Monday, 16 August 2010

New Directions

(For anyone who didn't realise, the title of this post is a direct but relevant reference to Glee, one of my favourite TV shows, in which the featured showchoir is called New Directions).

So, my second go at this blog has kind of run out of steam. It's time for some new directions (now do you get the Glee reference?)!

New Direction number one - blogging seems to be all about wordpress these days. Not sure why, I can barely understand what's going on with it. But I thought it was as good a time as any to move over. A fresh start.

New Direction number two - in the last couple of years I've been really getting into art - both experiencing it and making it myself. So the new blog shall, henceforth, be an art blog. That is, a blog about art. Mostly other people's, sometimes my own. And I'm using art in the loosest possible sense of the word. Loose enough for me to write about Gaga or Gauguin in the same sentence if I want to. Not possible? Well I just did (read it for yourself).

So there you go. I'll probably leave this blog here. It's not really hurting anyone, is it? But the party is happening elsewhere (story of my life).

So check it out:

Saturday, 13 February 2010

For His Glory

I've just come to the end of two tiring but brilliant weeks of CU missions with RUCU and Surrey CU. Psalm 96 has been on my mind over the past few weeks, since Mo spoke on it so brilliantly at Relay 2, and it really helped me to have the right perspective throughout these focussed weeks of mission. I spoke on Psalm 96 at the launch meeting held by RUCU before their events week, and the text of my talk is below (big thanks to Mo, who did most of the prep!).

Psalm 96

There are lots of ways I could try to get you to tell your mates about Jesus as we head into Events Week (and I think I’ve heard variations on all of these).

I could make you feel guilty – I could remind you that thousands of people on the campus face an eternity without God unless they hear the gospel this week. And I could add that this might be the only chance they’ll get to hear it, and that if they don’t, it’s your fault. But I won’t.

I could demand it – I’m the staffworker, so do as I say and get on with it. OK, that would never work, but I could quote Matthew 28 and say, Jesus said go and get on with it! But I won’t.

I could lie to you – I could tell you that it’s going to be a really easy week, and that nobody will turn down your invitation to an event or disagree with what you believe. But I won’t (mainly because it’s a lie).

I could bargain with you – if you go and do this for God, then God will like you more and he might do something nice for you, but I won’t (because that’s a lie too).

Instead, I want us to really get straight why we’re doing this and who we’re doing it for. And we’re going to do that by having a quick look at Psalm 96.

This Psalm is a call to worship. In the book of 1st Chronicles, David defeats the Philistine armies and brings the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with His people, back to Jerusalem. And in chapter 16, they quote this Psalm. It’s a declaration of who God is – of His power and majesty and glory - and it’s a call for His people to worship Him.

It might seem odd to read a call to worship at an Events Week launch. Why, oh why didn’t I pick a bit of the Bible that’s actually about evangelism? But can you see how this Psalm is calling God’s people to worship?

Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.

The call is to worship God by singing songs about Him, and by telling people who don’t know how great He is. If “all the earth” is going to sing to God, like it says there in v1, then they need to know about Him! So we don’t just sing to ourselves, but we sing to the world how great God is. Worship and evangelism are bound together, and both bring glory to the one who deserves it.

Obviously I’m not talking about literal singing (some of you will be relieved to hear). I’m not suggesting the band sets up outside Palmer…
It’s like being at a football match (I’m always on slightly dodgy ground when I try to use a football analogy…). I went to a football match once – Southend United (the Shrimpers). It was at Roots Hall, which is their home ground, and we were all cheering them on and singing the praises of Freddy Eastwood. Effectively, we were worshipping. But suppose I went with them down to Swindon with them yesterday and started singing their praises there. Then my worship is also evangelism. I love the Shrimpers, and I want the crowd at Swindon to love them too.

Or it’s like my new favourite TV show Glee, which is amazing (basically High School Musical for grown-ups). If I talk to my friend Andrew about how brilliant it is, then it’s worship because he loves it too. But when I try to convince Dave Kitson how amazing it is, then my worship is also evangelism. And that’s the idea here in Psalm 96. Worshipping by singing the praises of God to people who don’t agree. And that’s what we’re going to be doing in Events Week: Declaring the glory of God to people who don’t agree, so that they can turn and worship Him too.

What are the lyrics to this metaphorical worship song? The song is about God’s salvation. For King David, it was about God rescuing and restoring His people from the hands of their enemies. For us, it’s about Jesus. We “proclaim His salvation day after day” by telling people about the Lord Jesus. We tell them about how God made this whole universe and everything in it, including them. We tell them how they’ve turned away from him, and that the consequences are a terrible eternity without Him. And we tell them that God loved us enough to die for us so that we could be made right with Him. Through the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and only through Him, we’re forgiven for our rejection of God, and we’re welcomed back into God’s family. And one day he’ll come back, and we can look forward to a perfect eternity with Him. That’s the salvation we’re talking about.

So that’s what the Psalmist is calling us to do. But why? The reason why starts in verse 4, with the word “for” (or because), and it carried on for the rest of the psalm. “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods” (small G).

