Saved from futility

‘What’s the use?’ We’ve probably heard that said, or said it ourselves. Nothing’s working and our time’s being wasted.

An old Greek myth tells the story of Sisyphus who is punished by being made to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again when he nearly gets to the top. And he must do this forever! We now call a job that’s laborious and useless ‘sisyphean’.

That’s what life in this world is like—without God. Useless. And Christians have been saved from the futile ways we learn in this world (Ephesians 4:17-20).

In times past young believers were worshipping idols. And, of course, calling something a god when it can’t hear, think or act is futile. Nothing is going to happen by talking to it or offering it a bribe.

And the kind of life that grows from worshipping idols is also futile. There is nothing above us to lift us up. There is only a recycling of the mess we are already in.

Our own world dismisses giving reverence to God—any god. But we haven’t stopped worshipping something. We’ve been designed to look up and to be in awe of something. And people still say, ‘I just had to do that.’ It’s part of our being human to be compelled by something greater than ourselves.

If we don’t know the true God through his Son, Jesus Christ, we’ll install something in his place.

One writer (I’ve put a link to his article below) thinks self-worship is now the world’s fastest growing religion. This ‘religion’ or ideology teaches that each person’s own thinking, their emotions and choices, goals, values and creativity must determine everything else.

But then, he says, ‘When we try to be our own sources of truth, we slowly drive ourselves crazy. When we try to be our own sources of satisfaction, we become miserable wrecks. When we become our own standard of goodness and justice, we become obnoxiously self-righteous. When we seek self-glorification, we become more inglorious.’

Paul would say the same now as he did a long time ago. Without the true God, our understanding is darkened, not enlightened. It’s ignorant, not informed. It’s hard hearted, not sensitive.

It’s into this situation that God sends Jesus to live, and die, and rise again. He has come to lift us out of all this. That’s why Peter talks about being rescued from futility (1 Peter 1:8-19). Without him, we are slaves.

If you believe that the only things that are real are physical, it may seem strange to hear your way of life called futile. That’s why it’s important to look at the light God has sent into the world.

The story is told of a rebellious sailor who is lowered down into the empty hold of his ship as punishment. He has no light, no company. Only bread a water let down on a rope each day. Several days go by and the sailor defies the call to change his ways and return to the deck. So, the captain lowers a lamp down instead of the food.

Now, the sailor can see his surroundings—the filth and the vermin, and himself as part of it all. Quickly he asks to be pulled up out of his prison.

The way we are brought up, the way of life around us, seem normal. We can become accustomed to shallowness, to lies, and lust, and hollow laughter. Until, that is, we see Jesus Christ.

The only way to be freed from the futility of this world is for someone to pay for us—to be bought like a slave. And then be set free. That’s what ‘redeemed’ means in what Peter says.

God knows we are in the dark. He also knows we like being in the dark. We think it’s the only way to stay in control of our lives.

But then, God lets us see how bitter we have become—by letting us human beings kill his Son. He lets us see the meaning of love by his Son asking for us to be forgiven. He shows us there is a new way by raising his Son from death. We can begin to hope.

This is what it means to be ‘redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors…with the precious blood of Christ’.

All that the world has when it doesn’t want God is cravings.

Interestingly, one of the world’s religions—Buddhism—is focused on shutting down desire because it is the source of all our unhappiness. But desire is part of being alive! We want things. That’s what gets us up in the morning. It’s what makes us work hard and take risks.

What makes desire a problem is that we do not have God as our Father. Nothing we get is ever enough. It wasn’t meant to be enough. Only God can be ‘enough’. Under him, our desires are governed. Without him, they become insatiable.

We try to have a full life by letting rip with whatever we want. But without God, we generate endless unrest. We find ourselves yearning for what isn’t ours, or boasting about what we’ve done (1 John 2:15-17). But it’s all a temporary ‘fix’. If it doesn’t come from the Father, it won’t last. It’s futile.

But then, what if we come to know God as our Father? Our passions are under his care. We listen to what he says. We copy the way of life lived by his Son. We have something that will last forever. It begins to feel solid—even in this world. It’s not futile. We’ve be rescued.

It doesn’t take much experience, and honesty, to recognise that something isn’t solid just because we can see it. Why not, every time to find yourself getting fond of this world, taking another look at Jesus, and what he has done. Ask why he took so much trouble to show us what’s real. Ask if you can afford to give your life for what is passing away.

You can hear my talk on this topic at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kb4sbuJsus

Article: Self Worship is the world’s fastest growing religion; Thaddeus Williams

Friendship is all about other people

The story goes of a man coming home from a party saying, ‘I was surrounded by friends, but none of them were mine.’ Many people experience loneliness—including some who appear to be ‘the life of the party’.

These experiences demonstrate that loneliness isn’t mended with company. In the real world, having friends involves thinking—thinking about others.

Perhaps this is why many have experienced amazing community spirit when a catastrophe strikes—a flood or fire or accident. Everyone focusses on what needs to be done and forgets about themselves. They begin to ‘discover’ each other.

So, here’s the real issue. If we are only thinking of ourselves, there’s no real relationship going on. The other person is only ‘present’ to the extent that they are meeting a need of mine. They may be thinking the same. Neither of us are being real. We are like ghosts trying to hug each other.

A relationship with someone else is not just a matter of chemistry, or sex, or common interest. It involves love, and this means seeing who someone is and what they need—thinking about them and how we may be a part of their lives.

