Get to know God while you are young!

I spoke last Sunday on Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 and thought you may be interested in some observations from that. I will return to my series on God as Judge soon.

The passage describes old age, or so it seems to me. The alternative is that it is describing a funeral. Either way, it is saying to young people, ‘Remember God while you are young’, and three times he says, ‘…before’ all the stuff that happens when you are old seems to destroy the evidence that life can be enjoyed.

Joy is quite a strong theme around this end of the book. He tells young people to delight in their youth, and ‘also’ to remember God in their youth (9:9; 12:1), and then the editor of the book says the Preacher sought to find delightful words to help us (12:10). Clearly, when he talks about old people saying thay have no more delight in life (12:1), he is saying that young people need to find where true delight is before the discovery of it becomes difficult.

There are lots of things for young people to enjoy, well most young people anyway. It is during this time that they do themselves a favour by living their enjoyable lives before God, according to his law, and discover the depths of life that will never fade.

Young people, and all of us, are not just left to have a good time, we are told to do so! It seems that real joy is a choice rather than just a happening. If joy is sought in things ‘under the sun’, the material world, there will never be enough of them to satisfy us, and certainly not enough to last. Life gets more difficult with old age. The good things of this world are not so much the source of our joy as the occasion for it. A good thing received, with thankfulness to God, becomes the source of ongoing joy, not just an event. We need lots of these experices while growing up in order to go on having joy in old age.

On the other hand, if we have sought meaning and joy merely in having and doing things, old age is proof that we have been grasping at a vapour. ‘Where is the fun I used to get out of this?’ ‘Why doesn’t this seem significant any more?’ With this observation, the Preacher brings his argument to a close by repeating his opening claim, ‘All is vanity’ (1:2; 12:8). Finding delight in the creation of itself is a lost cause, and he has driven his last nail into the coffin of this hope by talking about where this hope ends.

Psalm 23 is an example of finding joy now that lasts into the future. The writer recounts what God has done for him, leading him to food and water, restoring his life and leading him in right paths. But then he sees the possibility of dark valleys looming and says God will still be with him. He is persuaded that goodness (what God called the creation at the beginning) and steadfast love (what God promised to his covenant people) will always be with him. His earlier experiences told him what God was like and what he would do. His future experiences will not be able to alter who God is or how much he can be trusted.

As believers in Christ, we have every reason to remember our Creator, while young, and when old. Surely, God is with us! Christ is God with us! It is his presence that gives our present life quality, delight and permanence. He is not with us in things as they should be but in things as they are. He has entered into the sorrows of our hearts, borne our griefs and sorrows, endured their wrongness and judgement before his Father, and risen from the dead to give us peace. Christ gives us abundant life—both at work and in pleasurable company. He enters into our sorrows and joys agains as we pray, and gives us joy.

Of course, old age comes with increasing troubles. The question this passage poses is, ‘Is that all there is?’ The obvious answer is, ‘Not if we remember our Creator!’ There is much to enjoy now, and not least, the fact that our present life includes a foretaste, and is preparation for, a new heaven and earth. It’s good to get going on this as soon as possible.

If you’d like to hear more, you could listen to the message. You’ll find it online at http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?sermonID=1214132216541.

You may also like to listen to Don Carson say some parallel things, at http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=9813224462. It’s based on James 1:12-25.

How good it is that God is judge (1)

I thought this topic could be one short piece but the matter of judging is not dismissed so quickly! Here is the first of three on the topic.

 

The Christian message says, among many other things, that God is the world’s Judge. The truth of this brought comfort to Jesus Christ who entrusted himself to God who judges justly, but alarmed the unbelieving Roman governor Felix who dismissed the idea (1 Pet. 2:23; Acts 24:25). The Christian message also says that God has entrusted this task to his Son Jesus Christ (John 5:27; Heb. 12:23) and it is this that changes the whole matter for believers.

 

Judgement is hardly a favourite subject, particularly if we are the focus of its attention! Even a parking ticket can get us angry, let alone a judgement that painfully exposes us. On the other hand, we all expect justice when it comes to our own rights and privileges. In some communities, the longing is painful and urgent. And, looking at the matter more broadly, no country can build a harmonious community or develop a prosperous economy if the many forms that evil takes are not curtailed. So, judgement must always be in our thinking. The question is, who will we trust to exercise this authority?

