Friday, 30 May 2008

ELF: the final word

Just found two YouTube clips shown at the ELF by Stefan Gustafsson. Enjoy...

And quite possibly the worst music video ever...

Top Quotes from the ELF

I'm back now from the European Leadership Forum. I'm not going to say too much as blogger and U2 fanatic Mark Meynell has some super reflections in greater depth than I could ever ascribe to. (Incidentally Mark's seminar on the spirituality of Irish super group will be well worth downloading once it goes onto the ELF website!)

Instead, I thought I'd share a handful of the excellent sentences that particularly struck me from some of the sessions I attended:

  • Stuart McAllister on the need for personal integrity amongst leaders: "We are all just one decision away from stupidity."
  • Martin Haizmann on the need for Scriptural evangelism: "Europe needs to meet Jesus in his fullness and completeness."
  • Wayne Grudem on taking the Bible seriously: "To fail to love Scripture is to fail to love God."
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, quoted by Amy Orr-Ewing, on the lack of moral absolutes in atheism: "if there is no immorality, then all things are permitted."
  • John Stott, quoted by Lindsay Brown, on the responsibilities of husbands in Ephesians 5, looking to the example of Jesus: "If Lordship means power in any sense, it is power to care and not to crush; to serve and not to dominate; to help to fulfilment and not to frustrate."
  • Hartmut Kopsch on Luke 15 and the danger of moralising: "If the younger brother had met the older brother before he met his father, he might have returned to the swine."
  • Avi Snyder on wise evangelism: "Jesus answered questioners, not questions."
  • Albert Camus, quoted by Raphael Anzerberger on our greatest problem: "Now that Hitler has gone, we know a certain number of things. The first is that the poison which impregnated Hitlerism has not been eliminated; it is present in each of us. Whoever today speaks of human existence in terms of power, efficacy, and ‘historical tasks’ spreads it."
  • Bono, quoted by Mark Meynell, on the lyrics of Wake Up Dead Man: "It’s the end of the century, and it’s a century where God is supposed to be dead. … People want to believe, but they’re angry, and I picked up on that anger. If God is not dead, there are some questions we want to ask him. I’m a believer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get angry about these things." See also here for more.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Reflections from the ELF

Hello again from Hungary! I am currently sitting in the hotel lobby here at the Hotel Eger, where the European Leadership Forum is being held. As I write, we are in between seminars and it`s given me an opportunity to reflect on what has happened so far.

It`s clear that many people here have come from countries where the gospel is not bearing very much obvious fruit and where Christianity is in decline. There are some exceptions - evidently the church is growing in Romania and the Ukraine. In the UK there are encouragements. But, overall, the picture of Europe is one that is hard to the gospel.

Many of the sessions have spoken into this context. Stuart McAllister led a brilliant session on hope, in which he identified the different mindset that Christians should have to those around us, even when things are tough. He identified the overall mood of Europe as `europessimism´ or `comedic nihilism´. However, the Christian doctrine of creation and our eschatological convictions mean that we can have hope even in darkness. This ties in with my own recent thinking on the `theological optimism´ that Christians can have even in darkest times. In the same vein, Martin Haizmann reminded us that `Europe needs Jesus´ and this was accompanied by a honest and fresh session last night by Wayne Grudem on Scripture: this is where the freshness we need personally and the power to win Europe lies. I`ve been personally very encouraged by the exhortation to keep Scripture central as I know in my own experience that often when I`m feeling discouraged or nervous a lack of public commitment to Scripture is a great temptation. If Europe is to be won then our conviction that the Bible is God`s greatest tool in evangelism must remain steadfast.

My own seminar track, European Evangelists, has been very helpful. The highlights so far have been a session on Michael Ramsden on the need for integrity in the evangelist`s life, and Amy Orr-Ewing`s session this morning on God and violence. We had a very interesting discussion about the doctrine of penal substitution. Evidently Steve Chalke`s book The Lost Message of Jesus has just been translated into Romanian and many of our Romanian brothers and sisters are wrestling with its teaching. Amy gave a brilliant and winsome apologetic for the wrath-bearing sacrifice of Jesus at the cross, particularly defending it against the claim that God is blood-thirsty and violent.

