Thursday, 26 September 2013

Why should I bother to live for God?

Paul commands Timothy to live for God

‘I charge you’, he says in v14, ‘to keep this command’.
Which command?
The command to (v11) ‘pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.’

They are precious qualities.
Godliness: (I’m putting this first because this is the quality that is also mentioned in 1 Tim 6:6) - god like-ness. Jesus was the eternal Son of God become human. So becoming like God is about looking at Jesus and desiring to become like him.
Righteousness: right-ness. But right-ness as God sees it. Pursuing righteousness is about putting God and God-stuff first.
Faith: seek faith, but this is not speaking about faith in general. The faith that is spoken of here is about a faith in God. Seek to live by faith in God each day, each moment: trusting him, doing it his way – even when you don’t like it.
They interviewed a woman out shopping in Nairobi last week. They asked her if she was scared after the Westgate attack. ‘No’, she said, ‘I am not scared. My life is in the hands of God. If I die I am with God’.
Love: pursue love – not to be loved (although that is important), but to love. To love like Jesus. To love your enemy in such a way that they become your friend.
Endurance: pursue stickability. Work at it. It doesn’t just happen.
Gentleness: it is a great quality. You can be immensely powerful and yet still be gentle. Gentleness has nothing to prove, it is content, it recognises how precious and how fragile the other is. Gentleness is great big hands holding a tiny baby.

It is very different from the other option that we are given here.

The way of the world is to pursue money and the things of this world.

Money offers us so much. It says get me, and I will make you happy, respected, satisfied, powerful and secure. I will give you what you want, when you want it.

There are three problems

1. Money does not give what it claims

Money cannot guarantee enjoyment, satisfaction, security or contentment. The more we have, the more we want. It can bring great unhappiness. Paul writes that the love of money can bring many griefs (v10).

I quoted Freddie Mercury at the Alpha course last week:
“You can have everything in the world and still be the loneliest man. And that is the most bitter type of loneliness. Success has brought me world idolisation and millions of pounds. But it's prevented me from having the one thing we all need: A loving, ongoing relationship.

2. Pursuing money makes us do things that are not good.

V9: ‘people who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap’

The pursuit of money makes us do dreadful things to other people. We treat them like mosquitoes treat rats. They are there to have their blood sucked dry.

I went to buy a carpet. I was told the price of the carpet and the cost of fitting. I said, Yes we would buy it. But when I went to pay, the price began to go up. They asked me for extras: the glue spray, delivery costs etc. So I got in a strop, said no thank you, and went to one of their competitors instead. I complained about them to him. He said, lots of people say that. They are being ripped off, or at least they are made to feel that they are being ripped off.
It is not nice to feel as if you are being ripped off – and yet I wonder whether we are guilty of doing the same thing

The love of money makes us work far more hours than we need doing jobs that we despise; it makes us borrow more than we can afford to repay; it makes us dream irresponsible dreams. It makes us lie – whether to the tax officer, our employers, the customers. It makes us reckless: we gamble and steal. It makes us arrogant (we look down on those who have less) or inadequate (because we are not as financially successful as our brother or sister).

Of course money says: ‘If you get me, you will be able to give’.
Yes, we will be able to give, but we probably won’t give.
If you do not choose to give when you have a little, you will not choose to give if you gain great wealth.
Parents, can I urge you to instill into your children the habit of tithing now. You give them £1 – get them to put aside 10p of that for giving. It is easy to do, especially if you give them regular pocket money. You can stack the odds in their favour. Give them £1.10 per week, and get them to give 10%. It is one of the most liberating life practices that you can teach them.

3. Money will not save us at the end.

One day we will have to let it go.

I have quoted from Edge of Eternity, which is a sort of modern day Pilgrims Progress. The hero, Nick, is on the road to the heavenly city. They pass by a glorious estate. The owner welcomes them in and shows them round. He sits them down for a banquet. And then he asks them what they think. Nick and his fellow pilgrims are in awe. But one of them, the oldest, looks at the owner and says to him, with tears in his eyes, ‘It is lovely. But it will be so hard for you when you have to let it all go.’

I make a suggestion.
If you’ve got it now, start getting rid of it now – especially if you don’t really need it.
Don’t upgrade, downgrade.
Don’t look to get more, look to have less.
Give. Give ridiculously. Give generously.

Paul says to Timothy, ‘Command them (those who have more) to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up reassure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.’ (v18f)

So what is the alternative to the love of, the pursuit of money?

‘Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.’

It is hard. Money seems very real and solid (although in reality it is just figures on some bank ledger). You can do solid stuff with it.
Godliness – becoming like Jesus Christ – seems so vague.
And everything around us tells us to pursue stuff.

It is a struggle, a battle. That is why Paul says to Timothy, ‘Fight the good fight of the faith’ (v12).

