Prosperity versus Spirituality

Personal Matters

Last week I was in Bandung Indonesia for an Asian Christian leadership conference.

This Christ-centred event raised more sharply than ever the question of whether a spiritually mature Church can ever exist in a materially affluent culture.

For instance, an elderly South Korean related how after two major wars Korea was one of the poorest nations on earth, then the people started to cry out to God and experienced both economic and spiritual miracles.

Today Protestant Christians are easily the most highly educated and professional group in the country.

But in recent years there have been subject to public scandals a marked decline in prayerfulness and the nation’s youth are turning away from the Church in droves.

What surprised me in Indonesia was listening to speakers from a wide range of nations bemoaning deviations that are becoming normal part of church life. In Thailand for instance a leader is more likely to be chosen for strategic reasons than because he/she is a person of character.

All the sins of the Western Church I have been speaking against for decades seem to be infiltrating the “two thirds world”.

One Puritan famously said of the early American experience; “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.” Is this situation inevitable? It certainly seems to be usual in scripture.

Fat Believers

Moses explained that the wilderness experience of Israel was a fatherly test so that in the land of promise they might not say;

‘my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’

Deut 8:5, 17

But he also prophesied,

‘“Israel soon became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them…”

Deut 32:15

Throughout the history of God’s old covenant people physical prosperity is repeatedly followed by spiritual ruin.

Possessed by our Possessions.

For instance the mega rich Solomon, unlike his father David, led Israel into idolatry (1 Ki 11:4).

Whilst the New Testament covers a short span of time we see the same problems surfacing.

Paul warns, “in the last days…people will be lovers of self, lovers of money…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:1ff.).

These are our days and Christ warned a Church like our own; “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:16).

Few Australian Christians find material prosperity a block to their spiritual maturity because the creature comforts of our capitalist culture long ago got the upper hand. We are possessed by our possessions.

Ownership

Contrast this with the testimony of the Early Church; “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them…and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4: 32, 34-35).

Living as the family of God the first Christians laid aside their legal rights of ownership so as to better care for each other.

Working to Give to Others

In the light of Christ they knew everything a Christian has is a gift from God and presents an opportunity to give to others. E.g. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28).

I can’t think of many local believers whose primary motivation for working is to give to others. If you are an exception it can only be because you have had an exceptional revelation of the gospel.

Christ the Key

The Bible upholds the super-generosity of God in Christ;For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9).

In heaven Jesus was full of the riches of the love of his Father, but sensing a lost humanity in great spiritual, moral and physical pain he was moved to empty himself and enter our sphere of suffering (Phil 2:7-8).

The absolute impoverishment of the cross launched Jesus into the resurrection as the restorer of all God planned for us to enjoy in the beginning (John 1:16).

Christ’s emptiness has becomes fullness for us (Col 2:9-10).

This measure of love alone can heal the selfish possessive individualism which grips the culture of Western Christianity.

SACRIFICE IS THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

Jesus gave up everything for us that we might give up everything for him, and for others. Such sacrifice is the essence of Christianity; “By this we know love that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16). Many Christians are praying for the power of the Spirit to signs, wonders and live a more prosperous life. Yet how rare is it to hear folk praying for spiritual power to lay down their lives for others like Christ did. Such prayers would be answered! Whilst most believers would affirm what I have said above hedonism still reigns among us. When I asked the Lord for a solution to this problem he gave me a concrete reply. 

Spiritual Exceptions

The “Clapham sect” was a group which combined affluence with extreme Christian commitment. Gathered around William Wilberforce this wealthy influential group were moved by the sufferings of slaves to give unreservedly of their resources to alleviate suffering.

These men and women truly knew the Spirit’s power because he enabled them to be sensitive to Christ’s sensitivity to the pains of others. This empathy is exactly what is lacking in the affluent Australian Church of today.

It is the “fellowship of sufferings” that alone can enable us to live as exceptions to our greedy culture (Phil 3:10).

The cross teaches that the one thing more powerful than personal pleasure is a love that feels the pain of others. 

Material prosperity and spiritual maturity can exist together wherever the followers of Jesus are willing to be brought in touch with the sufferings of lost humanity. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.

Conclusion

The history of humanity’s quest for affluence is predictable but not inevitable.

The enticements of the delights of Eden overpowered any awareness of the pain sin would cause God (Gen 3:6).

Canaan was a new Eden whose worldly temptations proved as irresistible as the Garden.

Contemporary Australia too is an “Eden” where most believers choose possessions and sensory experiences, especially the emotional one they have in Church, over the pure but painful love of God!

This can change if we ask the Holy Spirit to give us a deeper identification with love’s sensitivity to the pain of others expressed in the cross.

The fruit of such prayer will surely be the highly unusual combination of material prosperity and spiritual maturity.

Do not however expect such a form of life to be appreciated by the wider society or the dominant culture of the Church.

Those who follow in this way of Christ will experience the power of the Spirit, but they will also be labelled, like the godly of old were, as another extreme Christian “Sect”.

But haven’t we had enough of “normality”??

MESSAGE DELIVERED: 11.9.16 | 

Author: Dr. John Yates

Royal Sacrifice

Personal Matters

We were led into prayer by this scripture, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” called to offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5, 9). If Christ’s character is most visible in the sacrifice of the cross then Jesus’ people have never looked less like him. Like Israel of old the people of God are being “destroyed for lack of knowledge” and our priestly ministry is not being recognised by the Lord (Hos 4:6). Such harsh words can be supported by a scriptural examination of the sort of sacrifice royalty offers to God.

Sacrifice Refused

As a symbol of Christ Adam was a king commanded to exercise dominion over the earth and a priest called to offer up life in all its dimensions to God (Gen 1:26-28; Rom 5:14). The maintenance of his royal dignity as God’s firstborn son required however a costly inner sacrifice (Luke 3:38).

Warned by the Lord that sin meant sure death Adam was called to live each day under the prospect of dying (Gen 2:17). He was to walk in this knowledge by faith as a “living sacrifice…good, acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).

The satanic deception was that Eve and Adam could reign as kings free from any prospect of death (Gen 3:4-5).

The devil suggested that deathlessness was the true hallmark of royal dignity and one that abolished the need for any priestly sacrifice.

The tragic truth was that in refusing to live sacrificially in fellowship with their Creator Adam and Eve fell under the dominion of death and lost their royal dignity (Rom 5:14).

God however! Did not abandon humanity but established a means of reconciliation.

Through the generations the LORD reminded his people of their royal priesthood by commanding the costly sacrifice of the firstborn; the fruit of youthful vigour and the first part of a new generation belonged to God (Ex 13:2, 12; 34:19).

This principle of forfeiting the first fruits is much older than the Law of Moses. Abel offered the “first born of his flock”;  Cain however, Eve’s own first born and thus one who should have known better, offered the Lord only “the fruit of the ground” (Gen 4:3-4).

Cain and his cheap sacrifice are not accepted and sin comes to “rule over” his life (Gen 4:5ff.).

Whenever humanity refuses to offer the priestly sacrifice of firstborn it always loses royal dignity and comes under the rule of evil powers. The dynamic of costly sacrifice is powerfully illustrated by an Old Testament horror story.

The Wrath of Chemosh

The spiritual power released in the practice of sacrificing the first fruits of life is illustrated in 2 Kings 3.

The capital of Moab is surrounded by the armies of Israel and its people are about to be annihilated. “Then he (king Mesha) took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.” (v.27).

2 Kings 3:27

In Mesha’s mind his impending defeat was a sign of the anger of Chemosh his god, Chemosh’s anger was turned from Moab to Israel by the sacrifice of his first born son destined to rule.

The royal prince was the only life with sufficient dignity whose death could turn away divine wrath (cf. John 11:49-50).

This grisly story points us to a powerful spiritual truth.

Instead of decrease increase follows.

Whoever by faith sacrifices the best in their life, their first fruits, whether this is a son, crops, money, vocation, time etc. believes that divine power can multiply fruitfulness in opposition to the natural outcome expected from such a slaying.

For Christians, the sacrifice of the first born is a type of the resurrection of the Lord (cf. Heb 11:17-19).

The Sacrifice of the King

The wrath of Chemosh seems merely redirected from Moab to Israel, but the nature of this god as wrathful remains unchanged.

The sacrifice of Christ the only Son is the exact opposite of the perverted father-son epic in Moab, for the sacrifice of the cross reveals a Father who is not naturally wrathful (John 3:16-17).

Whilst outside of Christ the wrath of God remains, in the Son there is no place for wrath (John 3:36; 5:24).

Jesus is the holy priest-king who has always been God’s treasured possession and in whose image Adam and Israel were called and created (Ex 19:5-6).

The source of the dignity of humanity is found in him and expressed in his triumph over all evil in the course of a sinless life (Heb 4:15).

As the one destined for sacrifice nothing reigns over him.

Jesus must however reign in death as well as in life. The title over his head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”, prophetically testifies to such a royal death (Matt 27:37).

Unlike the prince of Moab, who must have felt uniquely honoured to die to appease his god and father, Christ’s death in our place is experienced as the indignity of Fatherlessness.

My God…why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34).

In the cross the rule of sin, Satan and death seem to strip Jesus of all royal dignity.

The truth of the cross as an infinitely dignified royal sacrifice is however manifested in resurrection; from here on Christ begins to rule until every enemy is placed under his feet (1 Cor 15:25; Heb 1:13).

The faithful sacrifice of the firstborn brings forth fruitfulness opposite to every natural expectation.  

Instead of decrease the kingdom of God increases without end (Isa 9:7).

Christian Sacrifice

In Christ you are a royal son and possess the value of a premier sacrifice (Rom 8:29).

When called by God to sacrifice for Christ we should be excited, for such sacrifice will intensify our royal dignity and extend God’s kingdom.

Whatever we offer up of our life’s first fruits will surely be multiplied for God’s use through resurrection power; “death is at work in us, life in you” (2 Cor 4:8-12; Phil 3:10).

Jesus’ words about his destiny are true for us all; ““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24).

Conformity to death and resurrection is what a means to be a royal priesthood.

A great deception however is at work in our affluence.

All who surround themselves with worldly treasures and claim them as sure signs of God’s blessing are merely warding off their fear of death.

Whilst those who have learned to walk in sacrifice enjoy the royal dignity of being “treasured possessions” of the Lord and reign in life free from the fear of death (Rom 5:17). These are hardly hidden things.

If the Church leaders of today embodied the life of royal sacrifice so much spiritual power would be released that we would be back in the book of Acts (2:42-47).

Conclusion

A mature faith knows that the sacrifice of the firstborn: “WHAT WE TREASURE MOST”, releases a spiritual fruitfulness directly opposite to the naturally expected outcome.

This is true whether the sacrifice involves family, finances, career, ministry opportunities or whatever.

Increase overcomes decrease through the rule of God to his glory.

This is not some formula, but conformity to the character of Christ.

Too many Christians today lack the clarity of conscience which testifies that their sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Too few lack royal dignity in the way of death-and-resurrection.

Surely it is time to ask the Spirit of the Lord to search our hearts as to what we can offer up as royal priests.

The cost will be great but the growth will be greater.

MESSAGE DELIVERED: 19.8.16 | 

Author: Dr. John Yates

Crucified Eyes: Offence of the cross

INTRODUCTION

We are living through one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of Western Christianity, from being the most respected institution in the nation as a holy presence the Church is now tolerated by the powers that be as a mere provider of educational and social services.

Where Australians once thought of Christians as “do-gooders” they are now “do-badders” (McAlpine).  “Born-again Christian” is not something that would help your C.V. Across the nation the confidence of believers in being able to influence others for Jesus has hit an all time.

Since the Billy Graham crusade of 1959 it’s been one long downhill slope for religion in Australia.

There are many cultural and sociological explanations for this decline, but as the Church bears the presence of Christ we must look to our own sins as being primarily responsible for the moral and spiritual devastation ravaging our nation.

When we are hiding from the Lord sooner or later it becomes clear that God is hiding from us (Isa 45:15).

In hiding his glory from us the Lord allows all manner of horrible things come to light.

The latest in an unending string of sex scandals involves a mission worker being charged with the repeated rape of a 7 year old Indigenous girl down the South West. Scandals in the life of the Church should shock us into prayer but even here we seem to lack the spiritual presence to know how to respond. 

It must be that the Church lacks authority to challenge the self-indulgence in the world because we have lost the presence of the crucified Lord. This came to mind in an unexpected way in a recent prayer meeting.

It was 4.50 a.m. when my friend walked into the church building for the first time and said, “It’s unusual to see a cross in a Protestant Church.

To which I replied, “They’re predominantly Chinese here; they are much less embarrassed by what others might think than mainstream Western Christians.

From there we went on to pray into 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Christ’s desire to move from riches to poverty for the sake of others is radically countercultural both to the world the Church as we know it today.

