God comes down

I’ve been reading through Revelation recently, and have at last reached the glorious words of the start of Revelation 21.  But to get to there you have to go through some tough and bizarre passages.  Revelation 12 tells of a dragon, Revelation 13 of two beasts.  Bowls of God’s wrath follow as judgement ravages the earth.  Finally comes a vision of a woman, a city, Babylon, who rides on the beast, drunk on the blood of the saints.  These lurid visions are followed by chapter 18 where there is a call to rejoice over the fall of Babylon.

It sounds harsh – rejoicing over the fall of human beings.  But Revelation 17-18 tell us of the seriousness of the sin of Babylon.  Of the wealth and riches built on human trafficking. Of the blood of the saints spilt in that city.  For John’s 1st century readers Babylon would surely be Rome.  For us it is any system of human government and economics conducted without reference to God. It is any system which bows to the beast of human power, or to the beast of false religion. It is any system which oppresses those made in the image of God.

These systems are literally beastly.  We don’t have to look far in our land to see the results of abandoning God.  To see the rise in cruelty, the desire for ever more enjoyment now.  We don’t have to look far to see this coupled with false religion which makes it all about our best lives now.  All of that is part of the beastly kingdoms.  The beast can look dangerous and frightening like a crazed dictator bent on wiping out the church.  The beast can look harmless and comfortable like our western wealth built on the oppression and poverty of others.

It is the fall of such beastly systems that we rejoice over.  The fall of all who oppose God and his plan of redemption, his plan of rescue, his plan of making the world right and new.  There is a judgement day coming John tells us through his Revelation, and at its bottom that is fundamentally good news.  It is hard for us to hear because humanity as a whole has chosen rebellion against God’s purposes, and needs to turn back to the living God.  But there is no other way for God to save his world and his people except through the judgement of those who oppose him.  What the beastly visions of Revelation do is give us the correct glasses, the correct lenses through which to see the world in focus and realise the horror of what opposition to God means.  It is literally de-humanising, of self and of others.

The fall of Babylon is followed in John’s vision by a vision of the last battle – John’s vision isn’t always consecutive – sometimes we see the same thing from several angles, or through several images (a good simple guide to this is Michael Wilcox’s The Message of Revelation in the Bible Speaks Today IVP series, or at greater length from a similar angle “Discipleship on the Edge”, a series of sermons by Darrel Johnson – Regent College Publishing). The last battle has all earth’s armies gathered to oppose the white rider (not Gandalf, obviously).  There is no lurid account of an actual battle being fought – the rider, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, wins the battle by the sharp two edged sword from his mouth.  Think Hebrews 4:12 and 2 Thessalonians 2:8 and it is obvious.

Jesus wins the battle simply by speaking.  As he calmed the storm from the boat, so one day he will speak and every storm will be stilled.  Every opponent crushed.  Every wrong righted.  John goes on to describe the day of judgement when the books are opened, and every deed is laid bare. All the dead raised to be judged.  The sea, death and Hades (equivalent to Sheol in the OT, the place where souls were believed to go after death) give up their dead, and all are judged. Then the sea, death and hades are all thrown into the lake of fire.  The sea here is not a nice place to go for a holiday.  It is a place of chaos and turmoil, a place of risk and a place of likely disaster.  A place of monsters.  A place that claims lives.  It needs to go for God’s new creation to come.

And we dare not miss that also destined for this lake of fire are those whose names are not in the Lamb’s book of life – those who are marked with the mark of the beast – those who have not bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord.  Willing submission is needed to Jesus.  CS Lewis put it something like this “There are only two groups of people: those who say to God ‘your will be done’, and those to whom God says ‘your will be done'”. Those who refuse to bow the knee to the King cannot be subjects in his kingdom, and are shut out for ever. (A good place to go to read more on thinking through the issues this raises is “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis – I don’t think the book is intended to be read as Lewis’ final word on the subject, rather it is useful thought experiment to read with Bible in hand and brain engaged – rather in the way of approaching any  book – or blog post – really!)

Then at last we reach Revelation 21.  We see that there is a new heavens and a new earth.  The chaos has gone, and God’s new work begins.  That is why there has to be a judgement.  And then we see a good city, the right city, the true city.  A city bowed to God’s will.  A city with human input and glory involved (look at Rev. 21:26), but fundamentally a city that is God’s.  A city that is also a bride dressed for her husband.  And then in the midst of the picture John sees comes a voice declaring these words.

“Behold, the dwelling place* of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,* and God himself will be with them as their God.* 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The word that caught my attention as I read was “with”.  God’s dwelling place is with people.  He dwells (“tabernacles” – like in John 1:14 where the word became flesh and dwelt among his people) with them.  He himself will be with them.  He is with us now by his Spirit, but then he will be with us in person and we will see him – Revelation 22:4 – We will see his face.

