Sunday, 7 December 2014

Mistaken Identity?

"And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 
William Shakespeare

In my last entry, I sought to consider the defining reality of our existence - not that we're made of atoms, part of a process or even defined by our genes, but that what presides over everything is the intention of God the Father to convey the nature and delight in His Son throughout all things. This, of course, is an entirely different purpose to the one we conclude from our own objective analysis of the material world (molecules and maths), and yet, inside each of us is a longing for just such an answer (that we truly have real and lasting value), hence our continual love for creative stories and events which dignify the best of our original humanity (love, compassion, integrity, and so on) amidst the most adverse of situations. The gap between these two realms makes sense when we realize that due to a historical event - our severance from Eden - we currently only carry a dim echo of what was lost, but this is enough for us to recognize, beneath our marred selfishness, that something more is meant to be. The issue then becomes how that gap is bridged. 

Some years ago, a book I was reading noted that when you look at all religions and boil them down to their essential truths, there are actually 'very few people left in the room'. There are three. You either believe that God is entirely detached from us (a being that may have started the whole thing going, but hasn't been that interested since), that God is everything (which means we're pretty much stuck with the way things are) or that God is distinct from Creation, yet intimately concerned and involved for its ultimate well-being. Most religion (aside from most Eastern thought, which generally plums for the 2nd option) falls into category one, where what's actually needed is some special manner of enlightenment so we can finally escape the prison of the material (which is usually defined as a mistake - opps, so it all went wrong from the word go) to become something other, but that means that all of this is pretty much pointless (unless you're one of the few enlightened), so that, in truth, amounts to being as helpful as a view which says, in essence, it is all pointless (atheism), because it isn't actually going anywhere. 

The true intention, says Christianity, is for all of creation to become adorned with a nature which genuinely conveys it's true glory (value), because within that perfection, the very nature (character) and beauty of God - the fellowship of the Father and the Son, through the Spirit - will be expressed and enjoyed. The intention of God, then, was for humanity in particular to participate in a life where everything, from the common to the most sublime will reflect something of that splendor, and for us to revel and enjoy this continuously amidst heaven and earth's correspondence. That's why it's through the common things of life - food (bread and wine), nature (water), the body (the Incarnation), words (the scriptures) - that God speaks the deepest to us. His purposes and His nature are woven into the very threads of all that He has made good.

When we gather this season around the story of Christ's coming, around the grape and wheat worked into the elements we use to celebrate that brightest moment in our world's story, then we can lift our eyes and foretaste what is truly the treasure of our existence. We were made to express something of the love and wonder known between our Father and His Son. Our spirits, notes C S Lewis, were made to burn such fuel, and nothing else will truly feed us at our deepest point. History is heading towards a wedding, and we can attend, purely because we are loved by a love that clothes us in ransom, forgiveness and care; that will make us what we are intended to be. 

 Glory to God in the Highest!
A blessed Christmas to us all.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Before, During and After

And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain   Revelation 5:6

It's all a bit of a puzzle, this trying to get an understanding of the universe.
Whether it's wrapping your head around the apparent age (Billions of years) or size (Billions of Galaxies) or complexity of it, or trying to land probes on Mars or Comets to tinker with chemistry sets to get the right reaction for the possible recipe for life, the sheer scope and magnitude of it all makes us, here and now, appear pretty small and perhaps even pointless. Science - at least for some in the field - not only wants to tell us the 'how' these days, but the 'why' as well, and the answer it provides there is essentially, live for the moment, because that's all that's really going on.

It's an answer that seems to be popular everywhere right now. Every time the issue of religion comes up on a public discussion board, you can write down what the general consensus is going to be before you've even looked - science has finished the value of religion (which has only ever given us bad stuff anyway) so away with the hearsay and forward with the facts!

The real world, of course, looks somewhat different. Even if some man-made craft was to gain the correct 'burp' from some space dust, no scientist is able to go back to a primal age and actually show that this was what did the trick here, and even if they could, that still wouldn't undermine the fact, as Fred Hoyle noted (1), that in the first place,  the whole basic structure of things has been jury-rigged for the benefit of life, and someone needed to do that.

It would seem there is indeed method amidst the madness. The question then becomes why.

Science leads us to the realm, as Einstein noted (2), of the conviction of a mind and imagination beyond our own, but we need a different manner of wisdom to see the full signature of the one who heaven's glory is seeking to declare. Revelation about the nature, purpose and character of the God behind the realms we observe has been given in the 'shadowy' words and experiences of the Prophets but fully encountered in the person of Jesus Christ, and this is because all of time and space, matter, energy and order, have been made to express one great truth - the magnitude and splendor of His nature, which is the joy of His Father.

