Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Singing the Lord’s Songs

[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).

Grandma’s Coat, and 150 Years of Gospel Witness

[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.

150 Years of an Unchangeable Gospel for the Future

[first published in the monthly Notes, September 2014]

In the gospel history of Australia, 150 years is a relatively long time. It is even more significant in the history of Melbourne, which began to be formally settled in 1835 and gained its status as a city in 1847. Melbourne has changed a lot since then and no doubt there are debates over whether the changes have been for the better of for the worse. (The past always looks good!) Here as Christians we have to be careful. There can be a romance to the past as we look back, but there is no value for the Christian in living in the past. Yes, there may be aspects of yester-year that we might wistfully wish were still part of our time but returning to the past does not allow us the luxury of picking and choosing! The past is a complete package. Even if we only want to go back to the heady days of 1864 when our congregation began, we must embrace poorer roads, no cars, higher infant mortality, no refrigeration, painful dentistry, etc. etc. Perhaps after a great economic collapse those conditions could come again, but I am sure no-one is really hoping for that to happen.

However, while romanticising the past is unhelpful, it is an entirely different thing to look back so that we can learn what we might have lost along the way. When we do, we shall find that much of the quality of life that we romanticise was built on attitudes and values that did not depend on material or physical prosperity, but upon the recognition that there was a God, and that those who live are accountable to Him. Christians, understand this fully [or they should], but even that simple recognition constrains an unbeliever to act in different ways.

When our Presbyterian forebears determined to establish a congregation here in Hawthorn in 1864, they did so because they believed that “Jesus mattered”. They had been the beneficiaries of generations before them who believed and taught the gospel, and they realised their call to be a means of proclaiming Christ to their own and subsequent generations. Perhaps some were deficient in their understanding of the work of Christ, but nevertheless even these knew that “God” mattered and that Jesus had said things like “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength“ and “Love you neighbour as yourself” [Luke 10:27]. Society is very different when God is honoured, and inevitably degenerates when He is not.

So, if we want to bring something of the past back into our communities, the best way is to show them that “Jesus matters”—to us. We will do this by living in a way that shows others we have a relationship with Him that is not merely private (or even theoretical) but open, joyful and meaningful. We cannot hope to commend the gospel as an alternative to the prosperous and comfortable practical atheism of 21st century Australian life until we show that God is to be obeyed in His holiness at the same time as we love Him for His love. Too many people have come to think that the God who hates the sinfulness of the human heart and all its effects is a kill-joy.

Part of our witness must be in commending the community of our congregational life. Jesus cautions against the tendency to privatise our faith [Heb 10:25] by telling us to encourage one another, “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some” but by living lives that are focused upon Christ and upon His return [Heb 10:25]. In an age where Jesus is considered irrelevant, the priority we give to living as Christians who delight to meet with others will automatically identify us as “different” and open up many opportunities to explain why that is.

This is “Evangelism 101” [or do we say “Evangelism 150”??] and it is for all of us.

The Intentional Sins of Abraham

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for August 2014.]

We are taught by the New Testament to see in Abraham, the “father” of all who are justified by faith. In an extended argument in Romans 4 the apostle Paul shows how Abraham was not made right in God’s sight by any of good works he had done at any time. Rather, he received his righteousness by imputation: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Rom 4:3 and Gen 15:6]. He was justified by faith, and by faith alone. Of course, to be justified by faith alone does not mean that that faith is “alone”; it inevitably produces evidences, just as Jesus said, a good tree bears good fruit. We are familiar with evidence of Abraham’s faith. He heard and obeyed the call of God to leave his land to go to the land God would show him. He allowed Lot to take what seemed the best of the land, and trustingly stayed in a less fruitful land where he nevertheless, grew and multiplied whereas Lot ended up with nothing. Yes, he struggled to see how God could do what he had promised, but in the end always returned to believing and trusting God. Then, when finally blessed with his son he was willing to surrender him on the altar, believing that he would be raised from the dead if needed; and the young man Isaac clearly concurred! So, Abraham had been careful to teach his household the great things of a saving God.

