‘Advent: The Right Questions’

‘Advent: The Right Questions’

In his book, The Right Questions (2002), the late Phillip Johnson wrote that at the heart of the cultural changes today is the sharp divergence between two very different world views: the Christian view that states (as in John 1:1-4): “In the beginning was the Word…”; and scientific materialism that says, “In the beginning were the particles” (p.136). (Phillip Johnson was Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley for over thirty years.)

In an earlier chapter in his book, he observed that “In the beginning was the Word” is dismissed as a ‘non-cognitive utterance of religion’ and therefore one that cannot be evaluated in terms of ‘true or false’ (p.63). On the other hand, he also draws attention to an unquestioned assumption that stands behind scientific naturalism, namely that ‘the laws and the particles existed, and that these two things plus chance had to do all the creating’ (p.64).

In this context Johnson points out that everyone needs to ask ‘the right questions’; especially with respect to the assumptions that stand behind scientific materialism. For example, he draws attention to President Clinton’s announcement in June 2000 with the breakthrough in understanding the human genome: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life, we are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift” (p.37). And Francis Collins, the scientific director of the government’s Human Genome Project, said: “It is humbling for me and awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our instruction book, previously known only to God” (p.38).

Johnson comments that both statements ‘seem to say that the genome research actually supports the view that a supernatural mind designed the instructions that guide the immensely complex biochemical processes of life’. He also notes the negative implications, namely that ‘Clinton and Collins seemed to be repudiating the central claim of evolutionary naturalism, which is that exclusively natural causes like chance and physical law produced all the features of life…’ (p.38).

Yet he also notes that most leading biologists reject the notion of God and God’s involvement.

But can the clear statements of John 1:1-2 be easily dismissed as a crutch for those who need such a foundation for life? In the beginning was the Word, we read, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God… And in John 1:14 we learn, And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

In his Prologue John the Gospel writer speaks of the pre-existence of the Word of God. From all eternity the Word has been enthroned in the magnificence of the glory of heaven. But Joh also speaks of the incarnation of the Word: he is a Person who took up residence with us. The Word incarnate was full of grace and truth, John tells us. We have seen his glory, he testifies. John was either spinning a falsehood or witnessing to a truth that is beyond human invention.

Indeed, The Gospel of John, together with the other three Gospels, reveals a transcendent figure. The esteemed ancient historian Dr Edwin Judge once commented: ‘An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomenon of Jesus as an historical one. … The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it’.

Furthermore, Paul the Apostle in his Letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verse 5, speaks of the gospel as the word of the truthHe could have left out any reference to the words the truth, but he doesn’t. He wants to stress that the Christian message is true. Paul’s words reflect not only the words of the Gospel of John but also those of Luke who states that he had verified his account of Jesus Christ with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2). Strange as it may seem the Bible accounts of Jesus are verifiable and true.

Over the years the Christian church has been criticised for taking a western religion to other cultures. But what we often forget is that Christianity is not a western faith. Its origins are in the Middle-East. More significant is the point that Paul makes in Colossians, chapter 1, verses 6 and 7: the Christian gospel is for all the world.

All this brings us back to the question of knowledge. When we ask the right questions we discern that there are some essential assumptions that undergird scientific or philosophical naturalism – assumptions that cannot be tested and which require a step of faith. On the other hand, the step of faith in the statement that there is a creator God, is not a blind step. Its essence is grounded in a verifiable historical figure – Jesus.

This is the Jesus Christ to whom the believers in Colossae had responded. He brings us the good news that we need to embrace ourselves and introduce others to, today.

A Prayer – for the first Sunday in Advent: Almighty God, give us grace so that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came amongst us in great humility: so that on the last day, when he comes again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Advent: The Right Questions’


Throughout this week, ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ will echo across the land from New York City to San Francisco. The principle of ‘Thanksgiving’ has its origins in a non-sectarian thanks to a loving, merciful and generous God.

While Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations have at times been associated with a special moment in America’s story – as when Presidents Washington, Adams, and Lincoln made their Proclamations – the principle of a day of Thanksgiving continues. For example, in 1789 the first President, George Washington commended that a Day of Thanksgiving be held on Thursday, November 26 of that year.

Washington’s 1789 Proclamation stated: Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:

When we think about it, Thanksgiving is a very Judaeo-Christian theme, for we find it in both the ‘Law, the Prophets and the Writings’ (Old Testament) and in the New Testament.