For a long time now, the thought of being answerable to God has been scorned. We prefer to think that enlightenment and critical thinking have freed us from the superstitious idea that God supervises what we do. It also appears that the message of the Bible has not established a reign of justice and, on some occasions, its followers have been responsible for injustice. Can there be any good news, or even believable news, in God being our judge?

Finding an alternative is not simple. I think it fair to say that the world is not doing very well being its own judge. The following is an old quote but I use it again because I think it is still true. Harold Berman, a former Harvard Law School professor and described as one of the great polymaths of American legal education, said,

‘It is supposed by some, especially intellectuals that fundamental legal principles … can survive without any religious or quasi-religious foundations on the basis of the proper political and economic controls and philosophy of humanism. History, however, including current history, testifies otherwise. People will not give their allegiance to a political and economic system, and even less to a philosophy, unless it represents for them a higher sacred truth’ (quoted in Mark W Janis, Natural Law, Religion and the Development of International Lawˆ (1999), p. 169).

There is massive distrust of leadership and authority in our present world, and it may be that some of the reason for this is not just that many leaders have acted dishonourably but that we have been relying on them for too much. No human authority can fulfil our expectation for justice.

 

How, then, should we think of God being Judge? If we are going to rediscover and enjoy this truth, some myths about what it may mean may need to be dispelled.

Israel regularly celebrated God as the world’s King and Judge. It is a common theme in their Psalms. Here is one example.

‘Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.”  Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.  He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness’ (Psa. 96:10-13).

This faith was launched when God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt as told in the book of Exodus. They had been abused and enslaved but were released by God sending plagues that destroyed Egypt’s economy,  military and particularly, their idolatry. It was not done in a corner but established as fact among neighbouring nations (Josh. 2:9-10). Here is the important point: it is people whom God has saved who believe and are glad that he is Judge. They may be sobered by being subject to so great a God, and may tremble when chastised by him, but are grateful for being the objects of his protection.

There is an assumption here: God does not judge in favour of Israel because of their moral superiority but because of their faith in him. The truth is that there is no human being morally superior to another. We are all unworthy. God acts to save those who cry out to him. Israel did the right thing in turning to God and God defended them. This is what the Bible means by vindication: not one person getting their rights but God acting to defend those who trust him.

The fact of God’s intervention to save and establish Israel as a nation became a firm principle in their national life. They were responsible to do what was right (particularly to trust in the Lord) and God would vindicate them before the nations and demonstrate that they were right to trust him. On the other hand, if they did not keep their covenant with God, he would warn them, and judge them, even give them back into the hands of their enemies. His judgements, rightly understood, were acts of love because God knew they could not prosper without him. But then, he would have mercy on them, time and time again, because his covenant was not based on their performance but on the fact that he was their God. They would be restored, showing that their God still intervened in the world to vindicate them.

If judgment is exercised outside of a settled relationship, it may well be cold, unfeeling and harsh. We may well fear such a judge and, because none of us is without faults, learn to despise such a figure. But for faithful Israel, it was different. They did not present themselves as paragons of virtue when they asked God to be Judge on their behalf, and to vindicate them. They knew their sins but still asked God to act because they trusted him. Psalm 40 is an example of this. Notice the confession of sin being followed by a request for deliverance.

‘As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me! Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonour who delight in my hurt!’ (Ps. 40:11-14).

Here is justice that derives from love, is carried out with compassion and requires a like kindness from those favoured by it. It is clear that a system can never be relied on to deliver mercy; only a person can do that, and this is what God has demonstrated to and through Israel.

God’s judgements are in stark contrast with the unjust judgements of earthly rulers. The Lord calls them ‘gods’ in the sense that they perform a godlike function—judging. When they give unjust judgements, Israelites could appeal to God to intervene on their behalf because he was the Judge over all judges.

‘ God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?  Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the righ of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”  Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!’ (Ps. 82).

Without justice and judgement, civil society and even love begin to break down—the foundations begin to shake. We all need to be accountable to someone! Israel’s faith in God as Judge, and Judge over their leaders as well, gave them a basis for true society and a place to go when injustice was perpetrated. It gave them a reason to perform well themselves because they would also have to answer for their actions. It gave them hope because God would reward their faithfulness. Because they had a God who was trustworthy, they learned (some of the time anyway) to be this way with one another and this built a strong community and a strong economy.

