was Esau. Now 20 years later God asks him his name again. “I am Jacob” he says. “I am the grabber, the deceiver, I am the bargainer.”

This was a confession – I don’t want to pretend anymore, I am a hypocrite. My life is full of sham and pretense.” It takes real brokenness to be honest to God about ourselves.

 

What is it about these four things – Aloneness, Brokenness, Desperation, Honesty, in terms of our relationship with God?

There seems to be a progression …

When time and circumstances hem us in, we find ourselves alone.

Loneliness and depression have the potential to leave us without hope because we have no-one else to turn to.

We need to recognise, at that point, that God waits. Like the Prodigal Son, it is the recognition of the failure of our own efforts that brings us to the place of brokenness.

It is the critical point of every one’s life – it is God or self.

And when we turn in desperation from ourselves towards God, becoming honest about ourselves and our need for God, then we enter into a brand new relationship with God – the one which He has always wanted, the one for which Jesus died.

 

 

We see that after these things that the sun now ascends on Jacob’s life. He walks in justice and truth. He walks in the way of God and becomes a patriarch of God’s people.

 

Does he keep talking about his experience at Peniel ? No.

His testimony does not hark back to that one experience of God because his life thereafter is filled with the Presence of God.

In Hebrews 1, where we read the great testimonies of the men and women of faith we are told in quite the simplest terms of how Jacob’s life changed.

There is no breaking open of the seas, no pushing down of walls, no raising of the dead but simply, “Jacob worshipped God, leaning on the top of his staff.”

The staff was the symbol of the miracle that God had wrought in his life – with a dislocated hip, Jacob needed a staff to walk but that walking stick was also the symbol of the breaking of his stubborn self-will. Now he worshipped God as a man whose self dependence was broken, and who now depended only on God.

At Peniel, Jacob’s name was changed from “Jacob the deceiver” to “Israel, the one who struggles with God” but God continues to call Himself – “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Our great God of mercy and grace continues to identify with self-seeking sinners. He is with us each day as we struggle to overcome the self life that rules so dominantly in each one of us.

He is the God of grace who so loves us so much that He gave His only Son so that we might have a full life in this world despite our failures; and, when this life is over, be brought into the holy presence of the Almighty, finally cleansed in the redeeming death of Christ our Lord.

Alpha – Does God heal today?

Does God heal today, as He did through Jesus, when He walked on this earth? Some people are sceptical, some would like to believe it but are not really sure? I was both of those until a time back in the 1980’s when I saw the power of God bring healing in a most miraculous way.

I was still a newish Christian – in between my conversion and this event, I had been awarded a Business School Scholarship and had graduated with a Masters Degree in Business Administration. My studies were intense and I didn’t have too much time for church. We attended most Sundays, I tried to keep up my daily devotions and we had a Bible Study group going with a few fellow students but those things tended to be on the edge of my life.

During our time in Cape Town, Margie had become allergic to penicillin which turned out to be quite a frightful experience. We had however become quite aware of potential health issues.

Amongst other things, I was found to have a tumour on my appendix, which fortunately was benign and it was safely removed. Margie also was found to have a thyroid problem and had to undergo treatment with radioactive iodine.

And then Margie began to feel unwell and developed a very unhealthy yellow colour. I was very busy in my new job as the International Economist at a major bank and she took herself off for various tests. Then the doctor called and wanted to see both of us.

I took time off work and we went to the rooms together. He told us that they had some results which showed a potential serious condition but that they needed to take another test. He sent Margie out with a sample bottle and then told me that she had terminal cancer of the liver and he just wanted to know if I wanted to break the news to her or whether I would prefer him to do it.

I was dumbstruck and mumbled something.

When she came back he laid out all the results and the prognosis. She had about 12 months to live but they could ease any discomfort with various kinds of treatment. We needed to visit a specialist and he had already made an appointment for us.

We left the rooms in a state of shock and decided to go directly to our church, just up the road, to see our minister.

When we got there, he was in a meeting with several other ministers, including Teddy Saunders, an Anglican minister working with David Watson at St Andrew’s Chorleywood, who had come to South Africa to teach on healing and charismatic renewal. They all came out of the office and prayed with Margie. At the end of the prayers, Teddy’s wife, also a Margaret, stated emphatically that the Lord had showed her in a word of knowledge that Margaret was already completely healed.

