Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Christmas & the Danger of Sentimentality

[taken from the monthly congregational Notes, December 2013.]

Sentimental: adjective, of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.

Christmas can be a sentimental time – and that is not necessarily a bad thing. As well as the brightness of Christmas lights and the fun of gifts and special menus, cards, letters, phone calls and emails all help us keep in touch with distant family members and friends. Old disagreements can be safely forgotten—for a day at least. We often turn our minds to the remembrance of loved ones. Old photos are dusted off and a sense of wistfulness rolls gently into mind as, just for a moment we imagine how things might have been different, even much better, as we see it, if they were still with us. We romance the ‘good old days’ when life seemed so much less complicated; and for a while the world seems just that little bit smaller and friendlier, as a neighbour’s open window wafts the strain of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. “Odd,” you say to your self, “he said he wanted nothing to do with Jesus.”

Sentimentality is not helpful when it comes to the Christian gospel. The Christian faith certainly requires us to look back but with an historical and not a sentimental eye! In fact, it can so invade the Christian message that it obscures it altogether! Consider again the narratives of the Incarnation. We can be so consumed by the romance of “dress-ups”, angels, shepherds, and wise men (on camels?) all coming to see ‘the baby Jesus’ that we forget the sobering reality of why he came to be born in the first place—to bear for each one of His people, the awful weight of the curse spoken in Genesis 3 and to crush the serpent’s head. The prince of darkness who drove Herod’s irrational and murderous jealousy did not sentimentalise Jesus’ birth one little bit! He knew that Bethlehem meant war, but he did not know that the war would be won at the Cross. Jesus did, and there He conquered!

When we sentimentalise Bethlehem, whether in song or any of the arts we un-wittingly start out along the road which, step by step diminishes the reality of the historical Jesus. Though we may not realise it, that road leads away from the Cross to a benign, “safe” Jesus who bears no resemblance to the King whose eyes blaze fire, and who stands with a glory as fierce and radiant as molten bronze or the blazing sun; whose voice is like the roaring sea and whose words cut to pieces! [Rev. 1:14-15]. This is no longer the cute imagery of a little baby! No, when we sentimentalise Bethlehem, we become dull to the reality that Jesus will one day come again, and that for some the circumstances of his next coming will be anything but benign!

According to the book of Hebrews, [Heb 9:26] when Jesus comes again it will not be for sin. What does that little phrase mean? He first coming was to make atonement for sin. For that He humbled himself, put aside his glory and rights, and came as a servant [Phil 2:6-9]. He was born as a true human and lived a real, sinless human life. Apart from the brief moment of “transfiguration” [Matt 17:2] everything about his glorious person was veiled. Even following his resurrection triumph his glory was veiled. But it is not veiled now [John 17:1-5] and there will be nothing veiled about his coming the second time. That will be in the triumph of One who has the victory over sin and death! None shall stand in His presence unless one has first come to Him for grace and forgiveness and all who do come are secure.

Without Bethlehem there could be no cross, and so no grace or forgiveness either. A sentimental tale? No! Amazing Grace? Absolutely! The most profound event ever in human history: the eternal Son of God became man for our salvation! Christian, integrity demands that you live this December to show that you believe it!

Charles Spurgeon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

[Published in the congregational “Monthly Notes” for November, 2013.]

Our “guest” editorial this month turns our thoughts to the grace of God that allows us to “come home,” something we should never ever forget. The Parable of the Prodigal Son encapsulates this overwhelming grace that is shown to all who repent in a very powerful way. Listen to Charles Spurgeon, in his 1857 sermon titled: “Confession of Sin – A Sermon with Seven Texts” [slightly edited]

I come now to the last instance, which I shall mention; it is the case of the prodigal in Luke 15:18. Let me picture the scene. There is the prodigal; he has run away from a good home and a kind father, and he has spent all his money with harlots, and now he has none left. He goes to his old companions, and asks them for relief. They laugh him to scorn. “Will you not help me?” “Get away” they say; and he is turned out of doors. He goes to all his friends, but no one gives him anything. At last a certain citizen of the country said—“Well go and feed my swine.” — the worst employment (to his mind,) to which he could be put.

Suddenly a thought strikes his mind. “How is it,” says he, “that in my father’s house there is bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, “I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”

He begs his way from town to town. Sometimes he gets a lift, perhaps, but at other times he goes trudging his way all alone. And now at last he sees his father’s house. There it is; the old tree against it, and there are the stacks round which he and his brother used to run and play; and at the sight of the old homestead all the feelings and associations of his former life rush upon him, and tears run down his cheeks, and he is almost ready to run away again. What am I to do? I cannot go back, I am afraid to go forward.” He says “I wonder whether father’s dead I daresay mother broke her heart when I went away; I always was her favorite. And if they are either of them alive, they will never see me again; they will shut the door in my face. What am I to do?

