Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Hunger for God

In January our church is having a week of prayer and fasting.  So I thought I better write something about this topic.  What I have done is to take some points from a famous article written by Charles Rumfitt (1907).
Rumfitt begins by teaching that fasting is to be ‘unto God’.  It dishonours God to fast in a way that simply seeks to impress people.  ‘It is to be done in the presence of God, as much as possible from the knowledge of the world, with the whole man -body and mind- face to face with God.  It is both a state and an act of worship, for God's glory, and that only.  Apart from this principle, fasting, as a religious act, is not good, but rather an evil.’
He also cautions against fasting as a means of trying to merit standing with God.  After all, Christians live and breathe the air of grace.  We live in the light of his unmerited, unearned and undeserved favour.  We should not, and cannot, try to earn anything from him.
Rumfitt suggests that if we are fasting ‘unto God’ then ‘all other features, such as total or partial fasting, the times, and the duration, may be left to each to decide for [themselves].’   ‘There are no rules.  It is a principle to be put into operation spontaneously, according to the exigencies of the spiritual life, the constitution, and the leadings of the Holy Spirit.’
He lists the following benefits of fasting:

1.       Fasting teaches us self-control.  ‘The body is intended to be the servant and instrument of the mind, but in the carnal mind it is the master.’  The Christian is in a battle between the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.  I enjoy my food, but there is always the danger of over-eating.  A person who learns to control their appetites will be better able to control their heart.  Learning control in one area of our lives affects all the other appetites.

2.       Fasting tends to make the Christian life more genuine.  Rumfitt sees giving, prayer and fasting as three disciplines held together by Jesus.  He observes that a person may easily give without praying or pray without fasting; but, the person who fasts generally prays and gives.  This is because fasting is the most difficult of the three, and expresses the deepest feelings.  Indeed, fasting not only reflects deep godly feelings, it stirs them up.

3.       Fasting lessons the power of temptation.  ‘Fasting, whether partial or total, is an antidote to sensuality.  It is almost impossible for a man to overcome evil as long as he is self-indulgent, and one of the surest ways of weakening the power of lust is to mortify the flesh, because then the taste for many things is decreased …’

4.       Fasting helps us worship.  Worship is to involve the whole of our being.  The Psalmist writes, ‘all that is within me bless his holy name’ (Psalm 103:1).  I have to admit that I don’t understand how this works, but fasting ‘strengthens the reasoning powers and intensifies the purpose; it accompanies and deepens repentance … it gives wings to prayer: it gives greater power to supplication.’  I suppose all that really needs to be said is that the Bible shows God’s people, including Jesus, fasting at times of intense prayer.  If it strengthened their praying, then we should look for it to strengthen ours.

I close with two quotes I find helpful:

‘The purpose of fasting is to loosen to some degree the ties which bind us to the world of material things and our surroundings as a whole, in order that we may concentrate all our spiritual powers upon the unseen and eternal things’ (Hallesby).

‘If we are full of what the world offers, then perhaps a fast might express, or even increase, our soul's appetite for God. Between the dangers of self-denial and self-indulgence is the path of pleasant pain called fasting’ (Piper).

How do you deal with being let down? (1 Samuel 23:14-29)

How do you deal with being let down?