In Revelation 13, John defines Jesus as 'the lamb' with regards to His essential nature, especially revealed in the fact that He is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Vs 8). In that oh so deep moment described for us in Genesis 1:1, before the days of creation furnish the heavens and earth with all that is good, before the Lord moves beyond the sinking of the foundations of the earth to stretch out the stars and expanse by His wisdom and understanding, before the void of the deep of the darkness and waters are moulded by the work of His Word and His Spirit, another greater work is seeded into all things - Christ, His begotten Son, will be the very one who gives meaning and order to everything, that all things might truly come to express the beauty and richness of His nature (Colossians 1:17).

It doesn't end there, of course.
There would be a moment, notes John, because of the marring of the cosmos by sin, when heaven and earth would be scoured for one worthy enough to open the scroll of God's purposes, and at first, it appeared that there was none. History equally leaves us devoid of value and meaning when Christ is silenced - we are doomed to merely repeat our fatal errors until we sink, miserable, into death, but the sorrow is broken, for the Lamb appears, and heaven leads all of creation in jubilation over the consequences of this (5:1-14). All things now have their place and their purpose, leading finally to the great moment John unveils at the end of his revelation - all of life will become the new city and culture of the Lamb (22:1).

"Religion"is not what is readily ill-defined. Viable 'religion' is really all about intimacy. The reason we must speak of such a wonder as hearsay is because the alternative is truly shocking - God is with us, and wants us to know His ways and become those adopted into His family.

All of history will one day become 'Christ-shaped' - defined and delighting in the love of the Father through His Son, shared by His Spirit.

It means there's so much more going on than just molecules, and Christ wants to make that real to each of us.

(1)'Would you not say to yourself, "Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule." Of course you would . . . A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has 'monkeyed' with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question'.

(2)"We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written these books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations". 

Monday, 20 October 2014

All the world's....

'The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp patterns of living... Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence'.
Robert Mckee -Story: Style, Structure, Substance,and the Principles of Screenwriting

It's an amazing time to be living if you love the arts - so many films and books and films of books, and then there's the explosion in the last decade of TV drama. It's estimated you could now spend your entire week just watching all the new material that's being made available in this genre alone.

We love stories, especially those which in some measure marry to our need to find something, often amidst the mundane and the downright troublesome, that gives us at least a hint that there's something worthwhile, even meaningful, going on amidst the madness. As noted above, for most of us, it's become a principal means of making that search.

I've been reflecting some this past week on just how these stories have impacted upon me - from the things I read and saw in my childhood, firing my imagination and leading easily to my passion for science fiction in my teens, as well as more gritty and therefore perhaps  more realistic material in recent times. What links them all, however, is the sense that it's all worthwhile - there's a 'bigger picture' behind all the struggle.

I also went to see Matthew Hurt's play 'The Man Jesus'. Based on an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark (which Hurt believes was written 'decades after the events' themselves), it allows Simon Callow to adapt some of the familiar people in the gospel (Mary, James, John the Baptist, Simon,Judas, Herod and Pilate) into characters identifiable in modern British culture, which, when fused with the politics of the times, gives an immediacy to the material and the reactions of this company to the person of Jesus Himself. Making Jesus someone so real is indeed welcome, and certainly at the heart of Mark's gospel, but the telling premise that Hurt employs informs us where we are going to conclude this new study of this person. For the people who met and knew Him, He can only be an enigma, someone miss-understood (and, in terms of Christianity itself, probably miss-used). Because this Jesus refused the roads of power that most of those encountered in the play have to handle, He can only be, finally, rejected, to become no more than a symbol Himself - a man dying on a cross.

That's, sadly, where our own humanity has to put Him, because if we seek to engage with the clarity that Mark (and the other Gospel writers) actually provide about this story, then we're going to find ourselves facing someone deeply challenging and disturbing (that's where the play does score some points!), and we certainly cannot avoid what that is saying about the 'big picture' regarding who we are and what life is really all about.

Picking up the gospel of Mark itself, what strikes you immediately is how the words of Jesus are sprinkled amidst His actions - miracles in pretty much in every other passage as, after being defined as 'the beloved Son' of God at His baptism (1:11), He focuses entirely on the fact that the Kingdom of God has come amongst us... the man becomes not a symbol, but a vehicle for a greater reality. The impact of this is palpable - crowds so large that being crushed is a real danger rush to Him, and the turning-point truly comes when the Pharisees 'begin to argue with Him' and Jesus begins to speak of His own death and resurrection (8:31).

We can look at Jesus and 'the story' which so clearly is at the heart of who and what He is in any number of ways, but what matters is coming truly to grips with the story and the person found in what's recorded by Mark and the other gospel writers, who are not recording 'tales' generated decades later, but the very record of those, like Peter, who were there at the time and witnessed first-hand what was said and done.

