Friday, 17 June 2016

A delightful counsellor - Psalm 119.24

Your decrees are my delight and my counsellors. 119.24

There has never been a better time to be a counsellor.  In some parts of the UK one adult in every six is on anti-depressants.  Is this because life is more stressful and there is more anxiety due to societal issues?  Is this because we are simply more willing to give out tablets to fix our problems?  Whatever the cause, the number of people in need of seeing a counsellor or psychiatrist is sky high.

It is foolish to treat depression, anxiety, or other mental distress as not being a real health problem.  You cannot just exercise your way out of depression or decide not to be anxious.  We would never tell someone with a broken arm that they just needed ‘to change their perspective.’  We would never tell someone with cancer they ‘need to make more of an effort.’  Depression and anxiety have real biological causes and there are no simple answers.  

Depression and the like are not just problems ‘out there’ in the world, they are Christian problems.  Many great saints have suffered and wrestled with great bouts of depression - for example Charles Spurgeon the ‘Prince of Preachers’ was plagued throughout his life by horrendous depression.  It is tragic that many Christians feel they have to hide their depression or mental disorders.  The church is a hospital for sick, imperfect, struggling sinners and not a museum for perfected saints.  

One big difference for Christians who wrestle with troubles in life - whether grief over a death, anxiety over work, fear over safety, or a more general depression - is that we have a perfect counsellor.  When we need hope, when we need to be reminded of the truth, when we need to recognise what is reality and what is not, we can come to the perfect word of God.  The Bible lays before us the promises of God, the real truth of our identity in Christ Jesus, the reality of our sins truly forgiven and of our past washed clean.  When we face suffering of any kind it reminds us that we have an eternal Kingdom coming soon where there is no pain or death or sorrow.  When we cannot understand why things keep happening the Bible reminds us that God is 100% sovereign and all things work together for the good of those who believe.  

I don’t believe Christians should never see psychiatrists or counsellors, and I certainly don’t think they should not take medication if it is needed; but I do believe, as the Psalmist does, that the Bible should be our first and last resource in all things.  When we make the Bible and its truths our life coach, our counsellor, we will truly delight in it.

Friday, 10 June 2016

How to act in the face of hate, fear, and opposition - Psalm 119.23, 161

Though princes sit against me, Your servant will think about Your statutes… Princes have persecuted me without cause, but my heart fears only Your word.   119.23, 161

Taking a stand on Biblical truth has always been unpopular with the powers of the world around us.  At times things have been worse than others.  In England we have a rich heritage of persecuting the righteous who believed in the words and statues of God.  From the killing of St. Alban to the persecution of John Wycliffe (and his later exhumation, trial, and burning of bones to ash).  The foundation of what we know today as the Church of England is written in the blood of hundreds martyrs including Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and John Hooper.  Across the world today Christians are the single most persecuted and martyred group of people.  Here in England we may not face being shot or crucified for saying that Jesus is the Son of God and the Bible tells us God’s eternal truths - but we certainly face opposition.

The gospel, as Paul tells us, is by its very nature offensive.  People don’t like it when you try to tell them that they are sinners facing the wrath of a Holy God and they need to believe in Jesus and repent.  People go crazy when you tell them that what the Bible says happened actually did happen in history.  People take you to court and you lose your job when you stand up and act with integrity on issues of morality.  Whether it is abortion, divorce, euthanasia, or issues of sexuality, the clear teaching of the church is unpopular.  Whether it is teaching about  wealth and greed or the error of Eastern Spirituality you can expect opposition.

This should not surprise or phase us!  

Jesus told His disciples “you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered” (Matthew 10.22).   

Read that sentence again.  

"You will be hated by everyone"

Let that really sink in.

"You will 
be hated 
by everyone"
Jesus didn’t tell his followers they ‘might’ get sent to court or be judged by others but rather told them what to do ‘when’ it inevitably happens: “whenever they bring you before synagogues and rulers and authorities, don't worry about how you should defend yourselves or what you should say. ” (Luke 12.11).   