Perhaps you have found that a friend has been criticising you behind your back.  Maybe someone showed no concern for the fact that you were going through a hard time.  Often people are insensitive towards us.  Sometimes the people who let us down are those who are very close to us—like a parent, child or spouse.  You feel angry.  You feel hurt.  How do you cope?
A man feels let down, and so he decides that he will be more careful who he trusts.  Another person has been treated unlovingly, and now keeps people at a safe distance.  Sometimes we are so wounded that we find ourselves regularly recalling what the person has said. 
But there must be a better way than simply protecting ourselves.
This morning’s passage is framed in the context of David being let down.  In fact there are three things that happen here: betrayal, encouragement and rescue.  We will examine how these three themes relate to three people: David, the Son of David (Jesus) and you.  We will then finish by applying what we have learned to our feelings of being let down.
1.   This is a story of betrayal.
Last time we looked at the life of David we saw that he had taken a great risk in coming out of hiding and rescuing the people of Keilah from the hands of the Philistines.  How do the people of Keilah respond to their saviour?  When Saul comes looking for David, they prepare to hand him over.  He is let down by those he came to save.
So David has to go on the run again!
He flees to the desert of Ziph.  But the Ziphites also let him down.  They are scared of Saul’s power and so they go to Saul and tell him where David is.
This story finds a parallel in Jesus’ life.  No-one knows what it is like to be let down more than Jesus does.  He was betrayed by those he came to save.  He came with a message of forgiveness, but the religious people of his day opposed him.  One of his closest friends sold him for money.  His disciples showed so little concern for him that they slept as he wept in Gethsemane.  The crowd cried ‘crucify!’  His followers deserted him.  Peter denied even knowing him.  Yet he continued to love and forgive.  He did not become cynical, or keep people at a safe distance.  He sets the example for us to follow when we are let down.
We can all recall painful experiences concerning those who have let us down.  It hurts.  It is hard to let go.  It is hard not to become protective or cynical.  But remember that not only have we been let down, we have let down loads of people.  We have all gossiped and said things that we should not have.  We have all failed to care about those who are going through hard times.  We have all said, ‘I’ll be praying for you’, and then forgot to pray!
More significantly, we have let down the Son of David.  The Bible says that the natural mind is hostile to God.  We would have been among the crowd that cried 'crucify'.  As those who have been accepted as his friends we continue to fail him every day. 
We are in this story.  We are like the people of Keilah, who let down the one who rescued them.  We are like the people of Ziph who betrayed him because of worldly pressure.  We need to remember that God has forgiven us many more betrayals than he asks us to forgive!
2.   This is a story of encouragement.
After David was let down by the people of Keilah, his best friend Jonathan comes to help him find strength in God.  ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Jonathan says, ‘my father Saul will not lay a hand on you.  You shall be king over Israel and I will be second to you.’
He is reminding David of the promise of God.  David had already been anointed as the next king of Israel.  God will be faithful.
Jonathan’s promise to be second in command is amazing.  He was the eldest son of the reigning king.  He could have expected the throne.  However, he is submissive to the will of God and a willing subject of the Lord’s anointed.
There is a sense in which the Son of David knew encouragement.  He found his encouragement in prayerful intimacy with his heavenly Father.  We see him regularly going away to be on his own in prayer. 
Jesus also came as the great encourager.  He is like Jonathan.  He is the one who continually said, ‘don’t be afraid!’  God’s presence with us is meant to change everything.  Jesus’ life and death proves that God is faithful, and that guilt and death have been defeated.
I love the way Jonathan encourages David.  He helped him find strength in God.  Encouragement isn’t simply telling people they are great; it is reminding them that their God is great.  We are to remind each other of God’s promises of grace.  He will not treat us according to our wickedness but rather in light of his loving-kindness.  He rejoices over us with singing.  He will never leave us nor forsake us.  Max Lucado writes, ‘Even if you’ve fallen, even if you’ve failed, even if everyone else has rejected you, Christ will not turn away from you.’  These are the truths we tell God’s people.
3.     This is a story of rescue.
After the Ziphites betray David, he goes on the run.  David and his men are hotly pursued by Saul’s troops.  As Saul and his forces were closing in on David, a messenger came to Saul saying, “Come quickly!  The Philistines are raiding the land.”  So Saul has to quit chasing David.  Do you think that this was a coincidence?  Of course not!  Our reading began by telling us that God did not hand David into Saul’s hands.
In the gospels we read of how God rescued the Son of David.  Like David, Jesus was pursued.  Yet when the people of Nazareth try to hurl him down a cliff he walked right through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4:30).  When the religious leaders tried to stone him he slipped away (John 8:59).  On another occasion they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp (John 10:39). 
However, the Son of David not only experienced God’s rescue, he became God’s rescue.  He voluntarily laid down his life so that betrayers like us could be embraced in his love.
You have been like the people of Keilah, who betrayed the one who came to save them.  You have been the people of Ziph, who feared the powers of the world and so were disloyal.  There is even a sense in which we are like those being pursued in the wilderness—by the accuser, our own guilt and eternal death—and God turns our enemies back.  The Son of David is our rescuer!
So, how do we deal with being let down?
Many of us are far too sensitive.  I count myself among this number.  Sometimes we treat legitimate correction as if it is unfair criticism, and when we are treated unkindly we find it hard to let it go.  So how should we deal with being let down?  We need to learn that death is the currency of love.
We want to inflict hurt on those who wound us.  Maybe we give our husband or wife the silent treatment when they say things we don’t want to hear.  That’s just a way of punishing them.  God forbids such revenge.  We have to put to death the desire to pay them back.

Church is a family where people wound each other at times.  So what should we do?  We are not to keep people at a distance.  Love won’t allow that.  We must put to death the desire to protect ourselves from insensitive words.
But is it reasonable for the Son of David to demand that show such love to those who betrayed us?  Absolutely!  Like David, Jesus was betrayed by those he came to save.  Jesus even saved those who betrayed him, including us.  So we acknowledge to him our feelings of bitterness, and pray for him to replace these feeling with his love.  So, as forgiven betrayers, we ask God to help us forgive those who betray.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

'Hold on! I didn't sign up to be a soldier' (1 Samuel 23:1-14)

