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.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Book Review - Humility: True Greatness

Humility: True Greatness
CJ Mahaney
Multnomah Publishers

"…Then the evil spirit goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first..." - Luke 11:26

I struggle with pride. Every time I seem to master it, it comes back with a vengeance.

There are two ways to fight pride, one is to thrash about and lop off every branch and twig and leaf as they sprout. The other is to preach the gospel to yourself, and to cultivate humility in the soil where pride wants to grow.

This is where CJ Mahaney's book comes in. It is not so much a treatise on pride, exposing it with surgeon-like precision, although he does do that in places, rather it is about cultivating humility. This is a key distinction to remember otherwise you will look for the book to do something that it isn't seeking to do. I took me a while to realise this!

The book is divided into three sections.

In the first section he makes us stand before God and shows us how foolish pride is, and how much God detests pride. For me one of the key statements in the book was the definition that pride is contending for supremacy with God. This strikes like an arrow to the heart when you use it, as Mahaney suggests, instead of "Lord, forgive my pride", "Lord, I was contending for supremacy with you, forgive me."

In the second section on greatness, he looks at how true greatness is seen in the servant Saviour. It is here that Mahaney displays what he has shown in his other books, that the answer to our problems is to keep Jesus Christ central. We need to preach the gospel to ourselves daily.

It is however the third section that receives the most attention. Here Mahaney gets down to the nitty-gritty of practical humility. The list of suggestions range from the theological (Reflect on the wonder of the cross), to the practical (Begin your day acknowledging your need for God) to the humorous (Play golf and laugh a lot).

He has suggestions for how to begin each day, and how to end each day. One of the most challenging for me was under the heading of "Avoid Cosmic Plagiarism". In it he urges that we give God the glory for success in our lives, and throughout the day intentionally 'transfer' all glory to him.

The pursuit of humility isn't a solo effort. In fact it best grows when we water other people's plants! In other words, seek to identify and encourage graces in others. Mahaney rightly suggests that this is something we don't do enough of, within the church, within marriages, and within families.

As well as giving to others we need to receive from others, specifically, humility grows in the soil of correction. Mahaney quotes Paul Tripp, "Our own self perception is like a carnival mirror," therefore we need to invite and welcome the input of others.

These two chapters are key because they highlight a much-needed lesson that Christianity isn't a solo effort. It is a community effort. Professor Donnelly has said, "The word 'saint' does not occur anywhere in the New Testament in the singular. It is always in the plural." We have privatised our Christianity too much, and Mahaney's book is a helpful corrective because it sets this grace in the context of the church.

The two closing chapters deal with responding to trials and passing humility on to our children. This final chapter is first-class. In it Mahaney gives powerful counter-cultural lessons in teaching children what true greatness is. As a father this was something I had never thought of before as being a specific goal, and Mahaney's suggestions were timely and useful.

Mahaney strikes you as a man who writes only what he himself has found useful. These are his own practices, tried and tested by one who journeys on the road to humility. However it is more than just one man's ideas, throughout the book Mahaney grounds what he says in scripture.

Although the book is relatively short, and very easy to read, yet it will take time to read, and re-read. And it will bring profit and beauty to your Christian walk.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Food for thought - The Safest Place?

I remember once seeing a set of statistics:
  • Avoid travelling in cars, because they are responsible for 20% of all fatal accidents.
  • Do not stay home, because 17% of all accidents occur in the home.
  • Avoid walking because 14% of all accidents occur to pedestrians.
  • Avoid travelling by air, rail, or water because, 16% of all accidents involve these forms of transportation.
  • Only 0.001% of all deaths occur in church, and these are usually related to previous physical disorders.
The argument went something like this - When you see how dangerous the world is, the safest place to be is in church.

I always thought they had a point. But now I'm not so sure…

Someone said to me the other day, "Surely it's better that a person is in church on a Sunday than doing something else." You may be surprised to hear that I disagreed with them! To sit in church and hear the gospel is a great thing. It's the best place to be; there you hear the great news that God has provided a way for people to be forgiven for all the wrong they have done. But it could also be an incredibly dangerous place.