And he gives three reasons

1.  Because this is about eternal life (v12); it is about the life that is really life (v19).

I’ve been reading the writings of the men and women who are called the desert fathers and mothers. I’m not talking about Rommel, but about people who lived 1500 years earlier. They left civil society and went to form communities of faith in the desert for the sake of Christ.

We talk a lot about balance. They were gloriously unbalanced. They were loopy. They renounced everything. If it moved, they renounced it. If it stood still, they renounced it. They gave up: the company of other people, speaking, wealth, comfort, political power, status, sex, food.

We might question that, but we cannot question the reason why they did it. They did it for him, for a vision of righteousness and godliness, and for heaven.

Why should you choose to pursue godliness?

Why would anyone choose to be poor, to suffer, to be ridiculed and rejected rather than be rich, powerful, applauded and respected?

Might eternal life be a factor?

Paul writes of the first Christians: If Christ was not raised from the dead, then we are to be pitied more than all people.
Why? Because we have chosen to give up so much for nothing?
We pursue godliness for the sake of eternal life

2. Because you have said that you will do it – and your word is worth something.

Paul says to Timothy: ‘Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses’ (v12).

He is probably talking about what Timothy professed in his baptism.

And when you were baptised – and if you are a Christian, if you call Jesus Lord, then you must be baptised – whether as a child or an adult. It is what the bible commands. And if you haven’t been baptised, then please do speak to Matthew or myself. But when you were baptised, or – if you were baptised as a child – when you were confirmed or reaffirmed your baptism vows – you made a statement, in front of witnesses, that you would:

Reject the devil and all rebellion against God
Renounce the deceit and corruption of evil
Repent of your sins

You said you would turn to Christ and submit to him.

And the whole congregation said to you: ‘Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your days’.

Why should you pursue godliness?
Because you have said you will do it.

3.  Because God is with us

Paul says to Timothy: ‘I give you this charge [to pursue godliness] in the sight of God and of Jesus Christ. (v13)

We live in the sight of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus was standing in front of the Roman governor, Pilate, he was asked, ‘Are you the king of the Jews’. He could have said No, and escaped with his life. Instead he said Yes and sentenced himself to death.

It is worth pursuing godliness because of Jesus. He was faithful and obedient in the face of great suffering.

I meet a friend who is training for the ministry. He will make a great minister. He knows that God has called him. But he doesn’t want to do it. He said to me that he was praying that God would change his mind. He asked me, ‘Do you think that is OK?’

I think it is. Jesus prayed that God would change his mind. He prayed, just before he was crucified, that God would take the cross away and that he would not have to suffer the agony of crucifixion. But Jesus also prayed, ‘But in the end I will do not what I want, but what you want’.

We live in the sight of the one who was perfectly obedient.
But Jesus is not some google eye-in-the-sky looking down at us and jotting our every thought so that it can be used in evidence against us.

Instead it is a bit like going for a driving lesson with a parent. They are there because they love us and trust us, to a degree. And they want us to learn to drive. You’re doing the driving. And they may intervene at certain moments, even when you don’t want them to. But you also know that you can turn to them and say, ‘help!’. Why? Because they’ve been there.

Jesus has been there. And as we grow in godliness, he is here with us, by our side, even in us. We can cry out to him for mercy. And one day, Paul reminds us, Jesus will return and we will see him (v14).

And we live in the sight of God.

This is the God who
  • gives life to everything (v13)
  • provides us with everything for our enjoyment (v17)
  • is in control of time (v15)
And this God is beyond all imagination. He cannot be seen by human eye. He blazes with a light that makes our sun look like a night light. He is bigger than death, and ruler of all things.

Why should I pursue godliness, righteousness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness?

Because of eternal life
Because you have said that you will

Because God is with you. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

A vision of the glory of God

Ezekiel is granted a vision of the glory of God. Not surprisingly, it changes the direction of the rest of his life and it shapes his message. The constant theme throughout this book is the glory of God.

I’ve been living with this passage for the past few weeks. I used the passage for the Battle of Britain service, and I’ve been getting more and more out of it as I’ve read and reread it.

Ezekiel's vision progresses through various phases:

1. He sees the amazing creation of God
Ancient myths speak of throne bearers who are bull men.

But these 4 living creatures are very different: they have not just a bull face, but 4 faces: those of a human, lion, ox and eagle. They have the feet of cattle, wings of bird, human hands

These are the cherubim spoken of in ch 10, the embodiment of the whole of the living creation worshiping and speaking for God. We speak of little children being like Cherubs. We could not be further from the image of the Cherubim that the bible gives us. 

They have a unity: their wings are touching, and they move in formation. There is simplicity in their movement: they move together in one direction (v9). There is a glory in their being: as they move their sound is like that of rushing waters, of the tumult of a great army.

