Friday, December 31, 2004

Tsunami - Part 2

Third foundation stone:

God is going to make all things new
The natural reaction to hearing that this world isn't how God intended it to be, is to ask, "Why doesn't he make it right again?" I mean that's what we would do, wouldn't we? Of course. If we had made something that we cared about and it was damaged we would do all our power to restore it. And that's exactly what he intends to do.

That's what Paul is saying in that passage in Rom 8: "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God."

And it groans, but it is "groaning as in the pains of childbirth" - there will come a day when a new creation will appear. "But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness." - 2 Peter 3:13

The time is coming when there will be no so-called 'natural disasters' this old earth will have been made new, sin will have been eradicated, the earth will be liberated from the curse that has bound it. There will be no pain, no suffering, no mourning because loved ones have been washed away, or killed by hurricanes. There will be no pain from injuries caused by falling buildings. There will be no death.

This earth will be restored. God will not be starting over again from scratch - his victory as with mankind is not to wipe us out and build a people who are sinless, but to reclaim us from the ravages of sin, and to remove every element and scar of it from our lives. So it will be with this world. Sin never has the last laugh. God will restore it. The old will have passed away. No trace of the old will remain. The new will have come. It will be the same yet profoundly different. Like an old masterpiece lovingly restored to the beauty it had when it left the artist's hand.

That brings us now to be able to look at the question of why does God allow such events to take place?

If God is in control, and although this world is not as he intended it to be, and he is going to make all things new, removing all suffering - why doesn't he get on with it? Having laid the foundations we can now answer the question - What is God doing in 'natural' disasters?

Meantime God gives people both time and warning to repent
If God were to step in now and make everything new - that would involve all that will happen when he will do it. What I mean is this - when God makes everything new it will be preceded by a Day of Judgment, when the people who will populate this new earth will be selected. Only those who have asked Jesus to be their saviour will be allowed to live on it. Anyone else will make a mess of it, far worse than Adam and Eve did.

Those who have asked Jesus to make them right will be finally made perfect, and will be fit inhabitants for God's pure and perfect world. All others will not be allowed to sully its purity with their wretchedness. They will be condemned to Hell, forever.

If God were to step in now and make all things new, he would have to come in Judgment first because that is how he has said it will be.

But God is kind, and merciful. He doesn't step in now. One day he will, but in the meantime he displays his patience and gives thousands upon thousands a chance to enter into this amazing world.

Peter in the same passage I've just quoted from in 2 Peter 3 says:

"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming… So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him."

That day will come; in the meantime God is patient with his rebellious world. What a generous God! What sort of people ought you to be - make every effort to be found at peace with Him. Make sure you have made your peace on this earth, because it is the only chance you have. Every day is another opportunity.

Herein lie the purposes of earthquakes and other such unnatural disasters. They serve as warning to us of the fragility of life, of the imminence of death, of the disharmony that there is between man and God.

In his patience he also sends us warnings. Patience is no virtue without instruction. What sort of God would God be if he went around sweeping up after us, and never warned us that there was a problem between us and him? It would be no kindness. Instead the curse on the earth because of sin is part blessing, because it warns us that all is not well.

When the earth shakes under your feet, and a tidal wave smashes through everything in sight, we are left feeling that there is nowhere safe. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. In most disasters the earth is the one thing that stands firm. But where do you turn when the earth itself is unsafe?

There is only one safe place - Christ.

Whatever it takes for men and women to see this is a mercy, a severe mercy, but a mercy nonetheless. As CS Lewis once said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures... but shouts
in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Sometimes, when we haven't been listening, He needs to raise his voice.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami - Part 1

Dealing with natural disasters from a Christian perspective

Why did it happen?

Was God asleep? Did the devil pull a fast one? Did God do it just for the sake of it?

Before we can get to the answer we need to lay some foundation blocks. One big block. And then three smaller ones places on top. And then we can build our conclusion on the top of this safe foundation. Here are 5 truths to help us think biblically about suffering and natural disasters.

Here’s the first big building block

Things only make sense if there is a God
If there is no God there is no point asking questions. There simply would be no reason why things happen.

That’s the conclusion the writer of Ecclesiastes came to when he looked at life around him. Without God, he said, everything is meaningless.

As Christians we may have problems answering questions about why things happen. But for the person who doesn’t believe in God, and who rejects God, they are in a far worse position, for they can’t even ask questions. If there is no God, then there is no meaning to life. And it doesn’t ultimately matter if we are killed by a falling tree, or cancer, or mugged, or drowned.

But something in us cries out against such a belief. The atheist finds himself living with a theory that he cannot live by.

As Christians we don’t need to be afraid, these sort of events don’t pose unanswerable questions. Instead they fit exactly into what the Bible tells us. When we look at the world through the lens of the Bible we find an explanation for the way everything is. This is the big foundation stone that underlies everything else.

Here then is the first of three smaller foundation stones.

God is in control not Satan, nature or chance
When the Indian continental plate dived under the Burma plate after 200 years of pressure building up, or when a volcano explodes in the Philippines we call these things natural disasters. Sometimes they are called freak accidents of nature. Or we attribute them to chance.

People look at situations like this and turn to the Christian and say, “If your God is powerful, why didn’t he stop this happening?”

And the temptation is for Christians to make excuses for God, blame nature or chance or blame the devil.

Satan does play a part in destruction and misery. We see that in Job. But ultimately it is God who holds the reins. He gives permission to Satan. But it is God alone who is the Lord of Heaven and earth. “He looks at the earth, and it trembles; He touches the mountains, and they smoke” (Psalm 104:32).

Earthquakes are ultimately from God. Nature does not have a will of its own. God is always in control. There is no heavenly battle with Satan setting off a disaster here and another one there with God running around like some helpless parent trying pick up the pieces and trying to tidy up one disaster and to stop another before it happens.

In other words, the earthquake happened because God allowed it to happen.

Strange as it may seem there is great comfort in this for the Christian.

Satan, or nature or chance aren’t some rogue elements that can come and turn our lives upside-down at their own will. There is no such thing as an accident in God’s mind. Whatever happens in this world is under the control of your father in Heaven. The Devil, although he is a fearsome enemy is not a free enemy. He can go no further than he is allowed by God. There is no such thing as a chance accident – everything that happens to you is finely calculated and designed by Almighty God. Nature with all its power and terrible force can do nothing to you unless he permits. No, nature, chance and Satan are firmly under the control of a loving father who only does what’s best for his children.

The second smaller foundation stone:

This world is not now as God intended it to be
It seems pretty obvious to anyone who really looks at it that this world is not a pretty place at times. Some parts are stunningly beautiful, but other parts are savage in their ferocity. We see hurricanes ripping through the Caribbean, we see volcanoes turning entire towns into ash, we see earthquakes and famines, and now a horror new to most of us – a tsunami.

Although many aspects of suffering can be explained by man’s selfishness, here is an example where the finger of blame cannot really be pointed at man. What happened to the world that God looked at in Genesis 1 and proclaimed to be “Very Good”?

Genesis 3 happened. When man sinned he brought disharmony into his relationship with God and with his wife, and with the earth.

Genesis 3:17 To Adam he said, …"Cursed is the ground because of you”

The earth, the planet itself has had to bear the marks of sin. We live on a cursed planet. Its beautiful in places – that’s the hallmarks of God’s design, but the pain and tragic events show us that this world we see now is not how God intended it to be.

In Rom 8 Paul tells us the same thing (v20-22) - “For the creation was subjected to frustration… bondage and decay… groaning…”

Adam’s sin has had a profound effect on the world. Disharmony in three directions. Disruption. Disunity. Disorder at three levels – God, people and earth.

