Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

“Running”[or Plodding] Steadily Forwards through 2016

[First published in the congregational “Notes” for January 2016]

Many of us are familiar with some of Aesop’s Fables, in which the antics of animals become the vehicle for wry observations about human nature. One of the most well known tales is the “Tortoise and the Hare” in which a tortoise, tired of the hare’s boasting, challenges the hare to a race. The hare is convinced that the tortoise is a fool, and races off thinking this will be no contest, leaving the plodding tortoise far behind. But the hare soon tires and decides that, because the race was so easy, there is enough time for a rest. The hare lies down for a sleep, but over-sleeps and during that time the tortoise creeps slowly past and crosses the finish line first. The moral of the story as Aesop told it? “Slow and steady wins the race”.

Aesop was not the only ancient to teach morals of behaviour using events in the animal world (many are found in the book of Proverbs) and we should not be surprised that God has ordained that we should find ways in His creation to illustrate the follies, quirks or wisdom of human nature . The apostles themselves used the idea of a race as a illustration for the Christian life, (1 Cor 9:24; Heb 12:1, et al.) so it is not surprising that we might find parallels with The Tortoise and the Hare.

A few years ago, American pastor Kevin deYoung wrote a blog post called “The Glory of Plodding” in which he lamented the tendency to despise the perceived ordinariness of Church life and to prefer flashier, shorter-term alternatives for growth. Zeal for the kingdom of God is a good thing, but the kingdom of God is not built on human strength, and both experience and wisdom tell us that Christian progress is more like a marathon than a sprint. Unless we recognise this, what starts out with the flash and fanfare of the hare can often end in a whimper of exhaustion where congregations lie down and stop altogether. And stopping completely is just what the devil wants.

DeYoung’s title is appropriate for much of the Christian life; it is a glorious tortoise-like plodding! Like the first century Athenians (Acts 17:21), our age is constantly after something new—and faster! Christians are not immune to cultural pressures and can be deceived subtly into thinking that modified Gospel presentations which are “fast”, “spectacular” or “flashy” will succeed in building the Church where steady, faithful presentations have failed. But if the truth be told, there are no shortcuts, and God has ordained that it is often the steadily unspectacular which bears most fruit for Christ, because there is far less room for us to take glory for ourselves (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Recently I had occasion to look at the 160 or so editorials written for these Notes over almost 13 years. Not surprisingly, there were common themes for most of our New Year editions: faith, trust, learning from God’s past faithfulness, looking long-term for our future eternity, God’s right to change our plans, our resolve to walk in greater godliness and prayerfulness, etc … So, what new things can be said at the beginning of this year? Not a lot! Nor should there be much that is radically new, as all these same things are the stuff of living for Christ ever day, and if anything, we know that we all need to be reminded of them far more often than once a year!

It is this very sense of sameness that can foster discouragement, especially if we think there has not been much advance in our life over the years. But if your eyes are fixed on Jesus and your desire is to follow Him according to His word, then your faith will have been strengthened. Perhaps what you see as lack of progress is just His keeping you in the right place so that you will be best able to serve other “plodders.”

Christmas and the Brand New that lasts Forever!

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes”, December, 2015]

If there was ever proof that our age is caught up in the idolatry of materialism, it is seen in the way in which our celebration days have been captured by the tradition that they must be accompanied by giving a gift. We may even subtly be encouraged to make others feel guilty if they have not done so for us! And the advertisers tell us that our gifts must be new, and preferably expensive—nothing second hand! Astute manufacturers, aware of our passion for the new, carefully plan obsolescence, limited product life and upgrades so that we will become dissatisfied with what we have and keep on desiring something “new” even though we know from experience that the joy of the new will still surely fade away. We are so captive to this behaviour, that the health of our national economy often hinges on a good Christmas trading period!

In a world where everything declines, is there necessarily anything wrong in desiring something new? Like many other desires, so much depends on our motives. Right towards the end of the New Testament, the Scriptures reveal that Jesus Christ Himself also desires new things. He desires a whole, new, sinless creation! We read, “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said … Write: for these words are true and faithful.” [Rev. 21:5] This is the One who in the beginning saw all that He had made and declared it to be ‘Very Good.’ So why does something made by God and declared ‘Very Good’ need to be made new? Does the work of God fade? Does God, like us, get bored? Certainly not! Clearly something happened to spoil the work and to make the “New” necessary and desirable to Jesus.

That “something” was of course, the entrance of human sin through the disobedience of one representative man, Adam. He rebelled against the authority of God and as a consequence, all human existence ever since has been under judgment of decline and death. It was not always so and it will not always be so, but it is our lot now. And as decline and death are penalties for sin it is natural that mankind looks for ways to post-pone their effects—everyone will put off judgment day if they can! But despite all our wonderful science, judgment cannot be put off forever. There will come a time when at the very least our bodies will wear out like old clothes, and in death we will stand before the pure Holiness of God. Only the sinless will be able to remain, all others cast away forever. What will you do then? More importantly, what are you doing now? You cannot make yourself new yet to remain on that day you must be made new! You must be ‘born again’ with an eternal life. Who can do it?

