Monday, 28 January 2013

Language and Theology

From an evolutionary perspective language is unnecessary. Animals can reproduce, warn, threaten, urge each other on, be intimate, play, express hunger without conceptual language.
And yet we have a language which enables us to ask why, to dream, to despair (would suicide as a deliberately chosen act be possible without language?).

Language is gratuitous. It is a gift. Without language we can share ourselves with another. With language we can share our souls.

a. God uses a word to bring that which is not, into being
Genesis 1:3 
‘And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light’

Hebrews 11:3 
‘By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible’

b. God uses language to speak to us: to declare his laws, wisdom, promises
Psalm 119:9,105
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.

c. We use language to enable relationship, and to communicate with each other the wonders of God’s truth.
1 Corinthians 14:5,19
Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up  .. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 

d. We must speak in the language of the people whom we are addressing
Not just Latin versus English, or KJV versus ESV
Cross cultural communication: Wycliffe bible translators
The language we use can reinforce barriers (the language of Zion), open up new possibilities; closed or open. 

e. There must be a deep integrity about how we use language
Ephesians 5:4
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 
Matthew 5:33-37
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn." But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply "Yes" or "No"; anything more than this comes from evil.
(cf James 3:5-10)
The ‘faithfulness of God’ is primarily displayed in his keeping his promises:
(eg.Zechariah’s prophecy, Luke 1:67-79)

f. The end of language is to acclaim God in worship
Revelation 5:13 ‘And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever’.


The limits of human language:
Language unites, but language also divides.
The confusion of language - Genesis 11:1,7  ‘Now the whole earth had one language and the same words .. Come let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech’

The limits of angelic languages (the tongues of angels):
- personal relationship with God (1 Corinthians 14:2, ‘For the one who speaks to you in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit’)
- sign for unbelievers, to show how far they are alienated from God (1 Corinthians 14:23)

note: prophecies, tongues, knowledge will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8)


Philosophical debates about language
a)    Realism: Universals exist out there, which are different to the words we use, but as our knowledge and language develop, so we capture that reality in our words.
b)    Nominalism: The variety of objects to which a single word applies (eg. ‘dog’) have nothing in common apart from the word. We will never be able to know a reality beyond our words

Alice through the Looking Glass:
`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'
`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

However, we work with a realist assumption: words describe things out there.

a) Literal language
(in the Bible there is historical, legal, scientific – explanatory - language)

What is it?  It is black, it has two wheels, it comes up to just over my waist, it has a fold over lid
If I say, ‘we have a brown wheely bin and a blue wheely bin’, you know exactly what I mean.

Much of the language in the bible is used in this way: it is law, history, wisdom, the gospels

But because of the limits of language, we recognise that language is not able to describe everything in this sort of way

i) Reality is too big

Language describing events pre-fall and post return of the Lord Jesus
How do we describe love, personality

ii) God is too big

But how do you describe the one who created all things, including time and space – when we can only think in terms of time and space?

Tom and Jerry discussing who drew Walt Disney.

b) Metaphorical language
(in the Bible there is poetic, apocalyptic, ‘saga’ language. Jesus spoke in parables)

John Masefield: Sea-fever
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

It is trying to convey a reality that is too big for us to imagine. It is about imagination – about feeling.
This is language which points us to a reality beyond language.

And how do we describe One who is beyond all concept, all definition?

1 Timothy 6:15-16
‘.. which God will bring about in his own time - God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honour and might forever. Amen.’

God reveals himself to us in language which points us beyond language

Revelation 1:12-16
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, and among the lamp stands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.’

Oddly, to even turn this into an image, somehow limits what is being said.

An image is always going to be an image of something that is created. How do we depict the uncreated in an image?

c) Going beyond language
The impossibility of describing God

Is God up there?
Does God have hands or eyes?
Is God angry or jealous or loving?
Is God good and faithful?

We want to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’

The creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being  with the Father; through him all things were made.

In God-talk there have been two ways of speaking about God

a) Positive language: increasing knowledge about God, about the ways of God and the promises of God.  

There are things that can be known about God

Romans 1:19-20
.. since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

John 14:9
Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father"? 

b) Negative language: the stripping away of idols that we build around words.

The place of silence

Rev 8:1 ‘When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.’

