I Have Finished The Race

 

rio-2016-2-1

People from all over the world are getting ready to watch more than 10,500 athletes from 206 different countries, competing in 28 sports, working hard to make it to the podium and receive a golden, silver or bronze medal. Yes, I’m talking about the 2016 Summer Olympics also known as Rio 2016 which happens to be in my home country – Brazil.

This is the first time that the Olympic Games are going to be held in a South American country and these will be the first games to be held entirely during the host country’s winter season – but there’s nothing to be worried about, in Rio it’s hot and sunny all year round!

The nation is filled with excitement and now that the time has arrived, all the worries about not being prepared to host such a significant event are forgotten and the Brazilians just want to make the most of it. The country is going to stop for 15 days (or more, knowing the Brazilian culture they will probably still be partying a month after the games are over) to celebrate the greatest sporting event of all.

While most people are looking forward to the Opening Ceremony with all its artistic attractions, the Parade of the Nations and the lighting of the Olympic flame, we know that for the athletes what really matters is the closing ceremony. It’s about how they are going to finish the Olympics and how many medals they’ve received at the end. For the athletes, it’s not about the way the Olympics start but the way they will finish. When the apostle Paul writes about his journey of faith, he emphasises the way he is finishing it.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”– 2 Timothy 4:6-8

The faith that Paul has kept is not faith in himself, or in any man. It is faith in Christ Jesus. In chapter 3, verse 15, he said to Timothy that the Scriptures “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” And, in the words of John Piper, when you have faith in somebody, it means you take them at their word, you count on them to live up to what they say, you trust their counsel, you have confidence in their promises. When Paul said, “I have kept the faith,” he meant “I have kept on taking Christ at his word, I have kept on counting on what he said, I have kept on trusting his counsel, I have kept on having confidence in his promises.”

Just like the Olympic athletes, what really matters for us as Christians is the way we will finish the race. We might not even be able to remember how we started it but we, like Paul, want to be able to say that right to the end, we kept the faith and received the most precious award: eternity with our beloved King.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 14.24.18.pngJulia Trarbach is an Associate in her 2nd year at All Saints Crowborough

By consciouslyincompetent

Happy Birthday Your Majesty

the-queen-smiles-001

An article by Rev. Steve Rees, Vicar of All Saints Crowborough.

What an extraordinary and wonderful long life our Queen has had.

At the age of 25 Princess Elizabeth heard the news, whilst in Kenya, that her Father King George VI had died. That day she became Queen Elizabeth the Second and it was a year later that her Coronation took place. She is the longest serving British Monarch and is still going strong at the age of 90.

Queen Elizabeth has been for many of us a constant figure throughout our lives in this ever changing world. She has always been an important feature of the Rees family Christmas.  Ever since I can remember, I have gathered with my family (after an enormous turkey lunch) to listen to the Queen’s speech and I have stood to sing heartily with my family ‘God Save our Gracious Queen.’

Having listened to over 40 years of the Queen’s speech it’s clear that her faith shines brightly. Through all the heartaches, challenges and joys that she has faced, her faith in Jesus Christ has been a source of great strength in her rôle as both Mother and Monarch.

I was particularly moved by her speech a few years ago in 2011.  I do think it was one of her best speeches to date. I was moved to hear that she said she was praying for us. Have you ever realised that that the Queen prays for her people?

I know that my Grandmother prayed for me every day. I know that my parents pray for me and my family every day. I know that my wife prays for me every day. And from Christmas day 2011 I discovered that my Sovereign the Queen prays for me -and all her people!

I have listened again to that speech and recorded her words:

‘My prayer is that you will find room in your lives for the message of the angels and the love of God.’ 

The message of the angels is one I guess most of us have heard at Christmas each year of our lives. It’s found in the gospel of Luke chapter 2 verse 10.

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ 

This message is given to the shepherds but it’s for us all.  It is a message of good news.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all people” 

It’s good news about the birth of God’s son Jesus, who was born to be a Saviour.

photo-1461770354136-8f58567b617a.jpeg

The Queen went on in her speech to say:

“God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.” 

The message of the angels is good news – about the saviour who can forgive us. We all carry burdens of past failure and regret and long to have a clear conscience – to find forgiveness. The Bible makes it clear that our sin stops us from knowing God as our Father. Jesus has come to bring God’s forgiveness into our lives and restore us into the relationship with God that we were made for.

