Friday, 26 June 2020

Restore us to yourself, O Lord (Lamentations 5)




Background

So, we have reached the end of the book of Lamentations.  It has not been an easy book.  The people of the southern kingdom of Judah had persistently rebelled against God.  God had sent prophets like Jeremiah to call them back to himself in repentance.  But the people listened to religious teachers who told them what they wanted to hear.  These false teachers had a theology of peace.  They said, ‘look, the temple is in Jerusalem and so there is no way that God will destroy this city.  There will be no day of judgement.’  Then the day of judgement arrived.  The Babylonians surrounded the city for three years as its inhabitants died.  Then they breached the walls and took the people into exile.  It is worth noting that what took place was foretold in the book of Deuteronomy.  But there is hope for us.  Deuteronomy may have spoken of the curse for disobedience, but we know that Jesus has taken that curse upon himself.  For Deuteronomy said, ‘cursed is anyone hung on a tree’ (cf. Galatians 3:13).  Jesus hung on that tree as he died on the cross for the curse due to our disobedience so that, in Christ, we might enjoy God’s blessing.     

There were some very positive verses in the middle of chapter three.  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (3:22-23).  What amazing words to come out of Jeremiah’s mouth, given that he is looking at the devastation caused by God’s judgement!  Even when life is hard, we must remember that steadfast love of God.  He will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict the children of men (3:32-33).  In fact, we can look beyond any circumstance and remember that this is how we know what love is: Christ lay down his life for us (1 John 3:16).

So how will the short book end?  Let’s see.

Remember God (1).

Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, see our disgrace (1).

In this closing chapter the people of Judah plead for God to restore them.  The people begin by asking God to remember.  When I think of God remembering my mind is brought to the book of Exodus, when the people were in slavery in Egypt.  During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help.  Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (Exodus 2:23-25).

What does it mean to ask God to remember, after all he does not have a problem with his memory?  It is a call for God to do something.  It is a call for God to act in line with his promises.

One of the things that we learn when we study the book of Lamentations is that when we are down and out, we are to approach God with raw honesty.  Jesus asked, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”; and I will answer from within, “do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed.  I cannot get up and give you anything”?  I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.  And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ (Luke 11:5-9).

What are the people asking for?  They want God to see their disgrace.  God had entered into a relationship with the people of Israel and Judah.  They were supposed to be a holy and special people.  But they have sinned.  They have not being holy.  They were supposed to be a blessing to the nations.  God has judged them and now they lie in ruins.  Things can’t stay like this.  How can God’s love and goodness be shown to the world when his people lie in rubble? 

We look at our own sin and we think of the disgrace.  We want to be like Jesus, but in so many ways we are not.  We are crushed by the fact that oftentimes habitual sins like lust and pride disgrace us.  We struggle with bitterness and we find it so hard to forgive.  ‘Remember our disgrace Lord and change us from within.’  We pray for holiness, for we are to be God’s holy people, and everything else is a disgrace.

Get real (2-18)

Verses two to eighteen recall the woes that they have just experienced.  They have lost the Promised Land.  They have become fatherless, and their mothers are like widows.  They are enduring economic hardship.  There is mention of terrible sexual crimes.  All the joy has gone from their hearts.  ‘They were homeless and hounded; horrified and hard-pressed; heart-broken and hopeless.  When they prayed for the disgrace to be removed this is what they meant’ (Lee McMunn).

Why would you bother recalling all the bad things that have happened to you?  Why tell God these things, for he already knows?  It because they are not running from reality, they are facing reality.  We aren’t simply to try to forget the terrible things that have happened to us, we bring them to God.  We don’t have to pretend things are rosy when they are not.  We are to be real with God.  But that does not mean that we stop and wallow in self-pity.  We are asking God to do something about it.  When we fall again to that same temptation, we tell God about it, and we ask God to change us from within.  When old bitterness resurfaces, we don’t hide it from him, but ask him to give us more grace.  Where do you need to be real with God, acknowledging that things are not as they should be, and asking him to come to the rescue?

Ask God to restore (19-22)

In verse nineteen the people move from their plight to focus on God’s character.  But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures for all generations.  Our only hope is when God is true to himself.  We appeal to the God who is slow to anger and abounding in love.  We trust the God who does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving kindness.  The God who shows faithfulness to a faithless people.  The God who loved us before we loved him and promises to keep loving us to the end.  The God who has put a new heart in us and inclines us to follow his ways.  God not only has the ability to help us, he has the desire.

They want to be saved from their disgrace.  They want to be restored to God.  Restore us to yourself, that we may be restored.   Note that it is God who needs to work if people are to be restored.  We pray for our non-Christian friends and neighbours that God would give them spiritual life.  We pray for those who are living the life of a prodigal that God would bring them to their senses.  We pray for ourselves, ‘create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).

But what do we make of the last verse—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us?  Will God restore them?  Will his anger be turned away from them?  There seems to be uncertainty for the generation that Jeremiah belongs to.  One preacher explains, ‘I think this is a great ending for an Old Testament book.  As we read it, we are being reminded that this cannot be the end of the story.  It pushes us to read on as we ask, is there a happier future?’

