Friday, April 30, 2010

The Gospel in Esther (1) The Scandal of the Bride in the Royal Garden

WE HATE AUTHORITY AND ASSUME FEMINISM. In the 21st Century west when we read Esther 1 we almost automatically see a despotic king abusing his wife by trying to parade her in front of his guests having had a few drinks. We have an inherent distaste for authority and an assumed feminism that makes the scene unbearable when a powerful king calls and exiles his wife and seeks a new one.

What if that's not what's going on? 

Picture instead the king as a positive figure.
This man is the king of the whole world from India to Ethiopia, nothing happens outside his domain. Having overcome the chaos at the start of his reign he sits down in the third year. Victorious, as is expected of the great kings in the third year/day. He holds a great feast in his house for his people. The king is glad, delighting in his people and his kingdom, overflowing in abundant blessing. He holds two further feasts in his royal gardens. The scene is deeply colourful and reminiscent of Eden's garden and the tabernacle, where there is much food and drink to be consumed without paying for it.

On the seventh day of the feast, on the day of rest, in the garden, he invites his wife to come. Every man knows that his bride his is glory and his crown (just as the churches were to Paul, and the church is to Christ). He longs to display her beauty so that all may see how magnificent she is. Why would she refuse him? He's telling the world of his love - she is his "better half" - he wants everyone to know and see her. If when you came to my house I kept my wife hidden and refused to introduce you to her that would be awful - my love for her is magnified in my desire to have you meet her, to see how brilliant she is.

Yet, she rejects his word, refuses to come into his presence, scorning him in the garden on the seventh day. Seeking counsel he concludes that she must be exiled from his presence. His love producing jealous anger that drives her way forever. Yet, the king is now without a bride - and this he remembers (zakar-melek, 2:1) just as the LORD remembered (zakar-jah) his people in their exile in Egypt, and so the king begins search begins for a new bride upon whom he can lavish his covenantal love (chesed, 2:18).

What appears at first intolerable is a real-life parable of the gospel story. The Scriptures give us narrative, and teaching, poetry and literary accounts of subplots that test our hearts and give flashes of insight into the bigger story. Perhaps Esther functions this way as a book, even in these opening events...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Leaders Debates

Recapping ahead of the third and final debate tonight...

So far I don't think we've gotten much deeper than that which is frustrating me as I try to work out whether to seek to re-elect the incumbent MP for my constituency (Labour) or seek to have him replaced with someone else, as a microcosm of how things should go nationally. None of the parties is perfect nor will any of them be able to perfectly implement their policies nor deliver the new creation now. I'm trying hard to exclude what's best for me and my family from the decision and think on a society kind of level which isn't easy. And so with the clock ticking I'm still a floating voter...

Evangelism is speaking of Jesus

WHY DOES EVANGELISING FEEL LIKE TORTURING? Too often it's because we've turned it into selling a product that we're not sure people need or want. I spent a year in retail banking doing that - and while it had its occasional highlights it's less than joyous.

As my former employers would tell you, however, there is another way.

Now, don't hear this as being about being less persuasive or less reasonable, less engaging or using less apologetic, but hear it: Glen Scrivener: Christ-centred evangelism and doing the stuff wont seem half as unappealing.

Here's a glimpse before you follow the link: "Evangelism is speaking of Jesus. It’s lifting Him up by the Spirit (which means Scripturally) so as to present Him to the world as good news. So we say ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ We basically hold out the Bread of life saying “Tasty isn’t He??”"

Go Wayne Grudem

New Word Alive saw a re-release of the South West Relay 2007/08's performance of their song Go Wayne Grudem, with some fresh camera angles, lyrics and video quality. Filmed by Matt Dolan these are the lyrical, choreographic and performing talents of Jo, Jemma, Kate, Jack, Ed, Steve, Jonny, Andy and Sean who were interns on my team two years ago. Just for fun, from a karaoke competition at one of their training conferences. They won.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The one with Gordon Brown and that Bigoted Woman

On my lunchbreak I'm watching the media have a field day with Gordon's gaff in Rochdale, privately calling Gillian Duffy "that bigoted woman" after a positive public conversation with her. They're loving it for the same reason everyone else is. Gordon Brown is the most shameful and awful man in Britain. No one else has ever turned from a conversation and vented to someone else. No-one else has ever said one thing publicly and another privately. No-one else would ever do that. Oh, hang on...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Your god is an egotist! (Trinitarian reflections on Ezekiel 36)

It's a common enough charge. How self-important and self-centred a deity to want people to worship him and to smite them if they don't. No wonder his people are forever turning to other gods? These questions arise in Ezekiel 36. The nations of the world are mocking because of the exile of the Jews from the land - they're mocking the god of Israel. And his response is to act to vindicate "my holy name". Who is this god?

