Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

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!

When the “Water Level” Drops

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

Anyone who has used the gate between the Church and hall over the years will know that in dry periods it does not close or open properly. Local knowledge then comes into play and with a bit (sometimes a lot) of downward force on the gate everything lines up and the latch works as it should. So the lock itself is not at fault. Has the gate has been bent somehow or its locking frame come loose? A quick inspection shows nothing wrong there; the issue is more fundamental. Large as they are, the buildings themselves move relative to one another, and by up to 3mm! It is this movement that causes the mis-alignment. And all this is because of water—or rather, lack of it.

As its moisture content reduces, the soil shrinks so both buildings drop but one drops more than the other and the misalignment occurs. As moisture returns to its normal level, the soil expands, the buildings rise and everything lines up again. All this is out of sight and if it were not for the gate no-one would ever really know of it—unless, or until one day the moisture level drops so much that one of the buildings (or both) cannot not cope with the strain and cracks. To some this simply shows the amazing power of water, but as I pondered this I wondered if there was a lesson here. Could a falling “water level” in our cultural foundations explain our present social troubles?

It is unarguable that many things in our society simply do not operate the way they once did. Things seem out of alignment. Older markers of right and wrong no longer match social mores. Respect for God is falling away and with that a general acknowledgement of the value of the 10 Commandments as a solid social foundation. Crimes (especially nasty ones) seem on the up and morality is definitely on the way down. New freedoms mean that “anything goes” but for how long, as everything seems to be falling apart? Family structures are increasingly dysfunctional and basic distinctions between the sexes are being deliberately erased. Any protest is quickly cut off as “-phobic.” Trust and good-will are increasingly rare as self-governance degenerates into licence, so that more and more things are only held together by pressure, the “force” of laws, penalties and fear. As evidence, one only needs to consider the huge amounts of money governments spend on security cameras, facial recognition technology and other social monitoring schemes. This is simply an attempt to keep things working through “force”. But history shows that in the long run a society held together only by force will crack apart.

So, will the “water-level” in our social foundations one day rise to bring everything back into alignment again without this need of force? And what could that “water-level” be? In Rom 1:18-32, God warns that when He ceases to be acknowledged, He withdraws His gracious influence and leaves sinners to their own devices. Verse 28 is blunt: ”Since they did not like to retain God in their thinking, God gave them over to a debased mind…” Decline is inevitable, and the consequences are listed in vv 29-32.

On the other hand, when a culture turns (or returns) and submits to Christ, it is lifted up. The Holy Spirit comes as promised in Is 44:3 and as He indwells more and more individuals, bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit, (Gal 5:22-23) the whole community benefits. The “water-level” rises! Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could say that Australia was a land where the extended description of the Christian life given in Eph 4:17-6:20 applied? (Read it and refresh your mind!!) Well, let it be the description of the life you live! Don’t let the “water level” drop! If it has, let it be filled up again. Walk closely to Christ, embrace His sanctifying work, and delight in the work of the Holy Spirit, and you will find that your life will be a blessing.

Broken, But Repaired under Warranty

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for August, 2019]

The product doesn’t work as it should so we “exercise our rights” and take it back, expecting a new one. We know the law! Imagine our surprise and annoyance if we were to be told, “You no longer have any right to complain about this product. The government has changed the law and all warranties are now invalid. Your product came from the factory that way and you will just have to accept it. There will be no exchange and no refund.” We would feel cheated. Of course, depending on the type of fault we may be able to repair it and perhaps we will be surprised at how long it lasts. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not what it should have been and we will feel wronged. No-one likes a broken product.

So what do we do with broken people? We need think carefully before responding because we are broken people as well. We “came from the factory” that way, along with everyone else. We also need to define brokenness. We know that people are born with all sorts of functional disabilities and challenges, and we can rejoice that human learning is working to overcome these things so that more may live a fuller life. We recognise that this functional brokenness is not good; even Jesus did (John 9:1-3). But that is only part of the story. Human brokenness is moral as well as functional and there is a world of difference between the two. Moral brokenness means we will fail because we want to and that there will be times when we will like being broken.