The truth is that there will be dark days ahead for the people of Judah.  They will endure years of exile.  But has not given up on them.  In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah there will be a return and restoration, but that restoration seems incomplete.  The story is not finished there.  The Promised Messiah will come.  He will turn people back to God.  He inaugurates a new covenant where, I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).  God turns us back to himself.  Why haven’t you packed in your faith?  Because he has kept you from falling.  Why can’t you be content when you are distant from him?  Because he works within you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.  Why do you run home to him when you realise that the pleasures of sin bring emptiness and pain?  Because he will never stop drawing you with chords of love. 

But we know that in this life we will not be perfect.  We lie to ourselves if we say that we have no sin (1 John 1:8).  We are now forgiven and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  But we still struggle with temptation and sin.  We are still waiting for the day when full restoration will come.  Jerusalem was destroyed, but there is a heavenly Jerusalem that awaits the Lord’s return (Revelation 21:1-4).  On that day we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).  God’s people will be fully restored.  There will be no more disgrace.  God’s people will perfectly reflect God’s glory.  In the meantime, we purify ourselves as he is pure’ (1 John 3:3).

Saturday, 20 June 2020

God is good and angry (Lamentations 4)


‘God is good and angry’ (Lamentations 4)

A Scottish minister met a man who had grown up in a nominally Christian home, but who had converted to Islam.  The minister asked the man what had made Islam so attractive to him.  The man explained that in the church that he had attended they only ever spoke about the love of God.  They never mentioned the holiness of God or the justice of God.  This young man wanted a god who could promise him that justice mattered.  The irony was that in that church’s attempt to make God more attractive they actually put someone off him.

Sadly, unlike that Muslim, most people do want to ignore talk of the judgement of God.  That was certainly what Jeremiah found.  He warned the people of Jerusalem that if they did not turn to God in repentance there would be a terrible day of judgement.  The people chose not to listen to him.  Instead they listened to those false teachers who told them that God could never destroy the city that was home to the temple.  The false teachers said everything was okay.  There was no need to fear God.  There would be no day of judgement.

Then the day of judgement came.  The Babylonians surrounded the city for three years and its inhabitants starved to death.  After that, the city’s walls were breached, and the place was ruined.  Its inhabitants were killed or enslaved.  Most of the survivors were taken into exile.  In this morning’s readings Jeremiah looks at the ruins and tries to process what has happened.      

God is good and angry (1-11)

What does Jeremiah see as he looks around?  He saw the ruins of the temple scattered on every street.  But it is not only the precious gems from the temple that have been toppled, the children of the city—worth their weight in gold to their parents—lie broken.  The people had become heartless.  Mothers had no longer fed their children.  The children begged for bread, but no one gave them any.  People had even cooked and eaten their own children. 

This suffering is not just for the ordinary people of the city, the rich princes, who had fair skin because their privileged lies shielded them from the sun, and whose bodies were perfectly healthy and well formed, are now unrecognisable.  Their skin in shrivelled on their bones, it has become a dry as a stick (8).

Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of the famine (9a).  At least they died instantly.

Why has this happened?  This happened because God is good and angry.  This is God’s judgement.  The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom (6a).  Sodom was overthrown in an instant, but Jerusalem’s suffering has been drawn out.  The Lord has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger.  He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations (11).

The fact that God is good and angry might not seem like good news to you.  The book of Psalms tells us that God is a righteous judge, a God who displays his wrath every day (Psalm 7:11).  However, anger is not the essence of his being.  His anger is an outworking of his love and holiness.  He is angry because wickedness should make a loving and holy God angry.  He is not like a grumpy old man who is angry for no reason.  His anger is his reasonable, settled opposition to all that is evil.  He patiently calls people to turn to him and be forgiven.  But if we spurn his grace, we will face a day of his fierce wrath.

Love warns (12-16)

Jeremiah looks at this city, that has experienced the judgement of God, and he blames the religious leaders—the prophets and priests.  Jeremiah had called the people to repent, but the people had listened to religious leaders who had told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

I am frustrated with my attempts to speak to my friends about Jesus.  They know that I call myself a Christian, but I am not sure they know what I believe.  Some of them think that I am just trying to be a good person.  I want them to realise that I am simply a forgiven sinner and that without a living relationship with Jesus they will take the punishment for their sin in hell.  These are not easy things to talk about, but we have not fully shared the gospel with people until they hear the warnings as well as the promises.

I read an interesting approach that one man takes.  Instead of asking them the usual question, ‘why do you think God should let you into heaven?’, he turns it around and asks his friends, ‘why do you think that God should let me into heaven?’  His friends reply by saying that he is a good guy.  They point out that he is a pastor.  He then explains that the Bible actually teaches that he has been guilty of all sorts of evil and that he deserves to be separated from God for all eternity and punished for his sins.  But that Jesus took the punishment for his guilt on the cross and freely accepts anyone who turns to him in repentance.  Why not ask one of your friends if they think you are going to heaven?

Look what happened false teachers.  The people rejected them.  They had persecuted those who had tried to tell the truth, and yet no they find themselves rejected.  The day of God’s judgement will be terrible for those false teachers who refuse to believe and teach the gospel.

Beware of false saviours (17-22)

As the Babylonians surrounded the city, the people of Jerusalem looked in vain for the Egyptians to come and rescue them.  They climbed into their towers and watched for that nation that could not save them.  The Egyptians did not come.  They had placed their hope in a false saviour. 

