Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Impractical Christianity

"Am I God?"
2 Kings 5.7

I recently preached on 2 Kings 5 and experienced the common frustration of having so much more to lay before the congregation than I had time for. One thing in particular was the response of the Israelite king to the king of Aram's request that he should help Naaman (the Aramean commander) get healing from his leprosy.

Aram was the enemy of Israel and was enjoying a period of success in its battles against God people, so when the king of Israel receives the request he becomes very anxious indeed. He is anxious because he thinks that healing someone from leprosy is the equivalent of raising someone from the dead. As a result he thinks that the king of is using the letter as a 'cunning plan' to engineer a pretext for attacking Israel, "See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me" v.7. Perhaps he can imagine the response of the king of Aram, "That terrible king of Israel - he insulted the great nation of Aram, by not healing my commander, so we must attack."

At one level you can understand his fears - even the tearing of the clothes. What is strange though is that he so nearly gets the right answer. His first question, when he receives the request is: "Am I God?" His answer to the question though is despair. So close, yet so far. His real answer should have been, "Am I God? No, but I know the one who is." In fact this is in effect Elisha's point v.8.

So what blinded the king? I think it is because he was so practical. It's a common fault of the Old Testament kings: David counting his army; Jeroboam building a more convenient worship centre, so that his people will not defect to the Southern kingdom; Ahaz seeking alliances with other nations rather than Yahweh. This king, so wrapped up in the geopolitics of the region that he does not lift his eyes to heaven.

Sometimes you see this in the church family. There is a command from God's word, which seems incredibly challenging, so we will say, "Oh, but we need to be practical". Someone will suggest that we give more of our money away, but we will say, "Oh, but we need to be practical". Some new venture will arise that seems too hard for us, so we will say, "Oh, but we need to be practical". After a while we stop needing God at all, because we are so good at being practical. But then something hits us, like a hurricane on a still day, and our practical strength is no good. Then we will find ourselves tearing our clothes out, because it is no longer our habit to do the impractical thing of trusting in the Living God.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Towers and Sacrifices

'Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish'
Luke 13.3+5

As part of the year long discipleship course I run, we are doing the challenge of reading through the New Testament during the time of the course.

Today we hit Luke 13.1-9, which is a really striking passage about suffering, death and fruitfulness. It is a particularly good passage for making clear that there isn't a straightforward link between sin and suffering. Whilst suffering as a whole is a consequence of our fundamental rebellion against God, the link between our individual suffering and sin is much more complex. 

Jesus makes that explicit here. It wasn't that the Galileans who were executed and whose bodies were desecrated, deserved that end because they had committed some heinous sin which the other Galileans hadn't. Jesus explicitly denies this. His point is that the suffering that leads to death is to act as a warning that our days are numbered; we have only so long to be fruitful, before we too will be cut down and it will be too late (the point of the fig tree parable). But what does it mean to be fruitful - it is to repent. That is our challenge - have we repented, are we sharing the gospel with those who lives are a ticking clock?

As a side note, it is interesting that Jesus doesn't then set out an explanation for suffering (how we might wish he had), but he does set out what we should learn from it. It appears that Jesus is not so concerned that we should grow in understanding of why things happen, but that we should learn how to live in the light of those sufferings. This is the difference between understanding and wisdom 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Open Doors

 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, 
whatever you did for one of the least 
of these brothers and sisters of mine, 
you did for me.”
Matthew 25.40

For me, probably the best part of the building project that my church is undertaking, is the commitment of a part of the money raised to support the work of Open Doors. Read the wonderful account of Deborah here: Deborah Shettima

An Apologetic starting point

Not so great

"Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?"
Isaiah 2.22

We have had a series in our evening service called, "I can't believe because". I have been looking at 3 topics - I can't believe because...
  • ...God doesn't make sense
  • ...of suffering
  • ...you can't prove it
As I have been considering each one, I have been struck by a crucial starting point - namely how significant we are compared to God. In the whole debate about the existence of God and our experience of this world, we must deal with this question and I think that it is a potential point of agreement between the Christian and the sceptic. Namely that, once we entertain the possibility of God's existence, it seems to me that he must be infinitely greater than we are and that we could have no logical expectation that he would take notice or care for us. (I am not saying that he doesn't care for us, but that we wouldn't expect that he would)

The Psalmist says, "What is man that you are mindful of him" - with all of our discoveries about the vast scale of the universe, we should be more aware of this than ever. One illogicality of our present culture and intellectual world is that we seem to be more convinced of our significance than ever - and that causes some problems when it comes to thinking about God and us.

As I was playing around with this idea, it started to have a bigger impact on my understanding of the questions above. It doesn't conclusively deal with them, but it does change their character.

So, God doesn't make sense, but suddenly I realise that it is illogical to think that he would. This is not to say that God would contradict himself, but that complete answers to some (indeed any) questions might simply be beyond my capability. I might be able to apprehend something of the answer without completely comprehending it.

With suffering and a God of love, it struck me that we assume that God should love us, but we don't wonder at the fact that he would even notice us, let alone make it his business to care for us in any way at all. This doesn't solve the problem, because God has chosen to love us and we can analyse that, but I think that it should cause us to pause in our expectations of what that would look like. Once are expectations are realistic, we will marvel more at what he has done.

With proof, one of our stumbling blocks is often that we think that God should prove himself to us and so we get cross when we feel that he isn't giving us the proof we need or require. But this reverses what we have accepted at the beginning, because it puts us in the middle of the universe and God needing to meet our needs.

I think that this expectation that God owes us anything might be illogical, more seriously it is blasphemous.

If you want to hear more of the talks (including a really good one by our Assistant Minister) three of them are available here from this Sunday: I can't believe... talks