[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for June, 2018]
Last time we considered the first step in preparing for death—making sure that our trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins is firmly grounded in his saving work on the cross. What then in the meantime? Death may be years away; only the Lord knows!! Jesus’ words on the end times are appropriate here too, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt 24:44). Wesley said of the early Methodists, “Our people die well,” and that can be true of all believers.
What is it to be ready? We can draw some parallels from considering the plans we might make for a journey to another country. We have our passports and tickets, but what then? We may take some time to study something of our destination’s culture, laws and language. If we are in any way anxious about the journey, focusing on the destination lessens that fear and puts it all into perspective. In the same way, so long as we can hold the metaphor, though the ‘journey’ (i.e. the actual process of dying) may make us anxious and fearful, focusing on what little God has revealed about the destination will give us the grace to look beyond the moment of its coming (or the days, weeks, or even years) and into eternity with informed expectation. This is good preparation. What songs do the redeemed sing and what do the words mean? What is the character of the New Heaven and the New Earth? Well no-one has come back to tell us, but we can make a good start by learning what God has allowed us to see: Revelation 5:9-12; 14:1-5, and 15:32-4 for some songs, and Revelation chapters 21-22 for the character of eternity’s “daily life”. In all this, we know that the reality will be far, far more glorious and blessed than we can presently comprehend.
We cannot ‘pack’ because we will take nothing out of this life (Job 1:21) but that is the point; the best preparation for dying well is to live well, not materially but spiritually, keeping our faith fresh and our lives clean. We must desire holiness. It should not surprise us that a heart still cherishing some secret sin will be anxious about meeting the Saviour, whereas a heart that has struggled (even daily) against that same sin will look forward to meeting the One in whom there is final victory. If we stay close to the Lord we will not be able to forget His grace in saving us. In turn that will keep our heart filled with fresh thankfulness, and a truly thankful heart cannot be a fearful one and will want to be obedient. Hymn 435 in our morning hymnbook puts it this way at verse 3, “O to grace how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be / Let that grace, now, like a fetter / Bind my wandering heart to Thee.” May we all sing “Amen!” to that!
The gospel is about being reconciled to God and living transformed lives, but as a corollary it should also move us towards wanting reconciliation with others. Sadly that might not always be possible as others may not (yet) be willing to be reconciled to us but we have nothing to lose in being willing to mend breaches—there will be none in heaven! The passage of time can help, but real reconciliation will require a mix of humility, confession, forgiveness and the willingness to recognise the ongoing work of God in our lives as well as in others. Even the best can struggle, but if we can take away any burdens of regret in those we leave behind, we should try to do so. It too is a gospel fruit. Paul and Barnabas split over a disagreement on the usefulness of John Mark for ministry. Yet years later, we read Paul saying to another younger man, Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you for he is useful to me for ministry.”(Acts 15:39 & 2 Tim 4:11). If an apostle can admit to being ‘wrong’, so can we.
[First published in the monthly congregationl “Notes” for May, 2018.]
There is sometimes a superstitious fear regarding death, as if talking about it or even preparing for it might somehow hasten its coming! And it is because of this fear that many are uncomfortable in making wills or having simple discussions about possible funeral arrangements. If we fail to do these things out of fear, it is really just another aspect of selfishness, because it serves to make things far worse for loved ones when the time comes. Thankfully the Christian, whose faith is grounded in the grace and sovereignty of God, is delivered from all superstitious fears so we can talk about our arrangements in peace. While we do not know the number of our days, God does, and He is not superstitious!! If we can help take away the stress on those we love, we surely should want to do so.
But before we think of others and the decisions they may be called on to make when we die, we should give attention to preparing ourselves for death. This is not morbid, but wise. The first, most essential, preparation is to be sure that one is right with God. This is something no-one else can do for us because “each of us shall give an account of himself before God“ (Rom 14:12) and “it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” (Heb 9:27). The Bible is clear: after death there are no ‘last minute special’ offers which allow us the false comfort of thinking that we can live as we please now but repent after we have died. By then it will be too late. Neither are there rituals which the living might do for us, or payments they can make to anyone in order to advance our souls along some imagined pilgrimage to heaven, or to speed up final purification in an imaginary purgatory. When we die, our standing before God is eternally defined—it is too late to change. And, as none of us knows the time of our death, we should want to know right now whether our relationship with God is something that He will accept or whether it will result in rejection.
If we are honest, we know we have not lived as we should; we have sinned and come short of God’s righteous standard. Even though our sins might often be thought of as ‘civilised’ and ‘normal’, they are all offensive and because we are already sinners it is impossible for us to make any atonement for them. Thankfully Jesus’ name means, ‘Jehovah Saves,’ so in hearing this we are told that God has provided a way for our sins to be dealt with through him. We do not have to guess at a solution. And Jesus could not have been clearer when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So there is a way to God when we die, an acceptable way, defined by Jesus who lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven and who is coming again to receive those he has forgiven.
