Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A psalm for 2009

2008 saw a dramatic amount of change. My own personal circumstances have altered in ways I could have scarcely imagined a year ago. The world has been seen to be an unpredictable place over the past twelve months. Psalm 62 speaks to those who are aware of changing and bewildering circumstances. It is a great psalm to reflect upon at the beginning of a new year.

It is reckoned that David might have written this psalm when he had been deposed by his son, Absalom, before he regained his throne. In some ways, it doesn't really matter: the theme of the psalm is universal.

Sometimes we all find ourselves in a vulnerable condition described by David: as if perched on a leaning wall or a tottering fence. We feel like we are real pushovers. So, the question is, where do we turn from for support in these times?

We may turn to others. And so we should. God’s design is that believers in him should be part of a church. And being part of a Christian community not only gives us the opportunity to help those in need, but also to ask for help when we ourselves are in need. But though others may help we cannot rely on them. Even they will sometimes let us down. As this psalm puts it, "Surely the lowborn are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie. If weighed on a balance, they are nothing: together they are only a breath." All of us – from the highest to the lowest – are but ephemeral breaths of wind. And even as trustworthy as others might be, they have no control over their futures. Eventually even they will die.

You might put your trust in riches to support us as we totter. Writing at the end of 2008, that seems less sensible than at other times. Apparently, the average British person lost 13% in 2008. In 2009 it seems that many will be affected their firms going bust, and many will be made bankrupt as loans are called in. Some will lose houses. In order to bail out the banks the government has borrowed billions. In future years we will have to pay this all back as taxes are increased. One person I heard recently said it's like putting your money in a pocket full of holes. How foolish it is to set your heart on riches!

Who then can be relied upon? Where then can my soul find rest? In God alone. Truly he is my rock and my salvation. He is my fortress, I will never be shaken. Over and over again this psalm insists that we are secure in God and nowhere else. ‘One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: power belongs to you, God.’

A lot of people see God like a liberal football referee, who gives a lot of warnings but never books a player or shows a red card. They imagine a God who talks big but never delivers. They mistake his patience for his tolerance. They think he winks at sin. So many people seem to 'get away with it' that there seems no point in obeying the rules. "They take delight in lies; with their mouths they bless but in their hearts they curse."

The age of Premier League football with cameras everywhere has changed discipline in football. Apparently, there are at least thirty video cameras recording all of the action at Premier League games. And that means that the referee may miss a shirt tug or a sly push, but the cameras collect it. Indeed, things missed by the referee may still result in a retrospective red card. Omniscience may be fairly new to British football, but God has had it for years. He never misses a trick.

What a referee to have on your side! Nothing the opposition can throw at you goes unnoticed. He is a strong supporter.

So why doesn't he act? Well, it’s because he is concerned about the final result of the game. A few years ago, I missed the first half of the European Cup final. It was AC Milan 3 Liverpool 0 at the time. I almost didn’t watch the second half. I’m glad I did. Although it would have been easy to have given up in the face of such adversity, Liverpool refused to surrender and eventually won on penalties, masterfully led by topical figure Steven Gerrard. God is not primarily concerned about our comfort or even our bank balances. He cares about the final result. It is our salvation that matters, ours and every one else's. God is gathering together a people that will be his forever. That is how he is glorified. That is how his strength is shown.

And that’s second thing David heard. That God is not only strong, but that he is also loving. That's why he is so patient. It is not his purpose that any should perish, rather he wants everyone to repent. I’m very glad he gave me time to repent. I’m sure you are too.

In 2009, let us turn to the LORD. As the wall we are standing on starts to lean, as our fences totter, let us rely on him in everything.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Doctor Who, feminism and Jesus

After the awful Doctor Who Christmas special last year, we were relieved at my in-laws' house that this year's episode was significantly better. The plot was fun, there was plenty of snow and you got the sense that Doctor Who is perhaps the 21st Century equivalent of the pantomime.

I couldn't help noticing, though, that there was more of a politics to the episode than some. The combination of it being Christmastime and these politics had interesting things to say about Christianity, Jesus and feminism.

There were several mentions of and allusions to Jesus throughout the episode. At the grave side of one of the workhouse owner, a vicar rehearsed burial liturgy, surrounded by a group of men. There was a strong link of Jesus (and Christianity) with patriarchy. The villainess, Miss Hartigan, who had worked in one of the workhouses for many years, ended up in partnership with the Cybermen in reaction to the evils that she witnessed as a result of such patriarchy (indeed, this was portrayed as her only escape!). She represented herself as a new suffragette-style hero(ine) that came into the world at Christmas - only now not one that would oppress women. She even used the words, 'Behold, I have risen'. Miss Hartigan was set up as a kind of Christ figure; the implication throughout being that Christianity (even Jesus?) is misogynistic and oppressive.

In the end, however, the Doctor seemed to identify the problem with Miss Hartigan's plans: her ideals, too, were shown to be oppressive. In compassion, the Doctor offered to send Miss Hartigan and her Cybermen to another planet, where they wouldn't need to 'convert' anyone (another backward slap at Christianity?). However, once Miss Hartigan's eyes were 'opened', the horror of her evil meta-narrative convicted her and she imploded.

In the end, perhaps the episode was a critique of patriarchy and feminism. Feminism that become an inflexible meta-narrative is to be rejected as it threatens to become an evil ,oppressive (and Christianity-like) system; yet the tragedy portrayed by the episode is that a real heroine (a character called Rosita, who helps many children to be saved) ends the epsiode merely as a nanny. We're forced to ask... is this right? Is it right that a heroic, bright woman can rise only to this position in a Christianity-influenced (Victorian) patriarchy?

An interesting theme. I wonder what the writers would make of Jesus' encounters with women in the Gospels?

Matthew Parris on mission

An interesting article by Matthew Parris in the Times: 'As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God'.

This is a truly incredible article, including the following quote: 'Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.' Well worth a read and a ponder.

HT: Michael Ots

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Stuart Briscoe on Christmas

Found a Christmassy quote that is worth pondering:

'The spirit of Christmas needs to superseded by the Spirit of Christ. The spirit of Christmas is annual; the Spirit of Christ is eternal. The spirit of Christmas is sentimental; the Spirit of Christ is supernatural. The spirit of Christmas is a human product; the Spirit of Christ is a divine person. That makes all the difference in the world.' (Stuart Briscoe).

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Grumbling vs complaining

A few posts ago, I spoke of how the writers of Scripture envisage Christians as people who do not grumble, so confident are they in God's goodness and sovereignty.

However, the Bible does positively hold up believers that complain... The Psalms, for instance, are full of incidents where the psalm writers open their hearts in complaint. So what is the difference between grumbling and complaining? How can I make sure that I'm a complainer and not a grumbler?

The difference to me seems to be the focal point of my problems. In Psalm 6, for instance, David complains about all manner of things in his circumstances (including his enemies, and illness in body and spirit). His response, however, is not to grumble but to complain: to place all of his concerns into the hands of the LORD, knowing that the LORD alone is one that can help in this situation. Even though his circumstances are the subject of his prayer, the complaint is God-centred (isn't this the thrust of Philippians 4:6-7).

It would seem to me that, whilst grumbling is always a danger, it is possible to complain in a godly matter in conversation with others too (particularly when the audience of complaint is also wary of letting the conversation drift into grumbling).

It would also appear to me that (despite the danger of grumbling), it is sometimes right to complain, particularly when, in some way, God does not appear to be getting the glory he deserves or, from what he has revealed about himself, his will is not being done. For example, whilst the danger is always that it will spill over into grumbling, it is right that injustice or church gospel disunity causes us to complain (primarily to God, but sometimes to each other).

Any other ideas on how we can complain in a godly way, but not grumble?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Changeling: Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish' redux

Tonight Linda and I went to see Clint Eastwood's latest film, Changeling. We had both been really moved by Million Dollar Baby and so looked forward to viewing it with anticipation.

Let's make one thing clear: it isn't pretty viewing. The film opens reminding the viewer that it is based on true life, and this is what makes the movie powerfully arresting. In fact, the auditorium was quieter at the end of the film than any other I'd been to since The Passion of the Christ. Whilst there wasn't much gore, the subject matter was such that it leaves you squeaming at many points.

The trailer for Changeling only gave the bare bones of the plot: a boy is abducted, a police search ensues, a boy is found, but the boy's mother Christine Collins (played by the very good Angelina Jolie) insists that the boy returned to her is not her son.