Lots of food for thought then - I look forward to thinking about things more in the coming days plus also upon return to the UK.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Greetings from Hungary!

I think that this is the first `international´ post on this blog.

I am currently sat in the lobby of the Hotel Eger in Hungary, here as a delegate to the European Leadership Forum. I´m not exactly used to the Hungarian keyboard, and so this post will be brief!

We have been made to feel very welcome here. There is an incredible team of Americans (all from the same church I think) who are staffing the conference warmly and effectively. Our favourite conference moment so far was when we were met off of the plan in from Manchester ("Manchester? Say, isn´t that near WIGAN?").

It has been great to have already had a chance to rub shoulders with people involved in all sorts of ministries across Europe. Look forward to more of the same in days ahead, and I hope we´re able to encourage others too.

Things kick off here in earnest tonight. Lindsay Brown is the main speaker and will be taking us through Colossians. I am on the European Evangelists´ track for the second time and can´t wait for the input from Michael Ramsden et al. There is also a packed seminar schedule, given by folks who are genuinely world experts in their fields. I am struck by the enormous privilege of being here as one of the delegates from UCCF.

Please pray that Linda and I get time to process what we are taught, that we are changed and that we have an opportunity to think about how it all can make a difference in our church and in our work amongst students at home.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Paul Williamson on Genesis 38

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave Kirkman posted regarding Genesis 38 which is, by all measures, an enigmatic chapter of the Bible.

He admitted that he finds Genesis 38 puzzling - and so found himself struggling as to why the writer to the book of Ruth draws parallels with it.

I've recently been reading Paul Williamson's excellent Sealed with an Oath: covenant in God's unfolding purpose. Here's a couple of quotes he makes regarding Genesis 38:

'... [T]he remainder of the patriarchal narrative focuses exclusively on the family history of Jacob's sons, four of whom are singled out for special attention (i.e. Joseph, Reuben, Judah and Benjamin). Of these four, Judah is possibly the most significant, in that the Joseph story is abruptly interrupted by an episode in which Judah's 'seed' occupies centre stage. While the full significance of the brief liaison between Judah and his daughter-in-law is only later disclosed (c.f. Ruth 4:18, Matthew 1:3), the striking similarities with the birth story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:24-26) together with the emphasis on Judah's 'seed', strongly suggests a special role in the promissory agenda for Judah. Genesis 38 thus provides yet another illustration of God's providence operating in the establishment of the special line of Abrahamic descent.' (page 93).

Later he returns to the royal consequences of this 'seed':

'In the Davidic-Solomonic kingdom the former covenant finds its most extensive fulfilment. With the promise of a 'great nation' now realised, attention now shifts from Abraham's national descendants to his royal descendants, the 'kings' to which attention was subtly drawn back in Genesis 17:6, 16. The importance of this royal line, which had already been traced explicitly through Jacob (Genesis 35:11) and Judah (Genesis 49:10), and implicitly through Perez (Genesis 38, c.f. Ruth 4:18-22), lay in the fact that its most illustrious descendant would be the individual, conquering 'seed' of Genesis 22:18. Thus the Davidic covenant identifies the royal dynasty from which the anticipated victorious 'seed' of Abraham would eventually come.' (page 145).

Seems to make a lot of sense when thinking about the place of both Genesis 38 - and the obvious link between God's sovereignty and the allusions to the Davidic covenant in Ruth.

I've also got to say that I've found Williamson's book massively helpful - not least on this little theological conundrum, as well as helping me to think more clearly about the place of the Law, the doctrine of adoption and the storyline of the Bible as a whole. Perhaps more thoughts in days to come...

Now that's what I call a sentence

Just watching the Great Manchester Run on TV.

I think perhaps Jo Pavey is the creator of the longest sentences in the world ever. Here are a few examples courtesy of BBC Wales...