Paul tells his friends at Philippi to think of others and not just themselves, and consider others better than themselves.

That’s good advice but it’s easier said than done. Selfishness runs deep and takes us back to thinking about ourselves. That’s why Paul points to how Christ has lived among us (Philippians 2:1-11).

It would be worthwhile reading some Gospel stories about Jesus. People called him a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). That’s what we need—not someone who expects high standards, conformity, or agreement but a friend who knows who we are, what we can become and what help we need.

And the first need we have is to be forgiven. We don’t merely need people we can follow, or who like us. We need a Saviour. We need Christ’s encouragement, comfort, tenderness and compassion.

We need to belong to a whole group of people participating in a love that’s bigger than all the funny things that go on between us people. We need to be God’s children—together.

Believe me, what we read here fixes the problem. We have a quality of life that doesn’t depend on our friends being friendly or us being perfect! There’s something different that happens among people who receive forgiveness from God, and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Paul also says we need to put away selfish ambition or conceit (v. 3). In business circles, people talk about ‘networking’—finding relationships that may further their interests. But that’s not friendship. Friends aren’t concerned with their own interests but the interest of their friend.

In fact, we are called to consider others better than ourselves (v. 4). This is nothing to do with us being better or worse than others. We are talking about considering others better than ourselves.

So, is all of this just a game? Do we just act in a certain way because that will make other people feel happier with us? Hardly. That’s hypocrisy, and eventually, hypocrisy shows!

Here’s why it’s so important to know how Jesus thinks. He has been thinking about us—not himself. And because he is thinking about us, we can be freed from always focusing on ourselves. We can have the same thought in our minds as Jesus Christ.

How can this be? Stay with this! It might seem like I’m trying to crack a problem with a heavy thump of Bible, but thinking about ourselves doesn’t yield easily!

The way Jesus thinks starts with him being equal with God. He is God. But he doesn’t think this fact needs to be defended. He doesn’t need to protect his rights or have his identity acknowledged. Simply—he’s God. He knows it. And he acts accordingly.

Here’s what he does. He ‘made himself nothing’. That is, he pours out all that he is—for us.

The Son of God becomes one of us—a human being. As God, he is in charge. But, as a human being, he is told what to do. He’s become a servant.

Then, the job he is given is to show us who God is. So, he shows us the ‘comfort of his love’, his ‘tenderness and compassion’.  

It’s because we don’t know this that we have to protect ourselves. This is why we have to be surrounded with approving people. We’re not persuaded that God is friendly.

So, Jesus makes himself an offering for our sins. He’s already a servant, but he becomes a humble one and does the most despicable job you could ever take on. He’s nailed to a Roman cross. In our place.

This is the mind of Christ. He has come closer to us that we can come to ourselves. By being what he is—God, doing a human job—he’s shown us what it means to be human. He’s also shown us what it means to be God.

And then, Jesus is given the name above every name—that’s the name ‘Lord’, or God. There’s never been any risk of him losing his identity!

And there’s no risk of us losing our identity either when we think fondly about people around us—in just the same way we think about ourselves. If we’ve been united with Christ through faith, we have his encouragement, his tenderness and compassion.

So now, we are free to live, to love, to give and to share. It will seem risky. Sometimes, we may lose a friend rather than gain one. But we will always have Christ’s friendship.

Surely and certainly, we will discover the riches of relationships that flow from a reliable source—from no less than the God who made us to be like him.

It matters what you think

If you are asked, ‘What are you doing?’ you may say, ‘Just thinking.’ But we are never just thinking. What is going on in our heads—or not going on—affects what happens. Good thinking leads to good living.

It’s also true that if you are not thinking, someone else is doing it for you. And one day, you may resent giving your mind over to others—to musicians, playwrights, pressure groups or dictators.

But how does healthy thinking happen? I’m not trying to be an amateur psychologist here. I’m simply pointing out some directions we’ve been given to help us think well. They come from Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (4:4-9).

In human terms, if we are going to think well, we need to be inwardly happy—not depressed by our circumstances. We also need some confidence—so we are not embattled by rival opinions.

We need to be secure rather than anxious. And we also need lots of good options to choose from.

Many would agree with all this. Courses and therapies try to produce these states so that we can think and live well.

But Paul shows that these qualities arise from who God is, and from what Jesus Christ does. The world believes its enlightenment comes from our own history and experience. But we need to be enlightened by God speaking to us. Our thinking then becomes the way these unseen things become visible in the real world.

Let’s see how this works out.

First, Paul tells us to delight in the Lord—that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are not just called to believe in Jesus Christ but enjoy him. A healthy mind starts by being happy, content, joyful—and Jesus Christ has given us good reason to do that.

Anyone who’s suffered with depression will tell you unhappiness is not healthy. It doesn’t lead to good decisions, or relationships or communities.

Because there’s a lot of trouble in the world, many would say we need to represent this in our attitudes and arts. For example, we have angry music, catastrophic news casts, dystopian novels and bizarre entertainment.

There’s lots in this world that’s going wrong. We can’t close our eyes to what’s painful or evil. Some things should make us speak up or try to change things. But if this is all we have, we tend to produce more despair than hope, more anger than action.

The Christian has a reason to be joyful. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. Jesus is coming again. This is the framework for our thinking. The world has a Saviour. And we are part of what he is doing.

Notice, this joy is not something that happens to us. It’s something we decide. ‘Rejoice in the Lord, and again, I say, rejoice!’ We’re being called to embrace this. Some are waiting for their circumstances to change to give them some joy. God is giving us an opportunity to change our thinking. It could be that this will become the cause of a change in circumstance.

