Thursday, 20 December 2012

New Year Celebrations

I love Nehemiah chapter 8! It's so full of relevant teaching, both theological and practical.

For a start there's God's timing. His providence set this gathering of the people on the first day of the seventh month - the first month of the year for Israel, following an "agricultural" calender. So the gathering was effectively a New Year celebration, but one very different to what people today are used to. For their celebrations they called for God's law to be brought out; ours will bring out lots of alcohol, parties and fireworks, but, for most, definitely not the law of God!

Leviticus chapter 23 specified three festivals in the seventh month - the "Trumpets" on the first day; the "Atonement" on the 10th day; and "Tabernacles" from days 15-22. The sequence is significant. Trumpets was a "reminding" of the people of who their God was and what he had done for them; Atonement showed this to them in the sacrificial provision of God through which they received forgiveness; and Tabernacles was a time of rejoicing in the salvation benefits of that atonement. All in all the timing of God's providence was perfect for this crucial stage in the re-establishing of a godly community in Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership.

As we approach another New Year, we would do well to note certain aspects of their relationship with God's word for application to our preparation for a New Year.

Firstly, they greatly valued God's word. It's significant that they, the people, called for the law to be brought out, and also that they were united as a people in this. It was not Nehemiah's proposal. The people demanded it and they unified around this desire for this word! The fact that they deemed it relevant to their age and circumstances, although given in Moses' time, is a point which ought not to be lost on us in an age when the relevance of the Bible is commonly dismissed.

Such a deep and united demand for God's word is not self-created; it comes from God himself. It's one of the telling marks of the beginnings of spiritual awakenings. People demand God's word; they have a deep hunger for it; it's not enough for them that they have habits of using God's word in worship; they need more. In addition, when such a hunger for the word appears it will be accompanied by a greater urge to communicate the word to others. People who value God's word to this extent will be people who realise how vital it is to all human life and progress, and so will want others to benefit from it too. A deep appreciation of God's word is one of the prime motivators for evangelism!

I'm reminded of Robert Jermain Thomas, the missionary who distributed Bibles from a ship to the Korean people in 1866. The ship grounded on a sandbank and all on board were killed on the orders of the Korean government, fearful of foreign influence. Robert managed to swim to the shore where he was confronted by the man who would shortly kill him. One account of the event stated that on his knees, facing his executioner, Robert did not plead for his life; instead he pleaded with his executioner to accept the copy of the Bible which he held out to him. How he valued God's word! He was killed, but his handing out of God's word led to many lives there being blessed!

Secondly, they received God's word as it was read and explained to them. They were "all ears" (v.3). Their hunger made them listen keenly. This is how it always is. A spiritual appetite leads to an eager reception of God's word. Also, the word was not only read; it was also explained to them. The Levites went among the people giving the meaning of the word read by Ezra. It's not enough to have the word read; it must be explained. Preaching, the exposition of the word, is the primary means God uses in the educating, strengthening, guiding and sanctifying of his people, as made clear from such passages as Romans 10:14-17. It's the way by which our souls are "polished" and retain a shine for God. As long as a plough is in use it maintains its shiny appearance. The frequent plunging of it into the earth sees to that. But set it aside for a few weeks and a film of rust soon appears. So it is with our lives. Plunged into the word regularly, turning it's holy soil over in our minds, we will keep the shine on our lives.

They also showed the value they placed on God's word by their visible actions. They "stood" as Ezra was opening the book. It was God's word to them and they thought it only right that they paid due homage to it as his word. Then when Ezra praised God they cried out "Amen, Amen", lifting up their hands as they did do. A few dignified "Amens" and lifted up hands would surely be welcome in our gatherings under the word! We have become too afraid of showing emotion as we receive God's word. This reluctance is understandable; we do not want the hyper-emotional response that interjects noisily rather than listens carefully. But, preaching should produce emotional response, and we should not be afraid of showing our joy, or our sorrow, when the word of God affects us. On one occasion when the late Principal John Macleod of the Free Church College was preaching, a woman caught up in the power of the truth proclaimed exclaimed, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" He looked at her, paused, and then responded, "How blessed are they who know the joyful sound!" Passionate, powerful preaching meeting with an emotional response, for mutual stimulation! That's what preacher and hearer should aim for.

