180 years of Ministry at St John's - Gratitude & Godliness - Deuteronomy 8:1-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I know I have told some of you this story before, but being in one place for so long means that some stories are bound to come round again, especially if they are good ones. Well, the story concerns a curate who began his sermon one day with the following statement: ‘Last night my wife found me in the arms of another woman.’ Of course that immediately grabbed the attention of the congregation as the members leaned forward, hoping that there might be a tasty morsel of gossip. So he continued, ‘Yes, she found me in the arms of my mother.’ Well, it just so happened that the Bishop was in church that morning and he was so impressed with this sermon opener that he decided he would give it a try when he was next preaching at a confirmation service. Unfortunately, the Bishop was known to be somewhat absent minded. And sure enough when the Bishop began his sermon in the cathedral, he said, ‘Last night my wife found me in the arms of another woman- and for the life of me I can’t remember who she was.’
But you know, according to the Bible, forgetfulness can have far more serious consequences than mere social embarrassment; because a failure to remember the past with gratitude can lead to pride in the present and hard heartedness in the future. It was Martin Luther who used to frequently quote an old Latin proverb that, ‘Nothing ages more quickly than gratitude’ and I suspect he was right. Even Bart Simpson expressed the attitude of most people when he was asked to say grace at supper, ‘Dear God,’ he said, ‘we pay for all this ourselves. So thanks for nothing.’ And sadly that is often so isn’t it? But it should not be, and especially not for the Christian.
Given the natural tendency we all have for forgetting the past, and the one who has shaped that past-God- and how this should in turn affect our attitude to the future so we continue trusting in God, it comes as no surprise that the theme of remembering with thanksgiving has tremendous emphasis in the Bible. And this is the great lesson of Deuteronomy chapter 8 which can be summarised in the words of the poet W. H. Auden, ‘Let all your thinks be thanks’
So what are we to do to ensure that ‘all our thinks are thanks’, well, first of all there is the need to recall God’s word and God’s provision- vv 1-6. Just look at v 1 ‘Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers.’ And then v 3 : ‘ He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.’ Why is priority to be given to listening to God’s Word- which comes from the mouth of the LORD? Well, just imagine what life would be like without it, if we had no Bible. If there is no external word from God then all you have to go on is what you can see, hear and touch. This means that you have to produce your own meaning to life. And then the focus will invariably be on you and the here and now. You become the centre of your own little world. For since you come from nowhere and are going nowhere, all meaning and value has to be crammed into the three score years and ten. That is bound to make you rather self-centred. What is more it will also make you short sighted- it will be what you can get out of life and those nearest to you, and who cares about future generations for you won’t be around to answer to them. In other words, our view of reality shrinks. But when God speaks, you find out that there is someone greater than yourself. You discover that you have a purpose, that you are part of a much bigger story- God’s story. And it is this word of God which tells you that you are made by him and for him, that he is your loving ruler who has been at work in your life from the moment you were conceived, in fact even before that. It informs us that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to avoid. In other words it expands our view of reality.
So here at St Johns today we being reminded that we are part of a bigger story. Of course there is the story which involved the founding of this church back in 1833 (picture). That is what it looked like back then- very idyllic- Clough Road was a nice country lane and as far as the eye could see there was farmland…..and a pub. In part the church was founded in a response to the need of the farm workers so that instead of having to traipse up to St Mary’s Cottingham every Sunday, they could meet here in the afternoon. That was a hundred and eighty years ago. And when I was in Texas I took great pleasure in telling my Texan friends that our church was built three years before the Battle of the Alamo in which Davy Crocket was killed- that really impressed them (apart from my accent of course). That is a long time. And God’s hand was in that. And you know he had 2013 in mind when he did it together with all future generations and so here we are now (picture). Isn’t that something to give thanks to God for, especially at a time when, sadly many churches are closing or are on their knees?
But we also need this Word not only to ensure that our view of reality is fully rounded but also to ensure that it is not distorted- v 2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands’ In certain respects some people have too good a memory in that all they can ever remember are the bad things that have happened to them and so do nothing but moan. For them the glass is always half empty. And maybe that is your tendency. But a proper understanding of God’s Word corrects that, because the follower of the true God recognises that there is nothing wilful or capricious about him- ‘That in all things God works to the good for those who love him’, so that even the hard times have a loving purpose, namely, to test and strengthen our faith, to show who are really trusting in. Sometimes God uses hardship to drive us to him as he kicks away the props and god-substitutes we have been depending upon for so long in order to discover the wonderful kindness of God as Father. That is why the manna given to the Israelites in the desert lasted for only a day at a time. The Israelites couldn’t store it, without it turning into maggots. No, they were literally dependent upon God for their daily bread and that kind of dependency makes for a close relationship doesn’t it? It also ensures that we give God the glory for we are forced to recognise that he is the great provider, despite what Bart Simpson thinks.