We weren’t too sure whether to believe that, but we hoped. We then went off to the specialist, and produced the results of the battery of tests which Margie had already undergone. Mr Jersky studied them carefully and was not hopeful. He felt that he could introduce some treatment to maintain quality of life for as long as possible and so we were sent off to the hospital for further scans and tissue samples. A week later we went back and he said that there had been some error in the tests and that Margie would have to do them again. Off to the hospital again, a week later we were back with Mr Jersky.

To cut a long story short, there was no sign of any cancer. He was at a loss and began to explain that sometimes the tests do give false positives but he didn’t understand how the repeated tests ordered by our doctor had kept on confirming the condition.

We told him about the prayer and what Margaret Saunders had said. His eyes lit up, “Aha!” he said, “that’s it then.” He told us that as a Jew he believed without doubt in the power of God.

And so when I got home, I started to reread the Bible, to see what it says on this whole subject of healing and the kingdom of God.

Of course, God heals with the cooperation of doctors and nurses and the medical profession. But the more I’ve looked, the more convinced I am that we should expect that God will also heal miraculously today.

 

1.  HEALING IN THE BIBLE

As I looked at healing in the Bible, I saw that throughout the Old Testament, God promises healing for his people. It’s his character to heal. He says, in Exodus 15, “I am the Lord who heals you”—it is part of his love for us. And there are several examples of miraculous healing in the Old Testament—for example, Naaman, who was healed of leprosy after bathing in the Jordan River seven times.

If God acted like that in the Old Testament, when there were only glimpses of the kingdom of God, we should confidently expect that he will do so even more now that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom, and because we now live in the age of the Spirit.

 

When we turn to the New Testament, we find the very first recorded words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel are:

“The time has come, The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

The kingdom of God—or `the kingdom of heaven’, which Matthew uses interchangeably with `kingdom of God’ is used 82 times in the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The word `kingdom’ means not only a political or geographical realm, but carries this notion of ruling and reigning.

So the kingdom of God is the rule and the reign of God. And this kingdom, where God is in charge—even though it can be hard to understand is best described as both “now and not yet”.

 

Here are a couple of diagrams just to try and make it easier to understand.

 

CHART 1

 

THIS AGE_______________|_____________AGE TO COME

 

The Jewish expectation was that this age that we are living in would come to an end and that would be followed by the age to come. The age to come would be when the messianic king arrived and there would be a completed kingdom.

 

Jesus’ teaching was a modification of this. What Jesus was saying, in a nutshell, was that this age would not come to an end with his arrival. This would be the inauguration of the kingdom, so the age to come started—the previous age, this age, continues—until the second coming of Jesus. Then the kingdom of God will be complete.

 

CHART 2

 

THIS AGE________A___________B________AGE TO COME

 

Point A signifies the first coming of Jesus. Point B is when He comes again to usher in the fullness of the Kingdom.

We live in this period between the times, when the kingdom has come but it is not yet complete. So we live between the first coming and the second coming—it’s a time which is both this age and the age to come.

The first time Jesus came, he came in weakness. When he comes back, he’ll come with power and great glory. History is moving towards this glorious climax. There are over 300 references in the New Testament to the second coming of Christ.

 

When Jesus returns, it’s going to be obvious to everyone. History as we know it will end. There will be a universal resurrection and a Day of Judgement. There’ll be a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus himself will be there, together with all those who love and obey him. It’ll be a place of intense happiness which goes on forever. And we will have glorious new resurrection bodies that will never die, there’ll be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. All who believe on that day will be totally healed.

 

But until then, there’s this element of waiting. As Paul puts it in Romans, he says: We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies. In other words, the total redemption of our bodies has to wait for that second line, the second coming of Christ.

 

It’s important to keep this eternal perspective as we look at this subject of healing. Because at this present time not everybody is healed.There are people of great faith who have received much prayer for healing but who have not been healed – the Kingdom is not yet complete! John Wimber, who himself died of cancer despite much prayer by people all around the world explains that “the real gift is the gift of salvation. If we’re healed in this life, that’s a bonus.”

 

So while there’s this future aspect of the Kingdom, there is also this present aspect where we see the signs of the approaching kingdom. Jesus repeatedly tells us: “The kingdom of God is among you.” The kingdom is something which can be discovered and experienced now!