He is the LORD, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has loved Israel when she was a nobody and made her somebody, it was he who beautified and clothed her only to see her whore after anything and everything instead of returning love to him. The exile of his people from the land he'd given to them was the ultimate sanction after generations of deep patience... it was his jealous love burning against them. Now, just as if he'd destroyed his people after bringing them out of Egypt, when they made and worshipped the golden calf, his reputation is at stake. The unfaithfulness of the people of the LORD causes the greatest tensions in history, his love - stronger than death - cannot just overlook sin but if he burns against them his love stands in question. The tension gets ever stronger until we reach the summit of Mt. Calvary.

Here He says (v22) - "I am about to act". The phrase "I will" recurs throughout Ezekiel 36. He will vindicate "my holy name" (v22,23) so that the nations will know that "I am the LORD". This will emphatically be "not for your sake" to Israel - v22 & v32. How does the LORD vindicate his name? How does he act for his own glory? How does he clear his name?

v24-28 he will take, gather, bring and clean his people, giving them a new heart, putting his Spirit within them, bringing them to dwell in the land, to "be my people" once more, delivering them, summoning the grain, ending famine. That's a lavish display of love towards them - though the fruit wont be that they feel special, this isn't for their sake - they'll be confounded and ashamed of their sin. While the nations will know that "I am the LORD" (v36) - though even then Israel as "my people" can ask of their God for life and they'll receive it - and will also know "I am the LORD". They'll have a home, be alive, regenerate, clean, fruitful and they will know the LORD. Know him, like a bride knows her husband. 

The LORD is being true to himself in relation to his people and the nations and this issues in his action of lavish salvific love, loving in every way even to make his home with and in his people. The greatest display of the holy name of the LORD comes in his great love for people undeserving people (and it take very little work to see that what's described in Ezekiel 36 is the salvation that Jesus speaks of through water and the Spirit and his lifting up to die in John 3). The LORD pursues his glory by loving his people - because the LORD is a God of self-giving love.

We tend to think that God showing himself amazing is to show off his attributes and resources but when the LORD vindicates his holy name it is by the display of his self-giving love, at the cross. He isn't contingent upon us for this - for he is from eternity a community of self-giving love involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A cold and lonely deity who demanded worship would be an egoist, but this LORD calls forth worship as he invites us to participate in his life. Why wouldn't they come and partake in the Triune community of love?

It's not glory instead of love. The people aren't ultimate but are humbled and loved. It's not love instead of glory. The LORD can't be untrue to himself, nor need he. This is glory by loving - the glory of love... that saves his exiled bride and brings her again to know his love through the cross, inviting all nations to come and participate in his love. What would be egoism in a lonely god is lavish love when it comes from the Triune God.

These are draft thoughts ahead of preaching Ezekiel 36 in a few weeks - your thoughts very much sought...

Friday, April 23, 2010

London 14-15 May : Matt Chandler, Francis Chan & Louie Giglio

7pm on 14 & 15 May is Passion London with Francis Chan and Louie Giglio at Wembley Arena. On the morning of May 15th is Matt Chandler at Three Hundred at Jubilee Church in North London. These men are gifts to the church who its worth hearing from. I commend both events to you.

(The Triune) God's Pursuit of Glory in Love

Glen Scrivener is doing some fascinating engaging with John Piper's theology. Piper has deeply shaped me but I share Glen's concerns that he's not always clearly Triune, and can't help but wonder that many of the objections to his theology come from some false distinctions he makes. I love his ministry and I'm also finding these posts from Glen to be important.

We did it all for the glory of love (part 1) including an Bible overview of God's motivation.
We did it all for the glory of love (part 2)
We did it all for the glory of love (part 3) - arguing that it's not Glory before love, or Love before glory but Glory by love. Excellent and very helpful.