Thirdly, they did not detach "worship" from "preaching." There's no suggestion here that we should do "worship", consisting mostly of singing, and then, after we have done the "worship" part, we come to the "preaching" part of the service. This detachment is exacerbated in practice when we appoint "worship leader(s)" to take charge of the "worship" leaving the "preaching" to be led by the preacher, as if each of these belonged to its own "compartment." But, preaching, singing, prayer, and reading must all interflow as conjoined elements of one "worship." Indeed preaching must "lead" the worship, in the sense that the exposition of the word should move and inspire people to praise God! To achieve that our preaching must be inspiring, never insipid. Likewise, quality praise should stimulate a greater desire to hear the word explained and an enhanced urge on the preacher's part to preach! For that our singing must be vibrant and we must work at getting it so! It's as difficult to preach inspiringly after dull singing as it is to sing vibrantly after boring preaching! For both praise and preaching we need the God-created spirit which activated the people in Nehemiah's day, and for that we need to pray!

Fourthly, they learned that "the joy of the Lord" was their strength. Rejoicing was not their initial reaction to the reading and explaining of the law; it was in fact weeping. The law had exposed their sin. And Nehemiah's response is most interesting. He said "this day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. But go your way, eat the fat, drink sweet wine, and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." A day marked as "holy to the Lord" was not to be kept by mourning but by it's opposite emotion, joy! Within ten days of their gathering would be the Day of Atonement, on which God assured his people, "you shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins" (Leviticus 16:30).

When we think of "holy", do we have an image of something that does not allow for joy - a stiff, gloomy, legalistic, doleful thing, that closes out rejoicing? Do we regard mournfulness as our strength? If so we are being untrue to the Bible! Holiness and joy are the best of friends, not enemies! There is a place for mourning over sin as God's law exposes our sin to us; but that is not where our strength lies. It lies in the "joy of the Lord", the joy of knowing salvation. Our strength is not at Sinai but at Calvary, not in the day of the law but in Good Friday!

So, let's celebrate New Year as we would celebrate every Lord's Day each new week; with God's word basic to our celebrations; with a worship that values God's word, receives God's word preached, and responds in visible emotion, as we celebrate the fact that "the joy of the Lord is our strength."

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Journey

It was that sort of day from the outset; damp, breezy and nothing seemed to go right. Standing on the platform with the usual crowd of commuters to catch the 08.25 train into Edinburgh, I saw a coach creep ominously into the car park. An announcement echoed that no trains were running that morning and we would need to take the coach into Edinburgh. Due to the usual volume of traffic that would mean at least an extra half hour onto the journey. 

Then, on reaching Murrayfield the driver received a message on his phone that an accident had taken place just ahead, and that he should take a different route to the city centre. He began doing so, but soon said to those sitting behind him that he didn't know that route into the city! So these passengers had to give him directions! But, instead of going to Haymarket and then on to Waverley, he announced that he would go to Waverley first and then come back to Haymarket! That was too much for those who wanted off at Haymarket, so they got out near Princes Street. Eventually those of us who were left on the coach got off halfway along Princes Street.

However, a bonus of the unexpectedly long journey was the time it gave me to reflect on how infallible is the leadership and guidance of God. It may seem to us at times that his rule has little order or even sense to it. After all the world is in turmoil so much of the time, and the events even in the lives of Christian people are sometimes difficult for themselves to fathom. Yet God is unerringly bringing all things to their appointed end. He's never late. He is not caught out by sudden, unexpected events. He never needs to take a detour from the route he had planned from the start. No-one needs to shout out directions to him. 

Few people had so much suffering and mystery in their lot as Job had. There were times when he cried out in anguish in the darkness of his experiences. To his observing companions, and even at times to himself, his life seemed to be a chaos of suffering, with no shape or purpose, as when he said of God, "Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him (Job 23:8-9)". But then, in an outburst of extraordinary faith, he said, "But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food (Job 23:10-12)."

Most masterpieces do not look too promising at the outset, at least not to the uninitiated. The craftsman seems not to have the necessary acumen or skill to produce an outstanding piece of work. But the end product belies the seemingly errant start. The lump of ugly, distorted clay has become an exquisite piece of pottery, fit for purpose. Through the skill of his hands the potter has transferred the plan he had in his brain to that clay and the end product corresponds exactly to the blueprint in his mind. God is building a masterpiece, a spiritual house for himself to live in. His redeemed people are his masterpiece. He needs to do a lot to them to bring them into shape. But he will do it, by various means, and the final product will be glorious!

As one year is about to pass into another and as that brings us another step closer to eternity, what or who is shaping our life? On whose advice and guidance are we depending as we travel towards the terminal of death and judgment? 

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6)."

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Where is CHRIST in my Christmas?