When people in the West today talk about ‘the Judeo-Christian ethic’ they mostly have in mind certain modes of behaviour, but this separates the ethic from the Giver of the law and the Judge who supervises the nations. It is this that we need to recover, not least because a law cannot be merciful, but the maker of that law can be. We need, not only to believe in the Judge, but to love him because only he can faithfully act to establish our life and secure our future.

 

Jesus shares and develops the faith of Israel. He tells a story about a widow who hounds an unjust judge until she gets what she wants. Jesus encourages his people to pray and not lose heart. He asks however, if such a faith will be found on the earth when the Son of Man returns, faith that God will avenge his chosen people (Luke 18:8). Those who come to God must believe that he is and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6). In rather crass terms, we may say that people who believe in God must believe he will make it worth their while trusting him. People who don’t believe God will act to help them when they trust him may soon abandon their faith altogether. Then again, people who have not discovered the trustworthiness of God to judge on their behalf may soon give up on being trustworthy themselves. We urgently need this faith that Jesus commends here. We need to believe God is Judge and that he will act on our behalf. We need Jesus to assure us of this.

Jesus Christ came to Israel as King and Judge—fulfilling these functions in the name of his Father God. It will be him who establishes justice in the earth and he will not let up until he has the nations, not only submissive, but waiting on his law (see the prophecy in Isaiah 42:4). Those who believe in him rely on him to do this. Everyone who trusts in him is declared to be in the right, and so, to be defended by God’s justice. Jesus died to establish this faith and lives to accomplish it. It will be the point of his return in glory at the end of history. This needs opening up and I plan to do that in the next blog, especially the matter of Christ’s death being a judgement, and so, the basis for a judgement in our favour.

 

Have we learned to love God as Judge? Have we recognised Jesus as the one entrusted to exercise this function? Jesus says it is basic to what he came to do. Through him we learn that the Judge is not against us but for us. On one occasion he said that all judgement was entrusted to him, but that (at that point), he was not judging anyone (John 5:22; 12:47-48). He was living out what it meant that God was in covenant relationship with his people. The Judge comes with mercy to restore us to himself, even while he remains our Judge.

The certainty of God’s promised vindication makes it worthwhile being patient in doing what is good. The assurance of his intervention encourages us to pray and to wait with patience, and the thought that we will answer to him keeps us humble and vigilant. I trust this good news has also taught us to run, not from our Judge but into his care.

The apostles lived under Christ as Judge and spoke of this often (Acts 10:42; Rom. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8). It determined the way they lived and preached. They said it was public truth because God had raised Jesus from the dead, openly and undisputedly, and in doing so, assured everyone that he was the one who would judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:31). We can’t do anything about dying, except defer it a little. In the end, God is our Judge. But Christ has not just cheated death, he has defeated it by dying for us, and rising from the dead. With a message like that for the world, judgement has passed into his hands. No one should want to dispute that he has authority to judge the world.

These things have given us a message for the world. Christ as Judge assures us that our lives are worthwhile, and, of course, keeps us focussed. We are not our own but are bound to live for the one to whom we must give an answer. We tremble at the thought of not pleasing our Saviour, but it is love that teaches us to fear (2 Cor. 5:10-11, 14).

All this would be morally untenable if it were not for the coming and the death of Christ. In the next blog, I want to look at how Christ’s death on a cross is God’s judgement on our sins and how this changes everything and brings much joy to those who believe. In a third blog, I want us to see how God’s judgements may be working out at present and how this jealous love of God should give us hope.

Love that is free

Everyone knows the value of love and freedom. We desire and pursue them all our life and feel they are what we were made for and how we were made to function.

A person who loves is happy, eager, observant and generous. A person who is free does not get caught on the miserableness of other people; he or she lives according to their own nature. Desirable indeed! People like this would make vibrant families, strong economies and generous communities, and pick up the slack of those who fell behind, perhaps even getting them back into the flow of life.

So much for the altruism! In fact, ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ may already have become ‘weasel words’. The weasel was thought to suck eggs and leave them empty. This may not be what the weasel does but the idea is understandable. How many have heard the words ‘I love you’ and then been discarded, or been offered freedom only to be enslaved? Is there anything inside the word ‘love’ or the word ‘freedom’ when they are spoken to us? Freedom and love are more often talked about than achieved or even understood.

Love and freedom have very specific meanings and potency for those who follow Christ. They have met God in his free act of love towards them, and because of this are free to love. This is worth looking at again.

