Had another exhausting
Sunday trying to get your children to sit through church?
Wondering why on earth
we don’t get the kids out so that the adults can listen to the sermon in peace?
Getting frustrated at
the noise levels on Sundays?
Questioning what the point of children sitting in a service is when most of it seems to go over their head?
These are all common
feelings, to which we need to respond in principled rather than pragmatic ways.
And to encourage you: inconvenience is a much more valuable aspect of worship
than many of us appreciate. What if God uses our experiences of frustration
much more than our easy and convenient experiences to make us the Christ-like
people he’s calling us to be?
Anyway, to help you think through the subject, here’s a link to a great collection of resources, compiled by the minister of Gareth’s home church in Stranraer, Stephen Steele. Have a browse, if you get the chance. If you want a light-hearted look at the subject, I enjoyed video at the bottom.
“If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Matthew 5:46.
In this verse, Jesus
describes “tax-collector” love. What is “tax-collector” love? It’s love that is
natural. It’s love that loves its own
kind. It’s natural for mothers to
love their own babies. It’s natural
for the English to love the English (though, it’s also natural for us not to show it!). It’s natural for West Ham fans to love other West Ham fans. It’s natural for Hindus to love Hindus. It’s natural for tax collectors to love
tax-collectors. This “tax-collector” love can be sincere and sacrificial. “Tax-collector”
love can be willing to put itself out for fellow tax-collectors, when it sees
them in need. “Tax-collector” love can be produced by team-building exercises,
and by socialising together. It’s built up over time, as you experience the
highs and lows of life together. There’s nothing wrong with “tax-collector”
But, in this verse, Jesus wants Christians to show a love that is higher than “tax-collector” love. In the context, Jesus call us to love our enemies (v.44). But this raises the question: is the love we have for one another as Christians just another version of “tax collector” love? Is it any different to the way members of the local chess club could start to care for each other, if they tried? I think it’s important to recognise the real danger that believers’ love for one another can, at times, be nothing more than “tax collector” love. It can be based merely on going to shared meetings, singing the same songs, and socialising lots. So, how do we stop our love being merely “tax-collector” love? The puritan, John Owen, answered that question like this in a catechism that he wrote: we need to be committed to the true worship of God. He points out that the real origin of Christian love isn’t natural but supernatural (or “evangelical”, as he calls it). It comes from our adoption by the same Father, our union with Jesus our elder Brother, and our indwelling by the same Holy Spirit. John Owen says:
“that love which is not built on these principles and foundations [of worshipping the Triune God] is not evangelical, whatever other ground it may have, or occasion it may pretend unto” (p.462, vol 15, Works).
Isn’t that a challenge? What ground is our love for each other built on? Let’s aim to show Ilford a love that is worlds apart from “tax collector” love. How? Well, it won’t be by drumming it up from inside ourselves. It won’t come from simply concentrating on each other, and learning about each other. It won’t come from team building exercises. No, the source of “evangelical” love is God himself. So, let’s give our all to worshipping him. Turn up on Sunday ready to engage with him. Sing your heart out to him. Adore Christ’s grace to you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. The way to love our brothers and sisters with something higher than “tax collector” love is to give ourselves to God.
Yesterday at prayer meeting, James recommended the book: Matthew Henry’s A Way to Pray (also called A Method for Prayer) It’s a great book, so I asked Andrew to write a review of it. Here it is:
It’s your quiet time. You sit down. You
shut your eyes. And… you begin to pray. Now what?
Prayer can be a daunting task. There
are infinite things to pray for and there are countless different words to use.
So how do we do it? How does God want us to pray?
At prayer meeting last night Simon showed how Exodus 34:6-7 is repeated throughout Scripture in people’s prayers. God’s people used Scripture as their prayer (almost word for word!). And here is the key for us – our prayers should be soaked in Scripture. We should use the words of Scripture as our prayers. Scripture itself tells us what we should pray for and the words we should use.
God wants the words he has spoken to us
to be spoken back to Him.