Jesus clearly saw his ministry as a fulfilment of the promises of the Old Testament. And he went on to demonstrate this present reality of the kingdom by all that he did during his ministry on earth—forgiveness of sins, healing the sick, dealing with evil.

 

We live now between the times, when the completed kingdom has not yet arrived, but the kingdom of God is at hand.

This age goes on, but the power of the future age has already broken into history.

And what Jesus’ ministry shows is that this future kingdom is coming, it’s near. And Jesus demonstrated that by preaching the good news, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons.

Do you know, over 25 percent of the Gospels is about healing. Jesus didn’t heal everybody in Judea, but we often read of him healing individuals or groups. It was part of his kingdom activity.

 

There is an interesting literary device which Matthew uses about the ministry of Jesus, and His expectation for us to continue that ministry. Its called an inclusio – where the same words are used to bracket a section … So

Matthew 4:23 says

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

 

This, says Matthew is what Jesus did. Then he sets out how he did that. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 is the Sermon on the Mount—this is how Jesus taught and preached. Then he tells us how Jesus healed—chapters 8 and 9 are about nine healing miracles.  And then …

Matthew 9:35

Jesus went through all the town and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.

They didn’t have punctuation in those days, so it was a way of saying `I have finished that section.’ He is saying, `This is what Jesus did in his ministry: he told people the good news, and he healed the sick.’

Then having finished that section, Matthew says, `Now, this is what Jesus told his disciples to do’—

Matthew 10:1

He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

And verse 7, he says:

“As you go, preach this message: `The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”

So Jesus did it, and then he commanded his disciples to do it. But not just the twelve disciples, there were others as well—

Luke 9:1

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

Then Luke 10:1

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.

And verse 9—this was his command to them:

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, `The kingdom of God is near you.’”

So that is what Jesus did, what he commanded the Twelve to do, what He commanded the 72 and then at the end of Matthew, He commissions the disciples

Matthew 28:19

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Now, what did he command them to do? Make more disciples and teach them how to tell people the good news, and heal the sick.

 

And as you look on in the New Testament, that’s what they did. After the Gospels you get the book of Acts: the book of Acts is called Acts because they didn’t just talk about it; they did it. They preached the gospel and they healed the sick. Healing is one of the signs of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, which continues to this day.

This going and making of disciples and teaching them to do what Jesus did extends to the whole church still today. Its an almost forgotten instruction but we should expect God to heal miraculously today as part of his kingdom activity.

 

2.  HEALING IN CHURCH HISTORY

So that’s healing in the Bible. Then as we look at church history, we see that healing was a normal part of the activity of the early church.

 

So, for example, we read in Irenaeus, who was writing in the second century, it says: `Others still heal the sick by laying their hands on them, and they’re made whole.’

Origen, who was born around 185 AD, says: `The name of Jesus can take away diseases.’

St. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest theologian of the first five centuries, wrote a book called The City of God, and in that book he talks about it—he says: `Even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ.’ And he lists example after example after example of blind people being healed, all kinds of miracles. And many of them are in great detail. Christians in every age have continued to obey Jesus’ command to heal the sick.

As time went on, it was mainly by setting up hospitals and other institutions to relieve suffering. This has been one of the great achievements of the church. But God is still healing people miraculously today.

 

Raniero Cantalamessa, who was the preacher to Pope John Paul II for about 24 years, writes this: `Today we have two ways to face up to the problem of ill health: the way of human nature and the way of grace. By human nature, in this sense, encompasses science and technology and all our resources. But then there’s this second way: grace, which indicates faith and the prayers by which, as God may will, we sometimes obtain healings in a way that goes beyond the scope of human resources.’

`A Christian cannot be satisfied to use only the facilities of nature—to set up hospitals or work alongside with the structures of the state to provide care and comfort. Christians have a very special power of their own, given to them by Christ. He gave them authority to cure every disease and every sickness. It would be an omission to fail to have recourse to this power and so fail to hold out hope, especially to those to whom science denies all hope.’

 

3.  HEALING TODAY

 

I’ve told you Margie’s story and there are many others, even in this congregation. Nicky Gumbel tells the story of a woman called Jean Smith from a town in Wales. She arrived one Alpha evening as a visitor, and told him that sixteen-and-a-half years before she went blind. She had an infection which had eaten away the retinas and mirrors behind the eyes, and apparently they cannot be replaced. So she had a white stick and a guide-dog.