It can be dangerous when the gospel isn't preached. Sometimes you can go to church and hear nothing but a watery story with a moral tagged on at the end. What use is that to people who stand on the brink of eternity? Will they thank the preacher as they suffer the agonies of God's wrath? Such a preacher is like a vandal who removes STOP signs from a busy junction.

Some preachers will tell you that if you do enough good then God will be satisfied. That's even worse. Because of them, millions of people are heading down the road to Hell whilst thinking that they are on the road to Heaven. Such a preacher is like a vandal who covers or smashes the emergency escape signs in a building.

Church can be dangerous for another reason. Suppose the preacher does tell you faithfully that you have a problem before God. Suppose he then points out the solution that God has provided at immense personal cost. Suppose that you sit there week after week and do nothing about it. How do you imagine God feels towards you? Is he pleased to see you there? Is he pleased to see you turning your back again on the priceless sacrifice of his dear Son? He sent his Son to die so that you could be forgiven, and do you chose to ignore him?

I once told someone that if they were going to continue to ignore the message that they would be safer sitting in a pub. I meant it - think of Jesus' words to Korazin and Bethsaida in Matt 11:21-22
21 "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.
23 And you, Capernaum... But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."
More bearable for homosexual rapists and child molesters than for those who sat in synagogue and heard about the Messiah - Church can be a dangerous place!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sabbath Sermon - My God will meet all your needs - 2 Kings 4:1-7

Have you ever felt "I just can't go on"? Or "I just can't see any way out of this"? Perhaps things have got so far out of hand, so badly messed up that you can't see any light at the end of the tunnel.

And you feel that you just don't have what it takes to get through it.

Or perhaps as you look at issues you have to contend with in your life, sickness, pain, poor health, you feel "I just don't have enough, Lord, I'm running out of strength and energy."

Or perhaps you're facing temptation, or fiery darts from Satan, fears that just keep coming and coming, and you feel, "I just can't cope with this any more."

Or perhaps you look at loved ones or colleagues or neighbours who aren't yet converted and you look at yourself and you think, "I don't have what it takes to communicate what I want to communicate with these people."

Or a slightly different problem, you look at your past, all the sins and all the judgment that you know that you have accumulated, and you feel Satan accusing you, and you wonder "Can my debts be cleared?"

2 Kings 4:1-7 has much to say to us

Being a Christian does not exempt you from trouble
A distraught lady 2800 years ago felt many of those things. A few months previously her husband had died. They hadn't been that well off anyway, he had been a prophet, and who pays prophets in a country where the king and queen are dead set against the true religion? Not only was she bereaved, but also destitute. It was bad enough to be a widow, to have lost her husband, but the main breadwinner was gone, and there were debts, and the creditor was closing in.

It looks as if he had already been and cleared the house out, and sold what he could to reclaim his finances, but it wasn't enough, and now he comes to take her two sons, and they would work for him for a minimum wage for years until the debt was cleared. And this woman is at the end of her tether. Where does she go? Whom does she turn to? Where is God when his people are in trouble?

Because God's people do get in trouble. They are not exempt from trials and difficulties. And often what makes it worse is that they are God's people. Here is a man who had stood against the Baal worship of his neighbours, who had given his life to proclaiming an unpopular message. And yet now, his wife and sons face disaster. Surely if there is to be merit in following God, then God's people should be exempt from difficulties.

And yet don't we often see the opposite - a Christian lady finds herself widowed, not once but twice. A man who has been serving Christ faithfully finds that his job falls apart around him, and he loses everything. Or a Christian mum who had cancer and two months after the all clear had been given, the cancer has returned and it's inoperable. Or the elder in the church who is struck by a mystery disease that leaves him virtually paralysed.

Bearing this in mind will help us - sickness may come, financial troubles may come, farming troubles may come. Temptation will certainly come, struggles in our faith will come. God's people are not exempt. Jesus himself said, "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). Paul had his thorn in the flesh. Being a Christian isn't a get out of jail free card for illness or difficulties. What is happening to us is exactly what God said would happen. But how are we to respond?