This is the key to understanding the Bible’s message. Despite the warning he was given, Adam deliberately chose moral brokenness (willing disobedience) rather than his created perfection, and with that choice passed this moral brokenness on to every one of his descendants. This brokenness is what the Bible calls sin and why it can say, “There is none righteous…there is none who seeks after God…there is no one who does good… all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10-23).

Moral brokenness perversely denies that anything is broken and tells us we must not complain or criticise if someone else lives according to a different moral standard. “It is just how people are.” Each person becomes their own moral arbiter and everything must be accepted as morally good so long as “no-one is hurt” or “society consents.” We are seeing this view come to its ascendancy in our own day backed by the full force of law. But this “freedom” is no more liberating that the freedom Adam sought in Eden, and will lead to exactly the same result: decline, death and separation.

Mercifully God did not throw us away in our brokenness and leave us to decay even further. Instead, He appointed the righteous moral perfection of Jesus as a gracious substitution for all who repent. It is Jesus’ life for ours. He not only paid the penalty for our sin but guaranteed our full restoration. In a sense, God takes the morally broken and repentant person back under the warranty purchased by His Son, even though the faults were not His responsibility. He then re-brands us as His own work.

As we come to understand this, we should be amazed and over-awed by such a love! When reminded of our own moral brokenness we will never want to say, as others may, “That is a part of who I am!” as if somehow our brokenness is essential to our identity. We do want to not call the broken, Good! Instead, we will look forward in hope to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) in the new heaven and new earth where righteous dwells ( 2 Pet 3:13). And as we go on, we will pray for grace to live holy and transformed lives.

Jesus: The Key to Unseen Things

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

Christians are often accused of believing in an imaginary God who dwells in an imaginary heaven and who holds out imaginary ‘rewards’ (as they call it) for good behaviour. Those who say such things show that they have little understanding of the rules of evidence, of science or the Bible. Grace is most certainly not a reward! A moment’s reflection shows how inadequate is the argument that only visible things are real. A little child will happily explain that just because we cannot see something does not mean that it does not exist or has not existed. Our experience tells us that reality is not limited to physical things, and only the most doctrinaire materialist would tell us that ‘love,’ ‘joy,’ ‘peace’, etc., are not real simply because they cannot be seen or put in a bottle! It is the same with people. I cannot now “see” my great-grandparents but that does not mean they never existed. There are photographs and the testimony of those who knew them personally and one can go to places where they lived and left evidence of doing real things in the world.

So is the God whom we cannot see merely a relic from an unscientific age? Speaking scientifically, the intricacy and fine tuning within our universe bears witness that it could not have come into being as a result of slow, unguided evolution. It is designed for life. The same evidence for design is there in even the most basic living cell. All creation bears witness to its Creator (Rom 1:18-23). God has “signed” His work.

We also have the recorded testimony of those who saw God’s amazing acts or heard His voice first hand, such as Abraham and Moses and all the prophets. Someone may dismiss this as ancient unreliable testimony. Then what of John the Baptist who heard the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism or the apostles who heard it at Jesus’ transfiguration? (e.g. Mk 9:7). “Ah,” someone may say, “these simple folk misinterpreted what they experienced!” Shall we say that the brilliant Jewish scholar Saul (aka the apostle Paul) ‘misinterpreted’ when he heard and saw what others could not (Acts 9:1-19; 2Cor 12:1-5)? It changed his life. He will be dismissed as a another narrow-minded fanatic!

