Radical New Inclusion

A sermon on the book of Hosea, preached at Christ Church Cockfosters on 5 March 2017.

When was the last time you felt betrayed by someone? Badly let down?

Maybe you’ve been crossed by someone in a business deal, or let down by your employer. Maybe a friend who you thought was a good friend turned out not to be quite such a good friend after all. Maybe you’ve been in a relationship with someone who, it turns out, just wanted you for the wrong reasons and then was happy to cast you off.

Sometimes the anger comes out in revenge. I heard about a farmer who found out that his wife was cheating on him, got in his tractor, and filled her car up with horse manure. It might have made him feel better for the afternoon, but I doubt it really helped.

And being betrayed in your marriage is probably the hardest place of all to be betrayed, because of the nature of the promises that you made to each other – promises that are supposed to last a lifetime – “till death us do part”.

Whatever happens, and however we deal with it, being betrayed is really hard.

And then think about this question: How does God deal with being betrayed?

Well, that’s what the book of Hosea is all about. Have a look at chapter 1 verse 2.

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, ‘Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.’

It’s not entirely unusual for the OT prophets to be given stage directions as well as a script; Isaiah was once told to go out in his underwear as a graphic picture of the disgrace that was coming upon God’s people. Ezekiel spent over a year lying on one side, to depict the siege of Jerusalem. But I think they have it easy compared to Hosea. “Go, marry a promiscuous woman…” Why? “For like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”

Hosea’s mission was to speak to the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, about 800 BC. And God’s message is graphic. “You know the pain of a wife who’s unfaithful…well, Hosea, you’re going to feel that pain yourself, and you’re going to feel that pain and live out that pain to just give these people a little picture of what it’s been like for me to be betrayed by them.”

Hosea is a painful book to read. But it’s not a difficult book to read, because if you’ve understood the first page, you’ve basically got it. The rest of the book fills out the picture with beautiful poetry of lament and of love.

And all the way through, the question is: how will God deal with being betrayed?

Have a look, then at v3. Hosea and his unfaithful wife have three children, though quite possibly someone else is the father.

So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. Then the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.’

Often people choose a child’s name for the meaning. So ‘Richard’ means: ‘brave leader’. And this child gets named after a massacre. It’s like calling your child Auschwitz, or Aleppo, to say that the evils done there have not been forgotten and must be paid for. In this case, it’s a massacre carried out a hundred years earlier by King Jehu, the great grandad of the current king. And his disobedience just typifies the bigger story of the nation’s disobedience. Later on Hosea will say,

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
‘There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.’

The people have rejected true knowledge of God, and effectively become like spiritual prostitutes, selling themselves to the spirit of the age. Sound familiar?

Then Gomer has another child: this time it’s a girl. What shall we call this one?

Middle of v6: ‘Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “Not loved”), [or possibly “No mercy” is a better translation] for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them.’

That is the sad reality for Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah will be shown mercy, at least for a time but for Israel the crunch is coming and exile is on the cards.

And then the third child comes along, v8, and guess what he is called? “Not my people.” Another classic boy’s name! Back in the day of Moses God had made a covenant with the Israelites, and said to them, out of all the world, “You will be my people!” It was effectively a marriage covenant between them. But they broke it. And so look where they have ended up. What shall we call the baby, Hosea? Call him “Not my people,” for God says, “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

How does God deal with being betrayed? The first thing we have to say is that he doesn’t pretend it never happened. This kind of behaviour has got to have some consequences. It’s just like in a human marriage, like in Hosea’s marriage. Did he care that Gomer went off with other men? Of course he cared! If he loves her then he’s got to care.

And that could be the end of the story. Farewell. Divorce between God and his people.

Except that after those chilling words, “I am not your God,” comes the word: “Yet”. One small word, but a whole lot of hope. Verse 10:

‘Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, they will be called “children of the living God”. The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.”

After judgment comes hope. God’s promises and purposes will not fail. Those who were “not God’s people” will now be the people of God. And the end of the story is even better than the beginning; in the book of Romans in the New Testament, the apostle Paul points out that this is also a message for non-Jews – that is, most of us. For centuries they were “not God’s people” but now in Jesus they can be part of the people of God.

So the judgment on God’s unfaithful people is not the end. God reluctantly decides that he probably ought to have them back. So he does. Roll credits.

Rubbish! No love story finishes like that! If a Valentine’s Day movie finished like that, you’d ask for a refund! And this is God’s love story, remember. If you turn over a page to chapter 2, you’ll see how he treats his adulterous wife. 2:14:

‘Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor [which means ‘trouble’] a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
‘In that day,’ declares the Lord,
‘you will call me “my husband”;
you will no longer call me “my master”. [that’s a pun on the name Baal, one of the gods of the Canaanite nation, whose name means ‘master’]
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips…

How does God respond to being betrayed? Two ways. Firstly there’s that uncompromising judgment; but secondly there’s tender, alluring, merciful, extravagant love.