Some events are of such enormous, world-wide, lasting significance, that those who were present where they occurred have a sense of the momentous in saying “I was there.” We can think of such events in our own lifetime - like the pulling down of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11.

There is one event, however, of more momentous significance than any other. When it happened most people in the world were not aware of it taking place, yet the announcement of it to a few ordinary shepherds was by an angel from heaven accompanied by a chorus of angels praising God! Not surprising in the circumstances, seeing this was the birth of the Christ, the Son of God. It’s safe to say that there had been no comparable event prior to it, nor will there be another like it. The return of Jesus in his kingly glory will a stupendous event; but it was in the incarnation, his conception and consequent birth at Bethlehem, that God became human, which makes it the event of highest magnitude. It is impossible for us to comprehend the full scale of this. The Creator was conceived (created) and born a human; the Sustainer of the whole universe became dependent on a human mother; the Lawgiver, who has the right to demand obedience of every human being, became obedient to human parents. This is so stupendous a thing that it is no surprise people choose not to believe it.

Yet believe it we must, for the Bible is clear that the event is integral to our salvation from our sins and tells us much about God. It is in fact God’s ultimate revelation of himself to us. In John’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 18, we read “No one has ever seen God; the Only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” The incarnation is nothing short of God's exegesis of his heart to us, a revelation of what God is truly like. So, what do we see?

First, that God is love. The Bible tells us that God is more than love; he has other attributes, like mercy, wisdom, power, holiness, and wrath. But love is supreme; God is love. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the person and ministry of Jesus. It was divine love that sent the Son of God into this world by means of the incarnation. The same love was exercised in the consequent ministry of Jesus in this world, including the death he died on the cross. In the letter to the Romans we read in chapter 5 verse 7 that on rare occasions someone may die for a good person. That would indeed be remarkable love. But, far above this, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” He died not for good people, but for sinners. And who died? Not a mere human being: Christ died, (the Son of) God incarnate died! “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4 v 9-10).

Second, we see that God identifies with us. It explodes the myth that God, if he exists at all, is remote, unmoved, void of feeling towards the plight of human beings in a world of agonies. It is possible to look upon Jesus as God incarnate and yet conclude that God does not care, but only if one is utterly closed to the fact and purpose of the incarnation as set out in the Bible. Unbelief can indeed say “I don’t get it”, but faith looking at the same Jesus will always say “Father, thank you.”

But what does it mean that God identifies with us? It involves, primarily, that God has gone as far as to take to himself our plight (being lost and guilty sinners) and our place (dying the death we deserved, or put another way, paying the price of our sin). The Son of God was born specifically to do this. Jesus himself at the time that Peter confessed him to be “the Christ”, immediately explained in summary what that meant - “the Son of man (Christ) must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9 v 22). In love, God took upon himself to become human in order to take our sin, our guilt, our punishment, and so to stand in our place condemned, turning his wrath against himself in the person of Jesus his Son! Only divine love could plan this, perform this and accomplish it!

Third, the incarnation tells us that to refuse to accept Jesus as our Saviour is the most unreasonable and unjust thing we could ever do. We insist on our human rights, but we dismiss God's right to our trust and obedience. In our rejection of Jesus we disparage God’s love and his identification with us. God has created life for us in Jesus Christ; we create our own hell if we refuse this.

So, finally the incarnation insists that we ask ourselves, "Where is CHRIST in my Christmas?"

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Time to Stop Praying and Start Moving!

We are required by God to "pray without ceasing", to be constantly engaging with him in our daily walk. Most days we are no doubt guilty of failing to do this, but in Exodus 14 verse 15 we meet with the other side of things. God says to Moses, "Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward." It was time to stop praying and start moving! No doubt the Red Sea looked scary, but it was the only way to go and heading out towards it was the only acceptable thing to do!

While prayer is indispensable to the progress of the church, and that of individual Christians, there are times - though it sounds strange to say it - when we can let praying impede our progress. We can take refuge in church attendance, in spiritual exercises like prayer and Bible reading, so as to avoid taking the necessary steps forward in God's service, especially when these steps will involve a public profile being given to our faith. Unbelief, reluctance, even pride, can hide themselves in the form of devotion. "I go to church every Sunday, twice a day", may become a mantra by which, through prolonged use, we come to convince ourselves that we need not really cross that "sea", that challenge we know God has set before us; we can stay where we are, do more praying and reading, that's it. So we keep putting off what we know is our duty and privilege to do for the Lord. All too soon we will reach the point at which we convince ourselves that it is now too late to do it anyway!