Earthquakes are God’s way of reminding us that all is not right between us and God. If man could ever get to a point where he had removed from his conscience all imprints of God, and had managed for the first time in 1000s of years to live at peace with mankind, earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes would still be there to remind him that there was a fundamental problem in the universe, one that couldn’t be ignored.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. All disasters are unnatural. This is not how God planned it to be. We are living in a world ruined by sin. And we cannot hide from that no matter how advanced our cities become, no matter no many peace-keeping envoys and ambassadors we send out.

Conclusion to follow tomorrow - Here

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Avoid the tragedy of a wasted life

Don't Waste your Life
John Piper

This is a tremendous book; a great book to read at the start of another year. The vast expanse of the rest of our life (or the not so vast, God alone knows) stretches before us – the question hangs in the air: Will we waste it? What will we have to show at the end of our one and only precious God-given life?

Is Jesus useful only for escaping Hell, or is he the Treasure of our lives? Do we live lives that demonstrate something of the all-surpassing value of Jesus, or lives that show only too clearly that we have the same earthbound focus as our neighbours? Are we wasting our lives?

John Piper demonstrates with passionate forceful clarity that a life lived revelling in God’s glory and seeking to bring glory to him in every sphere of life is the only way to really live your life. He issues a call to serve and glorify Christ in the ministry, on the mission field, and in secular jobs. Amidst his passion there is balance and wisdom for all believers.

In the first two or three chapters, perhaps less easy to read than the rest of the book, Piper tells us of his discovery of the preciousness of Christ. And this is his great prayer for the readers of his book – that we will not only see it, but live it out. The succeeding chapters are powerfully challenging with titles like:
‘Risk is right – Better to lose your life than to waste it’
‘Living to prove He is more precious than life’
‘Making much of Christ 8 to 5’
‘The majesty of Christ in missions and mercy’

This isn't a book to read quickly, but a book that will take you time and will profoundly challenge you – your use of time, money and life itself. If you want to live life as God intends this is a book is for you. It should be compulsory reading for every Christian! Buy it now and read it at the start of the new year.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Sabbath Essay - Learning from Shepherds

I've been doing some thinking about the shepherds in Luke 2, the ones the angel spoke to about the birth of the Messiah.

First of all I wondered, "Why shepherds?"

Of all the people to announce the birth of he long awaited Saviour of the universe to, why these 1st century social and religious outcasts? Then it stuck me - because that's who God comes to seek and save. "Not many of you were wise…"

But then as I looked at them I was struck by what a fantastic example these men set us. I felt rebuked because for 30 years I have skipped quickly over them. Here are some of the things I learnt from these hairy, gruff sheep-herders:

Always look to meet Jesus
Don't be satisfied with great religious experiences, go and look for Jesus. Imagine the shepherds heard the message and thought, "Wow that was great, an angel, a message from God!" But they didn't, they went to meet Jesus.

Often we can go to church and be really uplifted, by the praise, or just by meeting people, but we have been brought no closer to Christ. Or to look at it slightly differently, sometimes we can hear God's message from God's messenger, just like the shepherds heard it from the angel only we hear it from a minister, and we are satisfied with simply hearing. We don't go further and seek Jesus. Or more likely it happens when we open our Bibles each day to read God's word, and we hear the words of almighty God, but we don't take time to really meet with our Saviour to hear what he is really saying. We close our Bibles satisfied that we have heard the message. Another box ticked for the day.

Don't be conned by appearances - Listen to what God says
The shepherds were told that the long awaited promised Saviour of the world was here, the Lord, the Ruler of the universe. And they go to see this wondrous being that the whole world has been waiting for since Genesis 3. And what do they see? A small baby boy lying in a cattle trough, in a dark and smelly cave used for sheltering animals, much like many of the caves they sheltered in themselves. And it's in Bethlehem - a nothingness of a place.

We wouldn't have been surprised if they had burst into the cave, and then ground to a halt at the scene before them, and been deflated by it. It was incongruous. They were being told something staggering, yet what they saw was the very opposite. And yet these men of straightforward faith were not stumbled by the circumstances they found themselves in.

How often do we stumble at these things? We live in a very similar situation to these men. We are told many things that are staggering: that we are sons and daughters of Almighty God, that we are heirs and co-heirs with Christ, that we are on the winning side, that God never leaves us or forsakes us, that he hears our prayers, that he works all things together for good, that he is building his church, that the church is his great instrument for change in the world. But when we look at our own lives, or at the church, or we look at what is happening around us, we can feel a bit like the shepherds stumbling into the dark cave to see the master of the universe, and all we can see is a helpless infant in a cattle trough.

And we can doubt, and stumble over the contrast between what we hear, and what we see.

But the shepherds teach us this lesson. Listen to all that God says, not just he glorious promises that we love to hear.

What they saw was exactly how God had told them that it would be. v12 "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Here was the proof that that what they had heard was true: what you see will look nothing like the majesty you expect. God told them this, as well as the great news that the Saviour of the world had arrived.

That's how it is with us. God tells us that there will be opposition, that the road is narrow and few are on it, that we will be tested, that we will have trouble in this world, that we will be tempted, that the gates of Hell will seek to swamp the church, that we will be discouraged. So we shouldn't be surprised.

But we need to remember what God has told us. Like the shepherds, God has also told us to expect what we see. He tells us that how it will be.

Things are not always what they seem. The shepherds could so easily have gone away disappointed and discouraged. But they hung on to what God said - the very thing that will be likely to discourage you is a sign that all that I have said is true. The very things that are likely to discourage us, have been foretold by God, and are proof that what he says is true.

We need to listen to all of God's word. We have a tendency to maximise the bits that speak of victory and glory and minimise the sections that speak of faith strengthened through suffering and trial.

Do it now
The shepherds didn't hang about. They went straight to Bethlehem (v15). And they came in a hurry (v16).

Prompt obedience. They didn't seem to worry about the consequences. We don't read anything about anyone being left with the sheep.

So often we hold off obeying because we are worried about what will happen, and what will people say. We need to obey God, which is far more important, and the great thing is this - he will take care of all the other details.

Prompt obedience is the hallmark of the person who has heard God speak. What have you been putting off doing in terms of obedience?

Anyone can be an evangelist
Luke 2:17-18 "When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them."

As these men return to the fields they can't contain their joy. They tell everyone they see - Hey you'll never guess what - the Messiah he's here!

And they weren't expert evangelists, or well trained preachers. They were men who were more used to talking about hoofs, and fleeces, and footrot, and scrappie, and mastitis and rabies, and here they are talking about Jesus to all they meet.

And perhaps we say, "Yes, but something amazing happened to them, if something amazing happened to me, I'd be talking non-stop about it too." But something amazing has happened to you.

Have we done that in the last week, or month or year? Have we told anyone about the life, death, resurrection of the Saviour of the world, that they need to apologise to God, and ask him to turn their lives around, and give them a new strength to live for God and not against him.

We don't need to be experts. We just need to talk. And God does the rest.

When God's people speak about what God tells them, other believers are encouraged
v19 - Imagine the situation, the shepherds make their way into the cave, words bursting out of them about angels telling them about the Messiah. What a confirmation it must have been to Mary and Joseph. Think of the encouragement it must have been to their hearts to hear what God was doing. Is it any wonder we read in v19 that, "Mary treasured up these things in her heart". When we talk about what God is doing in our lives, other believers are strengthened and encouraged.

Real men worship wholeheartedly
v20 "The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told."

