How Does God Feel About Me?

Good morning Jesmond Parish Church. I’m Rico Tice and I’m speaking to you from All Souls Langham Place in central London. And thank you so much for giving time to listen, not least because we’re heading towards Easter and that is the best time in the year to be looking to hear about the Christian faith, as we focus on Good Friday and Easter Day so thank you for listening, in particular if you’re a guest. I hope there’ll be lots of questions from this. If that’s the case then there’s lots of follow up after Easter and indeed during Easter at Jesmond so do please take advantage of that. Let me pray as we begin:

Father God, thank you for the Bible. Please help me to speak clearly from it, and please address each one of us in the very depths of our being. Amen

In my family we have an incredibly immature ritual of throwing each other into water wherever it may be found. So whatever the time of year it may be (Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter) and whatever the type of water (sea, stream, river or a pool), if there is water, somebody has to go in. Which is why in my family if you come near us, you’ve got to get overweight, because otherwise you’ll be thrown in. We don’t like thin people at all. Now this infantile custom came to a head on New Year’s Day January 1st three years ago when my brother, who is 38 years old, has 3 kids and should know far better, pushed me into a river on New Year’s Day! He’s actually 95% Christian, my brother and 5% ruggerhead and you’re never sure when the ruggerhead is going to emerge. That’s the problem with him. It’s terrifying being with him. We’d met as a family for lunch at a restaurant by a river. I was standing on the bank with his two sons looking at the freezing water a good eight feet below and the next thing that I knew I was falling in. And I’m sure you know the feeling, time freezes as you are about to drop in and you are thinking, I can’t believe he’s done this, this is not happening. This is a dream. Anyway, as a vicar I responded with due Christian charity and went straight up the bank and took him in with me. By the way when it comes to throwing people into water, if you are prepared to sacrifice yourself you can throw anyone in. That’s what you can find. Anyway in that second tumble my car keys fell out of my pocket and into the river and it was not a great start to the New Year.

But it didn’t break the habit of going into water and later that year I was standing by the most beautiful stretch of water I think I’ve ever seen. It was Botany Bay in Australia. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. The sun was bouncing off a crystal blue sea. It was as calm as a millpond and I thought I’ve just got to go in. I must go in. Sadly the only person I was there with was my host, who was a 72 year old clergyman called Chappo, John Chapman, and I decided I couldn’t throw him in, though I thought about it. I thought about throwing him in. So I just on my own stripped off to my boxer shorts, which I assure you is the most terrible sight, not least since I now have a furniture problem, in that my chest is in my drawers. And I was just walking towards the lovely water when Chappo blurted out, What are you doing? And I said, ‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m going for a swim. Look at the water, it’s lovely’. And he replied, incredulous at my stupidity, ‘But what about those signs?’ And I looked round and behind me were two enormous signs saying, ‘Danger sharks, no swimming’, with some enormous jaws on them. And I looked at them and I said, ‘Oh Chappo, don’t be ridiculous, I’ll be fine’. And he said, ‘Listen mate, 200 Australians have been killed by sharks. You’ve got to work out whether those signs are there to save you or to ruin your day. You’re of age, you decide’. And with that he just walked off up the beach. And I rather pathetically sort of put my clothes back on and shuffled on after him.

Well, in this passage, 1 Thessalonians, we have today there is a huge danger sign in front of us, a huge danger sign. And I just want to ask you this morning, particularly if you are a visitor here, I want to ask you this: Is the danger sign in front of us there to save you or to ruin your day? What do you make of the danger sign? That’s what I want to ask. Can you see it in the last three words of the passage that we’ve had read to us. There it is in the last three words, top right. Let me read that last verse (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10):

And to wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who rescues us from [and here’s the danger sign, can you see it] the wrath to come.

