Broken, but Blessed

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I live between two opposite addresses:  between that of the worm and that of the eagle. I have this soaring eagle-confidence because I know my Saviour lives and that his grace is sufficient for me, that he is all I need!, and yet I daily experience this grinding worm-contrition that must acknowledge my own sin and failures.

What a strange mixture of polar opposites.

Micah expresses something of it (7: 7-9):   “I will watch for the Lord; I will wait confidently for God, who will save me. My God will hear me. Our enemies have no reason to gloat over us. We have fallen, but we will rise again. We are in darkness now, but the Lord will give us light. We have sinned against the Lord, so now we must endure his anger for a while. But in the end he will defend us and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will bring us out to the light; we will live to see him save us.

I have sinned against God! And I cannot defend myself or in any way lessen my guilt. And consequently, I will “bear the indignation of the Lord”. He is right to be angry with me. I have sinned against the Lord of glory, and I am ashamed. But then look at the next two lines of verse 9: “. . . He will defend us and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will bring us out to the light; we will live to see him save us.” There’s confidence there too—”God will plead my cause. God will execute judgment for me.” I have sinned against him, and so I am broken beneath his holy indignation. But this very God—this very same angry God—will soon plead my cause, he will take my side and vindicate me, and so I am bold in his grace.

Broken under his indignation, bold in his grace.

What is so remarkable and helpful about this verse is that it keeps these two things so close together. Many of us feel that we can’t live this way—keeping these two things so close together. If we think of God as angry with us, we collapse in despair. If we think of God as gracious to us, then we feel there is no place for brokenness and remorse. And so today we tend to separate what the Bible keeps together.

But that’s it: they are brought together! The two addresses, so to speak, are brought home into one.  When we sin, we must accept the indignation of God and not deny it or hide ourselves from it. But not only that: when we sin, let’s be bold and believe that this very God will plead our cause and vindicate us in justice—brokenness and boldness.

The context is that of a nation facing imminent invasion from without, from the destructive force of Assyria, but the prophet is saying that the real enemy is within, from the sin of the people, “God’s people.” And so God sent Micah to call the people to repent and to warn them of coming judgment.

What is the nature of this sinful behaviour? It sounds strangely familiar. In 2:1–2 he says, Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil upon their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.

In 6:11–12 he cries out for God against dishonesty in business: Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights? Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.

 But it’s not just the businessmen and women that are corrupt. The religious leaders are phoney and driven by the love of money. Look at 3:5: Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths.

In other words they preach for hire—they say what the rich people in the congregation want to hear so the building gets built faster. It was an evil day. Micah had the unpopular job of warning people that the corruption in business and commerce and religion and politics was going to bring terrible judgment from God if there was no repentance: Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now you shall go forth from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. (4:10)

How do they respond? First answer this: how do WE respond? We face the same judgement. Why is the divorce rate as high in the church as it is in the world? Why do the vast majority of Christians never introduce anyone to Christ? Why are our churches loaded with people who want a part-time, convenient, weekend Christian experience and who show no serious interest in spiritual growth? Why do pastors have to twist people’s arms to give, to serve, to get involved in the work of the ministry? Why are church splits so common? Why are so many professing Christians barren, empty, hurting, confused, and in spiritual bondage? Why is the world so utterly disinterested in what we have to offer?

So when you contemplate Micah’s situation, think of your own! We are sinners and the church is in great need of repentance and reform and cleansing. Micah shows two kinds of response to his preaching. Both are based on grace, but one is right and the other is wrong.

First, let’s look at the wrong one—the wrong way to depend on grace in the face of Micah’s exposure of our sin. Look at 3:11. Micah speaks to the judges and the priests and the prophets of Jerusalem: Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us.” This is the response of False Security. They think they are ok: “We are secure because the Lord is in the midst of us! There is his temple! There is the Ark of the Covenant—the covenant! We are the covenant people! We have Abraham as our father (Matthew 3:9). We are leaning on the Lord! Leaning on the everlasting arms of grace! We have a God of grace! Turn your preaching of judgment to the nations, Micah, not to us. Look at 2:6. What do they say to Micah? “Do not preach”—thus they preach—”one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.” Here is one way to lean on grace. And if we do, it will kill us. It is a false security.