Why did you become a Christian?  I am suspecting that most of you didn’t turn to Christ because you wanted an adventure.  I doubt many of you became Christians because it would make your life more challenging.  I am sure most of you turned to Jesus without giving too much thought to his promise that ‘all people will hate you because of me.’  We heard him say ‘come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest’, but we weren’t necessarily ready for his, ‘now go out into the world proclaiming the good news’.
People turn to Jesus because they are in need.  You were painfully aware that you were morally bankrupt.  You felt alone in the world.  Life without Jesus was empty.  You wanted to know that you are forgiven.  You knew that you deserved hell, and that Jesus offers heaven.  You wanted to be adored by God the Father, cherished by God the Son and transformed by God the Holy Spirit.  But you weren’t necessarily signing up to go into battle!
So you can understand how David’s men felt when he told them that they were going to fight the Philistines.  Those who had gathered around David were the distressed, in debt and bitter in spirit.  They were turning to David for refuge and security.  They weren’t an army.  When David said, ‘let’s go to war’ they responded, ‘behold, we are afraid.’
The rescuing messiah
At this stage in the story David has been anointed by the prophet Samuel.  The word christ/messiah means ‘anointed one.’  David is a messiah-figure whose life points forward to his greater descendant Jesus, who is God’s true Messiah, and is referred to as the Son of David.  When David acts as a messiah-figure should, he sets a pattern that will be followed by Jesus.  When David comes to the aid of the town of Keilah we see that God’s messiah rescues.
It was King Saul’s job to protect his people of Keilah from being attacked by the Philistines, but he is not bothered.  However, David cares about them.  He steps out from hiding and goes into battle to free the people from their oppressors.  Similarly, his great descendant, Jesus, was also intent of rescuing.  In the gospels we read that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem where he was going to give his life to rescue a people from guilt, death and hell.  Like David’s men, his disciples objected to this plan.
The recruiting messiah
Imagine the thrill as David’s men looked back on that victory.  I am sure they rejoiced in seeing what God had done, and that he had used them to do it.  They had got more than they signed up for.  They had approached David as those who were rejected by society.  He then turned them into soldiers and leads them on an adventure.  A number of years ago there was a best-seller called ‘The Purpose Driven Life’.  That book had its critics, but it resonated with something within Christians.  We should want to be a part of what God is doing in his world!
You came to Jesus a sinner in need of saving, and now God sees you as a son, a saint, a servant and a soldier.  You are a herald of the good news and an ambassador of the king.  John Piper urges pastors to get radical with people.  ‘Don’t let them settle down to be comfortable, middle-class Americans.  Call them to a wartime lifestyle …’
Jesus doesn’t call you into battle because he can’t build his church without you; he is calling you because he wants you to know the joy of victory.  And there is victory every time the word is shared, even if no-one responds, because you have pleased your Father’s heart by being faithful.
A man in his thirties was talking to a Christian leader.  He said, ‘I used to be sold out for Jesus … I used to read my Bible, ready to do what it ever commanded me to do … but now I have settled for a safe kind of Christianity.’  Never let your best days as a Christian be those that are behind you.  Comfort is a poor substitute for adventure.  God has prepared works of service in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10).  He both loves us and has a plan for each day of our lives.
The reigning messiah
One of the most striking things about this passage is the fact that God is with David.  Before the battle God had assured him, ‘I will give the Philistines into your hands.’ 
If we are sure that the battle belongs to the Lord then we will not worry that we are not as gifted and competent as we would like to be.  God can use even our fumbling words.  
Jack Millar was in a taxi with a Spanish-speaking driver.  He thought about sharing the gospel, but knew that he didn’t speak Spanish very well.  So he prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to help him with his Spanish.  As he reached the end of his little gospel explanation, he uttered the powerful words, ‘Christ died for our fish.’  The man roared with laughter, and then they were friends for life.  ‘Don’t try so hard,’ he writes, ‘just be stupid along with me.  The lost are out there.  Let’s love them from death to life.’
If we are sure that the battle belongs to the Lord then we will pray. 
Jack Miller writes, ‘prayer becomes effective when you don’t have any clue how to make life work and yet you believe that God … helps you as you ask and keep on asking.’  We are afraid to speak about the cross to your family, friends, neighbours, workmates and strangers, but that is our calling.  So we pray that we would have the courage to create and grasp opportunities.  We pray for people because we know that only God can open the eyes of the spiritually blind to see the beauty of the gospel, and he does so as the gospel is presented to them!  ‘We have not yet taped into the resources that are in God when it comes to prayer’ (Miller). 
After the battle Saul sees an opportunity to kill David, and God tells David that the people of Keilah will hand him into Saul’s hands if he stays.  As David resumes life on the run we read that while Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hands.  Saul cannot triumph over God’s protection.  God is with his messiah.  Indeed, God promises to be with all his people.
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry there were those who sought to have him killed, but God did not give him into their hands.  The people of Nazareth get mad with Jesus and want to throw him down a cliff but passing through their midst he went away (Luke 4:30).  The Jewish authorities were mad at Jesus, and picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:59).  Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands (John 10:39).  God did not give him into their hands, until that moment when it was right for him to offer up his life!
We may not want to come out of hiding and be salt and light.  We are not promised immunity from all trouble in this world.  Yet God does shelter under his wings.  Even though we may be ridiculed as we speak up, God rules over all mouths.  Though some may die martyrs death there is a sense in which we are never safer than when we are following the call of God.
When you turned to Jesus you may not have realised that you were being recruited into his army.  I didn’t sign up to be a soldier.  But don’t complain.  This is a wonderful privilege.  That God would choose to use us to further his purposes in the world is a great thing.  How beautiful are our feet as we come bringing good news.  We won’t feel complete if we refuse step into the battle and talk to others about Jesus!
Lee Strobel and Mark Mittelberg write a book about the unexpected adventure of taking everyday risks to talk with people about Jesus.  They suggest that by keeping our faith to ourselves we are missing one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling dimensions of the Christian life.  Strobel writes, ‘I have repeatedly found that it’s the Christians living out the unexpected adventure who are enjoying the most fulfilling relationships with God.
So let’s follow the rescuing, recruiting and reigning messiah as he leads us in battle!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Don't fall for the empty promises of the world (1 Samuel 22)