That’s the sign. It’s a massive danger sign, because in the Bible God’s wrath is his settled, controlled, personal hostility to all that is evil. And furthermore, one day, the Bible says, God is going to judge all that is wrong. So God is not indifferent as to how I treat you or how I treat myself or how I treat his world. No, no, he’s never lost interest in any of that. He’s not indifferent. So he doesn’t sort of lean back like a benevolent grandfather pretending nothing has happened. No, how I treat you matters to God and how I treat creation matters to God and how I treat myself matters to God. And God, who is passionately concerned about his world is going to bring justice to bear completely comprehensively. That’s what we are told. There’s going to be absolutely comprehensive justice to bear. So the Bible says, (Hebrews 4.13):

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.

Why, Rico, why? Why does the Bible speak of the coming wrath? Because in the Bible God’s judgement is not set against God’s goodness. No, it’s proof of God’s goodness. God’s judgement is the necessary demonstration that the God of all goodness is not going to co-exist with moral evil. And do you know unless there was a final and just settling up, life would be a mockery. I think particularly as we get older we see that don’t we. I’m sure all of us we know one or two people, I had one on the phone this morning and they are being treated badly by other people and it doesn’t seem to be fair. It’s not fair. I mean God is not good if he sits lightly on evil. No, he’s good because he’s implacably opposed to evil in every form.

My twin sister works with Aids patients in South Africa. The suffering and death she sees is desperate. I’m stunned that she is able to do that work with the constant pain and suffering she sees. Recently the South African Government came to her and they offered her a huge amount of money to set up support systems for people suffering from tuberculosis. And my sister said, I desperately need the money. The need is overwhelming but these people are dying of Aids not tuberculosis. That is an effect, not the cause. Their immune systems can’t resist the TB when it strikes because of the Aids virus. The South African Government official replied, You only get the money if you say you are fighting tuberculosis not Aids. Aids is not the problem. My sister said, Aids is the problem and 4.5 million South Africans are dying. And the Government replied, If that’s what you think, you can’t have the money.

Now what’s your reaction to that? What’s your reaction to that? Doesn’t something rise up inside you and say, That ought not to be allowed. You can’t make Aids a political football when so many people are dying. I love my twin sister and it makes me livid when she is treated like that and the people she is seeking to help and serve are treated like that. Or what do you say to this, when a couple say to my sister in Port Elizabeth, Our daughter was raped and murdered. The boy who did it was out after two years. There is no justice in the world. We thought our daughter was worth more than that.

Do you know in my best moments I say, Can’t somebody stop this? That ought not to be allowed to happen. That ought not to be allowed to go unpunished. I’m angry about those things and I’m right to be angry about those things. I’m right to be angry about them. And do you think God is not supposed to get angry when he sees that 2,600 people died violently a day, were killed by other human beings a day, in the 20th century. 2,600 people a day. Shouldn’t God get angry? And do you know the only way you can be without wrath is to be careless of everything and everybody. Just to not to care. And God will not be careless. He is totally committed to his world and because God is committed, the Bible says, (Hebrews 9.27):

Men and women are destined to die once and after that to face judgement. Which of course when I see the evil that sickens me in the world I am delighted about. I am delighted there is a judgement when I see the evil that sickens me.

But here is the huge warning sign about the coming wrath that each of us have to decide on. This is the time bomb which the Bible says is ticking away. Now do you think this time bomb is for real or not? That’s my question this morning. You have to decide but Jesus warns in Luke 12.3, that actually we are all passengers on the Titanic heading towards disaster on this one because none of us have lived as we should. So Jesus says:

What you’ve said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. And what you’ve whispered in the ear in private rooms shall be be proclaimed on the housetops.

I tell you, my friends do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. That for example is the South African official who is doing nothing about Aids. Don’t be afraid of him, he just kills the body. Jesus goes on, but I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.