God is the only one in the whole universe who really deserves our worship. Forget Freddy Eastwood, “great is the Lord and most worthy of praise.” He alone deserves worship. But he isn’t the only one who gets it. People are worshipping other gods. Other things have taken the top spot away from God. The gods of the nations, gods like Asherah or Ba’al or Dagon, or idols. They’re imposters, created by people.

Your friends probably aren’t Ba’al worshippers, and they probably don’t bow down to statues. But if they aren’t worshipping God, then they’ll be worshipping something. Maybe it’s a success god, or a money god, or a sex god or a stuff god. But they aren’t really gods at all. Oh, they demand sacrifice and service and attention, but ultimately they’re powerless and worshipping them is just slavery. Your friends are trapped worshipping this junk, instead of the God of the universe who loves them enough to die for them. Do you see the contrast? Their gods, whether they’re represented by an asherah pole or an iPad, are homemade rubbish. But the Lord made the heavens! So this is GOOD NEWS for your friends. We’re inviting them to worship the one who is really worth worshipping. We’re inviting them to leave behind their slavery to things that are created, and into the freedom of worshipping the creator. This is good news for your friends and it is for God’s glory.

The rest of the psalm is piled high with reasons to sing to the Lord and declare His praises to the world. His glory, His strength, His holiness, His authority, all displayed in the world He created. In the picture painted by the psalmist, even creation sings out in worship – the heavens, the earth, the sea, the trees, the fields. “Let all creation rejoice before the Lord.”

Everything we’ve seen about God from these verses would be enough reason to praise Him, wouldn’t it? But do you see why the whole of creation rejoices in the last verse? Because “he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness” (v13). Creation rejoices, because God is good, and righteous and faithful. He will deal with evil and sin. As you and your friends look around the world and see horrors like the earthquake in Haiti, or a mother killing her two sons and leaving them in the boot of her car, you can look to God and rejoice that he will deal with the sin that disfigures His creation. King David trusted God’s faithfulness, and He knew that one day, God would deliver his people once and for all. For us, it’s all about Jesus. As Jesus died he faces God’s righteous judgment in our place, he paid the price for our sin. And as Jesus rose from the dead, he declared that death is dead for those who trust him. Now we’re waiting for Him to come back and remove every remaining trace of sin from His world. Creation rejoices at the thought of it! Do you? Do your friends?

What ever you think mission week is about, in fact whatever you think the Christian Union is about, this is the heart of it. This should be our attitude towards God all the time, shouldn’t it? But this week we have an unparalleled opportunity to declare God’s glory among the nations, and to call them to worship Him too.

To steal a phrase from John Piper, Events Week exists because worship doesn’t. Christian Unions exist because worship doesn’t. The point of events week is for your friends to hear about the God who made the universe, the God who they’ve rejected, but who did everything to make it possible for them to know Him through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The point is that they’ll hear about Him and turn and worship Him themselves, for His glory. In fact, if we want a three-word reminder of the point this week, that would be it: "For His Glory."

So, as we kick of events week, I’m not going to try to make you feel guilty.
I’m not going to order you around or lie to you.

Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.
For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Lord Our Righteousness

Continuing the Christmas theme, here's a talk I just gave at our church prayer meeting. It's based on Jeremiah 23v1-8. The audio will hopefully appear here in due course.

"The LORD Our Righteousness"

I was told to do “something adventy” – I hope this counts. It mentions shepherds and a king – in fact, there are three kings, so I think we’ll be OK...

I finally bought my advent calendar on Tuesday. I know it’s a bit late, but it’s magnetic and reusable so I can get it out again next year. And I got it for half-price because no-one buys advent calendars on 15th December! It’s always really cute how the students I work with love their advent calendars – usually their Mums send them through the post, as if they suddenly lose the ability to work out what day it is, even though they’ve managed for the past 3 months. But why? What’s the big deal?

It’s all about anticipation, isn’t it? We’re counting down to the big day, getting more and more excited as we get nearer. It’s a bit weird, because in one way we’re pretending to wait for something which has already happened. But as we do that we’re putting ourselves in the shoes of generations of God’s people who had to wait. People like Jeremiah.

Only Jeremiah was waiting a bit longer – he was around 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Of course people had been waiting even longer than that, ever since the fall God’s people have been waiting for the one God would send to sort it all out. But in this passage, Jeremiah is pointing forward to events 600 years later (or there abouts). That’s about 220,000 advent calendar windows, if anyone’s interested…

The situation is pretty grim at this point, and things are looking bleak. Jeremiah is preaching to the kingdom of Judah. The previous chapters describe a succession of awful kings who’ve led the people away from God and into idolatry and sin. The kingdom of Israel to the north has already been wiped off the map by the Assyrians. And it’s just a few years before Jerusalem is levelled, the temple is destroyed, and most of God’s people end up living in foreign countries. Some of them have already been carried off into exile, and now the enemy are closing in on Jerusalem waiting to finish the job.

