Friday, 24 October 2008

Bible Sunday 2008


Psalm 119:9-16

Today is known as Bible Sunday, and we are looking at some verses from Psalm 119, the longest Psalm.

Psalm 119 is written by a person who is passionately devoted to the bible as the Word of God. It is interesting that as you look through these 8 verses, the word 'your' is used 10 times: 'Your word, your commands, your word, your decrees, laws that come from your mouth, your statutes, your precepts, your ways, your decrees, your word'

I say that he is passionately devoted to the bible as the Word of God, but that is not strictly true. For the Psalmist, the word of God was what we know now as the first 5 books of the bible. These are the laws and commands and decrees and statutes and precepts about which he writes. 

For Jews who lived later, the word of God came to include all of what we call the Old Testament; and for Christians, the word of God comes to include what we know as the New Testament, the writings of the apostles and those who were with them. 

And the reason that we accept the Old Testament as the word of God is because Jesus accepted the Old Testament as the word of God; and the reason we receive the New Testament as the word of God is because we receive the teaching of the apostles as authoritative, and the New Testament is the teaching of the apostles. 

In other words, what the Psalmist says of the first five books of the bible, we can say of the rest of the bible - including these verses. 

So what does the Psalmist say of the bible

1. He says that the Word of God brings great joy. 

He delights in God's decrees (v16); he rejoices in following God's statutes as one rejoices in great riches (v14). 

So often the attitude we have toward the bible is anything but that of joy. 

For some, it is a book that is incomprehensible. They think, here is something we just don't understand: like when people read complicated poetry - it floats over our head.
To be honest, that is just not true. Maybe when all we had was the old version, which used 17th century English, glorious though it might be, it was difficult to understand. But today there are so many good modern translations, and also some excellent bible handbooks. If we wish to know what it means, we can find out. 

For others, it is a book that is irrelevant: an outdated code of morality, a set of laws, telling us what to do and what not to do, written by people who lived in a far off place, in a far off time. 

The problem is that unless we are someone who loves the history of religious ideas, philosophy or sources of trivia questions, the bible may be a best-seller, but it is a turn off. And if we do open the pages and start to read, then it may well seem hard to understand and irrelevant. It's a bit like when I've tried to read the Koran: I've got so far and given up (I have to say that I think the bible is objectively far more interesting than the Koran, because the bible tells a story)

But if we come to the bible, by faith, assuming that this is the Word of God, that it does - in its entirety - make sense, that this is God's wisdom, that it contains God's promises, that it points us to the one who can give us eternal life, and if we come seeking God and asking him to give us his Holy Spirit to help us to understand it and live it, then this book is not like any other book: this book is power, the Gk word is dunamis, dynamite.

Do you notice how the Psalmist says, 'How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word'. But then he says, 'I seek you with all my heart'. In other words, the bible on its own will do nothing. It is the bible with God that changes lives. 
And when we get the bible and the Holy Spirit together, then this book is a light to our path; it is food for the heart and mind and soul. It is more precious than gold. It does bring joy and delight.

2. The Psalmist says that the word of God makes us pure. 

'How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word'
For the Psalmist it was a matter of believing the promises of God and living the commands of God, of living the old Testament laws. 

For the Christian, we have so much more. We still have the promises of God which we believe and we hold on to, but we do not need to keep the letter of the Old Testament laws, as the Psalmist did. Instead we are called to obey the Spirit who gave those laws and promises in the first place. They were good laws, they made sense for the Israelite nation, they embodied everything that is good and right and true, and they pointed forward to Jesus. 

But for us, Jesus is the fulfilment, the embodiment of those laws: we interpret them through him. 

So how do we keep our way pure; how do we get rid of the sin and rubbish in our lives, how do we become totally authentic human beings; how do we become transparently sincere; how do we become full of love? 

The answer is the same as the Psalmist gave: by living according to God's word: by believing his promises, by looking to Jesus, by coming to him, by allowing his teachings to shape our inner being, by allowing his Spirit to live in us, by listening to what he says. 