Do you know a visitor came to All Souls from abroad and he came up to me after I’d spoken on the wrath of God and on God’s judgement on human evil, on the coming wrath as you see in this passage here but from another passage, and he said, and he was livid, he said, I hate people, I hate people who try and frighten me with regard to God. But the question is not have I tried to make you frightened, but is there anything to fear? That’s the question. Is there anything to fear? I tell you as we speak of God’s settled, controlled, personal hostility to all that is evil, if it was just me fronting up to God, having to answer for my life alone, I’d be nervous. I’d be nervous because my life has not been right.

Well, when in AD 49 the apostle Paul, the writer of this letter, went to Thessalonica with his colleagues, Silas, Timothy and Dr Luke, some of inhabitants of Thessalonica did believe he was telling the truth about the coming wrath. I don’t know if you believe me or not. They believed him. But wonderfully that was not all that they heard. No, they also heard, and this is the second point, because we move now from wrath, they also heard about rescue. And that’s our second point. We move from wrath to rescue. And more specifically, can you see 1 Thessalonians 1.10, as we just flick back in it, Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath. Now there’s no doubt that when Paul went to Thessalonica he told the Thessalonians about the death of Jesus. And he would have explained to them that Jesus’ crucifixion on a Roman cross in 33 AD was no ordinary death. That it was special. That it was in fact to pay for the sin of the world. So it wasn’t just a Galilean carpenter getting executed. It wasn’t just that. No, it was the Son of God dying for the sins of the world. I don’t know what you see when you see the cross. That’s the great issue. But this is how Jesus described his death, this is how he saw it. He said, I am the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. On another occasion he said, the reason why my father loves me is because I lay down my life for the sheep. On another occasion he said, I’ve come to give my life as a ransom for many. I’m giving my life as a ransom. So he is saying that for every time that you and I have said No to God as God over me, for all the times I won’t have God ruling my life, for the times God is rightly angry when I hurt others in his world, so for all those times, God’s wrath should come on me, but the Bible says that instead Jesus took the punishment for all that my sin deserves when he died on the cross. He took the punishment for God’s wrath.

And do you remember that terrible cry that came from the cross? Do you remember it? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Do you remember the cry? Now those were not words of physical agony, though doubtless Jesus was in terrible pain. Indeed we get the word excruciating meaning intensely painful from the Latin word ‘crux’ meaning cross. Nevertheless, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me is not a cry of physical agony. Listen to it, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It’s a cry of relational agony. It’s a cry of being spiritually cut off, separated from his relationship with his heavenly father for the first time. So Jesus at the cross is crying out, My God, why have you rejected me, why have you thrown me out?

Let me try and explain what’s going on here. I grew up in Africa, my dad grew tobacco in Zaire and Uganda and there was no children’s TV. None at all really. So we spent our time as kids mucking about and doing hobbies. And my two passions as a six year old were stamp collecting and butterflies. I loved them both. Both of which are amazing in Africa. The stamps and the butterflies are amazing in Africa. And for both you needed a magnifying glass. But I soon found that making little things bigger was not all a magnifying glass could do. I found that when you took it into the African sun it could set a leaf or a newspaper alight. I found it could do that. I found that it could set the gardener’s hut alight. I found you could burn patterns into fences and trees and best of all if you held down your twin sister you could scare the living daylights out of her threatening to burn her. That’s what I found at six. And can I say that was well before I decided on ordination I found that out, well before.

You see you can take a magnifying glass and bend the rays of the sun into such a sharp point of intensity that the power generated burns things. Well try to imagine an enormous, can you do this, the size of this church, an enormous moral magnifying glass, through which was passed not the sun’s rays but all the punishment due for all the sins of the world. They are all passed through this enormous magnifying glass, yours, mine, the killing fields of Cambodia, carnage, pillage, rape, all the selfishness, the hatred, the envy, the arrogance, the dishonesty, the lies, all the deceit that our hearts and lips have ever known, all of it – can you imagine it, imagine we can drag it down, down until it reaches one person in one moment of time with such terrible intensity that you hear the agonised cry, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And that is how Jesus rescues us from the wrath to come. So there’s a verse in the Old Testament in Isaiah 12.1 when the prophet looks ahead to what Christ, the suffering servant, would do on the cross and says:

I will give thanks to you, O Lord…for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away.