And both that judgment and that love are extreme in their intensity.

One big mistake today is to imagine that God’s love means that his judgment is somehow toned down. How does God deal with being betrayed? Well, his wonderful love means he’s not too bothered about unfaithfulness; he can just let a lot of things go. Anyway, we’re in the New Testament times now; surely those days of judgment are in the past! Do you think?

Well actually the biggest day of judgment is still to come. And when God allures his wayward people now, he doesn’t say that our unfaithfulness doesn’t really matter. He stretches out his arms in Jesus who says, “I love you this much – enough to die for you.” What happens when Jesus dies is that judgment and mercy come together, in their most extreme forms, as Jesus, with perfect love, takes all the judgment we deserve.

So where does Hosea leave us today? Here are two reasons his message is still vital.

The first thing it does is expand our vision of the character of God. I think if Hosea was sitting over there, and you told him you were going home tonight with a bigger, better vision of God as a result of reading his book, he’d be delighted. If you told him that you’d never known how tender and alluring and strong and intense his love is – and also that you’d never really appreciated just how strong and uncompromising and holy and right his judgment is – Hosea would go home happy. He wants to expand our vision of just who God is.

But he also wants us to see the way back to God. That’s Hosea’s great message of hope.

There will be people here tonight thinking, “God might love other people, but not really me. At least, not with that extravagant unconditional love. Not after what I’ve done and who I’ve been.” And Hosea would say, “As surely as I loved Gomer, and God loved unfaithful Israel, he can and does love you. Not because you’re wonderful, but because he is, and he does!”

The Christian message is all about how sinners come back to God. And Hosea helps us understand how that happens, and how it doesn’t happen.

Take the question of sexuality – a massive question for both our culture and our churches at the moment. On what basis can people with all kinds of sexual history and sexual inclination and sexual opinions come together in the church of Jesus Christ? What would Hosea say?

Our Archbishops made a statement on the subject a few weeks ago, after the church’s General Synod. And they call for a “radical new Christian inclusion” in the church. It’s a striking phrase – though the question, of course, is what you mean by it. The Archbishops don’t define it; and sadly it’s not obvious how much they want to be completely clear.

You see, for some people, a “radical new Christian inclusion” means you can just put matters of sexual practice to one side as merely incidental. If inclusion means anything, they say, then it means that everyone is welcome, which means all sorts of relationships are welcome, and all kinds of behaviour are welcome, without discrimination.

But what would Hosea mean by the phrase? After all, if anyone gets a radical new inclusion then Hosea’s wife does! He’s kind of our resident expert on the subject. But Gomer’s restoration comes not on the basis of confusing right and wrong, or saying that what she did is officially disallowed but pastorally accommodated. That just doesn’t make sense, anyway. No, Gomer’s radical new inclusion comes on the basis of God’s true, alluring love, which accepts she is under judgment and leads her to repentance. That is how the Christian inclusion works. And it’s the only way to peace with God.

So as I finish, listen to these wonderful words from 1 Corinthians 6. Paul says,

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [It’s not just certain sins; it’s all kinds of sin.] And that is what some of you were. [The church in Corinth was made up not of good people but of forgiven sinners. Christ Church Cockfosters is made up not of good people, but of forgiven sinners!] But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

And if Hosea were sitting over there, he would be on his feet cheering by now, to discover how his vision of God’s justice and God’s alluring mercy came together 800 years later at the cross of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring new life to sinners from every nation in God’s church. “Oh the depth of the rightness of God!” he would be saying. “Oh the wonders of his tender, merciful, love.”

And he would be wanting us all to go home saying the same.

 

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Reviewed: Three new(ish) songs about the Word of God

It’s so good to sing about the Word of God – and not merely in that “pre-sermon” slot on a Sunday! Here are three recent songs on that theme, all of which I love, and, incidentally, all of which were sung at Keswick last week, in one tent or another.


Behold the Power of his Word – Michael Morrow (Co-Mission)

This is an upbeat song, with a chorus that echoes 1 Peter 1:24 as it contrasts God’s living, enduring word with the rising and falling generations in which we live. Neatly, the first verse reflects on God’s word in creation, before the second verse turns to his word in salvation. There’s also a strong middle 8, which is not too difficult to pick up…my only niggle is that I wish its second half rhymed a bit better! But this is a great song, which we sang several times in the youth tent last week.

Sheet music here.


It’s a Light and a Hammer – Awesome Cutlery

This song by family music duo Awesome Cutlery (Dan Adams and Gareth Loh) takes four biblical metaphors to make a catchy chorus:

It’s a light, it’s a hammer, it’s a fire, it’s a sword,
It’s the voice of the Father, the Word of the Lord;
The blade of the Spirit can cut to the soul,
And God will use it to make us whole.

