[First published in the monthly congregational Notes, for February, 2014]
In part of the Alice in Wonderland story, Alice comes to a crossroad, without any sign or clue as to where each road led. Looking round for anything that might help, she noticed a smile, which then materialised into the body of the Cheshire cat. Alice asked the cat where she should go. The cat replied, ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.’ The dialog continues: ‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the cat. … And that is true.
Evolutionists tell us that the universe has no meaning in its existence, and is not moving towards any determined goal. If that is so, then there is no meaning for “me”, and “I” am just a random self-conscious element in a random universe. In that case, desiring some overall direction or purpose in life is ultimately pointless; the old adage “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” [1 Cor 15:32] is enough. But despite the confidence of our materialist friends, there is something deep in the psyche of what it is to be human that insists on seeking meaning and purpose in life, and despairs when it cannot be found. To the evolutionist, this is just a quirk of human development, but those who take the Genesis record seriously understand this drive as part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and that this image, though broken by sin, still makes its presence felt in every person.
It is the clear testimony of God’s Word that the universe is not meaningless, and that despite the fact that billions of people make choices every day, the flow of history is not random or uncertain. God has appointed a day when He will hold all persons who have ever lived to account, and He will judge sin, and bring His adopted sons and daughters into His eternal glory. This is the way in which all of history is going. We may not know how God will weave together our small contribution to the sum of events in all of history, but we can be assured that what we do is meaningful.
But while we accept that our lives are meaningful, there is often a desire to know more; to know how they are meaningful in every detail. Precisely because there are so many choices, we want to know “which road to take” in every situation in case we miss out on something very important. But will we always know the significance of every detail? Well, consider Abraham. He was called by God and commanded to go “to a land that I will show you” [Gen 12:1]. So he travelled, not knowing precisely where, [Heb 11:8] and it was not until he arrived in Canaan that he was told, “This is the place” [Gen 12:7]. It must have been hard explaining to his household that they were still moving on; that he did not know where the journey would end, but that despite this ignorance it would, in the providence of God, most assuredly end somewhere good and at the right time. That is part of what it is to walk by faith. And so for us. We do not always know every implication of every choice we have to make, but we know they cannot take us out of His will.
So we go forward in life without fear and at peace, because God has shown us that He controls the flow of history even through the free actions of sinful men [Acts 12:22-2, 36], and if He can incorporate the actions of the deliberately ungodly, surely He will gather up the actions of His beloved children within His purposes. This is a wonderful freedom—not to go and sin recklessly, but to seek to honour God in all we do. To do that, we are simply asked to be obedient to what we know of God in every case, and to trust Him when we have to step out in patient faith.
[First published in the congregational Notes for January, 2014.]
One of the great privileges we have as Christians is the real sense of belonging that comes from knowing that we have been gathered up as “the children of God” [Jn. 1:12], the number of which is so great that it can be likened to “the grains of sand on the seashore” and the number of the stars in the sky [Gen 15:6 & 22:17]. Also, as His adopted children we are precious in a particular sense as we have been redeemed with a price personally paid by the Son Himself, and applied to us by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit. We are part of history’s “great crowd” [Rev. 7:9]. Someone may point out from life’s sad experience that we can still be lonely and lost in a crowd even as we acknowledge that we have a lot in common with everyone else in the crowd. While that can be true here on earth, I dare say that no-one will be lonely in heaven’s eternity where our fellowship with God and one another will be perfect. But this possibility of earthly loneliness is surely one reason why God has ordained that Christians see themselves as part of a body; interconnected and inter-dependent. This is the simple message of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12: a body simply cannot function if each part insists on staying aloof from other parts and both the body and the part will suffer.
Our age is showing the unhelpful consequences of a few centuries of growing individualism. There are other reasons, to be sure, but an affluence unheard of in past generations and advances in portable technology have combined to reduce our day by day need to interact with others. We can shop, bank, study, communicate, play games and even travel [vicariously] all from behind a single small screen and all alone. These things are not inherently wrong and sometimes they are extremely helpful. For all our challenges, who would really want to live even 150 years ago without but unless we take opportunity to redress this imbalance, particularly in our attitude to the Church, we will be the poorer for it. Listen as the Spirit of God instructs us from the books of Romans: “… so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another [Romans 12:5]. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another [12:10]; Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion[12:16]. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law[13:8]. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way [14:13]. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus [15:5], Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God [15:7]. Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another [15:14] . Greet one another with a holy kiss. …[16:16].”
We cannot miss the point: congregational life has a communal aspect that cannot be filled from the privacy and isolation of our lounge room. Nor will it come naturally so we must seek it deliberately and prayerfully. We will be blessed by the flow of life from Christ our Head as we do. However we must always ensure that our “one another-ness” is not something which excludes the stranger or the visitor. If they are Christ’s we must show them that they are already one-another with us because He is the only lasting basis of our unity. If not, we pray that they sense something which the Spirit will use to draw them to love Jesus and His Church.
[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!
[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.”
[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.