In response to a talk I gave at a Men’s Breakfast in the North-West of England a little over a week ago, one man commented on the explosive spiritual power that must have been at work when the gospel was first preached. He is a nuclear engineer and was using nuclear energy as a metaphor for the work of God in people’s lives. So many people positively responded on the Day of Pentecost and in the succeeding weeks when the Apostles preached God’s Word.
His comment reminded me of the work of God in creating everything that exists, through the explosive moment of the Big Bang. God perfectly brought together the materials, the power, and the timing that were necessary to bring into existence the universe as we know it.
God at work in creation and re-creation. God’s work of creation is a helpful metaphor for his work of re-creation, or salvation. As we have been seeing, God has done everything necessary to address our deepest human need – namely, to rescue us from death, the consequence of our failure to love him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
God’s Spirit. As Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:5-8) and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3, God’s Spirit needs to be at work opening blind eyes and softening hard hearts to the truth of the gospel. But there is something else: God wants to involve us in this work of salvation, not just by telling his words of forgiveness and hope to others, but by speaking to him about others. God wants us to pray. In fact, effective outreach always begins with prayer.
Prayer. The French philosopher, Pascal observed,
“God instituted prayer in order to allow his creatures the dignity of causality.”
And C.S. Lewis commented,
“It is probably truer to say that God invented both prayer and work for that purpose. God gave us, small creatures that we are, the dignity of being able to contribute to the course of events in two different ways.”
God made the universe in such a way that we can do things to it – within certain limits, of course. This is both an amazing and perplexing idea. But the Bible shows us that God has given himself the discretion to be able to act within his overall plan according to our prayers. Prayer is not just a means of keeping the lines of communication open with God, or even bringing our minds and hearts into line with his will. Yes, that is part of its purpose, but not the whole. God listens to our prayers and, when he considers something is for the best, he will act on it. Prayer to the Almighty Lord is a very powerful tool, a potent force.
‘Never give up’. We often lose sight of this truth when it comes to outreach. In Colossians 4:2, Paul urged his readers to be steadfast in prayer. He understood that effective outreach begins with persevering prayer. Both Paul and Epaphras, the evangelist in Colossae, prayed.
The first Christians were committed and enthusiastic in their prayers; it is one of the reasons for their terrific evangelistic success. It may have been that the Christians in Colossae had become apathetic – they didn’t see the urgency or the need for prayer. And that’s why Paul insists, Continue steadfastly in prayer… ‘Don’t give up’.
Will you join me on Wednesdays in praying for people who do not yet know God’s good news – friends and family, work colleagues and fellow students. In particular pray that in his great mercy, God’s Spirit will be powerfully at work in their lives.
God’s joy. Jesus tells us that heaven rejoices when people turn to the Lord. It is one of the prayers that we can be assured God will answer.
At the launch of a new book by Australian political commentator, Paul Kelly, Triumph and Demise, Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, commented:
“Paul suggests that the relentless negativity of our contemporary conversation, the culture of entitlement that he thinks has sprung up over the last decade or so, means that good government has become difficult, perhaps impossible…”
Reporting the launch in The Australian last month, Rosie Lewis noted, ‘Mr Abbott said his government’s challenge was to “lift ourselves” so that the nation could see the political system at its best.’
It is not my purpose here to discuss the merits or otherwise of Paul Kelly’s remarks, nor the Prime Minister’s response. What I do want to focus on is Kelly’s phrase, ‘the relentless negativity of our contemporary conversation…’ For what may or may not be true of the Australian political scene, is certainly true of the ‘contemporary conversation’ about religion, especially about Christianity, where there is a ‘relentless negativity’.
We see it in the media and on the street. An important part in communicating God’s good news is to be aware of the negativity and to take on the challenge to “lift ourselves”, to use Tony Abbott’s words, so that people everywhere can see Christianity at its best.
Let’s encourage one another to practise Paul the Apostle’s words:
Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone (Colossians 4:5-6).
Paul’s advice to the Colossians has two parts – life-style and speech. We are all obliged to act wisely and graciously towards people we live and work with. So, if you hold a position of responsibility, ensure that no one can accuse you of unfairness, exploitation or harshness.
Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, wrote, ‘Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show them that it is.’
Furthermore, we are all obliged to answer questions people have about matters of faith. We are to cultivate conversations that are kind and gracious, yet seasoned with salt. ‘Salt’ implies sparkling and interesting conversations that can open up opportunities to discuss the gospel.
Questions. Paul anticipates we will encounter people who have genuine questions about the faith. In our day, the questions may relate to differences between Christianity and, say, Islam. It’s helpful to show others the clear differences between Mohammed and Jesus. The former led an army of 10,000 against Mecca; and in 637, after two years of raids in the countryside, his followers laid a siege against Jerusalem, starving its population into surrender.