Paul describes himself doing this a little earlier in his letter. Things haven’t worked out well with his work. People are opposing him, competing with him. But he reckons that Jesus is still being made known. This makes him glad. Then he says, ‘And I will rejoice!’ (1:18).

This attitude helps him to think of things that will give joy to others (2:27-28).

We all need to find this source of inward delight. Is this what you have? Is this something you’ve been missing out on? Have circumstances been framing your thinking? What do you have that secures your happiness?

Think again of what you have in Jesus Christ—the forgiveness of sins, a place in God’s favour and purpose, a Father to approach and a goal to share. Set your mind on these things and see if life changes!

Second, our core confidence is that the Lord is near. So, we can be reasonable or gentle towards others.  

In practical terms, if we know where we are coming from, we don’t need to get rattled by people with opposing views. If we’re sure of our ground, we don’t need to shout.

This is a big ask—given the frustrating and frightening situations and people we meet. But Paul has a reason: ‘The Lord is near.’ He could mean that Jesus is coming back again to put everything right. Or he could mean Jesus is here now. Both are true.

Jesus has confronted this world’s corruption and rebellion head on. He let the world kill him. And he did it for us. And God raised him from the dead and put him in charge of everything. And now, he is near. The situations we are facing are being managed by him and he has us in the middle of it for some purpose.

People say you have to be strong when confronted by something really difficult. That’s true. But the Christian is saying that someone else strong is near—Jesus Christ. That’s our strength.

Many Christians can tell us about their experience of going through difficulty and finding Jesus Christ more real and powerful than they ever did before. Their difficulty made Jesus Christ more enjoyable—not less. Their thinking changed. And they changed. And things around them started changing.

Third, we need to call on God for what we need—and not let them run on into anxiety.

Think about this. Something is wrong, threatening, damaging or impossible to manage. Isn’t fright and flight an appropriate response?

In lots of situations, putting ourselves out of harm’s way is the best option. But that’s not always possible. And then, there’s lots of reasons why we feel anxiety. We can’t always switch these feelings off with some positive thinking.

It helps a lot if we know there’s something we can do. We can pray.

Now, here’s something very interesting. When we learn to pray rather than give way to panic, God’s peace will be like a wall around us. Notice, he’s not saying we feel peaceful. He’s saying the peace of God is around us.

Our God is the ‘God of peace’ (v. 9). This is who he is. He isn’t flustered, altered or surprised by anything. He has decided how things will work out best and that is the plan he’s working on. It’s this peace—a lot bigger than what will fit in our heads—that will keep our hearts and minds.

God doesn’t make us clever enough to cope. Our thinking needs to be going on inside his thinking. There are some things we just can’t work out. We weren’t meant to. We are meant to pray. And God will keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ. That is, he won’t explain the complexities of everything. He will keep us trusting his Son.

That’s where we can find help for our mental health.

Fourth, we have a list of good things to focus on.        

There are lots of things that are worthy of attention—things that are true, worthy, right, pure, lovely, admirable. The long list of similar words suggests that we won’t be stuck for things to dwell on.

There’s a Bible full of good things to read. But the list suggests people and events we are seeing, hearing, studying or sharing in. There are wonderful examples in people around us who do worthy things. We can seek out their company. Or we can read their stories. We can learn from what they discover and be encouraged

Of course, there’s plenty of things we can’t avoid seeing and hearing that are false, shameful, impure or ugly.  We need to grieve over them. We may have to deal with them.

Again, the Bible has many sad and gruesome stories. However, if you read the whole story, you can see that they are told from the perspective of a God who deals with evil and promises good.

These impure, things don’t need to frame our thinking. So, we don’t need to feed on them and let them fester in our heads. We need to hate them and put something better in their place (Jude 22).

We need a mind full of good things if we are going to form proper assessments, make good choices and act well. And we need to seek them out, delight in them and let them shape our decisions.

Elsewhere, Paul tell us that God transforms us by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). This happens by thinking that starts with what God has done, and looks at everything else from that point of view.

I hope these pointers help us on the way to some good thinking.

God knows what is good

God has given us, his people, 10 commandments to tell us how to live. They are given to Moses and to Israel first, but Jesus says he came to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). He has made this law universal so that it can speak to all of us and shape our communities. I’d like us to see how this happens.

We all need someone to tell us what to do. Many will dispute this, but then, we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. If it isn’t God telling us what is good, it’s someone else. We are surrounded with it all the time.

The difference between God’s commands and those we make for ourselves is that God’s commands arise from who he is—and he is good. Ours arise because we always trying to fix a problem—and we are not good. Again, this latter point is disputed, but the number of rules we have to make is increasing all the time, so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a problem, and that the problem is us.

God is not trying to fix a problem. He is telling us who he is, and, because he is our Creator, he is telling us what is good for us. Moses says, ‘Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time’ (Deuteronomy 4:40).

What God tells us to do is good in the sense that it works. It fits what we are and it enables us to live together in a way that benefits everybody. It’s not an ideology, a social construction invented by someone to solve a problem. It’s real, and really works.

It’s interesting to see where the ten commandments begin. They don’t start with, ‘You shall not…’ but with, ‘I am the Lord your God…’ (Exodus 20:2). His commands arise from him being in a relationship with us. He says to his people, ‘You belong to me and I belong to you.’

