Friday, May 31, 2013

The world turned upside down

Things don’t always turn out as expected. Who could have thought that Wigan Athletic would win the FA Cup Final 1-0 against Manchester City, only then to be relegated from the Premiership? Who could have predicted that Ukip, a party dismissed as ‘clowns’ and ‘closet racists’ would have done so well at the recent Council elections? Strange stuff happens. But perhaps the strangest thing of all is how a small band of followers of a travelling preacher from Nazareth came to have such a powerful impact on the world. It’s not as if they had a message that the masses were longing to hear. What they said concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus provoked widespread ridicule, hostility and vicious persecution. Yet nothing could stop them proclaiming that the crucified Jesus was the world’s true Lord and King.
When the apostle Paul and his friends visited Thessalonica they didn’t exactly get a warm reception. People complained, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.’ This provoked a mini-riot and Paul was run out of town. But his opponents were on to something. The Christian message overturns some of our most deeply held assumptions. If people believe in God at all, they perhaps think of him as a powerful, yet remote Being. But according to the Christian faith, the all-powerful God embraced human weakness, becoming one of us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus came to die for our sins on the Cross that we might be forgiven. Who could have thought that God would do that?
Jesus scandalised the people of his day by not calling the righteous, but sinners to follow him. He pronounced blessing not on the high and mighty, but on the poor in spirit and promised that the meek will inherit the earth. No wonder people complained that Christian preachers were turning the world upside down. That’s exactly what happens when someone believes in Jesus and follows him. Everything is turned on its head. Are you ready to have your world turned upside down? 

* For News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine

Friday, May 24, 2013

The despondency of Jesus: some thoughts on Isaiah 49:4

When reading Isaiah 49 the other day I was struck afresh by the Suffering Servant's expression of despondency in Isaiah 49:4. The Servant is conscious of being divinely called and commissioned (Isaiah 49:1-2). The Lord assures him, 'You are my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' (Isaiah 49:3). Yet, the Servant feels that his work has been in vain, 

But I said, "I have laboured in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity"

We take it that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52/53 is the Lord Jesus Christ, who took 'the form of a servant' (Philippians 2:7) and gave his life a 'ransom for many' (Matthew 20:28). Matthew identifies Jesus with Isaiah's Suffering Servant (Matthew 8:16-17 cf. Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 12:15-21 cf. Isaiah 42:1-4). Jesus was conscious that he was the Father's 'beloved Son' in whom he was 'well pleased', (Matthew 3:17 cf. Isaiah 42:1). And of Isaiah 49:4 E. J. Young writes, 'It is, we believe, Jesus Christ in His humiliation of whom the prophet speaks.' (The Book of Isaiah, Volume 3, 1984, Eerdmans, p. 272). 

This is a little explored aspect of our Lord's incarnate life, but Matthew does not hide from us the fact that Jesus sometimes felt despondent in his ministryHe laboured to teach and instruct his followers in the way of the kingdom, yet they were often slow to learn (Matthew 16:5-12). Despite having witnessed his miracles, they failed to believe in his power to heal the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-21). The Lord did not simply shrug off the disciples' lack of understanding and faith. It seems he found it deeply exasperating, 'do you not yet understand?', 'how long shall I be with you?' The fact that one of the Twelve was going to betray him disturbed his spirit, John 13:18-21. 

The despondency of Jesus when faced by the unresponsiveness and failure of his followers is an indication of the reality of his humanity. He emerges from the pages of the Gospels as as Emmanuel, God with us as one of us. In his human nature the Son of God was vulnerable to disappointment and pain. In his compassion he longed to gather the inhabitants of Jerusalem to himself, but they were not willing (Matthew 23:37-39). The heart of God disclosed anthropathically in texts such as Genesis 6:5-6 beat in the breast of the incarnate Son. But didn't Jesus as the Son of God who know all things, even that his own followers would be slow to understand and believe?  Yes, but all that Jesus knew as the omniscient Son of God was not communicated to his human mind. His despondency was the product of disappointed hope in Christ's soul. Not that he was disappointed in God, but in man. He hoped that with all that he had taught and shown his disciples, they would have understood more and believed more, but sadly they did not. 

Anyone who has been involved in serving the Lord in any way will have experienced despondency at some point. Our evangelistic efforts seem to bear little fruit and conversions are few. Valued church members sometimes move on. The revival for which we have long prayed has not yet happened. Above all, perhaps there is the despondency over our own lack of progress in the life of faith. We ask,

And shall we then for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?

