Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Penknap Providence Church 200th Anniversary

This Saturday will mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of Penknap Providence Church in 1810. The occasion could easily be an excuse for nostalgia, looking back to the good old days when Church going was part of everyday life for most people rather than the minority interest it is now. Recalling the past history of this Church could even be profoundly discouraging when past blessings are compared with the leaner times we face today. At the 50th anniversary of the Church it was recorded that almost 600 members had been added to the fellowship since the work first began. I haven’t worked out the numbers for the last 50 years, but the figure would be nowhere near that staggering total.

Over the last 200 years there have been huge changes in the religious and social life of our country. But the living God has not changed and the Church remains committed to the faith of Penknap’s founding fathers. May the record of God’s blessing upon this Church in former days stir us up to seek our God for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Times may change and the voices of the mighty preachers of old lie silent, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” (Hebrews 13:8). We look to him as we face the challenge of bringing the gospel of sovereign grace to the people of our day.
(* From my introduction to the 200th Anniversary booklet)

Anniversary Service

4pm Saturday 4th September

Preacher: Geoff Thomas (Aberystwyth)

See church website for details.

Monday, August 23, 2010

No time to stand and stare?

(W. H. Davies)

What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

So wrote the poet W. H. Davies, native of my home town, Newport in South Wales. For many years the author dropped out of the rat race and lived as a tramp, wandering aimlessly around the United States and the United Kingdom. His most famous poem, the opening lines of which are quoted above, was entitled Leisure. In it Davies extols the virtue of taking time to delight in the simple beauties of creation. I think the poem speaks powerfully to our frantically busy society where life is lived at such a pace that we have little time to stand and stare.

While laziness isn't exactly a good thing, being so busy that times of rest and reflection are squeezed out of our lives isn't good for us either. It is interesting that the fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us to stop working and have a day off, Exodus 20:8-11. Following the Christian pattern Sunday used to be regarded as the day of rest in our country. But nowadays there is little difference between Sunday and the other days of the week. I wonder if we are the poorer for that. We need to take time to recharge our batteries, to think and reflect about life and spend time unhurriedly enjoying the company of friends and loved ones.

Christians gather for worship on a Sunday to make space in our lives to listen to what God is saying to us through his Word and to praise him for all the simple blessings of this life. Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28). If we have no time to stand and stare at the wonders of God's world and no time to sit and listen to his voice, then our lives are impoverished. W. H. Davies' poem concludes,

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

* Written for the September editon of News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aber 2010 Dale Ralph Davis' Conference Addresses 3 & 4

(Jeremiah by Rembrandt)

Some more notes on DRD's preaching at Aber:

Address Three: "The Yoke is no Joke" (Jeremiah 27-29)

I. There is a decree that controls politics

Yahweh had decreed that many nations, including his own people would have to submit to the king of Babylon. The God of Israel is no tin pot tribal deity. He is not the little god of Israel, but the God of little Israel.. His will determines the rise and fall of nations. Jeremiah was to send yokes to the leaders of the nations as a vivid illustration of this principle, Jeremiah 27:1-6. Mighty Babylon  itself was also subject to his decree, Jeremiah 27:7. God's mighty sovereignty does not depend upon his people.

i.  Particular sovereignty

It is for us to acknowledge Yahweh's will in every situation. Whether the political context is favourable or not, we must submit to God's programme and wear the yoke that he places around our necks. Needed lesson for the church in UK.

ii.  Sobering sovereignty

Jeremiah 27:7, "until the time of his land comes". Babylon will fall. No such thing as America's "manifest destiny". The is USA not the chosen race, neither is the UK. The time will come when Yahweh will sovereignly judge this nation.

