Monthly Archives: July 2012
Frank Cottrell Boyce, who worked on Friday night’s Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, said this about the volunteers who took part:
The fact that almost 10,000 people kept the secret didn’t surprise Cottrell Boyce. “Those volunteers redefined the nation for me,” he said. “We’re told people need to be paid great sums to get results, but those who are motivated by money cock up. Because they’re crap. People who are motivated by things like love, family, friendship and humanity are the ones who have something to offer.”
(From the Guardian.)
Last Sunday evening, I got in after Richard Goldstraw’s farewell service and tea at Addlestone to find that we had a new temporary resident in the manse.
OK, it was a life-size cardboard cut-out of her, and apparently it is doing the rounds of every house in our road that will have her, ever since the Diamond Jubilee street party.
Jokingly, I put up a comment on my Facebook page, saying that this had happened, and asking any of my friends if they had any messages they would like me to relay to her. These included one friend who had recently been to a Buckingham Palace garden party asking me to give her a cheery wave and say ‘thanks’ for the tea. Another thought I could ask her to whip up a sermon for today. Somebody wanted to know if she had changed her mobile number. And another saw the opportunity for a lucrative business opening. I could advertise my services to parents who are regularly nagging their children over their manners by offering a practice Royal Garden Party. They could ‘meet the Queen’ and ‘have tea with the vicar’.
Of course, I wanted to have some fun with this, but our concept of a ruler’s majesty has declined over the years. The Psalmist, on the other hand, has a rich view of God’s majesty. Yet even then, the way in which that majesty is expressed on earth and in the heavens (verse 1) is surprising at times.
Firstly, God shows his glory in weakness.
Recently I had to take our daughter Rebekah on a Brownies’ trip to the dry ski slope at Aldershot, where the girls had an hour of ‘donutting’ – that is, coming down the dry ski slope in a glorified large rubber tyre, while wearing helmets for safety. As we arrived at the car park, Brown Owl suddenly got very excited and shouted to everyone, “Look! A Vulcan!”
I should explain that this was not a reference to Star Trek but to a Vulcan bomber that could be seen in the sky. The Farnborough Air Show was about to start.
And maybe an air show like that is what we expect in terms of rulers showing their power and might. They use displays of military hardware or force. Think back to all those parades of the Soviet Army through Red Square that we used to see on the news.
But God goes explicitly against this in the display of his majesty:
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Verse 2)
What could contradict military might much more than ‘the mouths of babes and infants’? Those who claim might and majesty by force are those God treats as enemies. He shows his glory instead in a tiny, fragile life.
The Psalmist wasn’t to know this, but several hundred years later God would show this explicitly. His majesty would be seen not in the palaces of Rome or Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. Supremely Christians see this in the incarnation of Jesus. There is God’s upside-down majesty. Wonder at his glory in, say, the words of Charles Wesley:
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
For me, this is captured in the words of a contemporary Christian poet and singer, Bruce Cockburn, in two of his songs. One is called ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’.
The chorus says:
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
Why does ‘redemption [rip] through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’? Because this is how God shows the splendour of his glory – his majesty. He does so in a reversal of the world’s ways and the world’s values. In the scandal of humility, God reveals his glory.
What does that mean for us? Go to another Cockburn song, one called ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’.
The stable door of the song is the stable in Bethlehem. In the lyrics of the final verse, Cockburn connects the frailty of the Incarnation with the revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase
Cockburn took inspiration here from a wonderful spiritual writer called Brennan Manning. The final chapter of one of his books, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, is called ‘The Shipwrecked at the Stable’. Manning makes the case that it is the poor and the weak who find hope in the infant Christ:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences – “Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!
All the time they are battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they are being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought was important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
The God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability can only be encountered in weakness and humility. Strutting pride and forceful power are not the entry tickets to the kingdom of God. The vulnerable God of Bethlehem meets those who are weak, who admit their need of him, and in doing so reveals his majesty.
Secondly, God shows his glory in insignificance.
