Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How do you know if you are a Calvinist

This guy's photo-essay is hilarious. This Calvinist finds it funny. And if you dont find it funny - don't come looking to me for sympathy! The ability to laugh at yourself is somewhere near the theological foundation of Calvinism.

(PS I did mean that last statement - Calvinism allows no room for pride. Pride will not laugh at itself. So if we cant laugh at ourselves we must be too proud of ourselves for our ability to hold the truths that we hold to - which is a denial of biblical Christianity.)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sabbath Sermon - Dangerous Amazing Grace (2 Kings 5:19-27)

Let me introduce to you 4 men:

Fritz Saukel - Nazi Head of Labour and Supply, described as the greatest and cruellest slave driver since Pharaoh, who worked millions of slave labourers to death without mercy.

Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel - Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed forces. His unquestioning obedience to Hitler led to his being responsible for more deaths than anyone could count.

Wilhelm Frick - Minister of the Interior, a vicious hard-line Nazi who title covered up his reign of terror.

Joachim von Ribbentrop - Hitler's Foreign Minister, who had greeted King George VI with a "Heil Hitler".

Each man was on trial at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. Each man was found guilty of the most horrendous crimes against mankind. Each man was sentenced to be hanged.

As Ribbentrop was asked for his last words by the executioner, he said, "I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins." And he turned to the Christian who had been assigned to be chaplain to the condemned men and said, "I'll see you again."

Saukel the slave driver, and Keitel the head of armed forces made similar statements, and Frick the man who terrorised hundreds of thousands informed the chaplain that he too had come to faith in Christ.

The chaplain was a man called Henry Gerecke, who wrote, "I have had many years experience as a prison chaplain and I do not believe that I am easily deluded by phoney reformations at the eleventh hour."

It would seem that these conversion were genuine.

And these men, despite their hands being red with the blood of millions are going to be in Heaven, and your very nice neighbour who would do anything to help you, and who is the picture of decency and moral integrity is going to Hell.

That is the shocking nature of the gospel. It cuts both ways. It is so wonderful and powerful that if a mass murderer accepts it, they will be saved. But it is so important and precious that the most decent person cannot get to Heaven without it.

The Gospel is a sword that cuts both ways. It cut Naaman free from his idolatry and pride, but it also cut Gehazi out of the people of God. With Naaman we see the transforming power of the gospel, but now with Gehazi we see the exposing power of the gospel.

It is amazing grace, but it is dangerous amazing grace.

And we learn a great truth and two very important warnings

God IS too easy on us!
Gehazi was right in v20

After Naaman had travelled some distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, "My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something from him."

Let me remind you of the story… Naaman had his sins forgiven and his leprosy washed away, Elisha wouldn't allow him to give him anything.

Gehazi is outraged because it is outrageous! And although Gehazi is a wicked and greedy man he still makes a profound statement here. Of course he doesn't react in a right way to what he says, but nevertheless it is still true.

Think about it for a moment. God is far too easy on us. Every day for all of your life you have disappointed and disobeyed God. One sin is enough to see you cast out of his presence. But we haven't just sinned once, we have sinned many times each day in what we have thought, in what we haven't thought that we should have thought, in what we have said and what we haven't said, in what we have done and what we haven't done. So there's an absolute bear minimum of 6 sins per day. That's over 2000 per year. Take your age and multiply it by 2 and add the word "Thousand" at the end. If you are 10 that's 20,000 sins, if you're 25 that's 50,000, if you're 40 that's 80,000, if you're 75 that's 150,000. And those numbers are the based on the ridiculous idea that we only sin once in each of these areas each day. They're far too small. So before the perfect holy God is the vast mountain of your personal sin.

And then add to that the fact that for those of you who are Christians - your sins are against knowledge - you should know better. Your sins committed each day as a Christian are in a sense even worse, even more of a slap in the face to God. And given that it is worse to know the truth and reject the truth than to be a filthy pervert, according to Jesus is Matthew 11:22 - many of us knew the gospel and rejected it for years before coming to Jesus.

And we need to remember that each sin is a personal offence against God. It is a personal insult to him.

And what does he do when you come seeking forgiveness for this vast mountain of wrong? What does he require of you?

To come and repent. To say and be sorry. And to believe what he says about himself

And for that he removes all the guilt and all the punishment that was waiting for us. Gehazi was right! God is far too easy on us!

It was his complaint - it should be a source of unending wonder for us.

Think of what we get - we get eternal life. At most we follow him for a few short years, and he gives us eternal life! The reward is vastly out of proportion to the service. And all the more when we realise that those who turn to Christ at the end of their lives receive the same eternal life! So it's not as if we earn the eternal life by following.

We who are dust get to live in eternity forever - we who are an offence and a stench to the nostrils of God - that's ridiculous, wonderfully ridiculous. Gehazi spoke the truth, but he didn't see the wonder of it.

Those of us who are Christians need to take this opportunity and stop to wonder at the greatness of God's grace. It is utterly stunning. He could ask the world of us, and it still wouldn't be enough to pay for one sin. Yet all he asks of us is that we repent and believe. Turn away from our sin and trust him.

God has been far too easy on us. It is a magnificent, wonderful, soul-enriching truth.

And that explains what happens in this passage. Since his grace is such a magnificent and amazing act

God will not tolerate his grace being distorted
That's main thrust of this section.

Elisha has laboured with Naaman to make the point that God's salvation costs nothing. It is just as free to Naaman as it is to any Israelite. That's the whole point of him refusing Naaman grateful reward. He knows that when Naaman arrives in Damascus, people will ask the obvious question, "What happened to you?" He wants Naaman's answer to be, "The God of Israel saved me, he made me clean." "How much did it cost?" "Nothing the God of Israel saves people for free."

Gehazi is livid that Elisha has taken nothing from Naaman. Gehazi is determined to make Naaman pay. It doesn't matter to him that Elisha has been trying to teach Naaman a very important biblical truth.

And so he goes off after Naaman who this made up story about two prophets arriving in great need. And of course Naaman gives him the money and the clothing, he's so thankful for his new life, and his new salvation that he'd do anything for God, and for God's people.

And in a moment Gehazi undoes all that Elisha had taught in v16. In a moment he distorts the grace of God.

Now we may think that we would never do that.

But if we found yourself thinking about the Nazi war criminals, "That's not fair, they should be made to pay" then you need to watch because you are in danger of making the mistake Gehazi made.

The grace that is amazing is also dangerous. It is dangerous if we forget that we didn't deserve it either.

The simple truth is none of us deserves anything from God. The Gospel is monumentally unfair. It is unfair to God - that he should have to pay for something he didn't do so that we could get something that was never ours.

We need to watch when we find ourselves being judgmental about others - because we are guilty too. We should be made to pay.

How can we do it?

We do it when we meet someone who has problems - say an alcoholic - and we make them feel as if they are sub-standard, as if they have to work even harder than the rest of us to be accepted by God. When we look down our noses at them, as if they aren't really whom the church is for. We're saying like Gehazi, "It isn't enough that you come to God, we want more from you."

We distort God's grace every time we add anything to the gospel.

You've got to be a Christian and wear the right clothes
You've got to be a Christian and come from the same background as us
You've got to be a Christian and be the same colour of skin as us
You've got to be a Christian and not done anything really terrible in your past.

Have you ever done that - assigned someone to a second class Christianity because you find out that they did something awful before they became a Christian? Or because they have been divorced? Or because they married someone who isn't a Christian? Or because they don't have the same theology as you? Or because they don't have the same pedigree in the church that you have?

That is a despicable thing. And that is what Gehazi was doing. And God does not tolerate people who add to his grace. We see what happened Gehazi, and similar will happen to anyone who adds to God's grace, and has higher requirements of others than God has.

No matter what background a person has - all God requires is repentance and faith. And you are a child of God, equal with every other child of God. There are no second class citizens of Heaven.

And pride has no place in the believers life. The only thing a Christian can say is "That could have been me."

Let me apply this in two specific ways

When God starts bringing people into this church - he'll bring all sorts. And when he does that we must be ready to welcome them and integrate them, displaying to them the amazing truth of God's grace - that even if you are a Nazi murderer, or a child abductor (like Naaman), you are now my brother or sister in Christ, and if God doesn't hold your past against you, then I certainly am not. And whether they become brothers and sisters in Christ or not, they need to see God's willingness to accept mirrored in us.

The other application is this - just as we must not distort God's grace with regard to others, so we must not distort it with regard to ourselves. There are some Christians who are immensely hard on themselves, they look at who they are and they feel that they couldn't possibly be accepted by God. They feel that they are some sort of second class Christian. We're not to do that to ourselves. God has said that we are his children, and we must not distort that grace.

God's grace is utterly amazing. We are all undeserving, and he makes any repentant sinner a son or daughter with all the rights and privileges of a son of God. We must not distort something so wondrous, for God does not treat lightly those who slander him or distort his grace.

And the second warning is this:

God will not tolerate those who ignore his grace
In this chapter we see that you can be amongst the godly and be ungodly yourself. You can have experienced all sorts of blessings, like Gehazi - he had seen countless miracles, he had heard countless sermons, he had lived in close proximity to a very godly man. Yet he was far from God.

And that is a solemn truth, you can be far from God while at the same time being very close to God's people. You can attend church, live in a home with other Christians, your closest friends can be Christians, and you still be far from God. You can have seen and heard about God's grace and ignore it.