And this is a wonderful thing to do
because as we use Scripture more in our prayers, the more we will pray in line
with God’s will. Our will will match God’s will. Is not what is revealed in Scripture
God’s will? Absolutely! So surely if we make that will our will, those words
our words, God’s words our prayers… well, then, he will answer them. God does what
he wills. Of course, this will always be in God’s timing and
providence but, nevertheless, that is the way we should pray.
Now the Bible is a big book. It is a
mammoth task to memorise all Scripture and be able to turn them into prayers.
If only someone had done that for us… well they have! Matthew Henry, a godly
minister 300 years ago, did just this. A Method for Prayer is a book in which
Henry has compiled lots of prayers about different topics (praise, confession,
thanksgiving etc) and all of them are based on verses of Scripture. They are
deeply rich, soaked in Scripture and well crafted. Personally, I have found it
has changed my prayer life. Not only has it given me direction in what to pray
for but also the very words on my lips have been gradually aligning to the
words of the Bible.
I recommend this book to pray through
just once a day. Read one prayer to yourself. Reflect on it and then pray those
words to God. Over time, the language you use will be transformed and your
prayers and desires will be become more in line with God’s will.
So, don’t let prayer be daunting. God
has told us what to say.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
I’m convinced that the ability of our great high priest to sympathise has something very important to say to our world today. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how divided we’re getting into separate identities. A common buzzword you hear today is “intersectionality”; this is the idea that some people can experience overlapping forms of discrimination e.g. a black woman can experience both racism and sexism at the same time, and so is worse off than both black men and white women. A flip side to this is the idea of “white male privilege”, which means that I, as a white, male, am at the top of the pile of privilege. Now, I think both concepts have some validity; I am very privileged (though I think there are many white males living in England that haven’t had anywhere near as much opportunity as me). Likewise, some people do experience discrimination at multiple levels too. But these ideas can be milked in all kinds of unhelpful ways. There’s this growing sense that we can’t really understand each other, e.g. “You can’t know what it’s like to be me, because you’re a white male”. I’ve had people tell me: “You’re not qualified to give a talk on homosexuality, unless you’ve experienced it yourself…”. It can feed into a culture of victimhood, where your experience of “hurt” and “pain” somehow gives you a special, protected status, into which others on the outside cannot speak.
Here’s the problem with that: it disqualifies Jesus from being our great
high priest. You see, is Jesus not qualified to sympathize with women
then? Do you need a female Saviour? After all, Jesus didn’t take a female human
nature, did he? He’s the man Christ
Jesus. Is Jesus not qualified to sympathize with those who’ve experienced
racism? After all, he was a Jew living in Palestine – he wasn’t exactly part of
an ethnic minority! This can extend in all kinds of directions: Jesus didn’t
experience a miscarriage, did he, so how can he sympathise with couples who
have? Jesus didn’t suffer sexual abuse, so how can he sympathise with those
struggling to come to terms with their abuse?
Christ’s incarnation forces us to re-think
human nature. Human nature is nowhere near as divided as our world likes to
tell us. You can’t split up human nature into all these different identities
that can’t understand each other. Gender is much less significant than we are
led to believe. Ethnicity is much less significant than we are led to believe. Our
Lord is truly qualified to sympathize with us in all our “weaknesses”, and has been tempted “in every respect… as we are, yet without sin”.
Isn’t the point here that Jesus says: “#MeToo”? Whatever form your “weakness” takes, whatever guise your “temptation” comes in, Jesus can say: “#MeToo”. Hebrews 4:15 is his MeToo moment. The particularities of your temptation may look different to Jesus; for example, Jesus did not experience homosexual urges, but he did experience strong temptation to let his powerful bodily desires get the better of him (Matt 4:3). He didn’t experience the pain of going through a divorce, but he did experience the pain of betrayal and having relationships ripped apart. So, this feeling that “I’m all alone!” – that “no one gets me” – “no one understands me!” – is devilish! Certainly, as Christians, we need to develop sensitivity to one another’s experiences; sure, we need to grow in sympathy and hear what’s unique about each other’s situations, but we mustn’t start playing the games of this world. Let’s not start telling ourselves that our brothers and sisters cannot understand us – that we can’t know what one another are going through. It’s not true that I have to have been through it, to be able to sympathize and genuinely relate! Otherwise, we’ve disqualified Christ as our great high priest. Instead, as we see the splits and divisions created by sin all around us, let’s share the good news of Jesus Christ, our great, intersectional high priest and his #MeToo moment, who, in his one person, can answer and heal them all.
