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The Proclaimer

A very happy Easter

I stand in a long tradition of grumpy Christians who think we don't need festivals to celebrate key Christian doctrines. We should be doing it all the time. The early church met the first day of the week every week because that is the day when Jesus rose from the grave. So, I don't mind singing "Thine be the glory" at Christmas. And I certainly have chosen "Hark the herald angels sing" in the summer.

Bah, humbug. Or whatever the Easter equivalent is.

Nevertheless, I'm happy to have a few days off work with family and church family. And so, there's nothing here from us for a few days. Enjoy your break. And rejoice as you celebrate what you celebrate every Sunday - the justifying death and glorious resurrection of the Eternal Son of God.

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

The tragic case of Peaches Geldof and heavenly reunions

You may have heard the news last week of the tragic death of Peaches Geldof, one of the children of Bob Geldof and the late Paula Yates. Cause of death is uncertain at the moment, but it looks remarkably like suicide. Bob Geldof's words express the reality of hopeless grief: The family are "beyond pain" he said. One newspaper headline caught my eye.

This is London's free rag. The headline sparked some controversy. But it did get me thinking about how we encourage the bereaved and made me realise - once again - that a lot of our bereavement counselling takes this kind of reuniting line. "At least you'll see him again..." we might say. Or perhaps we might silently endorse someone who says something similar about the loss of a loved one.

Without wanting to sound too callous, I think that is pastorally harmful. I know that in the midst of grief we hold onto any hope we can get. But that kind of advice is both pastorally unhelpful and theologically misguided.

  • It is pastorally unhelpful because if we allow it to stand unchallenged, the rest of the bereaved person's life is about waiting for death with an eager anticipation. It does not really allow someone to grieve and move on, which is what we should be encouraging. At its worst, especially in the young, it may even encourage ideas of taking one's own life in order to speed the reunion process.
  • It is theologically misguided because reunion is not a biblical paradigm, except where the reunion is with Christ. I have no doubt I will recognise people in the new creation, but the defining glory of that new place will be "with Christ." There will be no marriage. Earthly relationships will be surpassed. I will relate to you, dead reader, better then than I do to my wife now. And that's saying something. If we let the reunion model of grief stand then we detract from the reality of what is "better by far."

I hope that doesn't sound cold. I firmly believe that it is ultimately better than any earthly reunion. So it must be for our good.

A fable about preaching chiasms

As usual, I read through the passage before starting my sermon preparation. As I did so, it struck me forcibly that this passage could perhaps be structured in a certain way. I wasn’t sure, but it was a nagging doubt. ‘Wow!’ I thought to myself. If that is true, then it needs to be a centre point of my sermon and I need to let the congregation see how wonderfully constructed this little narrative is. Never mind bookends! I’ve found a chiasm. But it needed work. So I gave much of my sermon preparation over to developing the structure and working out my headings to reflect the chiastic nature of the story. Then – Bingo! I got it. Much celebration, running round the house, star jumps, making of coffee etc. But had I got it exactly right? It needed more work, and more work I gave it. However, a curious thing happened. The more I worked on it, the more confusing it seemed to be. ‘This will just befuddle people,’ I thought. It’s one thing using this Hebrew structure to help me understand the passage, but it can’t be my sermon. So, reluctantly, I rejected the chiasm as a sermon structure. Back to square one. As usual, I read through the passage before starting my sermon preparation.

A    I read the passage
    B    I thought I saw a chiasm
        C    I thought, ‘My people need to hear this!’
            D    I spent several hours working out the chiasm
                E    I found it!
            D'   I spent several more hours fine tuning the chiasm
        C'   I thought, ‘This will just confuse people’
    B'   I rejected the chiasm
A'   I read the passage. Again.

Gifts and grace

Here is the second of J.C.Ryle’s applications from Luke 10:17-20.

Gifts… are very inferior to grace.

Ryle is commenting on Jesus’ words, “…rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Whatever gifts God may give us, whatever successes in gospel ministry, it is “a far higher privilege to be converted and pardoned…and to have our names written in the register of saved souls.”

Ryle comments,

Gifts, such as mental vigour, vast memory, striking eloquence, ability in argument, power in reasoning, are often unduly valued by those who possess them, and unduly admired by those who possess them not (my emphasis).” We need to remember that “gifts without grace save no one’s soul… He that has gifts without grace is dead in sins… But he that has grace without gifts is alive to God, however unlearned and ignorant he may appear to man.

In vintage Ryle style he ends like this: Without the marks of grace,

a man may have abundance of gifts and turn out to be nothing better than a follower of Judas Iscariot, the false apostle, and go at last to hell. With such marks, a man may be like Lazarus, poor and despised upon earth, and have no gifts at all. But his name is written in heaven, and Christ shall own him as one of His people at the last day.

Hallelujah!

How much success can you bear?

I am using J.C.Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Luke’s Gospel for my personal devotions. Although his thoughts are not always dead centre on the main theme of a passage, they are true, realistic, nourishing, and challenging. They are doing me good day by day.

Last Monday I read Luke 10:17-20 and was struck by Ryle’s applications. Here’s the first. He comments on verse 17: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ’Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’”

How ready Christians are to be puffed up with success”

Success is what every faithful labourer wants. We long to see “Satan’s kingdom pulled down, and souls converted to God.” But “the time of success is a time of danger to the Christian’s soul. The very hearts that are depressed when all things seem against them, are often unduly exalted in the day of prosperity… Most of Christ’s labourers probably have as much success as their souls can bear” (my emphasis).

I was convicted especially by that last sentence. I suppose it is better that you and I are elated at gospel success than personal success, but better still that we are not elated by success at all.