3. The Psalmist says that the word of God reveals God's ways

'I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways' (v15)

The bible is the story of God's love towards human beings. It begins with creation; it ends with the new creation. It is about the fall, the great disobedience, and God's rescue plan. It is about paradise lost and paradise gained. It is about the choosing of an individual and a nation to be the ones who bring God to the world. It is about human sin and rebellion against God, and how even the chosen nation rebelled against God. It is about how, out of that nation, a child was born, who was the Son of God. He died and rose again. He offered to people who put their faith in him relationship with him: new life in a new community with a new hope and a new destiny. 

This is the story of the love of God, the justice and mercy of God, the purposes of God, the ways of God, the promises of God, the victory of God. 

So this is the book that brings joy; that enables us to live pure lives; that shows to us the ways of God. 


It is no wonder, the Psalmist finishes this section with a vow: 'I will not neglect your word'. 

To reject or neglect this book is to plug our ears to the Holy Spirit; it is to silence God; it is to close off our life from ultimate joy and delight. It is like taking the gift of a £1million cheque, and either tearing it up, or putting it on a top shelf to gather dust. 

I trust we do not wish to be like that. And there are three ways that the Psalmist shows that he has not neglected God's word. 

- 'I have hidden your word in my heart'
The easiest way to do that is to learn verses from the bible, by heart. It is a spiritual discipline, and it is very precious. I was on retreat this week, and decided to put this into practice: I learnt these verses. So I was able to think them through as I went for a walk; and one night when I couldn't sleep I was able to meditate on them. And if we have learnt scripture, when the enemy comes, when we are tempted, we can say to God: 'I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you'. 

It doesn't need to be a long passage. It only needs to be one verse: 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. But to hide God's word in our heart is to know it, to live with it, to allow it to sink into our very being. And to those of us who preach the bible: we need to let it live in us. Read the passage on Monday. Learn it if possible. Let it sink in. Study it. Meditate on it. Live it. And then preach it. 

- 'with my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth':
A great way not to neglect God's word is to speak it. 
To speak it to ourselves: read it out loud. Listen to it being read on MP3 or CD.
To speak it in church: we speak the word of God; we sing the word of God. We're just sung, 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path'. That is Psalm 119:105
To speak it in the world: that is the hardest. How do we speak and apply the teaching of the bible to our everyday life, to our colleagues and neighbours? It is a life-long learning exercise.

- 'I meditate on your precepts'.
We are called to meditate on the word of God: to think deeply about it. That is why we take time to read the bible. Many many people find it helpful to put aside time every day to read and to pray. That is where bible reading notes come in helpful. Personally, I've never found bible reading notes to work; I find that they are restrictive, and I much prefer following a pattern of reading that, for example, we have on our notice sheet: includes Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms. 

Maybe you are someone who finds it difficult to make time every day. That is OK - so long as you give yourself other significant time to reading the bible and thinking it through. 
There are so many things to help us: I've mentioned bible reading notes, commentaries - Tom Wright's series: 'Matthew for today'; study bibles; internet (but so easy to be distracted). So instead of flobbing in front of the TV, pick up the bible - read it.
And of course it does help to listen to what other people think. That is why we have bible study groups 


May I urge you not simply to read this book, not simply to study this book so that you get it all right - may I urge you to read it and to study it, but more than that, to read it seeking God with all your heart, to read it as the Word of God - and then to live it. 


If you notice, in v14, the Psalmist does not say, 'I rejoice in your statutes'. He says, 'I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches'.

 


 


 

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Matthew 5:8

As you will be aware, we've been going through the beatitudes. They're called the beatitudes because the latin for 'blessed' is 'beatus'. And the thing that has struck me quite forcefully this time is the fact they are about a present state, 'of being blessed', in view of what is going to happen in the future.

Imagine a baby born to a wealthy and loving family. Imagine the baby is hungry. Her hunger is taking her over. She has worked herself up into a state. She is screaming. You have a very unhappy baby. But an observer looking on, who knows the child's background, knows the child's destiny, knows that in a few minutes time mum is going to walk through the door, pick up the baby and feed her, could say, "What a blessed baby".

Blessing is not just about what we are feeling or experiencing now. The blessing that is being spoken of here is the blessing that comes when we see the complete picture.