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done… And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12, 15).
Growing up, I used to sing a Sunday School song called: “The best book to read is the Bible”. I’m still absolutely convinced that’s right. But Revelation 20 tells us about two other books that are written by God. They are not books we’re able to read yet. We’ll only get to read them on Judgment Day, but God wants us to be aware of them. And, in some ways, these two books are more important than the Bible. What are they?
i)The book of records. It’s not actually
called that in v.12, and it’s actually a multi-volume book, but this book contains
records of all that we’ve ever done in our lives. That’s hard to get our minds
around and it’s sobering. I’ve done enough stuff in the 37 years I’ve been alive
to fill 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Everything we do of moral
significance is recorded and will be considered on Judgment Day. And, if we
take a moment to think, it includes a lot of uncomfortable, sinful material
that we would dread to see the light of day. Right now, this book is being
written and updated. In the last 24 hours, more text has been added under an
entry with your name on it.
ii) The book of life.
This book is much slimmer than the book of records and is much simpler. It
simply contains a list of names. It’s either a Yes or No. Your name is either
there or it’s not. Finding your name entered in this book means you’re saved
and you’re safe for eternity. If your name’s not in there, Revelation says you’ll
be “thrown into the lake of fire”. But while that book is not read out until
Judgment Day, Jesus has been sent so that we can know our names are written
there. Jesus told his disciples to “rejoice that your names are written in
heaven” (Luke 10:20). If the book of records is all about what I do, the book
of life is its opposite. I have no control over its contents; in Christ, I
simply find my name is there.
Sometimes as Christians, we can think that salvation by grace means how I live doesn’t matter. That’s like thinking that the book of life simply cancels out the book of records; the gospel invalidates or permanently deletes the book of records. But that’s not what’s happening in Revelation 20, is it? On Judgment Day, Revelation 20 says both books will be opened. We’re quite clearly going to be “judged by what was written in the books”. So, on what basis will I be judged? By my works or by God’s grace? This scene in Revelation shows that my complicated, detailed life will be “read” in the light of the book of life. God’s gracious book of life will be used to interpret the book of records. In other words, in the gospel, these two sources of judgment are not in conflict, but harmonise. The entry of my name in the book of life secures my salvation – it is all down to Jesus, first and last – but not in a way that invalidates the moral significance of my life.
So, remembering these two other books is critical for good Bible reading. As you read your Bible, remember the book of life. Only in Jesus Christ will you know your name is entered there. And as you read your Bible, remember the book of records, and know that, in Christ, your good works really matter. At the end of the day, Bible reading that forgets these two others books will be worthless.
At men’s breakfast recently, we were thinking about men
leading in prayer. One of the ideas I talked about was the importance of praying
a “full diet” of prayer, when we’re leading in prayer. But this idea is also
very relevant for our own private prayer lives. When we’re finding prayer hard, one thing
Christians sometimes do is to try and inject some creativity into their prayer
time. “Light a candle. Draw some pictures. Get expressive. Turn it into a craft
session, with colouring pens, and scissors”. I don’t recommend that. Those
things are like looking for the equivalent of sugar rush. What we actually need
is to be committed to a “full diet” of prayers.
The Bible is crammed with examples of prayer for us to learn
There are prayers of adoration. Psalms 146-150 each begin and end with “Praise the Lord!”. The heavenly worship in Revelation includes pure adoration: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). This type of prayer is like your spiritual meat. It’s spending time focussing on the character of our great Triune God and is like protein for your soul.
There are prayers of confession.
