[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2015]
What makes someone a Christian? What must we “do” to be saved? Then, what must we “do” in order to prove that this is so? If we remember that summaries are just that, we may give a summary answer in this way: Jesus said, “You must be born again,” [John 3:3 ff] and “If you love me, keep my commandments,” [John 14:15] and “Love one another as I have loved you,” [John 13:34, et al]. All summaries can be expanded, but the point is clear: the Christian life does not spring from ourselves but from the grace of God in Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us [1 John 2:1-3 and 4:10] and whom we then love in return. This is the context for all Christian obedience. There are commandments to direct and correct our way, but these are of no saving value for us. Rather, they point out to us how far short we still fall of God’s holiness and how essential it is to depend on Jesus’ obedience in our place even as we grow.
In Mark 7:1-23 Jesus had opportunity to expose this wrong thinking. It began simply enough: Jesus was accused of teaching his disciples to be irreligious by eating with unwashed hands. This was not a matter of public health but of great religious symbolism. The rules which had been built up over many centuries were not being followed! In the Pharisees’ minds, Jesus and his disciples were despising the true worship of God in everyday life. It is therefore easy to see why the Pharisees were so upset, but Jesus’ reaction shows that it was they who were mistaken and not his disciples.
God had required washing and sprinkling with water in the Old Testament when the people were to be specially reminded of his grace and the need for holy living. They had to wash before meeting him at Mt Sinai when he gave the 10 Commandments. Aaron and the priests were washed as part of their ordination, and many offerings were first washed with water. Similarly, both people and things were washed when leprosy and other skin diseases were healed. Because God appointed washing to be a reminder of God’s cleansing grace it was natural that over time, people thought it a good idea to do it more often and in more places. Perhaps it was innocent enough in some ways but it was a practice that God had not asked for, and whenever we add to God’s requirements [however well-intentioned] we start out on the road to moralism, religious pride, hypocrisy and idolatry, and the grace of God is pushed aside.
There is another danger. When the heart is focused on keeping rules as rules and not as a response to God or his grace, it is necessarily focused on one’s self and is blinded to true holiness. Jesus showed how true this is when he pointed out that those who were concerned for clean hands were simultaneously wickedly twisting their man-made rules for personal profit and ignoring the 5th Commandment [see Mk 7:9-13].
It is sometimes frustrating that it all seems so vague! We want precision and clarity! We want rules to keep and measure our progress! But while precision and clarity can be helpful, the great danger is that Christianity becomes little more than keeping a set of rules, and nothing of the heart. It happens—and more than we might like to admit.
It is easy to be critical of Pharisees, but let us all ask whether Jesus would say similar things to us here in the 21st century. Helpful religious habits may be good, but can become a burden or source of guilt when we forget what the habit is to assist and it becomes a law in itself. It is no sin to break a tradition! Sometimes there might be a fine line between what is helpful and what is not, but if we love Christ for love’s sake, and not duty, we shall be safe.
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for January, 2015]
When the call of God came to Abraham [then called Abram], God asked him to leave behind all that he had and all that he might reasonably expect to achieve in life, and to follow Him, and Him only. Yes, God also promised to “exchange” these prospects for another place and another future, but there was a catch: Abraham did not know the details. In order to demonstrate his faith and obedience, Abraham had to leave without knowing where he was to go, or how, precisely he would receive what God promised to give him, or when these things would come into his life! Here was a great test. How would he explain this decision to his wife? or his father? What would his in-laws and his friends think? How could he hope to answer all their questions about this God who demanded absolute obedience and absolute commitment when He seemed to reveal so little in return? They lived in a world where the gods dealt in ‘physical’ rewards of fertility, crops, success, and prosperity and offered these things as payment in exchange for worship offered. How could they understand a God who was not bound by human values or actions, and whose greatest gifts included righteousness, holiness and peace? Surely his friends would think that his God was useless, and quite irrational and capricious to ask him to leave like that? Perhaps, but that was a “risk” he had to take; and so he went out …
When we read of Abraham we must admire his faith. Yes we know that there were times when he did not trust as He should have done, but unlike Israel in the desert, who wanted to go back to Egypt after just a few months of difficulties [Exod 16:3], he never asked God to send him back to his homeland. His break was total. Returning to the past was not an option, even when he seemed to have nothing to show for his faithfulness! When he sinned, his sins were serious, (all sin is) but he sinned as one committed to going forwards to all that God would show him.
Let us consider ourselves. By comparison we have a great advantage. We know what God meant when he promised to make Abraham a great nation and a blessing to the whole earth, and we know how it all eventually came to pass; not just through the promised son, Isaac, but through Jesus, the ultimate Son of Promise. We might think that because we have this knowledge, it will be easier for us to be obedient, to bear witness to God’s goodness, and to avoid the sins that our culture so enticingly encourages. But we know that it is not as simple as that; we have such trouble in letting go! Perhaps we will even conclude that Abraham had it easier than we do, because by leaving all, he also left behind all that might distract him and hinder his obedience. This is wrong thinking. Living by faith is never easy!
