An unbalanced diet

The regular, systematic reading of scripture, in a language people understand, is a foundational part of the heritage and vision of the Anglican Reformers. And I’ve often thought what a good thing it is that in listening to the weekly lectionary readings Sunday by Sunday, all kinds of people are getting a steady, balanced dose of scripture, even where their church does not have a strong ministry of expository preaching.

But it turns out that I was wrong. On Monday a friend at a conference pointed me towards this index of the Revised Common Lectionary, which (with very little amendment) now forms the 3 year lectionary for main Sunday services in the Church of England. (The index lists passages in bible order and shows you on which day they appear, so you can see exactly what ends up where.)

And the shocking thing is what doesn’t appear. Because the ‘good news’ makes very little sense unless there is some ‘bad news’ to put it into context.

Now of course you can’t easily read the whole bible over the course of 156 services. But there is a chilling pattern to what is missed out. Romans? We read most of the book – wonderful! But we jump from 1:17 to 3:22b. So do we hear the foundation of Paul’s argument, that Jew and Gentile alike, all people on earth, are under God’s judgment? We do not. Then what about chapters 9-11, which discuss the salvation of the Jews? How about wresting a few short passages out of context so as to give all the positives and none of the negatives? 1 Corinthians? We get a fair bit of the first few chapters. Then we get to chapter 5, one of the key New Testament passages on church discipline. Awkward. Let’s skip quickly past, pausing just to read two and a half verses for Easter without any of their surrounding context.

What about the qualifications for church eldership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? Not a sausage. Those two books earn only five short passages between them, cherry-picked for special occasions. How about 2 Peter and Jude, with their timely warnings about false teaching? 2 Peter features just twice in the course of your three years: a ‘special’ on the Transfiguration, and a ‘special’ for Advent on the Lord’s return, ironically stopping half way through the verse where Peter commends Paul’s scriptural writings. (I guess if they’d agreed with him they would have included a few more of them.) Jude gets nothing. Letters to the seven churches in Revelation? Of course not.

And where is the bible’s input on the two issues that currently threaten to tear the Anglican Communion apart, homosexual practice and the ministry of women? The key passages just do not appear. Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 5, 6, 11 and 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, 2 Peter 2, Jude. Nothing. And that’s just the New Testament.

It is no wonder that our theology has become so unbalanced if this is our Sunday diet. As Paul said to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27:

I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

Needless to say, that passage doesn’t make it into the Revised Common Lectionary either.

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Longing for heaven?

(a sermon on Revelation 5:6-14, given at All Saints Crowborough on 24 August 2014)

I love the story of a man who is crazy about golf, and he really wants to know whether there will be golf in heaven. He just can’t get the question out of his mind. So he prays and prays about it – and in the end he sees a vision where an angel appears to him with the answer. “Golf?” says the angel. “Absolutely! And let me tell you more: the courses are the most stunningly beautiful you’ve ever seen; the greens are rolled and mowed as flat as a pancake; it’s all free; and it never rains when you’re playing.”

“That’s wonderful news!” says the man. “It’s all I ever dreamed of!”

“I’m so glad you’re excited,” says the angel, “because we’ve got you booked in to play on Friday.”

What do you think heaven is like? Do you think there’ll be a golf course? Do you believe in heaven at all? Surveys suggest that around half of British people do – though I think if you asked people at funerals you would get a higher percentage. After all, when it comes to the crunch no one really likes to think of a loved one as having just ceased to exist, as if the lights have been turned out and that’s it.

Or maybe you do think that – that the lights go out and that’s it – like Stephen Hawking, the legendary scientist with motor neurone disease. ‘Heaven?’ he says. That’s just ‘a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark’.

So what about you? Do you believe in heaven, and if so, what do you think it is like?

[DISCUSSION TIME]

Well through August in these evening services we’ve been looking at some ‘prayers to imitate’ in the New Testament. Today we’re in Revelation 5, looking at a prayer that is prayed in heaven. In fact, it’s one of the greatest worship songs in the bible. And I think it asks us three questions tonight – and the first question is: do you believe in heaven?

I don’t know what kinds of thoughts you had in your discussions just now. But if we want to know more about heaven, then the book of Revelation is the right place to go, because it’s all about heaven – what is going on now, and what is going to happen in the future. You see that right from the first words of the book, Revelation chapter 1 verse 1:

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John…”

As we read this book of Revelation it’s as if we get a glimpse into another world – both of things going on now, and things that will happen in the future.

So let’s read from verse 6 of chapter 5 (p245):

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.They sing a new song:

‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.’

I don’t know what you make of that talk of a throne, strange living creatures, people’s prayers as bowls of incense, and a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. Are they just a vision? Are they real? Well, they are real – John saw them in a vision, but they do exist. Do you know that there is a whole spiritual world which we don’t normally see? The bible is clear that there is a heaven where God the Holy Trinity is currently being worshipped and adored, from where he is in total control of the universe and is working out his plans. The book of Revelation shows us these things that are going on now, in our present age, but in a different place. Heaven is real today.

