Friday, 22 May 2020

Home

"To them He presented Himself alive after His suffering with many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God". Acts 1:3.

I never really got the ascension.
Sure, the cross was key to deal with our sin, and the resurrection verified the veracity of what Jesus had done, but the idea of Jesus  'beaming up' to the clouds just seemed weird - what was that all about?

Recently, as Ascension week came around, I started to have one of those 'lightbulb' moments, so let me peg out a few thoughts for you.

It really all started with an address by Chad Bird touching on the significance of the verse above. Luke is continuing to present the veracity of the faith to the person he had addressed his first collection to, and he picks up with the fact that Jesus was genuinely alive after dying on the cross, making this abundantly clear to His friends not just by being amongst them, but by "speaking" about the kingdom. I won't repeat Chad's valuable insight into this (you can find it here), but that last statement is telling us that the level of exchange between Jesus and His disciples was deep (take a look at one of the conversations we're allowed to listen into in this period in John's gospel, chapter 21:1-22).

This tells us that following His conquering sin and death, Jesus' immediate concern was to prepare His followers for what was coming next - sharing that key truth with everyone else - and doing this in a fashion that really helped them to take in everything that had happened in the time they had spent together.

(A quick aside - I think there's a real lesson here for all ministers currently finding themselves in strange circumstances due to the present crisis (that's pretty well all of them). What's coming is going to be even stranger in respect to how we operate and what's required, so take this moment to ensure there's time and space to press in to Christ to  supply some initial resources for what is ahead. The opening of Psalm 1 is particularly useful in that respect).

Back to Acts.
So, having spent time 'bedding in' the truth of what they had witnessed, Jesus then returns to His Father... by heading skyward.

What, is that, all about?

Well, here's a few thoughts to help, I hope:

1. He ascends to make a statement about heaven.
I suspect that miss-understanding that statement is where so many ' twee' or  at least what we deem 'manageable' ideas about heaven being about fluffy clouds with harp-laden angels comes from (just take a look at all those enlightenment ceilings filled with bared bottom cherubs!). Heaven of course appears somewhat different to that in scripture (usually as an awe-striking, overwhelming throne room), so what is really going on here is to say that Heaven of that kind is way, way above where we are. That's important because whilst God is our maker and keeper, He (Father, Son and Spirit) are also far greater than we'll ever fully comprehend. Christ is showing that in this celestial departure.

2. He ascends to complete the journey.
The Scriptures make it clear that when it comes to God rescuing us from the mess we've made, it took a complete and total coming down on His part to do this. Christ had put aside His majesty in heaven and been born as one of us so that He could bring redemption through being truly human. That humbling went on right through His life and ministry, but there are occasions when something of His true majesty and authority are allowed to peek through (Matthew 17). This giving up of Himself reaches a point where it is made available for the world following the resurrection, so in the ascension, we see the opening moment of His exaltation - His acceptance back to the heavenly realm as the King of the eternal Kingdom (take a look at Psalm 24).

3. He ascends as one of us.
This is the really startling truth of this event. Jesus doesn't return to the throne room of eternity as a 'spirit' or just as He had been prior to His incarnation. He had stepped out of the tomb clothed in His body, His humanity, to underline what His life here really meant - that the handiwork of God, marred by human folly, had been restored to its true intention and place in God's purposes, and that was categorically underscored in the inseparable marrying of the eternal Godhood of the Son to His incarnate humanity.

This is, for example, Paul's key argument in his letter to the Colossians. After telling the believers there that in Christ God has housed all wisdom and knowledge (2:3), He states that in Christ all the fulness of the Godhead is evidenced - in other words, in the physical being of Jesus (2:8 and 9).

God is so gracious that when it comes to mediating His love and the essence of His very nature to us, He does so in the guise of the fully human presence of His beloved Son!

So, as the disciples stood there, seeing Jesus depart, they were, once again, witnessing something that probably didn't make immediate sense to them (they probably didn't want Him to go), but as they began to unpack this, and witnessed what unfolded in the days that followed, it all began to make sense.

This is all really great news, as I've been reminded this week, so next time, I may get around to unpacking a little more as to why it's sooo good.

In the meantime, have a look at and consider what Paul is seeking to unpack about Jesus in the second chapter of Colossians, because it's really good news.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Dislocation

This entry has a subtitle -
Christianity without Gospel is pure religion.