But what of Abraham’s sins? No doubt Abraham was a man like us and so sinned daily in all sorts of ways [1Jn 1:8]. Scripture does not usually dwell on these, apart from telling us that daily sacrifices were offered because daily sins also need to be forgiven. But we are told that he lied about his relationship with Sarah his wife, not once but twice! Both times were deliberate, very “intentional”. We may want to explain the first lie to Pharaoh as a wobble for one new in the faith [Gen 12:10-20] but then we read of a second, identical and very intentional deception some 24 yrs later [Gen 20]! “Oh Abraham, have you forgotten?” If this shocks us we then recall that between these two events we have another very intentional departure from the God’s ways in the conception of Ishmael through Hagar, his wife’s servant girl! “Oh Abraham, can God’s blessings come except by His way? What were you thinking? “

Therein lies the problem. In all three cases described above, Abraham was thinking very carefully and clearly. He was thinking about the future and his place in it; no doubt he wanted desperately to experience more of the blessings of God. His actions were deliberate, but they were deliberately wrong, simply because in every case he chose to act his way and not to trust God. It was not wrong to care for his wife, or to want his promised son, but, as the accounts make very clear, God was well able to do all that Abraham hoped for, and much more! The fault was a lack of trust.

God is very clear about the sins of His own—they grieve Him. He describes them to us so that we may see the same lack of trust [and the same sins] in ourselves. These recursions to the ‘old man’ remind us of what we have been delivered from, as well as that without His strength, no-one can or will trust Him properly. He highlights these sins to keep us from our pride, and to lead us to repentance. God also tells us something else: though sins are covered by His grace, consequences may not be removed. In Ishmael’s case, they continue to affect us after 3700 years.

Yes, God will surely triumph despite our lack of trust [Isaac was born and Ishmael received the sign of circumcision too!] but this does not diminish our error; grace is not licence. There is full forgiveness and release by the grace of God; King David learned this after his own intentional sins [Ps 32], but there were many tears before he was truly free [Ps 51]. That is always true [2 Cor 7:10]. God’s grace is so rich and so undeserved, it is worth submitting all, even our intentions, to know it.

Reading the Old Testament to Learn of Jesus

[first published in the congregational Notes for July 2014.]

When we want to read of Jesus, we naturally think of turning to the New Testament and rightly so. It is there that we will read of his birth, his life, his miracles, and of course his death, resurrection ascension and promise of his return one day. There we read of the wonderful call to repent and follow him, the well known promise of John 3:16 that “whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” and Jesus’ personal application of that promise to the dying thief to show that whenever anyone calls upon him in repentance and faith we shall be heard. Then, as we read from Acts onwards, we continue the testimony of all that Jesus began to do and teach as the Holy Spirit continued the testimony of Jesus through the apostles, leading them in mission and prompting them to write.

It is not surprising then that as people have sought to make Jesus known through-out the world, their first attention has been to translate the New Testament into local languages. Similarly, much Christian instruction is dedicated to expounding the New Testament. All this is very good. However, we occasionally find some who go on to claim that the Old Testament will be of little value for the Church today as it is only the historical and prophetic support for the real message. All we need, they say, is a knowledge of Jesus, and a desire to love one another. What is our answer?

We know that despite all their personal knowledge of Jesus, the apostles did not dismiss the Old Testament. Yes, they understood that the Old Testament gave them valid historic and prophetic background, but they also knew that it was an integral part of their message. They had with their own ears heard Jesus say that the Old Testament must be fulfilled and after the resurrection they had the benefit of learning just what this meant [Lk 24:44-48]. Jesus had come in fulfillment of divine promise [Gen 3:15] and His coming could not be properly understood without knowing that promise. They knew that the “good news” they were commissioned to preach could not be understood apart from the backdrop of God’s holy law and its declaration that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. They knew that this does not make sense without a doctrine of creation which gathered every-thing and all who live, under the sovereign rule and ownership of the Triune God.

They understood that the same Holy Spirit who was speaking through them as apostles, spoke authoritatively in olden times through the prophets [Eph 2: 20-22, 2 Pet 3:1-2, et al]. The message was the same, though the details were progressive. It was first of all a revelation of God and how He deals with people. He initiates, He makes covenant, He promises, He disciplines and rebukes, and He judges and He redeems. They understood that He did all this in time, though its purpose was, and ever is, eternal. Yes, some of the Old Testament was given as example, illustration and foreshadowing, which would pass with the coming of Jesus and his death and resurrection, but the message was fundamentally a single, harmonious one. They knew that the Old Testament was first of all not about people, but God.

So, when we read the Old Testament, we likewise should read it first of all to learn of the character of God. When we do, we shall quickly realise that not everything it records is described with approval! Israel (and we) must know that even the best “heroes” of the faith themselves need a Saviour, and such as only God can provide. This then is the message of the Old Testament and we will miss so much of the richness of the New and its testimony of the way God has shown His redeeming love in His only-begotten Son, if we willfully remain ignorant of its message.

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