Sunday, 17 December 2017

Are you a scribe who shares?

It is impossible for us to know what Jesus thought of the answer given by his disciples to the probing question he asked after his teaching about the kingdom (the question is found in Matthew 13:51). They affirmed that they had understood all that he had taught in the seven parables recorded in the chapter.

Whatever their grasp of his teaching was at that time he proceeded to illustrate for them their future role in his kingdom. He said that they would be like a wealthy man who could provide surprising and satisfying provisions for his guests when they visited his home. We can imagine a guest being surprised and delighted by the food on the table, the comfort of where they socialised, and the value of gifts that the owner would  provide. The role of the disciples would be as if the wealthy owner took money from his treasury and gave it to those who were his guests.

How were they to do so? By teaching others what they had found out about the kingdom. Their teaching would be heavenly treasure, and it would be twofold in that some of it would be old and some of it would be new. Maybe the 'old' describes what they already knew about the kingdom from what had been said in the Old Testament and the 'new' describes what would yet be included in the New Testament. Perhaps the 'new' would also include being able to see the Old Testament in ways that they could not yet understand, but which they would see after Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

What does this have to do with us? We have access to the same treasury - the riches described in the Bible. Pastors and preachers often find things old and new in passages that they have chosen to explain to congregations. New here does not mean no one else has never seen it, but it is new for them. And such discoveries of kingdom realities are full of spiritual encouragement for themselves and others.

Yet we can also say that seeing old and new should be the experience of all Christians as they read the Bible. There should be fresh discoveries of the wonders of the kingdom of God. This should happen because we are reading a book that is all about Jesus and his kingdom. Because that is the case, we should be reminded of old things and should discover new things to share with one another as we travel together sharing the life of the kingdom.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Pattern Prayer and Prayer for Divine Blessings

A question that arises is whether or not there are differences between what Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer and what he says later in the Sermon on the Mount about asking, seeking and knocking as expressions of prayer. Perhaps one difference is that the Lord’s Prayer guides us what to say in prayer and the later verses guide us regarding how we pray.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to pray for five things. First, he mentions praise of God by his children, which describes an intimate interaction between them. In their praise, they are reverent because they recognise he is in heaven and they rejoice in his holiness, in the way that he is always perfect. 

Second, Jesus instructs them to pray for the growth of the kingdom of God. Such growth happens in two ways: one is through the conversions of individuals and the other is revealed in the ongoing and deepening consecration of his people.

Third, Jesus tells them to pray about the provision of daily needs. Here Jesus mentions daily food, but the request extends to all legitimate daily needs connected to life in this world.

Fourth, Jesus says that they should pray about pardon for personal sins, which is a reminder that such sin will be present throughout life. True confession will occur alongside forgiveness of others, which tells us that confession of sin should be made when appropriate to one another.

Fifth, Jesus instructs his people to pray for protection during spiritual conflict, which again indicates what his followers can expect throughout life. Satan and his forces are out to trap and defeat the people of God and one part of their duty is to ask for divine help in order to have victory. 

But how do they pray for such blessings? Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses three pictures to illustrate prayer - ask, seek, and knock. As we look at them, what ideas come to mind? Here are five suggestions. One is simplicity, a second is nearness, a third is desire, a fourth is specificity and a fifth is persistence.

The simplicity is seen in the verbs that Jesus uses – ask, seek and knock. They are taken from everyday activities that each of his listeners engaged in. We all know what it is to ask for something, to look for something, to knock at someone’s door.

The three examples also indicate nearness. If we want to ask for something, we have to be within hearing distance of the person. If we seek for something, we need to be near the space where it can be found. And if we knock at a door, it is obvious that we have to be beside it. Prayer is drawing near to God. 

The third idea is that of desire because usually the three illustrations are connected to what someone wants strongly. A child asks its parent for an item it wants, a treasure hunter seeks for an item he wants, and a door knocker wants access to the person in the room. This is a reminder that true prayer is never offered in an indifferent manner.

Fourth, the examples lead us to think of specificity. We know that normally we don’t ask vaguely, nor do we describe a person as a seeker who is merely looking at the ground, and nor do we regard someone merely standing at a door as a knocker. I suppose we could say that it is specificity that distinguishes real prayer from hypocrisy. God demands that we be specific in our prayers.

