Grief and Hatred

1 John 2:9 (NIV)
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.

Hate is a strong word. I hate what I see going on in Syria. I hate the deception that breaks relationships. I hate gossip, and malicious whispering. I hate whatever is in warfare with God and his gospel in Jesus.

Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering whether we should hate as much as we do. I wonder whether many of the things we hate are things that we should really be grieving over.

Hate, you see, keeps it all out there. You can hate stuff on the other side of the world, and not be particularly affected by it. But if you grieve over something, it’s like you have to let it have you a little, let it enter your life. When you grieve you feel something of the heaviness, the brokenness, and the grit of it between your teeth.

We all know God hates sin and wrongdoing. But I wonder whether sometimes God grieves more than he hates.

What do you think? Does God grieve about us and our world more than he hates what he sees going on?

Familiarity and Fear

My reading this morning took me to several places: First Psalm 18 – a wonderful Psalm of God’s mighty protection, and his ability to bring victory to his people in battle. Then I read Ps 94, which spoke about the Lord’s justice to those who do evil.

I found myself wondering about our tendency to see God as a mate, to talk to him as if he is any other person in the room. As if.

God is to be feared, deeply respected, bowed before and submitted to. We don’t like this language – we think we’re better than that. Truth is, we aren’t. We are deeply flawed and woefully fallen people in need of repentance.

This creates a tension in our hearts that we would rather avoid and neglect.

My final reading took me to Heb 10:19-25. And this reading reminded me that the tension above is real: there is a yawning gulf between how God wants us to be and how we actually are.

Even so, the Cross of Jesus is also real. Because of Jesus we can

1) now enter the most holy place through his blood
2) we can draw near to God with full assurance because our hearts are cleansed, our guilt is removed, and our bodies are washed
3) encourage others to find their hope for forgiveness and in our living for his new world

God is awesome, and fearful, but Christ’s perfect love drives us out of fear and into the glorious saving presence of the living God.

How do you tend to see God – as one to be feared, or on the same level as anyone else in the room?

Will God really protect me?

One of the primary questions people ask about Christianity is whether it produces actual outcomes: whether it makes a real difference to their lives. We know that Jesus is God’s son, that he died and rose again, that he rules the universe, and that he is returning to complete his restoration of all things. But does this make a difference to how we live?

This morning I read in Ps 94 how God is the avenger of those who are victimised and oppressed. He judges the earth. He does not reject his people or forsake his inheritance. He rises up for his people against his enemies. God is our fortress and our refuge.

Can you see how our view of God influences how we engage with our world and how we live in it and how we live with others? If God is our fortress, I don’t need to bolster myself with my status, or my possessions, or my reputation. If God is my refuge, I don’t have to take refuge in my orthodoxy, or in my church.

My comfort is that God’s plan will come to fruition irrespective of my circumstances

Today, my day is in God’s trusting hands. I move into my day knowing that I am working in his plan, so I don’t have to cajole him into working in mine. My comfort is that God’s plan will come to fruition irrespective of my circumstances. This is true for his plan for me, as well as his plans for my world.

Here’s the question we all need to ask: Do I actually believe God will protect me today? In my work, my living, my witness, my relationships, at my rock and my hard place?

Or are these things just nice thoughts to start the day with, but they have no ultimate power to impact my reality?

Following and Sacrifice

At first thought, following Jesus seems easy. It seems a matter of changing your mind about who Jesus is, recognising and accepting him as Saviour, and acknowledging him as King and Ruler. I suppose it is easy, relatively speaking, to see ‘following Jesus’ as a ‘decision’. Western Christianity often focuses on people making ‘decisions’ to follow Jesus, or to accept him as Saviour. In some places, these decisions are pretty much the only thing that matters. So, evangelism strategies and even services are focussed around getting people to make those decisions.

Many people who operate from an atheist or agnostic point of view will sometimes ‘the decision’ as the major battleground: with the focus being on the intellectual arguments as to why someone should follow Jesus, or whether there is a God, or an afterlife, or whatever. This makes some sense, because the primary battleground is the inner realities of human life: the heart, the mind, the will, the soul. People do need to assess who Jesus is with their mind, they do need to yield their will and bow before Jesus’ supreme and majestic authority. People do need to offer themselves – to give their heart – to this King as worshipful subjects.