God doesn’t need to be constrained to love by anyone or anything because he is love. He chooses to bestow his love for reasons we can’t trace or secure by our efforts. Our love needs to be motivated by something or someone, and this is powerful and delightful while the stimulus remains. However, God sends his Son to seek and save people who don’t want to know him or who are openly hostile to him. He always acts according to his own nature and our heartlessness doesn’t frustrate him but gives him his opportunity. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).

All this can be quite disarming. In fact, it may be one of the things we don’t like about God. Here are a couple of ways this may be so—one that is found among people generally, and the other that is particularly found among Christians.

One of the words often used in our modern vocabulary is ‘deserve’. When someone gets sick or is attacked or misunderstood, others will say, ‘They don’t deserve this’. On the surface, this sounds right enough: the person may have done nothing to warrant what seems like a pay back or punishment, but here they are, suffering. The trouble with this view is that it assumes the person should get what they deserve. Would we like this to be always true? Would we like to have an accident every time we are silly, or lose a friend every time we are mean? The truth is that, for most of the time, most of us get far better than we deserve. However, the idea survives, and secular humanism perpetuates the idea, that we are good and only deserve for good things to happen to us.

The worst part of this view is not the disillusionment it leads to but the fact that God’s nature is hidden from those who hold to it. God’s love is free! He doesn’t give us what we deserve; he gives us himself—extraordinarily and freely.  We don’t deserve the creation God’s given us, or the providence we live in, and certainly not a message of forgiveness. On the other hand, to know God’s free act of love in sending his Son is the basis of our own freedom, and our freedom to love and be loved.

Truth is always an action of course. Love needs to be established, not as an idea or example but as a new freedom to love. Our problem is not the miserableness of enemies or neighbours or family but the lostness of not knowing the love of the Father. God’s Son knew this love. He was sent among us, loved us, embraced us and answered to God for everything wrong done by us, so we would know the Father’s love in the same way he did. Remarkable! It undoes us, or perhaps I should say, it undoes all the huff we have about ourselves, and brings us out into the light and the fresh air of what is actually true—that God is love, and that his love comes to us freely.

Through the Father’s love revealed in Jesus Christ, the illusion that we deserve anything dissolves. Jesus bears what we deserve on his cross. He wants the world to know that the Father loves believers in the same way the Father loves him.

Now for a second way we may avoid, or even dislike, the freedom of God’s loving. I refer to a ‘discipleship mentality’ that focusses on performance. I’m not referring to discipleship or being devoted to learning from Christ. That would have to be the best idea possible. Rather, I’m referring to a discipleship mentality that can only look at God through the lens of its own conscience. Will God hear my prayers? Have I met all the conditions? Can I enjoy life or should I always be checking my performance to see if God might be happy with me? People who live this way have the same problem as the secular humanist. They think favours only come to those who deserve them.

One of my recurring prayers is that God will release us all from the heresy of thinking that God gives his favours out according to our performance. Such a view has reversed the order of the good news of Jesus Christ. He died and rose and released us from our guilt and revealed the Father’s love, precisely, to change the way we live, not because we try to change.

Paul says, in paraphrase, ‘God sent his own Son among us, and condemned sin his his flesh, so that what he requires would be fulfilled in us who walk according to this good news revealed by the Spirit’ (Romans 8:1-4). If you turn that around and say we must change the way we live to receive the Father’s love, we are back in the driver’s seat, God’s love is hidden from our consciousness and we are far from free.

Walking according to the Spirit must mean that we rely on the love of God being poured into us (Romans 5:5). God’s love for us now flows in us. The Spirit reveals Christ—God’s love for us sinners—and this empowers us to change the way we live and to put to death the deeds that arise from our sinfulness (Romans 8:13). If this foundational truth is lost, there is no power to set us free or to send us out as lovers of God and of others. We will remain caught in the web of our own passions.

What is at stake here is not the well being of Christians but the honour of God. If the word we have heard is that we have to perform to be loved by God, he has been dishonoured and misrepresented. The truth is that he has freely chosen to love us and this is the sole fountain from which our life flows. To know this God and walk according to his Spirit is life and peace (Romans. 8:6). It is to have freedom and to love.

‘Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you…’ (Psalm 31:19).  This is the confidence and delight we can have in God our Father. Those who trust in his goodness, even while discovering more in themselves to regret and reject, will be free, and will love both God and man.