At the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, he brings messages of warning from God. Turn back to God, or take the consequences. But now those warnings have given way to declarations of the inevitable destruction and exile that awaits Jerusalem. The situation is grim, and things look bleak.

But in the middle of the bleakness, there are glimmers of hope like this one here. It’s a pattern that’s repeated again and again in Scripture, isn’t it? Against the dark background of human rebellion and righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shine through. And that’s exactly what happens in Jeremiah 23 - there’s certain judgement, but there’s grace too, grace which is equally certain…

Let’s look quickly at the shepherds, then we’ll look at the King…

The Shepherds (v1-4)
What does a shepherd do? There aren’t many of them in Reading, but it’s the responsibility of a shepherd to look after the sheep in his care. So it’s a great image to represent those God has put in charge of his people – kings, but also all of the leaders and officials under him, who have been delegated authority and responsibility from God. Only these shepherds are rubbish. They’re “destroying and scattering” the sheep they’re supposed to be looking after. They’re doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing. It’s their sinful behaviour and their disregard for God which is bringing disaster on God’s people. It’s their fault that they’re about to be exiled, “scattered and driven away” (v2). And so God is going to do two things to sort it out:

First he’s going to punish – he’s going to punish these rulers for neglecting the care of God’s people, and for the evil they’ve done instead. He doesn’t elaborate on the punishment waiting for them, but given the woe’s God has dished out on the evil kings before this, it’s not going to be nice.

Then he’s going to provide. God himself is going to step in. In sharp contrast to the bad shepherds, God is going to gather his people. The exile isn’t going to last forever. God brought the exile on them (in v3 he says, “I have driven them”), and God himself is going to bring it to an end. He’ll rescue them himself. But can you see that he’ll do way more than that? They’ll be back in their pasture, where they’re supposed to be. They’ll be fruitful and increase in number. God will place good shepherds over them and they’ll be safe, secure and whole (v4).

That’s quite a promise, given the situation they’re in, and the exile they’re facing. But through the other side, God is promising a future they can probably barely even imagine at the moment. Peace and security and fruitfulness. Even though God’s judgement is certain, so is his grace and mercy and faithfulness.

The King (v5-6)

Well, if that promise was astonishing, what about this?
"The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David [a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness. (v5-6_

Every time we read about a King in the Bible, it should make us long for a better king. Even king David, the greatest King the Jews had ever seen, was a sinful failure. But here, in Jeremiah, it’s almost too much. King after king has been terrible. And even Josiah, who not long before this tried to bring his people back to God, even he failed to make any lasting impact. This is a people in desperate need of a better king.

God does better than that. He promises them the King, a King of Kings. Look at what he says about this King…

He’ll “raise up to David a righteous Branch.” This King is going to be from David’s line. God’s promise to David, that one of his sons will always be on the throne, will come true. On King David’s dying, decaying family tree, there’s one branch where there are still signs of life. And one day it will blossom into the greatest King God’s people have ever seen.

This King will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. God’s people haven’t seen a King like that for a while. Where all of their other kings have failed, this King won’t. And when he comes, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. He’ll be their rescuer and their protector – it’s this king who will bring about the happy, peaceful life in verses 3 and 4.

But the real shock is in verse 6, where we find out his name. “This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” This King will be God! And he will be their righteousness. God himself will be their righteousness. He will make his people righteous when he comes to be their King.

You’ve probably worked out who this King is now. But put yourself in their place. They had to wait 600 years to find out…

Keep a finger in Jeremiah 23, but flick to Luke 2v8-14.

Good news of great joy! In the town of David - where all of David’s descendents are staying at the moment, remember. A baby has been born on a branch of David’s family tree. And he will be a saviour. He is Christ, the Lord. He’s God’s chosen, long-promised King!

When God brought his people out of exile in Babylon, it was the very start of these promises coming true. But he’d barely even started. When God became one of us in the person of the Lord Jesus, he really showed what he meant. And it was bigger and better than anything Jeremiah and his fellow Jews could have imagined! King Jesus makes it possible for us to be forgiven, and for us to be reconciled to God. He brings an end to our exile from the presence of God, because HE has become “our righteousness” (see 1 Cor 1v30).

And how do we respond to a King like this? Surely the only right response is worship? Loving, joyful worship. There’s nothing else we can do. He’s done everything to restore His people, we’ve done nothing. In that first Christmas, just like in Jeremiah’s day, against the backdrop of righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shines bright and clear. Only this time it’s not the promise – it’s the delivery. (Literally).

Turn back to Jeremiah 23 and just look at the last couple of verses, v7-8. When God delivers his people from exile, He says, it will redefine his relationship with his people. Until this point, when God’s people wanted to remember the faithfulness of their God, they looked back to the exodus from Egypt. “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt.” They knew they believed in a real, living God, because they could look back on a real event in their history, the exodus from Egypt, which confirmed God’s power and his faithfulness. But, when he rescues them from exile in Babylon, all that will change. Instead they’ll say, “As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.” This will be the new benchmark of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy to his people.