However, perhaps the main issue that the film raises is the matter of madness. After confronting the city authorities, Mrs Collins is branded an unfit mother, branded delusional and sent to a secure psychiatric hospital. Later in the film, another view of madness is presented in one of the other major characters. The movie considers what 'madness' is, who has the right to call someone else 'mad' or delusional, and whether 'madness' ever mitigates one's societal responsibility. And so whilst there are other strong themes (human evil, death, the family, justice and women's rights), it's issues of 'madness' and the role of the institution that is explored most deeply. In this respect, it is very similar to the 'archaeology of knowledge' of the penal system and the hospital presented by the French postmodernist Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish. The movie questions whether two key figures - Mrs Collins and Northcott - might be treated in the same way today (and if not, why not?).

It's true that societal factors are highly influential in governing behaviour. I believe that evangelical Christians (like me) have traditionally underplayed these societal forces. However, part of what Foucualt's philosophy has done has placed us in a society where nobody is ever 'guilty'. We can always blame our mental health, our disposition, our upbringing or our parents. At the end of Changeling, it's worth considering this question: despite all of the guilt and the violence, who is guilty? (The answer might surprise you).

For a second opinion, here's what Nick Pollard of the excellent Damaris organisation made of it:

Top films of 2008

Dave K recently posted his top films of 2008. I don't think there were loads of classics (although we didn't make No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, and I'm still hoping we'll catch Waltz with Bashir), but here's my top 5 so far. I've linked to films I reviewed.

1. The Dark Knight
2. Changeling
3. Wall-E
4. Juno
5. Quantum of Solace

I quite enjoyed bits of Iron Man, Charlie Wilson's War, City of Ember, Burn After Reading and Jumper. Lowest marks of the year would include films like 21, The Duchess and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

"The grumbling Christian" - an oxymoron?

I’ve been spending more time today in Philippians, and I’m thoroughly enjoying seeing Paul’s gospel-heartedness. He glorifies Christ and he values Christ and his gospel above everything else – and calls other believers to do the same.

Today I’ve been thinking about Philippians 2:14-15: “Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” Last time I taught Philippians, on a summer team in Moldova, this was one of the verses that jumped out at us. Grumbling and arguing is even easier than normal when under pressure in a different culture without creature comforts. Even, in everyday life, it's hard not to grumble or argue. So why is it so important not to grumble? And why does Paul put this prohibition against grumbling right here? He just done telling the Philippians that God is at work in them, he’s about to call them to shine as lights in this twisted, dark world... but first he has to warn them to do all things without grumbling and complaining.

Perhaps this reflects on the pervasiveness of grumbling and complaining. We all find it so easy to grumble and complain! But a grumbling Christian is, for Paul, an oxymoron. A grumbling Christian spreads darkness and bad mouths God. So, says Paul, God is working in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. And that means that if you want to please God and glorify him in our dark world, you’ve got to get a handle on grumbling. Grumbling is not a ‘minor sin’. It is an indication that all is not well in the spiritual life of a believer.

Of course, the vice of grumbling doesn’t turn up for the first time in Philippians. (Bible Gateway gives 25 other places where the word ‘grumble’ or ‘grumbling’ is used in the NIV). In fact the same word – ‘grumbling’ – is used plenty of times to describe the redeemed people of Israel in the wilderness. I think Paul is alluding the the people of Israel here in Philippians. God saves them with outstretched arm then has to listen to their grumbling just about every step of the way to Canaan! Now, Paul teaches the Philippians, God is powerfully at work in you to will and to act... so learn from the bad example of Israel.God has brought you out of the world, and now it’s time to shine his glory into the darkness of our world.

Israel, of course, had hardly got across the Red Sea when their grumbling began! (In fact, they were grumbling even before they got to the Red Sea: Exodus 15:24). They grumbled about water. They grumbled about food. They grumbled about Moses and Aaron, God’s appointed leaders. They grumbled about the spies. And, of course, their grumbling was ultimately directed against the Lord and his provision. (In this sense, all grumbling is ultimately against the Lord).

The people hit an all-time low in Numbers 16. Firstly they grumble against Moses and Aaron’s leadership... and then following God’s judgement, instead of seeing their own sin, they grumble again (Numbers 16:41), blaming Moses for God’s judgement. And this grumbling is serious. By the end of the chapter, nearly 15000 people have died in judgement. Grumbling is a serious sin against God.

If grumbling is so pervasive, where does it come from? Surely it’s when we lose sight of God’s grace and sovereignty. We grumble because we are self-centred and proud, and that we think we’re not getting what we deserve. Grumblers develop the mindset “I deserve better than this”, and think that life (or God) should have given them a better deal. In that respect, grumbling an symptom of arrogance. It is saying that I know how to run my life better than God, that I doubt his sovereignty and wisdom and goodness.

How, then, does a person fight a grumbling spirit? What is the antidote? Well, this is surely answered by the rest of the letter to the Philippians. It’s letting the wonderful truths of the gospel hit home and placing one's cicumstances in God's hands in this light. It’s cultivating joy that isn’t dependent on one’s present circumstances, but from the eternal realities of an everlasting and wonderful relationship with Christ. It’s learning to know and experience the very great value of the gospel that puts everything else in its correct perspective. It’s through seeing death as gain. It’s working towards a prayer life in which thanksgiving plays an important part. It’s rejoicing in the Lord always. It’s keeping our eyes on the citizenship we have in heaven. It’s learning to be content whatever the circumstances. Above all, it’s knowing Christ, who didn’t demand what he deserved, but gave it all up and made himself a nobody in order to serve others in humility.

Monday, 15 December 2008

"What does it matter...?"

I've spent the day soaking in Philippians 1, challenged again by Paul's attitude in putting the gospel first that caused him be to be willing to face personal discomfort, denigration of his name and bruised feelings so long as the gospel is preached.

What shines through this passage is the great splendour, goodness, potency and effect of the proclaimed gospel message, and the glory that goes to Christ through its proclamation. In the light of the gospel, nothing else can hold first place for our ambitions and motivations.

Here are two quotes I've been reflecting on today in this light:

"Putting the gospel first ought not to be the exception among us, but the rule. We are talking about the good news that reconciles lost men and women to the eternal God. We are confessing the gospel: that God himself has provided a redeemer who died, the just for the unjust, to bring us to himself. Without the gospel we are cut off, without hope in this world or the next, utterly undone. Compared with this good news, what could possibly compete?" (Don Carson, Basics for Believers)
"[O]ne day, as we know from his promises, he [Christ] will come again in unimaginable splendor to perfect his kingdom. We are commanded to watch and be ready. Meanwhile, the gap between his two comings is to be filled with the Christian missionary enterprise. We have been told to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, and we have been promised that the end of the age will come only when we have done so. The two ends (of earth space and time) will coincide. Until then he has pledged to be with us. So the Christian mission is an urgent task. We do not know how long we have. We certainly have no time to waste. And in order to get on urgently with our responsibility, other qualities will be necessary, especially unity (we must evangelize together) and sacrifice (we must count and accept the cost). Our covenant at Lausanne was "to pray, to plan and to work together for the evangelization of the whole world". Our manifesto at Manila is that the whole church is called to take the whole gospel to the whole world, proclaiming Christ until he comes, with all necessary urgency, unity and sacrifice." (The Manila Manifesto, Lausanne Covenant 1989)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Athanasius and the development of Trinitarian doctrine

Yesterday the UCCF North West had a good team day on Athanasius and Trinitarian debate led by the very knowledgeable Donald Allister. It was an interesting and heart-warming time, particularly poignant at this time of year when we think about Jesus' incarnation.

Athanasius has been one of my heroes for quite a while. Donald's 'warts and all' exposure of how things developed during the 4th Century didn't really change that (although they did make me appreciate much more the kind of pressure that many Christian leaders were under at that time). The other thing that really stood out was that the Arian heresy was far more subtle than often caricatured today. We briefly considered Arian interpretations of Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-6.

One of the interesting things to ponder was that Donald suggested that he believed that there would be many 4th Century Arians that would prove to be saved. He suggested that many people were Arian at that time simply because theology hadn't developed enough for the case to be otherwise. And so whilst Athanasius saw Trinitarian theology to be of salvation importance (because only God can reconcile humanity to God), perhaps many who did not have the blessing of this reality could still be saved. I've thought a bit about the 'eschatological' element to doctrine a bit before (that we should expect doctrine to be constantly rendered more clearly over time, yet never contradicting previous true Biblical insight), but I'd like to do some more thinking on this. Any thoughts or good things to read?

Monday, 8 December 2008

"God can't look on or have anything to do with sin"

It’s a common evangelical cliché and throw-away line. But is it fair to say that ‘God can’t look on or have anything to do with sin’? I’ve heard a couple of people (festively) attacking this notion recently, on the grounds of the incarnation.