As with Behold the Power of his Word, and like any good hymn, the verses are well crafted and make a thematic progression. The first one looks to creation, the second to salvation, and the third to the humbling and transforming power of God’s word in a believer’s life. This song is perfect for KS2 kids, but has a cringe-free depth and rigour that means it works really well for all ages.


Finally, also well worth a look:

Your Word, EMU Music (Liv Chapman, Alanna Glover, Philip Percival).

Lots of good images from Psalm 119, and a decent tune, though admittedly nothing quite as catchy as the two songs above. A highlight of this song is the unusually creative bridge section, which works up to a great lyrical climax:

Your word is more than just letters on pages;
it’s life and it’s love and it’s freedom for us

Your word is more than just wisdom of ages;
its treasures are endless, it’s always enough

Your word is more than just stories of old;
it’s the truth and the way and the story of love

Your word is more than just breath into dust;
it’s your Son, as a man, come to dwell here with us

Sheet music here (from the EMU online store; charge applies).


Check these songs out, and get singing!

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Keeping Word and Spirit in balance…?

“The Word without the Spirit will dry you up;
the Spirit without the Word will blow you up.”

You may well have heard it said; you may well have nodded sagely at it; you may even have said it yourself. I’m sure I have done at least two of those things myself in the past.

But writing an assignment on the Trinity this week has reminded me how wrong it is! Subtly wrong, perhaps; but badly wrong.

Sam Allberry gives a beautiful critique of this “wise saying” in his readable little book Connected: Living in the Light of the Trinity:

The statement implies the need for a balance between the Spirit and the word, as if the two are somehow heading in different directions and need the moderating influence of each other. Such thinking misunderstands what both the word and the Spirit are in themselves.

The word of God is not a dry, dusty thing that has the effect of an industrial-strength dehumidifier. The word of God, truly apprehended, is incendiary…

Nor is the Spirit some chaotic force that charges about like a young child who’s had too many Coco-Pops for breakfast. He is the Spirit of truth after all, whose fruit is self-control…

In the bible, word and Spirit come together as speech and breath: ‘All Scripture,’ Paul tells us, ‘is God-breathed.’

Balance. Sam Allberry puts his finger right on the problem: this “wise saying” implies a need for balance. It rightly affirms that Word and Spirit are not identical (though it caricatures them prettily shoddily). But it effectively “divides the substance” of God by presenting Word and Spirit as persons who pull in slightly different directions. They don’t!

As it is put in the Athanasian Creed (the keystone of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine):

Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith…That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.

I’ll leave it there, and get back to finishing the assignment. What a wonderful God we have.

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Capitalism under God

I love the fact that London’s Royal Exchange sits under these words:
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.”

IMG_20160218_131824At the heart of the City, a magnificent building; now a retail emporium, but originally the key trading point for merchants, and then the home of the London insurance market.

And all the wheeling and dealing took place (and, indeed, still takes place) beneath a simple motto from Psalm 24:1.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.  Everything in it. All this stuff that it has produced; all this stuff that we have produced from it. It’s all the Lord’s. We are merely stewards of his provision, and life will be all the better, both now and in eternity, if we don’t forget it.

It has been remarked* that there are two types of socialist in the UK. Socialists may be ethical people who sincerely believe that socialism is best for society. Or they may be selfish people, who just want other people to pick up the bill for their own folly.

And likewise there are two types of capitalist. There are selfish capitalists – brutal people who are morally decadent and care little for others. And then there are ethical capitalists, who are not motivated by their own greed, but sincerely believe capitalism is the economic precondition of a healthy society.

Psalm 24:1 is the only sure foundation for ethical capitalism, because it recognises that we are all merely recipients and stewards. Recipients from God, and stewards on his behalf. On the verge of the Promised Land, Moses warned the Israelites,

“Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant.” (Deuteronomy 8:18)

Otherwise we should heed the warning from another Psalm, number 49:

Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendour of his house increases;
for he will take nothing with him when he dies, and his splendour will not descend with him.

Though while he lived he counted himself blessed – and people praise you when you prosper – he will join the generation of his fathers who will never see the light of life.

A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.

Why so serious? Well, “the fulness thereof” in Psalm 24 includes me and you. The verse goes on, “…the world and all its peoples.” We will all give an account to him one day.

And “who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol, or swear by what is false.”

Socialist or capitalist, and whether our chief idol is money or something different, none of us has “clean hands and a pure heart”. So praise God for Jesus, who died in our place, for the forgiveness of all who trust in him.

And praise God for the Royal Exchange and Psalm 24! May we live by that principle.

_________________________________________________________________

*see David Holloway, “Church and State in the New Millennium” (HarperCollins, 2000) page ix, referring to the work of sociologist Norman Dennis.

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On seeking popularity…

During our life on earth, and especially in our own day, nothing is easier, pleasanter and more likely to win people’s approval than the office of bishop or priest or deacon, if it is performed negligently and with a view to securing their approval; but in God’s sight there is nothing more sorrowful, miserable, and deserving of condemnation.