But that’s not all. Revelation also shows us what is going to happen in the future, after the end of the world. In chapter 20 there’s a great white throne of judgment. God is seated on the throne. And the dead stand before the throne to be judged. Books are opened. There are books recording what people have done – that is the basis on which they are judged. But the book that ultimately counts is the Lamb’s book of life. If your name is not in the book of life, you are thrown into the lake of fire.

The bible says that the presence of God as he judges is so fearful that earth and heaven flee from it.

And then a few verses later, in chapter 21. John says in his vision,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “See, the home of God is among mortals.

That’s the climax – a new heaven and a new earth. And a kind of unity of the two, because God and his redeemed, purified people will live together. “The home of God is among mortals.” Heaven on earth, in a sense.

That’s why back in chapter 5, our passage tonight, in verse 10, it says of God’s people, the saints, “and they will reign on the earth”. It’s not talking about our present age, but about a future age, on a new earth. At the beginning of the bible, Adam was put on earth to rule over it, but he sinned and ignored God, choosing to rule on his own, with all the consequences that brought. But at the end of the bible, we see God’s redeemed, renewed people reigning on the new earth.

So when we talk about Christians who have died being in heaven for ever, that’s only part of the story. After Jesus returns will come new heavens and a new earth. It’s not just that we leave the earth behind and go to be with him. The earth will be reborn in a way we can’t quite visualise; but in perfection, untainted by sin. God will be right with us. Imagine this earth in a perfect form, without sickness, crying or death; without hatred and without even wrong thoughts. Imagine Jesus as our brother and king, living with us and being eternally worshipped. I don’t know about you, but it blows my mind.

Do you believe in heaven? That’s the first question. Here’s the second one: do you believe in worship?

Let’s read the rest of our passage, from Revelation 5 verse 11 (p246).

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,

‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’

14 And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.

Heaven is all about worship. Eternally, where God is, those around offer their worship to him. How many angels in verse 11? A myriad to the Greeks was 10,000. So that’s a hundred million at least!

Then in verse 13 John hears every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea singing praise. Here, perhaps we’re getting a window into the future of that new heaven and earth where God will be worshipped by everyone.

After that in verse 14 the four living creatures around God’s throne say, “Amen” – which can sound like a bit of an anti-climax if you say it the wrong way, but means “Yes!” And the 24 elders, representing the twelve tribes of God in each of the Old and New Testaments, fall down and worship.

They fall down and worship.

And worship should be the key activity on earth today, too. This is a great prayer to imitate. So what is worship?

One mistake is to think worship means music. If I asked you to pick up a pen and draw a ‘worship leader’ (which is a term that isn’t directly in the bible anyway) you probably would draw a musician, rather than drawing one of your leaders in house group, or 24:7 or RnB, whose job is precisely to lead you in worship of God. But the essence of good worship is not actually music, from a biblical point of view. Even here in Revelation 5, the word translated “singing” in verses 12 and 13 is really just the normal Greek word for “speaking”. It’s perhaps fair enough to translate it “singing” in view of the ‘new song’ mentioned in v9, but the music is not essential to the worship. Music is a wonderful gift that helps us in worship, and in learning and in lots of other ways – but it’s not worship.

But if worship is not music (even if it’s sometimes musical) then what is it?

Well, actually we’re all worshippers. 24 hours a day we are all worshipping something. I could show you my bank statement for the past 3 months, and it would give you a pretty good idea of what I worship. It shows you what I consider to be important enough to spend money on. You could look at my diary and you’d see what I consider to be important enough to spend time on. My diary and my bank statement would probably show you what I love with my heart and what I prioritise with my life. And we can never split the heart from the life when we talk about worship. It’s Adoration and Action. They are like two sides of the same coin.

That’s obvious if you think of a marriage, or any human relationship. If I say sweet and wonderful things to my wife but then never lift a finger to help her when she’s in need, what kind of relationship is that? There’s lots of adoration but no action. On the other hand, if I do all the jobs around the house and provide her with lots of money but never show any affection, then she doesn’t have a husband, she has a wealthy full-time handyman. So adoration and action, two sides of the same coin.

And we want to imitate this heavenly prayer and worship in both those ways – adoration and action. They both feed off each other. God doesn’t want people who’ll say the right words, but have no love for him in their hearts. He doesn’t want people who’ll do jobs for him but consider it a waste of time to fall before him and tell him how wonderful he is. I’m not just talking about church on Sundays either – on Sundays and at other times in the week we get the privilege of gathered worship together. But our lives must be full of worship every day – both the adoration and the action.

