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.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Say Something Inexpressible

It is unlikely that we would classify Paul as a person who would ever be lost for words. Yet in 2 Corinthians 9:15 he writes, ‘Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift,’ which is a reference to Jesus.

Paul describes this divine Gift as inexpressible, as impossible to fully explain. Sometimes it is difficult to describe a thing because it is too small; others cannot be described because they are too large. With regard to Jesus, he is inexpressible because he is too big. This has not stopped some people trying to reduce him in size: such speak of him as a great teacher or a willing martyr for a good cause. It would not be impossible to describe such a person; in fact, many such biographies have been written of important people. But you cannot get a biography of Jesus because as John says in John 21:25: ‘Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (The four Gospels are not biographies of Jesus but explanations of his mission.)

The fact that the Gift is inexpressible does not mean that people should not speak about it. Paul, the man who wrote this verse, often speaks eloquently of Jesus and what happened to him. An example of Paul’s words are Philippians 2:5-11. Despite his great mind and vast understanding, Paul knew he was only paddling at the shore of an infinite ocean. Others in the Bible also give great descriptions of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the centuries, many great minds have written and spoken about Jesus Christ. Theologians and preachers have endeavoured to explain who he is and what he has done, and despite the vast number of words that have been said or written, they have not fully described him. To them we can add the estimation of the heavenly host who have had access to him in heaven since they were created. They know a great deal about him that is not contained in the Bible, yet when their contribution is added to that of the theologians and preachers, we are still on the edge of the ocean.

To the contribution of the above, we can add all the thoughts of the redeemed. Some have expressed themselves in poetry, all of them say something about Jesus in prayer or in words of testimony. Yet when this combined description of Jesus is added up, he is still inexpressible, not all has been said about him that can or will be said.

As we think of the fact that more can be said about Jesus, it means that there is space for us to say something about him today. There is always space for a new and accurate comment about Jesus. Your actual words may not be different from what others have said, but your experience of Jesus will be totally unique. So say something about him today, perhaps to encourage or comfort a friend or perhaps to commend him to someone who does not know him yet.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sunday thoughts – The love of God

John 3:16, in its description of the love of God, has been called the Bible in miniature. There is sufficient teaching within it that will enable any person who takes its teaching to heart to find his way to heaven, supposing he would never heard or read another verse.

It is not clear from the chapter who spoke the words of John 3:16. Many assume that the words were part of Jesus’ message to Nicodemus because they had been speaking to one another in the previous verses. Personally I think it is more likely that the verse is a comment by John composed as he reflected on that discussion as he recorded it six decades later when he wrote his Gospel under the inspiration of the Spirit.  

Who does John say is the object of the love of God? The answer is the world. Normally when we think of the term ‘world’ we focus on how large the world is and we try and explain the greatness of God’s love by highlighting the millions of people who belong to it. Yet I don’t think that is the emphasis that John is stressing by the term ‘world’. 

Put it this way. Imagine that the world was composed of perfect, ideal people, each of whom had never even had a wrong thought. If we said that God loved such a world we would not be focussing on the number that God loved; instead we would be thinking about the type of people he loved. Since they are perfect, they would deserve to be loved.  

Now we know that the world is not made up of such people. In fact, out of all the millions who have belonged or do belong to the human race, each one of them has defects (sins). These sins are expressions of disobedience to God’s commandments. This is the world that God loves, and the emphasis is not so much on the number but on their character. It is not the size of the world that is staggering, but the sinfulness of the world when we think of God’s love for it. 

How did God show his love? He did so by giving his Son in order that sinful people would not perish. This is a reference to what took place at Calvary when Jesus became the substitute of sinners and suffered God’s wrath in their place.

Today, all over the world the story of God’s great love will be proclaimed in a variety of settings. Many who will listen to it will have responded already to his offer of salvation. Others will do so for the first time. It is through the declaration of this message that God’s kingdom grows.

What will be the most important speech delivered today as far as the world is concerned? Perhaps politicians will make some announcements about relevant things. Maybe sportsmen and women will have something to say. Yet the most important statements will be said wherever the gospel is declared. So as we gather in our services, we should remind ourselves that we are listening to an announcement designed for our eternal good as well as for our earthly comfort.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Getting a Victory (1 Samuel 17)

In 1 Samuel 17 we have the story from David’s life that is probably the best known about him. Goliath was an enemy who created fear by his presence, by his weapons and by his voice. In these details, he is an example of the spiritual enemies that we face in our contemporary world.