I’ve never heard anyone say that. And why would we? “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It’s great that we can look back at God’s faithfulness to his people through the centuries – their history is ours too. But in Jesus, the LORD our righteousness, we have the ultimate demonstration of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy. God’s promises through Jeremiah started to come true when His people returned from exile, but that was nothing compared to the way these promises are coming true in Jesus.

I said “coming true” on purpose, because we’re still waiting for God to finish fulfilling these promises, aren’t we? Can we look around at the world and really think that this has all happened? There’s more to come.

Through Jesus, through his death on the cross, our sin is paid for and our freedom is bought. But we’re waiting for the day when he’ll come back, when everything will be made new and the exile really will be over. When that day comes, we won’t say “as surely as the Lord lives” to remind us that God is real and good. It’ll be ridiculous. We won’t need to remind each other at all because he’ll be right there in front of us for the rest of eternity! …But, for now, we’re waiting. Pointing each other and pointing other people to Jesus, the Lord our righteousness, until he comes back.

I’m sure we’ll be praying for this in a minute anyway, but let’s be praying that this Christmas people will meet “the Lord, their Righteousness.” Their ONLY righteousness, and their only hope – they aren’t going to find it anywhere else. But let’s remember what we’re inviting them into. We’re inviting them to wait for our King to come back and reign wisely and justly and rightly forever! That’s brilliant, isn’t it? It’s good news of great joy! How can we not share that?!

And when advent is over and Christmas comes, what will you do? Will you stop waiting until 1st December next year? Or will you live praising God for his faithfulness and grace and mercy in sending the Lord Jesus? And will you live as though the future is true, and Jesus will come back, finishing what he started?

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Promised Rescuer Arrives - Isaiah 9v1-7

Although, in every practical way, I'm trying to ignore the approach of Christmas, it has pretty much arrived in studentland. So here's a talk I gave at Surrey CU last night on Isaiah 9...

I guess we’re all thinking about Christmas at the moment. I was watching “The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” on 4Music this morning. Toby Anstis came and turned on Reading’s Christmas lights last week. Carol Service next week. For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about Christmas. But then what?

I guess we’re all thinking about Christmas at the moment. I was watching “The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” on 4Music this morning. Toby Anstis came and turned on Reading’s Christmas lights last week. Carol Service next week. For the next few weeks, it’ll be all about Christmas. But then what?

Every year, at about 7pm on Christmas Day, my Dad always says, “Well, that’s that for another year.” As kids we always used to get really upset because we wanted Christmas to go on forever. These days I race my Dad to see if I can say it before him. But is that how we should think about Christmas? Is it just for December, or should the truth we celebrate at Christmas last a bit longer than that?

I think it should. Jesus didn’t stay a baby forever – he did grow up. But the message of Christmas – the incarnation, God being made man and born as a human baby – is absolutely vital to who Jesus is and to what Christians believe about him.

We're going to see that as we look at the passage we just read. It was written by a guy called Isaiah, about 2700 years ago (700 years before the New Testament starts). Isaiah was a prophet, a messenger from God, and he's speaking to Ahaz, King of Judah. Isaiah has some pretty scary warnings for Ahaz. But in amongst them is this passage we're looking at.

The first thing to see in this passage is the Promise of Rescue (v2-5).

Look at the last verse of chapter 8. “Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (8v22). It's the tail end of what God has to say about the consequences of turning away from him.

At this point, Judah is under attack from Israel and Syria, who themselves have Assyria breathing down their neck. The kings of Israel and Syria want to force Judah to side with them against Assyria by putting their own king on Ahaz's throne.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Ahaz makes things worse in the way he responds to the threat. The smart response would have been to turn to God and trust him. The whole of their history has shown that things go well when they honour God, and badly when they don't. But, instead, Ahaz decides to take matters into his own hands. In chapters 7 and 8 of Isaiah, we read what the consequences are, for Israel and Syria, and for Judah.

So things are looking pretty grim for Judah. It’s a desperate situation made worse by an arrogant king. What they need is something to give them hope. What they need is to be rescued.

Chapter 9 begins on a note of hope. Against the dark background of chapter 8, a light comes on. “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (v1) – the darkness isn't permanent. Imagine what a ray of hope that must have been for anyone hearing or reading this. Verse 2 carries on the theme of darkness and light.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (v2)
(Don't be confused – remember he's talking about the future. Isaiah has no difficulty talking about these future things as if they have happened – if God has promised them, it's the same thing.)

Isaiah explains to us the effects of the rescue before he tells us how it will happen. God promises:
JOY: “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder” (v3).
The picture of joy is a powerful one. Imagine you've been slogging away all year, and then you're finally able to bring in the food you've worked so hard for. Or you've been fighting a war and you're finally able to divide the plunder that's been won in battle. That's the kind of joy he's talking about.

