Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Heaven comes near

Heaven is brought near to us at different times. One frequent occasion is during a sermon when the preacher is enabled by God so to describe a spiritual topic that his presence is almost felt in a physical manner. Another occasion is the Lord’s Supper when the presence of Jesus becomes so real that we can sense that he is with us at the Lord’s Table. We would hope that the first type of occasion occurs frequently as we gather under his written Word and focus on what it says. And since he has promised to be with us at the second type, it is a reason for us to have it more frequently.

There is a third occasion when heaven draws near and that is when one of his people is taken there by Jesus at the end of their life. Heaven then comes close and says to us that Jesus has taken that believer to the eternal home, costly and lovingly prepared, and in which the people of God will dwell together forever. This year, as we come to its final month, is a time for us to reflect on among other things the wonderful fact that the Lord has taken home from our midst several of his people who served him here for many years.

There are other ways in which heaven draws near. But they, and the three we have mentioned, all remind us that each of us needs to ensure that we will get to heaven personally. Sometimes we may buy a bus ticket or a train ticket for ourselves and for someone else. We cannot do that as far as getting to heaven is concerned. Each of us has to get our own ticket. Where will we get one? The answer is that we get it by asking God to forgive us and to bring us to heaven.

One of the good things about getting to heaven is that we will get there punctually. Often when we travel by bus or train we look at a timetable and realise that we are not going to arrive on time. With regard to getting to heaven, we don’t need a written timetable to know when we are going to arrive. The fact of the matter is that each person who gets there arrives at the best moment possible for him or her.

A third aspect of reaching heaven is that we will arrive there publicly. On some occasions, when I have been on a train or bus, there has been hardly anyone travelling with me and the station has been empty when we arrive. That will not be the experience of heaven, either in travelling to it or arriving there. We travel there with others and when we get to the door of heaven we will discover that a large crowd is waiting to welcome us. Among the crowd and leading it as it praises God will be the Lord Jesus. And we will discover that heaven has drawn near forever.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Genealogies of Jesus

Some people are interested in family trees as a hobby. Others wish to research them in case they are related to a famous person, and then discover that they are also connected to an infamous person, or perhaps to more than one. Jesus, as we can see from the accounts of his birth in Matthew and Luke, had two genealogies. I have always been puzzled as to how commentators can assert with confidence which of the genealogies is that of Mary and which is that of Joseph. It looks to me to be a lot safer just to say ‘Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ and ‘Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’.

At this time of year it is common to think about the passages in the Gospels that are connected to the birth of Jesus. Although I have been on earth a long time I have not heard anyone preach a Christmas sermon from the genealogies. Of course, you may have heard one or more, maybe even preached one or two. So if I were going to preach one, what would I say?

To begin with, I would choose one of the genealogies because any attempt I would make at explaining the differences between the two would only be speculation on my part, no matter what important names I could link with the comments I would make. I also suspect that to do so would be somewhat distracting for the congregation and lead them away from feeding their souls on certainties. Better, I would say, to have two different sermons, one on each genealogy, if that were needed.

If I were to preach on them, I would opt for Matthew’s first, probably because it begins and finishes with a reference to Jesus. It would also, I think, take less preparation time because there are fewer individuals in his genealogy to think about. And I would have to think about them if I was going to preach about the genealogy that mentions them.

Of course, some of the things that I would say about one of the genealogies could also be said about the other. As a general point, both genealogies remind us of God’s control of history. As the generations passed, each with their own changes and developments, he remained in charge, working everything according to what he had already planned would happen when Jesus was born.

Both genealogies also remind us of God’s awareness of people. As I run my mind over each individual in the lists I realise that I know very little about most of them. In contrast, God knows everything about all of them. He knows what each of them felt when their descendants were born or what they felt when their predecessors died. There were times of happiness and times of sadness, times of anticipation and times of disappointment, and God knows them all.

I am not aware of any other genealogies in the New Testament, which is a rather striking difference from the Old Testament, because the latter has several of them. The ones in the Old Testament usually became longer the further time moved on. I wonder did anyone ever ponder if the time would come when they would cease to grow in length. But in the New Testament, they do come to an end, and the reason they come to an end is because Jesus was born. Is it too much to say that an important message of the genealogies in the Old Testament is that they say, ‘He has not come yet, but one day he will’?