And you may even fool many people. I'm sure the other prophets didn't suspect Gehazi of being anything other than a full-bodied believer. I'm sure that the woman at Shunem, or the widow thought Gehazi was a cert for being a believer.

But God was not fooled. And we see that he made it clear to Elisha that Gehazi was a deceiver (v26).

But Elisha said to him, "Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants?

Not only did God see what Gehazi had done when no-one was looking, but he knew exactly what he planned to spend the money on. And he revealed all of this to Elisha.

This is a great New Testament warning - Look how close you can be to the kingdom of God and yet not be in it. We see it with Judas, with Simon the Sorcerer, with Ananias and Sapphira. You can sit as Gehazi did, comfortable in the church for a long time, but God will weed you out. And he will replace you wqith ythsoe you currently look down your nose at.

Do you see what has happened in this chapter?

We started with Naaman the Syrian, the leper, and Gehazi the Israelite. Now we end with Naaman, the true Israelite, and Gehazi with his heart set on the things of Syria, the leper. There has been a complete reversal.
The Israelite receives the curse, and the pagan receives the blessing. And the story that started with an unconverted pagan and a professing believer, ends with the roles changed, and Naaman professing faith, and Gehazi condemned.

God will not tolerate those who ignore his grace. He will deal with you. And if there are people in this congregation who are ungodly amongst the godly, he will remove you. Your place is no more indispensable than Gehazi's was. God will provide a Naaman to sit in your seat.

So here is the warning - If you continue to ignore God's grace and your heart isn't set on the things of God, then you will find that God's heart is not set on you. God may say to some of you, perhaps some of you young people, perhaps some of you older people, "Enough is enough, you have sat in that pew long enough, I am going to take my grace to those who have never heard of it." And I tell you this, when you see people starting to come into this church from outside, from this community you will know that God is passing over you if you have not responded.


Some of us need to go home today and marvel that God has dealt so easy with us.
Some of us need to go home today and repent of wrong attitudes and superior feelings
Some need to need to go home today and repent of ignoring God's grace.

God's grace is amazing, but the grace that is amazing is also dangerous if we distort or ignore it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Food for thought - Is George Best in Heaven?

Well I'm back - sorry for the long absence - holidays called! A couple of weeks rest and relaxation with a new baby (as if).

Anyhow, hopefully things will get back to normality. While I was away George Best, legendary footballer passed away. A friend of mine has written a great piece on the funeral on his football blog. And here's my contribution to the local paper.

Is George Best in Heaven?
Eric Cantona certainly thinks he is. Cantona's image of Heaven, according to his own words, seems to be that of a continuous football match with George on the right wing and God on the left. Denis Law certainly seems to think that he and 'Bestie' will meet again in a better place.

It always strikes me as odd that we assume that everyone who dies goes to Heaven. And it strikes me as even odder that the Heaven that people go to is always focused around them and their interests. The footballer is playing football, the native American Indian is in the happy hunting ground, and the fisherman is by the side of some heavenly stream landing huge salmon to his heart's content.

Doesn't that tell us something about ourselves? It's all so 'me centred' - as if Heaven is there to cater to my every whim and my every delight. Heaven is seen as somewhere I can go, and I can be at peace, and I can have pleasure, and I can do what I want to do.

Surely if Heaven is God's home, then everything revolves around Him? Certainly that is the Bible's teaching. The Bible's favourite way of describing Heaven is not in terms of our pleasure but of our being with Jesus. Over and over again Jesus uses the phrase, "With me" to explain what Heaven will be like. The New Testament nowhere speaks of people going to Heaven when they die, instead believers go to be "with Christ", which Paul describes as being "better by far" (Philippians 1:23).

Perhaps the thought of spending eternity with Jesus doesn't excite you much. Well, that makes sense - if we don't enjoy his company here, we certainly won't enjoy it in Heaven. But if we have put our trust in him here, then we will delight in him forever in Heaven as he opens up to us all the pleasures of his home.

And if Heaven is God's home, then he has the right to say who gets in. And he says the only way in is through Jesus, who made that point himself when he said, "I am the Door, whoever enters through me will be saved" (John 10:9).

So if George Best is in Heaven it won't be because he was a great footballer, nor because Heaven is an inalienable right for everyone. The only way would be if he had put his trust in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Ultimately we can't answer the question because we don't know what he did, but a far more important question is, "Will I be in Heaven?"

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Ex 'Christians' criticising Christianity

Here is something I've come across a bit in the last year or so. In summary it usually goes something like this:

"I have been there and I know what I am talking about. I know how you think, and I know that it is wrong."

There is another variety that says, "I have been there and I have looked at the arguments objectively and now I realise how blindly I was conned into accepting it all. Yet all in all, I really wish I could believe again."

I find myself torn as I meet these people. On the one hand I feel sadness - because I know that in all likelihood they haven't experienced true Christianity. A friend of mine falls into this category. His experience of Christianity and mine are radically different. If I had had his experience of Christianity I would be tempted to reject it too. But sadly I don't believe that what he experienced was genuine biblical Christianity. It was a blend of Christian truth and psychological manipulation dominated by strong personalities in a charismatic environment. Rightly he saw through it all. Sadly it appears that he thinks that it was Christianity he saw through.

Yet this is an important realisation - for if you haven't experienced real Christianity, it isn't possible to criticise it from the inside. It isn't a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, more a case of poacher turned 'Strictly Come Dancing' critic. The two aren't related.

In dealing with such people we need to help them see the difference between what they experienced and real Christianity.

On the other hand I find myself irked. There is a patronising attitude that looks condescendingly at those poor unenlightened Christians who still believe. Apparently we don't have the intellectual ability to see things as they see them. Perhaps this grows out of an element of truth. Perhaps their faith was built on teaching that wasn't intellectually rigorous, on facts that weren't facts. And if that is so then they are right to insist on intellectual rigour and honesty.

It also comes across that they think that there are no serious intellectuals who believe in Christianity. Perhaps in their background they haven't come across Alvin Plantinga, Cornelius van Til, Greg Bahnsen, Don Carson, Ravi Zacharias, or William Lane Craig, or the host of famous scientists that have believed the truths of the Bible - Lord Kelvin, Michael Faraday, James Simpson to name three.

However, just because what they were taught was wrong, that doesn't make Christianity wrong. Often there is an attitude of "I am cleverer than you are." There is an over-reliance on their own intellectual ability. But there needs to be a humility of heart that accepts the need to go back and look at what the scripture teaches, rather than what they think the scripture teaches. Yet often that is absent. I believe that is because deep down they know the facts are true and they're real problem is that they don't want to accept them, because they know that it will involve making changes in their lives.

How then do we explain all this? Is there a biblical explanation for this scenario?

The Bible teaches that those who are truly saved will never fall away. It teaches that those who are converted are the recipients of a series of completed and irreversible actions carried out by God. That doesn't mean that they wont have doubts, but it does mean that they know where to turn to in their doubts - they will turn to God. So no matter how hurtful it is to those who claim to be "Ex Christians", the Bible tells us that they were never Christians in the first place. Hence the use of the apostrophes around the word Christian in the title.

Well, what then explains their experience? Mark 4 is one of a number of places that explains it. It is the parable of the sower. Jesus clearly teaches that there are more than two responses - acceptance or rejection - of the gospel. There are also those who receive the word with joy but only last a short time. Others spring up and look like Christians, but other things come along and choke the life out of them. Neither is truly converted because they bear no fruit. Not everyone who responds positively to the gospel is converted.

Ex 'Christians' don't then come as a surprise to me because the Bible has already described that category of people.

How should we respond? What lessons are there to learn?

  • We need to accept the truth from these critics when they make valid criticisms. Often Christians are intellectually sloppy. Often they make generalisations that are untrue. Often we pass on stories that aren't factual - e.g. NASA records backing up the missing day in the book of Joshua, or Darwin recanted on his deathbed. Preachers, evangelists especially need to be intellectually rigorous. There is a trite approach to evangelism that says "All you need is John 3:16" - but that ignores the fact that God has given us minds, and that the scriptures say, "Come let us reason together."
  • We also need to make sure that our teaching is biblically based, and not a blend of popular psychology and crowd manipulation.
  • In evangelism we need to aim to break the pride of sinners before applying the grace of the gospel. Law first, then grace. Otherwise we will have intellectual converts who have never humbled themselves before God. And as Christians we need continually to humble ourselves, for pride is the surest route to failure.
  • We need to realise the reality of what theologians call the 'noetic effects of sin'. In other words it affects our thinking. No unbeliever can look at the facts and, of their own intellectual ability, be convinced of the truth of the gospel (Rom 1:21). They will always find a way to explain them away. Evangelism that is based primarily in factual evidence will always fail because it forgets this biblical truth. There are plenty of facts that are intellectually credible, and we are to present them because we don't know whom God is working in. But we are primarily to aim at breaking the heart by a display of its guilt before God.
  • We need also to realise that there are many people who will respond positively and then fall away. That is why Jesus taught the disciples as he did in Mark 4. When this happens we should not then be discouraged.
  • And we need to respond in love, rather than in frustration. They are lost. We can have no pride or superciliousness in the fact that we are Christians. How did we become Christians? God opened our wilfully blind eyes to the truth. All we contributed was our guilt. How can we be proud in that? Where they have real criticisms we need to listen. Where they are mistaken in their perceptions we need to gently correct. Where other Christians have unjustly hurt them we need to help them see that that wasn't biblical Christianity.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pensées on Pride - 13-18

Isaiah 2:11 The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
  • "The Lord alone will be exalted" - how often do I look for me to be exalted, even in terms of the last day. There is a difference between being vindicated and being exalted. Sometimes it is easy to mistake the two. We will be vindicated. God will be exalted.
Isaiah 2:12 The LORD Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted … will be brought low and the pride of men humbled; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
  • There is a day for every proud man - minister or otherwise - when they will be brought low.
Isaiah 25:10 The hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain; but Moab will be trampled under him as straw is trampled down in the manure… God will bring down their pride despite the cleverness of their hands.
Isaiah 28:3 That wreath, the pride of Ephraim's drunkards, will be trampled underfoot.
  • Foe or friend - God will not tolerate pride
Isaiah 29:19 Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD.
  • Do I find my joy in the Lord gone? It is the humble who rejoice (cf Psalm 138:6)
Isaiah 37:23 Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!
  • Oh the ludicrous abomination of pride! I am contending with the Holy One of Israel for glory. Woe is me.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Book Review - A House of Prayer

A House of Prayer
Andrew Stewart
Welwyn Commentary Series
Evangelical Press

Andrew Stewart, minister of Geelong RPC, has added this companion volume to his one on 1 Chronicles. It picks up where the other one left off and continues in the same easy to read style.