I grew up as the son of an amateur astronomer. Even now, my father still belongs to the British Astronomical Association. One Saturday, Dad took me to London for a BAA lecture given by Patrick Moore. I didn’t understand it, but I noticed how he spent as much time afterwards answering the children’s questions as he did the adults’. Conversations at home were punctuated with Sirius, Orion, the Plough, the Pleiades, Aldebaran and the star I as a child called Beetlejuice. Television meant the Apollo missions, Tomorrow’s World and James Burke science shows. To learn that the nearest star outside our solar system was four light years away – that’s 23 trillion miles – was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. Later, when I came to faith in my mid-teens, although I had not kept up the interest in astronomy, to gaze up at a clear night sky was to engender a spirit of worship:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Verses 3-4)
The Psalmist didn’t know what we know about the night sky, but what we know gives these words even greater force: our Sun is but one star among between two and four hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are one hundred and seventy billion known galaxies in the observable universe.
In a world like that, don’t you feel tiny and insignificant? No wonder some people say our own planet Earth is just ‘the third stone from the Sun’.
No wonder others say that humans are just ‘dust in the wind’.
The contemporary atheist movement makes a lot of this. It says that the scale of things are such that it is ludicrous to see human beings as in any way special. We are just an impersonal consequence of the Big Bang and evolution.
What is difficult for these arguments is the evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe. An apologist for the Christian faith called Andrew Wilson lays out some of these in his recent book ‘If God, Then What?’ According to Wilson, there are fifteen different mathematical constant numbers that all have to be right to one part in a million (or even more precisely) for life to exist. If the ratio between the strong nuclear constant and the electromagnetic constant were different by one part in ten million billion, we would have no stars. If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant altered by one part in 1040, the stars would not be able to sustain life. And there are many others. Wilson quotes scientists who say that it is like ‘the universe knew we were coming’ and laid out a ‘cosmic welcome mat’.
But more than this, the Psalmist sees human beings as having a specific status and dignity in creation:
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. (Verse 5)
And not only that, this special status comes with a particular function on God’s behalf:
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Instead of being meaningless, human beings have dignity and responsibility in creation. In the face of feeling insignificant amidst the vastness and power of creation, God grants to the human race the moral management of creation on earth. This is our calling as a race, and it has huge implications.
For one, this is a restatement of Genesis chapter one, where the function of human beings made in God’s image was to look after this planet. That is far from insignificant. It is humans who feel insignificant. That is not how God regards us.
‘Looking after this planet’ implies our daily work. One sadness I encounter in pastoral conversations is with Christians who think that because they are not ordained or do not work for the church, what they do is of little value to God. I think this is a legacy of our past. The Catholic understanding of vocation was indeed something like this. You had vocations into the priesthood, or into a religious order as a nun or a monk. The Protestant Reformation widened this, and so we began praying for people in the healing, caring and education professions.
But there are all sorts of opportunities for Christian vocation if our calling as people made in God’s image is to look after his world. Graham Dow, who was Bishop of Carlisle until three years ago, wrote a booklet on ‘A Christian Understanding of Daily Work’. He argued that there were three purposes of work for Christians:
- Creative management of God’s world.
- Moral management for the good of all.
- A community of good relationships.
While he didn’t go as far as Martin Luther, who once said that if the job of village hangman fell vacant, the conscientious Christian should apply, we can see from these three purposes of work that we have many opportunities to give glory to God in everyday life and work.
Although it would take a whole sermon to explore the three purposes of work, I want you to see that tomorrow morning, you have an opportunity to give glory to our majestic God in your work. Whether you are in paid employment, doing unpaid work, unemployed or retired, God has set us in a world where we may work to his praise and glory, whether what we do is overtly religious or not.
Yes, in weakness and in work, we can live our lives in ways that reflect the words with which the Psalmist both begins and ends here:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Verses 1 and 9)
Is it like this?
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
That’s how one Catholic community in the States welcomes people, according to Jon Acuff. Being a pastor ‘who can’t carry a note in a bucket’, I like it.
What do you think? Assuming they live up to their words, what might it say to us?
Here is a brief talk for the morning service in our sermon series on Acts. But first, the PowerPoint:
I was on the bus home from secondary school one day. Several of us used to take the same bus each day.
Clifford spoke up, with a sneering voice. “I hear you had a spiritual experience last weekend,” he said to me.
“No,” I said, hurriedly.
But Clifford was right. I had been away on a youth weekend, and had felt much closer to God. Yet when Clifford raised the issue and I knew he was going to make cruel remarks about my faith, I denied it.
I wasn’t much like Stephen in our story today. He had had a spiritual experience. He had become a follower of Jesus and Luke has already told us he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of that spiritual experience, Stephen had started serving the poor and boldly telling people about Jesus.