The world offers so much, but cannot deliver what it promises.
Some of its promises ring so hollow.  Coke tells us to ‘open happiness’.  Coke isn’t the key to happiness, but it is good at rotting your teeth.  KBC, ‘the bank of you’—oh come on, they don’t care more about you than their profit margins.  Nutella got in trouble for the time they claimed it was good for our health.  McDonalds has an ad with the song, ‘where everyone knows your name’, yet it is the antithesis of the family restaurant.   
The promises of the world are empty, but God offers us what we really need.
This morning we see two very different kings, offering two very different lifestyles, and yet only one can deliver what he promises.
The empty promises of the world’s king (6-8)
As we read this story we are keeping in mind the fact that Jesus claimed all scripture pointed to him (e.g. Luke 24:27).  The books of Samuel centre on the person of David, who is God’s chosen king.  David has been anointed, and the word Messiah/Christ means ‘anointed one’.  David foreshadows Jesus, our Christ, who is referred to as Son of David.
But there is another king in this book.  He is the sort of king the people wanted when they decided to reject God’s leadership and be like the other nations.  This king is Saul.  Saul has been rejected by God.  He is a worldly king.  At this stage in the story, Saul is an anti-christ figure who is trying to kill the Lord’s chosen king and opposes all who are loyal to him.
Look at the portrait of Saul in the opening verses of our reading.
And Saul spear in hand … This mention of Saul’s spear reminds us of his volatile nature.  Saul had thrown that spear in rage at David, hoping to kill him.  Saul had also thrown that Saul murderously at his own son Jonathan.  Saul is an unstable leader.
He is sitting under a tamarisk tree, possibly holding court, and he addresses his officials.  ‘Listen, men of Benjamin …’ Benjamin was his tribe.  He is a king who has favoured his own tribe above the rest of the people.  Many despots do this.  They are so paranoid for their safety that they only trust people from their clan.
‘Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards?  Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds?’  These words echo a warning Samuel gave the people earlier in the book.  When the people demanded a king, Samuel said that the king would be selfish and harsh.  He said, ‘He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and give them to his attendants’ (8:14).
Not only is he suspicious of his officials, he believes that his own son, Jonathan, is plotting against him, along with David.  He is filled with self-pity—‘none of you is concerned about me.’  What a pathetic portrait of a king!  It is all about him!
Saul is appealing to their materialistic greed.  He offers influence, favouritism, wealth and ease.  But he can’t deliver beyond the short-term.  He is in the last days of his reign.  Soon he will be dead and gone.  His power will go with him.
In the same way all the enticements of the world will prove to be short-lived.  You can devote yours life to becoming rich, do everything to remain popular, surround yourself by the in-crowd, and protect all your comforts.  But the offers of this world are short-lived.  You are destined for a six-foot box that will be placed six-foot in the ground.
The cost of standing up for God’s anointed (9-19)
Remember how Kimberly, at her baptism, said that it was tough being a Christian teenager.  Our passage demonstrates how costly it is to remain faithful to the Lord’s anointed.
Last time we looked at the life of David we saw that he had fled to the priests at Nob.  He told them a lie—telling them he was on a mission from Saul (he is an imperfect pre-figuring of Jesus).  Ahimelech gave him the bread of presence and Goliath’s sword.  But there was a man there who was watching everything, his name Doeg the Edomite (the only official of Saul that was not from his tribe or even his nation).  Doeg now reports to Saul.  I think that this vicious character plays of Saul’s fears as he describes what happens.
As a result of what Doeg says, Ahimelech the high priest is brought to Saul.  He is not questioned, but simply accused.  ‘Why have you conspired against me?’  He is not given an opportunity to explain himself.
I think that Ahimelech comes across as a hero in how he responds.  He tells Saul that he has no more loyal servant than David.  He reminds Saul that David was his son-in-law.  He recalls that David had been entrusted as the captain of Saul’s bodyguard and highly respected in his household.  However, Saul is an anti-christ figure who hates the Lord’s anointed king and all who stand by him.  Ahimelech’s truthfulness cost him his life.
If the god of this world tries to seduce you with promises of acceptance, recognition and wealth, standing by the Lord’s Christ offers you trials and tribulations.  In the book of Hebrews we read of those ‘who were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging. While still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated—the world was not worthy of them.  They wondered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground (Hebrews 11:35-39).
Saul orders the destruction of priests of Nob.  None of his officials are willing to carry out the order, except for Doeg, who erases all that live there.
Before we move on to our closing point, I have to mention something very uncomfortable about this event.  Earlier in the book God had revealed that because of Eli’s unwillingness to deal with the corrupt and perverse disobedience of his sons judgement would come upon his household.  These are Eli’s people, and this is part of the judgement.  It is a reminder of a truth that is seen most clearly at the cross—evil people, like Doeg and those who called for Christ to be crucified, do what their evil hearts want to do, and unwittingly God uses those evil actions to bring about what he foreordained would happen!
The comforting promise of the Lord’s anointed (20-end)
How different David is from Saul!  Saul sits in luxury, David is on the run.  Saul is surrounded by the most impressive people from his tribe, whereas David welcomes all who come to him.  Saul is Saul is self-obsessed, but David offers refuge. 
Abiathar escapes the hate of Saul, and flees to the safety of David.
But, as I said, David is an imperfect messiah figure.  He knows that he shares responsibility for the death of those at Nob.  But look at what he offers Abiathar.  ‘Stay with me; don’t be afraid; the man who is seeking your life is seeking mine also.  You will be safe with me (23).  And Abiathar was safe during the reign David.
The Son of David says, ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.  And even the very hairs of your head are numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10:28-31).  ‘You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.  All men will hate you because of me.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By standing firm you will gain life’ (Luke 21:16-18).
How sad it is when the prosperity-preachers of the Christian TV networks only offer what Saul offers.  ‘Give me your money,’ they ask, ‘and you will become rich.’  Do they not know that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil?
ike Saul, the world promises much, but is passing away.  You can live for popularity, privilege and possessions but you are still going to end up six-foot in the soil.  But the Son of David accepts all who come to him, says ‘do not be afraid’, and will soon be seen in all his fullness.  He is loving and he is for us!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Praying for prodigals