She had been on an Alpha course at her local church. At the Holy Spirit Day she experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a way she’d not experienced before. And the amazing thing was that the pain that she had been in for all those years just went. And she was so thankful to God she went to church that night to give thanks to God. And it was a communion service, and the minister in her church said he would like to anoint her with oil as a sign of this healing that had taken place over the weekend. And he anointed her with oil.

And as she wiped away the oil, she looked up, and she could see the communion table in front of her. She went home that night utterly amazed. She had not seen her husband for sixteen-and-a-half years and she could not believe how grey he had become!

 

God is a God who heals. One day we shall have a new, perfect body. In this life we never reach perfection. But when God heals someone today like Margie and Jean Smith, we get a glimpse of the future, when we will receive the redemption of our bodies.

Of course, no human being can ultimately avoid death. Our bodies are decaying, and at some point it might be right to prepare a person for death rather than to pray for healing.

We need always to be sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

 

We need to remember however that if we pray for no-one, no-one will be healed but if we pray for lots of people, some will be, even if not all are healed. And when we pray for someone, even if they’re not healed, it’s always a blessing.

 

Some people are given very special gifts of healing—its one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They have healing as a ministry but that doesn’t mean that we should leave the praying to them. Jesus’ commission is to all of us, just as the commission is to all of us to tell the good news, although some have a particular gift of being evangelists.

So how in practice do we go about it?

Of course, it’s God who heals and not us. So there’s no technique involved; we pray with love and simplicity. The model of Jesus was compassion. That was his motive for praying for people—he loved them. We pray simply: because it’s not our prayer that heals people; it’s the power of God, the name of Jesus.

 

Words of knowledge – another gift of the Holy Spirit – can be very helpful. It’s one of the ways in which God speaks. Some of us have been praying this week that God would give us words of knowledge about people here today. Sometimes a word comes through a picture, an image, maybe of a part of the body that God wants to heal. Sometimes it’s a sympathy pain—that’s to say, a pain that somebody feels in their body which they know is not theirs, but maybe God’s speaking to them about something that he wants to do. Sometimes it’s through just an impression, a word that is seen or heard in the ear. Some of them can be quite specific.

 

On previous Alpha courses in which I have been involved we have had many words of knowledge about specific needs – from persistent toothache to deafness and even to gout. And many of these were amazingly healed.

The words of knowledge are not always as kind of specific as that; they can be quite general. Sometimes, its just `right knee’ or `left elbow’, and people think, `Oh, what is that! You know, anybody can say that! I can’t believe that’s going to have any impact.’

But often these are the most amazing because the people haven’t told anyone because they thought it was just a sore right knee or left elbow, and nothing to bother about. It can be quite faith-building to have your “secret” ailment revealed.

 

One time we didn’t have any words of knowledge and so we just joined into the small groups, and in one group, it was a family sitting together. It was, as you can imagine, quite embarrassing for them to pray for healing for each other. So the elderly mother took the lead. “You know,” she said, “that I’ve always had problems with my back” – she was almost bent in two – “why don’t you pray for me, and lets see what happens.” They sheepishly stood around her and her daughter put her hand on her mother’s spine. “Its moving,” she shrieked. I rushed over and you could actually see her spine rippling under her daughter’s hands. Her back never straightened fully but she was free from pain from that day on, until she died a few years later.

 

When we pray for someone we have a very simple pattern.

First, we ask, `What would you like to pray for?’ Sometimes we may need to ask God if there’s a root cause.

There was another woman who was a member of our congregation —and I’m telling you this because I’ve had permission from these people to tell these stories—who suffered with very painful feet. She had special shoes made.

And she was being prayed for by a woman who had the word `forgiveness’ for her. It didn’t mean anything at the time and her feet remained painful. The following day however, she realised that there was somebody from her past whom she needed to forgive. She had no way of contacting this person and she came to me. We prayed together and she forgave this person before Jesus and her feet were totally healed.

 

Second, how do we pray? There are various models in the New Testament. The usual is to pray in the name of Jesus, to ask the Holy Spirit to come, and we normally lay hands on people. Sometimes we anoint with oil.

Third we ask the question `How are you feeling?’ Some are healed; some are not. Some get better but are not totally healed. Jesus once prayed for a man who was blind, and he said, `Do you see anything?’ and the man said, `I see people, but they look like trees walking around.’ And Jesus prayed again a second time, and this time his eyes were opened and his sight was restored and he could see everything.

