Month: April 2011

On your marks… (part 6)

My Mum is great.  She’s a teacher, and continues to teach kids with learning difficulties even though she is past the age of retirement (as wonderful as she is she’d still murder me if I mentioned her age on the internet).

But as great as my Mum is, one thing she regrets is that I never learnt the difference between nouns and verbs while I was at school.  To be fair, it wasn’t because of her lack of trying but my lack of learning.  In fact it wasn’t until I had to learn another language that I came to understand the difference between nouns (naming words) and verbs (doing words).

‘Church’ is a noun.  It’s a naming word.  It describes a building, or a group of people, or an institution.  But there is a sense in which ‘church’ is also a verb.  It’s a doing word.  As Christians, we ‘church’ – we gather together in the presence of God, to hear God’s word read and proclaimed, to speak to God in prayer and praise, to be encouraged and built up in our love and service and worship of Him.

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On your marks… (part 5)

I like tee shirts.  A lot.  Possibly too much.  I particularly like tee shirts which are slightly different and humorous.   One I saw recently (which I won’t be getting) had this emblazoned on the front: ‘Actually, it IS all about me.’  That’s the spirit of our culture – it’s all about us.  And because it’s so common, as Christians we can inadvertently carry that attitude over into church.

In the past few posts we’ve looked at different ways to prepare ourselves before we gather together as God’s people for church.  We’ve looked at the importance of examining ourselves and getting our relationship with God and with our Christian brothers and sisters right; of reading the passage the sermon is on; and how we might physically prepare ourselves.  Today I want to suggest that a way to prepare ourselves for church is to consciously think: Actually, this ISN’T about me.

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On your marks… (part 4)

One of the many blessings God has given me is a wonderful wife.  On Sunday mornings I’m usually over at church about an hour before the service – opening up, putting on the heaters, getting everything ready.  That’s easy.  Amanda has the hard job – not only does she go over her Sunday School material that she’s going to teach, she also has to get our three sons ready for church.  Which is a lot like herding cats.

She’s not alone.  Getting to church with kids is hard work (getting anywhere with kids is hard work, but that’s another issue).  And I realize that what follows may seem like a pipe dream if you’re responsible for getting multiple people fed, dressed, and to church on time without them all fighting with each other.  But there are things that all of us can do to prepare ourselves physically to get to church.  Let me give you a few ideas.

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Chris Trotter and God’s providence

I have been doing some preparation for a sermon on Sunday on the question/s ‘Did God cause the earthquake, and if so, why?’. Among the things I have been reading, I thought it might be helpful to draw your attention to two and invite comments. The first is an opinion piece which appeared in the Christchurch Press and about which I have heard many comments. It is written by Chris Trotter who is regarded by some as one of New Zealand’s finest left wing political commentators. I’d be interested to hear what people think of his piece.

The other is taken from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is worth putting in the hard yards to overcome the difficulties of reading the older style of prose. If you can grasp what Calvin is saying it is both profound and comforting, and shows how pastorally astute Calvin was. It made me realise that issues which I have only been forced to think through as a result of the quakes Mr Calvin clearly had thought through many times for many life-threatening reasons which was clearly more common in his experience than mine. Again, I’d be interested in your comments.


The full excerpt from Calvin’s institutes is below (Institutes I.xvii.10-11).

10. Without certainty about God’s providence life would be unbearable

“Hence appears the immeasurable felicity of the godly mind. Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?

You will say: these events rarely happen, or at least not all the time, nor to all men, and never all at once. I agree; but since we are warned by the examples of others that these can also happen to ourselves, and that our life ought not to be excepted any more than theirs, we cannot but be frightened and terrified as if such events were about to happen to us. What, therefore, more calamitous can you imagine than such trepidation? Besides that, if we say that God has exposed man, the noblest of creatures, to all sorts of blind and heedless blows of fortune, we are not guiltless of reproaching God. But here I propose to speak only of that misery which man will feel if he is brought under the sway of fortune.

11. Certainty about God’s providence puts joyous trust toward God in our hearts

“Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion. Thus indeed the psalm sings: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. Under his wings will he protect you, and in his pinions you will have assurance; his truth will be your shield. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the flying arrow by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at midday” [Ps. 91:3-6; cf. Ps. 90:3-6, Vg.; cf. Comm.].

From this, also, arises in the saints the assurance that they may glory. “The Lord is my helper” [Ps. 118:6; 117:6, Vg.]; “I will not fear what flesh can do against me” [Ps. 56:4; 55:5, Vg.]. “The Lord is my protector; what shall I fear?” [Ps. 27:1; cf. Ps. 26:1, Vg.] “If armies should stand together against me” [Ps. 27:3; cf. Ps. 26:3, Vg.], “if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death” [Ps. 22:4, Vg.; 23:4, EV], “I will not cease to have good hope” [Ps. 56:5; 55:4, Vg.; 71:14; 70:14, Vg.]. Whence, I pray you, do they have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that his work will be for their welfare? Now if their welfare is assailed either by the devil or by wicked men, then indeed, unless strengthened through remembering and meditating upon providence, they must needs quickly faint away. But let them recall that the devil and the whole cohort of the wicked are completely restrained by God’s hand as by a bridle, so that they are unable either to hatch any plot against us or, having hatched it, to make preparations or, if they have fully planned it, to stir a finger toward carrying it out, except so far as he has permitted, indeed commanded. eLet them, also, recall that the devil and his crew are not only fettered, but also curbed and compelled to do service. “Such thoughts will provide them abundant comfort. For as it belongs to the Lord to arouse their fury and turn and direct it whither he pleases; so, also, is it his to set a measure and limit, lest they licentiously exult in their own lust.

