[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for December, 2017]
Christmas time is an occasion for catching up with old friends, renewing family links and sharing news, and generally being sociable. We’ll send emails, annual letters, photos and Christmas cards to folk we have not seen for years, and phone lines will run hot. And, if we cannot be with those we love directly there’s always “face time” (or its many proprietary variations) which is the nearest thing to being there. We should be thankful that courtesy of technology, distance is no hindrance to personal communication. But of course, nothing beats seeing our loved ones “face to face” where we can share tangible things such as food, personal hugs, the sound of our voices and the joys of simply being in someone’s presence. For a few days, at least, the world becomes a smaller, friendlier place. Wars have ceased on Christmas Day!
It is not surprising to us that a time focused on remembering the Incarnation, when the Eternal Son of God took on a true humanity, and “visited” us should bring such benefits. Anything that draws us into real community is a blessing, so that even an atheist might grudgingly admit that on balance Christmas is a season worth remembering. But the Incarnation of Jesus was for infinitely more than improving life on earth for a few days, and we must always try to point this out to others.
In Eden, Adam and Eve had pure, open communication with God. They could speak, “face to face” as it were. The whole of the Garden was there for their tangible benefit, and there was nothing but perfection in their relationship—hugs and all! But Adam chose to break this perfection, and humanity has been cursed and broken ever since. What was a “face to face” relationship ended with Adam and Eve in hiding, fearing and then expelled from, the presence of God. Everything hopeful would have ended right there and then had it not been for God’s amazing grace; a grace as powerful as (but not greater than) His justice, truth, holiness, wrath. That grace is seen in Jesus.
In Jesus, from conception to manhood, God Himself was entering human existence in the most tangible and real way we can imagine—putting aside the terrifying glory of His holiness (though not holiness itself) and becoming one with us. And He was doing so so that the great barrier of human sinfulness and condemnation could be finally, but righteously, broken down; a Man doing for us what had to be done but which no other man (or woman) could do—paying the penalty for sin under the curse of the Cross. In Adam (there is no alternative) all die. But all in Christ, shall live!
Prior to the Incarnation, God had entered into human existence through the words of His prophets and by revealing His covenant. His grace kept communication open, and communication in reply was through sacrifice and prayer. How breathtakingly sad then, the comment, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not…” (John 1:11). We understand “hanging up” on a telemarketer or other unwanted call, but to refuse the call of the living God Himself is provocative and deadly folly!
In many ways, observing Christmas yet rejecting Jesus, is akin to doing the same thing—hanging up on a call from the Living God, refusing His offer of “face time” through the Bible and His Spirit, preferring to enjoy the celebration of life without Him. Sounds like today’s Australia, doesn’t it. But let us look first to ourselves. How shall it be with you, dear reader? One day, it will not just be “face-time” but “face to face” directly! What will He say to you on that day? “Welcome! Come, join the feast” or “Depart!”?
That may depend on how you respond to Him today.
[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for November, 2017]
I recently saw some remarkable footage from Northern Ontario, Canada, of a wolf trying to attack and kill a moose. The moose was out in reasonably shallow water where presumably it had been enjoying the peace and quiet when the wolf dived in from the shore. The wolf was very nimble but for a while the moose faced up to it successfully. The wolf kept backing up, but the process risked drawing the moose closer to the shore where the water was shallower, and where the wolf had the advantage of manoeuvrability.
Eventually, and while in the water, the wolf was able to latch on to the moose behind one of its front legs in a way that it was very difficult for the moose to dislodge it. If the moose went on to the land, it would surely lose—and die. The moose stayed in the water, going around and around in circles trying to dislodge the wolf, but to no avail. It looked as if there was no hope. Somehow (whether from fatigue or as a result of losing its footing, or as a deliberate act I do not know) the moose dipped below the water. As a result, the wolf momentarily let go – perhaps because it needed to come up for air, or simply because it was caught by surprise. Either way, the moose was suddenly free, but the wolf was quickly looking to latch on again.
This time, instead of trying to make the shore, (where it would surely lose) the wounded moose turned and went out into the lake with the wolf in pursuit. Where the water was shallow, the wolf made ground on the moose; where the water was deeper, the wolf lost ground as it had to swim and could not move as fast. Eventually the wolf turned back and the moose, though wounded, was free.
It was wonderful photography, but my mind immediately saw an illustration of a deep spiritual lesson. While the moose was on ground helpful to the wolf it would surely lose and die. Its only hope lay in the deep water where the wolf was limited.
We usually use the idea of being in “deep water” to indicate being in trouble but in this case, “deep water” was safety. Here is my lesson: While I fight temptation in my own strength, and on the devil’s territory or with my own tactics, I will surely lose. He is far more cunning, far more subtle, far more powerful than I am. Yes, I am called to resist the Devil (1Pet 5:9 & James 4:7) but I am a fool if I think that I can stand up to him on my own. The strength to resist has to be Christ’s not mine. I need a place so deep that the Devil cannot stand, where he loses power and is himself forced to turn and flee. That place is with Christ, and if I truly repent of my sin and commit to Him in faith, He will never turn me away and will surely keep me! John Newton put it so wonderfully in his hymn Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat:
Be Thou my Shield and Hiding Place, That sheltered near Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face, And tell him Thou has died.* (verse 4)
So, with such a safe, guaranteed place, why do I wander away? Why indeed! It is folly! The only explanation I can really offer is that I do not love Him as I should; that I do not yet realise how serious was, and is, my continued need of Him. And yet despite my folly He still loves me! How wonderfully persevering is His patience! Yes, one day I shall be changed fully; that day is not yet here, BUT I know it is coming!
