While reading Second Timothy as Paul instructs Timothy from prison to be a staunch and steadfast promoter of the gospel and to “correctly handle the word of truth”, it struck me that many of the examples of preaching that I encounter stand in stark contrast to that injunction. Pop psychology, platitudes, personal views and alternate readings, replace what should be at the heart of preaching – God’s infallible Word.
Even worse, some preachers encourage their hearers to find “their own truth” in the text. This is a very postmodernist approach where we all have our own “truths”. All we need to do is discover it. God’s truth, is secondary to our “truth”.
I found an alternative view in a church in Porvoo, Finland, a number of years ago. As the preacher approached the pulpit, above the door to the pulpit the cleric would have read: 1 Cor 1:21 “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” And as the preacher left, on the other side, 1 Cor 4:20 “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” For me, it highlights the fact of God’s truth is proclaimed through the foolish mouths of humans. However, this Word, as it comes from God, is empowered to change lives and destinies. It doesn’t give us an excuse to replace God’s Word with some fantasy of our own.
Our foolishness, however, does not give us liberty to stray from God’s word. This must always be at the heart of all preaching.
I first wrote this over 10 years ago. Reflecting on it, I thought it was worth reposting.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Rev 22:14 & 15
Every now and then as I am reading the Bible a phrase or word jumps out at me. It may be something that I hadn’t noticed or reflected on before. In our staff devotions at school Revelation 22 was read and I closed my eyes and listened. I have read or heard this passage on many occasions and reflected on it. However, this time, the phrase “everyone who loves and practices falsehood” made me sit up and take notice.
We live in a world of “spin”. Politicians, companies and celebrities hire “spin’ experts – people to put the “right” perspective on an issue or dilemma. “Spin” is the key to advertising and promotion. I think we could rightly say that “spin” is part of everyday life.
I remember, years ago, attending regular meetings of church leaders and we were called to report on our individual churches. Looking back in hindsight, there was a lot of “spin” happening. Despite issues in the churches, in this public forum we put ourselves in the best light. We do it as individuals as we try to make ourselves look good, knowing all the while, that in reality we are hiding the truth.
A friend once reflected, after a visit to Holland, where one can look into the front rooms of nearly every immaculately presented house, that it reflected his family. The front room, in this case the way his family appeared, was tidy and well kept, but in the back rooms there was chaos anger, lies and pain.
As a culture and society we have become very able practitioners of falsehood. As individuals and churches, we too have been, unthinkingly, drawn into these practices. Why does Jesus include falsehood with idolaters, murderers and sexual morality?
The child of God is the representative of truth. We are called to stand in direct opposition to the enemy, “the father of lies” (John 8:44). John writes “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John4:6)
The Church and the Christian can have no place for “spin” or subterfuge. The world needs to see what truthful lives look like. That also includes honesty when we have mucked things up. Seeking forgiveness is far more constructive (and painful) than spin. The media, quite rightly in my opinion, has highlighted the falsehood of the church. It can only do that when we have not been true to our God of Truth. Rather than blaming the media we should look carefully at ourselves.
For me, this is a tough call. I don’t like being found out. More important though, is my desire to be more like Jesus. The Word tells me that when I know Jesus I “… will know the truth, and the truth will set (me) free.” John 8:32
Below is a story by my wife that imagines what it was like when David was anointed as king of Israel. (1 Samuel 16)
The row of ants marched across the warm rock. The lead ant paused to take in the antics of a ladybug that the troop was about the pass. Every ant in the line momentarily stopped also, as it passed the bigger insect.
David mused, then he rolled over onto his back. He squinted at the bright afternoon light. He could see, far off near the eastern edge of a clear blue sky, the almost full moon. How far was it? David thought. How many days’ walk to reach the moon, if a boy could walk across the sky? What would that distance look like across the palm of Yahweh’s hand?
David sat up. He could hear someone calling his name. He stood and scanned the valley below. All his sheep – well, his father’s sheep – were grazing on the summer pasture. Beyond them a figure appeared and David recognised Abel, his family’s servant. He picked up the shepherds’ crook and his lyre and bounded off, past the sheep who momentarily stopped, not unlike the ants, to watch the boy rush between them.
“Abel, why have you come?” he asked the old man. “Has something happened at home?”
“Shalom” replied the servant. “Your father has sent for you. Go. I will stay with the flock until you return.”
David glanced at the crook and the lyre in his hands. He hesitated before handing the crook to Abel. Then he thrust the lyre towards the man as well. “Play for them. They love it.” Abel grinned.
The boy-shepherd turned and ran down to the homestead.
Before David got to his home another servant met him.
“Is my father ill?” he asked the man.
“No, he and your brothers are with the Prophet. They are making sacrifices to the LORD.”
“What has this to do with me?” asked David.
By now they were at the well in the courtyard.
“Wash your face and hands and put on these clean clothes.”
David’s mother then appeared. She took the cloth from the servant and began scrubbing at David’s neck, tutting about the grass and gravel smudges on his face and arms. Her son was taller than her now so she had to pull his head down to reach.
