Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Down, Maybe, but Never Out!

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for February, 2020.]

If you have never read John Bunyan’s classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress (or if you have previously only read a shortened children’s version a long time ago) why not make a “February Resolution” to read it this year? I doubt you will regret it and there should still be plenty of copies in local libraries, and perhaps even audio copies of professional readings to listen to. The story is an allegory and narrates the journey of a man who travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, via the Cross. As he goes, the man, originally called Graceless but soon renamed Christian, meets many challenges. Some of these come from the nature of the journey, some come from companions who eventually proved false and some represent spiritual battles and challenges that he must face from within. In all these, Bunyan shows great insight.

On one occasion, Christian, dressed in the Armour of God described in Eph 6:11ff, finds that his path takes him through a place called the Valley of Humiliation. Not long after entering it, he was attacked by the demon Apollyon, who aim was to force Christian to return to the City of Destruction in shameful defeat or kill him if he would not go back.

A fierce battle followed during which Apollyon taunts Christian with his weakness, failures, doubts and fears, and questions God’s goodness and love for allowing him to face these struggles. Christian bravely uses his Shield of Faith (Eph 6:16), but still receives some serious wounds which weaken him. The battle rages for over half a day, and Christian is exhausted, falling to the ground at one point, losing his sword. It seems over, but to quote Bunyan, “… as God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly reached out his hand for his sword, and caught it, saying, Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise, (Mic. 7:8); and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back, as one that had received his mortal wound. Christian perceiving that, made at him again, saying, Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us. (Rom. 8:37). And with that Apollyon spread forth his dragon wings, and sped away, so that Christian saw him no more. (James 4:7).

This battle was not Christian’s last. Bunyan’s purpose was twofold. Yes, faith gave Christian his defence but it was ultimately the Sword, the Bible, that caused Apollyon to flee, and God was over the battle and gave Christian the strength for victory.

We must take the same lessons. Satan’s attacks will not always be of the same sort but they all have the same aim: the destruction of our Christian commitment. Sometimes his temptations are subtle; we do not see them coming until they are upon us. We must be prepared for ambush! Sometimes, especially if we are confident that we have good spiritual momentum in ourselves, we will find that he uses our strength against us (Prov 16:12, 1Cor 10:12)! Sometimes we just seem to be under attack for no reason other than that he hates us. Well, in every case, let temptation make us hate sin more!

Though Satan is strong, Christ is stronger and no-one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand (Jn 10:27-29). At times we may be down (even by our own folly) but we will never be “out”. We may not always understand why some temptations come and not others, but in every case our response must be the same: take God at His word, resist and wait, holding to the promises of God! No trial is ever enjoyable, but the fruits of faithfulness are a great blessing (see 1 Pet 1:6-9 & Heb 12:11).

Flying By Faith through 2020

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for January, 2020]

A few years ago I enjoyed a session in a flight simulator for a Boeing 737. Everything was exactly as it would be in a real aircraft except for the lack of bumps and jolts that surely would have been felt if I had been flying a real plane. I managed to take off and land at Tullamarine without crashing. One can even say that taxiing, taking off and flying are all relatively easy especially if it does not really matter where we choose to go!! But landing safely at a given destination is the hard part and getting there and not crashing along the way is essential to that. While all the maze of instruments have their place and understanding them all is part of the art of flying, the Artificial Horizon Indicator is one of the most important. No matter what the attitude of the plane may be, it always parallels the earth’s horizon. It is a simple gadget but without it a pilot flying through thick cloud or fog, or flying on a cloudy, moonless night has no sure way of knowing whether the aircraft is flying nose up or down, or banking to the right or left. After a while, the consequences of this ignorance can be deadly.

If we use the image of flight to describe the Christian life, there are times when it can seem as if we are flying through cloud or fog. We have ‘taken off’ all right, and had many years of safe, smooth ‘sunny’ days in life with Jesus. Our goals are clear and we look forward to all that He still has for us in life. Life is easy! Then all of a sudden (or perhaps we’ve seen the clouds building up for a while) everything becomes cloudy or dark. We lose our reference points and cannot ‘see’ ahead. It may be that we can’t see any clear future direction and wonder why we should keep going, but as with flying, so with life: we cannot stop in mid-flight until things change! Or perhaps we are immersed in non-Christian values at work or in the classroom so we lose sight of our past reference points. We struggle to remember which way is ‘up’, i.e. God-ward, or even how to maintain our past moral direction, so we slowly veer off course and eventually crash. Or maybe we’ve learned to rely on others to navigate our way for us and they are now gone and we are on our own—and scared. There can be 1,000 maybes and they can be unsettling! “How can I fly ahead confidently when I cannot see where I am going?” “Why am I doing this?” or “How do I keep my life ‘level’ or even safe in this darkness?” we ask. They are real, sometimes troubling questions.

We may not know why God allows us to fly into clouds and storms (His secret will is never revealed), but God has not left us without a safe, reliable indicator for life—the Bible. No matter how upside down, clouded or confused our life may be, it faithfully reveals His level ‘horizon’ for us and gives us bearings to navigate ahead without crashing, even if we cannot presently see where He is leading. It always defines ‘up’ (ie. God-ward) and defines the level life: living in peace and unafraid (Heb 13:5-6).

