Sunday, October 24, 2021

Offcentre sparklets 2) 'where no oxen are the crib is clean'

How would you apply these 7 words from Proverbs 14:4? Hutton comments that ' there is one way in which you can have a clean crib and that is if you cease keeping oxen'. And that's not what cribs are for!  Uncleanness means unrest and turbulence but also life and action. Indeed, quietness, tameness and regularity  may be signs of death. 'Our religion prepares us not for a kind of life which shall be like a well-trimmed paddock, but for life which shall always demand heroism and supply the material and opportunity even for tragedy....The fact is we must take care of allowing ourselves to be afraid of the legitimate signs of life'.

And what particularly should we be afraid of for the best reasons?  In every age, the most authentic signs of life, and of new life, must come naturally from those who are young...the 'rising generation'.  We must take care not to be afraid of youth.  Such fear or suspicion of youth on our part is not fair. We were once young ourselves; and it is to our shame if when we were young we never had the passion to change something. An old head on young shoulders is a sad sight.

Therefore we should cultivate an hospitable way of looking at is true that we who are older might combine to thwart the impulses of the rising generation and to turn back into darkness the venturesomeness of those who are now young. But even if we could succeed in such a policy, it would be one of those successes which would be more costly than any defeat. We might have a clean crib, but no oxen. The thing might serve our day and have the semblance of quietness.  But we do die; and if we do not cherish and invite and honor and trust the generation which just now is fresh and restless, why, it is not peace that we have secured but only a silent wilderness'

I know the language is dated but what a challenge.  Our church is currently seeing increasing influence of the rising generation!  Oh, to welcome the unrest and turbulence!

Monday, October 18, 2021

Off-centre sparklets 1) An explanation

I have a theory about preaching in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was a great time for massively influential preachers and transformative sermons.  In my 12 volume series 'Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching" eight of the volumes focus on this period. (I will not sidetrack onto issues raised by editor's choices!) Great biblical themes are sounded out with significant outcomes for church and culture.

During this time of largely 'Christianized' culture preachers could assume that the big biblical themes were well known.  This allowed them at times to focus on unusual Scripture verses or even a few words to weave a sermon.  I call such sermons on unusual Scriptures off-centre sparklets!   Off-centre because they surprise by novelty of choice and sparklets because they sometimes radiate truth in surprising ways. 

I still possess a number of old preaching books from this period many of which I have bought for small amounts over past years.  As I gradual dispose of these (!) I have noted some particular off-centre sparklets which perhaps are worth preserving.  They often show originality of thought and connection.  My preaching students will tell you that one of my mantras in class was: Authenticity not Originality.  I was always concerned about students attempting to produce something original to impress than to speak God's truth from the heart. But these earlier days of Christianized culture with full and knowledgeable congregations allowed scope for preachers to quote learnedly and to imagine vividly.  

For example, John Hutton (Westminster Chapel 1923-25) has a sermon collection 'Discerning the Times which contains several off-centre sparklets.  Like his sermon on Proverbs 14:4  AV 'where no oxen are the crib is clean'.  Incidentally, he never gives any Scripture references...ever.  Does he assume that listeners will take his word for it or (less likely) already be able to place it?   Anyway, onto the next post.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Back in service 5) Follow-ups

 After my sermon on prayer two emails arrived. The first came the next day querying the parable in Luke 11: 5-13 about the friend's persistence winning through as he kept knocking on the door.  'It makes it sound as though God doesn't really want to answer our prayers ' wrote the emailer.  Certainly, it is an unusual not to say daring story. We must be careful about unpacking it.  As a prayer about intercession it is about how our prayers for others, like the friend knocking on the door for loaves for his visitor's sake, takes us into a maturing process by which we come to understand more of the ways that God works out his purposes.  The mystery of prayer must always leave the outcome to God.  How many times have urgent prayers for healing, for example, not seemed to have a positive outcome.  And then some do have a glorious answer. What matters is our continuing dependency and faith as children of a living Father - that he hears us and will answer in his own way.

When I initially introduced the idea of 'five' prayers for persistence I met criticisms that it made prayer some sort of mechanical exercise or worse a manipulative practice.  As though we were insisting God answer our way.  The truth is that we always needed to pray about what we should pray together. From the outset we sought the prayers to be in God's will.  I like the way in the parable that its a question of feeding a hungry guest with three loaves specifically required.  That does sound like something which God approves! 

The other email referred to George Müller the nineteenth century intercessor whose persistent prayers resulted in extraordinary work with orphans in Bristol. It contained his advice for believers...

‘Be slow to take new steps in the Lord's service, or in your business, or in your families: weigh everything well; weigh all in the light of the Holy Scriptures and in the fear of God. Seek to have no will of your own, in order to ascertain the mind of God, regarding any steps you propose taking, so that you can honestly say you are willing to do the will of God, if He will only please to instruct you. But when you have found out what the will of God is, seek for His help, and seek it earnestly, perseveringly, patiently, believingly, expectantly; and you will surely in His own time and way obtain it.’

That drove me back to my copy of his autobiography; subtitled: A Million and a Half in Answer to Prayer.  It's a dense book and, no surprise, it tracks well with Luke 11: 5-13!

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Back in service 4) Persistent Prayer

Nehemiah further shows us that SERIOUS PRAYER leads to MORE SERIOUS PRAYER, PERSISTENT PRAYER.

It’s clear from the dates that Nehemiah keeps on praying for four months. He really believes that God can lead and guide and change things through prayer.  Putting himself right in the heart of the prayer.  Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man he keeps on asking God for his right time for action.  This is no shot-gun prayer.  It's long-term.

