Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Without doubt - James 1:5-8

There are many famous passages in scripture which are frequently quoted as promises for us to appropriate without a consideration of the context of the verses. This is a dangerous practice - dangerous because our faith can be tested by the promise apparently not being kept, when the reality is that we have failed to understand the other verses that go with the promise. For a recent sermon I wanted to cite some promises of God, and so found a list from a book. I decided to check up each passage before using them, and discovered that I had to weed out two thirds of the quoted promises because they had been quoted out of context.

James 1v5 is an commonly quoted passage "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given him." What a wonderful promise! How we, like Solomon, need to acknowledge that only God has the answer to the situations we find ourselves in, and so we need to throw ourselves in dependence on Him and His wisdom every day. However, we read on and find v6-8: "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does." Now, that's a bit different from the extract in v5! In fact, it paints a whole new picture.

The context of v5 is that of perseverance in trials and persecution. James reminds us that perseverance in such circumstances is important because these are sent that we might be honed and might learn more of Him, that we might be tested and shown to be disciples who love Him above all, that we might be disciplined so that we follow Him more closely. In the most difficult times, when all within us cries 'Why, Lord?', and the pressure is on to turn away from our saviour, we need wisdom to see beyond our circumstances to our sovereign and loving God. When we are faced with temptation, and the pressure to deny our love for Him, we need His wisdom to say 'no' to evil so that we are not conformed to the pattern of this world. In these trials we need His wisdom so that we are not 'blown and tossed by the wind'.

Now, understanding the correct context, we can see that the promise of His wisdom being given is a deeper blessing than merely the bald promise of v5. When we are struggling to walk with Him when under trials and difficulties, when we need to know we are following Him aright in the times when the way ahead seems so difficult to chose, when we need His reassurance that the decision to "not walk in the way of the ungodly" is the right decision, His wisdom is available to us. It is all about casting ourselves upon Him and His wisdom - believing and not doubting - in the time of trial.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Only 'in Christ' - Roms 12:3

Last week I preached a sermon on Romans 12v3, part of a series I have called 'Foundations of Faith' from Romans 12. If you follow this link to the sermon you will see that, whilst I was aware that this was a transition verse from v1-2, I followed the pattern of most commentators (and the paragraph breaks of modern versions) by putting v3 with the section v3-8 which talks about gifts and their use in the church. Thus, I pointed out (rightly) that, just as our salvation is all of God ("in view of God's mercy" v1), and our sanctification is also all of Him (v1b-2), our work in the church is also all of him (v3) - He is the one who provides the gifts, He is the one who gives us the strength to use the gifts, it is only by His spirit that our gifts can be applied for His purposes and we apply the gifts He has given only through faith in Him. To Him alone be all the glory in the church!

However, meditating on this verse, I have also become convinced that the verse applies back to v1-2. That is, I have become convinced that the verse is also intrinsically related to our salvation and sanctification, not just our gifting. This view restores v3 to be a genuine 'transition' verse, and is therefore the more complete (and, I think, correct) view. Let me explain what I mean...

Paul starts "For by the grace given to me", which I pointed out was a kind of code, pointing us back to his position as an Apostle. It was also a wonderful illustration of the point he is about to make ... that all that He is, has and did to Paul is all given by grace alone - none of the credit can go to Paul, but all must go to God. And so, just as the gift of Apostleship is from God, so is the gift of salvation. Now, he says, 'do not think more highly of yourself than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment'. This applies to salvation and sanctification too! We are saved only by grace (Eph 2v8-9), and we are made a new creation only 'in Christ' (2 Cor 5v17). It is only by the power of the spirit that His new creation is continually renewed so that it is not 'conformed to the pattern of this world' (Rom 12v2). It is only He who can make the sacrifice Holy as our bodies are offered to Him daily (Rom 12v1, Ex 29v37). We are therefore never to consider 'bigging ourselves up in our minds' to consider that it is by our effort that we are sanctified. To do so is 'foolish thinking' (not thinking with "sober judgment"), that causes us to fail to act in faith and seek this transformation by our own power. This makes sense of the last part of v3 "in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you" ... God gives faith to us all - it is His gift in salvation - but we can reduce the impact by failing to act on that faith and instead looking to ourselves.

So, we are not to think of ourselves too highly - we cannot do anything towards our sanctification because it is only by His power as He enables us to resist the attacks of the devil and show the fruit of His spirit in us. All on the altar - all pride at what we have become, all self-reliance, all self-exaltation - none of this has a place. It is only 'in Christ' that we are new creations. Yes, we must stand firm on His word. Yes, we must resist the devil. Yes, we must offer our bodies on His altar. But we do so only in His strength, only by His power, only through His Spirit at work in us.

