Monthly Archives: December 2012
This last Sunday, members of Hall Gate URC in Doncaster joined together after their morning service of worship for a meal and discussion. I’ve started a church history course with them that looks at old events to see their contemporary relevance. Sunday’s session was supposed to be on the Fourth Century as a whole touching on men like John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo.
All our time was taken up with looking at the Christological and Trinitarian controversies that led to the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD). After a short discussion on whether Constantine was good for the church or not, we began to look at the Arian controversy and the first Nicene creed. It was a great time and led to some really interesting discussion. From the events of 1600 years ago we began to discuss modern worship, tolerance, evangelism and everything else you can think of. Christology and Trinitarianism became more than just dusty words in Systematic Theology books and became living realities.
I hope that our discussion will lead people to understand the second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful a little more. The composer of the hymn, John Francis Wade and its translator Frederick Oakley were both Roman Catholics. Wade was a Jacobite who fled to France. Oakley was a Tractarian in the Church of England before following the logic of their position and joining the Roman Church. I’m sure I’d have some “pleasant theological discussions” with both men but there’s no doubting the orthodoxy of the second verse of this hymn.
With words taken from the Nicene Creed we sing:
God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Begotten, not created:
The third line is an interesting translation of gestant puellæ viscera meaning “carried in a virgin’s womb”. But the rest is fabulous stuff. Jesus, who we adore, is fully God. There was no time when he wasn’t. He always was and always will be the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. O come, let us adore him this Christmas for who he is. God in flesh. God with us. Immanuel.
I recently took the funeral of a retired minister in one of my congregations, and his daughter passed on to me a selection of his books. One was a thin paperback book entitled ‘This is our life’ by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. As many URC folks will know, Newbigin was a bishop in the Church of South India who – in ‘retirement’ – became a URC Minister and Moderator of Assembly on his return to Britain. This little book, available online here, is Newbigin’s address to the 1978 URC General Assembly.
What struck me about this little book is how desperately the URC still needs to hear Newbigin’s 1978 address. Newbigin preached on Romans 1:16:
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
I don’t want to give a lengthy ‘review’ because I want to encourage you to read it and pray through it for yourself. I will just draw your attention to three of Newbigin’s points though:
First, having stated his passage, Newbigin begins “At the opening of our Assembly I want to direct your minds to the Gospel…” If only this happened at every Assembly. If only this happened in every sermon preached in every congregation in every place around the world. If only we were so focussed on the whole point of faith, on the whole reason we exist as a church, if only we listened and humbled ourselves before the good news of God revealed in His word to us. If only!
Secondly, Newbigin reminds us of the meaninglessness of listening to the world’s judgement of the Church. It doesn’t matter whether the world thinks we should be doing this, that or the other. What matters is what God says.
Thirdly, the Gospel is NOT ‘Loving God and loving your neighbour’. This is not the Gospel, this is the Law. The Gospel liberates, the Law enslaves. Most people know we ought to love God and almost everyone knows we ought to love others others. This is not what the Church is called to preach to the world. There is nothing distinctive about such a message. “We exist, the Church exists, because there is a Gospel, good news which cannot be discovered but only told…”
May the URC of 2012 and 2013 and beyond hear again this prophetic message.
As I read through the beginning of the four gospels I’m constantly thrown forward thirty years to Easter. Matthew in his gospel reminds us that the name Jesus, means ‘Save people from their sins’ and that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”. Mark misses the whole birth thing out, but instead begins with John the Baptist who is asking people to repent of their sins. Luke weaves together Mary and Joseph’s story with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, which in my mind reaches its climax as Zechariah sings aloud that a time is coming when sins will be forgiven and by the tender mercy of God a new dawn will break upon us. And John in his grand opening reminds us on several occassions that Christ is full of grace.
All of which has made me ponder over what we sing about in our churches at Christmas. Yes we’ve held nativities, and carol services, and Christmas socials, and playing in a brass band I know my way round many a Christmas carol at this time of the year. And yet very few of them actually take seriously the connection that all the gospel writers made between Christmas and Easter. They focus on cattle lowing, or our Lord’s conception (if that is what is meant by lo he abhors not the virgins womb), or the shepherds in their fields, even king herod’s terrorism. Few carols present Jesus as anything other than a baby in a manger. If they’re bold enough you may get some mention that he is the son of God, but few talk of the fact that this baby came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice given by the mercy and grace of God. If the gospel writers can get that across as the opening gambit in their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus, is too much to ask for in a carol?
One carol (or perhaps its just a song) that, in my mind, balances the Christ of Christmas being the Christ of Easter is Stuart Townend’s ‘From the squalor of the borrowed stable’. He begins like many of our carols, in Bethlehem that first Christmas:
From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
By the spirit and a virgin’s faith;
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Saviour of the human race!
But the skies were filled, with the praise of heav’n,
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the Gift of God, come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel.
Even here, Townend isn’t ashamed or frightened to recognise the baby in the stable will suffer great anguish and the shame of scandal. Following a second verse focussing on the amazing grace that the King of heaven is now the friend of sinners, walking our road, and feeling our pain, he goes on to a third verse:
Through the kisses of a friend’s betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for a world’s transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout, our souls are free –
Death defeated by Immanuel!