So God’s anger at my sin is amazingly turned away by Jesus. And on the night before he died, Jesus said to Peter, James and John, three of his disciples, and it’s no wonder he said it, when you understand the moral magnifying glass, he said, ‘My soul is overwhelmed to the point of sorrow’. What was going to happen to his soul? And this is why in the Garden of Gethsemane he fell flat on his face in the garden on the ground and he prayed, ‘My father if it’s possible may this cup be taken from me?’ Well what was the cup? It was the cup of God’s anger at human sin, which Jesus would drink as he in 1 Thessalonians 1.10, can you see it, rescues us from the coming wrath which is no small thing! And it may be today that you are somebody who has been a Christian many years and your heart is in danger of growing cold to this. Can I say if that is the case, then you are in a desperate state, because the motivation for all Christian service comes out of God’s mercy. And it may well be because you’ve stopped seeing the awfulness of your sin, you can see it in other people but not yourself, and your heart is hardened to the mercies of God. And you’ve stopped being thankful. It’s no small thing that Jesus rescues us from the coming wrath.

So on the day of judgement where is your trust focussed, so that you can be forgiven? Can I ask you that? But perhaps particularly if you are here for the first time, where is your trust focussed so you can be forgiven? Let me put it another way. This is actually a question we use in week five of Christianity Explored, the course that we run and we’d love you to come along and ask questions and check this out, but let me, as we try and work out where your trust is focussed, can I ask you this question – If you were to die tonight and God said ‘Why should I let you into my heaven’, what would you reply? That will tell us where your trust is focussed. So if you died tonight and God said ‘Why should I let you in’, what would you reply?

Would you say, ‘I’ve been good enough’. As you stand before God, you front up, you say, ‘Look I’ve been good enough. I mean, I don’t steal; I’ve kept the 10 commandments, I’m not quite sure what they are, but I’ve kept them. I give to charity, I’ve not been a murderer or a rapist or a traffic warden who kindly gave me a ticket yesterday. I’m not like that. I don’t lie’. One person said to me, ‘I give blood, Rico, that’s why I’ll be alright. On the day of judgement I’ll get out my little book and show the litres of blood I’ve given. I give blood’. Is your trust there? Or perhaps it’s not there, it’s being religious. ‘I go to church’. ‘I don’t just go to church Rico, I’m an Anglican. I’m a member of the Church of England. That’s why I’m OK’. Or ‘I’ve been baptised’. Is that why I’m alright? Or ‘I’ve been confirmed. I pray. I read the Bible’. What are you going to say as you stand before God and he says, ‘Why should I let you in?’ Are you going to say, ‘Well look I went through a lifetime of church going, that ought to do it’. Or would you say, ‘No, no, it’s none of those things, none of them. None of them will pay for my sin. These things actually they’ll do me no good at all. They are like putting sticking plaster over a gaping wound or taking aspirin for leprosy. No, no, I can’t make myself good enough for God so I’m completely trusting in the fact Jesus died to rescue me from the coming wrath. That he died so that I could be forgiven’. Is that where your trust is? That’s what this verse is saying. That’s what the Thessalonians believed when Paul came and told them about the death of Jesus and the wrath to come. They believed in the rescue and wonderfully they then model, as we come to a close, exactly the right response that should be made to Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath. For we are told by Paul in this letter of encouragement that he wrote to the Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians 1.7-8, what happened, can you see? It’s a tremendous response and it’s a model for us:

so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere…

So can you imagine the scene in Thessalonica? Situated as it was on one of the great Roman roads, everybody suddenly speaking of the sudden appearance of these preachers and it’s a matter of talk all over the city, because people’s lives have changed so much. So Paul gleefully writes, Therefore, we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. The merchants as they set off and they are staying the night in some tavern say, Do you know what’s been happening back in Thessalonica, it is extraordinary. The Greek John, do you know him, he always used to try and sort of rob us, do you remember that? We never could trust his pricing. Well it’s absolutely righteous pricing now and it’s because of Jesus. He’s turned, he’s acting differently. So the message went out and out and out. They tell, and here is the model response, how you turn to God. Can we see it 1 Thessalonians 1.9 at the bottom there:

From idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers [rescues] us from the coming wrath.

When I was in Australia with that preacher, John Chapman, three years ago, that guy I went to the beach with, he told me a story while I was out there of a guy who went to Sydney University from a very poor part of Sydney. And the guy once told John, ‘One day when I first got to university I received an invitation to a birthday party. That in itself was novel, to be given an invitation to a birthday party. Where I came from it was word of mouth and you just fronted up. But on the bottom of the invitation it had these words – Black tie. And I was glad because I only owned one tie and it was black and I’d worn it for my uncle’s funeral. So I was thrilled I had a black tie. But when I got to the party I realised black tie did not mean black tie, it meant dinner jacket and bow tie. It was the longest night of my life’.

Well wonderfully here we don’t have the same problem do we? We know exactly how to respond. We are told how to react to Jesus who saves us, rescues us from the coming wrath. Can we see the three verbs that sum up the response to Paul’s message about Jesus Christ? The first one, they turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven. So first they turned. Prior to this the people of Thessalonica had been idol worshippers. They’d worshipped the Greco-Roman gods who they thought lived on Mount Olympus. In fact if you go to Thessalonica, some of you may have been there, you can see Mount Olympus from it. And doubtless people said their prayers to that mountain, for the gods were up there. I guess their worship would have been a bit like ours. Some would have been devout, some would have been sceptical and uncertain, others would have been careless and some went along with it just to keep their parents happy. And still others were perhaps bewildered, not knowing quite what to believe. I’m sure that if you went along the line, that’s what they’d have been in Thessalonica. But whatever they thought before, whether they were devout or whether they were sceptical, after they’d heard the apostle Paul speak of Jesus Christ, of how he was – can we see 1 Thessalonians 1.10 – the Son of God, to wait for his Son from heaven, of how Jesus was raised from the dead, which is proof by the way of the life to come. Because if God raised Jesus from the dead, he can raise me and judge me. It’s proof that there is a judgement. After they heard all this of Jesus, after they heard of how with a storm he’d flattened it. So there was a raging storm and they thought we are going to die and Jesus had got up and said, Quiet, be still and it was flattened, after the Thessalonians had heard about that. After they’d heard how he’d been into a room where there was a dead girl and he’d walked into the room and he’d taken her by the hand and he’d said, Talitha koum, little girl get up and she got up. After they’d seen that Jesus could raise the dead as we can wake the sleeping, after they’d heard these stories and they’d said, He is God’s son walking around in God’s world with authority over death and over nature, they’d said, I’ve been mistaken. I must stop staring up to Mount Olympus, because now I know the way to go. I must follow Jesus. And they’d responded by turning their backs on their idols and they’d said, No that isn’t the way and they had turned to God, the God who is revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ. And they decided to serve him, the true and living God.

Now I guess when it just comes to idolatry it’s not a big thing for us. I’d be surprised if you have an idol or a family shrine, although they may be possible. You may have that. But when we see that idolatry is about a made-up god, then we get closer to modern idols. And when I ask you the question, ‘What are you living for’? When I ask you that question, when I ask you ‘What is the most important thing in your life’, then we get very close. What is it? What is the most important thing in your life? What do you want for your children that you could not get for yourself? You see if the answers to those questions don’t focus in the person of Jesus Christ, then I think you have an idol, for unlike the Thessalonians you are not serving the living and true God.