"Fix the problem not the blame"
How do we respond?

Sean Connery in the film, "Rising Sun" turns to a colleague and says, "Fix the problem, not the blame."

This widow doesn't blame God. She doesn't shake her fist angrily at Heaven - and say, "We served you faithfully for years, and now look what you've done to us. What did we do to deserve this?"

Often as Christians we can be filled with the "Poor me" complex. We feel justified in being swallowed up by self-pity. "After all I've done, why is this happening to me?" - As if somehow we have earned the right to a trouble free existence. And yet when we do that we miss out on an opportunity to see God supply all our needs.

This widow shows us how to react: In her desperation she is faithful. This widow seeks to fix the problem, rather than fixing the blame. She cries out to God - look at her cry in v1 "The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves."

She brings her problem to God. And look at v2, at the response of God's prophet, "How can I help you, tell me …" You can hear his eagerness to help. And here is the wonderful privilege of the Christian set out for us. And it is only the Christian that it belongs too. Look back a few verses earlier in Ch 3 to v13-14. Here is Elisha is approached for help by a man who has denied God, and wanted nothing to do with God. See Elisha's scathing response on God's behalf. Not everyone has this privilege of bringing their problems to God, and knowing that they will be heard and answered.

But the believer has. Are you a Christian this morning? You have an access that no-one else has. You have a blood-bought access into the throne room of Heaven. Perhaps this morning some of you aren't Christians - you have no access. No blood has paid for your prayers to be heard. Christ's death hasn't opened up a new and living way into the Most Holy Place for you. When you pray, God is not obliged to hear. When you pray in trouble, God is not obligated to answer, when you pray for your children you have no reason to expect an answer. When you are at the end of your tether like Joram in the previous chapter, God is not compelled to do anything. Unless you are asking God for salvation, that is the only prayer of the unbeliever that he has bound himself to answer.

But the believer has instant access 24 hours a day into the throne room of God. And its not on some sort of sliding scale - the longer you are a Christian the more access you have. The newest believer has the same rights, privilege and access as the oldest saint. And you have no more access in Heaven than you have here. Rom 5:1,2. We may have troubles, but we have a friend to take them to.

Do you use it? Or do you store up resentment that poisons our relationship with God that steals the joy that can be ours? Perhaps resentment is too strong, but do you feel hurt that God has somehow disappointed you? We need to repent of such responses, and turn to God in prayer. But perhaps you wonder whether God is really interested in someone as insignificant as you.

God is concerned about the lives of each of his people
The world we live in is so full of personalities - people famous for being rich, being smart, being sporty, people famous for being famous. And nobody else gets a look-in. And sometimes the Christian can be tempted to think the same way. They look at famous Christian writers, or famous Christian ministers, or even just their own minister, or some other Christians around them whom they see as much stronger and a much better Christian than they are and then they look at themselves and they think, "Well God couldn't be interested in me."

For 8 chapters since 1 Kings 18 its all been about kings, and the man of God confronting kings, or wars, or cities, or politics. Where God has been working it has been very public, and a great display of might. Yet here in this incident and in those which follow we see God at work in the home, very personally and privately. We see his tender care for his people. When they are hurting, he notices. He is not just the God who deals with kings and armies, but the God who deals with hurting widows, where the practical details of life have overwhelmed and swamped them. Her name isn't even mentioned - she is a nameless widow, someone that would have gone unnoticed in the villages of Israel, certainly not anyone that would be talked about around the king's table.

But yet around the table of the great King of Heaven, her name is known, and her request is heard, and it is talked about there. Your God cares. Your God is interested. Not only do you have access, but as you come into the throne room of the King of Kings he sits there as heavenly father. He sits with a tender heart and a sympathetic ear. And while kings and presidents may be waging wars and fighting election campaigns He is interested in what is troubling you. And in this chapter we have a picture, in Elisha, of a God who is near to his people when they are in their problems.