Have you read of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian? He was hanged on April 9, 1945, by a special order of Himmler at the concentration camp in Buchenwald. He wrote a little book called THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. What Bonhoeffer attacks in his first essay in this book is this response to Micah’s preaching. He calls it “cheap grace.” Listen and see if this doesn’t ring true to Scripture and nail the problem of these people.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. (p. 45)

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (p. 47)

Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness . . . Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of grace—for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace. (p. 47)

The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. (p. 55)

Cheap grace was rampant in Micah’s day. It was rampant in Bonhoeffer’s day in Germany. (“We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ” [p. 57].)

And it is rampant today. And it is the wrong way to lean on grace. And if the church doesn’t change, there will be judgment—there was in Israel. The church is sterile and it needs to reproduce.

That other way is that worm meets eagle approach! In Micah 7:7–9 Israel has learned to respond the right way to the preaching of sin and judgment. Four steps:

1. Unshakable Solidarity with God: v 7, “My God will hear me.” This is what happens when a person turns from depending on self and begins to depend on God.

2. Acceptance of Indignation When We Sin: We don’t minimize its ugliness. v9: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.”

3. Confidence in the Grace of God: I am confident that the very God who is indignant at my sin, is also my saviour. He pleads my cause v9. “He will defend us and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will bring us out to the light; we will live to see him save us.” Another translation puts is thus: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy! When I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me . . . He will bring me forth to the light; I shall see his deliverance.”

4. Hope of Deliverance: v 7. “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. When you sin, you bear the indignation of the Lord in brokenness, and that in this brokenness you boldly believe that this very God will plead your cause, and that you look to him and wait for him with this confidence: “My God will hear me.”

 

Can you call God your God this morning?

Is there an unshakable solidarity between you and him?

This is not inherited. It is chosen by an act of forsaking all other gods

and swearing allegiance to the one true God, the Father of Jesus Christ.

“Choose today whom you shall serve.”

Let him break you. Let him bless you. Let him make you strong.

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ADVENT: The Sign of the Child

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Sometimes we misconstrue the role of the Old Testament prophets, seeing them as (mere) predictors of the future. Though there is a strong predictive element, it is better to see them as forth-tellers, rather than fore-tellers.

They “told forth” the word of God as it was spoken to them by God in response to the issues of the day. They filled their minds and hearts with an experiential knowledge of the character of God, and then responded, as it were, on God’s behalf, to the things that were happening.

And because God’s character is constant, the word He speaks keeps applying! God does not compromise with sin, nor does He change His opinion or blur the boundaries between good and evil.

No matter how much we might do so.

Someone once described the work of the Old Testament prophets to me as that of artists painting a mountain range: no matter how accurate the outline, it’s impossible to gauge the distance between the peaks until you travel among them yourself. So the prophets trumpeted forth God’s word (in the present), outlining the consequences (in the future) but did not provide a timescale or calendar of events. They were more concerned with identifying the principle of how and why God acted.

But there was one thing for sure: God was going to act decisively to deliver His people. And the word “Messiah” means “Rescuer.” It was a key theme dominating the work of the prophets. How will God do it?

Isaiah tells the story of his own calling into God’s service in Isaiah 6. It’s a remarkable vision of the holiness of God and the unholiness of man. Isaiah expresses his own unworthiness to speak on God’s behalf, but God replies (in the vision) by taking a live coal from the altar and touching his mouth. Henceforth, Isaiah’s mouth was sanctified for service.

So what did he say?

He said a great deal, and the large book of the Bible that bears his name scans God’s dealings with His people through a succession of kings and at least a score of years. But for now, as we think of Advent, let’s think of those early prophecies from Isa 7-12.

Before you read any more, grab a Bible and speed-read  those chapters, marking down every reference to a son or a child.

Finished?

You will have found at least half a dozen.

  1. Shear Jashub” is referred to as “your son” in Isa 7:3.
  2. A virgin will conceive” the child to be called “Emmanuel” in Isa 7:14.
  3. Isaiah’s second son is to be called “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz ” (Isa 8:1-4).
  4. In Isa 8:17-18, the prophetic meaning of these names is given.
  5. In Isa 9, there’s a long passage beginning “A child is born.

There are several other references too, but these are the main ones. If this is a picture or indicator of the role and function of the coming Messiah, then what are we told? What can we draw from these scattered references?

First, we note the significance of Jerusalem (“the city of the great king”) and the line of David. These form something of the parameters of God’s moving in history.

Second, we have to see the significance of the birth of a child to a virgin. Of course, as is well known, the Hebrew word “virgin” can just mean “young woman” and, as one commentator put it: “Its immediate use here refers to Isaiah’s young wife and her new-born son (Isa 8:1-4)” and the immediate political situation.