They don’t hold up the throne: they move (dance) beneath the throne.

They are living creatures, but they are also an embodiment of the higher created order in its rightful place.

2. He sees the 'chariot' of God
God appears by Kebar river, away from Jerusalem and temple.

God had said that he would put his name in the temple in Jerusalem. He said that if people prayed toward the temple, God would hear and answer their prayers. 
It is part of the human condition to try and control God, to try and tape him down, to turn Him into a tame God. So people began to restrict God to the temple. They said that because God said His name would dwell in the temple, God was limited to the temple. 
So when the people were taken away from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon, they thought that they had left God behind - a bit like a child might leave a beloved teddy bear behind. 

But God here is saying, you can’t restrict me. You can't leave me behind. I am free to be wherever I choose to be.

And so we have these wheels within wheels. There are four of them, and they appear to be the celestial chariot. They have
a. total manoeuvrability: they can go anywhere
b. rims are full of eyes: God can see. Later we discover that God is able to see the abominations that are going on in the deepest, most secret rooms of the temple back in Jerusalem
c. the spirit of God in them (v20). There is no distinction between the spirit, the spirit that is in the creatures and the spirit that is in the wheels.

3. He sees the naked power of God
There is the power of the windstorm coming out of the north: an immense cloud, flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.
There is power in the 4 living creatures (the strongest of the cattle, birds and beasts), and the fire and lightning that surround them.

But now, above the creatures and the wheels there is what looks like a vast vault, and high over the vault is what looks like a throne – of lapis lazuli (sapphire in ESV)

For a people who are defeated, in exile, far from home, crushed; for a people whose God is mocked and ridiculed – it was a vital vision. Whatever it looks like, God has not lost his power. He is on the throne. Not any throne, but this throne. He is still in control. He is the ultimate absolute ruler. 

4. He sees the utter awesomeness of God
We are specifically told about the immense cloud (v4), the awesome size of the wheels (v18) [think London Eye size], the awesome vault [think standing by the Shard and looking up], sparkling like crystal (v22) [think of a vast sea of ice]

And there is the beauty and light. The colours are: burnished bronze (legs of creatures), burning coals of fire – from which lightning flashed out (the appearance of the living creatures), the wheels sparkle like topaz [ESV: Gleaming like beryl] (v16); the vault ‘sparkles like crystal’; the throne of lapis lazuli [ESV sapphire] (v26). All these colours come together in the appearance of what looked like a rainbow (v28)

Ezekiel is only too aware that his language is inadequate. How do we speak of the One who is beyond all imagination? He keeps on saying how what he saw was ‘like’ something else. And as he moves up from the creatures, the wheels, to the vault, the throne and God himself, so his language becomes more and more tentative.

It all leads to the vision of the One on what looked like a throne (vv25ff): whose figure was like that of a human being. From his waist up He looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down He looked like fire. He was surrounded by brilliant light, and the radiance around Him was like the appearance of a rainbow on a cloudy day.  

It is an amazing image. 

I was trying to evoke that sense of awesome wonder in younger children. The best illustration I could think of (and it is not very good) is that of visiting one of the great cathedrals and looking up in the tower; or of being outside in the middle of an amazing thunderstorm, or of riding on one of the great roller coasters. They’ve been drawn up to the first summit, and they are on top of the world. They can see all over the theme park. And then they see the drop. And their response: to scream: in total fear and utter excitement.

Ezekiel does not scream, but he does fall flat on his face

We must never forget that the God whom we worship is utterly awesome. As Mark Dever said, familiarity with God is not a measure of our intimacy with Him. Yes, we can approach the One on the throne with confidence, but we need to remember that it is this God on this throne who we approach. As we begin to glimpse our awesome God, so we realise what an astonishing work Jesus has done in enabling us to come into the presence of this God

It is all about the revelation of God
The Almighty God reveals himself to Ezekiel.

He comes to Ezekiel when he is in exile on the Kebar river. It was the last place anybody would have expected God to turn up. The heavens open (the same language is used of Jesus at his baptism when the dove comes and the voice from heaven speaks, of Stephen when he sees God as he is about to be stoned, and of John when he receives his revelation). And God comes to Ezekiel in the storm. He shows himself to Ezekiel, and then he speaks to Ezekiel.

And I note that it is as the living creatures stop moving and lower their wings, God speaks (v25). 
And it is as Ezekiel falls to the ground in awe, God speaks (v28).

And that I guess that is what this is all about. It is about the Almighty, utterly free, who sees all things, the all powerful, awesome God, who is beyond all language or imagination choosing to reveal himself.
And God shows this vision to Ezekiel in order that Ezekiel might know WHO is about to speak to him.He prepares Ezekiel for the message that he will speak.

