Monday, 2 November 2009

Blog closed

Well, no one read it; I hardly used it; so let's close it. Apparently, if I delete it, spammers might pick it up and misuse it, and obviously I don't want to risk that. Goodbye!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The BNP and the C of E, and dog whistles.

For those who have not seen the British National Party poster in question, it's at the beginning of the video on the BBC news page here. The quote is interesting: John 15:20. It's worth looking at in context, and it's in the context of the Gospel reading for Pentecost, which is currently on my desk. However, I must give credit to my brother, himself no Christian, for pointing out some of what I am about to discuss.
The poster points out that C of E employees may not belong to the BNP and that it is pursued by both the press and the police: which it is. As the same happened to Jesus, which is the basic meaning of the quote, the BNP essentially claims that it is being treated as Jesus was, therefore the BNP is in the place of Jesus. Which makes the BNP Christian.
There's a lot we could say to that.
Firstly, the logic, as is obvious from the above, is quite tortuous.
Secondly, if the BNP wants to appeal to Christian voters, why this quote? They'd be better off ripping Acts 17:26 out of context, wouldn't they?
Thirdly, the C of E ban has its reasons throughout the Scriptures. The Bible takes no view on economic systems, assuming one of trade and slavery as that was the system at the time and modelling how it should operate in a just fashion, a model we need to apply with wisdom to whatever system we adopt. However, on questions of race the Bible is very clear, whether you start from creation (Gen 1:26-29) or redemption (Gal 3:28). The Church ought be careful about being party political, but some things are beyond the pale.
Fourthly, the press pursues the BNP because the press pursues everyone - that's it's job.
Fifthly, the police pursues the BNP because the BNP faces repeated allegations of incitement to hatred and the police has a legal duty to pursue allegations in order to see if charges are to be brought.
In other words, the BNP is persecuted not without cause, quite unlike Jesus (John 15:25).
But here's a thought: this quote is from the Farewell Discourse. The immediate persecutors of Jesus were the Jewish authorities, about to hand Him over to Rome; John's readers may well have experienced rejection by their local Jewish communities. Is this dog-whistle politics? Well done to my brother for suggesting it. I wonder if the BNP are smart enough, let alone their voters, but hey, if a BNP person turns up and says "we are smart enough", we know that the anti-Semitic whistle has been blown. Anti-Semitism has been documented as being on the rise, primarily as a result of rise of more combative forms of Islam in the UK, but to see the return of anti-Semitism into our political system would be, sadly, not as surprising as I thought when I started writing this sentence and remembered the activities of Le Pen and Mölleman and some of the things they said in our near neighbours.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Gospel and Lifestyle - how one vindicates the other

When I start blogging, it's because I'm preparing a sermon, and bits of prep sort of fall of my desk and into my blog.
Evangelicals love to find ways of compelling a godly life out of themselves, and one is that a godly life vindicates the gospel. We speak the gospel and then show that it is true by the transformed life that we lead.
I've just come to the conclusion that such an argument is backwards (I'm an amateur, I'm slow!) Rather, the process works the other way round. I hope in the gospel, which has lifestyle implications. This hope that is in me arouses questions (1 Peter 3:15) and so I explain how my hope is vindicated by the gospel. The psalmist in Psalm 102:12-15 looks forward to his and others hope (v14) in the eternal God (v12) being vindicated by His restoring Zion (v13), a vindication of hope that will lead to the nations turning to God. The vindication of their hope was future: but to us that same event is past - it is the incarnation, atonement, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
That has wonderful implications. Firstly, it means I can sin. No, not in the sense that I'll be lazy about holiness. But when I do sin, I won't think that my evangelism is dead. Rather, the fact that my hope is not destroyed by my sin will raise the question, "what can vindicate such a hope?" Answer: Christ. Secondly, it means I can pursue holiness in freedom. My heavenly citizenship is secure, because of Christ, a hope vindicated by the events of His ministry. So in that assurance I live my new citizenship. What vindicates living differently to others? Answer: Christ. Suddenly the gospel is about Jesus again.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Why does Hebrews 1 quote Psalm 102?

Here's a thought I had: comments?