So your idol could be status, the desire to be well thought of, it could simply be having an easy life with no hassle or it could be earning to get on the next holiday, but the question is what is your driving force? That’s the question. What are you serving? It could be family, work, making money, the kids, it could be all of those put together. But whatever it is we need to recognise that life is about serving the true and living God, who has shown himself in Jesus Christ. And if I want to find out whether you are doing that or not, I can do that by looking in your diary. I can see the priority that he has.

For me, and this is a little embarrassing, but nevertheless the truth, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was not God. That’s what I had to see, which I think had occurred to most other people already, especially my twin sister. She knew that I wasn’t God. And I had to turn my back on the idolatry of self and say Yes to God in Christ and say actually Rico, the world does not revolve around you, it revolves around Christ. And we know the world revolves around Jesus Christ and belongs to him, because of the opening phrase in 1 Thessalonians 1.10. Can you see it? This is why we know the world revolves around Christ and is his. These Thessalonians turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven. You see Paul taught them that Jesus Christ had not only died for them and conquered death by rising again, so there was hope in the face of death. He also told them Jesus, who came back to life was now in heaven and one day, any day, he was coming back to bring judgement, judgement to the world. To prove to the world that goodness does reign in this world. Goodness does reign and Jesus is coming back and he will judge the world. And the Thessalonians now waited for Jesus to return as judge. And they waited for him with confidence. You see whenever Jesus chose to return, they would be ready. If it was today, they were ready. If he came back to judge the world today, they were ready. If he came back to bring universal judgement tomorrow, they were ready. If it was 10 years time, they were ready. If they died and met Jesus at judgement and he said, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven’, they were ready. They were prepared. They were living in the last days. And the Greek word wait here is 'Anamayno' and it means to wait with expectancy.

It’s not passive like the interminable wait in a doctor’s surgery or at the dentist’s. Do you know waiting in the dentist’s (arms folded, eyes closed, nodding off in boredom and the magazines), well the earliest magazine is 1977, isn’t it. They are amazing those magazines, I don’t know where they get them from, they are so boring. It’s not like that. No, as they waited, 1 Thesallonians 1.10, they served the living and true God. They were working away. Just like maybe you were preparing Christmas lunch for someone or you were going as a guest. But either way, when you arrived you knew that you had been expected. The people hosting you weren’t lolling about as you arrived, they were working, preparing for your arrival. That’s what these Thessalonians were doing. And that’s the model response to Jesus Christ that the Thessalonians give us. They turned from idols, to serve him and wait for his return.

Can I ask you, have you done that? Have you done that? Have you responded to the fact Jesus Christ has rescued you from the wrath to come. And you may have to say, as I once did, Lord God I’ve been mistaken, I’ve been careless, I’ve been wilful, I’ve ignored your Son, but I now need to respond as the Thessalonians did. To turn to God and serve him, to trust Jesus for complete forgiveness. Well, I’m going to close with a prayer now and it won’t be a right prayer for everybody but it could be right for you, because it may be that you’ve understood what I’ve said about the coming wrath and you do know that you need rescue. It may be that you are somebody and you are saying, Rico there is so much you’ve said that I need to talk about, I’d love to go on Christianity Explored. But it may be that you are saying, I need to be ready today. I know Jesus could come back today and I need to be ready. And if that’s the case, then here’s a prayer that you could pray. I’ll read it first so you know what it says and then I’ll pray it sentence by sentence and you may want to echo it in your own heart. It would be a great day to do that if you know that this is true. Here’s the prayer:

Lord Jesus, I recognise that you are God and have the right to control my life. I’ve rebelled against you sinning in thought, word and deed, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately. I’m sorry for the way I’ve lived and ask you to forgive me. As best I can, I want to turn away from rebellion and obey you. Thank you Lord Jesus for dying for me on the cross. Please come into my life and take complete control of it.

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