There are only a few people who can call the Queen their Mother and friend:  Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward.  Because of Jesus coming to be our Saviour the wonder of the Christian message is that we can call God our Father and Jesus our friend.  The Baby announced by the angels grew up and went willingly to the cross. He suffered and died instead of us, so that the price was paid for the sins we have committed and forgiveness is freely offered.

We can have the sure hope of God’s fatherly care and friendship now, and the firm promise of a heavenly home one day when this life ends. This is the comfort and hope that many long for. But few realise that it’s found in Jesus the Saviour with the power to forgive – for he is God.

We can so easily put our faith in so many other things that we think will give us knowledge of God and the hope of heaven. We think by being patriotic, being British, by being kind or attending church – that these things ensure our relationship with God and his gift of heaven. But that’s not the case.  If it were then there would be no need for God to send Jesus the saviour to die and rise again!

You see this is the reason why the Queen prayed  ‘My prayer is that you will find room in your lives for the message of the angels and the love of God.’

I guess the simple challenge that comes from the Queen – and more importantly from King Jesus –  is this:  have we made room in our lives for this most important message? Have we made room in our lives for the love and comfort and salvation that the Lord wants us to know day by day?

I have found, as have many millions of people around the world have, that in and through faith in Jesus forgiveness is found, friendship with God is restored and the sure hope of heaven is guaranteed.

As we give thanks to God for our Queen’s 90 years of life, let us welcome Jesus into our lives and enjoy the faith that she has found, to be a rich source of strength and help for our lives.

Come and join us at 10.30am on Sunday 12th June for a Celebration Service. Then bring a picnic so we can eat together on Chapel Green afterwards

By consciouslyincompetent

Only Crazies Take The Bible Literally

“Do you take everything in the Bible literally?” I was asked.

“No” I said. And I think you’re probably a bit of an idiot if you do.

The truth is, no one takes everything in the Bible literally. Well, I’m pretty sure they don’t. Even the person with the loosest possible grasp of different genres of writing and the way in which people use language must be able to see that everything in the Bible isn’t to be taken literally (he says knowing, sadly, he’s undoubtedly wrong).

For example, I recently had one of my teenagers come up to me and ask a question about the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation. Her philosophy teacher had challenged her on it and she didn’t really know how to respond, although she did say she didn’t think that only 144,000 would be saved. Her teacher responded by saying that if you take the bible literally, you have to believe that.

Erm…expelliarmus!

It’s worrying isn’t it. Not that only 144,000 might be saved but that there are people teaching at A Level who seem to think that that kind of flawed thinking is some kind of knock down argument to be used against Christians. What’s happened here is that we’ve found someone who, like many others, seems to have little to no grasp of the fact that the Bible features lots of different genres of writing (isn’t it great people like that get to teach others). Revelation is apocalyptic, not really a genre we have today, but clearly not something to be read literally, but something filled with picture language pointing us to real life truth. On his reading, presumably he also thinks we’re all on the lookout for a seven headed, ten horned beast rising out of the sea too!

It’s frustrating because that kind of thinking is so clearly idiotic. I wonder if he’d also like to ridicule Christianity on the basis of the woman described in the Song of Songs. Here she is:

She’s a regulation hottie alright!

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the writer’s description of the woman is clearly not literal. He’s using metaphor and simile to describe her beauty. Admittedly, his language is a bit culturally removed from our own. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I felt led to tell my wife that her nose reminded me of the tower of Lebanon and her belly was like a heap of wheat (probably the last time I was looking for a perplexed look/a slap). It’s poetic language, to be read as poetry. Is the woman very beautiful? Yes. Does her hair literally look like a flock of goats? I’m not going to insult you with an answer to that one.

The thing is, the majority of people have no problem understanding this sort of thing in real life. On the whole, when people use a turn phrase, other people understand what it means without any confusion. For example, I’ve never once said to someone, “I’m completely shattered” and had them stare around in confusion because I’m not literally lying in a thousand fragmented pieces across the ground. It’s understood that I’m saying I’m tired.

I remember a few years ago when I worked for a very high church, I got into a slight disagreement with the vicar over transubstantiation. I don’t believe the the bread and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ, but merely a symbol or representation them in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice. However, the vicar was scandalised and got me to look up Jesus’ own words.

“What does he say? This is my body. Is, is!