When Jesus told about the man asleep (Luke 11:5-13) whose friend wakes him up for loaves of bread we have an extraordinary teaching about persistent prayer.  At first, the man asleep with the family tells his friend to go away.  Yet his friend keeps on knocking.  For how long?  Eventually, Jesus says the man gets up from his bed not out of friendship but because of his nagging persistence (some translations put it 'boldness').  Someone wrote to me after I retold this story and said that it sound as though God doesn't want to answer our prayers!  Well the truth is that praying to God requires maturity, dependence, expectancy in faithfully waiting on God's timing for his answers. Keep on asking, seeking, knocking.  Nehemiah does for 4 months.  Spiritual growth develops dependence and expectancy.  

I shared one of my precious possessions - a prayer record book from my Cambridge church where we sought to take Luke 11: 5-13 seriously.  I explained how much at the beginning of my ministry we longed for God to act.  I read the first requests in April 8,1980. 

1.      A new church organist (back in the day when the organ provided the only music!)

2.      Gillian, Marion and Rachel as they prepare for baptism. Remember especially Sunday 27th. April – baptismal service that many others may commit themselves to Jesus Christ.

3.      The Church conference on Saturday 26th April that the whole church may see more clearly what God wants us to do next

4.      The Jesus Christ is Lord festival, for David Watson and his team, for practical preparations and spiritual outcome.

5.      Martin Staple teaching English at Upoto Secondary School, Zaire with Baptist Missionary Society.

Not particularly daring or big prayers.  Yet, how God answered.  No. 1 took some time until we were blessed by a gifted student in his gap year before beginning university in our city.  No. 2 was breathtaking.  When I gave an appeal a married couple in the thirties asked for baptism, and at their service there was more response....and so on.   This prayer book records successive years of serious persistent prayer   I truly believe in it as one of God's powerful ways of working. 


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Back in service 3) Serious prayer

Second, Nehemiah’s serious care leads to SERIOUS PRAYER. It takes only just a minute to say his prayer but it’s a summary of real vital prayer. He knows who he is speaking to - the awesome Lord of heaven who keeps his covenant of love.  He pleads, please listen have your eyes open as your servant prays. He knows his place and privilege. And he also knows how much he and his people have contributed to the mess of exile. There's confession. Yet God has given ultimate promises of hope, and he dares to include himself directly in how God will act.  Give your servant success.  He’s on the front-row with God.

I remember a church outing arranged by an enthusiast who had license to drive coaches and borrowed a friend's coach to take a group to see a very early production of Les Miserable in London.  This is years ago but the memory is vivid.  (And I checked it with Carol!) We just didn’t ask enough questions. About the coach which was so ancient with worn out seats, was massively underpowered with a noisy engine that seemed to be missing a gear or two. Worst of all it had no heating. And we should have asked about our block booking. We discovered that we were in the upper upper upper balcony.  Just under the roof.  Miles away from the action.  The cast was minute on a tiny stage. We were so high you could see behind the scenery.  It was so uncomfortable. I gave up trying to see.  Risking vertigo you longed to be closer like those people on the front row.  

For some people prayer is always in a far balcony.  Never close up. Yet, the most thrilling thing about prayer that Jesus promises is that we have front row access.  Jesus never explained how prayer works - its metaphysics.  It would have been good to glimpse how certain things in God's kingdom are left contingent on prayer - just how much he needs us to pray. But we couldn't begin to grasp its monumental scale in God's working.  It is one of the huge Christian mysteries - how God can hear each of us.  What Jesus says clearly (Matt 6:6,7) is that if you have a room and it has a door, then you may go in, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen and he will see what is done in secret and reward you.  Jesus says we have access. Immediate and personal.  Extraordinary. 

And that's not all.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Back in service 2) Serious Care

This upcoming sermon (on which I am still working!) is titled 'Facing Hard Times'. It is appropriate for so many of us in Covid limbo and particularly for this man we meet in Nehemiah ch. 1.  Living as a captive in Persia he has made the best of conditions forced upon him.  Showing loyalty and a sense of responsibility he has risen within the king's household.  As cup bearer he is chief steward, right hand man, close to this fearsome foreign power.  But miles away from his people's story in Judah and Jerusalem.  Doing his best.

His story is vivid. In Nehemiah 1 it all changes when his brother Hanani returns from travels (perhaps he was a trader), He has actually been back to Judah and Jerusalem.  Nehemiah questions him about what he saw. The response begins a sequence of events to change history and teach us key truths.  He reports 'The survivors are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates have been burned with fire. God's holy city - centre of so much promise and history is in ruins. The great story of Exodus, prophets priests and kings seems over and done with.  Disgrace is a miserable word.  They knew they once belonged to a great future. They were God's people on the move but now their disobedience has led to this ruin.

What happens next is a sequence of actions which prove to be key principles about how God works with people and people work with God.  It is serious spiritual stuff.

First, SERIOUS CARE.  When Nehemiah hears about the trouble and disgrace he takes it intensely personally, seriously.  He really cares, with compassion and urgency about what is happening to God's people. He grieves, mourns and fasts.  Consumed with a deep sense that this new really matters he really cares.  God has always been able to work with people who care about the things God cares about. Look at any of faith's movers and shakers you'll find they are first moved and shaken into deep concern.

Like William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army in his last sermon:  While women weep as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry, I'll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, where there remains one dark soul without the light of God I'll fight. I'll fight to the very end.

Serious care means involvement with God's concerns. The text doesn't warrant us pondering whether Hanani felt any strong feelings. After all he had actually witnessed the destruction.  But his name is not at the top of the book.  It's Nehemiah takes it hard and personally.  As we shall see.