The theme of Thanksgiving permeates the Book of Psalms, often setting this in the context of God’s goodness in creation and his mercy towards his people, even when they fell away from their whole-hearted commitment to him.

The opening lines of Psalm 103, for example, read: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits— who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Psalm 103:1-5).

Significantly, King David, the song writer, is not here talking to God as he usually does in his songs or psalms. He is talking to himself – to his soul. In fact, he continues the conversation with himself through the first five verses.

He is telling himself things he knew he needed to hear. He knew himself well enough to realize that he could slide into being a thankless man of God. And so it is that as he considers afresh who God is and what he has done for him: he reflects on God’s goodness. He identifies God’s many blessings, lest in times of disappointment or backsliding he forget the source of his prosperity and success and take God’s grace and goodness for granted.

It’s an exhortation we all need to hear. We ought to treat God with great honor and thankfulness for he is good to us in countless different ways. He is never over-indulgent. He disciplines us when we need it and, for our good, he doesn’t give us everything we want when we want it. Yet his kindness is vast and often unexpected.

The sad reality is that most of us simply forget to thank God for his undeserved kindness and goodness. We take it all for granted. Like nine of the ten lepers Jesus once healed, we don’t offer even one word of thanks.

Yet so important is giving thanks to God that Paul the Apostle urges us when we pray to have a deep sense of gratitude in our hearts: Do not be anxious about anything, he writes in his Letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:5-6).

The context in which we find these words of Paul is his exhortation that we rejoice in the Lord (Jesus) always (Philippians 4:4). Glorying in Christ Jesus and all that he has done for us in rescuing us and bringing us into a vital relationship with God, is central. God wants us to so value the Lord Jesus that we long for the smile of his approval in all we do.

This is the context of Paul’s command: ‘Have no anxiety about anything …’ His words are a timeless and universal remedy for anxiety. Prayer and Thanksgiving together commit us into the hands of the God who is Lord, and who is committed to bringing good for us out of every situation no matter what it is.

‘Thanksgiving’ by its very nature does not have its origin within us. As Karl Barth put it: Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.

May your Thanksgiving first be directed to the God from whom all true blessings flow!

A Prayer of Thanksgiving.

   Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all people. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.

   And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Advent: The Right Questions’

‘Gospel-Led Regeneration: Questions (2)…’

With the appalling atrocities in the Middle-East and the unvarnished hatred that has emerged, the unprovoked aggression in Ukraine and the terrorist attacks in Nigeria, we may be tempted to wonder what a good and just God, if he exists, is doing. Furthermore, with the antipathy towards religion in western society we may reckon that any opportunity to bring God into our conversation is a lost cause.

How important it is that we remain calm and remember that God has especially authenticated his existence and his extraordinary love and compassion in the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s therefore continue to explore Paul the Apostle’s speech to the Athenian intelligentsia at the Areopagus that we read in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17. Using his observation that the Athenians had an altar ‘To an unknown god’, Paul began, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth …” (17:24).

Furthermore, he continued, “From one ancestor he (God) made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…” (Acts 17:26ff).

His words echo those of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah who, having spoken of God’s just judgment on Israel and the people being taken into captivity, also spoke of the day of their deliverance. In Isaiah chapters 40 through 45 we read that God would raise up an insignificant prince, Cyrus, to crush the great Babylonian empire. Cyrus would free God’s people from captivity and permit them to return to Jerusalem.

Isaiah is saying (as we find throughout the Scriptures) that God continues his work in the world, constantly using human decisions to work out his own greater purposes for the good of us all. Indeed, it is because of this that Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,…

Tough times can be God’s wake-up call. It’s easy to blame him when things go wrong. But that is absurd for we all contribute to the problem. It’s easy to say God is distant or uncaring. ‘Not so,’ says Paul to the Athenians: ‘God is near you – nearer than you think. And, quoting from a 6th century BC Greek poet, he points out, “In him we live and move and have our being”. He continues by quoting either Aratus or Cleanthus, “For we too are his offspring”.

In quoting from non-biblical writers Paul lays out a useful principle for us: to reach a cynical audience with the things of God, look for ideas or words in the culture that illustrate a gospel truth. Not all human ideas are wrong – we are all image-bearers of God, albeit distorted ones.