At the time, I didn’t have much to say in response apart from that I thought Jesus was clearly speaking in a symbolic sense. Today I’d probably say I think that’s OK as long as people are consistent in the way they interpret the rest of Jesus’ words. So if you’re going to say that the bread and wine is literally Jesus’ body and blood because he uses the word “is”, I hope that when Jesus says “I am the gate” you think Jesus was literally made of wood and swung on hinges.

Please close me behind you.

“That’s ridiculous,” you say.

Ah, but what does Jesus say? “I am the gate. Am, am!”

Of course, I sincerely doubt he believed that because it’s obvious that’s not how Jesus intends us to take those words. Personally, I think the same can be said for transubstantiation but that’s a whole other argument (although I will just add that Jesus never actually says the wine is his blood, he says the cup, so if you’re going to take it literally, I hope you don’t think he was talking about the wine, because that’s literally not what Jesus said).

The Bible is crammed with different genres: law, poetry, history, parables, letters, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy etc and they all need to be read as those genres are intended to be read. Some are literal and some aren’t.

Do I take everything in the Bible literally? No, but I do take everything in the Bible seriously.

Don’t Cling To The Bible

“Don’t cling too closely to the Bible. It’s not that important.”

That’s a paraphrase of something said to a friend of mine as he attended a Christian course. Both he and I agreed that it’s that sort of comment that immediately puts us on the defensive. It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds though. In essence, this person was saying that we shouldn’t hold the Bible so tightly that it becomes more important than God.

And there’s a lot of truth in that isn’t there? We don’t want to become people who effectively say we worship God the Father, God the Son and God the Bible (a very real danger in conservative circles). At New Word Alive a few years ago I attended a series of Wayne Grudem’s seminars on the Bible and he said it’s all to easy to make it sound like we worship the Bible rather than Jesus. His answer to those accusations was to invite people to come along to church and let them see for themselves if that really was the case.

So that initial paraphrased quote (I’ll just call it a quote from now on), despite its unfortunate wording, seems quite reasonable doesn’t it? It seems to occupy that hallowed middle ground between the Liberals who don’t really seem concerned with the Bible at all, and the fundamentalists who read everything 100% literally. But I’m not sure it does. For all it’s well meaning intentions, I think it highlights a misunderstanding of what the Bible really is, and so rather than occupying a middle ground, actually ends up in a sort of biblical no mans land.

It’s 100% right to say that our love should be directed towards God and we must avoid the very real danger of worshipping a book, rather than it’s author. But there in lies the issue. God and his word are not that simply divided. The quote sounds like a reasonable thing to say because many of us slip into the trap of thinking in terms of God and the Bible as completely distinct entities. I mean, one’s a person and one’s a book for goodness sake. Why wouldn’t we think like that? But the reality is subtly different. Try thinking in terms of God and God’s word and suddenly that quote begins to look absurd.

Look at it this way, the basic premise is “love the person (God), don’t end up just loving a book.” But it’s not just a book. It’s the words of the person. What would it look like if I applied that thinking to my relationship with my wife? If I told you that I love Becca but I don’t really need to pay that much attention to what she says, or that what she says isn’t really that important, I think you’d begin to question the reality of my love for her and the nature of our relationship. What would it say about my love for her if I think that her words may be worth listening to but I shouldn’t cling too closely to them? And so more importantly, what would it say about my love for Jesus if I feel that way about his words, the Bible? Suddenly, we begin to realise that divorcing the two from one another becomes a little bit silly.

…and so by extension think what he says is quite important too!

After all, the disciples seemed to realise loving Jesus didn’t mean having intense feelings about him in some abstract way, but listening to his words and then putting them into practice. As Peter says:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

We can’t leave Jesus’ words behind (I mean, where else would we go?) therefore we can’t leave the Bible behind. There’s no other place to go if we want to know Jesus and hear what he has to say to us today. This isn’t a 2000 (or more) year old document simply recording a bygone age but it is something living and active.

So do make sure you love Jesus and not just his book. But do treat Jesus’ words as important, do cling to them, because these words are the only way we know anything about Jesus in the first place, these words are the words of the person we claim to love most & these words are the words of eternal life.

Living Life With The Right Perspective – Psalm 103

Here’s a talk I gave at thirsty earlier this term. I can’t claim complete credit for it as I lifted quite a bit of material from a talk on the same Psalm that really helped me a few years back. It was probably one of the most influential talks I’ve ever heard and it’s one of the few I can actually clearly remember. It’s all about God’s grace, so if you need to be encouraged and remember the gospel again, this might be a good one for you.