Fifth, Jesus uses the present tense when he refers to asking, seeking and knocking. He does not mean that we should only ask for something once. Instead we are to persevere with the petitions. Perseverance is the indicator of expectancy. If we give up praying for something, it may be a sign that we did not believe God could answer the petition. 

Obviously, those sets of verses are not the only teaching in the Bible on prayer. We cannot use the sets by themselves and ignore what is said elsewhere. For example, we are told that we must pray according to God’s will, which is a reference to matters that he has revealed as suitable things to pray about. And one of the psalmists says that if we regard sin in our hearts the Lord will not hear us. We can say that in order to pray we also need to be submissive to God’s will and cleansed from sin.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Heavenly joy

I was reading a sermon this afternoon by Duncan MacGregor, a minister in St. Peter's in Dundee during the nineteenth century. He was reflecting on heaven, and it is good to think about it.

During his sermon, he mentioned the verse, 'When his glory is revealed, ye shall be glad with exceeding joy.' He then expanded: 'Exceeding joy - joy without alloy, joy which eye hath not see, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived - joy ever increasing - never-ending joy - joy which, wave on wave, will flow for ever into the hearts of the ransomed.' That is something to look forward to.

He then spoke about John Milne, a minister who had recently died, and gave this description of him: 'One who has lately gone from us, and passed within the veil - an Enoch for close walking with God, a Nathaniel for simplicity, a John for lovingness, a Barnabas for tenderness, an Epaphrus for fervent labouring in prayer (with hand uplifted like Moses' rod), and a Boanerges for unflinching boldness in rebuking sin...' That is a testimony to have from others!

He referred to Milne because he had described the exceeding joy of heaven as follows: 'They are singing in unison and they are singing universally. No hands without a harp, no lips without a song: and no harp is unstrung, no lips are silent there. Could you approach the gate, you would hear sweetest music. They are feasting, they are rejoicing. The work is done, the fight is over, their wanderings are ended, they are all at home. Not one is lost, not one is wanting. There never was joy like this. As they look back, and think what they were; look down, and think what, but for grace, they must have been; look around, and see where they are; look forward, and think what they shall for ever be - it is joy, joy, joy! Each kindles and stirs up the other. "Oh, that will be joyful, joyful, joyful, when we meet to part no more."' That is what lies ahead for believers! 

Living in the kingdom of God

What ideas do we have about the kingdom of God? Perhaps we imagine, or daydream, about a smooth domain, free from troubles, where everything flows like clockwork. Is this what the disciples of Jesus were told to expect when he instructed them about his kingdom?

Jesus did say that there would be a kingdom, indeed a growing one, that would spread throughout the world. And it probably is bigger today, as far as the earth is concerned, than it has been before. Yet it is obvious that the worldwide kingdom is not trouble free anywhere.

One way that Jesus instructed about his kingdom was through parables. His parables have been described in many ways, yet we can see that most of them contain features designed to shock. In his parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, he mentions that he will not uproot evil from alongside the places where he plants his people. That is surprising, at first, although we can see how the devil would place his plants beside the ones that Jesus has planted. The devil does so to minimise the effects of the kingdom of God. The clear conclusion is that Jesus’ plans for his followers is that they serve him in circumstances where the enemy kingdom is at work.

How are we to serve Jesus in such places? According to the parable, it is by being patient with the presence of weeds and focussing on the Day of Judgement and what will happen then.

Why should we be patient? Two reasons, maybe. Sadly some of the wheat in the parable are not much different from the weeds, so how would his disciples know definitely whether such individuals are wheat or weeds? Disciples don't have the ability to read another person's heart. The other reason is that some of the weeds will become wheat. After all, there is no other place for future wheat to come from.

Why should we focus on the Day of Judgement? The answer to that is surely obvious. Then all will know who comprised the wheat and who remained weeds. After that, there will be a smooth Kingdom for the people of God. But before then, there is the Account. All will appear before the Judge to hear what his verdict is. I suspect that there will be some surprises, even shocks, when the great Parable-Teller speaks plainly.