Abraham would be the first to tell us that the faith to follow God does not come from our own wisdom or knowledge. It God’s gift, grounded in His Son, Jesus Christ, so that He must also give that faith its strength. Abraham will remind us that God will not be hindered by what we consider impossible, or by any restrictions our age or social status might normally impose. God is sovereign! He would also tell us that whether we be called to leave our communities as he was, or to stay within them (as Jesus implied is the norm, Jn 17:15) we must pray daily for the grace of perseverance.
No-one else is worthy of your faith, and no other so-called god can lead where Jesus leads—eternal life! If your faith is in Him, follow Him boldly and securely! If it is not, pray earnestly that He will both call you to follow Him and stir your will to obey
[first published in the congregational “Notes” for DEcember, 2014.]
In 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a song Happy Christmas, War is Over as a culmination of two years of protest against the Vietnam war. That war has long ended, but the song is still regularly played at Christmas time, and no doubt we’ll hear it many times this year. The lyrics are simple enough:
So this is Christmas, and what have you done / Another year over, and a new one just begun / And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun / The near and the dear ones, the old and the young.
It sounds like the sort of greeting anyone might give today. Then the chorus: A very merry Christmas, and a happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.
The second verse has the main words joined with an echo (in brackets):
And so this is Christmas (War is over) / For weak and for strong (If you want it) / For rich and the poor ones (War is over) The road is so long (Now) / And so Happy Christmas (War is over) / For black and for white (If you want it) / For yellow and red ones (War is over) Let’s stop all the fight (Now).
There are reports that Lennon was briefly interested in Christianity in 1977 but sadly it proved only a fleeting fancy, and he ended up mocking it and its message. He certainly had no interest in Jesus when he wrote this song, merely a blend of commercialism & sugar-coated political activism. He was not the first, nor will he be the last to try to make money or political points at Christmas time; people will always try to hijack events and ideas for their own aims. [More catalogues anyone???]
When we think of Christmas, remember that the birth of Jesus is God’s event. He is the only One who can give Christmas its true meaning so it is wrong for anyone to re-interpret it with their own ideas. However, the Christmas event is so profound, so amazing and God’s sovereignty so inescapable, that even when it is hijacked God has ways of leaving people without excuse for what they are doing. There is a divine irony in the fact that if all you have are the words of Lennon’s song, you can still point people to Jesus with only a little bit of extra information for context.
Deep down, everyone including the most vocal atheist, knows that God exists. Also, deep down, everyone including the most vocal atheist, knows that God is so holy and so perfect that there can be no excuse for the sin of refusing to hear and obey Him. Deep down, this knowledge calls out, “I must surrender!” But sin is selfish & rebellious, and so refuses. The fear that one day God will issue a summons to attend His court in order to give personal account of is what drives the strident insistence that He cannot exist. But like the proverbial ostrich, this is to find comfort in folly.
With the birth of Jesus, God made the clear declaration that He was keeping His promise to Adam and Eve that someone would be born who would crush the serpent and have the victory. In Jesus, the Eternal Son of God condescended to take on a true human nature and be born on earth as a true and sinless man, so that He could be that One, and that He could make satisfaction for the guilt and penalty for sin. In Jesus there is One who is the redeemer of all who repent of their sin, and trust in Him, whether red, yellow, black or white. This is the true Christmas call!
In Christ, there is reason to rejoice. In Christ, and Him alone, the war is Over! Outside of Christ, war is still declared. But what of you, O Reader? Are you at war, or at peace?
[first published in the congregational Notes for November, 2014.]
There is something uplifting about good songs that touch us at our deepest levels. A skilful blend of poetry and tune can catch our mood, express our mind, and stay with us more notably than the same thoughts expressed in concise prose. Often all that is needed is a few notes of music or a few opening words or a line from a chorus, and the emotions associated with the whole song are instantly in the mind. Think of your footy team song, Auld Lang Syne, or Irish folk music which almost demands that the feet start tapping! Film makers, advertisers, anthem writers, and a whole host of other composers know that part of their commercial success will depend on how well they can use music to engage the listeners’ emotions. And this is both a blessing and a problem as music can sometimes set our mood too well!
According to Scripture, there is singing in heaven [Rev 5:9], so it must be something in which God delights. It is not surprising, then, that we find music and its related arts as one aspect of the God given creativity bestowed on mankind from beginning of creation [Gen 4:21]. God will have singing on earth too! Though we do not have early examples, Scripture tells us that music was not just for parties and having a good time [Gen 31:27] but for gathering up the great saving acts of God [eg. Exod 15:1ff and the Psalms]. Here were songs for both public and private devotion, that spoke of God, and the faithful believer’s relationship to God and to His world.