This is a topic I have wanted to preach on for years, but I have not known how to.  You see, I am aware that many Christians feel great pain about children who seem to have walked away from the faith.  Indeed, it might not be one of your children who is prodigal—maybe your husband or wife has lost all interest in Jesus; maybe it is a brother or sister that you weep over; or even a parent.  I have not known how to speak into your pain.  I don’t want to naively promise you that everything is bound to turn out all right, and yet I am desperate to encourage you not to give up hoping, loving and praying.
If you are the parent of a prodigal you are in good company.  I was reading Billy Graham’s autobiography when I was struck by how his son, Franklin, had left his childhood faith to chase after women and drugs.  More significantly, you stand alongside the gracious father in this parable, a man who pictures the Father-heart of God.
I don’t want you to feel shame about the fact that your child does not love Jesus.  Not that you haven’t made mistakes!  Indeed, your child may point to you as the reason that they consider Christianity unattractive.  Jack and Rosie Miller write of the fact that they spent so much time focusing on their daughter’s outward behaviour—that she would conform to the image of a Christian girl—that they forgot about her heart.  However, shame has no place in the Christian life—you are an accepted, forgiven and adored child of God.  The truth is that all have messed up in countless ways as parents, whether or children love God or not.   Indeed, if you sit here, the parent of children who love the Lord, don’t think you have reason to boast or look down on the parents of prodigals—it was grace that saved your children; it was God’s work not yours; and he did that work in spite of all the ways you got it wrong as a parent.
What is a prodigal?  I heard a great description of a prodigal being someone for whom the good news has stopped being good news.  Like the younger son they have departed to find their pleasure somewhere other than with his.  However, remember that there are two lost children in this story.  The older brother may not have been lavish in wastefulness, but he was proud and self-righteous, and he didn’t care about his father’s love.  You could have a child who is respectable in every way, but whose idol is their own self-worth, and who does not realise how sinful it is to spurn the forgiving love of God.
We read that the younger son ended up in dire straits.  ‘There was a severe famine … and he began to be in need.’  While this son was partying, he gave no thought to his father or his home.  It was only when he was reduced to the pigsty that he began to realise how foolish he was.  Many people come to faith during times of crisis.  It is natural that you want your child to be happy; but God may need to make them miserable to wake them up.  Ask God to do whatever it takes to grab their attention.  Your prodigal may need to be deserted by friends and brought to a place where they feel utterly alone.  They may need to experience failure and loss.  Pray that they would come to their senses quickly and not experience more pain than they need.   
Pray that God would enable them to think clearly. ‘He came to his senses.’  Spurgeon writes, ‘That young man went from his home, though it was the best home in the world … It was a happy home … yet he quits it to go, he knows not where, among strangers who don’t give a straw for him and who, when they had drained his purse, would not give him even a penny with which to buy bread to save him from starving!’  ‘The most reasonable thing in the world is to spend life for its true design and not to fling it away as though it were a pebble on the seashore.’
There is a madness is being a prodigal.  The young woman wanted the comfort of being touched so she went to bed with her lovers; but they weren’t lovers, they didn’t care about her, and she ended up feeling alone and used.  The young man wanted fun, so he partied all night; but he couldn’t shake the feeling of emptiness.  The older son wanted to show his worth by making the team, and somewhere along the way, as he strove towards that goal, the way his life stopped being centred on God.  The older daughter spent all her time trying to make the grade, but when she got her results she thought, ‘there must be more than this!’
There is more than that!  Pray that God would remind them of his abundant provisions.  ‘How many of my father’s hired men have bread enough to spare, and I am starving to death.’  Spurgeon says that ‘bread enough to spare’ might be taken as the motto for the gospel. 