Paul is saying that all men and women are God’s creatures. We not only receive our life from him but our very existence is also dependent on him. ‘Your poets agree that we are God’s offspring,’ he continues. ‘How ridiculous it is, therefore, to reduce God to something less than we are – gold or silver or stone.’ When we create an idol, we are trying to reverse the roles of ourselves and God: we want to make ourselves God’s creator, not God our creator.

So then, is there is any hope? Paul concludes with news of the surprising and unexpected rescue that comes from the One who set the movement of our existence into motion: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead’ (17:30f).

In setting up an altar ‘To an unknown god’, the Athenians recognized they actually might not know God. ‘In response Paul told them, ‘you might claim ignorance, but the reality is that God has never left himself without witness.’ As he writes in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, God has revealed himself through the natural order of the universe – something that we’ve all tried to suppress. ‘Well,’ Paul says to the Athenians, ‘God in his mercy is willing to overlook your past ignorance. However, he now commands people everywhere to repent’.

Justice. It is a matter of deep offense to God that we try to live without him, to say that this life is all there is, to think that there is no such thing as truth and ultimate justice. We may even laugh at the idea of a day when God will bring us all into his heavenly courtroom.

In the light of this here are some further questions you may want to explore with others – especially in the light of so many leaving church over the last 25 years that we talked about last week, November 8:

  1. Are our cries for justice because we consider judgement gives value and dignity to who we are and what we do? If there is no final justice, is life meaningless?
  2. Should we consider God’s seeming lack of intervention in appalling atrocities a sign of the depth of the outcome of our broken relationship with him? Like the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, does God allow bad things to happen as a wake-up call for us all – to bring us to our senses?
  3. From your understanding of God, do you think he will find it in his heart to do anything to save us from the judgment we deserve? (The answer is found in the judge he has appointed. It will be God’s day but the judge will be one of us – a man whose name we know: Jesus Christ.)
  4. Why does Paul assure us that the day of God’s judgement will occur by saying that the one who will judge us has been raised from the dead?
  5. So, what do you reckon we should do? (Prepare for the day when we will all stand before Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, revealed in all his majestic power, purity and glory.)
  6. How then should we prepare? (Repent of our willful attempts of self-glory and failure to honor him. It means a true and heartfelt repentance for my broken relationship with him and committing to change my life in a way that honors him.)
  7. Are you prepared? Do you pray for those who don’t yet know the Lord?

A personal confession. Dear Lord God, I know that I have turned my back on you and have not honored you as I should. I justly deserve your condemnation. Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, please forgive me and restore me. Turn my heart to love and honor what you command, enabling me to live for your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

A prayer for those who don’t yet believe. Merciful God, who created all men and women in your image and who hates nothing you have made, nor would have the death of a sinner, but rather that they should be converted and live; have mercy on all people everywhere and take from them all ignorance and hardness of heart and contempt of your Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to your flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of your ancient people, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Advent: The Right Questions’

‘Gospel-Led Regeneration: Questions…’

In his post, ‘Unherd’, on September 24, 2023, Peter Franklin comments on a new book, The Great Dechurching, by Jim Davis and Michael Graham (August, 2023). They observe that in recent years some 40 million Americans have stopped attending church.

Now it’s easy to say this is not surprising – perhaps because of the shocking abuses perpetrated in various churches, and also the trickle-down impact of the secular liberalism of influential universities, denying the existence of the divine.

However, it seems the reasons are not that simple. For example, Franklin observes that Davis and Graham comment that while it is most likely that young adults are staying away from church, ‘it is those with the most education in this cohort who are the least likely to quit’. Franklin also points out that the writers observe that ‘among people quitting evangelical churches, levels of conservative religious belief remain high’. They further comment that “evangelicals are dechurching at almost twice the pace on the right political flank than they are on the left”.

Significantly, Davis and Graham observe that of America’s absent evangelicals, “more than half […] are willing to come back right now”. To which Franklin comments, ‘They just need better churches.’ He also notes that ‘until then, there are millions of non-college-educated Americans whose religious and political views put them at odds with the secular liberal establishment, but who lack strong institutions of their own’.

Given the complexity of the American church-going scene, and with it, the reality that there is at least a Christian memory in the wider community, let me suggest that you may find it helpful to develop questions to ask family and friends over coffee. To that end you may find it useful to reflect on key points Paul the Apostle raised almost two millennia ago in the course of his address at the Areopagus in ancient Athens.

Responding to the questions amongst the Athenian intelligentsia who were asking, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’, Paul stood up and said: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22ff).