Daniel humbled himself in Daniel 9, after reading God’s promises to
Jeremiah, and prayed a big prayer of confession. Ezra does something similar in
Ezra 9. The people of God spend a quarter of the day confessing their sins in
Nehemiah 9. Maybe this kind of prayer is like eating your greens; it’s less
popular or easy, but really important for our ongoing spiritual health. God
wants us to keep short accounts with him, and the Spirit humbles us all the
days of our life (Rom 7:24).
There are prayers of thanksgiving.
David prayed a prayer of thanksgiving “on the day the LORD delivered him from
the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (2 Samuel 22). In this
type of prayer, we take time to thank God for the good things he’s given us. Regularly
taking time to name the good things we’ve received from him is an important
part of our diet. I particularly know I’m capable of being ungrateful, and need
to be more deliberate here.
There are prayers of supplication.This is the bread and potatoes of
Christian prayer. It means simply asking God for things. We should pray prayers
of supplication for ourselves, and for others. We should pray for our families,
for our church, for our neighbours, for our denomination, for our country, for
the church through the world, and for the world. Even here, maybe we need to
learn to switch from white bread to brown-bread, or from mashed potato to
eating the potato with the skins on! We should aim to line up the things we ask
for with the things the Bible asks for (e.g. Luke 11:2-4; Eph 1:16-21).
The Bible really is packed with spiritually nutritious
prayers. If you told a nutritionist that you only ever eat starch in your diet,
they’d tell you to change what you eat. Why? because a well-balanced diet is
important for your health. Well, the same is true for us spiritually. Why not
take some time to think: which of these types of prayer are lacking from my
regular spiritual diet? Which ones do I need to introduce into my regular
praying? Rather than seeking a spiritual sugar rush, aim to pray a “full diet”
I just watched this short video by J. D. Greear, the head of the Southern Baptists on whether God speaks audibly today. His basic answer was a reluctant “no!”. God still speaks to us in the Bible, Greear says, but we should be very wary of thinking he speaks audibly anymore.
It’s funny, because he’d describe himself as a “charismatic with a seatbelt” and I’d describe myself as a “cessationist”, yet, I would answer that same question with an emphatic “yes!”. “Yes! God does speak audibly to us today!”.
When? Where? How? Every time you hear a
faithful, called and sent Christian preacher, who preaches the Scriptures to
you! I really think the Bible teaches us to view the faithful preaching of
Christian ministers as the word of God!
That voice you hear in sermons on Sundays isn’t just my voice. It’s the voice
of Christ to you. If you want some Bible verses to base that off I’d say: Matthew
23:8 & 10; John 10:3-5; Eph 2:17. If you can’t see their relevance, do ask
me to unpack them more for you some time. This doesn’t mean preachers can’t get
it wrong and are six feet above contradiction. But it means you should develop
a reverent attitude to the Word preached
as the way Christ has designed to speak to you today. Sundays aren’t just Simon
teaching us some stuff from the Bible. They are Christ speaking audibly to us.
In case you think I’ve gone all heretical,
let me quote John Calvin as back up:
“It is a singular privilege that he [God] deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them”. (Christian Institutes, Book IV, chapter 1, part 5).
Now, I think the different answers that J. D. Greear and I give to the question: “Does God speak audibly today?” are actually quite significant. It shows how the historic Reformed “cessationist” position, when properly understood, actually makes us much more conscious of God’s speech to us today than a “charismatic” position. Ironically, it’s a charismatic emphasis on extra and new revelation from God that actually makes churches less conscious of God speaking to us today in the regular preaching of the Word.
But I’m not trying to score cheap points. Rather, isn’t this good news?! God is speaking to us audibly today when the church gathers around the reading and preaching of his Word. The preacher’s voice may not sound very exciting, but remember that resounding in that human voice is another voice, the voice which spoke the heavens and earth into being! Now, you’d have to be pretty stupid to actually close your ears to God when he was talking directly to you, wouldn’t you? Yet, is that what we’re doing, when we ignore the preaching of his Word? Why not stop and ask yourself these questions:
how might this change my desire to be present at preaching?
how might this affect my desire to keep listening during preaching?
how might this affect my reaction to things I don’t agree with in preaching?
Does God speak audibly today? The Reformed churches want to say “Yes, yes, yes!”