 How different would the Church be today if we learned to see everything through the cross?

I was listening to a story this week of the crash of another high profile pastor.

We exalt gifted leaders calling them “God’s generals, spiritual giants, mighty women of God”. Instead of seeing that only those who are in spiritual poverty need to be spiritually gifted we lift up people because of “their” gifts.

The more gifted a person is the more this should be a sign to us of their poverty, that they needed to be filled with Christ.

Underneath natural and spiritual charisma is human weakness.

Elevating either others or ourselves is impossible in the light of Paul’s words, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast..?” (1 Cor 4:7).

The meagre spiritual insight in the Church today is a sign that we lack “crucified eyes” and we lack “crucified eyes” because we have taken offence at the cross. In our prayer time a few weeks ago the Lord began to show us that we have turned away from the presence of Jesus in the weak and needy. This problem is as old as Eden.

ORIGINAL OFFENSE

Eden was a wonderful place and in particular all the trees of the Garden were “pleasant to the eyes” (Gen 2:9; 3:6).

The tree of knowledge was seen by Adam and Eve as especially delightful “to make one wise” (Gen 3:6).

There was however one word God spoke in Eden which seemed out of place, and in fact would become an offense. This was the word ““in the day that you eat it you will surely die”” (Gen 2:17).

People have often puzzled as to how Adam and Eve would make any sense of this warning for so far they had no experience of death. But the LORD had seen Satan and his angels lose the glory of their sonship in falling from heaven; this was the sort of spiritual death God as Father-Creator never wanted humans to endure (Job 1:6; Isa 14:12-15; Ezek 28:11-19; Acts 17:28).

The word ““you will surely die”” was a shocking word filled with a deep pathos of an already grieving Father.

At a spiritual and prophetic level this word about the horror of death drew its power from the reality of another tree, one which was yet to come, the one upon which the anguished Lamb was “slain from before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8 1 Pet 1:20).

The scandal of the cross was present in the Garden in God’s call for self-denial and self-deprivation, “Do not eat.” This call was spurned in favour of the superficial attractiveness of living forever without a God who commanded such things (Gen 3:5-6).

When they substituted self-centredness for God-centredness the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened to their nakedness and their inner eyes saw they had been stripped of the riches immortality they had so longed for (Rom 2:7; 3:23).

In their selfishness they had lost the opportunity to see everything through “crucified eyes”. 

Filled with a sense of the shame they were compelled to cover up and became immersed in the wretched poverty of sin (Gen 3:7; Rom 3:23).

Since the Fall all human beings have been inwardly convinced that to be poor, physically, mentally, monetarily, religiously, relationally…is a source of shame. 

Paul echoes this dreadful situation; “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

The word of the cross may have been rejected in Eden but the Lord kept it prophetically alive through the history of Israel.

 The Old Testament has many predictive signs of the offense and rejection of the cross. 

Isaiah (52:13-53:12) and Zechariah (12:10) speak of a sacrificial Servant of the Lord who after being rejected by the people would be exalted by God.

The persecution of the prophets themselves was a sign of the offense of the cross (1 Kings 7:10-12, 1 Kings 18:4; Jeremiah 1:19;  Jeremiah 15:15; Jeremiah 26:20-23; Jeremiah  26:37-38 etc.). The psalms are peppered by the cries of the righteous poor crushed by the strong and powerful; “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.” (Ps 86:1 cf. Ps 9:18; Ps 10:2,9; Ps 12:5; Ps 14:6; Ps 34:6; Ps 35:10; Ps 37:14; Ps 40:17; Ps 70:5; Ps 72:2, 4, 12; Ps 74:19, 21; Ps 109:16, 22). The truly poor man who brings all these prophetic types to fulfilment is the one who emptied himself to nothingness; Jesus (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:7).

THE OFFENSE OF THE CROSS

The means of salvation God has appointed for wretched miserable sinners is appalling to normal human sensitivities. In John’s Gospel a great turning point comes in Jesus’ ministry when he opens his heart to reveal the mystery of salvation; “v.53Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. v.54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?…But Jesus…said to them, “Do you take offense at this? After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”” (John 6:53-54, 61, 66).

To eat and drink Jesus flesh and blood  is to consume God’s Word in the form of a fractured body and outpoured blood; it is to have communion with a perishing person suffering in utter poverty on a cross.

Paul will call this “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil 3:10 cf. Col 1:24).

By its very nature the cross is “a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the human mind (Isa 8:14). 

People often say, “Wasn’t there some other way God could have saved us instead of sending his Son to die?

I had a debate some years ago with a philosopher at UWA; at one point he exclaimed, “I don’t need to be crucified for my children to know that I love them!” But the same scriptures which call the gospel an offense promise that whoever identifies with God’s self- denying poverty in Jesus “will never be put to shame.” (Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:8 cf. 1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11).

Anyone who has gone to the pits with Jesus surely can’t be put to shame by any sort of “poverty”, physical, mental, monetary, religious or relational this world might inflict (Acts 13:35; Rom 1:16; 2 Tim 1:12; 1 Pet 4:16).

The language Jesus used of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was totally offensive to the Jews and led to the Romans accusing Christians of cannibalism. On the spiritual plane there is still something very powerful in the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood which today’s church finds hard to embrace. This mystery of offense is clearly proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper.

JUDGED

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul quotes the words of Jesus from the Last Supper, “v.24This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.v.25 …“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.v.26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 1 Corinthians 11:24-26

Paul does not say that we proclaim the Lord’s resurrection until he comes, this would be relatively inoffensive; it is the gospel of the cross which confronts the conscience.

Only the appalling message that we need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the sacrificial Lamb of God can persuade us that without Christ we are, to quote Jesus himself, “wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked” (Rev 3:17).

Such are his words to the Church in Laodicea which thought itself to be “rich…needing nothing” (3:17).

Obviously this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood is concentrated spiritual symbolism,  but it is a stronger and not weaker action than that of the need of the Israelites to physically consume the Passover Lamb if they were to know God’s saving power (Num 9:13).

If the Lord’s Supper brings an offense to the ordinary human conscience why do so few Christians seem to see this solemnity?

Why do so few have “crucified eyes”. We have tokenised the Lord’s presence, we have kept the signs of bread and wine but have lost the power of the thing signified i.e. the humble power of the broken body and shed blood of Christ’s death.

 Our great problem is not that we have an inadequate theology of the Lord’s Supper; it is our lack of spiritual insight.

The reality of Christ’s presence amongst us in the Lord’s Supper can only be seen in the Spirit (cf. Rev 1:10). When Hebrews teaches us that Jesus “offered himself up through the eternal Spirit” it means the Spirit was empowering Christ’s body to be broken and blood to be shed as our sacrifice (Luke 22:44; Heb 9:14).

The weak and struggling man on the cross was the presence of God’s saving grace for all.

We don’t see the offense of the cross in Holy Communion because our “uncrucified eyes” don’t see Jesus’ presence in our weak and struggling brothers of Christ.

Let me explain from scripture.

Back in 1 Corinthians Paul berates the Church because their Communion was being destroyed since the rich were pigging out and getting drunk whilst the poor were going hungry; “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (11:20-22).

The rich Christians in Corinth were avoiding the offense of the cross because they refused to see the presence of Jesus in the hungry poor at the family meal. They were like the goats in the parable of Matthew 25 who didn’t see Jesus in the hungry, thirsty, isolated, unclothed, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus’ words to those who did not recognise him in the wretched state of his brothers/sisters are terrifying; “‘…as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”” (Matthew 25: 45-46). Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church are no less a warning to us.

v.27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord…. v.30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Cor 11:27, 30). Jesus was handing over the self-confident believers in Corinth whose “uncrucified eyes” refused to recognise his presence in their impoverished brethren to sickness and death (cf. Rev 2:22-23).

This theme of the presence of the Lord bringing judgment in the Church appears elsewhere in the New Testament.

The love and generosity of the early Christians spelled out in Acts is legendary. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (Acts 4:34).

But then Ananias and Sapphira sold property and tried to deceive the apostles that they were contributing all of the proceeds to the poor. “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” (Acts 5:3).

At this point the Lord struck dead Ananias, soon to be followed by his wife (Acts 5:5-10). What compelled this tragic couple to lie to God?

Their fear of personal deprivation kept their own eyes spiritually uncrucified so that they did not discern the broken body and shed blood of Christ in the needy of the Church.

The fear of poverty is a dreadful thing; I will never forget a meeting when a prosperity preacher said, “It’s not a sin to be rich”, only for one of the crowd to shout out, “It’s a sin not to be rich.

A godly minister once said, “If God dealt with the Church today like he did back in the book of Acts we’d have dead bodies all over the place.” But surely if “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” it’s the case we do “have dead bodies all over the place” (Heb 13:8).

Unlike what we hear so commonly from the Third World many followers of Jesus in our churches are unhealed of serious diseases, tormented by mental illness, suffering from various addictions, experiencing marriage and family breakdown and so on because as-a-Body we are not recognising the identification of Jesus with the needy of this world.

The modern Western Church is often likened to the church in Laodicea to which Jesus said, ““For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”” (Rev 3:17).

We are not seeing the crucified Lord in the poor that surround us today.

I am not thinking primarily of the street sleepers I walk past in the city every week, but the terrible global persecution of fellow believers which the average Australian Church simply ignores. Remember Jesus’ words to Saul when he blinded him on the road to Damascus, ““I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”” (Acts 9:5).

Jesus is suffering terribly in his afflicted Body today, but very few want to see it.

As we were praying about seeing the Lord in the Lord’s Supper I began to sense something in the Spirit that deeply troubled me. I could see that people come to communion in a state like Adam and Eve in the Garden, still hiding behind the trees with clothes we have put on ourselves.

We love to cover ourselves with a sense of our religious good works; sound doctrine, spiritual gifts, noble tradition, contemporary cultural relevance etc.

If we had true wisdom we would be seeking for our spiritual nakedness to be exposed by the “living and active” word of God so that we might be clothed only with the righteousness of the cross (Gal 3:27; Heb 4:12-13; Rev 7:14; 19:8).

CRUCIFIED EYES

How do we receive “crucified eyes” so we can recognise the presence of Jesus in the spiritual, emotional, relational and material poverty that surrounds us?

Paul prays for the Ephesians; “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened,” (Eph 1:17-18).

We need a revelation that enables us to see that there is a radical difference between the wretchedness of fallen poverty and the glory of the poverty which comes from self-denial in Christ. Though rich Jesus became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).

Paul was clearly living in the revelation of this beautiful poverty when he says; “I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Eph 3:13).

In Christ there is a glorious poverty. In the book of Revelation the exalted Christ speaks most highly of the church in Smyrna. ““‘I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich!”” (Rev 2:9 cf. 2 Cor 6:10; James 2:5).

Today Jesus is saying these sorts of things to the churches in ISIS occupied areas of Syria and Iraq, and in Northern Nigeria where Boko Harem has destroyed about 11,000 church buildings; but it is hard to believe that Jesus would say such things to the Church in Perth.

 If the Church hides the cross, rather than hiding in the cross, all manner of other things will be hidden.

This is shamefully evident today, as I have already remarked, in the matter of sexual abuse, but there are many other examples.

After a sermon in a conservative Evangelical church where abortion was spoken against strongly a medical doctor remarked to me; “I wonder if the pastor knows how many women in the congregation have had an abortion?” Pornography is a fact of life for many Christian men and they try very hard to hide it, but since they hide it outside the cross it’s power remains unbroken.

All of this could sound very depressing, but I am observing the Lord crucifying eyes in unlikely places.

More and more godly people are recognising that something foundational must change. One day this week I was visited by a highly experienced Pentecostal evangelist who said its time to stop shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic and pretending it’s real church growth.

The next day I was in conversation with a denominational leader from a group known for its evangelistic tradition, and almost the first thing she said was, “We are dying.” As more and more people across the churches accept our real spiritual poverty my hope for resurrection life grows.

CONCLUSION

We are living through one of the most dramatic shifts in the whole history of Western Christianity because if we hide from the cross God will hide from us (John 12:36)!

We are in the midst of a situation like that exclaimed by the apostle Paul when he rebuked the Galatian Churches; “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal 3:1).

Christ was publicly crucified before their eyes not only in the words of the gospel but because Paul came “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” imaging the reality of the cross and imparting the gift of crucified eyes (1 Cor 2:3).

We have lost a generation of preachers, teachers and Christian leaders whose self-denial in the realm of spiritual or material poverty images the crucified grace of Christ.

The Church in the Western world is going to have to come to terms with its increasingly impoverished condition in society; it’s loss of power, influence, status, moral reputation and spiritual relevancy (http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/church-seen-irrelevant-australians-lives-new-survey).

Just about everyone can see that this stripping down is happening.