Child of God, you have no right, no reason to feel that God is anything less than 100% intensely and personally interested in you and in the details of your life.

God seeks to strengthen the faith of his people
This woman is at the utter end of her resources. She has nothing left. When we are in debt, nothing that we own is ours until the debt is cleared. Nothing you have is yours except what remains after debts are paid. To have the wherewithal to pay, and yet not pay, is theft.

Elisha knows this, and so he asks this woman, "What do you have in the house?"

She has nothing. I suspect the creditor has already come to the house, he has brought round the heavies, and he has cleared it out. Tables, chairs, everything is gone. They are left with the clothes they stand in, and one little jar of olive oil. You can almost picture her as the men clear out the house, holding the jar out to the men, and saying, "Here you forgot this," and they turn and look, and pause and say, "What would we want that for, that's no use to us."

She has nothing.

But God doesn't just wave a magic wand and make her problems disappear. Because God is in control of our lives, including the trials. It's not as if the trials catch God unawares and he comes along to tidy up the mess. No he orders the difficulties because he is teaching us, and shaping us, and sanctifying us. And he has a purpose in this trial for this widow. He is seeking to strengthen her faith. And so Elisha sends her out to gather up from her neighbours every jar, barrel, bottle, basin, that she can find. He tells her to get as many as she can.

What faith! What obedience! She is facing the most traumatic day of her life, her two sons are about to be taken from her, and Elisha sends her out on a bottle hunt. And she goes.

And she takes her sons and they gather every jar and bottle they can find. And as she will find out, it is in proportion to her faith that God will bless her. If she had only gathered a few jars, her reward would have been small. And so Elisha tells her to gather not a few. In her trial her faith has been tested already in the trying circumstances. And now it is about to be tested again in the answer to her problem. And that often happens to us. We have to hang in there through a trial, and we are tempted to give up, but we hang in there. And then we find that the solution requires us to put our faith even more in God. As in this case when we can't see how things will turn out. And we are required to hang in through difficult times and times when we can't see how obeying God will actually provide an answer.

Times when we don't feel like obeying…

And it is in these cases that God provides for out need, and in doing so strengthens our faith.

We mustn't be like some preachers who do this woman a disservice. In v 6 she calls to her son, "Bring me another one." But he replied, "There is not a jar left." Then the oil stopped flowing. Some preachers claim that she lacked faith, that she hadn't gathered enough jars. But there is no hint of that in the passage. In fact v7 makes it clear that She had gathered an ample amount of jars to supply oil to clear her debts and provide income to live on.

She has obeyed in faith. Will you keep on obeying in faith? Whatever problems you are facing have come to you from the hand of a loving father who is seeking to do what you need - to strengthen your faith. The very act of obeying him and trusting him and keeping doing that even when you can't see how this will actually help your circumstances is what God is looking for. Whatever circumstances you are in God is seeking to stimulate your faith. And so there is little point in complaining or wondering what God is doing - this is what he is invariably doing. And her faith was tested before the miracle - she couldn't sit back and wait for God to work. She was to exercise her faith. And according to her faith it was done to her. (Matt 9:29)

You obey and trust, and leave the circumstances in his hands.

God displays his overflowing kindness in supplying the needs of his people
And the widow and her sons return to the house after visiting every home in the neighbourhood, they go in and shut the door - and we see that God works miracles in places where no-one else sees, only the people directly involved. He doesn't always go in for the big display. And all the bottles and jars and pottery are spread out over the floor, and she takes her little jar of olive oil, and she says to her son, "hand me a jar," and the son hands her one and she pours the oil into it - there's nothing amazing about that.

But then she says, "hand me another one" and he does so, and she pours again, and you can see the eyes of the three people standing in that room widening and their jaws dropping, and that jar is full, and the first son is reaching as quick as he can for another jar, and the second son is reaching for the full one. And the mother is taking the next jar and they all watch as she tips up their own bottle a third time and still it pours. And a fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh. And on an on and on it goes.