And there are many times God has done the same with us not giving us what we need or want straight away so that we keep that sense of dependence upon him and when he does answer we then thank him. Sometimes in terms of leaders we have been in need- children’s workers, homegroup leaders, and staff. Sometimes we have been in need of money to pay for the ongoing ministry here, together with buildings and we have had to pray and wait. But do you know what? God has always provided through the generosity of his people. That is the kind of God he is- so ‘let all your thinks be thanks’.
But when God’s people leave the Bible behind they leave reality behind which leads us to the second point, the problem of plenty and pride vv 7- 17. Look at v 12: ‘….when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’ And v 17 ‘You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." Let me ask you a question: what do you fear most? Wealth or Want? I guess for most of us the answer would be having too little-want. But by far the greatest danger, as far as Scripture is concerned, is wealth- having too much. That was the problem with Israel. No sooner had she entered the Promised Land than she became so besotted with the gifts that she promptly forgot the Giver and went off running after idols-which is exactly what Dt 8 warns against. And let me say, that is the danger which faces every church in every generation. O, whilst we are called to exercise good stewardship on the one hand, we are to avoid hoarding on the other because we then become proud thinking we have deserved all this wealth and then become too self-sufficient.
So the key is Remember with gratitude and declare with praise, v2, ‘Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert for forty years’ v11 ‘be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God’, v18 ‘But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you that ability to produce wealth and so confirms his covenant.’
Have you ever wondered why the most effective Christians have often been the most joyous Christians? It is because they are people overflowing with gratitude and such that God can never ask too much of them and they can never give too much to him- that is what happens when you are thankful. St Augustine said: ‘Let me not tire of thanking you for your mercy in rescuing me from all my wicked ways.’ The same grace was a marvel to John Newton, one time slave trader and blasphemer who had a deep sense of the ‘what might have been’ had the Lord Jesus not saved him, and so he went on to pour out his praise in the hymn Amazing Grace.
And I am amazed at the grace God has shown to us for from day one of being here for I have been acutely conscious of what God said through Moses, ‘v18 ‘But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you that ability to produce wealth and so confirms his covenant.’ So let me get a bit personal now in looking back and looking ahead.
It is always exciting to see how God works to get his way, so let me share with you how I actually came to St Johns. (Picture). I was at a minister’s conference when someone suggested that I might want to consider a Vicar’s post which had just become vacant at Holy Trinity Cambridge (Charles Simeon’s old church) but that I had to wait until the advert appeared in the Church Times. I must admit that the Church Times is not my normal reading material. So the week the ad was appearing I bought the paper. On the opposite page to the section advertising Holy Trinity was another advert, advertising for the post of Vicar at St John’s, Newland. As most of you know, Heather and I were students at Hull University and always had a great affection for Hull and prayed for the place. You should also know that since the 1950’s Dr Oliver Barclay who was General Secretary of the IVF, now UCCF, had been praying that God would particularly establish a clear, Anglican evangelical church in Hull- and I knew of this. What was I to do? Well, I sent off for information about both churches, but after prayer and seeking advice from others I applied for this post and the rest, as they say, is history.
But, as Jim Thrustle will tell you, things here were very different then with much work to do in every quarter. I will be honest with you, there was many a Sunday evening in the early days when I went back to the Vicarage despairing in order to pray with Heather because it just seemed that the challenge was too great. That was good for me. Back then there was no prayer meeting to speak of and I remember a few of us meeting on a Saturday morning, once a month in the front room of the Vicarage to pray- now we have scores of people at the central prayer meeting and a couple of hundred in the various small groups.
But I was convinced that God was going to do a great work answering the prayers of men like Dr Barclay in establishing a vibrant Anglican evangelical church as a witness in this city and beyond. At the first AGM I outlined my vision, namely, under God to seek, ‘A Bible-based, Christ centred, Spirit filled church, using the God-given gifts and resources for the upbuilding of his people, outreach and service into the world, all to the glory of God which is our spiritual worship.’