What most believers refuse to see however is that it is the Lord himself who have been using social forces to chisel away at the self-confidence of the people of God until we come to that place when we live in the reality that Paul proclaims; “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14).

When the Lord has finished cutting us down, when at last as-a-Church we have “crucified eyes” in a crucified heart, our identification with the poor, from inside to outside the Church, will be so radically counter-cultural, so oppositional to an increasingly self-centred society, that it will bring a powerful presence of Jesus impacting our world for the glory of God.

Let us pray for the eyes of Christ.

Fire: Safe or Good?

      Personal Matters      

“There is nothing left in Yarloop. Everyplace we have been working in and holding services in is gone…. You can make plans for another meeting on the 17th unfortunately.” (Dr. Bob Chapman). So reads an email from an itinerant minister working to plant a church in the town of Yarloop, where I was due to preach this Sunday. With 2 dead and 140 homes destroyed by a raging inferno the media have been speaking constantly of a “war against mother nature”.

Since “mother nature” is blameless the rage of traumatised former Yarloop residents has fallen on the failure of government care.  

Our sense that the world should not be so cruel is inborn, blame must be placed somewhere.

One dialogue partner is absent from the endless media and talkback reports over these fires.

Compare this omission to the response to the Lisbon earthquake disaster in 1755.

730__Chap8Fig1-Lisbon1755TsunamiSince it was All Saints Day the churches were crowded when the quake struck and thousands were crushed as the buildings collapsed.

The Jesuits quickly attributed the disaster to God’s wrath, but since the red-light district was untouched thinking people were not persuaded.

Across Europe philosophers turned to a purely scientific explanation of the quake and the discipline of seismology was born.

Enlightened European humanism was on the rise and the notion of a God of love-and-wrath was pushed more and more to the margins.

Who will introduce the notion of such a deity back into cultural conversation?

Certainly not our media nor the shallow mainstream Church.

When a society no longer instinctively holds God responsible for its ills we are in a very dire spiritual situation.

      Nature God Goodness      

Once Westerners looked upon the world as the product of a mighty act of the Creator (Gen 1:1ff; Prov 8:22ff.).

Today the power and might of nature and humanity are seen solely as properties of complex material interactions.

Human nature no longer implies the image of God but the result of natural selection.

No one however can consistently live like as if life can be reduced to biology.

Anger at apparently unnecessary suffering makes sense if there is a God of love and humans are in his image; but what’s the point of raging against the machine if the ultimate reality to which we must bow is an impersonal universe? Few understand this.

Tragically, the everyday consciousness of the average Australian has been so stripped of awareness of the divine glory in their own humanity that not even insurance companies believe that natural disasters are “acts of God”1)http://www.insurancecouncil.com.au/assets/files/urban%20myths.pdf see p.13 for an illuminating cartoon!.

When Danny Nalliah declared that the disastrous Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria were the result of the decriminalisation of abortion he was treated as a nut case by the press and disowned by the Church. Nalliah was unwise to speak of the wrath of God as he did, but Christians must believe that the Lord is ultimately responsible for the fact that “natural” disasters happen in his creation. Otherwise “God” is not sovereign (Isa 45:7; Amos 3:6). Who however dares teach these things?

Like frightened children the Church has substituted a message of safety for goodness.

In a famous passage from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe little Lucy asks Mr. Beaver about Aslan, “Then he isn’t safe?”, Beaver replies; “Who said anything about safe? Course’ he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Popular preachers love Romans 8:28; “for those who love God all things work together for good,” but they will never tie it to the preceding affirmation that “the creation (all things) has been subject to futility” by its Maker (Rom 8:21).

After the Fall of Adam God handed the world over to seemingly unnecessary meaningless disorder and suffering, not as an act of blind rage but as a sign of the unnecessary and meaningless character of our sin!

The brutality of the world is not an unintelligible act of an impersonal “mother” called “nature” but a witness to a Father whose discipline is meant to bring our race to its senses; “For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” (Isa 26:9).

Natural disasters image back to us what we have become and warn us of the wrath to come.

Where the Lisbon Jesuits and Danny Nalliah were wrong was in connecting God’s judgement to individual cases of sinfulness. Rejecting the suggestion some Jews perished by misfortune because they were “worse sinners” than others Jesus warned; “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”” (Luke 13:5).

Only Jesus can help us understand them “the kindness and severity of God”
 (Rom 11:22).

      Help us Jesus      

To a fallen human conscience the meaning of pain is pain; it is unnecessary, meaningless, useless.

Jesus however reveals the Father’s heart by freely embracing temptation, hunger, thirst, tiredness, rejection and finally the pain of the cross for others. Christ’s tears over human suffering reveal that the true God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked”; whether such death comes by “natural” causes or in “natural” disasters (Luke 19:41; John 11:35; 17:3; Ezek 33:11).

The Word of God reveals that the Lord’s own anger is alien to his heart, but this revelation is found in only one place, the cross (Isa 28:21; Lam 3:33; John 1:18).

The cry of bewilderment “Why have you forsaken me?” marks the point where the fallen human experience of suffering as unnecessary and meaningless is carried by Jesus on our behalf (Mark 15:34).

The outpouring of divine wrath on our unnecessary and meaningless sin in Christ is the final revelation that God loves us (Rom 3:25; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 John 4:10).

Through the cross we see that the bearing of suffering for others is the true image and glory of God.

Dying in this way of absolute love Jesus’ precipitates a resurrection and the creation of a new heavens and earth (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:24).

The lesson of the cross is that the greater the manifestation of the wrath of God the greater the opportunity to suffer for others to the glory of God.

The Early Church understood this; it grew most quickly when plagues hit the Roman Empire, for only the Christians risked their lives to nurse sick sinners. Today there are vast opportunities to reveal Christ by relieving suffering in the midst of poverty, stress, “natural” disaster, sickness and relational breakdown.

These are opportunities to live out the gospel of the substitutionary death-and-resurrection of the Son of God.

      Conclusion      

natural_disaster
terror-01

With “natural” disasters on one side and terrorists on the other the world seems a crazy place; but it is no match for the crazy love of the cross.

Abiding in the death of Jesus the Christian can manifest a peace that no one in the world can attain (Col 1:20).

It is time to move on from our childish obsessions about personal safety to embrace the great vision of the goodness of God in the way of the cross (1 Cor 13:11).

Be warned however, such a way of life will not make sense to most contemporary comfortable Christians.

But a life of bearing suffering for those in pain leads not only to rejection but also to the revelation of the glory of God.

Yarloop is gone, someday soon this entire world as we know it will be burnt out too, but those who walk in the painful goodness of the cross will never be destroyed but reflect the image and glory of the Lamb of God forever (Matt 13:43; Mark 10:38-39; Heb 10:39; 2 Pet 3:10-13).

p.s.
If you really want to blame someone for the ills of the world start with your own Adamic nature, which, with Satan’s help, is the cause of all unnecessary and meaningless suffering (Gen 3).

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.insurancecouncil.com.au/assets/files/urban%20myths.pdf see p.13 for an illuminating cartoon!

The End is Joy

Text: Mark 13.6.15 Zeph 3:14-20; Isa 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7; Luke 21:25-28

Introduction

Preparing this sermon has stirred up a level of perplexity that takes my mind back to some events decades ago; more of that later. But when I first saw the lectionary readings for today I was excited because they are so tremendously uplifting; “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will rejoice over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17); v.3“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. v.4 And you will say on that day: Give thanks to the Lord…v.6 Shout aloud and sing for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Isa (12:3, 4, 6); v.4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. v.6 Do not worry about anything (Phil 4:4-6); v.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken….v.28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Luke 21:26, 28).

All positive; but a famous theologian once said we should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The newspapers will tell you a depressing story about street crime, sex abuse, domestic violence, bushfires, sharks, economic woes, islands sinking through rising sea levels, and the constant threat of terrorism.

One of my emails this week asked:

WHAT MIGHT THE PERSECUTED HOPE FOR THIS CHRISTMAS?

“in Nigeria…Thousands of Christian families will be tearfully hoping for the return of their captive children and…hoping for a return to homes, churches and communities. Across Syria and Iraq, hundreds of thousands…displaced by Islamic jihad will be hoping for the same. Meanwhile, Christian prisoners…in Iran….on death row for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan and…in ‘black jails’ in China will…hope that they might be reunited with their families.” Finally the writer comments; “For the first time in my lifetime Christians in the largely post-Christian West may well be hoping their worship services and festivities will not be targeted by terrorists.

When people look at our lives which news source seems to be triumphing, the good news of the Bible or the bad news of the day?

Australians
Australians once were interested in being “good people” today

We mostly want to be “happy people”.

This is why more and more Australians see the services of the Church as irrelevant because how could Christianity possibly make life more pleasurable?

This common frame of mind reflects a:

THE JOY OF THE END

The famous theologian who told us to hold scripture in one hand and newspaper in the other also said; “the theologian who has no joy in his work is no theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thinking and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science.” (Barth). When the person on the street hears the word “theology”, “Christian” or “church” they usually don’t think “joy”, but the God of the Bible is essentially a God of joy.

When Paul tells the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Phil 4:4) he is exhorting us to share in the radiant joy of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s eternal plan is so radically different from the way people normally think about religion because it is a plan for pleasure; v.5 “God predestined to adopt us…by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This…gave him great pleasure….v.9 he has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfil his own good pleasure.” (Eph 1:5, 9). God created us in joy; v.30then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, v.31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Prov 8:30-31). When I think about my delightful grandchildren I have an insight into the infinite delight the Lord had in creating us to be his children. But how many grandparents make this connection?

Continuing this theme of God’s plan for joy, the Bible teaches the climax of history is a wedding celebration; “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isa 62:5); “Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honour to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself.” (Rev 19:7). We are the Bride and the Lord is preparing us to enjoy Messiah’s wedding banquet; v.6the Lord…will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. v.7 There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. v.8 He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.” (Isa 25:6-8 cf. 1 Cor 15:54).

Jesus said ““The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,” where all are called to join in the celebration (Mat 22:1-10 cf. 8:11). Followers of Jesus are to be big picture people. Sadness and sorrow might seem to reign in the world for a few thousand years but everything will end in joy. This was the experience of the early believers.

VITA, VITA, VITA.

In the catacombs under Rome is a Christian inscription; “Vita, Vita, Vita.” “Life, Life, Life”.

Whoever wrote this was bursting with the joy of the new creation in Christ (Neh 8:10; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).

Paul saw his ministry in terms of joy; he said to the Corinthians, “we don’t mean to dominate you by telling you how to put your faith into practice. We want to work together with you so you will be full of joy” (2 Cor 1:24).

Everything the Church does must be directed towards God’s great End-goal, a universe full of joy. Yet when non-believers look at us they usually don’t think of Church as an extraordinarily happy place.

My favourite atheist philosopher challenged the Church of his time; “They would have to sing better songs for me to learn to have faith in their Redeemer; and his disciples would have to look more redeemed!” (Nietzsche).

To answer this challenge our lives need to be impacted by Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading for today.

The End through a Shaking

According to Christ things would get so bad “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26).

The word for “fainting from fear” is the word for such a severe panic attack that a person literally stops breathing and thinks they are about to die; unfortunately the people I know who have had such attacks are Christians!

When circumstances are outwardly dire Christ prescribes;Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is drawing near.’” (21:28).

When things seem to be going bad in the world this should be a confidence booster for the people of God to go forward in confident hope that Jesus is coming back soon.

We are called to live in the spirit of the psalmist; “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” (v.7). As we lift our hearts towards Jesus in prayer and praise our heads will lift up too. Joy on the inside of a Christian, whatever the troubles on the outside, is a sign to a perishing world of the triumph of Christ’s life in us. 

James boldly says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (1:2) n.b not just persecution.

This joy is not ordinary circumstance-dependent human happiness, it is the supernatural joy of the approaching End.

It is sharing by faith in the joy which motivated Jesus to go to the cross; Hebrews says, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:2).

Jesus knew that the more severe the shakings that were coming on his life the closer he was getting to returning to his Father.

At the End of the Day he knew that his final experience would be the joy of his heavenly Father’s perfect presence.

We are called to share in the shape of Jesus life experience.

A little later in the same chapter of Hebrews the writer says, v.26 “ (God) has promised,Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This v.27 …indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” (Heb 12:26-27).

Looked at through the lens of the cross the shaking of this world and its suffering are accelerating everything towards the End (cf. Rom 8:17-39).

Hardship is transformed into joy through mature faith.

I was talking to a returned missionary from Kazakhstan last Sunday, a nation where the church grew explosively in the 90’s, but then persecution came.

Those who thought following Jesus would increase ordinary earthly happiness fell away (Mark 4:16-17), but the mature believers in that country responded like the early apostles, who after being beaten “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name (of Jesus).” (Acts 5:40-41).

Donna and I were at a prayer meeting for the persecuted church earlier this year and there was a video clip of the congregation in Cave Church Cairo.