Matthew 1:23 speaks of a further fulfillment, however, and the sign is not of a time-period (Isa 7:15,16) but of a miraculous birth.

Third, the coming of this child is going to change the world. This is the clear word of the Isa 9 passage. There is an emphasis on government, security and peace which go oddly with the idea of a child.

Fourth, without over-simplifying it too much, the prophetic names of Isaiah’s sons provide the meaning of the life of the Messiah. Shear Jashub means  “A remnant will return” and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz means “Your enemies will soon be destroyed.” The first speaks of mercy, and the second of judgement.

The cross is where God’s judgement and His mercy meet.

But for now, we are travelling on the Advent journey, baby on board, waiting for God to do the unexpected! 

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Anna: “The redemption of Jerusalem”

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There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying.  Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2: 36-38)

This tiny little moment is often missed within the bigger and more dramatic moments of the Christmas narrative. Why did Luke insist on its inclusion?

Obviously, because there is something of moment here, that shouldn’t be overlooked. The first point of emphasis, I think, is that the coming of Jesus is the perfect flowering of ancient promises. That is to say, this Jesus is  the culmination point of the whole long story of Israel.

Sometimes we are tempted to over-emphasise the newness of what God was doing in Christ. There was even  a move in the early Church, led by Marcion, to more-or-less ditch the Old Testament completely. They asked: “Why do we need all that stuff?”

Even today there is sometimes a tendency for preachers to so focus on New Testament texts that the Old Testament is seldom considered and much less well understood. But all of that complicated root system  (a king like David, a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek… and so forth) intertwines and links together to produce the flower. So how can you cut off the roots without damaging the fruit?

And so, to make that emphasis, Luke includes the account of someone passionately devoted to the Temple, to its ways and rituals -a total Jewish insider- and notes how that very passion was looking forward, not stuck in the past, to something which Luke describes as the “redemption of Jerusalem.”

And there’s the point. The word “Jerusalem” signifies the old system of worship and sacrifice, the law and the prophets. But the word “redemption” signifies the new thing that was promised and is now happening – a release from bondage as the new seedling bursts out of the old soil. Much of the prophecy from the Old Testament  centred on the coming of Messiah, the long-promised hero. And so Luke emphasises Anna’s extreme age and devotion. Her age means that she has lived with those promises a long long time! Her devotion means that she now recognises their fulfilment. “She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying…”  This is the very quintessence of Old Testament faith.

But suddenly, everything has changed. “Jerusalem” is being redeeemed.

Second,  as we consider Anna’s age and devotion, we should also note her gender. There are very few women who are designated “prophet” in the Bible. In the Old Testament we have Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, who was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). Deborah was another prophetess, and she was also the only woman that we know of to judge Israel (Judges 4:4). Another prophetess in the Bible is Huldah, who lived in Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). An unnamed prophetess is mentioned in Isaiah 8:1–4. This prophetess bore Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, whose name was prophetic.

In the New Testament, apart from  Anna  in Luke 2, four more prophetesses are mentioned in Acts 21:9. The four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist were known for their prophecies.

The Bible also mentions two false prophetesses, women who claimed to speak God’s word but were lying. One of these false prophetesses is a woman named Noadiah who was part of the conspiracy to make Nehemiah afraid to follow God (Nehemiah 6:14). The other is an unnamed false prophetess referred to as “Jezebel” in Revelation 2:20.

So when Luke makes the point that Anna is a prophetess, he is anchoring that gifting of prophecy within the story of the People of God past present and future. Remember that it is Luke who will tell the story of  Pentecost in Acts 2, underlining that non-gender specific bit:  “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…”

Luke emphasises the importance of women among the People of God throughout his two-volume work. The high standing of women is evident from the beginning with two women playing enormously important roles in the history of salvation – Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Anna – roles which are described in such detail only by Luke 1-2.

There;s a constant mention of widows in Luke’s Gospel too; they are mentioned in Luke 2:37; 4:25-26; 7:12; 18:3; 20:47; 21:2. Mark 15:41 and Matt 27:55 relate that women accompanied Jesus during His ministry, but only Luke mentions that they provided for Him out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3). Martha and Mary received Jesus into their house and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, the position of a disciple (Luke 10:38-42).

And finally, women are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. The angel said to the women in the tomb, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee...” (Luke 24:6), which reminds us that women accompanied Jesus since the time He was in Galilee.

And here, before any of that, it is an elderly, devout woman who recognises the truth about Jesus even when he was just a baby. In Giotto’s mural (above, from the Chapel of Scrovegni, in Padua), Anna stands quietly to one side, in a position which is easy to overlook. And yet she holds the scroll (the Old Testament promise) in one hand and with the other points to the Christ.