Story, when presented well, puts us squarely before what matters.
Take a look at Mark's record, and see what it means to face the real Jesus.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

All That Counts

"For the creation was subjected to futility" Romans 8:19.
"Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?" Romans 7:24

It's a world of bent and broken promises, where the frustration of 'natural' futility and our own propensity to fail (not only others, but ourselves) encompasses us on all sides as we feel the days passing and our frailty increasing. We may try to 'better ourselves', but we know, beyond the rag-tag attempts to do this, or just to try and enjoy life, the only thing that really matters is a love and affection so deep and rich it embraces all of our motley souls and transports us into a romance that is all-pervasive - that affirms that it is all really worthwhile, and there's real hope about what's to come.

Far above all the wreckage of our moralistic pretensions or external face-saving, God has raised His only Son at the point of total devastation and termination of all we know as life, and it is there, at that very point, on the cross, that God makes all things anew. The motivation, then, for renewal or change no longer becomes how we do/do not feel or what we resolve, but what God has done - the renewal is certain, not because we (by mercy) now can love Him, but because He completely loves us, and it is that alone which makes us rich and makes us new.

The world around us is still broken and bleeding, and because we are, in part, still tethered to all of this, we still know, all too well, the pain and the misery of the gaping wound of what it means to be part of such a world - so often, our days here are marked with that sorrow - but the good news for those who look up to see the work of God's love in His Son is that this is no longer the only reality in this sick and dying place. Amidst all the mess and chaos, there is love, and it's a love deep enough and strong enough to set us free.

Genuine love motivates us to do that which truly shows our affection for the one we cherish, and the frustration we often feel as Christians is because we have known the sweetness of the love that has become ours, but we have, in some respects, become distant to it. We then may try to make our way back by all manner of moral and spiritual contrivances, but the solution is the very same as the first time we encountered such love - to look again to what God has made ours, forever, in His Son... that is our haven of certain peace.

God's love is ours purely because of who He is and what He does. Peace with God and the love and life which flows from this is purely because of this - it is 100% His gift, and all he truly wants of us is to both receive and enjoy the life which comes from Him. The troubles of this world will still snap and press upon us, but He calls us, as His children, to look beyond these, for the love we have encountered is but the first installment of the rich redemption that is drawing closer each day.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

A few adjustments?

Do actions agree with words? There's your measure of reliability. Never confine yourself to the words.” 
 Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

So, we're told, it's a fake - Christianity, that is.
"Like other great religions". writes historian John Roberts, "Christianity was not founded", but had to invent itself "in three or four centuries", increasingly loosing sight of the 'Jesus' of its early days, turning Him,  principally through Paul and the work of the early church, into a figure defined by the "awful and mysterious concept of Christ, the embodiment of the Godhead, the second person of the Trinity" (Triumph of the West, Chapter 2). This is the principal argument of all critical approaches to the New Testament - that we have essentially lost the real Jesus beneath all the religious inventions that came after He was no longer there to prevent this.

The form of Christianity, which the Gospels describe as unfolding in Galilee around AD 14-37, so clearly inscribed, for example, on the walls of Pompeii by AD 79 and spoken about by Tacitus following the fire in Rome in in AD 64, is to be understood as an elaborate deception - something which merely allowed men to make a name for themselves as they freely cherry-picked from the life of an obscure and essentially insignificant Jewish Rabbi to invent a new religion.

Is that what happened?

If we put aside the New Testament itself for a moment, it's pretty clear that Jesus wasn't someone that either the Jews or the authorities in Palestine at the time could ignore. History records that this man was a teacher during the time of Emperor Tiberius and when Pontius Pilate was governor of the district. It also confirms that He was executed, but in spite of this, His movement spread across the empire. Further non-christian materials also verify that this movement spoke of their founder, Christ, as God.

If we use these early records as pegging points, then we can very quickly establish some key information about the beginnings of Christianity -

It's key figure was a teacher in Judea.

He clearly became a threat to the authorities of the day.
These authorities executed Him because of the trouble He caused.
Those who followed Him believed Him to be 'Christ' - God with us.
His death did not end, but fueled the growth of the movement, which spread rapidly.
These events all happened at a particular time and place.

All of this can be gleaned from a few short entries in secular writings of the time, so given that is so, where is the "awful" process of inventing that critics say was required over the next 300 years? Was it  not the case, that these "awful" beliefs were in place when the Roman governor Tacitus expresses a similar disgust at Christianity's "deadly superstitions" in AD64!

What such records actually show is that the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, especially with regards to the person and life of Jesus, were there from the beginning of this faith, and that the further work of Paul and others in their writings and travels was to merely declare what was already established by the events that had occurred in Judea during the time of Pilate.

The real question to be faced with regards to Christianity is not the authenticity of its definition of the life and person of Jesus, but the ramifications of what the Gospels of the New Testament tells us about this person, and what that means for each of us.

Deification, for example, we are told, is something that is 'worked' into the religion later on, but is that so?