Enter Jesus! And enter He did, in the wonder of His incarnation. Out of His free love for sinners, the Eternal Son of God took on a true humanity through his miraculous conception. He was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth and taught throughout Palestine. He was crucified and buried in Jerusalem only to rise victoriously (and bodily) three days later. In so doing He paid sin’s penalty in full for all who repent of their sin, seek His grace and trust in Him. Death and its preambles now carry nothing penal. If we die in Him, we enter eternity. He alone can make us “brand new”.

This is the Christian message; the only “reason for the season” and the only reason behind the angels’ song of “peace on earth” and the shepherd’s joy. The Newness Jesus brings comes as a gift. It can be asked for, but never be earned or deserved. And unlike all other Christmas gifts it will never break, fail, go become obsolete or lose its power to delight. Is your “reason for the season” that Christ is making YOU new?

The Reformation and Liberty: Won, Lost(?) and Winnable Again!

[first published in the congregational “Notes” for November, 2015]

On the 31st October, 1517, an Augustinian monk placed a notice upon the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, identifying 95 “theses” [topics for discussion] which he wanted to be the subject of scholarly debate. There was nothing unusual in this, it was simply the normal academic practice of the day. The topics he posted concerned the doctrines of repentance and forgiveness: how can someone have their sins forgiven? Could the Church itself forgive sins upon the payment of money as some said it could? The real challenge was that Luther wanted answers to his questions from an authority beyond church teaching and tradition. The only source of such an authority was the Bible. There was no email, but word of mouth and the courier system was almost as fast! He wrote in Latin but they were soon translated into German and within two weeks the entire country had copies in their own language. Within two months, they had spread throughout Europe. The rest, as they say, is history. [If you want a good biography, Roland Bainton’s book Here I Stand is a good place to start.]

The most notable effect of Luther’s action was to draw attention to the lack of Biblical support for many church practices. People now had a choice when it came to knowing how to be free from sin. They could listen to a Church tradition or they could read the Word of God for themselves and learn from Him directly.

If they listened to God’s Word, they first heard what they already knew, viz that they and all mankind were under just condemnation and deserving His wrath. The Church had told them that. But then they also read what had become lost, the Good News that God had graciously provided a way whereby His wrath could be satisfied without the performance of religious acts or penance. This way was through Christ alone, and open to all who by faith confessed their sin and entrusted themselves to Him. This way had once been well known but over time had been replaced by a tradition which taught the burden of religious works and left men and women unsure of the Love of God. (That tradition made the Church secularly powerful but left its people spiritually weak.

They read that they did not need to confess their sins to a priest, as Jesus Christ was the True and only Priest. When they confessed to Him, He forgave and when He gave absolution, sin was forgiven, in full, forever! No purgatory! Not only that, those whom He forgave would be “born again” to a true hope, reckoned as righteous and adopted as sons and daughters of the Living God. These things set people free and the Law of God proved to be a Law of Liberty and not bondage. The future was bright and strong missionary activity served only to expand the blessing. Sadly, with the passage of time, the Church has become complacent and love for truth is again being lost.

At first the drift was slow but nowadays many reject outright the Bible as God’s Word. His Law is no longer seen as the ground of freedom but a cause of repression, and is to be treated with scorn! The blessings He gave are now attributed to human wisdom. The West may still be ‘religious’ in a social sense but it has returned to the rebellion from which Christ had freed it, and humanity has become its own idol. The Word of God is solemnly true; there is no liberty for idolaters who do not repent.

But all God’s promises are sure; the Gospel assures that Christ still receives repentant sinners! [So, dear reader, why would you delay?] Our calling is to remain faithful to Him despite this present declension and to pray that we will again see a great spirit of repentance across our land.

Government and the Gospel #2

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for October, 2015.]

When we wrote about government last month, we little knew what great changes would so soon come to pass on our national political stage. No doubt, and depending on our different points of view, we could make many comments about the degree of self-government (or lack of) shown by all those involved! Yet despite all the intensity and passion of the moment, things have by and large settled down and life continues on. Many commentators have remarked upon the peaceful nature of the transition and given the turmoil in many other parts of our world, it is a great blessing. There were no riots, no soldiers on the streets, no mass civil disobediences. Whatever our preference, our “ordinary” daily life is as if it never happened!