I have great respect for Jo. I think she's really lovely and I'm glad she's not as shy as she was when she was a child. However, I think the answer to her second question is worth writing out in full:

"You know you do need a lot of discipline I think you can enjoy the discipline you have to be motivated but I think the rewards are so worth it and you know I've managed to travel loads of places in the world and I've managed to make new friends and I think whatever level you're doing it at it's about getting out enjoying yourself making friends and you know cheering each other on and there's so many goals you can work for whatever level you're running at there's always a goal you want to achieve and always the next thing when you've done that to achieve the next thing and there's always something to go for and that's why athletics is such a great sport and I think girls need to realise what a great social side there is you make so many friends for life in this sort of sport definitely."

Go girl!

Friday, 16 May 2008

Economic turn-down = generosity?

As I was driving back from Oxford yesterday, there was an interesting debate on Radio 5 Live: how the current economic turn-down might affect our morality.

At least two 'experts' that were featured said that they thought the adverse economic conditions might lead to a reduction in materialism and consumption, and a corresponding increase in philanthropism and concern for the environment.

Perhaps - but Scripture would sound a note of caution. Our hearts can't change simply because of the conditions in which we find ourselves. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil - and one can love money regardless of whether you have it or not. We won't immediately become generous - that's a form of grace. A radical change in morality requires a radical transformation of heart. One that only Jesus can bring.

Monday, 12 May 2008

"He is constantly wrestling for you in prayer"

Tonight I had the pleasure of spending time with the UCCF Blackpool & Fylde Prayer Supporters' Group.

I guess it would be fair to say that the majority of this group are 'senior saints' - most are retired, many have been Christians longer than I have been alive several times over. But these folks pray. Man, do they pray. When I'm in that age bracket I hope I pray like they do. I have lots to learn.

Tonight reminded me of a passage we'd look at earlier in the Lancaster CU prayer meeting. We read of Epaphras who, despite being away from the Colossian church, wrestled for them in prayer. Some of the folks there tonight were students in the 1940s and 1950s - although geographically close to university campuses, they are some distance away in years. And so I couldn't help think that some of these people are modern day Epaphrases.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Live such good lives among the pagans...

Last week, I was talking to Gareth. We were discussing how you answer a non-believer who asks you why you behave in a certain way as a Christian. In other words, we're talking about the questions of the sort, 'Why don't you sleep around?', 'Why don't you get drunk?' and so on.

The Bible assumes that our lifestyles should call out questions of this nature (1 Peter 3:15 and so on). Christian teaching encourages us to live godly lifestyles so that, amongst other reasons, we might promote these sorts of questions. Yet I think these questions are fiendishly difficult to answer without:

1. Being dishonest
2. Sounding super-spiritual
3. Using lots of jargon
4. Taking personal credit for the Holy Spirit's work in us

Anyone got any ideas?

Friday, 9 May 2008

'The History Boys': what is truth?

Today the Relay Workers and I watched Alan Bennett's film The History Boys, a film that I'd been hoping to watch for quite some time. It was a really engaging watch - an excellent script, some really humorous moments and a set of excellent performances from the lead characters.

Set in Sheffield in 1983, the film follows a series of bright Sixth form history students preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams. The boys have been taught up to the point of the film's opening by the fairly orthodox Mrs Linnott and the maveric Hector, whose input into the boys' education includes teaching poetry, songs and the arts. However, the headmaster of the grammar school where the boys are based decides that a fresh face is needed to give them the 'extra' they need to get through the interview process. Oxford graduate Mr Irwin is recruited, challenging the boys to question traditional interpretations of historical events. Irwin is after 'more than just the facts'. He dismisses their essays as, 'not even bad, just dull,' and sets about feeding them 'gobbets' of information which, he claims, will set them apart from the thousands of other Oxbridge hopefuls. The main plot contrasts the different teaching styles that the boys receive, building up to their Oxbridge interviews.

However, underneath the plot the film poses a number of questions. Perhaps the most important is: what is history and how do we make sense of our lives? The film comes from an atheistic viewpoint, and Christianity is presented as a superstition and repressive influence. Death is a tragic end. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, history is understood as being, in the words of one of the characters, Rudge, 'one thing after another', with no obvious direction. Events happen for no obvious reason. Why one event happens and another does not cannot be rationalised; they are, in the words, of Mrs Linnott 'utterly random'. Events occur as just one direction rooting from 'the junction of a dizzying range of alternatives.'