The reason for their joy is even more astonishing than the fact that they are joyful. They have FREEDOM (v4) and PEACE (v5). In the middle of all the difficulty and strife they're facing, and after God has warned them of invasions and attacks to come, freedom and peace were too much to even hope for. But that's exactly what is promised. The instruments of oppression – the yoke, the bar, the rod – will all be destroyed. They'll be free. And soldiers will be able to burn their uniforms. They won't need them any more - they'll be more use as fuel for the fire.

The darkness won't go on forever. God has a rescue plan sorted out. Darkness will turn to light. Their fear will turn to joy. Their oppression will turn to freedom. War will turn to peace.

But how?

God doesn't just promise a rescue here – he also gives them the Promise of a Rescuer to bring it about.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (v6-7)

I don't know about you, but that passage always reminds me of one of the classic pieces of Christmas music.

[Play clip of “When a Child is Born”]

That was, “When a Child is Born” by Johnny Mathis (sorry if you were expecting Handel’s Messiah). I wouldn't normally encourage you to learn your theology from Christmas pop songs, but this one has quite a lot going for it (more than some Christmas carols – Good King Who?!). Especially the bit he repeats over and over, “this comes to pass when a child is born.” That's exactly what Isaiah goes on to say. These incredible things, this incredible rescue. This comes to pass when a child is born.

This isn't the first time Isaiah's brought this up. Back in chapter 7 he mentioned a child called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us, and he would be a sign for everyone of God at work. But here he puts flesh on the bones and explains just who this child will be.

One thing we learn is that He'll be royalty. Do you see the names he's given in verse 6. One of them is Prince of Peace. “The Government will be on his shoulders” (v6). “He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom” (v7). Of the Increase of his government... there will be no end.”

But he will also be God.
Look again at the names the boy is given in verse 6. We've looked at Prince of Peace. But He's also called Mighty God. Some people try to play that down - “actually, it only means great hero.” But that's not the most obvious way of reading it. In chapter 10 of the same book, Isaiah uses the same phrase, Mighty God, to talk about God. Isaiah is saying quite simply that this boy will be God. The other names back it up - He's called Wonderful Counsellor (another phrase which Isaiah uses to talk about God).

And He's called Everlasting Father. That's a strange thing to say about a boy who hasn't even been born yet, isn't it? But it's a striking picture. This boy will be someone who will care for the people. But they won't have to grow up and learn to manage without him. He will be an Everlasting Father – he will always be there.

So Isaiah explains that the boy will be Royalty, and the he will be God. And he will be the one to bring joy and peace and freedom. Just look at what his rule will be like.

At this point, it seems as if the king, and the kingdom, is finished. Isaiah has been warning of an invasion, and he's facing attacks from all sides. It seems like too much to hope for. But the line of kings will continue, and when this child is born, he'll be king forever. And he'll be a good king, a great king, better than any they've ever had before. He'll establish the kingdom and up hold it “with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (v7). “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

So that's Isaiah's promise. Things look dismal. But there is hope. God's people will be rescued. They'll rejoice in their peace and freedom. And it will all happen when a child is born. A child who will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” A child who will be King, and who will be God, and who will bring the rescue that God has promised, ushering in a new era.

It all sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn't it. Who is this child, and what on earth does it have to do with us, 2000 years later and 6000 miles away?

Well, that brings me to my third point... The Rescuer Arrives

Turn with me to Luke chapter 2, verses 10-14 (you might want to keep a finger in Isaiah 9 too).

“But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah (or Christ), the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.'” (Luke 2v10-14)

Recognise anything familiar? The angel brings good news of great joy. Great joy because a baby has been born in the town of King David. Not just any baby, but a Saviour! The news of the birth prompts a choir of angels to sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

This is God's promise, through Isaiah, being fulfilled. Look in verse 11 - the angel calls him the Messiah, the Lord. He was the one the Jewish people were waiting for. They waited 700 years for the Christ. And here, with the birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, the Christ arrives.

At first glance, it looks like there must have been some kind of mistake. The baby is lying in a feeding trough, and the birth is announced to shepherds, who dangled from the lowest rung of society. If God were to come into the world, surely that isn't how it would happen?!
And you probably know what happens later. This boy grew up, and ended up living like a tramp. Then he allowed himself to be captured, beaten, abused and executed. If God were to come into the world, surely that isn't how it would happen?

The reason is that Jesus isn't the king they were expecting, but he IS the fulfillment of Isaiah's promise. He IS the rescuer promised by God. He DOES bring the rescue God promised. But the implications are infinitely wider, the scale is massively bigger than it first appears...

The promise was for more than just Ahaz and his people. It was for more than even the Jewish race. Look again at verse 10 of Luke chapter 2. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The promise is thrown open wide to anyone who will trust in Christ.

Through Isaiah, God promised peace. Christ brings peace, but not the kind of peace they were expecting. Ahaz and his people were guilty of rejecting God, but so are we. We've all turned our backs on him and ignored him. And that makes us his enemies. It's a strong way of putting it, but those are the terms the Bible uses.

We live in a world which is ravaged by war and hostility, and we can look around and think that what the kind of peace the world most needs is an end to war. But the kind of peace the world really needs is peace with God. All the war and unrest in the world is nothing compared to being at war with the one who made and sustains the universe.