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for October, 2017]
It is a mark of our time in many parts of the West, that “everyone does what is right in their own eyes” (as in Judges 21:25!!) and is encouraged to keep on doing so. We are told that to be really “mature” and “independent” we must break away from past values and choose our own boundaries. This, we are told, is truly “coming of age”. Independence of this sort eventually leads to social isolation and fragmentation, and one fears that unless we break away from this foolish notion, all that our civilisation has accumulated over the centuries will quickly be lost. One natural reaction is to clamp down on all expressions of independence in order to keep what we have, perhaps even to take away freedoms altogether, as happens in dictatorships (which is often the only way in which societies can hold together). But independence does not have to lead to fragmentation if we follow God’s model for society: the family.
The Bible tells parents to expect and facilitate a godly sense of “independence”. Children are to grow up expecting that in the normal course of events they can leave mother and father and cleave to husband or wife, forming another “independent unit” in the process (Gen 2:24). But this independence was never intended to be absolute (just as new branches on a tree are not separate from the branches before them) nor was it ever intended to facilitate the misuse of power and authority. We are all saddened at that “independence” which breaks families (and marriages) apart, even as we recognise that sometimes it is the only possible avenue for relief.
The Devil exercised a rebellious independence and was cast out of heaven and condemned. He hates all that is good, and therefore hates the family structure, and does all he can to pervert it. He did this in Eden when he persuaded Adam and Eve that the path to true maturity lay in disobeying God and acting on their own. He argued that their “dependence” was belittling, that they should assert themselves in order to show that they were truly created in the image of God. “Was God independent? Then it was only fitting that they should be so as well!” Sadly they were persuaded; deceived into adopting a false understanding of “independence” and that the forewarned consequence of disobedience (death) was an unfair restriction.
The temptations the Devil pressed upon Jesus were in temptations to be “independent”. He should rebel against the Spirit who compelled him to go into the desert, by feeding himself his own way (Matt 4:3). He should repudiate the way of the cross and conquer death miraculously (vv. 5-6). He should win the world in an instant without the aid of the Spirit by a single act of worship (v. 8). Thankfully, Jesus did not succumb. He understood that the Devil’s temptations to him in his humanity were dedicated to destroying his role as perfect man and saviour. Jesus did not need to repudiate the Father’s plan of redemption in order to validate himself. He did not need to reject the infilling of the Spirit in order to validate his identity. As God he did not fear that dependence on His Father’s will somehow lessened his deity or his co-equality!
Jesus demonstrated that depending upon God does not destroy true identity but affirms it. As God’s creation, our highest and best identity is found in being what we were created to be, but Adam’s independence has made that humanly unattainable. In Adam, all die—physically and eternally because independence from God is sin and the wages of sin is death. True life, eternal and spiritual is only possible through the free grace of God. By definition, grace is something we cannot merit and no-one can merit it for us except Jesus, because he has been appointed by the Father to be our substitute: His died for us, and his resurrected life is for us.
So, dear reader, when the Gospel calls you to surrender your independence and follow him, do not refuse it! You are being called to receive a new identity graciously given forever! And dear Christian reader, note too that Jesus has demonstrated that the only sure defence against all ongoing temptations to independence is faithful submission to the Word of God.
[first published in the monthly congregtional “Notes” for September, 2017.]
In just a few weeks after this editorial is published, Australian voters will know if the High Court will allow Australians the opportunity to express an opinion on changes to the law which would allow same-sex relationships to be regarded as “marriages”. If government comments are any guide, we will likely be asked for a simple “Yes” or “No” even though the matter is much more complicated than that. I will be voting “No” in line with the Biblical view of marriage as a fundamental Creation ordinance for the good of ALL of society, not just Christians, and in line with many statements on marriage and on homosexuality issued by the Presbyterian Church over the years. [More could be said, but this column has limits on space. As a beginning, see https://pcacan.org/index.php/current-issues/same-sex-marriage and the Moderator’s comments under https://www.presbyterian.org.au ]
Some who argue for a “yes” tell us that the changes will not affect existing marriages at all—it is merely changing a word. But it is naïve and untrue to see the change as nothing more than changing a word. Words have meaning. A circle cannot be called a square unless the basic definition of circle-ness is changed and the meaning of square-ness denied. Similarly with marriage: heterosexual and homosexual relation-ships cannot be declared identical unless difference is denied. With the change of definition will come social affirmation, so that there no-longer will be any public distinction allowable for Christians without threat of penalty. Such times may come anyway, but Christians should not willingly vote for a situation where the freedom to declare God’s word on an issue depends on the will of government!
