‘Unexpected Power…’

‘Unexpected Power…’

With the geo-political upheavals the world is experiencing many fear what the future holds. The uncertainty today is exacerbated by the angry divisions within societies. Vindictiveness has replaced respectful and serious conversation. And we can feel utterly powerless when it comes to talking about our faith.

In Perelandra, the second in CS Lewis’ science-fiction trilogy, Ransom, the main character, feels powerless in confronting an evil force at work on the untainted planet Venus. The crafty subtle evil power reflects the temptations in Genesis 3. Despite being a learned scholar in philology, Ransom constantly finds himself defeated in his arguments. What could he do?

This raises an important question for us, for today people have no knowledge of the Jesus of the Gospels. So subtle and persistent has been the attack on Christianity they are not looking to the Christian faith for answers. It is time to review our approach?.

Come with me to a parable Jesus told – the parable of the sower. It begins in Luke chapter 8, verse 4. When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’… ‘Now the parable is this,’ Jesus explained: ‘The seed is the word of God.’

Expectations. People travelled from near and far to see Jesus. Expectations were rising. It would have been a great time for him to call people to join him in a march on Jerusalem to set Israel free from Rome. But that was not God’s way.

We need to focus on the key to the parable: “…The seed is the word of God” (verse 11).

Causes and revolutions are staged by various means. Last century Marxists brought in Communism at the end of a gun. This century began, as we were reminded on 9/11, with Islamist extremists trying to de-stabilise and destroy through terrorism. In Jesus’ day zealots tried to revive Jewish independence through guerrilla warfare.

But these are not Jesus’ methods. The picture he paints is of a farmer quietly sowing seed. The Word of God he is saying, has within its DNA the capacity to change people’s lives for good. At first the transformation is hidden but there comes a day when the change is obvious.

Churches today have often lost confidence in the power of God’s Word to change lives. So, many churches focus on the sacraments, and others on social justice. But to make these things the priority is to lose sight of the way God works. God’s Word is the key that unlocks the door into God’s kingdom and therefore to life.

In Second Timothy chapter 3, verses 16 and 17 we read: All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

As the Word of God, the Scriptures give us exclusive information about salvation. They don’t contain exhaustive truth, but what they give us is sufficient for our rescue and furthermore, for living as God’s people.

In the larger context of Second Timothy, Paul reminds us that we live in a world that prefers to find or invent its own religion. He tells us that our only real hope for life and meaning is to turn to God’s unique self-revelation. Human resources won’t provide deep and satisfying answers. Our sure hope is in dependence on the resources of the living God.

To return to the parable in Luke chapter 8, Jesus warns us that the results of sowing the seed of God’s Word aren’t uniform. Some of the crop grows well, some poorly, some hardly at all. The results are not so much caused by bad sowing but rather because of some failure in the ground. We could call this parable the parable of the four soils.

One group, having heard God’s Word have hardened hearts through the silent, crafty work of the power of evil. A second group receive God’s Word with joy, but in times of testing fall away. They had liked the preacher but there had been no true repentance, no real change in their lives. A third group have also heard God’s Word, but they have not counted the cost of commitment. They were not convicted of their sin and their need to turn to Christ in repentance. They had come as customers to buy, not as disciples to surrender.

But then Jesus speaks of a fourth group. They are true followers of Christ who hold fast to God’s Word with an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. Perseverance in godly living is the sign of God’s grace at work. A real lesson here is the encouragement we can experience in the ministry of disciple-making and outreach.

Jesus’ references to birds, stones, and thorns could easily demoralise us. But he is saying, ‘Don’t be put off. Be realistic, yes. But the ministry of God’s Word will always have its successes, and what success that will be!’ So, let’s be encouraged. Let’s not forget Jesus’ words: “I will build my church, and nothing will prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

And most of all, remember the key to ministry is letting God’s Word do its work.

A prayer.  Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, encouraged and supported by your holy Word, we may embrace and always hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

‘Unexpected Power…’

‘September 11 – Twenty Years On…’

Twenty years ago Judith and I were living three short blocks south of the Twin Towers in Downtown Manhattan. We had awakened that Tuesday morning to clear blue skies and the sparkling waters of New York Harbor. But it was not to last.