So sometimes we might pray several times for a person.

 

Fourth. After praying it’s important to reassure people of God’s love for them, regardless of whether they’re healed or not, to give them the liberty to come back, to pray again. We need to avoid putting burdens on people.

We must remember that we are free and able to ask the Holy Spirit at any time to heal us. But if the Spirit does not do it, there’s no reason to think that’s because we have no faith, or that God does not love us, or that God is punishing us. God is always answering the prayer … sometimes in ways we do not know, sometimes in processes which are much more effective in making the Kingdom of God real in the circumstances.

 

Always we go on praying, and we try to ensure people’s lives are rooted in the healing community of the church, where long-term healing takes place.

It’s important to persist in this area of prayer for healing. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see immediate, dramatic results. The reason we go on praying is not so much that we’ve seen masses of people healed; but because Jesus commanded us to do it. And that’s why I would go on doing it even if nobody was healed.

 

Alpha Talk #09 What about the Church?

The veteran rock-star Mick Jagger spoke for many when he said this: `Jesus Christ is fantastic, but I don’t like the church. The church does more harm than good.’

So is it possible to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, and not go to church?’ And anyway, what does `going to church’ mean? What is church?

 

Before I was a Christian, I didn’t like the church. When I heard the word `church’, my heart sank. The first thing that I thought of when I heard the word `church’ was church services. I always found church services so dull, boring. As I told you before, at boarding school we were required to attend church 15 times a week – I had enough!

Before entering the ministry I was an economist: and there are a lot of jokes about them. My favourite was, “If you laid out all the economists in the world end to end,they would never reach a conclusion.”

Abraham Lincoln said a similar things about church. He said this: “If all the people who fell asleep in church on Sunday morning were laid out end to end, they would be a great deal more comfortable.”

 

I also used to think of “church” as something that you were born into. My mother, once filled out a form which said: Religion: and she put None—brackets—(Church of England).

 

Another idea was that the church was the buildings.

 

Now, all these things are the trappings, if you like, but they’re not the essence of what the church is about. It’s a bit like if you say, `Well, what is marriage?’ and you said, `Well, marriage is a ring. It’s a marriage certificate. It’s a wedding service. It’s the marriage laws.’ Now, marriage may involve all of those things, but that’s not the essence. At the heart of marriage is something far more profound. And at the heart of the church is something amazing, something wonderful, something beautiful.

And over the years since I’ve been a Christian, I’ve come not just to like the church; I love the church! And in the New Testament there are hundreds of images and metaphors which describe the church, and I want to pick just a few which explain why I love the church so much.

 

1.  THE PEOPLE OF GOD

The first reason is because the church is people. It’s the people of God.

1 Peter 2:9

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God…

The Christian faith involves, of course, first of all a vertical relationship—our relationship with God. But it also involves a horizontal relationship—with other people. And we’re part of a community which began with God’s call to Abraham. And the people of Israel prefigured the church. So the universal church consists of all those, right the way across the world, all the way back in time, who profess or have professed the name of Christ.

And we become a member of the church not by birth, but by new birth. Jesus spoke about being born of water and the Spirit. Jesus baptised and he commanded his disciples to baptise.

Becoming a Christian involves three things.

First of all, something we do: repentance and faith.

Secondly, something God does: he gives us the Holy Spirit.

And thirdly, something the church does: baptism.

 

Today we baptised Joshua Smith into Christ.

Baptism is a kind of visible mark of what it means to be a member of the church. It’s a visible sign of what it means to be a Christian. It signifies—the water signifies washing, cleansing from sin. Water also in the New Testament signifies the Holy Spirit—Jesus talked about `rivers of living water’ coming out from us. By this, John tells us, he meant the Holy Spirit. And it’s a picture of all the blessings God brings through his Spirit.

And it signifies dying and rising with Christ. So, St. Paul puts it like this in Romans 6, All of you have been baptised into Christ Jesus.

So, imagine this piece of paper is you and this Bible is Jesus. What Paul is saying in Romans 6, he says: All of you were baptised into Christ Jesus. When you became a Christian, in a kind of mystical way you became part of Christ. You are now `in Christ’ – en Christos, which is one of Paul’s favourite descriptions of what happens to us when we become followers of Jesus.