You can listen to it here.

My Testimony

A little while back, we were visiting my parent’s house. During our time there, my parents asked me to sort through some of my old stuff and decide if there was anything I wanted to keep or whether stuff could be chucked. Apparently when you’re 28, married, have two kids and haven’t really lived at home full time for about 10 years, your parents decide it’s probably time for you to finally take your stuff away. As I sifted through various folders containing bank details and GCSE certificates, I came across two handwritten pieces of A4 lined paper with the heading “My Testimony”. I had written this about 11 years ago, shortly after I became a Christian. I think Jon March had probably told me I should write it down before I forgot. Well I did, but it had sat forgotten for over a decade. Needless to say it had some sentimental value and I wanted to hold onto it. Now finally I’ve typed it up and put it onto my computer and as we’re in a week of interviews and testimonies at All Saints this week, I thought why not share mine. I’ve copied it below and it’s all as written by 17 year old me, with no changes, even if I would’ve liked to have tidied it up a bit.

My Testimony

I was at Soul Survivor B 2003. I was enjoying the experience, especially the worship as that was the only time I felt I was really connecting with God. Even then, I had doubts about whether or not it was actually the music I enjoyed or the praise. I have now come to the conclusion that it was a mixture of both and the reason I liked the music was because the Lord had given me a real passion for it. Despite feeling connected to God during the musical worship, I was saddened that I didn’t feel anything when I was being prayed for.

The main tent at Soul Survivor

I had had prayer on about two occasions, with people placing their hands on me and praying for various things, including healing. The prayer for healing went unanswered and I felt upset and angry with God as I was truly asking him to come into my heart. I also was sad about it because it was evident that people around me were getting healed and some very quickly. I began to think that the only way the Lord would really give me some sort of sign was when people laid their hands on me and prayed for me. I felt that my prayer wasn’t good enough to warrant an answer.

On the third night of Soul Survivor, Mike Pilavachi did not ask people who wanted particular prayer to stand up and for people to pray for them by laying hands on them. Instead, he asked everyone to stand and to pray in whatever way we wanted for the Lord, the Holy Spirit to come down upon us. I heard people screaming in what I thought was tongues and Mike was saying that he knew some of us had anger rising up in us and that we could let it out. I was feeling nothing at that point and felt fine, apart from being worried that God didn’t want me. I was also scared at all the noise going on around me and Mike said not to be scared but I still was. I prayed to God , telling him I was scared and asking him to make it right. I asked the Lord to fill me with the Holy Spirit and for Jesus to come into my heart.

I began to tremble in my legs, which I had felt in previous prayer sessions before. However, I was always dubious of this in case it was my body just shaking because I was cold or that I might be somehow faking it. As I went on in praying I began to shake violently. I remembered Mike saying that if we can’t cry here, with God, where can we cry and so I said to God something along the lines of “Lord I’m not afraid to cry in front of these people, so if you’re there please give me some sign.” Almost instantly I began to fill up and I burst into tears. Sam, Oli, Jon and Anthony prayed for me whilst I just let it come down.

It was the most emotional experience I have ever had. I cried for all the bad things that had happened to me, such as the lack of healing and other life problems and it hurt emotionally and I remember thinking maybe I was doing something wrong, as surely I shouldn’t feel this upset. I was crying because I knew I had made mistakes. But whilst I cried, I felt that the tears were tears of awe because I knew that it was true, all true and I was going to heaven and I was going live forever in heaven and I could never doubt again. And as I went on praying, there were moment that the tears subsided and I thought the Lord had almost finished saying what he wanted to me but then the tears came again and this time I was crying for the things I had done in my life which had not glorified the Lord and I was saying, “Sorry Lord, I’m so sorry, it’s all true.”

When these tears passed, I felt myself laughing because I just felt so happy but I was so happy that I couldn’t smile or laugh enough to express my happiness so I just had to cry again. Then my tears subsided and I fell to my knees and bowed my head, partly in exhaustion because I had done a lot of crying, and partly because I felt bad for all the wrong things I had done and I cried again.

Eventually, it all passed and I was left tearful but absolutely beaming because I was so happy. How could I doubt now?