I’m sure we could draw up a list of answers to that question, but underlying them all is one bigger answer. It’s something called: Chalcedonian Christology.
You probably think, “what on earth is that?!”. I know it’s a mouthful. Don’t worry: it’s not a phrase you need to learn, but it refers to the Chalcedonian Creed, which is a creed written in 451 AD in Turkey (you can read it here). Very simply, in the Chalcedonian Creed, the church confessed how the Godhead and the manhood of Christ relate together.
The answer the church gave was something that the typical man finds hard to do! They said: when it comes to Christ, you have to think two thoughts at the same time. Now, being a man, I find that hard to do! My brain struggles to handle lots of thoughts at the same time! But this ability is what the Chalcedonian Creed wants to teach us and is at the heart of all good Christmas carols.
Here are the two thoughts:
Thought 1. The identity of this person is “God of God, Light of Light”. In other words, Jesus is the only begotten Son, without beginning and without end. He’s not to be confused with the Father or the Holy Spirit, but together with them is to be worshipped and glorified, as the one true God. This is why Thomas says to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). This is why the wise men fell down and worshipped him (Matthew 2:11). This is why the angels are commanded to worship him (Heb 1:6).
Thought 2. This Son becomes true man. He unites to himself a real human body, with specific DNA and a genome. He takes to himself a real human soul, with a mind, and emotions and feelings. This real human being was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary. He was born in the ordinary way. He developed normally through infancy and toddler years, learning language by listening to his parents, learning to sit up and walk (Luke 2:40, 52). This true man is weak, needy, and dependent. This is why he could say: “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Chalcedon teaches us that we have to think these two thoughts togetherwhen we think of Christ. In other words, thought 2 doesn’t cancel out thought 1, or replace it. Jesus’ Godhead isn’t lost or watered down by his manhood. The two go together at the same time.
I know it’s possible to talk about Jesus like we’re dissecting a frog. We can dissect his two natures, like a frog’s anatomy, which is all very interesting, but the frog is dead! But, Chalcedonian Christology isn’t doing this. It’s more like a science experiment in which you take a plastic film canister and half fill it with water. You then put an Alka-Seltzer tablet inside the film canister, quickly put the cap on, and place it top-side down on the ground while backing away. The result should be an explosion, in which the film canister turns into a rocket and launches into the sky! When you put the water and the Alka-Seltzer tablet together they create an explosion. Chalcedonian Christology is like that. Put those two thoughts about Christ together and you have some rocket fuel! The Godhead of Christ alone isn’t enough. The manhood of Christ alone isn’t enough. It’s the two combined, in one person, without confusion or separation, that produces cracking Christmas carols, that really take off.
So, for example, watch how Charles Wesley puts the two natures of Christ together in his Carol: “Glory be to God on high”
Glory be to God on high,and peace on earth descend:God (Thought 1) comes down (Thought 2), He bows the sky,And shows himself our friend:God the invisible (Thought 1) appears (Thought 2):God, the blest, the great I AM (Thought 1),Sojourns in this vale of tears (Thought 2),And Jesus is his name”Him the angels all adored,Their maker and their king; (Thought 1)Tidings of their humbled (Thought 2) Lord (Thought 1)They now to mortals bring.Emptied (Thought 2) of his majesty (Thought 1)Of his dazzling glories (Thought 1) shorn (Thought 2),being’s source (Thought 1) begins to be (Thought 2),and God himself (Thought 1) is born! (Thought 2)See the eternal Son of God (Thought 1)a mortal Son of Man; (Thought 2)dwelling in an earthly clod (Thought 2),whom heaven cannot contain (Thought 1).
It’s that explosive combination of Chalcedonian Christology that makes good Christmas carols. Training yourself to think these two thoughts about Jesus at the same time will greatly add to your desire to worship him.
I think the lady in this quote puts her finger on something very important.