She spontaneously remarked, “You can see the depth of joy in the faces of the people.”

It’s not easy to follow Jesus in Egypt, you will experience discrimination at every level of society, Christian girls are kidnapped and at times churches are bombed.

However it is suffering for Christ that gives the believers there a sense of the joy of eternal things through the triumph of the cross and the Lord’s soon Return.

Paul’s exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always” is undergirded by his reminder “The Lord is near.”(Phil 4:4-5). Likewise, his words to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thess 5:16-18) reflect an end-time attitude that God’s triumph over evil in Christ is experienced most powerfully, not in the best of times, but in the worst of times.

Testimony

The sort of supernatural unconquerable joy in the midst of the shakings and terrors of this world is a powerful testimony to lost people whose only hope is in this perishing world (Eph 2:12). Zephaniah’s prophetic words in our first reading today; “The LORD your God…will rejoice over you with singing” (3:17) are true for us because the Father’s heart sings over Christ living in us.

Our meetings in Jesus’ name need to overflow with delight. The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving”; something happy people do. The Lord’s Supper is the fulfilment of the Last Supper which was a prophetic pointer to the banquet of Messiah.

The grace of the Supper is meant to joyfully empower us as we travel to the eternal feast of the kingdom of God. Australians love parties, let’s invite them to the party that never ends.

I remember talking with someone who was involved in setting up men’s sheds in aged care facilities. He told me about meeting this old man who seemed to have nothing left living for.

But when he “invited him to the banquet” he became a Christian (Matt 22:9). One crucial reason why Alpha has been so successful is that it is accompanied by a free meal; which is a prophetic sign of the joy-filled banquet of the Messiah.

In the increasingly dark and scary days that lie ahead for our world (terrorism, water crises, refugees from Pacific islands) churches baptised in End-time joy will have increasing power to lead people to Christ.

Where is the Joy?

Mockers in Isaiah’s day  offered a taunt that could be spoken by many sceptics of Christianity today, “‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy’.”(66:5). I remember radical R.C. theologian Matthew Fox speaking to a packed audience in Christ Church Grammar chapel.

When he quipped, “The worst thing you can do to people is to invite them to church and bore them.” the whole place spontaneously broke into applause and shouts of approval because so many present felt that this was their own experience.

I am not asking whether you and I find church boring, but why mainstream society, and young people in particular, think this way!

The people of God are often fossilised, not primarily because our music is antiquated our liturgies incomprehensible and our preachers passionless, all of which is sometimes true, but because we lack Christ’s gift of End-time joy.

The Body of Christ lacks the joy that cannot be conquered by any evil circumstances because we are too attached to the things of this perishing world. (This can include religious forms cf. 2 Tim 3:5.)

Jesus speaks bluntly, “Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:25 cf. 2 Pet 1:4).

Let me use on illustration.

When Donna was first diagnosed with her cancer I said to her, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? The worst that can happen to you is that you die and go and be with Jesus.

No doubt at that time Donna was thinking of her loving hopes and attachments to children, grandchildren and even to me!

Faced with death Paul is more spiritual than any of us, “I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me…But for your sakes I will remain alive for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:23, 25).

Even Islamic State has something to say about here and hereafter. In a decree published after the Paris bombings they said, ISIS ‘loves death like you love life’.

Their point was that those who truly seek God turn away from idols and are willing to sacrifice their present lives to get to the pleasures of Paradise (Sura 3:14; 14:3; 75:20; 76:27).

Christ’s way to convert the world is not through violence, but by manifesting a holy End-time joy that shows to people that there is something far more valuable than the passing affairs of this life.

Conclusion

The perplexity induced by preparing this sermon took my mind back to my reluctance to minister in the Spirit’s power in a traditional Anglican Church 30 years ago.

In the end I did however obey the Lord and that church experienced tremendous spiritual renewal and salvation.

Today the Lord is calling us all to a major change of mind.

We need to think about Christ’s Commission to bring the gospel to everyone from a new angle.

Before Nehemiah told assembled Israel, , “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”” he commanded them ““Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing.” (Neh 8:10).

Only if our hearts are overflowing with End-time joy can we persuasively communicate good news to a world full of bad news (Ps 23:5; Isa 66:10-11).

This is a great challenge to me personally.

I remember times of being in Church as a young Christian when my experience of the presence of Jesus made my heart feel like it was going to burst through joy and I would find myself in heaven.

Since then too much of life, especially too much of church life, has gotten on top of me.

Today I sense the Lord calling me/us to make a faith decision about the triumph of the cross; has Jesus really conquered all those dark and depressing things of the world which would rob us of his joy (Gal 4:15).

SINCE HE HAS CONQUERED WE ARE LEFT WITH BUT ONE CHOICE.

To seek a new awareness of Jesus that will concentrate, surpass and sustain all our past experiences of his presence so that we might become his triumphant joy-givers to a world that has no other hope.

This is his clear call today. Will We Obey Him?

The Greatest Terror

Introduction

Fear has become a part of our everyday life.

This time last year I was in a meeting with some older people in our area whose primary concern was street crime. One had recently been bashed by a young refugee outside the neighbourhood shops.

If you live in the bush you will have fears of fires, if you enjoy a swim you will be on the lookout for sharks.

Domestic violence is in all the news.

Parents won’t allow their kids to ride/walk to school for fear of sexual predators.

Many Christians are alarmed that the push for same-sex marriage will rob us of our religious freedoms.

Thousands marched in the last week to demand action at the UN Climate Change conference in Paris.

The fear of global warming touches people at all levels.

Here is a story told by a friend; “Hi John, The incident you mention was about 2007 when Alannah McTiernan was a Minister in the labour government. Whilst at a large pastoralist conference she walked up to the Department of Agriculture Climatologist and I and asked without any introduction “Are you afraid?” I assumed she had been reading a climate change book by Tim Flannery…. This reminded me of the words of Jesus that in the last days men’s hearts will fail them for fear of those things that are coming on the earth (Luke 21v26).”

Finally there is the terror of Islamic State.

The sheer ruthlessness of this group and its intense publicity machine seems to have left people feeling very uneasy.

Schools now have “lock down” drills to prepare for terrorist attacks. In the wake of the Paris attacks our own Prime Minister was exceptionally blunt; “protecting freedom….. is a global struggle …against those who seek…seek to assert some form of religious tyranny; a threat in the name of God but is truthfully the work of the devil”.

I expect most Christians responded to Malcolm Turnbull’s theological commentary positively because our thinking has not been sufficiently radicalised by the Holy Spirit in the way of the cross.

The word “radical” simply means “from the root”, a Christian who thinks things through from the roots recognises that “the devil is God’s devil” (Luther) and every theologian of the cross knows that it is the Lamb standing as slain who opens the scroll of heaven releasing the full range of physical and spiritual forces which terrify the inhabitants of the earth (Rev 5:6; 6; 13:7).

Today’s climate of fear provides a unique opportunity for the Western Church to renew her witness to this Jesus; but this will require a radicalisation of our spirituality by death and resurrection far deeper than that which can be achieved by any human power (Rom 12:1-2).

The Origin of Terror

Generally people treat fear as a bad experience, but Man was meant to fear God from the beginning.

When the Lord warned Adam, ““In the day that you eat of (the tree of knowledge) it you shall surely die”” his tone indicated the punishment of death was inconceivably horrible (Gen 2:17).

So when after their sin Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden…the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD” (3:8) they subsequently reported to God, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”” (3:9-10).

God’s presence was no longer delightful but excruciatingly painful.

Every awareness of the lost glory of God fills sinners with a deep sense of shame (Rom 3:23).

We can best understand what was lost through sin by looking at some scriptures which speak of the recreation of Paradise.

One such prophecy is in Isaiah, “[2] In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious….[5] the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. [6] There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” (Isa 4:2, 5-6 cf. Rev 7:15-17).

At the End God’s own glorious presence will protect his people from all possible harm.

The restoration of insight into “the beauty of the Lord” fills the people of God with safety and security (Ps 27:4; 90:1). This is the exact opposite of what was lost in Eden.

When God sentenced Adam and Eve for their sin he proclaimed a future of hard work, extreme pain in childbirth, conflict with wild creatures and finally the futility of death; “dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:15-19).

In our comfortable Western countries shielded by the benefits of the welfare state, with access to excellent health care and having lived in one of the most peaceful periods of world history we have forgotten our urgent need to be covered by God’s presence from the material and spiritual terrors of this world.

The radicalisation of my thinking about how God uses terror began with my conversion.

As a 20 year old I was suffering such severe paranoia that I could not walk down a public street so great was my fear of people.

Then the Lord sent a Bible into the house and I started to read it endlessly.

Soon I came under the most terrifying fear of hell; the words of Jesus became incredibly real to me; “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28).

Every day I would wake up thinking that if I was to die I would deservedly go to hell; it was terrible. But worse was to come. One day I was in such desperation I tried to enter a Christian meeting on the university campus, suddenly it was like there was a paralysing wall of terror between me and the meeting. I had to turn back.

The next week came around and the same demonically inspired wall of terror was there but the sheer terror of the Lord’s retribution and my need for urgent forgiveness got me through, and the rest is history.

There is a final/Apocalyptic terror from the Lord to end all finite terrors; it was the terror of not finding forgiveness that scared the hell out of me.

When Jesus prophesied of ““people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.”” he meant the intensity of their fears would be so overwhelming that could see no purpose in the state of the world (Luke 21:26). This is the condition of our media and much of the Church today.

Evil’s Purpose

Secular commentators find radical Islam almost impossible to understand.

After the Sydney siege people rushed to redefine the terrorist as mentally ill.

After the Paris attacks media described the killers as members of an unintelligible insane death cult.

But scripture tells us, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12).

Only from our position seated in the heavenly places in Christ can we see that both militant Islam and aggressive Western atheism/secular humanism are in fact equally controlled by the same evil power which hates the glory and beauty God has destined for humanity in Christ (Ps 8; Eph 2:6, 9; Col 1:15; Heb 2:5-9).

To destroy the image of this glory and beauty is evil’s purpose.

When the Muslim armies conquered the Middle East and turned churches into mosques they first tore down the crosses then whitewashed all the images Jesus.

Islam most hates the notion that God the Word became a real flesh and blood human being and died on the cross (John 1:14).

This is the work of the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:1-3).

In the spiritual realm the power behind Islam that veils the beauty of the face of a woman is not simply patriarchal/misogynistic but understands that since “the woman is the glory of man” her beauty as a sign of the Bride of Christ must be covered (1 Cor 11:7; Eph 5:32).

Understanding Islamic terrorism as a means to deface the image of divine beauty in the world is straightforward; but how does satanic power work to destroy God’s glory and beauty in our Western world?

Abortion in our nations is defended on the grounds of a woman’s right to choose, but in the spiritual realm it represents a satanic desire to end development of the glory of a human life in the likeness of God. (Lev 18:21; Deut 32:17; 1 Cor 10:21).

The most effective way to oppose terror is through the true revelation of beauty.

In sponsoring TV ads showing the wonder of the emergence of the unborn child in the womb the Church in Toowoomba has had considerable success in bringing down the abortion rate in their city.

Light casts out darkness.

Same sex marriage activists portray Christians as “homophobic” terrorists opposed to the rights of gay people.

This campaign however is really about an attack on a deep spiritual mystery.

The author of Proverbs says, “[18] Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: [19] the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” (30:18-19).

The mysterious sexual relationship between men and women implanted from the beginning of creation uniquely images something of the glory and beauty of the eternal marriage of Christ to the Church.

This is the spiritual beauty being attacked by the devilish forces promoting gay marriage.

The depth of spiritual crisis in Western culture first came across to me walking along the streets of Lausanne Switzerland some years ago.

The shops were full of such beautiful things but spiritually I felt as if I was surrounded by “beasthood” i.e. in the presence of the spirit of the antichrist (Rev 11:7; 13:1ff).

I was in great grief of heart as I could sense the destruction of souls all around me blinded by the material blessings of God apart from the saving knowledge of Christ the Blessed One (Mark 14:61; Acts 17:16; Rom 9:5).

Finally I saw something that nearly sent me out of my mind; I came across a fashion store called “Christ”.

I wrote in my prayer journal, “They have taken all that belongs to you, all your glory and beauty, even your name, FOR THEMSELVES. Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.

This is Jesus’ great prayer from the cross; and it is to the cross we must go if our minds are to be radicalised concerning God’s purposes for terror in this world and the next.

Terror of the Cross

Since “fear has to do with punishment” as a sinless person Jesus had no earthly fears (Heb 4:15; 1 John 4:18). He went about destroying the works of the devil that inspire terror (Acts 10:38; 1 John 3:8).

Sickness, demonic powers and death itself were abolished (Matt 4:24; Mark 5:10; Luke 8:50) in his glorious covering presence where the weakest found shelter (Matt 11:28; John 1:14; 11:4, 40).