Don’t try to nag them to come home to God.  Nagging gives the impression that coming to God is some sort of joyless obligation.  Don’t try to shame them into coming home—telling them how disappointed his mother would be with him, for that will not change his heart and cause him to rejoice in God.  Pray for them, and also for your own soul, so that they might see the beauty and satisfaction that God can bring to life.  He has bread enough to spare, and he is lavish in grace and goodness.  Ask God to produce such joyful godliness in you that they might see that life in Christ is something to be treasured.
However, don’t fake it—as if you are always happy.  Read the psalms and you will see that God’s people often struggle in hard times.  Your prodigal will see through you if you are acting.  Instead, let them realise that God’s people hold on to him even when life is hard, and that his presence comforts them even as they grieve.
‘I’ll set out and go back to my father.’  You don’t want them to simply become a respectable pagan.  You want them to come to the heavenly Father.  I wonder if that young man remembered how kind his father was.  Pray that they would not have a skewed vision of God.  Some fail to see the holiness of God and don’t see that they will face his judgement if they don’t repent.  Others, however, ‘imagine God to be a severe being, angry and fierce, very easily to be moved to wrath, but not so easy to be induced to love’ (Spurgeon).  They might see him as indifferent and uncaring.  Let the gospel you share with them be the good news of the cross—where wrath and mercy meet, and divine love is supremely demonstrated.
I will say, “I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am not worthy to be your son.’  This is one of the most important things your prodigal needs to realise.  There is no true faith in Christ without an awareness of being spiritually bankrupt.  It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict them of sin.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give them the godly sorrow that leads to repentance.  This may be most difficult for your child to understand if they have built their identity of respectability.  We live in a society that does not realise that the vilest thing any person can do is spurn the love of God.  Pray that they would discover that while they are more sinful than they ever realised, they are more loved than they dared dream.
John Piper is a famous pastor in America.  When his son, Abraham, was nineteen, he stopped pretending that he followed Jesus.  Abraham writes, ‘At first I pretended that my reasoning was high-minded and philosophical.  But really I just wanted to drink gallons of cheap sangria and sleep around.  Four years of this and I was strung out, stupefied and generally pretty low; especially when I was sober and alone.’
‘My parents, who are strong believers and who raised their kids as well as any parents I’ve ever seen, were heartbroken and baffled.’
But one morning he received an email from a girl that mentioned a verse from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.  So, with beer in hand, he started reading.  By the time he got to the tenth chapter, the beer was finished, and he had become a Christian.  ‘The best way I know to describe what happened to me that morning is that God made it possible for me to love Jesus.  When he makes this possible, and at the same time gives you a glimpse of the true wonder of Jesus, it is impossible to resist his call.’
Looking back on his years of rejecting Christ, he offers some advice to those who are trying to reach out to their wayward children.  He says, ‘your rebellious child’s real problem is not drugs or sex … The real problem is that your child does not see Jesus clearly … The best thing you can do for your rebellious children … is to show them Christ … the goal is not that they will be good kids again … The ultimate reason to pray for them … is so that their eyes will be opened to Jesus Christ … when they see the wonder of Jesus, satisfaction will be redefined ... Only His grace can draw them from their perilous pursuits and bind them safely to Him—captive but satisfied.  God will do this for many.  Be faithful and don’t give up.’