We felt the shock when the first tower was hit from the north. We heard the scream of the second jet flying low overhead and what sounded like a sonic boom when the south tower was hit. We experienced the shaking of our apartment building, similar to that of an earthquake, and the midnight darkness when the first tower collapsed. We saw the dust, the ash and the paper on the streets and felt the eerie silence when we were later able to leave our building. Lower Manhattan was like a moonscape. A great evil occurred that day.

Twenty years on it is easy to put aside the hideous acts that cut short the lives of people going about their daily affairs. It is easy to forget that commercial airliners were used as missiles to crash into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A further flight intended for more destruction was thwarted by the selfless heroic efforts of passengers. People on that flight prayed the Lord’s Prayer as the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Over three thousand men and women died that day.

In his address to the nation that evening, George W. Bush, then President, called for prayers for all who had lost loved ones. He continued: And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

In the Wall Street Bible talks I was giving at the time, I spoke on Psalm 46 which begins: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Creation in turmoil. It can never be said that the Bible knows nothing about catastrophic events – and not least human evil and its devastating effects on this world. Indeed, the Psalm introduces a theme we overlook today – namely, the ultimate dissolution of the present world order by its Creator. God continues his work even in the midst of the chaos. God’s supremacy and presence with his people is never thwarted. He alone is our security and our strength.

The larger biblical epic records the intrusion of evil into God’s good creation (Genesis 3). God didn’t create evil but, because he didn’t make us robots, he allowed it. However, as the biblical narrative unfolds, we become aware of the reality and the depth of wickedness.

As a side note, if we insist we’re here by chance and are nothing but atoms in an ordered cohesion bumping around in time and space, evil and suffering have no meaning for there is no transcendental moral compass.

The opening lines of Psalm 46 speak of the unchanging God who is our refuge and strength. In him alone we find a secure shelter and the power within to address any situation. Indeed, verses 2 and 3 exhort us not to fear, even if the world around us is undone, for God remains supreme over every facet of his creation – the earth, the mountains, and the seas.

Humanity in turmoil. Psalm 46 moves from the upheaval of the material world to human turmoil. There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God….God is the midst of the city; it will not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.

Derek Kidner comments that ‘the city of God is one of the great themes of the Old Testament … God’s choice of Zion, or Jerusalem, had been as striking as his choice of David, and the wonder of if keeps breaking through’ (Kidner, Psalms, Vol.1, p.175). We also find glimpses anticipating the New Testament vision of the heavenly Jerusalem as the community of God’s people rather than as a place (Ps.48:2).

Verse 6 speaks of the instability of evil and human tumult: The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter… However, God has the last word for when he utters his voice, the earth melts. Verse 7 is so reassuring: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Lord of hosts points to the mighty armies of heaven to which Jesus alluded when he was arrested (Matthew 26:53). Refuge, a different to word to verse 1, speaks of an ‘inaccessible height’ which the New English Bible translates as our high stronghold.

Be still! Verses 8 and 9 are an invitation to catch the vision of God’s ultimate intention – to make wars to cease to the end of the earth. It is a picture of the perfect peace that will follow on the other side of God’s judgement – the accounting that precedes the perfect righteousness of the new heaven and the new earth (2 Peter 3:12f).

The command “Be still” is not so much a word of comfort to the beleaguered but a command to all the nations. Jesus’ word to the turbulent winds and waters, “Peace. Be still” display the power of God’s Word. Mind-bending though the idea is, at God’s command the nations will be called to order, confronted by God’s glorious power: “Know that I am God! I will be exalted among the nations … and in the earth” (46:10).

In the closing words, the confidence in God in verse 1 returns with greater power: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge – our high stronghold! The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ confirm the truth and trustworthiness of these words.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 twenty years ago, churches were filled as many looked for comfort and hope. Some came to the risen Lord Jesus Christ for the first time. As we reflect on these events twenty years on, will you join with me in praying for the nations, especially that God might open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears, turning hard hearts towards their true home in Christ?

Let me encourage you to join us via the net to discover how you can turn the pages of John’s Gospel with your friends through Word121 (www.word121.com):

  • Friday morning, October 22 for ministers and ministry staff;
  • Saturday morning, October 23 for lay-leaders and church members.

Details to come this week.

Prayer. We commend to your fatherly care, merciful God, all those who in this passing world are in any kind of trouble, sorrow, sickness, anxiety or need, especially we pray for…  Give them patience and confidence in your goodness, and in your mercy provide their every need. Father, hear our prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We praise your name for all your servants in whose life and death Christ has been honored. Grant that, encouraged by the good examples of their lives, we may run the race that is set before us, and with them share the fullness of joy at your right hand; through Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Amen.

