Monday, 27 June 2016

All’s Well That Ends Well?

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God...  I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them... In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys... Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.
Nehemiah 13:6-7, 10, 15, 23

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a joyous story overall. Yes, there have been struggles along the way; but the temple has been restored, the city walls have been rebuilt, the people have heard the word of God and committed themselves to keeping their covenant with him.

Chapters 11 and 12 of Nehemiah continue to unfold positively in describing the repopulation of Jerusalem (there’s no point having a city rebuilt if there’s no-one living in it), the identification of leaders (it’s one thing for the city to be repopulated, but the people need continuity and purity in leadership too), and the dedication of the walls.

And that would be a great place to end the book! Except... we have chapter 13 to go, and – to be honest – things fall apart, with an ending that’s decidedly downbeat.

Nehemiah had returned to the king who had originally sent him to Jerusalem. We don’t how long he was away, but when he came back, all the old problems had resurfaced. The temple and its staff were being neglected, the sabbath was being dishonoured, and mixed marriages were compromising families and confusing children. The people still needed restoration.

And so the book comes to an end – with a bit of a whimper, truth be told. Renewal had come about, but hadn’t lasted; promises had been made, but had been broken.

Perhaps more significantly, this is where the story of the Old Testament finishes. We’re left wondering when the promises will be fulfilled; we’re left looking forward to the time when there will be full and final restoration. So it is that the book of Nehemiah points beyond itself to a time when there really will be no sin, no sorrow, and no pain, with Jesus and his people dwelling in the new heavens and new earth, the hope of all those who belong to him.

For Christians, hope is not an optimistic belief in our capacity for self-reformation or our ability to change the world. It is God himself who will bring about the new creation. But our hope frees us to live expectantly and confidently, though realistically, in ways that seek to transform the places we inhabit in the here and now in line with what will be – not as an act of self-assertion, but as a response to God’s gracious promise.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

What’s in a Word?

I was recently asked by the Presbyterian Herald to write 330 words on my favourite hymn or book of the Bible for their ‘What’s in a Word?’ column. I went for favourite book of the Bible, and submitted the below piece for the June 2016 edition of the magazine.

Whenever I am asked to name my favourite book of the Bible, I never know quite what to say. It’s normally the one I’m reading at that particular moment. Right now, the answer is 1 Thessalonians. But in the recent past it would be Psalms or John’s Gospel. In a few weeks time it’ll be something different again!

Even so, there is something about Ephesians that I enjoy coming back to again and again. In its breathtaking opening, Paul outlines the sweep of God’s plan of salvation set in place before the foundation of the world. Even as he catalogues the amazing blessings we enjoy now, he looks forward to the moment when ‘the times reach their fulfillment’, when all things will be gathered together under one head – Christ, the one in whom God will restore harmony to the universe (1:9-10).

Then, as the letter goes on, it becomes clear that the ultimate unity of all things has already had its beginning in the church. Though dead in sin, enslaved by forces of evil, and deserving of wrath, we have been made alive with Christ (2:1-10). And Jesus’ death which brings together God and humanity also unites formerly alienated people, as Jews and Gentiles are made into ‘one new humanity’, reconciled through the cross (2:11-3:13).

So, far from being a passive spectator in this cosmic drama, the church is to live a life worthy of her calling, to display the unity of the Spirit, to reflect to the world something of God’s ultimate plan for the universe. While the vision is cosmic and grand, the outworking is local and specific as we demonstrate a whole new way of living – starting with where we find ourselves every day, with the choices we make every day, with the people we live with every day, with our families and in our jobs – as very ‘ordinary’ people through whom God is present to the world.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

9Marks Journal 13, 2 (2016) on Prayer in Church

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available here as a pdf and here in other formats, is devoted to the topic of ‘The Church Praying’.

In the Editor’s Note, Jonathan Leeman writes:

‘Abraham prayed. Moses prayed. David prayed. The prophets prayed. The apostles prayed. Jesus himself prayed.

‘But do our churches pray when they gather together?

‘My own experience suggests, not much. There might be a few cursory upward glances through the course of a church service. But there are almost no studied, careful, extended times of prayer – little to no adoration, confession, thanksgiving, or supplication. And that lack of praying, when you think about it, is embarrassing. Do we actually think that we can change the leopard spots, or bring the dead to life? Any thing that a church does that will be eternally worthwhile must be done by the Lord, which is to say, through prayer.’

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Credo Magazine 6, 1 (2016)

The current issue of Credo is available, this one devoted to the topic of ‘Preach the Word’.