In some of the southern states of America, you can still find the occasional 'church' which takes the closing passage of Mark's gospel literally.
Playing with poison or swaying with snakes is seen as the done thing, even though every once and a while things go badly wrong and someone dies, because the scriptures are not meant to be 'tested' that way.

If a "serpent" tries to kill God's child before his work here is done, then that's one one foolish creature (see Acts 28), but woe betide us if we think it's good to outlive God's calling (see 2 Kings 20).

It's wise to keep such thoughts in mind at present when we consider the thorny issue of what's currently happening, or not, in respect to our being 'church'.

This week, I listened/watched two broadcasts from a popular reformed presenter across the pond.
On the first, he noted that however much we may be enthralled by the current usage of tech to see each other during this crisis, whatever we think we're doing when we 'commune' like that on line, we're not really "doing church".

The reasoning here was sound enough - church has to be about the material gathering of the saints, because the Bride or Body of Christ is that company of those made whole purely by the redemptive work of Christ.

Great.

So far.

The second presentation was asking whether communion (taking the Lord's supper) was 'do-able' at home, or whether the church really had to be physically together for this to count. After laying out the various views on what goes on at the table, clearly favouring the approach that it was something entirely 'spiritual' (in the Reformed sense), the presenter then began waffling on about how some 'special dispensation' in respect to taking the elements might have to be agreed upon because of our present circumstances.

I was speechless.

Did my ears deceive me?
Nope - 'leaders' and 'pastors' may indeed come to a consensus where communion is 'done' differently whilst we are locked away from each other.

I appreciate that Christians have a spectrum of views on communion, but can you explain to me how it's possible to hold both of these expressed views from the same show at the same time?


Now, let me spell out what worries me here, and for this (for reasons that will quickly become very clear), I'm immensely grateful to my friends over at Mockingbird this month.


Let me begin by quoting from Brad Gray. In a piece on Tolkien and preaching this week, He wrote:
"As a clergyman, I will admit that preaching can become almost second nature. It is the repeatable task you can count on week-in and week-out. There’s a routine to it. And there is great comfort in that, but also great danger, too. The processes necessary to crank out another homily can become so implanted into your brain’s muscle memory that if you’re not careful, you can preach without ever feeling or sensing the words that comprise your sermon. The danger of preaching arises when the preacher himself is unmoved by that about which he is preaching. Such is why Tolkien’s words are, for me, so affecting. The import of the sermon is unlikely to stir the churchgoers unless I, too, am deeply stirred by the significance and truth of the 'myth' about which I am sermonizing. “Our people must realize that we are bent on serious business,” Protestant minister John Henry Jowett affirms, “that there is a deep, keen quest in our preaching, a sleepless and a deathless quest.” As a preacher, I see myself more as a storyteller than anything else, and the one story with which I’ve been charged to proclaim is the story God himself wrote with his own blood". 

Did you hear that?
Church is the place, notes Steve Brown in Hidden Agendas, where we are in such deep relationship with others that preaching, ministry and fellowship opens up the depths - "no sin is a surprise, no pain is suffered in private, and no fear is faced alone".

None of that is actually possible on zoom.
If we think it is, then the so-called TV evangelists of the last several decades, holding out every possible "blessing" in remote response to your faith (and your cash) clearly were right in their definition of 'church' all along and the rest of us are only now catching up.

What is possible is something that so easily slithers into the manner of 'reasonable spirituality' that we can 're-define' the word or sacraments so they are effectively detached from their true place, role and purpose, and that's where the second, deeper depth charge ignites.

Luke Roland noted in another article:
"The real danger to your Christian life is not sin but religion, which insists on muddling the message of the free gift of forgiveness. Religion seeks to put salvation in your hands and give you the false impression that works-righteousness can save you. Anything that draws you to works-righteousness and away from justification by grace alone through faith is big trouble. Remember what the Apostle Paul said: If anyone comes preaching another gospel to you then let them be accursed. Said another way, if anyone comes to you with anything other than the finished work of Christ, well, they can just go the hell on. Our message should be Christ and him crucified".