And therefore whatever happened to Jesus happened, in this kind of mystical way, to you.

So, Paul says, all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death… That means that when Jesus died on the cross, you died in him. We were buried with him through baptism. He says this symbol of going down into the water in baptism is a symbol of the fact that you were buried—when Jesus was buried, because you’re in him, you were buried with Christ: …in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too may live a new life. So when Jesus rose from the dead, you rose in him. And coming up out of the water of baptism symbolises the Resurrection, starting a completely new life.

As Joshua was washed with the water of baptism, so his old life was washed away—that’s what the picture is. We are all born into sin – the original sin of Adam, but now that life has gone. And a completely new life has begun.

 

This people of God is vast. Do you know, there are two billion Christians in the world today, 2,000 million—about a third of the world’s population. And tens of thousands of people as baptised into Christ every single day.

Here in Australia, the church has been in decline for fifty, eighty years. And so it’s easy to think that in a few years’ time the church will have died out completely. But that’s a totally blinkered, narrow view of the world: because when you look globally it’s a totally different picture. The church is growing faster than ever.

In 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa. 100 years later there are 360 million Christians in Africa. Look at what’s happening in South America, in China, in the East—all over the world. In America, 50% of the population are in church each Sunday but in other developed countries it is much lower, around 7% in Europe and 8.8% in Australia, but in many parts of the world the church is growing rapidly.

In some parts of the church it’s persecuted. In fact, in more than 60 countries in the world, Christians are harassed, abused, arrested, tortured or executed specifically because of their faith. 200 million Christians throughout the world live in daily fear of secret police, vigilantes or state repression and discrimination. Yet the church in those parts of the world is very strong. Perhaps its our affluence that makes us think that we don’t need God.

 

The universal church has local expressions. This would be one local expression of the universal church. And Paul, wherever he went, he planted churches: churches we read about in the New Testament in Asia, churches in Galatia. And these local churches themselves break down into smaller gatherings. And for practical purposes you could say that there are three different sizes.

First size is a small group or Cell. Usually that’s a group of less than twelve people meeting informally. Jesus had a group of about twelve people he met with. One of the things that I find so amazing about the small groups is how quickly people begin to drop their barriers and people start to talk openly about things that are real. There’s this kind of authenticity—what’s really going on in their lives.

People talk about their issues, their doubts, their fears, their failures. And often in the world relationships can be quite superficial, but in a small group or Cell, even though we’ve only known each other for quite a short time, there’s a depth of friendship that develops. And we can ask one another to pray for each other, we can encourage each other, support each other in difficult times. There’s this confidentiality, there’s respect for one another; where we listen and learn, we eat together, we learn together, pray together. And while we only have a few small groups now – Wednesday Prayer, Elders, Ladies Guild, Young Adults and so on we plan to expand this in the new year. This is not the end; this is the beginning.

But we need more than just a small group. We need a slightly larger group, which we call a Congregation. This is the most common form of church. Here you can get to know a wider group of people. Here you can develop gifts.

Quite often we miss the opportunity offered by the Congregation- opportunity to allow people to develop—worship leaders, people who’ve never before led worship. As we are doing now in our services. People who’ve never given a talk before—the elders are doing that now and we will expand that as time goes on. And the friendships that developed are amazing.

And then there’s the bigger gathering: Celebration. This is where several Congregations can get together – as we do on the 5th Sundays in our Parish, and for events like the Mighty Men’s Conference and so on. Here you get a sense of worship, awe—hundreds of people worshipping God together.

 

Sometimes we may feel pretty alone as a Christian but when we come to a gathering we gain a sense of confidence, excitement, joy, to be with the people of God.  That’s why I love the church: it’s people.

Bill Hybels, always says two things about the church: first, “the local church is the hope for the world”. And second, “There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working well.”

 

2.  THE FAMILY OF GOD

The second reason I love the church is because it’s a family—it’s the family of God.

1 John 5:1

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.

 

What St. John says is that when you come into a relationship with God, you come into a family. Because there are other people who are in that same relationship with God—they’re sons and daughters of God: that means they’re your brothers and sisters.

So, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. So take a look around you, because this is your family! Have a look. Have a look at your brothers and your sisters!

 

Brothers and sisters can squabble, they can fall out, they can not see each other, but they remain brothers and sisters. Nothing can end that relationship. And as you know, the history of the church has been a sad one because it’s been a story of disunity.