‘Unexpected Power…’

‘Where is Our Hope…?’

With the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS-K and the prospect of renewed acts of terrorism, we wonder what the future holds. Judith and I were living in close proximity to the Twin Towers, Downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001.

Psalm 146:3 says: Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to the earth;…

What a warning! Princes refers to people of influence and power. The psalm is telling us that humanly speaking, we will never find long-term answers to our deepest desires – our security and our future. And yet, in a world that has turned its back on God, is our only hope found in the decisions and achievements of influential men and women?

It is significant that in Isaiah chapter 32, verse 5 we find a deeper layer of the theme, put not your trust in princes. Isaiah warns us that the fool, one who denies God, will no more be called noble. And there is an even more sombre meaning when we consider God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19: “… You shall return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. It’s all rather depressing.

But the warning in Psalm 146 comes in the context of a big picture of God, for this is the first of the cluster of five psalms that conclude The Book of Psalms. Each of these psalms opens and closes with one Hebrew word: Hallelujah.

Hallelujah brings together two Hebrew words: Hallel a verb meaning praise, and Jah which is a contraction of the word for God – Jehovah or Yahweh. Put together they form a command to everyone: Praise the Lord.

This is the context of the warning in Psalm 146. No matter how powerful or rich, impressive or influential someone might be, they are still only human. The paths of human power and glory are transient for they always lead to the grave.

Despite the passing of the centuries Psalm 146 has lost none of its relevance. Only one person is worthy of our unconditional trust: the Lord God Almighty.

Which brings us to the second theme of the Psalm: Blessing.

In verse 5 we read: Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,… We put our trust in the God of good news.

And as the psalm continues to unfold, the focus is on God as creator, his faithfulness and his justice, his love and his commitment to give us life and hope.

The notion of a creator God is aggressively dismissed today on social media and by opinion-shapers. Yet some of the finest scientific minds agree that we are not here by chance. The universe is the work of a supreme intelligence.

For example, Dr. John Lennox writes in God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? ‘To the majority of those who have reflected deeply and written about the origin and nature of the universe, it has seemed that it points beyond itself to a source which is non-physical and of great intelligence and power’.

Furthermore, God is truly the God of good news. In verses 7 and 8 we read: …who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;.. He opens the eyes of the blind. He lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, and the righteous, as well as the sojourners or immigrants, the widow and the fatherless (verse 9), are the recipients of God’s help.

The flow of the sentence tells us that these are not different groups of people, but the same people. It speaks of God’s people as a whole. The righteous are those who are righteous by faith. They don’t put their trust in the influential or powerful. They put their trust in the God who is faithful, the God who has good news to offer, the God who offers hope and a future.

Now the psalmist is not saying that there is no place for human agencies. That’s not his point. His question is: ‘Where do you put your trust – in human princes or in God?’

When we open our minds and hearts to God, whose beauty and love are now perfectly revealed for us in Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, we will find Hallelujah rising to our lips again and again. We will find that whatever our song of experience was in the past, it can now finish with Hallelujah, the heartfelt song of praise, of hope and of joy, to the one true God.

Consider the biblical richness of the hymn from Keith and Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa:

‘What is our hope in life and death? Christ alone, Christ alone. What is our only confidence? That our souls to him belong.

‘Who holds our days within his hands? What comes, apart from his command? And what will keep us to the end? The love of Christ in which we stand! …

‘What truth can calm the troubled soul? God is good. God is good. Where is his grace and goodness known? In our great redeemer’s blood.

‘Who holds our faith when fears arise? Who stands above the stormy trial? Who sends the waves that brings us nigh, unto the shore, the rock of Christ? …

‘Unto the grave, what will we sing? Christ, he lives: Christ, he lives! And what reward will heaven bring? Everlasting life with him.

There we will rise to meet the Lord. Then sin and death will be destroyed. And we will feast in endless joy when Christ is ours for evermore!

‘O sing, Hallelujah! Our hope springs eternal. O sing, Hallelujah! Now and ever we confess, Christ our hope in life and death.’