II. There is a dilemma involves truth

Hananiah took the yoke of Jeremiah's neck and broke it prophesying that within two years the yoke of Babylon would be broken and the captives of Judah would return to their own land, Jeremiah 28:1-4, 10-11. This flatly contradicted what Jeremiah said in chapter 27. Here is the dilemma: who to believe? Jeremiah refuted Hananiah's claims, citing the the message of the former prophets, Jeremiah 28:6-9, also he pronounced the word of Yahweh against the false prophet, foretelling his death, Jeremiah 28:12-16. Unlike Hananiah's words, Jeremiah's prophecy was fulfilled, Jeremiah 28:17. When the voices of false teachers (like Oral Roberts etc) contradict the teaching of your church, the dilemma must resolved by appealing to Scripture, Isaiah 8:20.

III. The prescription that governs life

i. Future hope

According to Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon, the captivity would be over in 70 years, Jeremiah 29:10. The people were encouraged to pray in the light of his promise, Jeremiah 29:11-14.

ii. Immediate challenge

The exiles were called to be faithful in a difficult situation that was not of their choosing, Jeremiah 29:6-7. So with us when we find ourselves in hard times that we cannot escape. Example of Christian woman who suffered a mental collapse, yet who faithfully served the Lord, ministering to other patients in the asylum. In the UK we would not choose to live in a climate that is increasingly hostile to the gospel. But we must be faithful to the Lord.

Our sovereign God always speaks the truth and he charges us to be faithful in our exile.

Address Four: "Jerusalem Burning" (Jeremiah 37-39)

I. You can resist the Word of the Lord and yet have a keen interest in it

Zedekiah expressed an interest in the Word of the Lord, Jeremiah 37:3, but failed to act upon it, Jeremiah 37:7-10. Jeremiah persisted in his message despite being imprisoned, Jeremiah 37:16-17. But still Zedekiah failed to listen. Indecisive king like a boneless chicken. Being interested in the Bible isn't enough. We have to receive the Word in faith and act upon it - see also Felix, Acts 24:24-27.

II. You can resist the Word though you have reason to believe it

What Jeremiah said regarding the king of Babylon beseiging Jerusalem came to pass, Jeremiah 37:19. But still he failed to believe. People do not persist in unbelief becasue of lack of evidence for the truth. Eyewitness testimony of the Gospels to the person and work of Christ. Like Zedekiah people refuse to belive despite the evidence set before them.

III. You can resist the Word by submitting to fear

People sometimes suggest that faith is the cowards way out - mere escapism from harsh reality. But in Zedekiah's case it was fear that kept him from faith. In fear he allowed Jeremiah to be lowered into a dungeon, Jeremiah 38:1-6. Zedekiah permitted Ebed-Melech to resue the prophet, but once again, fear kept him from obeying the Word, Jeremiah 38:17-19. He refused Jeremiah's words of reassurance and warning, Jeremiah 38:20-23. If only the king had had the courage to listen and act on what Jeremiah told him. Look what happened to him, Jeremiah 39:4-7. Jesus warns those who are too fearful to believe, Luke 12:4-5.

IV. Though many resist the Word there will be a faithful remnant

Ebed-Melech supported Jeremiah. Onesiphorous stood with Paul, 2 Timothy 1:16-18. Even in the darkest times there will be a godly remnant. William Still's aunt stood by him when his preaching on hell was disturbing the church. Will you stand with those who are battling for the truth and identify yourself with God's suffering people? Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. "Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will." (WCF XXV:V).

Just as seeing a T-Rex skeleton at the British Museum cannot give you much of an idea of what it would be like to confront a living and breathing dinosaur, so these brief notes can only give you the bare bones of DRD's ministry.  You just had to be there. Davis' preaching style is not as polished as you might have thought from simply reading his commentaries. He's a preacher and there was a healthy element of rough hewn spontaneity in his delivery. Sometimes the application could have been a little more pointed, but the messages were characterised by a good mix of insightful exegesis, well thought-out structure, bags of engaging illustrations (few of which are included in these notes) and plenty of relevance to the current situation. A good model of "big chunk" preaching that in some cases handled several chapters of Jeremiah at at time without skimming over the surface of the text. Made me think about trying to do a series on Isaiah or Jeremiah some day.