No wonder the final verse declares that Christ, the baby in the manger, is now standing in the place of honour taking his rightful place as the glorious King over all awaiting the Bride of Christ: the Church, to run into her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel! I’ll leave you to be blessed by this music:
When thinking about the work of John Calvin our minds may take us to the Institutes of the Christian Religion or to the many volumes of commentaries on books of the Bible. Some of us may think of his fabulous treatises On the Necessity of Reforming the Church and An Inventory of Relics. All these works are worthy of reading and studying and will be rich sources of edification to any believer.
But if we restrict ourselves to these works we miss a vital part of Calvin’s output. We will miss out on what Calvin thought was the most important part of his life and ministry. We will miss out on his preaching.
Calvin was, first and foremost, a preacher. He ascended the steps of St Peter’s pulpit almost every day to preach the Word of God to the people under his care. And in the pulpit we hear the voice of a man who used his considerable intellect and learning to bring that Word to the lowliest child in the faith.
Calvin preached without notes and only with the original Greek or Hebrew text in front of him. But from very early on in his time at Geneva a stenographer was found to record the sermons. These records have long been extant but only a few volumes have ever been translated into English.
The Banner of Truth Trust, however, has published many volumes of Calvin’s sermons in English. One of their most recent volumes makes fabulous reading over the Christmas period. In Songs of the Nativity Calvin expounds the songs found in the first two chapters of Luke. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon are here opened up to the reader in a way that directs our thoughts to the glory of God and the riches of Christ.
If you’ve never read Calvin before you will find him to be more readable than Karl Barth or Rowan Williams. He will have better applications than Rick Warren or Tim Keller, despite the gap of time between him and us. Calvin’s sermons were preached to people like you. Pick up this volume (or any volume of his sermons) and delight yourself in the Christ who has saved you.
The Bible allows no room for ambiguity on the dangers of money. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Elsewhere, Jesus says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). No ifs, no buts, no maybes. No excuses or get out clauses. Jesus is refreshingly frank. Here in 1 Timothy 6, Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching by saying, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (vv.9-10)”
Wealth can become a god, an idol that ensnares us. To get more money, we can fall into the trap of doing things that are harmful to our families, our friends, ourselves, and, most importantly of all, our relationship with God. When we start focussing on money, we stop focussing on God.
Looking around my city of Norwich, wealth (and spending it) is certainly the most prominent and publicly worshipped god. On a Sunday morning on my way to church, I drive past the long queue of cars waiting to get their place in Chapel Field Shopping Centre. In the city’s many supermarkets, there are mountains – literally – of sweets and treats stacked to the ceilings as you walk through the doors, and aisle-upon-aisle of goods that we simply don’t need. I often wonder what these places must feel like to those who have little or nothing. What would an Indian Dalit or starving African child make of our extravagance and gluttony? We earn more money to spend more money to accumulate more things that we don’t need. Last year, £594 million of Christmas presents were unwanted (not to mention those that weren’t needed!). 1.5 million new items were listed on eBay on Boxing Day. What a ridiculous world we live in!
As Christians, it’s easy to get sucked in to the greed and consumerism of our society. I admit that I struggle. It happens almost naturally. Who – if they’re totally honest – doesn’t want to live as comfortably and as well as possible? Who doesn’t want the same gadgets and lifestyle as everyone else around them?
We need a regular reality check. We need to hold one another to account. We need to stop, stand back, and ask ourselves the difficult questions:
- What really drives us in life? Is it really God and our faith in Christ?
- What do we really want, and what, by contrast, do we really need in our lives?
- How is God asking us to use our money?
Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, reminds us that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (vv.6-8).
‘Contentment’ – ‘autarkeia’ in Greek – is the key word. This was a great watchword of the Stoic philosophers that meant ‘self-sufficiency.’ They meant a frame of mind which was completely independent of outward things, completely satisfied with what it already had and not ‘needing’ anything else.
How do we get this contentment? Quite simply, from God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we are focussed on God, our meaning for life is found in Him. We realise that this life is only a test for the next one. Jesus is all that matters; everything else is fluff that gets in the way.
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism so brilliantly puts it: “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” You don’t need an iPad, a flashy car, a big house, a higher bank balance or a larger pension to do that. All you need – this Christmas and throughout the year – is the one who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
Think about what we hear in many URC circles about the evangelical position. It’s divisive, contentious, looking for arguments over unimportant issues, uneducated, simple.
That’s what I thought, anyway. Surely progressive Christianity was the way forward? Unfortunately, the Bible gave no encouragement in that belief. In fact, quite the opposite. Scripture teaches that Christianity is ultimately a conservative religion, concerned with handing on a message from one generation to the next and that those who seek to change that message are the real schismatics.
Paul couldn’t be clearer in this passage. “If anyone teaches a different doctrine…he is puffed up and understands nothing.”
This passage teaches us that there is a pattern of teaching which must be preached and adhered to. This passage teaches that this doctrine is linked to the Lord Jesus. This passage teaches us that there is a teaching that corresponds to godliness.
The question we must ask then is: Are we teaching that pattern of sound words? Or do we think we know better?
Think of how things have gone in the 20th century. Was that a century of clinging to old doctrine? Or was it, on the whole, a century when words like atonement, salvation, Gospel, were redefined to suit modern sensibilities?
If you’ve ever attempted to show how clever you are by questioning the message of Paul then he has some news for you. You’re the one dividing the church. You’re the disillusioned one. You’re the one who is using the church to make a name for yourself.
There’s still time to change. There’s still time to repent and come back to sound doctrine. God did this for me, he can do it for you too.
You don’t want to be a schismatic do you?