Why should we bother with Chronicles? Andrew Stewart answers that for us in the forward, "Much of this book was written as an encouragement to ordinary Israelites who were struggling to be faithful in daily and mundane matters." Sound familiar? He continues "That is why God has given us the book of Chronicles. It is good for us to learn about their struggles to be faithful to God."

This eminently helpful commentary opens up this often neglected book, and points out the emphases that make this history distinctive from the history recorded in Kings. Most importantly it continually points us to Christ, the fulfilment of the temple with which 2 Chronicles opens; and teaches us how to understand much of the Old Testament's history and how it relates to Christ.

As well as adding to our understanding of the Old Testament and our Saviour, there are many helpful and practical applications to the Christian life so that we can indeed be challenged and encouraged in our struggles to be faithful. Throughout the book key points are clearly illustrated which helps the reader grasp their relevance.

Many have already found the Welwyn series to be a great tool for personal devotions. Since most would find whole chapters too long for personal devotions (unless they have half the morning), Andrew has thoughtfully divided up each chapter into smaller bite sized sections with plenty of explanation and application in each.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Pensées on Pride - 10-12

Psalm 94:2 Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve.
  • Lord, I can't sing this because it is me. Lord, thank you for your mercy in not giving me what I deserve.
Psalm 138:6 Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar.
  • Why is it I feel God is distant? Why is it that he seems afar off? Here is the answer.
Proverbs 18:12 Before his downfall a man's heart is proud, but humility comes before honour.
  • We get it the wrong way round - we are proud because we think we deserve honour. God gives honour to those who are not proud.
  • Lord, help us to keep ourselves in a proper perspective, without keeping an eye to the promise of honour.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Imagination in Preaching

This topic has popped up a bit a few times recently. It's something I feel strongly about and I mentioned it in my post on Books on Preaching a few days ago. Jollyblogger has been reading old Journals of Biblical Counselling and has found David Powlison writing on the same subject. And Sinclair Ferguson ranks it at No. 5 on his Ten Commandments for preachers.

The more the merrier! All for the sake of better preaching.

Pensées on Pride - 6-9

1 Samuel 2:3 "Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed."
  • "By him deeds are weighed" - How do my deeds measure up in his hands? They must seem like the finest particles of dust.
  • How often I compare myself to others - yet it is not the others, but the Other that I must compare myself to. Then I will have nothing to feel proud of.
  • "The Lord is a God who knows" - He knows ALL about me, how then can I boast. Rather I hang my head in shame.
1 Kings 11:39 I will humble David's descendants because of this, but not for ever.'"
  • When the Lord humbles his people there is a time limit. He only brings his people down in order to raise them up again.
2 Chronicles 25:19 You say to yourself that you have defeated Edom, and now you are arrogant and proud. But stay at home! Why ask for trouble and cause your own downfall and that of Judah also?"

2 Chronicles 26:16 But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall.
  • I say to myself "I have done this or that…". A little God-given success here and there and it starts to go to our heads, and we forget that it is all God-given.
2 Chronicles 34:27 Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God when you heard what he spoke against this place and its people, and because you humbled yourself before me and tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD.
  • A promise - if our hearts are responsive, and we humble ourselves, God will hear. Thank you Lord.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Pensées on Pride - 1-5

Earlier this year I printed out all the verses that contain all the variations of the words proud and humble. I used that for a basis for my morning devotions over the next number of months, taking 6 to eight verses a day.

Over the next few entries I want to share some of my musings. The title "Pensées"is taken from Blaise Pascal who wrote down thoughts that came to him on scraps of paper and these random musings are collected under the title of 'Pensées', French for 'thoughts'.

Exodus 10:3 "So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, "This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?.'"
  • "How long" - indeed, how long will it be that I refuse to humble myself
  • "will you refuse" - A deliberate act, pride is not accidental.
  • "before me" - What a contrast! Me, proud in the sight of God! The height of arrogance!
Leviticus 26:19 "I will break down your stubborn pride."
  • God will break my pride - He makes it his priority
Deuteronomy 8:2 "Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands."
  • 40 years in the desert - all because of pride. What a deadly enemy I am to myself!
  • "Lord, keep us in the desert until we will not contend for your glory, but let us be more teachable than the Israelites."
Deuteronomy 8:3 "He humbled you… to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD…"
  • "Lord, make us men and women of your word, who do not rely on our own abilities, but who constantly seek you through your word. Give us today our daily bread."
Deuteronomy 8:16 "He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you."
  • Manna - Miracle food, but had to be gathered daily.
  • "to test you" - A humbling test - keep on gathering every day, keep on depending on God, you always needed food from God to get through the day.
  • "so that" - learn the lesson of daily dependence on God, and it will go well with you.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sabbath Sermon - Our All-Sufficient Saviour - 2 Kings 4:38-44

Gladys Aylward, missionary to China more than fifty years ago, was forced to flee when the Japanese invaded Yangcheng. But she could not leave her work behind. With only one assistant, she led more than a hundred orphans over the mountains toward Free China.

"During Glady's harrowing journey out of war-torn Yangcheng ... she grappled with despair as never before. After passing a sleepless night, she faced the morning with no hope of reaching safety. A 13-year-old girl in the group reminded her of their much-loved story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

"But I am not Moses," Gladys cried in desperation.

"Of course you aren't," the girl said, "but Jehovah is still God."

When Gladys and the orphans made it through, they proved once again that no matter how inadequate we feel, God is still God, and we can trust in him.

There are times in the Christian's life when he or she feels utterly inadequate. There are times as we saw a few weeks ago when we looked at the start of ch 4 when trouble comes and we simply can't cope, we are in too deep, and we learnt then that "My God will meet all your needs out of his glorious riches in Christ."

But there are other times when our inadequacies show through in different ways, other than just being inadequate to face trouble.

Alice is on a mission team. They have been doing door to door work, and later that evening you find Alice sitting with a tear stained face. You ask her what is wrong and she responds, "I just feel so inadequate. I just keep messing up. And they had an opportunity to hear the gospel and I didn't know what to say, or how to answer them." What would you have said to her?

Brian has just given a talk to a group of young people, and he knows it wasn't great. In talking with an older Christian afterwards he finds out he even said some things that were wrong. And he is gutted. What would you say to him?

Carla has just had a conversation with a friend. She's sought to explain the gospel, and she is so nervous that she stumbles and stutters and gets herself muddled up. And she comes away thinking "I should have said this, or put it that way." And she feels inadequate. What do you say to her?

If we let this sense of inadequacy get to us, then the devil will have been successful, and we will be driven to despair, and not attempt anything again.

It's refreshing to hear the apostle Paul, and man immensely gifted, and experienced - he was trained as well as anyone could be trained, its refreshing to hear him ask,

"And who is sufficient for these things?" - 2 Cor 2:16

The passages we deal with today deal with times when our labour is marred by our mistakes, and when our labour is insufficient due to our shortcomings. And in both cases, we see what Paul later went on to write:

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." - 2 Corinthians 4:7

Gods provision extends to our inadequacies as well as our needs. In these two Old Testament miracles we find pictures of two New Testament truths.

Christ can overrule our mistakes v38-41
There was famine in the land. Famine was God's judgment on the wicked nation of Israel. Is famine always God's judgment on any nation? No. But in Israel's case it was part of Israel's national constitution - the covenant. In it God had decreed blessings for obedience and curses for abandoning God's ways. Famine was one such sign of God's wrath.

And so there was famine in unbelieving Israel. But here we see that the godly prophets also experienced the famine. God's people are not exempt when God's judgment strikes a land. In Ireland we are ripe for God's judgment, and when it comes, whatever form it takes, financial collapse, job losses, natural disasters, God's people will be caught up in it. "God doesn't usually evacuate his people beforehand," Dale Ralph Davis writes, "We need to know this lest we expect of God something he's never promised."

This also should challenge us to pray for our fellow believers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Pakistan, India, and wherever else natural disaster, or war has struck.