However, Jesus' despondency did not descend into embittered unbelief. I have not quoted the whole of Isaiah 49:4, which continues,

But I said, “I have laboured in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
    and my recompense with my God.”

Although the situation looked bleak and the Servant felt that his efforts had been wasted, he was assured that  the Lord would justify him and reward his labours. Our Lord was 'tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin' (Hebrews 4:15). The fact that he sometimes felt despondent tells us that such emotions are not necessarily sinful, but we should resist the slide into hope-destroying, strength-sapping discouragement. Whatever appearances may suggest the contrary, our labours are not in vain in the Lord. Jesus battled through despondency and accomplished the work his Father gave him to do. He 'endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down on the right hand of the throne of God' (Hebrews 12:2). Alec Motyer comments, 
Resting in faith is the answer to despondency. Thus, Isaiah foresaw a Servant with a real human nature, tested like we are, and proving himself to be the author and perfecter of faith, a real, personal faith that can say my God when nothing any longer seems worthwhile. (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 1993, IVP, p. 387). 
Feeling overwhelmed  by the task that was set before him drove Jesus to cry out to his God and Father in prayer  (Hebrews 5:7). Isaiah records the Lord's answer to his despondent Son, Isaiah 49:8. God upheld his Servant (Isaiah 42:1), even as he bore the sins of many. He raised him from the grave. Exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on High, the Suffering Servant, 'shall see the labour of his soul and be satisfied' (Isaiah 53:11). The Lord's promise to his Chosen One is fulfilled, 'You are my whom I will be glorified' (Isaiah 49:3). The hope of resurrection glory drives despondency from the hearts of all the Lord's servants, 1 Corinthians 15:58. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Worship by the Book, edited by D. A. Carson

I can't remember who or what put me on to it, but a short while ago I read an interview with Don Carson on Is the Church a House of Worship? I found it thought-provoking and helpful, focussed as it was on the intersection between the 'whole of life worship' of the believer and the 'gathered worship' of the church. The interview was kind of Hors d'oeuvre for the Carson-edited title, Worship by the Book. So, having enjoyed the starter, I ordered the main course. 

In many ways, Carson's introductory essay is the best thing about the book, as he attempts to develop a biblical theology of worship. Once more he gives attention to relationship between 'whole of life worship' and the 'gathered worship' of the local church. Rightly he rejects the view that if the whole of life involves worship, then what the gathered church does when it meets on the Lord's Day is not worship in any special sense. There is such a thing as the worship of the gathered church. But collective worship should not be understood in simply in terms of a 'worship time' during the service, when people sing hymns, songs and psalms, egged on by a guitar strumming 'worship leader'. Prayer, listening to the reading and preaching of God's Word, the administration of Baptism and the Lord's Supper are all acts of worship, as well as congregational singing. As they gather to worship, the people of God seek to extol the worth of God the Father, in the name of God the Son, in the presence of God the Holy Spirit, in all that they do and say.

The other three contributors agree with Carson's basic stance, but each has a different angle on the best way to approach the 'gathered worship' of the church. Mark Ashton Prayer urges a recovery of the Scripture-enriched liturgy of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Not that he wants Anglican Churches to use the Book of Common Prayer slavishly, but that, following Cranmer, Ashton argues that the worship of the gathered church should be biblical, accessible and balanced. Whatever reservations some of us may have concerning written liturgies, if would be hard to disagree that collective worship should include all three of those features. R. Kent Hughes has a chapter on Free Church Worship. He  reflects on some unhelpful modern trends and sets out a comprehensive vision of 'gathered worship' that is God centred, Christ centred, Word centred,  consecrated, wholehearted and reverent. Last up is  Timothy Keller, who tries to forge a 'third way' between Contemporary Worship and Traditional Worship, drawing on Calvin's practice in Geneva. Although (I know this point is anachronistic) I wonder what the old Reformer would have thought of jazz-accompanied worship?More seriously, what on earth does Keller think he's doing including the words of Mother Theresa in a Protestant worship service? Strange. 