It is similar to the appearance of the transfigured Lord Jesus who appeared to his disciples in glory. Peter, James and John saw him as he really was: this almighty God who in the past revealed himself to Ezekiel, now revealed himself to some of the apostles as the eternal Son of God. And like Ezekiel, when Peter, James and John see Him, they  fall down and hide their faces. And the voice from heaven says: This is my beloved son. LISTEN TO HIM.

We need to remember WHO it is who speaks to us: who speaks to us through the bible, the prophets and apostles, through the Church, and through the trials of life.

It is OK to speak of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as our friend. Jesus says, 'I call you friends'.
But we must not forget that when we pick up the bible, we need to realise that this is the Word of God. 
We must not forget that when we come to receive communion, we are inviting the spirit of this God to come deep within our lives.
And when we come to worship, we need to come with the same attitude as the Cherubim,. They stop their movement, lower their wings (it is a bit as if they lower their defences) and are stilled, in order that they might hear the Word of God.

One day, we are promised, we will see Him face to face. I suspect that on that day we will fall flat on our face. But until that day comes our confidence is that this God chooses to make Himself known, and chooses to speak to us.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

on being a father

A talk to a men's breakfast

There is the story of a man who gave a talk on being a father. He titled his talk, 10 rules for being a father. Then he had a child. He changed the title of his talk to, 5 Guidelines for being a father. He had a second child. The title changed to, 2 hints for being a father. He had a third child and gave up speaking.

1. I am a father and I work from the basis that I've got, and am getting, a great deal wrong. I'm also aware that most of you have far more experience than me of this – whether as biological fathers or as fathers in the church. My children are still only teenagers. You've been there, done that and got the T shirt.

2. The subject can be painful: some were never able to be fathers; others have lost a child. It is hard to go there. 
It can also make us feel guilty or inadequate. 
David Murrow writes, “Almost every religious book for men is focused on a single target: making better husbands and fathers. Men’s ministry meetings pound the same drum. Be a better husband and father. Keep your promises. If your wife isn't happy, you’re to blame.” And so he says, “No wonder men skulk away like dogs that have been kicked one time too many.” (Why men hate going to church)

3. We enter the minefield of what it means to be a father or even a man. For instance, the advertisers would say that the real man is the foster drinking, BBQ loving Aussie: the bloke with the 6 pack, who hunts crocodiles before breakfast and has the emotional sensitivity of a 2 year old. 
But even in the past 60 years, expectations have changed dramatically. Our grandfathers would very rarely show emotion and would certainly never have done any housework. And the problem is that we tend to assume that what is normal for us should be normal for others.

One of the immense reassurances for me is that 
Most of the biological fathers in the bible were complete disasters! 

Abraham – because he had trouble with his two women – ended up being a disastrous dad to Ishmael. And then he was going to offer Isaac, his other son, as a sacrifice.
Isaac, his son, created a completely unnecessary family feud by favouring Esau
Jacob created a family feud by favouring Joseph.  
Jephthah sacrificed his daughter
Eli had no control over his sons
Absolom led a revolt against his father David
Rehoboam rejected the method of government of his father Solomon. 

When we get to the book of Kings in the bible, it is not the faith of the father which has more significance on the faith of the child, but rather the choice of the woman who is going to be the child’s mother. The formula goes: ‘So and so reigned for 20 years. His mother’s name was ... And he did good or he did evil in the sight of the LORD’.  In other words, it appears to be the faith of the mother that has more immediate impact on the child. We see echoed in Timothy whose sincere faith ‘dwelt first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice’. (1 Timothy 1:5). 

One pastor I know said that he and his wife used to pray that his sons would marry women who were more mature in the faith than they were – and that God, in his mercy, answered that prayer.

And in the NT, although Jesus teaches that we should honour our fathers and mothers, biological fathers are invisible. 

Joseph is invisible, even before he dies (When Jesus was in the temple, Mary rebukes him and says: ‘Your father and I were searching for you’. Jesus replies to her, 'Did you not realise that I would be in my father's house') 
Zebedee – James and John.

Jesus tells us that our relationship with him is far more important than our relationship with our human father. 
There is the man who wanted to bury his father – and Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:59). Following him may even pit us against our father (Mark 10:29).
He even warns us against calling any man ‘father’ (although that is in a specific context: Matthew 23:9)

And as for those who looked to their physical father or grandfathers for their identity (the Jews said they were children of Abraham or David; the Samaritans looked to their father Jacob), Jesus challenges them: your identity comes from a completely different place: your Father in heaven. Think of John 1:12, ‘To those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, born not of flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but born of God’.