So here in this famine struck region, Elisha arrives and is teaching the prophets and he instructs his servant to put on a big pot of stew. One of the prophets heads out into the fields looking for extra herbs, or vegetables to put in to bulk it up a bit, and to add some flavour. And perhaps he is from another area, or perhaps just because he is a male, he doesn't really know what's what. And he see a vine growing with these plump looking yellow fruit, and he gathers as many as he can in the folds of his cloak and he hurried back to the kitchen. And he chops them up and dumps them into the stew.

Then the rest of the prophets come in, and the meal is served out, and its not hard to imagine the pleasure on the face of the prophet as they get a little extra in their bowls. But then a shout goes up, "There's death in the pot". Whether someone recognised the poisonous vegetable, or whether they had taken a taste we don't know. But in an instant they go from having a great meal to eat to having nothing.

And that doesn't sound too serious to us, can't they just prepare another one? But these are days of famine. Food is scarce. Providing food isn't a matter of spending a few moments in a supermarket and a minute in front of the microwave. It may take a large part of the day to gather enough food together to make a meal. And now all that effort has been wasted.

Precious food was spoiled.

How do you think that scavenging prophet feels now? "I should just have stayed in bed today. I can do nothing right. Now everyone's upset with me. I'm always get it wrong."

And then Elisha stands up. He takes asks for flour, he dumps the flour into the pot and he stirs it in. And they are wondering, "what difference will that make?". The vegetables are still in the pot. We shouldn't think of this as some sort of magic, nor should we think of Elisha as some sort of early scientist who has figured out that the properties of this flour can neutralise the effects of this poison. I don't believe that that is the case. It is just another visual symbol, the same as he did with the salt and the bowl at Jericho. It was a symbol that it wasn't Elisha that changed the stew, it was from somewhere else. It was a symbol that the men would remember all their days, as they ground the corn to make flour, as they used flour to bake bread, you can almost hear them saying, "Do you remember the time Elisha threw the flour into the stew, isn't God great?" And then the man of God, to whom they have cried out for help, speaks again, "Serve it to the people to eat."

And as they start to, perhaps somewhat cautiously, nibble at the stew again, they find that there was nothing harmful in the pot!

I wonder how the scavenging prophet felt now? The meal was no longer wasted it had been redeemed, rescued from the rubbish pile. Can you feel his gratefulness? His labour had been marred, ruined, but it had been a sincere mistake.

Have you ever found that?

You have sought to act in a Christian manner towards someone, and you have only succeeded in alienating them. You thought you were doing something right by someone, and you have only succeeded in hurting them all the more. And you think to yourself, "I should just have stayed in bed, I can do nothing right."

Perhaps as you have tried to live out the Christian life as a witness in front of family or friends or work colleagues, you have made mistakes, and you feel, "I've blown it, that's that ruined."

Perhaps you have set an example to other Christians, and now you realise that you were wrong in what you did. And its too late to undo it.

Perhaps someone has come to you for advice, and you have sincerely given them advice, and when you check with another Christian you find that you have told them the wrong thing. And you feel so discouraged.

Or perhaps you have dealt with your children in a certain way - you thought it was the right way at the time, but now with hindsight you see that it was detrimental.

Is there anything you can do in these circumstances?

Do exactly what the prophets did - v40 "O man of God". They cried out to God's official representative. We are to do the same - Cry out to our great prophet, the one who intercedes for us before God. Cry out to Jesus.

It seems awfully ineffective doesn't it? You've been talking to someone and trying to explain the gospel and you are so nervous that you garble the whole thing, and it's all topsy-turvy and you waffled in places, and you left out bits you shouldn't have, and I say to you, Go home and call out to Jesus.

What's the point? Surely what has been said has been said? What good will praying do? It's about as ineffective as throwing flour into a pot of stew. The vegetables are still there. But we have a God who is powerful, and who delights to show his power through our weakness. And you can pray to him, "Lord, Take what I said and make them remember the bits that are important, and make them forget the bits that aren't."

"Take what I did and bring good out of my mistake Lord."
"Take what I said and use the good."
"Lord you know I was only trying to serve you, I thought I was doing what was best, but now I see how wrong it was. Please overrule my mistake."

And here is the wonder of having Christ as our Saviour. This is part of what Paul means when he writes, "God works all things for the good of those who love him".

This isn't to say that we can be careless or even sin with abandon, and God will follow around after us, like some sort of parent of a spoilt child, and tidy up. But when we have sincerely sought to serve him, and in our weakness, or ignorance, have got it wrong, we can come to God and the power of God can overcome our mistakes as surely as he overcame this cooks blunder.

"What a relief it is to see that the Lord does not allow our errors to derail his kingdom or destroy his people. How many times does Christ cushion our folly, redeem our errors, and neutralise our stupidity?" - D.R. Davis

And there is a wider application here. Even the mistakes that we have made in sinfulness, perhaps before we became Christians, or even when we were Christians, Christ can overrule them and turn them for good. Some of you may have made wrong decisions in your past and you have to live with the consequences of those decisions, but you have a Saviour who doesn't undo the past, but who overrules the past, and can turn these things for good. So don't despair, get on your knees and seek his intervention.

Christ can supply our inadequacies
There are other times when we haven't made mistakes, and we aren't in trouble, but we are overwhelmed with a feeling of our utter inadequacy. Perhaps you are talking to someone, and as they pour out their heart to you and tell you of what they are going through or have come through, you feel, "Lord what have I got that can help this person?" And if they aren't a Christian, and you listen to all their troubles, you find yourself thinking, "Lord, all I have is the gospel" and it seems very small and very inadequate. Their problems seem to swamp your experience.

Or perhaps you get an opportunity to speak to someone about Christ, and as you talk they have more questions than you have answers and you find yourself wishing you knew more, and thinking "I'm so inadequate."

Here is hope and encouragement for us in this miracle.

A man comes from Baal-Shalisha. It used to be called Shalisha, but it had become a place of Baal worship, a pagan town. Yet even in this pagan godless town there was a godly man. And this godly man is out harvesting his grain, and the way the two miracles are joined together here it would seem still to be the time of famine. Yet as he harvests his grain, and as he grinds the corn to make flour, he is reminded that the first-fruits belong to God. And because he is a godly man he is determined to obey. Now God had said that the first-fruits were to be taken to the temple, and given to the priests. Yet the land was now following Baal, and the king was sponsoring the priests of Baal, and had forbidden the worship of the Lord. So what is he to do? He decides that since he can't obey the letter of the law, he will obey the spirit of the law. And he takes some bread and some grain and treks quite a distance to the servants of God at Gilgal. And there he presents it to Elisha.

That is faithful service. And here we see sometimes how God provides - help can arrive to God's beleaguered people from unexpected source. There was a famine, food was hard to come by, although over at Baal-Shalisha things seem to have been a bit easier, and from the place where there is food, God sends to the place where there isn't. And here we see also the duty of believers who are experiencing plenty to look out for those who are in need, not just nearby, but far off.

Here is faithful and thoughtful service. He has already made some of his grain offering into bread, so that it is of immediate use to the prophets. And he has left some as corn so that they will be able to make bread as the days go on, because if he made it all now, it might have been stale. Here is a thoughtful believer.

And yet when he arrives, he finds that his thoughtfulness in serving God has backfired a bit. Perhaps he should have made all the grain into bread after all. Perhaps even then it wouldn't have been enough.

But he is about to learn a marvellous lesson: What looks impossible to us, is not impossible to God. Where our resources are at their end, God's haven't even begun to be exhausted.

Elisha says to his servant, "Put the bread before the men". The servant hesitates because unlike Elisha his faith is weak. He sees with his eyes, and they are eyes that see the limitations, they are not the eyes of faith which see the possibilities. He sees the shortage of 80 leaves, these loaves were no bigger than a fist. Elisha hears what God has said. "There is enough." And faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

And the impossible met God's word, and the servants, and the man from Baal Shalisha and the prophets found out that God's word is more certain than what is before our eyes.

God supplied. God provided. The inadequacy of the man's offering was overruled.

And we learn that when we give to God, or when we seek to serve God with what little we have, we just don't know what sort of a miracle we will end up involved in.

We learn that when we labour for God and we are disheartened by our inadequacies, our insufficiencies, our shortfall, our complete lack, that our God is able to supply what is lacking.

When we stand before someone whose life is falling apart and the gospel seems such a paltry thing to be telling them, we learn that God can take that gospel and use it to fill all their needs.

When we bring our 20 loaves of Bible knowledge to a person who has a 100 deep and searching questions, we learn that God is able to take our answer and make them sufficient. Go ahead and speak, God can take what you say and use it to start someone thinking, he can take it and apply it to their conscience and their conscience awakes and starts to accuse them, he can take what you say and bring to mind things they heard long ago. Christ can supply our inadequacies.

When stand and look over the town of Letterkenny/Milford and we look at ourselves, small in number, short on abilities, we learn that when we are weak then God is strong.

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. - 2 Cor 12:9

When we are insufficient then we are in an ideal situation to find that God is sufficient. But how? By calling on God, by acknowledging our weakness and our inability.

There are so many parallels with the feeding of the 5000. The people were in great need, someone was fond with a little food, a disciple was unbelieving, God multiplied the loaves, the people all ate, and there was food left over.

Yet at almost every turn we see that our Saviour is much greater. Elisha fed 100 men. Jesus fed 5000. Elisha had 20 loaves. Jesus had 5. Elisha gave them bread. Jesus gave them fish as well. Elisha had some left over, Jesus had 12 basketfuls. Elisha did it by God's power, Jesus did it by his own power.

