Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

“Exiles” But in our Own Land!

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for March, 2017.]

In the space of less than a generation standards of public morality have tumbled in ways that no-one would have imagined. The Australia many of us have known since birth has gone and apart from a mighty work of God (for which we always pray) is not likely to return in our time. It is as if we have been invaded and taken over by a foreign power because the public space in our nation is now very much under the control of an ideology hostile to the gospel with its own thought police and spies to report all ideas opposed to the new secularism. Anything highlighting the exclusivity of Christ is frowned upon, or shouted down in the name of anti-discrimination. We have been subjected to an intellectual coup, (mostly bloodless apart from the wicked bloodshed of abortion) and we can feel, quite justly, as if we are now exiles in our own land. God’s Word from both His Testaments is, “Never lose sight of My Big Picture!”

In Jeremiah 29ff, written about 594 BC, God gave the exiled Israelites the encouragement of His Big Picture. Three years earlier, Nebuchadnezzar had made his second attack on Jerusalem and installed another puppet government to replace the first one he installed in 606-5BC . That first conquest had seen some of the rising generation (among whom were Daniel and his three friends) carried off for “re-education” at the University of Babylon and employment in the Babylonian civil service. About seven years later (587 BC) a third assault would destroy the city altogether and carry off what remained of the temple treasures. To any secular observer at the time, the public profession of faith in “Jehovah Alone” had been banished from any place under state supervision in just on 20 years. Where was the promise now (Ps 115:2)?

Jeremiah’s message is at once encouraging and sobering. Encouraging, because God assured He had not forgotten His covenant, sobering because God also warned that there was not going to be a quick-fix and anyone who promised one was a liar. His Big Picture required waiting for at least another 60 years, by which time most of those who heard Jeremiah the first time would be dead. His message to the godly was to preserve their faith within community and to teach their children and grandchildren that whatever happened outwardly, inwardly they were called to be Israelites by faith and not Babylonians. Outwardly, they might do little more than commend their faith through the attractiveness of exemplary lives, establish private synagogues and pray. Inwardly, they must believe that the Saviour would still come and that meanwhile by God’s grace there would be opportunities for wider witness to their hope.

And so to 2017 where modern-day “Babylonians” rule over us. “How long, O Lord?” We do not know the detail of the Big Picture or how long the gospel will be repressed in our land. BUT we have the solemn assurance that the ultimate victory of history is Christ’s. Christ shall have dominion Over land and sea; Earth’s remotest regions, Shall His empire be, as the hymn puts it. Christ will build His Church, and the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). Amen! Hope!

It takes real faith to live in hope knowing that things may not change for a very long time (e.g. Heb 11:13), but God warrants such faith, and bestows it on those who seek it. We have generations under and around us who need the example of our trust, not the discouragement of our fears. Living in exile in our own land also reminds us that rich as God’s earthly blessings may be, this land is not our final home. We are “exiles” waiting our new home, citizens of the Jerusalem which is above (1 Pet 2:11, Phil 3:20) not striving for a return to the past but looking forwards to the New Earth. It is also our prayer that many “Babylonians” will come to faith along the way.

Not Trumped by Xerxes, Caesar — or anyone else!

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for February, 2017.]

I have been somewhat surprised at the sudden energy devoted to American politics in the Christian blog-o-sphere and on social media, even from within Australia. In some comments Trump seems the epitome of evil and [amazingly] Mrs Clinton the personification of virtue and dignity!! Yes, Trump can present as coarse and megalomaniacal but the danger is that our culture has deceived us into thinking that sin is worse when it is crude or impolite! Sinful people will do sinful things (despite Trump saying he has no need to ask forgiveness!) but we must not forget that “suave” sins are no less heinous and some-times even more so than those which are “in your face”. All sins, even those we consider polite and understandable, are “in the face” of God.

Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1) or Xerxes I as he is known in secular history, was a powerful and sometimes irrational Persian king whose empire reached from the Indus to Turkey to Sudan. As Cyrus’ grandson, he loved to show off and the book opens with a 6-month public show of wealth and power in the third year of his reign (1:3-4). He loved pretty women and enjoyed putting them on display in ‘beauty pageants’! An impulsive decree for such an event probably resulted in him losing his wife, but it was also how he thought he would find a new one (1:10-2:4)! Despite his bravado, he was an easy mark for an adviser who insinuated himself into a place of influence for a private vendetta and profit (3:1-15 & ff). Such leaders can do irrational things if they believe their own propaganda and according to the historian Herodutus, Xerxes once had the sea punished with 300 lashes for a storm which destroyed a bridge for his army!

