Where is God?

The truck which rammed into a crowd in Nice, France after the driver was killed.

Tragedy in Nice, France

The past several days have been alarming. Different tragedies broke out in different nations with the rapidity of lit firecrackers. The gory headlines include:

  • Police shoot two black men in two separate incidents.
  • Sniper shoots and kills 5 police officers in Dallas.
  • Conflict in South Sudan. Over 300 killed.
  • Man rams truck into a crowd in the city of Nice, France. At least 84 people dead.
  • Attempted coup in Turkey. Over 160 killed.

In such times of crisis, it is not unusual to hear that familiar question: “Where was God?” Why didn’t he do something about the innocent children who were murdered in Nice? Why didn’t he protect Alton Sterling and Philando Castille from the policemen who shot them? Why couldn’t God keep the 5 Dallas policemen alive? In moments of intense grief, it is normal to ask questions in order to make sense of tragedy. And my heart goes out to all those who have been personally stung in these atrocities.

While it is necessary to ask questions, we often ask the wrong questions. Instead of asking where God is, I think we should be asking: “Where am I”, or “Where is my society, in relation to God?”

These incidents confirm again and again that our world is broken. Things are not as they should be, and our world needs to be put right. Human nature is capable of so much mindless evil (and whoever said evil is rational?); advances in technology sadly seems to correlate inversely with our moral character. In the age of WiFi, we experience so much racial hatred, and all our technological sophistication only makes it easier for a man in France to subscribe to a heartless creed.

And we ask where is God?

Actually, God is where he has been all along since the foundation of the world.

He was there when the first human family rebelled against him and decided they could make out the meaning of life on their own. God was there when nations and societies spurn the light of nature and devise substitute gods for themselves. God was there in 1789 when citizens of France ushered in the modern world with their cry of ‘No king, No God’, a creed which still virtually governs our modern (and postmodern) world. God is there when, instead of reaching out for him, modern man devises all kinds of plans to solve economic, political, and social issues. God is always there, but the problem is that modern society has habitually seen him as the problem rather than the solution. We should run to God and not from God.

Can we change that narrative?

Instead of seeing him as a God to point fingers at, can we see him as a God to stretch our hands to? And I do not refer to something which only individuals in their private rooms should do. This is a responsibility which our modern governments and societies have long ignored. To the modern society, God is irrelevant; he is a relic of our medieval past. We have outgrown him. Sadly, our troubles and crises seem to have outgrown that conceit. Human wisdom has shown itself inadequate to solve human problems; they reach deeper than we tend to think.

We must bury our pride and become truly human once again, by remembering the God who made us and who has redeemed his creation through the work of Jesus Christ.

God’s hands are stretched out to transform not just our individual hearts but our entire societies. He can heal racial strife. He can give the terrorist a better cause to fight for, and with better weapons than guns and explosives. He can cure our lust for power by teaching us that power is a tool for service. He can satisfy our deepest longings for relationship and meaning, and resolve our anxiety over the great question of personal and social identity. Through him, and by coming to terms with Christ’s work of redemption, our lives, our institutions, and our societies can be transformed again.

But it will require us stretching out our hands in return.

When God calls

Man looking forwardFear is a common response when God calls. In most cases, the task simply seems too overwhelming or scary. Am I strong enough? Am I gifted enough? Do I have the required competence? And while we may be mistaken, the presence of fear in assuming what seems to be a new challenge or responsibility may well be the sign that God really is calling us to it.

Abraham doubted God’s promise could come to pass; Moses felt he was unsuitable to lead the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, Jeremiah was intimidated by his youth, Gideon needed a sign from God that he was truly the one to deliver the Israelites from the Midianites. Each person, and many others, felt that common dread of taking on such a huge but necessary task. Their victory came when their natural fear became an opportunity to discard their own abilities and gird themselves with God’s word and His strength. In each case, they overcame by trusting God to perform his word through them. Their fear gave way to faith because they looked beyond themselves.

God’s call will often (perhaps always) be scary. It could be to take on a particular form of injustice, to establish a new business on biblical principles, or to assume a new role which is more strategic to his kingdom and more in line with your passion. His call could even be to such a commonplace but significant task as fathering a child and preparing her for godly living. Whatever it is he calls you to, remember He calls you as an instrument and a vessel.

We are not power plants; we are power cables. We are conduits of his grace, and his power works within us to accomplish his purpose. Our role, therefore, when he calls, is to submit, to follow, and to trust.

The Pulpit: Are we Fools?