Christ came into the world as our rescuer to make that peace possible. He died to pay for our rejection of God, and to put things right. Christ died, and now we can be forgiven by God. Instead of hostility, there can be peace between us. Once our relationship with God is sorted out, we're in the right position to start sorting our differences. Otherwise it's as much use as giving paracetamol to someone who needs a heart bypass – it might look hopeful, but ultimately it is useless.

Through Isaiah, God also promised freedom. Christ brings freedom, but, again, a different kind of freedom. Christ offers freedom from sin and death.

Ahaz would have been interested in freedom from his enemies. Although Judah held out for a few more years, it was eventually conquered and was ruled over by one empire after another. So the kind of freedom they were looking for was no doubt very real. And, again, as we look around our world we see many who desperately need freedom, whether it is from actual captivity, or from oppression or poverty.

But the Bible says we're all held captive by something far worse than politics or poverty. Our attitude towards God has left us in a mess. Now our natural state is to be turned away from God, and the consequence is death. There's nothing we can do about it. And it now seems so natural that we think death is the inevitable end to life - but it isn't supposed to be.

When Christ died, he dealt with the problem once and for all. But he dealt with the effects too. He dealt with the evil that grips the world, and it's ultimate conclusion, death. When Christ died, he didn't stay dead. Three days later he came back to life, and he's still alive. Now there is hope. A light has come on in the darkness. Christ brings the ultimate kind of freedom. And how can any of us who know that freedom possibly stand by and allow others to endure oppression and captivity. For Christians, our complete freedom should motivate us to fight for freedom for others.

And, of course, through Isaiah God promised joy. You've probably worked out what I'm going to say - Christ brings joy. But it is so much better than the joy of reaping a harvest or winning a battle. It's more than knowing that there is a chance for peace and that we're freed from sin and death. Through what Christ has done, we can experience the mind-boggling, heart-exploding joy of knowing God our creator! We can know him as we should – as our creator, as our Father. And it's so much better than any joy we might think we've had, because it will never fail or fade. It will last for all eternity!

This peace, this freedom, this joy all begin now if you trust Jesus with your life. But there is more to come. If we trust Christ, then we can look forward to a future where all of these these are complete. A future where every last trace of evil and hate and suffering are removed, and where will experience the joy of spending eternity with God. And then we'll really see what God was promising all those centuries ago.

2700 years ago, God made a promise to his people, through Isaiah and King Ahaz. He reminded them of his rescue plan. He told them they would know joy, and freedom and peace.

It turned out the promise was bigger and better than they probably could have imagined. And the same promise is open to each of us.

How? “This comes to pass when a child is born.” Tell your friends about this. They desperately need to know about it. And in a couple of weeks, don’t pack Christmas away with the Christmas tree and the tinsel. This is good news of great joy, for all the people!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Life Starts Here: TRUTH (...and where to find it)

After a long absence, here's a talk I gave recently at Reading University during Freshers week...

When I knew I had to speak on this subject, I wasn’t sure where to start, but I started thinking about why the truth is so important. It’s actually a fairly tricky question. Why is truth important? Do we need to even bother thinking about what’s true and what isn’t? So I texted the question answering service AQA. Has anyone used it before? Basically you can type in any question, from “what are the symptoms of swine flu?” to “can a boy swim fast than a shark?” So I texted with the question, “why is truth important?” They replied and said, “truth is important because society cannot function properly without it. All relationships rely on trust, and they cannot survive without it.”

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but that really got me thinking…

Our society is based on the idea that truth is important, isn’t it? At nearly every level, truth is really important. We all value trust in our relationships, don’t we? Truth is the basis of trust – we trust people because we know the truth about them, and we trust them to tell us the truth.

Our legal system is based on truth too, isn’t it? I got stopped and searched for drugs recently (which is a long story). I didn’t have any (!), but I was quite pleased that the policeman searching me was interested in the truth! Imagine if he’d ignored the truth and just decided I’d broken the law.

Without the assumption that truth is a good thing, communication wouldn’t just be difficult, it’d be pointless. And knowing the truth helps us to make the right decisions, whether it’s the truth about the mobile phone you’re thinking of buying, or the truth about the person you’re thinking of marrying. In small things or in big things, truth is important.

