“These are God’s words…”

 

old hands bibleTraditions for the sake of traditionalism are not what we’re going for in worship.  There are, though, some traditions that bear contemplating upon. Recently, I’ve been using an old call-and-response to the reading of the Bible before I preach.  I read and say: “These are God’s words.”  The congregation is invited to respond: “Thanks be to God.”

The reading of God’s word, while beneficial when done privately, has long been a part of  Christian worship.  When Paul wrote to Timothy, encouraging him to the reading of Scripture, he wasn’t talking about private devotional reading.  And when Scripture is being read, who is it we are listening to?  Is it the preacher?  It may be their voice but the words are from God.  “These are God’s words…”

It is vital to know this because it’s not mere human opinion we’re listening to and being called to respond to.  It is God’s revelation to us.  And the challenge is then placed upon the preacher – their words may follow or be explaining the passage – but they’re not free to give their mere opinions.  They held to explaining, applying, encouraging with, warning by…  what God has first said.

And how do we respond when God’s word has been in our midst?  “Thanks be to God…”   Because that is the correct response to having heard God’s revealing speech.  We have such access to the Bible we can easily forget by such familiarity that we have just heard the Word of the Speaking God!  Where a command has been read – we have been commanded.  Where an encouragement is offered – we have been encouraged.  Where a promise is declared – we have been promised.  Sometimes God’s word cuts us, sometimes it heals us, sometimes there’s comfort, sometimes challenge.  Whatever we may receive, it is from God though and so there is only one response appropriate to such reading.  Thank you.  Thank you because we have just heard from God.

The tradition of the preacher declaring this fact and then the congregation thanking afterwards does not automatically work some kind of magic.  God’s revelation is his revelation whether we appreciate it or not. And traditions gone to mere rote can lose their life.  But we are reinforced by how God’s word is read publicly in the midst of our worship gathering, and by how we respond.  For they are God’s words, not ours, and we are thankful.

 

Here’s 3 ‘million dollar words’ (Jude in July)

JUDE in JULYIn my most recent sermon, the first from Jude’s Letter, I dropped what I called 3 ‘million dollar words’.  No one should feel silly not knowing them, many well-trod Christians don’t know them even if they intuitively feel the concepts. Words are important, however, and so these 3 should work their way into our consciousness.  The Apostle Jude is concerned with people being led away from true belief in Jesus by those who have crept in. Christians need to stick with what they’ve been given.  But in order they need to know what they’ve been given. Jude implies that Christianity is received, authoritative, and shared with all Christians.

Here’s where our 3 words come in (they’re each worth $1,000,000 and so pay attention! I paid a lot of money to learn them in seminary but I’m giving them for free today)

1) Jude says that the Christian Faith was once for all delivered to the saints (v3).  This means there is a body of beliefs (about God, Christ, human nature, salvation, etc…) that has been received as a package deal.  If something is a gift than we can’t just mess with it, or choose which parts we like and which we don’t.  This includes both belief and behaviour apparently, as Jude’s opponents get both wrong (v4). The Faith is a received gift and the word that this applies to is: Orthodoxy (adjective is orthodox).  Literally meaning “right belief and/or thought”, to be orthodox refers to be faithful to what has been handed down, respecting how it all fits together.

2) From whom do we receive it, though?  That leads to the question of authority – whose authority do we trust to teach us the truth about Jesus? Jude’s opponents, relying on their own dreams and rejecting authority (v8). Jude warns that their authority to teach spiritual truth is no good.  The authority we need to trust in is that of the apostles.  They were with Jesus, chosen by Him, and to reject them is to reject Him. Any wisdom or revelation must be tested against authority on which Faith is based, that of the apostles.  The word for this is Apostolicity (adj. apostolic). And where is this apostolic authority?  It’s in what they wrote, their accounts and teachings about Jesus in the Scriptures.  Their writing is what is authoritative for us.