Despite thinking, “how can I doubt now?” and the fact this this occurred only a few days before I wrote this, the further the event got away, the more I began to analyse and think about what happened, the more I began to think, “maybe I was just letting out pent up emotion” or “I got caught up in the mood.” I don’t believe that this is because I don’t believe in the Lord, but that it is because it is human nature to doubt. I know he’s there because I felt it to be true so strongly and if it was just me, I would have had some doubts even at the time but I had none. I felt God so intimately but still I doubt as is my nature but even as I write this my faith is reaffirmed as I remember something I think J. John said. “When we pray, coincidences happen. When we don’t, they don’t,” and as I write my testimony of how I felt the Lord, songs are playing on the radio praising Jesus and never before, until now, have I heard music praising the Lord on Radio 2! Now that’s what I call a coincidence. Amen.

Why I Fell Out Of Love With Two Ways To Live Pt.4

After taking a short break from this series over the Christmas period and new year (Happy New Year BTW), I thought I should probably get a shift on and actually get down part 4 of my look at Two Ways To Live. So without further ado, the other problem I have with TWTL is:

The Illusion of Choice

Now this might be a slightly controversial one as I know Christians have different views about this. TWTL’s tagline is ‘the choice we all face’ but I just don’t think following Jesus is about making a choice (hear me out), because I don’t think any of us have the ability to make the choice to follow Jesus. Left to our own devices, we are so steeped in sin that it is impossible for us to choose Jesus of our own accord. We’ve already seen in part 3 that we’re not free agents and that before being saved we’re under the rule of Satan. Two Ways To Live doesn’t pick up on this, which is a shame, but it also paints another unhelpful picture of what we’re like. We’re depicted as empowered decision makers who should take the clever option for the discerning religious consumer and make the enlightened choice. But this idea is foreign to the Bible.

We’re not empowered decision makers, given a choice and just needing to make the right one. We are captives in the strong man’s house (Mark 3:27).  We are helpless slaves to sin (John 8:34).  We are whores besotted with terrible lovers (Ezekiel 16).  We are sheep following after bad shepherds (Ezekiel 34).  We are thirsty beggars drinking from broken wells (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  We are lost and must be found (Luke 15). We are snake-bitten and need healing (John 3:14f). We are famished and need Bread (John 6). We are dominated subjects in Satan’s kingdom (Ephesians 2:1-3).We are dead and need raising (John 5:24f).

These are not pictures of empowered decision makers who just need to choose to get out of this situation. These are pictures of people who are hopelessly lost, enslaved, dead! That last picture, death, is the most helpful in seeing where the idea of choice falls down. TWTL presents us with two lifestyle choices. But of course, we don’t really have a choice, because we’re spiritually dead and dead people don’t, in fact they can’t, make decisions! When was the last time you heard about someone who was dead and one day just chose to be alive again? When was the last time you went to a funeral and you heard the vicar say in his address, “well it’s terribly sad that she’s gone but who knows?! She might just choose to come back again!”Or when Lazarus was dead in the tomb, did we hear Jesus say, “I’m sure he’ll choose to be alive again when he’s ready?”

Imagine that you’re walking along the street one day and “BAM!” You have a heart attack. You fall to the ground and your heart stops beating, leaving you lying dead on the curb. Now you are in no position to make any choices at that point. You are entirely dependent on salvation coming from outside of you. Maybe a passer by or a paramedic will step in and administer CPR, get your heart beating again and give you your life back. But you! You were powerless. This is exactly the situation we’re in.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.
Ephesians 2:1, 4-5

We were dead and made alive, and this wasn’t our choice. Following Jesus is not something we choose to do. We don’t weigh up the evidence and then choose to have faith. Faith is given to us as a gift, it comes from outside of us.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God
Ephesians 2:8

Now one of the ways we might receive faith may involve us weighing up the evidence but let’s not falsely pretend we’re free agents reaching this point ourselves. We’re only going to come to faith if faith is given to us. Even in those circumstances, we’re still receiving it.

Think of a couple of classic illustrations we often use and how they’ve been influenced by the same sort of thinking as TWTL. Take the illustration of being stuck in a burning building and the fireman putting his ladder up to the window. All we need to do is make the decision to jump into his arms and let him save us. Or the image of being lost at sea and floundering in the water, until a boat appears and someone throws you a life ring, urging you to take hold of it. I’ve used both these and similar illustrations before. But don’t they suggest that the fireman himself can’t really rescue us and that those on the boat are ultimately helpless to save us? In the end, the focus is put onto us and our decision. Choose to leap into the fireman’s arms. Choose to grab the life ring. Once again, subtly, the focus is being moved off of Jesus and onto us (and the gospel simply as self preservation again). It would be more accurate to have us as the person overcome with smoke inhalation and not breathing, or the body floating facedown in the water, lungs filled with fluid, who is then resuscitated by our rescuer.