The silence of presence and not of absence


a) to lead us into faith/obedience

Deuteronomy 29:29
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

b) to lead us into relationship and encounter with Jesus Christ

John 5:39-40
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 

c) to enable us to speak to others about God

Psalm 78:1-3
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

d) to enable us to worship

1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi  (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief is the rule of life)

Wisdom of Cranmer introducing a book of common prayer.

We do theology in:
  • The words we use
  • The songs we sing
  • The prayers we pray (eg. Lord’s prayer)
The difference between knowing about God and knowing God. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow in the Bible


How many references to snow in the Bible?
How many references in the New Testament?
2 - both of them refer to snow as an image of purity: angel at Jesus' resurrection (Matthew 28:3) and the description of the head and hair of someone 'like a son of man' (Rev 1:14)

Elsewhere the bible uses snow as a description of whiteness (leprosy; wash me whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18)
It describes undependable friends as being like melting snow (Job 6:16)
It describes a trustworthy messenger as being like refreshing snow in the heat of a difficult task (Proverbs 25:13)

But the Bible has a little bit more to say about snow
1. It speaks of an incident that happened in the snow
David had three mighty men. One of them was called Benaiah. On one occasion he went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. (2 Samuel 23:20; 1 Chron 11:22)

2. God gives the snow
He commands the snow to fall (Job 37:6; Psalm 147:16). God 'stores' the snow for the day of trouble and battle (Job 38:22)

3. The good steward has prepared for snow and is not afraid of snow. (Proverbs 31:21 - talking of the wife of noble character)

4. Snow praises God
Psalm 148:8
'Praise The Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding'

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A prayer on the occasion of the launch of the Victory Ground project

Father God

With great joy we thank you for this site, and for the blessing that it has been to so many people.

We thank you for South Lee School, for Bury St Edmunds Cricket Club, Sporting 87 football club and St Edmundsbury Council

We thank you for those who have had this vision to develop a sports hall, changing rooms and cricket pavilion; and for those who have enabled the vision to be turned into reality. We thank you for the Borough councillors and officers, for all that they have done to make this possible. We thank you for the generosity of all who have given time and money to the project. We do thank you for the lawyers, architects, engineers and builders – and for the gifts that you have given them.

We thank you for showing us what is possible when we work together.

We now ask, as the foundations are laid, for your continued guidance, provision and particularly for your protection for the builders. And we pray that this building and this site will continue to bring blessing to the children of South Lee School and to the people of our town and borough

We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, who has given us all things and who gave us himself, that we might know you and your eternal joy


Saturday, 12 January 2013

On the occasion of Sophie Goodchild's thanksgiving service

Great joy to celebrate the birth of Sophie.

And I’m going to speak to Sophie this morning, because at long last it will be a privilege to be able to speak to someone who will be able to appreciate what I say

Sophie, I’m basing what I would like to say on Isaiah 43

1. God made you.

You might think that your mum and dad had a say in your creation – and I grant that they had a little bit to do with it.

Verse 1 states:
But now, this is what the Lord says –
he who created you, Jacob,
 he who formed you, Israel:

God created Jacob and Israel. Jacob is another name for Israel. But Jacob was the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham. And when God uses the name ‘Jacob’, he is reminding us that although Israel is a nation, Israel is also a big family: made up of the descendents of Jacob. So God is saying, ‘I created this family’.

And in the New Testament, we are told that God created all families.

So Sophie, God used your mum and dad, but ultimately he made you.

That means a great deal.
It means that you are not here by chance. You were not born now and to Ian and Kirsty by luck. You are not an accident created by two other accidents, who might one day meet an accident and have an accident.

A friend sent Alison a quote about the definition of atheism.
“The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense.”

Sophie, the fact that you are created by God means you have an astonishing dignity. It means that you have a purpose and a destiny. It means that you matter and your life matters – not just now, but for eternity.

2. Sophie, you belong to God

God says, “I have summoned you by name; you are mine”

Again, God speaks this to this unique family, the people of Jacob. And in a special way the descendents of Jacob, the Jewish people, were and still are God’s chosen people.

But what God says to Israel 3000 years ago, God says to all people today: ‘I have summoned you by name; you are mine’.