It was Giotto’s genius to portray those warmly human moments. And here he suggests the character of Anna as selfless, intelligent and gracious.

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Waiting

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“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

Sometimes it seems like your whole life can be taken up with waiting.”Wait until you’re bigger,” they tell you, when you want to climb that tree. At school you wait for the real stuff to happen over there at College. You wait for that ideal partner. You wait for kids or the perfect job or a secure position. And through all that waiting, there you are, your one precious life ticking by, day by day, whilst you wait for it to start.  According to Voltaire: “We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.”

You’re  waiting for that time, that person, that event when your life finally clicks into meaning..

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

And this is how we’re introduced to Simeon” “He was waiting….”  

I wonder what that looked like. Sometimes the waiting that I described could easily become weariness, frustration – maybe even disappointment, cynicism or bitterness.

But the Bible doesn’t permit us to make that assessment of Simeon. First, he is described as “righteous and devout.” These are not vague terms. Within the context of First Century Jewish life, it means that he was obedient to the Law, that he was serious and dedicated to the customs and practices of his people. His life had purpose and structure.

The writer gives us two more bits of information, however, that give a different perspective to Simeon’s “waiting.” First, he was waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” Second, “the Holy Spirit was on him.

This means that he was anticipating what God had promised for Israel in the coming of the Messiah, the anointed deliverer. And further more, he was alive to the stirring of God. “The Holy Spirit was on him”  in the sense that the prophets of old had done and said things that they felt God impelling them to do and say.

In this passage, for instance, Luke notes that Simeon came in to the temple just then because he was “moved [to do so] by the Holy Spirit.” He was ready to snap to attention when he felt God say “Go!”

So there’s an important combination of characteristics here. First, Simeon was “righteous and devout” in his day-to-day lifestyle. Second, he was looking forward to the prophetic denouement of that day to day stuff, and “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”  And third, he was alive and alert to the voice of God, for “the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

And until God said, “Go!”“ he waited.

“Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.” ( Elisabeth Elliot)

And J.J.Packer wrote this: “Wait on the Lord” is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.” 

“Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts.” (Peterson)

So here’s the thing: this is waiting in faith, not frustration.

And this is what waiting in faith looks like:

First, God wants us to deal with life’s ambiguities and disappointments through a lifestyle that is patiently, quietly, “righteous and devout.” Keep in prayer; attend church; read God’s word; be faithful.

However, that patient waiting can only stay sweet if, second, you have a Big Picture of what God is doing. We do not yet see everything under His feet, but we see Jesus (Heb 2:8). We too are waiting for the “consolation of Israel” in a sense. We are looking forward into God’s future to see the Wrap-Up of history and the final triumph of Christ. Our daily devotion is fueled by a future expectation.

And third, we are only maintained in that expectation by the power of the Holy Spirit. The past and the future are only explicable when empowered by an active Now, where God speaks and acts.

And today, when you hear His voice, be ready to listen and respond.

A final reflection from EARTH AND ALTAR by Eugene H. Peterson:

 “Prayer trains the soul to singleness of focus: for God alone my soul waits. Another will is greater, wiser and more intelligent than my own. So I wait. Waiting means that there is another whom I trust and from whom I receive. My will, important and essential as it is, finds a will that is more important, more essential… In prayer we are aware that God is in action and that when the circumstances are ready, when others are in the right place and when my heart is prepared, I will be called into action. Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts. Waiting is our participation in the process that results in the “time fulfilled”. ”  

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Isaiah’s Christmas

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“Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isaiah 8:18)

Isaiah had two sons and he gave them names symbolic of how God was dealing with his nation. We have many African friends who give their children names as tokens of future promise: Blessing, Favour, Promise. It’s a lovely custom. Isaiah’s two sons, however, had names that speak of God’s justice, as well as His mercy.

Shear-jashub‘s name means “a remnant shall return” (Isaiah 7:3). It’s a sign that no matter how bad things look on the surface, God has an ultimate optimism for our future. It means mercy.

The second son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, (Isaiah 7:9) has a name that means “He has made haste to the plunder!”  which communicates a line of justice and wrath.  Judgment is imminent, and the once-proud nation will be plundered by outsiders. Justice is coming.

But to us, God offers both justice and mercy together. They are indissolubly linked in the cross of Jesus, where judgment over sin and every form of evil is expressed and overcome through  the mercy and love of God in Jesus, dying for us. The point is that both aspects –both children– form the whole truth about God is, and it is good news! The judge is also the rescuer.