Evangelism with Rebecca Manley Pippert

OUT OF THE SALTSHAKER by Rebecca Manley Pippert was the second "Christian" book I read after becoming a Christian 13 years ago. It's a great practical book on what it means to be normal in sharing Jesus with others. Here she is in conversation with Nay Dawson at New Word Alive. Nay is a friend who I've worked with for the best part of the last decade - she's an exemplary and inspiring evangelist.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Dave Bish is dead" (Ecclesiastes 2:12-3:22)

ONE DAY THAT WILL BE TRUE. Sooner or later. It's unlikely to be a headline in the media or even on blogs, but the ultimate statistic will catch me up some day. The clock is ticking with the sound of inevitability.

Where can the quest of Qoheleth turn - when you follow the Great King what can you turn to? In Ecclesiastes 2-3 he first turns to consider wisdom and folly and madness.. He concludes that there is a qualitative superiority of light over darkness and wisdom over folly. Walking blind is not better than having sight.

Yet, he furiously concludes that a grievous thing happens! Whether wise or fool, death comes to all. Cancer doesn't check your worldview. The passing of time is ignorant of your good works. Death shows no partiality. It's cant and trite and weird to say otherwise.

This is hateful to Qoheleth. He hates life. Spirit-inspired Scripture says as much, and there is no reason to think that this is a quote of something false. Life lacks endurance and memory and legacy. Whatever you gain you not only leave behind but someone else picks up for free - and a fool could squander everything you achieved. Hate life. Hate work. Grievous wind-chasing. Rage at death. Mourn and grieve - cry "Abel".

Yet, we do have food and drink, life and work - and these are good gifts from God. They are a grace. The curse is intermingled with promises of lavish grace in Genesis 3-4 and so it is here (Ecclesiastes is arguably an exposition of Genesis 3-4 etc). Qoheleth says, let us enjoy God's gifts. Open your eyes in this hateful life to enjoy his grace. Knowing he graces those who are pleasing in his sight (those who trust him). Cry "Abel!".

A well known poetic interlude on time follows: consider time. Life has seasons, a time for this and a time for that. Just as space has been ordered by God who has time, this is cosmos not chaos.

[God] has put eternity into man's heart (3:11).
But this isn't as nice and fortune cookie as we tend to imagine. God does it so that we cannot discern the end from the beginning. If all we knew was our birth to our death we might get a grip on life - we might be free from the misery of vanity, unconcerned with legacy. Yet we know of more and can't grasp it. We desire but we cannot obtain. Ignorance might be bliss, but its not an option we have.

Consider God: where man is unenduring, God endures. Revealed and perceived - he is to be feared and trusted. Such is the way of belief in God. It's clear that this Qoheleth is no unbeliever. Consider his theology: This is a wise man. The man who hates life and his work sees also that food and drink and work are grace from God,. who senses that there is more than the hyphen between birth and death, who sees there is a God, who trusts him. The refrain sounds: enjoy life. Join the quest of one made wise for salvation by the word of God.

Consider justice. There is great injustice in the world - all can see. Even in this God has a design. He teaches us to long for the day he has appointed for judgement of the wicked and the righteous. There is death and there is resurrection. Though we're indoctrinated to not believe in death - we die. We're just dust and to it we return. Wake up! Learn that we're just like the beasts. Man is an image bearer of God but like the beasts, man die, we all die. Adam and Eve learned this as they were escorted from Eden, graciously clothed as beasts - a grace to teach of clothing in righteousness, a grace to teach of their beastliness: you shall surely die. A curse and a kindness.

The question is: 3v22: Who can bring man to see what will be after him?

a) We can’t do it ourselves. We want to but we can't. But, this doesn't result in nihilism or existentialism but to accepting our mortality and thinking of our legacy less while we enjoy the now gifts of God's grace.
b) God can. There are incomprehensibles and frustrations wired in by God. There is more beyond us and we're not the masters of our destiny. We can turn to and trust the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are gracious - rage at the curse and rejoice in grace.

The wise still fly fairly blind, but they do so with joy knowing there is such a thing as sight.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Where is your God?