Looking at Matthew’s list of names, we can see that he wants to prove that Jesus is the promised descendant of Abraham who would bring blessing to the nations as well as being the promised ruler from David’s line who would reign over God’s kingdom permanently. It is a very ambitious way to begin a book, so I suppose we should ask if Matthew still feels that this will happen as he closes his account. When we turn to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we see that he refers to Jesus claiming to have ongoing universal power (as the descendant of David) and sending out his apostles into the whole world with the gospel (as the descendant of Abraham). What may have seemed to be a small genealogical point at the commencement of his Gospel turns out by its end to be a statement of huge significance. Indeed, for those who know, it is a summary of his book as well as an introduction.

No doubt, someone will ask me why Matthew has divided his list of individuals into three sets of fourteen names each. To be frank, I don’t know. Yet if I were cajoled into making a suggestion, it would be that he was using a form of memory aid whereby it would be easy to remember the names in the list. After all, people back then had to memorise much more details than we need to do today. But I wonder how many of us can say from memory who the great-grandfathers of Jesus were?

Most people know that Matthew’s list refers to four women who had question marks about them (for some reason, those who mention this detail often fail to say that his list also includes forty or so men who had question marks about them). In fact, there is only one person in the list who does not have a question mark against him, and that is Jesus. Yet here we have in this genealogy an example of him being numbered with the transgressors.

I suppose we can ask why Matthew chose to refer to those women. Perhaps he was sensitive to the circumstances of Mary, who probably had a stigma to bear, and he felt it was appropriate to mention that others before her had gone through something similar. No one can be definite about that suggestion, of course. Nevertheless it does raise the issue as to whether or not we would want our family tree muddied by references to undesirable characters from long ago.

Still we have to acknowledge that those women were used by God in the development of his kingdom. Imagine walking past Rahab’s house in Jericho and observing her going about her business. Would we have imagined that she would have a part to play in the coming of the Saviour? Yet God had more in mind than the deliverance of Israel when he directed the two frightened spies to go to her house. He was providing the line from which his Son would be born in two thousand or so years’ time. And we can say something similar about the other women in the list as well.

It is a solemn realisation to note that everyone in the list apart from Jesus was a sinner. No doubt, reflecting on this fact will show us that his genealogy tells us why he had to be born. All his ancestors, including his mother, needed to be saved from their sins, and he was the only one who could do this for them, not by his birth alone, but also including his perfect life and his atoning death.

Yet we have also to face up to the fact that not all of Jesus’ ancestors are with him today in heaven. Some of his forebears were godly individuals, others of them were not. Some of the latter even used their God-given position and talents to try and remove the knowledge of God from the people of Israel – although they were born long before Jesus, they were his enemies. Those individuals died as they had lived – without God. They will yet be judged by their Descendant and while their names were in his genealogical tree they will not be found in his book of life. You and I, while we cannot have the privilege of belonging to his earthly genealogy, can through faith in him belong to the register of the heavenly city.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Diary extract from Lady Glenorchy

May 11, 1768. 
This morning I awoke with a great desire to praise God for his mercies; but my lips were sealed, I could not utter what I felt. At breakfast, I renewed the argument upon faith with ______, and was led away by the impetuosity of my temper to say what I did not at first intend, and some things that savoured too much of Antinomianism. In the course of the argument, I felt much carnal pride and self-applause in my heart, and I did not apply, as I ought to have done, to the Holy Spirit for his assistance. This I take to be the reason why I was left to fall into error. 

After this, I walked out to the place which I have chosen for my morning devotions. My mind was much disturbed in reading the word; I was in great darkness, but it pleased the Lord to enable me to utter my wants to him, and to pray fervently, with many tears, for myself and all my friends. After this, in walking home, I sung part of the 71st psalm, and felt much joy and comfort in the latter part of it, from the 20th verse: 

Thou, Lord, who great adversities 
And sore to me didst show, 
Shall quicken, and bring me again, 
from depths of earth below, &c. &c.  