Let us never  underestimate God by seeing only one of His roles in our lives, and so enter into the paradox of enjoying His love and kindness while recognizing how much He hates sin.

But  that’s not quite the end of the story. The last section of Isaiah brings another word about naming:  “The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.”  (Isaiah 62:2)

God Himself has a new name for you, new blessing, new favour, new possibility. I wonder what it is!

In that lovely little story Hind’s Feet in High Places, the character Much-Afraid, after many trials finds that her new name -her real name-is Grace-and-Glory.

Perhaps there is more to you than meets the eye. When you once accept both justice and mercy from the hand of God, then you are ready to receive your new name…

But why, as he looked towards Israel’s future,  did the prophet Isaiah keep using the metaphor of a child?

And why –for that matter– did God inspire him to do so?  Why did God choose a child as a suitable vehicle in the effecting of His purpose (even to the point of coming to us Himself in the form of a child)?

I suppose that, first of all, a child symbolises new beginnings. Ask any parent. Things are different when the baby is born!

And that new beginning is inevitably mixed with hope, optimism and attended with joy. Something totally new is upon us. It’s good news!

Perhaps this is what God is saying to us. God intends the child to be the sign of the transition from the old into the new. “Sorrow endures for the night but joy comes in the morning.”   And this wonderful joy is actually effected in and through Isaiah’s prophecy of a child—the ultimate child of Christmas.

Jesus was the ultimate “sign and symbol in Israel from the Lord Almighty.” He was announced as such in the nativity account of Luke (2:12): “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Lord, I want to read the “sign of the child” with great care and attention this coming Christmas. You are doing something new; it’s something small and apparently insignificant but a thing that changes everything for ever.

The sign of the child is a hope for my future wrapped in a tiny frame.

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Ist Sunday in Advent: HOPE

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The Ist Sunday in Advent carries the theme of HOPE. I have this little pamphlet with a bouquet of flowers on the front cover. It’s called “Hope: Words of Encouragement.”

Feeling a little low myself this morning, I began to read it. It starts with Aristotle: “Hope is a waking dream.”  With a picture of a puppy.

On the next page was Barack Obama: “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”  With a picture of a tree.

As the pages went on, I made a few discoveries. First, I learnt not to try to connect words with pictures.

Second, I realised with something of a shudder that if you try to live your life without God, there is not much basis for hope at all.

Here’s an example:
“I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight. And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.”  (C. JoyBell C).

(Picture of nesting eagle)

Now I quite like the passion of this writing, but ultimately it’s clueless. Aristotle is dreaming, Obama is do-do-doing and Ms Joybell is saying “Hey, whatever!” Dreams are not enough. Activism is not enough. Bland positivism is not enough. Unless they are tied to something real.

To a purpose.

The saddest and most discouraging “word of encouragement” was from the Diary of Anne Frank: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Considering that this was written by a young girl about to be swallowed up by the Nazi holocaust, I found it poignant in the extreme.

But interesting.

The word “hope” is generally distinguished from certainty. We might say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope it happens.”

When you read the word “hope” in the Bible (like in 1 Peter 1:13—”Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ“), hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not “I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I hope it happens.” By contrast, faith and hope, in the Bible, are quite different, overlapping realities. John Piper said “Hope is faith in the future tense.” So most of faith is hope.

So when the Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17), this implies that hope, like faith, is also strengthened by the word of God. Hope comes from reading his promises and looking to Christ who made them available to us.

There’s a wonderful verse in Colossians which Peterson paraphrases thus:The lines of purpose in your lives never grow slack, tightly tied as they are to your future in heaven, kept taut by hope.” (Col 1:4)

It’s like a rope line, isn’t it? If you want to tow a car, then the rope has to be taut, in order to do its job. And the rope has to be tightly tied as well. If it slips its moorings, then all is futile. But if the rope is secure, and taut, then the job is done easily enough.

So here we can see the right place of Obama’s activism, expressed by the “lines of purpose.” There are things to do, and we better be up and doing. But the present only becomes worthwhile when it is tightly tied to that future in heaven. That’s what gives it value and purpose.

And heaven is Aristotle’s “waking dream” too. It informs our present difficulties with the promise of the future. Hope keeps me awake to the possibilities of God’s future.

And finally, even Joybell’s “Whatever” positivism is nourished by the God who ultimately has it all in hand.

I do not know the way ahead, but I know the One who does.