Matthew Barrett writes in the Editorial:

‘Some churches are so used to being fed soundbites from the culture, that sitting down and listening to a sermon for thirty minutes seems not only old fashioned but ridiculously burdensome. Other churches do hear preaching but it is anything but the preaching of “the word”...

‘Needless to say, this is not what the apostle Paul envisioned. Paul taught Timothy that it is absolutely essential to the spiritual health of God’s people to hear the Word itself. By expositing the scriptures, the people hear what God himself has to say, and they walk away knowing who God is, what he has done, and how they are to live according to his will.’

The magazine is available to read here, and a 16.4 MB pdf of the whole issue can also be downloaded here.

Renewing God’s People

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them... You are the LORD God, who chose Abram... You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt... You came down on Mount Sinai... You gave them kingdoms and nations... By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets... Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love... Nehemiah 9:5, 7, 9, 13, 22, 30, 32

It is surely significant that at the heart of Scripture is not a list of rules to be obeyed or a set of promises to be claimed, but a grand, sweeping story that is told. It’s an account of God reaching out in love to sinful men and women, drawing them into relationship with himself, who then become the main ingredients in a plan – centred in Christ – which involves the restoration of creation itself.

Nor should it come as a surprise that several summaries of this story are found throughout Scripture. The story is narrated up to the point of telling, of course, but each of the tellers is concerned to place themselves and their listeners or readers into that larger story, in such a way that it becomes their story too.

That’s what happens in Nehemiah with those who return from exile, rebuilding their walls and rebuilding their lives.

In this case, reading the Book of the Law leads to confession, with Nehemiah 9 recording the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. Beginning with praise, the people then trace the biblical story from creation right through to their present day. In doing so, they confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them, admitting their guilt and acknowledging God’s grace.

Mediated through the lens of a scriptural memory of God’s past actions on their behalf, that shared history cements the identity of the people of God, forming a community which will trust and serve him in the future. And so, confession turns to commitment as they make an agreement among themselves and before the Lord to be faithful in the land God has given them anew. The renewal of the covenant that follows in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.

Of course, we need ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. The vision at the heart of these chapters, shaped by the biblical story, remains as powerful now as it did then – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Joe Rigney on the Things of Earth

Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015)

Some of us may remember singing the old hymn about turning our eyes on Jesus, looking full in his wonderful face, whereupon ‘the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace’. Joe Rigney confesses to being puzzled by that; actually, in the light of God’s face, his gifts become brighter, better, and more beautiful – whether it’s scrambled eggs, wool socks, or the laughter of children. Despite the ways we misuse God’s good gifts, meeting needs and giving joy through creation was his idea.

In places this is a demanding read, but rewarding too, arguing that we don’t have to choose between our love for God and our enjoyment of his gifts. They mutually serve and enhance each other for God’s glory and our joy, and that remains true even if we lose those gifts through suffering or if he calls us to give them up for his sake.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

God’s Word for God’s People

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel... He read it aloud... And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law... The Levites... read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
Nehemiah 8:1-8

To the delight of many a deacons’ meeting, parochial church council, or fabric committee, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of building projects. In Ezra it’s the temple, in Nehemiah it’s the city walls. Hard work. Bricks and mortar. Blood, sweat and tears.

No less real – and no less hard graft – is the rebuilding of the people themselves. A restored temple and rebuilt walls to be sure, but at the centre of it all is a renewed relationship with God, in community with others. And at the heart of that renewal, the means by which restoration comes, is the word of God.

Picture the scene in Nehemiah 8: thousands crowd into the public square; Ezra stands on a raised platform; unusually, the people have asked him to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses; when he opens it they stand up, he blesses them, and they respond in worship. Ezra reads from daybreak to noon, for about six hours, and the people listen attentively and reverently.

However, reading and listening on their own are not enough. God’s word requires explanation, as we see with the Levites ‘making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’.

But something more is needed. For, as the story goes on, explaining and understanding lead to responding and celebrating – with weeping first, and then with delight, as the people discover that ‘the joy of the Lord’ is their strength (8:10).

Even this, it seems, is not the final goal of their encounter with God’s word, for the rest of the chapter shows them celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, recalling how their ancestors lived in the wilderness, with everyone taking part, acting out God’s provision for them.

As they hear, understand, and respond to God’s voice in the pages of Scripture, they are recovering what it means to be the people of God.

Here is a window on the significance of the word of God to the life of the people of God. It reminds us that God renews through his word, that it’s a word for men and women and children, that it addresses the whole community, that it is to be listened to attentively, understood clearly, and responded to obediently, that it makes a difference to how people live.

Minds informed, hearts touched, lives changed – God renews through his word.