So, when we look in the spiritual 'mirror', I hope you are pleased with what you see God has made you become. But never take on the praise to yourself, never think it is in your power, never believe that you have done it yourself. Never be a Nebuchadnezzar, surveying the blessings God has given and claiming the glory for yourself! Be God glorifying people!

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Health, wealth, but evil - 2 Kings 21

I was amazed when reading 2 Kings 21 how Manasseh had turned so badly from God's ways when he had the example of the destruction of Israel and the contrasting preservation and prosperity of his father Hezekiah. What was he doing? Could he not see the contrast between the way in which Hezekiah had prospered and been protected and the, now scattered, nation of Israel. Had other nations really prospered more than they for following all the ways of the gods he adopted? What made him move so dramatically back to the practices of Ahaz and the Israelite nation?

Well, we are not actually told directly. However, we can summise from his actions. Look at the range of gods he put up - it looks very like 'spread betting' ... lets get to worshiping as many gods as possible so that we are covered just in case one of them does not look upon us too well! This, I think, shows a basic insecurity - He wanted to be a prosperous and successful king, but with so many powerful nations around and with such a small country, how could he be? Instead of understanding that there was a great God in whom all trust could be put, he followed a natural inclination to protect himself with as much as possible.

In some ways he must have thought that this strategy paid off. He had a long reign with relative peace. Ahab, the earlier Israelite king, had a similar experience - great prosperity and international respect, yet a life following foreign gods. However, scripture records the true verdict on both men ... they did evil in the eyes of God!

The recent 'prosperity' movement had robbed us of a proper understanding of God's sovereignty and authority. Simple formulas do not work, because we cannot see all the variables or their values. Only He knows the beginning from the end. Only he can see the full extent of His purposes. He had a purpose of judgment for the wicked hearts of the people, who even in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, those two Godly kings, only turned back to him on the outward appearance but not in the heart. The Kings rent their clothes, wept before the Lord and sought purity, but the hearts of the people still looked elsewhere, as we see from the rapid turn back to sin as soon as these Godly kings had gone.

The real question to ask ourselves, then, is this: Where is our true, total trust? Are we 'spread betting' in our lives, trusting on ourselves or the support of others, or the reputation we have built in our jobs, or the money we have in savings, or the love of our family, or whatever else, rather than in God? We may be seeing prosperity, but that does not mean our hearts are right. He longs for 'truth in the inward parts' (Ps 51v6), not the sham of worship when we are also trusting in other 'gods'.

A Deep clean - 2 Kings 22-23

I recently visited a member of the church in a hospital ward where there had been an infection. A team were in before the ward was to be re-opened. They were the 'deep cleaning' team ... a 'crack squad' of cleaners, equipped with the very best in cleaning equipment, including steam cleaning. They were meticulous, covering every millimeter of every surface, taking every bed, cabinet, chair and anything else in the room apart to clean the whole room. It was hard, tough, time-consuming work, but essential if the infection was to be eradicated.

I was reading this morning from 2 Kings 22-23. Josiah had become king after the reigns of Manasseh and Amon, both Kings who did evil in the eyes of God. Amazingly, without access to the word of God, he decided to abandon the ways of his fathers and follow God. Isn't it wonderful how the pattern of the father in the story of the prodigal son is seen again and again in scripture? In His mercy, God has the book of the law discovered! Josiah had started the process of rebuilding the temple and turning back to God, and now God reveals His holy standard so that the process can be completed. Josiah responds as we ought, but so often fail to do ... he tore his robes (he laid himself 'bare' before the Lord, no reliance on his wealth or strength, no dependence on his own possessions, all given over to Him), and he wept (not 'crocodile tears', but genuine, heartfelt grief over how much the nation had grieved and angered the Holy God).

What struck me most from this passage, however, was a little phrase in v12 "He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz". Now we have no indication of how long they had been there. The phrase 'Kings' could mean just Manasseh and Amon, but why not just say that? I doubt these altars were there in Hezekiah's time, because he broke down all the high places and his fervor for purity is recorded in 2 Kings 18v3-5. Whatever the case, I love this little verse because it reveals that this was 'deep cleaning'! Josiah did not just deal with all the high places, idols, and idol worship in public places, but dealt with the hidden places that were known only to him. He looked inside his own life, with God's aid he found every little place where evil lurked, and cut all of it out, totally removing the evil and doing all he possibly could to ensure that it could not return (even to the extent of having the very stones of the altars 'ground to powder' (e.g. v15)!

What a challenge in my life. How easy it is to let sin lurk within, to hold on to the 'high places' in my life! I need to allow God's word to penetrate, to 'renew my mind' (Rom 12v2), to utterly transform me so that every part of my life might shine for Him.