Perhaps the most powerful scene of the film is where Hector, Irwin and the boys discuss the Holocaust (below). Irwin tries to convince the boys that there is no way of objectively knowing and evaluating history. One of the boys suggests that to 'explain' such unprecedented evil as the death camps of the Holocaust is to 'explain it away'. In other words, to try to find a cause and to blame certain individuals lessens the impact of the event and appears to excuse it. Irwin enthusiastically endorses him, as this suits his subversive and postmodern view of history.Yet to others sat there, not to label the Holocaust as an evil act is offensive. This, perhaps, comes to one of the unresolved questions that the film asks: can any historical event be categorised as evil, given that we have imperfect detail about that event?

The other question that the film poses is how to make sense of events and how to live in the universe the film portrays. There's a stark difference between the view of history that Irwin espouses and the morality by which he governs his life. He may muddy the waters of right and wrong in his view of history, yet struggles to show the same flexibility in his own morality. (One of the boys asks him, "Reckless, impulsive, immoral - why is there such a difference between the way you teach and the way you live). Perhaps the film points towards a kind of existentialism - of being true to oneself; seen most clearly in the characters of Rudge, who makes decisions for himself and not what others want him to do, and Posner, one of the boys who is coming to grips with his homosexuality. But one cannot help but notice the sadness that most of the characters feel. Hector looks back on his teaching career with sadness, despite having been appreciated by many (I wonder if this might be an autobiographical note from Alan Bennett). The closing scene of the film is also somewhat sad.

The film is fun and I really enjoyed it. It's also a dark glimpse into the mind of the existentialist that lives for the moment, but perhaps also illustrates the in-built uneasiness that atheists have in a world of no moral absolutes.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Welcome, Gareth

The latest entry to the blogosphere.

Romans 1:18-32

I'm speaking at a CU later this week on Romans 1:18-32. It's the first time that I've spoken on this passage, and I'm somewhat nervous, so would love to hear any feedback or helpful comments that you can give.

You’re in water and a safety line is winched down from a helicopter. Do you grab hold of it? The answer to this question, of course, will depend upon your situation. There’d be little point grabbing hold of it if you were in a paddling pool. You’d be much more keen to grab hold of it if you were drowning in the Atlantic.

The main point of Romans 1:18-3:20 is to show that all members of humanity – even those that might consider themselves good or religious – all of them are condemned without the cross of Christ. And so Paul spends two and a half chapters demonstrating the guilt of every member of humankind. And just as you wouldn’t grab hold of the safety rope if you think you’re already safe, you won’t cherish and rely on the sacrificial death of Jesus until you realise that, without it, you are in grave peril. And so Paul writes these opening chapters of his letter to the Romans, wanting every person to realise that, whoever they are, by themselves, they are in serious trouble.

God’s anger with our rebellion against him (verses 18-23)

Our first point tonight takes us to the heart of the problem. Outside of the cross, every member of humanity is in serious trouble because – verse 18 – God is angry. We read that ‘the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the wickedness of human beings who suppress their truth by their wickedness.’ God is angry. Now, there’s a lot of people who don’t like the idea of an angry God. And I think that’s because they’ve got human anger in mind when they think about God’s anger. Human anger tends to flare up. Even when the thing that prompts the anger really does deserve that reaction, the heat of the moment and all the impulse and the emotion turns anger into a really ugly thing. The response of anger isn’t righteous.

But God’s anger is different. It is his personal and settled hostility against everything that is wrong. Think about the situation in Zimbabwe and it might well make you angry. And you’d be right to be angry, because what is going on there under the Mugabe regime is very wrong. We’ve seen the damage caused by the irresponsibility and false government of many there. And it’s this sort of ‘cold light of day’ anger – removed from the reach of human sin – that characterises God’s anger. He opposes things in his world that are very, very wrong.

Read on in verse 18 and we see why God is angry. ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness.’ In other words, God is angry because of human deception. God is angry because humans know something, but that we have wickedly and deliberately chosen to suppress this truth, to consciously ignore it.