Ultimately, the gospel is not a one of two lifestyle choices, it is life to the dead and the dead can’t choose to make themselves alive again, Christ gives life. I think this has far greater impact than Two Ways To Live.

If not TWTL, then what?

So you’ve probably guessed by now that Two Ways To Live doesn’t float my boat. So what does? Below is 321, an outline I have been particularly taken by in the last year. I’m not going to say anything about it, it’s just yours to watch. Below I’ve also posted some links to a few articles from the writer of 321, Glen Scrivener, where he addresses how 321 relates to the classic gospel outline of Creation, Fall, Cross and Repentance. Enjoy!

321 & Creation
321 & The Fall
321 & Christ’s Redemption
321 & Repentance Part 1
321 & Repentance Part 2

Good News of Great Joy – A Christmas Talk

This is a rough transcript of a talk I gave last Sunday on Luke 2:10-11. I only work off of notes and not a full script but this is a rough approximation of what I said on the day. This was rushed off a bit so sorry for any mistakes. Merry Christmas!

In our passage the shepherds receive good news of great joy and so I wonder, what would bring you great joy? When I thought about this, the thing that came to my mind was the birth of my little girl Melody. It was just such an amazing thing that I wanted everyone to know, I wanted to share the news. “My little girl has arrived and she’s amazing!” Both Becca and I were completely full of joy at her birth.

And even today she is still one of the things that brings me the most joy in life. Everyday she seems to be learning new things and picking up words and phrases. Recently I’ve been trying to teach her quotes from Lord of the Rings as it just amuses me to see her running around quoting Gandalf! I love the way that she copies me too. In the summer I would go and sit on the step in the garden and put my drink down beside me and she would come up and plonk herself down on the step,put her drink next to mine and then look at me as if to say, “I’m doing what you’re doing.” And I love the way she runs up to me shouting “Daddy” when I get home and come through the doors. That’s what brings me great joy and I’m sure many of us here can identify with that feeling even if the circumstances are a bit different. 

So in our passage the shepherds are out in the field at night, watching their flock and quite possibly washing their socks too so I’m led to believe, and suddenly angel appears with a heavenly announcement:

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’

So what is this good news of great joy?

‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’

This good news of great joy is the announcement of the birth of a child. But not just any child. Look at who the angel says he is. This baby is Saviour and Messiah! He’s their rescuer, the anointed one, God’s chosen King who will deliver his people and redeem them. Now it’s hard to say what the shepherds would have understood by this. Maybe they thought the Messiah would come and liberate them from Roman occupation and restore the nation of Israel. But whatever they thought, this was the person they’d been waiting for. God’s promises were being fulfilled right here, in their lifetime. Just imagine the joy they would have felt. It would have been completely overwhelming. And to think, here it is being announced to a bunch of stinky shepherds, the lowest of the low, right at the bottom of the social ladder. Imagine the great hope this would bring for them and indeed, the joy.

And it should be good news of great joy for us too? Why? Well because even with Melody and all the joy that she brings me, I know that something isn’t right, that there’s still something wrong. And so this is good news of great joy to me because I know that I need a saviour and I need a Messiah, someone to redeem me. Because I know the depths of my heart, the deep uncontrollable drives inside me, the corruption inside. That even when I’m being “good” there is something not right in me. I might be able to control my behaviour but there’s still something deep down in my being, a selfishness, even a darkness that I naturally gravitate too.

And I don’t just see this in me, it’s in the whole world as I look around me. Every time I pick up a newspaper or turn on the news or click on the BBC website all I see is oppression, marginalisation, pain, suffering, mourning and loss. You know, in the UK this year, 500,000 families have lost someone, 250,000 elderly will be at Christmas time and 80,000 children will be homeless. And you know what? We could go and mourn with these families, spend the day with the elderly, find housing for all of those children but even then the darkness wouldn’t be gone, because there is something deeper in our very being. And we’ve all felt it, we’ve all felt the fall and we feel it every day. I need redeeming and so does the whole world, so how could this news, of a saviour and a Messiah, fail to bring us great joy?

