C. S. Lewis once observed, ‘I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to “rejoice” as much as by anything else.’
Was he right? Is there real joy in our lives?
I am not talking about a manufactured, false kind of joy – putting on a brave face when we are anxious or when things go wrong in life. I am talking about, and I am sure Lewis was talking about, the deep joy that springs from a clear conscience.
The concluding verses of Psalm 32 read:
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Why should we be glad and rejoice? What might motivate us to shout for joy?
David wrote Psalm 32 following the humiliating exposure of his affair with Bathsheba. While he wrote it about himself we too can benefit, for if we are going to find the kind of joy that he is speaking about we need to attend to his words. Verses 1 and 2 read:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Freud told us that guilt is a psychological hang-up. But King David tells us that it is something objective, something real that stands between each one of us and our Maker. The God who rules the universe is not simply an impersonal force. He is a moral being, a holy judge.
However, we do not naturally lead godly lives, pray, trust God, and generally delight in honoring him. Our natural inclination is to try to cover up our sin, thinking of our failures as foibles and misdemeanors. So, we often compromise on issues we know are wrong, calling it tolerance; we slide into godlessness, thinking we are free.
In Psalm 32 King David is telling us that when we ignore God we offend him. This is one of the tough words of Christianity. Malcolm Muggeridge, a former editor of the English Punch magazine put it this way: The depravity of man is at once the most unpopular of all dogmas, but the most empirically verifiable.
Forgiveness. The only safe way, the only permanent way, to deal with guilt is to have it washed away. And there is only one person in the world with the cleansing power needed to erase such stains – the Lord himself. David knew this: Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
We have a far better knowledge of the truth of David’s words because we live on the other side of the cross of Jesus Christ. Christ died for our sins, the apostle Paul wrote. And it is Psalm 32 that he quotes in Romans 4:6-8 where he argues that God, in his mercy, declares an amnesty for sinners who turn to him in faith. We are saved by grace alone, not by any intrinsic good within us or by any good works we have done.
Reason for joy. Too often our lack of joy comes because we have not been honest with God and opened our hearts to him. We have not truly grasped that in Christ our sins are washed away and that each day we can enjoy a fresh start in life.
Writing in The Spectator magazine last Saturday, Dr Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi in the UK, said, “I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists….
Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche?”
I want to add, ‘And where is the serious attention that previous generations paid to the account of the most remarkable man in history – the man who, as HG Wells put is, dominates history?’
Luke the physician begins his account by setting out his own credentials as a reliable narrator. He tells us that he not only checked out current documents about Jesus, but that he verified the accuracy of his account with eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Luke 1:1-2). This is important for us to know: otherwise Luke was himself either deceived or deliberately deceiving us.
Luke 9 begins with Jesus’ commission to his twelve disciples to go and announce the coming of God’s kingdom. The outcome brought large crowds to Jesus who welcomed them. However, there was no food to feed them all and the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowds away.
However, they had forgotten part of Jesus’ commission when he sent them on their mission: they were to take no bread (provisions) or money with them. God would provide what they needed. It was yet another indication they had not really grasped who Jesus is, nor what he could do. Like us today, they were slow to understand and slow to trust.
Significantly, Jesus involved the disciples in what followed: they were to have the crowd of five thousand sit down in groups of fifty. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish…, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd (Luke 9:16). He was not reciting magic: he was simply doing what God’s people have always done before eating – took the bread and blessed it. He then had the disciples work with him in the distribution.
In looking up to heaven Jesus indicated that God provided the food. The miracle looked back to the time of Moses and God’s provision of manna for his people (Exodus 16:4-36). This feeding of the crowd also looked forward to the greatest of all banquets that God will one day give his people (Luke 14:15ff; Revelation 19:9). The crowds had done nothing to deserve this kindness and they had no way of reciprocating. It was an act of God’s extraordinary generosity.
The meal not only satisfied everyone, but an abundance was left over: twelve baskets of broken pieces (9:17). God in Jesus, had provided more food than was needed. The leftovers pointed to the trustworthiness of Jesus earlier charge the twelve not to take food or money on their mission. It is a significant lesson for us. Can we trust Jesus as the Lord who is committed to provide for our needs for as long as we need them? Don’t be anxious about what your life, what you will eat or your body, what you will put on, Jesus went on to say (Luke 12:22f); Your Father knows that you need them.
‘If God is great and good why is there so much suffering?’ is a question we often hear, especially when the topic of Christianity comes up. Certainly this is one of life’s tough questions that we all want answered. The reality of pain and suffering is probably one of the biggest reasons people give for rejecting the existence of God.
For the professing Christian person it’s one of the toughest, if not the toughest question to have to answer and, I have to say, there are no complete answers. It would be wrong to say that there are. So what can we say about this profound and perplexing subject? Let me briefly raise a number of points we can consider.
To use a simple Philosophy 101 syllogism, one line of argument often goes like this:
A God who is all-powerful would be able to end suffering and pain;
A God who is all-loving would want suffering and pain to cease;
BUT suffering and pain exist;
Therefore a God who is all powerful and all loving does not exist.
At first sight it seems to make a lot of sense. But consider the response by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga: A God who is all-powerful would be able to end suffering and pain;
A God who is all-loving would want suffering and pain to cease;
BUT suffering and pain exist;
Therefore a God who is all powerful and all loving has a bigger plan.
So, what is the larger picture that God has in mind? Is there any evidence for it? To answer this question it is helpful to see what the records about the life of Jesus have to say on the subject.