Even so, if all I give is my inner realities, as significant as that may be, I don’t think I have begun to follow Jesus the way he intends me to follow. The inner realities are the starting point, sure, but those realities are connected to my behaviour and my attitudes. Here’s the rub: Jesus wants the change in your inner reality to come to concrete, consistent, continual expression in a changed life. Behaviour. Values. Attitudes. Talk. Generosity. Relationships. Business ethic. Lifestyle. Eating habits. Sexuality. Yep, pretty much everything.

This is why yesterday’s thought was so challenging: ‘think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and start changing them now.’

See, friends, it is easy to ignore the call to changed behaviour and attitudes, and just concentrate on the ‘inner life’. We’re OK with change, as long as we can ‘spiritualise’ it, and restrict that change to comfortable areas like ‘growing in knowledge’, or ‘having a stronger faith’. Stressing ‘inner change’ while neglecting behaviour change is like paying attention to the safety features of your car, but still driving like a maniac. It makes no sense. It endangers to your life and the life of others. James the Apostle reminds us that the Devil has excellent knowledge of God, and that inner faith without outward expression is nothing but death.

So, God is calling you and me to change. Real change. Change that will be difficult. Jesus, in Luke 9, says that following him is like losing your life (9:24).

Are you up for that?

Are you prepared to change those things in your behaviour and in your attitudes that you know really do need to change? Are you prepared to put to death your love of wealth? Or your proclivity to gossip? Or your thirst for influence? Are you prepared to step into the compassionate lifestyle God calls you to have? Are you prepared to reduce your personal comfort to maximise your engagement with God’s mission? Are you committed to loving the people as an expression of the love for God in you?

Jesus gave his life for you on that terrible torturous cross. He counted his heavenly glory as nothing. But is following him actually costing you anything?

True. There are burdens that come as a consequence of truly following Jesus. They are felt when you start working out what God has worked in you (Philippians 2:12-13). And while it’s not a popular thing to say to comfortable western Christians, these burdens hurt and they chafe and they are weighty. This is what Jesus calls your cross (Luke 9:23).

You want to follow? Then take up your cross. Take it up daily. And, knowing he has called you, this cross, his cross on your shoulders, becomes easy, and light.

One last thing: Jesus never calls you to do this work on your own. Through his Spirit, he is present with you. He will give strength and endurance. He will give you all you need to follow, to change, to carry his cross.

So, about that change: what will it be for you? Make a commitment now: write it down, share your change with a friend, and ask them to keep you accountable.

Why you (still) need the church…

(Apologies that my posts have been a little irregular these last weeks. Leonie and I have visited a few churches, as well as ReCharge – The CRCA pastor’s conference, we have considered a few calls from churches, we’ve decided to accept a call to Gateway CRC, and this last week we’ve out our house on the market, and it appears to have sold. I am hoping that I can now maintain a little more regularity…)

It’s tough being church these days. You have to wonder how even hi-tech and well managed church ‘productions’ compete with easily accessible forms of entertainment. Or why people attend a local community when they can access Driscoll, or Piper, or Ortberg on their smartphone or computer. How can local church ‘Pastor Bob’ compete with all of that? With these choices so readily available, it seems more people are staying away from church, and managing their own spiritual development.

Do we still need the local church?

Ephesians 3:14-20 says we do. If we’re mapping out our own DIY spiritual growth, we are selling ourselves short, as well as dishonouring the community that Jesus gave his life for.

Your local church community can teach you things that the world’s best preachers and writers never can

Paul prays that we may grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. He prays that we might know the full dimensions of Christ’s love. All its texture, every nuance, every subtlety and variation. The surprising thing is that this does not come from the world’s best preachers, or the Christian book of the year, or even the work of the world’s most erudite Christian scholars. Instead, it comes ‘together with all the Lord’s people’. It comes as the Christian community does new life together. That doesn’t mean preaching or scholarship is not required. It just means that when it comes to you growing into the full dimensions of Jesus’ love preaching, scholarship, and books have considerable limitations.

Your local church community can teach you things that the world’s best preachers and writers never can. Yes. Your church. That failed and fallen group of people, with all of their quirky and irritating aspects. These people are the very means by which God draws you into the full dimensions of his love.