In v10-12 God sends an army of glorious heavenly beings to publish the good news, and to sing his praise. By v20, the angels have had their places taken, by the shepherds. What a privilege it is to be human. They appear briefly on the scene of time, we are given the lifelong task of doing it.

And there is no mention of mumbling or singing softly so that no-one else can hear. These big hairy brawny men sang their praise with gusto. Real men worship wholeheartedly, not caring who knows how much God means to them.

Praise God this Christmas. Stop think and meditate on what God has done for you. Worship him. Don't be like so many others who rush through life without stopped to praise God.

"Sorry, Lord, for passing over these men you had time for, and for thinking that they had nothing to teach me."

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Relishing the Love of God

Greg Louganis one of the world's top divers from the 80's and 90's was asked how he coped with the stress of international diving competition. He replied that as he climbs to the board, takes a deep breath, and thinks, "Even if I blow this dive, my mother will still love me." Then he goes for excellence.

It great to have people to love us in spite of our failures and imperfections. Zephaniah 3:17 is a magical verse that assures us of the deep passionate love of God for us. We need to take this verse and grasp it with both hands. We need to breathe it in and savour it like we would the smell of a Sunday roast. We need to let it roll round the taste buds of our minds.

But before we can get to the verse we need to make sure it is written for us.

Make sure this verse applies to you
Zephaniah gives us three characteristics of those to whom our verse applies:

v9 - If you are calling on him and seeking to serve him
v11,12 - If your pride has been broken and you have come to him humbly seeking forgiveness
v13 - If you are growing in holiness by obeying his commands

All three go together, collectively these form a description of those who will enjoy the hope and encouragement held out in the verse we are about to look at.

Now we can look at the verse itself

Make sure you grasp the richness of God's love
We come now through the narrow doorway and before us lies a sparkling array of the most amazing riches, overflowing, spilling over the floor.

So having made sure that we have a right to be in this treasure room, we must not stand with our eyes closed. We had better take time to appreciate what exactly God has for us. Listen to it:

The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will be quiet in his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.

Each line of this verse deserves our attention.

A great presence

The Lord your God is with you. Or, "The Lord your God is in your midst."

The NLT has it "For the LORD your God has arrived to live among you."

How that should cheer our hearts when we feel alone, when we feel abandoned - God has arrived to live with us. He is here with us in all the details, all the frustrations, all the disappointments of everyday life. He is there. How comforting it is to know that - when I am doing something practical - like plumbing in a washing machine, I miss my father. It is comforting to have him around, to know that he is there if I need him, that he can see what I'm doing, and if I go to make a complete mess of it, he will be there to intervene, or to help tidy up. His tools, his strength, his wisdom. He has a great presence. In a much more powerful and comforting way, God is with us, in the midst of us.

When Satan comes to us, often we feel alone, unprotected. And if only we could see with heavenly eyes the great host that surrounds us, and the great presence with us we would be so much more comforted.

A Victorious Warrior

We are approaching this great description of God's love for his people, but lest we think that God's love is some sort of soft, sentimental emotion that has no strength to act, all words and no action, we are introduced here to a mighty warrior.

This is our God - the word used is the same as that for David's mighty men. He is a mighty hero. He is the defender of the weak and the fatherless. And the express purpose of this mighty warrior is to save his people.

We see it clearly on the cross - the mighty warrior taking on sin on our behalf to provide protection. We see the depths, the lengths to which he will go.

There is no doubt about the outcome - this is a warrior who triumphs. Our God is a mighty warrior who overpowers his enemies. He is in the midst of his people fighting for them and with them, casting his arms around them like a shield.

Does he have power to show us his love? Does his being with us have any effect? He is mighty to save, the warrior who gives victory.

An overjoyed father
Now we get to the bit that utterly blows me away. Here is a picture that is beyond belief. Here is mighty God, in all his holiness regarding me, and how is it he feels?

He will take great delight in you,
he will be quiet in his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.
  • Delighted
Here is a picture of a husband looking at his wife or a father looking at his newborn child. One moment he is overcome with joy and rapturous delight, the next minute holds her quietly, somehow lost for words, the next minute feeling his heart will burst as he sings his way down the hospital corridor and out into the car park.

This is the picture the Bible paints of God as he looks at us. He takes delight, or he rejoices over you with gladness. Almighty God looks at you and his heart is made glad as he looks at you. Never once does he regret the price he paid.
  • Silent
We see God's love from another angle here - he will quiet you with his love, not a good translation - he will be silent in his love - is better. Here is a picture of perfect contentment - the mother holding her new born baby close to her, as the baby lies sleeping with its velvet soft skin pressed against hers. She is silent in her love. Wordless adoration. The husband who looks into his wife's eyes and is lost for words - no words seem adequate. He will be quiet with love.

Can you grasp it? The almighty God looking at you and me, with a look of perfect contentment on his face? We're not perfect yet - we know that, he knows that, but he is not bounded by time - he can see in us the unfinished image of his son, finished in all its glory and as he looks he is quiet in his contented love for us.

He looks with that look of love that he has had from the beginning of time.

The word used here for love is a word that speaks of a fathers intense fondness for his son, like Jacob to Joseph; it speaks of the deep heartfelt bond between David and Jonathan, where one would die for the other; it speaks of a passionate love, like the love between Jacob and Rachel. The love God has for us is the love that never fails, despite our failings, and it is also the passionate longing of his heart, an intense desire for us, deep and heartfelt.

Amazing - how could the holy, righteous God ever feel like that towards us?
  • Singing
And then, we read, the silent contentment doesn't last for long - it cannot be contained, as he burst forth in jubilant singing.

Can you imagine God singing? So ecstatically happy that he cannot contain himself! He bursts into elated singing! Can you hear the voice that said "Let there be light", reverberating around the heavens in triumphant song? Why? Because we are his.

And when I hear this singing I stand dumbfounded, staggered, speechless that he is singing over me. He is rejoicing over my good with all his heart and with all his soul

Can you feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing?

Grasp it, revel in, relish it - for it is true of all who trust in Christ. Almighty God finds you a delight, a joy, a source of unending happiness and heart bursting elation. Here is the deep inner joy and personal satisfaction of God himself in you and me. Grasp this - we have a God who loves us, with a deep passionate heart bursting love.

All this because of Christ. This is what it is to be in Christ.

We cannot be the recipients of such great love and let it leave our lives unaffected. As Christians it is our responsibility to showcase this treasure to the world. We will do that by three things.

  • We should live confidently in the unfailing love of God
Other religions have you serving God with a constant worrying thought - "is he happy yet?" Not ours. We're never good enough, but he still loves us. It is not an arrogance to be quietly confident. God has told us here in the most startling of terms how he feels towards his people.

  • We should be spurred on in faithful obedience
This verse does not minimise our sin and shortcomings, but it reminds us that our God is not standing there with a big stick to batter us, but when we fail and know we have failed and come to him - we find love and delight in us. Greg Louganis said:

"Even if I blow this dive, my mother will still love me." Then he goes for excellence.

At the beginning of each day, how good it would be for each of us to take a deep breath, say, "Even if I blow it today, my God will still love me," and then, assured of grace, go into the day seeking a perfect 10!

  • We should be displaying this great love to others
A young man falls in love. She is far beyond what he could ever have imagined - each new day reveals yet more qualities and gifts, and depths to her love.

Does he keep quiet? It spills out of him with joyful enthusiasm. He can't help speaking. And even when he is quiet you can tell he's happy.

Shouldn't it be the same for us? We stand in this great treasure room. We need to keep reminding ourselves of God's great love so that we will have something of this enthusiasm for ourselves.