Again, there is nothing in this present life, and especially now, more difficult, toilsome and perilous than these offices if they are carried out in the way our Lord commands; but, at the same time, nothing is more blessed in God’s sight.

Could have been written yesterday! Actually written by Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century. Still a salutary warning for any in Christian ministry today.

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Reading between the lines

Parent View jigsaw

Parent View results (2014-2015)

Search results – Grindon Hall Christian School

Grindon Hall Christian School
Nookside
Sunderland
Tyne and Wear
SR4 8PG
  • URN: 138567
  • Pupils on the roll: 540
  • Responses for this school: 262
  • Responses for year: 2014/2015

NOTE: More than one parent/carer can complete the Parent View questionnaire so the results may show more respondents than pupils attending the school


Grindon Hall

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Current trends in the UK evangelical church…

From Christmas Carol services to Christians against Poverty, and from multi-site ministry to clarity on homosexuality – John Stevens of FIEC notes 9 current trends in the UK evangelical church here.

Typically well-observed, and well worth thinking through!

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What to say after Charlie Hebdo?

What to say after the brutal and terrible mass-murders in Paris last week?

First, I want to try to have a Christian mind on these issues. So:

Here’s John Stevens on the Free Speech question.

Here’s Doug Wilson, on Islam, Secularism and the Social Order.

And a brilliant essay by John Piper, written after the 2006 Danish Cartoons episode. It is the essence of Muhammad’s work to be honoured, he says; and the essence of Christ’s work to be mocked.

Second, while the events in Paris are very much ‘on our territory’, I want to make sure I remember those who suffer daily at the hands of those seeking to establish an Islamic State in Iraq, Syria or north-east Nigeria, where thousands have died brutally at the hands of Boko Haram. Christian organisations like Barnabas Fund are great at providing support.

Finally, I want to remember France, a country I love. Its historic Roman Catholicism has often been sacramental to the point of superstition. Most French Catholics are now purely nominal, and recently the Catholic church has been in dramatic decline. Secular humanism is the order of the day for an increasing number. Meanwhile, France has developed the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. Violent anti-semitic attacks are on the rise, and many Jews are simply leaving the country.
All told, it is a phenomenally needy mission-field. And while the evangelical church has grown significantly over the past generation, evangelicals are reckoned to form only 1% of the population. Organisations like France Mission have done great church-planting work, and are well worth supporting.

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Suffering as a Christian

(a sermon on chapter 3 of Habakkuk, given at St Richard’s Church, Crowborough, on 14 September 2014)

Paul Millard and his wife were young Christians, and she was pregnant with their fourth child when they suddenly realised that something was seriously wrong with her health. The doctors weren’t sure totally what it was, but before long she was in a wheelchair, weak and debilitated, facing episodes of excruciating pain. Twenty years on, their struggle continues. Reflecting on that time, Paul says: “I have met so many Christians who have left me amazed at their courage and fortitude and their desire to bring glory to God through the agony they have suffered. I have seen it in my wonderfully brave and incredibly courageous wife. Her story is not one of bitterness and defeat, but one of faith and triumph.”

Others respond differently when that kind of unimaginable hardship comes into the Christian life. You may well know people who have said, “If there really was a loving God, then he would never let us go through this. I might have believed in him before; but now, how can I?”

That’s true for us when we face hardship; but we could think too of the Christians currently being ravaged by terrorists from the so-called “Islamic State” movement in the Middle East. Has God forgotten them? How can they expect to cope with rape, torture, kidnap and murder?

And what about you? What has the story of your Christian life been, perhaps with its ups and downs? What would it take to shake your faith in God?

Well, I don’t know what kind of hard times you’re going through at the moment. I don’t know how close you feel your faith is to snapping. But today we’re going to sing with Habakkuk – and his song is a song that was written to help Christians keep going.

Let’s just recap his amazing story which you’ve been looking at together over the past few weeks. Habakkuk is a godly man living in Judah around 600BC, and he’s distressed at all the wickedness he sees in the country. Why do people not follow God’s way? And why is God doing nothing about it? Is God even listening? I’m sure we’ve all prayed the same kind of prayer. “Lord, what is going on in the world?” Or at least, we should have! It’s absolutely right for us to be concerned.

But Habakkuk gets an answer he doesn’t expect. God says that he’s going to bring in a ruthless foreign army, the Chaldeans, to punish Habakkuk’s people. Now that is a bit like you crying out to God about the 200,000 unborn children aborted in the UK each year…and him answering by saying, “Yes, I know. I’m raising up Al Qaeda to execute judgment on the British people. Can you imagine that? You would say, “What, that lot? They are even worse than we are!” Which is what Habakkuk said.