In Psalm 102:25-27, the exile is speaking in faith of his God, that his God is the everlasting, unchanging Creator God; in Hebrews 1:8-12, in which this verse is applied to the Son, the Father is speaking. So what is the writer to the Hebrews doing?
In order to believe in his situation that Zion really can be restored, the exile needs to believe that his God is the unchanging, faithful, everlasting Creator God, fully able and fully faithful. In order to believe that His Messiah can really achieve the mission for which He has appointed Him, that of second Adam and therefore restorer of Eden itself, of Zion, the City of God with men, then God Himself must be able to express similar faith in the Messiah! What the writer to the Hebrews therefore implies is that his readers may have full faith in the Lord Jesus because He is the one of whom God the Father may speak precisely those words of faith that they have been speaking of God since the exile.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Gospel is foolishness to many who think they are being saved

I teach Christianity to pupils of various faiths and various attitudes to the Christian gospel. But one thing really disturbs me, and that is this: unbelievers understand the Bible better than believers in my classroom. On one level that's not true - I'm not talking about spiritual receptiveness. But their conceptual understanding of the awesome nature of God ("if there is a God, then if I was standing before him, I'd be scared out of my mind"), holiness and sin ("why doesn't God just spit on us?") and the transcendence of God and its impact on the likeliness, and therefore graciousness, of divine intervention for us ("if there is a God, then why does he bother with tiny little insignificant human beings?") beats the conceptual grasp of many churchgoers, whose God is thoroughly domesticated. No wonder I have two Christian pupils who regard church as stupid: the semi-Christian Christless Christianity they are, by their account of it, receiving probably is.

Why red letter Bibles are a joke

Here's John 12:27-28 in the red letter ESV: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." It's the same in the other red letter Bibles I own (for some reason, red letter Bibles are cheaper.)
So let's put the word of Christ in red, because they are special, but the direct words of God the Father don't deserve special mention. It just goes to prove how silly red letter Bibles are - and as theologically useful in terms of prioritising words as the multicoloured creations of the Jesus Seminar.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Romans 11:25-32

Here's my text I preached on Romans 11: although I didn't deliver it word for word.
Someone might ask: where the application? The application runs through it: this God can be trusted, and He is very merciful. Is that woolly application? My soul needs to feed on that Sunday by Sunday more than anything else.

Our Merciful Sovereign – Romans 11:25-32

If Christmas hadn't intervened, this would be sermon three on Romans 11 in a row. And Romans 11 is about the Jews. I don't suppose many here are Jewish. I don't suppose many have an interest in the once hot debates concerning the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, that is, Gentiles, in the church. Why should we care less about this stuff? The reason is simple. What's at stake here is God's very character. Will He stick to plan A or have events forced Him to plan B? Can He keep His promises long ago made to the Jewish founding fathers? Does He have a clear purpose in this world? Israel in Paul's day rejected Jesus Christ, their Messiah. Still today, the majority of Jews reject Him. So has God changed plan, abandoned His promises? Is that the kind of God He is? Let me answer that question with three points.

God's ancient plan will be executed
Let's read again verses 25 to 32: I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins. God has a plan, and it is in verse 26: All Israel will be saved. What does Paul mean by all Israel? I think there is room for disagreement among Christians on the meaning here. But two options make no sense and I want to exclude them. Firstly, Israel here must refer to the Jewish people. It is always used in contrast to Gentiles – that is, non-Jews. God has big plans to bring faith in Messiah Jesus to the Jews. He can even say of those plans all Israel will be saved. But secondly, the Bible insists again and again on faith in Messiah as the mark of God's people. Paul does not mean that all Jews in every generation will be saved. Jesus Himself called Jewish leaders in His own day children of Satan, and said they did not belong to His flock. Clearly He did not believe them to belong to God's people. I think personally that the old Reformation position on this question is right. Paul expected, and we are to expect, a great turning to God among the Jews before the end of history. And so in that day, all Israel will be saved. God's plan will be executed.
This plan is ancient. It stretches back into the Old Testament, hundreds of years before Jesus. So Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20-21, continuing in verse 26: As it is written: The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins. God's plan to send Jesus is clear in the Old Testament. Jesus comes to the ancient people of Israel. He is of the line of David, the king who founded Zion. And He has a mission to end the godlessness of the people of Israel. Isaiah records for us again and again how Israel turned away from God. They decided they didn't really want Him to be their God. They didn't really want to be His people. Because being God's people means having God as God in all their lives. That's what godlessness is. It's not having God as God – as the ruler, the decision maker – in every part of our lives. Jesus came to put an end to godlessness. And a key part of that was that He offered the sacrifice that sealed a new deal – a new covenant it is called in verse 27 – between God and men. That sacrifice was of course His own body and blood on the Cross. At that Cross He did, in the words of verse 27, take away sins. There can't be a successful arrangement or deal – a successful covenant – between God and men where there is sin, that is, godlessness. So at the heart of God's covenant, verse 27, is that He takes away our sins. Now that plan is not some emergency plan. It's not like God thought, “aargh, Israel is being godless. “I need a new plan to deal with this one.” No, His plan was always, from the creation, to send a deliverer and to take away sins. Now reading between the lines of Romans 11, some of the non-Jewish people may have been saying something like this: “The Jews blew it. They simply became godless. So God turned away from them and sent the message about Jesus to us.” No, says Paul. Rather, this hardening of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles all serves the big picture, that all Israel will be saved. Gentile self-righteous conceit won't do. In fact, Paul strikes a hammer blow at such thinking. The full number of the Gentiles will come in, verse 25, and so by that all Israel will be saved. As Paul puts it back in verse 11 of this chapter, second half of the verse. Salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. The very purpose of non-Jews being saved has a Jewish focus. That should humble any pride among non-Jews. God didn't give up on the Jews as a bad job and then turn to us hoping we're better. No, our very salvation serves His plan for the Jews. A point very humbling for the Jews: it takes getting the rest of the world to turn to Messiah before they recognise Him. God has an ancient plan and He will execute it. All Israel will be saved. That is God's plan, and He executes it. That has a key implication.