The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will be silent in his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.

Comment change over

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog, thats why all the other comments have disappeared. Thanks for all your previous comments, I look forward to your future ones.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

God Omniscient

"Vera theologia non theoretica et spectulative, sed activa et practica est" - Martin Bucer

"True theology is not theoretical and speculative, but active and practical "

What practical and active benefit is there to us knowing that God is omniscient - all-knowing?

Often we use this great truth to comfort us, but it also acts as a handbrake to sin. This is seen in some of the ways we insult God's omniscience when we sin.

We wrong or insult God's omniscience when we:

1. Refrain from sinning because man sees, rather than because God always sees

"Secret sins are more against God than open sins; open sins are against he law, secret sins are against the law, and God's omniscience" - Stephen Charnock

2. Confess only to some aspects of sin and not others, or pretend that something wasn't as bad as it was.

3. Worship only outwardly

4. Enjoy sinful thinking, and excuse them because they are not actions

5. Fail to seek his help in self-examination

6. Make his omniscience an excuse for not praying as we ought

7. Are proud of our knowledge

8. Pry into things that he has not revealed to us

9. Judge the hearts and motives of others

10. Think that God doesn't understand how we feel

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Lost at Christmas

Last year I was visiting a friend in a hospital in the north, and fairly typically there was a nativity scene in the entrance hall.

It always amuses me how nativity scenes portray this event. I wonder if many of the people who put them together have ever been in
what my north Antrim grandparents would have called a 'byre' - a cattle shed. Can they imagine the stink, the lack of hygiene? In
all likelihood it was a dark, dank, smelly cave with no running water, no lighting, with animals huddling together for warmth, and a
floor covered in dung, both ancient and fresh. Can you imagine Mary and Joseph picking there way through this mess looking for some
sort of 'clean' place?

What amused me about this particular nativity scene in the hospital was that someone had obviously thought it would be a good idea
to use real straw. Fair enough, but it was big chunky strands of straw, and beside the little figures of Mary, Joseph and the wise
men, the straw looked like tree trunks of giant oaks. And they hadn't skimped on it either. Mary and Joseph were up to their
waists in it. The shepherds' sheep were just about poking their heads above it, like drowning men struggling to keep their heads
above water.

And as for baby Jesus, he was nowhere to be seen. He had got lost amidst all the straw.

How true I thought. That's Christmas for you - no sign of Christ at all, lost amidst all the straw.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Sabbath Essay - Storekeeping

Joshua 7 tells us the story of God’s people no longer experiencing God’s blessing, they had suffered defeat and experienced the abandonment of God. Why was this? They had “taken some of the devoted things” (7:11). Israel was not making an impact on the surrounding nations because she had taken things that belonged to God.

Jump forward 1000 years to the book of Malachi. God’s people are no longer experiencing God’s blessing. God has turned his back on them (3:7). The results were a lack of blessing on the community of Gods people; the work they did was eaten up and destroyed before it brought any real fruit; their reputation among the rest of the world was as nothing. Why was this? They too had taken what belonged to God (3:8)

The pattern of Joshua and Malachi indicates a common theme. That which belongs to God has not been given to Him. But could all these issues stem from one cause? God is not as close to us as we would like. In Malachi God calls His people to return to Him, but how are they to return? Malachi doesn’t get a list of faults, but receives only one answer from God, they are to give to God the tithes and offerings that belong to Him. This is where they are to start.

Tithing means giving to God 10% of our income. He has given us it all and He expects us to return a tenth to Him. Withholding the tithe by some was bringing a curse on the whole community of God’s people.

And the cupboard was bare
Jump forward another 2400 years. Take a look at the church. Are we prospering as a denomination? Is the church making an impact? Something has left us with congregations that are slowly dying, with young people deserting the church; with the church making very little impact on society; with a church that has little reputation among non-Christians; with faithful preaching that is not being blessed as much as it could be; with individuals who feel barren and lifeless.

Look again at the picture God paints in Mal. 3:6-12.

God’s people do not tithe, and as a result:-
  • God’s people experience barrenness.
  • God’s people sow but do not get a good harvest.
  • God’s people have no reputation among the nations.
All this is evidence that:-
  • God’s people are under God’s curse. (3:9)
What about our denomination overall - Can you spot the pattern?
  • Do we tithe as a denomination? (On average UK Christians’ givings are only 2% of their earnings.)
  • Are we experiencing barrenness? (Is our Church declining or growing?)
  • When we sow God’s word, is there growth, or are our harvests blighted? (How many conversions have we seen over the past year?)
  • Do those around us hold our Church up to ridicule? (Have we any impact on society as a Church?)
  • Where does that leave us then? (3:9)
A tithing church should be a healthy one; it should not surprise us if a penniless church is a barren one. Has God turned His back on it? The progress of God’s people is inextricably linked to their obedience in this matter. Is it because God needs the money? No, rather how we spend our money is our indication of where our heart is in relation to God. Are we willing to trust Him?

When we do not bring to God what is His, we are robbing Him, and as God’s people we suffer and the nations look at us in scorn. There is nothing more disgraceful than a church that struggles financially simply because its people will not tithe; or, shabby-looking church premises, or a minister unable to pay his bills; or, Synodical committees having to restrict their work because of lack of funds. These things are only true because God’s people have robbed God of the tithe. When we do not support the work of God according to the pattern set down in Scripture, it should not surprise us when it is not blessed as we expect it to be. If the shelves are empty it is our own fault.

Stacking the shelves
How do we rectify the situation?

Our money is an unavoidable pothole in our Christian growth. Tithing is a solution to our spiritual problems. If we are not faithful in this area, how can we expect God to bless and strengthen our faith? Becoming a tither is a breakthrough for every Christian. It unlocks the door of the mind, heart and will, freeing up what once was closed to the rich blessings of God. Tithing is so essential to our development as a Christian that nothing will be an adequate substitute. Until we are consistently, regularly and faithfully tithing there is something defective with our Christian life, that will not be remedied by any other form of obedience. But, when that area of obedience is dealt with, the blessings are wonderful.

If every church member tithed the Church could be far more active, but instead it is paralysed. The truth is, we have all the money we need for our Church’s work; the reality is that it is in many of our members’ pockets. The world looks on unimpressed by our witness. We speak of faith, so central to our witness, but our lives often show that our faith has not touched our bank balance. When a biographer of the Duke of Wellington discovered some of the man’s cheque-book stubs, he said “When I saw how he spent his money, I knew the man”. What does our cheque book or bank balance say about our values?

Whose grain is it anyway?
We should tithe because:-
  • God commands it.
  • It has an effect on God’s work on earth.
  • It has an effect on God’s work in us.
Our potential blessing should not be our motive for tithing, rather when we tithe we are saying thank you to God for His gracious gift of salvation. When we don’t give, we also rob God of our gratitude. In view of the fact of supreme sacrifice that the Son of God made for us we should want to give.

C.T. Studd - “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him.”

When we tithe we show that:-
1. We take the bible's commands seriously;
2. Our desire to see God's kingdom built up exceeds our desire for material things;
3. We acknowledge God as the giver of all things;
4. We are seeking to reflect Christ's generosity and love within the church.

Some may argue that as New Testament believers we don’t have to tithe, but it is generally the case that in the New Testament the obligations of Old Testament legislation are heightened rather than lessened. That is, the law is interpreted in the fullest measure. So while some people may argue that the tithe doesn’t apply, it is hard to think of any Christian, blessed with the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, doing less. Why should we who have been blessed so abundantly be so ungenerous?