We are in danger of placing our hope wring place.  Why should God let you into his heaven?  If you reply, ‘because I am a good person, I go to church, I have never been in trouble with the law, I pray’ or anything else that depends on you, you are too are trusting in false saviours that will be no use on the day of judgement.  The correct answer ‘because I have put my hope in Jesus who has taken the full weight of my guilt upon the cross’.

Zedekiah was their king.  He was a king in the line of David.  He had been captured trying to flee the city.  The Lord’s anointed, our very life breath was caught in their traps.  We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations (20).  He would soon have his sons executed before him, just before his eyes were gouged out.  Then he was taken to Babylon along with the majority of those who had survived the siege.  Zedekiah could not save them, but another Son of David would come in power and mercy and save his people.

We might read the terrible judgement of this chapter and think that it is over the top.  We don’t deserve what they experienced.  Without Jesus we will actually face something far worse.  Without Jesus we will face an eternal punishment.  But is that really what we deserve?  An ancient and godly Archbishop of Canterbury called Anselm explained that the reason we find God’s anger hard to fathom is because we have not yet considered the weight of sin.

Think of it in terms of the eternal value of the one that we have sinned against.  I sit here by a window.  I can see on that window a little smudge from where I crushed an annoying fly.  No one is going to report me to the police for crushing a fly.  Lying beside me is my dog, Charlie, he is worth more than a fly.  If I was to get up and start beating him, I hope you would report me, and the authorities might come and give him to a better home.  Now suppose I leave this room, go into the kitchen and start beating my wife Caroline.  I hope that I would not only be reported to the police but that I would receive a prison sentence.  Caroline is worth more than both the fly and the dog.  Now continue this line of thought and think of the infinite worth of God.  We have sinned against the author of life.  We have rebelled against his infinite holiness.  We have thrown off his loving rule.  We do what he has forbidden.  When he sent his Son in love to this world, we pinned him to a cross and watched him die.  Our hostility to God’s infinite goodness and love certainly deserves an eternal punishment. 

The closing verses are addressed to the nation of Edom.  They had delighted in seeing Jerusalem destroyed.  They had no compassion or pity.  Yet while Jerusalem’s punishment had come to an end theirs had not even begun.  

Conclusion

Turn back to the book of Deuteronomy, which was given through Moses before they entered the Promised Land and you will read of the curse that would befall Israel if they turned their backs on God in rebellion, including the fact that they would eat their own children (28:52-57).  On fact the book of Deuteronomy pronounced a curse on anyone who did not keep all the works of the law.  The truth is that we are helpless to make ourselves right with God.  But in his great love for sent his Son not for the self-righteous but those who will admit that they are sinful.  ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a cruse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”’ (Galatians 3:13).  He has taken the punishment that we deserve that we the guilty might enjoy all the blessings of being right with God.

It might go against what the self-esteem movement teach, but some of the most emotionally healthy people I know are also those with the greatest awareness of their personal failings.  They don’t feel that they have to justify all their actions.  They are happy to admit that they are flawed.  They don’t excuse anything they have done.  They will tell you that there are things in their hearts that would not like you to see.  You see, their confidence is not in themselves but in the cross of Christ.  They know that he is willing to accept even the worst of people, and they have no problem counting themselves among that number (1 Timothy 1:15).  They know that when Jesus said from the cross that ‘it is finished’ (John 19:30), which meant the full price of all their past, present and future sin was paid.  Jesus says, ‘he who has been forgiven much loves much’ (Luke 7:47) and they have some grasp of how much they have been forgiven.  They feel secure because Jesus promised that he would never drive away anyone that comes to him (John 6:37) and the letter to the Romans assures us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).

Look at Lamentations 4 and see something of what our sin deserves.  Look at Lamentations 4 and remember that Jesus experienced an even more dreadful punishment on the cross.  See Jesus drink the cup of God’s holy anger.  Hear him calling us to repentance and life.  Delight in the fact that we have been rescued from judgement and can shelter in the shadow of God’s anointed.

Friday, 12 June 2020

‘In your pain remember who God is’ (Lamentations 3)


After my friend Luisa had passed through a time of depression, I asked her what had sustained her through the dark days.  She said, ‘Prayer, the support of friends and family, and knowing that the tears won’t last forever.  The thought that heaven’s gates are wide open for me is so comforting.  The thought of being immensely loved by God.  I also remember that I was in a bad place before and eventually got out of it.’

We are looking at the book of Lamentations.  The people of Judah had ignored God’s call to repentance, and he had let the Babylonians conquer them.  For three years the city of Jerusalem had been surrounded and the people inside its wall starved to death.  Then the Babylonians invaded the city and people were taken into exile.  Try to picture the devastation as you read this book.  The chapter opens with Jeremiah telling us that, ‘I am a man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (1a).

It is in this context of suffering that Jeremiah affirms that because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (22).  In his pain Jeremiah was sustained by the thought of being immensely loved by God.   

This chapter actually turns on a hinge.  In the opening section Jeremiah speaks about his pain with raw honesty.  God invites us to be real with him.  But heaven’s gates seem closed to Jeremiah.  Though I called for help, he shuts out my prayer (8).  Sometimes when we need him the most, he seems most absent.   ‘My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is’ (17).  He seems to have hit rock bottom.


See beyond your circumstances

Then comes verses twenty-one.  ‘But I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope’ (21).  One translation translates this, ‘yet I still dare to hope when I remember this’ (NLT).  What is it that Jeremiah remembers and calls to mind?  He remembers that because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (22).  The destruction of Jerusalem had sent Jeremiah a message, but that message was not the entire story.  Our circumstances may tell us that all is hopeless, but we must fight this hopelessness by remembering who God is.