How does that work? Here are a few suggestions:

• Only your church can love you with all of your faults and failings

• Only your church can express the forgiving grace of God when you fail

• Only your church can draw you into reconciliation and bring the grace of a receiving and welcoming God to full expression

• Only your church gives you a context to use your gifts and to serve others. Stay at home Christianity is basically self worship

• Only your church can express the hope of the New Heavens and the New Earth to the people of your neighbourhood

• Only your church can bring healing and restoration to the broken lives and the troubled families that live in your local community

All of this comes as a loving and sovereign God does his work in his people, through the power of his Spirit, to the glory of Jesus. Without him, we can do nothing, but as he works in us, his people express the truth that Jesus is the hope of our world.

Sure, it can be tough, and not church is perfect. But don’t give up n your local church: it’s God’s means, God’s personally selected context to bring you into the full dimensions of his love.

Q: How is God calling you to renew your love for the local church today?

A Straight Line with a Crooked Stick: How God works in broken people like us

Read Isaiah 45:1-11

The Old Testament tells us that certain special leaders were anointed with oil: prophets, priests, and kings. In addition to that sort of ‘anointing’ we read passages that refer to a coming ‘anointed one’, God’s promised Messiah (see Ps 72:8, Ps 18:44-48). This promised Messiah is the one whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus Christ (see Matthew 16:16).

What surprises me in Isaiah 45 is that this term is applied to Cyrus, a Persian ruler. Cyrus was a non-Jew. He was not a worshipper of the One True God. He was devoted to Marduk and other pagan deities. Had he ever presented himself to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, he would not have been accepted as a worshipper with the people of Israel, and instead he would have been confined to the outer courts. So it’s pretty amazing that the Lord calls Cyrus ‘his anointed’. The Hebrew is even more challenging: the words ‘messiah’ is used.

History tells us that in the first year of his reign, Cyrus issued a decree which allowed all exiles to return to Jerusalem, worship the Lord, and rebuild the Temple (2 Chr 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–3; 6:2–5). So this pagan king was used by God to bring his promises to fulfilment. God used a crooked stick to draw a very straight line.

We are all crooked sticks, but God does his work through us

But then, was Cyrus so special in that regard? Sure he was, in the historical sense, and by reason of the fact that he’s the only pagan to be called a ‘messiah’ in the Bible.

On the other hand, doesn’t God use all of us to bring his purposes to completion? Even if we were to regard ourselves as mature Christians and devoted followers of Jesus, isn’t it true that we are all failed and fallen people? Crooked sticks, all of us? For sure. Still, God promises to work through us, and bring his will to completion as he works through people in his world. Even through people who would not identify themselves as ‘his people’.

When our culture is so driven by self interest and cynicism, it is overwhelming to know that we are not left at the mercy of random and naked forces. In some mysterious and incredibly comforting way, God is at work in our world. We are not on our own, not left to our own devices.

Today, this day, with all the stuff you have to deal with, this God has chosen you to do his will. He will work through you. He loves to do that, and he wants you to love him and honour him in return. Your commitment to delight in this is called ‘obedience’ – your glad response to his overwhelming love, grace and power.

Q: How does this truth help you survive in a world where there is so much evil? Does this truth help you worship God, or make it harder for you to do so?

The Interference of Self

Read: Heb 13:1-6

Sometimes when I am met by a need or a context where I know I should move forward and respond, I push back and either procrastinate or simply turn away.

Why do I do that? Is it fear that my incompetence might be exposed Is it a sense that I might not be safe? Or is it prejudice? Or some combination of a whole raft of reasons? This passage speaks of ministering to prisoners (v.3) – do I fear their violence, and back off? We also read of strangers (v.2) – can they be trusted? Sometimes I am so prejudiced and governed by insecurity with moves me toward self protection and avoidance. Too easily, my fears blind me to what I really need to see. This is the interference of self.

Quite often the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable

Quite often, the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable. It interferes with the ‘realities’ we construct to protect ourselves from inconvenience. If one of these uncomfortable truths threatens my material wealth, my financial independence, or my leisure, I often try to push it away. Sometimes, I don’t even think I realise what I am doing. Yet through defensiveness or dismissal, or something as harmless as well directed humour, I persist in my denial. I would rather that people affirm me, and confirm the sometimes lesser story I have chosen to live at that time.

Well, there is only one affirmation that really matters. One reality worth living for. On Kingdom deserving the focus of my life, one relationship that brings love, peace, life and hope. And it is God (v.6). I don’t have to worry about what others may think, because living with God, or rather Him with me, I have all I need to survive the day.

Q: Does relationship with God really make that much difference to you? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.