In the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, after tracing Jesus' family back to Abraham, the writer speaks of a miraculous conception which is a fulfillment of a promise recorded in the book of Isaiah regarding the coming of God Himself. In the next chapter, wise men come from a foreign land to worship the new born, who is protected from genocide. In the third chapter, as Jesus the grown man identifies with the repentant of His day, God speaks from heaven of His true identity.

It is this person who is at the core of Christianity from its earliest days, and who literally turns the ancient world upside down as those who knew and followed Him went out amidst great trail and cost to share the truth about who He was and what He had done. That is the same truth we must face in our day, and no manner of distraction can truly remove us from the imperative - that we need to take this person seriously, and give those events the deep consideration they so rightly deserve.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

So, where are we coming from?

"There was a saying on Minbar, anyone who wanted to get a straight answer out of Ranger One was to look at every reply in a mirror while hanging upside down from the ceiling". 

Marcus Cole - War Without End (Babylon 5).

What determines your view of the world and its existence?
For most of us, what would be generally termed the view of science with regards to this has certainly had a major part to play, and that is understandable. In our times, we've gone from technology  that once filled a warehouse to something you carry around in your pocket, and that revolution is still ongoing, so why shouldn't we sign up science's views, especially when it comes to what we are?

There's a great episode of Gerry Anderson's classic TV show, UFO, called Close Up.
A new piece of kit - a radio telescope - promises to bring data back to earth and answer big questions, but, there's a glitch. A key component in the device is faulty, and as a result, vital parts of the data which provide definition and context to the images transmitted are omitted. The entire mission fails as a result.

Because of the immediate popularity and usefulness of technology today, very few realize that we actually suffer from the same kind of gap when it comes to our relationship to science.

It's pretty popular now to think that our scientific approach to things derives from a rational, modernistic approach to reality, probably birthed from the period of the Enlightenment, but this itself is a cultural glitch, adjusting our perception, inherited and suitably coloured from the Victorians and their confidence in the inevitability of progress.

The reality of how and why modern science came about is very different:

The theological reasons why empiricism was developed and employed in scientific fields of research has been dropped by a world which wants a progressive imperative which, first and foremost, emerges from and entirely embraces constant change as the reason, the purpose behind us and everything.

The result is startling, but so commonplace, it is barely given a second thought today. The creed which inspired science to be done, and done well, is now missing from almost every sphere of how we look at ourselves and our world, principally not because of science itself, but the ideological intentions of men like Thomas Huxley in the 1800's, and many who followed him, to detach science and its discoveries from any other source than those deemed natural and therefore, the obvious result of things readily determined and defined.

The 'camera' of our modern approach to life, then, clicks away, and we barely notice, at least most of the time, what's missing - the small matter of the actual answer to "life, the universe and everything". However popular technology makes what we deem to be 'scientific', the key issues that those who used science in its earliest days deemed imperative still remain, so perhaps we need to return to thinking about the questions and beliefs our pre-naturalstic culture viewed as imperative to what counts.

It certainly should generate some pause for thought.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Another Land

"There's a place, at the edge of the sky, where there's a love, as deep as it is wide".
Amy Grant.

I can't recall the first time I fell in love with a place - it was probably our first garden in my childhood - but I do recall being somewhere that I truly wanted to 'own' me.

Back in the 1980's, when Kay and I could finally afford to go on holiday, we discovered Cornwall - we did a week touring and B&B'ing around its length and breadth, and we found a bond with its beauty and its pace that wasn't going to end. We actually found one particular location that we loved so much that we entirely re-scheduled our plans for the end of that first week so we could spend another day there, and that was just the start. Over the next 20 years, we would come back again and again, even in the heart of winter. Yes, we had other holidays in other locations, but Kay and I wanted to live in Cornwall - it had become part of us.

In the later 90's, as Kay approached retirement from teaching, we were on a weekend break, visiting towns there we'd not been to before, when we realized that re-locating to that part of the world was affordable. It took us some 18 months to make it happen, but suddenly, we were residents of that amazing place. The wonder of being there became overshadowed by Kay's illness, but in spite of that, those first four years became very special. We had a location some 25 minutes from home where we could spend many afternoons and evenings on the beach, Kay usually reading, whilst I swam and scrambled, often having our quieter times there as the sun set.

Kay's last few years left me with another legacy - engaging afresh with the place, the world and with people through photography, and this changed something deeply inside me. No longer was Cornwall somewhere I visited or even somewhere where I lived... it's barren grace got into my blood and whenever I return there, especially to certain spots, I hear it's voice saying 'welcome home'.

The loss of Kay necessitated re-location, and I thought I was going to loose that connection once again, but, by the care of a God rich in mercy, I live somewhere where, every morning, when I walk to the top of the road, I can look across the river and see Cornwall spread out before me, waiting for me to come back.