If we think that the way to have relationships is to get everyone doing ‘the right thing’—which means telling everyone what the ‘right things’ are—we wear people down and destroy real relationships.

Many children know what it is like having to perform in a certain way to secure the attention, approval or affection of their parents. But others have parents who have created a home where they know they belong. Their identity does not need to arise from how they perform but from belonging. They are beloved children. In that setting, they can hear what is required of them as something that will be in their interests to hear and do.

The same is true in a community. If we must conform to a certain set of rules to be heard or to have a place, we breed distrust, distain and social unrest. It doesn’t work—and it isn’t working.

God has made every human being in his image, so everyone has a place in it. It is because he is relating to us that he gives us his commands.

But God says more. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’. He calls this redeeming them—that is paying the price to release them from their slave-masters. Israel belongs to God, not only because he made them but because he has made it possible for them to obey him.

We must look some more at how this happens, but for now, we simply note that God’s commands are given to people who have been released from the pressure of false gods—that is, anything that’s taken the place of God. They not only should obey him but they can, and even want to.

This has been the whole point of Jesus coming among us. He comes to save us. We get trapped by our own sins. We get caught by this world—and do what it wants rather than what God wants. This isn’t freedom. We have to do things.

But Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34-36).

If we know God is relating to us, that he has decided to love us, and that he is doing whatever is necessary to set us free from being trapped by what we have done, we will be able to receive his commands as his love reaching out to us.

So, commands might not be too bad after all! Certainly, those who realise God has made this world as a home for us, and who see what he has done to free us from our false gods, will listen to them with interest, heed them with diligence and find that it is good to be told what to do.

No other God but the Lord

Here’s the first command the Lord gives to those he has saved from slavery. He starts with what we should love. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). The ‘before me’ means ‘in my presence’. The Lord is like a husband or wife who is jealous of any rival, so we must keep ourselves for the Lord.

Our Lord is God of the whole earth—its Creator! There is nowhere he is not present, nothing he doesn’t know and nothing too difficult for him. And given the power and the care he takes to set us free, there is nothing he won’t do to see that we are provided for. He doesn’t need supplementing with other gods.

This is stated negatively but its purpose is entirely positive. Moses restates it later: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4).

And Jesus says the same: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37-38).

What does it look like if we have no other God than the Lord?

Simply, we know we are not God! This is a huge relief! Many of our personal and social problems arise because we don’t know God as our Father. But if he is, we know who we are and what we are here for. We are the Lord’s creatures, his children, his beloved, his servants.

We can trust the Lord to show us how to live. We can be part of the future God is creating—something wonderful and complete. Everything we do has great significance.

Then, if everything is going well, we know who to thank. If we are in all kinds of need, we know who to ask for help. If we’ve sinned, we can ask him for forgiveness. If we are confused, we know he will show us the way to go. If we are being attacked, we can entrust ourselves to him. If we’re always thinking about ourselves, we can ask him for love for others. The Lord, being God, can cover all bases!

On the other hand, what is it like to live under a ruler and in a community where other gods are in charge?

No-one needs to tell Israel this—it leads to slavery. The battle that has just happened between Pharaoh and Moses is really about who runs this world. Pharaoh gets his magicians to practice their ‘secret arts’, and Moses prays to the Lord (see for example Exodus 8:18-19; 9:29; 14:30-31). And in this contest, the Lord wins, and Israel is released.

All of us, like Israel, need to be released from the authority of other gods and the demands of those who worship them. This is why Paul says that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4). The world makes out to be a wonderful place but, if the Lord isn’t our God, we make something in the creation into a god. And this eventually makes us its slave.

The apostle John tells us not to love the world—what it craves for and boasts about. It is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Only the Lord truly cares about us! And only the Lord has the breadth of knowledge, authority, wisdom, strength, and especially love, to do the job.

The Lord has given himself to us fully. He has not even withheld from giving up his Son for us. And now, he calls for us to give ourselves wholly to him—with no other ‘god’ to back us up in case he fails.

We noticed before that the Lord uses a ‘shall not’ rather than a ‘you shall’.

Loving the Lord shouldn’t be any problem. Paul says he is ‘constrained’ by love because ‘one man died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). That should settle the matter. But it isn’t just like that. Sometimes, we need God to say ‘No!’ Our hearts are a factory for making idols—one after another.

If we have tasted that God is kind, and good, and that he has saved us, we will be grateful for this ‘No!’ Faced with a crisis, or an attraction, or a pressing need, some other ‘god’ may appear very attractive, natural and powerful. It seems impossible to see it any other way. But then, God’s command protects us, and directs us back to the love of God.

We have to ‘wait on the Lord’. That is, we have to suspend our craving, for long enough to see what God is about, and how he is going to prove to us that he is our God. You can check a story about this in Israel’s journeyings (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).

God has been wonderfully gracious to us in saving us from this world and its idols. But his kindness does not mean softness. The Lord’s kindness has brought us to himself. There is nothing more wonderful than this. And there is nothing that is more designed to makes us strong—to be who we are created to be. So, don’t entertain any other gods in the presence of our God and Father! Wait, and see, that the Lord is good.

Something holy, at Christmas

When God is about to send his Son into the world, an angel comes to Mary to tell her she will be the child’s mother (Luke 1:26-38). She is told a number of amazing things. A son from her womb will be Israel’s Messiah. This child will be called ‘Son of the Most High’. And he will reign forever.

But the thing she asks about, understandably, is how she can have any baby without a father.

The answer is, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

This is not going to be an event for which any human being can take the credit. God has promised it, is now announcing it and will physically make it happen.