Verses 19-23 outline this make-believe world that we’ve created for ourselves. It’s this – that we know all too well of God’s existence and power, but that we’ve neither glorified God nor given thanks to him. Verse 20 makes it clear that everyone has enough evidence for God’s existence. ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.’ The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to God if, upon dying, he found out that he’d been wrong all along, and that God actually existed. His answer? He’d say, “Not enough evidence, Lord; not enough evidence.” These verses show that, in truth, there is plenty of evidence proving God’s existence. And that evidence is found in creation. Paul’s argument is this: open your eyes and you have evidence of God’s existence. Walk through the Lake District or along the Welsh coast, look down a microscope or a telescope – and you have all the evidence that you need for God’s existence. We may disagree about precisely how God created, but the evidence is irrefutable. Create he did.

But the extent of our deception is unpacked in verses 21 onward. Deep down, each of us knows of God’s existence. Each of us knows his ‘eternal power and divine nature’, as verse 20 puts it. But here’s what twisted humans do with that knowledge. We say to God, “Stuff you!” In particular – look at verse 21 – we neither glorify God in the way that he deserves as God, nor give thanks to him. In refusing to glorify him as God, we deny God’s right to rule over us as our Creator. Somehow, we think that the universe revolves around us – we’re masters of our own worlds! It doesn’t occur to us that God, our Creator, might have something to say about how we ought to live in his Universe. Moreover, we refuse to give him thanks. Despite the truth being that we rely on God for everything – for our bodies, for the food he has given us, for our every breath – we don’t him thanks. We live as though everything belongs to us, that it’s our universe.

And so, do you see the delusion? The reality at the centre of the Universe is the living, Creator God. And how have we treated him? We’ve treated him as a joke. We’ve twisted the truth and denied him and considered ourselves accountable to no-one.

And this is true of you even if you’ve always believed in God’s existence. It’s possible to believe in God’s existence, yet still to reject his right to rule over us as God, and to refuse to give him thanks. Imagine a family where a teenager takes everything from his parents, never says thank you, and in practice his life without reference to them. It’s not very likely that said teenager will go around saying, “Mum and Dad don’t existence.” Rather, he’ll show through his actions that, whilst he’s very happy to take their money and their gifts, he’d rather than they weren’t there. He’s accountable to no-one but himself.

Tragically, it gets even worse. Paul explains that our rejection of God causes us to live for something else. We were created to live for God – but we’ve rejected him. And verse 23 speaks of how rejecting God doesn’t leave us in a vacuum. Instead, we live for something else. We devote our attention elsewhere. Verse 23 speaks of images and created things. More than likely, Paul’s original readers would have been reminded of Israel’s worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32. But this description of idolatry applies no less to our present day idolatry. It’s said that an idol is something other than God that gives a person’s life purpose and meaning. With that in mind, it’s perhaps easy to see what the most common idols are today. Pleasure, sex, being respected for having money, power and influence over others, a husband, the list in endless. And Paul would say this: it is a sign of human twistedness that, in a world where God has made himself clearly known, we think that, say, having trinkets or being cool, is the most important thing, the thing that we live for.

And so this is the problem. All humans have deliberately chosen to live out the delusion that God isn’t really there and we’re not really accountable to him. And that leaves all of us – verse 20 – without excuse. None of us can say that we didn’t really know that God was there, and none of us can say that we’ve glorified God and thanked him as we should have done. And in response, God is wrathful. He is angry.

There’s perhaps a bit of you that wants to say, “What is God’s problem?” OK – so we’ve ignored him and not thanked him. But sometimes each of us has known that very same experience. Sometimes people don’t thank us when we’ve done things for them. And so sometimes we’re tempted to think that God is a Nietzsche-like dictator who says, ‘Worship me’ – and then gets upset when people don’t. But the difference is this. Dictators are not worthy of worship. They’re just people. That’s why when dictators call for worship, it’s ugly. It’s subverting the reality of how things really are. But God is the Creator. He really has given us all things. We really rely on him for everything. He really is worthy of worship. He really does have the rights to call the shots in his Universe. And when we rebel against him, the whole moral order is thrown out of kilter. Things that were designed to be very good become very bad. The world is broken. And that is why God is angry with our delusion.