The Lord showed his glory in the overthrow of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea and in the preservation of Israel as they passed safely through. But, in God's arrangement, this required Israel to move! He could have shown his power and glory against the Egyptians by just uttering a destructive word, but that is not his way. Israel's progress is the means by which he will show his glory, and for that they need to go forward!

Standing still is not an option for us if we are keen to see the Lord get glory in demonstration of his authority and power. Advance is a law of the Christian life. God nowhere advocates a strategic retreat, nor a standing still when we should be moving on and taking our share of the work and afflictions of the gospel. Let's not ever take a step without first praying; but let's not make praying a substitute for stepping out in faith.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Using the Past to Serve the Present for the Future

We are studying the Book of Nehemiah at the mid-week meetings and last evening we were having a look at chapter 7 verses 5-73. Lists of names are always difficult to make sermons from! But, they actually provide us with rich veins of teaching once we examine them. After making significant appointments as set out in verses 1-4, Nehemiah took a roll call of the people using the record of the names of those who had come from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538BC, led by Zerubbabel. Over 90 years had gone by since that first group had returned and now Nehemiah was leading a massive rebuilding programme in which the main concern was to rebuild a godly, covenant community of people loyal to the Lord.

This roll call was not his own idea, as verse 5 makes clear. God had put it in his heart to do this. In times when it is easy to grow impatient at what we perceive to be a lack of progress and gospel impact it is tempting to rush into carrying out what appear to us as very good ideas. So it is always necessary to place them before God, pray over them, wait upon him and look for his approval and guidance before we implement them, otherwise our good ideas may turn out to be very bad ideas! But what was the point of using these genealogical records?

First, linking this with the original returnees showed the continuity of the one covenant people of God throughout the generations of their history. Despite the unfaithfulness of their ancestors, which had led to their exile in Babylon, God had not abandoned them as a people in covenant with him. Nor had he cast off their ancestors so as to make a clean start with those who had returned to Jerusalem. The line of covenant relationship with God had remained in place. Similarly, while we have no excuse for unfaithfulness to God, our covenant breaking does not require God to adjust his plan or make a fresh start with a "new" Church!

But in the second place, this link with the past was designed to be motivational. A return to Jerusalem would not have been easy for that first group. To uproot from what had become familiar living conditions in Babylon and return to a wrecked temple, local hostility and an unclear future demanded faith, courage, trust in God and great self-denial. So Nehemiah was effectively motivating the people of his day to press ahead in the work of rebuilding by drawing inspiration from their past.

That's our task too. We too have a duty to use the past to serve the present for the future. We don't need to be "history freaks" (although it helps!) to do this. But we do need to know the past, especially the history of God's dealing with his people down through the generations and up to the present day. If we want to serve the present Church of God effectively so as to convey a rich spiritual legacy to the next generation, we must take time to find out what happened, and why, in the great events of the past. Why was there a Reformation in Scotland in 1560? What were it's main features? What was good and maybe not so good about it? Why was the Headship of Jesus Christ over his Church so important to those who opposed the civil and royal powers who insisted on controlling the Church? What was it like to experience the kind of gospel blessing that converted hundreds of people in times of spiritual awakening? And then there's the history of our local congregations, in which significant events and people appear in their past records and oral accounts. There's plenty to inspire us in all this, but we need to make time to look through it, study it and apply it.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the Founder and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Grapes in the Wilderness

Hosea chapter 9 verse 10 is a remarkable description of how delicious to God was his "finding" of Israel. Set in the context of Hosea's ministry of highlighting the unfaithfulness of Israel in their covenant relationship with God, the description is designed to reinforce the seriousness, and ugliness, of Israel's devotion to idols instead of God. The God who finds it delicious to save ought to find that he is delicious to his people.

Instead, God declared through Hosea that his covenant people found it far more delicious to commit spiritual adultery with their idols than to take delight in the God who took delight in them. Of course, this is not merely a matter of Old Testament history. It is a sad feature in the story of the Church down through the ages and up to the present day. Indeed it is also indicative of the tendency within every Christian to give in to the "flesh" rather than fight it and "walk (in line) with the Spirit." (Galatians 5:16)

Surely one of the most powerful incentives to pursue a life of taking the greatest delight in God, of finding the salvation we have in Christ and fellowship with God delicious, is the basic fact that God found it delicious to save us in the first place. Above every other experience that of living in communion with God ought to be our highest delight. One of my reasons for beginning this blog is simply to remind myself every day of this and thus respond accordingly by taking delight in God. I hope and pray that some of the thoughts published will help others to do the same.

"Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you." (Psalm 73:25)