Whatever your circumstances, meditate on what Jesus has done for you on the cross.  This is the ultimate and irrefutable evidence of God’s love for his people.  It was in love God sent his Son.  Jesus died for our guilt and was raised to make us right with God.  ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else is all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39).

The word translated ‘great love’, in verse twenty-two, is the Hebrew word hesed.  Hesed is God’s covenant love for his people.  It is a love that is rooted in his character.  Our sure hope is that God always remains true to himself.  It is because God is love that we must not give up hope.  It is because God does not change that we can be sure that we will not be consumed.  His compassions never fail.  They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness.


Cultivate intimacy with God

The pastor and author Tim Keller announced last week that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  He admitted that there have been times of shock and fear, but that God has been remarkably present through all the many tests, biopsies and surgery of the past weeks.  I think that this is the most important thing that we pray for our suffering friends.  We pray that in the midst of their pain there would have power to see ‘how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).

Having reflected on the great love of God, Jeremiah is able to say, ‘I say to myself, “the Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait on him” (24).  In the midst of his pain God is enough for him.  Is he enough for us?  Keller asked people to pray that he and his wife would ‘use this opportunity to be weaned from the joys of this world and to desire God above all else.’  He wants to be able to say with Jeremiah ‘the Lord is my portion, therefore I can wait for him’ (24).

There is a sense in which this whole life is a time of waiting for the suffering to end.  It is only when Jesus returns that we read that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).  If you are not passing through a time of suffering at the moment it is only a matter of time until you will.  In this time of waiting, we need to cultivate intimacy with God.  Depression, grief and pain can turn us in on ourselves, but this won’t help us.  God ministers to us through his people, so don’t cut yourself off from church.  God shapes us as we mediate on his word and pour out our hearts in prayer.  Talk to him.  Listen to him.  Depend on him.    



Don’t waste your suffering

God is good.  For no one is cast off from the Lord for ever.  Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.  For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (31-33).

The God who caused the Babylonians to level Jerusalem did not do this out of some sort spiteful joy in seeing people suffer.  He does not delight in bringing pain on his people.  Rather there is a loving purpose behind every tear.  His intentions are kind.  Sometimes we can see why he allowed us pass through a particular season of suffering, but often we are left scratching our heads. 

Why not pray, ‘God, I don’t know what you’re doing or why, but I’m going to trust that you’re God and I’m not.  I might never understand the purpose in this life of this pain but use it to make me more like Jesus.’

Sadly, some people become bitter and cynical as they wait for God to lift them out of the pain.  But if you let the Holy Spirit do his work in your life, he will become more gentle and understanding towards the pain of others. 

The apostle Paul writes of ‘the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God’ (2 Corinthians 1-3-4).  Those who allow God to shape them through their brokenness have a gentle and understanding spirit.  Don’t waste your suffering but ask God to use it to make you more like Jesus, who himself learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).


Conclusion

Mark Vroegop endured the pain of burying a still-born daughter.  He says that ‘when sorrow and weariness try to take over the closing moments of my day, I pray something like this:

‘Lord, I am weary and tired.  I’m discouraged, and I don’t know how I’m going to do this again tomorrow.  But I believe your mercies are going to be new when I wake up.  I believe that I will never run out of your steadfast love.  I’m trusting that you have enough grace for me for what I face.  I’m going to sleep because I’m hoping in you.’

Why don’t we pray that prayer together?

Friday, 5 June 2020

‘We watch the news to know how to Lament’ (Lamentations 1)


This week we have watched scenes on our news programs that should cause us sorrow.  Week after week we have been hearing about the Corona virus and the death that it is bringing in our world.  Now this recurring news cycle has been interrupted by events in America.  There we see racial injustice and civil disorder.  What is going on?  Why are these things happening?  How should we respond?

We watch the news in order to know how to pray (Mark Dever).  We also watch the news in order to know how to lament.  In a sense lament is about being real with God, asking God difficult questions and even bringing him our complaints.  We see lament right through out the book of Psalms and in this amazing little book that we are going to study over the next few weeks.


Background—a people who underestimated the holiness of God

The book of Lamentations has a particular historical context.  God had promised Abraham’s people a land—the land of Canaan.  But the book of Deuteronomy warned them that if they lived in rebellion against God they would be kicked out of this land. 

God patiently persisted with them as they turned to the idols of that land and did what was evil in his sight.  After the reign of King Solomon, the nation was divided in two.  The northern kingdom, called Israel, didn’t listen to God and so they were eventually conquered by the Assyrians.  The southern kingdom, called Judah, didn’t learn from this.  They continue to ignore God.  The prophet Jeremiah called them back to God, but they would not listen.  Instead, they listened to false prophets who said that God would not judge them.  After all their capital was Jerusalem, the home of the temple.  God would not allow that city to be destroyed.  Like so many people today, they underestimated the holiness of God.  They would not accept the idea of a day of judgement.

That day of judgement came.  The Babylonians arrived.  They were the super-power of that time.  For three years the Babylonians surrounded the city as the people starved to death.  Eventually the walls broke, and the city was sacked.  The people were made slaves and exiles.  The temple was now a smouldering heap of ruins.