Which Storehouse?
The tithes were to be paid to support the work of the priests in the tabernacle. It is our duty to take our tithe to the place where we worship, i.e. our own church. This is the point Malachi is making when he says “Bring the tithes into the storehouse”. It corresponds with Paul’s statement that those who preach the Gospel “should receive their living from the Gospel”. (1Cor 9:14) Tithes, therefore should be solely and exclusively for the work of the church. We are bound to take our tithe to the Church of which we are members. To do otherwise is to short circuit the pattern God sets down.

People may say “It’s my money; I’ll give to whichever Christian organisations I want”. That’s fine, if you give from your money (the 90%), but the 10% is not yours to decide; it belongs to the storehouse, the place from where you are fed directly. This is why Moses said “All the tithe of the land is the Lord’s: it is holy to the Lord”. (Lev. 27:30) The tithe is to be entrusted to the Church that the Church may make proper decisions as to its use.

A Full storehouse
What tithing does for us is realised at two levels: the material and the spiritual, the spiritual being far more important. It would be a mistake to claim that every tither will have no financial problems. Hardship may come, the promise of blessing is a spiritual one. But what happens when we struggle with hardship? We learn to rely more on our Father, our faith is strengthened and we are blessed spiritually.

Young people may think that they cannot tithe, especially at university, but any money you have coming in should be tithed. You may think that your little bit will not matter. But it is not so much about what your money can do for the Church, but rather what God will do for the Church because of your obedience and faithfulness.

So let us start to give to God that which is His. If we would have God open his treasury, we must open ours. Let us do so, so that the storehouse will be full, full of our tithe and full of God’s blessing - a blessing on the work of God in our denomination, in our congregations and in our own lives.

Imagine the effects of a people tithing out of grateful hearts, holding God to His promise in Mal. 3. What would the church be like? An aura of expectancy; finances to fund mission work, not just in designated mission fields, but to start up congregations in towns throughout Ireland, and to support the work there. Our congregations would be full of people seeing all around them the effects of God honouring His promises, people living by faith, watching God stretch the 90% further than the 100% would ever have gone - people whose hearts are aflame for God.

Jim Elliot - “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (Different context, same truth!)

There are only 2 directions to go from here - forwards or backwards. We can refuse to tithe and watch the repercussions on our denomination, or, we can start to tithe and wait with bated breath to see God at work.

If we refuse to tithe, we are like Achan. We sit in our tent, with silver hidden away that does not belong to us. We bring judgment on ourselves and on the community of God’s people and hold up the work of God’s kingdom. God has given us plenty of time to repent and start filling His storehouse. Let us determine to make this a priority, so that we may go forward as a church.

If our church is to proclaim the reality of “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant” we must be seen to live in obedience to the commands of the King, and live in faith in His covenantal promises.

“There was a man,
Some called him mad;
The more he gave,
The more he had.”
John Bunyan

Friday, December 17, 2004

Book Review - The Cross He Bore

The Cross He Bore
F.S. Leahy
Banner of Truth

“Gethsemane is not a field of study for our intellect. It is a sanctuary of our faith. Lord, forgive us for the times we have read about Gethsemane with dry eyes.”

So ends the first of 13 brief, but profound, chapters on the sufferings of Christ. Here is a book to be read unhurriedly, a chapter at a time, and with time to think. It is a book that will deepen your understanding and appreciation of what Jesus went through at Calvary. It will help you grasp the depths of Christ’s suffering, or at least to realise that they are beyond our grasp – what does it mean to be forsaken by God? What did he go through on the cross – this book will help you see beyond the physical suffering.

Prof Leahy brings us back to the cross to fill our hearts with gratitude to the one who “bore our sins in his body on the tree”. This short book of meditations will spur you on in your love for Jesus. It will cause you to praise him with heartfelt thanks. It will show you the awfulness of sin by the immense price that Christ paid that we might be forgiven.

Often as you read it you will find yourself pausing to say, “Thank you, Lord”.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Book Review - The End Times Made Simple - Sam Waldron

The End Times Made Simple
Samuel E. Waldron
Calvary Press

Does the ‘Left Behind’ series leave you confused? You maybe have an instinctive feeling that all that ‘Left Behind’ stuff isn’t right, but you’re not quite sure how to get to what you do believe about Christ’s second coming. Or maybe you’ve never heard of the ‘Left Behind’ series and are just looking for some straightforward and convincing explanation of what will happen at the end of the world.

This is one of the sanest books on this subject ever!

With a subtitle of “How can everyone be so wrong about biblical prophecy?” this book lets you know from the start where it’s coming from!

It’s a great book for a number of reasons:

Instead of starting with the complicated passages in Revelation or in Daniel, it starts with clear and straightforward passages, like Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. Once the basics have been established from the clear and straightforward passages the author moves on and uses what he has discovered in the clearer passages to determine what the more complex ones mean. That’s a good rule for understanding Scripture.

This book isn’t confined to simply looking at post, pre or amillennial viewpoints. It deals with many questions relating to Heaven and Hell, Christ’s second coming, the state of believers after their death, the Day of Judgment, eternal punishments, the new Heavens and new earth, etc. On the way through he also deals with some common misunderstandings about Israel and the Church, confusion over which has led many into a mixed up theology on different points. It’s a great handbook to have on anything to do with the end times.

It’s also a practical book. Throughout the chapters the author shows the practical impact of the Bible’s teaching on this subject to different areas of our lives.

It’s also a relatively simple book. I was a bit sceptical of the title at first, but Waldron avoids excessive use of technical jargon, and is easy to follow. He throws in a few diagrams along the way to make matters even clearer. The most complicated bits are when he has to explain the complex schemes various men have come up with. It really is the ‘end times made simple’.

Personally, I was glad to see such a clear and straightforwardly biblical book on the subject.

PS. Although he doesn’t state it explicitly, Waldron is coming from an amillennialist position.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Jesus Stopped

It was just an ordinary day. He got up and made his way to work. The city was coming to life; men taking animals to market, women chatting, children running about. The rising sun bathed the landscape in a beautiful warm glow.

Taking up his usual place he felt the warmth of the sun on his face. He couldn’t see it but he could feel it. He was blind; a blind beggar. He had heard many talk about the sun. They described a yellowy orange ball, like fire, set against the blue sky. But none of those words meant anything to him. He had never seen yellow, or orange, or blue, or a ball, or fire. He had been blind for so long that the thought of seeing didn’t really occur to him that much.

Until recently.

One day he heard the passers-by talking excitedly. He asked them to tell him the news – and they told him about a man who raised the dead, and healed lepers, and who had restored the sight of a man who had been born blind. Watch Bartimaeus as he hears the story, he drinks it in, and cries, “There’s hope for me. If he passes by, I’ll beg him to open my eyes too.” But that was weeks ago, and so far there’s been no sign of this man.

Suddenly Bartimaeus tenses and lifts his head, for his sensitive ears hear the noise of a great crowd approaching. He asks what was happening. "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by!" It’s happening – Jesus is passing. “This is my big chance,” he thinks and he begins to call out. But his voice is lost in the crowd. There are hundreds of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. All the beggars are clamouring for their attention. Street traders bellow. There is a great babble of excitement from the crowd. Bart has difficulty making himself heard. And he can’t see where Jesus is.

Panic rises in Bartimaeus’ heart. He tries to get to his feet, but the thronging crowd keeps him down. His voice is muffled and lost amidst the din. And all he can feel are people passing. Has he missed his chance? How could Jesus ever hear him?