God’s response to our rebellion against him (verses 24-32)

The remainder of the verses in our passage show God’s response to our rebellion against him. In other words, they are a description of how God’s wrath – his anger against us – is manifested today. And the key phrase is ‘God gave them over’. It recurs in verses 24, 26 and 28, and describes three ways in which God’s anger is made known in the world today.

The first way is described, then, in verses 24-25: ‘Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.’ In other words, the first sign of God’s anger is that he simply leaves humans to their own desires. God’s judgement upon a world that abandons him is not to intervene at all; to let humanity live with their actions. We were made to live with God – in him, we find our reason for existence and our satisfaction – and, without him, we are impoverished. To let humans go on rejecting him, then, is part of God’s judgement on initial human rejection. And, above all, Paul singles out the moral uncleanliness that God lets humans pursue, including sexual degradation, that we’ll come to in a moment. Paul’s point is this: we should be able to look at the world and it’s twisted morality and all of the consequences that go with it and realise this: God is angry with our rebellion against him, for having ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’.

The second way that God’s wrath is shown is described in verses 26-27: ‘Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.’ Here’s the second judgement of God only a world in rebellion. No lightning strike from heaven – but, again, God simply leaves humans to their vile and twisted passions. And that brings us to probably the most politically incorrect part of our passage. Paul says that homosexual sexual relationships are proof of just how sick and twisted humanity has become.

Now I think it’s important to say here that Paul isn’t saying that homosexuality is the unforgivable sin, nor is he saying that practicing as a homosexual is any more sinful that other forms of rejecting God. Paul is not saying that being attracted to members of the same sex is necessarily sinful. He’s certainly not saying that homosexually oriented people can’t be Christians. And Paul would have had no time at all for homophobia. Rather Paul’s emphasis comes on the world ‘natural’. Biologically-speaking, and in the Genesis account, we read that sexual relationships were designed to be heterosexual. And so Paul turns to homosexuality as a vignette of how ‘unnatural’ a world in rebellion to its creator is. Bodies are used in ways that they were not designed to be used. The fact that there are men who have sex with other men, or women with other women, is proof of how twisted and broken humanity has become through our rejection of God. Sex becomes something that falls short of God’s good design. A very good and natural and intimate thing is smashed and ruined. And that is proof that God is angry with rebellion against him.

The third symptom of God’s anger is described in verses 28-32. Once again, we read that God ‘gives over’ humanity to the choices that we have made. Let’s re-read verse 28: ‘Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.’ In other words: since, as humans, we have felt that we don’t need to retain God in our knowledge; since we have felt that we can live in God’s world as practical atheists, God has let us live with the consequences. This time Paul speaks of how our minds have become corrupted. It’s like we’ve got a virus. We’re infected with sin. We make bad choices. We are genuinely ‘spiritually insane’. Matthew Henry describes the fallen mind as ‘a mind void of all sense and judgment to discern things that differ, so that a person cannot distinguish their right hand from their left in spiritual things.’ In other words, we’re out of control of our lives. We keep rebelling against God. In the name of ‘freedom’ we reject him, and our choices are foolish. And we have to live with the consequences of our rebellion.

And so the implication is this. If any of the words in verses 29-31 describe you, it means that God is angry at your sin. And just notice that the list here includes ‘socially acceptable’ sins right along with those considered socially unacceptable. Let’s look at just a few. Look at the number of words that describe dysfunctional human relationships, described in the middle of verse 29: ‘envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice’ – these are all expressions of hatred against other people. All of them, in some way, are articulations of murdering others in our hearts. Sure, most of us would never actually murder someone, but we can cut someone to pieces with our words and show them that we’d rather they were there at all. And that behaviour is a sign of God’s wrath on a rebellious humanity.

I find the phrase ‘they invent ways of doing evil’ chilling. Such is our rejection of God that we dream up ways of getting people back when they’ve wronged us. Or we want to see others exposed. And that ties in with verse 32: even when we know a behaviour is wrong, we approve of it and continue to do these very things. Another sign of God’s wrath on a rebellious humanity.