And as Gladys Aylward was reminded, we may not be Moses, or in our cases Elisha, but God is still God. And he is the same yesterday today and forever. And when we are in need, or inadequate, or mistaken he will provide.

And we see here also in these two miracles a picture of the gospel. A man whose deadly mistake is covered over by God, and a man whose offering was utterly inadequate and God provides what is needed.

Some of you here this morning need to hear this. How you are living your life at present is like this man in the first miracle. You think you are doing good, but in fact you are in grave danger. You think you are gathering up treasure for yourself in Heaven, when in fact all the good that you do will condemn you to Hell. You need God to work a miracle. You wouldn't be foolish enough to eat poisonous plants, but you are gobbling the poisonous leaves of the tree of good works. You are badly mistaken. And the poison will kill you forever. You need Christ to transform what is poisonous into what will give life. You need to go to him like the prophets did and beg for a miracle. Lord change me, save me, rescue from this death. Cover over my mistakes, my errors, my faults, my sins.

Like the man in the second miracle you bring your life's efforts to God and say, here Lord, here are all my decent works that I have done with my life. And they are insufficient. And they will never be sufficient to please God. Had you a hundred lives to live and fine tune each one of them, you could never get it right. You need God to provide for you the righteousness that you have failed so badly at. You need to look at your life and ask yourself, "How can I set this before God?" And then cry out to God, "Provide for me too!"

And if you do, you will find that God will provide, and Christ will cover your sins, and will replace your good works with his perfect righteousness and you will be able to stand before God.

We learn here that our daily needs, whether its bread, or stew matter to God.

And we learn here again that "My God will need all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."

We learn that he will not always do it in the same way.

And these five miracles that we have looked at in this chapter point us forward to the day when we will see the wonderful richness of God's provision in all its glory:
  • When we will see that our debt has been cleared, on the day of judgment
  • When we will have every tear wiped away from our eye, and there will be no secret aches in our hearts
  • When the dead in Christ will be raised
  • When the effects of sin on this planet will be removed and there will be no more famine, no more poisonous plants.
  • When we will enjoy the delights of Heaven forever and ever, and there will always be some left over to enjoy.
Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Six Favourite Books on Preaching

As sort of a follow-up to yesterday's post, here's a selection of some of the books that I have really appreciated on preaching. In no particular order

Ministering like the Master - Stuart Olyott
If Jesus preached from one of our pulpits today, what would his preaching be like? Stuart Olyott, one of my favourite preachers, looks at Jesus' preaching in the Sermon on the Mount and brings out key principles. One of the great things about this book is that it originated as three addresses at a minister's conference, and so it carries the flavour of the spoken word, and as such illustrates the principles that Olyott is seeking to instil. One of the best books on preaching. Olyott says a lot with few words.

Preaching - Pure & Simple - Stuart Olyott
This is Olyott's second book on preaching. I first heard the content of these talks on mp3, and they transformed how I think about preaching. He isn't afraid to call traditions into question, or to make bold suggestions. His chapter on Spiritual urgency and Supernatural Authority are worth the price of the book alone. Olyott is a deceptively simple communicator - his few words, and short sentences contain a wealth of thought.

Preaching and Teaching with Imagination - Warren Wiersbe
I came across this footnoted in a compilation of essays edited by DA Carson called "Telling the Truth". The essay by Colin S. Smith quoted a fictional story Wiersbe had used to illustrate his point. Let me give it to you in abbreviated form:

Grandma Thatcher hobbles into church one morning. As usual, her unsaved husband had sent her off to church with curses ringing in her ears. She was in constant pain, and had a doctor's appointment on Wednesday. She dreaded the arrival of winter and was praying that fuel prices wouldn't go up again. If it weren't for her Lord, her large-print Bible, and her Christian friends, Grandma Thatcher would have given up a long time ago.

When Pastor Bowers stepped into the pulpit to preach, Grandma Thatcher silently prayed, "Father, give him something special for me. I need it!" The text was Genesis 9, and the message was the twenty-second in a series on Genesis that Pastor Bowers called "Beginning at the Beginnings."

The sermon was titled, "God Talks to Noah." Pastor Bowers read the chapter and then gave the congregation his main points:

I. Creation Presented - 9:1-3
II. Capital Punishment - 9:4-7
III. Covenant Promised - 9:8-17
IV. Carnality Practiced - 9:18-23
V. Consequences Prophesied - 9:24-29

As some of the saints dutifully wrote the outline in the space provided on the back page of their worship folders, Grandma Thatcher breathed a disappointed sigh. "Last week it was all S's. Today it's all CP's." She settled back in the pew, turned the preacher off and began meditating on the psalm she'd read early that morning before George had gotten up to menace her day.
It struck me that that outline was like a lot of the preaching I heard around me (except from my own pastor). It wasn't really a sermon, just a verbal commentary on the passage. Wiersbe's book seeks to bring life and imagination into such stale sermons. He does so not by being innovative, but by being biblical. A significant chunk of the book is devoted to looking at the use of imagery throughout scripture. He then shows how we can use the Bible to guide our imagination in our sermon preparation so that what we say makes it into the lives of our hearers.

Sense appeal in the sermons of CH Spurgeon - Jay Adams
I think it's sinful to be dull as a preacher. And since God has given us different senses we should preach in such a way that the whole man is engaged. Adam's study of Spurgeon is most helpful and thought-provoking.

The Power of Speaking God's Word - Wilbur Ellsworth
What makes a sermon memorable? By memorable, I don't mean outstanding, rather that it sticks in the memory. Ellsworth's argument is that sermons should be prepared to be so clear that we don't need notes, but rather can look the people in the eye and tell them what we have to say. What a challenge! His argument is that if after a week of study we can't retain what we are about to say without notes, what hope is there for those who haven't studied it all week!

My Heart for thy cause - Brian Borgman
The sub-title of this book is "Albert N. Martin's Theology of Preaching". For anyone who has heard Al Martin preach you'll know why this book has an impact. His sermons are marked by faithful exegesis, forceful and pointed application, clear illustration and a passionate desire to communicate the truth of God's word. This book looks at the key elements of Martin's preaching. In a sense it could be the contents of a homiletics course, it is so thorough.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Spurgeon - All the subtlety of sledgehammer

There was me worrying about giving a slightly negative book review, and then I remembered Spurgeon's "Commenting and Commentaries". For those of you who don't know, this is probably the funniest serious work by a Christian in the last 200 years. In it Spurgeon gives comment on hundreds of major and minor commentaries and devotional writings. It must have been a real publishers nightmare for each book in different font sizes depending on how worthwhile they are.

However, it is not the font-size that is so entertaining, but the comments from the Prince of Preachers. Here are a few gathered from a very quick gleaning:

  • A masterly work; but about as dry as Gideon’s unwetted fleece.
  • Comparatively feeble.
  • Contains nothing of any consequence to an expositor
  • On a book subtitled "For reading at family prayers" - Alas, poor families! Ye have need of patience.
  • We hope they benefited the printer; they will not help the reader much.
  • On a book by a man called Wake - The author was Wake, but not awake, or he would never have wasted so much good paper.
  • Our estimate of his work is not so high as his own.
  • More curious than valuable. The style is scholastic and pointless.
  • To listen to these sermons must have afforded a suitable Lenten penance to those who went to church to hear them.
  • Dry and tedious
  • We need no longer wonder how spiders make such long threads with such little material, for here is an equally amazing instance of spinning.
  • Another specimen of sermons published by subscription. The poor curatewas no doubt the better for the profits, and nobody was any the worse. Clipston church was not set on fire by the flaming eloquence of the preacher, nor was the country disturbed by any fanatical excitement produced by his excessive zeal.
  • The Proverbs themselves are plainer than this author’s exposition of them.
  • The author professed to offer his work with great diffidence, and he had just cause to do so: he had better have burned his manuscript.
  • Commonplace remarks; intended to be used at family worship. Likely to send the servants to sleep.
And my favourite so far:
  • On a book entitled "Psalms: a commentary and Prayer, for use in families" - Families will best use these commentaries and prayers by lining their cake tins with them.
There are others I remember from previous dippings, but I cannot remember where to find them.

Book Review - Preaching Christ

I'm not sure what to do here. On the one hand I have a book to review that deals with a worthy subject. On the other hand, I don't think it's very good. I usually chicken out at this stage and just don't bother reviewing the book. But I feel an obligation to the general reader to be up front about these things. It's a difficult line to walk - being honest and being gracious, and I don't know how well I manage it, but here goes:

Preaching Christ
Edgar Andrews
ET Perspectives No.1
(Evangelical Press)

This book was originally a series of articles in Evangelical Times, and I find it hard to know why it was reproduced as a book. It is not that there is anything wrong in the book, it is just that there is nothing new in it - it has all been said before. As a series of articles it may have had a place summarising what preaching Christ involves, but as a book it doesn't 'compete' with other fuller and more helpful volumes.

I started reading it with high expectations - what preacher wouldn't want to know more how to preach Christ better. So I was hoping to find help in preaching Christ, especially from the Old Testament. But alas, the author simply outlines that we are to preach him, as the New Testament preachers did, from direct references, from types and pictures, and from obscurer references. And not much more detail is given than that, although a couple of outlines are given as examples. Much more on the 'how to' would have been more useful. As it is, it is really just an extended plea to preach Christ more.