His father had been walking on the housetop, looking out for his son; and though he could not see his father, his father could see him.

Well, the father comes down stairs with all his might, runs up to him, and whilst he is thinking of running away, his father’s arms are round his neck, and he falls—to kissing him, like a loving father indeed, and then the son begins—“Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son …” But his father puts his hand on his mouth.

“No more of that,” says he; “I forgive you all; you shall not say anything about being a hired servant—I will have none of that. Ho!” says he to the servants, “bring hither the best robe, and put it on him, and put shoes on his poor bleeding feet; and bring hither the fatted calf and kill it; and let us eat and be merry. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.” Oh, what a precious reception for one of the chief of sinners!

Now, prodigal, you do the same. Has God put it into your heart? There are many who have been running away a long time now. Does God say “return?” Oh, I bid you return, for as surely as ever thou dost return he will take thee in. There never was a poor sinner yet who came to Christ, whom Christ turned away. Oh, if you could but try him! “Ah, sir, I am so black, so filthy, so vile.” Well come along with you—you cannot be blacker than the prodigal. Come to your Father’s house, and as surely as he is God he will keep his word— “Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.”

Owning the Gospel — In Every Generation (and in East Timor!)

[First published in the monthly Notes for October]

It is sometimes said that every age is only ever one generation away from serious decline. At first, this might seem to be a bit alarmist, especially if applied to the whole of history, but a moment’s thought will show how true it is for our own day. We have become so reliant on technologies which go beyond the ordinary citizen’s competence that if all of a sudden those with specialist skills were removed, our ordinary way of life would seriously suffer. [To see how the absence of even a most basic technology created serious cultural and social problems, see 1 Samuel 13:20.]

What is true of technology is even truer in the realms of liberty, freedom and of the gospel. If we do not make the effort to understand and keep what we have, we shall surely lose it because, as the philosopher George Santayana wrote early in the 20th century, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must therefore, each one, always hold in our minds a little bit of history and a little bit of theology if we are to move forward and build properly upon our past. But history and theology are the very disciplines that technology often displaces, and that many in times of material prosperity will happily ignore as useless.

The medieval world was highly religious and theological but over time its doctrine of life and salvation departed from the wonderful message of God’s grace and became a depressing message of salvation by works; depressing because unless a sinner could somehow personally accumulate [or buy] enough credit, no salvation was possible. The impetus of the Reformation was to bring back the Bible to the centre of theology and with that its wonderful message of hope: God had provided a Saviour to effect what no person could ever do [John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-8]. Life was transformed—and nations too! As the Bible came back into the public space within many nations, Catechisms were written so that sound doctrine might enter into every home and be passed on to every new generation. The hope was that in this way the theological advances of the Reformation would not be forgotten. The Heidelberg, Westminster Larger and Westminster Shorter Catechisms and others which we still have today, were all written with this trans-generational aim.

For many years, truth was faithfully passed on, answering questions such as, What is your only comfort in life? [Heidelberg], What is Justification? What is God? What is Prayer? and the well known: What is the chief end of man? the answer to which still resonates: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Sadly much of that transmission slowly became formal and traditional so that what the preface to the Westminster Confession of Faith lamented as a past declension, viz. “…most men take up their religion upon no better account than … because it is the religion of the times and places wherein they live, and what they take up thus slightly, they lay down as easily…” became true once more. Those growing up in Christian homes and schools lost sight of why those doctrines were important and how to explain them. As the use of Catechisms declined, both Church and then culture lost their way.

The first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism in the Tetun language is as follows: Q. Saida mak ema nia objetivu prinsipal? A. Ema nia objetivu prinsipal mak foti aas Maromak i senti Maromak nia diak iha nia moris tinan ba tinan.

Our 2013 Thanksgiving Offering makes it possible that new generations of East Timorese and their children will have occasion to learn this wonderful truth and delight in the God of Grace who makes their living worthwhile and gives purpose to them as they rebuild their nation to glorify Him.

Jesus Healing the “Bent Woman” — And You?

First published in the monthly congregational Notes for September, 2013.

When we read of the different healings Jesus performed it is easy to overlook some of the emphases in each. After all, isn’t one healing just like another? Let us ponder the healing the woman bent over for 18 years, in Luke 13:10-17. As with all of Jesus’ actions, this was no accident, but a deliberate act of self-revelation. So, it was no accident that it occurred on a Sabbath day in a Synagogue, and no accident that He repeated an act which the first time around [see Mark 3:1-6] had resulted in a plan to destroy him. There are multiple focal points in this story.