“The fool has said in heart  there is no God” Psalm 14:1

This verse has often been applied as a scriptural  indication that God rebukes atheists for denying his existence. While it is true that scripture clearly teaches that the knowledge of God is universal and as such atheism is unjustified (Romans 1), this is not the import of the passage. The psalmist has in mind the sort of person who goes ahead with life as though God doesn’t care. Such a person is ‘corrupt’, he does ‘abominable works’. Also he exploits people since God is not in his thoughts (v. 4; cf. also Psalm 10:4). The Fool simply does not do good. In other words, he is ungodly.

And what exactly is ungodliness? To be ungodly is to be unconcerned about God, and this issues in all kinds of wrong and sinful behaviour. We often associate the term with obvious evils like drunkenness, sexual immorality, or murder. We thus overlook inward sins like Envy, Lust, or Covetousness. But as both Moses (in the Ten Commandments) and Jesus (in the Sermon on the mount) pointed out, the inner sins are just as bad. According to our passage, the fool neither ‘understands’ nor ‘seek God’. And these both stem from the heart. Before God, they all condemn us and earn us the deplorable label of  ‘Fool’.

The claim of the psalmist is simply this: A life of ungodliness is a practical denial of God. If we believe in God, we will give him the regard due to him by worshiping Him and obeying his commands. God does not want a mere admission of his existence. Everyone knows he exists, including demons (James 2:19 ). The real issue is whether we seek him and worship him.  He created us so we can worship and glorify Him. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it:

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”.

When we ignore God and live our lives our way, we deny the purpose of our creation.

What better life can a person live than to submit to the will of his Maker? Godlessness is truly foolish.  For if we have been created by a being who transcends us, and upon whom we depend (Acts 17:24-30), it is only logical that we submit to him. However, sin blinds our hearts, clouds our thinking and obscures our judgement (cf Eph 4:17-19).  We elevate ourselves higher than God, just like our first parents, and seek to become our own gods. Sadly, we’ll later realize it was a wrong turn. The way of godlessness is the path to misery; sin is  destructive.

The only way out is to submit to Him who is both the Lord and King of our lives. God calls us to be reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus and walk in newness of lives. Being reconciled with God, and having peace with Him through our Lord Jesus, we then obey his principles (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Whether it is in our relations with our spouses and children, in our work, or in dealings with neighbours, God’s law becomes our life. When we receive God’s offer of salvation, and his Spirit begins to work in us, we cease to be fools; we become Kings and Priests unto God.

And Kings are wise.

Seeking the Kingdom

When Jesus said we should seek first God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33), he was simply asking us to imitate him.

Earlier, he was confronted by Satan and forced to choose between satisfying his own interest and pursuing God’s will (Matthew 4:1-11). This was a test exactly along the same line as Adam and Eve had faced in Genesis 3. Jesus, however, triumphed because he consistently made God’s will (his kingdom) paramount. In matters of bodily appetite, personal fame and significance, and material wealth, Christ submitted to God’s will. And he calls us to do likewise.

Does your past still haunt you?

old pictures

Everyone has a past – moral failings which blot our life histories like blue ink on a white shirt. Outbursts of rage, episodes of immoral behaviour, illicit relationships, lifestyles of violence and aggression, and dark secrets shut out from the prying ears of friends and neighbours. These hang around our necks and minds, pulling our consciences below the earth.

Our sinful past sometimes stands as an obstacle from receiving God’s love and forgiveness. We wonder, ‘Can God really forgive that?’ ‘Surely, I have sinned away hope and mercy.’ But it is precisely in this seemingly hopeless situation that God’s grace shines fairest. As Paul wrote,

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8, ESV)

God’s grace is directed at the guilty. Redemption presupposes a sinful past; without a past you don’t even qualify!  And Christ clearly stated: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). It is no surprise that the greatest of his apostles, and the author of almost half of the books which make up the New Testament, was a man who described his past as ‘chief of sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15, KJV).

If there was someone who should have nothing to do with someone with a past, it was Jesus. The eternal Word, who had been with the Father (John 1:1-2), and in whom there is no sin (Hebrews 4:15). Yet among his disciples was Matthew, a tax collector. Tax collectors didn’t just have a past; they had a distasteful present. They were viewed as traitors to the commonwealth of Israel. They were instruments of an oppressive foreign government, exploiting their own kinsmen for personal gain. Yet Jesus not only met with him in his home, he enlisted him in the hallowed circle of disciples. His past was evil but forgiven. That is what Jesus does; he forgives our past and opens a new chapter in our history.

The so-called ‘Hall of Faith’ in Hebrews chapter 11 is another illustration of how God relates to our past. We would expect such an illustrious list to include the holiest of people, the Mother Theresas of the ancient world. But whom do we find? We see Jacob the schemer and deceiver; Rahab, a prostitute from the idol worshipping tribes of Canaan; Samson, the Jewish judge who was so captivated by his lust for women that it eventually cost him both his sight and his life. We also find David the great King of Isreal who had sexual relations with one of his poor subjects and killed her husband in order to conceal his sin. These were God’s heroes of faith.