When men tried to kill him he walked unperturbed through their midst for his hour had not yet come (Luke 4:29-30; John 8:59; 10:31, 39).

Everything however changes in the shadow of the cross.

The Lord’s prayer in the Garden, ““if possible take this cup from me”” and his terrible cry,““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 14:36; 15:34) have only one explanation, the cross is the terror of God (Gen 35:5; Ex 15:16; Deut 4:34; Ps 53:5; Jer 49:5; Ezek 32:32 cf. Gen 18:12).

The cross is the place where the gloom and darkness of the Day of the Lord, the great End time/Apocalyptic judgement of God on the wicked, descends upon Jesus dying in our place separated from the all-covering presence of his Father’s glory (Amos 5:20; Mark 15:33).

All the terrors of hell are concentrated in the sacrifice of the Son of God.

As Isaiah prophesied, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isa 53:10).

This is a grief beyond measure.

The terror of terror is not suffering, it is suffering without a good or noble purpose, the terror of hell is not suffering forever, but suffering forever without a purpose. Cut off from the presence of his Father’s good, pleasing and perfect will this is the terror Christ must endure for us (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 5:21).

Jesus however was never passive, the deeper he entered into the terror’s humanity deserves at the hands of God the more powerfully he prays; ““Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”” (Luke 23:34 cf. Luke 6:28).

Before mortal eyes, citing Isaiah again, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53:2); before mortal eyes the great satanic ambition of destroying the beauty and glory of God in his image in man seems finally accomplished.

But in the eyes of the Father this love so pure and beautiful that it is indestructible, immortal and triumphant. The death of Jesus issues in the beginning of the End of the world.

The soldiers who crucified Jesus were state terrorists commissioned to flog, mock, abuse and prolong the sufferings of their victims, but Jesus is no victim (Matt 27:26, 30-31).

When “Jesus…breathed his last… The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many …who had died were raised… 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Matt 27:50 ff.).

The terrorists have become believers in Jesus (Matt 14:33; 1 John 4:15) as the one through whom God has commenced the beginning of the End of the world by raising the dead.

This fear from heaven comes with the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb; “And they (the women) went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them…” (Mark 16:8; cf. Matt 17:6; Luke 24:5; 37).

The resurrection of the crucified Christ induces an awesome holy fear whose dimensions leave no space for any earth inspired terror.

I believe this explains the response of the crowd to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost; “[23] this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. [24] God raised him up… [36] God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.[37] Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,”” (Acts 2:23-24; 36-37).

When the covering presence of God in Christ crucified-and-risen becomes real to sinners their greatest terror is that they might fail to find forgiveness in him.

Every other thought in the minds of the crowd, whether they would be rejected by their countrymen, as Jesus was, persecuted by the Romans, as Jesus was, went out of their heads.

Their preview of the End (cf. Joel 2:31 = Acts 2:19-20), their experience of God’s Apocalyptic terror, scared the hell out of them. What a glorious day!

The Terror of the Coming King

Spoiled by centuries of occupying a privilege the Western Church has lost sight of how radically threatening to the powers that be the Kingship of Jesus truly is.

Psalm 2, says this about Christ; “[1] Why do the nations rage…. [2] and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, [4] …the Lord holds them in derision. [5] Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, [6]…I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. [7] …The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. [8] Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, and the ends of the earth your possession….[12] Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:1-2, 4-8, 12 ESV).

Jesus ruling presence naturally terrifies the rulers of the earth (Matt 3:17; Acts 13:33; Rom 1:4; Heb 1:2 cf. Rev 11:18).

This is his presence in the gospel; when the apostles entered Thessalonica the city was in uproar, ““These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”” (Acts 17:6-7).

The readers of the New Testament understood that the spiritual and material worlds could not be separated.

They understood that the blind rage of Herod in slaughtering the little boys of Bethlehem was supernaturally inspired over who was king of the Jews (Matt 2:1-8; 16-18; cf. Acts 4:25-26).

The early Christians knew that by refusing to bow the knee to Caesar they would stir up the demonic powers behind Roman rule who would work to annihilate them (John 19:12, 15; Acts 17:7; Rev 12 – 13).

The demonic forces driving Islamic State have no fear of the secular forces running the nations of the West.

Their great ambition is to drive the Christian witness from the Middle East forever and move on from there. Likewise the persecution of Christians in Europe and America over gay rights issues has one goal, to diminish witness to the glory of God in Christ. Where however the Church is faithful persecution empowers the testimony of Jesus.

Unafraid

After Islamic State drove many Christians from their homes in northern Iraq a reporter asked 11-year-old refugee Maryam: “What are your feelings towards those who drove you out of your home and caused you hardships?” She replied: “I won’t do anything to them, I will only ask God to forgive them.” She said: “In the Bible Jesus said to us, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am with you.’ And also, He said forgive others no matter who they are hating you. You have to forgive them.” “Jesus is my father, and He is my creator. I have no one else better than him. When ISIS drove us out of our home, His hand was on us and He saved us.” “The Holy Spirit gave me these words to tell you.” “The only story in the Bible is the story of the resurrection of Christ Jesus the Lord because through that story, we can have hope.” “When I pray, I pray that God might help us to go back home. And also that the peace of God might come all over Iraq and also, may God forgive ISIS.

For the Church, times of terror should be times of great illumination.

Terror brings a message from heaven that only the beauties and glories of another world can last. When the city of Rome fell to the barbarians in 410 A.D. many Christians were traumatised. (“If Rome can perish, what can be safe?” (Jerome)).

But as St. Augustine aged, he increasingly thought of the world, its politics, culture, and institutions, as a tottering old man whose days were numbered: “You are surprised that the world is losing its grip? That the world is grown old? Don’t hold onto the old man, the world; don’t refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: ‘The world is passing away; the world is losing its grip; the world is short of breath. Don’t fear, your youth shall be renewed as an eagle.‘” (Sermon 81, 8. Citing Ps 103:5).

Let me pick up this scripture; “your youth shall be renewed as an eagle.”

The Western Church does not show the beauty of spiritual youthfulness.

Everyone thinks the traditional denominations are headed for the grave; but the more contemporary trendy churches are so tied to prosperity in this passing world (cf. Your Best Life Now) that they cannot reflect “the unfading/imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God” (1 Pet 3:4).

Whatever the chronological distribution, our churches lack the awe-filled apocalyptic presence of God that always threatens the status quo and cannot be intimidated by any earthly concern (Acts 5:11; 1 Cor 7:31; 14:25; 1 John 2:17).

Once no terror kept the Western Church from sending missionaries across the globe many who would never return.

But like the church in Ephesus we have lost our youthful spiritual passion for Jesus; “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Rev 2:4).

The fountain of eternal youth is the gospel; “v.2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, v.3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, v.4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, v.5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Ps 103:2-5).

A Church that walks in the continual cleansing of the forgiving word will always feel young and beautiful; “a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. (Eph 5:27). The beauty and glory of such a church is her refusal to compromise the cause of Christ.

Peter counsels the wives of unbelieving husband with words that fit the Church today; “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” (1 Pet 3:6). “do not fear anything that is frightening.” alludes to be Proverbs 3:25 “Do not be afraid of sudden terror”.

If you are walking in forgiveness you have passed through the Apocalyptic terror of the great trial of divine judgement, free from the fallen fear that something will suddenly overtake you as a punishment by God, the promise is yours in Christ.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…. will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at noonday.” (Ps 91:1, 5-6).

With lives “hid with Christ in God” what can we fear (Col 3:3 cf. Heb 13:6)?

As a believing wife was to refuse to be intimated by anything her husband might say or do to her on account of her faith in Christ so the Church who obeys the Lord at whatever cost radiates the hidden spiritual beauty of her crucified Lord.

Later Peter puts the point more broadly, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled…. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Pet 3:14; 4:14).

Conclusion

The world as we know it is changing and no natural power can deliver the post-Christian Western nations from the terrors that confront them; and this is God’s good purpose (cf. Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11).

The right to a world enjoying climatic stability is passing away, the right to live free from the threat of religious terrorism is over and for Christians the right to religious freedom is slipping away.

In such an atmosphere the Church may perhaps be shocked into realising that our idolatries have blinded us to the real spiritual wars around us (Pss 29:2; 96:9; 1 Chron 16:29); we may perhaps recognise that the great holy fear that should grip us is that men and women daily perish without experiencing that Apocalyptic terror that can scare the hell out of them.

The ways of the Lord are radical beyond measure because they are the ways of Christ crucified.


God has always had one purpose for evil and its terror; to bring forth a beautiful and glorious Bride for his Son walking in the power of the cross and living in the forgiveness of sin which keeps her forever young.

The Lamb conquers terror by the testimony of a Bride whose unfailing witness to his gospel is her beauty (Rev 12:1, 11).

It is such a Church continually renewed in spiritual beauty and fearlessness in her suffering for Christ that will really have something to offer to a world that has no answers to the threats that confront it.

The Heart of Unity

Personal Matters

A number of circumstances lined up recently to bring the functionally divided state of the Church to my attention once again.

Firstly I was listening to a local pastor bemoaning the seeming inability of his fellow ministers to work together.

Two days later I was in a prayer meeting where a speaker shared about a miraculous coming together of Perth Christians across the denominational spectrum to work in concert 45 years ago.

We could all sense that there was a “spirit of unity” at that time we rarely see today.

Most significantly, something between these two incidents gave me a sense of a new word from the Lord.

I was in a team meeting at our local church when the other ministers spoke of a recurring pattern.

Church folk enthusiastically volunteer for a task then “don’t turn up” on the day.

A scripture immediately sprung to mind; “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” and I could see a heart divided in two (Ps 86:11).

Where the heart of an individual, congregation or city-Church is divided this is a sure sign of the absence of the fear of the Lord so that God’s kingdom purposes are being frustrated. One of the greatest needs in the Church today is the recovery of the biblical vision of the heart.

The Centre of it All

Reflecting upon the fragmentation of revivals in his own eighteenth century, pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards1)wikipedia.org “Jonathan Edwards” turned to a core biblical text; “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov 4:23).

your heart

Edwards correctly discerned that “heart” stands for the generating centre of all our thoughts, choices and feelings. If the “heart” is like the trunk of a tree, the branches are our mind, will and emotions.

Everything flows from the heart; it is not merely the source of strong feelings!

Someone, for instance, may respond passionately to an appeal to participate in a church working bee but if there is no follow through then their “heart” was never in it.

A united heart means a unified person coordinated in every aspect and action of being.

A whole heart wisely guides a mature person away from evil and towards good (Eccl 8:5; Prov 9:10).

Whoever fears God from their heart will shun division and work closely with others (Deut 10:12; 2 Chron 19:9). The present apathy about a functionally divided Church is a sign that we have gone into cardiac arrest and need an electroconvulsive shock from the Spirit to revive us.

The only way this can come is through a greater vision of God’s heart seen in the cross.

God’s Broken Heart

The glory of Jesus is in making visible the heart of his Father.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father….No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is in the heart of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:14, 18).

The glorious heart of the Father is publicly displayed through Jesus’ signs and wonders but hidden to normal sight in the cross (John 2:11; 11:4, 40; 12:40).

The revelation of the generating centre of God’s inner being occurs in the place fallen humanity never seeks glory, suffering for others.

In great pain Jesus prays; ““Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again”….“My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death…. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”” (John 12:27-28; Mark 14:34, 36).

The agonising alignment of the will of Jesus with the will of God is an agreement that means the Son in his frail humanity will take on the heart of the Father for lost humanity.

We have a glimpse of the dimensions of what this will cost Christ in the prelude to the Genesis Flood, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great…and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil…And the LORD regretted that he had made man…and his heart was filled with pain.” (Gen 6: 5-6 cf. Ezek 11:19). The pain hidden inside the heart of God across the ages breaks out in full view on the cross; ““My God, my God why have you forsaken me”” (Mark 15:34).

To be united with the pain-filled heart of the God is the glory of Jesus where his humanity reaches complete oneness with his Father in love for us (Heb 5:7-8).

This explains his prayer; “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,” (John 17:22).

Christ’s sacrificial love is the glory that binds our hearts together as one.

This is not some abstract ideal for it becomes real in the heart-experience of forgiveness.

One Heart

Forgiveness unites our hearts to God’s undivided heart through connecting us with the cost to Father and Son of Jesus’ sacrifice for us (Luke 23:34).

The apostles ministered in the power of this connection.

When Peter preached at Pentecost his hearers “were cut the heart” and cried out in holy fear “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 cf. Heb 4:12-13).

The will of his hearers was coming into alignment with the will of God through repentance and the receiving of forgiveness (2:38).

As the Church lived in such all forgiving love they “were of one heart and soul…” (4:32 cf. Jer 32:39).

