Monday, 27 July 2009

The embodiment of an answered prayer

Only the brave will read any further after that title!

Psalm 22 changes its mood dramatically in the middle. Save Me from the lion’s mouth And from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me. Psa 22:21 NKJV The last half would more accurately be translated as 'you have heard me'. The first half of the Psalm is dark and brooding. It speaks of the real 'passion' or suffering of Christ. Not Mel Gibson's version which just concentrated on the physical side but on the real inner suffering of Christ's death. He was conscious that in bearing sin he was suffering 'separation' from his Father. The dramatic description that follows the cry of 'Why has thou forsaken me?' speaks of a terrible battle that was raging on the inside, hidden from all eyes and cameras.

Suddenly at verse 21 the mood changes from the horror of separation to the joy of future hope and the watershed is the phrase 'you have heard me'. At this point in time Christ knew that the price was paid and the battle won. His cry of victory 'it is finished' bears witness to that. But what had been 'heard'? and why would the scripture use this language? The victory was not gained in some underworld as some have taught but there while he was still impaled to the cross on the horns of the wild aurochs.

Christ's death was not a tragedy or a cosmic accident, it was the cornerstone of salvation. It was a pouring out of his life to provide the legal foundation for all forgiveness from God. As the old Wesley hymn has it 'justice divine was satisfied'. Isaiah had prophesied this and spoken of the battle that would be won at Calvary and the means by which God would bring forgiveness and salvation to men and women; Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors. Is 53:12 NKJV It's there again the image of the work on the cross being 'an intercession for transgressors'. His poured out life was the propitiation, the price paid, to make reconciliation possible.

This prayer was heard and the proof of that is the resurrection. Proof positive that the prayer was heard and the sacrifice accepted; Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up both supplications and entreaties to him who was able to save him out of death, with strong crying and tears; Heb 5:7 DRBY That version goes on to say 'he was heard'.

In its powerful images the Bible declares that Christ still bears the marks of his wounds in heaven. He is 'in place' as the person in whom this great prayer was heard. Our access to God is because we have a legal representative who can 'speak' to the Father on our behalf. His moment by moment intercession is not so much in terms of myriads of individual prayers but in the fact that his presence 'in heaven for us' is the great symbol of a prayer that was answered once and for all and which will always guarantee us access if we leave all the 'pleading' to him; 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 NKJV

Friday, 24 July 2009

Dear Diognetus...

"Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred."

Did the style of that seem a little archaic? No wonder, it was written somewhere around 130 AD by an anonymous Christian writing to an 'interested pagan' who is named as Diognetus; it is, in the language of our day, 'seeker-friendly'. It is usually called the Epistle to Diognetus and is a fascinating document. The letter is remarkable for its gentleness. This is not abrasive' in-your-face evangelism' but shows a genuine readiness to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience... 1 Pet 3:15-16 NKJV It is not a long letter and well worth reading, it's more in the style of a gentle evangelistic tract. Perhaps we should write some tracts like this?

For this blog I am more interested in the description, in italics above, of the Christian attitude to the world and culture in which we live. They live here as 'sojourners'. That's an archaic word now but it simply means someone who isn't staying, they are just passing through; you can see the French word for 'day' in the middle of it. These 'citizens' were living the same kind of cultural experience as those around them, but they weren't staying. It's that theme of 'pilgrims' again. The word 'pilgrim' draws our attention to the fact that he is on a journey, the word 'sojourner' draws attention to the fact that he is not settling down. They are the opposite sides of the same coin.

For the early Christians this was their prevailing world-view. Writing a little earlier at the turn of the first century Clement, an elder in the church in Rome, wrote to the church in Corinth. I am always thrilled with the opening sentence of his letter; The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied. It's that same persistent theme that shaped the thinking and ambitions of the early Christians. Like Abraham of old, they had their eyes fixed on another city; ...he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Heb 11:10 ESVS

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Good morning, pilgrim

When I was a teenager and an Anglican I went on a pilgrimage. It was to St Chad's Cathedral in Lichfield and was designed to give folks in the parishes a sense of belonging to the 'mother' church. Nowadays if someone uses the language of pilgrimage we usually think in terms of Eastern religions or Catholicism. Even the old hymn about 'being a pilgrim' is hardly ever sung now. And yet it is a thoroughly Bible idea... not a pilgrimage to 'holy places' but the idea of life being a journey to a specific destination.

I remember while preparing for my teenage pilgrim finding a verse in which Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is. Jacob's answer captured my thoughts for a long time; And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are one hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.” Gen 47:9 NKJV Jacob regarded his life as a pilgrimage and knew that a pilgrim lives by 'days' rather than years. The Hebrew word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament and usually translated as 'strangers'.