Stop and think about that for one minute. The face of the creator. The face of the Law giver.  The face of the one who, when he came down on Sinai, Israel could not approach, and whose presence was veiled in thick darkness and unapproachable light.  Moses was only allowed a glimpse of the back of God’s glory because “no one can see my face and live”. And yet we will see his face and live forever.

This God of all glory and splendour and majesty will wipe away every tear from every eye.  I set up the church for two funerals this week.  The second was for an elderly great grandmother who died secure in Jesus’ love and knowing where she was heading.   I was almost undone during the tributes read from her grandchildren.  I had noticed her year of birth, and realised that, had she not died of cancer my own grandmother would have been the same age.  At the age of 17 I thought she was old when she died.  At the age of 39 I realise how long she could have lived.  She could have seen our children, could have been at family gatherings with great grandchildren gathered round.  Death once more seemed so unfair.  And yet reading Revelation 21 I remembered my reaction when I realised she was going to die.  I remember reading these final chapters of Revelation with my sister.  I remember highlighting chunks of these chapters and knowing that she would be with Jesus.   That is the peace.  That is the assurance that these verses give. Death is not the end.

One day all of us who have trusted in Jesus will stand before his throne and see his face.  And he will wipe away every tear.  Death itself will be no more.  No more crying or mourning or pain.  The first things have passed away.  God makes it all new.  The day that all creation longs for with eager expectation.  It caught me afresh this morning.  This is reality.  We live in a world saturated with self and saturated with instant pleasures.  A world that promises much, but delivers little.  Reality is set out in the images and pictures of Revelation, and in the words of the one who is seated on the throne.  We need to listen.  And we need, and I need, to re-orientate our lives around the reality that Jesus is coming back.  Around the reality that “we will see his face, and never never sin, and from the rivers of his grace drink endless pleasures in” (Isaac Watts).

The first hymn at the funeral on Thursday was a wonderful reminder of how the one who stilled the storm with a word will one still every storm:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

(Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel)

Forgiveness Unlimited…

This is the, now traditional, post sermon blog post with the “full script” – the actual sermon was slightly different at both services, but this was close.  Two books which have useful material on the subject of forgiveness are “Total Forgiveness” by RT Kendall, and “What’s so Amazing about Grace?” by Philip Yancey.

“How often must I forgive my brother?” Must I forgive that again? I’m sure that you can fill in the blanks from that sentence, and think of particular situations to which that applies.

We’ll see that Jesus answer is that his disciples must forgive without limits, because we have a compassionate and merciful God who forgives us without limits whose forgiveness in turn demands that we forgive others. Therefore, concludes Jesus, we must forgive each other from the heart, or else we do not live in the world of God’s forgiveness.

We’ll unpack Jesus’ answer a little more now. First
Jesus’ disciples must forgive without limits.
Peter’s question comes following Jesus teaching his disciples about how to deal with sin in a fellow member of the church – the local group of disciples seeking to follow Jesus.
So presumably this is in Peter’s mind. How many times should this happen? How many times should a sinner be forgiven? How many times should this process be gone through?

Peter’s answer of 7 is reasonably generous – the Jewish teachers around that time said 3 times. Jesus’ answer turns the question upside down. Not 7 times, but 70 7 times. It is possible to argue about whether this means 77 or 490. But that is rather missing the point. The point is that forgiveness is unlimited. 7 is a complete whole – 70 times more than that is beyond all limits. To have a check list of how many times we have been sinned against, to tick off 77 so that on number 78 we do not forgive is to miss the point.

This is not to say that forgiveness is easy. In this context we are talking about sin within the community of believers, and we are talking about forgiveness when someone has made some move towards apologising and seeking to put things right.

There is a whole other discussion based around what happens when someone sins against us and never seeks forgiveness. There I think, we must be ready somehow not to hold it against them, and to be ready to forgive if forgiveness is ever sought,
but I do not think we need to go round telling people we have forgiven them if they have never asked for that forgiveness.

Having said that, it is still very sadly the case, that even within the church there is room for massive injury to be done to us by others, and for us to do to others, and that there may well be times when we are called to forgive something that seems really hard to ever forgive. It does need to be remembered that personally forgiving someone who has committed a crime against us does not stop us playing our part in the judicial process which will convict and punish them of the crime, and take appropriate measures to protect others from their crime.

Think of the school teacher recently, in the news for amazing forgiveness – still important to testify. Does mean that we leave the outcome it in God’s hands, and his instrument – government and police, rather than personal vengeance and vendettas.

Also forgiveness is not to be used to cover up sin, but to deal with the personal impact of sin. And at that personal level Jesus disciples’ must forgive without limits however hard it is – and so Jesus tells the story to show us why and how.