But how can one person make a difference? Well there’s something else about this child’s identity in these verses. We’re told:

“to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The most amazing thing in this announcement is that the saving Messiah is God! The child lying in the manger is not just some man chosen for the task, he is the Lord of heaven, God in the flesh, God with us, the visible image of the invisible God. In him the fulness of God was pleased to dwell and he was in his very nature God. And here, God draws alongside us, he comes close to the broken, people like you and me, the sick, the black hearted and the corrupt. God comes as a man takes, our burden on himself and pays for it all on the  cross. How can this not bring us great joy?

So no matter what the darkness is for us this Christmas, whether it’s sick family, the death of a loved one, the family tensions of the Christmas period or even just that very darkness deep within us, the people walking in darkness have seen a great light, a light who has come to save and redeem us.

I’d like to finish with an extract from a poem which I think sums this up well.

Our summer’s gone, if you’ve been around,
you’ve felt the fall: life’s run aground.
We’ve gone up in the world, seen summer die.
So what’s our hope? The dark defy?
Stoke the hearth? Retreat indoors?
Rug up warm with you and yours?
The shadow reaches even here,
But THIS is the place for Christmas cheer.

It’s dark, in the bible, when Christmas is spoken.
Always a bolt from the blue for the broken.
It’s the valley of shadow, the land of the dead,
It’s, “No place in the inn,” so He stoops to the shed.
He’s born to the shameful, bends to the weak,
becomes the lowly: the God who can’t speak!
And yet, what a Word, this Saviour who comes,
Our dismal, abysmal depths He plumbs.
Through crib and then cross, to compass our life.
To carry and conquer. Our Brother in strife.
He became what we are: our failures He shouldered,
To bring us to His life: forever enfolded.
He took on our frailty, He took on all-comers,
To turn all our winters to glorious summers.

It’s Christmas now… whatever the weather,
Some soak in the sun, some huddle together. 
But fair days or foul, our plight He embraces.
Real Christmas can shine in the darkest of places.

Why I Fell Out Of Love With Two Ways To Live Pt.3

Previously I’ve laid out why I feel that Two Ways To Live is man centred as opposed to Christ centred. Today I look at a third issue, which is that…

It Defines Sin Poorly

For TWTL, Sin is basically defined as rebelling against God and making ourselves king rather than Him. The presentations blurb tells us “men and women everywhere have rejected God by doing things their own way.” Notice that rejection comes from our behaviour – “doing things.” How many times have you heard a conversation that goes something like this?

Evangelist: Do you think you’re a good person?
Non-Believer: Yeh I think I’m pretty good.
Evangelist: Have you ever stolen anything, even like say, paperclips from the office?
Non-Believer: Well yeh I guess, maybe some pens or something.
Evangelist: But that’s stealing. Are people that steal good people? Do you really think God will let people who steal into heaven?

Etc, etc. This kind of thing is standard fare in those American street evangelism videos. But do you see how petty that makes God look? Sending people to hell for all eternity for paperclips? Way to overreact God! Now, I’m not denying that sin lies at the root of this, but trying to convict people on their behaviour just isn’t a winner. Most people won’t even think they’re doing anything wrong, and certainly nothing that merits eternal punishment, no matter what the Bible might say.

So defining sin as rebellion and the things we do wrong is unhelpful (and I think biblically weak). Romans 5 coupled with Jesus’ comments in Matthew 5:19-20 (evil coming from our hearts and that being what defiles us) show us something else. Behaviour isn’t the problem, being is! And because of that we’re condemned from the start. Our behaviour is merely a symptom of corrupted being, something which is far deeper and darker. Now I think people can identify with and are more convicted by this than paperclips. Talking about deep drives that overpower us, the things we say and do that just seem to spill out of us and we don’t really know why. The dark thoughts that run through our minds that we wouldn’t want anyone else to know, or promising ourselves not to do something but finding ourselves doing it over and over again as if we have no control over ourselves. That even when we might behave relatively well, there is still a selfishness in us that we naturally gravitate to.

Can’t everyone see this in themselves? That somewhere, deep down inside, whether we like to admit it or not, there’s a darkness? There’s something fundamentally broken about us, even corrupted but normally we don’t like to stop long enough to think about it?

Now I’m not saying everyone will immediately say yes that’s me, but I think it stirs something deeper in people than running off a list of bad behaviours they may or may not have committed and which they may or may not think are wrong. We need to draw people’s attention to the root of the problem, not just the symptoms. And as someone once said “the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.”