At the moment we may be mourning – literally mourning the death of someone who we love. We may feel totally empty and abandoned. But we are blessed because there is a bigger picture. We may feel, be, the trampled ones in society – that was certainly true for the first Christians and it is true for many Christians today – but we are blessed because there is a bigger picture. We may be falsely accused by others, discriminated against, we may be the persecuted ones (I pray with all my heart that if there is ever a choice, the church will be the persecuted one and not the persecuting one) now – but we are blessed because there is a bigger picture.

In a few minutes time, the door is going to open, and mum is going to walk in. She will pick us up, bring us close to her and feed us. Isaiah 66:13: "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem."

And at least three of the beatitudes are explicitly fulfilled in the last two chapters of the bible. The promise of 'a new heaven and a new earth' (Revelation 21:1); of a place where there will be 'no death or mourning or crying or pain" (21:4); and specifically – with our verse in mind today – Revelation 22:4 – "They will see his face".

So is it to be 'Pure in heart'

We are talking here about inward stuff

The word 'pure' in the bible is mainly used of silver or gold: pure silver, pure gold. It is authentic. Through and through gold. It is like an onion. If you peel of one layer of onion, what do you get underneath? Tomato? No! Onion!

And someone who is pure of heart is undivided. They are someone whose heart, whose inner being, total self, is totally authentic. There is no separation between heart and mind. The guts and the head work together: there are times when I act from here (the guts) and not here (the head) or vice-versa. Someone who is pure of heart, lives here and here. They are undivided. They are free from, as someone said, 'the tyranny of a divided self'. There is a call to prayer in the service for daily Anglican morning prayer that goes as follows: "The night has passed and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind".

And someone who is pure of heart is utterly sincere. "Their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base". There is a transparency about them, an innocence; they are not one thing with one person and another thing with another person; they are not one person in the bedroom or on their knees and another person in the boardroom or behind a steering wheel.

And someone who is pure of heart has clarity of vision. We look at the world with a vision that has been made grubby with sin, self-centredness, self-interest, fear and pride.

Andrew asked us yesterday, "What's the right way up for the world?" How do you answer a 7 year old when he asks that? I said the world was like a football, and asked him where the top of the football was. He said, "It doesn't have a top". And yet, we live as if we are the top of the world.

I look at the world and at people from my perspective: do they threaten me or promise me good. I judge them by my standards. I evaluate them by their significance to me.

Jesus speaks about this quite a lot. He rebuked people for trying to take a small speck out of the eye of another person, without taking out the beam that was in ours. He challenges us to see right: to get the eye right (Matthew 6:22-23)

And that I think is why purity of heart and vision of God are put together: "Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God".

Jesus, as with all the beatitudes, is the one who shows us what it means to live the beatitudes. He was pure of heart. There was nothing dark in him. He had complete clarity of vision. And he saw God: he spoke with God, his father, face to face

It is when a person is pure in heart that they see reality as it really is. The grubby spectacles are taken off: we begin to see the universe not just as a space filled with floating balls, but as God sees it – as part of his creation, an expression of his power and love. We begin to see other people as God sees them – as men and women, girls and boys made in the image of God, uniquely precious and valuable. We begin to see situations as God sees them.

Oswald Chambers wrote, "Faith is the inborn capacity to see God behind everything, the wonder that keeps you an eternal child. Wonder is the very essence of life. Beware always of losing the wonder, and the first thing that stops wonder is religious conviction. Whenever you give a trite testimony, the wonder is gone. The evidence of salvation is that the sense of wonder is developing."


 

So how are we to become pure in heart?

  1. A recognition that we are not pure in heart: Psalm 51 was written by David after he had murdered Uriah the Hittite because he desired his wife.

    The prophet Nathan challenges David. David could have said to Nathan: "I am the ruler here. I do what I want". Many rulers have said that. But David recognised the truth that he has done wrong. And he is broken. And in Psalm 51 he confesses his sin before God.


    The first step towards purity of heart is a willingness to take a long hard look at ourselves. David does not, in Psalm 51, simply say, "I did wrong in ordering the murder of Uriah". He looked deeper. He simply says, "Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me".

    That verse has carried far more weight and far less weight than it should have done.
    It has carried far more weight, because people have built on it doctrinal towers about the sinfulness of the act of conception and about the sinfulness of babies. And they have no foundation.