What to do with your guitar

Just been flicking through Jeremy Fletcher's Rules for Reverends. Some are laugh out loud funny. Some are remarkably insightful. Some (mostly to do with Anglican hierarchy, I just don't get: E.g. Rural Deans. Not Rural. Not Deans. 

Obviously.)

This, however, is possibly my favourite:

Most people's worst nightmare is a vicar with a guitar. This situation is helpfully relieved by saying. 'I know I am your worst nightmare - a vicar with a guitar.' When tuning up, give them a bit of 'All right now' (Free) or 'Thunderstruck' (AC/DC). It works for me.

Paradoxology

Krish Kandiah's new book is really very good. Christianity is full of paradoxes which are not meant to be solved, but properly and reverently held in tension. Krish's book doesn't give you simplistic answers to complex problems, therefore, but encourages us to do more than accept these paradoxes; rather, Christians ought to actively rejoice in them. 

After all, we worship a God who is Three-in-One.

Here's a brief introduction.

Bring a bike

We've got almost 200 guys coming to our ministers conferences this spring. I'm really looking forward to it. And just to say.... if you have a bike and fancy a country ride, do bring your bike along. As you'll see, we had fun last year...

Tackling obsessions

Have been reading Tony Merida's Faithful Preaching recently and was struck by this quote which is worth repeating as an encouragement to every preacher this Monday morning.

Numbers are important because people are important...However, this obsession with church growth which characterised the church in the 1980s and 1990s has the power to keep you from preaching for God's glory. The temptation is to do whatever works (pragmatism) in order to attract a crowd... A faithful preacher has a higher goal than merely putting people in the seat and paying the church's bills. We have a doxological purpose in preaching (glorifying God) before we have a numerical purpose (increasing attendance). At the same time, there is no reason to believe that you cannot grow a church through Christ-exalting exposition. We have many modern day examples of this reality.

Indeed, I would say, Christ-exalting exposition is the only way to grow a church. Nevertheless, his point stands. He continues:

Many of God's greatest preachers were not successful in the world's eyes. Isaiah was told that no one would respond positively to his message (Is. 6.8-13). Jesus preached to the 5,000+ after he fed them, and at the end of the sermon many walked away never to return (John 6.66). Great Puritan pastors like John Bunyan and Richard Baxter led relatively small congregations yet made an eternal impact. Measure success by faithfulness to your calling: declare God's word faithfully for the glory of God supremely. We will do this as we tend to our souls, as we preach for one primary audience, as we avoid competition and jealousy and as we avoid man-centred pragmatism.

(p.26-27)

Preaching holy war

It's difficult to preach pretty much any Old Testament book without coming to the rather vexed question of divine war [Incidentally, Tremper Longman III argues that "divine war" or "Yahweh war" is a better description than "holy way". I agree]. What are we to make of those total destruction passages and, indeed, much of the violence we find in the Old Testament. A recent book by Joseph Smith has ably made the point that this is a consistent theme running through the Scriptures. Christians don't really know what to do with these passages. And neither, often, do preachers. 

We know instinctively that the Chalke approach is wrong. Moses and Joshua did not "mishear" Yawheh's voice when he prescribed the kind of warfare that Israel must engage in (e.g. Deut 7 or Deut 20). It's easy to dismiss that kind of insipid Marcionism. But it's not easy to know what to replace it with. Some evangelicals just spiritualise everything: what is true of physical warfare in the OT is true of spiritual warfare in the New. That is right - but only up to a point. There's more, surely, because the final battle that Christ, the divine warrior fights, is hardly "just spiritual" - as we will discover, it is the most physical battle ever fought, winning for us eternal life in the Son's presence, but condemning to eternal physical destruction those who stand opposed to him.

It seems to me the Law passages help us because they explain the background to divine war. 

  1. Yahweh is the instigator of war (Deut 7.1), he decides who will be fought. He chooses the battles.
  2. Yahweh is the agent of war (Deut 7.2), he is the one who is doing the fighting. The Israelites must learn to fight in his strength alone.
  3. Yahweh is present in the war (Deut 20.1), his presence is made known by the Ark. The Ark is a physical reminder that this is Yahweh's war.
  4. Yahweh is always victor in the war (Deut 20.4), he delivers enemies to Israel. With Yahweh on side, there is never a battle defeat. Defeats come when Yawheh is absent or - worse - against his people.
  5. Yahweh is executing total judgement in war (Deut 20.18), his war is just. Everybody deserves destruction. Although the warfare to us sounds tyrannical, it is always just. 
  6. Yahweh displays grace to Israel in war (Deut 7.7-11), the only reason Israel is preserved. Israel also deserves destruction but is preserved through God's special choosing (though in apostasy is not excluded from God's just fighting).

Those seem lasting principles, even if the nature of the battle changes. But how does it change?

When Christ comes, he is presented as the divine warrior, the one who fulfils militaristic prophecy. But the gospels make clear he has come to wage war against root enemies, rather than physically superficial ones: death, Satan, sin. Those who are in Christ appropriate the victories that Christ has already delivered. But that is not all there is to say. There is still a final battle. There are still prophecies to be fulfilled in Christ and the imagery of Revelation is still physical. Therefore we should think of Christ the divine warrior having unfinished business.

This, then, helps us preach divine war. We need to apply the principles above to the battle we find ourselves in now. This is the spiritual battle which Christ our captain has already fought. But as we preach we must also point people forwards to the final battle, the dreadful and awful Day of the Lord when Yahweh will execute total judgement on the world and our only hope is to stand in the grace of God shown in Christ Jesus.

In other words, our warfare preaching, if I can call it that, must have both now and then aspects to it if we are to do justice to the sweep of the Bible's story.