The thing is, Stephen didn’t have to cope with someone who would mock him for his faith. He had to deal with a crowd of people who wanted to do far worse to him. They hated him, because all his talk about Jesus showed that what they believed about God was wrong. So they made up some lies to get him into trouble. The biggest trouble of his life.
Unlike me, Stephen was brave. He knew this mob could have him killed. The same group, more or less, had stitched up Jesus and had him crucified. He could surely expect no better. In fact, there are lots of parallels in Stephen’s story with the trials and execution of Jesus.
What would you do if you were on trial for your life? Think about that for a moment …
Here’s what Stephen did: ‘his face was like the face of an angel’ (verse 15). What does that mean?
‘The point of this expression is to convey the idea of a person reflecting some of God’s glory and character as a result of being close to God and in God’s very presence.’
Stephen was close to God, and that made him reflect more of what God is like to people. He clearly stayed close to God at this bad time. That helped him to be brave.
But he is facing something terrible, something most of us don’t face due to our faith. He could die because he loves Jesus! It’s wrong! It’s unfair! Why doesn’t God come down from heaven and beat up these evil people?
I think there is one other thing that helps Stephen to be brave. Just as there are so many parallels between what is happening to him and what happened to Jesus, he knows what put Jesus’ story right: God raised Jesus from the dead. Stephen knows that one day, God will raise him from the dead, too, and make all things right. That is the second thing that helps him to be brave. Even if things go wrong now, even if bad things happen to him, God won’t let evil have the last word. He will raise his people back to life. He will judge the world and put all things right.
So here are two things to help us be brave in standing up for our faith in Jesus when people don’t like that:
- Stay close to God. That means praying, reading the Bible, spending time with other Christians, worshipping, and living as much like Jesus as you can with the help of the Holy Spirit.
- Remember the resurrection. God put things right for Jesus, and he will do the same for us one day.
Further to my previous post, it is good to see the graciousness of Jared Wilson in taking down the original post and apologising. I believe that all of us who were upset by his original blog post should accept this sincere apology and his assurance that he does not stand for a domineering, violent approach to marriage. This contribution from Jared Wilson seems honest and humble to me. However much I continue to disagree with his views on gender rôles, I think this latest contribution shows the signs of someone who takes the Gospel seriously. Thank you, Jared, and God bless you. In this, I echo Rachel Held Evans and Scot McKnight.
I wish I could say the same for Douglas Wilson, the author of the contentious quotation that Jared Wilson originally used. Sadly, he has replied with one of the most vile blog posts I have read in a long time in the Christian parts of the blogosphere. It is a series of misrepresentations and half-truths in the way he casts those who have been so critical. We’re all ‘professional indignati” who are feminist bedwetters and who deny the authority of Scripture. So that was why we were calling you back to the Song of Songs and 1 Corinthians 7 in opposition to your teaching, was it, Mr W? Since only registered users may leave a comment on his blog, I make mine here: only read the link I have reluctantly provided if you have a clear medical need to vomit. If you are at all of a sensitive disposition, or if you have ever suffered at the hands of the church for your gender, take a long detour away from it.
Back after a long, difficult period away from blogging with this: in apparently trying to condemn the tawdry book ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the Gospel Coalition allows a blog post that uses language which seems to endorse rape. The justifications in the comments by author Jared Wilson that the language of a man ‘conquering’ his wife in the sexual act are to be taken metaphorically are beyond belief. What kind of metaphor is that? How does it soften the language? Not one bit. He accuses critics of misunderstanding the post – all this when it later appears he thought E L James, the author of the murky trilogy, was a man. I don’t think he’s in any position to tell others they have misunderstood. Jared Wilson has posted a clarification, but he is still so tied to male authority and female submission that he doesn’t see the point about the grim metaphor of conquest, however much he might protest that Douglas Wilson doesn’t stand for that.
As for repeatedly quoting 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 and the Song of Songs in favour of male authority and female submission, that requires taking a pair of scissors to both texts. The former clearly says that both parties in a marriage must realise their bodies belong to their spouse, not to themselves. And in the Song of Songs the Shulammite woman clearly takes the initiative in an erotic encounter.
I’m left with this question: does the Gospel Coalition have any Gospel for women? I think the answer is ‘no’.