Wednesday, 24 June 2009

plated with gold and silver or inhabited?

My attention was caught reading Habakkuk recently and his comments on idolatry. He describes the processes that were commonly used in creating an idol and ends with the comment; it is overlaid with gold and silver, Yet in it there is no breath at all. Hab 2:19 The Hebrew word used here and translated as 'breath' is the word ruwach, it can also be translated as 'wind' or 'spirit'. The thing that is without breath is without life and the thing that is without spirit-breath is without spirit-life. The description is used in contrast with a much better known verse; “But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” Hab 2:20. The heathen nations had magnificent temples, as did Israel, but beauty is not a sign that God inhabits the place. It may be 'overlaid with gold and silver' and yet be missing that vital breath which is God's spirit.

If we take a snapshot of the creation we would have a point at which God had 'formed (literally 'potted') man of the dust of the ground... Gen 2:7 and yet had not breathed life into him. If the creation had stopped at that point I presume the man would have been a magnificent work of art. God, after all, is the supreme craftsman. All the animals could have filed by and wondered at this supreme creation and yet there would be... no breath in it at all; that distinctive likeness of God would have been absent.

It is sobering to consider how much energy and time and talent we can put into a methodology for worship only to create something in which there is no breath at all.

There is another comment that Habakkuk makes about the idol; he calls it a silent stone.Hab 2:19 Again it serves as a reminder that we can put so much energy and planning into the creation of a place where we expect God to speak only to discover we have created a silent stone.

In contrast the Lord is in his holy temple Hab 2:20.He is present in the midst of his people. Oh what a difference it makes when the Lord is in a place. It may have little earthly beauty and yet be vibrant with the life of God. The sermons may have little to commend them as works of art and yet the voice of God is heard in them.

There were many competing gods in the times of Israel's history but Israel's God had one simple distinguishing feature... he was, and is, the living God.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The strength of walls and those who guard them

This blog has been provoked by watching a video one of my sons published on YouTube. He spent two years based in China and much of his break time exploring and photographing the Endless Wall. You can see the video here but it is the final quote which captured my imagination. It is from the war-lord Genghis Khan "The strength of walls depends upon the courage of those who guard them." You will need to watch the video to see the point of the quotation.

City walls were important in ancient times and meant the difference between chaos and security. The first city builder was Cain, who built a city in direct defiance of God's instruction; Gen 4:12,17. He build it because he felt vulnerable. We still tend to build 'walls' when we feel vulnerable! The writer of Proverbs commented on the way a rich man uses his wealth to create his own self-made security; Prov 18:11. The wise man put his faith in the name of the LORD, as the previous verse tells us Prov 18:10, but the 'rich fool' puts his confidence in his own resources. Such man-made walls, like China's Endless Wall, are doomed to ultimate failure.

The image of the security that walls bring, however, is a familiar Bible metaphor. We create structures to our days and lives and churches to act as a defence against the invader. We build our walls thinking that our central 'doctrinal truth' will be safe behind the walls of our denominational creed. My son's video comments that China's walls were built... to keep the barbarians out, to keep the people in, and to keep the soldiers busy. He comments that 'all of them failed'. They always do, and our doctrinal and denominational walls,which are often build for the same three reasons also fail... for the same reasons. And it is the reason given in the strange Genghis Khan quote, the strength of walls ultimately depends upon the courage of those who guard them.

At the turn of the 6th Century BC, as Jerusalem's walls faced the hordes of Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet Isaiah gave a curious prophecy; I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; They shall never hold their peace day or night. You who make mention of the LORD, do not keep silent, Is 62:6 No doubt many who heard the words thought it was another promised of 'security for the chosen people and their city', but within a few short years Nebuchadnezzar's battering rams had breached the walls of Jerusalem, and left the 'doctrinal faith' of its inhabitants as a burning ruin.

Did God fail in his promise? or had the promise always had another dimension? As Luther's hymn boldly declared 'the city of God remaineth'. But Luther wasn't thinking about the earthly Jerusalem but about a city which is a metaphor for God's people remaining safe in the will of God, in spite of all attacking barbarians. It is these walls and these 'guardians' of the wall that God has in mind. He calls them 'watchmen', says that he has appointed them to their posts, and that they will continue to pray 'day and night'. It is in the hands of these 'guards of the wall' that the purposes of God rest, not in doctrinal walls and denominational safeguards but in intercessors who will 'not be silent, but who will lift their prayer to God day and night.

Has God appointed you to such a post? We need you to stand your ground now as much as at any time in the history of Christianity. Don't waste your energies on building man-made walls to keep the invaders out and the faithful in, lift your heart to God and pray. Ultimately the safety of the 'city' will not depend on the strength of the walls but upon the courage of those who guard them.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Christ, the centre or a fashion accessory?