Religiously, Xerxes was probably Zoroastrian, but apart from claiming to believe that there was a Good Being, Ahuru-Mazda, who opposed the Evil Ahriman, his ‘faith’ was most likely grounded in the well-being of his empire; Israel’s God was just another way of describing his own, so worshippers of Jehovah were free so long as they did not rebel. He was a “strong-man” and anyone opposed to him should know there would be no mercy (2:21-23). By any measure, Xerxes was not a godly man and every Israelite would know he had seriously transgressed the Laws of God. Yet, strong as he was, he too died and God’s purpose prevailed despite his sin.

God was teaching Israel that He was over all nations, so they should not fear. God’s way with dictators can be a puzzle but He never forgets his elect. He had overwhelmed Pharaoh. The proud and idolatrous Nebuchadnezzar had been humbled and brought to faith (Dan 4:34ff) yet his grandson Belshazzar was godless and blasphemous! Babylon fell. The Persian Cyrus, (another Zoroastrian?) funded the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and then Xerxes was tricked, almost, into destroying Israel! After Persia? Daniel said Greek then Roman dictators!

God had also told Israel that there was nothing strange about their exile; it was a result of their past sinful neglect of holiness. Yet He had also graciously given them a missionary calling to pray for the their new land and leaders, Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jer 29:7). This call to prayer was the same as that given to the early church as they declared the gospel in an empire ruled by despotic, megalomaniacal Caesars [1 Pet 2:17, Rom 13:1]. They had no vote and no power other than the witness of their life, times of public instruction in Sunday worship and the occasional public lecture opening up the Scriptures, their prayers, AND the power of Christ with them through His Spirit. Their witness prevailed and Nero and other persecutors after him died. Nero could not Trump the Church either. There is a pattern here!

Yes, godless leaders will act godlessly and we must warn, protest, and even vote. But rather than ridicule, or lose sleep over things we cannot alter, we must be like Habakkuk and ask for a faith sufficient to see something of what the Lord may be doing (Hab 1:12-2:1). Then we watch and pray: for Trump’s genuine conversion and the Lord’s confounding of all wickedness.

The Danger of Drifting in 2017

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2017.]

Perhaps you have heard the joke about the generous, but none-too-bright, fisherman. After years of patient failure, he finally struck success, pulling in fish after fish! Being a generous fellow, he quickly motored back to the shore to share the good news with his friends. “Are you sure you will be able to get back to the same spot?” they asked. “Easy,” he said, smiling. “I’ve marked the spot with a big marker.” And with that, he showed his friends a large freshly-painted white ‘X’ on the side of his boat! We smile, confident that no-one would be so stupid, but in many ways that is what happens when a Christian measures one’s growth and maturity by anything other than the objective measure of the Word of God.

The early Corinthian Church had that problem: at least, they had a group within the Church with that problem who were not slow in pushing themselves forwards. Was Paul an apostle? Well, they were “Super Apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Was he able to give guidance? Well they could do it better and with more impressive oratory, and so on. According to them, they were simply the most impressive exemplars of Christian ministry possible, but the measure and affirmation of their excellence was always and only themselves, so that Paul could say with withering understatement, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise”(2 Cor 10:12). “Not wise”: we understand his point—or do we?

The problem was not unique to 1st century Corinth, and is not limited to those who challenge Apostolic authority or doctrine today, although there are plenty who fit into that category at the fringes of the Church. We also can be guilty—not by inventing new doctrine or declaring ourselves to be fit for Church office when no-one else agrees but in being the only assessors of our spiritual condition to whom we will listen.

If we measure ourselves by ourselves, we will always err in our favour when called to assess our spiritual life. We will rationalize our failure to progress, excuse our sin and delay its mortification. We overstate our growth and understate our faults. Inevitably we will also begin to “drift” away from Christ but because the any “X” we use to mark out our Christian progress moves as we drift, we will have no measure of how far we have drifted until something rouses us. Doubtless a true believer will have a sense that “all is not as it should be” but drifting is not always obvious until one has drifted so far off that returning becomes hard work and only possible through the love and grace of Christ. [see Matt 18:12ff & Heb 2:1ff.] O that we had not trusted in ourselves!