We are told that this peaceful transition occurred because we have “democracy,” the highest and most humanitarian form of civil government; so much so that wars are fought around the world (!!) in order to install it. [e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.] Certainly democracy is the most representative form of government but if we are tempted to place our hope in it as a system for a better world, we must remember that it is still representative of sinners! Those elected to lead will only reflect the hopes and desires of sinners. The question in democracy will always be, “What are the majority of sinners hoping for? The honour and glory of God or the glory of man [i.e. self]?”

God is sovereign over ALL governmental systems, and can use any one of them to bless or chastise as He sees fit; the Old Testament makes that clear and He has not changed. If a nation’s leadership chooses those things which exalt His glory, then it is not surprising if God should grant long term stability as a blessing. Alternatively, if by majority vote a nation prefers to pursue the practice of a “base mind and improper conduct” (Rom 1:28), then it is hardly surprising if God should use our ballot box to give us over to the consequences as punishment—fragmentation and disarray. In this way, democracy can sometimes be a curse and not a blessing!

In our two-party-preferred system, not many people need change in order to swing a vote from 50.5/49.5 to 49.5/50.5 and with that, affect the whole country! We often see this in negative terms. We complain, “Why should just 1% of the people change our nation’s destiny?” While this is frustrating in times of great moral decline (and we fear its consequences) it can instead give us hope and spur us on to prayerful evangelism. If 1% of voters can lead us away from godliness, do just that 1% need to be converted, in order to take us back to past godliness? Live and pray for it! But we must not stop at that 1%, for if that is all we seek, our motives are still selfish, or in the language used earlier, “base and improper”! God has no obligation to prosper evangelism pursued for selfish reasons, though mercifully he may do so because He knows that even at our best, we are still sinners. [e.g. see Phil 1: 12-18 for Paul’s prayer when this happened.]

Isaiah declared that “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” and for good measure Habakkuk repeated the promise (Is 11:9, Hab 2:14)! That is why Christ’s great Commission to the Church is for the world and for all nations. The hope for the world is not a new form of government, democratic or otherwise, but the gospel, as it takes root in the lives of ordinary men and women like ourselves. Pray for it, live for it, give for it, for as that happens all systems will inevitably change, and all false faiths will lose their power. But, pray first of all, that that gospel change be surely worked in you so that you may glorify God.

Government and the Gospel

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for September, 2015]

We live in days when it is all too common for us to look to “more government” as the solution to our problems. “The government should do …” and all will be well! Is more government the Christian’s hope? Think through this with me for a while.

We have been conditioned for may years to see civil government as the solution to all our problems. It collects our taxes, administers our schools and universities, regulates our employment and trade, and provides social services such as police, fire and health. It legislates for our superannuation, sets the pension age and sometimes even taxes what remains when we die! In return we are promised peace, security and a comfort level which is the envy of much of the rest of the world and (allegedly) the freedom to be ourselves. What more could we have? More government of course!! Sporting or recreational associations all have rules and conventions which govern how we are to behave and how others expect us to behave. Bodies corporate or landlords govern how tenants live, and Churches and families have government too. Elders are charged by God with special responsibilities; husband and wife submit to one another in their separate spheres, and together Mum and Dad rule in the home as servant-leaders and are to be honoured for it. So the whole of life involves the issue of “government.” In every case, when government breaks down some sort of anarchy or tyranny takes its place and this in turn leads to other serious personal and social problems and often death. For some, more government is the only answer!

The most important sphere of government is “self-government”. What rules will we follow within ourselves, especially when no-one is around to tell us what to do? Self-government lies at the heart of all other forms of government, for unless we govern ourselves well we will not govern others well nor will we willingly be governed by others for the common good. Selfishness (the un-governed self) will be unrestrained, social cohesion will fail and culture will degenerate. For some, a bigger more intrusive, coercive civil government is still the only answer! But is it? No! The answer is moral!

God alone is perfectly self-Governing so only He can govern perfectly. Within Himself the three Persons are perfectly relational and yet always infinitely good, just, loving, and holy. He rules all Creation righteously, consistently and never as a tyrant. He has also decreed that mankind will find all that is needed for human government in Him. Sadly, Adam and Eve failed the simple self-government test in Eden, “Will obey your God always?” so that now true self-government is impossible for humanity.

In His common kindness, God often restrains the results of human sin so that anarchy or tyranny do not thrive as they might. We are thankful for that, but He is not bound to keep doing so, especially if we increasingly reject His morality from our national public space. Stronger civil government will not help us; the solution is not political. According to Paul (Rom 1:18ff ), if we will not acknowledge God’s rule we will be left to govern ourselves as punishment. This will bring even more social disintegration.

Our prayer must be that our land will repent of its sinful, selfish, rebellion and turn to Christ before this surrender to godlessness goes too far. A large, intrusive, intolerant government will only make matters worse. In the meantime we must pray for strength and courage so that we and our children will be able to stand firm for righteousness even when it hurts. That will show the power of the gospel to produce godly “self-government” that is a blessing to any nation.

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