Perhaps God wants to refresh you as a worshipper tonight. If so, ask him; we all need to repent regularly for our worship failures; and thank him for his forgiveness and grace. Spiritual life is all a gift from him. And we can look forward to eternal renewed worship in the new heaven and the new earth – perfect adoration and action, with God living right with us.

So: do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in worship? The third question – do you believe in Jesus?

Who is it who’s the object of all this worship in Revelation chapter 5? To get the story we need to go back to the beginning of chapter 5. In John’s vision there is a scroll in the right hand of God. It is sealed up with seven seals. Who is worthy to open it (v2)? No one could be found anywhere!

The scroll in God’s right hand represents God’s purposes in working out the end of time as we know it, in judging rightly, and in making history right and complete. The rest of the book of Revelation, in a sense. And no one can be found worthy to open that scroll – not even one of the 100 million angels. John even weeps bitterly in his vision (v4), at the thought that the great purposes of God might not be seen. But then one of the elders says, “Don’t cry! There is someone worthy! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David – that’s the Jewish Messiah, Jesus – has triumphed!

And then John looks and sees, v6, not a lion … but a lamb – looking as if it had been slaughtered.

And they sing to him, to this lamb, v9:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…

The lion conquers through the lamb’s sacrifice. That’s what we remember tonight as we share Holy Communion together. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. By his blood he ransomed for God – paid the ransom price – for saints (that just means holy people, people set apart and purified for God) from every people group on earth.

That is the most significant event in human history. That is what Revelation 5 is all about. That is why there is such worship in heaven: because Jesus died as a ransom for people like us. He died in our place, dying the death we deserved and he didn’t. He’s the one to worship!

That’s why when we’re in church we aim regularly to focus our gathered worship on the cross of Jesus; why that so often comes up in our songs – because it is ultimately what it is all about.

Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in worship? Do you believe in Jesus? I’m aware that tonight, as we’ve looked at this heavenly worship of Jesus, we’ve skipped over lots of things. But if I could do one thing tonight, then what I want to do is to make you thirsty. I want to make you thirsty for heaven – to be with God; to be finally freed from your sin; to be reigning in his name on a new earth, enjoying life with him and his people for ever. I want to make you thirsty for worship – so the idea of eternal worship in heaven isn’t something that bores us but something that excites us. I want you to be thirsty to worship on earth, to love and long for God’s presence, to love to be worshipping him here with his people, as a foretaste of heaven, and to want to put him absolutely first in everything every moment of every day.

And I want to make you thirsty for Jesus. To know him, and to know him better. To know the conquering lion and the sacrificial lamb. Partly just to know him because he is the most wonderful person you could ever know. But also because each of us will one day stand before that great white throne of judgment – from which heaven and earth flee away, and only the Lamb can put your name in his book of life.

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What is church all about?

(a sermon on 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, given at All Saints Crowborough on Sunday 22 June 2014)

Last Saturday I went and filled the car up with petrol. I put the petrol in the tank and then I went in and paid for it. I think I was courteous and polite to the other people around me, giving a friendly Saturday afternoon nod to the guy on pump 7, as you do, but I didn’t really have much to do with the other customers. After all, they weren’t the reason I was at the garage.

Not long ago the four of us went to the theatre to see a West End show. Hundreds of us all sat there, and had a great time. We even joined in occasionally! And then we all went home.

And here we all are this morning.

And it makes you think: is this – the church meeting together – supposed to be like the petrol station or the theatre? After all, it looks a bit like a theatre – everyone sat in rows, professional show at the front (well, maybe sometimes!) And perhaps we can sometimes treat it a bit like a petrol station – I put in my money, and I come here to have my spiritual tank filled so that I can face the coming week.

But what is it supposed to be like when the church meets together? That’s been the question as we’ve read together through these wonderful chapters 11-14 of 1 Corinthians. And today we’re right at the end of that section, in the passage we just read from chapter 14.
So let’s pick up from verse 26, on p. 172:

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

Church sounds quite fun in Corinth, doesn’t it! And presumably it’s not a bad thing for everyone to bring a contribution of some sort – to come prepared to give, not just to receive. But how do we decide which things to do? The answer is in the next sentence:

Let all things be done for building up.

You see, the trouble in Corinth was that things were ending up not just like a petrol station or a theatre, but a bit like a talent show. Everyone was concerned to be as ‘spiritual’ as possible by using their gifts – without realising that the truly spiritual person won’t just show the gifts of the Holy Spirit but will show the fruit of the Holy Spirit as well. And so – “Let all things be done for building up.”

The first time I walked into this building 3 years ago, I was immediately struck by the three crosses at the front. What a wonderful symbol of the death of Jesus on our behalf, and the choice we all face, like those two criminals – to trust in his death or to ridicule him for it.

I also love the verses from Philippians 3 engraved into the stone under the window – “I want to know Christ, his power and his sufferings”. Could there be a better 10-word summary of the Christian life?