    It has carried far less weight than it should have done, because this is about an experience of an individual who has been convicted of sin. He looks back over his life and he makes no excuses. He does not justify himself. He does not compare himself with others. Instead he sees that the pattern of sin, of disobedience, of self-centredness is repeated and repeated and repeated. And he is broken.

    This verse is not here so that I can point the figure at someone else and say, "You are sinful from birth because in Psalm 51:5 David says, 'Surely I was sinful from birth'. This verse is here, in the Psalter, so that I can kneel alongside David, with no excuses, no self-justification, and say with him - from the earliest of days, I have sinned against God and I have done evil. I acknowledge that I am far from pure, and I seek forgiveness and mercy and the power to change.

  2. Asking God for purity

    David does not leave it there. He goes on to pray, "Create in me a pure heart, O God" (Psalm 51:10). It is the recognition that he cannot change himself. It is the recognition that only God can change his heart.

    And to ask God to give me a pure heart, is the same as to ask God to give us his Holy Spirit, wisdom, grace, love, salvation. But we need to ask.

  3. Living the word of God

    Psalm 119:9 asks, "How can a young person keep their way pure?" And the answer comes, "By living according to your word."

    And this is not just a question of obeying God's commands – but also of trusting his promises.

    But a person who is serious about desiring a pure heart will, like the Psalmist, have a growing love for the word of God. They will have a desire to read it and to understand it and to encounter the God who speaks through it.

  4. Looking to Jesus

    We cannot see God this side of heaven. Some people may have part visions of God: Moses ('You cannot see me and live'), Isaiah, Ezekiel ('saw the likeness of the glory of the Lord'), Paul, John the divine.

    We cannot see God fully this side of heaven, but we can still see God. Jesus says to Philip, 'Whoever has seen me has seen the Father'. So as we look at Jesus: as we seek him, discover about him, learn from what he said, trust him, commit our lives to him, obey him, come to him in prayer, wait for him – so he will come and live in us: and he will purify us from the inside.


I would like to say one final thing. I am not suggesting that as we grow in the Christian life, as God does purify our heart, we will have a clearer and clearer vision of God. There will be times when that vision does grow very bright True for people throughout the history of the church


 

[Aquinas: "All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me."


 

Blaise Pascal and his famous note:


 

MEMORIAL

In the year of grace, 1654,

On Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr,

and others in the Martyrology,

Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others,

From about half past ten in the evening until about half past

twelve,


 

FIRE!


 

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (Ex 3:6; Mt 22:32)

not of the philosophers and scholars.

Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.

God of Jesus Christ.

"Thy God and my God." (Jn 20:17)

Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.

He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.

Greatness of the Human Soul.

"Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee,

but I have known Thee." (Jn 17:25)

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have separated myself from Him.

"They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters." (Jn 2:13)

"My God, wilt Thou leave me?" (Mt 27:46)

Let me not be separated from Him eternally.

"This is eternal life,

that they might know Thee, the only true God,

and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (Jn 17:3)

Jesus Christ.


 

JESUS CHRIST


 

I have separated myself from Him:

I have fled from Him,

denied Him,

crucified Him.

Let me never be separated from Him.

We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.


 

Renunciation, total and sweet.

Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.

Eternally in joy for a day's training on earth.

"I will not forget thy words." (Ps 119:16) Amen.]


 


 

But there will also be times when that vision grows very dim. That is not necessarily because of sin. Quite often it is at those times that we are called to live by faith, by faith in the promise of God that "The pure in heart will see God".

John writes in 1 John 3:2-3: "Dear friends, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,
we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure."

Sunday, 5 October 2008

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”

Matthew 5:5

VERSION 1

"I had a lousy childhood. We had nothing. Never knew my father, and my mother had a stream of boyfriends. But I made it. Today I am at the top of my business, other people listen to me when I speak; I've just bought a fourth house - in New York.

I did it: I've worked hard; I've overcome the difficulties; I've made some cracking decisions and I've earned the respect and influence that I have. I firmly believe that you make yourself what you are. If you are quality it'll show. I don't like scroungers or layabouts: I'm not saying that bad things don't happen to good people, but you get what you deserve in life. Even this credit crunch: I'm OK. I've invested wisely; I didn't stretch myself too far.