Now Jeremiah thinks about what he is seeing in his world.  He sees the evidence of sin and the destruction it brings.  He sees devastation and ruin and it breaks his hearts.  He cries out about the loneliness of suffering, the need for God to make things right and then he repents of his own sin.


Suffering is lonely

‘How deserted lies the city, once so full of people.  How like a widow is she, who was great among the nations!  She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave’ (1:1).

There is a dreadful loneliness in this first chapter of Lamentations.  The words ‘no one’ are repeated twenty-two times in its twenty-two verses.  There is no one coming to comfort them.  There is no one coming to their rescue.  They feel abandoned by God.

That is a feeling that many of us have experienced.  In our grief and pain, we can feel terribly lonely.  When we need God most, he can feel most absent.  The Psalms give us permission to cry out with King David, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ (Psalm 22:1).

Don’t forget that Jesus asked the same question from the cross.  He experienced what it was like to be alone in suffering so that we might never truly be alone in our suffering.  To those who trust in him, he promises, ‘I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’  We may feel alone, but we never are forsaken.  The most important thing that we can pray for our suffering friends is that they would know God and that the Holy Spirit would enable them to feel his love.


We need God to make things good

Why do we live in a word of viruses and violence? 

We live in a world of viruses and violence because of human sin.  There was no Corona virus in the Garden of Eden.  There was no violence there.  It was only after humankind had been expelled from that garden that we read of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.  Hatred has been in the human heart ever since.

The events that surround the book of Lamentations echo the removal from Eden.  In the Garden of Eden God’s people were in God’s place.  They rebelled against God and they were expelled.  The result was suffering and death.  Before the Babylonians arrived to destroy Jerusalem, God’s people were in God’s place.  They rebelled against God and they were expelled.  The result was suffering and death.

Read through the opening chapter of Lamentations and you will hear about distress, mourning, desolation, bitter anguish, and grief.  Why did this happen?  The answer to that question is dreadful.  In the middle of verse five we read, ‘the LORD has brought her grief because of her many sins’ (5b).  This was an act of God’s judgement.

Sometimes we suffer as a direct consequence of our sin, but often the relationship between suffering and sin is an indirect one.  Sin removed us from Eden.  Outside Eden is a world of suffering and death.  We all get sick and die.  Those who have died of the Corona virus were no worse than anyone else, but their deaths are a reminder that we are mortal.  One day we will all face the judge of this world.

God has done something to make everything good again.  The old Jerusalem was destroyed, but there is the promise of a new Jerusalem. That new Jerusalem will accompany the return of our Lord.  In that new Jerusalem there will be no racial injustice.  Instead, there will be a multitude too great to number drawn from every nation, tribe, people and language united in worship of the Father and the Son (Revelation 7:9).  There will be no Corona virus or cancer, for death and mourning and pain will have passed away.  We will never feel lonely, for God’s dwelling pace will be with his people (Revelation 21:1-4).


Watch the news and repent

So, Jeremiah looked at his world and lamented.  But he didn’t just identify a problem out there.  He saw a problem within himself.  He brings his lament home and confesses his own guilt.  ‘See, LORD, how distressed I am!  I am torn within, and in my heart, I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious.  Outside the sword bereaves; inside there is only death’ (20).

We loom at our news and we have to bring it home.

It is not just in America that we see prejudice and hatred.  It is in our land too.  We have a history of hatred between those from a cultural Protestant and Catholic background.  Evil has been done but we have been slow to forgive.  We have failed the Biblical injunction to welcome the migrant, and our system of direct provision has often lacked compassion.  The travelling community have been much discriminated against.

The problem lies even closer to home.  The Bible teaches us that the root of every kind of evil lies in the soil of our own hearts.  We deny God’s word if we claim that we have always loved our neighbours as ourselves.  We have despised people in our hearts, assassinated them with our words and withheld our compassion from them.  The gospel frees us to admit our own evil, for while our hearts are wicked, God’s grace is greater than our hearts.  Jesus died for my acts of injustice, my bigotry to those who are different than me and my reluctance to forgive.  We look at the violence on our news and admit, ‘I too have been most rebellious.’ 


Conclusion—lament and hope

Don’t stop watching the news.  It teaches us how to pray and how to lament.  We should be praying for the victims of injustice and we also pray for those who have committed the injustice.  We look forward to Jesus’ perfect day of justice and we thank him that he has dealt with the injustice we have committed.  We remember our own sin, but don’t despair because we are forgiven and Christ now dwells within us, transforming us by his presence.  There will always be violence in this world by we look forward to an eternal time of peace.  We see the hatred and know that people need to grasp the love of Christ. 

We believe that what this hate-filled world needs more than anything else is the good news of Jesus and the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.

‘Lord God enable us to speak to a sinful world with the humility of forgiven sinners, the love of those who have encountered Jesus and the hope of those who seek your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Friday, 29 May 2020

Hosea 14 'How to repent'


Do you feel far away from God?  Maybe you feel dry in your faith.  Does God seem impersonal to you?  Do you sometimes wonder whether you actually are a Christian or not?  Does the idea of God being your father seem too good to be true?  Do you doubt whether he has actually forgiven your sins?  Do you fear that you have sinned too seriously for him to forgive you?  Do you fear that you have strayed too far from him to accept you home again?  This morning’s reading is for you!