This is landing us on the right shore. I don't want the Preached word or Sacraments to be mine to steer or control, to 'define' and pragmatise by my criteria, because the door quickly swings wide open to something other than Christ and our fellowship in Him.

Luke continues:

"Religion demands your participation for survival, but there are no more requirements. Jesus has wiped out the requirements that were against us (Col. 2:14)! We have permission to stop doing! Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling! Jesus paid it all! You are now free.So then, what do you want to do now that you don’t have to do anything? To me, that is exactly what enjoying your forgiveness means. The freedom to do anything. When you don’t have to do anything, then you can enjoy the freeing gift of forgiveness, and the world opens up around you".

He notes that being free, belonging to Christ and His own, makes him aware of how religion is thriving everywhere amidst this crisis, and he hates that.

I couldn't agree more.

Religion is primarily that which severs us from the unmerited mercy of God in Christ and puts what is deemed and determined as 'right' into our own hands (Galatians 5:4).
Christianity is the declaration that we are welcome to come, freely, to Christ in the sacraments and the faith to share with others in the freedom and fellowship that brings (1 John 1:7-10, 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 17).

It is imperative that at this moment, we stand fast together in that freedom, and not an empty caricature devised by religious inclination and devilish dilution of what God alone provides.

To conclude, the 'enoughness' of religion is a very real plague that the Gospel requires we avoid at all costs, so why these days are indeed hard to bear, it must be "Christ, and Him Crucified" that sustains us in the trial - whatever waters are faced, and whatever needs we may have (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). It is when the saving work of the Gospel alone addresses all of us, gathered by word and sacrament, that our hunger and thirst and quelled, because there alone we share in His death and resurrection. That is the single 'agenda' that heals. 



Saturday, 9 May 2020

Harmony

"Thy word is truth".


Take a look at this:



This is the work of Chris Hammond and Chris Romhild, and it shows shows something quite remarkable.

It shows the 63,779 cross-references on a vast number of subjects to be found in the Bible.
Written over some 1200 years by over 40 authors, the Scriptures are comprised of some 1,189 chapters, yet there is an extraordinary level of agreement and unity in these books on an amazing number of issues.

The astonishing aspect of this is truly compounded when you begin to explore how such harmonies run across the entire length of the times involved in producing the scriptures themselves, so there are themes and issues raised in the early chapters of Genesis that are concluded in the final chapters of Revelation.

Whilst sceptics are quick to point variations in some names of locations, dates and numbers in some places (which are often quickly resolved when underlying exegesis is carried out) this helps to show just how unique the scriptures are.

It's essential we understand what the scripture is seeking to say.


Saturday, 2 May 2020

Steady on

I'm holding onto you, like a diamond in the rough
Like a diamond in the rough".  Shawn Colvin.

"You yourselves, like living stones, are being built up into a spiritual house".  Peter.



In my youth it was books like The Late Great Planet Earth, films like Thief in the Night and songs like I'd wished we'd all been ready that pumped out the message - Jesus was secretly coming back soon to take away his people before all hell broke loose under the Antichrist and the world faced a final countdown to judgement day.

It was a stirring message - get ready - and it certainly stirred us up... for a while.

Then I started reading scripture and history and something struck me like a sledgehammer. 

God's people didn't escape the hard times - 
God took them through them.

Think about that for a moment.

When Adam fell in the garden, God didn't 're-make' humanity. 
Creation had been wrecked by what mankind chose, so He had every right to right it off as a bad job, and start over, but that isn't what happens.

The Lord comes to our fallen parents and says I'm going to work through your travail to bring redemption (Genesis 3:15).

God will walk through the broken world with them.

I admit that the last couple of months have on occasion left me troubled and anxious. New, sadly restrictive conditions leave us wondering and asking what is happening - it doesn't 'feel' safe anymore. The truth, of course, is that it is never truly safe outside of God's ideal for us, so in this world we're always guaranteed one thing - tribulation! Trouble for mind, body and soul is a certainty, but we are asked to rejoice amidst such turmoil because if understood aright, it will work to our benefit.

Working through instead of avoiding hardships makes us deeply aware of our need for help beyond ourselves, and it's as we turn from self reliance to care from God and others that we become changed. We realise that life isn't about what we selfishly want for ourselves, but what value and significance can be gleaned by giving of our best to enrich the lives of others.