More reportage on the evening meetings to follow.

You can order CD or DVD recordings of these addresses from the Evangelical Movement of Wales.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead,  by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 282pp

I usually read a novel or two when on holiday and this year I opted for Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It is an unusual novel in that it takes the form of an extended letter from an ageing Minister to his seven year old son. Widower, the Reverend John Ames remarried and fathered a child late in life. He knows that he is mortally ill and wants to leave his son with some lasting impressions of the father who loved him so much. The narrative flits back and forth from Ames's observations on life at the time he was writing up his dying testament to memories of his own childhood and later years. Usually when pastors feature in a novel they are either charlatans or creeps. But, refreshingly, John Ames, a man of sincere faith and deep compassion is the real hero of the Robinson's story.

Ames's father and grandfather were pastors before him. Through Ames the writer vividly describes the strained yet poignant relationship between her main character's pacifist father and his eccentric, visionary grandfather, a combatant in the American Civil War. Ames's best friend, Robert Boughton is also a Minister. One of the amazing things about Gilead is the way the author gets into the mind and soul of her leading character as he endeavours to deal with life's challenges in the light of his Christian faith. The novel includes insightful reflections on the pastoral ministry some interesting theological discussion. Ames's favourite theologians are John Calvin and Karl Barth. Grace, forgiveness and blessing are the novel's theological keynotes, especially when Ames perceives a threat to his family from Boughton's wayward son, Jack. At one point Jack presses his father and Ames on the issue of predestination, seemingly worried that a sinner like him might not be among the elect. Neither Minister quite knows what to say and the matter is left hanging in the air. I think Calvin would have pointed him to Christ as the "mirror of our election". We can only know that we are amongst the elect by first looking to Jesus.

The novel's unhurried pace slowly draws the reader into the internal world of the dying Minister. The fact that Ames knows that his time is short makes him all the more aware of the often unobserved beauties of creation. He enjoys watching the sun come up in the silence of his empty church building. He delights in watching his son and a friend playfully splashing around in a water sprinkler and comments on the way the sunlight made the water droplets shimmer and glow. Often life is lived at such a pace that there is little time for  meditation on the simple blessings that the Lord so richly bestows upon us. Ames hopes that heaven will be a glorious amplification of the wonders of God's creation  rather than a negation of life in this world. If we are thinking in terms of the new creation, I'm sure he's right.

As the novel draws to a close the tension is ratcheted up. The preacher believes that his wife and young son are in danger of being drawn towards the villainous Jack Boughton and that they will be at his mercy after Ames is dead. The Reverend can imagine forgiving Jack for sinning against him, but forgiving him for wronging his friends and loved ones is altogether more problematic. You'll have to read Marilynne Robinson's exquisitely written and absorbing novel, Gilead for yourself to find out if grace, forgiveness and blessing win out in the end.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Aber 2010 Dale Ralph Davis' Conference Addresses 1 & 2

Having appreciated DRD's excellent commentaries on the Old Testament historical books (see here), I was looking forward to hearing him preach at this year's Aber Conference. His commentaries are characterised by careful exposition of the biblical text, God-centred theology, thoughtful application, lively illustrations and a great sense of fun. His preaching was no different. In four addresses he introduced us to the book of Jeremiah under the heading, "The True Word for Tough Times". Here is the gist of what he had to say in the first two messages:

Address One: "The Astounding Word" (Jeremiah 1)

We can sometimes take the Word of God for granted. It is a bit like a shut off valve on a toilet. It is only when the pan begins to overflow that we realise what a valuable thing the shut off valve is. When faced with tough times like the days of Jeremiah the prophet we really begin to appreciate just how astonishing is God's Word.

I. The Word of God is astonishing because it is relentless (Jeremiah 1:1-3)

a) It came in religious times

The reign of reforming king Josiah.

b) It came in hostile times

The reign of wicked king Jehoiakim who consigned Jeremiah's prophecy to the flames (Jeremiah 36).

c) It came in nervous times

The reign of Zedekiah, the "yo-yo king" - Jeremiah 38.

d) It came in disastrous times

Jerusalem falls (Jeremiah 39).