In fact, this morning’s reading is for all of us.  For we all let God down every day.  Every day we need to come home and receive his forgiveness.  Repentance is not simply something you do as you become a Christian; repentance is a lifestyle.  As people who love God, we are painfully aware that we fall and fail every day.  We hate ourselves for it, but we let God down all the time.  But he does not give up on us.  He does not stop loving us.  He is always ready to embrace us (and we all could do with a little more embracing at this time of social distancing).

This morning’s reading teaches us how to come home to God.  It is a call to repentance.  ‘Return, O Israel, to the LORD God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity’ (1).  But how do we return?  ‘Take words with you words and return to the LORD’ (2a).  Speak to God.  There are three things to say.

1.     Say, ‘I’m sorry’

‘Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.’ 

God is not looking for our sacrifices but our hearts.  In this book, God has already said, ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’ (6:6).  As King David adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband he said, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit’ (Psalm 51:17a).

In other words, God does not want you to be religious.  He does not want you to sort your life out before you turn to him.  He does not want you to try and prove that you are worthy of his love—none of us are.  He does not want you to try to justify what you did—excuses are the enemy of true repentance.  He wants us to hold up our hands and say, ‘guilty as charged’.  Confession is not telling God what he does not know but agreeing with God that what we have done is awful. 

The truth is that we are more wicked than we realise.  Our sin is more terrible than we think.  We have forgotten most of the evil we have done, and sin is not just what we have done, it lies in the attitudes of our hearts.  All our sin is ultimately an affront to a perfectly holy and pure God.  But no matter how great our sin, God’s grace is greater.  ‘A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ (Psalm 51:17b).  That is a promise!  There is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance and leaves no room for regret (2 Corinthians 7:10).  Repentance is ultimately a gift from God, and he will never reject it.

Say something.  Say you are sorry.

2.    Say, ‘I will trust in you alone.’

‘Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, “Our God”, to the work of our hands …’ (3a-b).

Assyria was the superpower of the day.  So, Israel was tempted to make alliances with them in order to have security.  They looked to the Assyrians to save them.  In doing this they were refusing to depend on God to save them.  Ironically, it was the Assyrians that would soon destroy them.

Horses were a symbol of military power.  The were like apache helicopters or a nuclear deterrent.  But no army can save us when it is God who is against us.  We all face a day of judgement.  On that day, Jesus will be the judge who dispenses perfect justice.  If we have not turned to him as the only one who can deal with our guilty, our guilt will lead to eternal condemnation.  We either have Jesus take our sins on the cross or we will die eternally.

Where do you look to for security?  How would you finish the sentence, ‘my life would be happy if …’?  The single person might say, ‘my life would be happy if I met someone to marry.’  The married person might say, ‘my life would be happy if there was no conflict in my marriage.’  The sick person might say, ‘my life would be happy if I had health.’  The poor person might say, ‘my life would be happy if I had wealth.’  The rich person might say, ‘my life would be happy if I had more.’  Be careful, good things become false gods when they are the centre of our security and hope.

Genuine repentance admits that, ‘my life can’t be full unless I have God.’  Genuine repentance realises that if God is all you have then you have all you need.  Pray that God would make us satisfied in him. 

3.     Say, ‘I will call you father.’

‘… in you the orphan finds mercy’ (3c).

In this book of the Bible, Hosea shows love to a faithless wife.  He is told to marry Gomer, who will cheat on him, and to keep on loving her.  He is even to buy her back when she is sold into slavery.  It is a picture of God’s pursuing love for his people. 

This book is also about how Hosea shows love to fatherless children.  His wife Gomer conceives children in her adultery.  Hosea second and third child do not belong to him.  But he accepts them as his own.  We were born to be God’s children.  But we have turned from his love and become spiritual orphans.  Left to ourselves we are children without a heavenly Father.  ‘But in you God the orphan finds mercy’.

Becoming a Christian is more than simply being forgiven.  Becoming a Christian is more than going to heaven rather than hell when you die.  Becoming a Christian is about being embraced by the most loving of all fathers.  In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, ‘God sent his Son … so that we might receive adoption as sons.’  The Father sent his Son to a cross for our guilt, so that he could love us with the same love that he loves Jesus  Those who have turned to God in repentance can declare, ‘Jesus gladly loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).

So, we come to God and say, ‘In you the fatherless find compassion, I am sorry that I have sinned so grievously against you, I have no other hope but you.’

And what does God say to us in response?

He responds in song and sings: ‘I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them’ (4).  He turned his anger away from us, and onto Jesus upon the cross.  His holy anger has been satisfied and we need fear it no more.  He heals our waywardness as his love begins to change us.  The progress may seem slow, but he is doing a good work in our lives.

He says, I will be like the dew to Israel …’ (5a).  We don’t lack rain in this country (although the weather has been spectacular ever since we have been put in lockdown).  But imagine leaving in the ancient near east where it might have gone months without rain.  Then the promise of dew has real meaning.  You may feel spiritually dry, but God wants to refresh your soul.  He wants us to know his presence.  He wants us to feel his love.  There can be all sorts of reasons why we find it hard to feel God’s love, but don’t give up seeking to pursue intimacy with him.