I want to speak about one word that applies to all of the things that are happening here—the word ‘holy’. The child will be holy because the Holy Spirit will ‘come upon’ Mary. God is holy and only he can cause anything else to be holy.

We tend to think that ‘holy’ refers to behaviour but it is more than that. It indicates that something comes from God, belongs to God and is to be used for his purposes. This leads to a certain kind of behaviour but it is a ‘belonging’ word.

For example, God tells Israel, ‘I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 22:32-33). And on the basis of this he tells them to keep his commands. It is because we belong that we behave.

The opposite of holy is profane. If we use something holy, like the name of Jesus, for a swear word, we utter a profanity.

The same is true for lots of other things. If I take my own humanity and use it for me instead of for God, I am turning something meant to be holy into something profane. I commit profanity. If I go to church and sing songs but am only interested in the form of the service and not its purpose, I turn something holy into something profane. (There’s an example in Ezekiel 22:26.)

Think for a moment about what the world would be like if it was holy. If we reverenced God, his nature would be reflected in all our behaviour and the resulting society. There would be no greed, rivalry or hatred, only generosity, mutuality and love. We would have a great vision of life, not mere ‘me’ goals. There would be no harming, cruelty, sickness or death. We would simply live in and look after the world God has made for us.

But think about a world that is profane. It is very self-righteous. We are constantly being told about what we should and shouldn’t do. But can we produce a loving community? We don’t just need a law to keep. We need a God behind it who says, ‘This is my law. It matters if you break it.’

If we are going to have faithful marriages, ethical business and if we are going to care for the planet, we are going to need a God who says, ‘This is my world. It matters how you live in it.’ A profane world can’t produce what it legislates.

And now, God’s holy Child is coming into this profane world. This is astonishing. It is very difficult to approach people who have no regard for us, but this is what God is doing. We disregard the fact that he made the world and sustains all its operations—and he sends us his own Son to be our Saviour.

An angel has told Joseph to call this son Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. We need healing for our profanity. We need something that only God can do. We have not been able to live without God interrupting our ease and presumption.

So, Mary’s life is all rearranged. She will have a son. There is nothing normal or safe here. God will hover over Mary, just as his Holy Spirit overshadowed the first creation to bring it to life (Genesis 1:2). Here is the beginning of a new creation. Nothing less will change us or our profane world.

These words of the angel are reflected later on when Jesus says to Nicodemus. ‘…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’ (John 3:3). And Nicodemus says almost the same as Mary. ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ He is accustomed to the natural world, not to the world God owns and manages. Even though he is religious, he is profaning God’s world and his revelation. He needs a life that is from above—a holy life.

But now, see what Mary says. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. … May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38). And she becomes pregnant. The holy Child who will save his people from their sins, has entered our world. And his reign will never end. Holiness has arrived.

So easily can a profane world become a holy one. If with Mary, we say ‘let it be so to me according to your word’, God is our God, our sins are forgiven, love is born, eternity is in our souls, God’s will is done and the world can see its God reflected in the lives of his people.

The rest is over to God. We can only be holy by hearing his word, and letting him do in us what only he can do.

(If you would like to hear these things spelt out more fully, you can listen to a 25 minute talk at  https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=122020610274335 )

It matters who you listen to

None of us can live well without having a purpose. We find ourselves asking, ‘What am I good at?’ Or, ‘Why am I here?’ We are longing to be someone—to have a reason to live.

But here, it matters who you are listening to. Our culture says we should have a reason to live within ourselves. We just need to find it. We need to listen to ourselves. If we can just find our real self, and if everyone lets us be that, everything will be alright.

But the voice from within is never enough. We have evidence of that in the way we need affirmation or approval from friends, and from the community as a whole. Listening to our own inner voice is not making us more secure people.

There are many voices to listen to. And we are hard-wired to be listening to something or someone. We need a voice to tell us who we are and what we are here for.

Simply, God made us. And he talks to us. This is why we need something outside of ourselves. We were made to listen.

But there is another voice. In fact, there are many voices. None of us would have enough time to listen to all of them. But if they are not from God, they are coming from ‘below’. This is one way to describe the two kinds of voices that come to us.

Here is how I learned to tell the difference between a voice from above and a voice from below.

A voice from above, for starters, agrees with the teaching of Christ and his apostles—our Bible in other words. If it doesn’t do that, it must be coming from below.  This is a whole subject in itself, but I want to focus on what flows from this.

I know the difference between a voice from above and one from below because a word from below drags me down.  It condemns. A word from above gives hope—for me, regardless of what I think of myself, or what I have done.

There’s a reason for this. God isn’t limited to the processes of cause and effect. What I mean is the same as what we say about computers: ‘Rubbish in, rubbish out’. We know that systems can’t rise higher than the material we put into them. But God is outside his own creation. He is not limited to what we do.

God is good. We might say, ‘He can’t help himself!’ This is who he is. When we do bad things, he doesn’t spit it back at us with interest! In fact, he loves what he has made. He has decided to do us good anyway.

He has told us this in many ways. For a start, he hasn’t closed the solar system down because we pollute his creation. He doesn’t stop people having babies just because parents are selfish. There are lots of things like this to observe.

But the main way God has spoken to us is by giving his Son to us—to live among us. Even a casual reading of this Jesus story shows that he gave people hope. God was showing the way for our future—not a future that is the product of what we put into life but the result of his kindness.