The first part of the parable tells us to Forgive because God is a compassionate lord, who forgives beyond limits.
We forgive, because God is a compassionate Lord, who forgives beyond limits. This is another one of Jesus’ parable which tells us what life in his kingdom is like. As with last week we see a King who is settling the accounts, and this time there is a servant who owes him a lot of money.

10,000 bags of gold we heard. One bag of gold (talent in other versions), is worth something around 15-20 years wages for a working labourer in that day. So 10,000 of these is a lot of money. It is the highest numerical unit in that culture – 10,000 multiplied by the largest unit of money. If you work it out in equivalents today, assuming a talent is 15 years wages for an average working person you get £3 billion or so. It is an unimaginable debt that an individual can never hope to repay.
Think of the anger a few years ago when the scale of the banking crisis became apparent, and the scale of the mislending. To get this high into debt the servant had to have been that foolish somewhere along the way. There has been unimaginable folly to get into this situation.

And so on hearing his sentence, a standard punishment for debtors throughout history
he begs for time, he begs for patience. He begs to be allowed to repay.

And just like the Father in the prodigal son, the King in the story has compassion. He feels compassion deep within him – the word is not talking about feeling a little bit sorry or concerned for someone, nor is it talking about a patronising sense of superiority –
rather it is talking about the gut wrenching (the word is related to the internal organs) sense of sorrow over another’s pitiful state, a sense of sorrow that always leads to action. Look up the word in the gospels and see that it is compassion that motivates Jesus time and again. And then notice how the Lord forgives the debt – doesn’t just give more time, he gives a complete reprieve.

Jesus puts us in the position of this servant (we’ll see that at the end). We owe an unimaginable debt because of our sinful actions, thoughts and deeds. We place ourselves at the centre, and our self-centredness, our inward focus leads us to lives of sin. We deserve punishment. We do not deserve to be counted as God’s servants. And yet – we serve a God who has compassion and forgives without limits.

No-one who casts themselves on God’s mercy is ever turned away. God is utterly and totally good. There is no shadow of turning with him. This can be relied on. We can always come back to God. Always cast ourselves on his mercy. “We do not presume…”
Forgiveness marks the King of God’s Kingdom – and so it must mark the citizens too.

That is fantastic news. That is unimaginable joy. My sin can be forgiven. All of it. In an instant. By the creator of the universe. But there is a sting in the tale of Jesus’ story.
That forgiveness with which I am forgiven is not about me being given a ticket to heaven,
an escape route from here and now.
No, the forgiveness with which I am forgiven is to transform my life here and now,
so that here and now I live as a citizen of that kingdom, marked by the forgiveness of that kingdom. Because Jesus goes on:

We must forgive from the heart because not forgiving makes God angry
This next section highlights the hypocrisy of the servant. He goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes 100 denarii, and launches himself on him – seizing and choking him –
now, 1 denarius is, according to the parable of the labourers a day’s wage, so, it is not a small amount of money. A few thousand pounds in today’s terms. So he wants it back – perhaps understandably.

Then look at v29 – this fellow servant repeats exactly the plea of the first servant – “be patient with me, and I will repay”. It should echo in the first servants ears. But his response is so different to that of the master. To throw the fellow servant into prison. That will teach him. Justice has to be done after all – he can’t go round running up debts… Except, coming from the man who has just been forgiven an unimaginable debt it doesn’t convince.

So with us, our forgiveness sometimes takes a vast amount of effort because we have been badly hurt in one way or another. But, in the story, compared to the amount of debt the servant has been forgiven it is tiny. In general terms that is how we are to think of forgiveness.

God has forgiven us so much, that surely we can forgive one who calls for mercy on us. If we have seen our own brokenness and need of forgiveness, and the generous compassion of God then we will forgive. If we cannot forgive, we must ask God to show us more clearly our need for forgiveness and his great compassion.

The fellow servants see. They are distressed. Their grief, the word is used for genuine sorrow in the rest of the NT. This isn’t a fake concern, this isn’t a scoring points issue.
This is a sorrow that reflects the compassion of the master. And so they take it to the master. They go to him.
In passing that’s pretty good advice for the first step in any conflict – go to Jesus, and tell him about it first. Here the master takes action. He is angry. First we saw his compassion, now we see his anger. Anger at someone else not being shown mercy.
Tells you a lot about someone – “what makes you angry?” His question to the servant is revealing – the master had mercy – he expects the servant to show mercy in response.
The behaviour of Jesus’ followers should reflect Jesus’ character. Truly receiving God’s forgiveness should lead us to forgive others.

Not forgiving others makes God angry. It brings exclusion from God’s kingdom. The punishment is worse than the original, demonstrating how angry God is at unmercy. And we could shrug this off as just part of the story except for what Jesus says next – v35. This is how God will deal with us, if we do not forgive from the heart.
Not forgiving invites God to not forgive us – you can count to 77, or 490 if you like – but only if you want God to do the same and I’m pretty sure I’ve reached 490.