But what makes something true? Some of you might be philosophy students, and I guess you spend all day thinking about questions like this. I’m not, I trained as a scientist, so I decided to do some serious research… Wikipedia, obviously.
(Maybe slightly ironic that I should consult Wikipedia on the subject of ‘truth’…)

For a statement or an idea to be true, it has to be correspond to the way things really are. It has to fit with the real world. As you’d imagine, there’s a lot more to it, but I guess that makes sense, doesn’t it? So 2+2=4 because if I’ve got 2 things and I add 2 more things I really do have 4 things. You could say it’s true that I’m going bald by looking at the top of my head and you’d see there’s a lot of empty space. But truth isn’t just an abstract thing for the lecture theatre or library. You have to be able to live truth out. There’s a difference between thinking about whether something is true and actually experiencing it to be true. That will happen in the lab, but it happens in every aspect of life too. There’s a difference between knowing what happens if you leave a fork in the microwave and actually doing it…

Universities are all about this kind of truth, aren’t they. Surely the whole point of Universities is to seek answers and to find out truth about the world, whether it’s the truth about literary criticism or yoghurt? You’re here to study (sorry to break that to you) - hopefully you want to find something out about the subject you’re signed up for. Maybe some of you will even become experts in your subjects and make huge breakthroughs in the search for truth. (Some of you, maybe not…)

But University is also about real life, isn’t it? “Life Starts Here.” That will involve some mundane aspects of life. Eventually your clean clothes will run out, and you’ll need to find a washing machine. Eventually your loan cheque will run out (if it’s even arrived yet), and you’ll need to be creative as you stretch your budget. But it’s more than that. While you’re at University, you’ve got a great chance to ask big questions and make big decisions about real life. What’s life all about? Who are you? What’s important? Where are you headed? And University is possibly the best place and the best time in your life to start to answer those questions. So while you’re at University, make sure you find out the truth about life.

As you do that, I want to suggest to you one truth that you need to consider, because if it’s true then it’s the most important truth in the Universe, and it makes a difference to every one of us. This talk has been put on by the Christian Union, and they didn’t just invite me to ramble on about how lovely truth is for half an hour. As a Christian, I believe that the truth really isn’t just abstract ideas and hypotheses. I believe that the truth about real life is centred on a person, and because of that it is important for each one of us personally. The truth is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And he wasn’t shy about that – so much so that he actually claimed to be the truth.

I want to read you a couple of sentences from the Bible, from an account of Jesus’ life written by his friend John. You can go and have a look at it yourself if you want to – the section of the Bible is imaginatively called “John,” and this is from chapter 14.

“Jesus told him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14v6)

Just take a second to let that sink in – that’s pretty shocking to our politically correct ears, isn’t it? He’s claiming to be “the truth.” He’s claiming to be “the way” and “the life” too. But that’s not a way, a truth, and a life. He’s claiming to be the only way, the only truth and the only life. He follows it up with something even less PC (if that’s possible): “No-one can come to the Father except through me.”

That’s pretty exclusive, isn’t it? But let’s dig into what he’s actually claiming…?

Let’s start with His claim to be the truth, as that’s what we’re focussing on. It’s an arrogant-sounding claim, but what does he mean? Is he claiming to be able to have a new and interesting take on life? Is he claiming to be able to give us some special insight?

Well, yes he is, but it’s more than that. He’s claiming to be the truth about God. His follow-up statement about getting to the Father tells us what he’s getting at. But he’s not just claiming to know the truth or to be able to explain it, but to actually be the truth about God. And the reason he can claim that is because he’s God himself.

The whole of what John has to say about Jesus starts with that premise. Right at the beginning, John starts with the assertion that “the Word,” which is John’s nickname for Jesus, came from God, but also that he’s God himself. Jesus is God-made-human. And so when we look at Jesus we’re looking at the God of the whole Universe. Through the descriptions of Jesus in the Bible we can see what God is like, because we can see what Jesus is like.

If that’s true, then Jesus really can claim to be the truth, in a way which no-one else ever could. Lot’s of people claim to know something important about the truth, but anyone else is just offering there own personal take on what’s true. Jesus can claim to be the truth about God, because he personally reveals God to us. And that has all kinds of other knock-on effects for how we think about the world.

But Jesus makes two other claims, which are linked to his claim to be the truth. He claims to be the way. When he says that, he’s claiming to be the way to God. He’s specific about that. He isn’t just pointing the way. He isn’t just suggesting a philosophy to help people understand God better – he is the way to God.

But why do we even need a way to God? You might think, well, I’m doing OK without him thank you very much, so I don’t really need a way to get to God. But the Bible says that the consequences of being separated from God are severe.

We need a way to God because we’ve ruined things with him. We’ve rejected God, and we’re separated from him. Christians believe that God created the universe and everything in it, so he’s the only one in the Universe who deserves to be honoured and worshipped. But we’ve turned our backs on him. It’s the ultimate offence.

Imagine you meet the Queen, and instead of bowing as you should, you spit on her. There’d be outrage! You’d definitely make the papers. But she’s only the Queen. God is infinitely more important, and so the crime is infinitely worse. And it’s that ultimate crime which stands between us and God. It’s just not how the universe is supposed to run, and it’s damaged the whole of creation – we only have to look around at our damaged world to see the fracture lines. But it has serious consequences for each of us too – in committing the ultimate crime of rejecting God, we deserve the ultimate punishment. We deserve death.

That’s pretty bleak, so far. But Jesus did something surprising to change all that – he died. Just a few pages later, he’s killed. He’s abused and beaten, and then nailed to a wooden cross where he suffocates to death. But in dying, he paid for the offense we caused and opened up the way to God. The barrier that had separated us from God was removed, and the way is open.