Whatever their points of difference, all the writers envisage 'gathered worship' to be a living encounter between the triune God and his redeemed people. They emphasise the importance of  careful thought, preparation and prayer on the part of those who lead or take part in the 'gathered worship' of the local church. Sample orders of service are provided. But I wonder whether there is sometimes a tendency to overcomplicate things, with choirs, instrumental groups, written prayers and confessions, creedal recitations and other bits and pieces thrown into the mix. The 'gathered worship' of the church is best kept as simple and uncluttered as possible, a living dialogue between the God who draws near and speaks and  his people who respond to the Word of the gospel with faith, hope and love. 

Anyway, plenty of food for thought here and although no reader (unless very muddle-headed) will agree with everything that every contributor has to say, this book certainly helps us to reflect on what it means to worship our great God according to the Book. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Tribute to Graham Harrison (1935-2013)

Yesterday morning Graham Harrison was called into the presence of the Lord whom he had served most faithfully. Even as we mourn his death, many people, myself included have reason to be grateful to God for the impact of his life and ministry. I was never a member of Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Newport where he ministered for over forty years, but I often attended the church and sat under his preaching. While he was never given to pulpit histrionics, his authoritative, pastorally sensitive and gospel-centred ministry never ceased to move me. His pattern was to preach a series of sermons on a Bible book on Sunday mornings and preach one-off evangelistic messages in the evenings. His evangelistic preaching was invariably fresh, punchy, and gripping.

One of the reasons why I opted to study at the London Theological Seminary (1988-90) was that Graham Harrison was one of the lecturers. He used to visit the seminary every other week during term time to teach Christian Doctrine, or Systematic Theology. His lectures were sound, clear and insightful, the product of wide and deep reading in the field of systematics. But he was ever the pastor-theologian and would give plenty of time for students to discuss the pastoral relevance of whatever subject he had been teaching. In discussion his intellect was sharp and his wit dry. 'Know it all' students were soon cut down to size. 

Graham Harrison was a shy man and could sometimes seem a little forbidding to those who did not know him well. But this did not stop him from throwing himself in to the everyday work of pastoral ministry. He was no extrovert, but in his own way Mr. Harrison was a real people person and had a deep and abiding love for the flock at Emmanuel. This only really struck me when I did a couple of 'Summer Pastorates' at the church when the preacher was on Sabbatical. I would do a little pastoral visiting and elderly church members would speak warmly of their Minister, telling of his regular visits and the support he had given them during times of sorrow and trial. The powerful preacher and incisive lecturer was above all a local church pastor. That is what made him such a fine role model for budding Ministers of the Gospel. 

Graham Harrison was a 'Lloyd-Jones man'. Not that he followed his teaching slavishly. He was a Baptist after all. But he was a big admirer of 'the Doctor'. We had him speak at Providence Baptist Church on 'Martyn Loyd-Jones 1966 & Today' back in 2006, the 40th anniversary of Lloyd-Jones' call for Evangelical Unity. Harrison shared Lloyd-Jones' great emphasis on the need for the empowering presence of the Spirit in the Church. While a student at the London Theological Seminary, I wrote a thesis on The Sealing of the Spirit under the guidance of Mr. Harrison. The comments he offered on my work were typical of the man, 
May this subject not simply interest your mind but grip your soul and drive you increasingly to pray for its fulfilment in your own experience. Remember there is always more with God. 
Just how much more, Graham Harrison is only beginning to realise now that he is absent from the body, but present with his Lord in glory. We thank God for the life and ministry of his servant and pray that Mr. Harrison's wife, daughter and her family will be comforted by the hope of the gospel at this time. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

London Theological Seminary Alumni Gathering

When you are a kid and it's been a while since an aunty or something last saw you, they often remark, 'Look how much you've grown.' Well, at yesterday's LTS Alumni Gathering I experienced the grown-up equivalent. Only it wasn't, 'Look how much you've grown.' I haven't, at least upwards. It was, 'Didn't you used to have hair?' Thanks, mate. 

I attended the London Theological Seminary in 1988-90. Back then I was young, free and single. And I had hair. Honest. Lots of it. Blond, curly. Now I'm a balding old bloke with a wife and two teenage children, aged 16 and 18. To think that back in '88 I was one of the youngest ever students at the Seminary, at the tender age of 22. 

A lot has changed at LTS since then. In my time (at least to start with) all members of the faculty were Welsh, bar a token American. They still have several Welsh lecturers and an American (different one), but for some reason quite a few Englishmen now teach at the college. Strange that, for a London-based Seminary. Political correctness gone mad, that's what it is. 