In the wonder of God’s grace, we are not required to perform any religious duties or pay anything in order to have a share in the forgiveness Jesus provides. All we are to ‘do’ (if we can use that word) is humbly confess the reality our sin to God, admit our un-worthiness, and receive and trust whole-heartedly in the declaration that on the cross Jesus has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.
As our faith grows we will find that increasingly we hate sin for the right reasons and cannot happily continue in it. We find a growing desire to know more of Christ and to be obedient to him even when it is costly. We find that we are now concerned for the spiritual state of others so we pray for them and their conversion. All this helps grow our faith, so that whether our death should be sudden or drawn out and maybe even painful, we will not fear it more than we love Jesus and will face it well.
[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes”, for April, 2018.]
If we had been in Jerusalem for that final week before Passover and Jesus’ crucifixion, no doubt we’d have been caught up in the excitement of his entry into Jerusalem too. All four gospel writers are remarkably detailed in the picture they paint for us of the crowd’s emotion and fervour [Matt 21, Mk:11; Lk 19; Jn 12]. A King is coming! And not just any king! If Jesus was a king, then he was a king who: 1. Gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, loosed the tongue of the dumb, cured all manner of diseases and even raised the dead to life; 2. Commanded the impersonal in creation! He took bread and fish enough for one and made it feed thousands, turned water into fine wine and ordered the wind and the waves with a word; 3. Commanded evil spirits with such authority that they had no choice but to obey; 4. Forgave sins on his own authority; 5. Saw through and criticised religious falsehood and hypocrisy; 6. Was not afraid to publicly teach against corruption and the misuse of power. What more could a godly Israelite (or even merely a political Israelite) want? Here was a king that could be loved and followed as a deliverer! He only needed to “say the word” and the people would follow! Solomon’s greater glory was surely just around the corner. It had been a long wait since the return from exile!
Imagine, then, the collective let-down when all of this enthusiasm seemed to lead nowhere. Perhaps some surmised, he needed a trigger before he would do what Elijah or Elisha did all those years earlier with fire and myriads of angels (2 Kings 1 & 6). An arrest would be a good trigger! The religious authorities feared that it might be, but all that came and went without great incident, in the end leaving many with only an image of a beaten and bloodied political prisoner. We can imagine the dashed hopes that led some to cry “Crucify Him!” [as a fraud] and others to line the long slow walk from Pilate’s hall to Calvary with their tears of disillusionment (Lk 23:18-25 & 27). How wrong the people were! They had given up, cursed, and wept too early! And lest we become too critical, even Jesus’ disciples had lost hope too (Luke 24:21).
Thankfully, redemption is completed and we will never experience the same depth of despair or disillusionment as the disciples. Nothing as weighty as the Cross will ever happen in our or anyone else’s history. As Christians we now enjoy the wonderful privilege of salvation where the promises of God take on rich personal meaning and the privilege of prayer ushers us into the very presence of God. That is exciting when we have seen His promises bear fruit in our own lives (or in others) and our prayers answered. It is very encouraging to see that God is still at work in His world.
But what of when we cannot “see” and again are called to walk by faith? Excitement at the work of God so quickly gives way to despondency when it seems that God is not operating according to our plans and expectations of what He should do. As a result, we can find ourselves up in the air and uncertain. Where is God hiding?
The events of Passion Week should teach us absolutely that God never plays games with anything, let alone the life and emotions of his people. If God could only act as I expect Him to, then He would never do all that He knows that I need, and my present (and my future) would be the poorer. The secret acts of God are therefore a blessing!
If a week can seem a long time for you, let it also be long enough for you to rise above your fear and uncertainty and re-focus your faith in the One who transcends time and who has proved His ability to do so through the Cross and resurrection
[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for March, 2018.]
When Joshua led Israel across the flooded Jordan (which God miraculously parted) he took twelve large stones from the riverbed and built a monument so that future generations would be reminded of God’s great and gracious provision for them (see Josh 4:1-7 & 19-24). There could be no excuses: the stones would “speak” and would continue to, even if people no longer wished to listen. In fact, because it was made out of river stones, the only way of “silencing” the monument would be to destroy it.
I was reminded of this event while taking two weeks visiting the city and University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. This memory did not come because the city takes its name from a river crossing (which it does) but because of the testimony of so many old stone buildings and memorials built since the University had its origin in the early 1200s. Many of these buildings were constructed as churches or chapels, or had other (Christian) religious uses. Although some were initiated by motives that were not entirely selfless, it is without question that they were also built to stand as monuments to the glory of God who is the foundation of all life and learning. These old stones still “speak” to those who will hear, even though, sadly, many who sit in them or pass by them every day seem to be wilfully deaf to their witness.