Matthew’s gospel contains a number of warnings from Jesus’ lips about the dire consequences of looking like one of Jesus followers for a while, yet being shut out of Jesus’ kingdom. It is right to talk about Jesus’ acceptance of us. But that acceptance must lead us to change. Being forgiven by God should transform us. Knowing that we deserve nothing, but that he chooses to forgive freely should soften our hearts so that we are willing to forgive others.

God’s grace not only saves us from punishment, it transforms us in the here and now.

Therefore, Jesus emphasises, we are to forgive without limits, from the heart. We are to be a community of forgiveness and grace. So what does this mean for us in practice in church life. Be ready to say sorry, and to forgive. When we forgive say so. If someone apologises, then say “I forgive you”. There is wonderful power in that declaration. Roz and I want our children to learn that in their interactions. We try and practice it in our marriage – that when one of us needs to apologise the other needs to reach the point of being able to say “I forgive you”.

It should be that way in church too. We should be ready always to forgive from the heart. Is there someone here today you need to forgive? Is there someone you need to say sorry to.? Very often when we know someone has sinned against us, we have played our part too, and need to offer our apology – part of forgiveness is not waiting.
We are about to share the peace. Before we do that, why not take a minute two to see if there is anyone God would have you forgive today, someone you need to be reconcilled to this day.

PRAY

 

Roller coaster Psalms…

I’m reading the Psalms at the moment and this can lead to some quite strong mood swings from one day to the next.  One day I read Psalm 136 which is an exciting hymn of praise to God for his mighty acts of creation and salvation for Israel, with the re-occuring theme “his love endures forever”.  I think the best way to read this Psalm is in a group, with a leader the first part of each verse, and then the congregation responding with “his love endures forever”, and this should definitely get louder each time, until the refrain is being shouted out with abandonment (rather like the crowds on Palm Sunday)

The next day I read Psalm 137 – which forms something of a contrast – beginning with the Jewish exiles weeping by the rivers of Babylon, whilst being taunted by their captors.  The haunting question comes “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?”  How can Psalm 136 be their song  anymore?  At this point the Psalm takes on a darker tone, as the Psalmist remembers how Judah was betrayed by Edom.  Suddenly blessing is invoked for the one who takes vengence on them; blessing for the one who dashes their infants against the rocks.

There is cursing language in many of the Psalms, but this has to be one of the most brutal passages amongs them.  What can be said about such prayers?

I think the first thing to remember is the raw emotion this represents.  This is sung by people hundreds of miles from home, cut off from all they love, taunted to sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land.  Part of me wonders if this was part of their quiet revenge – singing songs cursing their captors in a language their captors would not know – a kind of bittersweet irony.  That is pure speculation, but what I do know is that I do not have much chance of fully appreciating how this Psalmist feels from a (reasonably) comfortable sofa, in a pleasant house in a leafy English village (small town).  I do not know what it is to be a captive of war, and I do not know how I would pray in that situation.  As part of this it may be that “infants” or “babies” here is simply used to denote the city or people in general, or indeed those who follow its ways – which makes it marginally less bloodthirsty, although still fairly violent language.

The second thing to remember is that this is not what the Jewish exiles actually go and do.  They do not go and dash anyone’s babies against the rocks.  They get on with life in Babylon, they marry, build homes, and pray for their city (see Jeremiah 29).  I think this is similar to the Psalms of David regarding his life on the run from Saul.  He prays for his enemy to be destroyed, but he does not lift a hand against the LORD’s annointed.  Sometimes we have very raw, very messy emotions, and the safest place to take this raw mess is to God.  He can handle it.  We come broken. We are broken people. Sometimes we want nasty things to happen to other people, and the safest place to deal with this is before God.  To let him hear the anger.  He can deal with it.

And this is because of the third thing.  Psalm 137 is followed by Psalm 138 (that’s the kind of thing you spot when you’re studying for a PhD…).  Psalm 138 praises God for answering the Psalmist’s cry for help.  Psalm 138 speaks of how God sees those who are bowed low, who are not haughty and self-confident.  It speaks of how God preserves the Psalmist in the midst of trouble.  The psalm has the flavour of being one of praise in the midst of a difficult life, but one in which God is at work.  It doesn’t have Psalm 136’s exhuberance, but neither does it have the raw violence of Psalm 137 – but you sense that just maybe Psalm 137 isn’t far off the memory of the Psalmist.  On the other hand there is one link back to Psalm 136 – the phrase “your love endures forever” – the same phrase as the refrain of Psalm 136 is echoed in Psalm 138’s song of praise for God’s work in the midst of trouble.