A new UCCF video from Relay workers Millie (performer), Rael (poet) and Andy (director/cameraman)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Gospel in Genesis: The Life and Times of Isaac

WHEN JESUS SAID MOSES WROTE about him, what did he mean? These two heart-warming brilliant looks at Isaac give a pretty good flavour. Listen to Rich Owen on Genesis 27 (mp3) - you'll love the opening "recap" of Genesis in the first few minutes!! And then read Richard Walker on The Gospel According to Isaac.
You can taste a bit of James Jordan's Primeval Saints in what they're doing and a whole lot of gospel as they read Genesis not about us but looking for the promise of the gospel.

When I first began to see Genesis this way the big book begins to hang together and make sense. Stephen Dempster suggests in  Dominion & Dynasty (NSBT): A Study in Old Testament Theology (New Studies in Biblical Theology) that we follow the threads of geography and genealogy through the Old Testament - wise words. And above all the two threads of the two humanities - the serpent seed and the serpent crushers / promised seed. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

REVIEW: Song of Songs, On Thinking the Human (Robert Jenson)

DON'T JUST READ YOUR HEROES. That was a warning I was given nearly a decade ago at a UCCF conference. A warning to make sure I don't just drink from the same authors all the time and so have my self affirmed and never challenged, but to drink widely, to remain open to learn from all kinds of people. Less heroes, more humbled, more helped.

These days my reading time is limited - I'm more likely to be found building megabloks towers or playing chase round the dining room table than with a book in my hand - which is more edifying than many books.

Here's (the) two books I've really enjoyed reading this year. They're both by Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. I value him for his rooting in church history, for his Trinitarian emphasis and his clarity that salvation is very much relational.
First is his commentary on The Song of Songs. Readers will know this is one of my favourite books of the Bible. Jenson roots his commentary in church fathers and reformers and gives a refreshing approach. He's honest where it's hard to confidently know what's going on. He's balanced when weighing up differing views. Each section is structured to consider the overt story, the spiritual reading (the Christ & the church reading) and the implications to marriage. This is sane and heart-warming and clearly applicable. I can see myself returning again and again to this book.
Second, at the recommendation of Mike Reeves, is Jenson's short book On Thinking The Humans. This is harder work than the commentary but is his attempt to think Biblically about death and love and various other subjects. That means he seeks to take his definitions from the Bible rather than our cultural assumptions about them - that's very clear in the material on love where he overturns the views of Anders Nygren (Agape and Eros) to show that God does desire. This book is more chewy and thought-provoking than anything else and the kind of book to read in small doses.
Jenson has written plenty of other books and I might investigate those in due course, but it's been good to drink from a different source over the last few months. I doubt very much I'd agree with a lot of his ideas, but we don't read people just because we'll agree with them.

There's some of Jenson's work online, such as his article How the world lost its story. Here's a taste:
“The story of the sermon and of the hymns and of the processions and of the sacramental acts and of the readings is to be God’s story, the story of the Bible... Because Jesus lives to triumph, there will be the real Community, with its real Banquet in its real City amid its real Splendor, as no penultimate community or banquet or city or splendor is really just and loving or tasty or civilized or golden. The church has to rehearse that sentence in all her assemblings, explicitly and in detail. Second, the church’s assemblies must again become occasions of seeing. We are told by Scripture that in the Kingdom this world’s dimness of sight will be replaced by, as the old theology said it, “beatific vision.” It is a right biblical insight that God first of all speaks and that our community with him and each other is first of all that we hear him and speak to him"

Friday, April 16, 2010

Don’t tell them, show them. Preaching on the Big Screen

I PREACHED AT CEMETERY JUNCTION the first two times preached in church. Sounds like a great place to preach, right? In reality it's a fairly grey cross roads on the A4, with shops, pubs, a church and a cemetery...  Bishop Alan's review of the new Ricky Gervais film "Cemetery Junction" got me thinking about preaching.

Two of Alan's observations struck me..
"At the first pub lunch of the project some basic questions needed sorting – is this Reading? If it is, how do we make it seventies? If it isn’t how do we weave a credible place together? Is it about the place or the firm, or the family or the girl? Who are these people? How and why do they matter and know each other and what are the implications? Sadly a lot of these basic questions were not answered, or answered ineptly, and the result is to sabotage the whole film."
Decide which road to take. This is the fairly obvious lesson for any communication. You need to know what you want to say. Tangents and asides are fine but it should be clear what the big idea is. What is the point and is it a point worth making. Similarly, this means being clear about what we're not saying. Without worthwhile and clear content there will be no communication.

But, content has to be communicated well otherwise it's just words in the wind.