Monday, 24 October 2016

How can you trust the gospels?

The great nineteenth-century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was asked about defending the Bible.  He replied, ‘defend the Bible?  I would rather defend a lion!  Unchain it and let it defend itself.’

In this post I want to defend the four gospels.  I want you to see that their evidence is significant.  But more importantly I want to encourage you to read the gospels, and let them defend themselves. 
Objection: ‘We don’t have the originals’
We refer to the original text as an autograph.  It is true that we don’t have the autographs of any of the four gospels.  However we can be confident of knowing what those autographs contained.
To start with, we have a great deal of manuscript evidence.  For example, there are over five-thousand Greek manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament, dating from the second-century to the time of the Reformation.  Compare that to the seven manuscripts of Plato’s ‘Tetralogies’ that date from at least 1,200 years after its composition.
Two interesting examples of New Testament evidence are the John Ryland’s Fragment (a few verses of John’s Gospel, and dating from around 120 A.D.) and the Chester Beatty Papyri (containing major parts of the New Testament, and dating from around 200 A.D.).
Added to the manuscript evidence for the New Testament documents are the 32,000 citations of the New Testament in the writings of what are known as the pre-Nicaean fathers (they were church leaders writing before in the time period before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.).  From their writings alone we can be clear about what was contained in the New Testament originals.
When I was a young Christian I read a book by Professor F. F. Bruce of Manchester University entitled, ‘The New Testament Documents – Are they reliable?’  In this he states that ‘The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning.  And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.’
Objection:  The gospels are full of errors
When I say that I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible I mean that I believe that there were no errors in the originals.  However, there are variations in the manuscripts.  These variations are the results of mistakes made by those who were copying the manuscripts.  No one is keeping this a secret.  Open any copy of a modern Bible and you will see footnotes that inform you of variations in manuscript evidence.  The vast majority of these variations are extremely minor, and no doctrine of the church is altered by such a variant in the text.
Writing of the Bible as a whole, one systematic theologian writes, ‘For over 99 percent of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said ...  In the small percentage of cases where there is uncertainty about what the original text said, the general sense of the sentence is usually quite clear from the context’ (Grudem). 
There are also some places where it can seem difficult to reconcile various accounts of the same event.  So when I was speaking on this topic at the University of Limerick Christian Union someone asked me about Judas’s death.  The account in Matthew and that in Acts is not an easy match.  Similarly, aspects of the resurrection account don’t fit comfortably together.  However, if writers like Matthew and Luke were aware of each other’s accounts, then clearly they do not see any contradictions, and if they are entirely independent of each other, then we have added historical weight to what they were saying.
The fact that the accounts can be reconciled with each other, but that they don’t always smoothly do so, is clear evidence that the writers have not colluded in their story.  They are telling the same story from different viewpoints.  Kel Richards tells of a police-officer who looked at the evidence for the resurrection from the gospel accounts and so was struck by how authentic they sounded that he was brought to faith.
One of the interesting things about the gospels is that if you were making this story up you would not make it up like this.  The text is full of marks of authenticity.  For example, in a Jewish court of law the evidence of a woman was not permissible, so you would not have had women as the first eye-witnesses of the empty tomb.  Similarly, Peter apparently is the source of Mark’s gospel, but Peter comes across as spiritually slow on the uptake, and even denies Jesus (I would have made myself look better).  Also, in a chauvinistic society, Luke records that the ministry of Jesus was financially dependant on a bunch of women.  And, Jesus is portrayed as being too weak after his flogging to carry the beam of his cross--he has to be helped by Simon of Cyrene (who Mark tells is the father of Alexander and Rufus—who his readers seem to know).
When someone points to a problem text in Scripture remember that they are presenting you with something that Christians have been aware of for centuries.  As Wayne Grudem points out, ‘the Bible in its entirety is over 1,900 years old, and the alleged "problem texts" have been there all along.   Yet throughout the history of the church there has been a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture ... Moreover, for these hundreds of years highly competent biblical scholars have read and studied these problem texts and still have no difficulty in holding to inerrancy.’
Objection:  They were only myths that weren't meant to be taken as history
But maybe the writers never meant us to take their work seriously—maybe they were writing legend or myth.  Luke claims to have carefully investigated his gospel so that he could give an accurate account, and John (19:35) claims to have been an eyewitness.  Remember that John was a Jew who would have believed that inventing a hoax messiah would have been an act of blasphemy that would have excluded him from God’s kingdom.  The apostles all endured lives of hardship for what they claimed about Jesus!
The time lag from event to legend is too short.  Legends cannot be created in the time frame of eyewitnesses to the events.  Neither do the gospel accounts read like legends.  C. S. Lewis was the writer of the Narnia books.  He was also a Professor of Literature in Oxford.  He writes, ‘I have been reading legends and myths all my life.  I know what they look like.  I know they are not like this.’
Objection:  What about other gospels?
This sort of objection has become popular since the Da Vinci Code.  However, these so-called gospels should not worry you.  It can easily be shown that the four gospels we have were in circulation in the second-century and recognised as having unique authority.  However, none of the alternative gospels were written in the first-century, have a very different feel to them, and can be attributed to unorthodox Christian off-shoots.
Listen to the description in of the resurrection in the Gospel of Peter.  The soldiers guarding the tomb ‘saw three men come out of the tomb, two of them sustaining the other one, and a cross following after them.  The heads of the two they saw had heads that reached up to heaven, but the head of [Jesus] that was led up them went beyond heaven.’
One of these other gospels is the gospel of Peter, which was written in the second half of the second-century.  Unlike the four gospels it is completely otherworldly—with moving crosses, and a Jesus who has a head that reaches beyond heaven.  It reflects an accommodation to the Greek mind, that didn’t like the physical, and so created an ethereal Jesus.  It is consistent with the thoughts of the Gnosticism that was an influence at that time.
I could mention the evidence for Jesus and the early Christian movement from non-biblical sources, like the Jewish historian Josephus or the Romans Tacitus and Pliny the Younger.  J. P. Moreland writes, ‘No historian I know of denies that Christianity started in Jerusalem just a few weeks after the death of Jesus in the presence of friendly and hostile eye-witnesses.’
I could also point to the internal consistency of the Bible.  Many have read the books of the Bible (written by over forty authors over 1,500 years) and been amazed that it seems to have unifying threads. 
However, I want to finish with words from the Bible translator J. B. Phillips.  He writes, ‘The New Testament, given a fair hearing, does not need me or anyone else to defend it.  It has the proper ring of truth for anyone who has not lost the ear for truth.
By all means defend the lion, but more importantly let that lion lose to defend itself.  This book has the fingerprints of God on it.  If you have never read one of the four gospels as an adult I can guarantee you that you will be surprised by what’s in here.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Letter to Limerick Post