The 3 psalms together actually form a great example of a 3 stage pattern or movement within many psalms that OT theologian Walter Brueggemann identifies as Orientation, Dis-orientation and Re-orientation.  Psalm 136 is a song of orientation – praising God for his work of creation and salvation as it should be praised – this is the song of the faith of the believing people – this is what we know and believe to be true, and in our best moments live from.  Psalm 137 is the song of disorentation – all this has gone wrong.  We do not live with any evidence that Psalm 136 is actually true for us.  This is where many of the psalms of lament fit, in that they express the mess of life as it is.  Then Psalm 138 expresses the reorientation stage where we move back to knowing God’s work – but with a deeper sense of gratitude, and an awareness that even while life is not all as it should be God is at work.  There is a joy that is somehow deeper, and a gratitude that is somehow larger because we have seen God at work in the midst of pain.

Here is Psalm 138 – a great Psalm of praise to God for his work – and especially for his name – his character of steadfast love and faithfulness in all of life, a great Psalm to pray through and into our lives.

“I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name
for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.
On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.

All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks,
O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth,
and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD.
For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

(Psalms 138:1–8 ESV)

Always be ready…

This is the now traditional sermon blog post – this time on 1 Peter 3:15-16.  I noticed as I was reformatting my script for the blog post that it is definitely written to be spoken, so it doesn’t always read well, and I did relatively often diverge from the wording here as seemed appropriate at the time, but it will give a flavour at least.

Always be ready. As Peter writes these words I wonder if the words he had said to Jesus in the upper room echoed in his head at all “I am ready to die for you Lord”. Peter had uttered those words back in the upper room on the night before the cross. He’d proved dramatically that he wasn’t ready as events unfolded. Now the restored and renewed Peter writes to explain how to be ready. How to be ready in the midst of intense suffering and difficulty to speak of Jesus and live for Jesus.

He writes from Rome. Christians are not being persecuted everywhere in a systematic way – yet. A few years after Peter writes Nero will begin the attacks, and other emperors will persecute yet more intensively the strange people who will not bow the knee and say “Caesar is Lord”.

But as Peter writes it is a matter of local officials, egged on by local synagogues or temples worried about a loss of business who attack the Christians.

It’s not like living in Iraq or Syria with IS around (yet), but it might be like living in many other parts of the world today where being a Christian just makes life harder in a myriad of small, and sometimes large, ways.

For us on our frontline it may not feel that we are persecuted as such, but sometimes following Jesus makes life harder. And it always seems hard to speak of him and tell others.

Peter knows that, and in this letter he writes to help us be ready always to speak for Jesus when we are under pressure for following him. Peter talks about this in the context of a life where we are to “declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness” in everything we do.

That means having a life that is marked by all the things we’ve looked at so far in the frontlines series.

It means that when appropriate we speak of Jesus. Not necessarily all the time, we all have different gifts and abilities, and some are natural evangelists, able to talk easily about faith. (I’m not)

But even if that isn’t true for you, what everybody needs to be able to do is give an answer when asked. Peter’s assumption is that life as a Christian will look so different because of the new birth into a living hope, because of resurrection life, starting now, lived with the perspective of the end that people are bound to ask why we do things the way we do because we will be operating out of such a different value system.
So we have three parts to being ready to speak of Jesus:

  • Honour Christ the Lord as holy in our hearts
  • Be able to explain why you believe (and live) differently
  • Speak with humility, respect and a clear conscience

First: Be ready to speak by honouring Christ the Lord as holy in your hearts.

Peter here is dealing with the fear that we all have of people and what they will think. In v14-15 he’s actually quoting something God said to Isaiah 100s of years before. Isaiah lived at a pretty bleak point in Judah’s history, when a foolish king was trying to make clever alliances to stand up to the Assyrian empire. The King wasn’t pleased with Isaiah pointing out his errors, so God spoke to reassure Isaiah and said:

“Do not fear what they fear, do not be terrified, but make the LORD Almighty holy in your heart – he is to be your fear, he is to be your terror”.

Peter’s point is the same – don’t fear people, but set apart Jesus the LORD as holy

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord (NIV)

 but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy (ESV)

In some ways it is slightly odd to talk about making God holy. Usually we talk about him making us holy. It is the same word, though, as is used in the Lord’s prayer “hallowed be thy name”. Easy to make this into something we say without really meaning, thinking that it just means “may everyone respect Jesus a bit”. But to treat Jesus’ name as holy is to honour him, to respect and fear him, and to obey him.

Another example of this concept is found in an episode in Moses’ life:

When he is told he won’t get to the promised land because when God tells him to speak to a rock so that water will flow to quench the people’s thirst he strikes the rock, and scolds the people God says to him – “because you did not treat me as holy”. All he did was one small act of disobedience, but it signified that treating God as holy had become in that point less important to him than doing what seemed to make sense.