Jesus himself is hurrying to Jerusalem. It was a few weeks before his death. He has a lot on his mind. What hope is there for Bartimaeus? Jesus, focused and sorrowful, his own life about to end, heading resolutely to Jerusalem. Nothing will deter him. Bartimaeus, wanting to speak to Jesus, his voice lost in the crowd, unable even to see in which direction to shout. Surely a hopeless case.

But to the ears of this burdened man, whose own heart is heavy with sorrow, come the faint cries of a man looking for help. And what does Jesus do?

We read in Mark 10:40, “Jesus stopped.”

What beautiful words. They sum up the tender love and compassion of Jesus to the heartfelt needy cries of people.

“Jesus stopped.” What a window into our risen Saviour’s heart.

And he still stops today. Jesus hasn’t changed. Do you feel that your voice is just one of many clamouring for his attention, that with the world to run he might have more ‘serious’ things on his mind? Are you hurting? Do you feel helpless? If so, understand that your plea will be sweetness to his ears. This passage says to you, ‘Call on him, he will stop and listen.’

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Jesus' provision in storms

Jesus did not abandon the disciples to the storm, he was there with them, he was providing for them. It may have seemed vastly different to the disciples, there they were rowing and bailing out water for all they were worth, and there was Jesus lying asleep in the boat. He seemed utterly oblivious and totally indifferent to their struggles.

And that’s how it might often seem to us as we go through the storms. But Jesus had provided for his disciples in at least three ways. Here are three comforts to remember when we find ourselves in storms.

Jesus’ Word
In their frantic efforts to stay alive the disciples forgot something very simple. 4 Greek words. 8 in English. If the disciples had remembered it would saved them so much worry:

“Let us go over to the other side.”

What’s the significance of that?

It’s a statement of purpose. He had said they were going to the other side of the lake. But in the storm they had forgotten what he said. They had not held on to his word to give themselves the assurance that they would reach the shore safely. Jesus had provided for them, he provided all they needed to get them through the storm. But they had allowed the voice of the storm to silence the voice of God.

They needed to be reminded of God’s word.

Often in the storms we need to be reminded of God’s word, and in particular God’s promises to us. Often the howling of the wind and the crashing of the waves seem louder to us than words of God. We allow the voice of the storm to drown out the voice of God. But that is precisely what we must not do – we must go to God’s word and read the promises and cling to them.

Jesus statement “Let us go over to the other side” wouldn’t have changed the size of the waves, or the ferocity of the wind, but it would have changed the disciples’ perspective. They would have had the quiet assurance that despite the worst efforts of the storm they were going to get to the far side.

As believers God’s word assures us that despite the worst efforts of the troubles this life throws at us we will make it through.

We have to hang on to God’s word.

Jesus’ Presence
Not only did Jesus provide his word to comfort his disciples, but also there was the comfort of his presence. True, he was asleep, and as he lay sleeping he seemed so ordinary. But he was with them – the one whom they had watched heal the leper, who had cast out the demons, who had healed the countless sick and lame, who had already in his ministry showed his mastery over nature.

He was with them. He had not abandoned them. Sure they may have felt more secure had he been awake, and we may say we would feel more secure if we had Jesus with us in the flesh, but awake or asleep, present in body or in spirit it doesn’t matter. Faith sees beyond the ordinary limitations of sight and touch, and realises that he is present. Faith has to see beyond the ordinary, beyond what is apparent to those who look on.

The presence of Jesus should have given the disciples immense courage and strength. But they looked with physical eyes and saw a man who might as well have been absent. They felt his absence more than his presence. We can do the same – indeed it is only natural, but we need to see the supernatural, and realise the promise of his presence “I will never leave you or forsake you”, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Perhaps its not so much that we don’t see him, but that we have the wrong focus. Like the disciples we are looking at the storm, instead we need to look to Jesus. We have the mighty Lord, the one whose voice broke through the storm and brought a stillness to the crashing sea, we have him with us. With Jesus in the boat with us, what is there to fear?

Jesus’ Peace
Closely allied with Jesus’ presence was Jesus’ peace. He lay sleeping amidst the turmoil of the storm. Yes, he was tired, but as he lay there sleeping he knew what was going on. Before he lay down to sleep he knew the storm was coming. He knew how big the waves would be; he knew how fierce the wind would be. But it didn’t worry him. It wasn’t outside his control. And so he slept. It didn’t catch him unawares.

Nothing that happens to us catches Jesus unawares. Nothing is outside his control. Never will you see a look of panic flash across his brow when he sees the mess you are in – nothing is too hard for him – he is the mighty Lord of Heaven and Earth. Not even the worst that terrorists or governments can do will upset his rule and power. He sits on the throne in control.

That knowledge should give us peace. His peace should be our peace. Young soldiers in a battle look to the veterans to see their faces, if they are relaxed amid the shelling the novices are calmed too. Our commander has a peaceful look on his face. And his peace can be our peace. When Paul talks about a ‘peace that surpasses all understanding’ that’s what he is getting at. When in the storms we should go to our saviour and gaze upon his unworried face, and knowing that he cares for us, we should see in his peace a reason for peace for ourselves.

Seeing Jesus’ power gave the disciples a new understanding of what it meant to be with Jesus, to have Jesus’ presence, to have his word, to have his peace. There really was nothing to fear. The mighty Lord is on my side – whom shall I fear – what can man do to me? If Jesus is in the boat with us we need not fear any storm.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Necessary Storm

Sometimes the Christian life is portrayed as if it is the ends to all problems - “Become a Christian and all your troubles will be over.”

Some Christians even suggest that if we are finding the going rough, and life difficult that we are out of favour with God. They give the impression that “The true Christian is a happy Christian”, but their definition of happiness is limited to this world, to health and success. Theirs is a very man centred view of Christianity and happiness.

But the greatest saints have always gone through the darkest storms. Spurgeon’s life was plagued by physical illness. Richard Wurmbrand – Tortured for Christ. Martin Luther – harassed and chased by the Roman Catholic Church, and plagued by depression.

Christianity is not the easiest life, but it is the best. Being a follower of Christ doesn’t mean a trouble free life. We see that fact quite clearly here in Mark 4:35-41

Jesus commands his followers to go to the far side of the lake, and as they obey him they get caught in a storm. The simple truth is that Jesus leads us into storms. That’s what we see here. But why did he do it? The exchange in the closing verses of the chapter gives us a clue – “Have you still no faith?” Jesus took them into the storm that they might see his glory and power and that their faith might be strengthened.

The storm was essential to the spiritual development of the disciples. Because of the storm they came to a much greater and clearer understanding of who Jesus really was. It was in the storm that they saw his power and glory. It was in the storm that they came to the end of their resources and had to turn to Jesus for help. It was because of the storm that their faith grew. The disciples had no way of knowing that at that terrible moment of knowing it, but that miserable storm was a vehicle for bringing them to know more of God.

Jesus led them into the storm to increase their faith.

The same is true for us – There are no exemptions from storms. Even when we are being obedient, we can find the dark clouds closing in around us. But what we need to remember is that they are for our good. The best thing that can happen to us as Christians is that we grow in our faith. Every storm is an opportunity to grow. Without the difficulties, trials, stresses, and even failures we would never grow to be what we should become. Jesus has never promised that we would have no afflictions, no troubles; he loves us too much for that.

This is storm theology. Storms are part of the process of spiritual growth. Trouble shows us our weakness and our frailty and draws us closer to God.

When we grow proud he may send a storm to exhaust our limited resources, and to remind us that we need him. He wants to get us to the point that the disciples came to; they couldn’t cope anymore so they cried out for help. Some storms are there to take us to the end of our resources, and throw us on God.