Centuries later when Peter wrote to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor he had the same kind of thoughts in mind; Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect pilgrims of a Diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 1 Pet 1:1 (This is my own translation) Many Bible commentaries will tell you that Peter is writing to the Jewish Diaspora but I think they are wrong. He is beginning a letter-long metaphor in which he sees the Christians as a New Israel. Parts of which are already gathered 'home' to heaven, the remainder are like the Diaspora Jews of his day (and ours), living abroad in alien cultures and always thinking about 'home'.

An old puritan preacher prayed 'Lord, if you see me in danger of nesting, put a thorn in my nest'. It is a quaint prayer but he was aware of the dangers of settling down and becoming indistinguishable from the culture in which he was living. Christians have always struggled with getting the balance right here. Do we ignore the culture we live in and create Christian ghettos? Do we just add Christian elements to the culture that we are already part of? Do we expect to transform the culture we are living in to a Christian culture? Do we set our face to fight our culture at every step?

There are no neat answers to these questions. Unlike ancient Israel we do not live in theocracies where there is no division between 'church' and 'state'. Christ recognised the distinction between 'church' and 'state' when he said; Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. Matt 22:21. That recognises two kingdoms not just one.

However we resolve the details of our daily lives we do well to bear in mind Peter's reminder; are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. 1 Pet 2:9-12 NKJV In the final analysis, this world is not my home, I am just passing through... I need to build that consciousness into my lifestyle.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

it's just clay... but with attitude

Paul asks one of his famous rhetorical questions in Romans 9:20-21, "does the potter not have power over the clay?" The expected answer of course is 'of course he does', however that is not the end of the story.

God asked a similar question back in the days of Jeremiah. “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the LORD. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! Jer 18:6. but this story about the pot will end in tragedy.

The pot is spoiled while it is in the potter's hand on the wheel. The scripture does not indicate what spoiled it at this stage; the focus is not the sickness but the cure. The potter 'made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.' Jer 18:4 Clearly something interrupted the potter's progress and the potter sets to to remake it. I once worked with a potter like this for over a year in the Wedgwood factory in the UK and spent a fair bit of time watching the process and thinking about this passage of scripture.

The original destiny of the clay has not been achieved so the potter remakes it again from the start, into a shape that pleases the potter. The pot did not choose its destiny and even when things go wrong the pot did not restore itself to its God-given destiny. This is what Paul is saying in Romans; the destiny of the pot is not the choice or the responsibility of the pot. I think it almost certain that this Jeremiah passage of scripture was in Paul's mind as he wrote Romans.

But Paul would also have known how this passage of scripture continues. God declares that even though the pot has become spoiled God is able and willing to remake it. The pot does not choose its destiny. God applies the parable to 'the house of Israel' and says he has destined judgement against the people because of their rebellion but that he is willing and able to revoke that destiny and to replace it with blessing if they will turn from their sin. Their answer is shocking; And they said, “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart.” Jer 18:12. They rejected God's word... this pot has an attitude! This clay in the hands of the potter is rejecting God's new destiny and purpose.

In the UK learner drivers use dual-control cars. The instructor has a clutch (most of the UK's cars still have a clutch!) and a foot brake which means he can interrupt the action of the learner. The instructor has no steering wheel, only the driver has a steering wheel. The driver sets his course and chooses the destination, the instructor cannot change that. But the instructor can prevent the driver arriving at his destination by operating the second clutch and foot-brake. In this parable please be sure that to understand that I am making the driver the illustration of God, and the instructor the illustration of the wo/man who can choose to co-operate with the will of God or to reject it.

The teaching of Jeremiah 18 is that someone who receives the word of God still has the power to reject it and if he rejects it he will thwart the destiny (destination) that God had chosen. The clay cannot create its own destiny it can only co-operate with or frustrate God's pre-destination. The potter does have the power to choose a destiny for the clay but, in the parable that God revealed to Jeremiah, the clay has its own responsibility to respond and receive the word of God.

God has made his original purpose and 'destination' plain; The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 2 Pet 3:9 It is not the will of God that any wo/man should perish, this is the plain testimony of scripture, but God has given a fearful power to members of the human race; we have the power to say 'No' to God and so to frustrate his purpose and destiny for our lives.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Taming the wild beasts of Daniel 7?