"Last obvious nail in the coffin is the occasional failure of the script to follow the most basic rule of all drama — don’t tell them, show them."
Decide how to take it. In this vein I love the way Paul describes his preaching in Galatians 3:1 as "publicly portraying" which has the tone of painting a verbal picture for them to see. Any one can state facts repeatedly but when you portray something for the senses (with your words) you capture the heart and the imagination. It bites and it sticks.

In the opening chapter of CS Lewis' The Great Divorce gives an example. If you want to give people an idea about heaven and hell how would you do it? Lewis' takes us on a bus journey from the hellish grey-town where people drift away from each other in a place that looks substantial but where the walls can't even keep the rain out... and then into heaven which is so substantial that people seem like smudges and the place is so weighty you can't lift a daisy and the grass penetrates you feet.

Its one thing for a preacher to tell you that you must believe in Jesus, quite another for them to portray him so that you want to. We know in the cinema that man does not live by information and instruction alone but with  imagination too. The best films, sermons and blog posts know what they're trying to say and they say it with some flair that appeals to our hearts. In the cinema we know that should happen, though it often doesn't even though the Director has a cast, locations, CGI, 3D or other technology etc. The preacher has something richer to wield - words. And I'm very much still learning how to do that.

300 Leaders - Matt Chandler in London - May 15th

Jubilee Church have invited Matt Chandler to be with them for a weekend in May. I've been listening to Chandler's preaching for a few years and highly commend him to you - one of the best of the Acts 29 crowd.

Pastor Tope Koleoso writes: Every so often the opportunity arises for us to hear and learn from strong leaders who God has used in a significant way. Matt Chandler is a good friend and in recent years, God's anointing on him and accomplishments through him have been evident. In seven years of pastoring, he has seen The Village Church, Dallas, grow from 160 people to over 6,000. He is both charismatic and reformed, and his strong sense of purpose has only been heightened by a recent diagnosis of brain cancer.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Seven ways to be a missionary at University

From Matt Jensen at Resurgence. Easy enough to translate these to a UK context. Headlines here, go to resurgence for the detail.

1) Know non-Christians
2) Think about where you will live
3) Join the Greek system
4) Get involved (not just at church)
5) Start a small group in public
6) Serve the community
7) Practice radical hospitality

And when you do that you get students reaching students

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

MP3s: Being in Christ is astonishingly wonderful

My wife and I are taking some time this week to listen to a series of sermons by Derek Cross on Ephesians 1. We haven't done this sort of thing for ages, but it's really warming our hearts. The series title give you a flavour. Derek is a leader at Woodlands Church in Derby. Each sermon is about 30mins.

1. Included in Christ for the praise of God's glory
2. Adopted as God's sons
3. Forgiven by God's grace
4. Involved in God's great plan

We start a series on Ephesians 1-2 in our church this weekend that Stu & Andy are preaching over the next couple of months. Should be outstanding.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What is the Bible? Saying something better than it's "the word of God"

Richard Walker is asking: How would you answer the following question in one sentence? "What is the Bible?".

The implications are really quite profound methinks. Lots of different ways to approach it but some are really better than others. The whole question of how we define our Christianity is really important - what I like about Richard's approach is that he's seeking to be thoroughly Trinitarian.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What's Elijah doing in Mark's Gospel?

HIS LAST WORDS ARE MISUNDERSTOOD. Mark tells us that the crowds who hear Jesus famous cry of desolation (Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani) mistake him to be invoking of Elijah to save him. Mark knows this wont happen and advances to immediately report Jesus' final cry and his death. In account that's so condensed as Mark is, it's always seemed a bit strange to me that this detail included - why not cut it out? We've had plenty of misunderstandings before and this could just be another one of those...

I'm pondering this because I'm re-preparing Mark 15:33-40 to preach in May. I can't see myself giving much time to the cry or Elijah - I'll probably just focus on the cloud (darkness) and the curtain... but for now Elijah is standing in the middle and he's got my attention.

The cry is important because it shows again the relationship of the Father and Son (having twice seen how the Father is pleased with his beloved son - in Mark 1 & 9). The cry is also curious because it's another Aramaic phrase translated - like Talitha cumi in 5:41. But instead of being understood, the cry is misheard...