Sometimes we hold on too tightly to things, or even people, and we rely on them more than God. Some storms are to loosen our grip on this world.

Sometimes our eyes rarely look up to heaven, sometimes we are rarely looking forward to the next life. Some storms are to lift our eyes to the glorious future that awaits us.

Some storms are to enable us to see things from God’s perspective

Sometimes our prayer life has not been what it should be, and again God brings us to the point where we are on our knees before him. Some storms are to bring us right up to the throne of grace

Sometimes its not that we have done anything wrong, its just that our Saviour wants to move us on in our faith. Some storms are to refine our faith like gold or silver in a fire.

Sometimes the storms, as well as being for our benefit, are for the benefit of others. Some storms are to make our faith stand out all the more to those watching and to draw them to God light a lighthouse at the harbour entrance

But not all storms come because of our obedience – some do come because God is angry with us, and he sends the winds of trouble to steer us away from trouble, or to warn us that we are in danger.

He sometimes sends storms into the lives of unbelievers to waken them up to the danger they are in. He wants them to realise their weakness. Maybe you are in a storm and you have come to the end of your resources. Maybe you have been trying to kid yourself that you aren’t that bad a sinner, and now you see things mounting up around you and what you thought was little has escalated.

For the disciples it seemed as if Christ was oblivious to their plight, that he knew nothing of the danger. It’s a picture of we often feel in the midst of life’s storms. So often we mistakenly conclude that we are alone; that no one, not even God, knows what is happening to us and how we feel. How wrong we are! God knows every wave that falls, every wind that causes us to stagger. He knows the rate of our hearts, our breathing, the innermost thoughts of our minds, our emotions, even our dreams. The tiny boat out in the middle of the lake was the object of the most intense Heavenly attention. And so it is with us.

In heaven we shall thank God for every storm.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Storm

Getting inside Mark 4:35-41. Picture the scene:

Jesus has had a busy day, at the very least he had spent nearly all of it sitting in a boat out in the sea of Galilee a few yards from the shore teaching the vast crowds that swarmed along the banks. It was getting on a bit and he said to his friends “lets go over to the other side of the lake”. And so they set off, a number of other listeners followed in similar small boats. The boat you are in is about 8m long and 2m wide and its shallow, only 1¼m in depth. When you get 13 fully grown men into one there isn’t much room left and it doesn’t sit too high in the water. But its calm and the sun is setting behind the high hills surrounding the lake. As you get out into the lake rowing along to the quiet murmur of voices discussing the days parables, you notice that Jesus has flaked out at the back of the boat on a small platform that ran across the back – his head resting on the helmsman’s leather bench. Probably not the most comfortable place in the world, but then when you’ve had as busy a day as he had where did it matter where you slept.

After all here’s something you could do for him. You were the fishermen, the men who knew the Sea of Galilee and who had spent a lifetime in the boats on the lake. You can take him across the lake.

Then you notice a change in the colour of the sky, the surface of the lake has become choppy, the quiet murmur of the others stops and you look at each other – the journey isn’t going to be as easy as you thought. Still this was not the first storm you had been in. The storm picks up, it's like a whirlwind, the wind racing round and round the basin formed by the high mountains. It whips the sea and enormous waves come crashing down on the boat. Peter and James and Andrew and John are at the oars, the big fishermen pulling for all they are able, the rest are bailing out the water, but as quickly as they do is pours back in again. You keep on rowing and bailing, bailing and rowing. The waves are so high you can’t even see the far shore, the darkness surrounds you like a heavy quilt and its hard to row when you are being thrown about all over the place – the boat at times seems a jumble of arms and legs thrashing about in the water. One minute the boat is hurled high up on the crest of a wave the next it crashes into a deep trough surrounded by a wall of green menace.

Never in all your life have you been in such a storm. It’s hopeless. The men are exhausted, soaked through and the boat is almost filled with water. Never has the end seemed so close. You shout at the others to bail faster and the rowers to row harder, and you turn round and catch a glimpse of Jesus at the back of the boat – and he’s still sleeping so you let fly at him too “Don’t you care if we all drown?”

You feel bad for taking it out on him – after all, what help could a carpenter be? Even an extra pair of hands wasn’t going to be much use at this stage. But he sits up – instantly awake. With a glance he takes in everything – the mountainous tumbling crashing waves, the howling wind, the swamped boat, the exhausted, bedraggled and despairing men in front of him.

“Be silent” – And the wind stopped.

“Be calm” – And the mighty waves and tumultuous seas went as smooth as a mirror. Where there was once a wall of sea now in the distance you could see the twinkling lights on the far shore. An eerie quiet filled the air. The pitching and rolling of the boat ceases. You look at the others in utter disbelief. Jaws hang open. Was it all a dream? No – there stands Matthew still up to his knees in water, bucket in midair staring in sheer astonishment at the glassy smooth surface.

It’s too much to take in. “The wind and the waves obey him.” An overwhelming realisation creeps over you. Only one Being has control over the wind and the waves. The maker of Heaven and earth. And he is in your boat.

A look of sheer terror spreads across the faces of the others as they realise it too. Before them is the Holy One who has lived forever. What they knew in their heads, as a fact - the awesome power of God - they now saw the reality of it.

Friends this is our God.

Sometimes we forget just how utterly overwhelming he is. Lets not forget Jesus is the mighty maker of Heaven and earth. And he is as much with us as he was with the disciples that day.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Does Marriage Matter?

In 1631 a printer was fined £300 by the Archbishop for a printing error. He had omitted the word 'not' from the seventh commandment - causing it to read, "Thou shalt commit adultery"! That Bible became known as 'The Wicked Bible.' If he had been working today, the printer would perhaps have been rewarded rather than fined.

Recent developments in the High Court in Dublin will lead to the traditional and biblical view of marriage being challenged, and perhaps to legislation being rewritten. Some aspects of tax and inheritance law may be to be revised to make the law fairer to ordinary family members who live in the same house, for example two elderly sisters. But should the government give financial incentive to others who disobey God's instructions?

It would be wrong to focus solely on the issue of homosexual marriage. We live in an age where marriage is increasingly unfashionable amongst all walks of life. Does it really matter?

What are God's instructions?

It is not enough for Christians to state that marriage is the only option because God says so. That is true of course. But God is not a callous dictator intent on limiting his creatures' enjoyment. He is both a good and a wise designer. Therefore if he says marriage is between one man and one woman for life, he has both good and wise reasons for designing it that way. These reasons are for the benefit of the individual and of society in general.

What reasons are there why marriage between male and female is both good and wise?

God made us that way! A simple understanding of biology confirms this. But there are other reasons:

For teamwork - God has not made men and women with exactly the same gifts, abilities, emotions, ways of thinking etc. In Genesis 2:20 we read that God had made Adam in such a way that he required someone else. And then God made Eve so that she provided what Adam needed, and likewise Adam what Eve needed. God has deigned each sex with their own particular strengths; male and female working in complement are stronger than two of the same sex.

For order - God created the family unit to be the basic building block of society. He has arranged people in families and made the head of the home responsible. Secular studies demonstrate the link between the destabilisation of society and the breakdown of the family unit. Children who grow up without a father figure's loving authority often struggle to accept society's natural and necessary authority structures.

For reproduction - One of the purposes God gives to marriage is for the multiplication of the human race. True, this could be carried out by widespread mating, but that is not what God had in mind. He designed us to have children and for children to be raised within a loving secure environment, where the most vulnerable will find protection and care.