He knows the reason why we feel bad about ourselves. He knows why we need constant affirmation from others. Simply put, we’ve tried to live without him. We’re not living truly—and it hurts. It’s called guilt.

No one can really deal with this unless it’s the person we’ve offended—God. And he does it by giving our burden to Jesus. This is what his death means. And God is entirely pleased with what Jesus has done. He’s entirely happy to announce that anyone who relies on him is forgiven. You can’t have a message like this unless there’s something outside the ‘system’—a loving God.

There’s a voice from below as well. It’s not just the accumulation of voices that don’t want to have God. It’s Satan or the devil. He hates what God is about. He is called ‘the god of this world’. He is the god you have when you don’t want the real one.

Now, here’s how I know one ‘voice’ from the other. When I ‘hear’ accusations, put-downs, nightmares of hopelessness, I know it’s coming from below. It’s not coming from God.

God’s voice tells me about his Son, about his resolve to give me something good that I don’t deserve. It teaches me to trust God. It gives me a future and a hope. It makes me change for the better.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but I hope you are persuaded that we can’t help but listen to voices besides our own. I hope you are persuaded that something needs to come to us from outside our own ‘closed system’. And I hope you are willing to listen to a Voice that gives you a hope you don’t deserve. Then, you may be able to see all sorts of possibilities for yourself!

Finding Love

There is a story of God’s love for the world that I would like to tell. But it is not easily told. Love requires that everything come out into the open, that everything be what it is. Love must come from the centre of a person and go to the centre of another person.

In many ways, we steel ourselves against the simple things, the true things, the lasting things, and have a preference for the immediate things, the complex things, the things that have to be done again or improved on because what we have is not real. We may show respect, loyalty, tolerance or give people what they want but still not have love. We may indulge a passion and still not have love.

Many things we do are helpful but not love, kind but still not love, useful or interesting or stimulating but not love. In particular, we try to stay in charge, but love involves giving ourselves away and this is risky.

There are obstacles to love flowing freely. Things have happened to us. We had to cope. We sought refuge behind talking, or listening, or making things, or doing things, or going places, or succeeding, or providing. But to do these things, we left something of ourselves behind—some unfinished business, something that couldn’t come out into the open. So, we moved forward—but not every part of us. There was a division, a severing of what was real from what we projected.

Cleverness may tell us what things are and how they work and if they can be changed. But only love can tell us who we are, and why.

God is love. This is our ‘problem’. God is love and he created us in an outpouring of himself. He is always our origin and goal, our centre, and, most significantly for us, the word by which to live. If he does not speak to us, we are effectively orphans—without a true home in this life or the next.

God himself is the love that makes us human. He does not have a ‘use by’ date, or go out of fashion, or wear out or become redundant. If we do not want to have God in our thinking, we live in death rather than life—we leave something of ourselves behind.

The pain of being a human being is very real. Those who do not feel it have decided that it is easier to live with the image they have become, or the dreams that may yet come true, or the best of what has now gone, or the imagining of what might have been.

But what is this pain? And why is it easier to move away from it than face it? Are we destined to be forever moving away from our centre rather than be moving out into life—wholly at rest with ourselves and our Creator—and giving to others from who we really are?

The story of God’s love begins with him creating us and giving us this world as our home. But it becomes clearest when Jesus Christ comes to share our history. When we say that God is love, it is his Son that we have in mind. We do not think of our pleasant or unpleasant experiences, or the ideas of God we have formed, or the prayers that have been answered, but very simply, of Christ.

To tell the story of God’s love is more than hard; it is miraculous. It must be told by Jesus Christ, in his own words and actions. And he can only tell it fully by laying down his life.

We must listen to Jesus Christ because God gave—and gives him to us. There is nothing greater that God could give. Life itself is a gift. To breathe and to know that God formed us is beyond telling. But he has given us his own Son—his very self really, because all of his love is focused on this Son. To give us his Son is to give us all he has.

What is remarkable is that the Son of God does not speak to the image we make for ourselves. He speaks to us. He knows our severed self and speaks God’s words. He speaks what his Father wants to say. What we hear comes from his fellowship with the Father. He speaks words that heal, so that we know our fractured life is not all there is. His words are not designed to shut us out.

Strangely, it is when he is crucified that we see ourselves more clearly than when we look at ourselves. Christ’s loving deed has encompassed us in our strange and mis-formed ways. He is there for us. But he is there, for us, in the presence of God—bearing God’s rejection of all that we have become. He is there before God, doing what he is doing for God. And he is received by God. We know this because God raises him from the dead to tell us that we are reconciled to him.

This Son is able to reveal God’s love to us. That is, he is able to say it, to be it, to convey it to us. He has never shut himself away from the love of his Father, has never needed to hide from what he is. He has received in full what his Father is and knows fully what his Father is about in the world. What he knows is that his Father is for us—though against what we have made of ourselves apart from him.

Now, we may come out of hiding. God has not only raised Jesus from the dead but recreated our broken humanity. He suffered for us in our brokenness so that we could join him in his wholeness—before his Father, God.

This is not just our new life but our true life. If we hear the word that God speaks through him, and trust him, we are children of God. We have been healed.

Through Christ now, we can change our view of everything. The place to find love is not by getting closer to ourselves or another person or our interests. Our own true self is here—in Christ, on the cross, and raised from the dead. This is the way of God for every human being—the way of love. From here, we know who we are, and we know that, like Christ, our life is for others.