3) Our third million dollar refers to the fact that we share our Christian Faith with others.  Jude points out that our salvation is a “common” one (v3). In such a self-centred, self-determining age it is humbling to know Christianity is not our possession.  We share globally with so many different types of believers and historically with so many previous generations.  This is important because we have so many cultural blind spots that other ages and cultures don’t have. It keeps us faithful when we allow them to check us.  The word for this is Catholicity (adj. catholic – notice the small ‘c’). We may think of the Roman church being “Catholic” but all catholic (small ‘c’) means is universal and undivided. To our RC friends we may have to say that we’re “too catholic to be Catholic” (thanks to Peter Leithart for the line!)  Tragically, there is Christian division but we really do share the Faith with many others even as we disagree.

orthodox, apostolic, (c)atholic – a received, authoritative, and shared faith – this is what Jude is promoting and encouraging his people to stay faithful to.  And so must we in the face of pressures and teachings from all directions.

Now you’re a millionaire.

The Wise Still Seek Him

"The Magi Journeying"  James Tissot, 19th C

“The Magi Journeying” James Tissot, 19th C

When I drive to my parent’s house my route takes me past a wholesale shingle distributor.  Outside his business each December he places a simple sign that reads:  WISE MEN STILL SEEK HIM.  It’s a true enough statement for a traditional Christian like me to believe, but it’s also in danger of becoming a cliche.  But spiritual searching in our culture also runs the danger of becoming cliche.  To be a “seeker” has even become commodified.  If you don’t believe me, just head to your local bookstore.

But what does a true spiritual search look like?  When one searches after God, what is found?  And what does a true search produce in us?  With respect to these questions, those wise men from the East (Magi) still have a lot to teach us.  Matthew records their search and their discovery, and what their search produced.

Great Humility.  It is often assumed that humility means being uncertain of what we believe or whether truth can be found at all.  Isn’t it arrogant to say that we can seek God and truly find him with certainty?  Well, no.  True humility means the willingness to search after what we do not know but also to look with the intention of finding.  These wise men went on a search but also came to a destination.  Endless searches with no goal actually are not humble because one never needs to submit to any found truth.  But when we search for a true destination, it creates true humility because when we find we must kneel.

Great Generosity.  If there is only a few things known about these men, one will certainly be that they brought gifts. Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh.  These were expensive gifts, royal gifts.  They came out of an overflow of honour and affection the wise men had for the baby they found.  Why does a true search for God in Christ produce such rich generosity?  It is a response to the immense  generosity first shown to us by God.  The Christian Gospel is one God’s grace – he came to us, he lived for us, he died in our place.  Even the faith we have for him is a gift to us.  Everything is a gift.  And upon the receiving of the gift we become more like the Giver.  God showered us with his generosity – we spend for others.

Great Worship.  When the wise men searched they were humble enough to know they had found.  When they arrived they poured out generously in response to the gift that had been given the world.  And they also kneeled and worshipped.  When we search after truth (truly search) and then find (truly find) we discover that truth is a person.  That which is ultimate, absolute, divine is not abstract ideas or an ephemeral something.  It is a Someone.  And when we seek him, find him, we will love him.  That worshipful love is the result of a true search.

Wise men sought him.  Wise men still still seek him.  May we be like them.

 

Full Sermon – Still Sought By The Wise – Matthew 2:1-12 – Week 3 of Advent

God’s With Us – He Really Is With Us

 

Empty Manger

What does it mean for God to be with us?  Was he ever not with us?  And does it ever get more personal than God just visiting all of humanity?  Is God ever with us, that is, with you and me?

When Matthew gives his account of Jesus’ birth, he leaves no doubt as to the significance.  This is just like Isaiah has said, reports Matthew, the virgin’s son is “Immanuel”.  For those not versed in Hebrew nomenclature, he spells it out:  (which mean, God with us).  But what does it mean for us?  I’ll suggest three things:

God Really Wasn’t With Us.  This may seem like it goes against the Xmas story but wait, it has to be true.  Think about it.  You can’t announce that someone has just arrived home if they were never out, right?  The same is true of God.  In the various forms of paganism, God/the gods/spirits were always present in the world.  The divine lived in the rocks and trees and rivers.  Or in Eastern type religions, there is no distinction between the world and God.  But Christianity (Judaism and Islam as well) reveals something different about God.  There is a distinction between Creator and Creation.  He really is God and we, his creatures, really are not.  So for the power of “God with us” to hit you, first it must be acknowledged that he was kind of far away before.

God’s Really With Us.  But now God really has come – in the person of His Son, Jesus.  When that newborn baby was placed down in that manger, God was truly in the house.  In the world in a way He’d never been before.  That’s why it is such a big deal.  God has always been involved in His creation, acting in it and sustaining it by his word.  But now his feet had really touched the dusty ground.  God’s perfection isn’t sullied or lessened by entering the world.  There’s no hint of negativity that he shows towards the material, the physical, and the ordinary.  This world was good from the beginning, and even though it’s been broken, God has come into it.  He is really with us in his creation.

God Is Really With You.   Really.  God in the world and with humanity is a great truth but does it get more personal than that?  Is God really with me?  or with you?  To really grasp and enjoy his nearness we must acknowledge that he really has cause to be far away.  As sinners, we are estranged from God and have no right to come before him.  He really was far away.  But now, through the Gospel of his son, he has near to us.  Not counting our sins against us, not withholding his presence from us, he is with us.  If you believe God is at your service, easy to stroll right up to, you’ll never grasp that incredibleness of his grace and his condescension to us.  In Christ, he is really with you!

 

Full Sermon – God With Us – Matthew 1:18-25 – Week 2 of Advent

 

God’s Extraordinary Ordinary

Jesus GenealogyChristmas time (or more specifically Advent) is filled with many other concerns.  But not least should be the remembering of God’s greatest gift – Himself coming into the world and takig on human flesh.

Christianity makes extraordinary claims – miracles, existence of God, uniqueness of Christ.  But we’d be making a mistake if we were to believe that it is all extraordinary.  We’ll be disappointed tif we expect it to be.  This is because God often works through the ordinary.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening passage of Matthew’s Gospel, which is the opening of the entire New Testament.  It is just a long list of names – generations of those who form the family line of Joseph, Jesus’ legal and adoptive father.  If you were going to write the most important story in the world, would you go for an opener like that?  Not very catchy.  But it shows us something profound about God’s work in the world.

God’s work is ordinary.  Nothing is more ordinary than baby-making.  In fact, the most significant thing most of us will ever accomplish is to reproduce and continue the species.  That’s a pretty humbling thought.  But God entered the world, began His greatest work, and took on humanity precisely through the ordinariness of being born.  But that within that ordinariness He was doing something extrordinary.

God’s does something extraordinary.  Matthew shows us that even though this genealogy is about human reproduction there is something far more significant going on.  The entire history of Israel is contained here.  The origin of the nation with Abraham.  The high point and golden age through David.  The greatest humiliation through the Exile to Babylon.  There is a far greater significance going on even though it appears just as a long list of names.

There’s an extraordinary ordinary.  Most of us will never accomplish anything more lasting than carrying on the species.  Most of us will be nothing more than dust under a tombstone one hundred years from now.  But yet, we can find the greatest and most extraordinary significance by embracing God in Christ.  Every other religion/philosophy offers a sort of ladder up to heaven – through spiritual enlightenment, through good deeds, through ritual, etc. But the Christian message is that God has come down to us, into this world, so that He might lift us up.  He entered the ordinary, so that we might be saved into the extraordinary promises of God.  That means that even our lives may seem mundane, they can be filled with God.

 

 

 

Full Sermon – The Extraordinary Ordinary – Matthew 1 :1-17 – Week 1 of Advent

Sunday’s Sermon – Heart in God’s Hands – Exodus 7-10

ExodusIs the idea of someone’s heart being in God’s hands a comforting one?  Well, what if we’re talking about Pharaoh’s hard heart?  The account of God’s plagues and Pharaoh’s hard/hardening/hardened heart is not one which pleases modern ears.  But in it we see some truth, some problems, and even…  some comfort.  From the 25th of May, 2014.

Heart in God’s Hands – Exodus 7-10.  Click here.