God's ancient promises will be kept
Let's read on, verses 28 and 29: As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. The key phrase here is in verse 30. God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. There is a balance in Paul's words here lacking in much Christian discussion today of Israel. Firstly, Paul is a realist, first half of verse 28. As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account. Jews were opposing the gospel. Paul himself was persecuted dreadfully by his own countrymen. Not for him the “Israel is right whatever she does” of some. But neither do we find here the creeping anti-Semitism of too many both without and within the church. He carries on in verse 28: But as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs. God made massive promises to the patriarchs. That word refers to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the first three generations of the family from whom all those whom we today call Jews can claim descent. Our verse tells us that as God works to draw people to His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, He pays particular attention to the Jews. He has a particular settled love for them. Because they are special? By no means! After all, the first half of the verse says they are enemies of the gospel! They oppose the message that Jesus has come as their King and taken away sins. No, God pays special attention to them, loves them with a settled love, because when God promises, He keeps His promise. Verse 30 speaks of His irrevocable gifts and calling. He called them to be His people. He gave them great gifts: promises of blessing, promises of being a great nation, numerous and a blessing to the rest of us, promises of a land. Supremely, He promised them a King, a King who would secure their relationship with Him by defeating their enemies and turning them from godlessness. When God promises, He keeps His promise.

Let's pause there a moment.

We've reflected on the implications of these passages for Israel. Interesting. But what has this talk of God's plan for and promises to Israel got to do with us? Let me give two answers.
Firstly, it shows that God's work in our world may be hidden.
Whatever you may think of the policies of the State of Israel, whatever you may think of the Middle East situation, or even of the situation of Jews elsewhere in the world, one thing is obvious. If God's plan is to turn godlessness from Israel, it doesn't seem to be making great progress. But as soon as we say that, if God's Spirit is at work in us, He taps us on the shoulder and says, “turning godlessness from you isn't making rapid progress either.” Similarly, if God has made all these promises to Israel, why aren't there more Jewish Christians? Why aren't they the people of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Where is God's saving love for them? The answer is that often God's work is hidden. It is, as Paul called it at the beginning of verse 25, a mystery. The same is true for our own lives. The God whose big picture is saving Israel is our God. He has a plan to turn godlessness from us. He has made promises to us in Christ about never leaving us, about being our God, hearing our prayers and giving us life to the full. Yet so often it doesn't seem that way. He seems slow, even absent. That's because His work in and for us too is often hidden.
Secondly, Israel is a test case.
If God did give up on Israel, then God could not be trusted. Admittedly, His work is hidden. But by the time all His work is revealed, on the day of judgement, He must have saved all Israel. We must see how that promise has been kept. If Paul had to tell us that God had given up on Israel, what security would we have that He wouldn't give up on us? Just as Israel failed in the desert after leaving Egypt, failed again at the foot of Sinai, failed again in the wilderness of Kadesh, failed before, during and after entering the promised land, failed again and again through the period of the judges, failed despite and even because of the kings – in other words, for those not familiar with the details of the Old Testament – kept failing, so I keep failing. If the point comes when He says, “I've had it up to here with Israel, I'm going to find another people,” then why wouldn't He do that to me? Oh, just as Israel has experienced periods of great trial and difficulty, so do we. And ours are not so testing. But Israel is a test case. A God willing to give up on them is one willing to give up on me. And that is a dreadful thought. God doesn't give up. No.