Treating God as holy, means treating God as he is God being holy means that he is infinitely above us because he made us and we are mere creatures, and because he is utterly good and we are sinful people.

It means he knows what is best and right because he is good.

Notice too that in the reading from Isaiah, Isaiah was told to make God holy, But Peter tells his readers to make Christ the Lord holy – it makes the point that for Peter Jesus is God. The God Isaiah was told to make holy came and walked on the earth as one of us. Jesus is that God. He is the LORD Almighty.

And so he doesn’t call us to do anything he hasn’t already done – Peter makes that point a couple of times – Jesus suffered for us – the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God – that is what this time of year is all about in the church calendar. Jesus knows what it is to suffer and to die for what is right – and he calls us to do the same.

So when we seek to obey Jesus we are not obeying a cruel taskmaster with no idea what we are going through, we are obeying one who loves us more than we can imagine and who knows what is best and who knows what is good and what is right. Our job is to set that in our hearts – in our minds – the heart was seen as the control centre of the body.

Because if we do that we won’t fear other people, we won’t fear what they fear. Other people fear other people. We all fear other people.

But if we revere Jesus Christ the LORD as holy in our hearts we will fear him above anybody else. We will do what he wants, and no one will be able to stop us.

The question here is: what are you afraid of? Ask that question honestly.

What is it that terrifies you. It is a good question. In the context of giving a reason for the hope that we have it is often “what will people think?” What will people say if they realise I’m a Christian? What will they say if they hear me talking about Jesus? Maybe it is a fear that they will hold us to account – and so it might stop us doing certain things. Maybe it is a fear of them making it hard for us.

Peter says we are to deal with that fear by returning to Jesus Christ the Lord and making him holy in our hearts. How does this change our fear?

Well, standing at your shoulder is Jesus. He is with you by his Spirit. He sees the way you shuffle awkwardly. He feels the awkward feeling. He wants to breath courage into you. He wants you to step out and realise it’s not so bad. Because his Spirit is at work.

Because really, it’s not so bad – when I am actually having those conversations I realise that. It is all in the anticipation. And he’s ready to cheer and help, and remind you – you just need to ask. And if you fail. And if it goes wrong. And if you do clam up at the last minute. He’s ready. To turn you back round, and rebuild the pieces – just ask Peter.

Then: Be ready to speak by knowing why you live the way you do

Be ready to give a defence of what you believe. A defence sounds like a trial – and indeed Peter may well have a trial in view. It was reality for the apostles – Paul gives a defense in Jerusalem before Romans and Jews which tells the story of how he came to meet Jesus and realise that Jesus was God. Can you do that? Write down sometime how you became a Christian, and the story of what God has done in your life since. Then

you will be part way ready.

Be ready with reasons for the hope you have:

Peter in this letter spells out how the hope we have is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death. Can you defend why you believe that Jesus rose from the dead? There are lots of good reasons: The tomb was empty, the disciples believed they had met him, Paul talks about 500 at once – no one ever produced a body, the resurrection was radically different from other ancient beliefs, and no-one among the Jews was expecting just one man to rise. There was the changed lives of first Christians who lived transformed lives ever since

We need, says Peter, to be ready to give the reason why we believe.

It isn’t so much that we are going to argue anyone into God’s kingdom. Rather we need to know that the gospel is reasonable, that it does make sense. Faith is not about a leap in the dark. Faith is about trust in a person

who gives us good reasons to trust Him.

And it’s about Reasons for the Hope that we have.

The hope of resurrection. The hope of life now that goes on forever.

This is not about hoping in an everyday sense. It is not the same as “I hope my football team don’t go down”, or “I hope England can manage to win a one day cricket match”. It’s not even the same as “I hope I get promotion”, “I hope a get a pay rise”. These hopes rise and fall, and are dashed.

In the Bible hope is about something that is certain. Heaven is a reality for all who trust in Jesus. One day we will be like him. One day we will be with him forever, and he will be with us, and he will wipe away every tear from every eye, and he will reward all we have done out of love for him. In some way all the good we have done will be a part of that new creation. That is the living hope Peter talks about at the start of the letter, the new birth into a living hope.

It is that hope that changes life now. Christians who changed our country: I think it was Lord Shaftesbury (child labour laws) who said that he had not lived one day without consciously thinking of the Lord’s return. It didn’t stop him fighting for reform in Parliament.

It was said of Wilberforce (slavery) “I would be as happy as he is, if I had the hope of heaven that he has”. Right now we live in a country and a world starved of hope. We need the hope that the gospel changes lives,

that God turns things around. He has done it before.We need to pray and live in the hope that he will do it again,and in the certain hope that he will one day make all things new.