So let’s look away from the circumstances that confront us, look to Christ, look to the promises, and hold fast to them. Hope comes from the promises of God rooted in the work of Christ.

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Knowing for sure

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“Are you sure you’re sure?”

It’s what someone asked me, the other day, implying that it was a wee bit presumptuous to be so definite about God.

And behind that is the Leah Wilson line, that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves and wiser people so full of doubt.”

“I think, therefore I’m not sure.”

Otherwise you’re either a fool or a fanatic, right?

But I’d like to add one more category. Children.

Children know things for sure. They receive love and depend upon it. They know for sure that Christmas will bring presents and that all will be well.

And this is the kind of assurance that is spoken of in Romans 8. 

 “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Rom 8:15-16) 

Paul uses the analogy of child and parent to show how we live with God. We actually enter into the experience of Jesus, calling God, “Abba.” We’re that close. Tim Keller said: “The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 AM for a glass of water is a child. We have that kind of access.”

And so, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” (Heb 10:22)

What is the “full assurance that faith brings“? It’s being definite that God loves you, that God parents you, and that God will bring you home.

It’s personal.

John Wesley believed that all Christians have a faith which implies an assurance of God’s forgiving love, and that one would feel that assurance, or the “witness of the Spirit”. This experience was mirrored for Wesley in his Aldersgate experience wherein he “knew” he was loved by God and that his sins were forgiven.

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.” – from Wesley’s Journal 

A little later, he explained himself further. In a letter dated September 28, 1738, Wesley wrote, “The assurance of which I alone speak I should not choose to call an assurance of salvation, but rather (with the Scriptures), the assurance of faith. . . . [This] is not the essence of faith, but a distinct gift of the Holy Ghost, whereby God shines upon his own work, and shows us that we are justified through faith in Christ...The ‘full assurance of faith‘ (Hebrews 10.22) is ‘neither more nor less than hope; or a conviction, wrought in us by the Holy Ghost, that we have a measure of the true faith in Christ..’

I like the idea of God “shining” on his own work. It suggests the radiance of dawn, or the sunlight catching on the landscape and showing me something I hadn’t noticed before.

This sense of just being sure is what impelled Wesley into decades of powerful Christian witness. You can see it too in the unshakeable confidence of Billy Graham, waving his Bible and declaring,”My God says….”  You can see it in the quiet persevering love of Mother Teresa.

Not fools. Not fanatics. Just children convinced of their Father’s love.

But is it just a feeling? Or does that confidence have a secure base in fact?

A favorite old hymn of ours is “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote – especially for the tough times. It was written in 1834 as “The Solid Rock” with the tagline “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope.”

In case you’re wondering, “immutable” means unchanging. Definite. Feelings may fly up and down but this is something different. This title more directly describes verse three of the hymn.

“His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.”

You can see why I mentioned “tough times.” I’m not talking about theological niceties here, but of things that I need to know when the going gets rough. It’s when the storm hits that you need something to hold on to – something that will not break.

Mote mentions three: “His oath, His covenant, His blood.”  It’s like the chapter headings of a book explaining why you can be calm and confident in the day of trouble. These are the strong supports upon which you can rely “in the whelming flood.”

They are, simply stated, what God has said, what God has established and what God (in Christ) has done.

God has spoken. In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”(Heb 1:1,2) God has sent His word and it is “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18).

God has established. God deals in “covenant.”  “This cup is the new testament [same word as covenant] in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). The covenant is unbreakable.

God in Christ has done it! “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.” (2 Cor 5:19)

The fact that our sins are forgiven gives us the sure hope of a life with Him in heaven. This certain knowledge buoys us along in times of trouble. If God has given us His oath, and sealed His covenant with His blood, how can we doubt? His covenant with us is unconditional, and immutable. It can never be annulled.

These three form “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope.” It’s not feeling at all. It’s something done for you, upon which you can put your confident trust.

It’s like being at Uni and knowing that your rich dad is going to send that support cheque. You don’t deserve it, you just receive it!

This is why I’m definite about God. It’s not to do with how I feel and it’s not to do with how I perform as a Christian. To be honest, both are a bit wobbly.

It’s to do with the word of God, the witness of God and the work of God.

God has spoken, and I hear it. And the Bible says “Today, if you hear my voice, don’t harden your heart against me.” God has established a covenant, and I gladly sign my name to what He has enacted. And God has done a work through the cross of Christ that changes everything: 

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

“It is written!”

“It is established!”

“It is finished!”

Lord,  I believe it.

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