As the grace of God’s heart uniting us to him is forgiveness (Heb 13:9), our hearts are bound together in forgiving each other in love.

This explains why the exhortation to “put on love which binds everything together in perfect unity” is preceded by the command, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col 3:13-14 cf. Eph 4:32-5:1; 1 Pet 4:8).

Contrary to popular practice a mature Church sustains extraordinary forgiving love by “walking in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:3). After all, Jesus warned that grace is lost “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”” (Matt 18:34-35).

To walk in holy fear is to refuse to receive the forgiving grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1).

Such a Church “bears with one another in love” in order to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

Conclusion

The life of the Church is meant to be a response to God’s whole-hearted action in forgiving sinners at the cross.
 3cross

Where the gospel is proclaimed as a message of full forgiveness for those who cause God untold anguish the Word creates an undivided heart walking in the fear of God.

» This is Christian normality.

We however live in a Church with a divided heart expressed in divided words portraying a divided image to the world.

» This is the spiritual tragedy of our time.

Jesus taught that only a Church visibly “one” in his “glory” can reveal his unity with the Father “so that the world might believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20ff.).

What can we do to bridge the gap between Christ’s call and our own spirituality?

Confess that as individuals, congregations and city-Church we are dominated by an ungodly fear that flows from a divided heart breeding competition and distance between us.

Recognise that only a sovereign divine visitation of the all-forgiving love which draws all things together in perfect harmony can heal our fractured hearts and make us whole (Col 3:14).

Pray that in the light of the cross we might each have a revelation of the depths of the psalmist’s words:

v.3 Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?
v.4 But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared….unite my heart to fear your name.

3cross

References   [ + ]

Job and Jesus

St Mark’s Church on the Rise 15.11.15

Text: Job 10:1-22; Ps 38; James 5:7-11; Luke 22:31-34,39-46

Job Continues: A Plea to God | ch10 v1. “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. v2. I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. v3. Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the designs of the wicked? v4. Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees? v5. Are your days as the days of man, or your years as a man’s years, v6. that you seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, v7. although you know that I am not guilty, and there is none to deliver out of your hand? v8. Your hands fashioned and made me, and now you have destroyed me altogether. v9. Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust? v10. Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese? v11. You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews. v12. You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit. v13. Yet these things you hid in your heart; I know that this was your purpose.

v14. If I sin, you watch me and do not acquit me of my iniquity. v15. If I am guilty, woe to me! If I am in the right, I cannot lift up my head, for I am filled with disgrace and look on my affliction. v16. And were my head lifted up, you would hunt me like a lion and again work wonders against me. v17. You renew your witnesses against me and increase your vexation toward me; you bring fresh troops against me. v18. “Why did you bring me out from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me v19. and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. v20. Are not my days few? Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer v21. before I go—and I shall not return— to the land of darkness and deep shadow, v22. the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness.”

Introduction

There is nothing quite as startling as the story of Job.

A respected, prosperous and devout family who suddenly loses everything for no apparent reason.

Unlike Job, the readers of the book are privileged to witness a wager between God and the devil over Job’s motivation; “And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”” (1:8). Satan immediately accuses Job of having ulterior motives for his faith; ““Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9) and proclaims that if is allowed to ruin Job’s life he will “curse you to your face” (1:11).

When Satan goes forth to slaughter his family and destroy his possession Job’s response is unforgettable, he “fell on the ground and worshipped. And he said,Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”” (1:21 cf. 1 Sam 2:6).

Satan then suggests that if Job loses his health he will yet turn his back on God (2:5). So the devil is allowed to inflict God’s servant with “terrible boils from head to foot” (2:7) (I can still remember the pain of a boil behind my knee as a child.) things get worse, as a mouthpiece of the devil Job’s wife says to him; ““Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.””

Refusing suicide Job stays centred on the Lord; “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?”” (2:9-10).

Then three of Job’s friends visit to bring him “comfort” (3:11).

For the next 29 chapters these friends insist that his pains are a punishment for his sins.

This plunges Job into deep depression and he repeatedly protests that he is in the right with God (9:20-22; 12:24).

At the end of the story God appears to Job proclaims him to be righteous and restores his prosperity and happiness (42:10-17).

Wisdom

Job is a wisdom book whose message marks a revolution in religious thought.

The schools of wisdom in the ancient east taught that the world is governed by an inflexible divine order linking conduct to consequences; the righteous are rewarded with prosperity whilst the wicked suffer catastrophe in this life (cf. Ps 73; Jer 12:1; Hab 1:13).

 Seeing the disasters that have fallen on Job his friends know that he must be a grievous sinner because “bad things” don’t happen to “good people” (Job 18:5; Job 20:5; Job 29).

God’s justice would not allow the righteous to suffer.  

Before his afflictions this had been Job’s view of the world too, but in the third chapter of the book something snaps in his conscience, the anguished cry “Why” (am I suffering) breaks out ten times (vv.11, 12, 16 etc.). Unlike his childish know-it-all friends Job dares to question the justice of God.

 
T
his self-righteousness is too much for Job’s mates who insist more and more intensely that Job MUST be a sinner.

 
R
eligious experts always know the answers in advance, but people like Job cry out to God for answers (14:13-17; 16:19-21; 17:3; 19:25-27).

 
T
he answers of Job’s friends are worth nothing because they cost nothing (Job 42:7).

 
J
ob however is an entirely different sort of man.

Honour

Not once does he complain about the loss of his possessions, the death of his children,  or the breakdown of his health as such; his complaint has to do with the fact that God has taken all these things from him without just cause (9:17; 19:6ff; 29:1 ff).

What he protests about is the loss of his honour with God.

He feels utterly helpless and crushed before his Maker and his inability to prove that he is in a right relationship with his God is driving him out of his mind (40:8).

Job does not think God has left him but that he is persecuting him; “16 I hate my life…Oh, leave me alone for my few remaining days 17 What are people, that you should make so much of us, that you should think of us so often? 18 For you examine us every morning and test us every moment. 19 Why won’t you leave me alone, at least long enough for me to swallow!” (Job 7:16-19).

Job’s complaint about the uncomfortable presence of God reminds me of a time when I was having an argument with the Lord about something in my life and his presence tormented me day and night. When I woke up my conscience before God was stressed, at 1 a.m. in the laboratory I knew he was there and I just wanted, not to die, and face judgement, but like Job, to never have been born (cf. 3:3ff; 10:18-19; Jer 20:14-18).

Despite all of Job’s defiant claims that God should vindicate him because he is righteous (32:1; 33:9; 40:8), he never curses the Lord.

Whatever his pains, confusions and arrogance he never denies that he belongs to God he maintains this witness to the very end.

Rebuke and Restoration

The friends of Job hid behind their spiritual traditions, but in taking the argument up to God Job received a greater vision of the Lord.

Suddenly God appears to Job out of the whirlwind and begins to rebuke Job him in the face to face encounter he had longed for (13:15ff; 38:2-3; 40:7; 42:3, 6).

Unlike Job’s friends the Lord does not accuse him of sinful acts (29:12-17; 31:35-37), but appears with a display of majesty that makes Job feel stupid.

God humbles Job by drawing attention to the fine tuning and order of the world, his wisdom displayed in creating the wonders of nature from the depths of the sea to the reaches of the stars and the fearsome beasts that no man can master (38-41 cf. 28).

Seeing the signature of God’s presence in the beauty and harmony of the natural world Job is left speechless; ““Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” (40:4) and confesses his ignorance, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know….I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3, 6).

Having met God in person Job is now filled with the foundation of all true spiritual knowledge, the fear of the Lord (42:1-6).

At the end of the book the Lord describes Job in the same way he spoke of him in the beginning, he is proudly identified as “my servant Job” (1:8; 2:3; 42:7-8).

Most readers of Job miss something at the very end of the story which is profoundly significant.

The restored Job has 7 sons and 3 daughters, and only the daughters are named by Job; their names mean Dove, Cinnamon and Face-Paint i.e. cosmetics; “And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters.” (42:15).

Job’s final word is not that God is all powerful and all knowing, but that the fruit of God’s wisdom is beauty.

Job never receives an explanation for his suffering, he never knows about the wager between God and Satan.

Job’s faith however has come through a trial of dereliction, of feeling that the God he encountered in his senseless suffering was different from the God he had always known, he has learned to walk in naked faith and to love God for God’s sake. “He does not say in the end, “Now I see it all.” He never sees it all. He sees God (Job 42: 5).” (F. Andersen).

Like Job, countless men and women have cried out “Why?” in the midst of their anguish; but unlike Job most do not feel they have received an answer.

Here is an Australian example stimulated by in the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria which took 179 lives:

Why? ©Irene Conner 10/02/09

Can you tell us why they’re dying and the rest of us are crying as the raging flames of hell light up the sky?

Will we ever find a reason for this tragic summer season?

Can you hear a shattered nation asking ‘Why?’

There can be no consolation
as we view the desolation
for we know we’ll never understand their pain.
But we see their strength and courage
as they drift throughout the wreckage
of the peaceful lives they’ll never know again.

Can they live within their sorrow? What is left of their tomorrow?
Will there come a time when they’ll no longer cry?
Let our loving thoughts surround them,
wrap a nation’s arms around them
as we hear these shattered people asking 

For everyone who has asked “Why?” of God Job is important to us because Job points us to Jesus.

JESUS

The parallels between Job and Jesus are outstanding.

Both are righteous, tempted, impoverished, afflicted, rejected, faithful, and restored.

Job is a seeker after the Lord from beginning to end and as such is his faithful witness (Ezek 14:14; James 5:11).

All this points us to Jesus, the one true and faithful witness to God’s faithfulness, the sinless one who leads us back to the Father whatever our measure of suffering in this world (Rev 3:14).

In Job’s vow from excruciating pain, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job13:15) we hear echoes of Christ’s commitment in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not My will, but yours, be done” (Luke22:24).

In Job’s “Why” to a God who is experienced as strange and disturbing we sense an echo of Christ’s terrible cry from the cross; ““My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34).

At the moment when Jesus is plunged into the darkness of meaningless evil he receives no answer, no explanation, because his sufferings are infinitely more intense than Job’s, he cannot see the face of his Father.

Unlike an unbelieving humanity for whom suffering is a cause to turn away from God Jesus will not let go of God and ends his life with the utmost confidence, ““Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”” (Luke 23:46).

However much he was crushed under the senseless suffering sin brings on our world Jesus spoke truly to his disciples; “you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32).

This promise of God’s undying presence is true for us all in Christ. The signature of God’s beautiful wisdom has been indelibly stamped on the world through the triumph of the cross (1 Cor 1:17ff.).

Presence

Hard as it may be, every follower of Jesus has to endure times when their suffering seems senseless.

The mystery of the story of Job, brought into full light through the suffering of the cross, is that the path to the closest presence of God is found through unjust suffering (Job 42:7-8; Matt 12:18; 2 Pet 1:1).

The afflictions of God’s servants are not signs of God’s wrath, nor necessarily acts of his fatherly discipline, sometimes bad things happen to good people without explanation.

If men “hated (Jesus) without a cause” we too must be exposed to senseless suffering so that we may give pure witness to the undying love of God (John 15:18, 25).

If the answer to the torments of Job was not an intellectual one but a closer assurance of God’s loving presence so it must be with us.

Even the bushfire poem I read recognizes that caring presence is what people need. “Let our loving thoughts surround them, wrap a nation’s arms around them as we hear these shattered people asking ‘Why?’” This is a wonderful sentiment, but it is not enough to deal with the cruelties of this world. (Terrorist attacks Paris few days ago.)

Christians know the presence of Jesus is more powerful than anything this evil world can throw at us; this is our undying testimony whatever the injustices of life.

I have a young friend who suffers from bipolar disorder, what they used to call “manic depression”.

At various times in his life he has been involuntarily consigned to a locked psychiatric ward, drugged, restrained and roughly treated.

I said to him not long ago that he has a very special gift, which he affirmed, and he spoke of how even in the darkest places he has sensed that Jesus was with him and had never abandoned him, even in his place of madness. Jesus and Jesus alone can transform the sorts of useless suffering that people experience into a witness of his faithful presence.

Application and Conclusion

Through the cross the signature of God’s loving presence can be seen stamped on every human life.

Some years ago I had a traumatic-and-liberating experience of Christ overseas.

Flying back I had to take one of our regular services in a nursing home in the parish. The residents were as you might expect; frail, toothless and often demented. Suddenly I could see in them all an incredible beauty; the signature of God’s presence penetrated everything in an overwhelming way. (I am sure that’s how the Lord always sees his own image in people.)

Do you believe that the signature of God’s loving presence has sustained your life through all the seemingly senseless turmoil you have endured?

Can you see that his wisdom is beautiful beyond description and is all around you?

No one will ever sense this beautiful presence by asking about life’s unfairness, “Why has this happened to my family my fortunes my friends and my health?”