The boy tried to get out of her grasp.
“Mother, what is going on?” He pleaded.
But there was no time for answers. Soon enough David was escorted into Bethlehem and then to the place where his father and seven older brothers were standing. Another man was also there – the Prophet Samuel.
David could tell that his brothers were restless. Eliab, tall and strong, was the oldest, and he glowered when he saw the littlest of his brothers come tearing around the corner towards them. The boy-shepherd skidded to a halt a few yards from the group, took a deep breath, and calmly walked the final distance to stand before his father.
If I could run to the moon, he thought, I could get there sooner.
Jesse put his hands on David’s shoulders and forced him to pivot around to face Samuel. The Prophet seemed not to notice him; he was in a deep reverie.
“Your servant, David, Jesse’s son” David said, and he bowed. The Prophet was not physically tall. He was a full head-height shorter than the boy-shepherd. But David felt as if he was bowing before a someone of giant importance. He felt ant-sized.
Something – not his father’s hands this time- compelled David to kneel.
And then… and then, something amazing happened. The Prophet held a ram’s horn of oil above the head of Jesse’s youngest son, as the other seven sons looked on, and upturned the horn. Samuel proclaimed that David was the next King of Israel, anointed by Yahweh.
As the oil came first on his head and next dribbled down his neck and into his shirt, David took a sharp intake of breath. He held the air in his chest, unable to decide if there was something different about him. Unsure if this meant he should or could still be himself. Unsure if breathing was necessary.
His father and brothers came forward and, one by one, embraced him.
“Now let’s eat!” The Prophet declared loudly.
As the sun began to sink into the horizon, the shepherd-king tramped across the valley towards the sheepfold. Abel stood in the opening. “They’re all in there, present and accounted for,” he said. “And you’re right. They do love the music of the lyre.”
David drew his woollen cloak around himself and squatted in the opening as Abel started back in the direction that David had come. Some of the ewes nuzzled against him, sniffing at the strange scent of oil.
Not twenty yards away the old servant turned and shouted at him, lifting a thumb towards the sky:
Over the last 8 weeks I have come across diverse theologies which had one common theme: ‘Jesus loves you’ with the added rider ‘and wants you to be happy’. Initially I didn’t have a problem with it but the more I reflected on it, issues arose.
One group stressed the love of God. It was the mantra and truth that they continually espoused but this was never really unpacked. Then later, I heard the same message in a totally different setting. Jesus loves you and wants you to be happy. One of the implications was that ‘sin’ in the traditional sense, was irrelevant because whether it was one’s sexual inclination or activity, divorce, or , in fact, anything else that hindered one’s happiness, lots of things we considered wrong in the past, were now passe because after all, God wants us to be happy.
‘Jesus loves you’ resonates with our age. We live in and era in which people are desperate to be loved. This God has to hit our ‘like’ button. We want happiness and freedom and so the two, Jesus love and happiness, make an excellent ‘twin set’.
But what does “Jesus love you” really mean? Essentially it means that he loves us that much that he doesn’t want us to live with our brokenness and sin. He doesn’t want us to live with that which kills us and separates us from God. In step one he died on the cross to remove God’s judicial judgement against us. God’s eyes are too pure to behold evil (Hab, 1:13). Jesus removed God’s judgement against us. We are declared innocent.
But in step 2 he sent the Holy Spirit who on a daily on going basis makes us more like the way that God already sees us. In other words his desire is to make us more like Jesus because after all he is the perfect son.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In other words we want to see our old selves lessen so that a new Christlikeness ascends. That is more than just about happiness. It is about wholeness, newness and a break from our past brokenness. When we say ‘Jesus loves you’ we need to say it against the backdrop of a holy God who abhors sin and brokenness because that sin is allied with decay and death. It is a stench that God will not permit in his nostrils.
Does Jesus love us? Certainly! But he loves us that much he doesn’t permit us to pursue our form of happiness, but his.
While listening to the radio the other day I heard an artist lament the lack of art history knowledge among art students today. He decried the lack of historical reference markers that enabled an intelligent discussion of art and its presentation in today’s society. Students had no knowledge of the historical scaffolding upon which they were trying to present their artistic expression.
This is also a good metaphor for biblical and theological discussions today. In the wall to wall debates we are currently hearing on the radio, TV and internet with regard to same sex marriage I am astounded at the lack of biblical literacy by those representing various iterations of the church. The lack of understanding of Christianity’s foundational text, a poor comprehension of Church history and thoroughly shoddy theology leaves one aghast at those representing and giving voice to many denominations in Australia today.
I am not alluding to disagreements about what the text means. That has always been an issue within the church and between denominations. My beef is more about the manner in which the Bible is used and abused. Issues such as the nature of the Old Testament, different genres within the Bible, the meta narrative that holds the Bible together and so on are so often missing in action.