And if Andrew ever asks you to be on a committee responsible for putting up another slogan (which may or may not happen!) then I think you could do a lot worse than this phrase from 1 Corinthians 14:26 – “Let all things be done for building up.” Wouldn’t that be a great thing to have above the door?

Because though we sometimes sit in rows, it’s not really like a theatre where we go to be entertained. And though each of us receives vital spiritual nourishment from drawing near to God and hearing his word, it’s not really supposed to be like the petrol station where we pay our dues and fill our tank to help us get through the week. Nor is it like the Corinthian talent show where we show off our own gifts and marvel at other people’s.

How do we decide what to do? “Let all things be done for building up”. That’s why, v27:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.

And there he’s just summarising the first half of chapter 14, which Andrew helped us through on 1 June. If you weren’t here, and would like a really straightforward explanation of what speaking in tongues and prophecy mean here, then you can listen to that online.

Paul’s point here is that just because something is ‘spiritual’, that doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for church. We’re not just here to all have a collective personal ‘quiet time’ – but to build up the whole body! In fact, if the Sunday service is the key time you expect to meet God during the week, you’re never really going to grow as a Christian. You need to be spending time with him every day! What is it that makes this time uniquely special in the week? It’s not so much that God is here, but that we are here! That’s the difference!

By the blood of Jesus, I can meet God anywhere, any time! He lives in me! I don’t need to come to a particular building or hear a particular person speak, or receive bread and wine in a particular way. What’s special about Sunday is not that I can get closer to God than I can on Monday, but that I can meet God along with the rest of his people.

And you know, the trouble is that the more I look to the Sunday service to fulfil all of my spiritual needs for the week, the less tolerant I’ll be of others. The less tolerant I’ll be of music that might seem like it’s doing nothing for me, but is helpful for others. And so on.

The same kind of principle applies for musicians in church too, and I think we musicians would all say it’s something we’ve had to learn (and are still learning). When we’re at home, we are free to sing or play in a way which most builds us up spiritually – we can repeat a song 7 times, play a descant in every verse, improvise harmonies until our voice is hoarse. That’s wonderful! That’s like the speaking in tongues – great at home. In church, we need to learn to be like the prophet – concentrating on what will build up everybody. Which may mean leaving out a song, or ditching an arrangement, or an instrument, or a beautiful harmony. God doesn’t give us gifts so we can fulfil ourselves by using them in church. Using our gifts is often fulfilling – but what counts most is not whether gifts are used, but whether Christ’s body is built up.

That’s also why lots and lots of people this morning have made the commitment to help with Junior Church, with music, with refreshments, with welcoming and stewarding, and in countless other ways. Thank you!

If you’re like me then there will be plenty of Sunday mornings when you don’t feel like going to church. (Or am I the only one?!) We live in a beautiful place, don’t we – and to be honest, there are plenty of days when I get up, the sun’s shining, and, if I didn’t know I’d be missed, I would quite fancy going and doing something else. Partly that’s just the pull of the flesh against the spirit. And there’s times when we feel we have nothing to give – but what we can give is what someone has called “the ministry of presence”. Just being there, and praying that God will bless you, and also use you to help someone else. So you stay on for coffee afterwards, not because you need the coffee or feel that you need a chat – but because someone else in God’s church probably does! Maybe God can use you, in your weakness, to bring them a timely word of encouragement from him.

That’s the first point. Do the things that build up the church.

The second one is, Keep God’s order in the church. Have a look on to the end of the chapter, v39:

So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Now half of you have just switched off at the mention of the word ‘order’, because order sounds so dull! Don’t we worship a God of freedom, a God of wild imagination, and a God of extravagant love? Absolutely! And have you noticed he’s a God of order too? We see it in creation, don’t we: there’s incredible creative energy and life, but there’s also a very definite order to the way the world works. We see it in his plan of salvation history, carefully worked out over thousands of years. And so too in the church – life and order are not mutually exclusive. Of course, it’s possible for a church to be like a well-kept graveyard – all very orderly, but no life whatsoever! But God’s life honours him when it is expressed with God’s order. Let’s look at v29:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

As far as prophecy goes, God’s order means that the others are to weigh what is said – literally, to pass judgment on it. This is so important, because this gift of prophecy was never supposed to be infallible. It’s different from the prophecies of scripture. It needs to be weighed to see whether it’s in accordance with the truth as revealed in scripture.

Imagine you’re in your House Group – and actually most of the church meetings in Corinth would probably have been nearer the size of your house group than the size of “All Saints on a Sunday morning”. Well, in your house group meeting one person says, “It seems to me that the answer is…” and another person says, “As we prayed just now, God gave me a picture in my mind, and so I think…”. Now they are two different ways that God could lead people. But it is vital that the one which seems more ‘spiritual’ – the impression when praying, or the picture, or the dream, isn’t allowed to trump the others. Don’t be star-struck by a prophet, says Paul. Everything must be weighed.