We live in a culture which underplays the role of the father, and we do need to stress the role and importance of the father. But we should not go to the opposite extreme of making an idol of the father. God seems to work very well in the lives of children whose fathers were absent or completely messed it up.

So what does the bible teach about the role of the father: not just the father in the family, but the person who is a father in the Church?

Focus on six words: 

1. Initiative.
Fathers are called to take the initiative.

There are several reasons for that:
1. It is how it is in the Trinity. The Father is the source of the Son and the Spirit.
2. In the Genesis story (however you understand it) man is the origin of woman. He is the source of woman. The word the Greeks used is 'kefale', which is also translated as head. The man is the head, the source, of woman. That is what that passage about hats in 1 Corinthians 11 is about.
3. In the story man loses his rib, and God makes woman out of the rib. She’s got something that is ours. If we are going to be physically complete we need women. I like that: how does God get over the man-fear of losing control or independence? By taking something from us and putting it in the woman and saying  - If you want it, go and get it! Man has to take the initiative.
‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united with his wife and they shall become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). He takes the initiative.

People do look to their fathers as their source and their head.
For millennia people have defined themselves by their fathers. Even in Judaism, which is a matriarchal society, people still look to their fathers Abraham or David as the source of their identity.

And as fathers – whether in the home or the church – we are made to take the initiative. Not just in having babies, but in growing them and maturing them so that they become full men and women in God. Not just in coming to church, but in taking initiative for what goes on at church. 

And alongside initiative there is responsibility. We do have a responsibility for our family and our church. There is no excuse.  My first responsibility under God is for my wife and children. I can’t leave all the domestic arrangements up to my wife. I too have to take the initiative in putting aside time for holidays, in saying to the boys, ‘let’s play squash’, or ‘shall we go to football’, in talking with them about sex (my marks for that are 1/100). We can't leave it all up to their mothers.

 2. Authority
As Fathers we need to be prepared to exercise authority in our homes, even if it becomes a shared authority.

I am going to be politically incorrect.
Men, fathers, will generally be perceived to be the authority figure. I'm not saying that is how it should be. I'm saying that is how it is and will be. 

We are told that because of the fall, God says to the woman, ‘Your desire shall be for your husband and he will rule over you’.  

It will happen, because in our fallen society, whatever structures are put in place, whatever language we use, men will - as a rule - be perceived to be the authority figure. It is something that is built into the now faulty DNA of our creation. 

It is not right. It is not the final destiny for creation. We should, in Christ, be working against it. But because of the fall, because of human sinfulness, it will happen. 

And so as fathers, the authority bit does fall to us – because children will look to the figure that they think is boss. And authority requires that we exercise judgement and discipline.
I really struggle here. For whatever reason (good or bad) – most professional educated parents of my generation will run a mile rather than discipline our children. Discipline is costly, not just for the children but for us. We hate conflict. We want our children to like us all the time. We don’t want to be parents to our children – we want to be their friends.

The challenge of the bible is that if I really love my children then I need to exercise discipline - and it may mean that they will not like me. If there is no judgement and no discipline, then they take the law into their own hands. When we were on holiday, one of the boys (A) said something to one of the others (B). So B asked me to tell off A. I wanted a quiet life, and thought that if I left it, it would die. It didn't.  Because I didn't do anything, B kicked A. And A responded with a nuclear strike on B.

Hebrews 12:7, ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate children at all’.

BUT and this is a big but, the passage continues: ‘Our fathers disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness’.

My discipline is usually because I want a quiet life, or I do not want to be shamed or embarrassed by my children. Or I lose it because they have managed to press my red button (basically that is if they annoy their mother, because then I get it in the neck!). It is  self-centred discipline. It is not consistent. And the challenge is to use the authority that we have not to make our children obey us, but to grow our children to become mature and holy, sons or daughters of God who are of equal value to us. 

In other words, we use our authority in order that they might have authority.

3. Instruction
As fathers we instruct our children

Proverbs 1:8-9; 4:1-4: ‘Hear my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching’

The purpose of our instruction is not to get the children to obey you. I think that some see themselves as sergeant majors whose job is to break the new recruits. 
There is a line in a carol that as a child I refused to sing, but I now sing very loudly: ‘Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he’.

In all seriousness, it is hard to think of a more anti-Christian line!
Will our children be good because we tell them they must be? 
Will they be good if we punish them if they are not? 
Maybe they will conform on the outside, but what is going on in the inside? 
What do we believe about the power of sin, its grip on us and the need for forgiveness and grace?

The instruction of the father and mother in Proverbs is to exhort their child to seek wisdom. It is to warn them of the dangers and consequences of seeking folly.