All of this speaks, I think, to how we are meant to be - there is such a 'calling', an 'owning' by our Father and His creation meant for us all, a sense of purpose and being that truly, in our very marrow, smiles upon us and confirms we are where we should be. Often, we loose even a glimpse of that vista because of what we allow to get in the way (usually, our own short-sightedness), but if we've truly encountered such splendor - if we've smelt, felt, tasted and enjoyed such enchantment - then nothing else will truly satisfy us like the moments when we can stand in such a place, and just enjoy the moment, totally owned by it's enfolding embrace of us.

God is our Father, and our home. His love is that blissful warmth like the sunlight on a perfect summer's day, inviting us to relish in the ravishing of the moment, to know deep joy as we play in the precious scope of His boundless grace. The Father has given us Jesus, His Son, so that we can come home, and even on those days when we seem so very far away, in what He has done in His Son, we can still catch a view of what truly is, and what is to come - the wonder that will bring us home.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Getting there

Or you could be the one who takes the long way home
Roll down your window, turn off your phone
See your life as a gift from the great unknown
And your task is to receive it
Tell your kid a story, hold your lover tight
Make a joyful noise, swim naked at night
Read a poem a day, call in well sometimes and
Laugh when they believe it

The Long Way Home by Mary Chapin Carpenter

A friend posted a You Tube video this week that was supposed to pretty much show a 'history of everything' in just over a minute, which, he said, had made him think about the nature of things. After watching it, I immediately posted back another favorite video clip, saying whilst the piece he'd posted seemed to say a lot, it didn't really say anything about what truly matters about us - in terms of our capacity to destroy and to perceive things higher than that.

What's good about creative fiction (like the clip I chose) is that it can allow us to consider questions about who and what we are, and why that matters, from a perspective beyond the 'nuts and bolts' of the mere material (not that there aren't plenty of questions there to stop us in our tracks any way!).

This past few weeks, I've been enjoying watching the original 1960's episodes of The Outer Limits, a Science Fiction show which loved to raise 'what if?' questions about us, our existence and the nature of life itself. There's several episodes that, despite their age will still stop and make you wonder, but the one that really got the mind boggling this week was entitled 'Keeper of the Purple Twilight'.

It tells the tale of a Scientist, Eric Plummer, who is close to creating a disintegrating energy weapon. To complete his work, he enters into a faustian pact with a stranger named Ikar - an alien who is using Plummer's work as the first step in an alien invasion. Ikar will give him the missing equations if Plummer will rid himself of his emotions by allowing Ikar to absorb them. The Scientist readily agrees, and quickly nears completing the work, but there's a problem. Plummer had been romantically involved with Janet Lane, who realizes he has been warped in some fashion by Ikar. She takes Ikar out for a picnic lunch, and discovers the truth about him and his world - a realm where love and other emotions are unknown and where uniformity with regards to nature and purpose are essential - where there is no place for beauty or affection. The impact of this on all the characters is profound, and the conclusion of the story is dramatically effected by this truth. Needless to say, it is only when Janet's insistence that the whole truth about ourselves and Ikar's intentions are weighed in the balance that life is really defined.

What's great about this episode is that it reminds us that however long we spend working behind a microscope or telescope to further ourselves, it's not really going to tell us what lies behind the futility and frustration of the human condition, or why we perceive and aspire to things that are truly, deeply beautiful which surround and penetrate our lives. It is the 'alien-ness'  of such which should trouble us deeply, because beyond the size and scale of the universe, there is this telling quality within us which affirms there is much more going on here, and that when we truly love, truly venerate the majesty we can understand within the nature and expression of the life and world which surrounds us, then we are truly astonished by where we are, and the who and the what of this realm, which leads us to ponder what or who lies behind it.

Christianity answers these questions. It tells us why we are so messed up, but why we understand, why we know, there's more going on, and how the God who made us, like Janet in the story, has come amongst us to show us that what is so often 'alien' to our 'just so' attitude towards what we call 'natural' needs to be vigorously confronted and challenged - because there is indeed much more to say.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to more Outer Limits soon!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The hard truths.

This week, my friend Steve Nichols is preparing to leave our city church for ministry in pastures new in London. Steve has faithfully shared the marvels of the good news concerning Jesus Christ for many years here, for which we are very grateful.

A few weeks ago, Steve was asked in one of his final sermons to address the issue of if we worship a God of love, why is there a hell? What follows is a slightly edited version of that message, with many thanks to Steve for allowing me to use it.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and one-time resident of Stonehouse, once wrote, ‘Hell.... has long dropped out of the thoughts of every reasonable man’.

Perhaps you agree with him. It was all very well in the Middle Ages, as a doctrine to scare people into behaving themselves, but in an age of reason hasn’t the idea of hell and eternal punishment passed its use-by date?

After all, God is a God of love. And if He’s a God of love, how can He send people to hell forever? ‘For ever’ is a very long time.

And shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? 
Whatever crime a person may have committed in their short lifetime, punishment for ever is totally disproportionate. So one critic, John Hick claimed that hell is ‘totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love’.

The discomfort with hell doesn’t stop at the door of the church. 
Most preachers... indeed most Christians ignore the doctrine of hell. I’ve not preached on it very much. I wonder if you’ve ever heard a sermon on it. Even hearing the word ‘hell’ from the pulpit makes us want to look at our shoes. We treat to hell the way the Victorians treated sex – an embarrassing family secret; a necessary evil.
One writer, provocatively, has said that perhaps we’re ashamed of the doctrine of hell because we’d rather stand with sin than with Christ. We sympathize with sin and find the idea of hell an embarrassment.
So perhaps it comes as a surprise to realize that when our Saviour walked among us he talked more about hell than He did about heaven. In three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), He spends twice as much time warning us about hell as He does reassuring us of heaven. 
Let's think about two popular ideas about hell. Then we’ll think about God’s warnings about hell, before ending by taking a look at what Jesus says in John chapter 3.

Here’s the first popular idea about hell that we’re going to think about:

1.     ‘God is a God of Love, not judgment’.

Like all one-liners, there’s an element of truth in it. Wrath is not fundamental to God in the way love is.
God is a unity of Three Persons. Three Person eternally united in love. So in 1 John 4:8 John writes, God IS love. He doesn’t write, ‘God IS wrath’. From eternity past God’s nature has been love. The Father loved His Son so much that He created everything as an inheritance for His Son. In love He created the human race to share in His, to be His children. Everything there is was created as an overflow of God’s love.

John begins his gospel with these words:
All things were made through Him [Christ, the Word of God];  and without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.

At the very beginning when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden with the Son of God He was our life. Without Him we’d be dead. He was the Light. Without Him we’d be in darkness. And yet in our first parents we turned away from the very One who is life and light.
We turned away from Life, thinking we’d find ourselves... but we found only death. We turned away from the Light, thinking we could see better on our own... but we found ourselves in lost in darkness.
And so the Son came to find us. Walking in the Garden, He came searching for our parents. And in His love He pronounced sin’s death-penalty.
Because He loves us He won’t allow us live forever exiled from Him in our guilt and shame. He won’t allow sin to spoil His creation forever. God’s love means His opposition to all that is wrong.

God’s wrath is not natural to the Him in the way love is. His wrath is His righteous response to our sin. In Isaiah 28:21 He describes judgment as His ‘strange work’. He takes no pleasure in it.
Hell was not a part of God’s plan for us.

In Matthew 25 Jesus describes the final judgment, when He will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Verse 34, Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’. But to those on His left He says in verse 41, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’.
To those who have been forgiven: ‘Come, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’.
To those who refused to come to Christ for forgiveness: Depart, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

God is a God of love. His intention from the very beginning has been that we share His Kingdom, but because we’ve pushed Christ away, our very Life, we’re dead. And if nothing changes and we continue to push Him away God will give us over to our choice. We’ll be cut off from Life forever.

Popular culture mocks hell as a place where naughty pleasures can be enjoyed: where all restraints are removed and every appetite can be indulged. Some people think of hell as a place of total self-abandon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus spoke about hell often. Jesus spoke about hell in the most horrific terms, as a place of everlasting punishment. Of burning fire and unimaginable suffering to body and soul. It is a place of physical suffering. It follows the resurrection of the dead. Everyone – Christians and non-Christians will be raised physically from the dead with eternal bodies . As the prophet Daniel says, Some will rise to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). It will be a place of wailing and angry gnashing of teeth, as those sent to hell for ever both realize their tragedy in rejecting Jesus Christ and yet continue to curse Him through their suffering.
Hell won’t be full of sinners wanting to repent and get out. It’s a place where those who are filthy are filthy still. It’s a place where for eternity people are still justifying themselves, still nurturing self-righteousness, still hurting each other, still being selfish, still mocking Jesus Christ. An endless cycle of shame, and guilt and punishment.
Hell is not the devil’s home. It’s not where Satan will torment people for eternity. Hell is a place God has prepared for the devil and his angels where He will punish them and all who share in their rebellion. But the Lord takes no pleasure in it. ‘Why will you die?’ He asks Old Testament Israel. ‘For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Turn to me and live!’ (Ezekiel 18:23).
He describes Himself as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love. It’s not that He never gets angry. But wrath and judgment are His ‘strange’ work. 
If sin didn’t bother Him, He wouldn’t be loving. He’d be a monster.

As a parent I love my children. And because I do, I hate whatever might harm them. I love my children and I hate what they do that harms them. I get angry with them sometimes because I love them. 
Husbands and wives
should have a jealous love for each other. So that if a third party threatens their marriage the husband or wife should get angry with a righteous anger and be jealous for their partner because they love them.
There’s nothing arbitrary or irrational about God’s wrath, as there so often is with ours. God’s wrath is always predictable, because it’s His righteous response to sin. John Stott helpfully describes God’s wrath as His ‘steady, unrelenting... uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations’.