We do not need to know God’s secret providence to live by faith (Heb 11:1); to know that we should love one another (Jn 15:12), live lives that are noticeably different to the mess that is the world (Col 3:5-22), work faithfully at what we are presently given to do (Col 3:23), trust God to work out His will in our plans (Phil 2:19, 24, Titus 2:11-13), be people of prayer (1 Thess 5:16-18), let the transforming light of Christ shine in and through us (Matt 5:16; Phil 2:15) and at the last, die well (2 Tim 4:6-8, 18).

If we give ourselves to these things we will be safely within the will of God no matter how unclear our life seems to us. God will bring us through 2020 and take care of the detail. You can stake your life on it, even in the darkest cloud and uncertainty.

Celebrating Christmas with the Prophet Micah

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for December, 2019.]

If we are familiar with the narrative of the Wise Men [Matt 2:1-12] we will have heard often Micah’s most well-known prophecy, when the priests of the day, confidently paraphrasing Micah 5:2-4, told Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. More than 700 years earlier, God had promised someone from Bethlehem who would be Ruler, who would be from of Old (Hebrew idiom for ‘very ancient’, even ‘eternal’). This One would feed Israel like a Shepherd in the strength and majesty of the Lord, and He would also be great “to the ends of the earth.” No wonder Herod was upset.

That was not all that Micah said. He had also spoken of a remnant gathered together into a flock (2:12) and a strong nation (4:7) from among the many people where they had been scattered (5:7-8), and this flock would have a king, nay even the Lord GOD Himself (2:13) to lead them in triumph! Furthermore, the Lord’s “house,” [ie Temple] would be lifted up in great triumph and this in turn would be a great drawcard for the nations. People from all over the earth would come seeking to be instructed in the ways of “the God of Jacob,” so that they might be obedient to Him! In consequence, nations would be at peace and people everywhere would gladly identify as God’s people (4:1-5). Isaiah had the same, great, exciting vision (Is 2:2-5).

Micah preached to a people living under the threat of the Assyrians who, it seemed, could invade and take people and plunder at will [2 Kings chapters 16-20]. All these troubles, Micah declared, were God’s judgments on a corrupt national and religious system (1:3-5), so when he interspersed his judgments with these words of hope they must have come as a great relief! God was going to vindicate Israel and Judah after all! Everything would be all OK! Except … Except that nothing like it happened at the time—or in the centuries that followed. But as with all the prophets, Micah interwove present warnings with future promises; something the priests, scribes and people in Herod’s day understood. God had spoken, so it had to happen “one day.” The only real question was simply, “When?” But there was another vital (overlooked) question as well, and that involved “How?” How would this Kingdom come?

Answering when and how started with the miraculous conception of Jesus. This is the thrust of Gabriel’s messages to Zacharias and to Mary. It also underlay the hope of Simeon and Anna (Lk 2:25-38) but it would have to await the preaching of John the Baptist (who took up many of the themes Micah addressed) for its full anticipation: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Matt 3:2-12). And until Jesus died and rose again to pay for sin it was too easy to see the Messianic Kingdom of God only in physical, nationalistic and ethnic terms, not realising that these things were more like scaffolding; preparing for something that would grow out far beyond just one nation.

Jesus understood it all correctly. He said that the prophets spoke of Him (John 5:39-40), that He was the Good Shepherd who would lead his people out (Jn 10:4,9), that His body was the real Temple (Jn 2:21) where God meets acceptably with man, and that when He was lifted up He would draw the nations to Himself (Jn 12:32), but to reject Him was to store up wrath which could not be avoided (Lk 21:21-24, Jn 3:36).

The Old Testament prophets can be a challenge, but this should not stop us from holding on to what is clear. They spoke strongly against sin and warned of judgment. We must listen to that if we are at all serious before God, but they also held out hope to all who confessed, repented, and trusted in His grace and mercy! This Christmas, celebrate with the prophet Micah at your table—he’ll be delighted to join you!!

Paying Just Wages & the Grace of God

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for November, 2019.]

In recent years we have learned of companies paying their employees less than the appropriate award requires. Some have self-reported when audits have disclosed the issue and voluntarily promised to make good the difference, while others cases have only come to light as a result of complaints and adjudication by courts. We are rightly offended when someone is not paid properly and it goes against our Aussie sense of fair play. Put bluntly, deliberate underpayment is theft. It is ‘taking without paying’ (Deut 24:14-15; Jer 22:13). We might accept an honest mistake but we still expect the wages deficit to be made right. Fair is fair. But fairness works two ways! To be consistent we must also expect that overpaid wages should be returned as well.

Now, let us extend the matter a little bit. Because God is the Creator of all, every one of us lives in His world. The life we have has ultimately come from Him and all we enjoy and use in the world is His. By any colloquial measure (speaking reverently), He is the Boss whether we acknowledge Him or not. All are accountable to Him and owe Him honour and obedience in return for all He lets us use. To do otherwise is to ‘take without paying’. And, as Genesis makes clear, we all live under what we might call the “Human Life and Worship Award” established with Adam and Eve in Eden.