Because of that, it is surprising to me, and sad, to read of Christians arguing that the best way forward for Gospel witness to our community is to vote “Yes”. No doubt the motive is a desire to be compassionate and loving, to keep relationships open and preserve social harmony in a secular society by living out the so-called Golden Rule. These hopes are good but can surely be present in those who advocate “No” as well! After all, the best, loving, compassionate good for our neighbour (& society generally) is always to urge them to follow God’s morality. And on this matter, the State is even asking our opinion, so of course we should tell them! Yes, God is sovereign, but gospel witness is never furthered by deliberately legitimizing sin.
Jesus himself re-affirmed marriage as a creation ordinance [Mk 10:6-9] and much, much more than “two people who love each other”, so sooner or later our evangelism will have to bite the bullet and say, “Well if you come to Jesus Christ, not only He will ask you not to treat your relationship as a marriage, but He will ask you to live without it!” What will we say when someone asks, “Then why did you vote to let me get into this mess?” How much more complicated will life and society be when such relationships have to be un-done! It is true that these problems already exist to some extent because under our law same-sex relationships have been already accorded a whole raft of rights and privileges [was the vote was quietly lost then?? I think so.] but we should not compound the problem.
Christians also know the deeper issue is the deliberate attempt to eradiate all reminders of God from society’s public space, even though many may not consciously be aware of it. Ever since Eden, and under the guise of human freedom (Rom 1) mankind has sought out ways to reject God’s right to decree morality, and the marriage issue is merely the current battle-front. Many who have adopted the glib line that marriage is simply a human right for “two people who love each other” do not see this wider spiritual connection and would be upset at the notion that they are being deceived. Nevertheless, we must lovingly remind them of what deep down, they know to be true: God does exist, and His law is right. Then, we must tell of his merciful forgiveness in Christ for the times that they, and we ourselves too, have transgressed.
So, Christian, be strong in your own understanding of marriage, whether that is a memory, your current state, or your aspiration. Find your model in Christ, and stay close to Him. And if the Law does change, fear not, because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33)!
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for August, 2017.]
It is accepted by all that those in Christian ministry should pray for those in their congregations. It is a function and privilege of the office and through their knowledge of the scriptures, ministers should be well aware of what should be asked from God. Through the recorded prayers in Scripture, God has provided rich examples for those in ministry to follow. But the Bible also calls upon congregations to pray for their ministers! Three times in the New Testament, members of local congregation are clearly called to pray for those ministering to them (see 1 Thess 5:25, 2 Thess 3:1-2, & Heb 13:18). It is as much a duty and privilege to pray for those in ministry as it is to pray for ourselves and our friends; as much a duty and privilege to pray for the local minister as it is to pray for the far away missionary whom we may never meet.
So what do those in the congregation seek when they pray for their ministers? From 1 Thess 5, and Heb 13:18, we see that growth in grace and sanctification must be a high priority. It would have been easy for those early congregations, caught up in the wonder of God’s grace, to forget that the apostles and gospel preachers were mere men. Perhaps they were inclined to put them on a pedestal and treat them as “super-saints” or “super-Christians”! Yes, they were enabled and gifted in extraordinary ways but as every apostle and preacher knew, this did not guarantee that they would be sinless or exempted from the pressures that affect every Christian. The devil hates all works of grace wherever they are but loves it when ministers fail and quite likely works more subtle and powerful temptations against ministers than others.
This makes our prayers easier. Where do we need help in our Christian life? What do we need victory in? How should sanctification have its increase? Pray that your minister has that help and victory too, and that he be preserved so as to better help you in times of your need. The mutuality in Church congregational life is most powerfully expressed in a willingness and a desire to pray for one another.
Congregations should pray that their ministers know what to say and how to say it when speaking of Christ. Every Christian has this privilege as opportunity presents and should be asking God to open up times when it is ”just right” to speak to friends, colleagues, and family members. Congregations should also pray that many of these opportunities come their minister’s way (2 Thess 3:1). But it is easy to forget that the primary way in which the kingdom of God is built up, strengthened and extended is through regular preaching from the Scriptures week by week! As the Word of God is expounded and focused on our lives through Christ, both preacher and congregation are informed and faith made even stronger. As the Holy Spirit answers our prayers, the visitors we pray for will find that Christ is among us and marvel at how the Word of God also speaks to them. As Matthew Henry put so succinctly, “Ministers stand in need of their people’s prayers; and the more people pray for their ministers the more good ministers may have from God, and the more benefit people may receive by their ministry.”
Prayer has always been important because, as Paul says, “not all have faith.” In the past, those with no faith were content to ignore the Gospel, to “live and let live” as it were, but increasingly that absence of faith is showing itself in militant hostility toward Christ and his people. With that comes the strong temptation to soften the claims of Christ so as not to give offence and perhaps even to maximise a hearing! But a gospel that does not exalt Christ and Christ alone through his life, death and resurrection is no gospel at all and not worth hearing. So, pray for your minister(s), it will build you up in wonderful ways too.