And God says, “Yes, I know that. And they too, in time will receive even greater punishment for their sins.” But that’s not going to happen yet. Chapter 2 verse 3: For still the vision awaits its appointed time; [in other words, the vision will come true at the time God has set]; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. [God’s timing is perfect, and his plans will not fail.] v4: Behold, his soul is puffed up [that’s the Chaldean warrior]; it is not upright within him, but the righteous [that is, the righteous person in Israel] shall live by his faith [in other words, his patient trust that God’s word WILL come true, and his endurance through the ravages of the Chaldeans taking over.]”

It’s a shocking message, isn’t it! And it ultimately ends up at where I think you left off last week, chapter 2 verse 20: “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” In the ultimate analysis, God is God. We are not.

And what comes next in Habakkuk’s book? He prays! As he contemplates this traumatic news of a coming judgment on his people, he prays. Actually, he sings. And we’ve got the lyrics of his song here in chapter 3. That Hebrew word “Shigionoth” in verse 1 is probably a term for a particular type of song, such as a lament. And the very last words are: “To the director of music: with stringed instruments.” So it’s a song; and not just a song for Habakkuk to sing, but for all the Jews of his day to sing. I love to imagine them singing it, perhaps when they were carried off to exile by the Chaldeans (because Habakkuk’s prophecy certainly did come true). I love to think of them singing it as they wait patiently, a humbled people, for God’s deliverance to come – which, in God’s time, 70 years later, it did.

And it’s a song that we can sing – a prayer that we can use too. We can join in with their song of patient trust in a merciful deliverer – because what happened to them is just a big visual aid of a much greater deliverance. It is a picture pointing forward to the time of Jesus and the days we live in today. Just as the Jews in Habakkuk’s day were punished and restored, so was Jesus, in his cross and resurrection. He, of course, was punished for what he didn’t do wrong. But anyone who trusts in him today is included in benefits of his death and resurrection. He was punished in our place, and we will be raised to eternal life with him. For now we’re in a kind of waiting period, rather like Habakkuk, waiting for the final fulfilment of God’s promised deliverance. As so, like Habakkuk, we can sing this song as we wait – as we wait for our biggest enemy, sin and death, to be final destroyed when Jesus returns.

So let’s have a look at chapter 3, and I think we’ll see 3 things to look at, which will help us keep going as Christians.

1: Look Up

Look at chapter 3, verse 2:

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy.

When faced with the realisation of what will happen – that life will be incredibly hard for God’s people, Habakkuk prays. That in itself is a challenge, isn’t it! What’s your first reaction to trouble or bad news? Habakkuk prays. And did you notice two sides to his prayer? Firstly he acknowledges that God is God – “Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear.”

Then there’s a prayer for God to do good – to revive his work, and in his wrath to remember mercy. That is a wonderful prayer to pray for our country at the moment – and for the church at the moment. We know we deserve God’s wrath, and we need God’s mercy. It’s not that we can point the finger at a particular bit of suffering and say it’s come because of a particular sin. Not at all – and often the finest Christians are the ones who seem to end up suffering the most! But in general terms, there is suffering in the world because human beings brought sin into the world. And we need to remember that our enemy is not just the devil, it is our own sinfulness. So we need to acknowledge God as God, and to pray for his mercy. We need to look up. Second, we need to

  1. Look Back

Did you notice that most of chapter 3 is looking backwards? Habakkuk’s prayer takes the people back in time. He stirs up their memories to recall God’s great deliverance of the past – the time when Moses led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan. So, verse 3:

God came from Teman,
and the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His splendour covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of his praise. Selah
His brightness was like the light;
rays flashed from his hand;
and there he veiled his power.
Before him went pestilence,
and plague followed at his heels.
He stood and measured the earth;
he looked and shook the nations;
then the eternal mountains were scattered;
the everlasting hills sank low.
His were the everlasting ways.

I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;
the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.
Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?
Was your anger against the rivers,
or your indignation against the sea,
when you rode on your horses,
on your chariot of salvation?
You stripped the sheath from your bow,
calling for many arrows. Selah

You split the earth with rivers.
10 The mountains saw you and writhed;
the raging waters swept on;
the deep gave forth its voice;
it lifted its hands on high.

11 The sun and moon stood still in their place
at the light of your arrows as they sped,
at the flash of your glittering spear.
12 You marched through the earth in fury;
you threshed the nations in anger.
13 You went out for the salvation of your people,
for the salvation of your anointed.
You crushed the head of the house of the wicked,
laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah

14 You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors,
who came like a whirlwind to scatter me,
rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.
15 You trampled the sea with your horses,
the surging of mighty waters.

Look back, says Habakkuk. God has saved us before, in the most unlikely circumstances. And moreover, the reason he saved them then was not just because he was feeling particularly kind that day. It was because of a promise he made to Abraham 500 years before that. If he kept his promise and saved our people in the days of Moses, despite the way they rejected him then, well surely, in his mercy, he will keep on keeping his promise today. That’s how Habakkuk is thinking.