So much harm is done when people believe they have a message from God, and others don’t have the confidence or the courage to challenge it. It’s often best for things to be weighed by a few – here in 1 Corinthians it’s quite possibly just the other prophets who are to weigh what is said – before it is shared more widely. If you thought this morning that you had a particular prophecy to share, then Jonty, Rob or Andrew would, I’m sure, want to hear it first, and might well want others to reflect on it too before it was shared in a group of this size. Which is only sensible.

Secondly, being spiritual doesn’t mean we abandon human self-control. Look at v30:

If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

So church gatherings shouldn’t be a free-for-all with everyone angling to do their thing. It means that, for example in a house group meeting, we’ll be careful not to hog the discussion and will make space for the quieter people too. We’ll be eager to hear God speaking to us through them.

Next, God’s order is going to mean that we take seriously the different gender roles he has appointed. Let’s read from the middle of v33:

(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now, these are difficult verses. For starters, Paul can’t mean what he might initially seem to mean: that women must say nothing at all in church meetings. After all, in chapter 11 he’s just given detailed instructions about how they are to pray and prophesy.

So, what does he mean? Well, remember that these are not the only verses in the bible on this subject. We must interpret this verse in a way that’s consistent with the others. The bible shows us that men and women are absolutely equal in God’s eyes – that’s a wonderful truth which, for most of the people who’ve ever lived or are alive today, would seem pretty radical. And the bible also shows us that men and women are different; made to complement each other. Then let’s remember the context here in 1 Corinthians 14 – the need to weigh prophecies. Paul is talking about the way women behave while that is going on.

He mentions the principle of submission in v34, and his complaint seems to be that in the way they are speaking, the women are not appropriately expressing submission to the male leaders of the church. Partly, that’s a cultural question – they need to do the things which, in their culture, show respect for authority – rather than being ‘shameful’ (v35). The way that respect is shown will vary from place to place, and through the ages. But Paul seems to be clear that the principle of submission is one that doesn’t change. It’s one that’s for ‘all the churches of the saints’ (v33).

Now I would love to spend half an hour talking about this issue alone – because it’s so important today and so counter-cultural. Of course, it was controversial in Corinth as well, which is why Paul has to mention it. Now’s a good time to recommend some further reading on this issue and other ones we’ve raised today:

God’s good design (Claire Smith)
Different by design (Carrie Sandom)
• Encountering God together (David Peterson)
• Showing the Spirit (Don Carson)

Now I don’t pretend that any of this teaching is easy – not least the stuff about gender, which is often hard for us to understand as well as hard to apply. But we need to take it seriously. Look at v36:

Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?) Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.

This is such a significant verse, because it shows that Paul himself thought he had a special authority from the Lord Jesus. He didn’t think he was just on a par with the prophets in Corinth.

And that’s a crucial issue for the church today. You sometimes hear people say, “Oh, this is Paul, not Jesus. It’s what Jesus said that really counts.” That sounds plausible, but it’s the road to nowhere, because Paul clearly knew he had a commission from Jesus to speak his message. Sometimes what Paul wrote is hard to hear – and a classic example of that today is his teaching on gender and sexuality. Sometimes what Jesus said is hard to hear – like his many warnings about the awful reality of hell. But it’s all the Word of God.

As we wrap up, let’s summarise the same way Paul summarises his chapters on spiritual gifts for the Corinthians – by reading v39 again:

So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Be eager to prophesy – long to hear and speak God’s word – because it builds up the church. “Let all things be done for building up”.

And let’s aim to keep God’s order in the church: carefully weighing what is said; being self-controlled and submitting to others; seeking to take God’s view on our different gender roles; and respecting Paul as God’s spokesman.

Think back to the petrol station, the theatre, and the talent show. What’s the biggest danger for you, on Sunday morning or in your small group? Is it the petrol station thing – just coming for a fill-up? Is it the theatre – just letting the professionals do their thing?

Well, I thank God for this church – for so many humble souls longing to see God’s kingdom come. We are so blessed to meet together. And let’s pray that we may grow, so that our lives and our gatherings become more like the Lord Jesus would have them be.

 

The audio of this talk can be found here.

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Minor keys and French spirituality

Preparing a seminar on music for the Keswick Convention youth stream, I’ve been thinking afresh through issues of music and culture: How vital is it that music in church reflects the music of the prevailing culture? What other factors come into play? What about a congregation with a range of musical tastes and experiences? Why precisely does the same piece of music have different effects on different people at the same time? And so on.

Coincidentally, in came a prayer letter from Dave Brown in Paris. He’s spent many years as a church planter in France, and is a respected writer and thinker on church/culture issues there.
In a throwaway line he says,

… and we use minor keys for singing because my research shows that the French associate that with depth of spirituality…

Fascinating!

