Thursday, September 27, 2007

Worshipping in the Study

I have been really blessed this year to have read a couple of books by Prof Macleod - he is a master theologian, inspirational preacher and wonderful writer. Below is just one quote from his book Behold Your God (1990)...

On the self-revelation of God
One other fact connected with the revelation of Exodus 3:1-18 ought not to be ignored. Moses’ immediate reaction when he sees the burning bush is to say, ‘I will now turn aside and see this great sight.’ This resolution is deliberately opposed by God: ‘Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,’ God is not simply a great sight, the object of speculative curiosity. The revelation of his glory and the whole theological process which legitimately follows from it is holy ground. We cannot stand as superiors over God or His Word. We may not coldly or detachedly analyse and collate the self-revealing deeds and utterances of Jehovah. We may not theologise without emotion and commitment. The doctrine must thrill and exhilarate. It must humble and cast down. Our researches must be punctuated with frequent cries of, ‘Oh the depth!’ and even periodically abandoned so that the pent-up emotions of our hearts may find relief in expressions of wonder, love and praise. Theology has lost its way, and, indeed its very soul, if it cannot say with John, “I fell at his feet as dead’ (Rev 1:17). (p39 - italics mine))

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Vision Thing

You can’t get away from it (certainly not if you’re a church leader) but having a Vision is now de rigueur for all those involved in ministry. Actually it has been for sometime – since the 80’s no self-respecting church is without its Mission Statement, Purpose Statement, Vision Statement and Strategy documents. Which is all well and good as long as we don’t get too bamboozled by the jargon and business-speak. After-all good planning is not a 20th century invention. Nor is operating within a management flowchart any guarantee of success - either in church or business.

But what should a Church Vision be? Or what shouldn’t it be? Let me start with the positive: it should be essentially spiritual. In fact I’m going to argue that it’s all it can meaningfully be. A church vision (to be robust and credible – i.e. something that won’t become redundant within a couple of years) needs to be focused on basic Gospel priorities. So a sound Vision will be, for example, 'To be a church where the Bible is faithfully taught, where people are cared for and where outreach is encouraged and facilitated'. Of course in response some will say this is too airy-fairy, just spouting general truths that anyone could sign-up to and lacking the kind of concrete goals that will actually motivate people. Now again there is nothing wrong with concrete goals – we might see the provision of a new church building as something we need to plan for and invest in. But the new building must simply be something to help facilitate a greater vision. Otherwise our ministry aim becomes just to construct a big hall – so what! Or perhaps it’s to employ another worker – again so what! These things only become meaningful if they are part of achieving the greater spiritual vision – to strengthen and facilitate a Kingdom community.

This means that plans about buildings, structures and even workers must be flexible. So any sense that a Vision needs to include a rigid 10 year plan of activities is in danger of putting the cart before the horse. Paul had a vision to evangelise. He also had a short term plan to achieve this – he would go to Bithynia and preach the Gospel there – a good, sensible and reasonable plan. Except for the fact that the Spirit closed the door to Bithynia and sent him off to Macedonia instead. Same Vision but a flexible plan. Paul’s need to adjust his short term planning was not a failure but simply the recognition that in God’s providence circumstances change and we need to follow God’s lead – rather than doggedly pursue plans (perhaps for fear of losing face) when God has moved to redirect us.

Indeed such is the nature of church life that making and remaking plans will be a perennial activity. People leave and ministries go with them, new people arrive with gifts for new ministries we couldn’t have anticipated, local circumstances change, opportunities arise and so on. All of which mean that any thought that we can decide now what ministries will look like or in some cases whether they will even exist in 5 or 10 years time is to risk being inflexible and presumptive about God’s leading. Nevertheless if our Vision is spiritual we can still continue to pursue it albeit in different and changing ways – whereas if our Vision is focused on certain structures or programmes we become prisoners to an unbiblical criteria of success and failure.

I have spoken to a church leader who said that their church had gone through a process of massive change – restructuring, new plans etc. All with the aim of reinvigorating the church, creating new impetus, being a launch pad for a new era of spiritual advancement and dynamism in the fellowship. Within two years the changes had lost their novelty and excitement – and people were actually speaking about needing a new springboard to keep things moving. Perhaps the problem was that the changes had become the Vision.

Now, of course, church and ministry leaders need to be constantly looking at ministry needs and opportunities and developing them accordingly. It’s good to have goals, to take stock, to do new things, to improve and at times to discontinue old things.

But the Vision needs to be the Gospel being lived out in God’s people (in holiness, love, service and outreach) because when we lose sight of that we will become more concerned about building an institution than building a people.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Clan Adam or Clan Jesus?

On Sunday night we strayed from Galatians 4 into Romans 5. So I thought it might be helpful to restate what I was trying to explain with a few embellishments (it’s a ‘preacher thing’ – sorry!).

In Romans 5 (as in Galatians) Paul is at pains to show that Law-keeping (or legalistic religion) contributes absolutely NOTHING to our standing before God. He is insistent that our acceptance and inclusion into the family of God is a gift, entirely provided by Jesus, and received on trust, that is, through faith.

To hammer home this point he presents us with the contrast between ADAM on the one hand and JESUS on the other. Adam sins in Eden – he breaks God’s command concerning the Tree and the result is death. A penalty that subsequently falls on all Adam’s descendants (i.e. all humanity) because everyone from Adam onwards dies (v12). But here’s the thing – in the period between Adam and Moses there was no law. The Law only came in with Moses at Mt Sinai - and where is no Law then there can be no Law-breaking (v13). The people between Adam & Moses were not breaking any laws (there were none) and therefore they can’t legally be held to be doing anything wrong in that sense. YET they are all dying – they all nonetheless come under the penalty of sin (v14). Why?

Well it’s because they are counted as being ‘in Adam’ – their identity is bound up with their ‘Clan Head’ so to speak. It is Adam’s disobedience that communicates death to all his descendants. So even though they haven’t actually broken any of God’s commands (v14) – they nevertheless bear the fall-out of being a member of ‘Clan Adam’.

But – and this is the great bit – conversely Christians do not receive the gift of life and righteousness by keeping the Law but simply by being in ‘Jesus’ – having their identity bound up in Him. It’s Jesus obedience and righteousness that communicates life to all those in ‘Clan Jesus’. Just as the members of Clan Adam (in the period up until Moses) didn’t die because of any Law-breaking they had done – so members of Clan Jesus do not receive life because of any Law-keeping they do. It is all about the Head of the Clan.

So Christian - both Galatians and Romans shout at us – put aside your fixation with Law-keeping as the basis of your security and joy in Christ. Stop measuring your standing before God on the basis on your religious performance and look again to Jesus. A minister commented to me once that when he considered all the junk and sin that seemed to crowd into his life that he felt at times the only option was to be saved all over again. In one sense, of course, he was right – we need everyday to gather up all that junk and sin and throw it on the bonfire of the Cross – and be liberated and thankful all over again.

Too often as Christians we are like football fans watching Manchester Utd or music lovers listening to Mozart – but rather than being captivated and thrilled by what is before us - we just sit depressed and agitated because all we can think about is how rubbish our football skills or musical talent is in comparison. We need to live the words of that old chorus:

Fix your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth [including ourselves] will go strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.