Do you know that God has done that and continues to do it? As we saw from the montage and heard from the interviews, God has enabled growth in numbers and maturity- and it is breathtaking- children and young peoples work, ministry amongst seniors, students, internationals, music, the growth of a vibrant congregation at Riverside, community action, missionary development umpteen fellowship groups, broadcasts services which now go world wide, and on and on it goes. A short while ago, I was speaking to Lady Elizabeth Catherwood, the daughter of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones, and she asked how things were going here. I remember saying that the feeling I had was almost being like a spectator watching on what was happening. She said that is how they felt when her father was minister at Westminster chapel. And that is right for ultimately God is the main agent bringing change through his Word taking hold of people’s lives and turning them around- and the church around. But of course he does it through people- our prayers, our witness, our giving of time, talents and money- often sacrificially (which means it until it hurts). The reason why we have such wonderful people on the leadership team which results in such work, is that we give so they can be freed up for God’s service doing what some of us can’t do. They also enable some of us to get on with the work we can do as they offer oversight and guidance. The reason we have such wonderful buildings with the NCC and now here, which has already enriched our public worship-bringing it in line with the Bible’s vision of enabling the church to function more like a family, is because we have had people who have given so much of their time in overseeing the work, and money in providing materials for the work. And we can’t stop, there is still much more to do and to slow down now would be like the Israelites settling down in Canaan and neglecting their responsibility to be a light to the nations.
So what sort of things might they be?
First, there is to be no letting up on teaching the Bible and getting the Gospel out, all undergirded with prayer. That is what we are committed to. So Gospel initiatives will be made- some of which you find on the programme Lee has produced. Evangelism is to be ongoing. But our concerns are bigger than the parish. It has been a joy to see how the Identity Course is being widely used. Our teaching is now available world wide through the internet. Some of us continue to write books in the service of God’s people. And many of us are involved in speaking beyond the parish. But given the resources we have in terms of people and place, we should be opening up more opportunities to share these with other Christians. We have already seen this to some degree with the Missionary Explored programmes which have been run from here. Heather Payne has spoken at other churches about children and youth work, but given the expertise we have amongst us, why should we not be putting on such meetings/ conferences here for others? Similarly, we have expertise in teaching the Bible and theology; Richard Hawes and I in particular are involved in the Yorkshire Training Programme over in Castleford each week- but there is plenty of scope to be putting on similar training events here at St Johns for those living in the area. Other initiatives could soon be thought of, but given that God has blessed us, those blessing are to be shared.
Certainly one area of need is in reaching out to some of the youth in our vicinity. We are very good at supporting and discipling those already within our fellowship, but there are many outside who haven’t a clue about Christ- how might we reach them? We are already making inroads through Thomas Ferrens Academy, but what other routes might we take in reaching out to young people? These kinds of questions will cause us to have to think about needs in terms of personnel and property. For instance do we need a full time youth worker- one who is primarily an evangelist? What sort of facilities do we need in terms of rooms, halls, games equipment?
We are now privileged to have with us Julian and Ella Gutteridge, and a ministry trainee Monika …… so now work to reach out to our Polish friends is beginning. There are other groups in our area which need reaching with the Gospel- God keeps bringing them to us and we have to go out to them.
When you think about it, everything I have mentioned so far impinges on the need for more and better buildings to enable us to do these things well. Conferences and meetings mean better toilet facilities as well as a kitchen for meals. Reaching out to young people means that the church hall which is on its last legs needs some kind of replacement- and those who have been given the task to oversee our building work will be taking all these things into account, so please encourage and pray for them.
But the bottom line is that everything we have been thinking about this morning requires of us a total and complete surrender of the heart to God and his people here. I am as committed, if not even more committed to that than I was nearly 20 years ago when I came and it is a thrill to see so many of you committed to these things too. So as we look back with thankfulness for what God has done, let us also look forward with excitement and a rugged realism that there will be a cost involved in terms of our giving of money, our prayers and our expertise-whatever that may be- that God will continue to do a great work here so that in another 20 years time there will be many people then looking back to this moment, giving thanks to God for the people here who were willing to give their all for Christ, because as a result they (who were children then) are now saved, together with some of their friends and their children, and so they say, ‘Thank You Lord’ for those Christians at St Johns back then, because we are so richly blessed now. Friends, let’s not let them down.
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