‘People will dwell again in his shade, they will flourish like the grain, they will blossom like the vine—Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon’ (7).  Not only are those who live a lifestyle of repentance blessed, they are a blessing to others.  It is as if people will think about them and remember the taste of the gorgeous Lebanese wine.  Our church community of repenting people can be an inspiration to those around us.  Repenting people know that they have nothing to be proud of and so they are humble.  Repenting people delight in God’s love, and that love flows from them to those around them.  Repenting people know that God does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving-kindness, and so they are kind and gracious.  Repenting people hear God call to be kind and so they are gentle.  Repenting people know that the world does not revolve around them and so they don’t have to get their way.

I have been reading a wonderful book called ‘Captive in Iran.’  It is about two women that were held in the Evin Prison in Tehran.  Their trust in God and love for their fellow prisoners made them a blessing to their fellow inmates.  Some may simply hate us for our faith, but may they never hate us because we are difficult.  May our desire to be like Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, cause many to remember us fondly.
  

Conclusion

So, how are you going to respond to the message of Hosea?

‘Who is wise?  Let them realise these things.  Who is discerning?  Let them understand.  The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them’ (9).

Remember that repentance is a gift.  If you have a desire to know God, then that is evidence of the Holy Spirit working within you.  Do not resist the drawings of the Spirit.  You might tell me that your love for God is weak but desiring to love God is a form of love for God.  You might have learned the hard way that life without Jesus does not work.

Maybe your faith feels dry.  That maybe because we easily forget to marvel at the fact, we are simply wicked people who have been cleansed, loved and adored by the Holy God of the universe.  Don’t lose the wonder.  There may be innocent reasons why you find it hard to feel loved by God, don’t stop pursuing intimacy with him.

You may have stumbled.  Don’t worry it is not too late.  Return to the Lord.  Take words with you.  He will never despise a humble and contrite heart.  That is a promise!  

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Three sons and a prodigal dad

Three sons and a prodigal dad (Luke 15)
A pastor used to counsel a young man who was struggling with alcohol-addiction.  What the young man did not realise is that the pastor saw out the window and watched him hide his beer before they talked.  Then after the man had told the pastor how much he wanted to be free from drinking, he would collect his beer again.  Now the pastor did not doubt the sincerity of that young man.  But he could see that that his addiction had control of him.  This got the pastor thinking: ‘Where does really power to change come from?’