And so to Elijah... this is the fourth time we've heard about him in Mark.
  • In Mark 6:14-15, with Herod, when some think Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected others think he is Elijah.
  • In Mark 8:28 when Peter is asked who Jesus is he again reports, some say he is Elijah, though Peter considers him the Christ. Still today Jesus is mistaken for being a prophet (a generic prophet given our Biblical illiteracy).though he is evidently The Son and The Christ.
  • Then in Mark 9 at the transfiguration we get definitive proof that Jesus isn't Elijah because we see him talking with Moses and Elijah. The disciples ask why people say Elijah must come first and Jesus says that it's because he restores all things. And that he has come (i.e. John the Baptist was a type of Elijah). And that the Son of Man must suffer - and "Elijah" came and they did to him whatever was pleased 'as it is written' - i.e. they killed him. Elijah couldn't save himself, Elijah can't save Jesus from death, Jesus can't save himself - he must die.
In a short book like Mark that's quite a bit of screen time for the prophet Elijah. Why is that?
I'm still pondering, your comments are welcome.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Echoes of Eden: The King of the World holds a feast in his garden etc.

AFTERWARDS YOU CAN'T BELIEVE YOU didn't see it before...
"In Esther 1v5-6 we get a vivid description of King Ahasuerus' palace garden court and it has many similarities to God's temple furnishings. The King in Ch4v11 has a strict rule that no one may enter his presence uncalled without dying much like the Holy of Holies. In 5v2 who does the King allow in? His beautiful bride Esther."
David Anthony 
Just a couple of the very cool things in the book of Esther.

Monday, April 05, 2010

John Owen's Cake & Biscuit Evangelicalism

NOTHING BETTER THAN CAKE AND BISCUITS for a little analysis of evangelicalism. Mark Walley writes about the common slips made by conservative, charismatic and Jaffa cake evangelicals:

As you all know, the difference between a cake and a biscuit is this: When a biscuit gets old it goes soft, when a cake goes old it gets hard. Perhaps old is the wrong word, maybe it'd be better to think about it as being out of the heat of the oven for a long time. When biscuits are out of the heat for a bit they start to get soft and malleable and fall over at anything. When cake is out of the heat for a bit it gets hard and is better for hitting people with than for sustenance. This is what John Owen is driving out with the —by now much anticipated quote —the second we take our hearts or minds off Christ then our hearts start to harden to his glory or our minds start to soften in our view of it....

Go see John Owen's words on this

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Have you heard the good news?

Now the promises were made to Abraham
and to his offspring… who is Christ.
Galatians 3:16, ESV

GOOD MEN WOULD WISH IT were true, said Blaise Pascal. Words that could be said of many things. England winning the World Cup. Peace on earth, or just in your household. Family or fame or fortune. There are a great many things in this world that we long for, some of them noble some of them ignoble, some of them realistic, some of them entirely unrealistic.

Pascal was talking about Christianity. He believed that in Christianity we have a story that is both persuasively cogent and attractive to the heart. Few would argue with him, but looking at some Christians you could be forgiven for thinking that being a Christian is no more than a necessary evil. Whilst it may provide some inconvenience in life it’s useful to those wishing to avoid hell and have a pleasant voyage into eternity.
In pointing the finger at these ‘some Christians’ I’m inevitably pointing three fingers back at myself. I know all to well how easy it is to have a functional Christianity that is, on balance, worth running with. I’m quick witted enough to be able to recount the facts of Christianity on demand and to inform others of how they too need to believe.

We offer Pascal’s wager and suggest that it’s the safe bet to go with Jesus. If there is no god then what’s lost, if God is there then everything is to be gained. Pascal, as we’ve already seen, didn’t think Christianity was just a safe bet. He places his wager because he knows mere intellectualism moves nobody, and none of us come at Christianity in neutral. We come with hearts that are opposed to Christ because they’re more devoted to serving self and other gods.

We need a new and living heart, where God dwells by his Spirit. But, this is no mere solution to a mathematical problem. This will be nothing less than our re-creation, our resurrection, a revolution of life. The means by which we are ‘born again’ is the attractive and persuasive communication of the good news about Jesus to the human heart, in the power of the Holy Spirit invariably through the words of a human being.

Holiday firms don’t sell their products by how good the journey will be, they show us the beaches, the blue skies and the luxurious bedrooms we can expect. What is offered to us in the gospel is no product. The means is the cross and resurrection of Jesus - and when you see what the great purpose of God makes possible by this it's no wonder Christians boast in this.