If we simply tell our children to be good, they will succeed or fail. If they succeed, they will learn that by being ‘moral’ or ‘good’ they will gain approval and get on in the world (which leads to the self-righteous morality of society).  
If they fail, if they can’t play that game, if they are told they are not good little children (or not as ‘good’ as their sister or brother), then they will become discouraged, look to other people for approval, and they will do things that are not good in order to get credit from those people. 

It is classic younger – older son stuff.
And whatever we say about grace, they will identify Christianity with morality. 

I don’t want my children to be good on the outside. 
I want them to realise that they can’t be good. 
I want them to know that when they mess up profoundly they are still deeply beloved, they can be forgiven and that with God there is astonishing grace. 

For instance, as Christians, we would want our children to know that sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend before marriage is sinful because it takes sex out of the context of committed love. It is not right and has consequences that they do not really understand. And I hope it won’t happen. But we don’t want our children to conform simply because we say so (anyway that carries so little weight). We want them to do what is right because that is what they believe and think and know is right. 

Or if they do choose a lifestyle that is opposed to the gospel, then we still want them to know that we are there, and even more so, that Jesus Christ will always be there, and they can turn to him.

4. Examples
Key word in bible:
Jesus as example to us (John 13:15)
Paul as an example to Philippian Christians (Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:9)
Thessalonian Christians to Macedonian believers (1 Thess 1:17)
Timothy an example to his flock (1 Tim 4:12)

As fathers we are examples to our children – especially when they are younger. That terrifies me. 

Mark Twain said that as an adult he realized he was a boy pretending to be a father. And then he looked at his father, and realized that all along his dad was a boy who was pretending to be a father. I've had the Mark Twain moment.

And fortunately we do not need to be the perfect model of love or fatherhood to be an example to our children. Because we can’t be. We won’t begin to love our children as we should.

The greatest example we can be is to be an example of faith, of trusting in Jesus Christ. 

Think of Abraham: he is commended not as an exemplar biological father, but as a model of a man of faith.

We are to be examples of people who seek to put God first (and who fail), who want to show sacrificial love (but fail), who live for his kingdom (but fail), who try not to judge others (but fail), who seek to show kindness and compassion and mercy (but fail), who try to treat women with deep respect and not just simply as objects who will satisfy our desire - or as inconveniences (but fail) 

We are to be examples of people who, in spite of all our failure, know that we are beloved of God, who are open to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness and grace.

And as our children grow older (maybe much older), perhaps we need to learn to be honest with them – about our struggles and weaknesses, and about the mercy of Jesus.

One of the greatest examples to us is when our own fathers admit to us their own pain at their failures. It is what enables relationships to be rebuilt. And that is the sort of father example that I would like to be with my children. Honest about my failures, and honest about the Saviour who loves me and who can and will change me. 

5. Encourage
As fathers we need to encourage our children

In 1 Thessalonians 2:11, Paul writes how he was ‘like a father’ to the Thessalonian church. He says we ‘exhorted, encouraged and charged you’.

We need the exhortation – because by nature we are lazy; we need the charging – because if I am charged to do something, then it means that the other person believes in Me. We also need the encouragement.

As children we need to know that we are beloved, acceptable, OK. And we need to hear that from whichever figure we believe has authority. And that means that as small children – maybe as big children - we need to hear our fathers say that. Film producers know that – it is one of the big themes that keeps on coming back: the child who is desperate to prove themselves to their father.

Jesus didn't need to do that. Before he began his ministry, as he is baptised, the heavens open and a voice is heard: ‘This is my beloved son. With him I am well pleased’.

We need encouragement: when we do something badly, or fail, we need to be encouraged that the world has not ended and we can try again. When we do something well, we need praise. Different cultures do this in different ways. Some gush; some are very restrained. I suspect most teenagers would not want us to gush, but even they - when they have done something well - would want to know that we have noticed and that we are impressed! 

I found it very moving when Prince Charles, speaking after the funeral of Princess Diana, spoke of his sons and publicly said, ‘I was so proud of them’.

6. Support
As fathers we need to support our children

We support them by loving our wives.
Someone said, the greatest thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.
Of course fathers can continue to support their children if that relationship breaks down. But those of you who have been there, know that it is much harder.

We support them by providing financially for them.
Jesus knows that parents are evil, but they still delight to give good gifts to their children (Luke 11)
In 2 Cor 12:14ff Paul writes, ‘For children are not bound to save up for their parents, but parents for their children’. And then Paul goes on as if the Corinthian Christians were his children: ‘I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls’.

But we are expected in the bible to support our children: Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:8, (writing mainly of care of the elderly and widows, but it could be applied to children): ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’.

Again it is a general principal. How fathers and mothers between them provide financially for their children is dependent on cultural principals. Nowhere does the bible say that it has to be the father who is the breadwinner. In fact in Proverbs 31:10ff it is the mother who seems to financially provide for the family, while the father sits and pontificates at the city gate! 