As you look back in the history of the church there’ve been four major sort of breaks. In the fourth and fifth century the lesser Eastern churches separated. In the eleventh century you had the break between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. At the time of the Reformation you had the split between Catholics and Protestants. In the nineteenth century you had the start of denominations—there were no denominations until the nineteenth century. But by 1900 there were 2,000 denominations; by 1980 there were 20,000 denominations; and by the year 2000 there were 34,000 denominations.

And the church has divided on just about every conceivable issue—in fact, on every inconceivable issue as well.

 

I once heard about a man who was standing in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, admiring the view, when another tourist walked up alongside him to do the same. And he said, as he took in the beauty of the view: ‘What an awesome God!’

The other man turned to him and said, `Oh, are you a Christian?’ He said, `Yes, I am a Christian.’

`So am I,’ and they shook hands.

 

The one asked, `Are you a liberal or a fundamental Christian?’

He said, `I’m a fundamental Christian.’

`So am I,’ and we smiled and nodded to each other.

 

He asked again, `Are you a covenant or dispensational fundamental Christian?’

He said, `I’m a dispensational fundamental Christian.’

`So am I,’ and they slapped one another on the back.

 

`Are you an early Acts, mid Acts, or late Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’

He said, `I’m a mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’ `So am I,’ and they agreed to exchange Christmas cards each year.

 

Then he said, `Are you an Acts 9 or 13 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’

`I’m an Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’ `So am I,’ and we hugged one another right there on the bridge.

 

`Are you a pre-Trib or post-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’

He said, `I’m a pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’

`So am I,’ and we agreed to exchange our kids for the summer.

 

`Are you a twelve-in or twelve-out pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’

He said, `I’m a twelve-in pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’

`You heretic!’ said the other, pushing him off the bridge.

 

So that’s been the history of the church. But we live in a very exciting time, actually, when these kind of denominational barriers are coming down. And disunity is a scandal.

Outside the church, people look in and they say, `Look, if you guys can’t even agree amongst yourselves what you believe in, why should I be interested?’

But Jesus prayed—just before he died, that we should be one so that the world would believe.

And Paul says: Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit—of course, not at the expense of truth.

St. Augustine prayed that in the essential things, there would be unity. In the peripheral, freedom—but in everything, love.

What the New Testament talks about is koin?nia, which means `fellowship’. It’s a kind of intimate relationship that we’re meant to have with God and also with one another. And it cuts across race, colour, education, background—every other cultural barrier. And it leads to a level of friendship which I had never experienced outside the context of the church.

And we need each other. John Wesley said `the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion’.

 

There are two things you can’t do alone: you can’t get married alone, and you can’t be a Christian alone! So the writer of Hebrews said: Let’s not give up the habit of meeting together, as some have done. Because if we don’t meet together—this is my experience of watching people who have professed faith in Jesus Christ: unless they meet with other Christians, they find it almost impossible to survive as a Christian.

I heard about one young man who was really struggling. He had come to faith in Christ, but he just found himself drifting away, drifting in doubts and difficulties and losing his faith. And he went to see a wise older man, who lived in a cottage, and there was a fire, a coal fire. And as they were discussing—this young man told this older man about what was going on in his life—the older man didn’t say anything. But he just went to the fire and he took a red-hot coal, with tongs, out of the fire, and he put it on the hearth. And as the young man talked, he just allowed that coal to go from red-hot to black, dark.

And then he got the tongs again and he put the coal back in the fire, and within a few minutes the coal was red-hot again. He didn’t need to say anything. The young man left knowing exactly why his faith had gone dull.

 

3.  THE BODY OF CHRIST

That’s the second reason I love the church: it’s a family, it’s the family of God. Third reason I love the church is the church is the way in which people see Jesus today. It’s the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:27

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

As John Calvin, the great reformer, sixteenth century reformer, put it: `He calls the church “Christ”.’ Bishop Leslie Newbiggin said, `Jesus Christ never wrote a book; what he did was leave behind a community: the church.’

And what St. Paul is saying here is: `You are the church, and you are Christ to the world.’ So each of you represents Jesus wherever you go—in your family, in your place of work, in your neighbourhood, in your leisure activities.

Every time you feed the hungry, that’s the church doing it. Every time you visit the sick or visit someone in prison, that’s the church.