God's eternal purpose will be fulfilled

Let's read again verses 30 to 32: Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. God's plans and promises are ancient. They are as ancient, more ancient, than creation itself. I've called the purpose of God eternal not because God's purpose is older than His plans and promises. That's not possible. His purpose, plans and promises were all set before time began. Rather, by switching from ancient to eternal I want to make a different point. The purpose of God is deeper, more part of God's character, more rooted in God's very person than His plans and promises. God makes His plans and His promises because of who He is. But His purpose is who He is. His purpose is verse 32: For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. And most important in verse 32 are the words: so that he may have mercy. God's purpose is to have mercy. Because that's who He is. One who has mercy. On verses 30 and 31 I will simply quote C K Barrett: "For Jew and Gentile alike, the end of the road is God's mercy; and for each the road leads through disobedience." Jew and Gentile alike knows disobedience. But the road that leads through disobedience leads to mercy. So why do Jews and Gentiles go these roads of disobedience and mercy? Verse 32 again: For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. Note first how this verse begins: For God. We are not talking about random circumstances. Our disobedience is not like a train crash that God stumbles across and takes as an opportunity to show heroism. No, even our disobedience has its place in His purpose. God is the great actor in verse 32. He has bound all men. He does that so that He may have mercy. He's been the great actor in all this reading. Verse 27: it's God's covenant and He takes away sins. Verse 29: God has called and God has given gifts and God won't go back on it. In fact, God is the great actor in all of Romans. God has acted in Jesus Christ to justify us, that is, to make us right with Himself, free of accusation before His own court, by transferring the guilt and punishment of our sins to Christ and crediting to our account the very perfect obedience of Christ. For God – this verse is about God acting. What does He do? Two things.
Firstly, God has bound all men over to disobedience
We are responsible for our disobedience. This verse in no sense excuses us. But God binds us up in it. In Romans 1, we saw that He hands us over to sin. We choose sin and He abandons us to it. He lets us fall under its sway. But that's not all. He then gives us the Law. The Law does two things. Firstly, it condemns us. It shows us our objective guilt in God's court. It shows us that we deserve only God's punishment. But secondly, the Law eggs on sin. Remember how in Romans 7, the Law shows sin how to sin. Paul gives the example of the sin of coveting. Sin seizes the opportunity of the Law to show God how much it hates Him by breaking that commandment. And so the Law which condemns us as sinners also sends us spiralling deeper and deeper into sin. And what we need to understand is the sheer magnitude of our problem. We have disobeyed God. We are condemned under His Law. And yet in us is the death wish of sin. Even a man-made sign saying “keep off the grass” makes us want to trample all over it. God's Law really gets us going. God has bound us over to disobedience. He has trapped us in it, let it rule us. He has not mitigated our disobedience but lets it swallow us. Why? Second half of the verse.
So that he may have mercy.
I don't know how good you are at going to the doctor's. I hate it. And it's time out of my busy schedule. I'll only go if I'm utterly convinced of the need. If we take seriously the first half of Romans 11:32, as I've explained it in the light of all that Paul has said previously in the letter, we can see we and all humanity has a great need. And that gives God the opportunity to show mercy. God doesn't show leniency – that is, letting us off because generally we're alright. We're bound in disobedience. From His perspective, we're not generally alright. We are pitifully lost, trapped in and swallowed up by disobedience. And that's what opens the door to mercy. As our situation is so dreadful, He can show mercy. He can show the full extent of His mercy – just how merciful He really is. Our situation could not be worse. So He can show exactly how far He is willing to go for us. To a poor, cold stable. To 33 years as an outsider. To rejection. To a show trial, mockery, beatings. To a Cross. To receiving Himself the punishment that He rightly ought mete out to us. To hell. God executes His ancient plan and keeps His ancient promises. He never gives up on Israel – He's made His promises to them. That assures us He is a faithful God able to do what He says He will. But plans and promises serve a purpose. That purpose is to have mercy. Mercy on the disobedient.