Or also included is the charge of being disobedient to one’s parents – and the flipside ‘without love’. This word speaks of family love: it speaks of parents that are unkind and cruel to their children. The family, of course, is not a social invention, but was created by God as the building block of society. And these verses speak of that being broken. Dysfunctional family relationships – children that are disobedient to their mother and father, and unloving parents – are proof of God’s wrath on a world in rebellion against him.

The point is this: none of us can read these words and say that none of them apply to us. If any of them describe you, it shows how corrupt and twisted your mind has become. And that shows that your attitudes and decisions have rightly put you under the judgement of the God of the Universe. You rightly face his wrath for eternity.


I started this talk by saying that Paul seeks to demonstrate in this section, and over the following chapters, how serious our situation is. We’re not in a paddling pool. We’re drowning and we’re about to go under. Our situation is serious. Paul’s begun to show us just that, and he’ll continue in chapters 2 and 3.

And so what are the implications of this passage? Well, firstly, I think we see our need in real clarity. It is this: both our sin and God’s righteous response of wrath prevent us from experiencing our humanity and creatureliness and having a relationship with God. Without God’s wrath being satisfied, we’d all still face hell – as God’s justice must be done. Without our nature being changed and made new, we’d go on sinning for eternity and there’d be no way we could live with God in his new creation.

But Paul is convinced that the gospel message can meet both of these needs. Look back at 1:16: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’ Paul is saying this. There really is something to be saved from, and the gospel really does save. In coming weeks, you’ll see how God has intervened to save us. You’ll see how, in the person of Jesus, the wrath that we rightly deserve was taken upon God himself. Anyone that is trusting Jesus is condemned no longer, because he was condemned on our behalf. And our natures have been so radically changed that Paul will go on to describe the person trusting in Christ as being ‘new’. Even our minds, which we’ve seen are completely corrupt, can be renewed. What drove Paul to write Romans was a conviction that the gospel is our only hope when it comes to dealing with our sin and with God’s wrath. It’s that conviction that will lead you to love and cherish the cross of Christ too.

If coming into tonight you’d not have really described yourself as cherishing the cross, will you come clean? Will you admit that you are in far more serious trouble than you had previously realised. Because it’s at this point that you’ll begin to appreciate the amazing love and grace of God – that same God that we’ve rebelled against and rejected and ignored – in giving us everything to reconcile us to himself, making the relationship that we were created for possible to enjoy for eternity. That offer is open to everyone, whoever you are, whatever you are like. Christ died to bear our wrath and to free us from our sin.

The final implication cuts to the heart of what you’re here for as a Christian Union, offering hope to this college. What this passage shows Christians is that as you share the gospel here, you must talk about sin and God’s wrath. I know that this isn’t a popular idea, but without hearing about these things, your friends will not realise how serious their problem is. They will not cling to the cross. They will still think that they are in a paddling pool, without need for a safety line. The Christian writer John Stott put it like this, ‘What keeps people away from Christ more than anything else is their inability to see their own need for him or their unwillingness to admit it. Jesus himself put it this way: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). We only go to a doctor when we admit that we are ill and we can't cure ourselves. In the same way, we only to go to Christ when we admit we are guilty sinners and we realize that we can't save ourselves.’

Some rough thoughts on the theology of food

Partly inspired by a sermon and partly by Dan Hames' 'theology of everything', I've come up with a few points on a theology of food and of eating. I'd be really interested if others can think of points I've missed:

1. Food points to God’s gracious provision. In Eden, Adam and Eve and the living creatures had an abundance of food to choose from. The earth was ‘filled’ with vegetation – there was food everywhere! (see Genesis 1:29-30). Psalm 104:27 says, ‘These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.’ The psalmist understands that creation has been designed so that food can be produced and enjoyed by its creatures. In the wilderness, God sustained his people with manna. Jesus’ first recorded miracle showed the extravagance of God’s generosity in turning water into wine (John 2). In his speech to the pagans in Lystra, Paul demonstrates God’s goodness and our dependence on him through the common grace of food: ‘he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy’ (Acts 14:17). Paul teaches Timothy that meals give us a good opportunity to celebrate God’s goodness and thank him for his generosity (1 Timothy 4:4).