As far as their presence is concerned, we know that they are everywhere. Sometimes the opposition is public, at other times it is more restrained. Their weapons seem very strong and certainly they are confident of their effectiveness as they wield them in the intellectual and social areas of life. Often the opposition is expressed in well-chosen words, stated with emphasis and direction, and we can feel the sharpness of their attacks.

How do we respond to the conflict? There is little point imitating the methods of Saul’s army, which was to line up daily and listen to the bragging of Goliath. All that did was create fear and confusion and despair in the soldiers of Saul. Instead we should imitate the response of David.

David knew who God was and he knew who Goliath was. For David, the Lord was the living God and uncircumcised Goliath was not in a relationship with him. These two details gave David great hope of defeating the enemy.

Of course, it is easy to stand up among God’s people, even among those who are afraid, and affirm that he is the living God. I suppose any of Saul’s soldiers could have said so. Yet it looks as if none of them had any previous experience of divine help in situations in which the circumstances were all against them. In contrast to them, David had known such situations, in private when he was guarding his father’s sheep and protecting them from wild animals. Those experiences had told David that his God was really alive. It was not merely a theological opinion for him.

Moreover, David realised that simple steps can achieve great victories if God is on your side. Saul wanted David to wear the latest armour, but David did not know how to employ it. Instead he preferred to make do with the sling and stones that he had already used effectively.

Inevitably, Goliath treated David and his methods with contempt because as a giant he was accustomed to using his own strength. In contrast, David was confident in the Lord because he was accustomed to experiencing the Lord’s help. We all know the outcome. David triumphed and Goliath lost his head.

The question that faces us is how we react to the Goliaths that confront us. Are we merely like the soldiers of Israel who lined up every day pretending to fight and listened to the same repetitive victory speech from an enemy that they had deduced they could not defeat? Or are we like David who, because he knew God’s power at work in his life, was able to use a simple means to bring great victory? After all, Paul does remind us that the weapons (the gospel) of our warfare can and should pull down enemy strongholds.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Sunday thoughts - Thinking about a move

Tests about our spiritual progress can come from a wide number of sources. In chapter 40 of his book Jeremiah describes a test that came his way after the city of Jerusalem had been captured by the Babylonians. What made the test more difficult was the fact that it was a nice offer, made by a prominent person who wished Jeremiah well, and who had the heart and the power to bring it about.

Nebuzaradan was the captain of the guard, a high officer in the Babylonian army. He recognised that the Lord had spoken through Jeremiah, and perhaps he wanted to have such a person with him in his home in Babylon. Maybe Nebuzaradan was a superstitious man who liked to have religious men around him or maybe he had come to believe to some degree in the God of Israel because of the fulfilment of his word through Jeremiah. Perhaps he was offering to become the equivalent of the kind master of a slave who would provide for all the latter’s needs. In any case, the prospect of a comfortable room in a nice house would have seemed much better to Jeremiah than the cistern or even the courtyard in which the king of Judah had placed him recently. Was this God giving him a reward for his faithful service, he might have wondered?

Jeremiah also was aware that the Lord had promised to bless the captives when they went to Babylon (see Jeremiah 24). Although that may sound strange to us at first, yet it would be there that God would begin the spiritual recovery of his people. Why not go and live among those whom he knew would experience the Lord’s blessing? Surely this was God directing him to go there and be part of it. Divine providence seemed to be opening a door and beckoning him to go through it. And if he went, would he not enjoy seeing God at work, fulfilling the words that he had allowed Jeremiah to preach?

Nebuzaradan recognised that Jeremiah might not want to go to Babylon. Yet he indicated that he would not be offended if Jeremiah refused his offer. Instead he advised him, if that was his choice, to go and live with Gedaliah, the individual whom the Babylonians had put in charge of the area. No doubt, Nebuzaradan assumed that Jeremiah would be safe there. And it was to there that Jeremiah went.

Why did he do so? No doubt he would have deduced that since he had promised to do so the Lord would provide for his people in Babylon. But what about the insignificant ones who had been left behind in Judah? Who was to guide and teach them if he did not do it? He may have seen in Nebuzaradan’s mention of Gedaliah an opportunity of serving those whom others did not think were important.

Jeremiah here seems to have answered a question very few even think about. Instead of wondering where he would be most comfortable, he asked where was he most needed and where could he do the most good. How many hearts of the little remnant left behind in Judah would have been made glad when they saw that Jeremiah had put their needs before his own and decided to remain with them. Perhaps they are still talking about it today in heaven.