The presence of God in a senseless world is fully and finally found ONLY in the crucified Christ.

The mystery pointed to in the book of Job and brought fully into the light through the cross of Jesus is that the innocent sufferer who turns to Christ is the closest companion of God.

This is the wisdom that the world can never give and which the world can never take away (1 Cor 1:17ff.).

The worse life becomes the more this wisdom fills our souls and frees our consciences to praise the Lord; not for what he does but for who he is.

These things are certain.
God will permit Satan to sift you, you will have friends that misunderstand accuse you and your health will finally fail you.

But I can testify that all who turn away from useless questioning and complaining to the true wisdom of the cross will know the Lord’s beautiful presence in a way that is beyond questioning (Luke 22:31-32cf. Luke 21:16; Rev 13:7ff.).

This was the answer for Job and it is the answer for us all today.

The Prize

The Prize                                                       Sonlife Church 8.11.15  Philippians 3:12-21

Introduction

I think one sentence in today’s passage is particularly memorable because it is particularly intense; “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-14).

Passion like that of Paul for Jesus can never be ignored.

Possibly the greatest English speaking preacher ever was George Whitfield. During the same period lived the famous sceptical philosopher David Hume.

The story goes that five o’clock one morning he ran into another man on the streets of London who said; “Why, aren’t you David Hume?””Yes.” “Where are you going at this early hour?”

“I’m going to hear George Whitefield preach,” replied Hume. “You don’t believe a word Whitefield preaches,” said the man.”No,” Hume answered, “but he does!”

Paul was contending with opponents in Philippi whose corrupting influence threatened to lead believers away from a passionful concentration on Christ.

In sharing his soul he wants to motivate his readers to follow him in the pursuit of Jesus, letting go of the past and focussing only on our resurrection future with the Lord.

Such a forward looking faith is in conflict with the dominant spirituality of today’s Western Christianity dominated by its focus on enjoying a better life now.

Such a focus on immediate gratification is driven by an attitude that prevents individuals and churches from reaching spiritual maturity.

Let me briefly explain what I believe this attitude to be.

When the leader of an interstate prayer ministry visited Perth some years ago the Lord woke her up in the middle of the night with the word “sandgroper”. (This is an affectionate way in which Western Australians are sometimes referred to cf. crow-eaters for South Australians.)

Searching a dictionary she found out that a “sandgroper” is a burrowing insect that eats the roots of healthy plants so that they do not fully ripen.

She sensed that there was a “sandgroper spirit” at work in WA preventing the maturing of the work of the Lord.

Very rarely do churches and ministries in this city reach the “hundred fold” fruitfulness in spiritual character and increase the Lord desires (Matt 13:8).

I prayed about this and asked the Lord to show me what this “sandgroper spirit” represented; I was led to several scriptures which highlighted the sin of “selfish ambition” (James 3:14, 16).

I could see a picture of a healthy wheat crop whose roots were attacked by the competition selfish ambition brings so that the harvest of the Lord never reached its peak.

This is a warning to us all.

There is a thread that runs through Philippians which picks up the danger of “selfish ambition”.

In chapter one of Paul speaks of opponents who “preach Christ out of selfish ambition, seeking to afflict me in my imprisonment”, then in chapter two he counsels, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (1:17; 2:3).

In the third chapter of Philippians Paul speaks of people who think that they have spiritually “arrived” and are no longer motivated to seek Jesus above all else.

Such folk have inevitably turned their ambitions to earthly rather than heavenly things.

Nothing has changed.

From time to time people share with me their painful concern for Christian friends who seem to find it easier to talk about houses, land, family, work, money or ministry than to talk about Jesus. Philippians 3:12-21 is a passage designed to expel our selfish ambitions so that we remain focussed on Jesus bring forth the mature fruit God so desires.

Context

In the previous verses of chapter 3 Paul has spoken powerfully of his all consuming desire to; “know Christ and the power of his resurrection [to] share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:9-11).

This deep desire to identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus leads him to clarify the limits of his spiritual attainment.

Passage

v.12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  

Apparently there was a group of people in Philippi claiming they had reached some sort of spiritual perfection. Paul flatly denies he has attained the resurrection state and its completion.

No doubt because we were created for it “perfection” is an idea that is inescapable.

Australian singer Vanessa Amarosi’s very popular single called “Perfect” basically said you are perfect just as you are.

Achieving perfection often plagues artists and other gifted people.

Sometimes frustrated teenagers react against the expectations of their parents with a cry like, “I’m not perfect.” 

You may have seen a car sticker that said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

Whether we are people driven to seek perfection in achievements, or laid back cool dudes trying to be perfectly casual, the quest for perfection seems as hard wired in us as it is unattainable.  

 
The Lord however can deliver us from all ungodly ambitions about reaching perfection.

I tried to work out some of my thoughts about perfection through a PhD thesis that was an example of what they call “perfect being” theology.

This exercise did not help me on the inside at all.

Some years later I was going through a painful spiritual struggle where I continually felt that the demands of a “perfect God” were impossibly high to meet.

One morning deep in prayer I suddenly saw projected from my heart a sort of “image of perfection” that I was trying to serve. Instantly I realised the source of my idea of perfection was my earthly father’s expectations and had nothing to do with Jesus. My sense of “perfection” was an idolatrous projection of my imagination. Moved to deep and painful repentance over such terrible sin I found myself outside in the sunshine and it was like the whole world was suddenly filled with all the goodness of God in Christ.

There is only one place of perfection, it is in Jesus (Heb 2:10; 5:9).

When Paul describes how he is “pressing on” to make the resurrection life his own he pictures himself like a hunter  chasing down his prey, whatever it takes (cf. Rom 9:30). Then he shares something which helps us understand the radical difference between true Christian zeal and religious fanaticism.

I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own”.

When Jesus died Paul died in him, when Christ was raised the apostle was raised with him (Rom 6:1ff; 2 Cor 5:14-15). Christ has totally claimed us as his own so that our zeal for him is a response to his zeal for us.

This potent spiritual secret is spelled out in a parallel way in 1 Corinthians 13:12; “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” Perfect vision will come as a gift to every Christian when Christ comes again.

The revelation of this promise takes away all useless spiritual striving. (I wish I had known these things as a young Christian it would have prevented lots of useless suffering).

v.13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s total orientation is towards his future with Jesus.

When he speaks of “forgetting what lies behind” he has in mind something much more powerful than not thinking of the past.

In Hebrew thought to “remember” something is to be actively present to that thing, for example when we “remember” Jesus in communion the Spirit connects us to the power of the cross placing us in its presence 2,000 years ago (1 Cor 11:24-25).

To “forget what lies behind” is to refuse to allow the past with its personal successes and failures to have any influence on the present.

Like a runner racing forward to the finish line a Christian must never look back.

People who cannot let go of past victories are filled with pride, but more commonly it is the memory of past failures that fill us with regrets.

A few months ago I went to a retreat in Kalbarri, as I drove towards the town I was filled with regrets about things I had failed to do, mainly with family, years ago. When memory brings regrets about past wrongs there is only one solution – get alone with Jesus. Here is what I wrote about an experience on retreat;

Walking beside the sandy tree lined river bed under the fresh spring sky I was magnetically attracted to the unimaginable goodness of God. In the presence of God I felt no constraint to perform or conform in order to right wrongs, only an incredible love; “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16). Such a space witnesses infallibly to a world beyond this one filled with the pure goodness of Christ (Ps 73:1). Whilst a moment before memory pierced my heart with regrets about past wrongs I felt so pleased to be with the Lord in an inexpressible realm of wonder and beauty (Acts 2:37; 1 Pet 1:8). The sense of stillness, peace, rest and quiet emanating from the indwelling Spirit was exhilarating.

When Paul speaks of “straining forward to what lies ahead” he is as excited and animated as a runner straining with all his energy to reach the finishing line (cf. Col 1:29).

This athletic image reminds me of my experiences as a child at several Melbourne Cups; the scene of horse and rider straining every muscle with a continuous concentration on the things that are out in front is a spectacle of great intensity. Elsewhere Paul says, “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.” (1 Cor 9:25).

A future with Jesus must be our all consuming ambition.

Paul first heard “the upward call” to follow Jesus at the time of his conversion, and “the prize” of this call is Jesus himself.

Still responding to a group in Philippi who somehow thought they had “made it” (1 Cor 14:37) the apostle continues,

v.15 Let those of us who are mature [Greek ‘perfect’] think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. v.16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

One of the Early Church Fathers wisely said, “it is the mark of the perfect man not to reckon himself perfect” (Chrysostom).

When I hear people refer to themselves as spiritually mature Christians I cringe in fear for them.

The way to measure maturity is summed in Paul’s passionate Christ-centred words to the Colossians; “Him (Jesus) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col 1:28)

if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.

Paul’s expectation of divine revelation is stated in an almost casual way.

If you are someone who says, “God never speaks to me”, I would suggest you are looking in the wrong direction.

Stop looking at yourself and start asking the proudest Father in heaven and earth to speak to you about the excellencies of his Son; I guarantee you he will send his Holy Spirit to testify to you about Jesus!

As an immature believer I thought that if I could receive revelation from God I would be more spiritual, now I just want to know Jesus better (Rev 19:10).

Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (v.16), which is to say, live a life consistent with your Christian growth.

v.17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Paul’s call for the Philippians to imitate his life does not come from an arrogance or  controlling spirit, in his humility and servanthood Paul is a model of Christ-likeness (cf. 1 Cor 15:10).

Unlike today’s Church the New Testament is free from obsessions about “leadership” and “influence”.

Paul will however boast of having suffered the loss of all things “in order to gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).

He speaks frequently and unselfconsciously of suffering for others because laying down his life for others reveals the love of Jesus; so to the Ephesians he says, “I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Eph 3:13 cf. 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7-9 cf. 2 Cor 11:18-12:9).

This is true leadership.

keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

This verse challenges us all to a transparent and consistent way of life (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 1:7, 9).

Jesus warned about the religious teachers of his day, ““v.2 The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. v.3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they preach.”” (Matt 23:2-3).

If you are a Christian you are being watched; inside and outside the Church.

Years ago I remember a mature aged woman coming to me and saying, “You’re the only priest we’ve ever had that hasn’t been materialistic.”

People will only see Jesus in us if we live out what we say we believe. (cf. spikes in church growth during the period of the Roman Empire occurred after the devastating plagues; when the pagans who had the resources to do so headed out of the cities for the safety of the countryside the Christians stayed back to care for the sick and dying).

Suddenly Paul changes his tone to speak of a way of life that must be avoided at all costs:

v.18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. v.19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

Whoever this group were they seem to have been professing Christians who were a constant menace to the Philippian Christians staying centred on Jesus.

In speaking “even with tears” Paul reveals a heart attitude of audible grief for the lost (cf. Acts 20:29-31; cf. 2 Cor 2:4).

His emotional brokenness comes from sharing the heart of Jesus, “And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now1)Luke 19: 42 the days will come upon you, when your enemies will2)Luke 19: 43 tear you down to the ground3)Luke 19: 44 because you did not know the time of your visitation.4)Luke 19: 44””(Luke 19:41-44 cf. Rom 9:1-5).

These wolves in sheep’s clothing harassing the church in Philippi are “enemies of the cross”.

Who are the enemies of the cross in our dark and confusing times?

There was a programme on TV the other night about Westboro Baptist Church in the U.S. whose website is www.godhatesfags.com, are they enemies of the cross, is Rob Bell, once the darling of American Evangelicalism but now an Oprah celebrity and “Everything is Spiritual” guru an adversary of the cross, how about the influential Australian Baptist elder-statesman Rowland Croucher who has came out in favour of “equal marriage”, and what are we to make of the superstar who was in Sydney recently for the Hillsong conference, Justin Bieber, is his lifestyle for or against the cross of Christ?

 The most Christ-like response to these sorts of questions is to intercede with tears for a confused and lost generation who no longer understand the power of the cross.

Paul zeroes in uncomfortably on these “enemies of the cross” whose “god is their belly”.

I will never forget the conversation I had with a young Hindu cult devotee on the streets of Adelaide over 40 years ago; “I am made in the image of God” he said “and I find myself lusting after a cream cake in the shop window”.

I was in the Belmont Forum this week which of course was thronging with obese people, for Australia is in the midst of an obesity epidemic which is predicted to shorten the average lifespan of the nation5)www.obesityaustralia.org/_literature…/No_Time_To_Weight_Report.

There are idolaters who “god is their belly” all around us. (cf. Rom 16:17-18 “persons who serve their own appetites”).

Maybe though you are more sophisticated than these examples, perhaps you are uncontrollably passionate about coffee in a way that interferes with the “one thing” who is Jesus.

Seriously, I know people whom the Lord has spoken to about their coffee problem.

The enemies of the cross “glory in their shame”.