That said, I appreciated his insistence that we must preach Christ to Christians. It is not enough to preach Christ evangelistically, but Christ must continually be set before believers in all the fullness of his salvation.

If you are really looking help in this area I would suggest Graeme Goldsworthy's "Gospel and Kingdom", and "Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture". For two excellent books on preaching in general see "Preaching, pure and simple" and "Ministering like the Master" both by Stuart Olyott.

Halloween - a time to laugh or a time to weep?

(Column for a local newspaper - I now write for a second newspaper, and it has to be different from the first!)

Last Halloween a colleague of mine went into a home in Letterkenny to visit. Crouching behind the sofa was a small boy, stark naked, and in the process of painting himself from head to toe in red paint! Apparently he wanted to look like the Devil.

It can be a time to laugh, yet it is also a time when elderly people are afraid to answer their door, when they are frightened by all the racket outside of fireworks and bangers.

It's a time of increased vandalism and wanton disregard for the property of others, of bangers thrown through letterboxes or at windows, and fireworks aimed at people or cars.

As a pastor I see another reason for concern - Halloween dumbs down the spiritual dangers we face by making light of them. There is a spiritual realm which we need to take seriously. The devil is real, a terrifying being who is certainly not some mildly mischievous man in a red suit with pointy ears. He is the ultimate cause of all that is wrong in this world. And while it's mostly fun and games at Halloween, it reduces spiritual matters to "a silly dressing up that we did when we were kids". When we pretend that he's just a harmless bit of fun, we are swallowing his propaganda.

Besides all this, there is the duty that each of us has to show compassion to those around us. The Bible commands us to "love our neighbour". We can't say we're doing this if we, or our children, are making elderly folk fearful or nervous in their own homes.

The whole concept of Halloween is a licence for mischief, and one that we could well do without. At the same time, it is a holiday and therefore an opportunity for families to enjoy some time together. So I would encourage you to be both wise and considerate in how you spend this time, to look out for your neighbours, and to take seriously that "the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Rugby, American Football, and the Singing of Psalms

Amen to Carl Truman's thoughts on Rugby and especially unaccompanied Psalm singing!

It takes a special breed of man to get the glorious game, the Psalms, and a dig at the Yanks all into one post. The more I read by this guy the more I like him.

(Only joking, my American friends - I love you all!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Cara Jean has arrived!

Ok, so she arrived on Sabbath evening just before 8pm. And her name was Cara Joy then, but we realised that it would have been my Granny's birthday, so we changed 'Joy' to Jean in memory of Granny. For those of you who quite liked Joy, never fear, for Cara is Greek for Joy, as well as being Irish for 'friend'.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Book Review - "Being a Christian Husband"

Being a Christian husband
Colin Hamer
Evangelical Press

I liked this book straight from the start. It is about men being godly men in their marriage. This world needs Christian men to demonstrate what being a godly Christian husband is like. We live in a world where young men often grow up in single parent homes and don't know what a father behaves like, or where young men see a father behave in a way that may even be good, but isn't godly. Even marriages between Christians aren't necessarily Christian marriages, in other words they don't follow God's guidelines.

As well as being on a theme that is very necessary, I enjoyed this book because the author writes in a concise and fresh style. In a good way you can tell that he is not a minister - if a minister had written this book it would have been twice as long!

The book really falls into four parts: an introduction, the biblical basis, the practical implications, and a conclusion. After considering some of the contemporary views of marriage and manhood, Hamer outlines what the Bible has to say. He takes some time over this before he gets to the practical applications. In a very helpful way he focuses on Jesus, showing what Jesus was like as the perfect man, and showing what Jesus is like as the perfect husband to his bride, the church. This is a tremendously important section - and forms the basis for what he goes on to say later as he applies it to husbands.

The third section takes the four principles discovered from Jesus and applies them to marriage: the Christian husband has to love, to take responsibility, to exercise authority, and to be faithful. These are fleshed out in practical situations, though perhaps more detail could have been given, but that's the minister speaking!

Repeatedly though these sections he returns to Christ; something that I feel is often missing from other books on marriage.

The book closes with a section which looks at some objections to this biblical pattern of manhood, and gives biblical advice on looking for a wife.

All in all, I feel that this book would be a great book for every newly married husband to read, or for any newly converted Christian husband. In one sense it isn't rocket science, it is a laying down of foundation principles - but that is exactly what needs to be done, even for Christians.

Lap dancing - Lighting a fuse and standing back

(Column for a local newspaper)
I see from the front page of last week's Post that Dundalk lap dancers are eyeing up Letterkenny as a potential venue. I see from page two that 35 counts of sexual assault have been brought against a Donegal man.

Several weeks ago the Post ran an article on the sex shop in Letterkenny, and the same issue featured separate articles on rape fears on the L.I.T. campus and sex abuse charges.

It seems to me that if you keep throwing petrol on a fire you can't be surprised when people get burned. So it shouldn't surprise us that, as sexuality is touted openly in Letterkenny, we will see an increase in sexual violence. We have opened a Pandora's box and haven't the intelligence to close it.

It's time that nightclubs started to take their community obligations seriously. On the one hand they load young men with alcohol and then turn them out into the street where drunken brawls are inevitable. On the other hand they charge up their hormones, raising them to fever pitch by the 'look but don't touch' show, and send them off into the night where females are also making their way home. And they seem unwilling to take responsibility for the violence, sexual or otherwise, that results.

True, individuals need to accept responsibility, but so too do nightclubs and sex shops. You can't run around lighting gunpowder trails and then abdicate responsibility when the barrel explodes and people get injured.

Sexual arousal is not something that can be turned off at the flick of a switch. Sex is a fantastic gift from God to be enjoyed within certain parameters. Otherwise it results in hurt, pain and regret. Perhaps that's why God says in a book of the Bible completely given over to the joy of sexuality, "Do not arouse or awaken love until the time is right." (Song of Solomon 8:4).

Monday, October 17, 2005

Book Review - War and Grace by Don Stephens

War and Grace
Don Stephens
Evangelical Press

There are some mistakes you can do well without. Others are quite pleasant. Evangelical Press sent me a box of books, nine in total, by mistake. Normally they just send me a list of books they've just published.

Reviews of most will hopefully follow. But I want to start off with a book called "War and Grace" by Don Stephens. This is a collection of short biographies of men and women from World War II. It records what God did in them either as Christians or in bringing them to faith. What a wonderful book. Not only did it encourage me to read of God's amazing grace, but it stirred my heart again with compassion for the lost.

Stephens is a man who has had a passion for WWII, but he also has a passion for communicating the life-changing grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and this shows in his writing. He has been collecting this information over the last number of decades, and he assembles it here in a series of thrilling accounts.

Like most males, war has held a fascination for me, especially the two world wars. I grew up on a diet of Victor, Battle and Warlord comics, and the little 'Commando' comic story booklets. The tales of bravery and courage were inspiring. But I never really had heard much of what God was doing in those years. Here Stephens fills the void.

Not only does he show the courage and the stand Christians took, but he shows how God worked to bring hate-filled atheists to Christ and turned them into powerful missionaries.

I had heard of some of names before: William Dobbie, the defender of Malta; Mitsuo Fuchida, the lead pilot in the Pearl Harbour attack. I had read about some of them before: Charles Fraser-Smith, the real 'Q'; Donald Caskie, Scottish pastor in France who ran an escape route for airmen and soldiers. But often in newspaper reports and in books written about them their faith is left aside. Stephens redresses the balance and brings out overpowering influence of the gospel in their lives.

Perhaps for me the highlight was the story of Henry Gerecke, chaplain to the highest ranking Nazis at the Nuremberg trials. His account of taking the gospel to these men and the resultant effects is quite startling and shows the shocking nature of grace at its best.

It really is a triumph of grace.

One of the things that impressed me was that Stephens writes with discernment - unlike some Christians he doesn't claim every religious person was actually a Christian. Nor does he accept that every profession made, for example by the Nazi war criminals, was necessarily genuine. This isn't a rose-tinted view of God's work in the war. He also corrects errors that have been made in other biographies, or obituaries, or films and provides a helpful balance.

If, like me you grew up on a diet of Victor comics and war films, and your shelves are filled with novels by Leon Uris and Cornelius Ryan, then this is a book you will enjoy.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Book Review - The Potter's Freedom

The Potter's Freedom
James R. White
Calvary Press

A year or so ago I was at a conference where the main speaker had a real go at 'Calvinism' and the 'Reformed Faith'. Much of what he said was pretty contradictory - having ridiculed and condemned the reformed position he then proceeded later on, while dealing with a different topic, to say that the only hope for homosexuals, abortionists, and all sorts of 'hard cases' was that God would open their eyes and bring them to their knees in repentance! Now if that's not what Calvin would have said I don't know what is.

Anyhow, what's that got to do with this book?

Anyone who has tried to get their mind around God's sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation will doubtless have got into a real tangle. It's not that the Bible is muddled, it's quite clear - God sovereignly saves sinners and sinners are responsible for their sin - but our minds struggle to hold what appear to be opposing truths. Our minds are simply too tiny to comprehend the infinite wisdom of God. Many good and godly Christians have struggled to hold these two truths and often sacrifice one (mostly God's sovereignty) for the sake of the other.

Norman Geisler, a man who has written many helpful books, is one such man. In 'Chosen but Free' he attempted tone down the truths of the Reformation. This book by James White is an answer to Geisler. He carefully examines Geisler's argument and turns then to scripture and examines what the scriptures say, carefully and exactly. I haven't read Geisler's book, but it didn't matter, White quotes from it at length.