Luke 8:40-56 tells us of two sets of people faced with suffering and anguish – the first, a woman who had an incurable haemorrhage for twelve years; the second, a man whose twelve year-old daughter was dying. Both turned to Jesus for help. In him, both found the help they needed.
Jairus, a recognized synagogue ruler, was charged with ensuring that the law of Moses was taught and upheld. Yet, he made no claims to his position when he met with Jesus. Rather, he fell at Jesus’ feet, humbly asking for help. And when the sick woman interrupted Jesus’ progress to his house, Jairus did not object, despite his anxiety. He had a quiet confidence in Jesus. During the delay, news came that his daughter had died. With breathtaking confidence, Jesus urged him not to fear. Rather ‘believe’. His words underline a major theme in Luke 8. With Jesus the fear that grips us can give way to the release which faith allows.
Arriving at Jairus’s house, Jesus passed by the mourning and disbelieving crowds. Going to the girl’s bedside and taking her hand he said, ‘Child, arise.’ At that she rose and was given food.
Jesus’ miracles point to his real nature – he is truly God in human form. Furthermore, they are mini-portraits of the deeper blessings he offers our suffering world. He invites us all to lean on him in our time of need. He will not always remove our suffering now, but he does promise to be with us. He is also committed to providing a future where there will be no crying or pain.
HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, wrote:
I am an historian. I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.
Why would an unbeliever say that ‘Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history?’ What is it about Jesus of Nazareth that has captured the attention of great and lesser minds, from amongst all peoples? Is it the power of his words, the magnetism of his personality, the integrity of his life even in the face of the gross injustice perpetrated against him? Or is it his extraordinary feats, noted by contemporary historians such as Josephus?
There’s something we often overlook about the records about Jesus: they were not written by just one ‘recorder’ or even by Jesus himself. There are four distinct writers who tell us about him – Matthew and John, who were amongst the twelve, Mark who most likely obtained his information from Peter, another one of the twelve, and Luke, the physician, who assures us of his careful and thorough research. Given Jesus’ extraordinary power and compassion, his unique teaching and claims, this is important to know.
Consider the times when we feel helpless and alone. It may be that our job has gone or that there’s been an accident and a loved one has died. We are reminded of the times when men and women in Jesus’ life were afraid and utterly helpless.
On one occasion Jesus was crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat with his close followers (Luke 8:22-25). We are given a glimpse of the ‘private’ Jesus: he was so exhausted that he fell into a deep sleep. He had to be wakened when a massive storm threatened the lives of everyone on board.
Shallow and set between high hills, the Sea of Galilee is notorious for its sudden squalls. As every sailor knows, this can be extremely dangerous, for rapidly moving air streams can quickly cause the waters to rise, making them treacherous. Experienced fishermen though some of Jesus’ followers were, they were terrified of this major storm. They felt helpless. Afraid, they awoke the sleeping Jesus saying, “We are perishing.” Amazingly, at his command, the storm was stilled.
Luke wants us to feel the compelling reality of their cry for help: “We are perishing!” Yes, we too face times of fear and helplessness. But we have this assurance: whatever our situation is, Jesus, like the Good Shepherd he is, will hear us. Our helplessness can be changed into hopefulness. He is committed to using his vast resources to bring good out of the darkest moments of our life (Romans 8:28-30). We can be assured that we are never alone.
Luke would put to us the question that Jesus put to his disciples in the boat: “Where is your faith?”
By Thursday of each week I endeavor to have my sermon prep well under way. Since many New Yorkers are away over the weekend, especially over the summer, I thought it might be useful if I developed a ‘Thursday Thought’ each week. So here goes…
GOOD NEWS TRAVELS
If we’ve been looking for work, especially for some time, and we get a job, we want to let our friends know. If we’ve graduated from college, become engaged or become a parent, we want to pass on the good news.
So it is with what we believe. If our faith in Jesus Christ is real, we’ll want to let others know. Why is it that when people first come to understand who Jesus really is, they want to spread the news?
In a parable he told, Jesus likened the means of ‘spreading the word’ to ‘seed’. His analogy is helpful because it helps us see that a process is involved. Furthermore, it is instructive, because the emphasis is placed more upon the type of soils rather than the sower. The picture of the sower tells us that sowing needs to be done: God’s news needs to be spread.
However, the variety of ‘soils’ tells us that the results are not uniform. Some of the crop grew well, some poorly, some hardly at all.
Let’s think about this. People often assume that success in outreach is fundamentally a matter of methodology. It is the sower, not the soil who is more important. Package the message the right way and churches will be crawling with converts.
But that is to miss the point. The purpose of the seed, or the Word, is not so much to change one form of soil into another, rather it is to expose the quality of the soil. Spreading God’s good news, Jesus is saying, is not an exercise in human manipulation, it is a demonstration of the ways people receive God’s word.
This doesn’t mean God’s news shouldn’t be well presented. But Jesus is telling us that in the same way that it remains a mystery even to the modern farmer as to why seed changes and grows into a successful crop, so it remains hidden to our eyes as to why the word of God takes root in people’s lives and grows.
The reality is that when we declare the message of Jesus the responses vary enormously. In the end they depend, not so much on how we preach, but upon the attitudes of the people present.
All this raises the question of how we have received God’s news? Has the seed of God’s news about Jesus changed us? Is our relationship with Jesus such that we want to play our part in spreading the news?
Spreading the news can be as simple as inviting friends to church. The evidence shows that most people respond to God’s news because someone invited them to church.
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