You can listen to this timely hymn at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OibIi1rz7mw

To return to Psalm 146: The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

A prayer: O God, the author and lover of peace, in knowledge of whom stands our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; defend us your servants in all assaults of our enemies, that surely trusting in your defense, we may not fear the power of any adversaries, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘Unexpected Power…’

‘Spiritual Conflict…?’

In his Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis says that there are two equal and opposite errors that people fall into regarding the dark powers. One mistake is to disbelieve in their existence, the other is to believe in them to excess.

In Ephesians 6:10-12, Paul the Apostle writes: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power… For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…

Paul takes the reality of conflict in the world to another level: ‘our struggle’, literally, ‘our wrestling’, is not so much against ‘flesh and blood’ but ‘principalities and powers’. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul speaks of the day when all things, ‘in heaven’ and ‘on earth’ will be brought under the rule of Jesus Christ. However, as we read in chapter 6, for the present there’s a war between the two spheres of darkness and light.

Spiritually speaking, God’s people live in enemy occupied territory. The epic that the Gospels reveal and Ephesians 2:4-7 picks up, is that the true king of the universe slipped into our world without fanfare to rescue people enslaved by the dark powers. As Jesus said to Pilate, he could have brought a great and powerful army (John 18:36) but, knowing that only he could defeat the prince of darkness, he came alone. At great personal cost his mission was accomplished. His resurrection authenticates this.

However, for the present the dark powers, although mortally wounded, continue to do their worst, attempting to destroy God’s sure plan to glorify his people.

Against this background we learn from Ephesians 6:10 that God’s people are caught up in a spiritual conflict as individuals and together. It is here that we are often naïve, thinking that people are the only obstacle to spiritual progress in the world. No, Paul warns. There are formidable supernatural forces at work – powers that will not respond to reason. We are in a spiritual conflict that involves dark powers and human choices.

Put on the whole armor of God, we read in verse 13, so that you may be able to stand your ground. There will be times when the dark forces press us morally – everybody’s doing it; sometimes they press us intellectually – you’re too clever for that; sometimes they press us psychologically – your faith is so intolerant; and sometimes we are physically persecuted. The aim is always the same: to silence God’s people.

Stand firm, Paul says. Be alert. Don’t give in. Put on the inner protection of a godly life-style. Our loins need to be girded with God’s truth; we need a breastplate of righteousness; our feet need to be shod with the commitment to spread the gospel of peace, and we need the headpiece of salvation. Our lives are most at risk when our inner defenses are broken through. We need the qualities of integrity, of righteousness, of gospel readiness, and the deep assurance of God’s ultimate victory.

The dark powers will do their worst to discredit our integrity, prevent gospel outreach through lethargy and infighting, and demoralize us by discouraging us.

And so we need protection – the shield of faith with which we can quench the flaming darts of darkness. We can’t cope on our own. We need to trust Christ, for when we do, the darts of darkness will fall useless. ‘The victory that overcomes the world,’ John tells us, ‘is our faith’ (1 John 5:4).

The sword of the spirit. While Paul hasn’t spelled out the meaning of his metaphors up to this point, he wants us to know that the sword is the Word of God. Unlike communism or any other -ism or ideology, there is no place in Christianity for a literal holy war. God’s new society is not brought in by act of Congress, still less at the end of gun.

The Word of God is not a message of the freedom fighters, but one that focusses on personal repentance and God’s forgiveness. The victory of God’s Word will have eternal outcomes.

PrayerPray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints… (Ephesians 6:18).

In any battle, communication is vital. For God’s people prayer is our field telegraph. So Paul urges us to pray constantly, to persevere in prayer, and to be vigilant in prayer. We are to pray in the Spirit.

Romans 8:26f helps us understand this, for Paul tells us there that the Spirit works with us in our prayer. In the midst of suffering we’re often at a loss to know what we should say. In those times, Paul says, the Spirit comes to our aid, putting our inarticulate thoughts into meaningful prayer, speaking to God on our behalf.

God’s work is continuing to make inroads on the kingdom of darkness. When Jesus stood on the hills of ancient Israel with a handful of his followers, he said, ‘On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not stand against it’. His words were spoken to humble, un-influential men.

Christ is the legitimate ruler of this universe. Nothing in all creation will prevent the return of God’s King.

As we move towards a new season, let’s hold on to the shield of faith, wield the word of God with greater confidence, and most of all, pray – for one another and for others – that we will stand firm, not failing to live under God’s gospel, nor failing to take his gospel to those around us. Have you checked out: www.word121.com?