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Exhortation to the reading and knowledge of Holy Scripture

That man is ashamed to be called a Philosopher which readeth not the books of philosophy; and to be called a Lawyer, an Astronomer, or a Physician, that is ignorant in the books of law, astronomy and physic. How can any man, then, say that he professeth Christ and his religion, if he will not apply himself, as far forth as he can or may conveniently to read and hear, and so to know, the books of Christ’s Gospel and doctrine? Although other sciences be good, and to be learned, yet no man can deny but this is the chief, and passeth all other incomparably. What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day, before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most holy Gospel? 

Stirring words from the first sermon in the Anglican Book of Homilies, from 1547.

Two excuses, Cranmer goes on, are often made by those who will not read the bible. Some say that they dare not read God’s holy word, lest through their ignorance they fall into error. Ridiculous, says Cranmer. Ignorance of the bible is the chief cause of error. So they must hear and read. And the person who reads with a humble heart has nothing to fear:

…if you be afraid to fall into error by reading of Holy Scripture, I shall shew you how you may read it without danger of error. Read it humbly, with meek and lowly heart, to the intent that you may glorify God, and not yourself, with the knowledge of it: and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect; and take upon you to expound it no further than you can plainly understand it … Presumption and arrogancy is the mother of all error; and humility needeth to fear no error. For humility will only search to know the truth: it will search and will bring together one place with another; and where it cannot find out the meaning, it will pray, it will ask of others that know, and will not presumptuously and rashly define any thing which it knoweth not. 

The other common excuse is that the bible is too hard to understand: only the learned can really fathom it. To these, Cranmer says:

God receiveth the learned and un-learned, and casteth away none, but is indifferent unto all. And the Scripture is full, as well of low valleys, plain ways, and easy for every man to use and to walk in, as also of high hills and mountain, which few men can climb unto. And whosoever giveth his mind to Holy Scriptures with diligent study and burning desire, it cannot be, saith St. John Chrsysostom, that he should be left without help. For either God Almighty will send him some godly Doctor to teach him – as he did to instruct the Eunuch, a nobleman of Ethiopia, and treasurer unto Queen Candace … or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, yet God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us, and wherein we be ignorant. 

Hallelujah! And so:

Let us hear, read, and know these holy rules, injunctions, and statutes of our Christian religion … let us night and day muse, and have meditation and contemplation in them; let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them. Let us stay, quiet, and certify our consciences with the most infallible certainty, truth, and perpetual assurance of them. Let us pray to God, the only Author of these heavenly studies, that we may speak, think, believe, live, and depart hence, according to the wholesome doctrine and verities of them. And, by that means, in this world we shall have God’s defence, favour, and grace, with the unspeakable solace of peace, and quietness of conscience; and, after this miserable life, we shall enjoy the endless bliss and glory of heaven: which he grant us all, that died for us all, Jesus Christ: to whom, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, both now and everlastingly. Amen.

 

 

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Easter Song List

We’ve had a wonderful Easter weekend, and walking home from our baptism service this evening I was struck by two things:

  1. what a privilege it is to help lead people in singing the very fundamentals of our faith, and what a lucky chap I am!
  2. what a rich collection of cracking Easter music is available to the church at the moment – both the old and the new. We really are spoiled for choice.

Here are the hymns and songs we’ve used this year.

Maundy Thursday 7.00pm

  • Man of sorrows! what a name (Philip Bliss)
  • Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away (Getty/Townend)
  • Let love be found among us (Leckebusch)
  • My heart is filled with thankfulness (Getty/Townend)

Good Friday 10.00am Family Service

  • When I think about the cross (Mark & Helen Johnson)
  • There is a green hill far away (CF Alexander)
  • Isaiah 53:6 (Colin Buchanan)
  • He was pierced for our transgressions (Maggi Dawn)
  • Jesus, my friend and King (Andy Gawn)
  • The wonderful cross (Chris Tomlin)

Good Friday 7.45pm Candelit Readings and Songs

  • My song is love unknown (Samuel Crossman/John Ireland)
  • [choir] God so loved the world (Chilcott)
  • Come and see (Kendrick)
  • [solo] We are not what we should be (Sovereign Grace)
  • There is a green hill far away (CF Alexander)
  • [choir] If we doubt your love (Noel Bannister)
  • [solo] Man of sorrows (Hillsong)
  • Oh to see the dawn (Getty/Townend)
  • When I survey (Isaac Watts)

Easter Day 9.15am

  • [choir] The strife is o’er (Vulpius/Ley)
  • Jesus Christ is risen today
  • Behold our God (Sovereign Grace)
  • In Christ alone
  • Thine be the glory

Easter Day 10.45am

  • Jesus Christ is risen today
  • See what a morning
  • Jesus came to earth (Sovereign Grace)
  • He has risen (Richards/Coates)
  • The greatest day in history (Hughes/Cantelon)
  • Jesus, Prince and Saviour (Timothy Dudley Smith)

Easter Day 7 for 7.30pm

  • Alleluia, sing to Jesus
  • See what a morning
  • The greatest day in history
  • Christ is risen, he’s risen indeed (Getty)
  • You chose the cross (Layzell)
  • Thine be the glory

 

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Bringing up kids in a sex-driven world

Two interesting articles I’ve seen recently, one relating to boys and one to girls.