This book is thorough and needs to be read with your head switched on, its detailed and in-depth, but it shows us that we have absolutely nothing to fear from all the bluster of those who dislike our reformed theology.

It's a good tool to have for those who are looking for a robust defence of the reformed faith. If you are looking for an introduction to Calvinism then "A Journey in Grace" by RP Belcher (Evangelical Press) is a great place to start.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Preachers and prayer

JI Packer with a few words that should make a big impact:

"A good rule for a preacher is that he ought to pray for people as earnestly as he preaches to them. In the same way that one talks to folk about God, one should talk to God about those folk. A compassionate preacher ought to be a compassionate prayer.

Those who do not talk to God about men in the same way that they talk to men about God will very soon become victims of their own role and, to that extent, hypocrites.

It is very easy for those of us who minister the word of God to become hypocrites in this way, and I am afraid many of us do."

JI Packer "Honouring the Written Word of God" p 245

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Food for thought - "You know things are bad when..."

(Local newspaper column)

...People think 'Jesus' really is a swear word. A child in a primary school in the UK asked his teacher, "Why did Mary and Joseph name their baby after a swear word?" In response, a Christian charity are sending a teaching pack and video on the Christmas story to every primary school in the UK

...Paddy Power bookmakers, in an attempt to rustle up some business, think it is a good idea to depict Jesus and his disciples all playing poker. The advert is based on Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper' and has the slogan "There's a place for fun and games".

...Sony think that it's a good idea to advertise their PlayStation games' console with a young man wearing a crown of thorns and grinning at the camera, with the slogan, "Ten years of Passion."

It's the sort of thing preachers say: "People only know Jesus' name as a swear word these days." At one time it may have been rhetoric, a slight case of exaggeration, but no longer. And we can't point the finger at 'those pagans across the water' because we in Ireland are far worse when it comes to using the name of Jesus as a swear word. God specifically says, "The Lord your God will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name" Exodus 20:7.

Paddy Power's feeble attempt at an excuse was, "We didn't mean to offend anyone"! They also made an equally dismal attempt at an apology, "If anyone is offended we apologise... But we have no plans to withdraw the ad." That is not an apology - an apology is when you accept blame, and change your actions. They have since withdrawn the ad, once sufficient publicity was gained.

Sony at least had the decency to pull their ad, although their apology was nearly as offensive as the ad. They said, "the spirit of the message was misunderstood". So it would appear that the fault, instead of lying with the advertising executives at Sony, is actually with the poor religious person who just didn't have enough intelligence to understand the ad.

We live in a world where it is morally outrageous to mock any religious belief... except Christianity. No other religious leader would be used as the butt of the advertisers mockery. It's hard to see Paddy Power or Sony thinking, "Let's use Mohammed as a poster boy. Let's take one of the key moments in the history of Islam and make a funny picture about it."

And things only get this bad when the advertisers think that the public will, on majority, accept what they churn out. And so you know things are really bad in a country when things reach this level.

Ireland had a reputation as the land of saints and scholars, once these things were considered sacred. Now we trample holy things underfoot and mock the very means by which sins can be forgiven. God warns us in his word:

"But if any nation does not listen, I will completely uproot and destroy it," declares the LORD. - Jeremiah 12:17

Ireland, will you fall on your knees and repent, before it is too late? Will you seek forgiveness for trampling the Son of God underfoot? You personally might feel that you would never go so far as the examples above, but to reject Jesus as your saviour is insult enough.

"How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," ... It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." - Hebrews 10:29-31

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hope does not disappoint (Part 2) - 2 Kings 4:8-37

Faith clings to and pursues God despite discouragement v18-28
Here is the balancing point to the first (yesterday). The Christian life isn't one unending stream of happiness. Sorrow also comes to God's people.

Happiness descended on that little house in Shunem. And then one day the boy, probably between 8-10, went out with his father to the fields and took ill. His father didn't think it too serious and sent a servant back with him to his mother. But it was serious and in a few short words we read that the mother nursed the young boy, until he died a few hours later.

Oh the pain she must have felt - to be given a gift by God, and for that gift to be taken away again.

Why does God give blessings only to take them away? Is he a mean God with no emotions, some sort of mechanical being who thinks, "I must strengthen their faith, so I'll give them something nice and then take it away and they'll learn to trust me more because of it."

Does God delight to make us glad only to cause us pain? What about the parents who learn with joy that they are expecting a child, only for that pregnancy to end with a miscarriage? What about a wife who learns that her cancer has gone and she and her family rejoice, and yet after several years of joy, the dark shadow of cancer returns and claims her life? Has he given a reward to this woman of Shunem in order to give her grief that she would not otherwise have experienced?

Why? I don't know that I can answer why. God's ways are not my ways - he is far above us, and there will be times when we are not able to understand what he does. His ways are deep, too deep for any man to fathom. And often we have to say as Elisha did in v27

"the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why."

But that doesn't mean we are left with nothing. This great woman shows us how to respond, because faith clings to God even when we don't understand.

Go straight to God v21, 22
Instead of burying her son immediately as would be the norm, she takes him to the prophet's room and lays him on his bed, almost saying, "This is your problem too." She is not for giving up on this. Then she tells her husband that she is setting off for Carmel 20 miles away to get the man of God. Her husband seems to have much less faith than she does. He doesn't see the point in going. He doesn't seem to have grasped the fact that God is personally interested in our lives and in our problems. For him God is someone only to be approached at set times and in set ways.

Not so with this woman. Her relationship with God is real. Her is a faith that does not disintegrate in the face of difficulties, no matter how severe. Her faith shows her how to respond when life falls apart.

Go straight to God. She doesn't delay. She doesn't even stop to tell Gehazi what the problem is. Does she lie to him in v26? The NIV translates her answer as "Everything is fine" - it's just the Hebrew word "Shalom" - their standard greeting, which means 'peace' or 'it is well'. She greets him, but she wants to get to Elisha, the man of God. When she gets there, her emotions break through and she forgets all respectability and throws herself at his feet and clings to them, and here again her faith is tried as heartless Gehazi is more concerned about etiquette.

Cling to God and to his promises v27-30
Her journey has been motivated by faith. And now that she comes to Elisha she reminds him that this child wasn't sought by her, it was given by God as a blessing. It was the reward God promises to those who look after God's people. And now the child is gone, and she returns to the one who had promised the child in the first place. God had promised her a child, and she knew that God does not mock us, and now that that child is taken from her, she refuses to believe that God promise would fail at this point.

She had no promise from God to say that dead children would be raised to life, but the child was the promise. And God was the giver. So she clings to the promise, and to the promise giver. She clings to God's representative, to Elisha. v30 "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you."

This is what we need to do is such times - we need not just to passively sit tight and wait for the storm to pass. We need to actively pursue God in faith. We need to cling to his promises. We need to plead his character to him. Whatever the difficulties, true faith keeps on believing.

We need to say, "Lord you promise grace… Lord you promise we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear… Lord you promise that your plans are not to harm us… Lord you promise that your grace is sufficient… Lord you promise peace… and I don't have any peace, any strength left."

On a wider scale: "Lord you promised to build your church…"

We need to know God's promises and plead God's promises. We need to know God's character and cling to his character: "Lord you are gracious and loving… Lord you are merciful and compassionate… Lord you are all-powerful."

Persist in pursuing God's promises v28, 30
Too often we give up. Too often we are satisfied with half an answer. There is a time to persist. The son was dead. Some Christians would have said to her at this point, "Well this is God's will, you just have to accept it." They would then shake her hand and say with Job, "The Lord gives, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21)

And that would have sounded very pious and very holy, and very wrong. In this situation would have been wrong. We know it was wrong because she receives her child back. It would have been fatalism - what has happened has happened and nothing can change it, you just have to learn to live with it.

Let's be clear: Job was right to accept the death of his children and this woman was right not to accept the death of her child.

There is a difference: The key issue here is that this child was promised by God. And where we have a promise from God we have no right to back off and be satisfied with anything less than complete fulfilment of that promise. And the strength of this woman's faith was that she grasped this.

And here is a great problem for Christians in Ireland we have been sucked in to a brand of Christian fatalism. We accept the situation that we live in, we shrug our shoulders, and we say, "Well times are hard, people aren't interested in the gospel. We would love it to be different, but we just have to hang in there."

And if this woman was in this congregation, she would stand up and rebuke us all. Because she knows that when God gives a promise, it is an insult to God to settle for anything less than seeing that promise fulfilled.

And she says to us, "You have settled for half a blessing because you aren't willing to pursue God. I rode 40 miles, I wore my heart on my sleeve, I pleaded, I prayed, and God honoured his promise."

Would she be right? Have you settled for half a blessing?

Think of the promises of God. Think of what God has promised to the believer, peace, contentment, fullness of joy, you will be my witnesses. Think of what God has promised the church - those who sow will see fruit for their labours, I will build my church. Think of what God has promised with regard to our children - I will be a God to you and to your children. Have you pursued God for these promises? Or have you settled for a comfortable half-way house?

We wonder why our Christian life is dull and lifeless, it is like a marriage that has lost all its joy. It may be because we have settled for half blessings.

There is a time to accept what God has given us, be it the death of a loved one, sickness, financial loss. When we have no specific promise from God, we must accept what God gives. But when we have a specific word from God that indicates otherwise, we are to pursue persistently the promise of God. Jesus teaches this in the parable of the persistent widow and the parable of the friend at midnight.