I, and other readers, would love to hear what you have discovered about the goodness of God our Saviour and the power of this to produce freedom and love.

Grant

 

 

Truth to say, to do and to pray for …

Here begins a blog to share with friends (others too perhaps) the things I’m finding are true—the things I’d like to say, but also things to do and to pray for. I thought it would be good to set out some guidelines for myself as to what this blog is about.

I refer to what I am finding to be true, rather than what I am claiming to be true. Some would say this distinction is naive, but I hope that future blogs will show that we really can know and say what is true …about God and ourselves, the truth about our world and its future and how it is loved and being fixed. If it is going to be true, it must already be there to find and not invented by me or any one else. And if I am going to find it, it must be because someone wants me to know it—not everything so I can be a ‘know-all’, but enough to settle my restlessness, tell me how to live with others and point to a future.

This is a huge topic at present. Many claim we cannot know anything objectively or really and that the best we can hope for is a perspective that works for us. I’ve been reading Don Carson’s ‘Christ and Culture Revisited’ and he deals with this subject in some detail, particularly in his section on postmodernism. For the present, I simply say that my starting point is that God has spoken to us, especially through Jesus Christ, and that he continues to speak to us all. The Bible, thrust up by this revelation and inspired by his Spirit is our authority, not just as an ancient document but in the sense that God continues to speak to his creation through its message. God remains this world’s Creator and Father (as Paul said to the Athenians). He raised his Son from the dead and made him our judge. In so many ways, if this is not irreverent to say, God is saying, ‘Hello! I’m here!’ The Bible constantly refers to our being able to know God and his will and asserts that we are responsible to know what is there to know.

The second part of my title, and the goal of this blog, is doing what is true. Truth is something to be done, a sharing in what is really true. Someone taught me years back that a mature person’s thinking is his or her call to action, not delay. Taking action needs confidence. If we are confident of the truth, it will not remain the topic of a discussion but forge a new direction and inspire a new power to keep doing the truth. Paul refers to ‘speaking the truth in love, but the actual phrase should read ‘truthing it in love’. Truth is love in action or it still belongs to the category of lie.

One of the delights of being a Christian is that there is always something to do. Pessimism and small mindedness are flushed out by knowing that God has called us to participate in all that he is doing. We are known by him, given our particular place to be and action to take, by him, and told to live, not for what can be seen and congratulated, but what will be eternal.

The third part of my title is ‘Things … to pray for’. In this world, alongside of the truth, there is much faleshood, not just in what we say but also in how we live, and the pain this causes is also real. If God is the author of what is true, only he can cause truth to triumph and falehood to fall. So I hope that all I write will also be a prayer, that is, a looking to God to make good on what he has shown us is true. Truth is love in action, and prayer is the expression of this love as we share the pain of what happens around us and thirst for the fulfillment of what God has promised.

There is great strength in coming to things in this way. Those who make their own ‘truth’ are responsible to bring it about. This leads to lots of huffing and puffing, or we could say, hot air. We recognise it quickly in politics (heard of ‘guarantees’?); it is the constant mantra of commerce or sports (‘we are the best’); it infects the private worlds of our families and friends (we may not say it, but what we mean is, ‘Be reasonable; do it my way’). All this reveals that we are trying to establish a ‘truth’ and to prove it by making it happen.

There was a time when anyone petitioning our Australian governments was obliged to end their submission with the words, ‘…and your servants shall also humbly pray.’ Here was a recognition that citizens must depend on God to bring what is true into our public life. It sounds quaint now but it is the way I hope to live and the way I hope to commend in this blog. I am all for ‘putting out there’ what I find to be true, even strongly, but I know who I trust to bring it about. The church’s real power has always been prophetic, not political.

Those who are sure of the truth are those who walk as servants of the man who said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. There was a certainty and strength in all that Jesus did and said. He trusted his Father God to establish everything that was true—even when he was dying. His servants know he is raised from the dead and that he is the truth about God, and us, our world and its future, and that he has been given authority to make it good. The truth to talk about, and to do, and to pray for, is what happens through faith in Jesus Christ and all this under his control.

So, here we go! I look forward to reading what others have to offer.

In the next two blogs, I’d like to write about ‘Love that is free’, and ‘How good it is that God is judge’. At this stage, once a month might be often enough for me to get my thoughts together.

Grant