Jesus spoke of his kingdom being not of this world (John 18:36). He neither took up the sword of battle nor called for an army. Rather, he allowed the power of Rome to put him to death. Yet, through it he won the greatest victory of all, for through it he conquered once and for all the power of sin and death. His resurrection from the dead guarantees it.
In this age of negativity, let’s heed Jesus’ words,
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Carefully planned terrorist bombings of the church in Peshawar, Pakistan and in the Mall in Nairobi, Kenya this last week are another reminder of human alienation. Despite extraordinary advances in science and technology, we are still incapable of making a just and lasting peace for all peoples of all nations. Peace at the best of times is an uncertain affair. It seems the only way we can ensure it, is through more laws, greater security and the loss of more personal freedoms.
Commenting on why he wrote Lord of the Flies, William Golding commented:
“I believed then, that man was sick–not exceptional man, but average man. I believed that the condition of man was to be a morally diseased creation and that the best job I could do at the time was to trace the connection between his diseased nature and the international mess he gets himself into.”
‘Alienation’ is a good word to describe our plight. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul the Apostle speaks of alienation not just as the breakdown of human relationships but the breakdown of our relationship with God. Despite the strident voices to the contrary, there is still within the vast majority of people an innate sense that God not only is there, but also that we live in a moral universe. Right and wrong exist. Yes, Paul Bloom of Yale does argue that these notions are the outcome of blind evolution and that this is an evolutionary faux pas. But, given the unique history surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Bloom’s thesis is a far greater step of faith than what Christianity asks.
If there is a God who is all-powerful and good, why the mess? God could have written off the universe as a failure and started again. But that would have been to admit defeat. The Bible tells us that God determined on a more costly strategy. Instead of abandoning this evil and ungrateful world, he came to its rescue himself. He needed to find a way to destroy the enmity without destroying the enemy. This was the only way to provide a just and lasting peace.
Colossians 1:21-23 tells us that God’s strategy was not political, military nor educational. Rather, he chose the path of sacrifice. From God’s standpoint, a just and lasting peace was only possible through Jesus’ death on the cross. We can think of it like this. Suppose a wife or husband or parent has profoundly hurt us. But one day we learn that they are in really serious trouble, and we have the resources to help them. We could tell them to go to hell. But what if there was still a love for them within us? We would need to find a way within ourselves to absorb all the pain, hurt and anger that boils up at the very thought of them, so that we can reach out and help them.
The good news is that through the death of Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man, God found a way to reconcile us to himself. When Jesus died, God in his love absorbed within himself the just pain and anger we have caused within him. When we bow our proud heads and truly ask Jesus Christ for his forgiveness, God can justly declare us to be at one, at peace, with him.
In her Christmas Day broadcast last year, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II said:
“This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son ‘to serve, not to be served’…
The carol, In The Bleak Midwinter, ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story, of how God gave himself to us in humble service:
“What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part”. The carol gives the answer “Yet what I can I give him – give my heart”.”
In recent weeks the media has been filled news of the ability of government security agencies to reach into so many aspects of our personal affairs – phone calls, email and social media. Many are concerned.
Psalm 139 tells us of another powerful source that looks into our lives – not just our activities, but into our very thoughts. In his psalm, sometimes described as the crown of Hebrew poetry, David speaks of a Watcher who is not a mere passive, receptor of information, like the prying of cyberspace, but someone who knows and understands every detail of our existence. ‘You have searched me, you know me, God,’ David says. ‘I have no privacy, no place from which I can exclude you. There is no corner of my mind where I can shut the door against you. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I think, is wide open to your gaze.’
‘You hem me in behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me’, he continues. At first it seems that David is saying, everywhere I go, every step I take, I feel you breathing down my neck. But the larger context indicates that he doesn’t see it this way at all. The words you hem me in can also be translated, ‘you guard me’ or ‘you encircle me for my protection.’ He doesn’t view God’s all-embracing knowledge as a threat, but rather as a refuge. He is not at all resentful of God’s all-seeing intelligence.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? he asks. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast, we read in verses 9 and 10. David’s imagery of taking the wings of the morning is that of traveling at the speed of light to a far place. Even there he will still find God. The instant the thought enters his head that he might escape God, he realizes how impossible it is.