And Paul develops this analogy of the unity of the body of Christ, but also that unity does not involve uniformity. Look at this room—there’s huge diversity within this room. Each person here is unique and beautifully made. And you have a unique contribution to make to the body of Christ.

So my encouragement to you would be to get involved. Don’t just be a kind of consumer; be a contributor. Don’t just be an attender at church; be a member!

There’s also a kind of mutual dependence in the body. So Paul says: The eye can’t say to the hand, `Oh, well, I don’t need you!’ So what he’s saying is the church needs you. And you need everybody else—you need the church. And together, if everybody’s playing their part, then there’s something really beautiful, like an orchestra where everybody is performing.

That’s the third reason I love the church: it’s the body of Christ.

 

 

4.  THE BRIDE OF CHRIST

The fourth reason I love the church is because Jesus loves the church! It’s his bride—the church is the bride of Christ!

Ephesians 5:25

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

And then he goes on to talk about the marriage relationship. But then in verse 32 he says this: This is a profound mystery—but —he says, `It looked like I was talking about marriage; actually, he says—but I’m talking about Christ and the church.

 

And this really sums up everything we’ve been looking at on the Alpha course: because at the heart of Christianity is love. The New Testament tries to use analogies of the closest possible relationship: parent/child. Here it says actually that perhaps the best analogy for this is the love between a husband and a wife: that intimate love. And that is the love that Jesus has for you.

St. Augustine said that `God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.’

 

And if you had been the only person in the world, Jesus would have died for you. That’s how much he loves you. He laid down his life for the church.

I don’t know about you, but I look at myself and I think I’m not as I really long to be. I want to be different. And Jesus died so that we could become the person that deep down we long to be. And the picture here is of being the bride of Christ.

I love my job! I love being a minister! It’s an amazing job. But one of the things I love most is taking weddings. I haven’t done too many weddings here in Australia – just three in 3 years but in South Africa I did more than 40 weddings each year.

As the service is about to begin, with the bride purposefully late the doors at the back are closed. And then I would go and stand out here. And the bride is at the back; the pages, bridesmaids are all around her. Her parents are there and we would share a prayer.

The bridegroom’s sitting at the front. The bride has spent all day making herself look absolutely beautiful! The bridegroom’s probably spent all day, but it doesn’t look so obvious! I’ve prayed with him and his parents beforehand in the vestry.

At the rehearsal I would say to the groom: `There are two options. You can, as the doors open, turn round and welcome your bride as she comes down the aisle. Or you can stand to attention and wait until she’s level with you at the front. What you mustn’t do is just kind of look over your shoulder, because that’s just shabby. They always choose to turn round rather than stand to attention until she’s level with them.

Then the moment happens, and the music starts, the doors open, and the bride walks down the aisle. And at that moment my glasses mist up—even if I’m taking the wedding, sometimes I start sobbing even! It’s such an amazing moment, because she walks down, a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

Revelation 21:2

I saw the Holy City—this is a picture of the church—the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

 

So is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church? The answer is: we don’t go to church—you are the church.

 

Jackie Pullinger works in Hong Kong with heroin addicts and with prostitutes. And she told once about a 72-year-old woman called Alfreda. And Alfreda had been a heroin addict for 60 years, and she’d been a prostitute for 60 years.

But she was too old, obviously, to work, and she used to sit outside a brothel and just poke the sewers in this very run-down area with a stick to keep the drains running freely. And she’d inject her back three times a day with heroin, because her legs and her arms, had been overused. She had no identity card, and as far as the Hong Kong government was concerned she didn’t even exist.

A few years ago she gave her life to Christ, and she received forgiveness, and she began to change. And she went to live in one of Jackie’s houses. And to begin with she was quite difficult, but then God started to heal her, and she saw that there were people who were worse off than her, and she began to try and help them. And she changed.

And then she met a man called Little Wa, who was aged 75, and they got married. And Jackie described her wedding as `the wedding of the decade’: because this former prostitute, heroin addict, walked down the aisle, in white, cleansed, forgiven, transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.

 

And that to me is a picture of the church. There’s only one way into the church, and that’s to say: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ And the moment we say that, God in his love says: ‘You are part of my people. You’re my family. You’re my representative. You’re my body on earth. You’re a holy temple. My Spirit lives within you. You’re my bride.’