Consider Jesus first. Somehow he had been invited [again] to read and teach in the Synagogue. Whether out of politeness, an attempt to expose him as a fraud, or as a result of genuine interest in what he might say, we don’t really know. Once there, He completely rose above any negativity and took control. It was all His initiative. He looked at her, not with the stare of curiosity but with a look that went beyond her physical appearance and condition to her true need. He called her out from her place in the synagogue, (probably up the back and almost out of sight) and in doing so probably broke a lot of gender taboos. He then healed the woman without her permission or request, and on His own authority. When challenged, he called the synagogue leader a hypocrite and effectively accused him of considering the lady as less than an animal. In all this, he deliberately broke, and therefore rejected, all the traditions that had been added to the 4th Commandment. Then to cap it all off, he commended her faith as that found in a true “daughter of Abraham.”

So what of the woman? We cannot be sure what her affliction was, other than that it meant that she could not stand upright and that in some way it was as a result of a particular Satanic activity. [There is NO implication that it was because of any sin on her part and we should always remember that Satan can only act by permission.] We don’t know if she understood all this, or whether her presence in the synagogue was regular or whether this was a one-off because she had heard that Jesus was there. Her attendance on any day would have involved major effort. Whatever the case, it is clear that on this Sabbath she did not let the burden of 18 years of her affliction keep her away from worshipping the Creating, Saving, Rest-giving God to whom the Sabbath pointed. And what grace she received! What praise she gave!

The crowd of regular worshippers also rejoiced! Yes, there is in their joy a contrast with the official’s dismay, but many of them also had begun to see that whoever He was, Jesus stood for stripping away all the heavy burdens their religious tradition had added to God’s law. God had said nothing that forbade healing on a Sabbath!

As readers, we are quick to criticize a system that had turned the 4th Commandment into a hateful burden rather than a blessing. We cringe at a theology that coldly demanded she get healed on a non-Sabbath before coming to worship, a theology that completely missed the point of grace and had degenerated into moralism. Such views still live on with the idea that people must be “decent” before coming to Jesus.

Infinitely worse than a bent body is a spiritually bent mind; an affliction we all have in Adam by nature. We are unable to walk in righteousness at all until Jesus sets us free. Like the woman we need to hear and heed the healing, releasing words of Jesus: Come unto Me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. We must reject as Devilish lies all religious traditions which demand that we must seek healing before we come to Jesus, for they will keep us prisoner.

Dear reader, if you hear Him calling you to come and be healed from your sin, come. Do not delay, and don’t try to heal yourself first.

Jesus Christ and the True Knowledge of God

[Taken from the monthly congregational Notes, August, 2013.]

Chapter 2 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is titled, Of God and the Holy Trinity, and gives what must surely be one of the most compact yet comprehensive statements about God ever written. The whole character and perfection of God is summed up in just 311 words, yet the exposition of what those 311 words say has taken the highest Christian minds to the limits of human comprehension for centuries. Of all these sublime words, reactions to the 55 in section 3 have ranged from the most heart-searching and humbling devotion through serious debates and then on to overt hostility within the record of Church history. That section reads:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

The doctrine of the Trinity is easy to state but the mere recitation of words, however focused on God they might be, is of no value to anyone. Christianity is not a faith of mantras or spells. Words are to convey meaning not magic. Yet here is the great dilemma: how can the human mind embrace and absorb all that is true of God? How can there be, for example, three Persons of one substance …? To put it in the words of the past, finitas non capax infinitas or “the finite cannot grasp the infinite.”

If that were absolutely true in every respect, our desire to possess any knowledge of God would be hopeless. We would be like the proverbial four blind men trying to describe an elephant, each groping in the theological dark and captive to our impressions of what we think God might be like, but unable to know anything of Him definitively. Some in our day insist that this is indeed the case, that it is not possible to know truth of any sort, let alone truth about God.

But it is the clear and consistent testimony of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that God has NOT left us in the dark to grope around theologically and scratch out dogmas which can only ever be uncertain. No. It is the clear testimony of the Bible that humanity is made in the image of God; not by accident, but by divine command. Because of this important fact, we are capable of recognizing and understanding the words He speaks to us. In Eden, communication was free and open until Adam and Eve chose to disobey and were expelled. Yet even after that, God in His grace continued to speak, repeating the promise of a redeemer through prophets and typifying his work through priestly sacrifices in tabernacle & temple.

In the fullness of time, that communication climaxed in the coming of Jesus Christ: in his human nature, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary; in His Divine nature the Eternal Word. It is in “the Word made flesh”, the “Light of the World”, the “Way, the Truth and the Life” that the fullest knowledge of God is brought to us, so it is in understanding the Biblical testimony to Him that the doctrine of the Trinity is at once necessary and apparent. Without Him, it should not surprise us to find that the doctrine remains incomprehensible. Here is the reason why cults and non-believers stumble at this point: they simply do not know Jesus Christ.

Reader, Do you know Jesus Christ? You must if you would have any sure, personal knowledge of God, even if only as creator, let alone as redeemer. Begin, then, with Him. Learn who He is, and let Him show you the Father, and promise the presence of the Holy Spirit to warm your soul. In Him, the finite can grasp the Infinite!

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