And in that little home, you can imagine them nearly weeping with joy as they realise the wonderful truth of God's abundant kindness and love to his people. You can picture them as the last bottle is handed over and the son reaches round for another bottle only to find that there is none there, and as he turns back the oil has stopped flowing just as the bottle is filled and they know that it isn't magic, they know that it is a mighty miracle done by God. And you can picture them standing in silent adoration before their God, quietly delighting in the power and the goodness and the love and the mercy and the kindness of their God.

Because God is a God who does provide. He filled all there was to fill. His grace is sufficient for all your circumstances.

Elisha gives the widow three commands - Sell, pay, and live. God grace has not only cleared her debt, but he has given her enough to live on. God doesn't just see the immediate emergency, but he sees also the ongoing need. And that is part of the reason that he brings us through difficulties is so that we are equipped for the future. This is God's way, not just to meet the present need, but the ongoing need.

Whatever situation you find yourself in - this widow comes to you and says, "He provides, My God is able to supply all your needs."

And beside her comes the lady in the next section, and she stands with her son in her arms and says, My God is able to supply all your needs. And walking from school of the prophets comes the man from Baal-Shalisha at the end of the chapter and he says the same. And there comes the vast hoard of all the Children of Israel who had manna supplied, and who drank water from a rock. And here comes the Daniel, "My God provided an angel to shut the mouths of the lions." And here comes Esther, and she takes her place, "Yes he does supply all your needs." And there is Hannah, poor broken hearted Hannah, now standing with Samuel, and Sarah with Isaac, and Rachel with Joseph - My God is able to supply ALL your needs. And here is Jairus. And the crowd of 5000 men, and the crowd of 4000 men from Samaria, and with a mighty chorus they look you in the eye and say, "Our God is able to supply all your needs." And here is Peter walking in to the line from Herod's prison and he raises his voice and calls to you across the centuries, "My God is able to supply all your needs."

And a man in chains comes and stands beside them. He's still in prison and will never be released and he says, "I wrote those words in prison because I found that whatever circumstances I was in 'My God was able to supply all my needs."

And we could add to that the vast countless millions of God's people down through the centuries who have found that God's kindness overflows to his people. God doesn't save his people and then leave them to get by.

That which frees from debt also enables her to live.

And the same is true for us. The Gospel is what frees us from debt but here is what many Christians forget - they forget that the gospel is what enables them to live. And we need to remind ourselves of the gospel each day. It encourages us. It frees us from legalism. It helps us to pray. It gives us a sense of value. It helps us when we are struggling with sin. What God has provided to clear our debt also helps us to get through each day in a way that brings glory to God.

My God is able to supply all your needs. At the cross Jesus Christ purchased everything you would need to live your life here on this earth. You don't have to earn it. You have a father who loves to abundantly supply the needs of his desperate people.

And there is no situation that God's goodness and power aren't able to supply. God's goodness to this widow only stopped when the jars ran out. God has more to give than we can ever contain. So whatever trouble and situation you are in or find yourself in, I can look you confidently in the eye and say with Paul, and this widow, and that whole host of other people, "My God is able to supply all your needs."

A great picture of the Gospel
A woman in great debt. She is unable to discharge what she rightly owes. The law has come, and has taken away everything she owns, and still it isn't enough. Her debt is still standing. Eventually it comes to take away that which is most precious to her. Its like our debt to God. We can't clear it ourselves. If we gave everything we had, all the good we could do, it isn't enough. And that which is most precious is demanded of us - our life.

What hope is there for those of you who find yourself in this situation?

The same hope that this woman found - My God is able to supply all your needs.

Go to God, and ask him to clear the debt that you can't clear. Because if you don't then he will make you pay for all eternity.

If you do go to him and ask that He pay the price that you owe, He will pay it. And not only will he clear the debt, but he will set you free from the power of sin. And you will be freer than you have ever been in your whole life. And like this women and her sons, you will delight in the goodness and mercy and abundant kindness of God.