What made the difference for them was the fact that their past was but a record which their faith in God had overcome (1 John 4:4). Yes, the record was there, but it was now irrelevant. They trusted in God their redeemer, and by faith, they had received forgiveness. And the same is true for us today. The Saviour of the world has shed his blood for all who believe. And their sins he will remember no more, provided they come to him in faith. If we have trusted in Jesus as Saviour, this is our privilege. ‘Though our sins are as red as crimson, they shall become like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). Thus is the assurance of the gospel.

Living in God’s Future – Now! by N.T. Wright

A sermon at the Easter Vigil in Durham Cathedral, Easter Morning 2009 by the former Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright.

‘If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him . . . so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’

NT Wright 2With those words, St Paul sets out what you might call the Easter agenda, the bracing regime which all newly baptised and/or confirmed Christians have to face up to. This isn’t, to put it mildly, how people normally think about how to behave; so it’s probably worth going straight for the heart of it. Getting up early on Easter morning is itself bracing, exciting and unexpected, and we might as well carry on in the way we’ve begun.

Actually, carrying on what we’ve begun is one good way of describing what living the Christian life is all about. It’s an image Paul uses elsewhere: God has started something off in you, in your hearts and minds and lives, and God is going to carry it on until he’s finished the job. Be prepared for some surprises, and some challenges, as God does that! You’ve been baptised and confirmed into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit – so expect those events and that reality to shape your life from now on! But, equally, it’s important to see it from the other end of the telescope, to see your life now from the perspective of the end, the goal. This is a trick management consultants sometimes employ, to get executives to imagine what it’s going to be like when the firm has developed in new ways, how the product will have improved, the new office they’ll have, and so on: think, they say, how it’s going to be in (say) 2020, and then work back and tell yourself the steps by which you got there.

Actually, that management trick is a downscaled version of the ancient vision of virtue. The old philosophers suggested that you should hold in your minds a vision of the future you wanted to attain, a vision of ultimate happiness, completeness, the sort of person you’d want to become; and then they encouraged you to learn and practice the qualities of character you would need to be working on in the present to shape yourself into that sort of a person. The philosophers who taught that sort of thing got two things absolutely right which we as Christians need to sort out in a fresh way for ourselves, but there are two other things which for us are quite different, and Easter is a brilliant time to get our minds and hearts, and particularly our lives, around them all.

First, the old philosophers were right that the way to live your life is from the future backwards. If you start off where you are now, and imagine what you’d like to do, you’ll get muddled and find yourself being driven by different impulses in different directions. If you just go with the flow of what comes naturally, you will look back in ten years, or thirty, or sixty, and shake your head and realise you were going round and round in confused circles. But if you have a goal and are consciously trying to work towards it your character will develop, so that you actually start to want new things, to enjoy new things, to develop new habits. And that’s the second point they got right. Virtue isn’t about struggling to obey a whole bunch of rules. It’s about practising the habits of heart and mind and life which will form your character so that, eventually, you do naturally – though it will be a kind of second nature, one you’re not born with but which you choose to develop – the things which reveal that your character is developing into that of a whole, wise, well-rounded human being.

But the Easter message generates two other things which are quite new. Yes, we must live our lives from the coming future – but we now know much more clearly what that coming future is, and that gives particular point and direction to the people we are to choose to become, to the habits we are to choose to develop. And yes, forming habits of character is vital, even though it’s difficult, but for the Christian the all-important difference is that we don’t do it alone. We don’t develop these habits all by ourselves. We do it, basically, with the help and energy of God’s spirit; and we do it in company, all of us together. After all, the most basic Christian habit is love, and you can’t do love all by yourself.

Let’s think about these two things for a moment. The resurrection of Jesus, the great fact at the heart of the Easter faith, means that we now know, suddenly and in a blinding flash, what our ultimate future will be. Our ultimate future isn’t just that we bumble along trying to live the present life a little bit better until one day we decay and die, and end up either in the grave or in a disembodied heaven or perhaps both. Our ultimate future is that we will be raised to new life in God’s new world, not only to inhabit God’s new creation, a world full of beauty and life and justice and freedom, but actually to run it on God’s behalf. That’s a solid New Testament truth which the church usually keeps quiet about, but it’s time to get it out of the cupboard, blow the dust off it, and see what it means for today. Running God’s world won’t mean, of course, arrogantly imposing our own will on it; it will mean being God’s stewards, and ruling with his gentle, wise love. To be Easter people, we are called to anticipate, here and now, that future vocation, to look after God’s world on his behalf, and to gather up the praises of creation and present them before the creator. Stewardship and worship, the practice of being kings and priests, are the habits of heart and life that Easter people must acquire.