But what shall we do with the testimony of Jesus, whom many will accept as a fine ethical and moral teacher? Will He also be dismissed as the product of His time? He knew the importance of first-hand witness (Jn 3:11; 20:27) and when He spoke of God it was not something secondhand. His testimony was bold. “Verily, verily, I say unto you…” are words of One who insists, on pain of complete dismissal, that He is not a liar. We cannot be selective. If we hear Jesus at one point, we must hear Him on all points. He did not merely teach from human insight but spoke of the Father’s glory and claimed to have shared that glory prior to His own incarnation (Jn 17:1-26). He claimed to have predated Abraham (Jn 8:57-8), to know the Father intimately (Jn 10:15, 30, 36-38) and to speak His very words (Jn 8:28). He said that to hate Him is to hate His Father also (Jn 15:23). As C.S. Lewis said, “He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord!”

Jesus believed the Old Testament to be true in every respect and taught that it spoke of Him (Jn 5:39). He also promised the enabling of the same Holy Spirit who inspired those writings (e.g. Mk 12:36) to validate its apostolic interpretation and to oversee all we now have in the New Testament (Jn 15:26, 16:26-27). Once again God has “signed” His work.

As we read carefully and prayerfully we shall meet and hear the One we cannot see, who will tell us of things we (presently) cannot see. But this is not forever. One day, we shall see Him as He is, and His word will be demonstrably true. But by then, it will be too late to change our minds. Far better to heed Him now—even if we cannot see Him.

Preaching the Cross

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for June, 2019.]

When the Apostle Paul reminisced about his first visit to Corinth, he summed it this way, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Of course, that did not mean that when he spoke he only ever gave the same one talk or series of talks over and over again. The Bible itself contains more than the events of the cross for us to know. Nor did it mean that he ignored the resurrection, as if somehow believing in that great event was not essential (though amazingly one does hear of people who call themselves Christians who don’t believe it). And he certainly would not have omitted the extra-ordinary events of Pentecost and the implications of that amazing day for the whole Church for all the time that the Lord Jesus was away before his return. We can read in his letters that Paul spoke of many things regarding the Church, and even his two Corinthian letters show that he taught much more than what happened in Jerusalem those years earlier.

Someone may think that Paul was simply exaggerating for emphasis as well trained rhetoricians of his day would do. Well, no doubt there is a degree of truth to that idea because the cross is foundational to the Christian message and Paul would have given it the emphasis it deserved. But there is another, related sense, that Paul meant to convey as well. That is, that all of the wonderful truths of the Old Testament, and anything he had taught them about Jesus would never be of any profit to them or to anyone else, if the events of the cross had not occurred.

The cross is the key that unlocks for us the whole message of the Bible (not just the New Testament) and gives us hope. This is because it deals with the great issue of the Justice of God. Sin must be punished; it cannot be glossed over as a minor irritation or merely a weakness. Justice commits God always to do what is right, so unless the Justice of God is settled completely and for eternity, there can be no righteous (i.e. just) exercise of God’s love, grace, mercy, or the restraint of His wrath!

Sin turns us into debtors, incurring a debt we cannot pay, either now or throughout eternity. Sin establishes us as enemies of God incapable of doing anything ourselves (or even wanting to do anything ourselves) that would effect our reconciliation to Him. And sin makes us criminals; lawbreakers who rather break the law of God than suffer our wills to be inconvenienced or go without. So now, unless there is some way in which our status as debtors, enemies and criminals can be justly dealt with, and permanently, God’s love can never rest on us, grace will only be a dream and mercy will at best only ever be a temporary stay of the wrath to come.

This is why it is important to note that the Bible tells us that the cross was part of the Divine purpose from before the foundation of the world (1 Pet 1:20, Rev 13:8). God knew that Adam and Eve would sin at Satan’s deception thus adding to Satan’s guilt. (Note that this does not excuse Adam in any way!) But He also knew that through the Incarnation of His Son, sin would be justly dealt with at the cross. This knowledge allowed grace to be shown to Adam and Eve, and to all who seek His mercy. It also proves that all God’s attributes (e.g. justice, wrath, love, grace, mercy etc.) can co-exist without compromise to any. Thus when Satan receives his final judgment, he cannot “demand” that grace and mercy be shown to him for God to prove His character.

We may say then, that because of the Cross you can have a just salvation and Satan can have no argument against the justice of his condemnation

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