We support our children by bringing them to Jesus
So many fathers leave this to the mothers. She is the one who takes the initiative and encourages them to go to Christian camp, or to youth group, or gives them the books to read. She prays for them more than we do.

But I note that in Mark 9:24 it is the father who brings his demon possessed son to Jesus.
It is Jairus comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter (Mark 5:22)
It is the centurion who comes on behalf of his servant (Matthew 8:5)

We may mess up badly as fathers. Our children may not be speaking to us. But it is not hopeless. We can still support our children. We can pray for them. 

It is our prayers for our children that really show what we most value. 

Perhaps we pray the self-centred prayers:
God, don’t let them embarrass or shame me.
God, make them like me.
God, make them support me when I am old.

Or perhaps we pray the world-centred prayers:
God, make them rich; make them powerful
God, give them a good family
God, make them happy and fulfilled

Perhaps it is OK to pray both those sets of prayers, provided we pray a bigger prayer for them:
Father God, let them know you, love you and give glory to you. Let them know your forgiveness and grace. Let them grow to become mature adults in Christ. Let them grow in love, joy and peace. And however long or short their life is on this earth, let them know the life that lasts for eternity.  

How would you want God to bless your children? Your grand children? For what do you pray?

I finish with the story of the prodigal son
It is a story of a Father’s love for his child.
The Father loved the younger son sufficiently to allow him to go (He knows the pain of letting go)
The Father longed for him to come back
When he comes back, the Father treats him not as a servant, not even as a son, but as an equal. (He had always tried to treat the older brother as an equal. He says to him, 'You are always with me and all that I have is yours', but the older son has never been able to receive that grace). So now that his son has returned, as an equal, he parties. 
It is the picture of heaven when we pray that we shall, in Christ, meet again our children: not as our children, but as glorious men and women who, together with us, are children of God.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

When a vision is needed: A talk for Battle of Britain Sunday 2013

Ezekiel 1

The Jewish rabbis taught that you must not preach on Ezekiel until you have preached for 20 years or more. I sadly qualify for that. 

It is a weird vision. 
We want to ask what Ezekiel was on. 
There is a famous book which said that this describes an encounter with ETs. 

But we don't need to go there. 
After all Da Vinci drew a helicopter and Jules Vernes described the submarine. 
Perhaps some genius somewhere is working on these wheels within wheels.

Ezekiel has a vision of 4 pairs of wheels in wheels. The wheels at first seem to be inanimate - glorified flying chariots which can move in any direction. But then we learn that their rims are surrounded with eyes, and that they have the spirit of the living creatures in them. 

It is a vision of the all seeing, utterly free and unrestricted living Spirit of God. And beside them are the 4 creatures with 4 faces who are the drivers of the wheels, but also one with the wheels. Later we are told they are Cherubim, divine worshippers and messengers. They too have complete freedom.

And above the wheels and cherubim there is an awesome crystal vault. And above the vault, a deep-blue throne. And seated on the throne is God. Not the white haired granddad of popular imagination, but One whose figure was like that of a man, but One of fire, surrounded by brilliant light and colour. 

It is a powerful vision. 
It had a significant impact on Ezekiel and transformed the rest of his life.
And it had an equally significant impact on his listeners. 
They were exiles in a foreign land, far from their home and the centre of their faith. They thought that God had abandoned them. They were defeated captives. They had no hope. They were as good as dead. 

But Ezekiel's vision gives them hope. 
God is awesome and beyond understanding
God is not tied to one place - He has complete freedom.
God sees. He has not abandoned his people.  
And – and this is of supreme significance - God speaks. He speaks both to and through Ezekiel. 

Ezekiel's vision meant that a defeated, crushed people were given hope. 

I've been reading 'The Most Dangerous Enemy' by Stephen Bungay, about the Battle of Britain. He writes of the vision of Churchill

Bungay argues that the Battle of Britain did not need to be fought. There was a viable alternative following the defeat of France: peace with Germany. That was the policy favoured by Halifax, the foreign office and the establishment. It was the sensible policy. It would have probably meant that the empire could be kept intact, and it seemed to put Britain's own peace, prosperity and safety first. 

But Churchill was gripped by a vision that Nazism was a monstrous evil which had to be confronted and - and this is even more important – he was gripped by a vision that in the end, right will win, even if it meant in the process, the sacrifice of this nation. 

In a very significant speech Churchill says, 'We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight on the hills; we shall never surrender' 

That is the part of the speech which we often recall. But he continues, and this part is of far more significance:

'and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until in God's good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.'

Yes, it was a political speech with one eye on our allies across the Atlantic. But Churchill was presenting a vision that even if this nation perished in the process, right would still ultimately win. It was that vision with which we went into the Battle of Britain and which brought us out on the other side.