The argument runs like this:

  • Jesus is fully God as well as perfect man;
  • During his ministry, Jesus associated himself with sinners – he talked with them, worked with them, ate and drank with them;
  • Therefore, the idea that God is totally against sin is false (as what can we say but that Jesus is ‘having something to do with sin’ during his ministry?).
Now I think that this argument is flawed for a number of reasons (for instance, it seems to imply a deistic and unscriptural understanding of a god that isn’t actively involved in creation apart from when physically manifested in the person of Christ). But let us put this aside for the moment.

It’s surely true that Jesus associated himself with those widely recognised by the religious establishment (and pretty much everyone else) as being particularly sinful (see Mark 2:13-17). Equally, the New Testament endorses Jesus as God (Colossians 2:9 and so on). But does this mean that we must come to the conclusion of the third statement above? Or in what sense, if any, is it impossible for God to look on or have anything to do with sin?

Clearly, as God in the flesh, Jesus looked upon sinners, in the sense that he looked at them. But in his grace he came not to endorse their sinful lifestyles (or even to say that their sin didn’t really matter) but to bring them freedom and forgiveness and reconciliation in his kingdom. When Christians (perhaps thoughtlessly) say that the God of the Bible can’t look on sin, they’re not saying that he’s somehow blind to the sinful reality of the world, but rather that his character as moral arbiter of the Universe is to call sin evil and wrong. The great news of Christmas is that, in Christ, he’s found a way of reconciling us to himself in his own body without compromising his character.

There is one question that remains. It’s this: if Jesus really was fully God, why did no-one (as sinful beings) burn up and drop dead in his presence? John 3:17 says that, ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ This is the same Son of God that, according to John 1:17, came into the world with grace and truth. In other words, the Father would have had every right to send Jesus the Son into the world to immediately condemn it (and by implication each of us – for, as members of the world, each of us is sinful). But he preferred to send him instead as an atoning sacrifice to make reconciliation to himself possible. Peter perhaps caught something of this when he said (in Luke 5:8): “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” Jesus had every right to condemn Peter, yet lived amongst sinful people in order to be the perfect sacrifice to make atonement for sinners.

I think that part of the reason that this debate has come up is that, in certain circles, Christmas is presented in quite a flat and tired way: it's just a necessary preamble for all of the stuff that followed later. We feel unable to say what it means to have our God as Emmanuel, God with us. The implications of the incarnation as an event in itself are sidelined and flattened (perhaps because we can’t fit it otherwise into 2 Ways to Live). And that is wrong and a symptom of wider illness in evangelicalism.

It’s right to look for and meditate upon the wider significance of the incarnation. (Indeed, I’ve been personally struck recently by the number of times that Hebrews draws real pastoral application from the incarnation and the humanity of Christ). However, in looking to say that the incarnation represents more than just a pre-requisite for Easter, we surely cannot say that it is anything less.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Avoiding the idolatrous abomination

One of the most significant sessions that had a bearing on future ministry was when Marcus described boring Bible studies and talks as 'idolatrous abominations' (you can hear the story re-told from his perspective here).

It was at that moment that I realised for the first time that a sound Bible study or talk that did not lead to worship is not treating Scripture in the way intended when it was given to us. The Bible was given so that we might joyfully submit our lives to Jesus in everything. Bible ministry that stops at understanding makes an idol of reason and knowledge.

That session, several years ago, profoundly changed my ministry. I say all this because I was reminded of it in listening to Tim Keller's recent sessions on Bible 'application' (not a term he likes, and I dislike too) and 'preaching to the heart' given at Oak Hill College (thanks Dave). Tim Keller uses a different vocabulary and slightly different approach to that which Marcus took, but the heartbeat was the same. The first session, particularly, is a 'must listen' for any who expound Scripture.

They're available here:

MP3: Tim Keller at Oak Hill College (1) November 2008
MP3: Tim Keller at Oak Hill College (2) November 2008

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Am I really a Christian?

Once again, I've left it far longer than I had intended to write a post. The last few weeks have been pretty busy. The busy period finished with the superb Lancaster University CU houseparty at a snowy and misty Blaithwaite (see above).

I gave a seminar on the title 'Am I really a Christian?' The first part of the seminar focused on how anybody can be saved at all. The second part focused on the signs that the Bible writers point to as characterising those who have true spiritual life, those joined to Jesus, our living Head. It's not that these things define us as Christians; rather, when we have true spiritual life, they characterise us.

Here are the characteristics I came up with:

1. The truth test: a born again believer accepts God's promises as not just being true generally, but true for them. The genuine Christian has a humble assurance of their assurance and forgiveness. "The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20 - see also 1 John 2:1-2, Romans 4:20-21).

2. The confession test: a true believer is pleased to declare Jesus as Lord, in word and action. 1 Corinthians 12:3 says: "No-one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit." Greg Haslam puts it like this: 'Is Jesus the boss in your life? Are you unashamed to let it be known that he is? Unembarrassed to speak of your allegiance to him before others? Glad to sing, say, preach and declare ‘Jesus is Lord’ in an unforced way on each occasion? Does this flow as a clear and resounding certainty from your heart to your lips? If the answer is ‘yes’ to each of these questions, then you must be a Christian, for the indwelling Holy Spirit produced that confession.'

3. The obedience test: a genuine believer is committed to fighting sin in their life. Will Metzger puts it like this: 'God, in his mercy, will not allow children of his to be comfortable in sin. He makes us restless, even to the point of questioning our salvation, so that we might not presume on his favour but, instead, relish his grace. Often we recognise our salvation not by victory over sin but by the warfare that is still going on within us. Comfort and encouragement do not come from outward circumstances of “success” but rather from drawing near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, from knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Boldness coupled with humility is the result.' See 1 John 2:3-6, Mark 8:34-35, Galatians 5:17 and so on.

4. The fruit test: the Holy Spirit puts the attitudes and desires of Christ into true believers. It is true that Christians slip up - again, as Metzger puts it, 'we sometimes find winters where no fruit is evident, even in the lives of genuine believers.' However, Jesus promises that true believers will bear fruit, particularly his own character (John 15:5, also Galatians 4:22-23).

5. The personal test: a true believer knows that they know Christ. This is what Romans 8:15 and 1 John 5:10-12 say. Christians are not people who are backing a plausible theory, hoping it works out. They have the Spirit’s testimony in their hearts that they know Christ. You can look at what Jesus has said and what he’s done, but knowing him is personal. When it comes to knowing someone, you know whether you know them or not. With a theory, I may not be sure that I’ve grasped; a moral code, I’m not sure whether I’ve kept it well enough - but a person, I know whether I have met them or not.

'I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.'(1 John 5:13)

Monday, 24 November 2008

How does a rich and famous celebrity stay content?

What's required to know true contentment and humility - the sort that makes us satisfied in our circumstances, that causes us to be neither envious nor disdainful of others?

Psalm 131 is David's reflection on exactly this. I suppose that as king of Israel - and all that such an office represented (with all its riches, fame and celebrity) - the temptation to be proud (and derisory of others) might have been very real. Those of us involved in full-time Christian ministry can also face the temptation to be proud and to look down upon others. It occurs to me from this psalm that a right view of the LORD (and of the believer's relationship with him) is essential to fighting this temptation.

Firstly, David is happy not to play God. This is what he's getting at in the last section of verse 1: 'I do not concern myself with great matters or things that are too wonderful for me.' There are certain questions that we will not have answers to in this life; for instance, why particular forms of suffering happen to certain people. Likewise, there are certain situations in which we are impotent and have to rest in the sovereignty of God. It's hard not to want to take these things upon ourselves. But David is happy to trust these things to the living God of the Universe.

Secondly, David's relationship with God has caused his ambitions to change. Once we see ourselves as creatures in relationship with the Creator, it's not surprising that the way that we see ourselves changes. We can no longer be obsessed with self. This change occurred in David.

Whilst I consider myself to be at the centre of the Universe, my ambition will know no ceiling. But once I know that God is rightly at the centre of the Universe (and my Universe), everything changes. For many, being king of Israel was an office to desire because of the kudos and personal benefits it brought (desires seen in the case of Absalom and others). For David, it was merely the role that the God of the Universe had asked him to fulfil.

Likewise, once a person has been brought into the relationship with the God of the Universe for which they were created and experienced his grace, their desires for other things change. The relationship with him is satisfying in itself. That's what the powerful image at the end of verse 2 describes. Just like Paul (in Philippians 4:10-13), David has learned the secret of being content. He is quiet and easy. Spurgeon surely hits the nail on the head:

'To the weaned child his mother is his comfort though she has denied him comfort. It is a blessed mark of growth out of spiritual infancy when we can forego the joys which once appeared to be essential, and can find our solace in him who denies them to us: then we behave manfully, and every childish complaint is hushed. If the Lord removes our dearest delight we bow to his will without a murmuring thought; in fact, we find a delight in giving up our delight. This is no spontaneous fruit of nature, but a well tended product of divine grace: it grows out of humility and lowliness, and it is the stem upon which peace blooms as a fair flower.'
Verse 3 is a very fitting end to the psalm: here we see a man weaned off from obsession with himself demonstrating a concern for others. David models Jesus' exhortation to the disciples who, having deeply experienced God's grace, were called not to lord it over others but serve others (knowing that they're no better). A deep experience of God and his grace is what is required to serve radically.