Some time ago a friend requested a blog on the way that a Christian ought to 'connect' with society's structures ie government. I had it on my 'to do' list for ages and then cancelled it thinking it too complex to deal with in a blog. Then I read a comment on the life of Anthony Norris Groves in an old book by G H Lang. His final sentence was "It is no part of the God-given duty of the church to tame the wild beasts of Daniel 7, and the attempt is vain".

It's the old question that Christians have struggled with since the earliest centuries, the relationship of Christ to culture; I mean the culture of the day. Some said Christianity should rule the culture; this is known as 'Christ over culture'. Some said Christianity should take its place within the culture; this is known as 'Christ within culture'... and some have said, as did Tertullian, 'what has Rome to do with Jerusalem, or the forum with the temple?'; that is known as 'Christ against culture'.

The prophet Daniel saw the progression of empires in two separate visions. First he saw it as a magnificent statue (Daniel 2) which would be obliterated by the coming of Messiah's kingdom. Then, in Daniel 7, he saw it figured in a savage conflict of wild animals; this is the point of G H Lang's comment. If the kingdoms of the earth are destined to thrash it out in the dust what part does the Christian have in those events? Does s/he ignore it, try to improve it or try to prevent it. You can see Lang's point of view, even if you don't agree with it.

To be a Roman citizen was a high privilege and at times Paul exercised the rights that came with it but on another occasion he declared ...our citizenship is in heaven... Phil 3:18-20 The word 'citizenship' is politeuma. You can almost see the word for 'politics' in there, it means to be a member of a state or city. The question is do we have dual citizenship? The duties and privileges to and of an earthly state and the heavenly city? And what happens when the courses of those two states are on a collision course?

In letters from the last years of the 1st century we know that Christians very much regarded themselves as 'sojourners' that is 'aliens in transit'! They didn't know the chorus but they would have embraced the theology that said 'this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through'. Jesus had said 'if my kingdom were of this world my servants would fight' John 18:36 The concept of 'Christ over culture' which the Roman church, and others since, have tried to impose only shows that such kingdoms were kingdoms of men and not of Christ. When a man fights for a kingdom he betrays his real motives, he wants control. Did God ever intend Christians to control the world? The crazy claims of many even today is that we are to control the world as Christians. They have not noticed the tenses Paul uses when he says 'the saints will judge the world'. 1Cor 6:2-3. Others have made the same mistake and were rebuked by Paul when he said 'you have reigned as kings but without us'. 1Cor 4:8

It is not the task of Christians to 'rule the world'. We are here in our sojourn as witnesses not legislators. As witnesses we may take a place in government or local community life but not to impose Christian standards, rather to serve as the world's conscience.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Whatever happened to modesty?

"Summertime and..." just don't know where to look anymore. Some time ago I was talking to someone from an Amish background. He had turned away from much of what he regarded as 'legality' but he and his wife and family still used the Amish dress code. I asked him 'why?' His answer unsettled me. He said 'we believe clothing was God's plan for modesty not a means of attraction'. What do you think about that? I think the theology is pretty much flawless. That doesn't mean that the next time we meet you will recognise me by my braces (suspenders for the US market) and an Abraham Lincoln beard, but it certainly had me thinking, and still does. It is so easy to follow patterns we see around us without thinking and without considering what kinds of problems we are creating for others.

It brings to mind a question I was once asked by a teenager. "Is it wrong for me to want to be attractive?" I asked her, gently, what she wanted to 'attract'.

You will notice I have got this far without talking about 'the world'. I think 'the world' is such a misunderstood concept that I usually try to avoid it unless there is time to really consider what the phrase signifies. The old complaint is that Christians generally avoid being 'worldly' by the simple ploy of being 'ten years out of date', but there is much more to the biblical concept of 'the world' and those who 'love it' than being slow to jump onto the next band-wagon fashion.

Am I my brother's keeper? Yes, I am and I am my sister's keeper too, and my sister is my keeper too. That doesn't mean that I imprison them in a cage of my own fashion design but that I am 'watching out for the well-being of others'; Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus... Phil 2:4-7.

I came across an old blog today that started my thoughts in this direction. It gave me my title for this blog; Whatever happened to modesty? It is a gentle piece from a man with five daughters and well worth reading. It concludes with...
"Four Guidelines for Modesty".
1. If you have trouble getting into it or out of it, it is probably not modest.
2. If you have to be careful when you sit down or bend over, it is probably not modest.

3. If people look at any part of your body before looking at your face, it is probably not modest.
4. If you can see your most private body parts or an outline of those parts under the fabric, it is probably not modest.

I like the way is focuses on 'guidelines' rather than 'rules'; it has the gentle touch of a father.

Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. 1 Cor 8:11-13.