“I’m a thirty-something with two kids living a more or less ordinary life. And what I’m slowly realising is that, for me, being in the house all day with a baby and a two-year old is a lot more scary and a lot harder than being in a war-torn African village. What I need courage for is the ordinary, the daily every-dayness of life. Caring for a homeless kid is a lot more thrilling to me than listening well to the people in my home. Giving away clothes and seeking out edgy Christian communities requires less of me than being kind to my husband on the average Wednesday morning or calling my mother back when I don’t feel like it…
…I’ve come to the point where I’m not sure anymore just what God counts as radical. And I suspect that for me, getting up and doing the dishes when I’m short on sleep and patience is far more costly and necessitates more of a revolution in my heart than some of the more outwardly risky ways I’ve lived in the past. And so this is what I need now: the courage to face an ordinary day – an afternoon with a colicky baby where I’m probably going to snap at my two-year old and get annoyed with my noisy neighbour – without despair, the bravery it takes to believe that a small life is still a meaningful life, and the grace to know that even when I’ve done nothing that is powerful or bold or even interesting that the Lord notices me… and that that is enough” (quoted in Ordinary, by Michael Horton, p.15 & 20)
I know we’re not all mothers, but we all have large parts of our day which are very ordinary, and it’s in our handling of those large chunks, day in, day out, that the battle for godliness is fought. “The fruit of the Spirit is… faithfulness” (Gal 5:22).
Acts 2:42 tells us: “They devoted themselves to… the prayers”. What could that kind of devoted commitment to the prayers of the church look like for you? Here’s a lovely example of a Christian’s commitment to the prayer meeting, reported by Charles Spurgeon’s little brother, James Spurgeon:
There never was a prayer-meeting held without Mrs. W—— being present. Whether I was there or not, she was. Once, about six months ago, she was absent; but when I asked her where she had been, she said:
I came there, and put the books down, although I could not stop to the meeting.
She had come to the chapel, and reported herself, and then gone off to see someone who was ill. That was the only time I ever knew her to be away from a prayer-meeting until last Sunday evening, when I missed her again. I asked my deacons if they had seen her, or heard anything of her, and they said:
We do not know where she is, but she was not with us last Friday night, at the prayer-meeting.
I said that I was sure she was dead, for if she had been alive she would have been certain to have been at the prayer-meeting. Nobody questioned what I said. All felt with me that she would not have missed two consecutive prayer-meetings unless she had been dead, or too ill to leave her house. During the evening service one of the deacons went off to where she lived all by herself, and, not being able to make anybody hear, he obtained assistance, and broke into the house. There he found just what we expected; she was there, upon her knees, dead, in her little parlour, and she must have died in great suffering, and in the act of praying to God.
She was a remarkable character. She visited and gave away tracts in the worst street in Croydon, and she had a singularly happy way of getting hold of very wicked people, to whom she would tell the story of her own life, and say that she used to be just like them, but by the grace of God she had been converted, and that grace which had done so much for her could do the same for them.
There is a story told as an instance of the pranks that used to be played upon her. A young man thought that he would frighten her; so he dressed himself up as nearly like the devil as his imagination enabled him to do, and when she knocked at his door, he opened it, and called out:
I am the devil,
and began to shout at her. Without being at all alarmed, she quietly put on her glasses, and looked him up and down, and said:
You ain’t the devil, you are only one of his children.
I thought the old lady had the best of it that time. I asked her if she ever saw him again, and she replied:
Oh dear, no! He just put his head in, and went off.
We shall sorely miss her; our prayer-meetings will have a blank through Mrs. W——’s absence that we shall not easily make up. I hope some of you will be such constant attendants at the prayer-meeting that if you are absent twice we shall say of you:
I am sure our brother or sister must be dead,
although we do not want to have you departing from us so suddenly as did our good friend at Croydon.
(Taken from The Sword and Trowel: 1884 pages 89 – 90)
I know that London life is much busier for us today than it was in Victorian London. And I know we can’t do everything. But I am convinced that the church prayer meeting is much more telling as to the real health of our church than what you see on Sundays. Luther says somewhere: “as it is the business of cobblers to make shoes, and tailors to make clothes, so it is the business of Christians to pray”. Let’s encourage each other to come along, to share our needs, and spread them before our Father in heaven.
“They devoted themselves to… the prayers” (Acts 2:42).