He's telling us that there will be times when we are to bombard the throne-room of Heaven with our prayers and we are not to give up. He is telling us that there will be times when we will need to battle to claim what God has promised.

This persistent faith is what he longs to find in his people. Not a half hearted fatalism.

Luke 18:8 "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

We learn here that there is no telling how far God will test our faith. But what will you do when that day comes? Will you crack, or give in, or keep on believing, and pursue God in faith?

We close with an encouragement to keep on believing.

Such hope does not disappoint v29-37
Am I just getting your hopes up, holding out the promise of reward for those who persist in their faith?

Surely the point of this passage is that precisely this:
Whatever limits God tests your faith to, if you keep trusting in him, you will not be disappointed.

The woman lies broken-hearted but believing at Elisha's feet. Elisha sends Gehazi to run to the boy and to place the symbol of the prophets authority on the boy in the hope that that might work. Gehazi goes. And as Elisha and the woman make their way towards Shunem, after a number of hours they se the figure of Gehazi returning. His report brings no joy.

Here the Shunemite's faith must have been stretched to breaking point - all seemed lost. And we learn that while we wait for God to answer our prayers, we may have to bear further disappointment.

But she keeps on believing. And we see Elisha enter the room. He closes the door. And he starts to pray because he knows that he doesn't have the power to do anything. He knows that the power must come from outside himself.

And he lies down on the corpse - a gesture that speaks of the intensity of his prayers. A gesture in which he says that if he could give his own life for that of the boy he would. And he gets up and he prays. And he paces because he's agitated, and he prays more, and he lies down on the corpse again. And we see the sort of persistence that God looks for in prayer - here is a prolonged agony of prayer. He doesn't care that to touch a corpse makes him ritually unclean.

Here we see a shadow in scripture of our Saviour. Elisha's willingness to become unclean, to give his own life so that another may live. For Jesus to rescue us from death he had to become unclean, he had to touch death, he had to bear our sins in his body. He did what Elisha could not, he gave his life so that we may live.

And Elisha prays on and on, with great intensity. And then from the bed there comes a sneeze, followed by another one, and another and another. And Elisha looks and the boy opens his eyes.

And we learn that when we have a promise from God, we are to pray until we get an answer.

And Elisha calls for Gehazi who calls the mother. And what a joyful reunion there is. And the mother learns that those who put their trust in the lord are never put to shame. She learns that hope in God's promises does not disappoint.

And in 800 BC God gives us a sneak preview that not even death will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. We learn that death cannot hold the believer. We learn that God is serious when he says he will raise the dead. Oh how it gives us hope to believe the wildly improbable promise of our Saviour

John 14: 2 In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

She learns that God's power is good and that God's goodness is powerful.

She learns that God is a God who delights to amaze his people with his good gifts; who sometimes baffles us with the mysterious sorrow he brings, but who always delights those who persist in trusting him through all their trials.

And friends, we have a more certain hope and assurance than she had. We stand on this side of Calvary. And we see not a man of God interceding for us, stretched out for us. We see God himself, God the Man interceding for us.

And we have the word of the prophets made more certain in Christ. Elisha prays and asks for life from God for the child. Jesus passed through Nain, a town just over the hill from Shunem, and he stopped a funeral procession, went up to the coffin, and said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!"

Here is the power of Jesus who made the promises. Where Elisha can only pray, Jesus had only to speak. What a Saviour! He will never disappoint us. He will never let us down. Hope in him will never disappoint.

Stuart Olyott quotes this poem:

Doubt sees the obstacles
Faith sees the way
Doubt sees the darkest night
Faith sees the day
Doubt dreads to take a step
Faith soars on high
Doubt questions, "Who believes?"
Faith answers, "I"

Monday, October 10, 2005

Belter!! (Link Fixed!)

People who leave a church because the said church isn't loving enough - Here's an article that nails it! (You need to scroll down to the 7th Oct entry called "To serve or to be served?")

As my homeletics prof says, "If you think people are cold, you try warming them up a bit"

(HT:Stephen Dancer And thanks for pointing out the wrong link!)

Hope does not disappoint (Part 1) - 2 Kings 4:8-37

Have you ever wondered why, when you've been going to great lengths to obey God that hardship comes?
And when it happens like that we can wonder is it worth it?
At our most cynical we might wonder does God lift us up in order to drop us harder? Does he bless us only to increase the pain?

These doubts come to the Christian just as surely as hardship and trouble come, and we need to be ready.

Four things we learn in this passage:

God delights to delight his people v8-15
Today we look at one of the great women of faith in the Old Testament. This lady and her husband live in the village of Shunem, away up in the north of Israel. It was on the road from the capital Samaria to Mt Carmel. Elisha travelled that road often as he visited the various groups of prophets who were dotted around the countryside. And as he travelled the road, this godly woman would invite him in to join with them for a meal. And in the east a meal is not just a meal, but a time of fellowship and conversation. And as time went on, and he kept passing by he was continually invited in. What an encouragement it must have been to find a godly home in a godless nation. Here was an oasis for the man of God and it must have been immensely encouraging.

Here we see the importance of the ministry of hospitality - she doesn't wait to be introduced to Elisha, she introduces herself. And she provides warm friendly hospitality to one of God's people.

Here's an application already. Is your home open to God's ministers or to God's people? Do you make it your habit to entertain fellow Christians? Or is your home, your home?

And the Lord Jesus tells us that when we open up our homes to God's people there will be blessing for us.

Matthew 10:41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, & anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."

This woman and her husband enjoyed the blessing of God because they entertained Elisha. And the woman consults her husband about making an extension to their home to provide accommodation for Elisha. And they build on a small room, and furnish it for him.

And can you imagine what that home meant to Elisha now? Here he could rest and be ministered to by others. And as he throws himself down on the bed, and relishes God's provision for him, through this great woman of faith, he wonders to himself, "What can I do for this woman to repay her?"

But she isn't in any financial need. Can he put in a good word for her with the king or the army, because after the events of ch3 he has credit with the king and the army. But no, the woman answers, "I have a home among my own people" - meaning, "I have everything I need here.

She has faith, and she has contentment with her lot in life.

But Elisha wants to display his gratitude. And the sharp-eyed Gehazi makes a suggestion. Her husband is old, and they are still childless. In the Middle East barrenness was seen as a sign of God's rebuke. And here is this woman of God, and no doubt she had for years felt this pain in her heart; yet she has learned to live with it.

But Elisha speaks with prophetic authority, and promises to her the thing she most wants, but has never spoken about. She can hardly believe it - Are they mocking her? No, a year later she received her reward, the promised child lay in her arms.

When we read these words we can't help but be reminded of the other times in scripture when God promises a son. Isaac was promised to Sarah in similar circumstances - she too laughed at the thought. Jacob to Rebecca, Joseph to Rachel, Samson, Samuel to Hannah, John the Baptist to Elizabeth, and all these prepared the way for THE miracle child - Jesus promised to Mary.

Yet there is a difference between the Shunemite and each of these. In each God had to bring these children into the world for the preservation or protection of his people, or to further of the plan of salvation. But the Shunemite's son, what role does he play? We don't even know his mother's name, never mind his. And we read nothing much about him. So why did God give him?

Just because. Our God is a God who delights to give gifts to his people. He is a God who gives gifts, not because we are important, or because we will make a useful contribution, but simply because he is that kind of God who loves to give his people gifts for their enjoyment.

There is a sour-faced Christianity that I see in these parts. Christians with dour faces; a joyless miserable Christianity. For them the Shorter Catechism answer is "Mans chief end is to glorify God and look miserable forever." And I wonder if they know the God who delights to give such gifts to his people. Do you?

God's wild and improbable promises are real v16-17
The second thing we learn is that God's wild and improbable promises are real. His word contains promises that seem too good to be true. And we can be tempted to doubt them.
  • Jesus promises that although we sinned, he will pay the penalty.
  • Jesus promises that our past can be blotted out, and that we can make a new start in the sight of God.
  • Jesus promises the power of God can transform us, breaking the power of sinful habits
  • Jesus promises that at this moment in time he counts the believer as being as perfectly holy as he is.
  • Jesus promises that we can resist temptation and make the devil flee.
  • Jesus promises that he will build his church.
  • Jesus promises that those who sow seed will not waste their time.
  • Jesus promises words to those who will speak in his name
  • Jesus promises that after death we shall be like him
  • Jesus promises that the weakest believer is capable of great exploits.
  • Jesus promises that he will be a God to us and to our children after us.
  • Jesus promises that if we give to his work, we will not be able to contain all the blessing he sends
  • Jesus promises that men, women and children of every nation tribe and language will sing his praises
  • Jesus promises that his word will never return void, but that there will be a harvest of 30, 60 or even 100 times what was sown!
  • Jesus promises that we will not be tested beyond what we can bear, but that we will be able to stand up under it.
  • Jesus promises that his grace is sufficient for us.
These promises are so staggering and we are tempted to say to the Lord along with this woman, "Don't mislead your servant!". We are tempted to water down God's word, to say that God mustn't really have meant what he said.

But this shows us that no matter how wild and impossible God's promises may seem that they come true. I love the way the bible records it here in such a matter-of-fact way, "a year late, about the same time, she gave birth to a son."

When God promises us, he means us to give all his words their utmost weight. He will never deceive us by exaggerating.