[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for February, 2017.]
I have been somewhat surprised at the sudden energy devoted to American politics in the Christian blog-o-sphere and on social media, even from within Australia. In some comments Trump seems the epitome of evil and [amazingly] Mrs Clinton the personification of virtue and dignity!! Yes, Trump can present as coarse and megalomaniacal but the danger is that our culture has deceived us into thinking that sin is worse when it is crude or impolite! Sinful people will do sinful things (despite Trump saying he has no need to ask forgiveness!) but we must not forget that “suave” sins are no less heinous and some-times even more so than those which are “in your face”. All sins, even those we consider polite and understandable, are “in the face” of God.
Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1) or Xerxes I as he is known in secular history, was a powerful and sometimes irrational Persian king whose empire reached from the Indus to Turkey to Sudan. As Cyrus’ grandson, he loved to show off and the book opens with a 6-month public show of wealth and power in the third year of his reign (1:3-4). He loved pretty women and enjoyed putting them on display in ‘beauty pageants’! An impulsive decree for such an event probably resulted in him losing his wife, but it was also how he thought he would find a new one (1:10-2:4)! Despite his bravado, he was an easy mark for an adviser who insinuated himself into a place of influence for a private vendetta and profit (3:1-15 & ff). Such leaders can do irrational things if they believe their own propaganda and according to the historian Herodutus, Xerxes once had the sea punished with 300 lashes for a storm which destroyed a bridge for his army!
Religiously, Xerxes was probably Zoroastrian, but apart from claiming to believe that there was a Good Being, Ahuru-Mazda, who opposed the Evil Ahriman, his ‘faith’ was most likely grounded in the well-being of his empire; Israel’s God was just another way of describing his own, so worshippers of Jehovah were free so long as they did not rebel. He was a “strong-man” and anyone opposed to him should know there would be no mercy (2:21-23). By any measure, Xerxes was not a godly man and every Israelite would know he had seriously transgressed the Laws of God. Yet, strong as he was, he too died and God’s purpose prevailed despite his sin.
God was teaching Israel that He was over all nations, so they should not fear. God’s way with dictators can be a puzzle but He never forgets his elect. He had overwhelmed Pharaoh. The proud and idolatrous Nebuchadnezzar had been humbled and brought to faith (Dan 4:34ff) yet his grandson Belshazzar was godless and blasphemous! Babylon fell. The Persian Cyrus, (another Zoroastrian?) funded the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and then Xerxes was tricked, almost, into destroying Israel! After Persia? Daniel said Greek then Roman dictators!
God had also told Israel that there was nothing strange about their exile; it was a result of their past sinful neglect of holiness. Yet He had also graciously given them a missionary calling to pray for the their new land and leaders, Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jer 29:7). This call to prayer was the same as that given to the early church as they declared the gospel in an empire ruled by despotic, megalomaniacal Caesars [1 Pet 2:17, Rom 13:1]. They had no vote and no power other than the witness of their life, times of public instruction in Sunday worship and the occasional public lecture opening up the Scriptures, their prayers, AND the power of Christ with them through His Spirit. Their witness prevailed and Nero and other persecutors after him died. Nero could not Trump the Church either. There is a pattern here!
Yes, godless leaders will act godlessly and we must warn, protest, and even vote. But rather than ridicule, or lose sleep over things we cannot alter, we must be like Habakkuk and ask for a faith sufficient to see something of what the Lord may be doing (Hab 1:12-2:1). Then we watch and pray: for Trump’s genuine conversion and the Lord’s confounding of all wickedness.
[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2017.]
Perhaps you have heard the joke about the generous, but none-too-bright, fisherman. After years of patient failure, he finally struck success, pulling in fish after fish! Being a generous fellow, he quickly motored back to the shore to share the good news with his friends. “Are you sure you will be able to get back to the same spot?” they asked. “Easy,” he said, smiling. “I’ve marked the spot with a big marker.” And with that, he showed his friends a large freshly-painted white ‘X’ on the side of his boat! We smile, confident that no-one would be so stupid, but in many ways that is what happens when a Christian measures one’s growth and maturity by anything other than the objective measure of the Word of God.