2. Food indicates human dominion over the rest of creation. Adam was given the created world to rule, and the created world to eat. After the Flood, this was extended to include animals (Genesis 9:1-3). Through being given it to eat, we have a metaphor of human stewardship over the rest of creation.

3. Food gives us a powerful metaphor and vocabulary for understanding spiritual realities. The metaphor of food is used to describe Israel’s relationship with God (Deuteronomy 8:3). Elsewhere food is also descriptive of the word of God (see Jeremiah 15:16 and Psalm 119:103). Jesus uses a metaphor of eating food to describe what it means to trust in his atoning sacrifice (John 6:26-35, 53-58). To return to God is to sit down with him at a wedding feast of the most wonderful food (Matthew 8:11, Isaiah 55:1-3, Revelation 3:20, 19:9 etc. c.f. Luke 7:34-50).

4. Food creates particular opportunities to be reminded of God’s actions. In the Law, the nation of Israel was commanded to celebrate six feasts during the course of the year, including the feast of Passover. God rooted the memory of his greatest deeds in food. Israel was taught that one of the best ways to celebrate and remember God’s goodness, both in history and in his sustenance, was to sit down and enjoy a good meal. Before he died, Jesus tapped into the festive tradition of Israel and gave them a new meal to celebrate and remember his death. For the past two thousand years, Jesus’ disciples have been remembering him with food (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

I'm off to eat a sandwich now. And as I do so, I can give thanks to God for his gracious provision and illustration of my dependence on him. I can thank God that I'm in Christ and not in Adam, as part of the redeemed humanity. And I can reflect on what it means to feed on Christ and on his sacrifice, knowing that in him I'll be with him forever at his wedding feast.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Lessons from Judges, Part 3

Been doing some more work on Judges as I prepare the small group leaders' notes for Lancaster University Christian Union.

Most recently, I've been doing work on Judges 3:5-31 which gives an account of the first three judges Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar. Tim Chester's recent post very helpfully shows the cyclical nature of proceedings in Judges: a downward spiral of idolatry and disobedience that is punctuated by God's gracious actions on behalf of his people through the judges he raises.

However, what struck me today is the nature of the judges themselves. Othniel is often help up as the 'typical' judge; he embodies all of the things that we'd want a judge to have: of good stock, inspired by the Spirit, and so on. Yet the truth is that Othniel must have been pretty old by the time he led Israel to victory in war. Chapter 1 speaks of how Othniel was Caleb's nephew. He was probably a pensioner by the time he became judge and defeated the Cushanites.

Ehud is more better known as being a less than orthodox judge. He couldn't use his right hand. It may well have been withered. Yet it is that very disability and a bizarre set of circumstances that God uses to deliver his people.

Shamgar is perhaps the most elusive of all of the judges. Compared to the chapters that other judges receive in recording their exploits, Shamgar receives just one sentence. Yet the commentaries tell me that even Shamgar was a surprising judge. His name is Canaanite. It seems that God used a very recent convert to deliver him. And that he did with what he had: an ox-goad.

And so there we have it: a pensioner, someone that is disabled and a recent convert from paganism are those that God uses. I think Paul would have called them 'jars of clay' - ordinary people, nothing special to look at. But this, of course, is how the God of grace chooses to work; he uses ordinary and weak people and resources them to do his work, showing that his all-surpassing power is from himself and not from us.

What a relief! I may be an Othniel or an Ehud or a Shamgar: I may be physically weak, I may be the butt of jokes, I may not be as wise as others. But I can be confident that the God of grace will use me nonetheless.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

It really is as Scripture says

Sometimes as a young Christian it's tempting to think that the Bible exaggerates it a bit when we read of the real damage that sin does. I've noticed that older Christians develop a real 'Biblical realism'. The experience of living life in the world shows it as it really is: wonderful and beautiful in so many ways, but a world of tragic brokenness and pain.

The last couple of days have painfully reminded me and many of those I love of how things really are... and what wonderful news the gospel is.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.