Jesus can claim to be the way, because it’s through him, and through what he’s done, that we can get to God. And it’s why he can add the claim that “No-one comes to the Father, except through me.” If his claim is true, then this is arrogant – it’s a simple statement of fact. We’ve got no chance of coming to God unless our offence is dealt with by Jesus.

And Jesus claimed to be the life. He’s an expert on life and death, because he’s been there. We’ve already heard that he died. But so what? Lots of people have. Why should we believe that his death was any more special than anyone else’s?

In a few pages, Jesus is killed, by Roman experts in execution – he was properly dead for three days. But a couple of pages after that, he comes back to life. Death isn’t the end of the story. If it was, we could just go home and forget all about it. But the resurrection of Jesus forces us to take his claims seriously. It also has really important consequences for us. Death wasn’t the end for him, and so it doesn’t have to be the end for us either. Life Starts Here.

This is something else Jesus said about himself, from a little bit earlier on in the same book:

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3v16)

When Jesus talks about life and death, we should listen to him, because he’s been there. And linked into his claim to be the life is the offer of life to anyone who will believe in him.

If these claims Jesus makes about himself are true, then they change everything, and we can’t ignore them. If there’s even a possibility that he’s right, then you need to consider it - it’s too important to ignore. I believe it’s true – that’s why I spend my time telling people about him. The Christian Union believes it’s true – that’s why they put on events like this, to help you to explore the claims of Jesus for yourself. But this is more than just finding out that something is factually accurate. This is about what real life is all about. If Jesus’ claims about himself are true, then they change everything. And they affect you, personally.

In one way, the decision quite simple. Jesus won’t just fit nice and comfortably with other suggestions about how we can be close to God. He won’t just sit on the shelf as an option alongside a load of others. His claims are either true or not. And if they are true, then you can’t ignore them. I haven’t told you nearly enough for you to make the decision, but there are loads of ways to find out more about the claims of Jesus. One great one is to sign up to the Glad You Asked course the CU is running – it’s a great opportunity to think about some of these big questions, and also some of the questions Jesus asks of us (which is only fair).

One of the best ways to find out more is the take one of these Free booklets. It’s another account of Jesus’ life from the Bible, this time written by a guy called Mark. Take one of these, read it and really engage with the evidence for who Jesus is and the claims that he made about himself. If you have questions about it, or things you want to say about it, then talk to the Christian Union – they should be delighted to talk to you.

This is something you need to get to the bottom of, and as I said earlier, University is probably the best place in the world, and the best time in your life to do it. Life really does start here, and it’s a great place to find truth. But I’d also say that this is an even better place to find the truth, and Life Starts Here.

Friday, 22 May 2009

A Timely Reminder

On Sunday morning, I'm due to preach at Memorial Community Church, Plaistow. I'll be co-leading a UCCF Summer Team in July which will be working alongside the church, and on Sunday Abi and I will be introducing ourselves and the project (expect more blogging about that when I come back). It's a while since I've preached to a church, and I'm really looking forward to it (although my sermon is quite a long way from prepared).

So this was a really timely reminder. John Piper has probably done most to shape my thinking over the short time I've been preaching. His book The Supremacy of God in Preaching literally changed the way I think about the task forever. If you've never heard John describe what he means by preaching, then you should listen to this. And this sentence stuck out in particular, a really timely reminder as I stand before MCC on Sunday and dare to preach God's Word for them:

I standing vigilantly on the precipice of eternity speaking to people who this week could go over the edge whether they are ready to or not. I will be called to account for what I said there.

That's what I mean by preaching.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Eurovison is back!

It's nearly 3pm on Sunday afternoon, and I'm still buzzing from last night's Eurovision! I've always been a huge Eurovision fan, particularly since I've started getting to know people from some of the countries involved. It has to be said, the last few years have been a bit disappointing - the dodgy voting went from being amusing to annoying to insulting. In fact, the British entries followed a very similar pattern... But this year, I was left with the distinct feeling that Eurovision is back!

Last night wasn't about politics for once. Sure, the Balkans were all nice to each other, and Russia's neighbours were friendly in their voting. But last night was definitely about the music. Apparently we have Sir Terry to thank for inspiring a rule change, but either way it restored a bit of credibility to proceedings, and a bit of excitement to the voting.

OK, so we didn't win. But compared to last year's heart-breaking 14 point bottom spot, it felt like a win. Jade did us proud, and it was great to see national treasure Lord Andrew on stage (even though I had to explain who he was to some french guy). It didn't really matter, because europop was the real winner! I loved Norway's entry, and it rightly deserved to win (imho)!

I love Eurovision. I love that we're able to get 42 countries together for a night and have fun together. I love that I could watch the whole thing with a loud of random Europeans in Mojo's. And I love that for one night we can all celebrate cheesypop in such a Eurotastic way!

In case you missed it, here are my personal top 3...

Number 3: Germany

Number 2: United Kingdom (obv)

And number 1, the rightful winner, NORWAY!