Anyway, about the day. I travelled up and back by train and was able to get a bit of reading done. Recently a friend recommended Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples by Neil Hudson. It's a bit lightweight really and is rather pragmatic in its approach. But the big thing about the gathered church equipping the people of God to live as the scattered church is good. I'm about 28% through the Kindle edition and will post a review when I'm done. A bit (make that a lot) more theologically satisfying was Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones. Again, I have the Kindle version and just as well, as the hardback is a whopping, man-bag-busting 1000 pager. Handy things, e-readers. I read the chapters on the Trinity. Beeke/Jones' treatment of John Owen's Communion with God was especially rich and deep. Great stuff. Still, 6 chapters in and I'm only 10% through the work. William Perkins on Predestination is next. 

I arrived at the Seminary in good time for lunch and it was great to renew fellowship with old friends. I meet up with some LTS old boys at conferences and stuff, but one fellow-student from the class of 1988-90 I hadn't seen for over twenty years. It was him (you know who you are) who said the thing about my hair. And he wants me to plug his book on my blog? The cheek of it.

After lunch (a very tasty lasagne, cooked by the Seminary's very own bona fide Italian cook), there was a 'Tour of LTS', which in fact consisted of having a right to roam round the old place. A lot has been done to to upgrade premises since my day. The facilities are now very modern and high-tech. Back in 88-90, in-lecture graphics consisted of Mr. Harrison's chalk-drawn illustrations of the angelic order, and that was about it. 

Then Bill James spoke on 'Pastoral issues today' or 'Ministering in a secular society' - from 1 Peter. It was a powerful, thought-provoking and challenging message, full of redemptive-historical insights and helpful application of the text to today's world. The church is a holy people, set apart from the world, but not in the same sense as OT Israel. The church is an alien people, not belonging in this world, but looking for the eternal city. The church is a scattered people, living in the world to reach the world for Christ. God's people face the pressure to compromise with the world and compartmentalise their lives. But the Bible calls for whole-life Christian living and preachers must apply the Word to every area of the believer's life, church, home, work, society etc. As the people of God do good in the world, non-believers will sit up and take notice, 1 Peter 2:11-12. I don't know if the good folks at LTS are planning to put this message on the website, but they should and if they do, I'd recommend you give it a listen. 

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but the Seminary now has an online journal, Preachers and Pastors, which is well worth a look. If you are aspiring to the preaching-pastoral ministry are are looking for training for a lifetime of service, I'd certainly advise you to check out the London Theological Seminary

I'm too mean to offer any prizes for this, but I wonder if more recent pals can pick me out in the LTS Class Photo below. Click to enlarge, if you dare. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

More on Lloyd-Jones and 'Secondary Separation'

Further to my earlier post on this subject, here, Peter Masters weighs in to the debate, here, pinching one of my quotes by the looks. But for a more considered view, see Stephen Clark's piece, Serving God in his Church in our Generation. As his masterly analysis shows, 'The Doctor's' position on separation was more nuanced and sophisticated than both some of his supporters and detractors have claimed. I don't much like just posting a bunch of links rather than writing something myself, as it's a bit lazy and not 'proper blogging'. But I've not got much more to say on the matter other than to commend Stephen Clark's excellent piece of work. So, a brace of links it is. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Good Walk

In Wiltshire we are blessed to live in a beautiful part of the country. Gentle hills, flat valley plains, patchwork quilt fields, stately flowing rivers and bubbling streams. A bit of coastline would be nice, but we can’t have it all. The county has some great countryside walks. Just lately the wife and I have taken to wandering along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath. From Semington to Devizes and from Bradford on Avon to Dundas are a couple of our favourite walks.

As opposed to hurtling by in a car, walking gives you time to stop and stare at the beauty of nature. You notice a hazel tree draped in spring catkins and sunlight shimmering on the canal waters forming intricate patterns on the underside of a bridge. 

At some points along the way canal, railway line and river run in parallel. You think of all the effort that went in to digging out the canals as arteries of industry, building locks and bridges. Only for them to fall into virtual disuse with the advent of steam railways. You notice the contrast between the almost stagnant water in the canal and the living waters of the river running by.

There’s nothing like a good walk.

The life of faith is often likened to a walk in the Bible. We are told that Enoch walked with God. Jesus spoke of the narrow gate through which we may enter the narrow way that leads to life. The believer is not wandering aimlessly, lost and all alone. He is going home to the Father through Jesus who is the way back to God. In the words of the 23rd Psalm those who walk with God can say,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

* For May's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine