Sunday, 17 January 2016

If Jesus is the answer, what's the question?

This article was, I suppose, my manifesto for many years. I preached Psalm 2 possibly more than any other text, and when I wandered away from God it was with this text ringing in my ears. It is huge, powerful, frightening, comforting, glorious and thrilling. It is also practically unknown. Now I'm back, I have gone back to it, and find it still resonates.

The phrase, 'Jesus is the answer' is a cliché of Christianity. In Brazil, there is even a denomination with this name. Unfortunately it has been noted by sharper-witted critics that the phrase can be defused with the retort, 'What's the question?' In the process they expose a shift and a sloppiness in the church.

If we could interview first century Christians and ask them to sing a song about Jesus, like as not it would have been Psalm 2, judging by the number of times the New Testament quotes it. Psalm 2 was fundamental to the apostles' thinking about Jesus, yet nowadays very few Christians would sing it or even understand how it relates to Jesus. Times have changed!
We don't know exactly when the Psalm was written. Was it a coronation Psalm? Was it written at a time of threat to national security? Whatever the original context, we know how the New Testament uses it, and that is the key I want to use to open the text.
The psalm is organised like a play in four scenes, with various speakers: the narrator (David); the rulers of the earth; the LORD in heaven, and his Son, the Messiah.

Scene 1 - verses 1-3     David Speaks
'Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?...'
David has been looking at the world, reading his paper, watching the news. He sees the activity of the nations and their rulers, and describes it as raging and plotting. And he asks, "Why? Why is the world like this?"
Verse 2 tells us. The behaviour of the people of the world can be summed up as opposition to the Lord and his anointed, his Messiah.
In verse 3 we hear the rulers of the world describing the aim of their rebellion. They want to be rid of certain bonds and cords which, as the word 'their' tells us, come from the LORD and his Anointed. According to the world leaders, God has tied them up. It is complaining language: 'God's laws are tying us down and we want shot of them!'
David has found the thread linking thought, conversation and behaviour in all cultures. He has found the principle that moves and shakes the movers and shakers of our planet. From atheists shaking their fists at God, to the overturners of morality, to the sleek religious manipulators, the preachers of false religions, the self-congratulating hypocrites who claim Christian faith - All want to overthrow God and his Messiah. And, by nature, without a drastic change, all of them means all of us.
If we could distil all the words of all the top people, we would hear one sentence: 'Let's get rid of God and his Christ'. The psalm is saying: 'If the human race gets a chance, we will murder our Creator'.
And we know it is true, because when we got a chance, we did. The rebellion came to a head in Jesus' death. The early church saw Psalm 2.1-3 fulfilled in the unlikely alliance that brought about the crucifixion. The murder of Jesus was no ghastly aberration in our basically decent behaviour: it was the logical outworking of our attitude to God ever since the fall.
And so the curtains close on the first scene. When they reopen we are in heaven.

Scene 2 - verses 4-6     The Lord Speaks
'He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision...'
And we ask - how is the LORD reacting? As the crowd storms the gates, trying to overturn his rule and dethrone his Messiah, how is he taking it? Is he hiding behind the sofa? Is he waving a white flag from the window? No - he is laughing at the rebellion.
He speaks. What does he say? 'I am sorry, but my choice of King for the world seems rather unpopular; perhaps we can discuss alternatives?' No. He says that business is as usual. 'My King has been enthroned already. He is reigning. This rebellion against me and my Christ has made no impact whatsoever - he shall reign.'
This absolute certainty clarifies the nature of God's laughter in verse 4. This verse might seem to be a problem: how can God laugh at sin? Is sin funny?
The psalm says: 'No. It isn't funny - but it is laughable'.
We have all seen a toddler throw a tantrum in public. He really loses it, fists flying, legs kicking - even attacking his dad. Dad simply picks up the child, puts him under his arm and walks out. And, without in any way condoning a sin, we... smile. Why? The toddler is so puny, his rebellion is laughable.
That is how sin is. The greatest efforts of the human race, the strongest politicians, the subtlest philosophers, the most popular 'celebrities' who shape a generation's lifestyle - all of this is a ludicrous attempt to overthrow God. The attempt is so doomed, it is hilarious. The rebellion is crazy - for the Son is reigning, and it is his voice that we hear in the third stanza.

Scene 3 ˘ verses 7-9     The Son Speaks
'I will tell of the decree:

the LORD said to me, "You are my Son..."'

The Son speaks - but what he says is to report what the Lord has said! This always reminds me of John 12:49, though I wouldnt press the echo as being a deliberate link.

This stanza is the richest in NT connections, and much could be said about it. But we can notice two simple points about the Son...
a) His absolute and universal rule, and his total destruction of the rebellion.
This psalm defines the word Christ. It is not Jesus' surname, but his job description. He is God's anointed King, who will rule all people, everywhere, forever. Specifically, he will crush the rebellion, judging every pretender to his throne with awesome power.
In other words, he is the most frightening person in the universe. This appalling revelation is not confined to Psalm 2. It connects with many other texts, not least the horror at the end of Revelation 6, where all kinds of people cry out to the mountains to fall and hide them from the face of God and from the wrath of the Lamb.
And here we see the great question that faces humanity. Where can we hide from the wrath of the Christ?. Greater than global issues of environment, war or famine, or personal issues of health, employment or housing, we all face the issue - the judgement of the Lord and his Messiah.
In other words, before we can say, 'Jesus is the answer', we need to say, 'Jesus is the question'. This is where the gospel begins - here is the clarity which has drained out of world evangelicalism over the last 150 years. Jesus is our great problem. All of us are rebels. There is a King appointed to smash our rebellion. His name is Jesus.
b) He will announce the putting down of the rebellion before he does it.
But we also need to notice the future verb here. The King who will put down the rebellion says that he will announce that fact. By God's own purpose, he tells us rebels in advance what he is going to do. By God's mercy, a warning is issued of impending doom, and it is the Rebel-Smasher himself who gives it.
What kind of enemy does that? The kind that sincerely desires the rebels to see their error for themselves, to down arms and make peace, recognising where the real authority lies, who the real King is, and living in joyful peace with him.
This is where gospel preaching begins. Before people can see that Jesus is the answer, they must see that he is the question. The will of the Lord and of his Christ is that people hear that question.

David now steps to the front of the stage to lay that question on his hearers...
Scene 4 - verses 10-12     David speaks
'Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth...'
David speaks to his own peer group - the world leaders - but, by extension, to all of us. He says to us all, 'Wise up! Think! What is the point? Why go on in your ludicrous, laughable rebellion?'

Specifically, David gives two commands:

* Serve the Lord. Obey God. Fear him. Be glad - seriously, tremblingly glad - that you have the chance to wise up, that he didn't smash us all aeons ago!
* Kiss the Son - a sign of respect and homage and recognition. Bow and say: 'You are the King, Lord Jesus, I owe you total allegiance and trust'. Anyone who has seen the Godfather movies will remember how kissing the hand is a sign of submission and of belonging - perhaps especially the chilling moment at the end of the first when Al Pacino kisses Brando's hand - in that case he had tried to get away from the crime family, but now he commits, he does obeisance, and he is accepted. The context is the moral opposite in Psalm 2, but the Mediterranean cultural reference, even with thousands of years intervening, is just the same.
Kiss the son means 'Get right with God; repent and trust in Jesus!' Stop rebelling and put things right - now!
And David gives two motives for wising up, giving up the rebellion and recognising the Son:
* If you don't, he will destroy you, and you do not know how close that destruction may be.
No one knows what a day will bring. If we are alive as rebels it is by Christ's mercy. The breath we use to say, 'There is no God, I'm going to live my way' is his gift.
And he can withdraw that gift. As recent celebrity deaths have warned us, no one can guarantee a very long life - accident and illness can take away the richest and most powerful. Every rebel life, every person who screams their hatred for God and his Christ, their atheism or immorality, every proud religious hypocrite who wants to be looked up to and admired for their decency, everyone who just gets on with life ignoring God altogether - every rebel hangs suspended over eternity, and it is Jesus who holds the rope. Be wise, or you will regret it forever.
* If you do, you will be happy and secure now, and for ever.
Where can I run, to escape the anger of the most dangerous person in the universe?
The last part of verse 12 tells us. The only place I can run to escape the wrath of the Jesus is... Jesus. Jesus is the question - and Jesus is the answer! There is complete shelter in the Lamb from the wrath of the Lamb. This is the authentic gospel.
It was my own son who pointed out that the greatest inadvertent commentary on Psalm 2 is Gimme Shelter, which happens to be my favourite Rolling Stones song.

Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away

Love, sister, it's just a kiss away!

How does this work? How is Jesus both problem and solution?

How can you escape from a bush fire, which is leaping forward at you before a strong wind? You can't outrun it - how can you escape death? The only way is to light a fire and let the wind drive it ahead of you - the same wind that is driving death toward you - and stand in the burnt patch. When the fire comes, it will already have consumed the patch where you are, and you will be safe.
Jesus is coming like a fire, bringing death to rebels. But the fire that he brings has already fallen in one place in this world. On Jesus himself, at the cross.
Jesus is our burnt patch. He is our shelter. For he has already borne the fire of the Lord's anger against our rebellion. And if we stand on him, we are safe.
Stand on him. Now. And you will never ever regret it.

Friday, 8 January 2016

A year of adhering

Today is the anniversary of my first post on this blog. It feels slightly strange - I am not particularly successful at maintaining writing projects, and I am a little surprised to have got this far. I am even more surprised at the readership. 

I started writing shortly after the decision not to be a soldier in the Salvation Army - a decision taken on doctrinal grounds. I decided that I had to stick at adherent, but that I would be the most active adherent I could possibly be, trying to use my gifts to the full, within the limitations of a lot of work and a long commute. That long commute sounds the death knell to much midweek involvement in the corps to which Sarah and I belong; it is however, precisely the long commute that has generated the writing time for the blog. I am on a train as I type this. 

Over the year the Adherent has had 69 posts and nearly 13 000 page views. Of these, the large majority have been in the UK, with the USA, Canada, Australia, Ukraine, Germany, France and Brazil following after. A surprising number of apparent hits from Russia make me wonder if I am being tracked by Putin's secret service! A number of factors seem to have propelled particular posts to a wide readership:

- Posting a picture of the WBC cadets - massive exposure guaranteed due to the popularity of said bods. Content of article irrelevant. The fact that my wife took the photo gives me no satisfaction. ;-)
- Posting stuff that has to do with bringing up children, especially after conversations with my daughter about her lovely trio of girls.
- Posting polemical stuff that strikes a chord with people in the Salvation Army.

- Posting articles that are of interest to particular church readerships: I know that The quiet bloke at the back and A visit to Inspire were looked at especially by people from Longmeadow and Inspire churches specifically. 

- Posting material of a strongly personal and transparent nature - The quiet bloke at the back and Letters to a shipwrecked minister being examples.
Material that does not get easily looked at tends to be:

- Historical - I have given up the "On this day" series. 

- Simply biblical or theological material of no especially polemical nature. This I will not stop writing.

I want to thank everyone who has read my blog, and especially people who have shared articles or who have joined in the discussion by commenting on the blog itself, on Facebook or in other media. With God's help I hope to carry on, although I will say quite frankly that my heart is really in the spoken word, and I am so looking forward to some preaching and teaching opportunities in the coming year. 

God bless you in 2016!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Much-Needed New Word from God.

Someone sent me this text for comment: 

"In our present day generation, I believe God is telling us that one does not need to change his/her orientation to worship God. One could even be in committed relationships with people of the same  and worship God...

And, if I may be so bold, Paul might even say today:  "Earlier generations didn't know this hidden plan that God has now revealed to this present generation through the Spirit. This plan is that the LGBT Community would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with heterosexual Christians in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

The temptation is to comment on the specific issue of sexual morality. But that isn't the key to this problem. The central issue is the notion that God is saying ANYTHING specifically different in "this generation" than he did in any other. Once you have opened the door to that, you have opened the door to anything and everything. 

The position of the Salvation Army, as of other Christian churches, is that Scripture is complete and sufficient. It is so because the work of Christ is complete and sufficient. That work has shaped history around itself. God spoke previously in various ways... but in THESE LAST DAYS he has spoken by his Son. We have been in the generation of the last days ever since Pentecost - a generation defined not by time or birth but by the work of Jesus.  

I am not sure how to explain a statement like the one I was sent. How can anyone write like that? The issue is so fundamental that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that anyone who can speak so lightly of fresh words from God has never really "got" the bigness and uniqueness of the person and work of Christ at all. Certainly there is a touch of the brave new world about it, of the snobbery of the modern. 

But then, perhaps it is a giveaway, really. If we need to be so bold, if we need to speculate on what new thing God is saying to us today, then that is an admission that, after all, the Bible in and of itself actually DOESN'T support the whole LGBTQI agenda. No one has ever had to change their orientation to worship God - but to find blessing on the physical relationships that express that orientation - that needs a New Word. 

Friday, 1 January 2016


I guess across the country and across the world, church leaders will be evaluating the year that has gone by, thinking about the way ahead, and perhaps preparing for the first sermon of the New Year with a view to laying down some direction for the congregation.

We are at a crucial period for the church in the West. We find ourselves suddenly on the losing side of so many arguments, on the back foot, threatened by what is now a very foreign culture instead of feeling at least some measure of ownership of our own context. It isn't hard to see Christians beginning to enter into ´panic mode.

Within that setting, the Salvation Army has some very particular challenges: our economic links with government and public, our tradition of pragmatism, our generally low level of biblical and doctrinal training, and our openness to embrace "mainstream" theologies, at least in our colleges, which have little in common with the evangelical "blood and fire" of our past.

How should we face 2016 and onwards? What should we say to the people? How should the church be led forward?

  • Don't panic and do take the big, long-term, global view. God is on the throne; Christ is building his church and the gates of hell will not win; the Spirit has been poured out and is still here. In 2000 years, all kinds of intellectual movements and isms have come and gone and the church is still here, and growing. Countries where, for instance, Communism attempted to eradicate the church now have thriving congregations. People groups, like the Kurds, who had practically no believers at all within my lifetime have now seen large-scale turning to Christ. The tide may seem to be flowing strong against us now - but that is not the whole or final story.

  • Do be sanguine and realistic about the threat. The fact that Christ is building his church does not guarantee the survival of individual local congregations or even multinational movements. The Salvation Army in the UK is not at present growing across the country, (though individual corps may be) and the future is very bleak.

  • Look to our great God at this time of threat. The answers are in him, not in new leadership strategies, business-driven methodologies, reorganisations and restructurings. So much of that is just rearranging the deck-chairs on the already-sinking Titanic. The solution to the world's pressure on the church is not found in adopting the world's methodology.

  • Preach Jesus. Let 2016 be a year of talking about Jesus - who he is, what he said, what he did. Go back to the gospels. Look at the Psalms Messianically. Look at the big story of Scripture. Unpack the gospel as it is found in the great letters. In all of that, talk about Jesus!

  • Focus on grace. Bad times make us want to redouble efforts, to put the screws on, to get harder and more brittle in our urgency. But the best redoubling of efforts comes from a fresh awakening to how greatly God has loved us.

  • Love people, not structures, ministries or gifts. If you find yourself looking at the members of the church in terms of contribution - potential or realised - then look again. The professionalization of church life, the running of the "machine" of meetings and activities can well nigh kill us at times - and often we end up half killing others too.  It's all about Jesus and people - is that what comes across in your life and ministry? I think with shame of how it didn't in mine.

  • Hope and pray and keep talking to others who see things the same way. You are NOT alone. Not only is the Lord with you, but there are friends out there who are also trying to talk about Jesus. You are not alone - so don't be alone!