They’re not opposites: love and anger; or love and wrath; or love and hell. God’s judgment is His loving response to all that is wrong.

.... So our first popular idea is that ‘God is a God of love, not judgment’. But we’ve seen that it’s precisely because He’s a God of love that He judges sin.

Here’s another: ‘God hates the sin, but loves the sinner’.

2.     God hates the sin, but loves the sinner’.

Is God angry with sin or with sinful people?
John 3:36 it says Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.

Archbishop William Temple said, ‘There is a shallow psychology which regards the sin as something merely separate from the sinner, which he can lay aside like a suit of clothes. My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself as far as I am active. If God hates the sin, what He hates is not an accretion attached to my real self;  it is myself, as that self now exists’.

It would be incredible to say that God hates abuse, but feels no displeasure at all towards abusers. Or that He hates greed, but feels entirely neutral towards greedy people.
God is angry with sin, but He’s also angry with sinners.

He is angry with sin and angry with us. And yet the good news of the gospel is that in His love God makes a way to save those who are under His judgment. He doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He is a God of love. And if some go to hell, it won’t be because He hasn’t loved them or warned them.

3.    In love God Warns us of Hell

Let’s turn from these two popular ideas about hell to God’s warnings about hell.

Did you know, if you’re not a Christian here tonight, God wants to frustrate your life?
He wants to make your life difficult. The Bible says He does that because He wants to warn you of hell.

We try to create heaven on earth every day, but all our little ‘heavens’ are all broken. We think that if we had a better job, or a higher income, or a nicer house, or a sunnier holiday, or relationship with that person.... then we’d be happy. Heaven on earth. But we can’t make heaven on earth. Ever since our first parents turned away from the love and life of the Living God we’ve tried to make heaven on earth,
but our little heavens constantly fall short. They’re broken. They disappoint us. Our little heavens all actually closer to little hells. And we blame everyone else. But it’s God who’s responsible. God knows we can’t make heaven on earth without Him. He won’t let us make heaven on earth without Him. The Bible says He has subjected the world to frustration. He’s cursed it. Without Him we’re spiritually dead. Hell lies in front of us, but we taste something of it now. 

Romans chapter 1 verse 18 says that The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven right now.
It’s not that His wrath will one day be revealed in judgment and in a place called hell – though that is true. His wrath is being revealed right now in this world.
It’s not that our futures hang in the balance until Judgment Day when Christ announces the verdict. The verdict’s already been passed. John 3:18. Whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

The world is under God’s judgment and every day in love He warns that we don’t want to be face His judgment for ever.  Every day in a thousand ways because He loves us He warns us, ‘You do not want to go to hell’. 
We’ve got so used to God’s warnings that we think they’re a natural part of the world. We’re like Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, who hardened heart again and again to the warning plagues the LORD sent him that eventually he couldn’t repent.
Earthquakes, wars, famines, disasters, diseases. We think, ‘That’s just the way it is’. We even call them ‘natural disasters’. There’s nothing natural about them. They’re God’s warnings. There’s nothing natural about going to visit someone in hospital. Or attending a funeral. God never intended death to be part of His beautiful creation. He’s warning us, ‘You do not want to go to hell’.

God has frustrated marriage. 
Marriage should be a taste of heaven, a picture of Christ’s love for His Bride, the church. And in its best moments it is. But when each partner struggles to get their way it can be more like hell.  The Lord Jesus has given it over to that. ‘Your desire will be to be over your husband’, He said to Eve in Gen. 3:16, ‘and he will rule over you’. Every row a married couple has is a warning that we live in a world under God’s curse.

God has frustrated your work. 
It’s hard. It doesn’t satisfy you. You’re not fulfilled by it. You slave over it and wonder what the point of it is. You go to work tomorrow. And you look at the clock. And the afternoon seems to drag on forever...
Or perhaps you’re not treated fairly at work. Others take advantage of you. We blame everyone else, but actually God’s responsible. Do you remember His words to Adam in Genesis 3, ‘By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return’. His judgment is a warning to us that we do not want to live under His curse forever.
Perhaps friends have turned on you. You feel you can’t trust anyone. You’ve had painful separations. God doesn’t want you to go to a place where it’s like that forever. It will be place of eternal destruction, of punishment. Where shocking and unimaginable things will happen. He doesn’t want you to spend eternity there, so He warns you in this life.
We don’t have to wait for Judgment Day for God’s judgment to begin. We’re living in a world under God’s wrath already. And every day He warns us, ‘You do not want this to go on for ever’.