The consequence is that we hear phrases like “I feel” or “the vibe” of the Bible/text/book. The subjectivity within discussions is quite alarming. The over arching idea presented in many of these debates is that we can make the Bible say anything we want it to say. Worse still, we read the Bible through the lens of the spirit of our age rather than asking what God’s message and intention is for our times.
If churches are to learn anything from our current discussion I think there can be no better lesson than to return to a serious and intentional study of God’s Word. Maybe that is the Reformation needed today.
22 Therefore this is what the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, says to the descendants of Jacob:‘No longer will Jacob be ashamed; no longer will their faces grow pale. 23 When they see among them their children, the work of my hands, they will keep my name holy; they will acknowledge the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. 24 Those who are wayward in spirit will gain understanding; those who complain will accept instruction.’
Isaiah 29 22-24
These verses come in the midst of God’s frightening judgement upon Jerusalem before Judah’s exile in Babylon. In contrast to the prophecy of the horrors to come, the passage quoted looks beyond this time of exile to a future when there will be joy and genuine awe in the worship of God.
Many commentators when considering this passage jump on the word “children” and translate that as “future generations”. There is no problem with that, except we lose the critical idea of being a child and the uniqueness of childhood. Too often commentators suggest that we are dealing with a generation of adults in the future. This, in my view, waters down the intent of the passage.
But why does Isaiah/God use the word “children”?
Which parent has not on occasions sat back and quietly mused on the joy of their children – their exploits, wonder, faith and accomplishments. Our hearts are warmed in the knowledge that they are products of our union! I know there are moments when the opposite occurs but let us stay with the positive for the moment. Children are a symbol of amazing potential and promise. In this passage they are reminders and metaphors for naïve and innocent wonder at the character and actions of God.
Children can remind jaded adults of the joy of the discovery of faith and the wonders of God and His creation and most important, the relief and exhilaration of salvation. They are God’s “sacrament” (symbol or image if you prefer) of new faith, new hope and new future – a crucial idea in the passage above.
In the Isaiah passage children are prophecies of awe filled worshippers (in the fullest sense), of God.
I believe this passage is pointing to Christ but also to his second coming when we will see, completely, how all things will be made new. In the meantime, while we wait for the return of the King. Our children are still heralds of faith and future. We jaded, cynical and worldly-wise adults need to make sure that we do not squash that vision in our children – or our own hearts.
‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
Abram was blessed to be a blessing,
but he is not alone.
You and I too,
can be blessed
to be a blessing.
One from Abram’s family
would come to be
the incarnation –
the promised Messiah
A primitive mural painting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Keldby Church on the island of Mon, Denmark.
You and I
can live in that promise
Then we too,
can herald his coming,
I must extend a big thank you to all of you who have responded to my request for childhood memories of church. (The original post here which includes an email address). One thing your responses have already done is widen my thinking and planning. I have received some emails regarding various kinds abuse upon which I have to reflect deeply. Some of you have commented on excitement and others sheer boredom. Overall, however, I get the strong impression that for many, if not most, children were incidental to church life. This collection has only just begun so I continue to encourage readers to comment and to ask friends to comment
If your eyes are attuned, when you travel around France and Spain there are numerous signs indicating the Camino to Santiago. They are on walls, paths and buildings. They are a silent indication that you are on one of the many paths leading to the Spanish city of Santiago. But I had never noticed them until I had actually gone on a portion of the pilgrimage. After that, I bumped into these signs regularly – I began to notice them. Until I had consciously connected these signs with the pilgrimage, these signs were invisible to me.
We need to have this sense of attunement too, with the representation of Christ in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament, without seeing Jesus is, quite bluntly, a pointless book. The promise of Christ is the backbone that holds the Old Testament together. But when we start to look for him, he is not just in the promises and prophecies, but can also be glimpsed in key people (e.g. Moses – prophet, priest and king), ceremonies and rituals (the sacrifices in Leviticus find their reality in Jesus) and events (the exodus from Egypt and the entrance into the promised land declare so much about Jesus and the reason for his incarnation). The coming of Jesus, and Satan’s desire to prevent his birth is a continuous undercurrent that surges through the highs and lows of God’s people in Old Testament history. What if David had been killed by Goliath or Joseph had been killed by his brothers? What would have happened to God’s promises?
O.k. God is sovereign, yet we see that sovereignty against a backdrop of Satan’s hatred and humanity’s sin. The golden thread that draws the Old Testament into a unified story of God’s salvation history is the promise of Christ – the Messiah.
One other reason for recognising this important truth: it prevents the Old Testament from becoming just another version of a morality tale alongside brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The O.T goes far beyond “daring to be a Daniel” or “having the courage of David” it is about God and his plans to see the King and the Kingdom come.
A book that does a wonderful job relating Jesus and his kingdom to the Old Testament is Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom. It has been around for a while yet it is still a great introduction to open ones eyes to Jesus, his kingdom and the way it is revealed in the Old Testament.
Gospel and Kingdom is a book I have purchased on a number of occasions and yet I don’t have a copy on my shelves because I have given it away or “loaned” it on numerous occasions.