A prayer. 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 forever. Amen.

‘Unexpected Power…’

‘Spirit Filled…?’

How are we to reach a world that insists there are no absolutes? In his recently released, Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World, Dr. Greg Sheridan comments, ‘Popular culture has turned against God, especially against the Christian churches, and pretty often against Christians themselves, over the last 50 years’ (p.171).

In Ephesians, chapter 5 verse 15, Paul the Apostle says to every generation of God’s people: Be careful how you live, not as unwise but as wise,…

Commenting on these words, FF Bruce notes that Paul’s readers are ‘a small minority, and because of their distinctive ways, their lives will be scrutinized by others: the reputation of the gospel is bound up with their public behavior. Hence the need for care and wisdom, lest the Christian cause should be inadvertently jeopardized by thoughtless speech or action on the part of Christians’ (The Epistles to the Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians, p.378).

Significantly Paul continues in Ephesians chapter 5, verse 15, …making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil. Don’t be foolish. Understand what the Lord’s will is.

We all know how time flies. Paul knew this too: ‘Learn to use it well,’ or ‘Buy up the present opportunity’, he says. We need to understand that although God has opened a door for men and women to enter the new era of his kingdom of light, the present age continues to be shrouded in darkness. The toppling of a democratically elected government in Myanmar and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, are just two examples. How much we need to pray for peoples everywhere where there is injustice, and especially for God’s people who face persecution for their faith in Christ.

Our awareness of the injustices around us should prompt us to understand God and his will. He has not simply wound the spring of his creation but is personally and vitally committed to rescue the lost. ‘To buy up the present opportunity’ involves, not only our living a new life as God’s people, but also our witness. For the present time has an end – a terminus ad quem. God will draw together all his people from throughout time to himself and close the great doors of the new era on this present age.

And, if you are beginning to think that all this is heavy and burdensome and rather joyless, it’s time to take in verses 18 through 20. Paul begins: Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,…

The Spirit of God is not a fluid with which we may be filled up. Rather, as Paul points out in Romans chapter 8 verse 9, when we turn to Christ, the Spirit of Christ takes up residence within us. So, instead of being under the influence of alcohol we are to be under the influence of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Christ within us.

Paul’s contrast here is striking. Alcohol can lead to drunkenness and debauchery, dehumanizing us. We become the reverse of what we were meant to be — no longer the glory of God’s creation, made in his image, but beasts. On the other hand, Paul is saying, when the Spirit of God fills our lives, he enables us to live and run as God’s people with love and joy in our hearts.

Two interesting exhortations follow – singing and thanksgiving.

Singing. Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,… singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts… (5:19).

We don’t often think about the reality that the earliest churches expressed their joy in music and singing. The Psalms were their hymn book. FF Bruce also points out that one of the ancient testimonies – Pliny’s report of antiphonal singing ‘to Christ as God’ – has a bearing on two aspects of this verse: the singing is antiphonal, ‘addressing one another’, and is offered ‘to the Lord’.

This tells us that amongst God’s people, from the earliest times, praise has been offered alike to God and to Christ. One of the ways we worship God and build relationships with one another is through singing God’s truth.

Emotions are a very important part of our makeup. When the Spirit of God is at work in us our singing will have the rich sound that comes from people who have that deep joy which comes from knowing their God.

Thanksgiving: Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ  (5:20).

Nothing brings about tension and division more than ingratitude. To have a thankful spirit is to accept the situation in which you find yourself in the loving providence of God. A thankful heart trusts God, not just in good times, but also in tough times. Thankful people know that in every situation God is working out his good purposes for them – as we read in Romans 8:28-30. Thankful people are more likely to be happy people, because they know the Lord is in control.

God’s ‘spirit-filled’ people who display a great sense of indebtedness to his grace, are people who know peace, harmony and joy.

Be filled with the Spirit … addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,… singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts; … always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ

Here we have a response to the cacophony of voices of our day – voices of people who know not love and joy and peace, because they have not yet found the God who loves them with a greater love than they ever dreamed.

Don’t be drunk with wine; don’t be afraid. Rather, be filled with the Spirit and sing songs and hymns with gratitude to God in your hearts.

A prayer. Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your holy word. May it be a lantern to our feet, a light to our paths, and strength to our lives. Take us and use us to love and serve all people in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.