The early Corinthian Church had that problem: at least, they had a group within the Church with that problem who were not slow in pushing themselves forwards. Was Paul an apostle? Well, they were “Super Apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Was he able to give guidance? Well they could do it better and with more impressive oratory, and so on. According to them, they were simply the most impressive exemplars of Christian ministry possible, but the measure and affirmation of their excellence was always and only themselves, so that Paul could say with withering understatement, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise”(2 Cor 10:12). “Not wise”: we understand his point—or do we?
The problem was not unique to 1st century Corinth, and is not limited to those who challenge Apostolic authority or doctrine today, although there are plenty who fit into that category at the fringes of the Church. We also can be guilty—not by inventing new doctrine or declaring ourselves to be fit for Church office when no-one else agrees but in being the only assessors of our spiritual condition to whom we will listen.
If we measure ourselves by ourselves, we will always err in our favour when called to assess our spiritual life. We will rationalize our failure to progress, excuse our sin and delay its mortification. We overstate our growth and understate our faults. Inevitably we will also begin to “drift” away from Christ but because the any “X” we use to mark out our Christian progress moves as we drift, we will have no measure of how far we have drifted until something rouses us. Doubtless a true believer will have a sense that “all is not as it should be” but drifting is not always obvious until one has drifted so far off that returning becomes hard work and only possible through the love and grace of Christ. [see Matt 18:12ff & Heb 2:1ff.] O that we had not trusted in ourselves!
Navigation is complicated, even for well known journeys. Each day sees new combinations of winds or tides so that yesterday’s settings cannot be taken without careful checking. A navigator who plots everything just by his own assessment or yesterday’s settings is “not wise”! Complacency leads to catastrophe and even death. The same is true in the spiritual life. We may not fall foul of the known hazards Christians have dealt with for many years but each day and generation brings subtle new pressures or temptations that if ignored, will cause us to drift. Complacency leads to catastrophe!
Thankfully, as Paul knew, God in his grace provides us with such navigational aids outside ourselves (2 Cor 10:13). The sphere of his ministry and service was defined by God’s measure (metron) and that measure was the grace of God which revealed the full mature knowledge of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:7&13-14). So how can we avoid drifting in 2017? By keeping our eyes on Christ through His Word, and not on ourselves.
YES, this year the morning service will be at 10.00am, instead of the usual time. Come along and worship with us.
[First published in the monthly congregational Notes, for December, 2016]
The church Christmas card this year features a picture from the eastern stained glass window—a young man dressed in armour. The window’s caption, “Stand fast in the faith” is drawn from a portion of 1 Cor. 16:31 with the exhortation to be strong and brave, [literally, act like men!] and the artwork surely is intended to turn our mind to Ephesians 6:10-20 where the apostle Paul lists the Christian’s full set of God-given armour for the fight against all the cunning of the evil one and his followers.
The artist has clearly taken some liberties, as all art must. The soldier gazes dreamily heaven-ward and his armour is bathed in a golden light (either that, or it is foolishly made of gold and too soft for any real use!). The sword is longer and finer than a 1st century gladius would have been and a red cloak has appeared from somewhere. Yet for all that, the image does draw our attention to the passages of Scripture mentioned above if we are familiar with them. The first readers could probably tell us exactly what sort of armour Paul meant, but we know straight away that this is not really the point of the illustration. His purpose, as with the glass-work in the window, was not to give a lesson in military history but to warn Christians of spiritual warfare and to point to the God-given means of safety, endurance and victory for Christians in every age who face temptation and devilish hostility, and that surely includes us.
So we are told (v 14) that we must first of all wrap ourselves around with truth. Only then shall we be able to discern between fact and fiction and sift truth from error. The problem in our age is that we are taught the lie that we live in a post-truth-age where everything is either desire or reaction. No wonder ‘anything goes’ and people are led astray by every whim and lust. Not so for the Christian—God has both acted and He has spoken, and in so doing he has defined all that is Good, True and Beautiful.