Which brings us on to the final point;

Be ready with gentleness and respect – living a true “good life”

Peter’s letter is full of exhorting to live a true “good life”, a life where our conduct is measured and marked by God’s standards, and where we are ready to answer with gentleness and with respect. Peter may mean gentleness and respect directed to people, or because he uses the word fear so soon after he has talked about not fearing people, he may be reminding us of the need to have a right fear of God as we go about speaking to others.

Both are important – both treating people with respect, and having a right fear of God. Both will help us as we answer people. Treating other people gently means listening to their questions, and making sure we give a good response to what they have said – not just riding roughshod over their question to get to what we do know, but being ready to admit when we don’t have the answer.

With a right fear of God means that we won’t fear them, so will give an honest answer, even when that contains something they won’t want to hear – obviously done in a loving and gentle way, but we will hold firm to what is true and right.

We keep a good conscience, suffering only because we do what is good, and right. Because we have a life centred on Christ, Obeying his rule, Living like him, So that when people do speak against Christians then those who look down on Christians would have a sense of shame at the mistreatment they see.

The hope ultimately is what Peter wrote earlier in 1 Peter 2 – live such good lives among the pagans that they may see you and glorify God when he comes to “visit”

How zealous are we for what is good? How eager to do these other things we’ve spoken about in the frontlines series. If we really do them and put them into practice we will be noticed. We need each other’s help to support each other so that we can be ready to speak, ready to give an answer, ready to help each other do this.

Peter wrote this letter to a bunch of Christians scattered in the Empire. 250 years later the entire Roman Empire was Christian in name because so many people had come to believe this message. It took a lot of persecution and suffering, but God turned the world upside down through them. Christians stood out a mile.

They treated women, children and slaves as people not objects. They took in the unwanted babies left to die.They didn’t fight back. They didn’t cause trouble. They did refuse to worship the emperor. They died for their beliefs.

If they could stand out then, surely we can in our day too. We can be ready, by setting apart Jesus Christ the Lord as holy in our hearts, by having a defense of our faith ready and by living a life that matches our profession.

We can do it because the same God helps us. The same God who raised Jesus from death. He will do it.

1Pet. 5:10-11 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Kept by God

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
(Psalms 121:1–8 ESV)

I’m reading through the Psalms at the moment. I had thought I might blog about Psalm 119, but somehow never quite managed it, although I do recommend reading it, and focusing on one 8 verse section at a time – there is an amazing variety to the Psalmist’s praise of God for his word.
Having finished Psalm 119 it was on to the Psalms of ascents. I don’t have much to say about Psalm 120 (but there is an excellent reflection on it in Eugene Peterson’s mediation on the Psalms of ascents – “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”).
Psalm 121 has long been a Psalm I have loved, possibly since it appeared in my pigeon hole at university along with a chocolate brownie and a note of encouragement! I remember it being the focus of Chapel one particular tough week at Regent – and it seemed like the talk that week had been prepared especially for us.
There is something about the first line that resonates – possibly because I have usually lived somewhere where seeing hills is possible – the North Downs, Durham Cathedral, the North Downs again, Vancouver North Shore mountains (these somewhat put anything else into the shade) and now the Cotswolds – not to mention my love of the English Lake District.
That could be a bit misleading however because when the Psalmist looks up to the hills he isn’t thinking “O how pretty, perhaps I’ll talk a walk later”. He is thinking of danger. He is thinking of the fact that hills are the centre for the worship of other gods. He is thinking that he needs help. Which is why it so vital that the LORD (the God of Israel, who rescued them out of Egypt) is the creator God who made everything.
For us it might not be hills that make us think danger. It could be our office, it might be a relationship, it could be our bank statement. It might be anything that could bring danger, or lure us away from God. When we see those things we ask: where does my help come from. And for us too – our help comes from the LORD – who made everything.
Which also means that the hills then become a great reminder of God’s power and strength. As look to the hills I think of the one who made the hills, and I remember that he is the same God who has rescued me. He has the power to do what he says.
And that means the rest of the Psalm is really good news – because it tells us that this creator God keeps watch over us. This creator God does not slumber or sleep – I always seem to read this Psalm after a particularly bad run of nights with one or other child, so this is incredibly good news. His watching over me is a constant.
He keeps me from danger striking me down. He keeps me from all evil – evil has no final power over us. He keeps our life – our life is safe with God. He keeps all our going out and coming in – from now and forever. This keeping is a guarding, a watching over, a constant vigilant care. It doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen – but it does mean that in the bad things there is one who knows and keeps us to the end – we can trust his care for us.
Eugene Peterson puts it like this:

“The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breath, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life…. We Christians believe that life is created and shaped by God and that the life of faith is a daily exploration of the constant and countless ways in which God’s grace and love are experienced. … Faith is not a precarious affair of chance escape from satanic assaults. It is the solid, massive, secure experience of God who keeps all evil from getting inside us, who keeps our life, who keeps our going out and our coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.” (“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”)

So, reread the Psalm again, and reflect on all the “keep” words – and notice who does the keeping (the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth).