Many of us have felt the same as David, but we have a note of frustration in our voice: ‘God, I want to get away from you.’ But, surprisingly to us, David isn’t trying to run away. His reaction to God’s all-embracing knowledge is one of deep-felt gratitude. For, unlike human prying eyes, God’s eyes are pure and he is just in all his ways. For when we truly turn to God, his presence is not a threat or a cause for anxiety, but rather a joy. David understood that God’s presence means guidance and protection.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (vv.11-12). David was anticipating the possibility that in a moment of panic he might find himself saying, ‘God has left me and forgotten me.’ Rather David was saying, no matter how dark the situation seems, God has infra-red vision – he sees in the night just as well as he sees in the day. God’s reassuring hand is there as much in the tough times as in the good times. In another psalm (Psalm 23) David could say: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Guilt Outlasts Lust
It was a glorious spring afternoon when he saw her. He was relaxing on the roof of the palace. He’d had a tough but successful road to become the leader of the nation, and now he was taking some time out. Probably in his early 50s, King David was tantalized by the beauty of a young woman bathing on a nearby rooftop. But she was the wife of one of his army officers. ‘It would only be a one-night affair,’ he thought. ‘Her husband is away. No-one will know.’
But things went wrong: Bathsheba became pregnant. A scandal was inevitable. He tried to cover it up. He called Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back to the city. For three days he entertained him, urging him to have a night with his wife. But Uriah refused while his army was still fighting.
So David adopted an unscrupulous plan. He had Uriah put at the center of a major battle and left to fight alone and die. It worked. Uriah died and David married Bathsheba. Like the eye-surgeon in Woody Allen’s Crime’s and Misdemeanors, he had apparently committed the perfect crime. But David had made a mistake. In his lust he had forgotten God.
We live in a self-absorbed society, intent on pursuing its own interests, ignoring the reality of God. Not that this is new. Writing in his Letter to the Romans (1:28-32), Paul the Apostle said:
‘Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.’
As Paul points out earlier in Romans 1, we have the evidence all around us that there is a creator God. We have also the evidence of history – the life of a unique man, Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, we have the evidence of our own conscience that we are guilty before a holy God. Deep down we don’t agree with the implied conclusions of Woody Allen’s, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point – that there is no God to whom we are all accountable.
It is the ultimate foolishness to ignore God. Psalm 49:13-14 (worth reading the whole psalm) says:
Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot.
Like sheep they are appointed for death;…
But God will ransom my soul from the power of death, for he will receive me.
Three millennia ago, King David of Israel understood these things. He knew the guilt within him was neither socially conditioned nor a psychological hang-up. He knew that he had offended God: You are justified, God, in your judgment, for against you alone, have I sinned… And, when he turned to God in an honest confession from his heart (Ps.51:7), he could say: Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
We have now this assurance: God in Christ not only pardons our sin when we turn to him and confess it, he also delivers us from its consequences. Guilt outlasts lust, but God’s offer of forgiveness to the truly repentant trumps all.
Hippocrates, the 5th century Greek physician, identified four kinds of temperament: the sociable extroverts – the sanguine; the driven leaders – the choleric; the analytical and reflective – the melancholic; and the relaxed and inward looking – the phlegmatic. While medicine today has much more sophisticated models identifying the complexity of personality, certain characteristics may dominate.
Some people have a greater tendency to depression than others. This is just as true for professing Christians. Some of the great ones of the Bible, such as Elijah and Jeremiah, and later Christian leaders, such as the poet William Cowper, or the English preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, suffered with depression at times. It is simply wrong to dismiss a believer who experiences mood swings as having a spiritual problem. In fact, the reality of their faith is seen in the way they persevere despite their mood swings.
Psalms 42 and 43 illustrate this well. The writer(s), had been forcibly taken from his home city of Jerusalem into exile, either at the time of the Babylonian exile or, more likely, when king Jehoash of the northern kingdom of Israel, defeated king Amaziah of the southern kingdom, Judah (2 Kings 14:14).
Far from home, and from the temple in Jerusalem where he led the worship, the writer asks: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me? (42:5, 11; 43:5). He was depressed and disturbed. Any talk of joy and peace would have been empty and false. God seemed remote as we see in his cry: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (42:1-2).
Many of us today know what it is like to move away from the comfort and security of family and friends. A good part of how we respond will depend on our underlying temperament. And this can all combine to affect our spiritual awareness – as was happening in these two psalms.
The Psalm writer points us to the solution. When he says: I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? (42:9), we see that we should admit our feelings to God, even asking him questions. This takes courage. Further, we learn that we need to address our inner self, our soul. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great English preacher wrote: ‘The main trouble in this whole matter of depression is that we allow our Self to talk to us instead of us talking to our Self.’ The psalm-writer’s soul has been depressing him, crushing him, so he stands up and says, ‘Soul, listen! I will speak to you: “Hope in God; I shall again praise him, my help and my God”.’ Don’t let your feelings dominate.
Throughout these two psalms we see the movement from depression, to admission, to self-exhortation, and then to prayer: Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, the writer says; Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me… (43:1, 3).
Confident in God’s grace, he is assured of the day when, again filled with joy, he will sings songs of praise to God. Psalms 42-43 urge us to move beyond believing things about God, to actually sensing the living presence of God, whoever we are, and whatever our situation in life.