Navigation is complicated, even for well known journeys. Each day sees new combinations of winds or tides so that yesterday’s settings cannot be taken without careful checking. A navigator who plots everything just by his own assessment or yesterday’s settings is “not wise”! Complacency leads to catastrophe and even death. The same is true in the spiritual life. We may not fall foul of the known hazards Christians have dealt with for many years but each day and generation brings subtle new pressures or temptations that if ignored, will cause us to drift. Complacency leads to catastrophe!

Thankfully, as Paul knew, God in his grace provides us with such navigational aids outside ourselves (2 Cor 10:13). The sphere of his ministry and service was defined by God’s measure (metron) and that measure was the grace of God which revealed the full mature knowledge of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:7&13-14). So how can we avoid drifting in 2017? By keeping our eyes on Christ through His Word, and not on ourselves.

Join us Christmas Morning at 10am!

YES, this year the morning service will be at 10.00am, instead of the usual time. Come along and worship with us.

The Gift of Christian Armour

[First published in the monthly congregational Notes, for December, 2016]

The church Christmas card this year features a picture from the eastern stained glass window—a young man dressed in armour. The window’s caption, “Stand fast in the faith” is drawn from a portion of 1 Cor. 16:31 with the exhortation to be strong and brave, [literally, act like men!] and the artwork surely is intended to turn our mind to Ephesians 6:10-20 where the apostle Paul lists the Christian’s full set of God-given armour for the fight against all the cunning of the evil one and his followers.

The artist has clearly taken some liberties, as all art must. The soldier gazes dreamily heaven-ward and his armour is bathed in a golden light (either that, or it is foolishly made of gold and too soft for any real use!). The sword is longer and finer than a 1st century gladius would have been and a red cloak has appeared from somewhere. Yet for all that, the image does draw our attention to the passages of Scripture mentioned above if we are familiar with them. The first readers could probably tell us exactly what sort of armour Paul meant, but we know straight away that this is not really the point of the illustration. His purpose, as with the glass-work in the window, was not to give a lesson in military history but to warn Christians of spiritual warfare and to point to the God-given means of safety, endurance and victory for Christians in every age who face temptation and devilish hostility, and that surely includes us.

So we are told (v 14) that we must first of all wrap ourselves around with truth. Only then shall we be able to discern between fact and fiction and sift truth from error. The problem in our age is that we are taught the lie that we live in a post-truth-age where everything is either desire or reaction. No wonder ‘anything goes’ and people are led astray by every whim and lust. Not so for the Christian—God has both acted and He has spoken, and in so doing he has defined all that is Good, True and Beautiful.

Then, we are given protection for the heart with the breastplate of righteousness (14). We must test and conform our affections to the law and love of God. If He would not approve, then neither should we. As for our life’s direction, we should be ready to live only as the gospel would permit us, for it is only then that we will ever truly be at peace (15). (O that this restless, wandering world would realise that!) We must guard our minds. We don’t always know how temptations arise, but we do not need to in order to beat them away. Martin Luther once likened temptation to birds; we might not be able to stop them from flying overhead but we can at least resolve never to let them land! Our faith is not irrational, but is the assurance of a mind “helmeted” by trust in the saving acts of God (16-17). When our minds are focused on the strength of the God who has saved us, we can hold temptations at bay. But we will not anticipate everything (12) and sometimes (daily!!) so much seems to slip past our poorly held shield. For this we have a sword to wield (18) when we believe our Bibles in line with all that the Spirit says—no verses out of context and Christ the interpretive key! These promises of God are wonderfully sure. Such armour! What a wonderful “Christmas” gift!

But remember, the ultimate victory in this battle does not come because of our faith! No, it comes because Jesus, in whom our faith is placed, has Himself won the victory and covenanted to keep us forever! Hence we come to v 18, pray! We know of no circumstance where those whose minds were truly engaged in prayer have ever lost the battle of temptation! The devil and all with him have no option but to flee when Christ commands. Let us therefore pray for the grace to love the Saviour so much we will want to take up the armour God has provided for us and stand firm in Christ!

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