We can spend a lot of time anguishing about who we are. We can spend much money trying to get someone help us understand who we are.
[Crocodile Dundee school of psychology. I tell Wally – he tells everyone else – and then it is no longer my problem; Don’t they have mates].

But actually, for £10 we can buy a bible. And the bible will tell us who we are, if we are prepared to hear it.

It tells us that we are each individuals created by God, known by name, and that we belong to him.

Of course that has implications. We are not completely free individuals; we cannot do what we want or live in the way that we want. We belong to God and therefore we are accountable to God. Equally we belong to God and therefore all the riches of God also belong to us.

In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear (a toy astronaut) thinks that he is really a space hero. It is a belief that drives everything about him. Meanwhile Woody (a plush toy cowboy) shouts at him, "You're not a space ranger! You're an action figure—a child's plaything."

It is only when he fails to fly, that Buzz realizes the truth of Woody's statement. He is crushed. He hangs his head in resignation and despair, and he says, "I'm just a stupid, little, insignificant toy."

Woody later seeks to comfort his friend. He focuses on the fact that Buzz may only be an action figure, but that what give him value is that he belongs to Andy and he is dearly beloved by Andy. He says to him, "You must not be thinking clearly. Look, over in that house, there's a kid who thinks you're the greatest, and it's not because you're a space ranger; it's because you're his."

And when Buzz lifts up his foot, he sees a label fixed to the bottom of his little shoe. There in black permanent ink is the name of Andy. Buzz breaks into a smile and takes on a new determination.

We do not have Andy’s name written on our foot. We have God’s name written on our heart.

And Sophie, as for each one of us, there will come a time in your life when  you will, I pray, hear God call your name; and you will have a choice: To say, ‘No, I belong to nobody’. Or ‘Yes, I belong to the God who made me, who loves me and who has a purpose for me.’

3. This passage tells us a little bit about the reality of life.

We pray, Sophie, that you will live a profoundly blessed life.

But there will also be those times when life does the dirty on us. There will be times when it gets really hard.

These verses talk of how we will pass through rivers and walk through fire.

They were spoken to a people who were about to be conquered and defeated and go into exile. They would experience unimaginable cruelty and violence. They would be slaves in a foreign land for 70 years. It would seem as if God had totally forgotten, abandoned them.

I was reading in last weeks’ Times’ supplement about Ping Fu. She is a leading Chinese entrepreneur, now living in the US, and working on 3D printing. It spoke of her childhood. Taken from her parents at the age of 8 during the so-called cultural revolution, brought up as a state orphan in brutal conditions, forced to watch two of her teachers [one dropped head first down a well; the other ripped apart by four horses], she was gang raped and left for dead. More recently her husband of 18 years has walked off with another woman.

That is extreme and we pray that no one should ever experience anything like that. But for all of us there will be times when life is hell.

God never promises a pain free life. We live in a fallen world in which there is suffering. There will be times when we experience intense pain, physical and emotional. There will be pain when we suffer and pain when those we love, suffer.

It is the reality of life.

4. But Sophie, when life does get rough, we do not need to despair – because if we have turned to God, He will be with us whatever we go through.

‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you’

For the people of Israel, that was true. They did go into exile. But God was with them in exile. He spoke to them. He comforted them. And after 70 years, he brought them back home.

And if we have recognised that we belong to God, he has promised that he will never leave us. And even though there will be times when we are up to here and we can’t take anything else, and something else will comes along, he has promised that there is nothing that will separate us from him or his love.

A few weeks ago I received a text from a young man with a pretty serious form of cancer. He gave me permission to use this.

He writes, "Has been very bad week so far. I now have a clot in left leg so daily heparin injections for next 3 months :-( Having radiotherapy and chemo today and radio on Monday so probably too unwell to see anybody until later next week at earliest. Know that without His strength and all your prayers it would be beyond me. I'm having to be taken to appointments in a wheelchair too as can't walk more than a few feet as legs very sore. Christ is sustaining me, but it feels pretty close at times. All I can do is trust in Him whatever and give myself to Him and His mercy completely. I do struggle to do that at times but know that whatever happens He is above it all and ultimately in complete control."

There is a great promise in the bible: that nothing – not cancer or other illness, not trouble or hardship, not persecution, desperate poverty, danger or physical violence, not angels or demons - can separate us from the love of God.