Then, we are given protection for the heart with the breastplate of righteousness (14). We must test and conform our affections to the law and love of God. If He would not approve, then neither should we. As for our life’s direction, we should be ready to live only as the gospel would permit us, for it is only then that we will ever truly be at peace (15). (O that this restless, wandering world would realise that!) We must guard our minds. We don’t always know how temptations arise, but we do not need to in order to beat them away. Martin Luther once likened temptation to birds; we might not be able to stop them from flying overhead but we can at least resolve never to let them land! Our faith is not irrational, but is the assurance of a mind “helmeted” by trust in the saving acts of God (16-17). When our minds are focused on the strength of the God who has saved us, we can hold temptations at bay. But we will not anticipate everything (12) and sometimes (daily!!) so much seems to slip past our poorly held shield. For this we have a sword to wield (18) when we believe our Bibles in line with all that the Spirit says—no verses out of context and Christ the interpretive key! These promises of God are wonderfully sure. Such armour! What a wonderful “Christmas” gift!
But remember, the ultimate victory in this battle does not come because of our faith! No, it comes because Jesus, in whom our faith is placed, has Himself won the victory and covenanted to keep us forever! Hence we come to v 18, pray! We know of no circumstance where those whose minds were truly engaged in prayer have ever lost the battle of temptation! The devil and all with him have no option but to flee when Christ commands. Let us therefore pray for the grace to love the Saviour so much we will want to take up the armour God has provided for us and stand firm in Christ!
[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for November, 2016. (edited slightly)]
Probably sometime this month, if you have not done so already, your attention will turn to Christmas gift-giving. This can be a great joy; it can also be very frustrating! Giving freely and out of love is a precious thing; giving out of obligation or duty can quickly become a burden. There are also lots of tricky questions to answer: do you send a gift to everyone from whom you received a gift last year or will a card suffice? if the gift is thought to be “too cheap” will the recipient be offended? when does one stop giving a gift? Then there are the many office kris kringle arrangements…& so on.
As Christians who know something of the highest gift-giving that history has ever seen—the Father sending His beloved Son to be born for our salvation— we have a wonderful opportunity to treat giving and receiving gifts in a way that enhances our understanding of grace. One easy way to do that is to widen out the scope of gifts for ourselves if we are asked what we might like as a Christmas gift. Yes, we could ask for a book by our favourite author or the latest cd/dvd by our preferred artists (or preachers), but we can go beyond these options to focus on others.
The Gideons International have long provided a memorial Bible plan whereby people could gift the cost of Bibles in recognition of a loved one or particular anniversary. Money given here meant Bibles given there. That plan still continues. In recent years many Christian agencies have adapted this practice to provide for gifts in kind to be given. Money is paid to the agency, a card is sent to the “recipient of the present” and the actual goods are then purchased locally overseas and distributed to needy families by the agency. So in response to the question, “What would you like for Christmas?” one can now answer, “Well I don’t really need anything, but if you want to give me a gift, I’d like that gift to be the knowledge that someone else has received something useful on my behalf to help them in their poverty.” So money given here leads to mosquito nets, cooking utensils, school exercise books, chickens, goats or pigs, fresh water/baby care essentials, etc. given there. The beauty about such programs is that the local economy benefits far more than if actual goods are sent from Australia.
The idea has caught on, and many “secular” agencies have also adopted the practice, so the range of philanthropic giving is quite extensive. All other things being equal, it is probably true that non-Christians are more likely to support secular aid agencies so it is our view that where possible Christians who want to give or “receive” in this way should suggest Christian agencies. Surely no Christian would object to receiving such a gift, but of course you must use your discretion with your non-Christian friends. In these cases you could choose something non-contentious—vaccinations, mosquito nets, school books…— or break the ice first by enabling them to “give” something to you. Younger children might not understand fully but you could involve them in donating a few dollars for an age appropriate gift in their name so that a precedent is provided which they will hopefully adopt for themselves later.
We have found Compassion International and our own Australian Presbyterian World Mission to be agencies careful to preserve a right balance between Christian gospel witness and practical aid, but certainly there are other agencies which do so and as effectively. You can find the details here: www.compassion.com.au/gifts-of-compassion for tax deductible gifts [with the exception of Bibles] and at www.apwm.org.au [use the 5th Oct “Christmas Shopping” link.]
May God give you gracious giving and happy receiving, whatever you do.