We’ve already thought about how we’re not condemned to hell because of anything we’ve done, but because of who we are. We’re children of Adam. The betrayal, the affair, the abortion, the abuse – our sins don’t have the power to send us to hell. They’re just the fruit of a condemned tree, the symptoms of my condemned condition. The reality is, on our own we’re condemned already. It’s not our doing, but our very being that is the problem.
And that means the solution doesn’t lie in my doing, but in my very being. We need a new life; a new heart to love Him; a new birth from above.
God not only warns us against hell. But He has provided a Saviour.

4. The Good News

So let’s finish in John chapter 3.  A religious teacher comes to Jesus. Despite all his credentials Jesus tells him that unless he’s born again from above he won’t enter the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus doesn’t understand, so Jesus reminds him of an event in the life of Old Testament Israel. John 3 verse 14, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.

As Israel wandered through the wilderness on their way towards the Promised Land there was no food and no water and the people started grumbling against the LORD. The LORD sent venomous snakes among them and many were bitten and died.
Then the people came to Moses and asked him to pray that the LORD would take away His judgment. And the LORD told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then whenever anyone was bitten by a snake all they had to do was look up at the snake on the pole and they would live.
Everyone who looked upwards – those who trusted God’s salvation – were healed.
Jesus is God’s solution. When He died on the cross all our sins were laid on Him. Every time we sin it was as if He said, ‘I did that. I said that terrible lie. I harboured that murderous thought. I nursed that grievance. I committed that adultery’. He became sin for us. He took God’s curse for us. He died under the judgment of God. He endured hell on the cross so that we might never have to.
All the Israelites had to do was look at the snake on the pole and they would live. All you need to do is look to Jesus lifted up on the cross, and you will have life.

  Verse 16: For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son into the world that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
You think, is it really for me?
Martin Luther once said, ‘I thank God that it does not say “God so loved Martin Luther that He gave His one and only Son, that if Martin Luther believes in Him he should not perish but have eternal life.” Because if it did, I should think it must refer to some other Martin Luther and not to me. But because it says ‘whoever believes’ I know it includes even the very worst of all the Martin Luthers that ever lived.’

How about you? Have you started the new Jesus offers? Sometimes it’s dramatic. Very often it’s not. I can’t even name the date when I became a Christian believer. It was very gradual for me, probably over several years – slowly just waking up to what Jesus has done for me...
But whether our new birth is sudden or gradual, dramatic or quiet, the important thing is to have that new birth from above, to be born again into the new life that Jesus alone can give us.

Then we can say in the words of the song:
No guilt in life, no fear of death
This is the power of Christ in me.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Magnum Opus

My life is a witness to 'vulgar' grace – a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying theif’s request–’Please, remember me’–and assures him, ‘I will’ A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

Robert Capon Farrar.

Wisdom is all about harvesting riches, wherever they are found.
Thanks to Jim Mc Neeley's excellent book, the Romance of Grace, I've been re-thinking a number of things of late in regards to how life and truth are meant to marry. Jim writes at the beginning of the book about the parables of the treasure hunter and the pearl collector (Matthew 13:44 - 46) , who gained their deepest desire by giving all to gain what they discovered. The wonder, of course, is that these were people who found something rare and truly worth everything to them, and the items discovered are gained by means of costly purchase. We often think, perhaps, in terms of our giving everything to gain a spiritual reward (the kingdom of heaven) when we read these parables, but, in truth, we are not the ones doing the buying!

In the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul begins by writing of the fact that in God's Son, we have been blessed with every blessing (vs 3), and he then goes on to tell us why. Long before the Lord made the storehouses for wind and snow, or caused the stars to burn in space, Paul tells us the He predestined us to be adopted in love through His beloved Son (vs 4 &5). It was through His Son that we would be given redemption from a world gone mad and the forgiveness of all of our sins, purely because of His amazing grace, which, Paul says He richly  'lavishes upon us' as He makes known to us the splendor of this purpose - to untie all things, in Jesus Christ, by this grace - all things in heaven and earth (vs 8-10), that everything might express this glory (vs 14).

Because of evil and sin, we don't see ourselves as we truly are. The universe has been tarnished by calamity, but amidst the deepest darkness - at the very point where there is only the weight of alienation, just condemnation and death, it is there, at the finality of a cross, that we find Jesus Christ, dying in our stead, carrying our sin, and our judgement, and telling us "it is finished" as He dies and rises again to life, purchasing us as the treasure, the pearl, because of the Father's great love for us, before anything had even begun.

Paul goes on to the Ephesian Christians that his desire is that they might truly revel in the glorious splendor of the immeasurable goodness that has been given to them in God through Christ (vs 15-19), for by this alone (2:8), we have been brought from death to life (2:1-6) that we might share in such riches of grace forever (vs 7).

If there's a great theme for us to dwell upon today, surely it is this. Before all that we know was, there was a Father who already loved us, and a Son who would, by the power of the Holy Spirit, do all to show to us and all of creation, the heights and depths of that love, which has become our inheritance, forever.