The amounts of money that go into advertising prove one thing at least; the manufacturers believe it. We may laugh or groan at the adverts but commercial experts don’t throw their money away; they know that folk are affected by what they see and hear. One, not so subtle, aspect of advertising is the attempt to create a ‘must have’ product. Apple have just about achieved this with their iPod; that trailing white cable is the way to go. If you want to be part one of the in-crowd you just can’t afford to have another kind of mp3 player.

Jesus once made a very strong statement about the things we acquire. He said, "Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. Life is not measured by how much one owns." (Luke 12) That strikes against some fundamentals of our modern culture. Our culture says that identity is made up of key brands and that to be without those brands defines the kind of person I am. Christ says it doesn’t.

Just how do we measure a life? Income, career, potential, job satisfaction? “Get a life.” they say, but they seldom define ‘life’. I knew a businessman who had a cute message on his answering machine. It simply said “Who are you and what do you want?”, then it paused a while and added “…some people spend their whole lifetime answering these two questions.” Have you ever tried to answer the question ‘who are you?’ “I’m a student.” Fine, but is that who you are? “I’m the daughter of a doctor, a coal miner, a tv star…” Fine, but is that who you are? Mind you, this isn’t a new problem. About 3000 years ago a teenager lay on his back looking up at the stars and asked, “what is man, that You think of him, the son of man that You care for him?” (Psalm 8)

Some folks, when they feel their ‘life’ is inadequate try to improve it with all kinds of additions; friends, cars, clothes, gadgets. There is a devastating series of lines in an old Graham Kendrick song telling the story of a man whose life has just settled down into a typical modern rut. Stuck in front of the TV he is described as…
He has his armchair fantasies, adventures, realities,

Courtesy of the TV companies,

Though he no longer seems to know which of his lives is real.

There must be happier lives,

because he’s often seen them advertised.

They come free with the things you buy.

At least, that is the lie he likes to believe.

…and all this long before and facebook!

Some folk even try the solution of ‘adding religion’ to make life worthwhile. Some even try to ‘add’ Christ to the deadly mix of fashion accessories, but Christ is not ‘add on’ and any ‘christ’ which can be ‘added on’ is not the real Christ. In one of Paul’s wonderful descriptions of the Son of God he simply describes him as ‘the beginning’. (Colossians 1:18) A beginning can never be an ‘add on’, a beginning has to be the first thing.

Christ once described the way that people responded to the things he said to them. Some, he said, just made ‘truth’ an ‘add on’. They just added a little truth to what they already had. “When the storm came,” said Jesus, “it was all wiped out.” But there was another kind of listener and doer, someone who dug down to the bedrock and with that as the foundation built their house. “When the storm came.” said Jesus, “that house stood the test.”

Here’s our question then, Is Christ the beginning, the foundation of our life, the bedrock? Or is he little more than a religious fashion accessory? I remember an old man teaching me how to pack a case. You put the big thing in first, he said, and the other things will usually fit around it. If you put all the other things in first, there’s seldom room for the big thing. Don’t try to fit Christ into your busy life, get those priorities sorted.

(this was originally written for a youth page a couple of years ago)

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Eating into your capital?

It's one of the fears that older folks have as they see their careful preparations for retirement coming under pressure from current financial crises. Their carefully acquired bank balance is beginning to dwindle.

It's one of the fears that some Christians have too. The idea that God's new start or new birth sets them up with a supply of 'capital' which every failure eats into. This is why Jeremiah's discovery is so encouraging; This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’S mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!” Lam 3:21-24

He has seen God's supply of patience apparently exhausted and the judgements are falling on Jerusalem. All the 'capital' promises seem to have run their course and the nation is bankrupt. The 'everlasting' promises of the Temple, the Priesthood and the Davidic dynasty seem to be 'spent' but in the midst of his overwhelming sorrow Jeremiah 'recalls' something to mind and it brings him hope; it is only because of the Lord's mercies that he has survived at all.

'Mercies' is chesed. It is a word translators sometimes struggle with. It can mean something like 'covenant loyalty' or 'steadfast love' or 'loving kindness'. This was the kind of 'kindness' that David wanted to show to Mephibosheth; Then the king said, “Is there not still someone of the house of Saul, to whom I may show the kindness of God?” 2 Sam 9:3 That 'covenant love' guaranteed Mephibosheth a place at the king's table for this rest of his life.

Jeremiah discovered something else about God's 'mercies' or 'compassions'; they come fresh every morning. God's covenant mercy is not a fixed fund of mercy that is eaten away by our need; it is replenished 'every morning'. How can we 'eat into our capital' if God keeps 'topping it up'? It is as though every morning he re-sets all the dials. Just think of it, an inexhaustible supply of covenant mercy!

My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

If we are willing to confess our sins and acknowledge our need of God's mercy we may come daily to breakfast with the king with confidence that all his supply has today's date; he that he will gladly give us 'our daily bread'.