The good news of Jesus isn’t an offer of forgiveness, or hell-avoidance, or right standing with God. The good news about Jesus is the offer to us of life in the fellowship of the Triune God. In the gospel God offers us himself, and that is very good news.

When God turns his attention to you, what does he make of you?
You might answer this question in all sorts of ways. Here’s three possible ways, each of them contains truth and yet misses something.
  • Some would say “I’m a sinner”. God looks on me and is unhappy with me. I’m miserable about this but there’s nothing I can do about that. Such a Christian knows that it’s right to be a Christian and in the end things will be better.
  • Others would say “I’m a forgiven sinner, saved by grace”. This is a happier state of affairs, our failings remain very much with us but we know God to be gracious to us as we sin. Such a Christian experiences the Christian life as a struggle and is relieved that God is who he is.
  • Others still would say “I’m a saint who sins sometimes”. God has been very gracious to me, but he is nonetheless disappointed with the way I’m handling being a Christian. Such a Christian knows themselves to have been reborn as a new person but can’t help but be weighed down by their sin.
We need to take our question and ask it more specifically.

When God the Father turns his eye to you, who does he see?
In his most excellent letter to the Christians in Galatia Paul addresses a church where the attractiveness of Christianity is being marred and deformed. What can he say to win them back? As is the way of all good Christian teaching there is no innovation, but simply a penetrating reminder of what they already assent to, painted on the canvas of the human heart by the paintbrush of the Holy Spirit.

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith”
Galatians 3:26

Contrary to popular belief, a Christian isn’t someone who believes the right things or behaves in the right ways. A Christian is defined by a familial relationship. A Christian is a son of God. It’s all about relationship.

Once upon a time, a deceiving brat called Jacob was desperate to inherit blessing from his Father. His older, twin, brother, however was the firstborn and in his culture that meant he would receive a double blessing. Jacob was determined and ruthless. He began by conning his very hairy brother. He saw that his brother was ravenous with hunger after a hard day at work, and so persuaded him to trade his birthright for a bowl of red stew. To complete the deal he dressed himself in animal skins so that to the touch of his blind father he’d seem to be his brother. And, deceptively and unjustly, he succeeded.

For the Christian a similar game of dress-up has occurred. This isn’t a con initiated by the desperate believer but a blessing conferred by the gracious father.

Every Christian has ‘put on Christ’. Every Christian is clothed with Christ, clothed with his righteousness because they’ve been baptised into Christ. That’s language that isn’t about dunking you into water but about what baptism represents. Jesus’ baptism was his death and his being raised. This happened to Jesus. And it’s happened to someone who has become a Christian. It’s not just a lifestyle choice or preference to become a Christian, its death to everything that came before and resurrection to a whole new existence.

Those who believe in the death of Jesus are immersed into his death and resurrection and clothed with Jesus. And the emphasis there isn’t on the word believe but on his death and resurrection. Not an ounce of this is earned or something I can take credit for. It’s all a gift from God based on what God has done. The one with Jacob and the hairy clothing was a con. The one with me dressed up as Jesus isn’t, it’s called union with Christ, and it’s the heart of what it means to be a Christian. To be dressed by God the Father in God the Son.

God previously promised to Abraham that ‘Abraham’s Offspring’ would inherit everything. Paul labours the point that this is a singular offspring (Galatians 3:16). Jesus gets everything. This seems like bad news for the world. God is not giving inheritance to lots of people, only to his one and only son whom he loves. The Christian imagines themselves in a desperate situation. If only Jesus inherits, then what of me?

The only hope would be to be ‘in’ Jesus. And that is exactly what happens to the one who has faith in Jesus, who dies with him and rises with him. The identity of the Christian is ‘in Christ’.

One of the many implications of this is that all kinds of sectarian divisions disappear, there’s no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. There is just Christ. Every Christian in Christ, and if we are in Christ then it’s not that we’re related to Jesus, we are ‘Abraham’s Offspring’. Which is to say, as far as the God the Father is concerned, the Christian is Jesus, the son of God.

We all dress to say something about who we are. Whether to convey a particular image of ourselves, or to fit with our occupation. Christianity goes further than saying you are what you wear, you are who you wear.