And we also need to look back; and we have something even greater than the Exodus from Egypt to look back to. We look back to the thing that the Exodus was pointing forward to: the ultimate deliverance from evil, led not by Moses but by the ultimate rescuer. We look back to the cross, where Jesus didn’t just pay for our sins but demonstrated his ultimate and everlasting commitment to us, as we remember at this Communion Service. As Paul put it in Romans 8:32, writing about suffering, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

So we need to look up, we need to look back, and we need to

  1. Look Forward

Look at verse 16:

I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.

Things happen in this life that might make our bodies ‘tremble’ and our lips ‘quiver’; it might be getting bad news from the doctor; it might be the suspicion that people at work are mocking you behind your back because of your Christian faith. I’m sure you know what it is for your legs to tremble beneath you! Yet, like Habakkuk, we need to quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.

In Habakkuk’s context, the ‘people who invade us’ were the Chaldeans. Who are they in our context? Well, our ultimate invaders are not the Russians or the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Do you remember Ephesians chapter 6 says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood? It’s against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Our real enemies are sin and the devil. The bible never promises that all our problems will go away, or that everything will turn out OK in this life. But it does promise a great day when Jesus will return, and ‘the day of trouble’ will come upon the people who invade us – i.e. our enemies sin and the devil.

To have faith is to ‘quietly wait’ for that day.

And in the meantime things don’t always look great. Verse 17:

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Now I like to grow a few bits of fruit and vegetables. Sometimes they grow…for example this year we had an amazing crop of raspberries. Other times they don’t! So our beetroot hasn’t done very well and is slowly getting eaten by the slugs. And when nothing at all comes up, or the whole crop gets eaten…we just go to Morrisons! At times like that I’m glad I’m not a farmer whose livelihood depends on the crops. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really known food shortage. But in the economy of the day, what Habakkuk is describing is a disaster. Heading towards famine, with no supermarket down the road to bail you out.

And when life gets hard – no fruit on the vines, no herd in the stalls; for us it might be losing a job, or losing our house – it’s harder to trust God. It can seem unreasonable to trust God. Like the family I mentioned at the beginning, facing terrible illness, we might say “If there is a God, why is this happening to me?” Even more so for those Christians suffering so terribly in Syria and Iraq at the moment. Or for the times when you face opposition in sharing or living out your Christian faith here in the UK.

At times like that, faith might seem unreasonable. But actually Christian faith is quite reasonable – partly because in places like this book of Habakkuk the bible does far more than any other religion can do to explain the problem of suffering in a coherent way. And if, on the basis of the historical evidence available you believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, which is not an unreasonable thing to believe, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that he will keep his promise to come again, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that he is now in control of the universe.

No, the opposite of faith is not reason. The opposite of faith is sight. That’s why it’s hard to believe – because we do not see. We might see war, hardship and economic catastrophe – but because we believe we ‘quietly wait’ for God to act in mercy. And so, like Habakkuk, we can rejoice in the Lord – and even rejoice in our sufferings.

Paul Mallard, the guy I mentioned at the beginning has written this book, “Invest your Suffering”. It’s very straightforward and honest, and well worth reading. And not only if you’re particularly conscious of hard times at the moment. Actually the time to read a book like that is before you are in the really tough times, so that you can be prepared.

Well, what are the things that make it hard for you at the moment to continue as a Christian? Or that might do in the future? Or that make it hard for others? Well, let’s sing with Habakkuk together as we spur one another along the road to glory. Let’s look up to God. Look back to his promise and his deliverance. And look forward to the great future he has promised us in heaven with him. As the apostle Paul wrote, after all he suffered for Christ, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

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Keeping going as a Christian

(a sermon on 2 Peter 3:14-18, preached at All Saints Crowborough on 9 November 2014)

One of the saddest things about being a Christian, I think, is seeing people start well in the Christian life, but then wander off or get distracted by temptations, distractions or wrong teaching.

For example, I can think of a young singer that I knew several years ago, and a long way from here. She was in her twenties, newly married, just a lovely girl. She didn’t just have a beautiful voice; she had a wonderful ability to move people as she sang the truths of the gospel. She helped lead a Christian youth group, and as far as I could tell was filled with love for Jesus. But then, apparently out of the blue, she left the church, and she left her husband for another man; and, as far as I know, tragically she is now in a spiritual wasteland.

How does that happen? How can we start so well as a Christian and then go so badly wrong? To ask the question the other way round, what’s the best way to keep going as a Christian? Well, that’s what we’re going to explore tonight as we look at the final few verses of 2 Peter, on p235. It’s the conclusion of our series looking at this book, and in a way these verses sum up the whole of Peter’s message.

Peter, of course, had suffered in many ways for his faith; and he also knew what it was to fail. Remember, in the bible Peter is not just famous as the leader of the first Christians; he’s also famous for denying Jesus three times before his crucifixion. He’s a good person to ask about keeping going! And I think if you asked Peter how you can keep going as a Christian, he’d say three things through these verses: Wait, Strive and Grow.