If you are not facing opposition or questioning or some form of persecution for being a Christian then the chances are you are doing Christianity wrong!

Whenever we face opposition, and it is often powerful and emotional opposition, we must do two things:  

1) First of all we must think about what God has told us because only His words are truth for all time and His promises form the rock on which we stand.  

2) Secondly, we should remember to fear only God and not what other humans may say or do.  Sticks and stones may break your bones and words may hurt you but what does that matter when eternal life and a resurrection body are yours!?  Jesus told His followers “Don’t fear those who are able to kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is about to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matthew 10.28).  

The Bible repeatedly tells us that "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom" - let us be wise by accepting what God tells us and not fearing what others may think or say or do.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Living with eyes wide open - Psalm 119.18

Open my eyes so that I may see wonderful things in Your law.  119.18

As much as we should read the Bible, study the Bible, and meditate upon it we must understand that mere ‘head knowledge’ or ‘academic knowledge’ of the Bible will not bring eternal life, joy, peace, and happiness.  After all didn’t Satan know what God said?  Has not Richard Dawkins read the Bible?  At Oxford I met many people, both students and lecturers, who knew far more of the Bible than I do but who knew nothing of the one true God or of a personal relationship with Jesus.  

This is not something new.  The Pharisees were the academics of their day - they would often memorise the entire Old Testament.  They would spend their lives carefully picking apart every single sentence, phrase, and word of the Bible to better understand it.  Yet when God actually came down to earth and fulfilled literally hundreds of prophecies right before their eyes they failed to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus was God, and ultimately in the greatest of ironies they had crucified the one they were searching for.

In John chapter 5 Jesus says to them “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me” (John 5.39).  If we don’t see Jesus as the heart of the Scriptures we don’t see anything of eternal consequence.  The problem is that to see Jesus in every chapter, to see the truth of God in a life changing way, we need outside intervention.  We are born blind to these truths, it's like there is a deep and thick mist before our eyes which we cannot see through no matter how much we try.  Saint Paul would talk in 2 Corinthians 3 about how unless we turn to the Lord there is a veil over our faces which prevents us from seeing how wonderful the Bible is.

When Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was Peter eventually said “you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16.16).  What is most remarkable is the reaction of Jesus to this profession of faith:  “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in Heaven” (Matthew 16.17).  It was not human wisdom or human intellect which made Peter understand who Jesus truly was. It was God Himself who by the Holy Spirit opened His eyes to the see the wonderful things of Jesus, who parted the mist, who lifted the veil.  Let each of us pray that God would open our eyes to the wonderful things of His Law - that when we read the Bible we see Jesus on every page and find hope, comfort, and joy in doing so.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

(SERMON) I AM the Vine: John 15.1-17

Are you fruity?  Full of the fruit of the Holy Spirit that is!

In this final 'I AM' saying we consider what it means for Jesus to be The Vine.   The focus is on the call to 'remain' in Jesus and in His love.  Fruitfulness is the result of true discipleship; it comes from prayer and points towards the glory of God.

'Pronouncing' the biblical use of spiritual gifts

For those who believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as tongues (and their interpretation), prophecy, and words of knowledge or wisdom continue today the question remains over how and when they should be used during gathered worship.

 Indeed, the misuse and abuse of these gifts does terrible harm to their promotion across the church.  Nothing makes people draw away and even attack these wonderful gifts than their inappropriate use.  This means that we need to be careful and think not only of ourselves but of outsiders and others when encouraging their use - "Therefore, if the whole church assembles together and all are speaking in other languages and people who are uninformed or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds?" (1 Corinthians 14.23)

One easy way of ensuring that things are done Biblically and correctly is to use vowels as a mnemonic.  Every use of the gifts must take into account A E I O and U:

Accountable: Our use of gifts must be held accountable to the truth revealed in Scripture.  This is rightly the first and most foundational thing to consider.   Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14.29 "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate." Likewise John tells us in 1 John 4.1 "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world."  We are to evaluate and test what God gives.  What does this evaluation and testing entail?  Obviously prayer is involved as is the keeping of what is good and the rejection of what is evil (1 Thessalonians 5.21-22).  Knowing that the Bible is God's perfect and inspired word to us it should also involve asking if what is given agrees with Scripture and the teaching found there: if it does not it should clearly be rejected.  Part of this testing against Scripture is whether or not it agrees with what follows in our mnemonic.