You've got to believe in yourself, in your abilities. Nobody's going to help you. They want what you've got – they'll take it if they can. And nobody stands in my way. Three years ago someone tried to defraud me. It was the biggest mistake he made. I got the police to throw the book at him, and I made sure he went down.

I learnt quite early that people don't like conflict. That means that if you are prepared to stand up to people, you can usually get what you want.

I have my faults, I admit – but hey! What's life about? The girls love me anyway, and the wife – well, she stung me for £30 million. And last year I gave £150000 to the hospice. They named the ward after me. Without people like me, this country would be nowhere.

God? Yes, I guess I believe in God. He helps those who help themselves, doesn't he? I gave a grand to the church tower appeal in the village where I live. It's alright; you don't need to convert me. I'm one of the good guys

I'm going to retire in 2 years time. I've made enough, and I can put my feet up. It's all sorted. I've got this beautiful yacht: it cost me £20 million (less than the ex, and it doesn't nag), and I'm going to sail it round the world. I'm going to look after myself, don't you worry. I deserve it and I'm worth it".


 

VERSION 2

"I had a lousy childhood. We had nothing. Never knew my father, and my mother had a stream of boyfriends. She was not a great mum. It was rough, and I was screwed up. At one point I ran away from home, and ended up in a squat in Holloway.

I guess I could blame her, but she was really lonely, and she was desperate for love. I was difficult. I didn't help.

Anyway, I discovered I had a talent for business – I'm not going to tell you what I first did business in; I'm not proud of it - but I got a few amazing breaks. Do you know today we employ more than 30000 people? – and the thing that I am most proud of is that we have been able to set up a factory in one of those ghost towns after the pit closed 20 years ago. The staff there have done fantastic, the factory is flourishing and they've brought the place back to life.

God? I became a Christian many years ago. I was in a hotel in Manchester, and I picked up one of those Gideon bibles. To be honest, I was bored. I started to read, and as I read – and I don't know why apart from the fact that it was God – I understood it: it was about Jesus, a most amazing man – who loved people who were messed up and who died for me - and I wanted to find out more. Since then I made a commitment to him, got baptised and confirmed, and now he is my boss, my rescuer and my friend. I try to live in the way he wants me to live, which is not always easy. Someone tried to cheat us big time, one of the people I had trusted. I wanted the book thrown at him – but then was praying the Lord 's Prayer: 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'. So I went round to his house and met him; we talked it through; I told him how disappointed I was: he'd let his family down, his colleagues down, himself down. I even said something about letting God down. But I said I would forgive him. We didn't press charges. I still don't know whether I should have done or not.

Biggest regret? That's easy. Seven years ago I had an affair. It was one of those stupid, stupid things. The marriage didn't recover. I hurt my wife so much, and the girl involved as well. It's not been great on the kids either. I know I said sorry to God, and although I find it very hard to believe I am forgiven, I trust him I am forgiven. But I still have to live with the consequences of what I did, and I suspect I will remain single for the rest of my life.

Yes, I may own one of the largest private companies in the country, but I'm also just the mixed up boy from Peckham to whom God gave one or two gifts, and who he reached out to in a hotel room in Manchester. I owe everything to him. I belong to him. I work for him. I depend on him. I try to see every person I deal with, employee, supplier, competitor or customer, through his eyes. They matter, as people, far more than the stuff I produce, or the profits I can make.

The future? Haven't a clue – it is in God's hands. I love what I do, but there will be a time when it is right to step back. I hope I can continue to serve - I'd love to do something back in Peckham. I'm also trying to rebuild my relationship with the kids. There are grandchildren now.

Death? I'm scared of dying. I've seen too many people die in not very nice ways, but I know Jesus will be with me when it happens. I love my life here, but he's promised he will come back, that we will be raised, there will be a new earth, and he'll be at the centre. I guess it will be a bit like this without all the rubbish – although to be honest I can't really begin to imagine it. But that's why I don't need to go everywhere now, see it all now, do it all now, or get all the stuff now. I can afford to wait. You may think I'm mad, but he said it, I trust him; it is my hope and it is my life.