Let’s have a look at verse 14: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things…”

What things? Well, look back a verse: “In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

It’s the things we looked at last week, if you were here: the day when Jesus will return to judge the earth, and to bring salvation for those who have trusted in him and in his death for their sins. And being a Christian is first and foremost about waiting for God to keep that promise. Surviving the Christian life is not fundamentally about us being good enough or working hard enough or going to church enough. It’s about a promise that Jesus has made to come back for us. Isn’t that liberating? People may scoff at that thought, just as they did in Peter’s day; but he will come, and our job is simply to wait for him.

But how should we wait?

Look at the rest of verse 14. “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

[SHOW PICTURE]   Here’s a fine young couple. What are they doing? They are waiting! David, if you don’t know him, is our Associate, and this is Esther his fiancée. They have accepted each other’s invitation to lifelong marriage, to begin in August next year, and now they just need to wait for that day to come. And that’s not a bad picture of what it means to be a Christian right now. We have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ’s invitation; we are going to belong to him for ever; we just need to wait for him to come back for us.

So, when you look at that lovely picture of David, you see a man who’s waiting. But what kind of waiting is he going to do? Perhaps, knowing that the wedding’s in the bag, he’ll just ignore Esther for the next 6 months. After all, why waste time returning her calls when you know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with her?

Or perhaps while he’s waiting he’ll want to ‘make the most of his freedom’. Perhaps now’s a good time to check out some other fine looking ladies before he’s under the thumb.

No, David is striving while he waits. He and Esther are working on their relationship – striving to be found by each other at peace, without spot or blemish, to borrow Peter’s phrase. And likewise, we should be striving while we’re waiting for Jesus. The reason he’s not come back yet is that God is patient, wanting to give people time to repent. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation”, v15.

How are you waiting for Jesus? Here’s a question: Do you think you are thinking about Jesus each day as much as David thinks about Esther? Are you taking as much care to be pure towards Jesus, without spot or blemish, as David is towards Esther? If Jesus came back tonight, would he find you at peace with him? Or on the run from him?

Don’t do the spiritual equivalent of David having a one night stand on his stag weekend. The temptations of the world promise freedom while we’re waiting for Jesus, but that is just a trick of the devil. That’s exactly what we saw in chapter 2 a fortnight ago – 2:19 – the false teachers “promise [people] freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.”

No, as we wait as Christians, waiting for Jesus’ return, we also need to strive. To strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish. Purity matters. He will keep us; but there is a spiritual battle going on and we need to keep our hearts and our lives fixed on him.

We need to keep striving because the aim of our Christian life, while we wait, is that we grow. And that’s the third thing. Wait, strive, grow. Let’s read the rest of our passage, from the middle of v15:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

If I wheeled in my children and told you I was quite happy with where they’d got to and didn’t want them to grow any more, you’d think I was mad. In fact, if they stopped growing (mentally, physically or emotionally) I’d be straight round to the doctor. And it’s the same in our Christian life, says Peter in v18: we need to grow spiritually. If we’re not growing spiritually then that’s a sign that we’re not spiritually very healthy. Healthy things grow. It’s a dangerous thing to think that you can coast along in the Christian life. Once you stop growing, you’re likely to start shrinking. Once you stop pressing forwards you’re likely to wander off sideways or start going backwards. But we’re to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

How do we grow in the knowledge of him? Well, how does Esther grow in the knowledge of David? We spend time with him! We talk to him, we listen to him, and we walk with him through life. We need to be learning from the bible, which is why Peter says: remember what our dear brother Paul wrote. Now, knowing the bible and knowing Jesus are not exactly the same thing: it’s possible to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bible in an academic sense and not really know Jesus at all. But if we’re to grow in the knowledge of Jesus, then we must read the bible, wrestle with the bible, and love the bible, more and more. And 2 Peter 3:16 is a lovely verse as we see Peter commending the apostle Paul to them. Just see how much verse 16 tells us about God’s word:

First, Paul’s letters were widely known and read. Though as far as we know they were all written to individual people and churches, Peter has clearly read lots of them and expects his readers to read them too.

Second, Paul’s letters were regarded as being ‘scripture’. Peter says,  in v16, that people twist them “…as they do the other scriptures.” That’s an extraordinary claim and shows us that right from the earliest days the church regarded Paul as a man writing truth from God, with, v15, “the wisdom given to him”.  It shows that the ‘canon’ of NT books was already formulating in the early days of the church, as their God-breathed authority was recognised. Some people will tell you that church councils hundreds of years later arbitrarily decided what to put in the New Testament. Purely from a historical point of view, that is utter nonsense. Paul’s writings were already, in perhaps AD65 here, regarded as part of Scripture.