Paul, supported by this conviction, after saying in one passage that his journey had been hindered by Satan [I Thess. 2:18], states elsewhere that with God’s permission he determined to set out [I Cor. 16:7]. If he had said only that the obstacle was from Satan, he would have seemed to give too much power to him, as if it were in his power to overthrow even the very plans of God; but now when he declares God the Ruler upon whose permission all his journeys depend, he at the same time shows that Satan cannot carry out anything that he may contrive except with God’s assent. For the same reason, David, on account of the various changes by which the life of men is continually turned, and as it were, whirled about, betakes himself to this refuge: that his “times are in God’s hand” [Ps. 31:15]. He could have put here either “course of life” or “time” in the singular, but he chose to express by using the plural “times” that however unstable the condition of men may be, whatever changes take place from time to time, they are governed by God. “For this reason, although Rezin and the King of Israel, having joined forces to destroy Judah, seemed firebrands kindled to destroy and consume the land, they are called by the prophet “smoking firebrands,” that can do nothing but breathe out a little smoke [Isa. 7:4]. cThus Pharaoh, although to all he was fearsome both on account of his riches and strength, and the size of his armies, is himself compared to a sea monster, and his troops to fish [Ezek. 29:4]. God therefore announces that he is going to seize the leader and the army with his hook and drag them where He pleases. bIn short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.

The earthly city and our heavenly home

Heartbroken.

I’m sure it’s how we all felt as we sat glued to the horrific images of Christchurch after the February 22 earthquake. Or for many of us, it’s how we felt as we lived through the reality in our beloved home city.

I’ve only lived in Christchurch for the past 14 months, but it’s been truly heartbreaking to witness the damage done in this beautiful place – and I don’t just mean the physical destruction. I can only imagine what it must be like for people who’ve lived here their whole lives. Yet even as I have grieved for what’s happened to Christchurch, I’ve found myself wondering whether my grief was misplaced. “Should I care about this city as much as I do? After all, as a Christian, my real home is not of this world. I’m a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:22) – shouldn’t my focus be there? Or maybe I don’t care about my earthly home enough? Which is it?”

What direction and insights does the Bible give us on how we should think and feel about our earthly cities at a time like this?

In Jeremiah 29, the city of Jerusalem has been largely destroyed. Many of its citizens have been killed, and most of the rest have been carried into exile by their conquerors from Babylon – finally fulfilling God’s prophecies of his judgment on them because of their ongoing sin. Jeremiah, writing from Jerusalem, pens a letter to the exiles, recording the word of God.

How were God’s people to live during their time in exile? Were they to ignore their new city and pour all their energies into recreating a ‘new Jerusalem’? Or were they to forget ‘the city of God’ and become fully-fledged devotees of Babylon?

Neither.

Jeremiah’s letter starts out by telling all the exiles to love and care about their city. They are to build homes, work hard, marry and have children. They are to settle down and be part of Babylon. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,” says the Lord, “and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:7) God’s care and provision for his people will come through the prosperity of Babylon, and so – even though they live there as exiles – they are to care about their earthly city.

But that’s not the end of the story. They must also remember Jerusalem, and remember the promises of God for their future. This perspective should dominate their thinking and set their direction as they live in exile.

The Lord reminds them that after 70 years they will be returned to Jerusalem (v. 10), and he assures them that he has not forgotten his promises. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11 – a promise often pulled out of context today!). Yes, seek the prosperity of Babylon. But don’t become obsessed by it. Fix your eyes on the future, and on the promises of God.

Of course, we can’t simply read Jeremiah 29 as if it were written to Christchurch in 2011. For one thing, no one lives here because they were conquered and dragged away from their homes by the great enemy from the east (right?). The prophet’s letter was written to a specific group of people in a particular situation. And just so there’s no confusion, we definitely do NOT want to imply that God was judging Christchurch in the same way he was specifically judging Jerusalem when the invasion came from Babylon. (For a bit more on this, see Luke 13:1-5, or take a look at the last part of this post I wrote following the September earthquake.)

That being said, I think we can draw some useful conclusions on how Christians should approach life as spiritual ‘sojourners and exiles’ in this world (1 Peter 2:11) – including how we think about the great city of Christchurch.

First, wherever we live, we should care deeply about the welfare and prosperity of our city. There is nothing ungodly about grieving for what Christchurch has been through. There is nothing inherently ungodly about wanting your city to prosper (though there could be many ungodly, idolatrous reasons for wanting this). In a way, Christians should be ‘model citizens’. We should desire the peace, welfare and prosperity of our cities. When I grieve for Christchurch, longing to see her rebuilt and restored, my grief is not misplaced.

But I need to be careful, because Christchurch is not my home. My citizenship is in heaven, and I am to eagerly await the return of my Saviour from there (Phil 3:20). As much as I love Christchurch and want it to be rebuilt, I am but a sojourner and exile here. I have to remember the eternal future God has promised to me. I have to live for the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ above all else.

For those of us living in Christchurch, that we means we can – and should – play our part in the recovery of this city, whatever that may involve for each of us. In particular, we should pray for its welfare and wellbeing. But as much as we love Christchurch, it should never capture our hearts. It can never be our first love, and its recovery and prosperity must never become our ultimate hope. We live now as exiles, citizens of heaven, and we should keep the eyes of our heart focused on the heavenly city that will (literally!) never be shaken. That’s a hope worth having, and it’s a hope worth sharing with others!

So, seek the welfare of your city, but remember your true home! “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:20-21)