Stewardship and worship take a thousand different forms. Stewardship means working for God’s justice in the world, for the health and flourishing of the planet and all who live on it, for God’s wise order and exuberant freedom to come to birth in all directions. Pray, in the days to come, about the ways in which God wants you to be a steward in his creation. That’s what you’re going to be doing in the resurrection life; start practicing now. Worship means celebrating God’s powerful deeds in history, in your own history, in your community; it means summing up the praises of the whole creation and expressing them, articulately and with understanding and delight, in the presence of the God who made you, loves you and has redeemed you. Pray, in the days to come, about the ways in which God wants you to worship him, where that should be, how often you should come to the eucharist, and how to worship in private as well. Worship is what you’re going to be doing in the resurrection life; start practicing now.

The second point at which Christian virtue, resurrection living if you like, is different from the ancient pagan dream of a good life is that we don’t do all this by ourselves. One of the mysterious but essential realities at the heart of our faith is that the Holy Spirit, God’s own Spirit, Jesus’ own breath, comes to live in our lives so that we discover, bit by bit, that we have a new kind of moral energy and sense of direction. But here’s the thing. Some people, when they realise they are promised the Holy Spirit to help them live as God wants them to do, imagine that therefore all you have to do is to go into neutral and let the Spirit take you wherever he wants. They then sometimes either complain that the Holy Spirit hasn’t done what it said on the tin, or, more darkly, that this or that particular call to holiness can’t be meant for them because they tried it and it didn’t work so the Spirit can’t require it of them. This is a complete misunderstanding. As Paul makes it very clear in today’s reading and elsewhere, the struggle for holiness will remain a struggle, even when the Holy Spirit is giving you the energy, and one of the key elements in that struggle is precisely that you should learn to understand what is going on, to think it through, to be, as he says, ‘transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may discern in practice what God’s will is’. In fact, the early signs of the Spirit’s work are that you start to be puzzled by habits of life that you’d taken for granted, and you begin to be startled by ways of life to which God seems to be calling you but which appear difficult if not impossible. The answer then is, Think it through, Pray for wisdom and strength, and Start learning the habits. They don’t come naturally at the moment, just as when you’re learning a musical instrument or a foreign language. But eventually, when you practice them, they will come naturally. You will gradually acquire fluency in the language. That’s what resurrection living is all about.

But if it’s true that we don’t live as Christians all by ourselves in the sense that we are promised the Holy Spirit within us, it’s also true that we don’t do it all by ourselves in the sense that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Christianity is a team sport. The ancient pagan virtues were designed to produce great individuals, hero-figures who would lead nations in politics and war. The Christian virtues, supremely faith, hope and love, the great signs of resurrection that well up within us, are designed to produce communities in which each individual has their own unique part to play but within a much larger whole. And the point of it all is not to draw attention to ourselves, but rather to put ourselves out for everyone else, to spot what needs doing in God’s world and to get on and do it, without making a song and dance about it. Thank God that so many Christians in our society are doing just that – so many, in fact, that if they all suddenly stopped doing it our whole country would feel the draft. But you, newly baptised and confirmed Christians today, you need to pray for God’s wisdom and direction to see where you belong in this work. You are part of the family and you will have your tasks to perform, the things God wants to do in this community which we’ve been needing you to do, to make your unique contribution.

So the life into which you are baptised and confirmed is the resurrection life, the kings-and-priests life, the life lived from the future back into the present, the life of thoughtful, discerning, habit-forming faith, hope and love. You may well find that very challenging, especially at six o’clock in the morning. And it is. You may well feel like the women at the tomb, shocked and astonished by the great truth that is starting to dawn on you, the great drama into which, suddenly, you find yourself incorporated. You may well need, as the women seem to have done, to take some time to get over the shock. But Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and we who find ourselves caught up in that great, earth-shattering event have no choice but to learn to live, right now, already, in the light both of that event itself and of the future which it unveils. Pray; think; learn the resurrection-habits of stewardship and worship, of faith, hope and love; and take your proper place in our growing family as we make Easter a reality in our world.

Source: NT Wright Page

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus

Rock by the sea

Faith in Christ is an anchor for the soul. To rest on Christ for salvation, through trials, and for promises, is a privilege beyond words. May we receive grace to wholly trust in Him.

  1. ’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
    Just to take Him at His Word;
    Just to rest upon His promise,
    And to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er;
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

  1. Oh, how sweet to trust in Jesus,
    Just to trust His cleansing blood;
    And in simple faith to plunge me
    ’Neath the healing, cleansing flood!
  1. Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
    Just from sin and self to cease;
    Just from Jesus simply taking
    Life and rest, and joy and peace.
  1. I’m so glad I learned to trust Thee,
    Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
    And I know that Thou art with me,
    Wilt be with me to the end.

 Louisa M.R. Stead