But today Paul’s writings are not always treated with respect, just as they weren’t then. For example, you may well hear people saying that the words of Jesus in the gospels are what it’s really all about: far more reliable than the words of that maverick, misogynist, megalomaniac Paul. That might sound plausible, but it’s totally wrong, because the letters of Paul are, to quote Peter, up there alongside “the other scriptures”. We can’t just rip out the bits of Paul we don’t like, such as what he said about sexual ethics or about the differences between men and women, just as we can’t write off the bits of the Gospels that we don’t like, such as what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage, or his many warnings about the grim reality of hell. And there’s an integrity in scripture which means that Paul’s message and Jesus’ message are actually the same. God spoke them all. And Paul is neither a misogynist nor a megalomaniac.

The third thing we learn from this verse is that “there are some things in them hard to understand”. Isn’t it refreshing to hear that? I’m so glad I’m not the only one who’s wrestled with the way Paul describes our future resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, or the struggle against sin in Romans 7. If you don’t always find the Bible easy, then join Peter’s club! That’s what it’s sometimes supposed to be like! Barry Cooper, one of the writers of the Discipleship Explored course, puts it really well in this quote:

“Some books we read, but the best books read us. They assess us, make demands of us. And that’s a good thing. First, because hard texts have a way of humbling us. They remind us that God’s wisdom infinitely outpaces our own. And second, hard texts are good for us because God the Father wants us to become more like his Son. The only way this can happen is if our minds and hearts are exercised. The person who never wants the bible to be hard is like the person who goes to the gym and never wants to sweat.” [paraphrased]

Wise words!

Fourth thing: the scriptures can be twisted. That’s what the false teachers were doing – quoting the bible but twisting it to say something different from what it actually means. It’s a dreadfully serious thing, because Peter says that those ignorant and unstable people – note the contrast there between the ‘unstable’ people in v16, and our ‘stability’ in v17 as believers – he says those who twist the bible do so to their own destruction.

There are many ways to twist someone’s words, but let’s just focus in now on one of the simplest: Take it out of context. You often see that when a new film comes out, don’t you, and a selection of quotes from the reviews appears on the poster adverts. A few years back, one film had a quote from Entertainment Weekly under its title: “A small masterpiece.” But if you read their review, Entertainment Weekly had not been particularly positive about the film at all. They had used the words “a small masterpiece”, but only to describe the opening credits as “a small masterpiece of dementia.” Their words were twisted – taken right out of context.

We can easily do the same. Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength!” makes me sound like a Christian superhero, and is frequently quoted that way. Read it in context, and you see that it’s more about being contented in suffering hardship and poverty. A different twist on what it means to be victorious.

And it’s easy to take things out of context on a bigger scale too. Recently I was looking through the official bible reading scheme which the Church of England produces for Sunday services. It’s a bit like it’s been put through the sanitizer. For example, there’s a glorious passage in 1 Corinthians 6:

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God…”

Guess where the official lectionary starts the reading? Verse 11: “And this is what some of you were…”.

Of course it’s easier not to read the unpleasant bit – but it twists the message! Because without the ‘bad news’ there can be no ‘good news’.

So we need to be careful. And it’s easy to point the finger at others while having a cherry-picking approach to the bible ourselves, isn’t it. Let’s be honest, we’re all prone to picking our favourite bits, or the bits we feel we can stomach. But in the long run that will make us unbalanced Christians. Maybe with 2015 not far round the corner, now is a good time to find a daily bible reading routine that will take you right through the bible, so you make sure you get the balance of the whole. Be realistic – you don’t necessarily need to read 6 chapters a day. And sometimes it is great just to open the bible anywhere, to pray that God will lead us to a part that’s particularly useful for us today, and even to read our favourite bits! But it’s good also to be systematic and to make sure we read the whole thing.

Now might be a good time to recommend some books on the Good Book!

Two short books written this year :

also:

  • “Dig Deeper”. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” A book like this will help you learn to fish – to understand and apply the bible yourself, so you can grow, and not lose your stability as a Christian. And maybe it’ll help you to teach someone else to fish too.

So, how do we grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ? We talk to him, we walk with him, and we listen to him in the bible. We show Paul and the other apostles the respect they deserve in their scriptural writings.

But finally, note that it’s not enough just to grow in the knowledge of Jesus. We need also to grow in his grace. It’s an ugly thing to be very learned in the scriptures, and then very ungracious in the way we treat others. It’s by and large the attitude that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. So be careful. Make sure you’re growing in love and in character, as well as in knowledge. And let it all be for the glory of Jesus Christ, because all glory is his, v18.

How can we keep going as a Christian? Wait. Strive. Grow. I think of that keen young Christian singer I mentioned at the beginning. I could mention numerous others I have known. And I look around tonight, and I pray that God will keep all of us from losing our stability.

Wait for him to come back for you. Strive to be found ready and waiting for him. And grow in the grace and knowledge of him, our Lord and Saviour.

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