One day, these Cambridge stones will cry out in rebuke to those who think that real learning has somehow rendered the glory of God fit only for the tourist or the quaint world of myths. It must be our prayer that before that Final Day comes, spiritual ears (and eyes and hearts) will be opened and their testimony heeded. God is indeed the source and ground of all Truth there is to know, and we will be greatly blessed if our halls of learning once again return to their Christian foundation.
The testimony of such stones is not only metaphoric. Jesus knew that should God give them the opportunity and power, the stones of the Jerusalem streets would cry out in witness to who He was (Luke 19:39-40). No doubt if it could speak, the stone which sealed Jesus’ tomb could also bear powerful witness of the resurrection!
But we should not only pray for the witness of historic buildings to be heeded even though such prayers can also include the witness of our own building to the people of Hawthorn. God has appointed that there are other “stones” to speak to the world in which we live: “living stones”, men, women and children with lives built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the testimony of prophets and apostles (1 Pet 2:5 & Eph 2:19-22). Unlike physical buildings that can fall and decay, Christ’s spiritual house lasts forever. Christian, this includes you! There is a sense in which Christ Himself by His Holy Spirit has dragged you out of the mud, washed and shaped you and set you on a great foundation along with many others so that together you might sing His praise and be a living memorial to Him. He has joined you in the Church so that each one’s needs, challenges and fears give the perfect list of how to pray for one another.
So, O Reader whoever you are, do you listen to the stones? Despite the fashion of the age, our great universities are witness that there is NO incompatibility between deep learning and the Christian faith. It is the atheist who is deaf and blind!
Listen also to the witness of the living stones around you as they point away from themselves and this world to its Redeemer! No these are not yet perfect and their building “unfinished” but do not be deceived by that; one day it will be perfect, and anyone not part of that building will be consigned to God’s eternal rubbish dump.
[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2018.]
The Necessity of Being Born Again—that is, if we would be reconciled to God!
If there is one descriptor of the Christian which the world likes to mock or disparage, it is the term “born again”. Someone might say, “Oh he is one of those ‘born again’ Christians,” as if by that description their dismissal and refusal to listen further to what that person believes is justified. We can understand the world’s dislike of the term. But sadly, we are persuaded there are also some (perhaps many, we do not know) associated with Christian churches in some way, who also seem to reject the notion that they should be “born again”. For them, that is the stuff of fundamentalism and fanaticism and not the stuff of respectable civic religion! They may readily admit that they are not perfect and they try hard to follow Jesus’ ethical and moral values of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps they see themselves making progress in personal improvement. To them it seems only proper that their accumulated goodness and kindness should be rewarded, even to the point of earning entry to heaven!
Jesus tells us something different. In His discussion with Nicodemus, the eminent Jewish theologian, (see John 3) He came straight to the point: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3)—no ifs, buts, or maybes. All at once with His trademark directness, Jesus assured Nicodemus that there is nothing that he or anyone in their natural human condition can do to earn favour with God or a right to be in His presence in peace. Reconciliation is not prioritised for the learned or clever; not the rich and neither to the poor; not for the contemplative or meditative; not even the “kind and caring” the “wise” or even the religiously zealous—of which in our day, as his, there are many, many different sorts!
So what does it depend on? Well, as with our first birth, it does not depend upon any thing that we might do. This was the basic flaw in Nicodemus’ thinking As he saw it, reconciliation was something he should do but Jesus seemed to be speaking in terms of human impossibilities (v. 4)! Being born again is a work initiated by the Spirit of God, a work equally creative and equally sovereign as that of the first creating work of the Spirit (Gen 1:2). And in parallel with our natural birth, the “spring” of this birth is love, not human but Divine. What a blessing, otherwise there would be no hope!
This is sometimes troubling. Someone will think, “If I must be born again and it is not something I can effect, then how can I know if I am born again?” or even, “How can I know that I will be born again?” There is mystery here but as Jesus revealed to Nicodemus, there are things we can hear but not understand until God makes them clear. If we are concerned, we must wait patiently—and trust God. However, although we cannot see the Spirit or His exact activity, Jesus says we can see His effects and one of those effects, indeed the chief effect, is to reveal and convict of the need for Jesus as the only means of escaping the condemnation which our sins deserve (John 3:16-17).
Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus and makes it clear to you dear reader, that the new birth cannot be separated from your attitude to Him. If you will not come, questions of the new birth are academic. There is no mystery, you choose to remain dead in your sins (3:18). But if you are drawn to Jesus in any way, hear all He says! Hear Him speak and demonstrate the love of God and be drawn to love Him because of it. As you come and believe, you will begin to see that God was first at work in you and in your life, graciously drawing you by His Spirit in ways that never cease to amaze.