Another feature of TWTL’s take on sin, is sin as self rule. As the blurb says, “we prefer to follow our own desires, and to run things our own way, without God.” Couple that with the little crown pictures throughout the presentation and you’ve got sin as self rule. We’re little Kings and Queens! Here’s the thing. Some people might think they’re running their own lives but biblically this isn’t the case. Ephesians 2:1-2 tell us:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

Can you see what Paul says there? Before anyone came to Christ, they were under the influence of the ruler of the kingdom of the air. In other words, they weren’t ruling themselves, Satan was ruling them. As Martin Luther said “We are beasts ridden either by the devil or God.” We haven’t climbed onto the throne of our lives because someone else is already on the throne and it’s not us. So why would we want to reinforce the delusion of self rule? If anything, surely that’s to play down the seriousness of the situation?

Check out the first 53 seconds of this video (or watch the whole thing if you get sucked in, I’ll wait)

What happens there? The characters examine the evidence and begin to wonder who they’re fighting for; “Hans, are we the baddies?” They realise they’re on the wrong team and it’s not a neutral harmless one. And that’s our situation. We’re not rival kings & queens to Jesus, we’re subject in the wrong kingdom. We are the baddies on the wrong side of the war. We are not rulers, we are ruled. If anything is biblically true, it’s that we’re on the wrong team and it’s not team “Me”, it’s team “Satan.”

So the self-rule thing doesn’t really sit well for me but I also think TWTL’s answer to this misses a pretty important (and incredibly exciting) biblical point. Effectively, the solution we’re given is to get off of the throne of our lives and put Christ back on it. We need to submit to Jesus. Now submitting to Jesus is right and good, but if we only speak of our relationship with Jesus in terms of submission then we’re left with something very similar to Islam. Even the word Islam itself mean “to submit”

And whilst TWTL speaks simply of getting off of the throne and submitting, the Bible says something slightly different. Take at look at Ephesians 1:19-20:

“That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms”

Here we’re told of what the Father did for Jesus. Now compare Ephesians 2:6 and what God does for us when we come to faith in Christ:

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus”

The wording is almost identical and the passages are both so close together that  I think we’re supposed to see that what God does for Christ, God also does for us. Stick this together with Revelation 3:21…

“To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

…and we get a very different picture from TWTL. Rather than being told to get off the throne (which we’re not on anyway), we’re invited to join Christ on the throne and share in his rule with him. That’s pretty dramatically different and also a wonderful privilege for the Christian believer but I can’t help but feel that Two Ways To Live doesn’t even begin to factor in this wonderful truth. It just feels like it’s missing a rather large point.

Part 4 coming soon…

Why I Fell Out Of Love With Two Ways To Live Pt.2

Yesterday evening I talked about Two Ways To Live’s lack of Christ centred-ness. I probably could have spoken more about that under this next heading, but thought it would be easier to break them up for the sake of length. So, issue number 2…

It’s Quite Man Centred

It’s tagline is, “The Choice We All Face.” The main focus of the whole thing is us and our response. That’s not to say it doesn’t look at the works of Jesus but his works are framed within something which is very much about us – the two ways we have to live and the choice we need to make (more on choice in part 4). So it’s not about Christ and what he’s done, it’s about you and what you need to do. This is part of the reason it struggles to remain Christ centred.

As the focus is squarely on us, Jesus and his works can never really take centre stage. Everything is framed around us escaping judgement and so the gospel becomes nothing more than a get out of jail free card. Jesus’ works are really just a means to an end, rather than Jesus himself being the big deal. This is in turn means that love for Jesus isn’t really encouraged, just preservation of self, namely avoiding hell.

I can think of a number of times I’ve asked teenagers why they trust in Jesus and the answer has been, “because I don’t want to go to hell.” There is some value in that, but as soon as they say it, I always rather think they’ve missed the point. Surely it should be because they’ve caught a glimpse of who Jesus is and what he’s done, that Jesus is so incredible and beautiful that they can’t help but surrender to him? The focus should really be on Jesus rather than benefit for self.

So the way Two Ways To Live frames things makes it very hard for Jesus to appear as anything other than a means to our salvation rather than our salvation himself – salvation becomes about escaping hell rather than knowing God through Christ (John 17:3) and as in my previous post, because the link between God and Jesus isn’t that explicit anyway, it become even harder to avoid this.

Part 3 to follow…