There's been a number of 'get ready' videos this month made by those that eagerly tell us to 'detach' from the world, because Jesus is just around the corner, so make sure you're being holy because you don't want to miss the ingathering of the saints.

There's lots of passion and zeal, but are they right?
Is this the last days of the last days?

What's happening now isn't unique.
Christians have faced times of plague, even lockdown, before. Certainly, the scale of this 'feels' somehow larger, but there's things we should bear in mind, especially regarding what Jesus Himself and His Apostles say about His return - it isn't something done in a corner!

As I've reflected on all this over the past couple of days, I'm beginning to think the best way to see it, to borrow a quote, is to say that this isn't the beginning of the end, but may be the end of the beginning towards the end.

Take a look at the key image of history given to us in Revelation 12. It's pretty clear we're in the latter half of what's described here (see verses 10-17) - this is the conflict of the last days (which started on the day of Pentecost - see Acts 2:17-21), which has been raging for some 2,000 years.

God is taking His people through, that they might be refined.

That means living as well as we can in the present.
That means sharing the good news that God has come to be with us through our trial in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of His Son, to make us free.

Plant your trees, write your music or poetry, take your images and make your (well informed) you tube videos, but above all, do good to one another out of a genuine thankfulness to God for all He gives, and you'll be ready for the new creation when it appears.






Saturday, 25 April 2020

Lament

This weeks message is by Chad Bird.
Sometimes, a few words say all that's required:

How long will we dwell in a dry land where there is no water?
How long, O Lord, will you forget us forever?
When shall we come and appear before you? 
We were glad when they said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
But we are cut off, we are estranged, from your courts.

Too long have our souls had their dwelling far from you.
Too long have we hungered for the table of your presence. 
Consider and answer us, O Lord, our God.

Do not be deaf to our cry.
Do not be silent at our tears.
Do not close your eyes to our uplifted hands. 
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us once more.

Make your face to shine upon your servants once again.
Gather us, as a shepherd gathers the sheep of his flock,
To make us lie down in pastures green with mercy. Why are you in despair, O my soul?
Why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for we shall again praise him.

Trust in Christ, for we shall again appear before him. O Lord, hear our prayer.

O Lord, have mercy.
O Christ, have mercy.
O Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A new entry

If you look over on the top of the right column of this page you will notice a new entry in the 'books published' section entitled 'Cry Freedom!'.
Over the last year, I've been working on a rendition of Martin Luther's superb commentary on Paul's epistle to the Galatians, and now, it's up for the world to see.
It's available in a basic word format and should just pop up, ready to read.
I've done it this way so as many people as possible can make use of it and enjoy it for free, so please avail yourself and I hope it whets your appetite for more.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

C o n t a g i o n

Said you woke up this morning
Said you woke up under a curse 

I've heard the blues are bad but this is something worse

And the ambulance driver
Well he tips his hat and stares
And he asks you in a grave voice "Can I take you anywhere?"

Yeah, it's the thing we cannot speak of
Too painful to behold

Oh this blister soul

Vigilantes of Love - Blister Soul.

Its a sure-fire killer, and it's everywhere.
In our blood, in our homes, in the very air we breathe.
There's no escape.

From when you wake up, you know its poison inside,
because it's there in everything you say and do.
You'd like to ignore it, for it to go away,
but when you're ruthlessly honest with yourself,
you know it's hurting your being with others,
and it's killing you inside.

It isn't a misery you can really solve with a pill or a drink,
though you may often try.
It isn't a pain that can be eased by having piles of cash, or by jumping from one moment of pleasure to another,
though you may fool yourself into thinking that's enough.
It isn't an illusion you can mask by adopting some nice belief to make you feel good about yourself.

It's a sure-fire killer, that burns in our veins, and takes us all to the grave.

The bible calls it sin - the wickedness we do against everyone and everything, born out of our broken relationship with God. It even causes us to be cruel to ourselves.

A virus needs a remedy - an antidote that is going to make us whole and well, but this malady is beyond our means to ease or cure - God alone can heal us, and easter shows us how that was done. Jesus took our sin upon Himself that we can be healed and set free.

The present circumstances have shown us just how deadly a virus is, and how radically it can change everything.

How will you choose to deal with the contagion that we all carry?
There is a remedy.