It was an ingenious opening to what is both a defense and presentation of God’s good news. Without quoting from the Bible yet drawing from what it reveals about God, he engaged with contemporary ideas within Greek thought.

So, let’s begin by identifying the first of Paul’s key points with a view to developing questions we might ask.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands,” Paul began. “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25).

The view that we live in a world that has been created by one God who is Lord of all was a very different worldview from the Epicureans in Paul’s audience. They believed in chance and the pursuit of pleasure. It was also very different from the pantheism of the Stoics and their stiff upper-lip approach to life. And today, it is a very different worldview from the Hindus, the Buddhists and scientific atheists who all reject the notion of a creator God.

Yet it is a worldview many esteemed scientists today support. For example, Charles Townes who won the Nobel prize for his discovery of the laser has stated: “In my view the question of origin seems always left unanswered if we explore from a scientific view alone. Thus, I believe there is a need for some religious or metaphysical explanation. I believe in the concept of God and in His existence” (quoted in Henry F. (Fritz) Schaefer, Science & Christianity, Conflict or Coherence? Third Edition, 2023, p.70).

The universe in which we live did not come into existence by random chance. There is a creator God and logically he can never go away. The Athenians reckoned that they were independent, free spirits, able to make their own decisions without reference to any God.

Nothing much has changed! But Paul won’t have any of it: God is the one who continues to sustain the life he has created. It’s absurd to think that he needs to be sustained by us. And yet we want to domesticate him. We build grand church buildings and put him in there. We don’t let him loose on the street let alone in our lives.

‘No!’ says Paul. ‘We depend on God, not he on us.’ “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25).

How important it is that we find ways to awaken family and friends to these profound truths – especially those who have stopped going to church.

Here are some questions you may want to explore:

  1. Do you agree that our capacity to deceive ourselves is endless? We tell ourselves that what we think must be true. But wanting a win in the lottery never created a win.
  2. Do you reckon that saying there is no creator God is a sign we have lost touch with reality and inhabit a dream world of our own?
  3. Would you prefer that God did your will and turned up only when you wanted him?
  4. What do think of Paul’s words?

More next week!

A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory: send your light and your truth so that we may both know and proclaim your word of life, to the glory of God the Father; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Advent: The Right Questions’

‘A Changing World: The Son of Man…’

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…” wrote Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887.

Human institutions and governments don’t give us grounds for optimism, for none is perfect. No matter how good or well intentioned, all are flawed. Is there any hope? Daniel says, Yes! In God alone – the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man, whose kingdom will endure forever.

In Daniel, chapter 7, verses 13 and 14 we read: As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel’s vision is of a powerful ruler who is not only without equal but whose reign will endure for ever. This ruler is called the Son of Man. In Hebrew the phrase is Ben Adam, son of Adam.

The expression could simply be a substitute for the personal pronoun ‘I’, as in the phrase, I am a man. It could also be a reference to the people of Israel; Hosea, chapter 11 refers to the people of Israel as God’s son. But there is something else: Son of Man was also used to refer to a king. Psalm 2 speaks of the king of Israel as a son of God.

Furthermore, when we turn to Matthew, Mark and Luke we find that Jesus often spoke of himself as the Son of Man. He used the phrase to refer to his humanity as in: ‘I am a son of Adam.’ He used it to indicate that he represented Israel.

However, most significantly he allowed himself to be acknowledged as the Messiah – God’s unique, anointed king.

He drew these ideas together at his trial when the High Priest, as Judge, asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed”. To which Jesus replied, “I am”.  He then surprised everyone by quoting Daniel 7 saying, “And you will see the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61).

Jesus is saying: ‘I am a not only a man, I am uniquely God’s Son and God’s King. One day you will see the truth of this.

What is amazing is that God gave Daniel a glimpse of this scene 600 or so years before Jesus walked on earth.

Reflect. The reading today alerts us to the reality of a world that chooses to live without God, spiraling ever downwards. On the other hand, it awakens us to the reality of the coming age, when Jesus is revealed in all his power and glory. It will be the age where righteousness and peace will reign, where all God’s people will reign with Christ in indescribable glory. So, let me ask, in what way does Daniel’s vision encourage you to be a biblical realist about the world scene now, and the glory yet to come?

You may find it helpful to read Daniel, chapter 7, Mark 14:53-65 and Revelation 21:1-8.

A Prayer. Almighty and eternal God, grant that we may grow in faith, hope, and love; especially make us love what you command so that we may obtain what you have promised; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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