As Christians we are people who are gripped by a vision: the vision shared by Ezekiel and of the book of Revelation. 

A vision of God who is beyond imagination: all present, all seeing, all holy and all powerful. 

But this God speaks, and he has made himself known to us – not in the wheels inside wheels and fire of Ezekiel – but in the man Jesus Christ, who lived 2000 years ago. He was the eternal Son of God, the presence of God, come to live among us - not in his transcendent radiant glory - but as one of us. He said that whoever saw him saw the eternal Father God; whoever listened to him listened to God; whoever received him (as their Lord and as their friend), received God. At the age of 33 he was crucified. But 3 days later he rose from the dead, and we believe that he is alive and reigning now. 

And though the battle is hard, and it does demand tremendous sacrifice: the relinquishing of the dream of absolute freedom as we place ourselves under the authority of our commanding office
And though the temptation to live for the things and experiences and glory of this world is overwhelming
And though it seems that God is redundant, mocked, his name used as a swear word, his churches are empty, his followers are - in many places - savagely persecuted, and the forces of aggressive secularism are overwhelming
And though it seems we are led thro' the valley of the shadow of death, on a road that leads to public crucifixion

YET the victory will in the end not be ours, but His.

His judgement will come (whatever happens in Syria, Assad will stand before him), his justice will triumph, his kingdom of right-ness and peace and fulfilment and joy and music and laughter and love will rise up over the shifting shadows of tyranny and imperialism. 

Today we give thanks to God for the victory given us in the Battle of Britain

It was not, as we sometimes want to believe, a miraculous victory, the triumph of plucky David over giant Goliath. It was planned. It was a battle Churchill wanted. If anyone could be accused of elitist amateurism it was the Luftwaffe. But at the same time victory was not inevitable. 

So we give thanks for and honour those who made it possible: 'the few'.  But the few were not just the men in the air. They include Dowding, the genius tactition. He ensured that fighter command had the focus, the flexibility and the information that it needed to defend these shores. They include the men of bomber command (whose role in the Battle of Britain is often forgotten) whose sorties across the channel to bomb the invasion fleet made a land invasion impossible; those who had the vision to design, commission and build the aircraft (they were apparently named after young ladies: Vicker's chairman had a daughter called Ann who he called 'a little spitfire' - and they gave that name to the plane); those who manned the radar stations, ops rooms and reconnaissance posts; those who maintained the planes so that they could continue to fly. And, of course, the men of fighter command and our allies, who flew them. 

But particularly we give thanks for the vision of Churchill: who saw the monstrosity of a regime which deified darwinianism and taught that because the strong will live and the weak will die, then the strong should live and the weak should die - and then presumed to declare who were 'the weak' of society: the mentally ill, gypsies, homosexuals, slavs and Jews. And he saw that such an evil had to be confronted even if it meant the supreme sacrifice not just for individuals but for this our nation. 

It was a massive gamble. The stakes could not have been higher. But he believed, at least publicly (who knows the hell he went through when the 'black dog' came?) that in the end, whatever it involved, RIGHT would win. 

And Ezekiel, 2500 years earlier, speaking to a crushed defeated people, had such a vision – but not of a physical historical reality (because in human history what is RIGHT does not always win). He had a vision of ultimate eternal reality. 

You can dismiss him, mock him, treat him as irrelevant. You can even crucify him. But Ezekiel’s vision says that in the end God and God-stuff will win.

Pray that God will give you that vision of eternal reality. Pray that he will open your eyes. Only he can do it. Pray that he will help you see that other reality which is beyond our imagination: which is deeper and bigger and infinitely more powerful. 

And if you cannot see it – and only the few will see it this side of death - then may I suggest two things
1. Listen to Ezekiel who did see it. His vision is first of all not some code which needs to be interpreted - it is to be imagined and marvelled at. 
2. And come to Jesus Christ. He is that eternal fire who came to live among us. He lived. He died and he rose from the dead. And because he is alive we can put our trust in him, receive him, follow him, hold on to him – until that day when we do see it for yourself.

Without the vision of Churchill, and the Battle of Britain, we would – maybe even still now – be living a shadow existence beside a Nazi dominated Europe. 

And without the vision of Ezekiel we are destined to live in shadowlands. 
We may go up there but we will never really fly. 

It is the vision of eternal ultimate reality which opens us up to worship, transforms our lives and begins to release us to sacrifice ourselves in love – because we know that ultimately He who is right and pure and true will win.

To the God who is there and who is real, who is beyond our imagination and understanding, but who also became one of us, who is seated on the throne and has all power, who has absolute freedom, who sees all things in all places, who burns like fire and is surrounded by brilliant light, who is worshipped by angels - to Him be glory forever.