This being the case, when God the Father turns his eye to the Christian, what does he see? Who does he see? When God the Father looks at me, he sees his Son Jesus and treats me accordingly. The Son has been loved by the Father from eternity past, sharing in the Father’s glory. God the Father is unfailingly committed to his Son, and so he is to the Christian. So he is to me, so he is to you.

This however is only half of the story. It’s good but there is better.

When God the Father turns his ear to you, who does he hear?
The Father sent his Son into the world, at exactly the right time so that this ‘adoption as sons’ could be widely received. He sent his Son, so that we might receive adoption as sons, and because we are sons something unprecedented happens. God has sent the Spirit of his Son (God the Holy Spirit) into our hearts. God comes and makes his home in his people.

This is of course the story of the whole Bible. In Eden man and God walk together until man gives his heart to another and is consequently and tragically exiled from God, the way barred by angels. Still, from time to time, some walk with God, like Enoch and Noah and Abraham. Many years later when God rescues his people from slavery to be his son he establishes a dwelling place with them – a tent in the middle of their camp. Yet still an angel embroidered curtain bars the way to God, and the same is true when that tent becomes a temple in Jerusalem. The curtain only comes down when God comes again to walk among us, the Son sent to walk our streets and breathe our air. In the moment of his death the curtain of the temple is torn down and the way to God is opened wide. From there forward man and God can once more live together, by the Holy Spirit setting up his home in the human heart, a foretaste and deposit of an eternity where man and God once more dwell together.

The Holy Spirit is particularly named the Spirit of his Son (Galatians 4:6) because of his ministry in the Christian.

‘God sent the Spiirt of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father”’

When Paul writes of the Christian relationship to the Father in his magisterial letter to the Roman Christians he tells of how we can cry, like Jesus, to the Father – “Abba”. That is not what he says to the Galatians. He tells them that the Spirit is talking to the Father.

This means that when, and whenever, God the Father turns his ear to the Christian he hears the words “Abba! Father!” What does he conclude? Nothing less than that this person looks like my Son, and sounds like my son, and so I consider this person to be my son. And if a son then an heir (4:7), together with all God’s diverse people, inheriting in Jesus.

Christians find themselves not in possession of a get out of jail free card, but caught up into the relationships of the members of the Triune God. In the Son, with the Spirit of the Son in their hearts, considered by the Father to be his son. And this is no legal fiction but the realisation of the perfect and eternal purpose of the Father’s grace in his Son by the Spirit. His design is that the Christian might know him, just as his beloved Son does - joined to Christ, found in Christ - and in the gospel this is accomplished - we die with him, we rise in him. Everything in him. Is it good to be a Christian? Yes.

A Christian is someone in Christ. Good men would wish that this were true, and it is. 

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Son dies for us and we become sons with him

When Mark records the historical events of Jesus death we see events occuring in darkness, in the middle of the day. This is unexpected on any other day and at any other crucifixion. But this is not any other day, this is the day that all history has been leading up to, the day that all of Mark's gospel has been leading to. Witness the departure of the bridegroom. Witness the promised day when he would be handed over and crucified. In Biblical terms the darkness is easy to interpret - the world begins in darkness until God brings light, and the return of darkness is repeatedly the presence of divine wrath against sin...

What happens at the cross is a function of God's love for us. The bridegroom loves us. The bridegroom is jealous for us. And so is wrathful. But the Father, sharing the same love, sends him to die in our place. And if it is love that motivates the cross, then to speak of wrath-averted is good and true but only half of the story of Good Friday.

At the moment Jesus dies Mark doesn't linger, but shifts his camera into the city to the temple where the curtain is torn down. Jesus death means no more distance from God. It means no more exile. It means no more angels barring the way to God's presence. It means relationship, and inclusion in the loving family of God the Father.

Implicit here is a signal that the death of Jesus isn't the end of the story - relationship occurs with those who live, and so though Mark wont show us the risen Christ in chapter 16 we know that he rises. It's also been explicit throughout - Jesus will die, and then on the third day rise - and so with his death documented, the clock is ticking.

J.I.Packer says you can summarise the cross as being about as "propitiation for adoption". Jesus takes our place under the wrath of the Triune God, and is raised to life on the third day so that we can be welcomed into the loving family of the Triune God, sons with/in the resurrected Son. Loved because the son is loved.