For the balanced upbringing of children - If men have their strengths and women theirs, where is the best place for a child to be raised? God's word says that it is in the context where both are evident - a one man, one woman, family environment. God has designed the family in this way to give children the example of both parents to model their own lives on. Parents need each other for support and strength, and the use of their individual gifts and roles in the task of raising children. And children need the security that marriage, as God designed it, brings.

Sadly, this world is far from perfect. And just because people are married doesn't mean that they are happily married, or that their children are all well balanced. When Adam and Eve sinned they made a mess of all aspects of life. Marriage included. And so, even though marriage is commanded by God for good and wise reasons, that doesn't automatically mean that all marriages are good. Sadly some are little more than a life sentence to terror.

But bad marriages are not an argument against marriage itself; they are a caution against entering marriage hastily and without careful thought. And all of us know single parents, and unmarried couples who do a great job of raising their children, for which they are to be highly commended. But again this is no ground for discarding God's design in favour for our design.

All of us need outside help in life, and marriage is no exception. We need the help of the God who designed marriage if we are to enjoy marriage as he designed it to be.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

U2 - Grace

(I post this one for my wee brother - an old 'Food for thought' newspaper column)

Ireland's greatest rock band? Certainly. The best in the world? Possibly. Theologians? Not likely.

Yet tucked away on their last album were two lines of profound truth. The song is "Grace", the lines are:

"She walks outside of karma"and"Grace makes beauty out of ugly things"

Karma is the central rule of many eastern religions. If you do bad to others, bad will come to you. Or to put it in the words of another band, "Karma: what you give is what you get returned". Grace on the other hand is undeserved kindness. It's when someone has wronged you and you respond, not with vengeance or righteous anger, not even with forgiveness, but with actually going out of your way to show kindness to them. That's grace - it breaks the vicious cycle.

God's grace is the undeserved kindness he shows to us. We have done wrong and deserve to be punished. For no reason, he offers forgiveness to us, and not only that but the opportunity to enjoy eternal bliss. That's grace. Undeserved kindness to those who deserve eternal punishment. It is outside of karma, far beyond what we have ever done, or could ever deserve.

The real beauty of grace is that it gives hope - no-one is too bad for God's grace to change. U2 have hit the nail on the head exactly "Grace makes beauty out of ugly things". Karma only gives a false hope to the good, and deep down we all know that not one of us is good enough; karma offers nothing to those who have led a bad life and want to change. But grace does.

As Bob Marley once sang "Is there a place for the hopeless sinner?" - God's answer is a resounding "Yes." Grace makes beauty out of ugly sinners.

Grace is entirely from God, we do not earn it - grace isn't grace if you merit it. Yet we are saved only by grace. All we have to do is come to God and say "I'm a hopeless sinner, show me your grace."


"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:4-8

We can believe it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Food for thought - Public vs Private

(My local newspaper column)
Last week I was over in the north. The news was full of the situation that UK Home Secretary David Blunkett had found himself in. It was a real tangle of accusation and revelation. It centred on his affair with a married woman, in which it seems likely that he has fathered two children. In the midst of all this were some fairly spectacular statements made in his defence by Tony Blair:

The force of his comments was that who we are in private makes no difference to what we do in public. He suggested that ministers should not be judged on their private lives, and that moral issues have no relevance as to whether ministers stay in office or not.

It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? What is private is private.

The problem here is that who we are in private is who we really are. The masks come off at home. If we have to be someone else in public then that’s hypocrisy. The word ‘hypocrite’ comes from Greek, where it was originally used to describe an actor in a play, someone wearing a mask who pretended to be someone else.

The problem with wearing masks is that they slip from time to time when we wear them in public. Then people see who we really are. Blunkett’s mask appears to have slipped.

But, is Blair right? Does it matter what we do in private as long as we do a good job in public? Yes, of course it does!

The Bible says, “as a man thinks in his heart, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). Our public integrity is an outworking of our personal integrity. It simply isn’t enough to say, “Ah well, he or she does a good job.”

If a person can’t be faithful to their marriage vows, is it likely that they will be faithful in their other roles? If, as in David Blunkett’s case, a person doesn’t respect the word, and vows, and institutions of another (in this case marriage), is it likely that he will respect and honour the vows and institutions of government?

It would appear that he hasn’t. It seems as if his private disregard for rules has manifested itself in a public disregard for rules, with his being accused of ‘fast-tracking’ a visa application and using government train tickets for his partner.

Isn't this why, when God gives us instructions for choosing leaders in the church, he tells us to look at the sort of men they are in private, whether they are good fathers, or husbands? Because there is no real public/private distinction.

But it isn’t enough to point the finger at David Blunkett, or Tony Blair. This problem comes much closer to home. Each of us has to look at ourselves and ask the question – am I the same person in private as in public? Or do I have different standards? Do I put on a mask to pretend to others that I am a better person than I really am?

On the day of judgment God isn’t going to buy it when we say, “Look how decent I was in public”. All the masks will be stripped away.

If we aren’t happy with who we really are, there is good news. God offers to transform us, and make us into what we should be. Then there won’t be any need for masks.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Sabbath Delighting

Normal service resumed. Holidays are over.

Tim over at has written a great review on Walt Chantry’s book “Call the Sabbath a Delight”. It got me thinking. Why should we keep the Sabbath? Rather than looking at it exegetically and getting tangled up in a debate about Old Covenant/New Covenant, I want to come at it sideways by asking two questions:

What is a Christian?
What is the Sabbath for?

What is a Christian?
Many great theological terms could be invoked here to answer this question – someone who is justified, someone who is forgiven, someone who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, someone who has repented and believed that Jesus is the Christ.

All good and right.

But I think there is one element that is missing from much of today’s understanding of Christianity. Sometimes as Christians we live our lives as if being a Christian was a burden, as if obedience was a strain, as if walking with God was a trouble. I think one word is needed to redress the balance: Relationship

We have a relationship with God. And it is a good relationship.

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:12.

A Christian is someone who, at an immense cost paid by Christ, has been brought into the most amazing and wondrous and incredible relationship in the world. Surely, therefore, a Christian is someone who should be relishing this relationship, delighting in it, enjoying it seeking to extract all he or she can from it.

What is the Sabbath for?
God gave the Sabbath day to mankind for two purposes – to rest and to relate.

It is a day set aside – holy – not just set aside from things (the endless lists of don’t do this, don’t do that) or set aside for rest, it is also a day set aside to something or someone. It is for us to delight in our relationship with God. God knows that on the other days, while we live in his presence, we do not get much time to delight in him, so in his love he says, “I want you to have a whole day with me”.

Sabbath day is, to use the language of Song of Songs, a day for two lovers who have only been able to speak briefly during the week, to spend an entire day together, enjoying each others company, relishing the relationship, delighting in learning. It is not that God needs it, but we do.

This is why the Sabbath is a delight.

Previous generations may have been very good at Sabbath keeping, but perhaps not so good at Sabbath delighting. Their children, raised only on Sabbath keeping can’t see the point.

What then is the Sabbath for?

Imagine a young man, recently engaged, offered a chance to play football with his mates, or to spend a day with his beloved. He knows that it’s no competition. Every other day, all he can feed his heart on are a few phone calls, emails, or texts. But now he has a chance for a whole day in her presence.

How come that we who are Christians, and have the relationship of which every other relationship is but a pale shadow, choose the football and the TV, and whatever else we fill our Sabbaths with, every time? The Sabbath is a chance to relish our relationship, to enjoy being in his presence, to read about our loving God, to learn about his mighty acts, to speak with him, to praise him.

Have a blessed Sabbath.