Oh for more of the heart of humility and others-centredness that God granted David!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

A better covenant (Hebrews 8)

I arrived at Hebrews 8 today in supervision time with the Relay Workers. It's another chapter that shows the folly of legalism when compared with the utter supremacy of Jesus' sacrifice and all that it guarantees.

Covenants are legal agreements between two parties, and covenants between God and humans feature significantly in Scripture. Some of the covenants that God makes with humans are unilateral - in other words, they can't be broken by humans. This includes the covenant that God makes with Abram where he promises to give a land and descendants to him.

Other covenants have an element of performance built into them. The most significant of these is the covenant that God makes with the nation of Israel at Sinai. Although the heart of this covenant is faith, covenant blessings and covenant curses are given to Israel dependent on the extent to which they humbly submit to the LORD as their God (see Deuteronomy 28 and 30).

The sad story of the Old Testament is that Israel - themselves, remember, a mirror of humanity - failed to keep the covenant. Indeed, they ended up in exile because of this. And so Jeremiah (31:31-34) foresaw a new covenant - like the Sinai covenant, one that brought the possibility of blessing - but that was unilateral. Indeed, the very things that caused Israel to abandon their blessings - their lack of desire to keep the law, and the way that this showed itself in sin - are those things that are addressed in the new covenant: the law will be internalised, and sin will be forgotten forever.

The writer to the Hebrews was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who felt under pressure to abandon Christianity, keep making the Levitical sacrifices and return to Judaism. Perhaps they considered it necessary to keep making these sacrifices so that they would experience covenantal blessings. But Hebrews 8 shows that vast supremacy of the new covenant: what people hoped for through performance in the old covenant, Jesus has guaranteed through his sacrifice, resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. Christ's sacrifice for us and righteousness imputed to us guarantees our blessing forever (and so led Paul to write Ephesians 1:3).

As we reflected on Hebrews 8 earlier, we spoke of how the human heart causes us to want to write another covenant with God (where our blessing is based on legalism and performance). How ridiculous when Christ has guaranteed our blessings forever! How much better to glory in what has already been won and given to us!

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Monday, 17 November 2008

Praise and thanks

A gem from JI Packer and Carolyn Nystrom on a simple distinction that has helped me in my prayer life recently:

'It is helpful, in our praying, to make a distinction between praise and thanks, and to make sure we express both. Prayers of thanks tend to focus to some extent on us. We thank God for particular gifts given to us and others personally, and for general gifts bestowed on all. Praise, on the other hand, focuses directly on God. We praise him because of who and what he is. It is the difference between one spouse saying to the other, "You are the most understanding person I know; that's one reason I love you so much" and "Thanks for the sandwich; I needed it." Both kinds of prayers are appropriate. But because we are naturally self-centred creatures, we tend to major on thanks, because God's gifts and mercies to us constantly fill our minds. Yet God himself is to be praised, for he is supremely praiseworthy. "Praise to the LORD! For it is good to sing praises our God; for he is beautiful, and a song of praise is fitting." (Psalm 147:1). "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD." (Psalm 150:6). So it is good and right to occasionally wrestle our attention away from ourselves and turn it toward God in prayers of praise.' (Praying, IVP, p. 31-32).

I've been trying to put this into practice recently. So Maurice and Sarah (via the Ferndale website) have both commented on last week's University of Cumbria FREE outreach. There's plenty to give thanks for: good numbers at events, great gospel partnership and the gospel's effect seen in the lives of both Christians and non-Christians. But perhaps above all we should be praising the Lord that he's the sort of God who wants relationship with creatures like us, that he's the sort of God that comes not to be served but to serve, and to sort of God who accepts us if only we admit that we are ill and sinful and have nothing to offer, and approach him as children. What a beautiful character he has! "Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise."

Friday, 14 November 2008

Jesus as he really is (Mark 12:1-12)

Tonight I spoke at the last 'Free week' event at the University of Cumbria. I spoke on the parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1-12). The talk is reproduced below. I struggled to sufficiently include the original challenge to the religious teachers of Israel, but hopefully haven't changed the message too much.

I recently heard about magazine article in which a mother wrote in to say this, “Our 10 year old son Robin would invariably live in a complete mess. His bedroom was a sight to behold. Finally after all the nagging seemed to have failed, I wrote the following note and left it on his pillow:

‘Dear Robin, I wish I was clean and tidy like all the other rooms in the house. Please could you do something about this? Love, Bedroom.’

Next day, to my surprise, I found the room spick and span, and my son had left a note for me to find. It read:

‘Dear Bedroom, There you are. I hope you feel better now. Love, Robin. PS You’re beginning to sound just like my mother.’"

I guess you could say our parents are our earliest landlords. We live in their space. They have rightful authority over us. And yet from the word ‘go’ we show our natural inclination to reject that authority.

That, in effect, is the issue that Jesus addresses in the story we’re going to spend just a few minutes looking at tonight. The title of the talk advertised was ‘Jesus as he really is.’ And we’ll see that to understand Jesus as he really is, we need to turn to the issue of taking other people’s things for ourselves, passing them off as our own and rejecting their love. It would be helpful if you turned to page 39 in your black books [Matthew 12:1-12], as that’s where the story is recorded. We’re going to look at it in three parts.

First of all, it’s a story about bad tenants. Let’s read verse 1: ‘Jesus them told them this story: “A farmer once planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it and dug a pit to crush the grapes in. He also built a lookout tower. Then he let his vineyard and left the country.”’ Now that wasn’t that unusual at the time of Jesus. There were plenty of mostly foreign landowners who let their land out to Jewish tenants. But perhaps the thing that might have jumped out to Jesus’ original listeners was how generously the owner had provided for them: a wall to protect the vineyard from wild animals, a winepress where the process of fermentation could begin, and a lookout tower ensuring that the vineyard isn’t destroyed by animals or humans. These tenants are in a good position thanks to the provision and kindness of the owner.

But the tenants don’t seem to appreciate the owner’s kindness. Let’s read on, in verses 2-3: ‘When it was harvest time, the owner sent a servant to get a share of the grapes. The tenants grabbed the servant. They beat him up and sent him away without a thing.’ When we read that the owner had let the vineyard to the tenants, the deal was that they were responsible to pay a fixed part of the proceeds. It’s a bit like on Dragon’s Den, where the Dragons resource entrepreneurs on the basis they’ll get a future share of profits. But when the owner sends a servant to ‘get his share of the grapes’, they resist him. At the time, you could establish your right as owner of a piece of land if you had undisputed use of it for three years. And so the tenants refused to pay their share of grapes as rent, they were attempting to deny the owner’s claim of possession. They wanted to keep the vineyard for themselves. And so the tenants treat the servant that had been sent to collect the rent like a robber, trying to deprive them of what they considered already to be theirs.

Read verses 4-5 and you see that, despite the patience of the owner with the tenants, the pattern continues: ‘The owner sent another servant, but the tenants beat him on the head and insulted him terribly. Then the man sent another servant, and they killed him. He kept sending servant after servant. They beat some of them and killed others.’ They all receive the same reception. The tenants intended to keep the fruit for themselves. They were using the vineyard as a means of gaining power for themselves. In their minds, the vineyard was their vineyard, like Robin’s room was, in his mind, his own. He could live as he wanted.

Now look at verse 12, because this makes sense of the story: ‘The leaders knew that Jesus was really talking about them, and they wanted to arrest him.’ Jesus originally told this story to religious leaders, and they understood exactly what he’d been saying. They’d have known this because they were Jewish people familiar with the Old Testament, the part of the Bible written before Jesus came. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah tells a very similar story to this one by Jesus, involving a vineyard rented out to tenants. Isaiah’s story is addressed to the people of Israel – he reminds Israel that although God built them up as a nation, they’d turned against him. He sent prophet after prophet to speak to them and to call them back to him. The difference with Jesus’ parable is the bit involving the son. But the key thing is that the people there understood that they represented the tenants. The scandal is that, despite having been warned otherwise, they took things that belonged to God and passed them off as their own.

The story of the Bible opens with God creating the world. As humans, he made us tenants in God’s world. God has given us a responsibility to look after the world and to enjoy it. But we don’t own it. God owns the world and we are ultimately answerable to him. And so we’re just like the tenants in the parable.