The World Belongs to God

There is nothing more natural and right than for a human being to know and love God. He is the Creator, and everything in the universe—including us as human beings—beats out this fact. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork’ (Psa. 19:1). It is also a fact that many don’t ‘hear’ anything but this does not mean it is not happening.

Because God made the world, it belongs to him, and he doesn’t thrown it away like a broken toy when it goes wrong. We are the guests on his property, beneficiaries of his bounty and participators in his project. Better still, we are his heirs because he has created us as his sons and daughters and desires to have us as his family.

There is a difference of course between speculating about God existing and knowing him. Everyone who trusts in Christ is given the right to be called a child of God. Family members then understand the world quite differently to those who have confined themselves to calculating everything on the basis of what visible and measurable.

So what does the Bible creation story tell us about God creating the world? This account occupies the first two chapters of our Bible. Actually, there are two accounts here, the first that tells us the big picture, and the second (spilling over into chapter three) that fills out what is taught in the first one.

The narrative is not written to help us pass a biology exam! Its first readers did not have a degree in science but were surrounded by idol worshippers. The question of how long a ‘day’ is, for example, would not have entered their minds and doesn’t need to trouble us either as we try to understand the story.

Idol worshippers believed their idols had made the world and that they controlled it in various ways. But idols are human inventions and they reflect what humans do—they squabble, compete and use people to meet their needs. (I’ve put a couple of links below to articles that describe Ancient Near Eastern myths based on various idolatries.) Our Bible reveals something quite different.

It is good that the Bible’s account of creation deals with idolatry rather than science because science can’t answer our big questions. Everyone is built for something big, something more important than anything else. If then, we don’t worship the Creator, we give the importance he should have to some other part of the creation. We make it into and idol. Something must rise up to take the place of the true God. And then we squabble about what is most important! And this becomes a huge problem.

Here are some things we can learn from the Bible’s two creation stories. What I say here will make more sense if you’ve read them, or if you check them off as you go through the article, or read them afterwards.

First, before God, there is nothing. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ Everything we have and can discover exists because God decides to make it. This rules out the idea that our universe is self-generated or eternal. However it happens, it happens because God makes choices, and speaks.

Second, a home is being created. On the first three days, ‘spaces’ are created and in the second three days, they are filled. God makes light to separate day from night (day one) and then makes the sun, moon and stars to do this job (day four). He makes the air space and the sea (day two) and then birds and fish to occupy them (day five). He separates the land from the sea (day three) and then makes land creatures, including us, to occupy this land (day six). Everything is moving towards creating a suitable place for us to live.

The next creation story (in chapter two) speaks of this as God planting his garden and putting Adam there, and then Eve. Everything here is orderly and purposive and excludes the idea that our universe is the result of random events.

Third, a difference is made between God creating the heavens and the earth, and then animal life and then human life because the word to ‘create’ is used for these three developments rather than the word to ‘form’. God creates the entire inanimate universe (verse 1), and then creates the animal world (verse 20), and then creates human beings (verse 27). In fact God makes us ‘in his image’—that is, like himself, so that we can relate to him and be fitting custodians of his creation. This excludes the idea that we are no more than highly evolved animals. We are a separate act of creation.

Fourth, at each stage, God calls his creation ‘good’. The word means ‘functionally good’—that is, everything has its place in the universe and is needed for everything to work properly. There is nothing that is essentially bad or to be rejected in what God has made.

Then, when he makes us and gives us authority over all that he has made, he calls it ‘very good’. God’s idea of a perfect world is not one we have left alone but one we look after. This excludes the idea that the best parts of the world are the bits we don’t touch. God has made the world to be explored, researched, farmed, engineered, harnessed and enjoyed. But all of this is to be done for God and according to his commands—which includes looking after our neighbour. He is the gracious God who cares about everything and everyone he has made. This excludes the idea that we can ‘rape’ the earth as though profits or convenience or ourselves were all that mattered.

God has no ‘plan B’. He still thinks his creation is good and that it is ‘very good’ for it to be cared for by human beings. This is why his own Son becomes a human being, to do what we are unwilling and unable to do. All authority is given to Jesus Christ to lead humanity back to God and back to what it means to live in God’s creation as his curators.

Fifth, God makes us ‘male and female’. This is linked to our being made in the image of God. And this is made more explicit in the next story (chapter two). Adam is created first and told to cultivate and guard God’s ‘garden’. But being alone is not ‘good’. Adam can’t accomplish his task without the creation of woman as helper.

We will never understand what it means to be human if we blur this distinction between a man and a woman. And we need to see how men and women complement each other when they work together to raise a family, create a true society and take responsibility for everything that needs to be done.

Sixth, everything leads up to the final day—the seventh, when God finishes his creation. And what does he make on that day? Nothing. He rests. It is a kind of goal to which everything is leading.

The Bible makes a lot of the fact that Israel was to keep a day of rest—a sabbath, one day off in seven. We don’t just need a day off. We need to know that the creation does not come into being or continue to its goal by our ceaseless activity, but be realizing that God is our Creator, and that he is still in charge. We all need to do what God gives us to do. No more, but no less.

The seventh day also points to the goal God has in making everything—when the whole creation will be fully developed and glorious, and ruled over by Christ and all his followers (one example of this is in Matthew 19:28).

We will never be able to find something great enough to replace God. Above us, there is a power mightier than anything we can manage, an authority superior to anything we choose and a need to answer to someone whose plan we are part of. Those who ‘hear’ what God is telling us through his creation, and through the Son he sent to make everything clear, are grateful to know there is a Father over this world. They are glad there is a plan that is being worked out even though it doesn’t always appear to be that way. And they trust there is a finished creation for which they are destined.