After dinner, I met with a sore trial of patience, and here (from not looking to Jesus for help) I felt most sadly. I lost temper, and said many bitter things. I recalled to mind all my former grievances, repined at the will of God, and thought my case uncommonly hard. In short, the Lord left me to my own proud heart; and I sinned greatly. This has cost me many tears. Lord, forgive me this offence, and wash it away in thy precious blood.

I this day resolve (with the assistance of the Spirit) to watch over the first risings of passion and to pray daily for the grace of a meek and quiet spirit, and above all for humility, in which I am greatly deficient. This has been a day of many errors and infirmities. Lord, if thou shouldst mark iniquity, who could stand before thee? but with thee there is mercy, and plenteous redemption. O clothe me with the righteousness which cometh by faith from Jesus; for all my righteousnesses are as filthy rags: even my best duties are stained with sin. My trust is in thee, O Lord; let me never be confounded. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The will of God

If we had gone to the carpenter's shop, and watched the holy youth as He bent over the construction of some simple article of furniture, or fashioned some rude instrument of husbandry, and had asked Him, 'Son of Mary, what are You doing?', he might have answered, 'The will of God.'

If we had drawn near to Him, as He instructed the ignorant, healed the sick or opened the eyes of the blind, and had said, 'Prophet of Galilee, what are You doing?', He might have answered, 'The will of God.'

If we had turned to Him as He hung upon the cross, bearing our sins in His own body, and had asked, 'Son of God, what are You doing?', He might still have answered, 'The will of God.' The will of God was the only thing that ever He did.

(from Life in His Name by David McIntyre).

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Unanswered prayer

I read a sermon recently on unanswered prayer by a Free Church minister of the nineteenth century whose name is forgotten today. He was James Cameron and he was the pastor of Glenbervie from 1864 to 1875. For reasons not stated, after he died several of his friends published a short memoir containing a brief biography and several sermons. No doubt, those friends wanted to have a permanent record of his ministry. Their names are mentioned in the preface, but as far as I could see they are now forgotten as well. Such will be the fate of most of Christ's servants and of virtually everyone else. Yet when I picked up this short book I discovered that James was still speaking through what he had preached long ago.

One of his sermons is about unanswered prayer, a common problem for Christians in all ages. The sermon was based on James 4:3, where the brother of Jesus tells us that the cause of unanswered prayer is that we ask amiss, which is another way of saying that it is our own fault if our prayers are not answered. As the preacher pointed out, this is a divinely-inspired explanation of why that happens. 

Cameron explains what it is to ask amiss. He begins by saying that it is possible to ask for wrong things. He then tells us that it is possible to ask in the wrong manner and he obviously regarded this as very important because most of his sermon dealt with this failure. How can we ask in the wrong manner? He said we do so when we fail to address God as Father and experience the warmth that such a relationship should bring; he said we do so when we fail to realise that we approach the Father through Jesus the mediator; he said we do so when our prayers are not earnest and sincere; and he said we do so when we cherish a secret sin in our hearts.

It is obvious that the preacher said nothing new in his sermon. But it is also the case that he said nothing untrue in his sermon. The reasons he gave for unanswered prayer in his congregation in nineteenth-century Scotland are probably the reasons for unanswered prayer in congregations in twenty-first century Scotland and elsewhere. Is there a bigger tragedy in a congregation than unanswered prayer?

One question for me is why did God in his providence bring this sermon on unanswered prayer to my attention in 2014. James, I am sure, would not have imagined that a simple sermon of his would minister to another preacher almost 150 years later. But God had it in mind and when he enabled James to prepare his sermon I was the focus of divine attention, as well as those who heard it and later those who read it. We can say that about any item from the past that comes our way. I would suggest that the God of grace brought it my way so that I would pay attention to how I pray and for what I pray. That is an evidence of his kindness. And since you are reading this summary of the sermon, he has brought it to your attention as well.

In my mind, I can imagine meeting James somewhere in the heavenly country and telling him that his sermon was used by God to help me. Perhaps you too will be able to join the conversation and say that you also were guided to pray appropriately even by this brief mention of the explanation he gave of why we experience unanswered prayer.