We’ve seen that the tenants acted as they did because they thought it would lead to getting the vineyard for themselves. They wanted to be owners of the vineyard and run it their own way. And that describes the attitude of each of us. God has made us tenants in a world that belongs to him, he’s kindly provided for us – but our response is to choose to ignore God, to own the world and rule and run it as though it all belongs to us. We want to be God of the world for ourselves.

But here’s the thing. A world that has walked out on God will always end up a war zone. God created us to submit to him, at the centre of our lives. Everything fitted together for God's good purposes. But now each of us has tried to redefine reality so that we are at the centre serving our own ambitions.

So if I am trying to rearrange the world so that I get to the top, I’m probably not very bothered about the rainforests or the fact that a child dies every six seconds of a preventable disease. When it doesn’t suit me, I am not going to be very bothered about you either. I am looking out for myself. And things get ugly because just as I am looking out for me, you are looking out for you. In my version, I get to the top, in your version you do. So what so we do? We fight. Not just with bombs over Baghdad, but with snide words and cutting remarks over the washing up. We try to prop up our version of how we think things should be. That’s what happens when we take God out of the picture and when we forget that God is the true owner.

So here’s the scandal. Blessing upon blessing has come our way from God. But what have we done with them? Thanked God the Giver? Not exactly. The natural reaction of each of us is to take each of these gifts for granted, rejecting his love. Even though our every breath depends on God, the natural reaction of each of us is to airbrush him out of our existence.

But look again at this story. Do you see how much God is showing his patience with his people – how much he loves them? He sends messenger after messenger and in one last desperate act we read in verse 6, last of all he sent his son to them and says, 'They will respect my son.' That is how much God cares for a wayward world and wayward people. He sends Jesus. A lot of people think that Jesus has come to stop their fun. But, as we see in this parable, Jesus’ claim is that he is the son; that he is the owner of everything. In other words, when he calls us to repent – to put God at the centre of our universes – he isn’t calling us to some strange religious cult, he is calling us to do what we should rightly do, what we are made to do: to submit to his authority as the King sent by God and give all that we have to him.

But let's look at what happens to this son, as we turn to its second element: a story about the death of a much-loved son.

Look at verses 7-8: ‘But they said to themselves, “Some day he will own this vineyard. Let’s kill him! That way we can have it for ourselves.” So they grabbed the owner’s son and killed him. Then they threw his body out of the vineyard.’

The Bible teaches that, far from what we often think, rather than being essentially good, humans are essentially bad. And the ultimate proof of that, according to the Bible, is that we murdered our Maker. That is what Jesus’ death on the cross, illustrated in this parable by the murder of the Son outside the vineyard, means. Remember Jesus’ call was just that each of us should place God at the centre of the Universe, in the place that he belongs. He said that humans experience true freedom when we live this way, the way we were created to live. As a fish is free in the ocean, as an eagle is free in the air, so humans are free when we live in the environment in which we made to live, submitting our lives to God. And Jesus’ life backed up this claim as, through submitting his own life to God the Father, he always put others before himself. And so the human response to him, to sentence him to death, is the ultimate insult, the supreme gesture to what we think about the idea of God as our king, as the owner of the vineyard. It is the final snub which puts the lid on all the snubs that God has received from the human race.

Sure, none of us was actually there when Jesus was crucified. ‘Oh yes,’ we say, ‘It was all their fault. The Jews, the Romans, we all know how barbaric they were. The crucifixion of Jesus was such an appalling act of judicial murder.’

But it’s the conviction of the Bible that those that actually put Jesus to death merely represented each of us. Some of us are represented by the Roman bureaucrats, turning a blind eye to the injustice of the crucifixion, just as we turn a blind eye to the evidence for Jesus today. Some of us are represented by the smug religious leaders, very religious but wanting rid of Jesus for the sake of the quiet life. Perhaps most of us are represented by the crowd crying ‘Crucify, crucify’. Our hands were not the actual hands that drove the nails into his hands and the wood, but our lives show that we want rid of Jesus’ claim to be at the centre of our lives.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking about what Jesus cried out on the cross: 'Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.' But this parable shows the generosity of that prayer, because verse 7 shows that the tenants knew exactly what they were doing. If there was any ignorance in those that killed Jesus, it was an ignorance for which they were responsible. And we living today have even less excuse for rejecting Jesus than they had for we have the whole Bible in our hands, God's complete and clear revelation. To walk away from Jesus is to add our own personal nail to the cross.

And this is why Jesus gives us a final element to the story: a story about a choice that faces each of us.

Remember, Jesus is speaking to those who quite literally got rid of him. In this parable he paints a picture of them as confident that they can get rid of him and get away with it. But Jesus goes on at the end of his story, in verse 9, “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do?”

Jesus assumes that his listeners have the sense to see the story can’t end at verse 8 – the tenants can’t have the last word, they surely can’t get away with it. The owner must ultimately step in and act. And so he continues, “He will come and kill those tenants and let someone else have his vineyard.”

And he goes on, “Surely you know that the Scriptures say, ‘The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone.’” That’s slightly enigmatic stuff. In fact, it’s a quotation from the Old Testament, from a time when God’s Old Testament people were under attack. The people around them were trying to overthrow their king in order to build their own empires. And God had turned the tables, the attackers had failed, and the king had survived. So this line came to be written, ‘The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone’, in other words, ‘God’s king the attackers rejected has now become the most important one.’

So the picture is of a building site and there is a stone lying there. The architect’s plan is that that stone is central to what he is building. And various other builders say ‘Well, actually we want to build differently. We want to get rid of that stone.’ So they chuck it out of the building site. Then the architect himself walks onto the site. He turns the tables by rescuing that stone, bringing it back and building on it. That’s the picture Jesus is building. He’s saying that he’s the stone, God’s son, our rightful king.

The builders, the leaders of Israel are about to crucify him, and throw him off the building site thinking they can get on with building their lives as they please. But Jesus says, ‘Not so. Very soon you will realise the stone the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone.’ He is God’s king, he is risen from the dead and he will judge. And so, in effect, Jesus says, “You can reject me, but you cannot ultimately get rid of me, and you will ultimately have to reckon with me. The reality is that I belong at the centre of the universe.”

And so, it seems like a grim story, as we’ve all been bad tenants. The amazing news, however, of Mark’s Gospel that we’ve been sharing for the whole week is that God still longs to have relationship with us, the people he has created. And so Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel, way back in chapter 1, are these: ‘The time has come! God’s kingdom will soon be here. Turn back to God and believe the good news!’ The good news is that God will accept us back just as we are, if only we will put him back in his right place, admit that he owns the vineyard, and believe the good news. The good news is when we admit we don’t deserve anything from God, he accepts us through Jesus’ death on the cross in our place. At the cross, Jesus took the punishment in our place and in our shoes. As we’ve been saying all week, that’s the best news about accepting the resurrected Jesus as our King: he lays aside everything and gives his life so that we might be forgiven.

So will you come clean tonight? Will you admit that you’ve acted as though you’re the owner of the vineyard, that you’ve lived at the centre of your Universe and that you’ve ignored the true king? Do you see how deluded that is, that it messes with true reality? If you will, and you will admit that you’ve nothing to commend yourself before God, he will accept you tonight on account of Jesus. Each of us must face Jesus as either saviour or judge. It would be an amazing thing if you arrived here tonight as a rebellious tenant, and go home reconciled through Jesus’ death on our behalf.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

For Remembrance Sunday

On Remembrance Sunday, I was reminded of a haunting poem by First World War poet Wilfred Owen, A Soldier's Dream:

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he'd seen to our repairs.
Today I heard again that almost 20,000 British soldiers alone died in the Battle of the Somme. It almost drove me to tears thinking of a number equivalent to the entire student population of the two Lancaster universities lost in battle. I can almost imagine the cries of pain from the heart of God as humanity tears itself apart; longing for the day when evil is silenced and justice has the last word in the Universe. This day will come. The Bible looks forward to a time when war will - at last - end:
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation,neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Saturday, 8 November 2008

FREE at the University of Cumbria

The first of the Gospel distributions in Lancashire starts this week at the University of Cumbria campus in Lancaster.

The CU are hoping to give out about 1,000 Gospels, which is roughly one-third of the undergraduate population.

There is also a series of events designed to help those that have received the Gospels to engage with the life and claims of Jesus. All of the talks will be using passages from Mark's Gospel. Maurice and Anna McCracken are the main speakers for the week, and there's a great team of CU Guests coming too, including bloggers Sarah Dawkins, Andy Jinks and Tim Sandell.