Edifying: Our use of gifts must be edifying.  If what is given would not encourage or build up or rightly teach then it has no place in our worship.  If sharing something would be more likely to cause pain and suffering than foster love and joy then it is likely not to be shared before the whole congregation - perhaps it is a something for a personal conversation but that is another matter.  Paul says that prophecy is for "edification, encouragement, and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14.3). Our use of gifts should be because we are seeking to "excel in building up the church" (1 Corinthians 14.12) not break down the church!  Ultimately,  Paul makes clear that in church services "All things must be done for edification" (1 Corinthians 14.26b).

Interpreted: Because our use of gifts must be edifying to not only ourselves but to those around us and the church as a whole it follows that our use of tongues or 'other languages' when gathered together must have interpretation.  This is one area where the modern charismatic movement tragically fails. Paul is crystal clear.  There is no 'wiggle room' in what he says. "If any person speaks in another language, there should be only two, or at the most three, each in turn, and someone must interpret. But if there is no interpreter, that person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God" (1 Corinthians 14.27-28) Tongues are a wonderful gift that is given for our own edification and for the building up of our own relationship with God (1 Corinthians 14.4) Paul wishes that we would all speak in tongues—so we should all be praying that God would give us this gift—but unless it has an interpretation then it is not for the gathered congregation of the church (1 Corinthians 14.5).

Orderly: Paul would have made a great Anglican because Paul highly valued orderliness in church.  Paul loved the zealousness of the Corinthians but he detested their lack of order. He didn't believe in 'charismatic chaos' and neither should we.  Paul clearly thinks that people should be controlled in worship, he believes that those who have the gift of tongues can also make the decision of when and when not to use this gift in public (1 Corinthians 14.27-28). This same control extends to prophesy in verses 29-31 where we see the command to wait in line and indeed be quiet if it is not your turn or too many speak before you.  Ultimately the person with the gift is in control and this must be so if it is from God because God is a God of order and control: "And the prophets’ spirits are under the control of the prophets, since God is not a God of disorder but of peace." (1 Corinthians 14.31-32). Just as everything must be done to edify and build up the church so "everything must be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14.40)

Usual: Finally, the use of the gifts should be something which is not 'unusual' but very much run of the mill and 'usual.'  Paul clearly expects the gifts to be used in pretty much every service.  He sees that when we gather together "each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation" (1 Corinthians 14.26).  Not only does Paul see it as clearly a normal thing for each person to bring such gifts but time and again he calls on people to seek these gifts and be eager for them (1 Corinthians 14.1, 5,12-13, 39).

All of this—these five points for using the gifts of the Spirit today—are the basic and obvious teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14.  They are challenging to all because they touch on many 'sacred shibboleths' we hold.  The final one challenges those who either don't believe in the gifts of the Spirit today or those who don't really want to speak in tongues or prophesy.  Paul's clear words on the absolute necessity of interpretation for tongues in the congregation and his adamant stance on good order in the service challenge and even offend those who like to be 'caught up' in the Spirit and embrace chaos as an expression of their fervour and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  

The problem is that these things must be challenged.  The teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 is basic, foundational, and simple.  If we reject this teaching then we reject the very word of God and what He is doing and prove ourselves to be liars when we claim to be spiritual and prophetic.  Paul bluntly says "If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, he should recognize that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, he will be ignored" (1 Corinthians 14.37-38).  We must humbly recognise what Paul teaches or we should be rightly ignored by the people of God and indeed by God Himself.

(All quotations of the Bible are from the HCSB with any emphasis added being my own.)

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