The terms of that award are simple and govern the whole of human existence. They are not hidden away in obscure fine print but written openly upon all human hearts and more clearly expanded in the Bible through the Ten Commandments, the words of Moses, the prophets and apostles and of course Jesus. In essence the terms are this: Obey Me and you will live under My blessing; disobey and you will live under My curse. Because God is absolutely Good, they are perfectly Good terms and because God is faithful and just to all He proposes, He will follow the terms of that award to the letter. Sadly, Adam did not care, and disobediently preferred his own terms.

In the enjoyment of the good life here in Australia, award clauses such as “the wages of sin is death,” or “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom 6:23a; 3:23) or “the soul that sins shall die,” (Ezek 18:4) can seem remote and even irrelevant, but our consciences will tell us otherwise if we listen honestly. And when the sobering truth of those words sinks in it can be an overwhelmingly terrifying thing. Adam tried to hide from God because of it, as have many since, but this is hopeless as God Himself said through Jeremiah: “Can anyone hide himself in secret places so I shall not see him?” … “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the LORD. (Jer 23:24). And it would be a terrifying thing forever if it were not for the wonderful Grace of God.

Under that Grace, God is able and without compromise, to withhold the wages of sin so long as someone authorized will take responsibility for receiving them instead. This is our only hope, but where shall we find anyone who will bear so great a burden as our sin’s wages? Mercifully there is Someone Else!—Jesus, who by the cross agreed to take on Himself the wages due for all the sins of all who come to Him in real repentance and plead for mercy. Truly this is Amazing Grace and a sweet sound!

And the wonder does not stop there! In Jesus we have One who did live in full and perfect obedience under the Human Life and Worship Award! By His obedience He earned the blessings Adam forfeited. He earned the wages of Life. And the same grace whereby He take the wages of our sin allows Him to impute to us the wages of a perfect life in return. Dear reader will you not marvel at such Love, and Come?

The God Who Speaks

[first published in the monthly Congregational Notes for October, 2019.]

There is something wonderfully non-material about the gift of speech which we can too easily overlook. We think of something and want to share it so our brain directs a corresponding series of noises to be made with our mouth. Someone else hears these sounds, decodes them and (hopefully) understands in their mind what was first in ours. The process does not need to be taught; a young baby automatically learns to associate the word ‘Mum’ with the image of one who feeds, cares and loves, and that although ‘Dad’ also cares and loves, Dad is not Mum. Different images and ideas require different sounds, i.e. words. Other words quickly follow as a mind realises how language operates and soon learns that words also exist for ideas that cannot be seen. Yes, there is some subjectivity in words like ‘freezing’, ‘cold’, ‘chilly’ & ‘cool,’ but experience and context will often identify the difference between saying, “It is cool today,” in July or January, or in Melbourne and in Brisbane.

If words are not understood they are of little value and often indistinguishable from noise. If they are used wrongly, it can be very embarrassing. This is why much of early childhood education should be devoted to the function and rules of speech and how to relate words accurately to experience and ideas. This also requires accurate listening. Ancient civilizations identified this as learning grammar, logic and rhetoric and built whole educational systems on it. (Australia take note!)

The ability to communicate above and beyond merely physical things and to ponder invisibles and intangibles in the mind is a gift of God stamped upon us by virtue of our being very deliberately created “in God’s Image” (Gen 1:26-27). God is Triune, which among other things tells us that He is not some eternally mysterious, lonely “One” but a God who has always known the joy of communication. He is a speaking God (Gen 1:3); the Father, Son and Spirit each communicating in the “Us-ness” of Personhood (Gen 1:26). And because we are made in His image, humans are not just some species of intelligent animal as evolutionists tell us but created to have & enjoy communication about Him and with Him! Thus far Genesis chapters 1-2.

God also tells us that this image has been broken and spoiled through human sin. Despite this, broken bits of that image remain so that although we are fallen, we can still communicate with one another. We also still understand (inaccurately) the sense of the word “God” whatever language one uses (Rom 1:21), but being dead spiritually we will not respond to worship and honour Him as we should. This failure is simply to add sin to sin and only makes our situation worse. It is a downward spiral from which sinners cannot and do not want to escape even if they could.

Thankfully God in His grace still speaks, even to sinners. He lovingly calls them to repent and come to Him and be made new. But how can the spiritually dead hear of spiritual life and understand when it is beyond their experience? When all they have in their mind is the grammar, and rhetoric of sin? How can they hear the logic of grace: “Come unto Me and live”? How indeed! And there is our desperate plight.

Of ourselves we cannot and we will not hear, but so that we will hear accurately and so that we will desire what we otherwise could not, He graciously sends His Spirit to work in us. And He is the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9)! It is only in Jesus and because of Him that anyone, past, present or future, can hear the voice of God and live. When you hear Him speak, dear reader, do not close your ears, but listen in wonder!

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