The opening verses of the prophecy show that whatever the religious or political climate, the Word of God just keeps on coming. That gives us hope for today and encourages us to preach the Word in season and out of season.

II. The Word of God is astonishing because it is so fragile (Jeremiah 1:4-8)

Jeremiah is but a youth. Who will listen to God's Word through such a whippersnapper? Yahweh often chooses to use unusual people to do great things for him. Abraham, the father of God's covenant people could not have children with Sarah. Jacob was a conniving twister. Jephthah was a reject. But Yahweh chose these people and used them for his glory. Before he was even born God had set apart Jeremiah, the fragile poet to be his mouthpiece in tough times, Jeremiah 1:5. So with all believers, we have been chosen by God and sanctified for his service, Romans 8:28-29. This principle also might help to explain why pastors are such a strange bunch of men.

III. The Word of God is astonishing because it is so dominating (Jeremiah 1:9-10)

It is the Word of God that destroys or builds the nations. That may seem ludicrous given the fragility of those who proclaim it, but it is the case. Yahweh watches over his Word to fulfil it, Jeremiah 1:12. His purposes are invincible.

IV. The Word of God is astonishing because it is so fanatical (Jeremiah 1:11-19)

Yahweh will send the Babylonians to chastise his people because of their rebellion against him. The one true and living God will brook no rivals. He demands the undivided devotion of his covenant people, Deuteronomy 6:4-5. So with Jesus, Matthew 10:37-39.

We need to repent from our idolatry and go to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness. Yahweh requires our all and will rest content with nothing less.

Address Two: "Is this Man a Believer?" (Jeremiah 15:10-21)

Jeremiah's message of judgement for Judah was getting him down. Chapters 2-10 of his prophecy are all doom and gloom. Chapters 11-20 reveal the prophet's conflict. At this stage the man is at crisis point.

I. Balancing on a paradox

Jeremiah was opposed and ridiculed. The people of his own town, Anathoth sought to take his life. He was forbidden to attend both wedding and funerals and was not allowed to get married (Jeremiah 16). This only made him feel all the more isolated and despondent. He was not even allowed to pray for the people, they were beyond that, Jeremiah 11:14. Yet despite all this Jeremiah found joy in Yahweh's Word, (Jeremiah 15:16). This is the paradox of the Christian life. We find joy in suffering and the resurrection power of Jesus is made manifest in his afflicted people, Philippians 3:10.

II. Stepping over the line

In Jeremiah 15:18 the prophet expresses his grief to the Lord. It is not wrong to ask "Why?" as does Jeremiah in 18a, but it is wrong to accuse God of being deceitful as in 18b. Anguish must not crowd out reverence. We may bemoan Yahweh's mysteries, "How long, O Lord?", but not deny his character.

III. Coming under an ultimatum

Yahweh summons his despondent servant to return to him, Jeremiah 15:19. He was not to turn towards the people and alter his message to suit them, but return to the Lord so that once again he might be the mouthpiece of his God. Sometimes the Lord speaks to us sharply and directly to shock us out of our sin and bring us back to him. See also Jesus' dealing with Peter in John 21.

IV. Resting in fresh assurance

What we need is not a new Word from the Lord, but to have his old Word freshly applied. So with the prophet, Jeremiah 15:20-21 cf. 1:17-19. Example of Pat Candy whose daughter was killed in a tragic accident. er grief Revelation 21:4 spoke to her with fresh power. Also when Martyn Lloyd-Jones was depressed he found strength in Titus 1:2. Spurgeon was feeling low when cholera hit London, but he received assurance through Psalm 91:9-10. We don't need a new book on every problem facing the church, but to pay heed to the good old truths of the Bible.

You can order CD or DVD recordings of these addresses from the Evangelical Movement of Wales.