Not really a PhD Update

I’ve wanted to do a PhD update for a while, but I’ve been too busy doing a PhD to deal with writing one, so this just a brief post, with a pretty picture, to stand in its place.  ???????????????????????????????

I’ve just finished my work on Exodus 3-7 and have moved on to Sinai, to where Moses brings Israel to God in chapter 19-20. This a really intriguing chapter with a lot of going up and down the mountain, and a lot of making absolutely crystal clear how unapproachable God is in his awesome, not to say dangerous, holiness.

As I turned to the commentaries on this passage I’ve found comments that drive me to frustration, especially when commentators try to “improve” the order, or smooth out difficulties.  However I’ve also found comments that are wonderfully encouraging so I thought I’d share this quote, from Childs’ commentary on Exodus as he reflects on how the New Testament relates to the picture of God in Exodus 19-20:

“The new covenant is not a substitution of a friendly God for the terror of Sinai, but rather a gracious message of an open access to the same God whose presence still calls forth awe and reverence”

In a day where many seem to try and drive a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the gospels this is a wonderfully refreshing comment to come across.  Old and New it is the same God, but in the New access is given to all who will come through Jesus.  Or, to put it in the words of the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 12 – read this after Exodus 19):

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. …

28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

What is it?

The somewhat cryptic title of this blog post reflects what the Israelites said when they saw God’s provision of manna for them in the desert for the first time (Exodus 16).  Manna sounds very similar to the question: “what is it?” in Hebrew, and seems to suggest that the Israelites hadn’t seen this strange substance before.

I was re-reading a chapter on Exodus 16 in Walter Moberley’s excellent “Old Testament Theology”, and was struck by a few quotes which I thought I’d put up here, as I found them perceptively encouraging about the nature of the Christian life:

“The striking thing about YHWH’s provision is that Israel has no idea what to make of it.” (80)
“In this depiction the heavenly bread is resistant to one of the most basic of human urges: to save up and to hoard. It is part of YHWH’s new way, into which Israel is being inducted, in which familiar categories of understanding and yardsticks of behaviour are replaced. YHWH’s principle is that Israel’s bread must each day be provided anew and collected anew. The implicit sense is of a need to appropriate the divine gift always in the present, in the here and now.” (82)
“To summarise: The manna, a divine provision, can be seen to function as a symbolic concretisation of divine grace. It testingly challenges Israel to learn to live from an unfamiliar resource; it nourishes the Israelites irrespective of their varying abilities; it resists being accommodated to conventional human desires; it is designed to enable Israel to develop a particular rhythm of life, encompassing both the working week and rest on the Sabbath. In all these ways the manna inducts Israel into the divine pattern for life.” (84)

These quotes all summed up the sense I’ve had recently that God’s provision for us comes in ways so different from what I would plan, and in a way that seems designed to force me to trust him, and cope with new and unexpected patterns.

I’ve seen a couple of times recently how much my firstborn son hates routine to be changed, and the way in which unexpected events throw him completely (sometimes even good unexpected). It is easy to  see his overreaction, but the reality is that I am exactly the same with God about life.  I hate the unexepected.  I hate plans to be changed or overthrown.  When I was single I thought I liked things to be spontaneous – the reality is that I like things to be spontaneous as long as I have spontaneously planned them in my head.  I don’t like someone else’s spontaneity forced on me.

These quotes about the manna are a reminder of how freeing God’s daily grace is, and yet how scary that freedom is.  I have to surrender my desire for control of my life, and submit to God’s rythmn.  The Israelites had a hard job accepting that the manna would last 2 days on a Friday, and yet it did.  They had a hard job accepting that Monday’s manna would not last until Tuesday, and sure enough it didn’t.  God provides enough for each day – and enough for a day of rest, and he provides on a day by day basis.  Which I imagine is why Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, but to trust God one day at a time.

As John Piper puts it (Today’s mercies for Today’s troubles – in one of his devotional books):

God’s mercies are new every morning because each day only has enough mercy in it for that day. This is why we tend to despair when we think that we may have to bear tomorrow’s load on today’s resources. God wants us to know: We won’t. Today’s mercies are for today’s troubles. Tomorrow’s mercies are for tomorrow’s troubles.

The manna in the wilderness was given one day at a time. There was no storing up. That is the way we must depend on God’s mercy. You do not receive today the strength to bear tomorrow’s burdens. You are given mercies today for today’s troubles. Tomorrow the mercies will be new. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).