It is normal today for people to boast about their sexual exploits, drinking bouts and the other humiliating lusts which place them under the judgement of God. That is the world and it is to be expected, what really bothers me is how at a foundational level the Church is often little different.

I was speaking with someone on the pastoral team of a large church during the week and he asked me why so many pastors are obsessed with numbers. I related my past experience of going to pastors’ conferences and how about the second question you would be asked was, “How big is yours?” (I am being deliberately Freudian about this.).

Many pastors are more passionate about growing a church, or seeing signs and wonders, than they are about Jesus.

Godly ambition can be summed up in the words of Count Zinzendorf, the father of the modern missions movement, “I have but one passion: It is He, it is He alone.”

Only the cross can free us from our selfish ambitions so we may grow in resurrection life, as Paul says to the Galatians, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14).

Paul’s says his opponents in Philippi have their “minds set on earthly things”.

In a more extended comment he writes to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3).

Sadly, many Christians today seem to have lost the ability to look up and are focussed on enjoying a better life now.

A few years ago I was invited to a $100 a head breakfast to listen to the then richest person in the nation talk about Christianity in the Marketplace.

Someone bought me a ticket and the place was packed. I am guessing those attending aspired to be successful like the speaker.

The address was a clear revelation of the man’s heart ambitions (Luke 6:45). Although he mentioned seeking guidance from the Bible a couple of times guess whose name was never lifted up?  (Jesus).

What you share most passionately is a clear indication of where your personal ambitions lie.

I have left Paul’s most disturbing words in this passage until last; “their end is “destruction”, destruction in the Bible is not annihilation but the total opposite of salvation (Matt 7:13; Rom 9:22; 2 Pet 3:7; Rev 17:8, 11).

If someone’s ambitions in this life are earthly things then when Jesus returns and dissolves the present cosmic order everything in which they have ever hoped will be lost (cf. 2 Pet 3:7-11).

Such an end is almost too terrible to contemplate.

After such depressing things Paul moves on with a very big BUT which fills our hearts with hope

v.20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, v.21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:20-21)

In saying “our citizenship is in heaven” Paul beautifully expresses the truth that each local church is called to be a colony of heaven.

Since heaven, where Jesus lives, is our home if you feel at home in this world there’s something wrong in your relationship with Jesus (1 Pet 1:1, 11; Heb 11:13; James 1:1; Epistle to Diognetus V). We are to take our cues for life not from our surrounding culture but from our heavenly Lord.

Nicky Gumbel of Alpha fame rightly says “If our ambition is to know Christ, our hearts will soar into heavenly places.”

As this passage moves on the pitch of passion becomes inexpressible; if the thought of graduation from university, or getting your first job, or getting married, or starting a home and family is exciting how thrilling beyond measure is the anticipation of the Second Coming when we will meet Jesus face to face (1 Cor 13:12).

When Paul says “we await a Saviour” he is speaking the same language as the letter to the Hebrews;  “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb 9:28).

Three broad groups of Christians persistently yearn for the Return of Christ;

  1. the Church under persecution,
  2. the Church in poverty and
  3. the Church experiencing a genuine Spirit-filled revival.

Part of the Australian Church’s lack of hunger for the Second Coming stems from our failure to understand what the rest of this passage means.

When Jesus returns he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body”.

In language like Paul has already used in Philippians 2:8 of Jesus taking on a human body the promise is that God will glorify, literally, the “body of our humiliation”.

I often prayer walk past a 24 hour gym on Great Eastern Highway and no matter what time of hour or day there always seems to be someone in there working out; this is a healthy thing to do (1 Tim 4:8) but in the end it is futile because the Creator pronounced over our fallen race; “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Naturally speaking every person is fighting a losing battle against frailty, sorrow, aging, illness, the miseries of the flesh and eventual death (Rom 8:10-11; 1 Cor 15:42-44; 50-54).

This is not a cause for depression but should move us to join in with Paul, “v.24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? v.25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25).

When Jesus appears he will change our weak bodies to be “like his glorious body”.

God can do nothing better for you than to give you the same sort of indestructible body he has given to his Son.

This miraculous transformation comes “by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:21 cf. Eph 1:19-20; 3:7).

This is the power by which Christ is Lord over the whole created cosmos (Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 15:28; Heb 2:5-9).

This power is already at work in us to make us more and more like Jesus (Eph 1:19-20).

These truths are great truths, why is it then that so few contemporary Christians meditate on the hope of resurrection?

Jesus’ great ambition to bring glory to his Father could only come through resurrection from the dead (John 12:27-28; 17:5).

To die on the cross so that he might be raised from the grave required from Jesus an exclusive and excruciatingly painful submission to the purposes of his Father (Mark 14:36).

This was the lesson Christ taught Paul when he cried out to the Lord for relief from the suffering of his “thorn in the flesh”; to a desperately weakened apostle the Lord said, ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Cor 12:9).

This is the one form of perfection that Paul can proclaim, this is his sole passion and ultimate ambition, that through submission to the sufferings of Christ in our own life we enter into the exhilarating presence of his resurrection power. This is the “one thing” the man/woman of God chases after above all other desires.

Conclusion

I was in conversation yesterday with one of my favourite pastors in this city; in this case it was not Binh! He said he had been in his present church for five years and this was longer than any role placement he had ever been in his life.

I could tell he and the church had reached a place of predictability as most churches, most marriages and most Christians do.

After a period of early excitement things plateau because the competing ambitions of men and women in marriages, ministries and churches choke out the life of Christ stopping the continuous growth that is natural to the kingdom of God.

In such situations pastors move on, marriages simply survive (at best) and believers just adjust to staying in the same place with God because they don’t know how to go deeper into Christ.

I said my dear brother yesterday that my marriage is as exhilarating today, more actually, as it was 40 years ago and my passion for Jesus, the single minded ambition, which underlies all I am and all I do is more focussed than ever.

This is not because I have reached any perfection, but because through many mistakes, slowness and stupidities I have had some measure of revelation “of the prize of the upward call of God” which is Christ himself.

There is some order in this; the Lord has a regular way of putting to death our selfish ambitions.

As a young Christian I was approached about taking a path in the biological sciences, something I really wanted to do to cover over my embarrassment at having to do my final year of high school twice, even before I could ask the Lord about this his Spirit convicted me this was not his will, I was in the process of applying to fulfil an ambition to be a full time lecturer in a major theological college when God blocked me again, the wisdom of God stymied my pastoral ambitions by handing a church I was leading over to what I can only call a riot.

There are plenty of other examples.

I have been stripped of idol and idol so that I might, like Paul, accept that the “one thing” the Lord has for us that is infinitely better than all else is himself.

ONLY IN CHRIST DO WE BEAR THE MATURE FRUIT THAT WILL LAST.

When people observe your manner of life is it categorically clear to them that the “one thing” you desire far above all else is to share in the resurrection life of the Son of God?

If you are hesitant to answer this question in the affirmative then today you must ask the Lord to graciously expose all of your selfish ambitions and to put to death every idol which would keep you from “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, (ask) God (to) reveal that also to you.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Luke 19: 42
2. Luke 19: 43
3, 4. Luke 19: 44
5. www.obesityaustralia.org/_literature…/No_Time_To_Weight_Report

The Wordless Father

Personal Matters

A few weeks ago I was privileged, a word I do rarely use for Christian meetings, to attend a seminar in the city where Letitia Shelton spoke about the ministry of City Women in Toowoomba.

This is a diverse ministry that draws resources from the Body of Christ across that municipality reaching into high schools with the message of hope and dignity, and providing discipleship, mentoring, accommodation, pregnancy services, assisting women coming out of prostitution and multiple agencies of relationally based family support.

The fruit is mature and bears all the signs of Jesus’ love (John 15:16). I had heard Letitia previously and was already aware of the unusual quality of their ministry. Given this past familiarity, and my lack of optimism about the Church in Perth picking up the message,

I was initially hesitant about attending the gathering at all. Eventually succumbing to the graces of the Spirit I did come and sensed at the seminar something that inspired my prophetic imagination. It was the presence of a quality of heart that makes this sort of kingdom activity transferable (1 Cor 11:1). The day was facilitated by my friend Nick Scott and it was how he commenced the day that broke things open in the Spirit.

The Broken Father

Nick described how when he returned to Perth from first hearing Letitia speak and attempted to convey to his wife what he’d heard he kept breaking down in wordless tears. This happened repeatedly. Being overwhelmed with emotion at the care being shown to broken and abused women is not the normal response of an Australian male; “even” a pastor. Such brokenness is however a window into the heart of God the Father, a heart indwelt by Jesus. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:18 NRSV).

When City Women is invited by school authorities to speak to their girls they are of course not allowed to preach about Jesus. But by love, care and compassion they show Jesus and in showing Jesus show the Father (John 14:9).

The interesting thing about this ministry is that it seems completely free of reproaching moralism towards those who don’t yet know the Father’s love.

Sexual promiscuity and like are simply to be expected from girls who don’t know about Christ; how else could it be?

The way Paul speaks to the pagans in Acts 17 is very different from how he speaks to the Church about secular culture in Romans 1 .

The former is a clear communication of the good news to the lost who Jesus came to save (Luke 19:10).

Legal repentance and Evangelical repentance.

There is a vast difference between legal repentance and evangelical repentance.

Legal repentance says: if you repent then God will be gracious to forgive you.

Evangelical/gospel repentance says: God has forgiven you in Christ, therefore turn back to him and accept his acceptance.

The legal lays the stress on what we do to connect with God, the latter on what God has accomplished for us in Christ.

Paul tried to get this through to some legalistic believers in his day;

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” . (NLT)

An old teacher of mine used to say that when people see Jesus all-forgiving love repentance is “evoked” i.e. drawn out of their hearts. If you think I am going soft in my old age there is a powerful witness to these truths in Jesus’ own teaching.

The Wordless Father

Here is a question I felt the Lord brought to my mind when I was in the City Women meeting; “What did the father of the rebellious prodigal son say to the boy when he returned home?

He said “Nothing.” He conveyed the contents of his heart by what he did; impelled by compassion he ran to his son, embraced him, placed on him a robe and ring and then spoke to the servants that they were to throw a party (Luke 15:20-24).

This son instantly knew that the self-condemnation of his miserable conscience; “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” was dissolved in the presence of the Father’s love (Luke 15:21).

The shameful scale of worthiness/unworthiness which holds all prodigals/rebels captive was utterly swept away never to return (John 8:34).

Wordless to his returning son the father however has things to say to the older brother who wants to rake up the record of his sibling’s sins (Luke 15:30).

This angry legalistic child actually rebukes his father and in so doing degrades his own status to that of a slave, “‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command,” (Luke 15:29).

The father’s reply is a gentle but deep correction to his oldest boy; “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”” (Luke 15:31-32).

This son was so consciousness of his own righteousness that he was totally ignorant of his father’s heart.

The story ends there, but if the history of Israelite religion is any guide the chances of the pharisaic in-house son taking the father’s love into his heart are very slim.

What is it that we, who are so often like the older brother, missing?

Raw

Letitia explained that the original impetus for City Women came from expletive laden “raw words” of a former non-Christian woman mayor of Toowoomba who challenged Christian women about taking care of those outside the Church.

The true rawness of human need should take our minds immediately to the cross.

In becoming human and dying for us Jesus fully embraced all the miseries of the rebellious in a “far country” away for the glory of his Father’s presence (Luke 15:13; Rom 8:3).

At the cross the rawness of human depravity and suffering was laid bare in the agonies of Christ.

A practical theology of the cross agrees with the sentiments of a saint much persecuted by the comfortable Established Church of his day, “Christ’s merits bought a blessing to the crosses of the sons of God….no man has a velvet cross” (John Flavel).1)John Flavel [c.1627–1691] was an English Presbyterian clergyman, puritan, and author.

Whilst the churches of today preach cushioned crosses ministries like City Women will remain rare amongst us. It is only as we suffer inconvenience and discomfort in identifying with lost children of God who have no idea what they are doing in their lives can we lead them through Jesus back to the Father (Luke 23:34).

Conclusion

Nick Scott’s tears, the overwhelming emotion of the father of the lost prodigal son and the compassionate ministry of City Women all image in action more than words that through Jesus the lost are already in the heart of the Father (cf. Eph 1:3-4).

In Christ the sin against heaven has been completely dealt with so that his Father is free from all driven legalistic negativity.

Our task is to so live like Jesus that the Spirit might restore to broken souls the memory of a Father who never rejects.

Repentance must come, but it is a repentance “evoked” by memory of the Father’s love in an unconditional embrace (Luke 15:20).

The parable of the rebellious prodigal son is a parable for our day, a day in which multitudes of lost people, old as well as young, need to discover the heart of God in actions beyond words.

Yet, how many in the church need to discover this for themselves?

References   [ + ]

1. John Flavel [c.1627–1691] was an English Presbyterian clergyman, puritan, and author.