The early church continued to sing the Psalms and added new hymns and other songs to praise God and to help teach His word. Slowly however, chants and choral works took over so that congregational singing all but disappeared in many places. Singing became something to listen to or to watch but not to participate in. When the Reformation adopted the principle that the Bible is to be the rule of faith and practice, congregational singing made a strong comeback. After all, if all the people of God are “priests” let all the people of God sing when they gather for worship! Luther and his followers especially wrote new songs and hymns while Calvin and others emphasised singing the Psalms. In each case, full participation was the aim, and this naturally governed the style of worship song. Other legitimate avenues were found for the godly performance of more complicated choral styles.
But what of tunes? Certainly tunes should fit the words, so joyful songs should be sung joyfully! Bright, tuneful well-written melodies are therefore a helpful start and often are easy to memorise. But we are singing of and to God, the sovereign ruler of all that is, so a sense of majesty and dignity is also important. But not every Psalm or song can be sung in the same way, especially those which are laments, or more meditative. Yes there will be room for subjectivity here [and that sadly is how many arguments begin] but most of us can sense a “happy” melody when we hear it, and a “sad” or more sombre tune when it is played. In the same way styles of music which we know can stir (or dull) the emotions in ways unsuited to thinking of our God who is altogether lovely, holy, and totally righteous, etc., may not be ”bad” in a strictly technical sense but quite inappropriate for use in worship.
Congregational singing is not private singing, nor is it platform performance. Songs may need leaders or choirs while being learned, but the best congregational songs are those designed for everyone to sing without too much difficulty, and where musicality and sentiment is naturally subservient to theology. The last 2000 years has brought us a rich musical heritage, and no doubt the next 2000 will add to it.
Let us enjoy it, and extend it, and all to the glory of God. (SDG).
[first published in the monthly Notes October, 2014]
As long as anyone can remember, Grandma has had a wonderful coat. It has been a real blessing for her and no-one who loves her wants her to throw it away. It was just like her grandma’s. It fits well, keeps her warm and gives her a sense of security that some cannot understand. It triggers off many family memories and reminds the family of the wisdom grandma can share with others, wisdom learned from her grandma! Five generations of wisdom in one coat! If it should ever have to be replaced, what a wrench it could be—for her at least.
Thankfully, the cloth is sound and the stitching is still strong, so perhaps it will see her out. Maybe someone else will wear it one day, but the years of fitting only grandma have given it a few bumps and lumps that give it a “frumpy” sort of look to the modern eye. Except as an emergency, very few in the family would like to be seen wearing it in public. Parents say the shape just does not suit the grandchildren. Some in the family think the coat is quaint, and talk about maybe having one like it when they get old, but not now; it’s the wrong style for a modern age. Some of the grandchildren will secretly snuggle up to it when no-one else is looking , but would rather keep this a secret; it would not be “cool” to be caught. What will happen to the coat when grandma dies? It would be a shame to throw it away. It is an excellent coat and for all the comments about fashion, many agree that modern cloth just does not have the same lasting quality. Grandma’s coat is the sort that looks like it could last for ever. Pity no-one wants it.
If only people were more curious about grandma’s coat, because inside there is a label which identifies the maker as an ancient firm that specialises in making coats in classic, timeless style for every age, and who promise to use exactly the same cloth as used in grandma’s coat! They guarantee to make these coats in such a way that they will suit every age so that although styles may change slightly from time to time, they will all match. They even promise to make the same coats for different people groups! These coats look quite different when looked at separately but when put side by side, all the coats somehow seem to match! Perfect coats for old and young, coats that connect with grandma’s past, yet clothe for the future.
So what is the point of grandma’s coat? Sadly, our age often thinks of Christianity in the same way: it is quaint, comforting for old people [especially old ladies] and perhaps good for emergencies, but of little real relevance for the stylish, the young, or today’s international movers and shakers. In other words, geriatric and historic. However, the eternal, holy and gracious God speaks in His Word of a Coat; a Spot-less Coat that covers so perfectly that if we are stripped bare of every shred of our sinfulness, we need wear only this Coat to be perfectly dressed for all eternity! It is a Coat which does not age or fade; a Coat that fits all who repent, in all times and nations. It is a Coat that marks out the wearers as children of God, blessed and privileged to sit at His table. It is an undeserved Coat! A Coat given by Grace!
If you are a Christian, the Father has clothed you with the Coat of His Son’s perfect righteousness. The rags of your sin are gone and your nakedness is covered. Wear it humbly, thankfully, and openly to show God’s grace in Jesus to all generations. Wear His Coat so that others may want to wear it too, and go to the Son to plead a Coat for themselves and their children. This is the great calling for us as a church in 2014. It is a message that might be unfashionable in the world, but a message which never goes out of date.