We can offer lots of help to those who are battling various sins.  We can warn people of the consequences, encourage them to have accountability partners and avoid places of temptation.  But nothing brings change with the same power as experiencing the love of God.
So we are going to look at a parable that magnifies the life-transforming, sin-defeating and joy-giving love of God.  I call it the parable of the three sons and the prodigal dad. 
Son 1: The rebel
Jack Miller, writes, ‘Many times we think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that we can go on vacation from God.  What’s really happening is that we think of God as the enemy of our happiness, and we go our own way.  But God is not our enemy.  He’s our friend, and he wants us to be happy and free.’
The younger son wasn’t satisfied with his father’s love.  So he makes a callous request.  Father, give me my share of the estate.  The estate would normally have been divided up after the father’s death, but this son is saying, ‘I can’t wait for you to die.  Your being alive is getting in the way of my fun.  So sod the conventions and give me my inheritance now.’
he son then turns his inheritance to cash.  In a culture where you spent years bargaining over fields, he sold in a rush.  You can be sure that he didn’t get anywhere near the best price.  There is always something very foolish in our rebellions against God.  The psalmist reminds us that many are the woes of the wicked.  Sin always brings some measure of sorrow and emptiness.
The younger son is also incredibly selfish.  That land had been in his family for generations.  But he goes off, sells it and squanders it.  He has no intention of providing for his father in his old age or passing on an inheritance to future descendants.  Every sin has self as a root—self-centredness, selfish, self-righteousness, being self-absorbed, self-importance, and so on. 
Then he sets off for a distant country with no intention of ever coming home.  When famine comes, and the son is dying from hunger in a famine, he is getting exactly what he deserved.  Death is what our rebellion deserves.  But God loved us when we were dead in transgressions and sin, sending his Son to die for us while we were still hostile towards him, and now continues to love us even though we are so often filled with self-interest. 
The prodigal father
The word prodigal can mean ‘wasteful’, and so fits the younger son.  However, ‘prodigal’ also means ‘lavish’, and this father is lavish in his love.  Tim Keller calls his book on this parable, ‘The Prodigal God’.
The younger son comes to his senses and travels home with a plan.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’  He doesn’t seem to understand his father’s love—his father wants him as a son, not a hired man.  Maybe, in pride, he thinks that he can start to pay back some of his debts.
The father, who has been spending his time looking at the horizon, is filled with compassion when he sees his son.  Apparently, the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is a word filled with deep emotion, and is only ever used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his parables who act like him.  So the father sprints, literally falls into the son’s neck, and kisses that boy again and again and again.  The son had come home preparing to kiss his father’s feet; instead, the father is kissing the son’s pig-stinking head (MacArthur).
Now look carefully at what the son says.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  What about being made a hired man?  It’s unnecessary.  That’s not what the father wants.  The father wants him as a son.  The son realises it would be an insult to attempt to pay back his debt.  It is the kindness of God leads to genuine repentance (Romans 2:4).
The father looks on the dirty ragged lad with delight.  Gets the finest robe (I can’t help thinking of how our spiritual nakedness has been covered in the robe of Christ’s righteousness).  Then he gives the son a ring—I love this, the signet ring was used for commercial transactions (imagine that the father gives a role of responsibility to such an untrustworthy boy!).  God entrusts us with the greater privilege of being ambassadors of Christ.  Whereas slaves went barefoot, sons wore sandals on their feet—Christians are sandaled people!
Son 2:  The Resentful
I am actually more struck by the love of the father for the elder brother than the younger.  This elder brother is a cold, hard-hearted, mean-spirited, arrogant, self-righteous, bitter young man.  Remember that this son represents the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Like the older son, they resented how Jesus welcomed home notorious sinners.  Yet Jesus uses this story to show God lovingly pleading with them to come and join the celebration of grace.
The older son hears the music, and I think he knows exactly what is going on.  There has not been a party in that house since his brother left home.  He is filled with anger.  Then he goes out of his way to embarrass his dad.
The son does not address the father with a customary term of respect.  No title, no affection, no respect. Then the accusations begin.  ‘All these years I have been slaving for you.’  Don’t be too impressed by his words.  He is the heir to the estate.  His father is rich enough to have servants and hired men.  The elder son’s work didn’t involve breaking his back.  He would have sat in the shade and organised the labour.  I imagine his work was actually very satisfying. 
Does he not realise that his father didn’t want him as a slave but as a son?   Does he not realise that his father wants him to enjoy his love?  Does he not understand that his father is not looking for him to justify his existence or pay his way?  The older son does not value the father’s love!
The older son blames his dad for the younger son’s rebellion.  He refers to this son of yours.  He is not my brother but your son.  ‘It’s your fault that he is such a failure.  It is your fault he left home.  You were always too soft-hearted.’  He then actually seems to suggest that the father owes him an apology, for not being generous to him, even though everything his father had was actually at his disposal. 
This son, like all self-righteous people, deserves to be left outside the party—so many people refuse to see their need of grace and so they are heading for hell.  But how does the father respond to the calculated insults of the older son?   He addresses the elder son with the tender address, ‘My son’(using a different word, than the word translated son, meaning, ‘my child’).  He loves this cold-hearted young man.  Through this story, Jesus is inviting proud, self-justifying people to repent of their hostile hearts and experience the joy of grace.
Apparently there was a custom, which still exists in many cultures of the world, where the eldest son would serve as head-waiter at such a party.  It was designed to complement the guests by saying, ‘you are so important to me, that my eldest is your servant.’  The elder brother was not willing to humble himself for his brother, and, like the Pharisees felt no joy at the thought of rebels being granted forgiveness.  However, all through this chapter of Luke there is the picture of heavenly celebration over rebels coming to repentance. 
Son 3: The rescuing brother
There is a third son in this passage.  There is the son who is telling this parable.  Jesus is both like the father and is also a complete contrast to the elder brother.  Jesus is the elder brother we are longing for.
The elder brother did not want to humble himself as and serve as head-waiter in the party on honour of the younger son.  Jesus has humbled himself in order to bring us home.  ‘He who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:6-8).
One commentator suggests that the elder brother would have been expected to plead with the younger son not to go, and then when he left to lead a search party to the distant land.  Jesus, our older brother, left heaven, to a distant land, coming to seek and save that which was lost.  Like the shepherd, earlier in this chapter, who came looking for lost sheep like us! 
The younger son’s return must have cost the older brother.  The younger son has sold his share of the land.  He will now live on what would belong to his older brother.  The party was being funded with money that would have eventually come to the older brother.  Was the father planning to give the younger son another inheritance?  That would cost the older brother.  This may be a part of his resentment.  Yet we will not have any chance of fully grasping God’s love until we realise the price that Jesus, our older brother, was prepared to prepare for our homecoming.  ‘This is love,’ says the apostle John, ‘not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’
Conclusion—what you love the most will control you

A young man was training to be a pastor.  At weekends he spoke at a little small country church.  One Sunday, an elder at the church asked if he would like to join this family for a picnic.  They went to restored Victorian village, at a spot where the Mississippi river was a mile wide.  Everything was beautiful in the autumn sunshine.  Then the elder’s daughter asked him to join her for a walk.  He really liked her, so he did not say, ‘actually I am sitting here enjoying the view!’  His greater love for the girl moved him away from his love for that view.  (When I heard him tell that story, he pointed out that he has been walking with that girl now for over forty years.)
We sin because we love the pleasures that sin offers.  The younger son went to the distant land because he desired the pleasures it offered more than he desired to be at home with his father.  The elder son would not go into the party because he loved self-righteousness and he hated grace.  James says, ‘each person is tempted when he is allured and tempted by his own desires.’
So how do we overcome those desires?  We overcome our love for sin by displacing it with a greater love.  Jesus was not nagging the disciples when he said, ‘if you love me, you will obey my commands.’  He was simply pointing out that what we love the most controls us.  We obey God when our love for God displaces our love for sin.  But this love for God is God given.  ‘We love because he first loved us.
So, your primary spiritual problem is not that you don’t love God enough—although, like me, you don’t love God enough.  Your primary spiritual problem is that you don’t realise how much God loves you.  That is what makes reading a passage like this one so life-transforming—God uses the beauty of the gospel applied through the person of the Holy Spirit to cause us to love him more.  See the loving father coming to kiss you again and again.  See him graciously pleading with cold-hearted self-righteous people to come and enjoy the celebration of grace.  See how that father reflects the incomparable compassion of Jesus.  See your loving older brother who came from heaven to bring you home.  See him lay down his life that you might be a dearly beloved child of God.  Let that love melt your heart and change your life.