Here's are the planned events, outside of Gospel distribution and first contact evangelism - we'd crave your prayers:

Lunchbar: What would Jesus say to Richard Dawkins? "Faith is one of the world's great evils, similar to smallpox, but harder to eradicate"
Evening: Acoustic night with talk: Why would God bother with me?

Lunchbar: What would Jesus say to Michael Phelps? "I want to be able to look back and say, 'I've done everything I can, and I was successful.'"
Evening: Pub quiz with talk: Jesus on losing your religion

Lunchbar: What would Jesus say to Jennifer Aniston? "The greater your capacity to love, the greater your capacity to feel pain"
Evening: 'Invite the campus to dinner' - CU members offering dinner to their friends, with short talks given by CU Guests

Lunchbar: What would Jesus say to Simon Cowell? "I'm not being rude, but you look like the Incredible Hulk's wife"
Thursday: CU meeting, with talk: Why should I bother with God?

Lunchbar: What would Jesus say to Madonna? "I stand for freedom of expression, doing what you believe in, and going after your dreams.”
Evening: three course dinner with talk: Jesus as he really is

Friday, 7 November 2008

Our priest forever (Hebrews 7)

The Hebrew Christians were under extreme pressure to recant their faith in Jesus Christ. Christianity was, at this time, viewed by at least some within orthodox Judaism as a sect. Faith in Jesus seemed to ride roughshod over the Old Testament, didn't it? After all, what of the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices?

Hebrews 7 is the beginning of an answer to this objection.

1. There is a model of priesthood in the Old Testament other than the Levitical model
The writer's first part of an answer points his readers to Genesis 14 and the enigmatic passage about the priest-king Melchizedek. After a military victory, Abram tithes and gives away 10% of his plunder to Melchizedek. Unlike many other OT characters, nothing is said about Melchizedek's origins or what happened afterward. But the fact that even the great patriarch Abram tithed to a priest 'external' to Israel shows that priesthood can operate outside of the Levitical system. Significantly, this priesthood pre-dates the institution of the Levitical model.

2. A priest-king in the order of Melchizedek was prophesied after the institution of the Levitical model
The writer then points his readers to Psalm 110. This was written by David, when the Levitical priesthood had already been established for several hundred years. David prophesies an all-conquering king (who seems to be divine), who himself will be a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

3. God has sworn under oath that this new king will be a priest forever
In the third stage of his argument, the writer points to the language of oath in Psalm 110: 'The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind...'. In other words, the priesthood of the Messianic king will last forever. Presumably this means that his priesthood will be utterly effective.

Jesus, of course, applied Psalm 110 to himself (Mark 12:35-37). And so, although he was not from the tribe of Levi, he was a priest: the promised priest in the order of Melchizedek. Unlike the Levitical priests, he has risen, never again to die. And, therefore, he is able to save completely those who trust him: he sacrificed for sins (past, present and future) once for all when he offered himself.

In 21st Century Britain, we might not feel tempted to return to the Levitical sacrifices. However, we can sometimes wonder (explicitly or implicitly) whether Jesus really is enough. Such questioning can lead to ugly legalism. Hebrews 7 confidently announces the complete sufficiency of Jesus' priesthood and sacrifice. His resurrection declares it. The oath of God promises it (it's not as if God will announce at judgement that he's changed the rules of how we can get right with him). I can rest complete assured in Jesus, my priest forever who won't let me down.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Hosea and covenant curse

I taught Hosea to the fantastic guys at Northumbria CU this weekend just gone. I had a great weekend (astounded again by the beauty of the snow-capped Lake District, and seeing a sky minus light pollution full of thousands of stars) and was myself stretched giving four messages from Hosea.

I think the main thing that jumped out over the past week was the way in which so much of Hosea is in light of the national covenant. In particular, Hosea can see the covenant curses being inflicted on the northern kingdom. Hosea makes a lot more sense if you read it after reading Deuteronomy 28-30.

According to the Torah, whereas blessing accompanies Israel's faithfulness to the covenant, curse comes when God's people break his covenant and go after other gods. However, curse is not the final word for covenant breaking. After covenant curse or punishment takes place, the expectation is that the people will confess their sin and return to him (see Leviticus 26:40, Deuteronomy 30:1-3 and so on). This isn't because God is wanting to be a dictator in the lives of the people of Israel, but because he has chosen Israel to be a kingdom of prieststo the nations. Israel are to model to the world what living in relationship with God is like.

Now Hosea can see the curses of the covenant inflicted on Israel (see, for example, Hosea 4:10-11 and compare this with Deuteronomy 28:17-18 and 32:24-28; as well as Hosea 5:14, 6:5, 6:7, 8:1, 9:11 and 9:13). Israel would rather trust the nations of Israel and Egypt than the LORD, and idolatry is rife. Israel's adultery parallels the adultery of Gomer, Hosea's wife. And so severe punishment will follow.

What can we learn from all this?

We see the unique role of the nation of Israel - and their failure. Israel were to be a light to the nations, and had committed themselves as so when the covenant was given. Yet Israel showed themselves incapable of this role (compare Hosea 11:1 with Matthew 2:15). Jesus is the fulfilment where Israel failed.

I think we also see God's patience. Reading through the covenant in Deuteronomy gives us the impression that destruction of the nation will follow very soon after disobedience to the covenant. Yet Hosea prophesied some two hundred years after Elijah. God's patience is shown in giving Israel hundreds of years to repent ('slow to anger...'), despite the very great desire he had to bring justice. What a glimpse of the heart of God! How glad I am of his patience!

Perhaps the thing that jumped out at me is a secondary application. I think we see that God is not happy for people to have an intellectual knowledge of his existence. He wanted (and wants) people to walk with him as their God. And so, the Lord gave and took away from Israel in order that people might know his as their God. We're not the nation of Israel - but I think the New Testament endorses this same truth (Romans 8:28 and so on?).

Friday, 31 October 2008

Like a ship in the night

Sorry for the chronic lack of recent updates. I've had a busy couple of weeks - plenty of highlights but little opportunity to blog.

One particular highlight was a UCCF 'think tank' on Wednesday involving CU leaders from 'new universities' on how to reach them with the gospel. I'll maybe write further on this next week. Another highlight was spending last weekend with Cumbria CU and getting our hearts warmed again by grace as Steve Casey opened Mark's Gospel for us.

I'm just on my way out now to spend with weekend with Northumbria CU. I'm speaking at their houseparty this weekend on Hosea, and then I'll be joining them for their mission in March. It's been both a joy and something of a brain-stretch to have spent so much time in Hosea this past week. I'll blog further about this brilliant little book next week all being well. Your prayers would be appreciated for the weekend.

Happy Reformation Day!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Questions to help read and respond a film from a Christian perspective

Today the Relays and I went to watch City of Ember as part of their ongoing discipleship programme (we have a 'culture day' once a term in Relay supervision time). It was the first time that any of them had been encouraged to 'think Christianly' about a film.

We based our discussion afterwards on some of Ted Turnau's suggested questions. I think they're really useful:

1. What was your immediate reaction to the film at its close?
2. What's the story?
3. What sort of 'world' has the film-maker asked me to enter?

(a) What counts as good or bad or beautiful or evil or unacceptable in this world? What makes relationships in this world work or fail?
(b) How has the film-maker built up this world?

  • How does the movie's first shot introduce the world? How does the last shot leave us with a lasting impression?
  • What were the recurring images or visual motifs?
  • What patterns were there in the dialogue? How did characters interact? Were there words or phrases that were repeated?
  • How does the film use music to guide you to know how to respond?
  • How do characters grow and learn and change? (this is known as a 'character arc' and is a good pointer towards the message that the film maker is seeking to make)
4. What’s true, good and beautiful in this film? Because the film is made by people in God’s image, there will be moments when the truth shines, where beauty is unveiled (what Turnau calls ‘the footprints of God’). What elements of God’s grace do we see?
5. What’s false, ugly and perverse? Where does the movie lie? Film worlds are a mixture of grace and manipulation, truth and lies. A film's lies will betray where its root idolatry is. (Often there is a direct relationship between where common grace is strongest and idolatry e.g. a chick flick celebrates romance, but often presents it as the one thing to live for).
6. How does the gospel apply (or give an answer)? (the gospel provides real answers to desires).

As it goes, we had a great discussion about City of Ember. It's an enjoyable film that has much truth in it: it speaks of how political power can corrupt, and of how religion, banality and busyness can often prevent communities from tackling their problems. Free thinking away from the control of governmental institutions is commended, and there is a real desire for humans to truly engage with the problems around them.

However, we found the solution that City of Ember commends somewhat shortcoming. Essentially human achievement is elevated, and the film implies that youthful people untainted by indoctrination would succeed in building a perfect community, if it were possible to start again on the earth. (Interestingly, the film ends in a kind of 'new creation', with the sun rising and a chance to start from scratch).