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https://www.ucg.org/bible-study-tools/booklets/creation-or-evolution-does-it-really-matter-what-you-believe/ancient-near-eastern-concepts-of-creation

https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/02/22/three-ancient-near-eastern-creation-myths/comment-page-1/

The Bible is What God Says

When you hold a Bible in your hand, what do you really have? We know it is now printed, sold and read by people around the world, taught in churches and appealed to as an authority. But what is it?

It is really a library of books written over a number of centuries—including history, teaching, songs, promises, encouragements and warnings. It concludes with reports of Jesus’ coming and the apostle’s announcing of his message.

What makes the Bible one book is that each part got written because God spoke to someone. There is no way to prove this but it is what the various writers say happened. ‘In many and various ways God spoke in times past by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

The fact is, God has always been speaking. He made the world by speaking: ‘Let there be light, and it was so’ (Genesis 1:3). When he made us in his own image and likeness, something like himself—to be his family, he spoke to us so we would know how to understand and to live in the world and what to expect.

The world was never meant to make sense without some information from outside the creation. We can discover much and use it to good purpose of course, and should do so, but nothing we find out through enquiry will tell us all we need to know.

For example, God told Adam in the Garden of Eden to enjoy every part of the Garden except the tree that would give them independent knowledge of good and evil. They decided otherwise, and the Bible recounts the outcome.

We see this at work when we say about someone that ‘they are trying to be God’. They are exaggerating what they know and can do, and they may be trying to force this onto others.  But we know that there isn’t anyone who knows everything about good and evil. There needs to be a voice greater than all our varying opinions—someone who actually isGod.

The Bible story continues, and God speaks to Abraham. We have no idea what this looked or sounded like. Abraham simply reports God saying that he would bless him and his family, and the narrative tells us how this works out.

But something very interesting is happening. Abraham knows his genealogy. He knows what has been said to his ancestors. They have been keeping a record—either oral or written—because they needed to remember what God said. It is their hope.

Then God speaks to Moses, and this time, he addresses a whole people—the descendants of Abraham. He wants to show the world that he is able to establish them as a nation no matter what other nations do to stop it.

God establishes this nation of Israel to show the world his power, and especially, what it is like for a people to hear his word and to be loved by him. He sends them prophets—people who are raised up to bring his word to his people.

For much of the time this is happening, God’s people don’t heed what he says. This is not surprising. None of us really want to listen to the word that comes from God—from outside the world of things we can examine or choose for ourselves.

But God goes right on telling Israel the next part of the plan—through his prophets. And from quite early in the piece, it becomes clear that there is going to be one person, a Messiah, who will bring the whole story together and accomplish God’s purpose in the creation. It will be his Son. He is also called ‘the Word’ because God speaks to the world fully through his Son. He will not only make God known but also bring about what God wants to do.

So, the Son of God enters the world—as a baby. ‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). This is the apex of all that God has been saying to our world.

When Jesus begins his teaching and healing, he is displaying God’s love and wisdom and power and he becomes popular. But he has a bigger agenda. God’s Son, his Word, is among us to ‘bear away the sins of the world’.

When it becomes clear that his word is different from the word we want to hear, his own people kill him. Here is the truth about us. We don’t want God to speak to us.

Here is the greatest surprise in what God says. This killing of Jesus is precisely the way he takes away the sin of the world. Ignoring God’s word is a capital offence, but Jesus dies instead of us. Then God raises him from the dead and the first words he says are, ‘Peace be with you!’

This is the word we need to hear. Only God can truly say ‘Peace!’ because it is with him that we’ve been fighting. Peace with God is one way of describing what the Bible is all about.

When Jesus is about to leave this world, he says the Holy Spirit will enable the chosen apostles (‘sent ones’) to remember and understand all that he has said and done. So the Spirit comes and the apostles announce to the world what God has said through his Son.

They, or their fellow workers, write down what Jesus has done, how his good news spreads and what this Word of God means for our lives, now and into the age to come.

Jesus and the apostles call this coming and all that follows it ‘the last days’. The final revelation has been made so nothing needs to be added to what we have.

Think about what it means that God has spoken to our world.

There is no way we can discover the origins or purpose of our world unless God speaks to us. There is no way we can fathom out why the world is the shape it is unless God tells us he is our Father. We can try to act like a family and make out we are all here for others, but it doesn’t work—not for long anyway.

There is no way we can fathom the falseness of our own life unless we hear God telling us what is normal and what he is doing to mend us and our world. Without the sound of this ‘voice’, we begin to act like orphans and the big driver of our human enterprise becomes trying to appear good. We call it ‘virtue signalling’ these days. And this is not making us a better people or a better world. What brings us together is not our ‘virtues’ but our need, and God speaks to us in our need.

And there is no way we will trust him unless he sends his Son—the big Word—to save us.

And now, we have a Bible, and the same Holy Spirit who brought it together, is given to every person who hears and believes the message of Christ. God’s Spirit brings what is written to life so that we know that God is speaking to us.

Bible books were first written to other people living in another time and God spoke to them in a way they could understand. But we need to understand what theyheard, and to ‘hear’ it again. This is not such a strange thing to have to do. When we read the Bible or hear it explained, we are listening to our family story. We are listening to our Father God, and his Son Jesus Christ. The Bible is not just what God said. It is what he is saying.