Rick Thomas writes (under a typically American title!) on “Five sure-fire ways to motivate your son to use pornography”.

In a nutshell, the answer is to put him in a home environment where he’s both criticised and spoiled, and where healthy sexual love is not modelled by his parents.

Interesting and challenging – drives me to prayer for my own growing son, as much as to repentance for my own mistakes.

On the other side of the coin, Carl Beech writes in a lighter style on an equally serious subject: As father of a teenage girl, how do you deal with the new boyfriend? Again, well worth a read. In short: be proactive, be open, and don’t try to be his friend!

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After the Grammys

“I don’t watch the Grammys to learn theology, determine morality, or stand in judgment of those who haven’t found forgiveness in Jesus Christ,” says Bob Kauflin. And this year, he was “freshly grateful for a DVR with fast forward capabilities”!

But, he says, there are always things to learn.

In a great article, he says that this year he was struck by three differences between Christian musicians and musicians in general.

Christian musicians are called to:

  • follow a different standard
  • show a different grace
  • seek a different glory.

Really helpful stuff.

Meanwhile, on Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer writes helpfully about cultural shifts. The Grammys, he says, are not wholly representative of [Western] culture, but they do indicate its shifts. Christians must not simply shout, “Get off our proverbial moral lawn!” but must learn to speak the gospel with love and truth in a world where we may feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally, in the light of “Same Love” and so on, I would wholeheartedly recommend Sam Allberry’s short book, “Is God anti-gay?” Brilliant.

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Whatever happened to worship?

The other day I was much refreshed in re-reading a little collection of AW Tozer’s sermons called “Whatever happened to worship?”

Fifty years on, it still brings a great challenge: a challenge for a sense of the transcendent majesty of God in the Christian life. For a heart and life that are consciously poured out in passionate worship – whether in moments of ‘work’ or moments of ‘devotion’; whether alone or when meeting with other Christians.

I wouldn’t quite share all of Tozer’s nuances. But here are some quotes which particularly struck a chord with my life- and might with yours too. In some ways and some places, the church is in a better state than it generally was in North America in the 1960s. But in other ways – probably not. We still have a lot to learn about worship, and, though he doesn’t give a comprehensive set of answers here, Tozer still has a lot to teach us. Here are the quotes!