Jesus was much more radical in his diagnosis of the human condition. He knew that even if children were placed in a perfect new world, that without being born again, it would be soon ruined. The root problem - the problem of our hearts - needs to be dealt with. That is the promise of the Christian gospel: not that we refuse to engage with the problems around us (like the quasi-religious characters in the film), but that we turn to Jesus as the only one who can give us new hearts. We long for a new creation and a fresh start - but one where 'the former things have passed away'.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Burn after reading: a story of idiocy and incompetence

The Coen Brothers' new film Burn After Reading is now on general release. It's a black comedy that captures how, despite more technological development than ever, human stupidity can throw a spanner into the works of even the best-oiled machine.

A cast full of Hollywood's best known names portrays an unlikely story, where the loss of a CD of a former CIA worker's memoirs has a disastrous domino effect. Whilst many have inevitably compared the film to No Country For Old Men (and many have found this latest offering to fall somewhat short), I thought that the main roles were played well and intelligently, and the film was beautifully shot.

In that respect, it's a wry critique of 21st Century industrialised countries. Contrary to TV programmes like 24 that want to portray US government agencies as smooth-operating automatons, Burn After Reading seeks to be more realistic. Technology isn't always as helpful as we'd like to think, and an accurate view of human nature should make us cautious: human idiocy and eccentricity can destroy even the best made plans. Perhaps this should make us think twice when institutions make big claims for themselves?

Amazing grace in one life

Whilst tidying up, I recently stumbled across a letter written by a friend of mine, John from Colombia, at the end of the week in August 2005 when he'd first started professing as a Christian. Some readers will know that the circumstances through which John became a Christian whilst learning English in Bournemouth were miraculous.

My heart brims with thankfulness to God each time I read this letter for the grace he's shown (and continues to show) John. I've reproduced the letter uncorrected:

Hi dear Peter, I have been thinking about all this experience and this travel, that I am going to take, and I know that it won't be easy, but I will be a soldier and my God (our God) is going to walk behind of me; he won't leave me alone.

I want to share with all the people in your church, and also I want to learn more of the Bible.

In this letter is wrote my deal, my compromise that I have with God, to be by him side and to become his friend.

Thank to much to teach me about beautiful and fantastic things about Jesus and the thing and to remember me that life can be better.

I take the oath about my faith in God.


Sunday, 19 October 2008

Ronald Kernaghan on Mark 13

I've been working through Mark's Gospel in my own personal Bible study over the past couple of months. Mark 13 is a difficult chapter (although I think it's easier when you consider that essentially its describing something of the nature of Jesus' kingdom), but I think Ronald Kernaghan's commentary has helped me to unpick it.

Here's a fascinating thing the commentary showed me, unpacking these verses:

Mark 13:26-27: 'At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels [or 'messengers'] and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.'
Mark 14:61-62: 'Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you [i.e. the Sanhedrin] will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."'

Here's Kernaghan's commentary:

'Mark 14:62 extends the imagery of 13:26 so that the members of the Sanhedrin are told not only that they would see the Son of Man coming with the clouds, but also that they would see him seated at the right hand of God. The picture of Jesus' sitting at God's right hand recalls the concluding condemnation of the leaders of Jerusalem (12:35-37) in which Jesus quoted from Psalm 110:1: 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."' That image of judgement and condemnation does not appear explicitly in Mark 13, but it is consistent with the central theme of this prophecy - the destruction of the temple. Indeed, since Jesus entered Jerusalem in 11:11 his condemnation of the temple has been the catalyst for every other event. The best answer then to the question of what they would see is the destruction of the temple. That event would be the corollary of the Son of Man's exaltation. The exaltation of the Son of Man to heaven would be an event that the chief priests, elders and scribes could not actually see because it would take place before the throne of God. The exaltation of the Son of Man, however, would also mean the destruction of the temple. In its destruction, they would see the vindication of the Son of Man.'
I find this very helpful. It sheds real light on the nature of Jesus' kingdom. Jesus has been demonstrating throughout Mark's Gospel that his kingdom isn't what the disciples were expecting. It comes partially, as the word is proclaimed, rather than at once (see Mark 4). Now Jesus shows that, following judgement on Jerusalem, and as he takes his seat before the Ancient of Days (which doesn't refer to this second coming - see Daniel 7:13), his kingdom still does not come immediately in its fullness. The preaching of the gospel to the whole world will be accomplished, not through temple activity but through the Son of Man's own agents in the world. There is a period where his angels (or messengers) gather the elect before his return. His kingdom continues to grow today (even through the distribution of copies of Mark's Gospel in the FREE Gospel Project), before its consummation at his return.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Playing the long game

Today in Lancaster we had autumn term's CU leaders' day for Lancashire CU leaders. It's strange thinking that this will be the last of these particular days that I'll have organised as CU Staff Worker here.

It's made today strangely nostalgic. This is the third of these annual gatherings (there's also been another set in summer term), and so I guess it's natural to look back two years to how things were then. The situations in the CUs I work with have changed almost beyond recognition in the past two years, and almost all of the students have changed since then too. Two years ago, the CUs considered themselves to have almost nothing in common. Now they see themselves increasingly as partners in the gospel.

Perhaps it's this longer-term-ism that dictated a conversation that Linda and I had over dinner with my former Relay Worker, Nick, and Adam, my colleague in Carlisle. They were both down to help out at the leaders' day. It was great to chat about a whole load of different subjects. One of the things we talked about were the difficulties that we've found in forming deeper long-term relationships with non-believers in Lancaster.

Linda and I both know plenty of non-believers here, but it's been difficult making these relationships very deep. Now as we think about the fact that we now have less than a year left in Lancaster, we're feeling tinged with sadness thinking that some of these relationships will never get as deep as we'd maybe hoped that they would. Perhaps our expectations were too high. (For both of us, Lancaster was the first move away from Bristol, where we'd been students - and student life makes it very easy to form deep relationships quickly). Perhaps we've not spent enough time with other people engaging in hobbies and passions that we really care about. (I've done a couple of evening courses, but these have never really in subjects I've been particularly bothered about, and so perhaps that's prevented me from forming genuine deep relationships. I kind of feel that sharing a passion automatically deepens a friendship).

I think that we've certainly learnt lessons that we'd like to carry into wherever we live next. In all likelihood, we'll be in our next location for many years. We'd love to bed into the local community and form relationships that matter.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

"There are many paths to what you call God" - are all religions the same?

Here are some thoughts for a lunchbar I'm giving this week at Lancaster University. It tackles the sort of new age pluralist belief that 'right action' is the most important thing.

I was given a quote by the American television host Oprah Winfrey, “There are many paths to what you call God”, and then given the subtitle, “Are all religions the same?” Thanks to YouTube, I was able to find the context where this quote was made. It was made by Oprah in her television programme a few years ago:

Oprah's worldview

1. Humans can experience true humanity through feeling certain things through making certain choices of action. Oprah suggests that people can choose to get to the same point through showing love, kindness and generosity. For her, that’s what it means to be human. In fact, she suggests that what some call knowing ‘God’ is merely one of millions of possible ways of experiencing our true humanity, broadly given the description of living in ‘the light’. God is not a personal being, but a name some give to a feeling of fulfilment. Humans can waste their lives through choosing not to show love to ourselves and others. Whilst Oprah would surely admit that there are differences in teaching between religions, for her the similarity between them is that all of them help their adherents to express what it means to live in ‘the light’.

2. Certain religious believers who hold what are called ‘exclusivist’ beliefs are arrogant and intolerant because they insist upon thinking the ‘right things’ about God. What’s important is living the right way, living in the light, and thereby being enlightened to the experiences of what it means to be human. Teaching and doctrine just get in way of doing that, causing unnecessary arguments and intolerance.

In a 2008 web seminar on her religious views, Oprah clarified her own position on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to other religions, saying:

“Jesus came to show us Christ-consciousness, Jesus came to show us the way of the heart, Jesus came to say, ‘Look, I’m going to live in the body, in the human body and I’m going to show you how it’s done. Here are some principles and some laws that you can use to live by to know that way.’ ... I don’t believe that Jesus came to start Christianity. What Jesus said has a depth to it. So there’s no conflict between his teaching, which is purely spiritual, and any other religion.”

Pluralism, then, is shown to be what Oprah holds most highly. To insist upon there being only ‘one way’ is uncool, arrogant and intolerant. Christians, for example, that claim that Jesus is the only way to God have misunderstood Jesus and the ‘depth’ of his teaching. Holding exclusivist views is to be unenlightened about what it means to live and truly experience life as a human.