Dear Sir,
Tom Murphy has challenged me to come up with a coherent narrative for the events surrounding the first Easter morning.  I would suggest that the easiest thing to do is to deal with some of the apparent discrepancies that exist between the gospels, and then give a possible account.
The first thing that I need to point out is that it is really encouraging to see the apparent discrepancies between the gospels.  If there had been collusion around the resurrection accounts we would see identical stories.  However, what we get is what would be expected from eyewitnesses. 
One of the apparent discrepancies surrounds the number of women involved.  The fact that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women is a real mark of authenticity (as the testimony of women was not admissible in a first-century court).  None of the writers are claiming to give an exhaustive list. For example, John only mentions Mary Magdalene, but then has her reporting her findings using ‘we’ language. 
Then there is the difference in the light.  John says it was dark, while the others talk of sunrise.  I would suggest that the women may have set off from Bethany in the dark on the two mile journey to Jerusalem, arriving in the early light.
Were there one or two angels?  There were two angels.  It is not strange that Mark would only mention one angel, as frequently only the spokesperson is mentioned and accompanying figures are not mentioned.  Also, it was common in the Bible for angels to appear in the form of men.
The other thing that needs to be noted is that scholars believe that the gospel writers knew of each other’s writing.  If this is so, then they clearly didn’t see contradictions between what they wrote and what was written before them.  If they didn’t know of each other’s writing then we have to account for the huge overlap in their stories of the life of Jesus.
There are a number of ways that you can harmonise the resurrection accounts.  The following is based on the work of New Testament scholar Murray Harris:
On the first day of the week, as morning was dawning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome approach the tomb intending to embalm the body.  Mary Magdalene immediately returns to tell Peter and John that the body is missing.  Mary (mother of James) and Salome enter the tomb and see an angel who directs the women to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.  These women return to Jerusalem, where they initially do not report the angelic vision, because of the awe and fright.  Certain other women, along with Joanna, go to the tomb, also planning to embalm the body.  They meet two angels and then return to report the resurrection the disciples (the disciples had scattered after Jesus was arrested).  Informed by Mary Magdalene, Peter and John run to the tomb (without meeting Mary the mother of James and Salome).  They observe the grave clothes and return home.  Mary Magdalene remains behind and meets Jesus.  She returns to inform the disciples.  Mary the mother of James and Salome haven’t said anything yet.  Jesus meets Mary the mother of James (and perhaps Salome and others) and directs them to tell his brethren to go to Galilee.  Later Jesus will appear to other people, including to five hundred people on one occasion.
Finally, can I recommend a great website that not only answers questions like those Tom raises, but explains why these issues matter?  It is bethinking.org 
Yours sincerely,
Paul Ritchie (Limerick Baptist).