[Philip Yancey wrote in his great book on prayer, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. Prayer offers no ironclad guarantees—just the certain promise that we need not live that mystery alone”.]

And we do need to remember that it is not just about this life. Probably because I’m about to hit a particularly significant birthday, I have become rather philosophical. The older I get, the faster the years seem to go by – and I think ‘I like this life; I don’t really want it to go. I don’t want to grow older’.

But then I remember that it is not just about now and here. There really is a then and there. And that actually is what this is all about.

There is that great hymn, ‘For all the saints’, which has the line, ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’.

Sophie, it is, at times, incredibly hard – sometimes even more if you choose to follow the Lord Jesus – but it is worth it, and God will never leave us.

5. Sophie, this passage reminds us just how incredibly precious you are

Sophie you are incredibly precious to your family.
But you are more than precious to your God.

Isaiah 43:3-4
For I am the Lord your God,
Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in your stead.
    and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.    

It is a strange verse. God says here that his people Israel are so precious to him that he gives other people up for their sake.

But then we ask, are not the peoples of Egypt and Cush and Seba also beloved by God?
And the answer is ‘yes they are’, but, at this time, before Jesus, their ultimate blessedness depended upon the welfare of the chosen people of God, of Israel.

And the words that were spoken to Israel then, are now spoken to all who hear and receive those opening words of this chapter, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’

And these words are pointing forward to another sacrifice that is made – a sacrifice that is made for you, Sophie, and for each person here.

Because you are so precious and honoured in God’s sight; because God loves you so much, he gave – not other people for you – but he gave himself, when Jesus came, for you. And Jesus became a human being, and gave his life for us when he died on the cross so that we might know forgiveness and become friends with God. Jesus died for us, so that what is spoken here of historic Israel can be as true for us as it was for them.

Remember Sophie that you are precious, not because you are good or clever or beautiful or because ‘you are worth it’. The problem is that we will never be good enough or clever enough or beautiful enough to satisfy even ourselves, let alone God.

Reese Witherspoon, one of the most famous actresses in the world, said this about herself: 
“I don't watch any movie I'm in. It's horrifying. I'll just focus on something stupid like, "I hate my laugh. Why did I smile?" Sometimes I look at myself and think, "Dude, I have the biggest, goofiest smile on earth."

When she really wants to feel bad, she'll Google herself. She says,

"Only in very dark moments, moments of pure self-loathing, do I type my name into Google. You never read anything positive; you always go straight to where they say something nasty about you. You're fat, you're ugly, you're tired, you're worthless, you don't have a career anymore. It's just an affirmation of every horrible feeling about yourself.”

Sophie, I trust that you will be brighter, better and more beautiful than Reese Witherspoon. But even then you may still at times feel bad about yourself. We all do.

But when we do have times of self-loathing we need to remember that we are incredibly precious to God. How precious? Well, he gave himself for you.

How much does God love me?
[hold arms out].  Look at the cross of Jesus.

6. Sophie, you have an astonishing purpose

Isaiah 43 talks of how God will gather together all the people of Israel into one people. But then, he continues, he will gather (v7)

everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.

Sophie, you were not only made by God; you are not only deeply and profoundly beloved by God; you have been made for the glory of God.

You, and here I speak to everyone, were made to be radiant. You were made to be radiant with the beauty of God, to speak with the wisdom of God (Sophie, of course, comes from the Greek word for wisdom), to act with the love of God, to live the eternity and freedom of God.

If you allow yourself to bear the name of God, of Jesus Christ, you were made to be a mirror reflecting the glory of God.

It is why, I guess, we need eternity to become the people God meant us to be.
And here and now there will be many times when we direct the mirror of our lives not at God, but at the human cesspit of greed and jealousy and pride and self-reliance: and our lives will reflect a grim and foul picture.

But God will not let us go. We can always turn back to Jesus.

On one occasion Jesus went up the mountain to pray. As he faces his Father in heaven in prayer, he is changed. He shines with the radiance of the glory of God. And there are two people who appear with him. Moses and Elijah. And as they face him and talk with him, they too shine with a reflected glory.

Little Sophie, Ian and Kirsty, each person here, I pray that you, that we, will one day shine with the radiance of the glory of God.