  • Christian churches have come to the dangerous time predicted long ago. It is a time when we can pat one another on the back, congratulate ourselves and join in the glad refrain, ‘We are rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing!’ It certainly is true that hardly anything is missing from our churches these days – except the most important thing. We are missing genuine and sacred offering of ourselves and our worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (p1)
  • Another example of our wrong thinking about God is the attitude of so many that God is now a charity case. He is a kind of frustrated foreman who cannot find enough help. He stands at the wayside asking how many will come to his rescue and begin to do his work. (p3)
  • Any man or woman on this earth who is bored and turned off by worship is not ready for heaven. (p5)
  • Nowadays there is a deadly, automatic quality about getting saved. It bothers me greatly. … ‘Put a nickel’s worth of faith in the slot, pull down the lever and take out the little card of salvation. Tuck it in your wallet and off you go!’ … But really, my brother or sister, we are brought to God and to faith and to salvation that we might worship and adore him. (p5)
  • We have a lot of men willing to sit on our church boards who have no desire for spiritual joy and radiance and who never show up for the church prayer meeting. These are the men who often make the decisions about the church budget and the church expenses and where the frills will go in the new edifice. These are the fellows who run the church, but you cannot get them to the prayer meeting because they are not worshippers. (p8)
  • Because we are not truly worshippers, we spend a lot of time in the churches just free-wheeling, burning up fuel, making a noise but not getting anywhere…God calls us to worship, but in many instances we are in entertainment, just running a poor second to the theatres….Most of the people we say we are trying to reach will never come to a church to see a lot of amateur actors putting on a home-talent show. (p8)
  • A survey of church history will prove that it was those who were the yearning worshippers who also became the great workers. (p9)
  • I want to be among those who worship. I do not want just to be a part of some great ecclesiastical machine where the pastor turns the cranks and the machine runs. You know – the pastor loves everybody and everybody loves him. He has to do it. He is paid to do it. I wish we might get back to worship again. Then when people come into the church they will instantly sense that they come among holy people, God’s people. They can testify, ‘Of a truth God is in this place.’ (p11)
  • The very last thing that God desires is to have shallow-minded and worldly Christians bragging about him. (p12)
  • God’s highest desire is that his believing children should so love and so adore him that we are continually in his presence, in spirit and in truth. That is to worship, indeed. (p12)
  • There is all around us…a very evident and continuing substitute for worship. I speak of the compelling temptation among Christian believers to be constantly engaged, during every waking hour, in religious activity…But if there is any honesty left in us, it persuades us in our quieter moments that true spiritual worship is at a discouragingly low ebb among professing Christians. (p15)
  • The fear of God is that ‘astonished reverence’ of which the great Faber wrote. I would say that it may grade anywhere from its basic element – the terror of the guilty soul before a holy God – to the fascinated rapture of the worshipping saint…The reverential fear of God mixed with love and fascination and astonishment and admiration and devotion is the most enjoyable state and the most purifying emotion the human soul can know. (p18)
  • I am sorry that this powerful sense of godly fear is a missing quality in the churches today, and its absence is a portent and a sign. (p19)
  • Much of our problem in continuing fellowship with a holy God is that many Christians repent only for what they do, rather than for what they are. (p50)
  • A person who has sensed what Isaiah sensed [ch 6] will never be able to joke about the ‘Man upstairs’ or the ‘Someone up there who likes me’. (p52)
  • There should be a birth from above and within. There should be the terror of seeing ourselves in violent contrast to the holy, holy, holy God. Unless we come into this place of conviction and pain, I am not sure how deep and real our repentance will ever be. (p53)
  • Isaiah was unclean, and thank God, he became aware of it. But the world today is unclean and seems to be almost totally unaware of it. (p54)
  • Do you know who gives me the most trouble? Do you know who I pray for the most in my pastoral work? Just myself. (p55)
  • Real worship is, among other things, a feeling about the Lord our God. It is in our hearts. And we must be willing to express it in an appropriate manner. (p59)
  • We find much of spiritual astonishment and wonder in the book of Acts. You will always find these elements present when the Holy Spirit directs believing men and women. (p59)
  • I once heard Dr George D Watson…point out that men can have two kinds of love for God – the love of gratitude or the love of excellence. He urged that we go on from gratefulness to a love of God just because he is God and because of the excellence of his character. (p61)
  • What we need among us is a genuine visitation of the Spirit. We need a sudden bestowment of the spirit of worship among God’s people. (p65)
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Now trending….the pipe organ (or nearly!)

I met a guy once in Newcastle who had bought up all the old Hammond organs he could in the 1960s and 70s, when they were often being ripped out of nightclubs and sold for scrap. I’m not sure how many of them he managed to hang on to for 25 years, but he would have turned a tidy profit when the ‘retro’ sound and feel of the B3 became so widely cherished in the 1990s.

It is obvious that musical fashions swing, just like the fashions for everything else. Instruments and styles come and go. Different things bring a fresh sound and fresh appeal to different generations.

But only some of us have the ability to see these changes coming. For example, I had grown up with the innate belief that ‘electric piano = cheese’. So, back in the mid-1990s I was happy to give away an old Rhodes stage piano (albeit in need of some repair) that had accumulated at church and was taking up much-needed space. About five years later, along came Norah Jones to turn my thinking on its head, and I kicked myself.

It’s surely only a matter of time before the same thing happens with the pipe organ. As a rule, I think the ‘baby name’ theory holds – when virtually all the previous generation of Alices or Mollys or Emilys have died out, then the early adopters start taking it on again.

Likewise, we are at a stage now where you could be 40 years old, have belonged to a range of decent evangelical churches all your life, and never heard a pipe organ played.

In one sense, of course, any instrument is just an instrument. Even though a pipe organ can bring sounds and textures that no other instrument can, it’s still just another instrument. But I think its time may be coming, partly because there is a renewed yearning for historical connectedness in church life (which can be a good thing). And partly for no other reason that that fashions swing.

My anecdotal experience is that people in churches who are positively negative towards pipe organs (if you can put it that way) tend to be aged over 35 rather than under 25. The middle-aged often associate the organ with ‘the smell of death’ from the churchy but pre-Christian days of their youth; but most of those growing up today have no such preconceptions. Even if they had ‘churchy but pre-Christian’ days, the organ didn’t feature in them.

Last year I saw a video discussion amongst some ‘young, restless, reformed’ musical types from the mid-West. Just in a throwaway comment, one of them mentioned alternative musical styles like the pipe organ. That would never have been said 10 years ago!

With that in mind, I was interested to read this piece. It foresees a day when the ancient spaces of dying congregations are taken over by young, evangelical church plants who rediscover the pipe organs that lurk within. Quite possibly! My only question is on cost. Most things are getting cheaper; pipe organs are not. It needs a big vision to come up with the sums necessary even to maintain a pipe organ, let alone to buy one.

We shall see! In the meantime, you’ll know what the next big musical trend will be. It will be whatever I threw out five years previously.

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