3. There can’t possibly be only one way to God. Oprah charges the Christians in the audience, apparently incredulous at their small mindedness, and angry at how Christians render God. If there were a God, and there are people who are trying their best to live like Jesus, how can God possibly deny them entry into heaven? Again we see that living the right way and experiencing the light comes before believing.

Overall, Oprah advocates a position very similar to the religious pluralist John Hick:

‘Around the different ways of conceiving, experiencing and responding to the Real there have grown up the various religious traditions of the world with their myths and symbols, their philosophies and theologies, their liturgies and arts, their ethics and lifestyles. Within all of them basically the same salvific process is taking place, namely the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness. Each of the great traditions thus constitutes a valid context of salvation / liberation; each may be able to gain a larger understanding of the Real by attending to the reports and the conceptualities of the others.” (Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 1985)

Engaging with Oprah's worldview: two questions

1. How do we know anything about God at all and what he is like?

Oprah asserts that ‘God’ is an impersonal experiential feeling that comes from doing good. She brings her own definition of who God is and what God is like into the discussion (which, in practice, runs against the concept of God that nearly every world religion would hold).

Each of us is liable to form a God of our imagination, because we don’t instinctively know what God is like. We need him to reveal himself. Otherwise, we just bring our own definitions of what we think God should be like – without any evidence – and then assert these ideas on others.

The God of Christianity is a personal, revealing God. For that reason, he has made himself known, supremely in the person of Jesus.

So what about the claim that there’s no conflict between Jesus' teaching, which is 'purely spiritual', and any other religion? We'd have to refute it. The plain reading of the Gospels reveals Jesus to be God, not someone whose primary aim was to encourage others to search for a hidden existential philosophy (like Oprah suggests). And if the God of the Bible really is God, he is well able to represent himself in ways that are plainly intelligible to us.

2. How do we experience what it means to be truly human?

I think Oprah rightly wants to live an authentic human life – and for her, that’s to be kind, generous and loving to all. For her, acting rightly now and doing the right thing is the supreme end of being a human.

Our consciences testify that Oprah's way of living is good and right. But here’s the problem: by ourselves, we can’t live this way. In fact, we’re incapable to just choose to live this way. We’re not free to live in the way we know we ought to be living.

In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus describes why it’s impossible for us to live this way: it comes from a disease at our very core. Jesus described in it this way: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts come evil thoughts: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.” The source of this disease, this evil, is wanting to live life without God.

In the name of freedom, we’ve walked out of the relationship with God for which we were created. We live instead as we were never meant to live. And so, although what God made was very good, what we have made is evil. Everything God made has been caught up in it. Everything is broken. But we can’t just saunter back to God. We’re trapped in this way of living.

According to Jesus, that leaves us with two problems:

(a) the judgement of God’s verdict upon our lives: our past condemns us;
(b)there’s no prospect of change: none of us can just change.

In short, we need a miracle. What Oprah longs for is good. She longs to be generous and kind and loving. But this is only possible if, somehow, we can be miraculously changed from the inside out to live as the way we were created to live, for God. But that requires us to be brought back to him. The Bible teaches us that this happens through Jesus' death and resurrection.

Those who trust in Jesus are made completely new from the inside out (this is what Oprah craves) . Christians are washed clean, and then God himself – through the help of his Holy Spirit – helps Christians to live for God, the way that we were created to live. God’s help makes kindness and generosity and love a possibility where they were impossible to show consistently before. It’s a slow process, but God is miraculously at work and promises that, when we die and receive new bodies, this work will be complete. And the process of being made more like Jesus is a beautiful thing to see in the lives of others.


Oprah says, “there are many paths to what you call God.” But for all of her good intentions, Oprah is wrong here on two counts:

  • ‘God’ is not a way of living, he is a person who longs to be known.
  • And we can’t live the way that God wants us to live without being brought back to him. That happens through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Encouragement for the weary Christian (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)

After the long opening section about the supremacy of Jesus' revelation of God, the writer to the Hebrews turns to the supremacy of Jesus' high priesthood.

Studying this passage yesterday with the Relay Workers, I was struck by how much pastoral important the writer attaches to Jesus' high priesthood.

The context provided within the book shows that the Hebrews were under pressure to revert to orthodox Judaism, particularly to revert to making atonement sacrifices. The book shows that, at that time, it was a lonely thing being a Hebrew Christian.

This section of Hebrews, then, speaking of Jesus as high priest, is full of encouragement for the weary Christian. The writer draws attention to Jesus' humanity. He was fully human, and experienced the full range of temptations (including those the Hebrew Christians were at that time facing). Yet, even when faced by the greatest pinnacle of temptation possible in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus proved his commitment to the Father's will by submitting to him even then. Holding these two truths together, then, we see that Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted, and he has also proven his commitment (even under extreme pressure) to submitting to God's will. We might say that Jesus has shown that he's absolutely committed to joyful submission to God - in his own life and, by implication, in the lives of those he calls 'brothers'.

The full pastoral implications of this are understood when we realise now that Jesus has passed through the heavens and, through his sacrifice, brings us right into the very throne room of God. What does this mean? It means that Jesus knows what it's like to be under the very same pressures we face, he knows the spiritual grace and mercy we need to keep submitting to the Father's will, he longs us to keep submitting to the Father, and he has made access to these resources possible through bringing us into the heavenly throne room. He is able to help weary believers in a way that the high priests of the Old Testament never could.

This, then, should encourage Christians to pray for help. That's certainly what the writer to the Hebrews had in mind. As he writes in 4:16: 'Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.'

Yesterday evening I met a struggling Christian. She feels almost overwhelmed by the difficulties she is facing at the moment. What an encouragement it is to be able to share that Christ knows for himself the difficulties she is facing, that he longs for her to remain faithful to God in her struggles, and that he has made the mercy and grace that we need available. What an incentive for her to pray, and what an incentive for me to pray for her.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Falling apart and being made new

Nathan I have just returned from a CU meeting at Blackpool School of Art & Design, the CU which was only started earlier this year.

Blackpool is quite a place. It's struggling not to live on bygone glory, and it's quite hard to see how the run-down parts of the city will improve in the near future. A lot of what's left in Blackpool is either quite-run down or aiming to appeal at the budget market. We were quite tickled by the GR8 Hotel (pictured), across from which we parked earlier (Nathan accurately put it that this was just the kind of name for a hotel that your 12 year old sister might come up with!).

It was quite a contrast to look at Mark 1-2 with the fledgling CU there: Sam, Dave, Jamie & Tom. Whilst the whole of creation is in bondage to decay (including our own bodies, and the bodies of the leper and the paralysed man), we worship a saviour who has dealt with the root cause of that decay - our sin - and look forward to a day when he makes everything new.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Making CU small groups work - part 2: think relationship

In part 1 of this mini series, I highlighted that I consider mission to be an integral part of making CU small groups work. Without a focus on being explicitly outward looking, CU small groups run the risk of becoming social groups or otherwise merely replicating that which could be done in church small groups. An all-round mission focus, like the one I suggested, is necessary.

Think relationship

An equally important emphasis needs to be placed on relationships, and to let small groups be as strategic as they can as small groups. As a rough rule of thumb, I think that a small group that has more than about twelve regular attendees in it should be split. Getting much larger than this takes away all of those things that makes the small group format work. One of the larger college groups in Lancaster splits into two groups for some of their small group time. Two Bible studies are run concurrently, allowing all members of the group to discover and engage with Bible passages for themselves. This is particularly helpful for those who are non-auditory learners.

It's not only Bible study that benefits from a 'smaller' small group. CU members can support each other more adequately too. Of course, primary pastoral support for small group members should come through their own local church. However, the Bible does envisage that all Christians should care for each other (as shown in the 'one another’s'). Rather, support amongst CU small group members should fall into two categories:

  • Small group members care for each other and encourage each other to radically live and speak for Jesus through prayer and friendship;
  • Small group members are on the lookout for any deeper problems that cannot be handled by ‘one-anothering’, humbly leading people struggling with these problems to those in local churches who can help.

I've seen trust amongst small group members develop as they loved each other in these ways. This has an amazing effect on wanting to witness together. As I mentioned last time, evangelism can be transformed from the activity of an individual to a group activity through regular small group outreach. It's been really pleasing here to see one small group in particular take this to heart. They're not only friends with each other, but also friends with each other's non-Christian friends.

I would say that the other important relationship in making CU small groups work is the relationship between the small group leaders and their Staff Worker. Ideally, small group leaders need to commit to attending weekly training. This acts as a kind of 'team time' for small group leaders. Ideally, this acts as a safe time when leaders can ask questions, grow, develop godly practice and get trained. Weekly meetings help small group leaders bond on a corporate journey as they grow, and also allow the staff worker to ensure that small group leaders aren't getting overburdened, or playing the role of church leaders.

Part 3: coming soon - think grace